It might not seem like it—at least for the next few weeks—but 2015 saw movies other than Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and some pretty good ones at that. Still, J.J. Abram’s successful return to a galaxy far, far away serves nicely as a synecdoche for the Year in Film as a whole: pretty good, if not earth-shakingly innovative; definitely nostalgia-fueled, and overall, satisfying.
Where 2014 proved a tough for the industry, 2015 found film taking back its seat of honor at our cultural conversation table. Yes, prestige TV and binge watching are here to stay, but the silver screen proved it would not go gentle into that good night. Between Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, Hollywood made enough money to support a small island nation (with Star Wars being the pick of the pack.) Finances-aside, the big boy studios even managed to flex their creative muscle this year. Warner Bros.’ Mad Max: Fury Road was the kind of provocative, kinetic filmmaking feast we haven’t seen come from the studio system since, well, the original Mad Max. Sir Ridley Scott found himself returning to space in fine form with The Martian; Matt Damon’s inspiring smile should both inspire a new generation of scientists and make up for the mess that was Prometheus. But the studio crown goes to Pixar, who once more played our heart strings like a Rachmaninoff protégé with Inside Out; you’d think we’d be numb from crying at every single one of their animated masterpieces by now but Peter Docter’s beautiful and emotionally brilliant film raised the bar ever higher into the stratosphere.
That said, the rewards were not spread evenly: Tiny little indie gems had a hard time fighting to get seen. But Sundance 2015 proved an auspicious start for the year, artistically even if the films themselves struggled at the box office. The End of the Tour turned a road trip with David Foster Wallace into an incisive commentary on the perils of hero worship, literary and otherwise. Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden’s Mississippi Grind showed off Ben Mendelsohn at his best, accompanied by a blues steeped background, while Mistress America found Noah Baumbach in excellent form, infusing the screwball genre with his own acid wit. But for my money, the pick of Sundance had to be Sean Baker’s Tangerine. By turns uproarious and poignant, Baker’s picaresque tale of transgender hookers surviving the seedier stretches of L.A.’s Santa Monica Blvd., shot entirely on an iPhone, showed that big studio budgets have nothing on the ingenuity of indie filmmaking at its most creative.
Elsewhere, some of the year’s most interesting hits came from the realm of genre-filmmaking. Of course, the master of genre Quentin Tarantino’s latest Hateful Eight deserves to be seen in all its 70mm glory; his bloody Western chamberpiece does not disappoint. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina found Star Wars co-stars Oscar Isaac and Domhall Gleason swapping roles in a disturbing and seductive sci-fi parable about artificial intelligence and the creative drive: except here, Gleason was the wide-eyed innocent and Isaac the morally compromised scientist playing god. It Follows also proved a worthy addition to the horror genre, utterly gripping and evocative of the best of 80s horror. Meanwhile Lionsgate’s cartel film Sicario successfully danced the fine line between action and the arthouse with heart-pounding set pieces amid the desolate beauty of the US/Mexico border. And while the studios have seemingly abandoned mid-range thrillers, new players like STX entertainment have begun to fill the gap: The smart psychological mind games of Joel Edgarton’s The Gift are the perfect tonic for those who’ve had their share of high-minded films for the moment.
But who are we to complain about the surfeit of awards contenders right now? Oscars aside, the end of the year has, as usual, has inundated our must-see lists with too many great films. For starters, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room landed with the emotional impact of an atom bomb, thanks in no small part to Brie Larson’s harrowing performance as a mother held captive in a backyard shed with a young child who has never seen the world at large. On the other end of the spectrum, current Best Picture frontrunner Spotlight astonishes with its understated glory: rarely has a film so accurately and powerfully captured the mundane miracle of great journalism. Meanwhile Steven Spielberg’s given us his best film in ages with Bridge of Spies, his Cold War spin on High Noon; as odd as it is to say, this Spielberg kid’s been lost in the shuffle.
However, my personal pick for best film of the year goes to Carol, Todd Solondz’ pitch perfect adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Lush, gorgeous yet honed by the razor sharp acuity of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s performances, Solondz’ film is the rarest of birds, an epic romance wrought from the banal happenstance of everyday life.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road
Bridge of Spies
The End of the Tour
The Hateful Eight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
AND A FEW MORE MUST-SEES FOR GOOD MEASURE
Beasts of No Nation
The Look of Silence
Son of Saul
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Straight Out of Compton
Photos: The Weinstein Company; Warner Bros. Films; Magnolia Pictures