In terms of films that had substance, were well-made and were palatable for Christian viewers, 2015 offered sadly slim pickings. Nevertheless, I have worked diligently to prepare a suitable shortlist. So, here now, I give you the most entertaining, the most thoughtful, the most emotionally satisfying, the best films of 2015.
At least, in my opinion. For what it’s worth.
We’ll begin the countdown with number 5.
5. The Martian
“Hi, I’m Mark Watney, and I’m still alive… obviously.”
Based on the novel by Andy Weir, this was a smash hit with fans and critics alike. It’s essentially Castaway on Mars (starring Matt Damon, which has led to no shortage of jokes about the total cost of rescuing Matt Damon’s characters over the years). When a team gets caught in a nasty storm, they’re forced to make a hasty exit. But one crew member is knocked out by a flying rock and disappears, presumed dead. Except… he’s not. Surprise! So, for astronaut Mark Watney, not dying is step one. Step two: Continuing to not die. Oh yeah, and figuring out how to tell someone that he’s not dead.
While the viewer is in no doubt about how the story will end, it still gets you interested in exactly HOW it’s all going to work out. Science nerds will love it, but it’s all done with such a light, humorous touch that anyone will be entertained. The banter among the characters is very witty, and it’s just as interesting to watch the massive team effort to rescue Watney as it is to watch his solitary struggles on Mars. And while Watney’s plight unites the international community in hoping for his return, the film’s tagline “Bring him home” evokes the feelings we have when welcoming home an American soldier. Indeed, Watney is a thoroughly American hero, and it’s nice to see a story that celebrates this instead of sniping at America.
Unfortunately, a smattering of language keeps me from recommending it unreservedly to younger audiences. But for older teens and up, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film with heart, intelligence and a gleam in its eye.
Note: Speaking of language, one of the film’s quotable lines does contain the “s-word,” so it’s included in this trailer.
4. X + Y (or, A Brilliant Young Mind)
“Because I don’t talk much, people think I don’t have anything to say. That’s not true. I have lots of things to say. I’m just afraid to say them.”
Here’s one of those little films nobody saw, which probably has to do with the fact that it’s British, it was only screening at film festivals in America, and it won’t be out on American DVD until January. Luckily, the full film was temporarily leaked to YouTube, which is how I got to see it before it was taken down. It quickly became one of my top picks of the year.
The main character is an autistic boy named Nathan, who has a prodigious talent for math. His father was the only person who could truly understand him, but he has died tragically in a car accident, leaving Nathan’s mother to shoulder the heart-breakingly difficult task of raising her son on her own.
The film paints the relationship between mother and son with a painful realism, showing how she struggles to reach Nathan and how thoughtlessly he wounds her. She tries to take his hand at their father’s funeral when he’s a little boy, only for him to pull away, refusing any physical contact. When he’s a teenager, she goes to great lengths to get him exactly a prime number of breaded fish balls, only to be told “You can’t get anything right” when they spill out in the bag.
However, Nathan blossoms under the tutelage of a local teacher, once a genius himself who squandered his potential and now deals with multiple sclerosis and depression. The story is as much about him as it is about Nathan. It’s as if he is redeeming himself through Nathan, and through his growing affection for Nathan’s mother. (One of my only caveats with the film is that while the latter is mostly handled with great sweetness, it does lead to a scene with the potential to be inappropriate. However, it doesn’t in fact lead anywhere, because he slips and falls while leaning in for a kiss, then explains in a roundabout way that he has certain physical “limitations.” He also swears, with distinctly British frequency, including a couple uses of the f-word.)
The film turns into something like a sports movie when Nathan is invited to represent England in the mathematical Olympiad. However, he finds that being surrounded by other youngsters who are exactly like him is surprisingly lonely. One teammate in particular is utterly insufferable. However, we come to view even this teammate with compassion, as we learn he also struggles with autism and depression. This is an example of what drew me into this movie: Everything about it is crafted with love and with a compassionate eye.
Again, some rough language and a couple of potentially suggestive scenes (like the one described above) prevent me from commending this to younger audiences. However, older teens and adults who are looking for a fresh, poignant take on a genre that may seem tired (the “troubled genius” movie), will find this film to be a deeply moving experience. And you don’t even have to appreciate math, although it’s even more delightful if you do.
(I don’t know why the one reviewer quoted in this trailer used the phrase “heart-rendering.” He meant “heart-rending,” and it certainly is that. Note: One muffled misuse of the Lord’s name in this trailer when a character is severely startled.)
3. Star Wars, The Force Awakens
“This will begin to make things right.”
This movie had orders of magnitude more hype going into opening weekend than any other movie this year. For it to actually live up to that hype has been a Christmas present Star Wars fans won’t soon forget. The enthusiasm in the theater was palpable. Since my little sister and I already did a deep dive into it here, I won’t repeat what I thought of it. Suffice it to say that it’s thoroughly satisfying and a winner for nostalgic adults and their kids alike.
“When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know everything!”
An author (I believe it was Lewis, but now I can’t find the reference, so I’m not sure) once made the following analogy for our conception of heaven: Imagine a mother and son who have been prisoners for the boy’s entire life. The mother tries to describe the outside world to the little boy, but he can’t comprehend it. She draws pictures of trees, which he loves, then tries to explain what a real tree looks like. It’s all completely alien to him. For him, his mother, her pictures and their cell is the whole world. So it is with us and with heaven.
This film essentially is that thought experiment. And what a film it is. Based on a novel, it tells a gripping story through the eyes of a five-year-old boy. He’s bright, curious, and active, like any other boy his age. But unlike other five-year-olds, he has spent his young life within the walls of one room—a garden shed, to be precise. We gradually learn that his mother was abducted at the age of seventeen and gave birth to him in captivity. So far she has chosen to let him believe their room (which he calls simply “Room”) and its small screen TV constitute The World. She has even managed to protect him from the dark purpose of her captivity by bundling him into a closet during her captor’s nightly visits. (Consequently, since we see the story through his eyes, no sexual abuse is shown on screen.) And yet, the man she calls “Old Nick” is becoming more volatile, more prone to violent bursts of temper. And her son is getting older. The time has come to make a desperate gamble for their freedom.
At first, he refuses to believe his mother when she tries to explain the outside world. She holds up her hand to explain that every wall has two sides, and they can only see the “inside side.” She uses the language of fairytales to compare herself to Alice in Wonderland, who fell “down, down, down, deep in a hole.” But he is stubbornly committed to the monopolizing reality of Room. Maybe trees and birds and other people exist in TV world, but they’re just pretend. They’re not real.
Then, one day, in a stunningly shot visual moment, Jack realizes that the sun is casting his shadow on the cell wall through the skylight in the roof. He reaches out to touch the shadow, then begins to play with it, swaying and creating strange shapes with his arms. Finally, he understands.
The parallels to Christian faith, lack of faith, and heaven are inescapable, as is the symbolism of a mother and son. Not to mention the common nickname of “Old Nick” for Satan. At one point, Jack announces, “I’m gonna KICK Old Nick in the butt!” Compare: “Thou shalt bruise his head, and he shall bruise thy heel.” In fact, it is through Jack that the two eventually escape. It is also through Jack that his mother finds hope to carry on living in the film’s second act, as she is nearly overcome with PTSD and depression.
This film tells a story that is as stripped down and intimate as it gets, yet encompasses all the towering questions of life itself. This, to me, is everything a great film should be. It is everything great art should be. For discerning, adult viewers, perhaps especially adult Christian viewers, it is not to be missed.
[Note: The film is not suitable for all audiences, but this trailer is.]
Objectively, Room is probably the best film of the year. It may even win Best Picture (wait, the actual best film of the year winning Best Picture… is this even possible?) But, if I were to choose the movie that gave me the most complete package of artistic satisfaction, shared enjoyment with my family, and infinite re-watchability, that would be….
1. Inside Out
“Riley is eleven now. What could happen?”
It’s really not fair to PIXAR that every time they put out a new film, we demand that it be great, or else rate it a disappointment. But what can we say, when they keep raising the bar for themselves with films like this?
This is another film my sister and I reviewed when it came out, so once again, you can click here for our thoughts. Animated movie though it may be, we concluded that it will, if anything, hold a stronger appeal for an older audience. In case you grownups haven’t figured this out by now, PIXAR movies aren’t just for kids, and this one digs deeper than any other PIXAR movie I can remember besides Up. While chock-full of humor and entertainment, it also asks some profound questions: What does it mean to grow up? What does it mean to be happy? What is the purpose of sadness? If we could erase all our sad memories, would this make life better? While this may seem like an odd parallel, there is an underrated short story by Charles Dickens called “The Haunted Man,” where a character wishes for exactly that and gets it. Of course, he finds that it doesn’t work out the way he had imagined. (Highly recommended for the Christian reader.) So, you could say Inside Out is like “The Haunted Man” for kids. If you don’t cry on first viewing, you need to ask the Wizard for a heart. That’s all I’m gonna say. I still cried on second viewing.
Ultimately, what I love about this movie is that it has such a personal touch, more personal than other PIXAR movies. It simply follows an ordinary little girl and her ordinary family, doing something very ordinary: moving. As the creators discuss on the commentary track, they drew from their own collective experience to build Riley’s character and her memories. Yet within this simple framework, they found limitless creative possibilities. That’s what I love about PIXAR. That’s what everyone loves about PIXAR. Word is that this movie may snag an Oscar nod for Best Picture, breaking out of the Animation ghetto. I hope it does.