Associated Press film writers Jake Coyle and Lindsey Bahr’s favorite movies of the year span blockbusters, art house and, yes, even “Star Wars.”
1. “Carol”: It’s the music, finally, that sends me. Carter Burwell’s dreamy score is current that carries the hidden romance of Todd Haynes’ gorgeous ’50s film. Haynes is a meticulous, deliberate filmmaker, sometimes too much so. But the controlled cool of “Carol” gives way to an enchanting spell.
2. “About Elly”: Asghar Farhadi’s psychological thriller, made years ago, somehow escaped U.S. release until this year. It predates the director’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” and is every bit as masterful. A group of friends from Tehran travel to the Caspian Sea, where a mysterious disappearance unravels much more than their vacation.
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3. “Phoenix”: A haunting, Hitchcockian drama set in post-World World II Germany, where a Holocaust survivor and former cabaret singer (Nina Hoss) returns home to find her surgically reconstructed face has rendered her unrecognizable to old friends, even her former husband. Christian Petzold’s mournful movie builds to a shudderingly powerful finale.
4. “Spotlight”: A workmanlike film about the workmanlike enterprise of journalism, Tom McCarthy’s procedural about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church is propelled by its steady accumulation of details and an ensemble so rock solid that it could compete with the Celtics.
5. “Chi-Raq” and “99 Homes”: One of the most cheering trends of the year was the palpable rage that filtered into bristling films from Spike Lee and Ramin Bahrani (plus Adam McKay’s “The Big Short”). Neither has the sober flawlessness of “Spotlight,” but that’s not a bad thing. They’re alive, and pulsating with outrage. Also, one of them (“99 Homes”) has Michael Shannon.
6. “Stray Dog”: I feel glad to have simply encountered Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, the subject of the documentary by Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”). A haunted Vietnam veteran and motorcycle-riding Ozarks resident, he has American history written all over him. He’s also a gentle and open-minded man from whom anyone could learn something. (Ditto for the Seymour Bernstein of Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction.”)
7. “Anomalisa”: In even the most artificial of mediums (stop-motion animation), screenwriter Charlie Kauffman captures more soulful emotions than most films even contemplate. Moving and melancholy, “Anomalisa” startles you with the depth it finds in puppets and drab interiors.
8. “Creed” and “The Force Awakens”: “Rocky” and “Star Wars,” born six months apart in the late ’70s, have proven exceptionally durable American myths. In these restoration projects, directors Ryan Coogler and J.J. Abrams serve up retellings with evident respect to the sagas’ proven formulas while adding electric casting and touches of humanism to archetypes that had grown stale. These are just plain fun movies that stand out in a sea of less inspired sequels.
9. “45 Years”: In Andrew Haigh’s disquieting drama, even the comfortable, lived-in marriage of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtnay’s long-together couple can be undone by long buried secrets. The final shot, pushing in toward the great, distraught face of Rampling, is a doozy.
10. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Testament of Youth”: Two tender coming-of-age stories, worlds apart, led by tremendous newcomers. In the raw and sweet “Teenage Girl,” it’s Bel Powley, big-eyed and bright. In the more stately “Testament of Youth,” it’s Alicia Vikander, the nimble Swedish star who could have her own best-of list for 2016.
Honorable mentions: “Heart of a Dog,” ”Bridge of Spies,” “’71,” ”Mad Max: Fury Road,” ”Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” ”Going Clear,” ”Inside Out,” ”It Follows,” ”The Salt of the Earth”
1. “Mad Max”: Fury Road”: Just thinking about “Mad Max: Fury Road” makes my heart race. Director George Miller has created one of the greatest action films of all time, full stop, and out of a 36-year-old property too. It’s innovative, it’s riveting, it’s disarmingly simple. These post-apocalyptic renegades go for a drive, and come back. It is cinema at its best and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, played as loudly as possible.
2. “Clouds of Sils Maria”: “The intoxicating conversations and arguments between a middle aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her too-smart for the job assistant (Kristen Stewart) are the kind that we all wish we had. In director Olivier Assayas’ brilliant and atmospheric drama, the two women talk about art, life, aging, creativity, and even the utility of the lowbrow. Their chats, and fights, are both deep and sprawling, and stick with you long after the credits roll.”
3. “Ex Machina”: Director Alex Garland uses the constructs of a parlor drama to make this Artificial Intelligence slow-burner a thrilling and intense sci-fi spectacle, boasting big ideas, striking, stimulating visuals, and nuanced performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. It is fun, enthralling, and, at times, deeply unsettling.
4. “Tangerine”: Yes, it’s about transgender sex workers. Yes, it was shot on an iPhone. Forget the buzzwords, though. Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” is many things on paper, but on the screen it’s the most boisterous, alive movie of the year. Stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are naturalistic revelations.
5. “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter”: “Strange doesn’t begin to describe this truly spellbinding (and based on an urban legend) tale of a lonely Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who believes that the movie “Fargo” is real and travels across continents to find its buried treasure.
6. “Brooklyn”: There are some films that are so simple and so nice that they’re almost suspect. You want to dismiss them as schmaltz, as something lesser. But all you have to do is submit to the wonderful Saoirse Ronan as a girl in the early 1950s just figuring out what she wants in life — whether that means staying in her Ireland home or adventuring to the unknown in New York.
7. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”: It’s rare to see depictions of teenage sexuality depicted so honestly on screen, but director Marielle Heller, in her feature debut, found poignant, un-judgmental truth in telling the story of a girl (Bel Powley) who gets swept up in an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). The magic here is that it’s not exploitative or tawdry, but a poetic examination of the how, the why and the what comes after.
8. “Carol”: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deliver some of the subtlest, most elegant performances in recent memory in Todd Haynes’ exquisitely composed romance “Carol,” about a young shop girl and the housewife she falls for in 1950s New York.
9. “The Big Short”: Director Adam McKay finds the dark humor in the collapse of the housing bubble and the finance bros who bet against the livelihoods of many, using an all-star cast (Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt) and unconventional but completely effective filmmaking techniques, from breaking the fourth wall, to cutting to Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain mortgage bonds. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, pretty marvelously.
10. “Spy”: Melissa McCarthy can and should work with directors other than Paul Feig, but when they continue to churn out things as delightful as “Spy,” it’s easy to see why they hang on to one another. It’s not just that “Spy” is riotously funny. It’s a comedy that also has heart, story and a keen sense of genre, and it’s a perfect showcase for McCarthy, Rose Byrne and the unexpectedly hilarious Jason Statham.
Honorable Mentions: “The Hateful Eight,” ”Steve Jobs,” ”Spotlight,” ”The Mend,” ”Love & Mercy,” ”Sicario,” ”I’ll See You In My Dreams,” ”45 Years.”
Follow Jake Coyle on Twitter (and mock his choices) at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
Follow Lindsey Bahr at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr