At least four of the top 10 are rooted in reality

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service     1/28/2016

NEW YORK (CNS) — While the outstanding films of the year just past covered a wide range of traditional genres, from sci-fi adventures to sports stories, fact-based titles predominated to a notable degree. A musical biopic, a Cold War spy duel, the tale of canny investors who managed to profit from a worldwide economic downturn: all were grist for high-quality big-screen treatment.

Thus, at least four of Catholic News Service’s top 10 movies for 2015 — as chosen by CNS’ Media Review Office — have their roots in reality. A similar number of our 10 favorite family films, a nature documentary among them, are based on true events.

The selections in each category are listed below in alphabetical order. Except as indicated, the CNS classification for films under the first heading is A-III — adults, and their Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

For movies in the second group, unless otherwise noted, their CNS classification is A-II — adults and adolescents, while their MPAA rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

The top 10 overall:

The ensemble dramatization “The Big Short” follows a collection of Wall Street outsiders (including Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling) as they stake everything on a downturn no one else foresees. Adam McKay’s film merrily berates greed and folly without forgetting the human cost of corruption (R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

In Steven Spielberg’s outstanding historical drama “Bridge of Spies,” a corporate lawyer (Tom Hanks) defends a KGB agent (Mark Rylance), then negotiates his exchange for a downed American pilot (Austin Stowell). The understated decency of its main character makes this balanced, well-crafted retrospective a valuable experience.

“Brooklyn” is the meticulously understated story of a young Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan) who, with the help of a priest (Jim Broadbent), emigrates to the United States in the early 1950s and falls for an Italian-American plumber (Emory Cohen). John Crowley’s drama offers a trenchant look at migration (A-II — adults and adolescents).

An imaginative, surprisingly gentle reboot of the “Rocky” franchise, “Creed” finds the iconic ex-champ (Sylvester Stallone) coaching the illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) of a long-deceased adversary-turned-ally. Ryan Coogler’s underlying message is that, no matter what the circumstances, the cherished values of self-sacrifice and discipline can prevail.

In “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, an independent-minded heiress (Carey Mulligan) is pursued by three suitors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge). A top-rank cast, lush cinematography and high drama combine for a treat that’s suitable for most viewers (A-II).

The documentary-like biography “Love and Mercy” is a profile of Brian Wilson, the driving force behind the Beach Boys. Director Bill Pohlad evades sentimental gloss, adopting instead an intelligent, steady approach to his gifted but troubled subject — played in youth by Paul Dano, in later life by John Cusack.

Ridley Scott’s screen version of Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian,” centers on a NASA botanist (Matt Damon) who’s stranded alone on the Red Planet after a space mission gone awry. This compelling sci-fi epic uses its protagonist’s plight to examine fundamental aspects of the human spirit.

A profoundly moral drama, Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” examines the toll taken by the recent financial crisis via the story of two bit players on the Orlando, Florida, real estate scene (Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon) as each struggles to weather the maelstrom of forces unleashed by the meltdown (R).

Viewers of faith will appreciate the biblical overtones of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” a poignant study of the love between a mother (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay) as both are held captive by a predator (Sean Bridgers) (R).

“Spotlight” is Tom McCarthy’s hard-hitting look at how a new editor (Liev Schreiber) at the Boston Globe inspired a group of dedicated reporters (led by Michael Keaton) to uncover their hometown’s clergy sexual abuse scandal. His painfully accurate film will educate mature viewers even as it grieves them (R).

The top 10 family films:

Kenneth Branagh’s exuberant live-action retelling of the “Cinderella” story — which stars Lily James in the title role and Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother — injects vibrant new life into a venerable fairy tale. The result is a delightful fantasy (A-I — general patronage).

In Peter Sohn’s “The Good Dinosaur,” a young Apatosaurus with human characteristics (voice of Raymond Ochoa) is separated from his family, and must find his way home, with only a feral Neanderthal boy (voice of Jack Bright) as his companion. Their journey is both wholesome and hilarious (A-I).

“Inside Out” is a splendid animated comedy, founded on strong values, in which a young girl’s (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) personified emotions help her cope with an upsetting family move. Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen prove equally deft at tickling and touching their audience.

The life of Marie Heurtin (Ariana Rivoire), often called the “French Helen Keller,” is dramatized in Jean-Pierre Ameris’ joyous “Marie’s Story.” At a special-needs school, one idealistic nun (Isabelle Carre) gives her deaf and blind student a master class in unconditional love, patience and perseverance (not rated by the MPAA).

The uplifting fact-based drama “McFarland, USA” follows a high school coach (Kevin Costner) to the impoverished community of the title where, recognizing a widespread gift among his students for long-distance running, he organizes a cross-country team. Niki Caro’s faith- and family-friendly tale honors education and self-improvement.

“Monkey Kingdom” is an enjoyable documentary recording the exploits of Maya, a female toque macaque disadvantaged by her low rank within the rigid hierarchy of her species. Dramatic scenery and Tina Fey’s pleasant narration buoy Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill’s study (A-I; G — general audiences. All ages admitted.).

Steve Martino is scrupulously faithful to the spirit of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz in the charming animated comedy “The Peanuts Movie.” Top-notch values prevail as hapless Charlie Brown (voice of Noah Schnapp) pines for a classmate (voice of Francesca Capaldi) while Snoopy (voiced by Bill Melendez) also pursues romance (A-I, G).

With “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” Mark Burton and Richard Starzak craft an endearing feature centered on the madcap adventures of the eponymous little lamb (voice of Justin Fletcher). Despite some questionable jokes, the entertaining and inventive goings-on make suitable viewing for most of the family.

A blockbuster series gets a fresh start in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” J.J. Abrams brings a steady hand to the task of rejuvenating the sci-fi saga, successfully relying on a lucid plot, abundant humor and two dynamic new heroes (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) to revitalize the proceedings. (PG-13).

Set in 1973 Alabama, and based on the true story of football star Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), Andrew and Jon Erwin’s entertaining drama “Woodlawn” makes inspirational viewing. With integration causing team tension, Nathan’s coach (Nic Bishop) hires a chaplain (Sean Astin) who challenges the athletes to live the Gospel message.


Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.