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Pete's Top Movies of 2015

Pete picks his favorite movies of the past year, and predicts who will win big at the Oscars on February 28

2015 offered a solid year at the movies.

There were so many nice surprises: We had the best Mad Max movie since 1982, the best Star Wars movie since 1980, and we got to see Leonardo DiCaprio get mauled by a bear. Not bad.

Then again, there was the night I spent Valentine’s day by myself, live tweeting Fifty Shades of Grey at the Concord drive-in. That seemed like a better idea in theory than it actually played out.

When I went to applaud my very favorite films of the past year, I had to whittle down a master list of 35 movies that I liked quite a bit. There were lots of near-misses—I thought The Revenant was visually stunning and extremely well produced, but the drag factor kept it off my best of. And Star Wars: the Force Awakens was a laser blast to the seven-year-old inside me who saw the original Star Wars at Walnut Creek's Festival Cinemas, but it was just a tad too referential to the the original trilogy to stand on its own as a best of the year (still, thank you JJ Abrams for making Star Wars fun for adults again). I still need to see Oscar nominees 45 Years and Son of Saul and a few others, but I can't get to everything before The Oscars are held February 28. Until then, here’s my list of the best movies from the past year and my predictions for what will win big on Oscar night.


  1. Ex-Machina
    I saw writer-director Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller early in the year and wondered if I would see a better film all year. 2015 wound up being a strong year at the cinema, but nothing quite matched the experience I had watching this creepy, cautionary tale set in a near future world affected by artificial intelligence and technology addiction. Featuring a terrific cast (Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason, who also showed up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Alicia Vikander, Oscar-nominated for her part in The Danish Girl), stunning Oscar-nominated effects, and a terrific, twisty original screenplay by Garland (also Oscar-nominated), Ex-Machina is mind-bending cinema of the highest order.
  2. Anomalisa
    Charlie Kaufmann’s marvelous stop-motion animated film made a late season run for the top spot on my list. I’ll always give props to a project that makes such an effort to be different, but Anomalisa goes beyond quirky curiosity in its deep, probing examination of love in the age of Expedia reservations. This was the only film I saw this year that I wished had been longer—I can’t wait to see it again.
  3. Spotlight
    This riveting true story about the Boston Globe’s investigative report on its city’s Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal will likely win the Best Picture Oscar, which would be a well-deserved honor. An ensemble cast featuring Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber and Oscar-nominated Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams perfectly handles the material in director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay (likely to win in the Best Original Screenplay category). One of cinema’s great journalism movies (along with Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole are also on that list.), Spotlight provides searing proof that an independent press—and well-funded investigative journalism—are of crucial importance in a healthy society.
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road
    A sentimental favorite—I watched director George Miller’s original Mad Max movies with my dad back in the 1980s, and took him to see Fury Road on his birthday in May—this jaw-dropping spectacle shot up the shortlist of the greatest action movies of all time when it dazzled critics and audiences this summer. It’s an amazing visual experience from start to finish, the fastest two hours you’ll ever spend in a theater. Miller’s visionary, post-apocalyptic masterpiece was aided by great performances by Nicholas Hoult, Tom Hardy (replacing Mel Gibson as the titular Max), and especially by Charlize Theron as Imperartor Furiosa, one of the great feminist action icons in cinema history. I’m hoping the next film in this supercharged series focuses even more on Furiosa, she’s the shit.
  5. Beasts of No Nation
    This searing drama, set in an unnamed African country torn apart by civil war, is not easy to watch. But, wow, what a film. East Bay-raised director Cary Fukunaga adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about child soldiers, casting first-time actor Abraham Attah to great effect in a lead role. The movie does not shy from showing the horrors that child soldiers endure, but does so with empathy and understanding of their experience, and the result is mesmerizing.

    Oscar’s most unforgivable snub this year was not recognizing Idris Elba in the Best Supporting Actor category for his unforgettable portrayal as the Commandant, the monster who recruits innocent children, brainwashes them, and makes them killers. It’s an amazing performance, somehow deeply humane yet diabolical.

    Fukunaga (who I profiled in the January issue of Diablo) also shot the film, and his photography of Ghana deserves to be seen on the widest screen possible. Most viewers, however, will see the movie on Netflix—the streaming service released the movie in theaters and on its digital platforms at the same time. The film reminded me of the experience I had as a teenager watching Oliver Stone’s Platoon, embedded on a horrific cinematic journey through battlefields and the madness of war, eventually coming out of the theater with a deeper understanding of the human experience.
  6. Sicario
    Denis Villenueve’s sizzling drug cartel thriller should have picked up a Best Picture nod, but was lost in the shuffle of late season contenders like The Revenant. It’s too bad, because Sicario is such a provocative nail-biter, featuring outstanding performances by Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro as agents in the U.S. murky war against Mexican drug cartels. There is a scene late in Sicario that still haunts me; it’s a night vision tour of a drug tunnel just across the border. Incredibly tense and impeccably crafted by genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, the sequence ranks with the year’s best sequences in any movie.
  7. Room
    I was extremely moved by this mesmerizing story about a young woman who has spent the past five years held captive in a backyard garden shed, where she raises her young son—the offspring of her abductor. Eerily similar to the real life story of Jaycee Dugard (Dugard was kidnapped in South Lake Tahoe at age 11, remained missing for 18 years, and was found held captive, with two daughters, in the backyard shed of Antioch resident Philip Garrido in 2009), Room is creepy and intense and deeply moving. Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (who adapted her own novel) earned Oscar nominations, and Northern California native Brie Larson is an almost certain lock to win for Best Actress. Equally impressive is the amazing child actor Jacob Tremblay who gives a wise-beyond-years performance—I would have rather seen Tremblay nominated than Christian Bale (The Big Short) or Tom Hardy (The Revenant), as the young actor’s entirely believable performance is so much more crucial to Room’s success than Bale’s or hardy’s were for their films.
  8. The Big Short
    This adaptation of Berkeley author Michael Lewis’ best-selling examination of the housing market bubble burst that led to the worldwide financial catastrophe of 2007 was one of the year’s great surprises. Director Adam McKay, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, does wonders with the material by presenting it as a pitch-black comedy. Christian Bale received the only acting nomination, but he’s part of a spectacular cast—Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and a range of supporting players are all terrific in the film. McKay’s decision to present this incredibly confusing material as a screwball farce works brilliantly, the movie is wildly entertaining from start to finish, but its final message is appropriately infuriating.
  9. Bridge of Spies
    Director Steven Spielberg re-teams with star Tom Hanks in this fascinating true story, a Cold War spy thriller that feels like it could be the complex fiction of John LeCarre. Hanks is marvelous in the role that James Stewart would have played if the film had been made in the late 1950s, while acclaimed stage actor Mark Rylance is unforgettable as a captured Russian spy with a strict code of ethics. Quiet, tense and thoughtful, this immaculately produced film is reminiscent of great Otto Preminger films (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent)—intelligent entertainment for adults, something we could use more of at the cinema these days.
  10. Carol
    The prolific author Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had to use a pseudonym to publish The Price of Salt, the 1952 novel about an affair between a New York socialite and a Manhattan shopgirl. Six decades later, director Todd Haynes adapts this love story with exquisite style, pointing the camera at two actresses at the absolute top of their game. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara earned Oscar noms for their rich, emotional, sensual performances as Carol and Therese; equally good is Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband Harge. Similar in production detail to Bridge of Spies, Carol is one of the year’s most beautifully detailed films.
  11. The Hateful Eight
    Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour locked room mystery, set in a snow blizzard, doesn’t reach the gifted writer-director’s top shelf, the way Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds did. Still, any Tarantino film is smarter, funnier, and more wildly entertaining than most movies, and there’s plenty to love here: Samuel. L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh delivering Tarantio’s patented dialogue, legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s horror film score, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s widescreen lensing. Make sure to see the film (key word: film) in its 70 mm format at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. The historic venue is showing the expanded “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, complete with musical overture, intermission, and program.
  12. The Gift
    I always like to include the year’s best genre films on my best of list, in addition to the Oscar bait. One of my favorite “B-pictures” was this thriller from writer-director-co-star Joel Edgerton, a creepy revenge/stalker movie that feels like it’s going in a Fatal Attraction direction, but keeps throwing curveballs until the final scene.
  13. What We Do in the Shadows
    Many filmgoers picked Trainwreck as the year’s best comedy. I lean toward Shadows, the Spinal Tap of vampire movies. This faux documentary comedy from New Zealand plays with the idea of reality show that follows four immortal bloodsuckers living in a suburban home together. Jemaine Clement, of the brilliant HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords, stars and co-directs this comic gem which feature easily the biggest laugh of the year, the after-effects of a recently changed vampire attempting to eat chips.
  14. Trumbo
    Last February, we showed Roman Holiday as the Valentine’s selection in our free classic movie series at the Orinda Theatre. The 1953 charmer tells a sweet story about Audrey Hepburn’s princess making sparks with Gregory Peck’s American journalist. The film won Oscars for Hepburn, costumer Edith Head, and for original screenplay—but the writer, Dalton Trumbo, could not put his name on the project because he was blacklisted due to his political affiliations.

    Trumbo takes an old-fashioned approach to telling this inside Hollywood story about a very dark chapter in 20th century America. Some found the film to be corny, and I went in with low expectations, but came out deeply satisfied. As old-fashioned as Trumbo is in its visual style, the troubling story of censorship and freedom-trampling government is particularly relevant when considering some of the philosophy of some of the 2016 presidential candidates. Oscar nominated Bryan Cranston gives a rich performance as the prolific writer, and heads a wonderful cast featuring solid work from Louis CK, John Goodman, Diane Lane, and a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
  15. Straight Outta Compton
    It would have been nice to see surprise smash biopic about groundbreaking rap group N.W.A. receive a Best Picture nomination, but Straight Outta Compton had to make due with a screenplay nomination. It’s a gripping movie that has one of the strongest first scenes of any movie this year. Packed with great music, Straight Outta Compton lags a little bit in its final third but still ranks as one of the year’s best for its entertaining and convincing portrayal of its subjects as some of the most influential musicians of the past thirty years.

Oscar Nominations: What Will Win, What Should Win
This year's Oscar nominations intersect with many of my favorite movies of the year. The big story following the nominations was the lack of diversity in the nominees—the snub of Idris Elba in the Best Supporting Actor category is ridiculous. Of the nominees, I'll guess at what will win and what I would pick it it were just up to me.

Best Picture
What Will Win: Spotlight
What Should Win: Spotlight

Best Director
Who Will Win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Who Should Win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actress
Who Will Win: Brie Larson, Room
Who Should Win: Brie Larson, Room

Best Actor
Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Who Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Supporting Actress:
Who Will Win: Rooney Mara, Carol
Who Should Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight (and Anomalisa)

Best Supporting Actor
Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Who Should Win: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Best Original Screenplay
Who Will Win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
Who Should Win: Alex Garland, Ex-Machina

Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Will Win: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short
Who Should Win: Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation

Best Animated Feature
What Will Win: Inside Out
What Should Win: Anomalisa

Best Cinematography
Who Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Who Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant or Robert Richardson for The Hateful Eight

Best Musical Score
Who Will Win: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Who Should Win: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight