The end of a year conduces to retrospection—in our lives, and in cinema too. All six movies I watched between Christmas and New Year’s Day were about looking back: to historical eras; to the protagonists’ pasts; or, for us, to our own pasts as moviegoers, via film franchises that began decades ago, when everyone was young.

Based on a novel by one excellent writer (Colm Tóibín) and a script by another (Nick Hornby), Brooklyn unfolds a near-mythic tale of immigration, love, and conflicted loyalties. In 1952 a young Irishwoman, facing meager options at home in County Wexford, relocates to New York, where she endures homesickness; takes up residence in a boardinghouse ruled by an acerbic Irish widow; meets a boy and falls in love...and then, drawn back home by family tragedy, finds herself torn between worlds and obligations. These themes have a generic quality, but Brooklyn is redeemed by the warmth of its performances, especially a radiant Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, Jim Broadbent as a genial parish priest, and Julie Walters in a pitch-perfect turn as Mrs. Kehoe, the boardinghouse matron. Above all, Brooklyn evokes waiting: slow travel; the thrilling arrival of an air-mail letter; the agonies of distance and separation. Brooklyn’s story may be slight, but the feelings it evokes are anything but, and Irish-American Catholics with a New York City background will find it especially bittersweet.

Todd Haynes’s Carol—also set in New York in 1952—explores the scandalous affair between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy suburban housewife who visits the Manhattan department store where Therese works. Haynes’s filmmaking is sensually lavish, and this film is appointed with period-piece detail so rich that it makes Mad Men look like a bare-bones design sketch. The bygone look signals benighted values; as in his previous 1950s melodrama of renegade passions, Far From Heaven, Haynes uses rigid conventionality to springboard a desire all the more fierce for its secrecy and forbiddenness. Decked out in fur coat, heavy makeup, and radioactive red lipstick, Blanchett delivers yet another bravura performance; eyes squinting knowingly over her cigarette, she’s an avatar of opulent 1950s glamour, while Rooney’s Therese—less complicated, yet more mysterious—is an apt counterpart. For most of Carol’s two hours, the pair seem poised for tragedy. Yet this is a movie released in the year of Obergefell v. Hodges, and it ends with its lovers’ gazes locked in one of the truly great cinematic across-the-crowded-room moments—an open expression of passion that anticipates a day where fulfillment, and not fear, will rule.

The New York Times recently heralded 2015 as “the transgender moment,” and the migration of trans life from our culture’s margins toward its center is ratified by The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s biopic of Lili Elbe, an early recipient (in 1930) of sex-reassignment surgery. Born Einar Wegener, Elbe was a painter whose marriage to fellow painter Gerda Gottlieb took an unexpected turn when Wegener, filling in for a model his wife was painting, donned women’s clothes and soon found himself experiencing powerful fantasies of femaleness. The Danish Girl showcases a moving performance by British actor Eddie Redmayne (Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything), whose androgynous looks suit the gender-switching role. Its best moments capture Einar riding a current of rapture as he contemplates that switch, including one indelible scene in which he visits a Paris peep show—not to gratify himself sexually, but to dreamily mimic the performer’s erotic gestures. Elsewhere, though, the story has been neatened into uplift and advocacy. After suffering the depredations of doctors out to enforce normative gender roles via electroshock and other brutal measures, Einar finds a surgeon who offers the experimental operation. Asked by a friend whether the surgeon is going to change him into a woman, Einar replies: “God made me a woman. The doctor is healing me of the sickness that was my disguise.” Yet, ironically, it is this healing and liberating doctor who performs the surgeries (spoiler alert!) that ultimately kill Lili. Does liberation exist solely in the eye of the liberated? Where some viewers will see redemption and triumph, others may find mostly distress and damage.

The Big Short examines a very different damage, delving into the financial meltdown of 2008. One challenge for the Wall Street calamity movie is pedagogical: how to tell the story without turning your film into Econ 101? Director Adam McKay takes a novel approach, using celebrity cameos to explain basic concepts directly to the camera—like chef Anthony Bourdain, in his restaurant kitchen, mixing three-day-old fish into a stew to provide a culinary metaphor for how subprime loans were mixed into larger entities and fobbed off on unsuspecting buyers. A larger problem with films like The Big Short is that in dramatizing financial catastrophe, they tend to get swept up in the reckless acquisitive spirit of the wheeler-dealers who engineered it, and end up celebrating what they set out to indict. We shouldn’t forget that the good guys in this movie—the guys shorting the villainous big banks—are placing huge bets on a financial collapse that will enrich them while devastating the savings of average Americans. To mollify us, McKay writes in some pained dithering by a hedge-fund guru (Steve Carell) who is ethically troubled and can hardly bear to pull the trigger on a $200 million sale of his own credit default swaps...and yet—surprise!—does so in the end. Such pseudo-qualms are annoying. And I’m still not sure I understand collateralized debt obligations. Oh well.

Operating in a diametrically opposite mode, 45 Years studies one tumultuous week in the life of a long-married couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), whose serene retirement in the English countryside is interrupted by the macabre news that the body of Geoff’s long-ago girlfriend, Katja, who disappeared in a fall into a crevasse while hiking with him in the Swiss Alps fifty years ago, has been discovered, frozen in glacial ice. The news spurs deep confusion in Geoff, who has kept the depth and power of his lost love hidden from Kate over the decades, and threatens to engulf him in remorse—and to engulf her as well, in the harrowing fear that she has spent nearly half a century married to a man who loved someone else more. From these dour materials writer-director Andrew Haigh fashions a slight but profound film, in which tiny changes in facial expression or body language—a slump of shoulders, a sigh—register large.

Haigh leaves the whole back story implicit. We learn precious little about Geoff’s past, and the couple never have a full-blown discussion of what’s happening. The result is a film about the perils of memory that has almost no memory in it. What carries 45 Years is its powerfully autumnal mood: dead leaves hang brown and forlorn on trees as one or another of the Mercers wanders the yard with a cigarette; solitary close-ups catch Kate sunk in a worried distraction, to which Rampling’s emanation of ruined beauty lends a hooded and sorrowing intensity. The movie ends with the couple’s forty-fifth anniversary party, where Geoff struggles through an emotional toast to his wife. Gathered friends take his emotions at face value, but we understand it’s not that simple. We watch Kate trying to reassure herself, amid the celebration, that everything is OK. But when the party DJ plays the couple’s favorite song for them to dance to, we see her registering troubling new ambiguities in lyrics she has always innocently loved. “So I smile and say / When a lovely flame dies / Smoke gets in your eyes...” The moment summons an alienation tinged with dread, and adds impact to a film in which almost nothing happens but everything changes.

ON A HAPPIER note, I finished my retrospective by revisiting two blockbuster movie series that trace back to my senior year in high school, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s hard to recall the stealth with which the original Star Wars snuck up on us, given how—with its state-of-the-art digital technology, shrewd cross-marketing, colossal box-office success, and universal audience appeal—it ended up reshaping the industry. As for the current installment, The Force Awakens, I’m glad to say that in the able hands of director J. J. Abrams (of TV’s Lost), the old thrill remains: the same youthful brio, the endearing silliness of non- and semi-human creatures, and the rousing prospect of a ragtag crew of heroes organized against intergalactic evil. The movie trots out original cast members for a (possibly) final appearance, adding the requisite churbling droids and a Darth Vader successor intoning basso profundo evil. It’s all highly satisfying.

So too is Creed, the seventh installment in the Rocky series, and one of the best. Infused with vitality by director Ryan Coogler and the terrific young actor Michael B. Jordan, the film faithfully revisits the original Rocky tropes: the unheralded outsider tossed a chance by a cocky champ; the reluctant girlfriend who eventually comes around; the arduous training routine set in stirring musical montage. Jordan gives the role of Apollo Creed’s errant son intensity, sincerity, and a sulkiness that yields gradually to grace under pressure. And Stallone proves quite moving as the elderly Rocky Balboa, who, grizzled and slowed by age and illness, nevertheless agrees to serve as trainer to his old pal’s son. The closing scene has the two mounting the broad stone steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the pavilion where the young Rocky once capered in a delirious victory dance that became an iconic image of American movies. This time round, Balboa, creaky and out of breath, leans heavily on his protégé’s arm and jokes: “I think they put some extra steps here.”

As the two look out over the city, the filmmakers shrewdly refrain from inserting a flashback, letting our own cinematic memory conjure it up from forty years ago. “If you look hard enough,” Rocky says to Creed’s kid, “you can see your whole life from up here.” When the lights came up moments later, more than a few middle-aged guys were wiping moist eyes. One of them might even have been me.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the January 29, 2016 issue: View Contents
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