Alan’s eclectic picks range from Academy Award nominees ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Trumbo’ to biopics about Nina Simone and comic Barry Crimmins.
For the first time in many years, more than half of the top films I saw in 2015 were American. Five were documentaries, nine were dramatizations of historical events, three were British, two were Israeli, and one each were French and German. As in the past dozen years, I saw more better-quality productions on TV than on the big screen. (See list at the bottom of those I can remember today.)
- SPOTLIGHT is a wonderful film which has already won 68 major awards and 113 nominations including six Oscars for best picture, screenplay, director, editing, and supporting actors Mark Rufflo and Rachel McAdams. It is masterfully directed by Tom McCarthy (45 awards and 71 nominations — including Oscar for Up — for films including this one, The Station Agent, and The Visitor). The brilliant cast also has won and been nominated for numerous Best Ensemble awards and best actor/actress honors have named Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton. It also features fine performances from Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Jamey Sheridan. At Rotten Tomatoes.com, 97% of the 177 critics polled liked it. Spotlight tells the riveting true story of how intrepid Boston Globe reporters uncovered and successfully reported on the massive child molestation scandal by 87 Boston-area priests in the local Catholic Archdiocese. In the process they bravely fought the Church hierarchy’s massive attempt to cover it up. This is a marvelously plotted thriller, but it’s more compelling because it’s all true. [Trailer]
- CALL ME LUCKY is an astonishingly good documentary biopic about comic Barry Crimmins who ran a comedy club in Boston and launched or furthered the careers of many great stand-up comics interviewed in the film, including Steven Wright, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Kevin Meany, Jimmy Tingle, Paula Poundstone, Denis Leary, and Dana Gould. This documentary, savagely directed by uber-comic Bobcat Goldthwait, won four Best Documentary awards and two more nominations. It has the three hallmarks of a truly great film: it is extremely funny, it is politically astute and it deals powerfully with an important social issue. Crimmins’ anger about Reagan/Bush/Bush atrocities and their impact on people dramatically colors his comedy. But 70% of the way through the film he shocks his audiences by revealing that he was raped as a 10-year-old and courted by his local priest who was many years later convicted of widespread child molestation. In a spine-tingling sequence he testifies before a Senate Committee that many AOL chat rooms are exclusively used by child molesters who want to exchange kiddie porn — or identify children to abuse. Sitting next to him is a slick AOL lawyer who denies everything. Spoiler alert: Congress forced AOL to shut down the offending chat rooms and many of the user-fiends were arrested. Crimmins was also a major peace activist. [Trailer]
- PRIDE (U.K.) was unquestionably the best film I saw in the first 10 months of 2015, telling the moving, funny, surprising true story of when a group of English gays decided to go to Wales and help striking coal miners in 1984 during Margaret Thatcher’s horrendous war on working people. A great cast of both unknowns and some of my favorite thesps (Bill Nighy, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, and Paddy Considine) powerfully pull you through the full gamut of emotions. Pride justifiably won eight major awards (including Best British Independent Film, best screenplay, direction and best performances by Staunton and Andrew Scott) and 17 nominations (including Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Picture and London Critics Circle British Film of the Year). Fully 92% of 127 critics at Rotten Tomatoes cheered it. At the movie’s end, when it switches to news footage of a huge Gay Pride festival at the end of the strike, it is absolutely exhilarating. And then my hat spun around on my head when I read the final crawl explaining what happened afterwards to the actual participants. This is extraordinary cinema that my wife and I cannot recommend too strongly to you. [Trailer]
- WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is a deeply moving, saddening, exhilarating, fantastic biopic about one of the world’s greatest entertainers and civil rights agitators. I adored Nina Simone all her life and had the thrill of seeing her in concert five times: at the beginning (Houston), middle (Boston, New York, Amsterdam) and end (L.A.) of her career. Her music was always powerful, deeply felt, sexy, romantic, dramatic, and/or achingly beautiful, and no singer was ever been anything like her. This documentary, featuring much previously unseen footage, shows that she was also at times an abused wife, a wealthy celebrity, a pauper, an African and European exile, and a paranoid schizophrenic. Still performing onstage a year before her death in 2003, she was totally mesmerizing. This film, which won two Best Documentary awards and seven other noms (including Oscar), is brilliantly directed by Liz Garbus, who has received 31 awards and nominations (including Oscar) for a dozen of her films and docs. What Happened, Miss Simone? takes us on a highly emotional rollercoaster ride through her astonishing career, illustrating many of the stinging social programs of the era. [Trailer]
- SELMA was nominated for 129 awards last year (including Best Picture Oscar) and won 55, including for the Oscar-winning song (Common and John Legend), screenplay, direction and performers David Oyelowo, Carmen Efogo, André Holland, Stephen James, Oprah Winfrey, and Wendell Pierce. It effectively dramatized Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s epic 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Most of you saw it in 2014; I didn’t see it until January, 2015. Tomatometer: 99%. [Trailer]
- ESPN’S 30 FOR 30: ONCE BROTHERS is a terrific TV sports documentary about Yugoslavian basketball sensations and best friends Serbian Vlade Divac and Croat Dražen Petrović. They played together on the Yugoslavia national basketball team from 1986 to 1990. Both were promising NBA stars, but the Bosnian War drove them apart emotionally, as they came from opposing homelands. Petrović died in a freak automobile accident in 1993 before the two could reconcile, so much of the film focuses on Divac’s regret that they were never able to resolve their differences. The doc is very moving, especially the final scene.
- TRUMBO, starring Bryan Cranston (a Best Actor Oscar nominee and winner of two other honors), Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, and John Goodman, is the compelling story of the blacklisting and painful restoration of Hollywood’s top-salaried screenwriter (in 1947), Dalton Trumbo. The film is nominated for 28 awards so far, including acting Golden Globes for Cranston and Mirren. Trumbo was jailed for a year, and then, while unable to work openly, he penned more than 15 scripts (uncredited or credited to “front” writers). His scripts won two screenwriting Oscars he couldn’t accept until years later. Eventually Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger had the courage to face right-wing boycotts of their 1960 films and gave him screenwriter credit on Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. This incisive, well-made movie, conveys important U.S. history. [Trailer]
- KIDS FOR CASH is a searing, horrifying documentary about a 2008 kickback scandal in which two Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, juvenile court judges accepted $2.6 million in bribes from builders of juvenile prisons to sentence 3,000 teens to draconian prison terms, which resulted in the suicide of one. Fully 91% of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers gave it thumbs-up, and The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Schenk wrote “few documentaries induce as much visceral outrage.” Producer Robert May also produced and directed The Fog of War and The Station Agent. [Trailer]
- WOMAN IN GOLD is the compelling dramatized true story of octogenarian Jewish refugee Maria Altman who sued the Austrian government to recover a Klimt painting the Nazis stole from her family. It brilliantly stars my favorite actress Helen Mirren, who as usual is all over my annual Best Films list (in 11 movies in 21 years and eight TV works) and who once kissed me on the cheek after I extolled her “the greatest actress on the planet.” The strong cast includes Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Allan Corduner, and Henry Goodman. Mirren is nominated for a Best Actress SAG award and both she and Reynolds are nominated for Jupiter awards — German’s highest audience awards. [Trailer]
- CODE BLACK is a superb medical doc that won three major Best Documentary awards and was praised by 92% of critics polled at Rotten Tomatoes. It took Dr. Ryan McGarry four years to make the film. Code Black is the term used to describe an emergency room over maximum capacity. The Los Angeles County hospital emergency room is often full and wildly chaotic as groups of doctors and nurses surrounding patients on tables treat very serious situations (gunshot wounds, stabbings, heart attacks, etc.) under virtual battleground conditions. Midway through the film we move from the old building where emergency medicine was invented to a swank, modern structure next door where bureaucracy kicks in. This is an edge-of-your-seat medical drama, truer than all others. It inspired a terrific TV series by the same name. [Trailer]
- BRIDGE OF SPIES is a spellbinding dramatization of how an insurance lawyer helped trade Russian master spy Rudolf Abel for U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers as well as an unfortunate college student who got caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Masterfully directed by Steven Spielberg and co-written by the Coen brothers, it stars Tom Hanks, Wolfgang Vogel, Alan Alda, and a mesmerizing Mark Rylance as Abel. Virtually unknown on this side of the pond, Rylance is one of Britain’s finest actors, is nominated for 27 Best Supporting Actor awards including SAG and Golden Globe, and has already won four of the buggers. I once saw him onstage playing a woman in a Shakespeare play, and he was great. In all, Bridge of Spies has won 15 awards and 67 nominations (including six Oscars including best picture, writing, and supporting actor [Rylance].) It is very gripping stuff. [Trailer]
- MY BEST FRIEND (France): The excellent performances of Daniel Auteuil (one of modern France’s best and most versatile actors) and Dany Boon (one of its most popular) turn My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami) into an earnest and witty romp. Catherine (Julie Guyet) refuses to believe that her business partner, the unlikeable François (Auteuil), has a best friend, so she bets him a valuable Greek vase that he is friendless and challenges him to set up an introduction. Scrambling to find someone willing to pose as his best pal, François enlists the services of a charming taxi driver (Boon). This funny and sometimes touching film, directed by Patrice Leconte (who has won major global awards for classics like The Haidresser’s Husband, Ridicule, Girl on the Bridge, Man on the Train, and The Widow of Sainte-Pierre) is big fun and has amusing insights on the nature of friendship. [Trailer]
- DANNY COLLINS is a very droll, heartfelt tale of the redemption of a washed-up rocker who has long ignored his now-grown son. Al Pacino is adorable in the lead, well supported by Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale, and Jennifer Garner. It’s based on the true story of British folk musician Steve Tilston who discovered a lost letter that John Lennon had written to him 40 years later. One reviewer wrote “Pacino delivers a Master Class in acting,” all his scenes with Bening are very, very cute, and the movie features lots of great Lennon music. [Trailer]
- THE MATCHMAKER (Israel) won Best Film, Actor and Actress in Israel and Best Feature Film at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2010.We don’t know any of the performers, but their characters are all very vivid. Avi Nesher’s Hebrew-language movie is a funny, moving coming-of-age story set in 1968, when a teen boy goes to work for a Holocaust-survivor matchmaker and learns about love, rock, loneliness, and mysteries of the heart. A very nice little pic. [Trailer]
- MURDER ON THE HOME FRONT (U.K.) is a nice TV thriller set during the 1940 London Blitz. A forensic scientist is hired by a police detective to help investigate after a prostitute is strangled and a swastika is carved on her tongue. An Anglo-German man is suspected, but while he’s in jail two more women are murdered. A closeted gay actor is also found dead, apparently of suicide, but the scientist and his female assistant are dubious. Dastardly deeds ensue. This is a well-made, atmospheric thriller. [Trailer]
- ZERO MOTIVATION (Israel) is an interesting Hebrew-language drama about a unit of young female Israeli soldiers at a remote desert base who count down the minutes until they can return to civilian life. It won nine 2014 Israeli Oscars for best film, screenplay, director, three actresses, music, editing, and casting. It also took top prizes at the Odessa and Tribeca film festivals. A compelling group of fascinating characters fight boredom while pushing paper in a military office. Their clashing personalities, shifting loyalties, and romantic adventures are handled with humor and skill. [Trailer]
- YOUNG GOETHE IN LOVE (Germany) is the charming story of how German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe fails his law exams and is sent to a sleepy provincial court to reform. There, he falls for Lotte, a young woman who is promised to another man. The film took four major awards (including acting honors for stars Alexander Fehling and Miriam Stein) and seven more noms in Germany and the U.S. This love story is a very enjoyable light entertainment. [Trailer]
- CONCUSSION is the well-dramatized true story of how Nigerian-born Pittsburgh pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu studies the brains of dead pro football players and discovers that most of them died suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalitis, or concussion), which is detectable only after death. [I have seen a recent study revealing that 93% of the brains of deceased NFL football players showed CTE.] Will Smith is terrific in the lead role (which has at this writing won him three big awards and four noms, including Golden Globe — but mouth-droppingly, no Oscar). The outstanding supporting cast includes Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Hill Harper, Eddie Marsan, Luke Wilson, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (two best supporting actress noms so far). The NFL fights Dr. Omalu for years and tries to cover up the concussion scandal, lest they have to pay recompense to thousands of injured players. Spoiler alert: Ultimately Omalu speaks to the NFL Players’ Association, and the truth is finally revealed, changing league concussion procedures and forcing the NFL to pay plenty to surviving relatives. [Trailer]
- 2ND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (U.K.) is the highly enjoyable sequel to 2011’s cinematic tour-de-force The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Most of the magnificent cast of Britain’s top thespians is back: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle and Dev Patel—augmented this time with Richard Gere and David Strathairn. This colorful, highly engaging picture, imaginatively directed and co-authored by John Madden (Oscar nom for Shakespeare in Love), finds the original “hotel for the elderly and beautiful” nearly full, so owner Sonny (Patel) seeks expansion to a second hotel, on the eve of his marriage. Madge (Imrie) is juggling two wealthy suitors, and romance is in the air for several of the older pairs. Wonderful India locations, fabrics, colors, dances, and culture enhance this exuberant foray. [Trailer]
- BLACK OR WHITE deals with race, forgiveness, and understanding, as a cute seven-year-old mixed-race girl’s maternal grandfather (Kevin Costner), who loves and has raised her, battles in and out of court for custody with her paternal grandmother (Olivia Spencer) and her slick lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) on behalf of her druggie/loser son. This is an engaging, heartfelt drama with lots of humor and many fine performances. Spencer won a best supporting actress award for it and young Jillian Estell got an Outstanding Breakthrough Performance honor. [Trailer]
Television Programs I Loved in 2015
The U.K.’s James Corden is an actor, writer and comedian whom my wife and I have loved for years. Last Spring he unexpectedly became host of CBS’s The Late, Late Show with James Corden, which we have thoroughly enjoyed, recorded and watched every morning since. It is always funny and imaginative, and he and his celeb guests have enormous fun together. Another talk show host from the British Isles that we greatly admire and would never miss is the mega-clever, Irish-born host of The Graham Norton Show, Saturday nights on BBC America. He pairs top American stars with nifty Brit comics we don’t know for mirthful evenings like the one which caused Matt Damon to exclaim, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a talk show!”
American programs I enjoyed in 2015 include my usual lineup of Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, Elementary, Blacklist, Madame Secretary, The Good Wife, Scandal, Fargo, Major Crimes, Masterpiece Theatre, Masterpiece Mystery, Homeland, Veep, Nurse Jackie, Masters of Sex, The Affair, The Knick, The 60s, Criminal Minds, and Ray Donovan. This year I added the powerful Wednesday-night med drama Code Black starring Marcia Gay Harden and Luis Guzman. For a while, wifey and I also got addicted to the far-out seven-season comedy Community.
Fine limited-run series appeared on PBS and BBC America in 2015, including: Endeavor, Wolf Hall, Home Fires, Inspector Lewis, Grantchester, Poldark, Roosevelts, Call the Midwife, The Bletchley Circle, Mr. Selfridge, Arthur and George, and Father Brown.
As usual I loved lots of well-made British series, such as: Scott & Bailey, Vicious, Last Tango in Halifax, Shaun the Sheep, Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Ripper Street, Sherlock, Doc Martin, Wallander (the Branagh version), Monroe, Dancing on the Edge, Napoleon & Love, The Shadow of the Tower, and Last of the Summer Wine. Also, from Denmark Borgen, from Norway Lillyhammer, and from Sweden Wallander.
Read more of Alan Waldman’s writing on The Rag Blog.
[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine.]