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The Year's Best Films
From heart-wrenching animations to a Rocky reboot that had viewers wanting more, 2015 was full of cinematic surprises. Ahead, check out EW film critic Chris Nashawaty's top 10 picks for the movies you can't miss, and the five flops that you should avoid.
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BEST: 10. It Follows
From the breakneck pacing of its opening sequence, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows seems like the work of a veteran master of horror. Actually, it feels like a lost John Carpenter flick from his early-’80s heyday — a playfully subversive thriller fueled by an almost suffocating sense of tension and dread. Maika Monroe plays a slightly awkward 19-year-old who makes the mistake of having a backseat tryst with a jock classmate, who passes on a curse. She will be stalked by apparitions that won’t stop until they kill her or she sleeps with someone else and passes the plague on to them. The sex-equals-death formula isn’t a new one, but Mitchell tweaks the tired tropes of teen body-count flicks and gives them an urgent sense of paranoia. We horror hounds have to sift through a lot of celluloid garbage in the hopes of discovering the rare nugget of gory gold. With It Follows, we’re treated to the mother lode.
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BEST: 9. The Big Short
Until now, the most serious film on Adam McKay’s directing résumé could be Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Which is to say, he might’ve been the least likely candidate to make a brainy, bruise-black satire of America’s 2008 housing-market catastrophe. But made it he has. Thanks to a cast that tap-dances on the fine line between comedy and tragedy (including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt), The Big Short is a hilarious holler of outrage that would be even funnier if it weren’t so tragic. Based on Michael Lewis’ best-seller about a handful of contrarian Cassandras who saw the bubble about to burst, McKay’s film explains the byzantine machinations of the banking world with clever inventiveness and fourth-wall-breaking pranks. But at its core, its message couldn’t be more serious: We were all played for suckers by institutions that interpreted capitalism as a license to rob people blind. The film has such a thrumming, rat-a-tat energy that it feels like the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street wanted to be. McKay has gone from wiseass to wise man.
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BEST: 8. Carol
Todd Haynes’ movies have a tendency to keep his audience at a polite distance. Though they’re photographed with a jeweler’s eye and every period detail has been obsessively attended to, it’s sometimes hard to find a heartbeat beneath the beauty. But with Carol, the director has given us a love story that aches with romantic longing. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Haynes’ film chronicles the blossoming taboo relationship between Cate Blanchett’s Carol, a regal New Jersey housewife, and Rooney Mara’s Therese, a shy salesgirl searching for her place in the world. Both actresses are beyond superb. Set in the early 1950s, Carol is a gorgeous time capsule capturing the manners and hypocrisies of Eisenhower-era America. But the movie doesn’t judge. It makes a beautiful case for love no matter what form it takes. To be looked upon and desired, to be truly understood, to adore and be adored — these are the greatest gifts we all hope for. In the end, the heart wants what it wants. Nothing else matters.
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BEST: 7. Son of Saul
Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, first-time director László Nemes’ shattering Holocaust drama is about trying to hold on to the merest shred of humanity during the most inhumane chapter in history. Géza Röhrig, another newcomer, gives an unshakable performance as Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian Jew who works with an Auschwitz “Sonderkommando” unit — a special group of concentration-camp prisoners who sort through the belongings of those marked for death and dispose of their corpses like hell’s janitors. In return, their own executions are delayed. After a young boy survives the gas chamber only to later be put to death, Saul becomes possessed by the need to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial. His own survival becomes secondary. Nemes shoots the film’s grim scenes with an unsparing matter-of-factness, mirroring the businesslike nature of the Nazi genocide. And Röhrig, in a largely silent role, makes you feel every ounce of Saul’s desperation with just the look in his eyes.
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BEST: 6. Creed
In a year stuffed with remakes, reboots, and recycling experiments (see: Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Terminator Genisys), the most pleasant — and frankly, the most unlikely — surprise was Ryan Coogler’s resurrection of the seemingly dead-and-buried Rocky saga. Shifting the focus away from Sylvester Stallone’s famous southpaw, Creed takes up the story of another underdog, Adonis Creed — the out-of-wedlock son of the Italian Stallion’s late love-hate rival, Apollo. Played with a mix of streetwise swagger and soulful sensitivity by Michael B. Jordan, Adonis is hungry for both greatness inside the ring and meaning outside of it. This leads him to Philadelphia to seek the help of his father’s most famous opponent. Powered by the urgent emotional authenticity of Coogler and Jordan (reteaming after 2013’s Fruitvale Station), Creed isn’t just the best Rocky film since the 1976 original — it also features Stallone’s loosest and most poignant performance in decades. The lug leaves a lump in your throat. After five increasingly thin and implausible sequels, Creed reminds you why this franchise was so thrilling in the first place.
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BEST: 5. Inside Out
Few studios manage to handcraft films as beautifully as Pixar. But even by the Bay Area brain trust’s own lofty standards, Inside Out is a masterpiece of emotional complexity and striking depth. It’s also a bit of a bait and switch — a kiddie film that speaks most directly to parents. Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc. and Up), this animated fun-house takes place inside the head of a saucer-eyed 11-year-old girl named Riley, who’s thrown for a loop when her family relocates to an unwelcoming San Francisco. Anyone with kids (or anyone who’s ever spent 10 minutes with a tweenage girl) will be all too familiar with the swirling emotional minefield that makes up Riley’s pint-size psyche. The genius of Inside Out is that it pits those clashing moods against one another in a battle royal. There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (The Office’s scene-stealing Phyllis Smith). Inside Out is, naturally, full of eye-candy silliness and smart-alecky slapstick. But the reason it soars is that deep down, it’s a bittersweet story about the loss of innocence and the blink-and-you-miss-it fleetingness of childhood.
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BEST: 4. The Look of Silence
A stunning companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the ghastly Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, The Look of Silence manages to burrow even deeper into your nightmares. Oppenheimer follows Adi, the optometrist brother of one of the purge’s countless victims, as he travels to rural towns conducting eye exams. His real purpose, though, is to get answers and heal another form of blindness: his country’s collective myopia regarding the monstrous atrocities of the past. With unimaginable calmness, Adi questions General Suharto’s now-elderly executioners about their memories of the bloodshed. Some talk freely, almost proudly; others can’t understand why Adi won’t leave the past in the past. But all he’s looking for is the tiniest shred of remorse. The fact that it never comes just piles one tragedy on top of another. The silence is deafening. Oppenheimer’s film is an unnerving true-life meditation about historical amnesia. And it’s one that won’t be easily shaken.
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BEST: 3. Room
No movie this year put audiences inside the minds of its characters as successfully and as immersively as Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. The Irish director’s gut-wrenching adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel tells the harrowing story of a young woman named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who are held prisoner in a squalid 10-by-10 shed by a brutal captor named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). The first half of the movie chronicles the day-to-day trials of these two innocents and the fleeting moments of grace that Joy manages to fashion as she tries to shelter her boy from the cruel, unbearable truth. The second, set in the outside world after their escape, is no less disorienting. The expansive world beyond “room” is its own sort of psychological prison. Larson (who’s never been better or more expressive) and Tremblay (a child actor with extraordinary gifts) have remarkable chemistry. Room may not be a pleasant way to spend two hours, but great art isn’t about comfort. This movie will haunt you for weeks and months to come.
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BEST: 2. Sicario
Denis Villeneuve’s war-on-drugs thriller is a mad descent into a world that feels like a fresh circle of Dante’s Inferno: the lawless U.S./Mexico frontier in the early part of the 21st century. The film’s title refers to the south-of-the-border word for hitman, and Villeneuve’s white-knuckle workout of a movie is full of these shadowy agents of death — some with badges, some without: Emily Blunt, fierce, vulnerable, and morally upright in an underworld with little use for morality, an FBI agent on loan to Josh Brolin, who spearheads one of the U.S. government’s blacker black-ops divisions. Riding shotgun in their dirty war against the cartels is Benicio Del Toro, whose sleepy-eyed menace hides his agenda until late in the game. The actor’s low-key ease with sadism will remind some of Steven Soderbergh’s similarly themed 2000 drug-world epic, Traffic. Sicario is more tightly focused than that sprawling film was. But, if anything, its suspense is more explosive, its universe more hopeless, and its battle ever more unwinnable.
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BEST: 1. Spotlight
The newspaper business has taken its share of body blows in recent years, but Spotlight is a reminder of how important a free press is to speak truth to power. Tom McCarthy’s devastating procedural about The Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer-winning exposé leveling decades of sex-abuse claims against the local archdiocese gathers scalding force without grandstanding. It’s a film of unflashy moments and subtle performances by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber, who understand that their characters aren’t the story. The story is the story — the grown victims still carrying scars, the Catholic Church refusing to admit its sins, even the media itself, whose complacency allowed these crimes to go unreported for so long. As Stanley Tucci, playing a victims’ lawyer, says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” In Spotlight, no one is innocent. There’s enough guilt to go around.
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WORST: 5. Terminator Genisys
If you ever devoted a brain cell to the thorny time-jumping universe of the Terminator franchise, the joke was on you with Genisys. It’s a blatant cash-grab of a sequel that basically asks: Remember all that stuff we told you in the previous movies? Yeah, well, forget that, we’re changing the rules. I suppose there was a watered-down retro thrill in seeing Ahnuld back in action. But not nearly enough to spackle over all of the film’s narrative cynicism and logical inconsistencies. This scorned sci-fi nerd won’t be bahk.
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WORST: 4. Accidental Love
What’s the opposite of Joy? How about the other David O. Russell movie from 2015? Despite landing Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, and Catherine Keener (all looking like they’re trapped in a perp walk here), Russell took his name off this toothless send-up of America’s health care system shot back in 2008. Smart move. Not only because this poorly patched-together mess was completed by others, but also because it’s so witless even its 7 percent Rotten Tomatoes score seems a tad high.
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WORST: 3. Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser
I feel a bit bad picking on David Spade because he hasn’t been funny since 1995, but if the guy’s going to keep cranking out movies as bad as Joe Dirt 2, he really only has himself to blame. Finally answering all of the burning questions left unresolved by Joe Dirt 1, this redneck riff on It’s a Wonderful Life (plus fart gags!) is so terrible Frank Capra’s heirs should sue for punitive damages.
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WORST: 2. The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence
I’m not sure who Tom Six’s gut-bucket descents into body-horror depravity are made for, but after sitting through the third and final (promise?) installment of his torture-porn franchise, I’m more certain than ever that I wouldn’t want to meet them. Sleazy sadism served with a wink and a smile, Six’s anus-to-mouth trilogy is a satire without any clue of what it’s satirizing.
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WORST: 1. Hot Tub Time Machine 2
You know a sequel’s gonna be lousy when the star of the original would rather pass up a fat payday than blemish his resume — especially when the star in question is the not-very-choosy-to-begin-with John Cusack. Still, there was no warning sign glaring enough to tip audiences off to the lazy, toxic idiocy of HTTM2. A tepid cesspool of obnoxious characters and gay-panic gags, Steve Pink’s “comedy” mistakes our hunger for ‘80s nostalgia with a willingness to lap up the sloppiest of sloppy seconds.