STORY WRITTEN BY RANDY MYERS
For The San Jose Mercury News/Digital First Media
A one-armed post-apocalyptic survivor searching for her home. A courageous mother trying to give her boy a normal life under unfathomable circumstances. A willful scavenger standing tall next to the iconic likes of Han and Chewie.
These are but a few of the remarkable female characters we encountered in 2015, a grade-A film year that found a plethora of substantial roles for actresses, as well as some new surprises (a flinty iPhone-shot feature titled “Tangerine”) and old favorites (nifty reboots with Rocky Balboa, Mad Max and the “Star Wars” crew, to name but a few).
More quality filmmaking awaits in the wings, which has a bearing on this best-of the-year roundup. Some awards-season contenders — “45 Years,” “The Revenant” and “Son of Saul” — have been released in other markets but won’t hit Bay Area theaters until January, so they were not eligible for this list. Drat!
With that caveat in mind, here then are my favorites of 2015:
1 “Mad Max: Fury Road”: Veteran director George Miller put the pedal to the floorboard for a maniac post-apocalyptic thrill ride co-driven by one of the screen’s most intriguing female action heroes ever — the rage-filled Furiosa (Charlize Theron). “Max” snapped and popped with eye candy and flashy, daring stunt work, but don’t dismiss it as mere pulp fiction. Dig deep and you’ll find all sorts of heady symbolism and commentary, ranging from politics to feminism. It’s a classic.
2 Spotlight”: Director Tom McCarthy corralled a gifted ensemble for this no-nonsense drama about a pack of tenacious Boston Globe journalists unearthing the extent of the Catholic Church sex abuse cover-up. With integrity and conviction, this disciplined film epitomizes what the very best of journalism can accomplish. While the reality that print journalism clings to life support might not be a news flash, “Spotlight” serves as an urgent reminder that we must protect and preserve investigative reporting, no matter the platform it takes.
3 “Mommy”: You probably know Xavier Dolan as the hotshot director of Adele’s black-and-white “Hello” video. What you might not realize is that at just 26, he’s an accomplished filmmaker. His “Mommy” does everything right, illustrating how a complicated, sexually vibrant woman (Anne Dorval) finds herself leading a narrowed-down life as she raises an emotionally volatile son. It sounds routine and obvious, but the execution is anything but as Dolan and Dorval imbue scene after scene with rawness, honesty and passion.
4 “Room”: Yes, it’s about a mother and son held captive for years in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room. Yes, it is harrowing and overwhelmingly sad. But with a gem of a screenplay by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the novel it’s based on, director Lenny Abrahamson presents a beautifully rendered and acted (especially by Brie Larson) testament to the enduring power of love and the human spirit. And it offers hope. We all need that.
5 “Love & Mercy”: It sounds contrived and problematic to have one actor (a standout Paul Dano) play a young version of troubled Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson and another (John Cusack) portraying him later in life. But the result is harmonic. “Love & Mercy” gracefully shows the agony and the ecstasy of being a deeply troubled — and exploited — artist, along with the healing power of love. Expect to be moved.
6 “Ex Machina”: What a year this has been for sci-fi, from “Mad Max” to that latest “Star Wars.” But Alex Garland’s drama was the brainiest of the bunch, a thought-provoking artificial intelligence drama about a beautiful robot (a magnetic Alicia Vikander) facing an existential crisis of sorts. As the genius inventor, Oscar Isaac gave one of the year’s most underrated performances (and that dance sequence is soooo creepy). It’s streaming on Netflix, so get on it!
7 “The Big Short”: Adam McKay’s satire about how a group of financial wizards foresaw the subprime mortgage train wreck and leapt to made a mint off it is shrewd, funny and makes you mad as hell. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Finn Wittrock certainly sell it.
8 “Tangerine”: Sean S. Baker’s raunchy iPhone-shot comedy about a tempestuous L.A. transgender prostitute wanting to get even with the woman her man’s been hanging out with crackles with electricity and authenticity. But it is Mya Taylor as a singer wannabe who is trying to keep her angry friend from going overboard who steals the film and wins your heart.
9 “Straight Outta Compton”: F. Gary Gray’s massive, engrossing and relevant take on the groundbreaking hip-hop group N.W.A. might hew to biopic traditions, but it’s so well done and stuffed with standout performances and powerful scenes, you just don’t mind. It held me in its grip from first scene to last, and that’s saying a lot with a two-and-a-half-hour running time.
10 “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: Initially, I had quibbles with J.J. Abrams’ reboot, thinking it almost played too much like a greatest-hits of the original trilogy. Then I caught an image of Jar Jar Binks from “The Phantom Menace.” Doubts vanished. In one of 2015’s daunting assignments, filmmaker Abrams renovated a broken and bruised “Star Wars” franchise. In the process, he gave us a joyous reunion and a kicky new start for fans and newbies. It’s not as good as “The Empire Strikes Back,” but this is a satisfying reboot with some nifty new characters, especially Rey (Daisy Ridley), and renewed hope for future installments.
Some other top films of the year:
“Beasts of No Nation”
“What We Do in the Shadows”
“The Forbidden Room”
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”