How Pixar, Mad Max and Cate Blanchett put us back in touch with our emotions in 2015

If you wanted an encounter with life’s soul-spinning complexities in 2015, all you had to do was watch a cartoon. This has been a great year for film, but it was a vintage one for animation – as if the medium had been suddenly seized by ambition to tell stories only it could, and go all of the places that live-action movies couldn’t.

More than six months after I first saw it, for example, Inside Out still makes me stop in the street. Who on earth would think to explore the strange interplay of our emotions across a wildly imagined, metaphorical mental landscape, through a story about an 11-year-old kid moving house?

The answer, of course, is Pixar – who, in doing so, reached higher and further than the studio has ever previously done in its 29-year history. (No mean feat, considering that history takes in such jewels as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc. and Up.) With razor-edged emotional acuity, Inside Out reminds you that joy and sadness aren’t mental rivals, but cohabitants – and to make that idea easily comprehensible to adults, let alone eight-year-olds, must be the single greatest storytelling achievement of 2015. It’s a film that changes how you think about how you think.

Inside Out Credit: 2014 Disney Pixar/Pixar

Amazingly, though, it wasn’t an outlier. In March came The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the final film from Isao Takahata – the lesser-known co-founder of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Studio Ghibli. Freely adapted from on a 10th century Japanese folktale about a couple who find a tiny girl inside a stalk of bamboo, the film showcases Ghibli’s total mastery of the hand-drawn animated form, with scenes unfolding in an expressionistic flurry of ink and charcoal never before attempted by the studio.

But the story itself – about nothing less weighty than life’s essential impermanence – is every bit as bold. Seasons change, water-wheels turn, and Kaguya’s life seem to slip past more quickly than she can live it. In the astonishing ending, an animated version of a Buddhist raigo-zu, in which holy beings descend on a cloud to spirit the girl back to heaven. Literally transcendent stuff.

In February, Britain’s own Aardman Animations gave us an uproarious harlequinade, in which a band of naive, Pierrot types come to the big city and try to pass themselves off as respectable. Sure, they were farm animals – but when the stop-motion stars of Shaun the Sheep Movie sat nervously in an elegant restaurant, fumbling with cutlery and failing to suppress their various bodily grumbles, Aardman skewered the human condition in a moment.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

And this, bear in mind, is only the top tier. Step down to the level marked ‘merely excellent’ and you’ll find Disney Animation Studios’ Big Hero 6, which thoughtfully explored bereavement via an inflatable robot called Baymax. And beside it, Pixar’s second film of the year, The Good Dinosaur, which shone a classic Disney animal adventure through the prism of a classic Western.

The result was a Shane-like frontier survival story – and a family film that follows in the fine old tradition of Bambi, Dumbo and The Lion King of not sweetening its sharper moments for younger viewers. “It’s scary!” complained some parents – as if feeling the rush of fear in any context is a necessarily awful thing. What’s wrong with these people? Didn’t they see Inside Out?

Any year with new work from Disney, Pixar, Ghibli and Aardman was likely to be a memorable one. But 2015 added a new name to the pantheon. The Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, founded by Tomm Moore and Paul Young in 1999, released their second fully independent feature in the UK, and immediately marked themselves as a major world-class talent.

Moore’s Song of the Sea follows a young brother and sister, Ben and Saoirse, as they come to terms with the loss of their mother. She’s one of the seal-folk – and on the night of Saoirse’s birth, was transformed back into her animal form, and slipped beneath the waters that surround their lighthouse home.

As a bereavement allegory, Song of the Sea is acutely perceptive – and the worldview its hand-drawn artwork describes would have been impossible to realise in CGI, let alone live-action. In a quietly jaw-dropping scene, the siblings walk over a hill together, and through the ground, in geographical cross-section, we see a family of badgers nuzzling in their sett. The shot isn’t an x-ray or a magical vision; it’s just how these children see the world. It made me remember I used to see hills that way, too.

So it’s fair to say that in 2015, children’s films were regularly more daring, inspiring and profound than most of the ones aimed at adults. And happily, that doesn’t seem to have proven a commercial stumbling block. Inside Out was Pixar’s most successful non-sequel to date, landing in sixth place in the UK’s annual box-office chart with £39.6 million. (The five places above it were occupied by, in descending order: Spectre, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions and Fast & Furious 7.)

Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges in 'Fast & Furious 7' Credit: Universal Pictures/Scott Garfield/Scott Garfield

In fact, even before the release next week of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the most successful film of the year (more than 200,000 tickets were sold during the first 24 hours of bookings alone), 2015 is already the most successful year for film in the UK to date. Box-office takings passed £1 billion on October 27, the day after Spectre arrived in cinemas, beating the previous record of November 10 in 2012 (which was set, not coincidentally, two weeks after the release of Skyfall).

With due respect to Fast & Furious 7’s unexpectedly moving finale, in which the franchise bade farewell to its departed star Paul Walker, none of those films were as profound as Inside Out. But this has been a year in which profundity often turned up in unexpected places. I’m thinking particularly of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, an apparently innocuous 3D thrill-ride about the high-wire walker Philippe Petit, and his bold, insane, illegal 1,630-foot journey between the roofs of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on 7th August 1974.

Mention the Twin Towers today and a single news image immediately and regrettably comes to mind. But Zemeckis’s film reclaimed them – firstly by rebuilding the towers themselves in beautiful, astonishingly plausible 3D, and then by making them the stage for a feat of such sublime human ingenuity that any thoughts of terror evaporated on contact.

Yet The Walk was one of the year’s notable box-office failures: it made £1.2 million in the UK and £27.5 million worldwide, a far cry from the £448 million Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump took 21 years ago. If you caught it, you shared one of the vital big-screen experiences of 2015.

The same goes for the flickering circuitry and neon chasms of Michael Mann’s Blackhat – a film that was sneaked out in the movie-going dustbowl of late February, but ten months later, remains the year’s best and boldest thriller. Blackhat performed even more feebly than The Walk, taking just £150,000 in the UK, and £12.8 million everywhere else. But its action scenes thundered by with sullen virtuosity, and its depiction of digital super-crime – its speed, intangibility, and unnerving refusal to be contained – spoke directly, explosively, to the present.

For a more muscular box-office performance we turn to Magic Mike XXL, which made a respectable £7 million in the UK alone – showered on the box-office counter in low-denomination notes, you’d hope. But Gregory Jacobs’ stripping road-trip sequel was packing more in its posing pouch than the obvious.

Powley as Minnie in her bedroom Credit: Capital Pictures

The film slyly but very deliberately turned cinema’s age-old mechanisms of looking on their head. Channing Tatum and his male co-stars were there to bring pleasure, and were defined by their effect on the women that surrounded them – Jada Pinkett Smith’s leonine club proprietress, Andie McDowell’s wine-swirling newly single mother, and above all, a Mini Mart cashier played by Lindsey Moser, who shared the year’s most purely joyous scene with Joe Manganiello, a bottle of water, a bag of Cheetos, and the Backstreet Boys song I Want It That Way.

The most surprisingly profound film of 2015, though, was the year’s most pleasant shock full stop – although ‘pleasant’ is admittedly an odd word to use for a film in which the climactic fight scene involves the antagonist’s windpipe being wrenched out of his mouth like a fleshy football sock, then getting tangled round the axle of his own monster truck.

I speak not of The Lady in the Van, but Mad Max: Fury Road, which arrived with a bang in mid-May and has been ringing in my ears and brain ever since. Beyond Thunderdome, the last Mad Max film, was 30 years ago, and director George Miller’s long-delayed return to the Wasteland could have easily passed muster as a nostalgic rehash. Instead, we got the best action movie of the 21st century – a film that manages to be two hours of nothing but chase, yet simultaneously cram in more subtext about gender, patriarchy and the politics of control than 15 sociology degrees.

Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes's Carol

For one thing, it gave us the most compactly brilliant line of dialogue of the year: “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” bellowed by Immortan Joe, Lord of the Citadel and commander of the only underground spring for miles around, to his parched subjects. The line is so sulphurically villainous, I keep expecting it to turn up in the next speech by Donald Trump.

For another, it gave us Imperator Furiosa, an immediately iconic warrior-woman played by Charlize Theron with cropped hair, war paint, metal prosthetic arm, and a horizon-scouring stare for the ages.

Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015 Credit: © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - - U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda © 2012 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited - - All/Jasin Boland

It’s partly thanks to Theron that 2015 felt like the year Hollywood finally started to get over the wearisome tokenism of the Strong Female Character (you know the type: pretty, quick with a comeback, never slips up, probably a black belt in jujutsu). Even more seismically, it finally began to come to terms with the grotesque gender imbalance that seems to be baked into the industry.

The row over obligatory high heels on the Cannes red carpet back in May merely turned out to be the amuse-bouche. The 2014 Sony email hack, which revealed (among other things) that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams had been paid considerably less than their male co-stars in American Hustle, led to Lawrence herself writing a blistering essay about Hollywood sexism: “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likeable,” she wrote – which, naturally, made me like her even more.

Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson were among the other female voices to speak out, while Ava DuVernay, the director of the Oscar-nominated Martin Luther King drama Selma, relaunched her film-distribution venture AFFRM as Array, to champion independent films by women and people of colour.

Exhilarating farce: Tangerine

Behind the cameras, the prognosis remained dire. Of the 100 most popular films in the UK this year, only six were either directed or co-directed by women. But in front of them, things were noticeably brighter. Theron’s Furiosa led a rush of intricately drawn screen women, who were every bit as eccentric, complicated, flawed – and, yes, compellingly weak – as men.

In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, 15-year-old Minnie Goetze, played by the terrific young British actress Bel Powley, decides to lose her virginity by seducing her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend. Marielle Heller’s film is bold enough not to reduce this liaison – the tenor of which hovers queasily between affair and statutory abuse – into what’s fashionably known as a "teachable moment".

Instead, the fall-out is messy and confusing, with no clean-cut moral: in other words, the ideal atmospheric conditions for riveting drama. (The BBFC’s decision to give the film an 18 certificate – in my view, wholly unmerited – meant the audience who’d most benefit from seeing this story told thoughtfully and honestly were legally prevented from seeing it.)

Treading a similar fine line with equal composure was Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, a woozy, pulsating mystery in which Shailene Woodley’s 17-year-old deals with the strange disappearance of her mother alongside the more typical conundrums of teendom.

From France came Céline Sciamma’s glorious Girlhood, with four banlieue girls, robbing, squabbling, running wild, and lip-synching to Rihanna’s Diamonds under cerulean light. And Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher gave us The Wonders, in which a 12-year-old beekeeper’s daughter feels the first specks of maturity settling on her young shoulders.

Cate Blanchett gave the best performance of her substantial career in Todd Haynes’ Carol, while in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, a phenomenal turn from Kristen Stewart, as a cool-headed PA, suggested the young Twilight alumna was just getting started.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine, introduced two new stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Maya Taylor, in an exhilarating farce set in the doughnut-sticky Los Angeles demimonde. And Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy dressed its transgressive romance between Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna in the gauzy garb of Seventies-vintage Euro-sleaze.

The Avengers - a misogynist film? Credit: Disney/Everett/Rex Features/c.W.Disney/Everett / Rex Feature

In short, there was much to be grateful for.  But were we? In April, after I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, my editor emailed to ask if anything newsworthy happened in the film. In my reply, I described a scene in which Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow reveals to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner that she was forcibly sterilised during her training, before adding, surprisingly tenderly: “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

“It’s the kind of line that, taken out of context, could cause people to strop on social media,” I wrote. “Twitter mobs have rallied around less.” A couple of weeks later, that wasn’t the half of it. A sustained whining campaign was waged by some Avengers fans – and, I’m sure, many others who had no interest in the film before catching the whiff of controversy – who claimed the line was misogynist. Joss Whedon, the thinking ran, must believe that infertility is monstrous, and that female characters are only interesting in terms of their capacity to reproduce.

This is, quite obviously, an absurd misreading of a film which crucially dared to advance Johansson’s character beyond the ditchwater-dull Strong Female Character stereotype. But the ensuing fuss suggested that the regrettably burgeoning ‘safe space’ mindset – where even the mildest references to uncomfortable subject matter must be wiped away – is starting to impact mainstream film culture.

We should be careful what we wish for. Cinema is never more exciting than when it challenges us – and studios, wary of the impact on their bottom line too many hashtag protests might entail, will sooner lose their nerve than a profit. So in 2016, let’s cherish film’s ability to make us feel everything: sadness, fear, disgust and anger as well as joy. Together in the dark is the best possible way to face our demons. The movies must continue to be an unsafe space.