Two of the best movies I saw this year were 10 hours long, chopped into 60-minute chunks and aired on television: The Netflix true-crime documentary Making a Murderer, about a sensational murder trial in the American heartland, and the stand-alone second season of the FX series Fargo, about a feud between two crime families that spirals out of control.
Both were examples of what people point to when they argue that TV is better than movies now: stories with complicated narratives, huge casts of characters and the ability to delve into subplots and tangents without rushing. But my favorite films of 2015 had one thing in common: All needed to be seen at the theater, on a giant screen, for maximum effect. Watching them at home won’t be the same, a trend that filmmakers big and small are embracing.
1. Carol: The movie romance of the year, with pitch-perfect performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two women who fall in furtive love in 1950s New York; an eloquent, graceful script by Phyllis Nagy; beautifully grainy 16mm cinematography by Edward Lachman; and career-high work from director Todd Haynes, putting his talents to work on someone else’s story for the first time in his career and coming up with his masterpiece.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road: Director George Miller spent 15 years developing the fourth installment in his post-apocalyptic action franchise, and the long prep time showed. Everything in the movie, from the insane stunts performed with actual cars to Charlize Theron’s one-armed heroine Furiosa, was in service of a singular vision — a rarity in contemporary big-budget Hollywood, where movies too often feel like they were made by committee.
3. Spotlight: Director Tom McCarthy’s dramatic recreation of The Boston Globe’s exposé of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church resembled a work of Pulitzer-caliber investigative journalism: clear, precise, detailed, revelatory and essential, without calling attention to itself through style or flourishes.
4. The Revenant: Alejandro González Iñárritu followed up his Oscar-winning Birdman with a savage story of survival in the wilderness, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Shot on location in freezing conditions using only natural light, the movie is a feat of filmmaking prowess. But what makes the picture great is its relentless ferocity, which dazzles the eye while it pummels the heart (opens Jan. 8).
5. Sicario: The most suspenseful movie of the year — almost every scene hummed with tension and menace — offered a fresh perspective on the war on drugs, reimagining it as a drug war in which the good guys (including Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) were often difficult to distinguish from the bad guys. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. But at what cost?
6. Crimson Peak: Guillermo del Toro’s best movie since the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth was a brooding gothic romance awash in great spouts of blood, haunted by ghosts and stuffed with dark, eerie wonders. The bizarre love triangle between Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain was the most twisted – and memorable – of 2015.
7. Creed: A bonafide miracle — a new Rocky picture in which Sylvester Stallone ceded center stage to Michael B. Jordan, playing a young boxer intent on doing his late papa, Apollo Creed, proud. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) fused past and present with this rousing, touching movie that evoked the simple pleasures of the 1976 original as it dusted off tired formulas and made them feel urgent and vital.
8. White God: Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s horror-fantasy about canines rising up to wage war against mankind could be read as an allegory for the plight of refugees in Eastern Europe. Or the movie could be taken at face value as the extraordinary tale of a 13-year-old girl who is separated from her beloved mutt, Hagen. Either way, only the stoniest heart (or the staunchest cat lover) would fail to be moved.
9. The Hateful Eight: Most of Quentin Tarantino’s movies have recycled films and genres that came before. But his ingenious transplanting of an Agatha Christie mystery to postbellum-era Wyoming, inside a cabin where eight shady strangers mingle among the lingering racism of the period, was the work of an accomplished director stretching and trying new things while staying true to his pulpy, profane roots.
10. The Duke of Burgundy: The third film by writer-director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) was an arresting exploration of the middle years of a romantic relationship between two women (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Annaear) after the novelty has worn off and their S&M games have started to lose their allure. Strange in every way — the characters are entomologists; there are no men to be seen; as equally endebted to 1970s Eurotrash films by Jess Franco as it is to the experimental works of Stan Brakhage — and yet always deeply, profoundly relatable.
Honorable mention: About Elly, Amy, The Big Short, Ex Machina, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Phoenix, The Walk.
– RENE RODRIGUEZ
Some years, finding good movies about women is all too hard, but 2015 was a welcome change, with plenty of great female roles (and more than a few meaty ones for men, too). Now, if we could just get a few more female directors…
1. Carol: Todd Haynes’ gorgeous and wrenching film about a married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) who fall in love in the 1950s is a work of sensory perfection — its look and tone are as romantic as its story. With two Oscar-worthy performances from its leads, whose chemistry is breathtaking, Carol — based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt — is a remarkable work about the lengths we will go to when we have no choice but to follow our hearts.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road: George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action thriller is an exhilarating ride, a throwback that renders all superhero movies flaccid, talky and dull. With a minimalist plot, a refreshing lack of exposition, furious action and a Mad Max (Tom Hardy) who takes a back seat to a disabled hero (Charlize Theron), Fury Road is everything you could ever want in a summer blockbuster.
3. Brooklyn: John Crowley’s lush, classically shot film about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to New York in the 1950s taps into the overwhelming isolation an exile feels in a strange new world. Though it captures a particular place and time, Brooklyn is a bittersweet and emotionally powerful film, universal in its evocation of yearning, homesickness and the sweet, piercing joy that comes once you recognize what home truly means.
4. Spotlight: Based on the true story of the Boston Globe team that uncovered the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, Spotlight has been called the new All the President’s Men for good reason. The movie gets everything right, from the unglamorous drudgery of reporting right down to the khakis-and-button-down look of its (male) journalists, and its cast — including Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and Brian d’Arcy James — provides the best ensemble performance of the year.
5. Girlhood: “Shine bright like a diamond,” urges Rihanna on the soundtrack, and 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) tries her best to shine in this terrific French coming-of-age film from writer/director Céline Sciamma?. Living in the projects, Marieme knows the odds for a better lif
e are stacked against her, but after she learns her grades aren’t good enough for university, she finds strength, sisterhood and solidarity with a gang of girls. A mesmerizing story about friendship and perseverance.
6. The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino’s dark, nasty Western is gleefully talky and gory — and a hell of a lot of fun for anybody who loves movies and doesn’t mind a little blood (OK, make that a lot of blood). Stuck in a freezing cabin in the mountains of Wyoming during a blizzard, a group of vile individuals, including a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), try to stay warm and not kill each other — but not for long.
7. Mistress America: Director Noah Baumbach and actress/writer Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) team up again for this sharp, funny comedy about a lonesome college freshman and aspiring writer (Lola Kirke) who befriends her magnetic stepsister-to-be (Gerwig), who’s older, glamorous — and a hot mess with dreams of grandeur. A smart, rapid-fire comedy about growing up (even if you’re 30).
8. Room: Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s harrowing novel (by the author herself), Room is a tense, unforgettable movie about a mother (Brie Larson) and her young son Jack (the astonishing Jacob Tremblay), who has spent his five years on this earth in a tiny backyard shed. Suspenseful to an excruciating point, the film isn’t just a thriller, though — it’s also a lovely meditation on how love can transform us.
9. Clouds of Sils Maria: This enigmatic film traces the relationship between an actress (Juliette Binoche) who agrees to join a revival of the play that launched her career, and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart). This slow-moving and often mysterious film is rife with symbolism, and the performances and murky plot keep you guessing (Stewart will even make you forget your Twilight complaints for awhile).
10. Love and Mercy: This unconventional Brian Wilson biopic uses two storylines — one set in the 1960s, when Wilson (Paul Dano) was recording the seminal album Pet Sounds, the other in the ’80s, when Wilson (John Cusack) was under the control of the Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The actors look nothing alike, but the approach works, inspiring wonder at Wilson’s prodigious talent and empathy for his subsequent breakdown. And yes, Paul McCartney was right: God Only Knows is one of the best pop songs ever written.
Honorable mention: White God, Straight Outta Compton, Far From the Madding Crowd, The End of the Tour, The Big Short.
– CONNIE OGLE