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Making picks for a 10 best films list is never easy, especially in a year like 2015 when there were so many really terrific ones. In fact, I can’t remember an Oscar season when the possible nominees for Best Picture were so hard to handicap. There are so many in contention there, as there are for honor here at The Establishing Shot.

There were many excellent films that didn’t quite make it onto my list: MR. HOLMES, SPOTLIGHT, ROOM, INSIDE OUT, MISTRESS AMERICA, TRAINWRECK, THE WALK, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, CRIMSON PEAK, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION, BEASTS OF NO NATION, BLACK MASS, THE PEANUTS MOVIE, and THE BIG SHORT. Quite a list of also-rans, no? In many a year, they’d have made my Top 10. But not quite this year. So here, without any further ado, are the exceptional films that did manage to make it.

My pick for the year’s best film is writer/director Alex Garland’s science fiction masterpiece. This was a sly and menacing character study about three characters who play out a dangerous scientific experiment that reveals the good and the bad in all three of them. Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a mild-mannered computer nerd who’s invited to the secluded home of his billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test a new product he’s invented. It’s an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and she is so incredibly lifelike that he’s been summoned to evaluate her. Can she pass for human in the real world? Ava is a revelation. She’s a robot, yes, but sensitive, smart, and as cunning as her human counterparts. She also feels anger and resentment at being held captive, unable to venture out into the world. As she starts to challenge both her maker and her tester, Garland is stating that in order to truly become human, Ava must completely think for herself. That means escaping her confinement, even if it means dooming her captors in her wake. And as she breaks free, our sympathies travel with her. Caleb may have started as the story’s protagonist, but by the end, our allegiance has switched to the more righteous Ava. And when she conquers them, she can finally walk among the humans every bit their equal. This was the most audacious, clever, and psychologically riveting entertainment of the year.

The greatest love story of 2015 was one between two women, and it couldn’t be more timely or pertinent in the year that the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality. Todd Hayne’s beautifully rendered work here examines what it takes to be a woman in the male-dominated 1950s. It was a repressive time and for a woman to assert herself, let alone seek love in the arms of another woman, she would have to take great risks. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play the lovers and both actresses give incredibly subtle performances filled with nuance. Their gestures speak volumes. Lingering glances show everything they’re thinking and desiring. And a simple walk across the room from Rooney Mara at the end is her character’s march towards freedom. Sometimes it feels like they’re in an Edward Hopper painting come to life – it may seem quiet and still, yet there’s so much drama within it. Their story is accompanied by Carter Burwell’s achingly romantic music, the best score in a film this past year. Miraculously, the movie’s ending is unequivocally happy, stating that love must always prevail. Bravo!

The movie that surprised me the most in 2015 was Ryan Coogler’s refresh of the 40-year-old ROCKY franchise. He’s clearly a fan of the series, yet he knew that in order to make such a boxing tale new and more meaningful in its sixth sequel, he had to mix things up. Thus, he focuses on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the bastard offspring of Rocky’s most famous opponent – Apollo Creed. By shifting the emphasis towards the newer, younger character, Coogler places Sylvester Stallone’s “Italian Stallion” in a supporting role and it gives this movie a whole new life. And because he’s relieved of the writing and directing duties, Stallone does his best screen work ever here. CREED also finds a brilliant role for Tessa Thompson as the sharply drawn woman that Creed falls for. Everything is outstanding here, from the cinematography to the editing to the song score, as well as the underscore. By the end of this superior sequel, I was crying and cheering. Does a movie get any better when it can get you to do that?

This terrific film was one of the best of the year, yet it’s been almost lost this awards season due to its poor box office performance. Acclaimed director Danny Boyle’s latest was the talk of film festivals and opened to great reviews and big box office in New York and LA. But when it went wide, audiences didn’t show up and Sony pulled it off of a thousand screens. Suddenly, it had the taint of being a loser on it and there went most of its Oscar talk. Sure Michael Fassbender and scribe Aaron Sorkin are still likely nominees, but the rest is up in the air. Make no mistake, this is a stellar film that deserves a lot of nominations, but pundits have written off most of its chances. It’s just an utter shame that the professional Oscar bloggers and Hollywood press no longer deem it in contention when it’s such a powerful movie. But that’s how gossip masquerading as journalism is killing the Oscar season year in and year out. And this year, STEVE JOBS is its most visible victim.

Eilis Lacey is an Irish immigrant in the 1950s, the heroine of this intimate little character study, and her story happens to make for one of the very best of 2015 Her journey of self-discovery leads her to the United States where she quickly realizes that America is much more forward, aggressive, and complicated than the quaint life she left back home. Without sacrificing her virtues or an innate sense of decency, she learns to navigate all kinds of complications in her boarding house, at her job, and as she’s pursued by a Brooklyn born gentleman caller. Everyone around her tries to teller what to do, but Eilis thinks for herself and doesn’t rush headlong into anything. Rather like this carefully paced and modulated drama. Saoirse Ronan gives one of the year’s shrewdest performances, cool and collected, while Nick Hornby’s screenplay plays just as smartly. Director John Crowley, like Todd Haynes, has also made a period piece with so much to say about women in the world then and now.

How did filmmaker George Miller do it? He managed to trump the other three films in his MAD MAX franchise with this effort that goes for broke and delivers so spectacularly, critics and audiences heads are still spinning from it. It’s not only the absolute best action/adventure of the year, but it’s also one of the greatest ever in the genre. Tom Hardy takes on the title role, but the real lead belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. She’s a righteous rebel who gives the finger to the dictatorial overlord ruling the post-apocalyptic earth when she steals his slave brides, promising them a better life without such a hideous incarcerator. This is one big, jacked-up, gonzo, psycho, extended car chase, yet it’s also the most feminist picture of the year. Ballsy it is for that, to say the least.

After all the hype and expectations for months, THE REVENANT finally opened at the very end of 2015, and…wow, what an incredible movie it actually turned out to be! It more than lives up to all the buzz. Filmmaker extraordinaire Alejandro Inarritu and his team have created one of the most intensely violent, yet stunningly beautiful adventure films ever. It is a revenge tale chock full of vicious men, dangerous terrain, and a frigid climate as unforgiving as Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio’s driven, fur trapper. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubeski is sure to win him his third Oscar in a row. (He won previously for GRAVITY and BIRDMAN.) It’s got a lot in common with MAD MAX FURY ROAD as it is about a chase with macho men all around creating havoc. The location work here is staggering, as is its production design, hair & make-up, costuming, and visual effects. You’ll actually believe Leo is wrestling with a Grizzly bear when you see it. Still, some see this movie as nothing more than an overly macho, two-dimensional bloodfest, but I think that may be the point here. Glass’s one-track mission of revenge is a fool’s errand. Only in the end, does he realize this. All his death quest has wrought is the destruction of both predator and prey. It’s a brutal world that he made more brutal. Man is ruinous to his world and himself.

It’s nice to see that BAFTA recognized this film with the most nominations of any 2015 film they honored this past week because Steven Spielberg’s spy thriller is superb. It’s tense and taut, but it’s more cerebral than Bond or Bourne. Based on a true story, this is really a character piece about men playing in the Cold War. Tom Hanks gives one of his greatest performances in the lead as the cat, while Mark Rylance does superb support as the mouse that could very well net him the Oscar. And Spielberg shines, using different muscles here than he usually uses. This time his story is smaller, more singular and driven by dialogue, not an epic sense. Nonetheless, it had me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew the outcome of its history.

One of the films that deserved box office that matched its acclaim was this film bio of Brian Wilson, the brain behind the Beach Boys. Perhaps because it’s also about mental illness, something that plagued Wilson all his life, audiences found it to be a turn-off, but what a shame if that was the case for its tepid numbers. Paul Dano does the greatest work of his already stellar career as the young Wilson. He is positively haunting as he reveals how demons ate away at the singer/composer’s soul. And the sad, hollowed-out shell of his former self that John Cusack brings to the other side of the story, playing the older Wilson struggling with bipolar disorder, depression and a struggle to control his life, is just as harrowing. Even with all the great Beach Boys tunes on the soundtrack, the true story of Brian Wilson was anything but a day at the beach, as this challenging film exposes. Kudos too to Elizabeth Banks for her marvelous supporting turn as Wilson’s late in life girlfriend. God only knows what he would have been without her.

As the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, I review a lot of scary movies. Well, at least they’re supposed to be scary. IT FOLLOWS truly was. It had a simple premise – a teen girl has sex with a young man and the act summons an entity that will follow her and eventually kill her unless she has sex with somebody else and passes it onto them. Yes, the STD metaphor is a bit heavy-handed, but it sure makes for one visceral and understandable trauma. Maika Monroe plays the teen girl Jay and she’s not a dumb, passive teen as in so many frighteners. Instead, she understands exactly what’s going on, tells her friends about it immediately, and lets them help her try to defeat the curse. The entity is crafty, however, and it shows up in all kinds of different human forms, rarely the same guise twice. That makes it difficult to see coming for the characters onscreen as well as those watching in the Cineplex. The moody and ominous score by Rich Vreeland (working under the moniker Disasterpeace) harkens back to the sound of the ’80s and adds a special timeless to it. All in all, David Robert Mitchell’s cleverly written, tensely directed, and beautifully edited thriller is the kind of horror all genre filmmakers should study and strive to beat.

Did some of my Top 10 make it onto your list of favorites? Why not tell me what you loved in 2015 and we’ll keep the conversation going here. And as always, thank you for following The Establishing Shot. Here’s to an even better 2016!

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