1. “Son of Saul.” Earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, Chaz Ebert hosted a panel in which she invited experts to interpret a line from Roger’s memoir, “Life Itself”: What did her late husband mean when he wrote, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy”? “Son of Saul” is perhaps the best possible answer anyone could give to that inquiry — a rare chance for audiences to experience the horrors of the Holocaust from the most conflicted perspective imaginable, that of a death-camp Sonderkommando. In this landmark artistic achievement, Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes presents an exercise of stylized subjectivity, in which we watch Saul’s face, as opposed to seeing through his eyes, discovering certain truths never before captured on film.
2. “Spotlight.” In 2002, a crack team of reporters at the Boston Globe blew the lid off the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse. Last year, John Michael McDonagh’s fearless “Calvary” sought bombastic atonement, while the best American film since, “Spotlight,” takes a far more measured approach, concentrating on the journalists who brought the conspiracy to light. It makes for a gripping procedural, a la “All the President’s Men,” and in many ways feels every bit as much a period movie, depicting an all-but-bygone era when American newspapers had the mission and means to launch such an investigation.
3. “Steve Jobs.” Divided into three high-stress backstage sequences, each set before a career-defining product launch, this blistering study of personal-computing icon Steve Jobs ends a full 13 years before the Apple co-founder’s death — an ironic choice, considering it was Jobs’ real-life demise that allowed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to do what even Orson Welles didn’t dare on “Citizen Kane,” honing in on a level of character detail that likely would have landed him in libel court. All told, Sorkin reveals an impresario who took credit for others’ inventions, before finding redemption in his one truly original creation: his daughter.
4. “Inside Out.” When the original Pixar team set out to make their first computer-animated feature, they picked toys because the plastic characters looked decent digitally at the time (the humans not so much). More than two decades later, the bewilderingly creative studio has reached a point where the only real limitation that remains is that of its imagination. And of all the films in the Pixar oeuvre, none better demonstrates the boundless potential of the medium better than this paradigm-changing coming-of-age story, as viewed from within the emotional core of an 11-year-old.
5. “Tangerine.” Not since “Die Hard” has L.A. seen this much action on Christmas Eve, though it’s a different sort on offer at the shameless, snowless intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, where naughty boys seek their jollies from chromosomally challenged working girls. For far too many years, trans characters have been the subject of derision and ridicule onscreen, though director Sean Baker passes no such judgment, collaborating with two trash-talking non-pros to deliver this irrepressible portrait of a highly unconventional friendship. Where “The Danish Girl’s” oh-so-tasteful angst begs acceptance, these ladies assert themselves by sheer force.
6. “Above and Below.” Delivering a cinematic essay every bit as profound as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” Swiss director Nicolas Steiner introduces us to five individuals all but disconnected from modern life, including a “homeless” couple who’ve constructed a makeshift love nest in the drainage tunnels beneath Las Vegas and a desert-dwelling U.S. Army veteran ready to quit her planet and colonize Mars. Although these are real people, Steiner’s approach — a masterpiece of montage, grounded in humanism — boldly challenges the so-called rules of documentary filmmaking, resulting in a kaleidoscopic group portrait of some of America’s most lonesome souls.
7. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Move over, L. Ron Hubbard. When it comes to for-profit sci-fi religions, George Lucas has you beat. And now the cult of “Star Wars” has a new high priest in J.J. Abrams, who so recently refreshed that other intergalactic obsession, “Star Trek.” But this is no reboot, and with Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” as his bible and fresh help from classic talents — stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, writer Lawrence Kasdan and composer John Williams — the fan-boy director delivers a thoroughly reinvigorated “Return of the Jedi,” every bit as satisfying as the Ewok jamboree that originally bore the name.
8. “The Martian.” Speaking of thrilling space operas, Ridley Scott has rebounded from two of the most disappointing movies of his career to deliver a fresh example of what he does best: sci-fi. This time, it all seems eminently plausible, thanks to Matt Damon’s down-to-earth performance and Drew Goddard’s geek-speak script, which manages to preserve both the unflappable optimism and the corny engineer humor of Andy Weir’s novel. At a moment when cynicism reigns, both in the real world and on the big screen (“The Revenant,” anyone?), this forward-looking rescue movie makes the case for intelligence, innovation and teamwork.
9. “Mustang.” Simultaneously the best and least “French” film in a year all but bursting with high-quality Gallic offerings, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut takes place in her native Turkey, but has been selected as France’s horse in the Oscar foreign-language race. Though many have compared her exuberant and unapologetically girly portrait — the pastel-hued tale of five independent-minded sisters who refuse to have their futures dictated by controlling relatives and arranged marriages — to Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” it’s the cultural context that sets “Mustang” apart, reminding that no matter the country, girls just wanna have fun.
10. “Mon roi” and “By the Sea” (tie). These two piercingly insightful relationship studies represent two sides of the same coin, both directed by high-profile actresses who dared to share incredibly personal stories inspired by their own life experience, only to have their efforts eviscerated by critics. A formidable multi-talent whom most French press refuse to take seriously, “Mon roi’s” Maiwenn works in an improvisatory style, nailing both the spontaneity and sincerity that American indie helmers have been so hard-pressed to manufacture. Given her stature, Angelina Jolie could make any movie she wants — or none at all — so it’s remarkable that a woman who values her privacy chose to reveal so much of herself and husband Brad Pitt. The result, “By the Sea,” represents the biggest artistic risk a celebrity couple has taken since “Eyes Wide Shut.”
The next 9 (in alphabetical order): “Anomalisa,” “April and the Extraordinary World,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Marguerite,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Mistress America,” “Petting Zoo,” “Room,” “The Summer of Sangaile”
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: “Black,” “The Brand New Testament,” “The Case of Hana and Alice,” “Evolution,” “Fidelio: Alice’s Journey,” “The Great Game,” “Homeland: Iraq Year Zero,” “Microbe & Gasoline,” “Snap,” “Two Friends”
(An earlier version of this list appeared in print before “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” had screened for press.)