SDG’s Top Films of 2015

Brilliance in the darkness: Harrowing themes ran through many of the year’s most acclaimed films, but there was also hope to be found.

(photo: Register Files)

The most celebrated films in any given year are often laced with dark or harrowing themes, and 2015 was no exception. From Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant to Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight, from Beasts of No Nation and Sicario to Spotlight and Room, there was plenty to challenge, shock, or numb even jaded cinephiles.

Full disclosure: Several of those films I haven’t seen yet — and not all those I have seen are films I would recommend. But two of them were among the five films that moved me the most.

They aren’t for everyone. But disturbing art can be as important as uplifting art. “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, “artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

There were also films with uplifting themes, though it’s possible they were harder to find than in past years. In part for that very reason, I treasured them more. All in all, 2015 was an extraordinary movie year in many ways.

For one thing, after suffering through 2014, family audiences were rewarded in 2015. Not only did Pixar deliver their best film since Up, we were also treated to a lovely live-action Cinderella, a splendidly nutty excursion into the Aardman-verse, a surprisingly good computer-animated Peanuts cartoon, and, perhaps most unexpected of all, a warm and lovely live-action take on Paddington. (And if you liked Minions, The Good Dinosaur, and/or [unseen by me] Home, so much the merrier for you.)

It was an astonishing year for Catholic themes, and for religious themes in general. Some of these, like Spotlight and Stations of the Cross, were among the harrowing films, but there was also the quietly sublime Brooklyn, a film in which the Church is in the background, an unobtrusive but essential institution in the local community.

Other films with positive Catholic themes include the Chilean mining disaster film The 33, starring Antonio Banderas; the Will Smith film Concussion, about a Catholic Nigerian pathologist’s crusade to get the facts out about pro football and brain damage; and Something, Anything, an understated indie about a spiritually searching young woman who takes an interest in Thomas Merton and a one-time high-school classmate’s monastic vocation.

Tensions in Islamic communities and cultures were onscreen, with religious questions foregrounded in Timbuktu and He Named Me Malala, backgrounded in Girlhood, About Elly and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. I don’t see many Israeli films, but my top 10 in 2012 included Fill the Void, about an arranged marriage in a Hasidic community, and this year my honorable mentions include Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalam, about a rabbinic divorce trial.

That last is one of many notable films this year about loves lost or won; about marriages made, strained, or broken. Others include 45 Years, Coming Home, Love & Mercy, Phoenix, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Something, Anything, not to mention Brooklyn and Cinderella.

Meanwhile, this past year saw not one but two record-shattering blockbusters leap to the top of the all-time box-office charts. Genre fans may be disappointed not to find Jurassic World or Star Wars: The Force Awakens among my top 30 films. The year’s two Marvel movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man are also missing. I enjoyed all these movies, but not so much as Mad Max, The Martian, or even The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

What surprised me was to find that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which I enjoyed at least as much as its predecessor, landed outside my top 10. Another surprise: Asghar Farhadi, whose A Separation and The Past both made my top five in past years, was only a runner-up this year with the splendid About Elly.

These choices are subjective, of course, and hardly written in stone. As always, there are many acclaimed films I haven’t seen yet — and, of those I have seen, many films in the runner-up list could easily be in the top 10, or vice versa.

Which was the better film about a young woman finding her path, Brooklyn or The Assassin? Was Coming Home or Phoenix the better foreign film about a former prisoner returning to a spouse who doesn’t recognize them? Alternatively, was Coming Home or Love & Mercy the better story of love and mental illness? Granted that the best family film was Inside Out, which was the second best?

Here are my picks.

SDG’s 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 postapocalyptic 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 unrepeatable 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 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 religion and rigidity (older teens and up)

Ten Honorable Mentions

  • The Big Short, Adam McKay’s celebrity-studded, semi-comic take on Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 financial crisis (adults)
  • Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalam, Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz’s astonishing rabbinic courtroom drama about an Israeli Jewish woman who wants a divorce (teens and up)
  • Girlhood, better described by its original title Bande de filles or Gang of Girls, about black teenaged girls in a rough Paris area neighborhood (adults)
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, the satisfyingly downbeat final chapter of Suzanne Collins’ provocative series, directed by Francis Lawrence (teens and up)
  • Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the Iranian filmmaker’s latest kinda-maybe documentary-ish act of resistance against his government oppressors (teens and up)
  • Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen as an aging, ailing, semi-demythologized version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero, directed by Bill Condon (teens and up)
  • The Peanuts Movie, “from the imagination of Charles Shulz” — yes, it really is! (kids and up)
  • Something, Anything, writer-director Paul Harrill’s debut indie about a young newlywed looking for more out of life (teens and up)
  • Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s impressionistic interpretation of the myth of the Apple co-founder, played by Michael Fassbender (older teens and up)
  • When Marnie Was There, a quietly numinous tale of adolescence and mystery from Studio Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (might be too much for young kids)

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.