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The 10 Best Movies of 2015

December 28, 2015

144796It was the year of Tom Hardy. The chameleon-like British actor appeared in three of 2015’s 10 Best Movies, transforming into four very different characters—Mad Max, Legend’s Kray brothers and The Revenant‘s John Fitzgerald. But where does each film rank in the annual pantheon? Read on.

10. Straight Outta Compton/Love & Mercy Outdone only by the aforementioned Mr. Hardy, Paul Giamatti co-starred in two of 2015’s 10—well, 11, since this is a tie—Best Movies. Both are dramas about Southern California musical groups that fractured under the pressures of fame and fortune but in distinct eras. Compton‘s evocation of  gangsta rap groundbreakers NWA benefits from Giamatti’s morally shaded portrayal of manager Jerry Heller as well as the presences of O’Shea Jackson, Jr. — eerily channeling his own father, Ice Cube — and director F. Gary Gray, who was witness to some of the events depicted in the movie as a music-video helmer and the filmmaker behind Cube’s original Friday. Love and Mercy gets inside the tortured mind of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson (brilliantly played by both Paul Dano and John Cusack), with Giamatti as his Svengali-esque round-the-clock doc, Eugene Landy. Wouldn’t it be nice if all musical biopics were as thrilling as these two?

9. Sicario One of the year’s most harrowing cinematic experiences, director Denis Villenueve’s drug-war drama drew firepower from the performances of Emily Blunt (earning her bad-ass cred for life as an FBI agent working the U.S.-Mexico border), Josh Brolin (oozing unctuous machismo as her supervisor) and Benicio Del Toro (outdoing even his Oscar-winning work in Traffic as a middleman between the feds and the cartel). But Sicario‘s real star is cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, whose claustrophobic camerawork increases the film’s cringe-inducing suspense to nearly unbearable levels.

8. Legend Why hasn’t the true-crime drama starring Hardy as swinging ’60s London criminals Reggie and Ronnie Kray made more of an impact at the U.S. box office (not to mention in the year-ends awards races)? Maybe it’s because their story has already been well-told in 1990’s The Krays. Maybe it’s because Americans don’t know who the Krays are. But I blame the film’s generic title: Is it a remake of Tom Cruise’s laughable 1985 fantasy of the same name? Oscar-winning  L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s captivating tale deserved a moniker as vivid and specific as the film itself.

7. Mr. Holmes Also inexplicably overlooked for awards: Ian McKellen’s virtuoso tour de force as Sherlock Holmes at two different ages: in his 90s and a few decades earlier, as he investigates what would prove to be his final case as a detective. Equally impressive is Laura Linney, once again playing down her natural luminosity as his dowdy housekeeper, and remarkable newcomer Milo Parker as her young son. As it plays with the passage of time and the disappearance of memory, Mr. Holmes exhibits an appeal that can only be described as elementary.

6. The Big Short You know this was not a great year for comedy when you consider the only laugher on the list is about the 2008 financial crisis. (The only other comedy that came close was Trainwreck, which fell just short due to Judd Apatow’s tendency to overindulge in entertaining but pointless asides.) Director Adam McKay, better known for wild farces like Anchorman, brings a sharp satirical eye to the story, inserting entertaining yet relevant asides featuring the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez explaining dry monetary terminology. The ensemble, led by the consistently great Steve Carell and Christian Bale, rivals The Hateful Eight (see below) for the sheer ability to make potentially loathsome characters sympathetic.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road The year’s most exhilarating reboot wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens (though J.J. Abrams certainly did an admirable job). It was George Miller reinvigorating his own ’80s post-apocalyptic action franchise, replacing Mel Gibson with an even angrier Tom Hardy and turning Charlize Theron into an instant sci-fi icon as the aptly named Furiosa. A must-see in 3D, Fury Road is an intensely immersive experience, each frame crammed with eye-popping details.

4. Spotlight and 3. Bridge of Spies For my thoughts on Tom McCarthy’s riveting journalistic thriller and Steven Spielberg’s masterful Cold War drama, click here and here, respectively.

2. The Hateful Eight Yes, the eight (or ten or twelve) main characters in Quentin Tarantino’s wild Western are hateful, but the movie radiates with the love he has for actors — old cohorts like Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen as well as inspired additions to his repertory company like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Demian Bichir— and the power of crisply written dialogue. It’s a joy to see Justified‘s great Walton Goggins elevated alongside the likes of Bruce Dern, and the contributions of composer Ennio Morricone (doing his first Western score in 40 years), cinematographer Robert Richardson (shooting in 70mm for the first time anyone’s done it in 50 years) and special-effects makeup artist Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) cannot be overstated. The only reason this three-hour orgasm for movie lovers didn’t take the top spot was due to Channing Tatum, who appears near the end in a role I will not reveal. Tatum’s a decent actor, but he’s simply not in the same league as the rest of the cast. Too bad Tarantino didn’t get, say, Tom Hardy for the part.

1. The Revenant There are surface similarities with The Hateful Eight—both are wintry Westerns featuring full-frontal male nudity (and an impressive lack of shrinkage despite the frigid temperatures). But Alejandro González Iñáritu’s spiritual survivalist epic is as minimal in its dialogue as Tarantino’s shoot-’em-up  is hyperverbal. The main character, an 1820’s trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s terrifyingly mauled by a bear and left for dead by an animalistic comrade (Hardy, reuniting with his Inception co-star DiCaprio), can barely speak for much of the 156-minute film. The result is the closest thing to pure cinema as I’ve seen in years: storytelling wrought with deeply haunting images, including a battle scene seemingly shot in a single take, a la Iñáritu’s Birdman — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him repeat as Best Director at the Oscars. And as our Man of the Year once again disappears into his character, he proves that 2015’s cinematic epitaph should be, “You’ve Gotta Have Hardy.”

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