My 10 Favorite Movie Moments of 2015

Indelible scenes from Mad Max to Mr. Turner.

Missed screenings (or those too late for deadline); this week’s double issue (instead of ruminating a week longer); the usual excuses. The year-end rush has made a proper 10-best list impossible for me, so I’m opting for purely personal impressions instead.

10) Up in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas, in the climbing documentary Meru, co-director Jimmy Chin nervously taps his piton hammer on a detached granite flake the size of a car. It gives a hollow, sickening ring—a sign that it could never hold a fall. It’s a sound I know from the Cascades, usually cause to turn around and find another route, yet Chin and his two rope-mates press on.

9) Costumes, props, and set dressing are so crucial to period movies, but none of us have lived through the era of, say, Far From the Madding Crowd. Recent period movies are different. The family memoir Infinitely Polar Bear is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the late ’70s—an era that both I and director Maya Forbes remember well from childhood. From the mismatched preppie attire to the rusting, dying Citroën station wagons favored by threadbare liberals of the day, every concrete detail was perfect. The one I appreciated most was entirely personal: Her family had the same exact napkin rings as mine. (Friends with longer memories tell me that Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies were just as faithful to their eras.)

8) Tom Cruise is often ridiculed for his sheer strenuous determination to remain a big-budget action star, but he’s always had a hidden gift for comedy. I loved the bit where Ethan Hunt, barely recovered from a near-drowning and heart defibrillation in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, attempts to join a car chase after the villain. He runs unsteadily toward his vehicle, attempts to vault over the hood like Starsky and Hutch, and instead slams into the side like a spastic drunk and falls to the ground. Big laugh—that’s why he’s still a movie star.

7) Here’s an argument for not having a TV or watching trailers: In a tiny critics’ screening of The Revenant (opening January 8), I was the only one to gasp when Leo rides his horse off a cliff. Why? Everyone had already seen it, ruining the surprise. Sometimes the least amount of preparation for a movie is best.

6) This is such a minor yet telling detail: Near the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the good guys stage a raid on the villains’ snowy base. Rey and Finn are running around like young people should, while Han Solo is, understandably, a few steps behind. He looks old, tired, and cold. Then Chewbacca pauses in a doorway to hand Han his winter coat before they head outside again. They’re like a loving/bickering long-married couple—one reason their return to the franchise was so welcome.

5) Young and unknown: Teenage Amy Winehouse in the documentary Amy, speaking in a blurry old video shot in the back of a car, says of her future prospects and possible fame, “I don’t think I’d be able to handle it.” The rest of the movie bears this out, heartbreakingly so.

4) Mr. Turner, photographed by the great Dick Pope, was full of beautiful images—none more than a vision of an old warship being towed to the scrapyard, a steam tug pulling the forlorn sailing vessel up the Thames. Turner sees it and later paints it as The Fighting Temeraire. What we see is a mostly digital hybrid, but still gorgeous.

3) I don’t know what you call those long, bendy poles on which dangle some of the bald, paint-huffing “War Boys” in Mad Max: Fury Road. But in that thrilling, near-continuous chase movie, I had to gasp when a guy swooped down on the flexible arm to grab one of the War Rig girls that Max and Furiosa are protecting. This between two speeding vehicles, amazing in 3-D.

2) Grandma belongs to the very forceful Lily Tomlin, whose angry yet grieving character steamrolls anyone in the way of funding an abortion for her granddaughter. Until, that is, Sam Elliott shows up. His Karl delivers a ferocious, wounded rebuke to Tomlin’s Elle. It’s an unexpected emotional meltdown from an actor we associate with calm, stoic masculinity. The whole movie pivots on that scene.

1) At the very end of the audacious one-take German heist movie Victoria, our blood-spattered heroine (Laia Costa) emerges from a hotel at dawn, plastic shopping bag full of cash in her hand. Having been followed by the camera—of heroic cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen—every step of the way, her overnight ordeal is over. Then finally the camera relents, and she walks away into the empty streets. We sense she’ll be safe, somehow, and we can finally stop holding our breath.

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