By Richard von Busack
The top 10 films of 2015
Beasts of No Nation
Bridge of Spies
Love and Mercy
Son of Saul
World of Tomorrow (short by Don Hertzfeldt)
A few years ago, during the height of the Frat Pack, there were so many males on screen that you wondered if they’d passed some Elizabethan-style law against women actors. But maybe someone was listening to the despair of filmgoers, because look at the year we just had. Daisy Ridley’s Rey rejuvenates Star Wars: The Force Awakens, handsomely countering George Lucas’ tendency to turn the far and few women in his space operas into wax statues.
We had the true aim of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Mad Max was upstaged by Charlize Theron’s Mad Maxine. There was Jessica Chastain as the master of the interplanetary Hermes in The Martian. There was 007’s companion Lea Seydoux giving Blofeld a well-deserved facial with high explosives. And Bond’s troubles would have been fewer if he had teamed up with Melissa McCarthy in Spy.
The documentary Amy was a warning to bright, talented girls who believe that they should give their souls over to love, as much as it was a CSI examination of a fragile woman done to death. Compare Amy Winehouse’s troubles with the firm backbone of the lonely but brave Eilis, played by Saorise Ronan—maybe the single most stirring performance of the year in Brooklyn. There was Shu Qi’s lovelorn killer in 8th century China in The Assassin, and Elizabeth Banks’ charm-school-educated saleswoman who learns how to stand her ground against a master manipulator in Love and Mercy.
It can be hoped that Alicia Vikander’s tremendous acting in Ex Machina shook the obscene self-confidence of the engineers plotting the next step in artificial intelligence. As a womanoid, engineered to look shy, flirty and frail, Ex Machina savagely critiqued the damsel in distress that activates so many movies.
Inside Out’s gumball machine version of a girl-child’s mind was, above all, pretty. Yet this was a movie trafficking in something that a few years ago would have been judged absolutely unsellable: The inner life of a maturing young female. The semi-animated Diary of a Teenage Girl took up the next interior chapter in one girl’s life.
Don Hertzfeldt’s poignant World of Tomorrow could be the last stage of this particular fanciful arc—a woman heading off into the solar system, but allowed by the magic of time travel to converse with her toddler-aged grandmother.
The most noble function of cinema is seen in its opposition to fanaticism in all forms—it’s an old fight that goes back as far as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, celebrating its centennial next year. At their best, the movies civilize us with visions that make us understand each other, to let us know what it’s like to have a different skin, a different tongue, a different sex.