In this stark, German-language horror film nestled deep in the Austrian countryside, identical twin boys become convinced their bandaged and mysterious mother is not who she says she is. What follows is a kind of Home Alone nightmare, if Kevin's mother were the burglars, if Kevin drowned a cat in a fish tank and left it on the table as a terrible omen, and if there were two of him.
Other standout horror/sci fi this year: It Follows, Ex Machina, Crimson Peak.
It's a weird world when the best action film of the year is also among the most feminist. Mad Max gets the title, but it's Imperator Furiosa's story, and I think we all know the answer to the repeated rhetorical, "Who ruined the world?" In my original review I wrote, "[Dir. George] Miller has kept up with technological advances in film and has the good sense to ignore a lot of it in favor of practical effects. He understands that CGI works for making an amputee but looks cartoonish for car crashes." Maybe he should direct the next Star Wars! Give it a hard R.
The second best feminist film award goes to Carol, Todd Haynes' inspired melodrama about women in love in the stifling culture of the 1950s.
In the opening minutes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's feel-bad romp, a man gets shot through the neck with an arrow and we watch his lifeless body fall into an open fire—and this is among the film's most merciful deaths. The Revenant features long, uninterrupted shots—using natural light in unforgiving locations—of events so extraordinary it's still unclear to me how the hell they pulled it off. The doltish film critic Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere infamously wrote, "The Revenant is an unflinchingly brutal, you-are-there, raw-element immersion like something you've never seen. Forget women seeing this." I agree up until the end, but how soon Wells forgets: It's a lady grizzly who tears a hole in Leonardo Dicaprio's jugular.
Brie Larson will certainly get an Oscar nomination for her visceral turn as the girl who was kidnapped at 17-years-old and kept locked in a shed for more than seven years with a child born out of rape. It's bad, but hey, they make the best of it, and when they eventually escape and are let back out into the world, the movie unfurls into unexpected and deeply satisfying psychological waters.
Second best thriller: Joel Edgerton's The Gift, a film that toes the line between cliché and something wholly unfamiliar.
Tom McCarthy's film features the best ensemble cast of the year in a story about The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sex scandals within the Catholic church. The movie gets the newsroom details just right, as many have said, but it's also so smart and compassionate about the church's many victims, the human compulsion to maintain the status quo and its devastating consequences.
Other great films this year include The Look of Silence, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Heart of a Dog, Tangerine and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some notable films I regretfully couldn't see in time for deadline include Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
And finally, 2015's worst cinematic experience belongs to Sean Penn in The Gunman, his awful pecs, and those 115 minutes I can never get back.