The Big Short
This may not be the best film of the year but it wins, hands down, for the greatest degree of difficulty. Turning the financial sector’s meltdown in 2008 into compelling drama accessible to the masses is a pretty tall order. But director Adam McKay (best known for wacky comedies like Anchorman) pulls it off with humor, grace, and even dramatic flair.
Based on a Michael Lewis bestseller that smartly focused on the personalities of a few far-sighted individuals who took a huge risk and ultimately scored big on the collapse, this movie takes advantage of an impressive ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling.
And whenever the complexities of the financial market threaten to overwhelm us, celebrities like Anthony Bourdain or a gorgeous actress in a bubble bath pop up to explain economic theory clearly and wittily.
A clever script makes this the biggest surprise of the season.
Will Smith plays the Nigerian-born doctor who discovers the traumatic brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) while doing autopsies on former N.F.L. players. Rather than being heralded for his discovery, Dr. Bennett Omalu is at first dismissed by the NFL, then smeared, threatened, and finally attacked in print by doctors working for the league. It’s disgraceful how this multi-billion dollar industry treated Omalu, and “Concussion” is appropriately infuriating, even if it does pull its punches right at the end. Overall, this movie is a lot like its star – polished, professional, and a just little too slick and conventional for its own good.
This is a rich and textured Todd Haynes film about suppressed love and repressed lust in the 1950s. Powered by striking performances by the great Cate Blanchett and rising star Rooney Mara, this movie is more about what’s not said than what is. The carefully curated clothes and decor speak for the characters as much as their dialogue does. Not much for plot, “Carol” is all about mood. The very definition of an art film.
Director David O. Russell teams up with actress Jennifer Lawrence for the third time, after “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” in this refreshingly original movie. Based on a remarkable true story about a seemingly unremarkable woman who took a home-shopping network by storm, Lawrence once again delivers a winning comic performance grounded in a recognizable reality. The film fizzles near the end, but I know I’ll never look at a Miracle Mop the same way again.
The Hateful Eight
For my money, Quentin Tarantino is one of the most exciting filmmakers around. His last two movies – “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” – were so brilliantly unhinged at times that it seemed as if Tarantino’s ambitions were just too big for the conventional plot structures of Hollywood.
But in “The Hateful Eight,” a sly take on the spaghetti western, Tarantino has corralled his expansive energies into a relatively tightly wound and cohesive whole. His characters will still all talk your ear off – after all, Tarantino is known for his crackling dialogue, above all else – but much of it happens in a single setting. It’s as if he constructed an Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which all the suspicious characters are gathered together in a single manor house, but instead of positing a Hercule Poirot to suss out all the clues, he gives all the characters guns and lets them shoot it out. It’s a typically violent Tarantino film that exhibits an atypical plot discipline, in some ways reminiscent of his brilliant first film, “Reservoir Dogs.” (Shot in 70 millimeter, “The Hateful Eight” comes complete with an overture and an intermission.)