AFI announced the list of its 2015 Movies of the Year on Dec 16th but the official citations were first heard a week ago. We’ve had a lot to cover the past few days, but I’m happy to catch up to these warmly worded presentations. Yes, I’m also happy to end the day with a list that includes movies the Oscars chose to pass up for Best Picture: Carol, Inside Out, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Straight Outta Compton.
THE BIG SHORT achieves the extraordinary — making sense of the 2008 market collapse and making it entertaining. Adam McKay’s whip-smart satire pulses with brazen pacing, pop-up celebrity cameos and AAA performances from Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. This endlessly innovative comedy is also an object lesson in greed’s consequences for the many and, ultimately, a tale to break a nation’s heart.
BRIDGE OF SPIES is history written in moving images and another chapter in this nation’s collective chronicle brought to life by an American master, Steven Spielberg. A brilliant script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen serves as code to crack this story of the Cold War, with Tom Hanks proving his place in the canon alongside cinema’s great everyman heroes. His charge to defend a Soviet spy — portrayed in a transformative turn from Mark Rylance — embodies our nation in its finest hour, fighting for what’s right no matter the cost.
CAROL sets the screen aglow with the light of longing as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara transform a period piece into a timeless cry from defiant hearts. Todd Haynes serves their romance as a restorative cocktail, adding splashes of color to a repressive Eisenhower-era, when love was often seen in black-and-white. From luminous performances to sumptuous production, this is cinema’s promise fulfilled — a haunting portrait in moving images, painted in the universal hues of heartache and passion.
INSIDE OUT invites audiences on an introspective adventure unlike any other — bringing to life the emotions that make us whole, while sending them on their own sentimental journey of self-discovery. Presenting this existential exploration as an epic candy-colored confection, Pete Docter and Pixar’s brain-trust have created an utterly unforgettable experience — taking us inside the mind of a young girl to consider the emotional bond between sadness and joy.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD explodes with apocalyptic anarchy — a journey of fire and blood through which the action genre is razed to the ground and reborn. Visionary director George Miller drives the creative engine that fuels this cinematic fever dream with poetic rage and balletic brutality. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are the hardened heroes of this blockbuster bacchanal, breathing fearless purpose into chaos with steely, human resolve.
THE MARTIAN takes us to another planet to illustrate what it is to be human. This epic tale of survival is directed with cosmic wonder by Ridley Scott, who fills space with breathtaking spectacle but saves the film’s greatest wonderment for the mind of man. Matt Damon’s singular performance orbits all aspects of human emotion — embodying a united world’s boundless capacity for hope, sparked by the soaring power of science.
ROOM opens a window into a world of darkness — a harrowing nightmare for a mother and son held captive in unimaginable circumstances. Amidst the horror, Lenny Abrahamson creates an expansive space filled with wonder, and tenacious performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay illuminate the power of imagination and hope, while asking us to consider the cost of survival.
SPOTLIGHT puts the power of journalism on the front page. With measure befitting the investigative method, Tom McCarthy presents The Boston Globe’s inquiry into cardinal sins without tabloid sensationalism — creating tension around the team’s dauntless pursuit of truth. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams are the dogged journalists behind the story, standing for an age of integrity in the news media when no one was above question, including those asking the questions.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS stands as a cultural landmark for generations young and old. J.J. Abrams takes the helm of George Lucas’ beloved saga with this epic popcorn opera fueled by the combined power of myth and movie magic. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver join the indelible characters created by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill — expanding the iconic galaxy far, far away with this timeless gift to all who love the movies.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is an American anthem to the explosive power of art. This potent, pulsing story of the rise and fall of N.W.A is a raging tonic for troubled times — and F. Gary Gray’s ode to the strength of street knowledge stands as a celebration of talent, courage and voices rising against injustice. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell inhabit their iconic roles as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E with righteous attitude, honoring a rich legacy while expressing themselves to a new generation.
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For a further illustration of diversity that the Academy can’t seem to get its head around:
AFI Television Programs of the Year
THE AMERICANS turns up the heat in its third year, as Joe Weisberg frames his Cold War thriller as an increasingly intimate family snapshot. With secrets uncovered by their daughter and facing fall-out from activities un-American, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys expertly fuse domestic drama with espionage — a tightening vice with dire consequences.
BETTER CALL SAUL makes its name on the bad breaks of its desperate shyster hero, deftly shifting tone from comedy to tragedy and back again. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould cast a glance back to imagine a past all new and equally undeniable, as Bob Odenkirk embodies the series’ slippery spirit with a masterful sad-sack performance, always looking for validation and an angle.
BLACK-ISH rejoices in the power of the sitcom to find what is funny in today’s issues of race and class. At the comedy’s core are insights into America’s everyday, as Kenya Barris and a stellar ensemble led by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross strive to find balance between a family’s financial comfort and their collective discomfort with compromising their cultural identity.
EMPIRE roars with the power of pure entertainment. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong take a more-is-more approach to this Shakespearean tale of hip-hop sovereignty that revels in the Lyon dynasty’s audacious excess. Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson raise the roof with pitch perfect performances, firmly placing Lucious and Cookie in the pantheon of TV power couples.
FARGO paints a great American portrait of hell frozen over. Black comedy and white-knuckle suspense form an icy bond in the second year of Noah Hawley’s anthology series. Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson lead a deliciously deadpan ensemble in an escalating bloodbath, where chills and Midwestern cheer fall like a quiet snow.
GAME OF THRONES unfurls its wings to even greater cinematic horizons. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chart a course through the series’ fifth year by exposing even its most powerful players to atavistic atrocities. This emphasis on the inhumanity of humanity evokes empathy for the most Machiavellian of monsters, as well as true horror when the blood of beloved heroes is spilled in snow.
HOMELAND continues to shine as a beacon of the times, bringing the war on terror to television with breathtaking immediacy. This fifth year of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon’s series expands its scope as an urgent lightning rod for global current events — from classified security leaks to the threat of ISIS. Hope is embodied by Carrie Mathison, the fractured force of nature played by the ever-extraordinary Claire Danes.
MASTER OF NONE heralds Aziz Ansari as a jack-of-all-talents — a first-generation American whose take on today gives new voice to a contemporary coming of age. Together with co-creator Alan Yang and a cast that includes his parents, Ansari presents this slice-of-life series with the comfortable irreverence of a conversation between friends — discussing commitment and love, race and family, and the millennial battle between ambition and obligation.
MR. ROBOT is electrifying entertainment. Riding a current between activism and anarchy, Sam Esmail’s kinky cyber-thriller acts as a hallucinatory looking glass — where nihilism is inspired by Christian Slater’s mysterious “fsociety” and contemporary fears are reflected in the mesmerizing eyes of Rami Malek.
UNREAL turns an unblinking eye on the ugly reality of reality TV. This darkly comic meta-series from Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro leaves humanity for dead on the cutting room floor as Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer’s malicious masterminds manipulate bad behavior in service of great television.
MAD MEN taught the world to sing of television as an art form. With a monumental final episode to a landmark run spanning nine years, Matthew Weiner’s meticulously crafted series transcended the tube to become a true cultural touchstone. AFI offers a two-martini toast to an American masterpiece, brought to life by an incomparable creative ensemble.