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In a year in which the roar about gender inequality in Hollywood reached Jurassic World decibels, a different story played out onscreen. From Ex Machina to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, girl power may not have exactly dominated in 2015 (let’s not get carried away) but strong women—whether cis, trans, or robotic—were represented in noticeable numbers: There was Katniss, of course. Furiosa. Ava. Rey. Ma. Carol. Eilis. Kate from Sicario. Lili from The Danish Girl.
Not all of these characters elevated their films to best-of status in my eyes (sorry, I was somehow left empty by the admittedly gorgeous Mad Max: Fury Road), but they, along with their writers, are to be applauded nonetheless.
Here are five features and documentaries, in no particular order, that entertained me, stunned me, and kept me rapt. Yes, it’s largely a boys’ club. But ladies, keep making those leaps. —Tricia Olszewski
Mississippi Grind In this road-trip story about a couple of gamblers, Ben Mendelsohn’s troubled Gerry has holes in his pockets but lights in his eyes. When he makes fast friends with Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, in a grown-up, fleshed-out role that allows him to be charming, wise, and refined), Gerry may initially be attracted by Curtis’ apparent status as his lucky charm, but their bond is the kind of bromance that the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco have thus far only joked about. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck infuse this richly respectful chronicle of a jaunt down South with a soundtrack of classic R&B and blues, seducing you to get lost with these men whether in lit-up casinos, dark bars, or history-rich towns that swell with nostalgia.
Amy To casual fans only familiar with Back to Black, Amy Winehouse was a deep-voiced novelty who quickly turned into a late-night punchline. “What a mess,” you probably thought, not the least bit surprised by the news of her death. And though Amy, by necessity, follows the fame-to-misfortune story line common to nearly all gifted celebrities who were gone too soon, Asif Kapadia’s documentary also gives Winehouse the respect that many may not have known she deserved. An incredible jazz singer and aficionado who nearly fell to her knees during a duet with Tony Bennett, Winehouse was more than a drunk who fumbled the words to “Rehab.” She loved music, and she had the chops—the copious home-movie footage presented here proves as much. Above all, she had a lovely personality, one tragically snuffed by the disease of addiction.
James White This under-the-radar film tells a story both intimate and universal, anchored by performances so astonishing you’re never reminded of the celebrated (and oddly similar) series that lent its stars the limelight. Christopher Abbott is remarkable as James, a 20-year-old New Yorker who’s typical in his desire to party and quickness to fight anyone who crosses him. James is also the sole caretaker of his terminally ill mother (Cynthia Nixon), a responsibility that repeatedly clashes with his lifestyle. Honest yet without an ounce of sentimentality, James White should propel Abbott to the moon for his ferocious, finely tuned portrayal of a young man trying to cope with a torrent of emotions and stress, his expressions betraying his thoughts even when his words communicate something different.
99 Homes When your story needs a snake, find Michael Shannon. This timely film about the subprime mortgage crisis offers Shannon as a real estate broker specializing in foreclosures; he tosses families, the elderly, and every homeowner in between out on the street without a flicker of remorse. Matching Shannon’s intensity is Andrew Garfield, demonstrating a surprising range as a young dad who loses his house and then works with Shannon’s broker to earn it back. Ethics, hypocrisy, fury, and sorrow infuse every frame, with a nearly unbearable number of scenes hitting deeper than the basic plot could ever warn.
Room Here’s Ma. And with her is her five-year-old son, with whom she lives in a shed, which is the only place the boy’s ever known. Brie Larson and a precocious Jacob Tremblay portray a family of two negotiating a precarious situation that’s made bearable by Ma’s ingenuity, calling their entire world “room” and telling him stories about what they see on television, what’s beyond the skylight, and why he must hide when the man visits each night. Room, adapted from a novel, is a gripping, tense, and ultimately spirit-raising tale about survival and the ability for love to exist under the bleakest of circumstances—with a complementary message that a life without physical restriction doesn’t automatically mean a life without pain.
What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone was a force both onstage and off. On track to become the first black classical pianist in her youth—once refusing to play in a church if her parents were forced to sit in the back—Simone turned to a more lucrative career in jazz. She was fierce, even angry, while performing and could be even more ferocious in her personal life, dedicating herself to the civil rights movement and telling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I’m not nonviolent.” Yet this documentary also portrays an often defeated woman who fought for her life physically, against an abusive husband, and mentally, through her lifelong struggle with bipolar disease. The film includes diary entries and several clips from interviews; listen now to the words that no one quite heard then.
Spotlight One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year won’t just be of interest to those who’ve worked in a newsroom (though such viewers will certainly find an extra layer of appeal). The story of the Boston Globe’s reporting on widespread sexual assault among Catholic priests is riveting in both its truth and its telling: With a cast that includes Michael Keaton (circling back to his editor-in-chief role in 1994’s The Paper), Rachel McAdams, and a weirdly grimaced Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight makes journalism seem like the most exciting, harrowing, and important job in the world. You’ll cheer with every break these reporters get. But when the end credits roll, listing all the cities in which the Globe’s investigation had an effect, tears won’t be far.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom It’s one thing to read about how regular citizens-turned-activists made a difference in government. It’s another to see such power in action. Director Evgeny Afineevsky stays on the ground for the duration of the three-month Ukrainian revolution of 2013-’14, capturing its start as an Occupy Wall Street-type protest, its ugliness as the movement to oust the president grew, and the elation when change is finally effected, proving that the commoners who had so nonsensically fallen did not die in vain. The documentary is both mournful and celebratory, but perhaps more important, it’s galvanizing.
Sicario Last year, Denis Villeneuve toyed with the surreal with the excellent Enemy. He followed up with a return to Prisoners territory. Sicario is a narratively straightforward crime drama, though that pedestrian description doesn’t reflect its ability to grab you by the throat. Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro play federal agents second-guessing one another after they’re thrown together to fight a Mexican drug cartel. Blunt’s whiplash-smart but in-the-dark agent is a heroine worthy of celebration, as is the film’s often gruesome but realistic portrayal of what happens when bullets hit bodies. Add a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that evokes what your stomach might sound like when it sinks, and Villeneuve goes three-for-three in his apparent attempts to stop your heart.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Let’s be blunt: J.J. Abrams has earned a galaxy’s worth of accolades. After the critical disaster of the Star Wars prequels, the writer/director/go-to geek was tasked with the massive undertaking of resuscitating the beloved franchise under the hyper-vigilant eyes of, oh, billions of fanboys and -girls. And he did it. The Force Awakens both leans on nostalgia and births a new story, offering an inventive, immersive sci-fi world that’s infinitely more relatable than the one presented in, um, Mad Max. (I said I’m sorry!) You’ll love reuniting with the old crew and warm to the fresh faces, who are woven in with just enough mystery to feed further installments. The bonus? Tax laws not included.
The world has been a weird and scary place this year. Maybe that’s why I found myself gravitating towards such earnest, optimistic films. With a few exceptions, the heroes of my top films find hope and happiness at the end of long, often painful journeys. These happy endings aren’t superficial. With diligent direction, skillful screenwriting, and empathetic acting, these films create their own optimism through their characters—not around them. And they fulfill the most basic function of cinema: to bring a little light into our dark world.—Noah Gittell
Brooklyn Old-fashioned filmmaking at its finest: Director James Crowley’s portrait of a young Irish immigrant finding her way in 1950s New York doesn’t break any new ground, but the film’s overwhelming sense of common decency makes it feel revelatory anyway. As a young woman torn between homes on either side of the Atlantic, Saoirse Ronan gives a simple and powerfully open-hearted performance that encapsulates the film’s earnest sensibility. It’s a story your grandmother will love; a feel-good movie that earns every bit of its feeling.
The Look of Silence Have you ever been watching two people talk and become absolutely convinced that one was about to murder the other? This occurs several times in Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant and vital documentary. It’s a companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing, a film that brought to light the Indonesian genocide of 1965. But while The Act of Killing relied on formal experiments—Oppenheimer had the killers act out their crimes in the style of their favorite Hollywood movies—The Look of Silence tells its tragic story with a human face: a mild-mannered optometrist (and son of a victim) who, one-by-one, confronts the crime’s perpetrators, who remain in power. That he ultimately finds salvation in the aftermath of such unholy deeds is a minor miracle, and so is the film.
Magic Mike XXL This sequel directed by Gregory Jacobs is easily the most subversive movie of the year, upending everything we expect from Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a story about male strippers, but the subject is female pleasure, which Hollywood (and the MPAA ratings board) typically has no tolerance for. It features an agreeably rambling narrative more akin to a European road movie than a tightly plotted studio film. Finally, there’s its unconventional ending: a joyous performance in front of thousands of women that would probably be a tense, high-stakes competition in other films. In Magic Mike XXL, it’s not about winning. It’s all about the dance.
Spotlight It’s not the flashiest movie of the year but it’s easily the most competent—and maybe the most important. Writer/director Tom McCarthy avoids sensationalizing his provocative film about the real-life Boston Globe investigation into child abuse in the Catholic Church. Instead of delving into the inner lives of his team of journalist protagonists (played with efficient charm by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo, among others) or offering lurid details of the abuse, Spotlight is a taut procedural and probably the best film ever made on the value of research. It’s also an ode to—and perhaps an elegy for—longform journalism at a time when it needs the support more than ever.
45 Years Movies about elderly British people practically form their own genre these days, but 45 Years transcends any label or category. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star as a couple whose long-time marriage receives an unexpected blow. The film by director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO’s Looking) is a perceptive drama about mortality and the fragility of human relationships. The two leads are magnificent, and the film’s final scene is one for the ages. Rampling’s character undergoes a subtle but devastating transformation in a crowded room, and only the audience sees it.
Mommy 25-year-old Quebecois director Xavier Dolan might just be the future of filmmaking. His exuberance for the art of cinema explodes through the screen in Mommy, his fifth and best feature to date. The story of the co-dependent relationship between a juvenile delinquent (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and his single mother (Anne Dorval) is an intense emotional drama with spectacular performances by the two leads, but Dolan’s formal inventiveness is what lingers in the mind after the credits have rolled. Halfway through the film, he does something with the camera I’ve never seen before. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a choice (and a film) only a young director could make, and, in this case, that’s high praise.
Slow West Don’t let the name turn you off. In a year filled with westerns (The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, and The Keeping Room), Slow West is best of the bunch. It’s that simplest of movie pleasures, a ripping good yarn that makes you want to re-tell its story to the next person you see, but a simple recounting of its plot doesn’t do it justice. First-time director John MacLean (and lead singer of The Beta Band) infuses a simple story—a lovelorn young man hires a cowboy (Michael Fassbender) to help him find his estranged girlfriend—with unique mix of violence, heart, and pathos, inventing an irresistible frontier myth.
Clouds of Sils Maria Both a puzzle and a prism, Olivier Assayas‘ Clouds of Sils Maria is a Hitchcockian narrative exercise that ends up packing a powerful emotional wallop. Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart play a middle-aged actress and her put-upon assistant, respectively, with both actors bringing contrasting sensibilities to their roles. Binoche’s unbridled emotionality clashes with Stewart’s cool detachment, painting a tense portrait of intergenerational anxiety. Set in the foggy mountains of Switzerland, Clouds of Sils Maria is a meditation of celebrity culture, an inquiry into the struggles of middle age, and the most mysterious film of the year.
Carol A marvelous synergy of director and star, Carol is the mainstream lesbian romance we’ve been waiting for. Adapted from a Patricia Highsmith story (published under a pseudonym), Todd Haynes’ brings restrained passion to his portrait of a love affair between a divorced suburban housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a naïve shopgirl (Rooney Mara). The rich colors pop off the screen—technical Oscars are in the offing—as do the performances. Mara’s subtle realism is easy to overlook but vital, while Kyle Chandler finds the right mix of victim and aggressor as the cuckolded husband. Of course, Blanchett is the star of the show, molding Carol into a frozen lake of emotion that gets cracked open by love.
Mistress America Although she has never directed, Greta Gerwig has always been an auteur. Every movie she acts in somehow becomes her own, and taken as a whole, her oeuvre represents a fair but sympathetic portrayal of millennial culture. Co-written with her boyfriend Noah Baumbach (who also directed), Mistress America is her best work yet, a screwball comedy with crackling dialogue and some of the finest, funniest characterization you’ll see all year. Brooke, Gerwig’s stylish, manic urbanite, is terribly selfish, entirely transparent, and somehow completely endearing. The film’s stellar middle act, one long scene in which Brooke and a cadre of her associates invade the home of her ex-boyfriend and his wife, is bracingly original and wildly hilarious.