Perhaps it's just me, but 2015 seemed to have double the usual crop of worthy awards-season hopefuls. From tightly-written dramas to compelling comedic fare, 2015 is the sort of year about which a cinephile can truly dream. From the astonishingly brutal bear attack of The Revenant to the gutsy portrayal of NWA's origins in Straight Outta Compton to Inside Out's voyage into the mind, the very best films teach us as much about ourselves as the characters they portray. They are archetypal and they take us on fantastic journeys that are well worth the price of admission.
Each of these films explores power and its consequences. Does foreknowledge of a tragedy change how you act? Or do you act at all? Do you serve those who rely on you or are they subject to your whims? Are you responsible with the power you have been given? The very best films of the year universally examined how those on top could be brought low by their own actions or the actions of others. In no particular order, my top picks:
THE BIG SHORT
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Based on the book by Michael Lewis
It's an accomplishment to make the financial world a place of high-stakes drama and nail-biting storytelling. Still more so if the characters are engaging, clever, funny, and damn interesting. And that's what we have in The Big Short. Set in the lead-up to the subprime mortgage crisis, the film pokes fun at greed while taking a sobering look at its darkest consequences. Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the ensemble cast turns in spectacular, nuanced performances that are both exciting and tragic to watch, much like the events the film itself chronicles. It pays to be right, but at what cost? When you see what's coming, is it your responsibility to warn people or to take advantage of their ignorance? The biggest accomplishment of The Big Short is that it humanizes an often demonized world and holds up a mirror when asked to define greed. For every winner there is a loser - but so many lost who weren't even on the playing field. How far does complicity go? From deft humor to a shattering ending, The Big Short jumps into these quandaries with both feet.
Directed by Pete Docter
Co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen
Original story by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Exhaustively imagined and flawlessly executed, Pixar adds another top-shelf entry to its impressive roster. A tale about growing up for growing-ups and grown-ups alike, Inside Out explores how in the pursuit of joy, we only become adults through experiencing, processing, and surviving sadness. While we don't seek it out, its experience is necessary. As the command console in Riley's brain expands and her memories become complexities and combinations of emotion, we grow to understand how the simple wants and needs of a younger mind can grow into the complicated psychologies of adulthood. Saying goodbye to one thing might mean saying hello to another, but the memory of that which has faded into the past will assuredly make us into who we are in the present. Joy might consider herself the leader of Riley's mind, but it's only in sharing power that Riley will grow up to be the woman she needs to be.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Like Inside Out but with flamethrowers, Mad Max is a feat of storytelling and action that is rarely seen in today's cinema fare. A dirt-simple story with a refreshingly girl-power core, Mad Max is a stunt-heavy explosion that never loses its humanity. When a tyrant turns his subjects into property, his underestimation of them proves his undoing. The courageous Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescues the capable wives of the despotic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)... but Max (Tom Hardy) forces her to confront the question of whether this is enough. When you escape, is it your responsibility to keep running or to turn back to fight for those you left behind? In a world gone mad, does he/she with the maddest plan win? And what is the difference between surviving and living? On the surface, Mad Max is stunts, explosions, and action. But all of it serves character desire. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? See this film and find out.
Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Written by Charlie Kaufman (based on his play)
The top can be a lonely place. Just ask Michael Stone (David Thewlis), customer service guru and bestselling author with a house, a wife, a son... and a profoundly empty life. In many ways a spiritual successor to Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa further explores the concept of what love turns into after it has sat in the sun a little too long. Kaufman has created quite likely the most complicated characters of the year, all painstakingly stop-motion animated and tear-jerkingly believable. While the slow collision of Stone and Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Cincinnati hotel is simultaneously awkward, painful, and sad, it possesses the clearest explanation of any film in recent memory of why we fall in love in the first place. A masterwork.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book by Walter Isaacson
As mentioned, the top can be a lonely place. Steve Jobs asks the same question as Sorkin's The Social Network: is it possible to be simultaneously decent and gifted? While Jobs has a more definitive (and hopeful) answer, the film is about the journey there - as shown by the career-best performances of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Katherine Waterston. How can a man driven to create the perfect machine be such a lackluster father? What happens when a child who was never part of the plan becomes the only plan that matters? Steve Jobs is like a father quest in reverse. We see the titular character at three major product launches ("The two most significant events of the twentieth century: the Allies win the war, and this.") as each time, he inches closer and closer to being accessible to the one who matters the most. Jobs might have a master plan for his technological vision, but what is the act of creation and how does what we create in turn define the best part of ourselves? Bold questions. Steve Jobs delivers.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel)
Ambitious and impressively acted by Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay (he was eight at the time of filming), Room explores safety, motherly love, and confinement in a method that is at once terrifying and liberating. How is one person's freedom another's prison? Confined to a room with her son for years, Ma tells her child that the room in which they're kept is the entire world. But when the opportunity comes to escape, young Jack must leave behind the only place he's ever felt safe - which is ironically a place of dread for his mother - and suddenly bear the weight of the outside world that he never knew existed. Freedom for Ma, but fear for Jack. How deep does their bond go? How fragile is the trust of a child? Is safety - and home - a place? Or a person? Room is full of compassion but is never overly sentimental. Despite the tight space in which Jack grows up, the space in his mother's heart is truly limitless. Beautifully done.
Amazing performances by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Terrific cinematography (Adam Arkapaw) and a clever interpretation of Shakespeare's text by director Justin Kurzel and writers Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. It's a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way, and its true strength lies in grasping at Macbeth's own guilt and compassion. The tears he cries are real, and they are those of a man who both hates and loves himself and what he has done.
Solid ensemble cast led by the pitch-perfect Bryan Cranston. A film that definitely picks a side, it'll make you smile even as it dramatizes a dark period of American history. When you are a Communist and the country is against Communists, do you give up who you are and capitulate for peace and comfort? Or do you fight, even if it means losing who you hold most dear? When you're told that you can't do the one act that defines who you are, what does that make you? What does that mean for a role model? A husband? A father? Of special note is a compelling performance by Louis C. K. as Arlen Hird, a fictional amalgamation of several of Dalton Trumbo's real-life compatriots.
Great soundtrack and quite likely the best female performance of the year, by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. That said, the film took its time (sometimes too much) as it artfully delved into homesickness, family, and love. Is home where you're from? Wherever you are? Or wherever love lives? A young woman, thousands of miles from her family, must draw strength from those around her and choose between the past and moving forward. Convincingly and effectively acted and directed, even if it took a little too long to arrive there.
Bridge of Spies
American lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) travels into the core of Cold War political intrigue to facilitate a spy exchange between a twitchy America and a labyrinthine, bureaucratic Soviet Russia. The stakes couldn't be higher. But is he nervous? "Would it help?" deadpans Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a magnificent Mark Rylance). Spies is a man's quest to do the right thing while both sides hope to play him to their advantage. By keeping his eyes on the bigger picture and remaining a stedfast pillar of decency while the world around him collapses, Donovan guides the story through to its final, nail-chomping conclusion. Another feather in Spielberg's cap. He's going to need a bigger cap.
Straight Outta Compton
The origin story of NWA, Compton delivers a layer cake of amazing editing and thick irony through its three leads, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.). Tracing the group from first beats to phenomenon, it plays an impressive ping-pong game, keeping multiple balls in the air in the form of the evolving relationships of the core group. Pressure from without from law enforcement and the media are but shadows on the wall compared to the demons that tear the group apart from within. When you're on top, do you remember where you came from? Does the oppressed become the oppressor? Does money and power make you into who you really are? Director F. Gary Gray does a deft job of tracing each character's arc and making each journey unique even if each character's ending forces a bend or a breaking of their dreams.
A worthy entry to the Rocky mythos, and one of its strongest efforts. Creed follows Adonis Johnson (an impressive Michael B. Jordan) as he trains under Rocky's (Sylvester Stallone) tutelage at first to escape and then ultimately to embrace his father's legacy. The power of a name - its inheritance and apotheosis - are strong themes that the film explores far more often outside the boxing ring than within. The nature of strength - we see Rocky at his most frail - and fatherhood are combined in a theme that posits that true strength doesn't come from weightlifting of the physical sort.
Unexpectedly spiritual and the most gorgeous cinematography of the year (Emmanuel Lubezki). Lots of Oscar buzz around DiCaprio - and he was good - but just because he was cold (see Titanic) and ate raw bison shouldn't automatically qualify him for the top acting award. Far more compelling from this viewer's perspective was the journey of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) as they struggled back to civilization. A true battle for Bridger's soul is fought in the far west wilds, and the conflict between him and the pitiless Fitzgerald made for some of the most memorable scenes of the film. I would likely qualify The Revenant as the most brutal film that I've ever seen. When the grizzly bear attacks, every moment of a horrific, longest-five-minutes-ever bear mauling is shown on screen and nothing is left to the imagination. But of true special note is the brutality inherent in two men who want to survive by any means necessary - one of whom is driven by self-interest, the other, revenge.
The Danish Girl
The acting contest between Fassbender's Steve Jobs and Eddie Redmayne's transgendered Lili Elbe is truly a toss-up. How do you make a call between two near-flawless performances? While the film was too long, the chemistry between Redmayne and Alicia Vikander's Gerda Wegener was a pleasure to watch. A convincing love story set amidst early 20th-century cultural and medical misunderstandings of what it meant to be transgendered, The Danish Girl is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. What are the limits of love? If it's love, by definition, does it have limits?
In many ways a companion piece to The Big Short, Homes opens on a victimized homeowner who loses everything in the financial collapse. He turns to his victimizer for a hand up - and ultimately becomes a victimizer, himself. Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern turn in their expected solid performances, but the film's true focus belongs to a sinister Michael Shannon, who plays Rick Carver, a shady real estate broker who has his own reasons for taking advantage of the disadvantaged. Swimming through legal loopholes like Shamu jumps through rings, Carver might very well be the most well-developed, relatable antagonist among this year's releases. Painful to watch with a downer ending, Homes is nonetheless a strong, archetypal tale of the millions who we hear about but never see in a film like The Big Short. When a victim is given power, is it used or abused? Is it right to game the system that gamed you? By the film's end, more than a mortgage is in risk of default.
It's a great time to be a film fan. It's an even greater time to be a filmmaker or a writer. There are so many terrific, current examples to show how it's done right. You have no excuse to delay making something. So make something!
Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.