There were more challenging movies to be found in 2015, but I'm not sure there were movies with more heart than Brooklyn. An old fashioned, heartwarming tearjerker in many ways, this story of a young woman who leaves her life in Ireland behind in order to seize opportunities available to her in America, only to return for what's supposed to be a brief visit and find herself torn between the life she has started to plan in America and the life which is suddenly offered to her in Ireland, was one of the year's big surprises for me at the movies. It's a simple story but it's so expertly crafted and executed, and carried so masterfully by the performance of star Saorise Ronan, that I couldn't deny it's power. Brooklyn may be nothing more than a nice movie about nice people, but that doesn't preclude it from being a great one.
"I'll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can't sleep or do anything and I am just in love with everything but can't figure out how to make myself work in the world." Becoming an adult doesn't happen like turning on a light switch; it's something that occurs in stages over a person's life, though some people hit those stages more slowly than others as Mistress America so beautifully and hilariously shows. A film about two step-sisters to be, one just starting college, one creeping towards 30, each adrift in her own way and struggling to find and settle on an identity for herself, this reteaming of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the film together) was one of the highlights of the year. Little seen when it hit theaters this summer, this lithe comedy is an absolute gem and a film which is a must-see for Baumbach fans, and a work that might just make a believer out of those who aren't yet Baumbach fans.
When production on Mad Max: Fury Road started in 2012, reviving a franchise which had last come to the screen in 1985 and carrying on in the absence of the actor who had become a star by playing the title character, I doubt that anyone expected that when it finally hit theaters it would be one of the most celebrated films of the year. Yet, here we are, watching as a film which plays out as one long chase scene and features some of the most flamboyant and audacious film styling of the year, cleans up with critics. And it deserves it, too. Fury Road is the big studio movie that all other big studio movies should learn from, demonstrating economy in its storytelling, expert world building, compelling characters, and a wealth of great practical effects rather than relying solely on CGI. Fury Road isn't just a great movie, it's a movie that could save Hollywood from itself - assuming Hollywood actually pays attention to why people love it so much.
"The text is like an object. It's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing." Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria can be a slippery film because it does constantly seem to be shifting perspective and showing truth to be elusive. Centering on a celebrated actress who is asked to revisit the play that made her a star, only this time taking the role of the older woman in the story rather than the younger woman who destroys her, the truth in Clouds can be hard to pin down. There are multiple different reasons given for why she doesn't want to (why she believes she can't) play the other role in the play, multiple origins for the enmity she has for an actor from her past, and there are multiple versions of the story of how the writer/director of the play died. All are true in the moment, but in the end no one truth matters. It all shifts with perspective and the moment is all that matters - the comedy and the tragedy of it is that when the moment the actress has been waiting for comes, she misses it. The film itself, however, doesn't miss a beat.
Spotlight is a celebration of competent, passionate people doing good, important work. It isn't a flashy piece of filmmaking and, though it certainly does aim to make a statement, it does so in a simple, understated way. Focusing on the Boston Globe's exposé of historical abuse within the Catholic Church and casting a critical eye not just on the perpetrators of the abuse and the institution which protected them, but on society as a whole for helping to create a conspiracy of silence rather than challenge the power of the church, it's a quietly powerful piece of filmmaking. With a cast stacked with terrific performers including Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schriber, Spotlight is one of the most engrossing films of the last year and it tackles an important subject matter with workmanlike intelligence and skill.
One of the most mature movies of the year is the one set almost entirely inside the mind of a young girl. It's still remarkable to me that a movie geared towards children would be so honest about the fact that as we grow up we won't always be happy all the time, and then encourages the viewer to accept and embrace sadness as a necessary and crucial part of life rather than try to fight against its occasional inevitability. Over the course of 20 years Pixar has come to define excellence in animated features and has several genuine classics to its name already and Inside Out continues that great tradition. It is a masterwork that is engaging for people of all ages and truly moving in its exploration of what it means to grow up, including the unavoidable fact of having to leave some things behind in the process. Inside Out isn't just one of the best films of 2015, it's one of the best animated films ever made.
The Duke of Burgundy is a film that I'm almost loathe to try to describe because to do so might make it sound a lot more salacious than it is and scare potential viewers away. It's the story of two women (in a world where men do not appear to exist at all) involved in a relationship centering on elaborate role play and BDSM, in which the balance of power isn't really what it at first appears to be, and in which one of the participants is considerably less into the "performance" than the other. But, even though filmmaker Peter Strickland is emulating the style of '70s European softcore, this really isn't a "sex" movie. It's a movie about relationships and the compromises necessary to make them endure and the ways that two people with different needs can find a way to make things work so that they're both happy. It's a surprisingly funny movie and the kind of spellbinding piece that makes you want to immediately rewatch it in order to find elements that you missed on the previous watch.
Todd Haynes' latest film is one which possesses a lot of beauty on the surface. It's a meticulously put together film on a production level that sinks itself into period details, firmly rooting itself in time and place to give context to its story. That story, about two women who fall in love and face the seeming inevitability of being separated due to the attitudes of the day, is beautifully crafted and profoundly moving, transcending the bounds of what might be dismissed as its "special interest" subject matter to become, simply, one of the great movie love stories and demonstrating, in a year when the US Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country but several powerful bigots opted to continue denying gay rights anyway, that love is love. As the two women, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett deliver wonderfully layered and complementing performances that pierce the heart and resonate well beyond the borders of the film.
On the one hand, Phoenix is a riveting drama about identity lost and found in a way that works like a reversal of Vertigo's perspective. On the other hand, it's a deeply felt commentary on the legacy of the Holocaust in post-war Germany. As much as the protagonist wants simply to reunite with her husband, she also needs for him to know what she went through in the concentration camp (and, perhaps, to acknowledge the ways that he failed and betrayed her in the interest of self-preservation), but every time she tries to talk about it, he shuts her down and tells her that the past is the past and everyone needs to move on. He wants to get past the ugliness of recent history without ever actually dealing with it and what it means, an attitude shared by other non-Jewish characters in the film and not unrepresentative of the way the country struggled to reconcile itself to the fact of the Holocaust in the aftermath of the war. Director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss had teamed up for several features prior to this, but Phoenix is their best.
I saw this film for the first time almost 1 year ago and can still distinctly remember how, when it ended, the audience in the theater was completely still and completely silent, the sheer power of the film leaving everyone stunned and breathless. This documentary, a companion piece to 2013's The Act of Killing which follows the brother of one of the victims of the 1965-66 Communist purges in Indonesia as he tries to get the people who were involved in the murders to acknowledge their roles in what happened, is not bombastic and theatrical the like that previous documentary, but it is so powerful that it doesn't need anything more than that unadorned style to be totally captivating. It's a movie that stayed with me through almost the entirety of 2015 and it's one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Watching The Look of Silence is a shattering experience, but it's also completely worth it.