It was the year that Hollywood finally got a clue when it comes to women.
It was the year that science-fiction reigned.
Audiences couldn’t get enough of the genre, from the comfortingly familiar to the wildly original.
It was a year of big emotions, huge hopes, daunting fears.
As we look back at the films of 2015, here are five that grabbed us by the throat — or by the heart — and demanded our attention.
1. Ex Machina
Sorry, fans of “The Force Awakens.” The best science-fiction movie of 2015 wasn’t “Star Wars: Episode VII.” It was “Ex Machina,” a smaller, sleeker, smarter, more sophisticated science-fiction drama with a wicked feminist twist. Paced like a masterful horror movie, with an almost unbearable flair for suspense, this subtle but intense cat-and-mouse game between a tech genius (Oscar Isaac), his computer programmer prodigy (Domhnall Gleeson), and the most advanced, deceptively feminine A.I. (Alicia Vikander) ever created is fascinating, funny, gorgeous to look at and creepy as hell. Forget about the Terminator. You’ll never feel the same way about artificial intelligence again.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
At 70 years old, director George Miller thoroughly overhauled the action movie with this insanely inventive sequel/reboot to his 1979 post-apocalyptic classic. Part environmental fable, part feminist fever dream and 150% high-octane action extravaganza, this irresistible rush of a flick pairs Tom Hardy’s taciturn Max with one of the most bad-ass heroines of all time — Furiosa, a bald, one-armed truck driver played by Charlize Theron in a blend of toughness and true emotion. With its tribal-punk-rock-scrapyard-demolition-derby aesthetic, “Fury Road” is a movie of primitive, streamlined power. It’s ferociously bleak and violent but also — dare I say it? — quite lovely.
3. Inside Out
I don’t know why the folks at Disney-Pixar take pleasure in leaving us more and more emotionally wrecked with each consecutive brilliantly animated offering. I wasn’t at all prepared for the fact that “Inside Out” is the studio’s most heart-rending film yet, especially if you happen to be a parent or a grown-up grappling with the pesky issue of loss of innocence. The entire movie takes place inside the head of a pre-adolescent girl named Riley. A riot of color and imagination, it’s downright experimental as it rides the mercurial waves of her emotions, all of them personified. The entire voice cast is amazing, but chief among them is the luminescent Joy (voiced by the sublime Amy Poehler), battling to save Riley from the inevitable diminishing of delight that accompanies the coming of age. I swear this movie touched my soul. Somebody pass me a Kleenex.
4. Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens
It was the most anticipated movie of the year, wrapped in hype and shrouded in giddy hope, mingled with paralyzing fears. It could have easily crashed and burned like a downed TIE fighter. Instead, J.J. Abrams’ resurrection of George Lucas’ tarnished legacy was the most fun, the most satisfying, the most uplifting experience most of us had all year. Centered around a refreshingly capable, utterly enchanting heroine — Daisy Ridley’s Rey — “The Force Awakens” seamlessly reintroduced us to beloved, familiar faces and introduced us to new characters, including John Boyega’s Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter, Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s dashing pilot, Poe Dameron. Made with all the love, care and respect only true fans could muster, every second of the film is a thrilling, technically impressive, wonderfully tactile homage to the trilogy that continues to captivate so many of us.
5. Bridge of Spies
Strangely underrated for a film by the great Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” is the kind of classic, classy, elegant cinema the director of “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List” is celebrated for. You won’t find any flash or gimmicks in this Cold War saga centered on true events surrounding the capture of a Soviet spy. What you will find is graceful, gripping storytelling; a superb script, by Matt Charman and, of all people, Joel and Ethan Coen; and some of the best acting of the year. Tom Hanks is at his finest, all Atticus Finchy in his moral decency. The film’s most startling performance, however, belongs to British actor Mark Rylance in a beautifully understated turn as the enigmatic secret agent at the heart of all the drama. If you didn’t see this one, you’ll want to remedy that now. This is one of those rare movies that makes you think about what it means to be an American, no small feat considering the current state of our murky national identity.