It's difficult to look at the news recently and not feel some complicated layering of disheartened and disgusted or to think the world is genuinely spinning out of control on some accelerated course to who-knows-where. The movies of 2015 often reflected that with ongoing imagery of a world in crisis.
Yet there was also, at the cinema at least, an underlying aspect of forgiveness, reconciliation, growth and most of all hope. The future is coming, the movies seem to be saying — what happens now is up to all of us.
Which is why "Mad Max: Fury Road" seems more than any other movie this year to have tapped into a rare and electrifying current of heightened reality and why for me it is the top movie of the year. "Fury Road" is both a caricatured screed and nuanced depiction of chaos, camaraderie, violence, hatred, resolve and an ability to overcome fear through resilience and understanding.
Directed and co-written by George Miller, the film manages to be many things at once, macho and feminist, sprawling and focused, brutal and tender. The film is an awesome action flick and deft allegory of power. Miller's most radical decision is to push his title character, a post-apocalyptic wanderer played for the first time by Tom Hardy, into a supporting position and make room for a new leader to emerge, the worker-turned-warrior Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.
Another film that uses stylization to deepen its depiction of the world is Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq," a left-field triumph and a wild, witty tale told in verse set amid the contemporary issue of gun violence in Chicago. The movie creates a free space for itself to be bold and daring and sometimes push things too far, but without losing sight of the real, painful topic at its core. It is filmmaking without a net, and there is an additional layer to the success of "Chi-Raq" in that Spike Lee has often seemed a once-great filmmaker who appeared to coast in recent films. To see him roar back to life in such a ferocious, connected way is an inspiration.
"Chi-Raq" features an outrageous performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a streetwise narrator, and the actor also crafts a dynamic turn for Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," a drama set largely in a remote mountain cabin during the period just after the Civil War. That movie takes a long, leisurely windup to reveal itself as a direct confrontation to a legacy of violence and racial hatred. In some ways the movie reflexively rebukes itself, turning to an implicit self-criticism that challenges in its final sections the easy enjoyment it allows in its earlier moments.
"The Big Short" is a film I struggled hard to work into the Jenga tower of my personal top-10 list — let's just call it 10.5 — and one that also tries to makes sense of an upside-down world. Director Adam McKay, who has deflated American self-confidence in films such as "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," has created something else entirely, a nightmare satire of the financial meltdown of the late 2000s from the perspective of financial industry insiders. They not only saw it coming but also, much to their own dismay, made money off it. As a character played by Brad Pitt says, "You just bet against the American economy."
Complicated, often conflicted, relationships emerged in film after film. In Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Assassin," which takes place in feudal China, political intrigue is intertwined with personal drama to ravishing, overwhelming ends. In Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario," the border between right and wrong, legal and illegal becomes a movable thing.
Alex Garland's "Ex Machina" ponders the nature of what makes a human, with its unlikely triangle of love, wits and survival drive between men and beautiful machine.
And then there are the films that find their way out of darkness, coming out the other side wiser and stronger. Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and Sean Baker's "Tangerine" put their lead characters through crucibles of struggle and trauma but find a light born from friendship, family and love. Part of my deep affection for the oddball rom-com structure of Andrew Bujalski's "Results" is that it allows its characters to be messy, screwy and difficult — to be themselves — but open to change. You can still surprise not only others but most of all yourself.
Todd Haynes' "Carol" is a film of deeply etched emotions, but one that exists largely in silences and glances, as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play two women struggling against the boundaries of 1950s society to pursue a romance. Every look or fleeting touch is charged by a sensual longing and a present danger. Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" is a comedy about the anxiety of not just societal but generational change, that feeling that one is being left behind. The story finds a place of reconciliation and understanding, that you're never too old for something new.
Just as the character of Mad Max steps aside for someone else in "Fury Road," in "Creed" the character of Rocky Balboa is slipped into a supporting role so that a young man can find his own way in the world. Reconfigured by writer-director Ryan Coogler, Rocky still has a role to play — brought to life with startling delicacy and subtlety by Sylvester Stallone — one that more than anything is marked by a generosity of spirit, a sense of giving.
This has been a dark year, in the world and in the movies, yet not so much that we cannot move forward. In "Creed" that triumphant blast of the theme's fanfare comes at just the right moment, for the character but also perhaps for us too. Even when you're down, you can get back up.