This is the second in a series of posts about culture to be thankful for this year. The first, on the television of 2015, appears here.
There’s still more than a month’s-worth of movies to be released in theaters, and given the way studios tend to cluster their Oscar contenders towards the end of the calendar year, it’s possible my favorite film of 2015 will be among them. “The Force Awakens” may break through the anxiety George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels instilled in me. “The Big Short” may finally be the straightforwardly political movie Adam McKay has been moving towards for years. Maybe I’ll even finally fall in love with a Quentin Tarantino movie when I see “The Hateful Eight.”
But as I was going back over the posts I’ve written this year, I was struck by the movies I felt most grateful for, and the things that they had in common, despite vast differences in subject matter and style. They’re political without being partisan, much less easy to categorize. And they’re deeply empathetic, even loving, movies, rooted in optimism about the prospect of human connection.
Though I’m certainly a political critic, the core concerns of my work have shifted in recent years. I find myself less concerned with a work’s fidelity to existing ideology and more concerned with the insights art can mine that the political process is incapable of reaching, and the space for political conversation a work opens up that might not be possible otherwise. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Trainwreck,” “Tig,” “Ricki and the Flash” and “The Martian” all share this quality. It’s not so much that they say things that are impossible to speak aloud in partisan discourse, but they approach ideas from a radically different perspective.
As I wrote when “Mad Max: Fury Road” was released, the conversation around it swiftly fell into predictable — and extreme — camps, with some critics tagging it as an anti-male fantasy and others claiming it as a radically feminist text. But among the considerable pleasures of the film were the ways in which it suggested that men and women have a common interest in ending rigid and damaging gender roles and painted the idea of solidarity, as opposed to mere collaboration, as a genuinely beautiful thing.
That same rush of common humanity defines “The Martian,” in which the drama of an astronaut (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars after an aborted mission inspires the citizens of many countries to take dramatic risks and make significant sacrifices to rescue him. At a time when a universally effective reminder of our shared identity as a species seem impossible to come by, “The Martian” may be a dream, but it still created an effective sense of yearning that defied the fractious international politics of the present moment.
If “Fury Road” and “The Martian” are about grand struggles, some of these same themes showed up in the year’s most affecting domestic movies.
Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” succeeded because it was willing to prod at the emotional ugliness that it suggests can form under the facade of a certain vision of female liberation. Its main character, Amy (Schumer) has turned drinking, casual sex and a certain callousness into proof that she’s free, but these aspects of herself also help her maintain a certain self-denial. She doesn’t love anybody, but she doesn’t get to be loved in return.
“Ricki and the Flash,” Diablo Cody’s lovely film about a mother (Meryl Streep) who returns home to her estranged family after her daughter (Mamie Gummer) is plunged into a sudden depression by a shocking divorce, mines its drama in part from the way Ricki’s political self-righteousness has cost her, even as it sympathizes with her distaste for the use of material goods as a demonstration of moral virtue. And “Tig,” the documentary about Tig Notaro’s sudden fame and the loss of her mother, looks at what Notaro gained from her mother’s insistence that Notaro have greater freedom than she did growing up in a conservative environment, but also at the ways her mother could be a difficult figure (it’s also a nice rejoinder to the sanctimony and sentiment that often accompany disclosures of breast cancer).
And while I’m grateful to these movies for the work they did this year in staging the kinds of conversations that don’t often go viral, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these five movies work simply because they embrace a certain set of ideas. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian, “Trainwreck,” “Ricki and the Flash” and “Tig” all left me with a feeling of lightness, a sentiment all too rare at the movies this year, because they’re all so deeply humane.
“Fury Road” works because Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa form a weary bond that, though temporary, transforms both of them. Furiosa learns to accept help and Max decides to rise above the bare struggle for survival to help someone else. In “The Martian,” Damon’s stranded Mark Watney feels worth fighting for: he’s funny, resourceful and obviously cares deeply about other people, keeping their spirits up with his idiosyncratic dispatches from the red planet. “Trainwreck” runs headlong into a collection of stereotypes of romantic comedies and female characters and smashes right through the other side with a nuanced portrait of a woman shaped for good and ill by a close relationship with her difficult father. “Ricki and the Flash” honors the idea that the gifts we give each other may not be conventional, but they’re still worthy. And “Tig” is both a laconic true story and one of the most romantic movies of the year, chronicling the love Notaro found with her friend and now-fianceé Stephanie Allynne after her mother’s death.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call any of these five films feel-good movies. They’re far too complicated for that, and no true pablum ever featured anything as electric as the War Boys of “Fury Road”; anything as lovely as the sight of a spaceship commander (Jessica Chastain) reeling in her missing comrade as a spool of orange fabric twirls around them; anything as nakedly emotional as Amy Schumer’s face as she pushes herself through a cheerleading routine. But these movies made me glad to be a critic–and a moviegoer — in 2015, and made me believe that whatever the disappointments of our present cultural debates, art will find a way.