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 in 2012 my top 10 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. (In particular I regret how few documentaries I saw this past year.) Of the films listed below, many 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 Phoenix or Coming Home 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.
This year my circle of Christian cinephiles converged on the year’s best films more closely than usual.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.