The most invigorating story told this year happened on the small screen.
The second season of FX’s “Fargo” lapped anything at your local theater this year. That’s hardly a condemnation of 2015’s movie lineup. How many two-hour tales could top FX’s sprawling, near-perfect arc?
The past year still had some jaw-dropping surprises (“Ant-Man” was … good!) and dreck disguised as Oscar bait (“Truth” … or a near-total lack thereof).
In between came the following 10 films that reassured us the medium still packs a wallop.
- “Creed” – And you though the greatest comeback story since “Rocky” was Sylvester Stallone crafting a smart sixth installment in an exhausted franchise. Yes, “Rocky Balboa” seemed too
good to be true, but “Creed” goes beyond its undeniable pleasures. Focusing on young Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late champ Apollo Creed, gave the series some much-needed vitality. That proved true behind the camera as well. “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler showed he understand the Rocky saga down to its DNA. And then there’s Rocky himself. Stallone didn’t phone in this performance. He lived it. It’s so heartbreaking, so perfect in every blue-collar detail it’s hard to believe Stallone has been sleepwalking through action fare for the past decade. This country needs another “Rocky” story more than ever. Thank the stars it came just in time.
- “The Martian” – Matt Damon remains one of our most underrated actors. It took some bad disco songs, a fecal-fueled potato farm and one lonely planet to remind us. This is science fiction with brains, not brawn. The survival story speaks to the human spirit without pandering. It’s hopelessly aspirational but rarely sappy. Director Ridley Scott “gets” space, but it’s how he collaborates with Damon’s lost astronaut that gives the story its energy.
- “The Walk” – Who needed a narrative reboot of “Man on Wire,” the documentary showing how a Frenchman turned The Twin Towers into his personal jungle gym? Director Robert Zemeckis understood Philippe Petit’s famous walk wasn’t just an acrobatic wonder. It was the American experiment roaring to life. Joseph Gordon-Levitt lovingly hams it up as the acrobat, but Zemeckis uses 3D filmmaking to turn the film’s signature walk into a white-knuckle treat.
- “Spotlight” – It’s both a great movie and an antidote to the rancid “Truth.” Writer/director Tom McCarthy could have used the Boston Globe’s expose on the Catholic Church’s abuse cover-up to slam organized religion or deify the reporters cracking the case. Instead, the film teems with small Beantown moments and the kind of shoe-leather reporting that’s as out of date as eight-track tapes. Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to lose his way a few years back, delivers yet another superlative turn as the heart of the Spotlight team.
- “Brooklyn” – Hollywood has all but given up on big-screen romances. The rom-com is justifiably dead, and there’s no Tom Hanks doppelganger ready to apply the defibrillator paddles. The studios would rather have a superhero wink at his or her love interest than revel in true love. Along comes this indie gem, and suddenly cinematic courtship is back in style. Oh, and it’s equally good at showcasing the immigrant experience circa the 1950s. Consider Saoirse Ronan’s transition from child actress to leading lady complete.
- “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – Is there anything more infuriating than a teen comedy drowning in quirk? Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon juggles death, teen angst and some cutesy movie homages with just the right amount of whimsy. The result? A box office letdown deservedly bound for cult status. It’s funny, bittersweet and rarely rings a false note.
- “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – It’s the “Fast and Furious” of the spy genre, a
franchise getting better and more rewarding with each sequel. Tom Cruise does too many stunts for his own good, but it made every death-defying moment sizzle. This is popcorn entertainment done right. Bold characters. Crackling comic relief. And a love interest (Rebecca Ferguson) worthy of her own “M:I” spinoff. Hint, hint..
- “The Revenant” – Too many “bear love” headlines threatened to turn the movie into a punchline. The movie’s opening sequence distinguishes that nonsense mighty quick. From there, it’s Survivalism 101 with Leonardo DiCaprio willing himself to live long enough to right a tragic wrong. Bravura filmmaking, a haunting score and a bear assault as grisly as anything we’ve seen before make this one unforgettable experience.
- “Room” – Two characters. One cramped, foul room. The story opens like a sci-fi nightmare but it’s simply the tale of a parent protecting her child at all costs. Brie Larson belongs on the A list thanks to her revelatory performance. She unearths an inner strength to protect her child (Jacob Tremblay) from a fate no soul should endure.
- “Cinderella” – “If it ain’t broke … don’t fix it,” right? So why can’t Hollywood leave well enough alone when it’s time to re-tell classic kiddie tales? Everything old is given an unappealing coat of fresh paint or made hip and ironic. Director Kenneth Branagh strangles those impulses. In doing so, he captures the story’s beauty without talking down to younger audiences. It’s magic pure and simple.