Now that the Motion Picture Academy has handed out its Oscars to the performances and films judged the best of the year, it’s my turn to put out my choices.
I make no bones about my general disapproval of the Academy Awards ceremony and the choices that often defy logic, and this year’s telecast was again a bloated affair that even included an entirely unnecessary appearance by Vice President Biden and an overly wrought production number around a song by Lady Gaga.
No matter. The show provides an opportunity to reflect on the best films all of us have seen (or could have seen) last year. I saw about three dozen, including the eight that were nominated for best picture. Here are my top ten:
- “The Revenant” – This one really caught me by surprise, and while it doesn’t have the most powerful script or offer the most compelling message, it is, as directed by Alejandro Inarritu, a breakthrough film, with scenes that are nothing less than awesome in their conception and realization. I also loved DiCaprio’s performance. What a great actor he is.
- “The Big Short” – I never would have imagined that a film that sought to explain the Great Recession could be this entertaining, but in converting Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book to a fictional account of the few who got rich by playing the collateralized debt market accurately, writer-director Adam McKay both educated and entertained. This was a film with a message, and it was delivered by a spot-on ensemble cast.
- “Spotlight” – I can’t be disappointed in the Academy’s selection of this film as the best of the year. It shed light on a horrendous scandal in the Catholic Church while reminding us of the importance of investigative journalism. Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer richly deserved their best original screenplay award, and McCarthy did a great job in directing his ensemble cast to tell the tale of shame.
- “Brooklyn” – In the current era of anti-immigrant fervor the country is experiencing, this small film of an Irish immigrant from the last century resonated as both an intimate love story and as an affecting reminder that we were all immigrants at one time or another. Congrats to director John Crowley, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and star Saoirse Ronan for capturing the feeling that has been too easily forgotten about the struggles that all immigrants face.
- “Inside Out” – Can animation get any better than this? What a wonderfully creative and imaginative film this is. Just conceiving of the idea of making separate and distinct characters of a child’s many emotions was pure genius, and then creating an adventure for those humanized emotions in a story that was as compelling for adults as it was for children was screen magic.
- “Bridge of Spies” – Steven Spielberg makes very good movies, consistently and prolifically. Occasionally (e.g., “Amistad,” “Schindler’s List”) he makes great ones. “Bridge” is one of the very, very good ones, all the more so because, unlike the overblown “Lincoln” or the overly-pretentious “A.I.,” this one tells a small story about a dramatic moment in U.S. history. And kudos to Mark Rylance for his richly deserved supporting actor nod.
- “Testament of Youth” – This film was underappreciated when it was released, primarily because it is British and depressing (the British accents are tough to track and the story is just plain sad). But it presents a powerful indictment of war from the perspective of the young woman (marvelously played by Alicia Vikander, who deserved an Oscar for this performance but got one, also deserved, for “The Danish Girl”), who lost not one, not two, but three men she loved in World War One. I loved the film so much that I had to read the book (by Vera Brittain).
- “Truth” – I was also compelled to read the book after seeing this film, which tells (from author Mary Mapes’s perspective) of the CBS “60 Minutes” scandal that erupted when producer Mapes and Dan Rather attempted to uncover the sordid military record of George W. Bush. The film presents the dark side of television journalism as well as any film since “The Insider.” It isn’t as strong as that great film, but it deserves more attention and acclaim than it received.
- “Meru” – I have no idea why this film didn’t get more attention and acclaim. It was compelling viewing of the efforts of a team of mountain climbers to conquer the “Shark’s Fin” on Meru Peak in India’s Himalayan Mountains. And it was filmed by the climbers themselves. Just the visuals alone are amazing, but the story of their determination and perseverance made it worthy of far more praise than it received.
- “Steve Jobs” – As biopics go, this one may have failed to present an accurate picture of its subject (as some of Jobs’s close friends have claimed), but it worked for me as a vivid portrayal of the kind of man who would have been responsible for the breakthroughs in computer technology that his company produced. Aaron Sorkin’s script included an ending I could have done without, but until that point, the film worked for me.
So those are my top ten. I should note that I did not see (or have not yet seen) “The Hateful Eight,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Trumbo,” along with all the foreign and documentary film nominees (other than the two that won, “Son of Saul” and “Amy”).
And, because ten is never really enough, here is a short list of honorable mentions:
o “Love and Mercy” – The biopic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson with all that great music and the story of his struggles with mental disability.
o “Going Clear” – The scary HBO documentary on the Scientology “religion” and the people who it captures and the lives it destroys.
o “The Martian” – Matt Damon’s tour de force as the abandoned astronaut who survives by using his brain (and other bodily functions).
o “Carol” – Todd Haynes’ depiction of lesbian love in the pre-sexual revolution 1950s with the wondrous Cate Blanchett in the title role.
o “The Danish Girl” – Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne!