Brilliance in the Darkness

2015 Was Remarkable Year for Religious Themes and Family Films

The year’s best films are often laced with dark themes, and 2015 was no exception — but in many ways it was an extraordinary year for film. Since I have been reviewing movies, I haven’t seen so many thoughtful treatments of religious themes, notable family films, accomplished action, thriller and sci-fi films and powerful tales of loves won or lost all in the same year. As always, my choices are personal; many films in the runner-up list could easily be in the top 10, or vice versa.


Top Films of 2015

1. Brooklyn. If any 2015 film exemplifies what I wish more films were like, it’s John Crowley’s quiet, generous mid-20th-century drama about the physical, emotional and personal journey of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) from a small Irish village who settles in New York with the help of an Irish priest. Based on Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel, it’s a precious gift: a film that finds compelling drama in the ordinary stuff of human life and love without extraordinary crises or great perversity. A brief, nonexplicit bedroom scene; limited foul language. Older teens and up.

2. Inside Out. Whimsy, sentiment, nostalgia, melancholy and silliness come together in a particular way in Pete Docter’s dazzling, bittersweet tale, a throwback to the days of Pixar greatness offering the studio’s definitive statement on Disney’s maxim “for every laugh, a tear.” Mild cartoony action; thematic elements, including restrained domestic conflict and a couple of youthful bad decisions. Kids and up.

3. Timbuktu. A low-key yet searing portrait of a community in turmoil, African filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s episodic account rivetingly depicts the slow-motion collision of two forms of Islam: Mali’s relatively moderate Sunni culture and an encroaching jihadist movement affiliated with the Islamic State. Restrained but disturbing depictions of violence and menace; brief crude language. Teens and up.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road. A gonzo work of lunacy, a thunderous action movie and a post-apocalyptic nightmare, George Miller’s tour de force also manages to be about human dignity in the face of the dehumanizing power of a violent religious regime and the industrial commodification of human tissue, among other themes. Copious graphic violence; disturbing images and themes; brief nudity. Mature viewing; discretion advised.

5. Spotlight. Pervaded by pain and anger, laced with sadness and guilt, Tom McCarthy’s newsroom drama about the journalistic exposé of the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests makes painful viewing, but accurately diagnoses the cultural tendencies inside and outside the Church that made the problem invisible for so long. Explicit accounts of sexual abuse and other sexually related dialogue (nothing shown); frequent profane, obscene and crude language; drug references. Adults.

6. Coming Home. The year’s most haunting love story, Zhang Yimou’s tearjerker melodrama offers a semi-oblique social commentary on political repression (in this case, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution) through the intensely personal lens of one woman (Gong Li) whose politically active husband returns from prison only to find that his traumatized wife can’t recognize him. A brief bloody injury; intensely stressful family situations; a reference to sexual violence. Teens and up.

7. The Martian. Smart, rousing and unexpectedly funny, Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial survival story, starring Matt Damon as the resourceful, spacefaring protagonist of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, is a love letter to the STEM disciplines, but also an ode to the irrepeatable value of every human life. Depictions of bloody injuries; fleeting rear nudity; some cursing and crude language. Teens and up.

8. Cartel Land. The most riveting standoff I saw in 2015 wasn’t in an action movie, but in Matthew Heineman’s eye-opening, downbeat documentary, much less about drug traffickers than vigilante groups, especially Mexican militias organized to defend local communities from cartel violence. Horrifying images, including severed heads and hanged bodies; shooting violence and menace; heavy obscene and crass language. Adults.

9. Creed. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone make a powerhouse pairing in Ryan Coogler’s triumphant Rocky sequel/spinoff, which explores the importance of the father-son bond from a number of angles. Much intense, bloody pugilistic violence; a nonmarital sexual encounter (nothing explicit); references to an extramarital affair; an instance of profanity, limited cursing and some crude language. Adults.

10. Paddington. A live-action family comedy with a computer-animated protagonist is a nearly infallible recipe for disaster — in Hollywood, anyway. This British-French co-production, directed by Paul King and featuring Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington, is the gloriously quirky, charming and even poignant exception to the rule. Mild action and menace; a bit of bathroom humor; mild innuendo. Kids and up.


Ten Runners-Up (unranked)

45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s quietly devastating chamber piece with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as an older couple whose happy marriage is undermined by the past (adults).

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi’s masterful Iranian ensemble drama about a group of friends from Tehran facing an unexpected crisis on holiday at the Caspian Sea (teens and up).

The Assassin, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s resplendent art-house wuxia film about a young woman trained as a killer by a scheming Taoist nun (teens and up).

Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, old-fashioned fairy tale with Lily James as the self-possessed heroine and Richard Madden as the best fairy-tale prince in ages (kids and up).

Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s chilly, provocative three-person play about artificial intelligence and postmodernity’s inability to say what makes us human (adults).

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s emotionally and sonically rich portrait of Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson and the redeeming power of love (adults).

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie’s ridiculously entertaining franchise installment (teens and up).

Phoenix, German director Christian Petzold’s stunning inversion of Vertigo, starring Nina Hoss as a Holocaust survivor whose appearance has been altered by violence and surgery (teens and up).

Shaun the Sheep Movie, Aardman Animations’ sublimely silly feature-length excursion into dialogue-free stop-motion shenanigans (kids and up).

Stations of the Cross, Dietrich Brüggemann’s formally rigorous meditation on the dark side of religious rigor (older teens and up).


Ten Honorable Mentions: The Big Short; Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalam; Girlhood; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2; Jafar Panahi’s Taxi; Mr. Holmes; The Peanuts Movie; Salt of the Earth; Steve Jobs; When Marnie Was There

Steven D. Greydanus is the

Register’s film critic.