STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS"
There is one simple reason why "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" has quickly become the all-time global box-office champ; because it's good. Really good. After the disappointment of the three prequels, J.J. Abrams was brought on board to send the (apparently) final three films of the series off on the right course. We see the welcome return of our favorite characters (Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Leia and Chewbacca) and introduced to some intriguing new faces (Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper, a scavenger from Jakku named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a robot called BB-8) while being sent on an exciting new adventure.
Lead by two heartfelt performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, "Carol" is a powerful and touching love story that is rarely shown on film. With a solid script by Phyllis Nagy and exquisite direction by Todd Haynes, Patricia Highsmith's provocative story of the romance between an upper class housewife (Blanchett) and a department store clerk (Mara) has been made in to a remarkably moving cinematic experience.
Novelist turned film maker, Alex Garland delivers the stylish sci-fi thriller, "Ex Machina" which poses the question "what does it mean to be human?". A billionaire CEO (Oscar Isaac) of a software company brings in one of his top programmers (Domhnall Gleeson) to test the latest invention. The goal is to see how close to human his female-looking android (Alicia Vikander) behaves. And it's very close which leads to some complicated and dangerous situations. A thoroughly smart and suspenseful entertainment.
"Brooklyn" tells the timely story of a young Irish girl (an astonishing Saoirse Ronan) immigrating to America to start a new life in the '50's. Living in a boarding house in the New York borough homesick and lonely, she meets a nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen) and they fall in love. A tragedy forces her back to Ireland and torn between the two countries. Director John Crowley, best known for his work in the theater, has made a lovely drama filled with tender romance and tragic heartbreak.
When I first heard what "Room" was about, the story of a young woman (Brie Lawson) being held captive for years by a sexual predator and raising their five year old son (the amazing Jacob Tremblay) locked in a small room, I thought it would be just too unsettling to watch. While the film (expertly directed by Irish film maker, Lenny Abrahamson) is certainly harrowing, it is also a powerfully rewarding experience. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), "Room" is a poignant story of love and survival with Lawson and Tremblay each delivering exceptional performances.
"Tangerine"" plays like a classic Hollywood screwball comedy except this involves the unusual tale of transsexual hookers searching for love and respect. Shot on an iPhone by writer/director Sean S. Baker, the film introduces Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (both excellent) as best friends and fellow sex workers spending the day in search of a pimp/boyfriend that has done one of them wrong. "Tangerine" manages to be outrageously funny, delightfully deranged and completely original.
"THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL"
Writer/director Marielle Heller has made an impressive debut with "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Bel Powley plays Minnie, a fifteen year old aspiring artist living in 1970's San Francisco with her free-spirited mother (Kristen Wiig). After Minnie gets inappropriately close to her mother's sexy boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), she sets off on a journey of wild behavior and exploration, all documented on her audio diary. This edgy dramatic comedy is the rare coming-of-age tale told from a female point of view with brutal honesty and uncomfortable humor.
"Dope"" is another excellent coming-of-age comedy-drama told from another rare point of view; an African-American teen. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa ("The Wood", "Brown Sugar") tells the story of a 90's hip-hop obsessed Inglewood nerd (Shameik Moore) and his fellow outsider high school buddies (Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons) who get in the middle of a rival drug-dealing gang war. What is most appealing about this clever film is that it takes what we expect from a story set in the urban city and moves us in wild and hilariously unexpected directions.
"AMY", "WHAT HAPPENED MISS SIMONE", "KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK", "JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE"
2015 was quite a year for documentaries and in particular, some great non-fiction films on influential musical artists were released. One of the biggest (and highest grossing) docs of the year was "Amy"" which looked at the meteoric rise and tragic fall of pop singer, Amy Winehouse. Netflix was behind director Liz Garbus' fascinating "What Happened, Miss Simone?" which examines the incredibly gifted but highly volatile Nina Simone. "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck" was made with the cooperation of Cobain's family (including his widow, Courtney Love) and uses unreleased recordings, artwork, photography and journals to creatively shed more light on the life of the '90's rock icon . Finally, "Janis: Little Girl Blue" is a long overdue documentary on Janis Joplin who, in her very short life, went from an awkward Texan teenager to become one of the most electrifying rock & blues singers in the world.
Honorable Mention: "5 Flights Up", "Ant Man", "The Big Short", "Bridge of Spies", "The End of The Tour", "Infinitely Polar Bear", "Me & Earl & The Dying Girl", "Spotlight", "Steve Jobs"", "Straight Outta Compton", "Trainwreck"", "Truth", "While We're Young"