I wasn’t planning to make a top 10 list this year, even though I’ve done it every year for over two decades. Didn’t see enough movies—I was too busy making my own. But in the past month, as we ramp up to the awards season, I’ve been playing catch-up. Now I’m curious to sort out which movies I loved among those that I liked. Which is tricky in this year of filmmaking rather than film writing—often it’s only by writing about a movie that I can figure out what I think of it.
But here goes. Breaking one year of abstinence from film criticism, I’ve made a list. I resisted the temptation to put my own film, Al Purdy Was Here, at the top of it. Here are the films I loved most among those I managed to see. There are an unusual number of documentaries, and tales of dire human suffering. But that’s the kind of year it’s been.
1. The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, his astonishing portrait of Indonesia’s genocide, is a rare cinematic feat: a personal film that frames a horrific inquiry with a transcendent beauty. The Act of Killing—a surreal exposé that had veterans of death squads re-enact their glory days—made history. The Look of Silence gives that history back to the victims.
2. The Big Short
Comedy gets short shrift at the Oscars, but this is a comedy with teeth, a diabolical merger between the lightning wit of writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman) and the pithy source material of the author who gave us Moneyball. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt lead an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders.
It’s hard to say what is the more incredible feat in this story of insane adventure on a Himalayan mountain called Meru—the attempt to scale an unclimbed peak aptly nicknamed the Shark’s Fin, or filming it with a spare hand. Meru is not just a mind-blowing mountain doc. It’s a great character piece, a portrait of three daredevil climbers, each with his own stranger-than-fiction backstory, including the film’s Zen-like director, Jimmy Chin. From the sidelines, Jon Krakauer, the film’s narrative sherpa, pushes the story home with incisive commentary.
Inspired the 2012 terrorist kidnappings in Mali, Mauritanian master Abderrahmane Sissako weaves music and landscape to create an eerily exquisite drama set in Saharan Africa. Told with disarming simplicity, it’s a story of terror that quietly emerges from stark beauty. The landscape seems to bear witness—improbable trees that rise from desert dunes, as vulnerable as the open tent of a cattle-herding family being circled by jihadist jackals.
It’s not a Canadian film, but it’s by a Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. Confident in the Hollywood harness with his second studio production, Villeneuve directs this thriller about the Mexican drug war with incredible panache. Although the story is grim and the violence extreme, his relish behind the camera is palpable. And the action is riveting—even if the heroine-cop played by Emily Blunt seems unfairly outstripped by Benicio Del Toro.
6. Son of Saul
Dramatizing the Holocaust is a moral and political minefield. With this astonishing feature debut, set at Auschwitz in 1944, Hungarian director László Neme sidesteps direct portrayal of atrocities by focusing the entire story on his protagonist, a Jewish prisoner who works at the crematorium and is trying to find a rabbi to bury his son. The horror around him remains blurred; we only hear it. It’s still hard to watch. But as the story of one man’s relentless quest for a glimmer of nobility, Son of Saul earns its right to be unforgettable.
7. Salt of the Earth
Like Timbuktu, this documentary memoir of legendary Brazilian photographer Juliano Ribeiro Salgado offers extreme visions of beauty and horror in unlikely co-existence, though both are more graphic. Co-directed by Salgado and Wim Wenders, the film charts the photographer’s global through heaven and hell, via epic black-and-white images that range from Amazon rainforest to African famine.
No, it’s not about the football team. It’s about actual rams—sheep in the wastes of Iceland. The shepherds are a pair of neighbouring brothers who haven’t spoken in 40 years, but are brought together by a disaster that threatens their flock. Writer-director Grímur Hákonarson spins this idiosyncratic yarn with such sly, deadpan grace you don’t see what’s coming. You think it’s just a tale of two coots, two wild and shaggy shepherds. Which makes the film’s ultimate emotional wallop that much stronger.
What’s great about this story of the Boston Globe blowing the lid off a massive scandal of pedophile priests is also what limits its greatness: aside from some flashes of overacting by Mark Ruffalo as an impetuous reporter, director Tom McCarthy doesn’t tart up the prosaic business of investigative journalism with a lot of phony movie drama. Which leaves us with a film that’s a bit, uh, prosaic—yet solid, intriguing and utterly credible. Like the best journalism.
10. Bridge of Spies
Mark Rylance should win the Oscar for his minimalist supporting role opposite Tom Hanks in a spy-vs-spy drama torn from the pages of Cold War history. With the Coen brothers chiming in as co-writers, the script has unusual wit and bite for a film by Spielberg, who shows he’s still got the right stuff. Even though he doubles down on sentiment in the end, Spielberg’s filmmaking shows extraordinary elegance and sweep, a grand visual style that was once called conventional but is now all too rare.
Some movies I also liked: Heart of a Dog, Ex Machina, Straight Outta Compton, Phoenix, 99 Homes, Room, The Forbidden Room, Sleeping Giant, Hyena Road.
Finally, in this weird year that had critics polarized between Carol and Mad Max: Fury Road, I’m unqualified to properly judge either. I saw Fury Road on an airplane, en route to present Purdy at the Whistler Film Festival. Sacrilege, I know. Without the big screen and sound, the pack of noise on the seat in front me made no sense. Much later that day, I sat through Carol at Whistler’s opening night gala. Tired and jet-lagged, I watched in a wayward trance, unable to tell if it was me or the film.