I'm not sure why this happened, but as I assembled this year's best-of list, I kept seeing matched sets: Two terrific desert movies, two swoon-inducing romances, two single-minded crusades by men who think they're already dead, and even a pair of riveting mortgage crisis flicks (and what are the chances of that?). The doubleness is a good organizing principle, since my 10-best list nearly always turns into a 20-best — so here goes:
Mad Max: Fury Road is a gorgeous, scrap-metal demolition derby — a popcorn picture with a surprising feminist twist: Tom Hardy's Max is more or less a sidekick to Charlize Theron's Furiosa.
Ridley Scott, meanwhile, makes conquering a desert on another planet downright cerebral. The Martian is about an astronaut accidentally left for dead by a crew that won't be able to get back to Mars for four years.
Anomalisa is about a motivational speaker who is convinced that everyone is the same, until he meets Lisa, who's an anomaly. This extraordinary film is the latest weirdness from Charlie Kaufman, who gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This time, his leads are puppets — figures in miniature with emotions writ grand.
Carol is another love story uncommonly told. Director Todd Haynes has adapted a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love that dared not speak its name in the 1950s — a love between two women. Lush and sumptuous, Carol is forever having its camera peer at these women through glass, mirrors and windshields, reflecting the way '50s society saw homosexuals while keeping them at a slight remove.
Pixar's Inside Out takes audiences literally inside the head of an 11-year-old girl by giving personalities to her emotions. And while Inside Out expresses everything its heroine is thinking, the tragedy 45 Years gives us Charlotte Rampling as a wife who keeps her feelings bottled up. So much so, that when a revelation shakes her marriage, the film could almost be called "outside in."
Both of these films feature men who risk everything because they figure they're already dead: Son of Saul's Saul because he's in Auschwitz, and The Revenant's 1820s fur trapper because he was left for dead by a man who also killed his son. Both of these films left me wrung-out.
Both of these films left me angry. I'd suggest you watch 99 Homes first. It'll have you seething about predatory real estate brokers. Then, once you've become acquainted with the ordinary folks who were the housing bubble's big losers, check out the guys who saw the crash coming and figured out how to profit from it in The Big Short. It plays like a comic heist flick, but this heist had real-world consequences.
Timbuktu chronicles the confusion in Mali when jihadists issue conflicting edicts about worship and culture. They ban music, for instance, which leads to this line in the subtitles: "They are singing in praise of God and the prophet. Should I arrest them?"
The Iranian film Taxi finds gentle comedy in a different set of contradictions: Internationally celebrated director Jafar Panahi is banned by his government from operating a camera, writing a script or directing a film. So what does he do? He drives a taxi with a camera on its dashboard, and lets Tehran's dramas come to him.
Spotlight is a sharply made newspaper procedural about a Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that documented not just sexual abuse by priests, but a cover-up by the Catholic Church.
The documentary The Salt of the Earth also turns a spotlight on horrors — this one through the exquisite black-and-white images created by photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado. Salgado makes the world face up to landscapes of famine, drought and war by finding humanity in scenes of despair.
Women have been having an extraordinary year in front of the camera, so it's fitting that in two of the year's best films they also excelled behind the camera. Both Phoebe Gloeckner, who penned the autobiographical graphic novel on which The Diary of a Teenage Girl is based, and director Marielle Heller contributed to giving that film a distinctly feminine teen outlook. And Amy Schumer's script for her riotous comedy, Trainwreck, about a woman who realizes she's been undervaluing both her feelings and herself, gave her hilarious performance authority as well as laughs.
And now that I'm tallying, let me mention some remarkable films that stood alone: Tangerine, a brash story about trans prostitutes shot on iPhone 5s; The Tribe, a wordless portrait of deaf juvenile delinquents; Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a little indie flick you might have heard of; and Love and Mercy, the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who struggled mightily with mental illness and played extravagantly with sound. I think about sound all day in my job, and Love and Mercy made me reconsider everything I thought I knew. Not bad for the 20th film in a year full of good vibrations.