Cinematically, this year was unusual. August, traditionally Hollywood’s dumping ground, proved anything but. Three words: Straight Outta Compton.
Where recent music biopics (Get On Up, Jimi: All is By My Side) reduced great artists into middling movies, F. Gary Gray’s hit revived the genre as surely as it resurrected Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and energetically revisited the late-’80s rise of law enforcement-baiting gangster-rap pioneers NWA.
Summer also ushered in Love & Mercy, bifurcated between a strong representation of Brian Wilson’s formative years — beautifully led by Paul Dano’s Wilson and Jake Abel as the antagonistic Mike Love — and a weaker take on his later years with John Cusack as Wilson, Elizabeth Banks as his savior and Paul Giamatti again in the neurotic parental-figure role (but not as effectively as his Jerry Heller in Compton). Where Love excels is in illustrating Wilson’s creative process, even as the singer-songwriter wrestles his demons and collaborates with the Wrecking Crew in lieu of his A.W.O.L. Beach Boys.
Despite the critical and populist appeal of Compton, the appropriately titled Spotlight might steal one from it come awards season. A strong ensemble performance led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber shone bright as Boston Globe journalists unearthing a Catholic Church scandal.
In Trumbo, Bryan Cranston killed it as the famously blacklisted Spartacus screenwriter. Solid character piece Grandma, basically Paul Weitz’s twist on Jim Jarmusch’s personal-journey gem Broken Flowers, had character Elle revisit past lovers to raise $630 for her granddaughter’s abortion. Sci-fi sleeper Ex Machina may be more Shelley/Lovecraft-style horror, yet it left an impression.
The Wrecking Crew may not have been the most professionally made documentary, but this Kickstarter success shared the fascinating peaks and valleys of the aforementioned ubiquitous session musicians who played on virtually every 1960s pop hit and theme song. Listen to Me Marlon may preach to the Brando choir but its minister, filmmaker Stevan Riley, delivered a compelling sermon in the legendary actor’s own recorded words. Unfortunately, Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of National Lampoon was not as colorful as its title.
High-profile disappointments such as Steve Jobs saw Aaron Sorkin less successfully fictionalizing the Apple founder’s personal life than when he did Mark Zuckerberg’s in The Social Network. Despite Sorkin’s signature fluid, florid dialogue and Danny Boyle’s directing, the film’s central father/daughter issues and repetitive backdrops gave it a stagey claustrophobia and overall incompleteness. In what was the opposite of Spotlight, hammy acting by Cate Blanchett and others undermined Truth (despite Robert Redford’s effective channeling of Dan Rather).
Personally, I found 2015’s VFX bonanzas falling short of the abundance of riches that were characteristic of 2014, when sequels masterfully advanced their predecessors’ storylines and even Godzilla entertained. Marvel-wise, 20th Century Fox again failed to nail its Fantastic Four property as effectively as its X-Men franchise. No blockbuster, however, disappointed more than Spectre. After the Daniel Craig-era masterpiece Skyfall beautifully reinforced its themes of resurrection by blowing up Bond’s past, Spectre failed to take the bloody shot, reverting back to dull, Pierce Brosnan-era dopiness.
Blockbuster highlights included the much-anticipated, ad-nauseum advertised new Star Wars, which proved itself a Force to be awakened with. Sort of 2015’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man arrived as another self-deprecating Marvel sleeper free of the S.H.I.E.L.D./Tesseract baggage sinking Avengers: Age of Ultron. Mad Max: Fury Road was as entertaining as the 1980s originals, and while Vin Diesel’s star-making series has driven far from the relative reality of 2001’s The Fast and The Furious, James Wan’s cartoony Furious 7 paid tribute to Paul Walker with its most gloriously over-the-top installment yet. So long, Paul . . . and so long, 2015.