Before we charge forward into 2016, let’s talk about some unfinished business from last year.
1. Inside Out – This Pixar-animated gem about the workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind is ingenious in its conception and brilliant in its execution. The way Joy incorporates Sadness is as insightful as anything seen on the big screen this year.
2. Steve Jobs – Danny Boyle’s sleek direction, Michael Fassbender’s flawless acting, and, above all, Aaron Sorkin’s bold and intricate screenplay give us a work of art that rivals, in beauty, Jobs’ own creations.
3. The Hateful Eight – Another outrageous Quentin Tarantino film, this time about the lingering tensions in post-Civil War America. Full of his trademark loop-de-loop dialogue, biting black humor, and over-the-top violence, The Hateful Eight also exhibits a surprising plot discipline that hankers back to his first great film, Reservoir Dogs.
4. Ex Machina – A chilly erotic thriller about a reclusive billionaire genius and his cutting-edge efforts to create the first human robot. Alicia Vikander is unnervingly convincing as the seductive robot, but as one character pointedly asks her creator, is her sex appeal the crowning glory of her humanity or is it the perfect mask?
5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Against all odds, veteran director George Miller revives his long dormant Mad Max franchise and ends up topping them all. What Fury Road lacks in plot and characterization is more than made up for by the kinetic energy unleashed in these inventive and exuberantly staged chase sequences across a post-Apocalyptic desert-scape. Imagine a Cirque de Soleil troupe made up of Hell’s Angels rampaging to a punk-rock soundtrack under a blazing sun.
6. Amy – A disturbing documentary about the rise and demise of the great English singer Amy Winehouse who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. Thanks to its access to a lot of “home movie” footage and occasional behind-the-scene snatches of her working in the studio, this film is more than just a scandal sheet documenting her well-publicized bouts with drug abuse, alcoholism, and depression. And whenever the movie threatens to become just one long slog through despair, the filmmaker cuts, time and again, to Amy performing yet another song, and we’re wowed and revived all over again.
7. While We’re Young/Mistress America – A Noah Baumbach double bill. Writer-director Baumbach is quietly building an impressive body of films that offer insightful and mostly comic takes on what it means to grow up in this country in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His two (!) 2015 films depict clashing generational perspectives, between 20-somethings and 40-somethings in “While We’re Young,” and between teenagers, still in school, and college graduates trying to make their way in the world in “Mistress America.”
8. Room – Making the most out of the most dire of circumstances, a woman raises her son to the age of five to believe that the entire world consists of the single room they’ve been confined to his entire life. How that 5-year-old and his mother cope when the outside world finally reveals itself is poignant beyond words.
9. Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufmann strikes again. The creative force behind “Being John Malkovich,” “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Synecdoche, New York,” is back, this time with stop-motion animation, of all things. And I can guarantee you this isn’t like any other animated film you’ve seen. Its protagonist is a successful but depressed middle-aged man who’s worn down by the sameness of everyone’s voice. Whether this is a psychological crisis or a case of existential dread is uncertain. But what is for certain is that the uncomfortably realistic puppet sex scene is unforgettable.
10. Carol – 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.
And for the funniest movie of the year? What We Do in the Shadows – This goofy New Zealand vampire spoof is so well-versed in vampire lore that the jokes – and they are plentiful – are surprisingly smart, sharp, and deeply hilarious. The humor is as pointed as a vampire’s teeth.
Other movies I liked a lot: “The Big Short,” “The Martian,” “Spotlight,” Best of Enemies, “The Revenant,” “The Overnight,” and “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl.”
Related: 5 movies to see in theaters