In eight days the Oscar nominations will be known, capping many weeks of proliferating awards, critics’ lists, chatter about surprises and snubs. By then most of the nominees will have had Canadian releases. My own list — a top 10 and five honourable mentions — is necessarily personal, based on a viewing of some 400 features. Sometimes I don’t get the critical love for certain choices. Case in point: The Assassin for which Hsiao-Hsien Hou was named best director at Cannes. Gorgeous to look at but I found it confusing and the pace glacial. On the other hand, Mad Max: Fury Road was a praiseworthy reboot of that franchise, though now overshadowed by the Star Wars juggernaut.
So here goes:
1. Son of Saul (Hungary)
Astonishingly this is director and co-writer László Nemes’ first film. Winner of the grand prix at Cannes, it’s an unforgettable Holocaust drama like no other — a vision of hell from the point of view of a Hungarian member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommandos (Jewish prisoners forced to do the death camps’ dirty work). The sole fleeting smile is heart-rending. Tough but essential viewing.
2. Inside Out (U.S.)
This Disney Pixar animated triumph, co-directed and written by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, is the year’s most delightfully imaginative experience for any age. A jumble of memories and emotions — terrifically voiced by actors like Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) — jostle and collide inside the head of 11-year-old Riley as she moves with her family from the Midwest to San Francisco.
3. Leviathan (Russia)
Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated saga of injustice takes place in an isolated village on the shores of the Barents Sea where the bleached skeleton of a whale stands as a metaphor for the corruption of state and church that picks society’s bones clean. What happens to Kolya and his family becomes a Book-of-Job parable of Putin’s Russia. This 2014 film was not released in Canada until 2015.
4. Spotlight (U.S.)
Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy shines a sobering spotlight on the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of children that plagued the Boston archdiocese, covered up by the church hierarchy until exposed by the Boston Globe’s dedicated team of investigative reporters. A disturbing but necessary story, superbly told.
5. The Big Short (U.S.)
Adam MacKay helms a terrific ensemble cast in this brilliant adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about how a collection of outsiders and oddballs outsmarted Wall street by shorting (i.e. betting against) the corrupt subprime mortgage market that triggered the second biggest financial crash in history. Hilarious and tragic.
6. Carol (U.S.)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, director Todd Haynes’ story of a forbidden romance between a rich older married woman and a young New York shopgirl achieves a striking emotional depth and intelligence thanks to superlative nuanced performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as well as masterfully evocative cinematography.
7. Dancing Arabs (Israel/Germany/France)
The Israeli cinema is among the world’s best and this compelling coproduction directed by Eran Riklis from Sayed Kashua’s semi-autobiographical novel penetrates the fault lines of a divided society when a West Bank Palestinian boy, Eyad, and an Israeli girl, Naomi, fall in love. Eyad’s destiny is forever changed after a friend’s death opens the way to a borrowed identity.
8. Room (Canada/Ireland)
With a screenplay by Emma Donoghue adapted from her acclaimed novel, director Lenny Abrahamson brings a sensitive touch to this moving story of an abducted young woman who gives birth to a son in confinement and lives to protect him for five years before escaping. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are extraordinary as mother and child.
9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (U.S.)
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore feature, written by Jesse Andrews adapting his novel, is the best young-adult and American independent film of the year, fully deserving of its Sundance grand jury and audience awards. A trio of Pittsburgh high-school seniors learn about life and loss, marvellously played by Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler as movie-making misfit buddies and Olivia Cooke as the afflicted girl.
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (U.S.)
Everything about “Episode VII” is epic, and as importantly the effects (shot on traditional film not digitally and best appreciated in IMAX 3D) are accompanied by a story that reconnects to the magic of the original trilogy. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams renews the force in giving it to a new female heroine. There’s also a father-son encounter almost as awesome as that between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. More than just a box-office wonder, this space opera conquers the big screen.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/U.S.): Director/co-writer George Miller’s dynamite revival of this post-apocalyptic franchise, which bowed at the Cannes festival, has wowed critics and audiences, even topping some “best of” lists. Tom Hardy is terrific as Max and Charlize Theron even better as the aptly-named new character Imperator Furiosa.
Macbeth (U.K./France/U.S.): As much as Michael Fassbender excelled as Steve Jobs in the eponymous movie about the late tech giant, he commands the screen in the title role of Justin Kurzel’s magnificent adaptation of the Bard’s great Scottish tale of regicide and retribution. With Marion Cotillard compelling as the usurper’s ambitious lady doomed never to remove the “damned spot” of bloody betrayal.
Brooklyn (Canada/Ireland/U.K.): Saoirse Ronan deserves an Oscar nomination for her role as a young Irish immigrant to 1950s America torn between past and future. Directed by John Crowley and adapted by Nick Hornby from the Colm Tóibín novel, it was among the best to premiere at last January’s Sundance festival.
Dheepan (France): Jacques Audiard’s searing story of Sri Lankan refugees to France, focused on a fugitive former Tamil Tiger fighter who acquires a family of convenience en route, seems to have been forgotten since winning the Cannes festival’s highest honour. It should not be overlooked.
Trumbo (U.S.): Bryan Cranston captures the fighting spirit of famous Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1940s-50s. Helen Mirren steals scenes as his most venomous antagonist in the show business world. The movie, directed by Jay Roach, is also a timely cautionary tale about the consequences of the politics of fear.