Despite an incredibly lackluster summer movie season, 2015 nonetheless produced ten movies that stand out. Running the gamut from science fiction/action to period dramas, both based on fact and fiction, this critic’s ten best are a mixed bag. Starting with ten and counting down to number one, the best of the year are:
The fact of the matter is they don’t give Oscars for stunt work. “Mad Max: Fury Road” singlehandedly presents an eloquent argument that perhaps they should. Aussie action auteur George Miller, who created the original “Mad Max” trilogy that launched Mel Gibson’s career, has raised the bar for automobile action sequences with a movie that hits like a runaway 18-wheeler. Tom Hardy effectively takes over the title role, but it’s Charlize Theron who dominates a surprisingly pro-feminist movie. The only summer blockbuster of 2015 that really delivered the goods, Miller’s movie makes the “Fast & Furious” movies look a bumper car ride. Extremely loud, frenetically fast-paced and relentlessly intense, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future that grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck at the first frame and provides no let-up until the end credits roll.
“Joy” reunites the juggernaut team of writer/director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro and the results, predictably, glow in the dark. Lawrence is completely Oscar-caliber as a young single mother whose family, including her ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez) are all financially dependent on her and driving her crazy. Her brainstorm for a new, nearly wring-free mop has the potential to change all their lives for the better, if everyone would just stop screwing it up with lousy advice and worse ideas. Russell’s direction here is a master class in filmmaking.
“Amy” director Asif Kapadia tells the story of six-time Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse largely in her own words. Featuring extensive unseen archival footage and previously unheard tracks, this strikingly modern and moving documentary paints a painfully intimate portrait of a massively talented and massively troubled artist. In addition to broadcast interviews, Amy Winehouse’s voice is also heard in recordings that were not intended for public airing and even telephone voicemails. The story is also told through Winehouse’s own lyrics, which appear on screen throughout the film, either as subtitles or sometimes glimpses of the singer/songwriter’s own handwritten notebooks. That device might have might have come off as hackneyed, but actually underscores Winehouse’s talent as a surprisingly sophisticated lyricist for so young a songwriter. In an early interview we hear Winehouse make the claim that she couldn’t write anything that wasn’t personal to her. Intimate, powerful and heartfelt, “Amy” will break your heart while giving you new appreciation for a deeply troubled artist who died too soon. No getting away from it – none of us really knew this story. None of us knew it at all.
“Dope” is a vibrant, energetic, entertaining and highly original coming of age story, gangsta-style. This is the fourth movie from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (“Our Family Wedding”), and this time he’s really established himself as a cinematic stylist to be reckoned with. The future of 21st century filmmaking is starting to look bright indeed. “Dope” could simply have been another self-consciously cool Hollywood coming of age comedy, but it’s far more individual and authentic than that. Famuyiwa interweaves humor and horror with a sure-handed dexterity that astonishes as readily as it entertains. It would be difficult to recall a recent movie in which genuine comedy coexists so effortlessly with the shock of sudden violence, which here, as on the streets, often happens with no warning.
In 1952, when Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” was first published, a lesbian romance was sufficiently shocking that the up and coming author of mainstream, psychological thrillers like “Strangers on a Train” published it under a pseudonym. That was then. In the modern, post-”Will and Grace” era, the concept is mundane. There is, however, nothing mundane about Todd Haynes’ movie adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” “Carol.” Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have not retained Highsmith’s original title, but they have retained the Eisenhower Era setting, and that is central to this remarkable movie’s considerable artistic success. Haynes is remarkably analytical with ardour, though not in a chilly, Kubrickian manner. The screenplay is sparse with dialogue and sparser still with over the top dramatic flourishes. He and his go-to director of photography Ed Lachman are lavish with angles that would not be out of place in a film noir, shadow and color. Unconventionally shot in Super 16 mm, “Carol” achieves a realist look in muted, but deep, tones and hues.
Not a conventional biopic (thank God), “The End of the Tour” recreates five days spent with David Foster Wallace by “Rolling Stone” writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), twelve years before Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46. “The End of the Tour” never loses sight of the fact that Wallace died too young, and by his own hand. So completely does Segel disappear into the role of David Foster Wallace, a writer who is widely considered the Hemingway of his generation, that you forget this is an actor primarily known for lightweight comedy, and completely accept that you’re in the company of a literary genius. This is certainly Segel’s best work since “Freaks and Geeks,” and possibly his best work ever. Occasionally an interview of a famous person will have a moment where some aspect of the subject’s inner self is revealed in a sudden, light bulb moment of clarity, not necessarily in response to a question. Just as occasionally a relationship with another person presents a moment where a person we know is unexpectedly laid bare to us. “The End of the Tour” is filled with moments like that.
Ironically timed against a current resurgence of the immigration debate, “Brooklyn” follows the journey, literal and figurative, of Eilis (Saoirise Ronan), a young Irish woman who emigrates to the United States in the 1950s. The streets of America may not paved with gold, but Eilis does find opportunity, and romance, and begins to blossom as an individual. She meets and falls for Tony (Emory Cohen), a young plumber from a large, thoroughly Americanized Italian family. Complications arise when a family tragedy calls Eilis back to the old country for a month long visit, where she catches the eye of local rugby clubber Jim (Domhnall Gleason). Movies seldom rise above their script. In this case, it’s a matter of keeping up. The screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “Fever Pitch”) is smart, literate, sensitive and even funny. The plot of “Brooklyn” may not be particularly groundbreaking, but its heart and intelligence resonate deeply. It’s not even a new question to ask whether or not you can go home again, but it’s done with surprising nuance here. “Brooklyn” is a deceptively simple story about deceptively complex human emotions.
“Creed,” the first spinoff from the venerable “Rocky” series, is one of the most entertaining and exciting movies of the year. Stallone reprises his signature role with a deeply nuanced and understated humility, but in fact, this entry actually centers on Apollo Creed’s out-of-wedlock son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). Exciting, moving, sometimes humorous, this movie, modestly budgeted by modern Hollywood standards, is the first “Rocky” movie to really evoke the emotional response of the Capra-esque original since the original.
There is absolutely no way “The Big Short” should work. The 2008 economic meltdown is not well-understood to begin with, and making a big Hollywood movie about something that most people don’t understand just doesn’t seem feasible. And to make it a comedy…? Filmmakers who have approached the subject so far have tried various, predictable approaches, like a documentary (“Inside Job”) or a drama (“Margin Call”). Director Adam McKay, best known for helming a number of Will Ferrell movies has taken another tack altogether. “The Big Short” is a post-modernist farce, fueled by Red Bull. When it’s done, you’re likely to feel like your brain hurts, accompanied by a sense of outrage at the banking and securities industries that let this happen. “The Big Short” is practically an incitement to riot, but it’s an awfully entertaining one.
Steven Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster – remember “Jaws?” But he’s only gotten better. “Bridge of Spies,” like “Lincoln,” shows us Steven Spielberg as a mature filmmaker at the height of his powers, and an artist entranced with Americana. Are we witnessing a cinematic version of Carl Sandburg? The comparison is invited by some of the director’s recent works. Certainly no other filmmaker is making a late career out of such riveting dramatic works out of American history. Tom Hanks shines as the most likeable screen lawyer since Atticus Finch, first defending an accused Soviet spy during the height of the Cold War, and then helping broker a prisoner swap. Mark Rylance is scene-stealer as the accused spy.