(For a look at the Best & Worst Films of 2015, go here.)
After seeing his past three films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter) all earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, David O. Russell probably will find his run crashing to a halt with Joy (*** out of four), a movie whose structure almost invites hordes of people to hate it. And admittedly, this film about Joy Mangano, the struggling divorcee who invented the Miracle Mop and subsequently became a wealthy entrepreneur, gets off to a rocky start, with Russell pushing the story dynamics and the character eccentricities to an obnoxious degree. But once the film settles down, and once the supporting players make more room for lead Jennifer Lawrence to strut her stuff, Joy — both the movie and the character — makes significant strides in its march toward success.
With its bald ambitions, The Danish Girl (**1/2) might as well be called The Oscar Bait Movie, with its pedigree beyond question thanks to the participation of director Tom Hooper (Oscar for The King's Speech) and star Eddie Redmayne (Oscar for The Theory of Everything). The story's a worthy one — the saga of transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe — but it's given little room to breathe, and Redmayne's performance is technically proficient rather than emotionally stirring. For the latter, one has to turn to co-star Alicia Vikander. As Gerda, Einar's infinitely patient and understanding wife, she's the only person here who's worthy of Oscar attention.
Self-consciously arty and only intermittently successful, Youth (**1/2), the new film from Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), stars Michael Caine as composer/conductor Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as film director Mick Boyle, two friends dealing with familial crises, professional challenges, and the vagaries of aging — all while spending time at a lavish Swiss resort. Youth is beautifully photographed by Luca Bigazzi and appropriately drenched in Euro-ambience, but the script wavers between poetic and portentous. Sorrentino clearly means for this to register as his version of Federico Fellini's 8-1/2, but the most it can muster is a 5-1/2.
An earnest if plodding drama about one man's David-and-Goliath fight against the National Football League, the based-on-fact Concussion (**1/2) admirably never goes easy on the monolithic organization, as Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) uncovers the tragedy of dormant brain damage in many ex-players and subsequently finds the NFL stonewalling him at every turn. In all other respects, this plays like a well-tailored TV movie of the week, the sort that hits every expected narrative beat just before the fadeout to commercial.