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