It was a roller-coaster ride of big wins and bigger losses at the multiplex this year. Multiple movies broke the all-time opening-weekend box-office record, while some didn’t even break even during their whole theatrical run. I was there for all of it and have to admit there was more good than bad.
With so much interesting filmmaking, it was tough to come up with just 10 favourites of the year, but here they are — along with a few others that deserve recognition.
To say there was a thirst for the 'Star Wars' saga to continue would be an understatement. The seventh episode in the franchise, 'The Force Awakens,' picking up on the story of the fight between the Rebels and the Empire 32 years after 'Return of the Jedi' (they are now called the Resistance and the First Order, respectively), broke all box-office records its first weekend in theatres, including an astounding opening-weekend domestic gross of $247 million and worldwide take of $528 million. Though 'Star Wars' movies always make money, what makes 'The Force Awakens' different is that director J.J. Abrams has accomplished the difficult task of exciting us for what's to come in future episodes while celebrating our nostalgia for the original trilogy.
As Abrams does with 'The Force Awakens,' but with much less box-office pressure, director Ryan Coogler resurrects an elite franchise with some contemporary flavour. Delving into the 'Rocky' franchise, but focusing on the legacy of a supporting character, the movie has the freedom to explore new territory while sprinkling in what we love about the 'Rocky' movies. Though Coogler obviously adores the source material and the camera work by DP Maryse Alberti is top-notch, it's Michael B. Jordan as the young Creed who drives it home. Jordan plays the character with intense swagger to impress a father he never knew, giving the latest 'Rocky' a satisfying range of emotions.
The second directing effort by veteran producer Bill Pohlad is an exquisite look at the life of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, zeroing in on the musician at the height of his creativity (played by Paul Dano) intercut with him at his lowest point (played by John Cusack) decades later. By exploring Wilson's mental health, Pohlad draws powerful performances from both actors but also uses the sound design perfectly to take us inside the mind of Wilson.
What on paper looks like a seen-it-before tale of the war on drugs is actually an unforgiving drama that captures some of the best performances yet by its stars Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. Director Denis Villeneuve ('Prisoners,' 'Enemy') proves he should be regarded as one of the top directors working today. With its intense score and masterful cinematography by legendary DP Roger Deakins, the film always keeps you off-guard, forcing you to give in and go where the story takes you.
What's great about sci-fi is, if it's done right, it never goes out of date. But that doesn't mean it's an easy path with which to tell a story. 'Ex Machina' succeeds in using our worst fears about the internet and access of information as a basis for imagining the future -- AI walking among us. We are in the prototype stage during the movie, with a genius (Oscar Isaac) still working out the kinks on his creation (Alicia Vikander). But what we find is the student has out-thought the teacher.
Perhaps some of the best acting of the year is done in this intense drama starring Andrew Garfield as a single father who, after being evicted, ends up working for the real estate broker (Michael Shannon) who kicked him out of his home. In the process of learning the ropes, we see just how shady things got when the housing market collapsed. Director Ramin Bahrani creates a modern-day 'Wall Street' and Shannon plays its Gordon Gekko.
Taking a more lighthearted look at the credit and housing bubble collapse, director Adam McKay still manages to find plenty of drama in this off-kilter adaptation of the Michael Lewis book. The all-star actors (Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell) play the people who saw the house of cards falling before anyone else. But what shines is the film's unconventional storytelling, using handheld camera work, improvised dialogue, and celebrities explaining complex jargon -- all of which make a stuffy subject into an entertaining movie.
Tom McCarthy has spent his career ping-pong-ing between acting and directing gigs, so taking on an ensemble movie about reporters who uncover child molestation within the Catholic Archdiocese in Boston isn't a stretch. But 'Spotlight' is so well-executed, not just in its acting and directing, but on the levels of screenwriting, production design, and score, that it shows McCarthy's impressive progression. He's made one of the most powerful movies of the year.
This movie certainly isn't for everyone, and it wasn't made to be a crowd-pleaser. Perhaps that's why I was so drawn to it, and the experience did not disappoint. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ('Birdman') continues to push the filmmaking envelope, creating an authentic setting in the 1800s frontier full of complex battle scenes done in one shot each, relying on visual effects to help make them ever more eye-popping. Leonardo DiCaprio gives as much as he's ever given to the role, including eating raw bison liver, and this may just be the first time he gets an Oscar for it.
No movie filled me with as much emotion (sadness, fear, anxiety, joy) this year as this one. The connection Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay have as mother and son is a casting home run, while Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel is a gift that is a rarity to find in the movie business. But director Lenny Abrahamson's love of the material and understanding of how to portray it onscreen make for the true triumph. There's one image I still can't get out of my head: when Jack (Tremblay), in the trunk of his captor, wiggles from the rug he's hiding in, and sees the sky from the outside for the first time in his life.
Here are a few that didn't make the cut, but must still be recognised.
'Sleeping with Other People' is a romantic comedy that actually explores real people in real relationships. It's a joy to watch. 'Beasts of No Nation' is a powerhouse of a film that shows why director Cary Fukunaga should just be allowed to make anything he wants. And 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' is the most rewarding documentary I saw this year mainly because director Brett Morgen finally found the perfect subject for his unconventional style.
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