Aspen Times Weekly: Looking Back on 2015 at the Movies |

Aspen Times Weekly: Looking Back on 2015 at the Movies

by Andrew Travers

If You Go …

What: Academy Screenings, presented by Aspen Film

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Dec. 22 to Jan. 2

How much: $20 GA; $15 Aspen Film members; complimentary for AMPAS, BFTA, guild members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info: Full lineup at

By this time of year, when most films have made it onto the big screen and the first awards nominations and critics’ prizes have started rolling out, the field has usually narrowed to a handful of movies and performances considered the best.

Not so for 2015.

Filled with a strong and diverse slate of offerings, you could make an argument for a long list of films and actors and directors as the year’s best (many of which are playing at Aspen Film’s 20th annual Academy Screenings). With no dominant trends emerging so far, it makes for a fun winter at the movies, where we can talk about the merits of the films rather than the Oscar horserace.

Aspen Film artistic director Maggie Mackay spent the tail end of the year running the nominations for the Film Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles and setting the lineup for the 20th annual Academy Screenings here. In the process, she realized, 2015 may have been a great year for film.

“I like this year a lot,” she told me from Los Angeles. “I don’t get to say that often. There are always movies that I’m really passionate about, but rarely is there a year I really like as a whole. That’s really exciting, to not just like the movies but the year.”

It was somewhat of a surprising year, too. One where a mega-budget blockbuster like “Mad Max: Fury Road” is also one of the most affecting and acclaimed. And where animation got brainy, and where a small-budget, iPhone-shot comedy (“Tangerine”) broke ground on how films are made and how transgendered people are portrayed.

“I think these movies are really adding, not only to the year, but to the canon,” Mackay says. “’Mad Max’ to me is a perfect, perfect film. I’d be showing it at Academy Screenings if everyone in the world hadn’t already seen it.”

It’s a year where the field of animation brought us “Inside Out” as well as “Anomalisa,” two incisive, hilarious (in their own ways) films about how our minds work. One is an exceedingly inventive kid-friendly Pixar movie, the other is a mind-bending Charilie Kaufman-Duke Johnson stop-motion picture that includes full frontal male nudity. But they’re two sides of the same coin.

“They’re so similar in the root of what they are, but told, obviously, from completely different perspectives and with different kinds of animation,” says Mackay.

Mackay also calls the animated barnyard animal romp “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” “one of my favorite movies I’ve seen in years — I’ve seen it with and without my kids. It’s just magic.”

She notes the ensemble cast of “Spotlight,” the drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church child abuse scandal and cover-up was free of the kind of scenery-chewing and capital “A” Acting one might expect from its stacked A-list cast. She praised director Tom McCarthy for eliciting powerfully subtle performances from Michael Keaton, Rachael McAdams and company, to tell a story about teamwork.

“‘Spotlight’ is one of these amazing surprises where you get a procedural stacked with a lot of recognizable Hollywood heavy-hitters and what you get is a really truthful, restrained, even and ultimately really moving piece of work,” she says. “That’s so un-Hollywood to me.”

“Carol,” sumptuously filmed by Todd Haynes, gave us two brilliant lead performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a drama about falling in love in the 1950s. I was floored by Brie Larson’s visceral Ma in “Room” but gripped also by a standout turn from 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay as her son. Brian Cranston nailed Dalton Trumbo as Michael Fassbender did with Steve Jobs and Paul Dano with Brian Wilson. In documentaries, “Amy” went immersive with home movie footage, while “Best of Enemies” traced the roots of today’s cable news culture to two guys on TV in 1968.

The list goes on, and 20 movies that deserve a spot on anybody’s long list will be at the Academy Screenings. And, of course, there are films to come that audiences and most critics haven’t weighed in on yet, like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant” (and that new one from a galaxy far, far away).

For Mackay, a year without frontrunners, where there’s something for everybody, is a very good year indeed: “When all those movies are competing, then the competition comes out if it, and it feels more like a celebration.”

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