The film business looked healthy and diverse this year, with big-budget popcorn movies, mainstream studio dramas, edgy indies, documentaries and foreign-language films all showing signs of originality and high craft.
Legacy filmmaking meets legacy journalism in this superbly crafted, exquisitely acted ensemble drama about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Spotlight isn’t just a spot-on shoeleather journalism procedural; it’s startlingly, profoundly cathartic.
2. ‘Love & Mercy’
Movies that open before the fall are prone to being overlooked by audiences, but this film — about Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson — deserves to be remembered. The experimental portrait features a breathtaking turn from Paul Dano as the young Wilson. John Cusack plays him in later years. One of the best portrayals of an artist’s consciousness ever committed to film.
Old-fashioned, affecting and beautiful to behold, this adaptation of the Colm Toibin novel achieves deep emotion without an ounce of manipulation, sweetness without sentimentality. Saoirse Ronan delivers a luminous depiction of a young Irish woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York in the 1950s; her journey, at once straightforward and dizzyingly confounding, is fraught with possibility, heartbreak and keening homesickness.
Like Brooklyn, this portrait of a shopgirl in 1950s New York is suffused with the production values and visual grammar of a delicious melodrama of the era. But in the hands of Todd Haynes, surface gloss and high style serve as a language all their own, in this case to express desires that the story’s characters cannot. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett play women who fall in love at a time when such a romance “dare not speak its name.”
5. ‘Ex Machina’
This provocative thriller stars Oscar Isaac as an eccentric billionaire robotics inventor with crafty heft and poisonous humor (his dance bit alone is worth the sit); Domhnall Gleeson exudes just the right naïvete and hunger as the young man who comes under his spell. But it’s Alicia Vikander who dazzles as a cyborg. Atmospheric, unsettling, just right.
Spike Lee offers one of his most exhilarating, heartfelt, urgent movies in years in this wildly imaginative retelling of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, this time transposed to modern-day Chicago. Unruly and sometimes unwieldy, the story of a gang-banger’s girlfriend who begins a sex strike in order to bring gun violence to an end resists facile finger-pointing or reductive easy answers.
7. ‘Son of Saul’
First-time filmmaker Laszlo Nemes brilliantly created a new aesthetic language to grasp the grim realities of Auschwitz in this tightly focused portrait of a Jewish prisoner and member of the “Sonderkommando,” who were forced to work in the death camps to aid and abet their captors.
Director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan resuscitate the Rocky franchise with assurance, warmth, visceral energy and supreme grace in this exhilarating reboot of the beloved boxing franchise. Gorgeously filmed and featuring endearing, lived-in supporting turns from Sylvester Stallone and Tessa Thompson, the story of Apollo Creed’s son — played by Jordan with appealing modesty despite his bulked-up frame – kicks off what will surely be another franchise with just the right spirit of sweetness and triumphalism.
9. ‘Inside Out’
Who didn’t love this Pixar classic, in which the interior life of a young girl is given giddy life by a group of impish emotions? Fun, colorful, dazzlingly inventive and scientifically on point, this mental adventure story found its greatest strength in acknowledging that Sadness (voiced by the incomparable Phyllis Nelson) is just as important as Joy (Amy Poehler), in life as in art. Brilliant.
10. ‘The Martian’
Another paean to science, this stranded-in-space adventure was marketed as a somber bring-him-home narrative, but it turned out to be enormous fun to watch, in part because it was shot through with cheeky, irreverent humor, but largely because Matt Damon carried the movie with such unforced, appealing ease.