Dec. 15 2015 04:23 PM

Going on record about some of the gems from 2015

MadMax_01
Mad Max: Fury Road

Critics not working at a daily outlets inevitably miss out on reviewing a lot of interesting films throughout the year. But rarely do we give ourselves the chance to look back and make amends and go on record. What follows is my own attempt to ease the feeling of regret, giving some of these omissions the recognition they deserve in this here fine paper of ours. Mea culpa, commence.

Jonathan Demme's Ricki and the Flash, the inspiration for this piece, looked like a soft lob aimed directly at the sensibilities of casual movie-going baby-boomers. So I naturally skipped it, thinking it wouldn't be to my taste. This ended up being a major mistake.

Starring Meryl Streep as a middle-aged rocker still trying to make a creative mark on the world, the film bristles with energy from the rousing opening musical performance. The story grows increasingly thorny when Ricki heads home after receiving a distressing call from her ex-husband about their daughter (played by Streep's own, Mamie Gummer) who's tip-toeing on the precipice of a nervous breakdown.

Anchored by poignant performances and Demme's brilliantly efficient direction, Ricki and the Flash breezily explores the unspoken traumas of a family in denial yet never sees their predicament through pessimistic eyes. Both performing and experiencing music offers these characters the chance to communicate, apologize and redefine their relationships.

You've probably already heard of this next one. Mad Max: Fury Road, which I couldn't write about due to travel plans, is the action movie of the year, probably the decade. We have become so accustomed to computer-generated special effects that director George Miller and his crew's use of practical stunts feel avant garde by comparison. See it big if you can.

While the visceral story about a violent loner whisked up in a post-apocalyptic chase narrative progresses in a straight line before backtracking in equally linear fashion, Fury Road's visuals explode with color, movement and sound. More importantly, the feminist themes at its heart are neither browbeating nor militant, defined by the challenges of maintaining ideological and physical resolve under threat.

Charlize Theron's incendiary turn as the warrior Furiosa ends up overshadowing the silent bravado of Mad Max (Tom Hardy) himself, who inevitably can't help but watch from the sidelines in silent awe as she and her compatriots supplant one evil conqueror after the next. Long live the queens of the desert.

Speaking of badass women, Melissa McCarthy owns every moment of Paul Feig's exceptional comedy Spy as a government employee who drop kicks the glass ceiling and becomes a world-saving secret agent. There are more than a few bumps along the way, including a bloody fistfight with an Eastern European lug that ends in skewering fashion.

While Feig's sharp writing and lucid action direction make Spy a constantly entertaining revisionist genre film, it's McCarthy's dynamic central performance that elevates it beyond pastiche. The spy film plot twists, usually fodder for special effects-driven set pieces and slimy one-liners, instead help to explore the contradictions inherent in traditional gender roles and hierarchies of power. In the end, it's the men that are shaken and stirred by McCarthy's heroine, who gets the last laugh and then some.

John Magary's singular debut film The Mend premiered at SXSW in 2014, but finally made it to San Diego this summer thanks to the programmers at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. Here's a story about brothers making peace with the fact that they will never make peace. Starring Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett as siblings who can't stop colliding with each other, Magary's fascinating deconstruction of male insecurity is as funny as it is enraged.

The theme of familial angst as hand-me-down has rarely been addressed with such bruising sincerity. Lucas and Plunkett lay themselves bare, never resisting the urge to laugh maniacally at the absurdity that has come to define their lives and relationships. The Mend is one of the most impressive first films in years.

A few Sundance award-winners of note opened as quickly as they closed. Marielle Heller's endearing and honest The Diary of a Teenager Girl tells the story of Minnie (played by the astoundingly good Bel Powley) who begins an illicit affair with her mother's (Kristin Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgârd) in 1970s San Francisco. While a bit too cutesy at times, the film stays true to the messiness that occurs when young people try to carve out an identity in the adult world.

Rick Famuyima's Dope also deals with teenagers making bad decisions, but does so through a far more schizophrenic and volatile framework. Self-described "nerd" Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends get caught up in a drug buy gone bad, forcing them to inhabit a dark corner of gangsta capitalism. Often funny and breakneck, Dope nevertheless feels like an at-times incoherent and heightened work, the diary of a teenager perhaps.

Finally, the surprise of 2015 was Paddington, Paul King's tender, colorful and quietly subversive adaptation of the popular children's story by Michael Bond. The eponymous bear, voiced to perfection by Ben Whishaw, must start a new life in London after his rainforest dwelling family is killed. Refugee narratives come in all shapes and sizes, and this charmingly polite one doubles as a fantastical and stylistically kinetic attack on the double-edged sword of colonialism.

Aside from Mad Max, Paddington also sports some of the finest chase sequences of the year, mixing live action with animation to defy gravity and camera perspective. King's film tackles an increasingly important topic by exploring empathy and community solidarity against domestic threats lingering and plotting in the musty halls of old guard institutions. What a progressive feat.

In two weeks, look for my list of the 20 Best Films of 2015. Too many good films, so little space.

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