I guess it was only fitting in The Year of Trump that the films topping my best ("The Big Short") and worst ("San Andreas") lists were both disaster movies. But disasters of wholly different stripes. "Short" brought us up close and personal to the criminal malfeasance and chicanery that resulted in the economic crash of 2008. "Andreas" just destroyed a good chunk of (mostly northern) California.
2015 was a surprisingly strong year for movies overall, arguably the best since 2007. While Hollywood still came up short with too many damn comic book non-events ("Age of Ultron;" "Ant-Man"), uninspired reboots ("Jurassic World;" "Terminator Genisys;" "Point Break") and dreary sequels ("Furious 7;" "Minions;" "Ted 2"), there were still enough quality films to make compiling my top ten more difficult than any year in recent memory. And, for maybe the first time ever, there isn't a single foreign language title on my list.
Who said that America (and American movies) weren't already great?
THE TEN BEST:
(1) "The Big Short." Adam McKay--previously known as Will Ferrell's Dennis Dugan--stepped up to the big leagues with the year's best and arguably most essential film. If some of the financial jargon sails over your head, just relax and go with the flow. (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain help explain some of the more arcane terminology to us laymen.) This is the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" only wanted to be. Who would have guessed that Martin Scorsese would get served by the director of "Anchorman"?
(2) "Trainwreck." Amy Schumer is the most original comic voice to emerge since Richard Pryor, and Judd Apatow's brilliant showcase for Schumer's genius was the decade's most exhilarating romantic comedy. Come for the laughs, stay for the tears.
(3) "Brooklyn." The immigrant experience in North America has never been depicted as beautifully or touchingly than it was in John Crowley's pitch-perfect 1950's-set romance. Plus, Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen made the year's most adorable couple.
(4) "Creed." Director Ryan ("Fruitvale Station") Coogler performed something of a miracle by making Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone and "Rocky" matter again. If all reboots were this good, maybe that oft-abused term wouldn't have as poisonous a connotation as prequel. "Gonna fly now" indeed.
(5) "Bridge of Spies." A crackling good true-life spy yarn from master director Steven Spielberg. Tom Hanks (dependably strong) is a lawyer recruited by the CIA to help negotiate the release of U-2 pilot Francis Powers during the Cold War. Complicating matters is the Soviet spy (a superb Mark Rylance of "Wolf Hall" fame) arrested for espionage on American soil. Joel and Ethan Coen cowrote the script, and it's full of sly Coen-esque touches that will warm the cockles of any buff's heart. Classical Hollywood filmmaking at its finest.
(6) "Joy." No, it isn't the perfect movie that "Silver Linings Playbook" was, or as clever and ingeniously structured as "American Hustle." But David O. Russell's fractured fairy tale about Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano is still pretty darn wonderful and completely irresistible. It also confirmed that Jennifer Lawrence is indeed the finest actress under 30 working in films today. Watching Edgar Ramirez play Fredo to Lawrence's Michael Corleone was one of the year's most unexpected delights.
(7) "Sicario." The drug war between the U.S. and Mexico gets really, really messy in director Denis ("Prisoners") Villeneuve's gripping, expertly played modern day western. As a badass F.B.I. agent, Emily Blunt is fierceness personified, and juicy supporting turns from Josh Brolin and, particularly, Benicio Del Toro are icing on the cake. In fact, there are already plans to spin Del Toro's character off into a standalone vehicle.
I can't wait.
(8) "Spotlight." Director Tom McCarthy's spellbinding account of the Boston Globe's Pulitzer-winning investigation into the Catholic Church's pedophile scandal is the best newspaper procedural since "All the President's Men." A beyond-stellar cast (including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and Rachel McAdams) delivers ensemble acting of the highest caliber. No wonder it's widely considered to be the front-runner in this year's hotly contested Oscar race.
(9) "Tangerine." It's Christmas Eve on Hollywood Boulevard and transexual prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is desperately trying to locate her two-timing, MIA pimp (James Ransone). Shot entirely on iPhone5s by wildly gifted indie writer-director Sean ("Starlet") Baker, this is one of the year's most unlikely and subversive triumphs. The performances by trans actors Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee's prostie pal Alexandra are hilarious, touching and altogether unforgettable. Baker's film has all the earmarks of an instant Yuletide classic.
(10) "Anomalisa." The first adults-only puppet movie since "Team America: World Police" is another poetic, meta and very funny Charlie Kaufman riff on identity, love and loss. Hard to describe; even harder to forget.
Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
"About Elly;" "The Age of Adaline;" "Aloha;" "Amy;" "The Assassin;" "Carol;" "Clouds of Sils Maria;" "Crimson Peak;" "Diary of a Teenage Girl;" "45 Years;" "Grandma;" "The Hateful Eight;" "Inside Out;" "It Follows;" "Jupiter Ascending;" "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck;" "Li'l Quinquin;" "Listen to Me Marlon;" "The Look of Silence;" "Love + Mercy;" "Mad Max: Fury Road;" "Magic Mike XXL;" "Maps to the Stars;" "The Martian;" "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl;" "Mississippi Grind;" "Mistress America;" "Mommy;" "Ned Rifle;" "Phoenix;" "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence;" "Queen and Country;" "Room;" "Saint Laurent;" "71;" "Shaun the Sheep Movie;" "She's Funny That Way;" "Slow West;" "Son of Saul" "Spectre;" "Steve Jobs;" "Testament of Youth;" "Time Out of Mind;" "We Are Your Friends;" "Welcome to New York;" "What We Do in the Shadows;" "When Marnie Was There;" "Where to Invade Next;" "While We're Young;" "Wild Tales;" "The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet;" "Youth."
THE 10 WORST:
(1) "San Andreas." Where's Irwin Allen when you need him? Infuriatingly stupid disaster flick starring The Rock and a bunch of ninnies you can't wait to see get pulverized when "The Big One" finally hits. Its greatest sin, however, is sheer, unmitigated boredom.
(2) "The Last Witch Hunter." Vin Diesel (wretched as always) plays an immortal witch hunter in modern-day New York City (none too convincingly impersonated by Pittsburgh) who teams up with a not-so-bad witch ("Game of Thrones" alum Rose Leslie) to take down bigger prey. And yes, it's even worse than it sounds. This may very well be costar Michael Caine's most humiliating big screen credit since 1979's "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure."
(3) "The Human Centipede: The Final Sequence." The third--and arguably most disgusting--of shock maven Tom Six's torture porn series, and the first to play its garden variety sadism strictly for laughs. That didn't make it any less unbearable or insidious.
(4) "Hot Pursuit." A hot mess. Brainless odd-couple comedy stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara as a pair of ninnies--one a high-strung policewoman; the other a Latina spitfire/moll--on the lam from crooked cops and a Mexican drug cartel. So aggressively shrill and witless that it (almost) made Paul Feig's "The Heat" look good by comparison. Almost.
(5) "The Loft." Was the same-named 2008 Belgian thriller as sickeningly, repellently misogynistic? Hard to say since it was never released in the U.S. But this sleazy, cynical remake--directed by Erik Van Looy who also helmed the original--was one of the year's most thoroughly unpleasant movies. So icky you wanted to take a shower afterwards.
(6) "The Ridiculous 6." If Netflix wants their upscale in-house films (e.g., "Beasts of No Nation") to be considered for awards and critical kudos, it's only fair that the dreadful first movie in Adam Sandler's production deal with the streaming service be deemed eligible for worst-list
(dis)honors. Even by Sandler's woebegone recent standards ("Grown Ups," "That's My Boy"), "Ridiculous 6" is beyond the pale. There were plenty of other lousy bro comedies this year ("Hot Tub Time Machine 2," "Ted 2," "Unfinished Business, "Entourage," et al), but this was arguably the worst.
(7) "Seventh Son." What hath "Games of Thrones" (and Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movies) wrought? Julianne Moore should be grateful that her (atypically rotten) performance in this godawful swords-and-sorcery flick didn't have a "Norbit"-like effect on her
Oscar chances last winter. Costarring Jeff Bridges whose own post-Oscar career choices ("The Giver," "R.I.P.D.") have been nothing short of disastrous.
(8) "Strange Magic." Produced by none other than George Lucas, this dank, dreary animated fairy tale (with karaoke, no less!) was both creatively malnourished and excruciatingly dull. In a banner year for 'toons ("Anomalisa," "Shaun The Sheep Movie," "When Marnie Was There," "Inside Out"), this was a sorry embarrassment for all concerned.
(9) "No Escape." Terminally dumb action flick with geopolitical pretensions. Owen Wilson (who really should stick to comedy) plays an American engineer working abroad in an unnamed Southeast Asian country when all hell breaks lose during a government coup. With the help of a former James Bond (Pierce Brosnan, slumming), he attempts to flee the country with his wife (Lake Bell at her most annoying) and two young daughters. It's like a zombie movie with Asians subbing for the walking dead. Did I mention that it's also deeply offensive and even borderline racist?
(10) "He Named Me Malala." Davis Guggenheim's prosaic documentary about Nobel Prize-winning activist Malala Yousafzai plays like a feature-length UNICEF commercial. All that's missing is voiceover narration by Liv Ullmann. Sanctimonious, pandering, simplistic and naive: everything you'd expect from the director of "Waiting for Superman."
MOST DISAPPOINTING YEAR-END OSCAR BAIT:
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "The Revenant" which played like Faux Terrence Malick directing a faux Sam Peckinpah movie.
WHO SAID SCREWBALL COMEDY WAS DEAD:
Noah Baumbach's "Mistress America" and Peter Bogdanovich's "She's Funny That Way" (executive produced by Baumbach) proved that whip-smart comedies with sparkling, rat-a-tat dialogue are still very much alive.
BEST TIME-COMPRESSED L.A. STORIES:
"Grandma" and "Tangerine."
AMERICAN ENTREPRENEURSHIP, MALE AND FEMALE DIVISION:
"Steve Jobs" and "Joy."
WHEREFORE ART THOU, "AMELIE"?
"The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet" was "Amelie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's best film in years, but you wouldn't know it from the Weinstein Company's bastard stepchild treatment. After sitting on the shelf for two years, "Spivet" was finally dusted off and given a perfunctory release in just a handful of cities. Adding insult to injury, it wasn't even reviewed in "Newspaper of Record" The New York Times.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (AND GENRES):
Michael Fassbender excelled at playing sharp-shooting cowboys ("Slow West"), Shakespeare's Scottish king ("Macbeth") and, most memorably of all, an Apple guru ("Steve Jobs").
MAYBE THEY SHOULD HAVE JUST STAYED ASLEEP:
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
The Disney-fied reboot of George Lucas' seminal sci-fi franchise traded in the loopy incoherence of Lucas' despised prequels for J.J. Abrams' soulless, formulaic corporate mediocrity. Not much of an upgrade.
A WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS (AND GENRES):
Alicia Vikander played a medieval witch ("Seventh Son"), a robot ("Ex Machina"), a spunky WW I romantic heroine ("Testament of Youth"), an East German auto mechanic ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E."), Bradley Cooper's recovering junkie ex-girlfriend ("Burnt") and the bohemian wife of a transgender pioneer ("The Danish Girl").
NOT SO FANTASTIC:
The "Fantastic Four" reboot recruited talented young "Chronicle" director Josh Trank and some first-rate actors (Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller among them), but the result was a depressing botch that nearly achieved "Battlefield Earth" levels of jaw-dropping (and frequently hilarious) incompetence. Not surprisingly, it was also that rarest of rarities: a comic book movie that actually flopped.
SCARIEST PREDATORY LESBIAN SINCE DELPHINE SEYRIG IN "DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS" (OR MAYBE CORAL BROWNE IN "THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE"):
Cate Blanchett's patented frosty hauteur sent a chill through the air in Todd Haynes' scrumptiously stylized "Carol."
(And--hurrah!--Rooney Mara proved that she does have more than one facial expression.)
BEST MOVIES ABOUT TEENAGERS:
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl;" "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."
Regrettably, few teens (or adults) paid to see them in theaters. Home video should be a lot kinder.
"Queen and Country," John Boorman's glorious 28-years-later follow-up to "Hope and Glory."
(Runner-up: "Magic Mike XXL" which, at its frequent best, almost seemed like the great male stripper movie John Cassavetes never directed.)
MOST OPTIMISTIC SIGN THAT THE HORROR GENRE ISN'T TRULY DEAD:
"Crimson Peak;" "It Follows."
BEST ACTION MOVIE:
"Mad Max: Fury Road."
(What? You were expecting "Furious 7.")
IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES:
2015 was a tale of two Pixars. The same year the 'toon titan released one of their all-time greats ("Inside Out"), they also brought us what was arguably their weakest original film to date ("The Good Dinosaur"). The 2011 sequel "Cars 2" remains Pixar's career low.
BEST BARELY RELEASED 2015 MOVIES:
Besides Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet" (see above), other auteur directors who suffered the slings and arrows of indifferent (or nonexistent) theatrical distribution this year were Abel Ferrara ("Welcome to New York"), Peter Bogdanovich ("She's Funny That Way"), David Cronenberg ("Maps to the Stars"), Hal Hartley ("Ned Rifle") and Spike Lee ("Chi-Raq" and "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus").
Tom Hardy in "Legend," "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Revenant."
BEST BADASS GRANNIES:
Jane Fonda ("Youth"); Lily Tomlin ("Grandma").
IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL BUT I LIKE IT:
"Amy," "Lambert and Stamp," "Love + Mercy" and "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck."
BEST DOUBLE DIP:
Noah Baumbach (co)wrote and directed two of the year's strongest films: "Mistress America" and "While We're Young."
Meanwhile, in a top-secret Marin County lab James Cameron continues to tinker away on "Avatar 2."
NOBODY STILL DOES IT BETTER:
Sam Mendes returned to the director's chair for "Spectre," and if it wasn't the greatest Bond ever like "Skyfall" it came pretty darn close.
Since Mendes has said he won't be returning to helm any future 007 movies, maybe it's best to permanently retire the franchise.
STRANGEST KID'S MOVIE:
"Max" in which a dog with PTSD bonds with the kid brother of the fallen Marine he assisted in Afghanistan. (And I haven't even mentioned the Mexican drug cartel they get tangled up with.)
BEST ROMANTIC WALLOW:
Time-traveling romance "The Age of Adeline" which also featured the year's best Harrison Ford performance.
BEST ROMANTIC SWOON:
Watching Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen fall in love in "Brooklyn."
PROOF THAT SIS COMEDIES CAN BE JUST AS TOXIC AS BRO COMEDIES:
As if "Hot Pursuit" wasn't bad enough, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler--two smart, funny ladies who really should know better--made Christmas just a little bit sadder with their coarse, juvenile fiasco "Sisters."
WHAT JOHN GRIERSON SAID:
While discussing Josef von Sternberg's later films, critic Grierson snarked, "When a director dies, he becomes a cinematographer." If Larry Clark's meandering, slackly paced "Marfa Girl" is any indication, dead directors can also become blue-balled pornographers.
BEST COMIC BOOK MOVIE:
"Kingsman: The Secret Service." Who cares if it was just "Kick-Ass" with British accents?
WHO DID THEY BLOW?
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley lack the charisma (or chops) to headline a high school play let alone billion-dollar movie franchises. Yet another reason to hate "The Force Awakens."
MOST HAUNTINGLY (AND DELICIOUSLY) META MOVIE MOMENT OF THE YEAR:
In "Saint Laurent," Helmut Berger watches his younger self in a scene from Luchino Visconti's "The Damned."
MOST TOUCHINGLY META MOVIE MOMENT OF THE YEAR:
When Bradley Cooper says, "It's been a long journey; I'm proud of you," to Jennifer Lawrence at the end of "Joy," it's as if he's speaking to Lawrence (his four-time costar in three years) rather than Joy (her character). Pass the Kleenex.
IT'S NOT THE SIZE THAT COUNTS:
Although his roles were relatively minuscule, Brady Corbet made indelible impressions in four 2015 movies: "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Escobar: Paradise Lost," "Saint Laurent" and "While We're Young."
THE MOVIE JULIANNE MOORE SHOULD HAVE WON THE OSCAR FOR:
"Maps to the Stars."
Brie Larson in "Room."
Diane Ladd, "Joy;" Lily Tomlin, "Grandma."
Virginia Madsen in "Joy."
IT'S LIKE JACQUES TATI BUT WITH, Y'KNOW, SHEEP:
Aardman keeper "Shaun The Sheep Movie."
BEST HBO MINISERIES:
Paul Haggis' "Show Me a Hero" with its towering performance by Oscar Isaac. Haggis and Isaac made a film so good that it rivaled, and in many ways surpassed, Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino's '70s collaborations.
MAYBE IT SHOULD HAVE STAYED ON HBO:
A STAR IS BORN:
Taron Egerton: "Kingsman: The Secret Service;" "Testament of Youth;" "Legend."
Monica Bellucci, "Spectre;" Jacqueline Bisset, "Welcome to New York;" Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke, "Mistress America;" Nina Hoss, "Phoenix;" Jennifer Lawrence, "Joy;" Brie Larson, "Room;" Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight;" Blake Lively, "The Age of Adaline;" Melissa McCarthy, "Spy;" Belle Powley, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl;" Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck;" Charlize Theron, "Mad Max: Fury Road;" Lily Tomlin, "Grandma."
MOST OPTIMISTIC SCI-FI MOVIE:
MOST DEPRESSING SCI-FI MOVIE:
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Because you just know there will be a new "Star Wars" movie released every year until you die. And they'll only get worse.
MOST ENTERTAININGLY BERSERK SCI-FI MOVIE:
BEST LIONS IN WINTER:
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel raged against the dying of the light in "Youth."
BEST SPECIAL EFFECT:
Tom Hardy's twin act in "Legend." Playing 1960's British gangsters Reggie and Ron Kray, the chameleonic Hardy somehow managed to make Reggie appear 30 pounds heavier than Ron.
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in "45 Years."
MOST FUN TO WATCH SAD COUPLE:
Angelina Jolie-Pitt and Brad Pitt in "By the Sea."
BEST POSTHUMOUS BIO-DOCS:
"Amy," "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck" and "Listen to Me Marlon" in which the late Method genius Marlon Brando literally rose from the dead before our eyes (and ears).
Cameron Crowe's widely (and unfairly) dissed "Aloha." No, it wasn't great Crowe like "Jerry Maguire," "Singles" and "Almost Famous," but its quirky comic rhythms, big heart and absurdly charming cast still made it one of the year's most pleasurable films.
Two more Bradley Cooper movies ("Serena" and "Burnt") that deserved a better shake from critics and audiences. Apparently the former "American Sniper" couldn't cut a break in 2015.
MORAL RELATIVISM AS HIGH CONCEPT:
"The Gift;" "Irrational Man."
MORE LAUGHS PER MINUTE:
Gloriously silly New Zealand vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows."
BEST '70s FLASHBACK:
"Mississippi Grind" not only echoed New Hollywood classics like "California Split," "Scarecrow" and "The Gambler," it felt like an artifact from that halcyon era as well.
Ron Howard's water-logged "In the Heart of the Sea;" Billy Ray's narcoleptic "Secret in Their Eyes."
HOW DOES THIS GUY KEEP GETTING WORK?
Recasting Kanu Reeves' iconic Johnny Utah role in the "Point Break" reboot with no-talent Aussie Luke Bracey made zero sense, especially when you consider that Chris Zylka was available. Hell, Bracey isn't even good-looking.
PROOF THAT FUNNY ACCENTS DON'T AUTOMATICALLY TRANSLATE INTO FUNNY MOVIES:
Johnny Depp's dispiriting bomb "Mortdecai" recalled some of the late Peter Sellers' lamest '60s vehicles ("After the Fox," "The Bobo") which also confused goofy accents with Shavian wit.
BEST NEO SPAGHETTI WESTERN:
"The Salvation." So what if it was shot in South Africa by a Danish (Kristian Levring) director?
BEST EDM MOVIE:
"We Are Your Friends" felt a lot like this generation's "Saturday Night Fever." Too bad nobody saw it.
SADDEST FUNNY MOVIE (OR IS THAT "FUNNIEST SAD MOVIE"?):
Roy Andersson's "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence."
BEST PERSONAL ASSISTANT:
Kristen Stewart in "Clouds of Sils Maria."
MOST OVERLOOKED GREAT PERFORMANCES IN OTHERWISE ACCLAIMED FILMS:
Katherine Waterston, "Steve Jobs;" "Rachel Wesiz," "Youth."
NOSTALGIA AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE:
"The Peanuts Movie;" "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
...EXCEPT WHEN IT IS:
"Creed;" "Mad Max: Fury Road."
While nobody will ever confuse them with "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Story" or even "Gremlins," "The Night Before" and "Love the Coopers" were among the more satisfying Yule-themed movies of recent vintage. And Sean Baker's "Tangerine" is the movie I'll be re-watching every Christmas Eve until I croak.
MOST UNNECESSARY MOVIE:
Who needed "The Walk" when you can stream James Marsh's infinitely superior Oscar-winning 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" on Netflix? (Apparently no one. Robert Zemeckis' film was one of the year's biggest flops, as well as the single worst movie to open the New York Film Festival in 53 years.)