The pursuit of nostalgia may have hit critical mass as a trend in the films of 2015. Whether we are looking at the resurrection or reconfiguration of decades-old pop film franchises like the Star Wars, Mad Max, James Bond, and Rocky series, the (sometimes more, sometimes less successful) big-screen relaunchings of classic TV favorites like the Peanuts characters and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., reverent tributes to the music of Brian Wilson or the heady days of the iMac launch, melancholy ruminations on the fragile genius of the World’s Greatest Detective, or Quentin Tarantino’s return of the boldly old-school 70mm Cinerama “roadshow,” this year’s cinema tended to look back a lot more than it looked forward.
The Walt Disney Company released a movie called Tomorrowland and received what could fairly be called a genial shrug of indifference, while the same studio’s decidedly “retro” continuation of George Lucas’ celebrated space opera just became the fastest-to-a-billion box-office behemoth whose canny marketing will be aped (in vain, mostly) by others for years to come.
This year’s talked-about indie chiller It Follows made horror hip again by channeling the spirit of Halloween shock maestro John Carpenter; a ragged VHS tape (remember those?) of the Coen Brothers’ classic film Fargo set a young Japanese woman on a haunting and humorous treasure hunt; Spike Lee’s latest ambitiously used an ancient Greek play to tell a cautionary and satirical tale of our violent modern times; and in one unforgettable documentary, the late, legendary actor who changed movie acting appeared to us as if reborn, thanks to the existence of self-recorded audio tapes we had never heard before.
The usual rap on modern-day movies is that originality is as extinct as the dinosaurs that helped catapult the fourth Jurassic Park movie into the box-office stratosphere, but that complaint is itself tired and worn out. Mostly you’ll hear it from cynics who “love” movies but generally restrict themselves to the most mainstream of multiplex fare—never going the slightest bit out of their way to take in offbeat films like Charlie Kaufman’s strange and touching stop-motion animated drama Anomalisa (if I explain to you how to pronounce that I’d be giving you a spoiler) or bad-boy director Gaspar Noé’s sentimental 3D porn film (Yes: Those words don’t typically belong together!) called Love.
The same folks who lament they “don’t make ’em like they used to” (oh, how I grew to loathe that complaint at my former online home) will disparage the Marvel Comics movies as some sort of fresh blot on cinema history but fail to see them for what they really are—a massively more expensive (and expansive) evolution of the gloriously fun and popular Saturday afternoon serials of old. We’ll hear about how movies are dumb from many a professional or amateur movie critic, but those same people would be ignoring the success of Ridley Scott’s wonderfully nerdy The Martian, or perhaps steering clear of a lacerating film like The Big Short because they won’t like its politics or because the subject matter is simply too dense for easy discussion.
I wouldn’t want to see every year in movies as focused on the past, but you also won’t hear me complaining about it or making any kind of ridiculous indictment of the industry over it. I might have been a little nonplussed about how Sam Mendes wrapped up his distinguished caretaking of the 007 films with the long-awaited return of Bond’s most famous foe, for example, but many of my top picks this year are more than representative of the success I feel films this year had with treating historic matters of style and substance as entertaining and even relevant to our present and our future.
Counting down my Top 10 Movies of 2015 now from 10 to 1:
10. Love & Mercy
First thing’s first: I have to confess that I’m no devoted fan of Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. Not because I actively dislike the music, but because I simply never happened to pursue any knowledge or enjoyment of them.
After viewing this small-scale but largely ambitious biopic of Wilson—portrayed in his youth by Paul Dano and in middle-age by John Cusack—I’d also have to admit that I wasn’t exactly compelled to rush out and buy a copy of Pet Sounds, but this affecting film about the relationship between creativity and madness was certainly powerful enough to open me up to the possibilities of lowering my general but dispassionate resistance to doo-wop style tunes. Dano is getting most of the press for his work in the film, and he’s terrific, but I’d put Cusack’s quieter contributions on an equal footing. Also deserving of much praise is the performance of the still-underappreciated Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s wife and manager—the woman whose strength and compassion saves a troubled man from emotional ruin.
9. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
A story arose around the 2001 death of a young Japanese woman whose body was found in a Minnesota field, suggesting that she had mistaken the events of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy Fargo as real, and that she had come to America in a desperate search to locate the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow.
As it turned out, she had “simply” committed suicide. This haunting and weirdly humorous film made about that urban legend could have been thin or unrewarding if it were only “about” how it and the Coens’ film messed about with reality and fiction, but the real value of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter lies in its potent and poetic exploration of human loneliness and the mysterious qualities of mental illness. Rinko Kikuchi, whose star began to rise with her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in the 2006 film Babel, is mesmerizing in the the title role; she took a turn towards big-budget fare with the giant-monster mash Pacific Rim, and certainly deserves to see more giant paychecks and showcase parts.
Spike Lee’s got a lot of nerve making a movie like Chi-Raq…and by “a lot of nerve,” I mean it’s hard to think of another filmmaker today who would be ballsy enough to turn the classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata”–about women withholding sex to persuade men to end their warlike ways—into a modern-day, quasi-musical exhortation on the plague of 21st-century urban gun violence and the potential of female empowerment to end it.
Deliberately preachy but potent all the same, Lee’s latest “joint” attacks both thug culture and the American firearms fetish—its satire swinging so hard and creatively for the bleachers that, every once in a while, in the midst of all the (yes, very very funny)“nappy dugout” humor, it threatens to look trivial or foolish…right before it punches you in the gut, over and over, with soul-shearing force. The child in the street; the sermon by John Cusack; Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata proclaiming the destiny of all women; Nick Cannon’s tears.
The movie even comes close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for a split second, right at the very very end. Lee does something with the soundtrack that is, I think, supposed to make your heart skip a beat. Like I said, he’s got some stones. Lee’s Chi-Raq is totally alive as a work of imaginative filmmaking and (sadly) more than relevant to think about right now.
I became an instant Brie Larson fan after Short Term 12, the tough-but-sensitive film in which she played the supervisor of a group home for troubled teens; she’s the caretaker of a much younger child in this adaptation of the 2010 Emma Donoghue novel about a woman held captive and the young boy who knows of no other world than the cramped space he was born inside. While Larson’s character is terrifyingly aware of their dire predicament, she aims to protect her child from the horrors of their situation by indulging his belief that their entire universe exists only within the dingy confines of their captor’s homemade prison. How the truth comes to be known to the boy and how his mother adjusts to that new reality fuels the fire of this involving indie drama.
The movie is narrated by the young boy (just as the novel is told from his point of view), and there were times I resisted this device and felt above it somehow, as if it were too “movie of the week” for my taste—but the film was just too accomplished and intriguing to let that kind of snark hold full sway. Larson’s performance is persuasive, and I’d be happy to see her win the Oscar I think she should have been in contention for earlier.
6. Listen to Me Marlon
You might think there would be nothing new or worthwhile to be said about the life and times of Marlon Brando, but you’d be wrong—especially when the person talking is Brando himself.
This thoroughly engrossing documentary account of Brando’s personal and artistic journey is made up of a spellbinding mix of archival footage and private audio recordings the actor made in which he muses about his biography and his work on the stage and screen. Both intimate and staggering in scale, the film effectively puts you right in the room with Brando as if he were engaging you in the most revealing (if yes, one-sided) of conversations. When it ends, you wish it would go on and on, and in that feeling there can be no greater tribute to one of cinema history’s most larger-than-life legends.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Millions of fans held their collective breath. Brilliant, teasing marketing pulled those fans along for months and built anticipation to a fever pitch, revealing not too little but—crucially–never too much. And what is there left to be said about the year’s biggest movie?
There’s a cliché oft-invoked whenever a dusty old story is revamped for modern appeal but altered sufficiently to be somehow alienating to its original audience. You know it: “This ain’t your Daddy’s… (fill in the blank).” Here is the exception: This is your Daddy’s Star Wars, but made so cleverly as to embrace moviegoers’ near-mythic memories while also pointing everyone’s way to a brighter cultural future.
In J.J. Abrams’ decision to favor more old-fashioned filmmaking techniques rather than the more plastic-feeling digital era the Lucas prequels embodied, The Force Awakens takes exactly the correct stylistic approach to resuming the story that “ended” with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. And while there’s plenty of hay to be made by pointing out how baldly the new film recycles the plot of the 1977 original (which is really Part IV, so…oh, never mind), it’s to be celebrated that nearly forty years after “A New Hope” was personified by a blond, blue-eyed Buck Rogers type, our newest hope and hero can actually be a heroine.
It’s also to be lamented that there was any fuss at all (and yes, there was some fuss) that another of the film’s heroes happens to be a black man. Sometime soon, though, as we must with all science fiction stories, there should (and will) definitely be some thorough examinations of what the film might actually be up to by having that character be the one with a slave name that is discarded for the new one his white rescuer friend gives him.
Yes, this movie is definitely about more than just “fun”…but there’ll be plenty of time for Star Wars and the Social Sciences another day, because there’s no getting away from the fact that yes, this movie sure is fun.
4. The Big Short
Quick: Explain the financial disaster of 2008.
If you think that’s easy to do, you’re likely not the audience for The Big Short—because, as one particularly incisive line from the film states, you probably want to blame it all on poor people and immigrants. This slick, driving, merciless satire about the housing bubble and the near-collapse of the world economy (as seen through the eyes of those who tried to make a lot of money by predicting the catastrophe nobody saw coming but them) is a demanding and dazzling movie that’s like David Mamet, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Michael Moore all stuffed into one cinematic crack pipe—but wouldn’t you know it, it’s directed by the guy who made Anchorman.
The ensemble cast is across-the-board electrifying, with Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt the high-octane standouts. The script makes no apologies for its complexity, and even with the highly amusing way it kinda-sorta tries to “dumb down” the thorniest of subject matters, the whole picture is as sufficiently hard to comprehend as “whodunit” in The Big Sleep—and just as with the Bogart classic, in the end, the film is too gripping for that to be a criticism.
The Big Short is a backwards-looking Network for our times, a fiercely critical attack on a world whose survival appears to depend on having nonsense and corruption at its core, perversely guarding the fortunes of those privileged few on the inside while the rot (literally) threatens the lives of everyone on the outside. To channel for a moment its verbal blunt-force trauma: It’s mandatory viewing if you give a shit about the world around you.
Those of you in the “don’t make ’em like they used to” camp have absolutely no excuses for missing Brooklyn, an intensely moving romantic drama about a young Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to America in the 1950s and falls in love with a gentlemanly young Italian man (Emory Cohen)—only to have a family catastrophe return her to Ireland, another suitor (Domhnall Gleeson), and the turmoil of having to choose between homelands.
Ronan—she pronounces her first name the traditional “seer-sha” in Ireland but “sur-shuh” in America—is positively luminous in a three-hankie film of such gentle authority that it carries off the sort of innocence and sweetness that would make lesser movies unendurable. But in Brooklyn, every moment of its tender romance, crushing heartache, and near-poetic yearning sings with absolute authenticity.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
If the most satisfying achievement of the latest Star Wars film was to recapture a particular brand of movie magic last felt three decades earlier, director George Miller proved it was not only possible to achieve that feat, but also to make “everything old new again.” The fourth Mad Max movie was made by a 70-year-old man but looks like the work of a cocky wunderkind, tossing every crazy thing he can think of at the screen to see what will stick. Everything sticks.
With the “universe” of Miller’s Max epics richly expanded to approach the scale of Lang’s Metropolis or the Frank Herbert Dune saga, and the wildly intense action an explosion of mad-circus invention, there’s yet more to be thankful for in his revisiting of the long-dormant postapocalyptic franchise—and that’s his decision to reinvent the action-movie heroine as a force to be reckoned with rather than an appendage or simple damsel-in-distress. Just as there was a mini-viral uprising of idiots incensed that there would be a black Stormtrooper in Star Wars, the prominence of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character met a pathetic call to boycott this film, a decidedly unmanly gesture made by morons who apparently believed that a woman’s equality—in an action movie, forget about in real life—represented some kind of genuine insult to men.
Maybe you feel like there’s no Mad Max without Mel. Not so; the wondrous, chameleon-like star Tom Hardy (whose villainous turn in the brutal revenge drama The Revenant is scary good) makes for the perfect road warrior in this movie. There’s talk of even more Max to come, and I’m plenty Mad now to have to wait for it.
A lot of things vaulted Spotlight to the top of my favorites list this year. I was riveted by the stellar performances of a top-drawer ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams; I couldn’t get enough of Liev Schreiber, who gets a lot of mileage out of his smaller role with quiet but forceful gravitas; I particularly enjoy Great Journalism Movies, and the gripping true-story script and excellent direction by Tom McCarthy (whose debut film The Station Agent I really love) recalls and lives up to the standards of other Great Journalism Movies like All the President’s Men and Zodiac. I am also always drawn to stories about the ways in which passion can fuel one’s work, as well as how that passion can heal or destroy—and how sometimes one of those things may not be possible without the other.
Then, there’s the importance of the story itself—the Boston Globe’s unmasking of the Catholic Church hierarchy as a den of pedophile enablers. That is the sort of thing that real and courageous journalism should be about, something that seems to have been substantially forgotten in an era where the desire for access breeds cowardice, the quest for attention encourages hyperbole, and the facts become irrelevant and subordinate to ideological posturing.
Spotlight ultimately serves the basic purpose its title implies, and this illuminating movie should be seen as both an instrument of shame and a source of inspiration. It’s about what we must discover about the past in order to reckon with the present and the future, and as such, for me it is the defining work of a year that found moviemakers (and hopefully some moviegoers) aching to do both things at once.
A pretty great year for Hot Buttered Cinema!
Got a different list? Tell me about it. And happy moviegoing in 2016!