The Best Performances of 2015

I recently shared my Top 20 films of the year, but while 2015 is still young and its great films are months away, there’s still time to look back at 2015. In this post I’ll name my favorite lead and supporting performances, along with my favorite scenes of the year “The Year in Miscellaneous Superlatives.”

Happily, this year featured tons of fantastic performances from women! I had a tough time coming up with even five lead actors, but there were a wealth of great lead actresses to choose from. So this year, I couldn’t help it: I’ve named ten.

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The Top 20 Films of 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Many critics are hailing 2015 as a banner year in cinema, offering an embarrassment of riches from which to create year-end lists such as this one. And it’s true: the sheer number (and wide range) of worthy films probably outpaces the last few years. To me, 2015 boasted lots of surprisingly strong films, but perhaps very few truly great ones. Nothing, for example, would surpass my four 5-star films from last year: Boyhood, Goodbye to Language, Inherent Vice and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Nonetheless, there are lots of terrific films to get to, and perhaps a stronger overall list than average. In particular, I think 2015 is the year Hollywood got it right. From the too-weird-to-be-mainstream Mad Max: Fury Road to the sincere and soulful Creed, multiplex fare was quite compelling. But don’t worry, true to form I also have a few foreign films and smaller releases to tout as I count down my Top 20 films of 2015.

Honorable Mentions: In Jackson Heights, The Look of Silence, What We Do in the Shadows
Regrets: Anomalisa, Son of Saul, Arabian Nights, Brooklyn, 45 Years
A list of all 2015 releases I’ve seen is available here.

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The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant / Alejandro González Iñárritu / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Natural photography; Score; Focus on mood
Side Effects: Length; Revenge theme; Closeups and long takes


Despite its violence, brutality and harrowingly intimate chronicling of struggling, The Revenant becomes, surprisingly, a film about goodness, even grace.

Ostensibly, structurally a revenge story, The Revenant transcends that shallow, constricting emotion. It seems to sidestep revenge as if by feel, learning to overcome its seduction as the film flows forward, but there’s an understanding (a vague one perhaps, but an understanding nonetheless) of its emptiness deep in the film’s bones. You can see it in its many skyward glances, minimizing the experiences of its characters in favor of some more cosmic drama; you can hear it in its patient, organic score, echoing the breath of life. Read more…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens / J.J. Abrams / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: It’s Star Wars!; New cast; Worldbuilding details
Side Effects: Familiar action sequences; Obligation to mythology

With expectations high and saddled with the burden of years of nostalgia and familiarity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely be judged not on its own merits but as an extension of that very nostalgia and familiarity. And how could it not be? How could an audience with so much cultural baggage approach anything in this universe with anything like objectivity? It’s a strange position for a 2015 film to be in, franchise blockbuster or not, but The Force Awakens takes on this challenge by embracing our familiarity itself. Read more…

Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight / Tom McCarthy / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Editorial vision and good sense; Pace; Details of journalism
Side Effects: Lack of emphasis on the individual; Repetitive structure

At one point in Spotlight, the team of Boston Globe reporters investigating sex abuse in the Catholic church decides to “follow the system, not the man.” With a detective’s methodology and singularity of focus, they’ll research the overarching system that allowed rampant abuse to take place rather than scrutinize the psychology of any one offender. Tom McCarthy’s absorbing journalistic procedural could be said to follow the same editorial vision. Read more…

The Mend (2015)

The Mend / John Magary / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Nervy feel; Assured tone and cinematography
Side Effects: Grotesque, exaggerated behavior; Unsuccessful comedy

With touches of the surreal and a jagged, lurching pulse, The Mend turns what is ostensibly a black sheep comedy into a nervy, altogether unfamiliar experience. Read more…

In Jackson Heights (2015)

In Jackson Heights / Frederick Wiseman / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Structure; Montages; Observational acuteness
Side Effects: Less compelling aesthetically than other Wiseman films

[In Jackson Heights plays at Boston’s MFA from Nov. 18 to Nov. 29.]

Early in Frederick Wiseman’s latest in-depth slice of cinéma vérité, a politician and community organizer praises Jackson Heights, Queens, as “the most diverse community on Earth—literally.” With some 160 languages spoken within a 300 acre plot of city blocks, the neighborhood may indeed be a unique melting pot, the kind of American community exalted by our nation’s ideals but rarely realized. And, as Wiseman shows with characteristic focus and investigative savvy, this diverse and authentic community may be the latest victim of the ever-encroaching pall of gentrification.

In Jackson Heights is stylistically akin to Wiseman’s last two great films, At Berkeley and National Gallery. With each project, the director takes a physical location and crafts an elegant observational portrait, documenting events and figures both important and peripheral and weaving together a mammoth, yet somehow unassuming synecdoche of the space. Whether about a university, an art museum or an urban space, Wiseman’s films capture something of the spirit of a location, revealing its inner workings by observing its outward appearance. Read more…