1) Mad Max: Fury Road
Simply put, Mad Max: Fury Road came thundering into the arena like 2000 horsepower of nitro-boosted war machine and blew the roof off not only every other action movie this year, but every movie this year, period. At 70 years old, Australian director George Miller conjured a magnum opus that leaves all the younger competition eating the dust.
It’s a two-hour chase with non-stop action, expert choreography, mind-melting stunts, spectacular visual bravura, gritty tenacity, a vibrant heart at its center and a heroine for the ages in Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Katniss Everdeen has got nothing — nothing — on her. I’ve seen the thing five times — the first 15 seconds alone are so awesome what with the roar of those engines that I made them my ringtone — and I simply cannot get enough.
For gleefulness, pure entertainment value, craftsmanship or twisted brilliance, this one cannot be beat. In the absolute best way possible, 2015 belonged to the mad.
— Mark DiStefano
Dope is one of those rare movies that succeed on multiple fronts. It’s simultaneously a music movie, crime movie, drugs movie and coming-of-age movie, all while maintaining an interesting and charismatic narrative core. Inglewood, Calif. resident and high school senior Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) passionately wants acceptance to Harvard, but is never reduced to be simply an ambitious student. Rather, the viewers see Malcolm and his friends (Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons) writing music, cleverly selling drugs through online black markets and hailing ’90s hip-hop. Yet, director/writer Rick Famuyiwa lays out Dope’s brilliant takeaway in the film itself. In a thought-provoking admissions essay monologue, Adekanbi describes a suburban straight-A student and a stereotypical inner city student before delivering the kicker: “So why do I want to attend Harvard?” Adekanbi asks the camera. “If I was white would you even have to ask me that question?”
— Shay Collins
Surprise, surprise: A bunch of college-aged newspaper critics love Spotlight, a modern All the President’s Men that renews our faith in print journalism and Rachel McAdams. The film follows the eponymous team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe as they questioned cardinals, wore pleated khakis and drank copious amounts of Dunkin Donuts. The real draw, however, is the cast, each actor at the top of their game: Michael Keaton, hot off Birdman and proving that that performance wasn’t a late career fluke; Mark Ruffalo, in what is sure to snag him a Supporting Actor nomination; Liev Schreiber, who utterly disappears into the unflappable Marty Baron; my hero Brian d’Arcy James, who rocks a sick mustache; and Stanley Tucci, whose mere presence elevates any film to greatness. You won’t find an ensemble this strong anywhere else this year.
— Sean Doolittle
4) Inside Out
It’s an insult to Inside Out to call it a great kids’ movie. This is a great movie, full stop, and one that combines child-friendly humor with sophisticated adult insight into memory, perception and the nature of happiness itself. Inside Out is both funny and heartbreaking, and it succeeds both as pop entertainment and high-concept art. Few films fire on so many cylinders, and it’s visually delightful to boot. This movie ranks with any from Pixar’s golden era, and considering the run on which the studio went in the last decade, it’s hard to think of a higher compliment.
— Max Van Zile
5) The Martian
I’m not a rocket scientist, but … this movie was a riot, and you don’t need to possess a degree in aeronautical engineering to enjoy it. Director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon both find the lighthearted touch they’ve been missing in such recent films as Exodus and Interstellar, respectively. The tone this time is one of shameless fun.
A vaguely space opera adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously? No, not seriously at all! Not even as Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, appears to be in the most dire straits a human being could face. Stranded on Mars for a period of several years, botanist Watney has to figure a way to survive by growing a heap of food on a planet where nothing grows. Actors such as Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and even Kristen Wiig provide strong backup. The Martian turns out to be, of all things, a disarming humanistic comedy set on cinema’s favorite distant planet.
— Mark DiStefano
6) Diary of a Teenage Girl
Hollywood is a place where teenage female characters go to be manhandled and mocked. That said, Diary of a Teenage Girl is the film I’ve been waiting to see since I started packing my own lunch and wearing a bra. Bel Powley’s Minnie is one of the most robust and gutturally real teenage characters I have ever had the pleasure of powerfully identifying with on-screen. And the beautiful thing is, it’s not necessarily because she has relatable experiences — which are often the low-hanging fruit of adolescent film. Rather, it’s because she is as flooded with challenging human complexity as so many of her cinematic peers are devoid of it.
A gruelingly candid and un-judgemental treatment of early female sexuality (a reality usually either erased entirely, or perversely exploited in popular culture) with a outstanding supporting performance by Kristin Wiig as Minnie’s self-absorbed but loving mother, Diary revels in our discomfort — and simultaneously soothes us, showing us that we are not alone. Also a visually stunning period piece: every burnt orange, paisley dollop, incense burner, moustache and sheepskin denim coat perfectly in place, Diary recreates a 70’s San Francisco that becomes hallucinogenic when Minnie’s animations of hairy-legged women and hugely endowed potential lovers come alive and stomp across the screen.
— Jael Goldfine
7) Ex Machina
When I went to see Ex Machina this spring, the usher congratulated me on being the first moviegoer to correctly pronounce its name. Needless to say, I was flattered, and perhaps that was why I was so taken with the film. It’s a total throwback to old school sci-fi, heavy on deep questions and light on the phasers and aliens. What will happen when A.I. is indistinguishable from humanity? Are we approaching the singularity? Why is Oscar Isaac dancing all of the sudden? When the film suddenly morphs into a thriller midway through, it’ll keep you guessing ’til the end. Star Wars will probably go down as the sci-fi movie of the year, but you definitely shouldn’t miss this one.
— Sean Doolittle
8) Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies is a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie — and I mean this as the highest compliment. Tom Hanks plays a lawyer in the 1950s who accepts the responsibility of defending a Soviet spy, and then later negotiates the real-life prisoner exchange that got the downed U-2 bomber Gary Powers back to the United States. Hanks’ character really does believe in good old-fashioned American democracy and fairness (he resists his hostile neighbors who say that the spy should not get a lawyer), and the movie does too. Spielberg also stages scenes with the historical aplomb they deserve: East Berlin is effectively portrayed as the most depressing place on Earth, and the climactic prisoner exchange scene on the titular bridge is thrilling. This is “Hollywood Golden Era” filmmaking perfectly applied.
— Jesse Weissman
9) It Follows
Forget the mountains of glowing reviews. Forget the refreshing auteurist pounce on a genre that’s been dying (on the surface) for a long, long time. Forget that chilling soundtrack that plopped you squarely back into horror’s no-matter-how-fast-you-run-it’ll-still-catch-ya heyday. Forget the hype, and even forget all of the masterful tinges of productorial craftsmanship that reminded you what there is that can still be done within the bounds of “Horror.” Brush all of that aside, and what remains with It Follows? To be sure, one of the best additions to the Horror Canon (yea, this makes it right up there with Halloween and Suspiria, without a doubt) that also happens to be a genuinely scary flick — and even though it is so much more than that, it doesn’t have to be.
— Troy Sherman
Creed, the new boxing film starring Michael B. Jordan and the seventh entry in the Rocky series (although Sylvester Stallone’s iconic Balboa is a supporting character in this film), has many virtues. It follows the original Rocky storyline almost to a T, yet somehow feels brand new. Sylvester Stallone turns in career-best work as a Rocky who, instead of being the legendary fighter, is simply another old man without many friends left and who is fading into the past (and who knows it too). But perhaps the film’s most important quality is the visceral reactions it elicits from the audience. I saw Creed with a couple of friends, and within random 10-minute stretches, we cried, pumped our fists and said “holy shit” to each other. This movie is 100 percent sincere in its emotions, and it is all the better for it.
— Jesse Weissman