No studio in the history of the film industry has enjoyed a better year than Universal Pictures’ 2015 — and it accomplished it in only seven months. Ample critical acclaim for its films is one thing, but the box office numbers — which are what really matters in Hollywood — are mind-blowing. The studio commanded a nearly 24 percent market share of all box office grosses, which totaled nearly $2.4 billion domestically, and seven of its 22 films grossed more than $100 million. What’s more, having Jurassic World ($652 million), Furious Seven ($353 million), Minions ($336 million) and Pitch Perfect 2 ($184 million) be such runaway hits makes up for the disappointments of Crimson Peak (only $31 million) and Steve Jobs (a paltry $17 million).
But enough about numbers and studio bragging rights. This wasn’t a great year for movies, but the films that stand out seem more a reflection of our times than the products of any other year in recent memory. Here are our 10 best movies of 2015:
10) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD At a time when action movies readily objectify women but rarely let them be heroes, this film — for all its nonstop action, crazy stunts, memorable characters, morbid storyline and bold visual choices — made Charlize Theron’s Furiosa arguably the strongest, most butt-kicking character of all. The entire movie is a stylish two-hour action scene that’s pure adrenaline. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
9) BEST OF ENEMIES The best documentary of 2015 chronicles the war of words in televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley during the 1968 presidential election year’s political conventions. Cordial political discourse this is not; it’s a treat to watch these heavyweight windbags sadistically go at it, and scary when we realize this is par for the course for TV pundits today. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
8) THE WALK I’m still sweating from the finale of Frenchman Philippe Petit on a high wire strung between the World Trade Towers in the summer of 1974. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is captivating as Petit, and when the visual effects put you on that wire 110 stories above the New York City pavement, hold on tight. What an experience. On Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 5.
7) CAROL A beautiful love story, beautifully told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are superb as women in 1952 who fall in love and yearn to be together in a society that doesn’t know how to accept homosexuality. The production design, costumes and musical score are also sublime. In theaters now.
6) STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON Musical biopics have a way of hitting the same beats (pun intended), but this story, about pioneer hip-hop group N.W.A., resonated at a higher level. It clicks with a racial tension still felt in some parts of America today, then hits you with an emotional ending you didn’t see coming (unless you already knew the story). If only all musical biopics were this good. Available on Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 19.
5) BROOKLYN Saoirse Ronan is outstanding as an Irish émigré in 1950s Brooklyn, New York, in this beautifully shot drama from director John Crowley (Intermission). It’s about the immigrant experience, the heart being torn between homes new and old, and the invigoration and conflicts that come with falling in love. Ronan gives the performance of the year as she takes us through the heroine’s journey — a Best Actress nomination is surely forthcoming. In theaters now.
4) INFINITELY POLAR BEAR From the best female lead performance to the best male lead performance — this movie came and went criminally quick over the summer, which was a shame, given Mark Ruffalo’s standout turn as a bipolar father of two daughters who’s left to care for the girls when his wife moves to New York City. It’s funny, sweet and poignant, a genuinely inspiring heart-warmer that deserves to be seen. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
3) THE BIG SHORT Great star power (Brad Pitt,
Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei), surprising humor and masterful direction headline this superb work by director Adam McKay, heretofore best known for Will Ferrell comedies. At the beginning of the film, you may not be familiar with the housing market crisis of 2008 or understand why the economy crashed shortly thereafter, but you can be darn sure it’ll all make sense by the time you leave. Explaining it all so clearly is a masterstroke by McKay. In theaters now.
2) SPOTLIGHT No-frills storytelling at its absolute best. What’s great about co-writer and director Tom McCarthy’s film is how it so rarely resorts to histrionics for effect. This is about The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and the pursuit for the truth provides all the tension and suspense we can handle. The more we learn, the more eager we are for the reporters to “nail these scumbags,” as Mark Ruffalo’s intrepid reporter passionately emotes. In theaters now.
1) THE MARTIAN In a year full of crazy extravaganzas, this was the most extravagant of all. Matt Damon gives the performance of his career as astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist who’s left behind on Mars after a storm forces his crew to evacuate. Director Ridley Scott deftly balances Mark’s survival, NASA’s rescue attempts and Mark’s crew as they travel back to Earth in a way that logically builds tension and looks absolutely fabulous. It’s an exciting, invigorating, and altogether spectacular movie that in a just world will get a Best Picture Oscar nod. Available on home video Jan. 12.