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On Movies: The Best of 2015: The women storm the big screen

After an embarrassing run of years in which meaningful roles for women were scant, 2015 has yielded a rich, varied field of female-driven screen stories.

"Spotlight"Read moreOpen Road Films


After an embarrassing run of years in which meaningful roles for women were scant, 2015 has yielded a rich, varied field of female-driven screen stories. Half of the titles on my 10 Best list are movies that delve deeply into female psyches: Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish immigrant in Brooklyn; Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lovers in Carol (opening Dec. 25); Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart as a stage and screen star and her personal assistant in Clouds of Sils Maria; the Pixar preteen of Inside Out (quite literally a psychological journey); and Brie Larson as the traumatized but intrepid mom of Room.

It's not just the indie dramas, the romances, the rom-coms where women take charge. Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller's high-velocity apocalyptic romp (and one of the top moneymakers of the year) is really mistitled: Call it Mad Furiosa, the name of Charlize Theron's renegade soldier, on a mission to liberate a despot's harem of sex slaves. Tom Hardy is Max, but Theron is in the driver's seat of that runaway tractor-trailer.

From Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, to the collegiate chorusers of Pitch Perfect 2, to Melissa McCarthy's Spy, to Lily Tomlin's Grandma, to Jennifer Lawrence's Joy (opening Dec. 25), women have taken back the multiplexes. There's still a long way to go. Elizabeth Banks (a supporting player in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, in which Katniss Everdeen takes her last bow) is the only female director to crack the year's Top 20 box office list. Pitch Perfect 2 is her doing.

Still, in the year's biggest hit, Jurassic World, the lead actress is an (unintentional?) joke: Bryce Dallas Howard plays the dino park's manager, running for her life in high heels and strategically torn blouse and skirt as the genetically engineered reptiles screech and stomp. The Spielberg-produced spectacle is a throwback, in more ways than one.

Speaking of Spielberg, his Bridge of Spies, a crisp, complex Cold War thriller, almost made it onto my 10 Best list. Mark Rylance's portrait of the Soviet agent Rudolf Abel, the object of a prisoner swap in late-1950s East Berlin, is so masterful as to appear effortless. In Rylance's company, Tom Hanks (who's very good as the American lawyer recruited to negotiate the swap) appears to be trying with all his might.

Other pictures that resonated powerfully: The End of the Tour, with Jason Segel as writer David Foster Wallace; It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's creepy, beautiful psychological horror story; Love & Mercy, about Beach Boy Brian Wilson (especially Paul Dano as the young Brian); Mistress America, with Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke (another complicated female-relationship story); The Revenant, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a fur trader left for dead and bent on revenge in the wild, woolly North American frontier; White God, the Hungarian girl-and-her-dog drama; and Youth (opening Friday), Paolo Sorrentino's English-language follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty.

It opened the Philadelphia Film Festival in October and opens in town Jan. 8. Anomalisa is a collaboration between writer/director Charlie Kaufman and animator Duke Johnson, and although the characters are played by puppets, it is a profoundly human story - about human longing, human failing.

If Ronan doesn't win the best actress prize at February's Academy Awards, well, she has been robbed.

Todd Haynes' take on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a well-to-do wife's love affair with a shopgirl. Filled with heartbreak and yearning.

Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas' melancholy study of the relationship between a star in mid-career and the young woman who functions as her assistant - until the relationship takes a significant turn in a retreat in the Swiss Alps.

In which Ryan Coogler proves he's a writer and director of exceptional talent, in which Michael B. Jordan proves he's a movie star, in which Sylvester Stallone proves why Rocky Balboa is our most beloved Philadelphian. At the end of the movie, Adonis and Rocky are at the top of the Art Museum steps, gazing at the skyline and beyond. "If you look real hard," mumbles Rock, "you can see your whole life from up here."

Ex Machina
The most intelligent sci-fi of the year, about the future of artificial intelligence and the fissure between a billionaire (Oscar Isaac), his earnest techie employee (Domhnall Gleeson, also in Brooklyn), and the sentient 'bot (Alicia Vikander) who comes between them.

Inside Out
An 11-year-old girl's emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness - come to life in Pete Docter's wondrously surprising computer-animated head trip.

The Martian
Matt Damon is an astronaut abandoned on the Red Planet, where he has to figure out how to let NASA know he's still alive - and how to survive until someone can come and get him. The best work from director Ridley Scott in light-years.

A different kind of survival tale, with Larson as a woman imprisoned in a shed, and the astounding Jacob Tremblay as the 5-year-old boy whose only reality is this small, grim space.

The best movie about journalism since All the President's Men, with an ace ensemble cast - Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Liev Schreiber among 'em - digging into the horrific story of pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese.

At a screening and Q&A of Spotlight a few weeks before the film opened here last month, cowriter Josh Singer was asked why they didn't make a documentary on the subject of the Catholic Church sex scandals - why they went with Hollywood stars instead. His response was simple: They wanted people to see the film, and people don't see documentaries.

Cold, hard reality, but also not entirely true. Thanks to new streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, and the continued commitment of HBO and PBS to nonfiction films, docs are finding their audience, and growing the audience, too.

The five nonfiction features this particular audience found the most provocative and compelling this year all revolve around movies and/or music. (Go figure.)

This crushing portrait of the hugely talented and hugely messed-up Amy Winehouse is the first Selfie Age doc, using smartphone video and concert footage to chronicle the rise and devastating fall of the British singer and songwriter.

The Master of Suspense (and master of pervy obsessions) explains himself and his formidable body of work under the keen cross-examinations of fledgling French New Waver Francois Truffaut, while clips from Vertigo and Marnie, Notorious and North By Northwest, The Birds and Psycho cast their spell.

Listen to Me Marlon
Just as the voice of Hitchcock provides the narrative through-line to Hitchcock/Truffaut, hours and hours of Marlon Brando's audio recordings - candid, canny reflections on his life, his craft, his family, his career - drive this revelatory first-person doc. Brando is his own best biographer.

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Tracing Nina Simone's almost accidental career as a jazz singer, her increasingly radical stance as a black activist, her struggle with mental illness. Miss Simone blazed trails, burned bridges, and left a remarkable library of songs by which to remember her.

The Wolfpack
Crystal Moselle's Sundance-winning portrait of the Angulo brothers, six New York housing-project kids who were kept virtual prisoners in their apartment and who learned about life from watching movies on TV - over and over and over again. Acting out scenes from The Godfather, from The Dark Knight, from Reservoir Dogs, these home-schooled siblings grew up with a strange but surprisingly sunny view of the world.

There's nothing sunny or surprising about the following five films, failures of imagination and intellect, integrity and good sense. One of these (take a guess) was, nonetheless, a massive hit.

Neill Blomkamp's bomb camp sci-fi flick, about robot police and Sigourney Weaver throwing hissy fits. The dumbest movie about artificial intelligence ever.

Bloated and belated screen spin-off of the HBO series about fast friends from New Yawk who make it big in Hollywood (well, one of them does, anyway). Macho bluster, frat-boy sexism, and movie-world narcissism reign supreme. Supremely depressing, that is.

Fifty Shades of Grey
"It's important that you know you can leave at anytime," Christian Grey tells Anastasia Steele, introducing her to various whips, chains, and S&M gear. So leave already. Amazingly, Dakota Johnson emerges from this soft-core scrap with her dignity (and career) intact. The aforementioned massive hit, with a worldwide gross of almost $600 million.

Jupiter Ascending
From the minds behind The Matrix, a mindless space opera with the woefully miscast Mila Kunis as the unwitting heir to an intergalactic kingdom, and a comically ludicrous Eddie Redmayne as the villain from another universe.

Ricki and the Flash
Meryl Streep as a hard-drinkin' rock-and-roll mama called home to tend to a long-estranged, suicidal daughter. Sophie's Choice it's not.