A good year at the movies? Honestly, more of a weird year. Quirky. A year filled with many provocative, edgy endeavors but no single front-runner that outdistances the pack during awards season.
That’s why my list of 10 favorite films of 2015 is presented in alphabetical order. They are equally commendable in many respects.
Devastated by bad relationships, addictions and ultimately her own fame, Amy Winehouse became another casualty to join the “27 Club” of pop musicians who died at that young age. Director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) weaves a heartbreaking documentary about the British soul singer who became the best-selling artist in Britain during the 2000s.
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There are no talking heads in this portrait of the “Rehab” star, just archival footage, home movies and behind-the-scenes performance videos. “Amy” is undeniably poignant, but the other takeaway is how immensely talented Winehouse was as a writer and vocalist. (Now on video.)
Subtle but resonant, “Brooklyn” finds Saoirse Ronan playing a timid Irish girl in the 1950s who leaves the smothering comfort of her insular community for the far-away city of the title. Soon, she’s being pulled back home, with suitors stationed in both countries adding complications.
Nick Hornby’s lush adaptation of the Colm Tóibín novel nails a very specific time and place yet proves extraordinarily universal. It expertly captures the toll of dislocation on a young soul. (Now in theaters.)
While the masses were counting down the hours to the latest “Star Wars” release, two of its cast members quietly headed an actual “science fiction” movie. “Ex Machina” explores themes of identity and humanity in bold ways.
Domhnall Gleeson portrays a computer programmer invited to participate in a weeklong experiment at the isolated estate of his genius CEO (Oscar Isaac). It involves artificial intelligence housed in the frame of a gorgeous robot (Alicia Vikander).
Filmmaker Alex Garland stages a moody chamber piece concerning the blurring of love, sex and technology that remains as creepy as it is tantalizing. (Now on video.)
Pixar’s strongest outing of the decade also comes across as the animation giant’s most personal … and downright existential. “Inside Out” showcases what takes place in the mind of young Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) after moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. We see how she is regulated by primal emotions, which manifest themselves in five temperaments: Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
Few movies have ever captured the simultaneous sorrow and pleasure of what it means to grow up. (Now on video.)
“Love & Mercy”
The tortured artist biopic finds a fresh approach when examining Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson. He’s studied in two phases of his life: played by Paul Dano as a nervous prodigy crafting the “Pet Sounds” record in the mid-1960s and by John Cusack as a doped-up patient of an unscrupulous psychologist (Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s. The older Wilson earns a reprieve thanks to the involvement of a strong-willed woman (Elizabeth Banks) he encounters at a Cadillac dealership.
The flashbacks are particularly stirring, both at presaging a mental breakdown and detailing the artistic process. (Now on video.)
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
Lunacy permeates every scene of the “Mad Max” reboot. Original filmmaker George Miller largely shuns digital effects when concocting a post-apocalyptic free-for-all of gas-driven mayhem. (Sure makes “Furious 7” look like a wussy video game.) Crashes, stunts and fight choreography combine for an old-school action epic headlined by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.
No movie supplies a more arresting array of images than “Fury Road.” Where else can viewers find someone like Coma the Doof Warrior, a blind mutant who rides a truck lined with amps and speakers while shredding on a guitar/flamethrower hybrid? (Now on video.)
A high stakes morality play that really puts one in the mindset of the hero, “99 Homes” should deliver an Oscar in the supporting category for Michael Shannon. He plays a predatory real estate agent who specializes in flipping houses snatched from the recently evicted.
That’s how he meets a down-on-his-luck construction worker and single dad (a terrific Andrew Garfield) to groom as his new protégé.
The eviction scenes pulse with agonizing reality. Sucking on an e-cigarette as he sucks the respectability out of his victims, Shannon is absolutely mesmerizing. “Only one in a hundred’s gonna get on that ark, son,” he snarls. “Every other poor soul’s gonna drown.” (On video in February.)
Two of the year’s best performances collide in one of the most unusual setups. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her 2010 novel, “Room” finds Joy (Brie Larson) raising her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), in a locked, shabby shed. They haven’t been allowed to leave since he was born, so the kid has learned to live, grow and dream within these confines.
How they got there and where it leads won’t be spoiled in this summary. The haunting drama mines the nature of freedom versus imprisonment, and why each comes with its own set of emotional borders. (Now in theaters.)
An aura of mounting dread saturates “Sicario.” The title means “hitman” in Spanish, which doesn’t make much sense until the full scope of the plot is revealed. Emily Blunt stars as a judicious FBI agent drafted into a shadowy task force (led by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin) fighting a drug cartel along the U.S./Mexico border.
Written by “Sons of Anarchy” actor Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”), the film presents a moral quagmire punctuated by phenomenal sequences of sustained suspense. (Now in theaters; on video in January.)
A 13-year-old girl (Zsófia Psotta) gets separated from her dog, leading to a soul-searching quest toward reunion. Sound like a Disney movie? Hardly. The Hungarian Cannes winner is more “12 Years a Slave” than “The Incredible Journey.”
Filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó unleashes a biting parable about society’s marginalized minorities that also functions as a coming-of-age story, a grueling thriller and a masterpiece of visual storytelling. A mixed breed for sure. (Now on video.)
▪ “The Revenant”
▪ “The Gift”
▪ “Kingsman: The Secret Service”
▪ “The Big Short”
▪ “The End of the Tour”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”