It was a terrible year in the news. It was a very good year for film. I wish there were a correlation there — maybe next year we could hope for more flops — but at the very least it suggests that the movies remain an excellent place to hide from the world.
Except that the movies of 2015 seemed to actively engage our difficulties, either directly or metaphorically, and they held out teamwork as the best way, if not the only way, to come at the problem. This was a year of process onscreen — of stories about groups of individuals joining forces to pool resources and monkey-wrench solutions. Usually we like stories about lone heroes overcoming sharp odds, but there wasn't much of that: Of the year-end Oscar wannabes, only "Concussion" and "Bridge of Spies" play the game.
Instead, the most emblematic commercial hit of the past 12 months has been "The Martian," which is only partly about lone hero Matt Damon figuring out how to survive on a hostile Red Planet. It's really about the combined efforts of everyone on Earth to bring him back, with contributions coming from up and down and across the food chain of the world's scientific community.
"Spotlight" chose not to portray its Boston Globe journalists as dashing Woodward and Bernstein-style heroes but as unassuming worker bees fueled by curiosity and mounting outrage; Tom McCarthy's movie isn't about them, it's about what they uncovered. A movie like "The Big Short" is ostensibly about the handful of people who saw the financial meltdown of 2008 coming; it's actually about an accidental fellowship horrified by the big picture, by the greed and idiocy that sustain it. It's about process as chicanery, as theft, as the American way of business.
The theme cuts across genres: There are the angry young African-American men who become the rap group N.W.A in "Straight Outta Compton" by pouring their frustrations into studio microphones, processing fury into art and provocation and protest and career. A family film like "Inside Out" can dive deep into the brain of a preadolescent girl to see the squabbling cerebral factions within: It's process animated. An action extravaganza like "Mad Max: Fury Road" sets up its stalwart title figure only to have him absorbed into a small army of individuals, most of them battle-hardened women, improvising survival on the run.
"Creed" is a boxing movie — the seventh "Rocky," no less — but it dramatizes a moving collaborative effort between a young lion and an aging tiger. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" — already the most impressive moneymaker of 2015 — is more interested in a network of individuals contributing to a heroic whole, a process of active resistance. Even the year's big comic-book movie, "Avengers: Age of Ultron," is about six superheroes rather than one.
It's very possible that the new generation of television dramas, with their multiple characters and story lines unfolding across binged expanses of screentime, have become an influence on their big-screen cousins. It's just as possible that social media is imparting a sense of the many voices that can coalesce into a fractious mass, one that can push against and even devour itself but can also draw positive energy from its constituent parts and push forward to get things done. It may not be a coincidence that 2015 is also the year of a groundswell in popularity for alternative political candidates or that the Black Lives Matter movement became a template for a new era of protest, in the streets, in academia, and right there on our phones.
For me, the police video of Sandra Bland's arrest was the most important movie of 2015, a found object that revealed our innate urge to impose narrative order — or lies, as you will — onto the chaos of human reality. Next to that slice of ugly actuality, and all the others like it, a column about the "best movies of 2015" seems a shallow diversion. It is and it isn't. We use our arts and entertainments to hide from the world, obviously, but also to confront it and argue with it, to consider possible plans of attack and to commemorate how and when and why things went right and could go right again. At their most inspired and inspiring, movies themselves are a process, one in which we seek and, with luck, locate our own best selves.
I dithered about whether to put Tom McCarthy's quietly furious drama about how journalism happens and how a community comes to grips with its worst truths in my top spot for the year. For one thing, I'm biased as hell — I work with these people and am both astonished and a little freaked out by how well the Hollywood cast captures them. On the other hand, I'm hardly alone in my admiration for the way the actors and filmmakers keep their eyes on the ball, avoiding theatrics and Hollywood hero worship, acknowledging the characters' own blind spots and inviting us to wonder what separates civic and personal ignorance from a willful refusal to see. All arguments that the movie's so visually straightforward as to barely qualify as cinema will be heard, although the counter-argument is that McCarthy's anti-style fits "Spotlight" the way a pair of outdated dad-jeans fits a metro reporter. In the end, I'm more than happy to call this the best movie of the year because I'm from these parts and because I've been waiting my entire life for a Boston film that would address our particular sins of suspicion, divisiveness, and deference to clan. (The accents are pretty spot-on, too.) Is this the most honest movie yet made about the way things do and don't happen around here? It'll do until someone works up the nerve to make a major Hollywood drama about the busing crisis of the early '70s. Don't hold your breath.
For all the talk above about this year's cinema of crowdsourcing, the drama that most stunned me into silence was about a long-married couple and a ghost that unravels everything. I don't know that you'll see a subtler, more translucent performance than the one Charlotte Rampling gives as Kate, a cultured, complacent, upper-middle-class Englishwoman who slowly comes to realize her marriage to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) may be a sham — that she's who he settled for, not who he loved. Directed by Andrew Haigh from a short story by David Constantine, it's a film of refined surfaces beneath which emotions beat like panicked birds. The title reflects the years the two have been married; the number begins as a point of pride and ends up seeming like a curse. Three moments in particular may haunt you long after the movie ends: Kate at the slide projector, Kate at the piano, and — a final image worthy of Chekhov — Kate at the anniversary party, letting it all slip at last. (Opens in Boston on Jan. 22.)
From the sublime to the ridiculously fast, loud, and inventive. Action movies get little respect even from audiences that love them, and they're generally considered a young filmmaker's game. So here's to 70-year-old George Miller teaching the pups how its done in a brilliantly choreographed work of post-apocalyptic kinesis that all by its lonesome makes the case for franchise reboots. The title's a dodge, since Max (Tom Hardy, capably stepping into Mel Gibson's old shoes) is almost lost in the crowd and Charlize Theron turns the battered Imperator Furiosa into a warrior queen at the head of an improvised resistance. In its few quiet moments, this movie wonders what it takes to re-seed civilization and — deeper down and more subversively — why it seems man's inclination to destroy and woman's to rebuild. Moviegoers seeking dramatic depth are directed elsewhere; "Fury Road" is a testament to the endless pleasure of surfaces — of visual fields of stuntmen, stuntwomen, vehicles, projectiles, swaying stilts endlessly crisscrossing the screen in high-speed interference patterns. Almost all those stunts are real: Between this movie and the new "Star Wars," 2015 was the year analog triumphantly returned to the movie palace.
The brother you never met was killed by a death squad and the men responsible were never brought to justice. Decades later, you get a chance to query them about what happened. What do you ask? How do they respond? Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer followed his Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing" (2012) by returning to Indonesia — the site of a government-sponsored genocide in the mid-1960s that led to the deaths of more than half a million people — to hold the country's feet a little closer to the fire. His traveling companion is a modest ophthalmologist nicknamed Adi who fits the aging killers for new lenses and only then begins to ask them about the ways in which they tortured and murdered his brother Ramli. Oppenheimer has an eye for visual beauty and a knack for cornering his subjects until they have no choice but to acknowledge their actions or choke on them. "Look" is an unassuming masterpiece about calling a nation to account, and the best news is that it's changing the conversation in Indonesia itself.
Most unexpectedly, this was a year of great, rich, troubled performances by women: Rampling in "45 Years," Theron in "Mad Max," Bel Powley in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," Blythe Danner in "I'll See You in My Dreams," Alicia Vikander in everything. Standing shoulder to shoulder with them are Cate Blanchett as the chic, damaged yin and Rooney Mara as the naive, watchful yang of Todd Haynes's love story, a beautiful slow-motion swoon. A companion piece to Haynes's "Far From Heaven," the movie adapts the 1952 cult novel written (pseudonymously) by Patricia Highsmith into a dazzling portrait of a society in which everyone pretends to be someone else, and only the exiled, the lucky, or the damned see each other as they are. A visual and sonic rapture, "Carol" sends you out breathless with everything its characters aren't permitted to say.
A hard-to-watch but revelatory drama about heroin addicts on New York's Upper West Side, this little-seen miracle of indie filmmaking debuts one of those rare movie naturals in lead actress Arielle Holmes, a one-time junkie returning to her old haunts with eyes wide open. The film also marks the coming of age of the filmmaking Safdie brothers, Josh and Ben, BU graduates whose work takes a leap forward here in style and maturity. Made consciously in the shadow of earlier films on the subject — including 1970's "The Panic in Needle Park," an early Al Pacino movie shot in many of the same locations — "Heaven" appears formless but is actually rigorously composed, and its vision of an invisible street community and the city dwellers rushing by obliviously is both empathetic and unforgiving.
An epic ensemble entertainment that uses the solar system as a backdrop and Earth and Mars as main stages. The movie reminds us why we enjoy the company of Matt Damon — he seems like a mensch with above-average smarts and zero entitlement — but the greatest pleasure comes from the way director Ridley Scott organizes groups of people, bringing dozens of countervailing personalities to the solving of one rather large problem. Donald Glover in the conference room, Kristen
Wiig the only person not getting the Tolkien reference, Jeff Daniels's bureaucratic weariness — half of my favorite movie memories from 2015 are from this one film.
It's known as the micro-budget Sundance hit shot on an iPhone, trending like crazy because of its trans cast playing trans hookers. But all of that falls away once the film starts and you get caught up in the street corner farce of Sin-Dee (motormouthed Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), searching downtown LA in the heat of Christmas season for her pimp boyfriend who's had the nerve to hook up with a "real" woman. Raucous, rude, hilarious, and suddenly, out of nowhere, tremendously moving, Sean Baker's little-movie-that-could may be pound for pound the most entertaining movie of 2015. With Karren Karagulian mortifyingly funny as a cabdriver with a thing for lady-men and Mya Taylor the film's emotional rock as Sin-Dee's bestie Alexandra. Like the old ad says, try it, you'll like it.
Proper-thinking moviegoers haven't taken Sylvester Stallone seriously in, what, 30 years? So it's hard to talk people into going to see what, title aside, is actually "Rocky VII." Until you realize that director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, reteaming from "Fruitvale Station" (2013), are fans not of the franchise but of the very first "Rocky" — its gumption and grit, Philly realism and hard-earned sentiment. The movie cannily plays on our fondness for that 1975 Oscar winner and lets Stallone — who's truly touching — take over Burgess Meredith's old role. Plus the boxing sequences are smart rather than steroidal, and Tessa Thompson makes something vibrant and real out of the stock girlfriend role. As enjoyable as a certain science fiction blockbuster is at the moment, "Creed" may be the most emotionally resonant reboot of 2015.
A two-fer: A pair of tough, compassionate, ultimately hopeful dramas about girls in other corners of the world that deserve to be seen by audiences across the planet. In "Girlhood," writer-director Céline Sciamma dives into the unseen lives of African immigrant girls in Paris, focusing on the heart-stopping Karidja Touré as her character's skin hardens over the course of a year. There's a scene set to Rihanna's "Diamonds" that will stick with you forever if you give the movie a chance. Likewise, the five teenage sisters of "Mustang" — a sort of Turkish "Virgin Suicides," written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven — light up the screen with inner fire and outer rebellion that their family and society can only process as a threat. Both films mark advances for women behind the camera as well as in front. More than that, they're both good.
How strong a year was it in movies? My Honorable Mentions list, usually 5 to 10 titles strong, busts out to 19: "Anomalisa," "The Big Short," "Brooklyn," "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Diary of a Teenage Girl," "The End of the Tour," "Goodbye to Language," "In Jackson Heights," "Inside Out," "It Follows," "Leviathan," "Listen to Me Marlon," "The Mend," "Room," "Queen of Earth," "Shaun the Sheep Movie," "Son of Saul," "Straight Outta Compton." Here's where I put "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," too. As enormous as that movie is at the moment, culturally and in box office terms, as much as I enjoyed it and as happy as I am that — to quote a daughter's post-screening text — "this movie is as huge for me as ep 4 was for your generation," it relies a little too much on the Xeroxing of previous pleasures. Call this one "The Return of the Franchise" and hope J.J. Abrams is back with more daring and originality next time.