scr: Nick Hornby, from the novel by Colm Tóibín
cin: Yves Bélanger
Perfectly captures the bittersweetness of leaving home and everything you know behind for the first time; on the flip side, also perfectly captures how you don't realize how much you've changed until you return home. Love watching Saoirse Ronan's performance grow from an overwhelmed quiet to a more refined confidence. Indeed, the whole ensemble is engaging, realistic, from the giggly young boarders to gossipy Irish villagers. One of the great endings of the year.
dir: Todd Haynes
scr: Phyllis Nagy, from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
cin: Edward Lachman
Speaking of great endings, the last act of this one was one of the more pulse-pounding experiences I had in a theater this year. From Carol's words to Therese before their dinner's interrupted, all the way to the last shot. Everything before it is great, too. At one point, Therese asks a male would-be suitor, "How many times have you been in love?" This is the movie that perfectly captures that first love, the love that left you clammy-handed but more Yourself than anything before or after.
More stories of women, tales of despair, and fascinating true stories after the jump...
dir/scr: Céline Sciamma
cin: Crystel Fournier
There's a great scene in Girlhood where the members of a girl gang don their five-finger-discount dresses in a hotel room, and dancing and singing to Rihanna's "Diamonds". And in this moment, they're not gang members, but just teens having fun. This is a scene that's stuck with me, as it's the whole heart of the movie in one scene: our heroine (the incredible Karidja Toure) has little to no prospects, but finds solace with the role of gang member -- it gives her power and respect. But she's still just a teenage girl, trying to make it in the French projects. "Shine bright like a diamond," indeed.
dir/scr: Paul Weitz
cin: Tobias Datum
When a rawther conservative family member asked me about Grandma, I told them it was about a lesbian raising money for her granddaughter's abortion. Which, sure, yes it is. But is it not also about a woman scraping the barrel of her past to avoid her present, one in which a blossoming relationship was undone by her own remoteness? Choice lines, especially one scene where Lily Tomlin and Judy Greer hurl highbrow-academia insults at each other.
dir: David O. Russell
scr: David O. Russell, story by Annie Mumolo/Russell
cin: Linus Sandgren
A beautiful story of the American Dream, how one woman turned her life around by taking charge, finding a need -- a simple need -- and filling it. This is the best Jennifer Lawrence has been so far, aided by a great ensemble with the usual Russell Repertory Players, plus Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, and Edgar Ramirez. Everything is firing on all cylinders, from the narration to the music to the dreams and flashbacks. By the end, you're not sure whether to weep or high-five everyone in the room. Triumphant.
dir: Paul King
scr: Paul King, story by King/Hamish McColl, from the books by Michael Bond
cin: Erik Wilson
Charming, clever, and accessible for all ages without any "winking" humor or cloying sentimentality. The filmmakers took it seriously, and so we take it seriously, that a talking bear from Darkest Peru would come to live with, and perhaps even accepted by, a typical family. Ben Whishaw's pleasantly innocent voice is perfect for Paddington, Hugh Bonneville gives one of the best comic performances of the year. And my goodness, the visual wit, from ever-changing wallpaper to the taxidermist's back office!
dir: Tom McCarthy
scr: Tom McCarthy/Josh Singer
cin: Masanobu Takayanagi
Perfect. Holds back from the histrionics (except one scene, but that's fine), allowing the full impact of the Catholic cover-up of pedophile priests to creep in, a feeling as chilling as the actions were appalling, insidious. Such control, while still able to get your blood boiling, is rare. And it's like this on every front: music, performances, editing, cinematography, all operating with an undercurrent of patient fury.
dir: Danny Boyle
scr: Aaron Sorkin, from the biography by Walter Isaacson
cin: Alwin H. Küchler
How can one make a potentially stagey premise -- three stages of Steve Jobs' life as seen in the minutes before three product launches -- into pure cinema? It's in the music, the editing, the rhythms, that rum-pum-pum of a beating heart, the nervous energy that anyone would experience before A Big Day. Slows down for the right moments, like the Act Two confrontation between Steve and Sculley. A great ensemble, too.
dir: Sean Baker
scr: Sean Baker/Chris Bergoch
cin: Sean Baker/Radium Cheung
A scream! Reminding me of early John Waters, here comes this micro-budgeted film, shot on iPhones (!), about transgender prostitutes in LA on Christmas. Some subplots surprise -- one in particular implicitly brings up culture, masculinity, sexual fluidity, and the unspoken secrets of a marriage. But let's be real, I loved more the main plot that sees the vengeful Sin-Dee hunting down her pimp boyfriend for cheating on her with "real fish". Foul-mouthed and funny.
dir: Lee Joon-ik
scr: Cho Chul-hyun/Lee Song-won/Oh Seung-hyun
cin: Kim Tae-kyung
Dives deep into the personal and political challenges of a Royal Family, in this case Korea's King Yeongjo and his son Sado. It's a unique take on the relationship between fathers and sons, and how a rigid system of traditions and expectations can destroy a family, even as it maintains an empire. Song Kang-ho's performance as the stern king is great -- one haunting line-reading near the end becomes a strangled cry of remorse and regret.
18 movies almost made it to this list. They are: 45 Years, The Age of Adaline, The Beauty Inside, Best of Enemies, Chi-Raq, Creed, Inside Out, It Follows, Love & Mercy, Our Brand is Crisis, Magic Mike XXL, The Revenant, Spy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Straight Outta Compton, Twenty, What We Do in the Shadows, Youth