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.