Was 2015 a good year for movies? Let’s put it this way: Of the 250-plus movies I saw this year, I would heartily recommend several dozen, and that’s plenty. After all, how many terrific new novels were there? How many great new restaurants did you discover?
Before I trumpet my annual Top 10 list, allow me a few musings, complete with quibbles and cavils.
Whether by accident or design, some of the year’s best, or at least most touted, movies were stylistically old-fashioned, among them the marvelous 1950s romance “Brooklyn,” the sporadically good cold-war thriller “Bridge of Spies,” and the entertainingly conventional “All the President’s Men”-style muckraker “Spotlight.”
We had the uninspiring 19th-century seafaring drama “In the Heart of the Sea,” complete with white whale, and “Southpaw,” a boxing bash that overdrew on “Body and Soul” and “Champion.” Even movies about potentially transgressive subjects, such as the chilly, overrated 1950s lesbian romance “Carol,” and the vaporous “The Danish Girl,” about one of the first men to undergo a sex-change operation, were determinedly retro – stylishly out-of-style. “Suffragette” could have been made a half century ago. So could “Far From the Madding Crowd,” also starring Carey Mulligan and one of the year’s better literary adaptations.
I don’t mind a movie that is not cutting-edge as long as it has an edge. That’s why I admire “Brooklyn,” and the English marital drama “45 Years,” featuring a world-class performance from Charlotte Rampling. But the stylistic (and thematic) conservatism of so many of this year’s “prestige” movies seems to me, if not a step backward, then at least a standing in place. Virtuoso filmmaking, allowing for rare aberrations like George Miller’s assaultive “Mad Max: Fury Road,” is not prized in the New Old Hollywood. There’s too much commercial downside in taking artistic risks. Even Ridley Scott, that great dystopian, has become a cozy auteur: “The Martian” is feel-good science fiction.
Franchises, which capitalize on lack of risk, still dot the landscape. “Star Wars,” as in the rousing “The Force Awakens,” is, of course, back with a vengeance. So is Rocky Balboa (in the surprisingly good “Creed”). So is James Bond (in the lackluster “Spectre”); 007 could use another reboot.
“Hunger Games” diva Katniss Everdeen, however, has shot her last arrow. Judging from the brassy, blustery “Joy,” maybe it’s time for Jennifer Lawrence to part ways with David O. Russell as well. She’s perfectly fine in it, but her range is richer than his palette of primary colors.
In some ways, audiences may be ahead of Hollywood these days. Case in point: “Steve Jobs,” the Aaron Sorkin-scripted takedown of the Apple guru. Despite its fizzy Sorkinisms, the film is essentially old-school stuff. It’s like a cinematic dartboard, with Jobs the bull’s-eye, but what the filmmakers don’t realize is that audiences don’t care if Jobs behaved atrociously. What they care about are their iPhones. The movie was a commercial disappointment.
The entertainingly glib “The Big Short” also seems tone-deaf to the times. We’re supposed to feel the love for the film’s cadre of money managers and investors who, foreseeing the home-loan crisis, gamed the system, screwed the banks, and cashed in. Heroes? Not in my book.
The violence quotient in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s splatterfest “The Hateful Eight” can’t compete with the violence in today’s headlines, making his movie seem all the more meretricious. “The Revenant” has Leonardo DiCaprio surviving a bear attack and later crawling into the carcass of a horse to stay warm. Don’t try this at home.
Far more difficult to achieve is the successful rendering of the consequences of emotional violence, such as in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” about the ravages of an Israeli woman trying to procure a divorce from her unyielding husband, and “Room,” about a captive sex slave and her young boy, as experienced through his eyes.
In the end, what I think I craved most this year was good old-fashioned inspirationalism. This dawned on me after I saw Ethan Hawke’s marvelous documentary “Seymour: An Introduction,” about Seymour Bernstein, an octogenarian piano teacher. There is no better movie for lifting the spirit.
Now, let’s dive into the good stuff (ranked roughly in descending order):
Brooklyn – This transcendently lovely romance, directed by John Crowley and adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, is about an Irish immigrant, matchlessly played by Saoirse Ronan, who battles homesickness and finds her place in the world. It’s one of the most convincing coming-of-age movies ever made.
Seymour: An Introduction – No other movie comes as close to expressing the soul-enriching glories of musicmaking.
In Jackson Heights – Frederick Wiseman remains our premier documentarian, and this movie about the fabled multiethnic Queens neighborhood of New York City is a meditative mosaic of the first order.
Room – Brie Larson is extraordinarily good and so is Jacob Tremblay as her young boy, both held captive for years before they flee into a frightening new world. With great delicacy, director Lenny Abrahamson brings us very deep inside the boy’s wide-eyed bafflements.
Listen to Me Marlon – Marlon Brando recorded his inner ramblings for years, and these audiotapes form the basis for Stevan Riley’s one-of-a-kind documentary about our greatest actor. It’s a wide window into his muse.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem – The great Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, who also codirected, gives the strongest performance I saw all year as a woman harrowed by endless divorce proceedings.
When Marnie Was There – This hauntingly beautiful piece of animation, a young girl’s fantasia about a possibly imaginary playmate, is perhaps the last movie to come out of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed.
Ex Machina – Alicia Vikander is the robot who makes artificial intelligence seem anything but artificial in Alex Garland’s creepy sci-fi mini-classic. It’s like a super-duper “Twilight Zone” episode.
The Lady in the Van – This movie proves that Maggie Smith as a bag lady is every bit as believable as Maggie Smith as the “Downton Abbey” dowager. Alan Bennett’s screenplay, adapted from his 1999 play (which Smith starred in on the London stage), is resoundingly literate without sacrificing an ounce of empathy.
Anomalisa – The curlicues of Charlie Kaufman’s perfervid imagination are on display in this, his first, animated feature, codirected by Duke Johnson. A motivational speaker checks into a hotel. If this sounds like the setup for a joke, it is, but the joke is stranger than you could ever have imagined.
In addition to the films mentioned favorably in the preamble, here are some others, for every taste, worth checking out: “Timbuktu,” “Boy & the World,” “Breathe,” “Frame by Frame,” “Mustang,” “Heart of a Dog,” “Mr. Holmes,” “James White,” “Tangerine,” “We Come as Friends,” “The Salt of the Earth,” "Sembene," and “Best of Enemies.”