It’d be enough just to spread a message of optimism, but “Inside Out” goes above and beyond by choosing to illustrate the importance of feeling sad and being open about one’s emotions.
1. Inside Out
Pixar’s animated movies are famously both kid-friendly and parent-friendly, and this year’s “Inside Out” continues that pattern. By telling the story of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, “The Shifting”) through the personification of her emotions, the film perfectly grasps the delicate balance of the feelings that wage war in our minds. It’d be enough just to spread a message of optimism, but “Inside Out” goes above and beyond by choosing to illustrate the importance of feeling sad and being open about one’s emotions. In addition, it’s hilarious and imaginative, crafting a complex interior world of memory orbs and islands representing Riley’s biggest passions. TV comedy stars Amy Poehler (“Parks & Recreation”) and Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) are perfect as Joy and Sadness, but who could forget Bing Bong (Richard Kind, “Red Oaks”), the year’s most heartbreaking tragic character? “Inside Out” shows that Pixar’s ability to create the funniest, most affecting movies of the year won’t be ending anytime soon.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Someday, there will be a wonderful documentary in the vein of “Hearts of Darkness” about the making of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The film went to development hell and back — and emerged an iron-clad war machine, roaring its engines and screeching its tires through the cosmic roads of Valhalla. Here, the unparalleled star power of Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and Charlize Theron (“Prometheus”) combines with impeccable cinematography and heavy reliance on practical action setpieces to form a rhythmic chase movie that’s simultaneously larger-than-life and painfully human. This is a tremendous action film that even manages to eschew the “guy movie” label with its refreshing inclusivity. It’s amazing to see a new blockbuster that excels in both cinema art and crowd-pleasing so flawlessly. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an achievement that anyone can enjoy.
For 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (“The Smurfs 2”), who plays 5-year-old Jack, this will be known as “the performance that started it all.” As Jack and his 24-year-old mother, Ma (Brie Larson, “The Spectacular Now”), physically and mentally transition from their kidnapped life in captivity in a tiny shed to “the real world,” emotions spin out of control both on screen and in the audience. Instead of distinct bursts of sadness, anger, or happiness, it’s a powerful movie-long sensation of sadnessangerhappiness.
Watching a young boy experience his firsts (first friend, first bowl of ice cream, first haircut) while also seeing his mother struggle with PTSD makes us feel everything at once. Composer Stephen Rennicks enhances these moments with a soundtrack that causes streams of crocodile tears just as a wide smile starts to spread. When the end credits appear, this amalgamation of emotions subsides and one thought remains: our past is and always will be a part of us, but it doesn’t define us.
Unlike most stories based on true events, “Spotlight” is not a hero’s film. Portraying the journalists who uncovered the 2002 child abuse scandal in Boston’s Catholic diocese, the film adopts its reporters’ restraint and illuminates the story rather than engaging in “prestige cinema” self-promotion. Stripped of stylistic frills and cheap sensationalization, no one escapes its critical eye. Both the victim and perpetrators’ lawyers navigate moral grey areas; the secretive, bureaucratic Church culture protected and normalized priestly abuse, and even The Boston Globe ignored the story years ago. Refreshingly, the complexities of each party’s strategic decisions are not demonized, glorified, or glamourized. The victim portrayals are also handled with care, appealing to audience empathy without exploiting personal experiences.
This unobtrusive cinematic philosophy lets “Spotlight” ask big-picture questions. How do institutional structures affect transparency? Are strategic sacrifices morally unacceptable or necessary? And most importantly, if people all over Boston turned a blind eye to this for years, what could you be missing?
“Brooklyn” follows a woman faced with a series of tough alternatives. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) loves living at home in small-town Ireland with her mother and sister — but what if she left for America and forged an independent life? Eilis loves Tony (Emory Cohen, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) — but what about all the other men out there, especially the ones she has more in common with? Eilis finds a spot of happiness in her rapidly-changing life— but what if homesickness and grief threaten to wreck it all? What’s a girl to do?
It speaks to “Brooklyn” ’s quality that viewers are so immediately invested in Eilis’s fate. You’re right there with her, weighing every option, feeling every stab of pain and smiling at every turn of fate. Saoirse Ronan provides Eilis with the subtle shades of a true master. Her nuanced performance is easily one of the best of the year. Eilis is a relatable everywoman, but she — and the film itself — doesn’t want for surprises. “Brooklyn” isn’t a thriller (thankfully, there aren’t any explosions or jewel heists), but the movie successfully ramps up the tension and delivers unexpected delight.
A beautiful web of secrets and suspense, “Phoenix” takes a loud plot and quiets it, finding power in subtlety rather than overt drama. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, “Barbara”), rendered unrecognizable in a concentration camp, returns to Berlin at the end of the war in search of her husband. She finds him at Phoenix, the location of her prewar gig as a nightclub singer. He doesn’t recognize her but offers a cut of her own inheritance if she agrees to impersonate herself. Why does she agree to it? We don’t know, for “Phoenix” itself is as secretive as its characters, keeping its audience on the edge of epiphany. Because it doesn’t get lost in its own plot, the film is able to become a powerful picture of the world in the aftermath of trauma, where victims and their tormentors walk the streets together. “Phoenix” is a mystery of identity, a drama of betrayal, and a beautiful testament to human survival capped by one of the strongest final scenes in recent history.
In a year filled with franchise reboots like “Mad Max” and “Star Wars,” “Creed” rises above them all. Taking the “Rocky” mythos and turning it on its head, director Ryan Coogler delivers an honest and often brutal picture about fathers and names. It’s a distinctly millennial meditation — making a name in a world already dominated by those of our parents — that’s placed front and center in the unforgiving, vicious boxing ring. The struggle of our hero, Adonis Creed, perfectly interlinks with the struggle of his mentor, Rocky Balboa, a relic of a time long past, searching for meaning in the modern day.
The result is a beautiful reflection of love, legacy and family, captured by some of the finest cinematography of the year (including a one-shot, two round fight scene), tense action, powerful performances and a marvelous score. “Creed” has the heart of a fighter, and the punch of a champion.
8. The End of the Tour
How much can someone learn about a person after spending less than a week with him? Throughout James Ponsoldt’s (“The Spectacular Now”) “The End of the Tour,” writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”) tries to glean as much as he can as he profiles author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother”) during his press tour for Infinite Jest in 1996.
Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, is a challenging figure for Lipsky to grasp as he records every conversation, verbally sparing with someone the young interviewer views progressively as an idol, rival and potential friend. Wallace is a being of his interviewer’s shifting perception, becoming, in many ways, Lipsky’s (and the film’s) interpretation of the real person, condensed by the profound and inane sound bites caught by the tape recorder. Only when the red light of the recorder fades out do the judgments stop and the man that is David Foster Wallace emerge, a man of brilliance, insecurity and loneliness, not at all unlike Lipsky.
“I’m not so sure you want to be me,” Wallace says as the pair part ways. “I don’t,” Lipsky replies. “The End of the Tour” intimately recounts one man’s encounter with his “hero” and how the real thing is never what is initially perceived.
9. The Martian
When we go to the movies, we tend to pick stories that veer radically from the regular patterns of our own lives — watching characters navigate settings anywhere from the complete madness within a sector of our own society in “The Wolf of Wall Street” to futuristic alternate universes, like that of “The Hunger Games.” Although these stories are strange and incredible, there’s still a sense in the back of our minds that we could do that. We could live like that, if we had to.
“The Martian” is not that movie. Mark Watney (Matt Damon, “The Bourne Identity”) is a NASA botanist left on Mars and presumed dead after a powerful space storm forces the rest of his crew to leave him behind. Estimated to survive only several days with barely any food or water and no communication with Earth, he instead manages to colonize the planet by growing potato plants in a landscape that previously has never harbored life. Every move Watney makes is more mind-blowingly smart than the next, and although he manages to make water from thin air and launch a space shuttle entirely independently, these only lead to his most incredible feat — surviving.
Amy Schumer (“Inside Amy Schumer”) lives up to her reputation as one of the wittiest comedians in the industry, but beware: this isn’t your mother’s rom-com. Schumer’s character, Amy, a wild, promiscuous magazine writer who doesn’t believe in monogamy, considers changing her ways when she falls for Aaron, the doctor she is profiling for her next article (Bill Hader, “Inside Out”). The tension between her old lifestyle and her connection with Aaron spins the trope of a woman trying to live up to her partner’s standards on its head. John Cena and Ezra Miller’s roles as her gym rat boyfriend and intern, respectively, are bizarre but hilarious highlights. The film manages to reach surprisingly sentimental heights in its approach to Amy’s bitter father who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Though the couple ends up happily ever after, true to the genre, the authenticity of its dynamic characters keep the story from being predictable.