Fact trumped fiction at the movies in 2015—at least in the majority of my favorite films. There’s often more truth than strict historical fact in anything calling itself a “true story” onscreen, but a lot of entries in my Top Ten had at least a nodding acquaintance with historical reality. Stream these for a happy New Year!
TRUMBO Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with edgy, raging wit in Jay Roach’s entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s. A movie for anyone interested in backstage Hollywood stories, the craft and business of screenwriting, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering.
SONG OF THE SEA Anyone who loves seals, ancient Celtic folklore, or mythology will be charmed by Tomm Moore’s ravishing, hand-drawn Irish animated feature, combining traditional selkie tales with a stunning visual palette, and an endearing tale of a young girl and her destiny.
COMING HOME Oceans of feeling roil beneath the surface in Zhang Yimou’s spare, resonant story whose characters will break your heart. At the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a schoolteacher and her teenage daughter await the return of her husband from a labor camp, but when he arrives, his amnesiac wife no longer recognizes him. A chamber piece for three voices, full of small exquisite notes to be savored.
IRIS A fixture on the New York City design scene for more than 60 years, 93-year-old Iris Apfel proves that fashion has no expiration date. With her wry wit and easy laugh, she’s a beguiling subject for this lively doc by legendary Albert Maysles.
DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL A 15-year-old girl navigates the tightrope between child and adult in Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel. It’s a fresh, poignant female coming-of-age drama set in 1976 San Francisco—a liberating, yet dangerous world of almost no taboos. Star Bel Powley makes an impressive debut.
LOVE & MERCY Paul Dano is terrific as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson in the 1960s, at the height of his creative genius, in Bill Pohlad’s generally absorbing fiction film. John Cusack is effective as the ’80s-model Brian, and it’s all connected by a fabulous, gluttonous feast of Wilson music, from surf tunes to Smile.
INSIDE OUT In the mission control center of the brain, where five key emotions constantly jockey for position, a foul-up in the control booth temporarily disconnects an 11-year-old from her personality. A trek through the adolescent brain is needed to set things right—a journey both hilarious and moving in Pete Docter’s smart, animated Pixar movie.
THE DANISH GIRL In the 1920s, real-life Danish painter Einar Wegener was one of the first people to have sexual reassignment surgery, transitioning into a woman, Lili Elbe. Tom Hooper tells the larger story of the evolving relationship between Wegener and his wife. Nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander highlight this compassionate portrait of love and identity.
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir inspires James Kent’s searing, heartfelt drama. Maintaining Brittain’s focus on the minutiae of women’s daily lives, and the encroachment of war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a broad canvas in delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.
STEVE JOBS Leave it to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin to come up with a punchy way to distill the complex story of the visionary who invented Apple computers. Sorkin’s sharp script, and the propulsive energy of Danny Boyle’s direction make for an entertaining biographical drama.
Most Egregious Misfire: Pan. Oh, please.
Guilty Pleasure: A Little Chaos. Harry Potter’s Snape (Alan Rickman, who also directs) as Louis XIV. Kate Winslet as a female landscape designer at Versailles. Plausible? Not remotely, but still loads of fun.
Comeback Kid: The Star Wars franchise. J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens recaptures the spirit of the 1977 original—by replicating all the original elements: desert planet, lost droid, cantina scene, Storm Troopers, space pilots, ominous father-son relations. With a few fun twists, like a female protagonist, and a chance to see our favorite characters 30-plus years on.