by Glenn Lovell
The year in celluloid sometimes felt like a lightsaber duel between the Dark Side and the Force, with the good guys finally prevailing thanks to a couple of nostalgic reboots and a heartwarming postcard from abroad.
With ticket sales flagging for much of the year, the industry begrudgingly countenanced new/old distribution platforms. Netflix made good on its vow to take on the majors by picking up the acclaimed indie “Beasts of No Nation” and releasing it simultaneously to streaming customers and a handful of theaters. (AMC, Regal and other chains refused to exhibit the film.) According to Variety, the Los Gatos-based company will consign $500 million to theatrical acquisitions in 2016.
Quentin Tarantino, of course, went Old School with his New Style Western “The Hateful Eight,” premiering it in a super-widescreen 70mm format at special reserved-seat engagements that included overture, intermission and souvenir programs. For many of us, seeing an “event” release at a mobbed megaplex felt, well, less than special. Meanwhile, the gap between theatrical debut and VOD continued to shrink, with RLJ Ent’s “Bone Tomahawk” and Gaspar Noé’s graphic “Love” virtually premiering in home theaters.
Besides the current box-office behemoth, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the top money-makers of the year included “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7,” “Inside Out,” “Spectre” and the final “Hunger Games.”
With one caveat (we still haven’t seen “The Revenant”), here are our picks in no particular order for the best of the year:
1. “Spotlight.” A docudrama about the Boston Globe’s expose of pedophile priests and the church hierarchy that enabled them. By concentrating on the paper’s grinding research and legwork, as well as its systemic prejudices, Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”) delivered the best film about crusading journalists since “All the President’s Men.” Outstanding work by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and, as an initially reluctant attorney-source, Stanley Tucci.
2. “Beasts of No Nation.” A brutal, unforgettable coming-of-age saga set against the backdrop of a fictitious West African nation mired in civil war. Newcomer Abraham Attah plays an orphaned child indoctrinated into the ways of the battlefield, and Idris Elba is the bellicose rebel leader, a sort of fanatical Piped Piper. Directed and adapted to the screen by Cary Joji Fukunaga.
3. “Creed.” Maybe the year’s biggest surprise, a return to the ring and scruffy roots of Philadelphia’s Rocky Balboa. Only now the emphasis is on Apollo Creed’s troubled son. “Fruitvale Station’s” Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan go the distance and more in this old-fashioned, predictably cathartic boxing fable, but it’s Sly Stallone who scores a late-career TKO as the kid’s trainer-surrogate dad.
4. “Brooklyn.” A real find — a sweet, nicely modulated drama from Ireland. Saoirse Ronan has her best role yet as an Irish teen who, in the 1950s, relocates to the New York borough of the title. Conditioned by one too many Scorsese films, we expect the worst. Instead, director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby proffer a succession of mostly upbeat vignettes. Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters round out the year’s most amiable ensemble.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” George Miller reclaims his mantle as the best action auteur around with this dystopian epic. A near-perfect fusion of set design, cinematography and CG effects. Tom Hardy takes over as the Outback hero, but it’s Charlize Theron who ultimately carries the day. In a word, breathtaking!
6. “Trainwreck.” Amy Schumer brought her bruising brand of scattershot humor to the big screen with this hard-R catty twist on “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and scored the year’s funniest comedy. Judd Apatow directed from Schumer’s semi-autobiographical script.
7. “Sicario.” The year’s timeliest — and most cynical — thriller has Emily Blunt as a scrupulous FBI agent enlisted by a vague “inter-agency task force” led by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro to help neutralize a Mexican drug cartel … and lend legitimacy to covert operations. “Listen, nothing will make sense to your American ears,” she’s told when she demands answers. From Denis Villeneuve, who last scored with “Prisoners.”
8. “The Hateful Eight” and “Bone Tomahawk”: Two revisionist Westerns starring Kurt Russell. How do you tell them apart? By the length of Russell’s facial hair, for starters. Russell’s bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Leone boasts a long, droopy mustache. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh costar as the vilest of the eight. Novelist-turned filmmaker S. Craig Zahler made the more expansive “Bone Tomahawk” for a tiny fraction of Tarantino’s budget.
9. “Ex Machina.” A sci-fi variation on “Pygmalion,” with the suddenly everywhere Oscar Isaac as the reclusive creator behind an amazingly lifelike android and Domhnall Gleeson as his unwitting apprentice/guinea pig. England’s Alex Garland wrote and directed this cautionary fable.
10. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” J.J. Abrams’ 30-years-later continuation of George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy is everything we hoped for, and quite a bit more. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac take over as the soon-to-be-tested defenders of the Republic; Adam Driver as Darth Vader’s grandson is more brooding Prince of Denmark than Wagnerian heavy; Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill reprise their old roles. Jam-packed with narrow escapes, deep-space dogfights and heart-tugging surprises, this may very well be the best “Star Wars” yet.
Best Foreign Films: Hungary’s “White God,” a political allegory with real bite, and New Zealand’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” a mockumentary on fussy flatmates who happen to be vampires.
Best Exploitation: “It Follows” and “Cop Car.”
Best Documentary: “Amy.”
Most Disappointing: Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which cried out to be a fast-paced B picture (like “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”), not some talky, self-important message movie, and “Legend,” with our new favorite actor, Tom Hardy, doing double duty as East London gangsters Reg and Ronnie Kray.
Most Overlooked: “Chappie,” Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi variation on “Pinocchio,” and Seth MacFarlane’s happily scatological “Ted 2,” which opens with a hilarious sendup of a glitzy Busby Berkeley number. You can also add “The Visit,” M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy return to form, to this list.
Worst Films of the Year: “The D Train,” with a badly miscast Jack Black, and “Youth,” an achingly pretentious meditation on — what else? — old age and regret. Where is Ingmar Bergman when you need him?