Successful movies always reflect audience tastes and values. So movie awards are like a time capsule, a peek into the mindset of folks in any given year. Which means that pop-culture historians in the future might be worried about all of us in 2015.
The best-picture Oscar contenders include the subjects of captivity, pedophilia, brain injuries and financial ruin. There are bear attacks, the Holocaust, child soldiers, communist double-crosses (both domestic and overseas), and lots and lots of gun violence.
And while five films deal with the frailty of old age and the lost dreams of youth, these films are ultimately optimistic and affirmative: “The Lady in the Van,” “Mr. Holmes,” “45 Years,” “Grandma” and “Youth.”
If you’re looking for a time-capsule film, there is a four-way tie for the movie that captured the zeitgeist of 2015. “The Big Short” and “99 Homes” took very different but effective approaches to the recession and housing crisis. “The Danish Girl” looks at the transgender world in a year when Caitlyn Jenner shone a spotlight on the subject. And “Straight Outta Compton” tackled the racial tension in the nation, and the relations with police — all in an entertaining rags-to-riches showbiz saga.
The year brought some unlikely pairings of films. “Carol” and “Brooklyn” are two very different love stories about shopgirls, both coincidentally set in 1952. And both are immaculately made.
“The Revenant” and “Hateful Eight” are a pair of Westerns about survival and brutality, both filmed in big-screen splendor.
“Trumbo” and “Bridge of Spies” took two very different looks at communism in the recent past, with the former set in Hollywood, the latter in New York and Germany.
“Concussion” and “Spotlight” are about people taking on the System, both films based on fact. (Though in the former, the audience can appreciate football without liking the NFL; in the latter, there’s no sympathy for anyone Catholic.)
Aside from the recession, a pair of films probed the other revolution in the 21st century: The digital age. “Steve Jobs” is a loose biopic of a man with enormous influence on all of us; “Truth” looks at the collision of digital reporting and underprepared old-school journalists.
The overarching theme of the year was reality. Eleven of the above-mentioned films are fact-based; the year’s other reality-based narratives range from “Black Mass” to “Joy,” plus a handful of other artisan-category contenders.
The grim topics were offset by amazing artistry in “Room,” “Revenant,” “Son of Saul” and “Beasts of No Nation.”
And 2015 brought films that are unlike anything before. “Anomalisa” is a study of alienation that is ultimately touching — all done in stop-motion animation. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a popcorn movie that cineastes, critics, environmentalists and feminists have embraced.
And, of course, there is another film of 2015 that was in a class by itself: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”