The story of the year in cinema finally arrived in the last two weeks of 2015. It had its roots in a galaxy far, far away.
Make no mistake — when critics make lists or give awards for the year’s best films, it’s all very nice that they mention little gems like “Carol” or serious pictures like “Spotlight.” This year, there’s even been stubborn support for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the rare multiplex action flick that garners critical praise.
But the utter domination of Disney’s “Star Wars” wager — a brilliantly managed coup across all platforms, as they say — almost certainly has bigger implications than anybody imagined. On the one hand, it confirms our culture’s yearning to perpetual youth; so close is the movie to its original source, it’s practically a return to the womb.
On a somewhat more encouraging note, the Force’s awakening reveals the need for the communal experience. Not so fast there, Netflix-and-chill future. People still like to gather and celebrate in large groups — even in the era when going to theaters may carry a risk of terrorist attention. Happily, that dark side didn’t stand a chance against the Force.
If big movies got more childlike, there was plenty to be challenged by in 2015. American indies had their best crop in years, from gutsy debuts like “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Tangerine” to misfit creations like “Buzzard” and “The Mend.”
Lots of terrific foreign filmmakers working various edges still struggled to find a niche in the arthouse box office. At one time unusual pictures such as “La Sapienza” and “Amour Fou” might’ve caught on and become cult pictures, but it’s hard to find a spot in this saturated movie market.
Westerns had a good year — Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” and “The Revenant” (not yet released here, but a 2015 film) led the way, not forgetting the quirky “Slow West.” But did anybody see “Bone Tomahawk”? Has anybody even heard of “Bone Tomahawk”? Because this gory horror-Western is a true original.
Other winners included older actors, with meaty lead roles for pros like Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”), Ian McKellen (“Mr. Holmes”), and Michael Caine (“Youth”). But one older actor must be counted among the year’s losers: the beloved Bill Murray. “Rock the Kasbah” and “Aloha” were bellyflops, and what was the deal on his conceptual Netflix Christmas special?
Another loser: teasing the audience. The returns for the final “Hunger Games” movie were, surprisingly, smaller than those of the previous installment — the decision to split the literary series’ last book into two films created resentment after “Mockingjay — Part 1” turned out to be a cynical place-holder.
1. “45 Years.” Just before their 45th anniversary, a comfy English couple (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) get a revelation about the distant past — and about a secret that went unacknowledged over the decades. Andrew Haigh’s quiet film creates a little world, full of detailed behavior — and then in its final moments, it slays you. This is the year’s most haunting work.
2. “Son of Saul.” A film about the Holocaust, but not like any you’ve seen before. Set inside Auschwitz, Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’ movie keeps you within inches of its hollowed-out protagonist, a prisoner who aids the Nazi extermination in exchange for a few more weeks of life.
3. “Bridge of Spies.” The year’s most satisfying Hollywood production, an impeccable Cold War story about the U.S. lawyer (Tom Hanks) who negotiated a fair trial for a Russian spy (the marvelous Mark Rylance) and a tense prisoner exchange in Berlin.
5. “It Follows.” You know there’s hope for movies when someone can take the most worn-out genre — not another teen slasher picture! — and make a mysterious, new kind of experience. So kudos to David Robert Mitchell, a Detroit filmmaker who makes you study every inch of the screen for hints of danger.
6. “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart play a great actress and her very modern assistant, in Olivier Assayas’s look at how a residue of mystery still seems to exist in this wired, YouTubed world.
7. “Ex Machina.” Nifty sci-fi concept and execution from first-time director Alex Garland. A billionaire brainiac (Oscar Isaac in juicy form) introduces his girlish Artificial Intelligence ‘bot (Alicia Vikander) to a computer nerd (Domhnall Gleeson). In this minimalist cautionary tale, Garland plays by the rules — and the payoff is sinister but exactly right.
8. “The Assassin.” Not your average martial-arts movie, this gorgeously-photographed film seems to leave out plot details — actually, it also leaves out large parts of the kung fu fighting. But isn’t the fighting the point? Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien says no.
9. “Spotlight.” As far as hitting all the storytelling buttons — and serving up an astonishment of acting riches — it’s hard to argue against this blistering account of how the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse and the clergy.
10. “The Duke of Burgundy.” A Sixties-style hothouse number about the bizarre relationship between two women in a lonely country house. An absolutely strange experience, director Peter Strickland’s drama is another one of those should-have-been-a-cult-hit movies.
1. “Serena.” Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, together again — how could it miss? Oof, did it miss. This period piece about Carolina lumbermen is a hard-cooked soap opera in which both actors look like they’d rather be somewhere else. Also, there’s a symbolic panther.
2. “Truth.” Nicely acted by Cate Blanchett, this torn-from-old-headlines story about the journo-scandal that cost Dan Rather his job is one of those preachy scripts.
3. “Rock the Kasbah.” Love Bill Murray, but the initially promising idea here — he’s a rock promoter sent to Afghanistan — goes soft when it decides it wants to help world peace.
4. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” A handsomely-produced version of the classic Thomas Hardy novel, but I found myself really disliking this movie, which rushes through the tragic tale and fumbles the book’s big moments.
5. “Black or White.” Kevin Costner stars as a grump who takes custody of his mixed-race granddaughter. Does he have something to say about race in America in our times? Alas, yes.
6. “Ardor.” Gael Garcia Bernal is the brooding stranger who strides through this South American Western, a laughable mishmash of clichés. Also, there’s a symbolic panther (I kid you not).
7. “The Boy Next Door.” Jennifer Lopez should’ve known better than to have a fling with the teenager in the next house over, because he will surely be psychotic.
9. “In the Heart of the Sea.” Not completely awful, perhaps, but Ron Howard’s digital-effects-heavy tale of a whaling ship’s woes fell so far short of its potential it deserves a rap on the knuckles.
10. “One Song.” An attempt at an indie musical, in which one main character remains in a coma, and Anne Hathaway tries to convey angst. Seriously, it needed a symbolic panther.