This is my 5th (and final?) Top 20 list. I saw only four or five great movies this year but plenty of good ones. I also saw “Cafe Society” which deserves a special place in movie hell, but I’m feeling positive here today, so let’s just get to the top 20.
1. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA — I wouldn’t think that anyone comes out of the theater feeling exhilarated other than by the film-making, the story-telling, the work of Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and the young Lucas Hedges. There is an unbearable sadness to this film, but not in an after-school special type of way. It’s the waking up every day and hoping that the misery won’t overwhelm you kind of sadness. You know from the previews you have seen that something has happened that disturbs Affleck but you don’t know what it is until maybe halfway through the film. And then you see why it never leaves him, and it is all he can do to get his nephew through the day.
2. ARRIVAL — There are 3 surprises in this film. One is that the aliens are not here (at least it appears this way) to attack us. Two is that a movie about language can keep us on the edge of our seats. Three is that — and I like to use character names, rather than actors’ names (sorry, Michael Stuhlbarg) — Arnold Rothstein parlayed his work in Boardwalk Empire to appearing in almost every movie we see!
The fact that Amy Adams can carry a film is not surprising at all.
3. HELL OR HIGH WATER — A great Texas film (even if shot in New Mexico) with a terrific Mr. Pibb reference. Best soundtrack in a long time, headed by Nick Cave with occasional help from Townes Van Zandt, Chris Stapleton and Waylon.
4. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN — If someone out there has the time to rank best teenage coming-of-age parents-out-of-town movies of all time, all I can tell you is that this is No. 2 behind Risky Business. And I wasn’t smart enough to see that there was anything really special about Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit a few years back. But, man, you can see it here from the first scene with the increasingly great Woody Harrelson.
5. OJ: MADE IN AMERICA — Not really sure where to rank an 8-hour movie that most of us watched in two-hour installments on TV. But when most of us were completely OJ’ed out after the FX series, Ezra Edelman reminded us that if one takes the time (and I mean years in the editing room) to examine this story, it’s probably not so much “Made in America” as it’s simply “America.”
6. DON’T THINK TWICE — Not a big improv fan, even if I have immense respect for people who can think fast in front of an audience or a camera (after 1,600 Around the Horns, maybe I’ll get there), but this is more about people and how we are so much more comfortable with failure than success. And, yeah, it’s hilarious when it needs to be.
7. LA LA LAND — This movie cracks the top 10 because I never thought it would make the top 20. I am not a fan of people bursting into song on screen. Combine that with dancing and you’re really in trouble. On top of that, factor in that Emma Stone isn’t much of a singer and Ryan Gosling can neither sing nor dance. So why do I like this 2-hour-plus movie so much? Why do I (gulp) wanna see it again? Because the 2 of them are so damn likable and because anyone who loves any aspect of LA will embrace the city here. Critics rave about the opening scene which I pretty much hated. The last 10-15 minutes is as good as it gets.
8. BIRTH OF A NATION — I’m not overly interested in the politics that derailed the movie (just as I don’t really have an answer for you on my No. 1 choice and the settlements Casey Affleck reached with female co-workers a few years back). I’m just ranking films here, buddy, and my awards aren’t worth anything. All I can tell you is that Nate Parker who directed and wrote and starred and brought sort of a young Everson Walls vibe to this film was sensational. I liked it better than the overdone 12 Years a Slave. This one didn’t have Brad Pitt riding to the rescue for Nat Turner.
9. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL — Michael Shannon. You need to make at least three movies a year, sir.
10. DENIAL — A court case about a Holocaust denier, you’ll learn more than you expected about the difference between the U.S. and England and their libel laws. There are really good performances here, especially Timothy Spall as the supposedly disgraced historian.
11. MOONLIGHT — My only problem with this film comes in the final third. The first two thirds would probably rank in the top five. Without giving anything away, it’s hard to describe my issues, and in all likelihood they are solely my issues, so go see it, especially if you’re a Remy Danton (House of Cards) fan.
12. JACKIE — Ignore Bobby Kennedy’s all-over-the-place accent and just focus on a great performance by Natalie Portman in the days after the assassination and what that might have been like from the First Lady’s perspective.
13. SULLY — Liked it but wish Clint Eastwood had included five minutes to explain how and why Sully believed he knew the right angle, the proper speed to take to land a plane filled with passengers on the Hudson River. It’s hinted at in Sully’s background, but I saw an easy explanation on the Discovery channel or somewhere and it would have been a nice addition. Regardless, Hanks is great as you might expect. Skyler’s still a little wobbly from all those years with Walter White.
14. EYE IN THE SKY — There are moments where this feels like a pretty good “Homeland” episode but it’s mostly better than that and asks important questions that we pretty much ignore whenever we hear that an American drone (oops) killed a few civilians in some Middle East country we never plan to visit.
15. WEINER — It helps that I saw this in a theater near NYU while visiting my son this summer. Unfortunately, it already feels dated because of Mr. Weiner’s almost unparalleled continuing issues with selfies and his junk. An uncomfortable documentary, Huma Abedin (Weiner’s wife when he was running for mayor when this was shot) never looks remotely pleased to have her life being captured on film.
16. THE LOBSTER — First half of this movie is top 10 for sure. Falls apart a bit when they leave the — let’s call it a hotel. Colin Farrell is fine but if you’re like me and you loved Broadchurch, seeing Olivia Colman (Ellie Miller) in this role is hysterical. Actually I would recommend Broadchurch over most anything on this list, now that I’ve brought it up. Mil-Lah!!!!
17. BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK — Read the book. Not sure what Ang Lee was thinking, although this is a fairly faithful rendering if you can handle all the extreme close-ups.
18. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS — A film I expected to love, based on the trailer, I saw two people walk out during the credits. The opening credits. Once you weather that and whatever Tom Ford was telling us in his designer way, it’s a mostly fun story-within-a-story but with scenes that take way too long and an over-the-top Aaron Taylor-Johnson performance.
19. STAR TREK BEYOND — Just to let you know I can go to and enjoy an action movie. Occasionally. As long as involves Spock.
20. MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY — Give Dev Patel his due, the man gets around. Interesting movie about math. OK, you weren’t going to see it anyway, but I would still rank it ahead of those that didn’t make the list this year.
Honorable mention: Fences. Free State of Jones. Hacksaw Ridge. Nice Guys. Jason Bourne. Finding Dory.
From The Coen Brothers Make Mistakes Too List: Hail Caesar.
Dishonorable discharge: Cafe Society.
Probation: The Accountant for producing a spellbinding trailer with “Everything in its Right Place” and then never using the Radiohead song anywhere in the film. There ought to be a law.
This is my 5th (and final?) Top 20 list. I saw only four or five great movies this year but plenty of good ones. I also saw “Cafe Society” which deserves a special place in movie hell, but I’m feeling positive here today, so let’s just get to the top 20.
It’s that time. Sorry, Leo, I can’t wait for “The Revenant” to show up on Dallas screens Jan. 8. Same for you, weird looking characters in “Anomalisa.” You’ll have to take your place in my 2016 rankings because, really, that’s where you belong. It’s the same reason that films like “Still Alice” and “A Most Violent Year” show up here because they didn’t reach theatres until last January.
For much of 2015, I thought we were going to have the oddest of rap beefs — Dr. Dre (Straight Outta Compton) vs. the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Love and Mercy) — for the top spot on this list. Loved both, especially “Compton.” But films big and small at the end of the year did not disappoint. So we provide our annual top 20 with a dozen others receiving mention, honorable or otherwise.
Apologies to Dirk Nowitzki, Apollo Creed’s kid and David Foster Wallace for just missing the top 20.
1. SPOTLIGHT — I’m not going to pick a film about great journalism No. 1 simply because I’m a journalist. Most reporter and newspaper depictions fall somewhere on the scale between awful and inaccurate. Just as Season Five of the Wire got the flaws of a newspaper newsroom just right, Spotlight hits on every note. I can’t imagine anyone showing more acting versatility in the last two years than Mark Ruffalo. Hard to go from completely believable as doomed Olympic wrestler David Schultz (“Foxcatcher”) to a dogged, determined slightly asshole-ish newshound here but he pulls it off. Same for Liev Schreiber who won’t be talked about as much as Michael Keaton or Ruffalo, but his soft-spoken outsider is what editors are like more often than not. They aren’t Perry White in Superman — gruff, confident, bellowing.
But even getting the Boston Globe right isn’t as important as telling a great story in riveting fashion. The movie is entertaining as hell and it’s honest about the Globe having missed the story of abusive priests the first time or two around before finally getting it right. Credits in the final frames are rarely as powerful as the ones we see here about the Catholic Church and abuses around the world.
2. STEVE JOBS — No idea why this didn’t do better and resonate with more people. And I was never a huge fan of Jobs or his story, but after one viewing, I ran out and bought Walter Isaacson’s 600-page biography. Not a fan of Aaron Sorkin in some circumstances (thought “Newsroom’ was unwatchable) but when he gets it right — and what’s wrong with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak trading barbs and sounding like geniuses — it can be fabulous. Beyond an excellent performance from Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Seth Rogen found something to do beyond his normal stoner range as Wozniak. It doesn’t matter that all these conversations didn’t really happen 15 minutes before Jobs went on stage to deliver new products. Most of them did, in fact, take place, and no attempts to sugarcoat the darker side of Jobs are made here.
3. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON — With my limited but not completely empty hip hop background, I was more a fan of Public Enemy than NWA when it comes to west coast rap bursting out of the ’80s. But this is terrific stuff, from Ice Cube’s son nailing his portrayal of the young, angry Ice Cube (OK, he had a home-field advantage) and Jameis Winston was fabulous as Dr. Dre. OK, maybe that wasn’t Winston, but if Corey Hawkins ever wants to play the Heisman winner, he has a head start.
4. THE BIG SHORT — For the first 15 minutes, I was asking, “What is this exactly?” But then the film catches fire and it becomes an acting duel between Steve Carell and Christian Bale with Ryan Gosling a nice third option. Two years ago the Matt Damon-narrated doc, “Inside Job,’ was both frightening and impenetrable. The gimmick The Big Short employs to keep your attention while discussing collateralized loan obligations is genius. Let the untried criminals of 2008 not be forgotten.
5. BRIDGE OF SPIES — A mostly un-Spielberg-like film by Spielberg, Tom Hanks is great in this Cold War tale. And you will definitely look forward to seeing more of Mark Rylance in Spielberg’s next film after his understated portrayal of a Soviet spy.
6. ROOM — There are two films in the last five years in which I could not eat popcorn or make any other sound because of the intensity. One was “Winter’s Bone” before we knew who Jennifer Lawrence was going to become. The other is the first hour of “Room,” and even when you know the premise — a woman and child locked away from the world for a long period of time in a single room — it still overwhelms you.
7. LOVE AND MERCY — Two Brian Wilsons for the price of one in this film that wasn’t based on but seemed mostly faithful to “Catch a Wave,’ Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of the Beach Boys’ tormented genius. John Cusack has the tougher task, playing the elder almost comatose Wilson, but Paul Dano is superb as the young man who gave us “Pet Sounds” and wanted to produce so much more but was handicapped by the Beach Boys’ popular sound and his own troubled mind.
8. THE MARTIAN — Saw this with my father, we had both read the book and neither of us could cite a single moment in the movie that deviated from it. Matt Damon is all alone on the beautiful red planet as he teaches us the basics in how to grow potatoes. And, yeah, there’s more to it than that but I’ll save it for you.
9. THE HATEFUL EIGHT — Maybe you hate that I have this so high on the list. I may hate myself for it, too. It’s not unusual for me to leave the theatre not knowing EXACTLY what I think, but Tarantino’s marathon of a movie took me beyond that place. There are parts I hated. Violence for the sake of irony seems to have run its course, at least for me. But the simplicity of the story itself — eight people in a room, someone is lying about who they are — and the execution of the actors makes it worth your time. I’m a big fan of Walton Goggins from “Justified,” and if you liked Boyd Crowder, you will get more than your share of his over-the-top scene-stealing here. I don’t like it as much as “Inglorius Basterds” or “Django Unchained,” but I will say that at 2 hours, 47 minutes plus a 12-minute intermission, it still didn’t seem as long as the latest Star Wars.
10. SICARIO — There’s strange stuff going on along our nation’s border with Mexico. I was wondering if Trump’s wall would be enough to take the tunnel used here out of commission. I thought the film was veering off course with a love scene halfway through. Don’t lose faith. Never realized Benicio del Toro could look so much like a dark-haired Brad Pitt. A nasty one, in this case.
11. ’71 — I think most movies need to be cut by 15 minutes. This Northern Ireland tale needed 15 minutes more. Never really figured out who that kid was and his relationship to the main character. Doesn’t matter. Belfast has never been a darker, scarier, more disorienting place.
12. TRAINWRECK — You may know from the past that comedies rarely register anywhere on my lists. So give props to Amy Schumer, Bill Hader and, oh yes, LeBron James himself for making this wreck a worthwhile ride.
13. BLACK MASS — It’s not the best Boston crime film (“The Town,” “Mystic River”) or even the best about Whitey Bulger (“The Departed” loosely) but I bought into Johnny Depp’s work here. Not everyone did. Benedict Cumberbatch as his highly successful politician brother (which is really what makes the Bulger story unique) is outstanding.
14. TRUMBO — I will never look at Hedda Hopper the same way (sorry to those under 60 who have no clue who Hedda Hopper might be).
15. EX-MACHINA — Liked a lot, especially the ending, of this sci-fi flick but struggled with Oscar Isaac’s beer-drinking everyman demeanor as a reclusive world-changing genius.
16. THE GIFT — Don’t do what I did and assume this is another Jason Bateman comedy vehicle. My God is it something different. If you don’t bounce out of your seat twice, you’re probably playing with your phone while watching this.
17. RED ARMY — When I had the good fortune to cover the Red Wings capturing their first Stanley Cup in more than 40 years in 1996, I loved the five Russians but didn’t fully appreciate Slava Fetisov and his painful but heroic journey to the NHL. You can get caught up on that and how Russia came to embrace and then dominate hockey before being toppled at Lake Placid in 1980.
18. JOY — I am tempted to rank the first half or two thirds of “Joy” in the top 20. This is what happens when you give a great director (David Russell) and his favorite cast the third time around (Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooperr) a poor script and a story that never seems particularly important. The players achieve moments of greatness in a film that leaves you saying, “Well, so?”
19. JURASSIC WORLD — If comedies have a hard time qualifying for these lists, action pictures have it even tougher. Note the absence of Star Wars-The Force Awakens and Mad Max Fury Road. Chris Pratt and a familiar looking group of raptors and other creatures beat the odds.
20. BEST OF ENEMIES — Admittedly, there’s a limited audience for some (at times) poor quality footage of William F. Buckely debating Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. But having just read “Buckley vs. Mailer,” in which Vidal makes several apperances, I was all over it. Doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, if only there were any political discussions today that achieved the level of discourse Buckley and Vidal reached so easily while tearing each other to shreds…
SAW AND LIKED: End of the Tour. Focus. Creed. Perfect Shot (Dirk Nowitzki doc). The Intern. Magic Mike XXL. Mad Max Fury Road. Star Wars The Force Awakens.
SAW: Carol. A Most Violent Year. Still Alice. Southpaw. The Overnight.
CAN’T BELIEVE I SAW: Fifty Shades of Grey.
Better late than never, here are my top 20 films for 2014. I was trying to wait for a few films to get to Dallas and this team called the Cowboys kept me busier and even traveling to Green Bay longer than anticipated. For what it’s worth (very little), I watched none of the Golden Globes and have no idea how the Oscar nominations went Thursday. But I’m not trying to predict what movies will capture awards and which ones won’t. If that were the case, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ranked “Bernie” ahead of “Lincoln” two years ago.
I rank films for my own amusement. I go to lots of movies, but I’m no film critic. When I took film classes in college, I may have enjoyed Italian Cinema (mainly “Bicycle Thief”) but when I was introduced to “Wild Strawberries” in another class and expected to marvel at its greatness, I just said, “What the hell was that?”
Anyway, it’s kind of ridiculous to take film rankings too seriously when I see some in empty theatres and some when it’s jam-packed and I’m on the front row (“Wild”). These are radically different experiences. So I try to rank movies based on 3 things, and that’s really it. 1. How long did I continue to talk or think about it when it was over? 2. How much was I interested in seeing it again? 3. How badly did I want to tell my kids, my friends, whoever that they had to see it?
With that in mind, I can tell you that I could take 2 thru 7 on this list and pull them out of a hat and be OK with it. But as far as the best movie of 2014, I will quote Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) from The Exorcist: “There is only one.”
Never seen another film directed by Alejandro Inarritu. Not sure I’d like them if I did. But “Birdman” is brilliant from the first shot, and by the first shot I mean (what appears to be, although it’s not quite true) the one and only shot in the entire film, and if you’re not mesmerized by what’s going on with the camera and the storyline about a former Batman-type actor here, if you don’t think this is as good as Michael Keaton gets (and that’s fantastic), if you aren’t laughing with or at Edward Norton when you see what’s happening or realizing what a talented actress Emma Stone is, even as she manages to appear in about five movies a year, then I just can’t help you. I didn’t think anything else would touch this in 2014 and nothing ever did.
It’s a gimmick, yes, to make a film over a 12-year period, but it’s a hell of a gimmick not like trying to get people to sit still for a black-and-white silent film and calling it genius. More and more it seems Richard Linklater is one of the great directors that no one puts on any list of great directors. There was nothing about this movie that disappointed me. And when Ethan Hawke attempted to explain to his son that the Beatles actually made great music after breaking up, it was icing on the cake.
The movie that confirmed that yes, in fact, our best actors ARE spending most of their time in insurance commercials. I can see Nick Saban screaming “Not my tempo” at his quarterback after watching this movie. Given the story and the fact I absolutely hated “The Spectacular Now” and I was holding that against the young Miles Teller, I did not expect to even like this movie. But I loved it, it’s powerful and is the rare film that actually ends ABSOLUTELY THE WAY IT SHOULD END.
4. AMERICAN SNIPER
Each year it seems we deal with more and more people in movies who like to talk, who think they are sitting on their couch, who do not know how to shut up. In “American Sniper,” which I saw in a large sold-out Northpark theatre since it wasn’t showing anywhere else, you could feel the audience holding its breath for about two hours. Not the biggest Bradley Cooper fan in the world but he’s perfect for this. For a movie that perhaps has 5-6,000 bullets in its soundtrack, director Clint Eastwood avoids being graphic when he doesn’t need to be. I saw this twice (not because I wanted to see it a second time more than other movies but just through circumstances), and when the ending approached on second viewing, I was gulping, wishing it could go another direction. But it couldn’t. And, sad as it is, Eastwood handled it perfectly.
5. THE IMITATION GAME
Make a movie about World War II and I’m in. Make it about code-breaking and I’m in line the first day. Saw “Enigma” and read the Richard Harris book a few years back, and both were fine, although this is a more honest re-telling of Alan Turing, who should be remembered as the man most responsible for saving the world from the Nazis but never has been and still won’t be. Some scenes not as great as I’d like them to be but the versatile and awkwardly named Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent throughout.
6. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Of all the dramatic and overly serious actors who make surprising turns to comedy, who was more surprising than Ralph Fiennes in this film? I’m not always a huge Wes Anderson fan (yes, I’m the ONE who didn’t think “Royal Tenenbaums” was genius), but this was about as perfect as “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Reese Witherspoon walks 1,000 miles or so. Somehow it’s worth every step.
8. THEORY OF EVERYTHING
There was no more touching moment in cinema this year than a crippled but brilliant wheelchair-bound man (that would be Stephen Hawking) bumping his chair softly into his wife in a last gasp of affection. Eddie Redmayne worked hard at this role and it paid off.
This was a movie that got better in my mind the further I got from having seen it. But mostly it’s just Jake Gyllenhaal paying wonderful tribute to Travis Bickle while not exactly imitating him in an LA that is as dark and rotten as New York appeared through “Taxi Driver” windshield.
Unfortunately fell into the “Crowd doesn’t know what to make of this so they are laughing at Steve Carell” category early. As the movie went along, I never thought his performance was as powerful as both wrestlers and particular Mark Ruffalo. A film that intentionally makes the audience uneasy throughout — nothing wrong with that.
11. THE DROP
Sadly the last we will see of James Gandolfini, but Tom Hardy’s performance drives this occasionally difficult-to-follow who is stealing from whom film set in a miserable Brooklyn bar.
12. THE ONE I LOVE
Is it more than a long “Twilight Zone” episode at heart? Maybe not but who cares? Gives me one more opportunity to mention how much I love Elisabeth Moss (Peggy in Mad Men) and remind you that “Top of the Lake” is the best six-episode TV series you never saw.
Certainly expected this to be much higher on the list when I first saw the previews. The truth is that as strong as my UT man-crush is on McConaughey, I tend to fell Christopher Nolan gets worse as a director the further away he gets from “Memento.” I give the film credit for trying to be much more honest in its depiction of space travel than “Gravity.” At least as honest as one can be while zipping around the edges of black holes. Doesn’t mean it’s not a long, tedious ride that somehow finds McConaughey and Matt Damon staging a fight that looks one step removed from “Lost in Space” on the authenticity meter.
14. A MOST WANTED MAN
The tragic career of Philip Seymour Hoffman goes out not with a bang, but a solid, memorable performance in a truly dismal Hamburg, Germany. Neatly avoids being a run-of-the-mill spy tale at the end.
15. GONE GIRL
Ben Affleck has done better. Director David Fincher has done a hell of a lot better. Whatever great truth this was supposed to unveil about how the media drives a story, it says it poorly but in (at times) highly entertaining fashion.
16. FORCE MAJEURE
How long are we defined by our worst moments? What if they didn’t cost us anything? What if they could have cost us everything? Also has some nice skiing photography. Part funny, very disturbing.
What did I say earlier about World War II movies? I see them and I tend to like them. I’m not big on plays turned into movies that needed to stay plays, but the story of what might have happened to Paris if not for a Nazi general making a late conversion to morality is worth seeing.
The Martin Luther King speeches by actor David Oyelowo provide the only real impact although the MLK-LBJ fights are amusing if wildly inaccurate. King had more enemies than any man deserved, why did they choose to turn LBJ into one of his biggest? Too much of the film simply drags along. An important part of civil rights history doesn’t get its due here.
19. THE TRIP TO ITALY
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trading imitations falls near the bottom of the “social significance” scale compared to blacks being systematically denied their voting rights in the film ranked just above. Not as funny as “The Trip” but still worth the ride.
20 (tie). ROSEWATER
Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” for several months in order to travel to the middle east and film this tale, and it’s not as if he failed. Maybe we have simply seen too many people wrongly imprisoned, and I hate to think I have become that jaded. It definitely succeeds in becoming claustrophobic.
20. SKELETON TWINS
I will go ahead and mention SPOILER ALERT here although I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. There are some wonderful moments shared between former SNLers Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. So…..whose idea was the escapist happy ending?
SAW AND DIDN’T HATE: Chef, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Leggo Movie, This Is Where I Leave You.
SAW: Horrible Bosses II, The Gambler, The Rover, Sex Tape.
See you next year.