Critical rankings of the best of 2015 in screen
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
As 2015 drew to a close, it became clear that this was a solid year for good movies — many from unexpected corners. Who knew, for instance, that studio-led crowdpleasers like The Force Awakens or Mad Max: Fury Road could convey touching moments amid the mayhem, or that a coming-of-age flick could make you re-examine the genre entirely.
We found comedy in global economic collapse, empathy inside the head of a tween girl, affection for a lesbian grandmother helping her granddaughter afford an abortion and survival of a bear attack feel as visceral as the real thing. Kudos, 2015 — you managed to keep us rapt.
10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The most authentic coming-of-age story in a while was this satisfying tearjerker without the cloying nature, about a teenager’s last year in high school, his chill but nerdy friend and the “good deed” they undertake that transforms them both. It’s a movie for film lovers … and just warm-hearted people in general.
9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A worthy successor to Episodes IV, V and VI — and a welcome palate-cleaner to the aftertaste of Episodes I, II and III — Jar-Jar Abrams (err…. J.J.) crafted the ideal fanboy sci-fi adventure with enough chick-flick updating to secure new converts. Part sequel, part remake, part pastiche, Episode VII reminds us that it’s still possible to be amazed and moved by supersaturated Hollywood entertainments. The Force is strong in this one.
8. The Big Short. By the time you wrap your mind around the thrust of this film — that its “heroes” are the savvy Wall Streeters who accurately predict the worst financial crash since the Great Depression (thus, their victory is our collective disaster) — you’re already too committed to rooting for them. Not that they are to blame: The damage caused by the greedy investment banks was all but irreversible anyway. Steve Carell’s quirky performance adds just the right jolt of Noo Yawky attitude, but co-writer/director Adam McKay proves comedies can be just as emotionally rich as dramas … it’s a comedy, right?
7. Mr. Holmes. The year’s best performance came from Ian McKellen, playing the (fictional) Sherlock Holmes as if he were, in fact, a real detective who gave up crime solving after one particularly fraught case. Set in the 1940s, and directed by Bill Condon, it’s a fascinating companion piece to Gods & Monsters, as a man on the brink of senility discovers — before it’s too late — hope and purpose.
6. Inside Out. What’s it like being a teenaged girl? No film, animated or live-action, has delved so smartly into that question as this Pixar instaclassic. While Inception was about forming an architecture in the world of dreams, Inside Out gives shape to the life of the subconscious mind with emotional resonance.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road. Six months before Star Wars introduced us to the female Jedi master Rey, George Miller intrigued us with his feminist Road Warrior epic, an eye-popping-yet-humane fossil-fuel burner that all but revived a long-latent franchise with intelligence but no lack of testosterone.
4. Tangerine. Director Sean Baker’s guerrilla indie — famously shot entirely on an iPhone 5 with a few cheap attachments — is more than its reputation as the “future of cinema” avatar would imply. He’s composed a deeply vibrant and entertaining look at two transgender prostitutes (newcomers Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) who live out and proud, no matter how hard it is … and still seem to come out on top in their own way.
3. The Revenant. Let’s just be clear: We are in an age where, if you can imagine it, a director can make it real … at least if that director is from Mexico. Following the Oscar directing wins for Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron and last year’s Birdman boss, Alejandro G. Inarritu, comes yet another stunner from Inarritu … and unlike Birdman (set almost entirely within the confines of a cramped Broadway theater), this one takes advantage of the expanse of Big Sky country circa 1830. Based on actual events, it features Leonardo DiCaprio as the survivor of a brutal and amazing bear attack, who manages to seek revenge on the turncoat (Tom Hardy, the most chilling villain of the year). It’s Moby-Dick in the snow, and never short of eye-popping.
2. Spotlight. Journalism has rarely been so provocatively and thrillingly portrayed as it is in Thomas McCarthy’s dissection of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the depths of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. A thinking-man’s thriller as compelling as The Silence of the Lambs (not to mention All the President’s Men), it’s a film that portrays heroism as a daily chore, elevated by Oscar-calibre work from Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber.
1. Carol. Todd Haynes’ period drama about the tentative but passionate relationship between two women in 1950s New York is certainly one of the best acted, written and directed dramas of the year … and by a nose its best overall film experience, full of detail, subtlety and elegance. Cate Blanchett is amazing, and Rooney Mara matches her emotional valley-and-hill equally.
Nos. 11–20: Iris; Bridge of Spies; Steve Jobs; Legend; Anomalisa; Infinite Polar Bear; Dope; Youth; A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Project; Grandma.
Memorable performances: The men: Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes; Mark Ruffalo bloviating affectionately through Infinitely Polar Bear; Jake Gyllenhaal amazing in the otherwise unwatchable Southpaw; Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs; Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in the retro Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies; Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber in Spotlight; Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in career-best work in Youth; Leonardo Di Caprio in The Revenant; Tom Hardy, stellar in both The Revenant and Legend; Eddie Redmayne as a transgender pioneer in The Danish Girl; Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation; Rick Springfield surprising everyone in the otherwise blah Ricki and the Flash. … The women: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol; Lily Tomlin in Grandma; Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in the disappointing Freeheld; Alicia Vikander in both Ex Machina and The Danish Girl; Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash; Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine; Amy Schumer in Trainwreck; Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years; Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
The worst: My Bottom 10
10. Trumbo and 9. Concussion (preachy “message” movies that never get off the ground … and feature surprisingly lame performances); 8. San Andreas (yet another silly disaster movie); 7. Spy (a “comedy” that never lets Melissa McCarthy loose); 6. Southpaw (this paw was way too heavy-handed) 5. Jupiter Ascending (the Wachowskis try for a comic sci-fi … but no one “got” the comedy); 4. Burnt (overbaked but underdone); 3. Ricki and the Flash (lame family dramedy); 2. Pawn Sacrifice (check and mate in this ponderous look at troubled chessmaster Bobby Fischer); 1. Fifty Shades of Grey (painful hokum … and not for the right reason).
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 25, 2015.