Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My Oscar Ballot: The Film Superlatives of 2015


Although it's been some time since the nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards were announced, I wanted to put my two cents in regarding what I thought were some of the best individual contributions to film in 2015, from the best performances of the year to some of the best below-the-line contributions. So I present to you my personal Oscar ballot for the 2015 movie year, covering every major category (well, most of them, anyway).

BEST PICTURE (in alphabetical order)-
  • "Anomalisa"
  • "Creed"
  • "Ex Machina"
  • "Inside Out"
  • "The Martian" (runner-up)
  • "The Revenant"
  • "Room"
  • "Sicario"
  • "Spotlight"
  • "Steve Jobs" (winner)
Although it was a great year in film overall, narrowing down to "The Martian" and "Steve Jobs" as my top two was a relatively easy call. It was only upon re-watching both that "Steve Jobs" solidified its place as my favorite film of 2015 and my Best Picture winner here. It's a choice made easier by the fact that the film was snubbed in most major categories at the Oscars largely due to its failures at the box office, making it a film worth sticking up for as one of the best of the year. 

  • Ridley Scott "The Martian"
  • Alejandro G. Inarritu "The Revenant" (runner-up)
  • Lenny Abrahamson "Room"
  • Dennis Villeneuve "Sicario"
  • Danny Boyle "Steve Jobs" (winner)
While it was easy to narrow the top two for the best direction of 2015 down to the work the great Danny Boyle did on my favorite film of the year and the stunning achievement Inarritu pulled off with "The Revenant". That being said, picking between these two vastly different but very impressive achievements was a tough call. While I don't want to simply line up behind my favorite film of the year a just hand it every award, I believe Boyle's achievement, which has been under-appreciated, deserves a spotlight here. Boyle manages to make Sorkin's mile-a-minute script work as exciting, propulsive cinema and that's no short feat.

  • Michael B. Jordan "Creed"
  • Jason Segel "The End of the Tour"
  • Matt Damon "The Martian" (runner-up)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio "The Revenant"
  • Michael Fassbender "Steve Jobs" (winner)

Here, it's the two male leads of my two favorite films that stood out the most. It's hard to imagine another other actor carrying "The Martian" on his shoulders the way Matt Damon does, but this top spot was reserved for Fassbender the second I saw "Jobs". Sorkin has written a great role here and Fassbender just runs with it, reveling in the dialogue and never asking for the audience to like him. 

  • Saoirse Ronan "Brooklyn"
  • Alicia Vikander "The Danish Girl"
  • Brie Larson "Room" (winner)
  • Daisy Ridley "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
  • Emily Blunt "Sicario" (runner-up)

After a disappointing year for female-driven films in 2014, 2015 was a great improvement in the regard and that's reflected in the Best Actress category here. Emily Blunt delivers her best work to date as the moral conscious of "Sicario", but it's Brie Larson's breakthrough performance in "Room" that takes the cake here. I've been a fan of Larson for years and seeing her reach this level of attention and acclaim for such a great performance has been a highlight of this Oscar season. 

  • Sylvester Stallone "Creed" (runner-up)
  • Oscar Isaac "Ex Machina"
  • Tom Hardy "The Revenant"
  • "Michael Keaton "Spotlight" (winner)
  • Seth Rogen "Steve Jobs"

Always a category with choices, I easily could have made this a five way tie. What each of these actors bring to their respective films is truly indispensable. I settled then on the two veterans, both at times in their careers big movie stars who find themselves returning to the conversation in a big way. Stallone has never been better as Rocky Ballboa than he is in "Creed", and if "Birdman" was Keaton's comeback role, than his work in "Spotlight" cashes in on that career revival with the best performance of his career.

  • Alicia Vikander "Ex Machina" (winner)
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh "The Hateful Eight" (runner-up)
  • Elizabeth Banks "Love & Mercy"
  • Rachel McAdams "Spotlight"
  • Kate Winslet "Steve Jobs"

This category is almost always unfortunately a little thin. That being said, all of these performances are terrific. I was let down in many ways by Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight", but Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance was an enormous highlight. It was another easy call for number one, as the revelation of Vikander in "Ex Machina" was one of the big highlights of 2015.

  • "Creed"
  • "Ex Machina" (winner)
  • "Inside Out"
  • "Love & Mercy"
  • "Spotlight" (runner-up)
Though the selection of original screenplays this year was not nearly as strong as their adapted counterparts, these are each very deserving of recognition. "Spotlight" is a script dense with information that manages to avoid getting bogged down in all of that research. However, Alex Garland" delivered a truly original vision with his complicated, thoughtful and fascinating script for "Ex Machina". 

  • "Anomalisa"
  • "Brooklyn"
  • "The Martian" (runner-up)
  • "Room"
  • "Steve Jobs" (winner)
Another category that boils down to my two favorite films of the year, but both "The Martian" and "Steve Jobs" are, above all else, great films because they are written so intelligently. Drew Goddard's work in adapting a novel heavy on technical jargon and making it dramatically compelling and witty without sacrificing the science at the center is a real achievement. In many years, "The Martian" would be an easy winner here, but you consider the structural ambition, dense dialogue and brilliantly crafted character arcs of Sorkin's "Steve Jobs" script, it becomes impossible to ignore as the best script of the year.

  • "The Big Short"
  • "Mad Max:Fury Road" (winner)
  • "The Martian"
  • "Sicario" (runner-up)
  • "Steve Jobs" 
A great year for film editing, as the editing choices made in each of these films is vital to the cinematic experiences of each. Joe Walker's editing of "Sicario" does so much to ratchet up the tension in key moments, but it was truly impossible to deny the achievement here of "Mad Max: Fury Road". While I didn't love the film as much as most, I was blown away by what an incredible achievement in editing it was. 

  • "Carol"
  • "Mad Max: Fury Road"
  • "The Revenant" (winner)
  • "Sicario" (runner-up)
  • "Steve Jobs" 
This category came down to two modern legends in the field, Roger Deakins' for his moody lensing of "Sicario" or Emmanuel Lubezki for his stunning natural light achievement with "The Revenant". As great as Deakins' work on "Sicario" is, this was one of the easiest calls of the year. Lubezki has a very good chance of winning his third consecutive Oscar for his work here and it would be very well deserved. 

  • "Carol"
  • "The Danish Girl"
  • "Inside Out" (winner)
  • "The Martian" (runner-up)
  • "The Revenant" 
The role of production design in animated films is often ignored due to the computer-generated nature of the imagery. Although I appreciate the difficulty of creating physical sets from scratch, done brilliantly in my runner-up "The Martian", I can't ignore that "Inside Out" was the greatest achievement in visual design of any film this year.

  • "Brooklyn" (winner)
  • "Cinderella"
  • "Crimson Peak"
  • "The Danish Girl"
  • "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (runner-up)
I often try to emphasize great achievements of costume design in more contemporary films (something the Academy often fails to do), but this year was a bit slim in that regard so here instead is a collection of great period and sci-fi/fantasy costuming. None of these nominees has the immediately iconic quality of the work done in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", but I opted instead for the wonderfully colorful costumes of "Brooklyn".

  • "Ex Machina"
  • "Inside Out" (runner-up)
  • "The Revenant" 
  • "Sicario" (winner)
  • "Steve Jobs" 
Another category where each of the five made a compelling case for number one, as it was a great year overall for film scores. It was also a year of eclectic film scores, reflected in the sharp contrasts in style of my top two. Though I loved the emotional delicacy of Michael Giacchino's work on "Inside Out", it was hard to go against the brooding atmosphere of Johann Johannsson's score for "Sicario".


  • "Love and Mercy" (runner-up)
  • "The Martian"
  • "The Revenant" (winner)
  • "Sicario"
  • "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" 
One of the easier calls on the list, but not for lack of other great options. "Love and Mercy" did a brilliant job both recreating the "Pet Sounds" recording sessions and also suggesting the sonic chaos swirling inside Brian Wilson's head. In another year I would've opted for it, but rarely has a film absorbed me so much with its use of sound as "The Revenant" did. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015 (Part II)


I have finally gotten around to finishing my write-up on the ten best films of 2015. I have already covered the first half of my list, and you can read about selections 10-6 here. Without any further delay, let's get into my top five films of 2015, starting with...

  • 5) "The Revenant" (Dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)-

Alejandro G. Inarritu is nothing if not an ambitious filmmaker, but his pretentions often threaten to get the better of him. I felt this quality of his somewhat diminished his previous film, the otherwise terrific "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance". This dichotomy between his ambitions and his self-importance are ever present in "The Revenant", but here I found the ambition of the film rather awe-inspiring to an extent that overcame it's flaws. Many will be put off by the film due to its excessive running time (roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes) and its unrelenting bleakness, but I found myself so immersed in visceral experience of Hugh Glass' quest from hell and back that these issues bothered me very little. The central performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, likely to net him that elusive Oscar, has garnered most of the attention by the general public for this film. It is a performance of obvious merit, especially when considering the grueling physical commitment, but the true star of "The Revenant" is the cinematography, courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. A modern master of the art form behind such visually groundbreaking films as "Children of Men", "The Tree of Life", "Gravity" and the aforementioned "Birdman", Lubezki has somehow managed to outdo himself with what he has achieved. Much has been made of the fact that "The Revenant" was shot entirely with natural light, but equally as impressive is the dazzling camerawork, often sustaining long-takes that lend an immediacy to every scene. "The Revenant" is also just as much of an aural experience as it is a visual experience, and the immersive quality of the film owes a great deal of credit to the sound design, which also includes one of the best scores of the year. I would be remiss in not also mentioning the outstanding villainous supporting turn offered here by Tom Hardy, who plays the throughly loathsome John Fitzgerald with a gleeful sense of humor that's indispensable to a film lacking much in the way of levity. 

  • 4) "Spotlight" (Dir. Thomas McCarthy)-

We see a dozen biographical movies like "Spotlight" every year, especially in the context of awards season, but what makes "Spotlight" stand out is director Thomas McCarthy's deft and intelligent handling of the material. A film focusing predominantly on the day-to-day minutiae of investigative journalism doesn't scream out for a cinematic treatment, but "Spotlight" makes it work by maintaining the tricky balance of not sensationalizing the true story at hand but never letting it become too dry and insular either. Much of what makes "Spotlight" compelling, in spite of the potential dryness of the material at hand, is the impressive ensemble that McCarthy has amassed. This is a perfect exhibit of ensemble acting, in the truest sense of the word. Each and every actor, no matter how small or large the role, eschews any actorly showboating (barring one minor exception) and strives instead for authenticity. That minor exception is Mark Ruffalo, who I'm usually a big fan of, but here crafts a performance that occasionally feels mannered and ticky in a way that sticks out from the otherwise spotless ensemble. That being said, my critiques of Ruffalo's performance are nit-picky and his acting only suffers in comparison to the other, pitch-perfect performances amongst the ensemble. The consistently underrated Rachel McAdams earned a deserved and somewhat surprising Oscar nomination as s supporting actress for her subtle but grounded turn as Globe investigator Sasha Pfeiffer, but the true standout performance of "Spotlight" is that of Michael Keaton, very unfortunately not nominated for his role as Globe investigator Walter V. Robinson. After nearly winning an Oscar for "Birdman" last year, Keaton continues to build on his career resurgence here with another outstanding performance. He serves in many ways as the moral lynchpin of the film, and his restrained but commanding work might be the finest of his long career. 

  • 3) "Room" (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)-
Right alongside "Inside Out", Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" was one of the most emotionally devastating film experiences I had in 2015. There have been many films to explore horrific circumstances through the filter of a child's worldview, but "Room" takes on this idea but approaches it with a greater nuance, eschewing any blunt sentimentality. This is a film that seeks the light in a harrowing circumstance, but never for a second downplays the emotional toll and impact such a circumstance has on its characters. The film could be viewed through three separate acts with each act operating as a different type of film, though that wouldn't reflect how organically Abrahamson pulls of each of the subtle shifts in style through each act. The first is essentially a two-hander between a mother and a son, both locked in a confined space. This part of the film deftly builds the relationship between these two characters and fills in the background of how they ended up in this titular confined space very sparingly. Then, the film takes a sudden shift and becomes an escape thriller, and the escape is all the more tense because it's grounded in real emotional stakes established in the first act. This middle sequence is as good as any filmmaking I saw this year and left me an emotional wreck throughout. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath and the characters now having to cope with everything that they've been through and readjust to the world. While this section of the film doesn't have the same climactic tension as the previous, it is again handled with a delicate humanism by Abrahamson. In spite of the somewhat high concept framework, "Room" is really a film about the bond between a mother and her child, and that relationship is the core that holds the film together. Jacob Tremblay (9 years old) has to do a lot of dramatic heavy-lifting for such a young actor, but he's such a natural in the role that you forget he's even acting at all. Though Brie Larson was not the obvious choice for the much sought-after role of Ma, it's nearly impossible to imagine another actress playing such a complicated role to the degree of perfection that she does. It's one of the finest performances of the year and the breakthrough role of what will looks to be a very promising career.

It is entirely by accident, but the only films on this list that I wrote full length reviews of just happen to be my top two films of 2015. For those selections, I will simply include a link to those reviews so as to not become redundant.

  • 2) "The Martian" (Dir. Ridley Scott)-

My full-length review here. But I would like to use this opportunity to again single Drew Goddard out for the extraordinary screenplay he wrote here, bringing a disarming levity and wit to the proceedings. 

And, My number one film of 2015 is...

  • 1) "Steve Jobs" (Dir. Danny Boyle)-

My full-length review here. And again, I want to take the opportunity to single out the achievement writer Aaron Sorkin pulled off here (with much help from Danny Boyle's masterful direction). This script is incredibly dense and packs so much information into every line without ever slowing down so the audience can catch a breath. It's in many ways as exhilarating and exasperating a film as "Mad Max: Fury Road", but only replacing car chases with rapid-fire dialogue. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Reaction: The 2015 Academy Award Nominations


The nominations for the 2015 Oscars were revealed this morning, and I was surprised by the relative lack of true surprises, if that makes any sense. The only omission that stood out to me as truly jarring and unforeseen was Ridley Scott, a veteran director championed by many throughout the season as a potential winner in that category, missing out for "The Martian". 

As a fan of the film, it was disappointing to see Scott omitted, but there were some definite silver linings, namely that "Room" director Lenny Abrahamson scored a suprise nomination (filling the slot many presumed would go to Scott) for directing one of the best films of 2015. I have also been championing "The Martian" as a great achievement of writing (equally, if not more so, than as an achievement of directing), so it was delightful to see Drew Goddard edge his way into a very competitive Adapted Screenplay category. 

Again though, his inclusion in the category likely came at the expense of Aaron Sorkin, who failed to receive a nomination for the best script of the year with "Steve Jobs". That omission especially stings as he likely missed out because the film was tainted by its fumbling at the Box Office. In fact, "Steve Jobs" only registered with the actors, scoring expected and deserved nominations for Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet.

I was happy to see "The Revenant" do so well, leading the field with 12 nominations. The film (which just recently won the Golden Globe for Best Drama) appears to be surging, and I was happy to see that Tom Hardy got swept up in that surge. Hardy, who has failed to gain nominations at the precursors for his great supporting turn in the film, budged his way into a crowded Supporting Actor category. 

His nomination likely came at the expense of Idris Elba (more on the lack of diversity issue later), but my biggest disappointment in this category was that it was Mark Ruffalo, and not Michael Keaton, representing "Spotlight". It has one of the oddities of the season that Keaton, who came so close to winning for "Birdman" last year, wasn't able to cash in on his recent goodwill and score a nomination (and potential win) for his acclaimed turn in the film that's most likely to win Best Picture this year. While I'm usually a fan of Ruffalo, I found his performance in "Spotlight" surprisingly unsatisfying. Keaton, who's truly the heart and soul of the film, would have been a more deserving nominee, in my humble opinion. 

However, I was delighted to see that nominated alongside Ruffalo amongst the "Spotlight" ensemble was Rachel McAdams in Best Supporting Actress. I predicted early on in the season that she would receive a nomination for the film, but it was far from a given that that would actually occur until this morning. Many doubted if her subtle performance would register strongly enough with voters, so I was very happy to see that it did.

While I was disappointed to see that Alicia Vikander failed to translate her recent string of nominations for her brilliant work in "Ex Machina" into an Oscar nod (she was instead nominated in Supporting Actress for "The Danish Girl"), I was happy to see the film pick up a widely deserved nomination for Alex Garland's terrific original screenplay.

Meanwhile in the below the line categories, both "The Revenant" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" were predictably dominant, but their were some pleasant surprises as well. While it was a shame that Michael Giacchino missed out on a nom for his "Inside Out" score, Johann Johannsson was an unexpected but utterly deserving nominee  for his moody "Sicario" score. That film, one of my favorites of the year, also picked up a nomination for Best Sound Editing.

Now, to one of the more controversial aspects of the nominations, the lack of diversity amongst the acting nominees. While there were several high-profile, acclaimed performances by minority actors this year (Michael B. Jordan in "Creed", Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation", Benicio del Toro in "Sicario", ect.), none of that translated into any Oscar nominations for actors of color. This was a significant talking point the previous year, when the same thing happened, and already the #AllWhiteOscars hashtag is making its rounds on twitter.

The lack of diversity amongst the acting nominees is unquestionably reflective of a larger problem, but I think what the problem actually is seems to get lost in the shuffle of the internet outrage. It's easy to aim the criticisms of this squarely at the Academy, who are routinely criticized as nothing more than a collection of "old white men". I believe that criticism does help to maintain some perspective on their choices, but it also unfairly paints the Academy as a monolithic body who make all of their choices in a vacuum. In reality, these nominations are reflective of a wide range of opinions and perspectives, and the lack of diversity in these nominations is more reflective of a larger problem in Hollywood. 

It's unfair to expect somebody to put Michael B. Jordan on their Oscar ballot if the genuinely believe there were five other performances by white actors that they preferred to his, even if they liked his performance. That is akin to tokenism and does nothing to solve the larger problem of diversity and the scarcity of roles for actors of color in Hollywood. We shouldn't be surprised that so often no actors of color are represented by the Oscars in a given year when there are so fewer high profile roles for minority actors even in the conversation. The way this problem gets solved is by having a greater diversity of roles for actors of color in a given year, which means more filmmakers of color given the opportunity to share their perspectives and tell their stories. 

In that vein, one significant improvement from last year's nominations is the inclusion of several female writers in the screenplay categories, most notably Emma Donahue for "Room" and Phyllis Nagy for "Carol". Last year, the academy failed to nominate a single script written by a woman, so four women overall amongst the nominees in those categories is a marked improvement.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased with today's nominations, with every one of my favorite films of the year receiving at least one nomination (not sure if that's ever happened before). Over the coming weeks, I'll be writing up break downs for each of the categories.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Top 10 Films of 2015 (Part I)


2015 the year in film has now passed us by and I have caught myself up on the vast majority of the major titles released this past year. After a great deal of shuffling, I finally have a list of my 10 favorite films of the year that I'm content with.

The overall year in film was a strong one, and my list is dense with titles that made a compelling case for the top overall spot. That being said, some of the most acclaimed films of the year won't be found here, most notably George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road", which I admired tremendously for its audacious craftsmanship and strongly feminist perspective, but was ultimately left cold by the general campiness of the whole thing. Also, Todd Haynes' "Carol", another staple of these types of lists, left me cold as well with its overly refined and mannered approach to the material.

As far as films which almost made the cut, John Crowley's "Brooklyn" was a delightful and charming throwback anchored by Saorise Ronan's central performance. There was also Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson Biopic "Love & Mercy", a brilliant exploration of a musical genius and a deeply fragile mind. It's also worth mentioning that J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was, for me, the strongest film of the Star Wars" franchise. However, that reflects more on my underwhelmed feelings about the franchise as a whole than on the newest installment, which is perfectly entertaining but formulaic and conventional. That being said, Daisy Ridley gives a breakout, star-making performance worth noting.

But alas, without any further adieu, here are my first five selections for the top ten films of 2015...

  • 10) "Creed" (Dir. Ryan Coogler)-
On its surface, "Creed" is nothing more than a nearly flawless execution of the well-worn boxing picture formula. That's nothing to balk at, but it probably wouldn't be enough to place the film on this list alone. What makes "Creed" great exists outside of the frame and runs deeper in the DNA of the film itself. There is the presence of star Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler, who broke through on their last collaboration with the deeply moving and socially conscious film "Fruitvale Station". A reboot of the "Rocky" franchise was an unexpected choice as a follow-up for these two rising talents, but it's clear Coogler wasn't just selling out and cashing in on his indie credibility. In his second collaboration with Jordan, Coogler has again written for him the type of complicated young black male character who so rarely gets to be the hero of a film, especially a mainstream studio film like this. Jordan brings out a sensitivity masking a boiling hot temper in his performance as Adonis Creed, and again reminds us all why the young Denzel Washington comparisons are warranted. There is also the fact that the film is an extension of the "Rocky" film legacy, as indicated by the presence of Sylvester Stallone reprising his most iconic film role. Stallone is not an actor who possesses great range, but there is an almost magical authenticity to his screen presence, especially in this role, that resists the inherent artificiality of cinema like teflon. Though Stallone has long been a wealthy movie star, he is able to slip into the persona of this blue collar Philadelphian with ease. He isn't playing Rocky Ballboa in "Creed", he just is Rocky Ballboa. In this iteration of the character, he offers up his finest performance to date. 

  • 9) "Anomalisa" (Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)-
It's so rare that a film captures the mundane nature of our daily lives in a cinematically compelling way, but the great writer/director Charlie Kaufman ("Synecdoche, New York", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and co-director Duke Johnson have managed to do so this year with "Anomalisa". While the power of animation is often in its ability to render impossible and imaginative environments, "Anomalisa" utilizes stop-motion animation to create an utterly ordinary world that feels identical to our own. Nonetheless, it's only through animation that this story could convey its thesis in such a unique and thought-provoking way. David Thewlis (in an achingly soulful voice performance) plays Michael Stone, a man in the midst of a midlife crisis who experiences his life and everyone in it as monotonous and just more of the same. In a clever bit of voice casting, Tom Noonan voices nearly every other character Michael encounters (be it his wife, his son or even the hotel desk clerk) with an identical inflection in his voice each time. The only exception to this is Lisa (voiced in another soulful performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom Michael encounters in the hotel he is staying at and draws an immediate connection with because of the way she stands out against the crowd. This relatively daring approach to animation never takes away from the sense of realism imbued in the script, and Kaufman and Johnson even manage to pull off a disarmingly intimate and tender love scene. Though Kaufman maintains his singularly cynical world view, he continues to offer poignant insights about how we experience our daily lives.

  • 8) "Sicario" (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)-
Director Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners", both his first english language film and major studio film, was my #10 movie of 2013. With "Sicario", he continues to display his gift for crafting moody and tense genre films with a cerebral edge. "Sicario" takes on a political dimension in tackling the War on Drugs in Mexico and not pulling any punches in displaying what a tremendous waste of time and resources that war has been. The nihilism of "Sicario" could become overwhelming or hopeless to the point of indifference if not for the grounding presence of Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer, both the audience's narrative and moral lynchpin in a film otherwise lacking in that quality. Kate's gender makes her a unique but welcome commodity in a film of this ilk, and the possibility of re-writing her role for a male actor had been discussed before the film was made. Thank god that didn't happen, not only because woman deserve the same consideration as men for these types of roles, but also because the frequently underrated and under-appreciated Blunt is indispensable to "Sicario". She perfectly embodies the idealism of her character without it ever feeling out of place in this bleak environment and delivers the finest performance of her career to date. Though often praised first as a master craftman, which he certainly is, Villeneuve also deserves praise for his overall skill with actors. The supporting ensemble deserves laudits right alongside Blunt, with fine work delivered by the always dependable Josh Brolin as Kate's boss and especially Benicio del Toro (worthy of the Oscar buzz he's receiving) as a mysterious figure within Kate's task force. The below the line elements of this film are some of the finest of the year, with particular praise owed to Joe Walker's tense editing, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins' moody lensing and, especially, the eerie and chilling score composed by Johann Johannsson. 

  • 7) "Inside Out" (Dir. Pete Docter)-
With modern classics like "Finding Nemo", "WALL-E" and "Up" under their banner, Pixar has established themselves as a pillar of cinematic excellence, animated or otherwise, in the 21st century. That being said, their last few efforts have fallen below that high standard with uninspired sequels like "Cars 2" and "Monsters University". "Inside Out" is a return to the Pixar gold standard, easily ranking as one of the finest achievements of a studio who has had their fair share of them. Like the best Pixar efforts, "Inside Out" not only avoids pandering to the young audience at which they are aiming to appeal to, but is also a film willing to explore complex themes and emotions (quite literally, in this case) that most adult films don't dare to address. The setting here of the inner recesses of a young girls' mind offers the creative minds at Pixar both a playground for the endless imagination that is their specialty, while also providing them a foundation to explore more challenging themes about adolescence and the integral role each of our emotions (even the ones we don't like) play in defining who we are. As children we are almost singularly defined by the emotion of joy, but as we begin to grow up, the other, more difficult emotions like sadness start to take on a more prominent role in our development. This is not the most upbeat subject matter for a film aimed at children, but it is an important idea for them to be able to understand and a concept we can all gain from better understanding at any age. The voices for each emotion are flawlessly cast, especially Lewis Black, who's entire act is boiled down to its purest essence here as Anger. The reliable talents of Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader are put to good use as Disgust and Fear, respectively, but the core of "Inside Out" rests in the relationship between Amy Poehler's Joy and Phyllis Smith's Sadness. Poehler's ability to play plucky without becoming grating is central to her performance, while Smith, whose voice so effortlessly suggests melancholy, is perhaps the true MVP. 

  • 6) "Ex Machina" (Dir. Alex Garland)-
2015 was not just a great year for movies, but also a great year for the science fiction genre in particular, and signaling good things to come at the very beginning of the year was Alex Garland's "Ex Machina". Garland, a genre writer perhaps best known for his Danny Boyle collaborations "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine", makes his directorial debut here and it's an assured piece of work. "Ex Machina" is an intriguing work of science fiction for many reasons, chief among them being the way Garland keeps everything grounded and on a very intimate and human scale. The film could just as easily operate as a stage play (like a number of other films this year), taking place almost exclusively inside one location and centered around only three characters. Unlike the spectacle-driven sci-fi of which we are so accustomed, "Ex Machina" is an actor-driven film, offering its three stars juicy, complex roles to sink their teeth into. Domhnall Gleeson (having a remarkable run of films this year) plays Caleb, a computer programmer at a Google-like company where he is selected by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, in yet another great performance), the super-genius brainchild of the company, to come to his secluded manor and check out the new project he's been working on. That project is Ava ( Alicia Vikander, in the breakthrough performance of the year), a robot designed by Nathan who appears to be artificially intelligent. From this intriguing premise, "Ex Machina" goes in many unanticipated directions but never in a way that feels cheap or gimmicky. That is because "Ex Machina" is informed by character, and the actors (especially Isaac and Vikander) are able to suggest so much internally through subtle physicality. This is one of the most intelligently written and thought-provoking films of the year, exploring themes of human sexuality and man playing god in ways I've never seen done before in film. That being said, Garland never lets things get too heavy to the point of self-seriousness, showing a light comic touch at unexpected but vital moments. 

My top five films of 2015 will be revealed in Part II, which will be posted in the next few days.