1. The Revenant
Director Alejandro Inarritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio set themselves up for Oscar wins in the year’s best–and coolest–film. Leo goes full-method–eating raw bison liver, sleeping in a horse carcass–and made this true story about fur-trapper Hugh Glass come to exhilarating life.
Benicio del Toro commands the screen in his career-revitalizing supporting role. The camera soars over the Mexican desert, puts us in a pair of night-vision goggles, and then throws us in a cartel-filled drug tunnel in the year’s most exciting scene. Emily Blunt shines, and director Denis Villeneuve follows up his powerful “Prisoners” with another unforgettable thriller.
3. Ex Machina
This smart, sexy AI thriller keeps you on you toes until the last minute. And equally amazing performances from Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, and the first great performance in a breakout year for Alicia Vikander, give the flawless sci-fi script legs to stand on.
If “The Revenant” doesn’t pull off a Best Picture win, the honor should go to this brilliantly acted journalism procedural. A superb ensemble tells the eye-opening story of the 2008 Boston priest molestation case through the team of journalists at the Boston Globe who cracked it open. Even without one especially memorable scene, “Spotlight” manages to do everything right.
Director J.J. Abrams handled his installment in the galactic franchise with such care and grace, it looked and felt more like the originals than the terrible prequels. A balanced mix of old and new characters made “The Force Awakens” the best “Star Wars” in decades.
6. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s epic western looks more like a well-staged theater production. Set mostly in a small haberdashery, “The Hateful Eight” is perhaps the year’s best written, most delicately directed, impeccably cast, and beautifully scored films. The potential for several different Academy Awards can be found in this year’s most compelling three-hour movie.
A series of grunts and nods gets Tom Hardy through his turn as Max Rockatansky in this franchise follow-up nearly four decades in the making. But a dirtied Charlize Theron, a batshit Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrne, playing a “Mad Max” villain for the first time in 36 years, make “Fury Road” the year’s best big-budget summer blockbuster…and one of the best in years.
8. The Martian
Matt Damon leads a cast with significant depth (from Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels down to Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover) to adapt the admittedly predictable story of Mars astronaut Mark Watney, who was faced with certain death when his crew accidentally left him on the surface of the Red Planet. This blockbuster delivered big laughs and plenty of excitement. Surprise.
9. Steve Jobs
Speaking of Jeff Daniels and speaking of ensemble depth…”Steve Jobs.” Everyone in the cast delivers near-flawless performances, starting with near-certain Oscar nominations for Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. The controversial story of the tech pioneer is handled with beauty and a revolutionary narrative technique from the master, Aaron Sorkin.
Another Best Picture favorite, “Room,” doesn’t rely on A-list stars or a big budget. The simple drama excels by telling a story with as much heart as any this year. Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay both deliver nuanced career-bolstering performances as a mother and son trying to escape from a kidnapper’s captivity.
Honorable Mentions: Black Mass, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Danish Girl, The Big Short, Straight Outta Compton
One of the first movies to release in 2015, this Michael Mann-directed tech thriller, remained, for a full 50 weeks, the worst movie I saw this year. Let’s start with the hunky Chris Hemsworth playing a brainy hacker working for the government. Absurdly unconvincing. His relationship with a coworker started after meeting her a couple days prior, and the first mention of marriage came shortly after that. It doesn’t get much stupider than this.
For the second year in a row, Johnny Depp makes both my Best and Worst movie lists. In the terribly unfunny “Mortdecai,” Depp plays an idiotic womanizing detective in the worst whodunnit since before “Pink Panther.”
3. Fantastic 4
More like Fantastic 4/10. This terrible and unnecessary reboot of the Marvel franchise gave Marvel its first serious blemish since “Ghost Rider.” A promising cast, who have all been in really good movies recently (Miles Teller in “Whiplash,” Kate Mara in “The Martian,” and Michael B. Jordan in “Creed”), all totally bombed. It was an all-around failure.
4. True Story
In another cast of acting greats gone bad, “True Story” saw the career-lows of both James Franco and Jonah Hill. Let’s throw last year’s Oscar nominee Felicity Jones in there, too. Working with a cliche-riddled script, though, you can’t blame them for sucking so bad.
I’m not even sure why this one was so bad. I guess didn’t care enough to pay attention. It’s about two personal trainers who train this perverted chubby guy. But nothing really bad happens. Then it’s over. This might have been the least-watched on the list, so don’t worry if you’ve never seen it. Please, actually…don’t.
When I heard about “Pixels,” I’ll admit I was a little excited. The idea is fun. When I heard it starred Adam Sandler and Kevin James, I was less excited. When I actually saw it, I gave up all hope for the future of cinema.
7. Unfinished Business
Vince Vaughn is the new Adam Sandler. For every one good Vince Vaughn comedy (“Wedding Crashers,” “Dodgeball”), there are a dozen terrible ones (“The Dilemma,” “Delivery Man”…”Unfinished Business”). Not even Dave Franco, fresh off the hilarious “Neighbors,” or Tom Wilkinson, respected thespian…wait, what the hell is he doing here?!…can help this unfunny comedy achieve anything.
8. Dark Places
Comparing this Gillian Flynn adaptation to “Gone Girl” will leave you utterly and completely disappointed. It’s not a fair comparison. Even so, I expected something interesting to come from “Dark Places.” Something starring Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Nicholas Hoult normally isn’t terrible casted…but in this case, the stars don’t feel right. Star power isn’t what the film needed.
Sports movies have fallen so far. This gushy story about a football player who suffers a debilitating injury is so filled with cheese it should have been made in Green Bay. Finn Whitrock makes up for a Lifetime-worthy soap opera performance later on, when he had a juicy role in “The Big Short.” Still no excuses for this travesty.
One of my more divisive picks, this one has garnered award buzz for Sandra Bullock…though I’d consider it perhaps her worst movie ever. A script full of unnatural references to statistics and quotes, and barely an original thought, made me care less about foreign elections than I already did. And about Billy Bob Thornton. And about movies. Ouch.
Honorable Mentions: The Perfect Guy, Survivor, The Loft, Run All Night, Welcome to Me