1) Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
I’ve literally watched this movie like 20 times so far, if that’s not criteria for your favorite movie of the year I don’t know what it. The kinetic fourth entry in the long running post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” franchise is arguably the best one yet. This is of course coming from someone who never liked the others to begin with. “Fury Road” is an action-packed car chase movie with amazing stunts, jaw-dropping camerawork, and a pulse-pounding music score. Best of all you can easily enjoy it without having seen the other, mostly silly and dated, previous entries. While 2015 offered plenty of spectacle, i.e. “The Martian,” “The Walk,” “Spectre,” none compared to the overabundance of visual thrills “Mad Max” offered. It deserves, and heartily earned, every single one of those Oscar nominations. And the fact that the film’s visionary director, George Miller, is 70-years-old boggles the mind.
2) Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Is there any film this year more different from “Mad Max Fury Road” than “Room?” An intimate and emotionally wrenching drama, “Room” is a splendid little masterpiece. A woman (Brie Larson) is forced to live in a small room where she’s raising her son (Jacob Tremblay, in an amazing performance). She sort of makes a fantasy world of it; the kid has no real idea of the outside world. It’s a premise that can seem “icky” but the film is anything but; it’s impeccably conceived and imaginatively directed and features magnificent performances. You won’t see better onscreen chemistry than between the two leads here. “Room” is an Oscar-worthy must- see.
3) The Revenant (dir. Alejando G. Inarritu)
Last year’s Oscar-winning director of “Birdman” does it again, in a completely different way, with “The Revenant” a brilliantly filmed revenge thriller. Set in the frontier of the early 1800s, Leonardo DiCaprio a huntsman who’s mauled by a bear, in one of the year’s most shocking, crazy, and disturbing sequences, and eventually left for dead by members of his hunting team. You’ve heard the stories about the hellish film shoot but it makes for an astonishingly thrilling and swiftly paced epic of man vs nature. It’s certainly one of the more intense film going experiences of the year but worth every minute.
Another year, another standout Pixar film (actually make that two; “The Good Dinosaur” wasn’t half bad either). This charming, highly originally, and emotionally satisfying animated tale is about a little girl and the personified emotions living inside her head: there’s Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. They’re all instant classic animated characters. Glorious animation and an equally funny and moving script make this gem another modern classic.
5) Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow)
I knew very little of Amy Schumer’s work before seeing “Trainwreck.” This is a really smart, funny, and engaging comedy directed by Judd Apatow. This irreverent take on modern relationships almost feels like a contemporary “Annie Hall.” But with more dick jokes. Schumer plays a woman who’s not quite into monogamy but gets thrown for a loop when she begins dating a sports medicine doctor (Bill Hader) whom she’s writing an article about. Schumer is a comedic genius, offering a witty script and just as many laughs as truthful insights about relationships. Easily the funniest film of the year.
6) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
If you told me that a Rocky spin-off would be one of the best films of the year I’d have laughed in your face. “Creed” is a far cry from the corny sequels that were churned out in the 80s. Young director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) has crafted an outstanding and surprisingly emotional underdog sports drama. The film focuses on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) who is the son of Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed. The once troubled kid wants to make it as a boxer and learns of his father’s friendship with the one-and-only Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who rightfully steals every scene). This is just one of those movies that make you feel good after is over and it’s impeccably directed which includes a pretty astonishing single take boxing match that is as thrilling as it is impressive.
7) The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)
Matt Damon headlines this spectacular sci-fi romp about a resourceful American astronaut accidentally left behind on the planet Mars. Sci-fi genius Ridley Scott directs this solid and surprisingly funny 3D flick that’s sort of “Apollo 13” meets “Cast Away.” Damon has never been more likable and it’s refreshing to see a sci-fi film that isn’t about a bleak, dystopian future. The entire cast is fantastic including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Been, and even Kristin Wiig. No wonder the Globes thought it was a comedy.
8) Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg is at the helm once again of another historical drama. I was worried originally, but this is a million times more entertaining than both “Lincoln” and “War Horse.” This one is about a family man lawyer (Tom Hanks) tasked with defending an accused Russian spy, at the height of the Cold War. The spy is played subtly but brilliantly by theater veteran Mark Rylance. This resonant thriller is emotionally satisfying with surprising bits of humor, fantastic performances, and amazing technical merits from Spielberg’s usuals. Newbie Thomas Newman offers a strong score and proves a Spielberg move can be good even without John Williams. It’s easily Spielberg’s best film since “Munich.”
9) The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s thrilling take on a play-like “Ten Little Indians” is a lot of fun. It’s sort of a western, sort of a revisionist history lesson, and sort of a commentary on the country’s relationship with racism, “The Hateful Eight” stars a glorious ensemble of fine actors. There’s Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter with prisoner Jennifer Jason Leigh in tow. The pair, along with a bunch other suspicious characters, are holed up in a haberdashery during a wicked snow storm. Tensions flair and uncertainties rise and violence erupts in the best possible way. Impeccably shot, and featuring a Tarantino first: an original score by none other than legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Like any other Tarantino film it’s talky and long but oh so worth the journey.
10) Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)
I’m surprised as you are to see this film on here. This music biopic about pioneering rap group N.W.A. is a truly fascinating and rewarding look at some of the most controversial artists of the last few decades. “Straight Outta Compton” has great performances (including Ice Cube’s lookalike real life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and a star-making turn by Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. Paul Giamatti is strong as the unlikely white guy who believes in and manages the young musicians who are ready to break out from their troubled upbringings, set for stardom, and want to be taken seriously as artists. The film is disturbingly relevant to today and is not afraid to tell it like it is or was. Best of all, you don’t even need to know much about rap music or be much of a fan of it to enjoy the film.
Ex Machina – A standout slow-burn sci-fi thriller that has as much brains as it does amazing CGI work. A truly weird and original film.
Carol – A moving romance with great performances practically set in another world: 1950s New York. It isn’t preachy, it’s impeccably crafted, and most surprisingly of all: not even boring.
Spy – One of the funniest movies of the year. Another winning comedic vehicle for Melissa McCarthy; she and Rose Byrne play off each other beautifully.
Steve Jobs – A very fascinatingly conceived film, much like a three act play, shot on three different film stocks with enthralling performances and riveting direction from Danny Boyle.
The Walk - The movie directed by tech-wiz director Robert Zemeckis that no one saw and made about fifty bucks at the box-office is a visual feast and loving tribute to the Twin Towers and the man who walked between them back in the '70s. The 3D was amazing even if JGL's French accent wasn't quite so.
Star Wars The Force Awakens - What can be said about Star Wars that hasn't already been said? It's a fun movie that captures the spirit of the original trilogy with more modern aesthetics. One of the most fun, cinematic movies of the year.