A year ago, this blog didn’t exist, and now it’s time to look back on my movie-going 2015. What follows is a ranking of every 2015 movie I saw, with comments (and links to my reviews if I’ve already written on them). This ranking is very personal to me, so consider this a chronicle of my favorites of the year. Note that films I wanted to see but didn’t in time for this post include but are not limited to: Love and Mercy, Pawn Sacrifice, Macbeth, Carol, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Anomalisa, and The Program, which doesn’t have a U.S. release date yet.
Now, let’s go off the deep end, shall we?
This Happy Madison misfire could have been something, a fun alien invasion romp with 1980s arcade characters utilized in fun ways. In the end, what we got is a movie that often just seems to shrug its shoulders, declaring its apathy for logic, entertainment value and good taste. It doesn’t care, and when the movie doesn’t care, why should we credit it as anything other than a waste of time? It’s bad, and I mean replace-one-of-the-main-character’s-love-interest-with-an-inflatable-sex-doll-and-virtually-nothing-changes bad. It has a willful misunderstanding of dramatic structure and comedic value, featuring a checked-out lead performance from Adam Sandler and all round laziness. Just patch together some of the genuinely effective visual effects into a sizzle reel and call it an editing job well done. That way, at least something constructive can come out of this “comedy” of errors.
In the most basic logline of CHAPPiE (a police robot led astray by a group of gangsters), there is potential. But the execution is alternately ear-splittingly annoying, and hands-down some of the best so-bad-it’s-good viewing all year. The boring bad stuff centers on real-life musical group Die Antwoord playing veiled versions of themselves. The fun bad stuff mostly revolves around Vincent Moore as played by Hugh Jackman, who gives one of the most over-the-top and hilariously strained villain performances I’ve ever seen, bringing to life a truly bizarre character. (Read my review to get the low-down on this amazing scene-stealer.) In the end, this tale of an artificially intelligent police robot impresses with the mocap physicality of the title character, but spectacularly malfunctions almost every other step of the way.
51) Project Almanac
Okay. The only reason I watched this movie is because the director, Dean Isrealite, is doing Power Rangers in 2017, and I am fascinated to see how that will go down. (This movie, like Power Rangers, features a “team” of five teens. That’s all I’ve got for that connection.) We have a pretty standard found-footage setup: a group of vaguely unlikable teens discover plans for a time machine, they build it in one of their moms’ basement, it goes unnoticed by her even though it sparks and explodes all over the place, and the teens record everything even when it’s not plausible or logical. If you watch Project Almanac, I hope you enjoy the first act, because it goes off the rails after that, getting worse as it goes along. I don’t think this trifle of a movie needs any more attention from me.
50) Jupiter Ascending
An original space opera is a rare beast – it’s hard to build a compelling interstellar world and tell a good story with fun characters. Judging from the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, they sure went for the glory in the former, and utterly failed to tend to the latter! There’s enough exposition here to choke an elephant, delivered by actors who are positively lost at sea. You may find solace in the various bizarre choices made here (Sean Bean as half-man, half-honeybee! A Brazil parody that comes out of nowhere! A half-assed Oedipus complex for the villains!). But Mila Kunis’ Jupiter (sort of a real person but also insultingly written – she loves dogs a little too much), Channing Tatum’s Caine (vacant to the point of cardboard), and Eddie Redmayne’s Balem (zero-to-rabid in 2 seconds and impossible to take seriously) are pretty poor company on this theoretically epic adventure.
This romantic and easygoing tale is set in Hawaii, revolving around a military contractor’s (Bradley Cooper) romantic entanglements, and his assignment to secure Hawaiian airspace for a new private satellite. Cameron Crowe’s latest effort is awkward and largely too relaxed to get much of a reaction from anyone, good or bad. Even though I don’t find Cooper a likable screen presence at all, Aloha glides along to its own particular beat and it’s almost like it’s there not to bother you. One random observation that will thrill anyone who knows a lot about cult movies is that there’s one scene where images are being transmitted through a satellite, and you can see the demonic villain Pitch from the bizarre 1960 movie Santa Claus. In my estimation that’s the most interesting thing about the Aloha.
48) Terminator Genisys
The biggest threat in Terminator Genisys is not a new badass Terminator, but the screenplay. The dialogue is full of boring declarative sentences, the most stock place-holding character scenes, and a convoluted plot that also allows for a bland and insulting nostalgia-fest. Genisys inspires nostalgia for 20-30 years-past earlier films while not bothering to create in itself something people might be nostalgic for in 20 years. There’s admittedly only one truly weak link in the cast, but it’s Jai Courtney’s lead role! He makes for a main character-sized black hole of charisma, while the rest of the ensemble tries gamely to entertain (J.K. Simmons feels like he’s in a different movie). But their efforts are in vain; what can they do to stop the lukewarm tide of a watered-down, insular, continuity-torturing rebootquel? If Genisys has James Cameron’s endorsement, this franchise is terminated.
47) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival rubs me the wrong way. It’s incredibly self-conscious in its attempts to be quirky and offbeat (cue irritating intertitles, cutaways and narration), and in the end seems to hope that its own pandering love of classic movies will convince the audience to give it a break for all its excesses of hipster filmmaking. The basic plot is that Greg Gaines (the “Me” of the title) and his “coworker” Earl (because friends are too mainstream) are going through their usual routine of filming parodies of old movies, until Greg’s mother asks him to befriend a high school classmate dying of cancer. Angst and bonding ensues.
Lead character Greg is insufferable, nominally developing out of being an asshole but at almost all turns excellently resembling one. But in the interest of feelings often being complicated, there is good here. The film parodies are kind of great. Supporting performances from Jon Bernthal and Molly Shannon work well in context. And as the titular Dying Girl, Olivia Cooke quietly acts up a storm. With any luck she’s a rising star to watch. But in the overall picture, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl misfires far more than it hits bull’s-eye, hampered by a terrible main character and its own pretentions.
There are only three James Bond movies I dislike, and I’m sorry to say Spectre is one of them. It’s a superficially great-looking mess with largely unexciting action (save to the pre-titles and the train fight), baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist. The overall sense I got is that Spectre is more devoted to weaving in the continuity of the Craig-era Bonds than being a good Bond movie on its own. But your mileage may vary; positives include that Daniel Craig plays a slightly looser and more traditionally “fun” Bond, the big SPECTRE meeting scene is genuinely creepy, and in a production so handsome there’s bound to be some fleeting moments of inspiration. But fleeting is the key word; I personally found Spectre to be frustratingly insular and navel-gazing.
45) Fantastic Four
I find the negative reaction to this film to be way overblown, but that doesn’t mean Fantastic Four isn’t a mess of mutually exclusive agendas clashing before our eyes. The thing is, elements of it work (the cast, the Cronenbergian body-horror part) while obvious studio reshoots and interference rear their heads as the runtime goes on until we’re left with a shallow mishmash of a movie laughing in the face of coherence. This was Fox’ big chance to make a statement, to prove they deserve to hold onto the rights to Marvel’s first family. As it happened, Fox sabotaged itself at nearly every step of the way, until we’re left with a genetic hybrid that’s part competent, part brain-dead. I think it turned out average overall. But given their behavior, Fox got the flop they deserved.
This is half of a good movie. The good half: a wealth of creative design work, a sense of wonder, two intoxicating scenes touring the dizzyingly well-realized city of Tomorrowland, energetic direction from Brad Bird. The bad half: lots of overacting, a paltry amount of Tomorrowland for a film named after it, insulting and simplistic messages, and screenwriting choices that end up making this much more of a chore than it needs to be. In this end this love letter to retro-futurism is torn in two, weighing itself down with bricks when it should be soaring.
43) The Good Dinosaur
My favorite thing about The Good Dinosaur is the wealth of stunning landscape visuals. The decision to go with semi-photorealistic environs and heightened cartoony designs for the dinosaurs is a challenge to adjust to at times, but is overall interesting. It serves what is at times like a stripped-down travelogue narrative featuring an Apatosaurus’ quest to return to his family after being swept by a river current into strange territory. (On the other hand, the fact that the setting is photorealistic and the creature designs are few and far between mean that this is the Pixar “Art of” book you’ll least want to own).
Story/character-wise, this is the least ambitious movie Pixar’s ever done. It’s all so noticeably basic (shockingly so after Inside Out). Which isn’t bad per se – simplicity can be great in certain contexts, but this movie really depends on your specific emotional investment in the one or two central emotional cores of the movie, and I just wasn’t quite on its wavelength. I also personally noticed some weird sociopolitical themes going on. The good guys are the traditional farmers and upstanding cowboys. And they’re all threatened by weird hippies and trailer trash. What’s going on here?
42) Testament of Youth
Based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name, Testament of Youth follows Vera as she experiences an Oxford education, which is then swiftly interrupted by love, loss, and the ravages of the Great War. The film adaptation proceeds exactly as you think, populated with profound human tragedy and a ground-level perspective on the insanity of World War I courtesy of Vera’s nursing position on the front lines. Early scenes of idyllic cinematography give way to an odyssey of stark truths. You get nothing more or less than what you bargain for from this story of a lost generation, and those who are left behind.
This is a movie that gives you exactly what it advertises: a tale of fleeting triumph and bitter adversity as a group of intrepid adventures summit the highest peak on earth, and lose 12 people on the way down. While the film doesn’t hit me as hard as I know it will others, it is a very impressive achievement in technical filmmaking. It’s frequently beautiful (owing to a production that took principal photography up 16,000 feet on Everest itself), the sprawling cast is game, and the writing is a cut above the stereotypical disaster fare. I like it well enough for what it is, but others more connected to the material and the itch to explore will probably get more out of it.
40) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The Hunger Games series dies as it lived, populated with sobering subversions of blockbuster formula, lots of awkward silences, and a laser focus on the subjective experience of its heroine Katniss Everdeen. This final installment takes us through an infiltration of the booby-trapped Capitol, following close with Katniss so as to feed the audience her confusion and perspective on the ground. There are no sweeping shots of armies clashing here, just stop-and-start progress in a semi-deserted cityscape. This makes for choppy, herky-jerky plotting, but it also makes clear the franchise’s goal to take the risk of keeping things very intimate.
This doesn’t mean that things are always subdued. During an episode in the sewers the film briefly turns into director Francis Lawrence’s own I am Legend, and the series-long love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta is resolved in a fairly brutal way (although a scene where Gale openly discusses the triangle comes off as clumsy). But the most interesting developments are saved for the climax; suffice to say that the marketing of this film is one big fascinating bait-and-switch. And a single act of laughing at a crucial climactic moment may just make for the best scene in this four-film franchise. How ironic for this super-serious series.
39) Jurassic World
Jurassic World has perhaps the weakest script of any movie I saw this year. This is a movie that hates its own main character, that relies on Indominus Rex-sized plot contrivances, that fills itself with character and narrative dead ends, and whose most fun character is the moustache-twirling villain. Add to that, the sense of wonder isn’t there (the Jurassic Park theme is never played when a dinosaur is own screen). So how do certain parts of it still work? Well, the climax is fun. The pteranodon attack (despite ironically containing a moment I dislike and another I despise) is vividly brought to life. In short, director Colin Trevorrow has an all-right batting average when it comes to setpieces. And I do think the bit featuring the field of dead dinosaurs is a near-perfect scene. So Jurassic World is a movie that cruises onward despite itself. There are good elements, but they’re kind of snowed in, here in this colorless schematic of a tentpole movie. To paraphrase John Hammond, “You’ll have to get used to Jurassic World, it suffers from a deplorable lack of personality”. This is the movie that made $1.6 billion?
As a side note for the future, I have a personal director recommendation for the sequel: Brad Bird. Whatever you or I think of Tomorrowland, the sense of wonder and awe is there. We know from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that he can make colorful and indelible setpieces that snap, crackle and pop. We know from his animated work the depth of emotion he can bring to a movie. It would fit his schedule, as shooting would come before the bulk of work on The Incredibles 2. And Bird already had a cameo in this movie, so he’s got his foot in the door. Make it happen!
38) It Follows
It Follows is a John Carpenter-esque throwback, a horror movie that takes a simple concept (sexually-transmitted sight of a ceaselessly pursuing thing coming to kill you) and uses the camera eye to make for the most tension and creepiness as possible. Director David Robert Mitchell uses 360 shots often, conditioning the audience into a twisted game of watching the frame to see if “It” is there, for it can take any form. The best moment of the film is probably the school scene where It is there, but the characters don’t notice it themselves. Given my extremely low tolerance for this sort of creepiness, don’t expect me to ever watch It Follows again. If you’re into that kind of thing, though, go to town.
37) Woman in Gold
Woman in Gold is based on the true story of a Jewish Austrian woman trying to reclaim a series of Gustav Klimt paintings of her aunt, which were confiscated during the Nazi occupation, and postwar were kept in the Austrian state gallery. This is a story mostly well told here, with handsome work from Helen Mirren in the lead, and the rest of the cast (though Katie Holmes is saddled with maybe the most thankless role of the year). It’s just that there’s a lack of willingness to engage in the more complicated questions of motivations that arise from this quest to recover paintings by then iconic to Austrian culture (see the review for more).
36) The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The 1960s buddy spy show of the same name sold itself on the pairing of CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill here) and KGB specialist Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and this film adaptation similarly places the odd-couple pairing as the highest priority. Their dealbreaker chemistry really works, complemented by third-wheel Gaby, played by the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style, much of it working a charm, but it’s held back by an inane focus on building up villains who end up being ultra-disposable, and Guy Ritchie suddenly not being able to direct action. It’s fun, but there were better spy movies this year.
35) Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s headlining performances are the glue around which this entire film revolves, with Binoche in the role of an actress who got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. This leads to lots of verbose but sober conversations about the fickle highs and lows of acting, and read-throughs of the script that bleed fictional conflicts into the characters’ “real” lives. This wordiness is contrasting by long stretches of atmospheric ambiguity, especially in the intentionally off-putting third act, and while that opacity doesn’t always do Clouds of Sils Maria’s credit, the film’s character shines through the fog.
Truth is the Hamlet of television journalism. Everyone gets fired, asked to resign, or resigns of their own free will by the end. The reason? Controversy surrounding a 2004 60 Minutes piece on President George W. Bush’s service in the [National Guard] – the evidence seems to suggest that Bush was circulated through the system so as to avoid actual attendance and to preclude service in the Vietnam War. The problems come when persistent questions are raised as to the veracity of [CBS]’ sources. Cate Blanchett is producer Mary Mapes, and she is magnificent here, volcanic and subtle in turn when it’s called for. I found Blanchett’s performance to be better than the often on-the-nose and insular movie she’s in, but Truth is nonetheless well made. My favorite scene? In the editing room, Mapes is overseeing the cutting of the special. The deadline to air is reconfirmed. And all in the room buckle down with the determination to do this thing, and do it fast. It’s an exciting moment in a film that can get a little swamped elsewhere.
Tom Hardy just might be my favorite actor working today, so of course I was going to see Legend, in which he plays the two lead roles. They are twin English gangsters Reggie (the smooth one) and Ronald (the barking mad one) Kray, and the two wildly different performances are both fantastic. The ferocious but loving conflict between the two unambiguously works, and that’s where the film derives all of its energy. The problem is that the movie as a whole is paced unevenly and gets worse as it goes along – we’re into the swing of things in the first two acts (the Krays expand their territory between jail time, while Reggie courts Emily Browning’s Frances), but the third act rather falls apart entirely. A significant part of the problem is the Frances character, so integral to the story. Despite a very solid performance by Browning, Frances is a terribly weak character. She has no life outside of her fiancé Reggie, and plays the victim at most every turn. Now, I realize this is based on a true story, but there must have been some way to give us the everywoman contrast to gangster life without doing it in such a limp way. So Legend is an overlong and questionably structured film, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of Hardy, who knocks an acting challenge out of the park once again.
Paul Feig’s second collaboration with Melissa McCarthy produces a romp with unexpected thematic depth even as it commits fully to outrageous comedy. The thing is, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge, and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. The whole situation is also like a reflection of McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine. With sterling support from the comedy goldmine that is Jason Statham, Spy rises above some overall patchiness to show us all how solid it is at its job.
31) Irrational Man
I was maybe too protective of spoilers in my initial review of Irrational Man. First there’s the context of a philosophy professor’s (Joaquin Phoenix) existential crisis and his student’s (Emma Stone) moral support. Then there’s the meat of the story, one of ennui, finding purpose, and the perfect murder, all spun out from the singular mind of Woody Allen. I was hesitant to give away the murder aspect, because the way it unfolds in the movie is such a dynamic left-turn. I find the film fun and light on its feet for the most part, and a welcome entry to Allen’s canon of insane proliferation (at least one movie a year since 1982).
30) The End of the Tour
The seminal 1996 novel Infinite Jest runs 1,079 pages. It’s an intimidating volume, and for people like me who have not scaled its heights, this film does a very good job of getting you in the head of its fascinating yet down-to-earth author David Foster Wallace, played here with unpretentious skill by Jason Segel. Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) tagged along with Wallace at the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, and Lipsky’s memoir of the experience forms the basis for the film. It makes sense that screenwriter Donald Margulies is traditionally a playwright, because the film lives and dies by its two-handed scenes between our two Davids; the script gradually siphons off external concerns until the third act is stripped mainly to just the two of them, probing and conversing.
The End of the Tour is a meditation on life, human relationships, and depression, but it’s also operating on a pretty even keel; I found it a pleasant and even relaxing watch, with no great ambition to be anything else. And it works well, give or take some semi-forced beats of jealousy that develop on Lipsky’s part. The End of the Tour is talky but not in a showy way, and supported by soothing but striking music from Danny Elfman. And hey, for all its quiet, you might get a little something in your eye for the ending – from the beginning of the film you understand that perennial regular guy Wallace ended up a victim of suicide in 2008.
29) Furious 7
Furious 7 will always be known as the one hit hard by Paul Walker’s untimely death, and the heartfelt tribute at the end sends off Walker’s character elegantly and beautifully. The rest of the movie’s not bad either, give or take a dumb macguffin-obsessed plot and a few ridiculous action beats (Dominic and the villain ram each other head-on three times!). In fact, the chemistry of the Fast and Furious family unit is still beating as the heart of the franchise, and the over-the-top action (parachuting cars! Building-hopping cars!) is still thrilling. To be honest, this was the first film in the series I’d seen at the time, which is shocking to a linear guy like me, but it still delivered an entertaining ride.
28) Mr. Holmes
Mr. Holmes to an extent lives or dies with Ian McKellen’s central performance as the retired detective haunted by the fractured memory of his last case. But that’s not exactly a risk, as predictably excellent as McKellen is. This is a unique spin on a Sherlock Holmes story, introducing in tandem Holmes’ retired day-to-day life, and flashbacks of his final case. In 1998, director Bill Condon and McKellen made a film with a near-identical premise called Gods and Monsters, in which another retired genius is haunted by the past. Mr. Holmes is the much less risky and challenging film, but that doesn’t diminish its considerable merits.
27) The Voices
Strap in, this one gets dark and weird. Ryan Reynolds stars as a seemingly normal guy living in an oddly idyllic/creepy town. He works at Fixture Faucet International, and after a short-circuited night out with a co-worker he has a crush on, his psychosis starts to take over. Reynolds does exceptional work as the mannered but looney-tune Jerry Hickfang, and he’s supported by smart visual filmmaking that balances the superficially pleasant with the gruesome (often, they’re inseparable). There is comedy and grotesquerie here, in a mixture that will surely alienate some audience members, and the deeper you get into it the darker things get (there are some creepy-as-hell flashbacks that got to me in a big way). If you’re feeling it’s all too much, though, stay for the credits. Fun fact: The Voices is (well) directed by Marjane Satrapi, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis.
26) Bone Tomahawk
This genre bender from first-time writer-director S. Craig Zahler lulls you into the world of a beautifully pitched western, before topping it off with brutality so shocking it takes the film into the realm of horror. The fact that both parts of the equation are so striking gives Bone Tomahawk a unique flavor. In fact, before unkind things are done to bodies and limbs in the often-disgusting finale, for the majority of the runtime the western setting is as grounded as you please, following the efforts of a western sheriff (Kurt Russell) to rescue a handful of kidnapped townsfolk. The entire second act consists of walking and talking between the members of his search party, with not an antagonist in sight, which ensures that you get to know these characters very well. My favorite is Richard Jenkins’ deputy sheriff, often dopey and used for comic relief, but always balanced with sharp competence and decency. My favorite element is the stunning western cinematography, courtesy of Benji Bakshi. For a certain kind of viewer, one who likes slow burns, the tenor of a Searchers-style western, and a helping of grisly horror, this is a godsend.
25) The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years’ depiction of a relationship’s five-year run, from moving in, to marriage, to withering heartbreak, and finally break-up is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds great, like it’s a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick. But Anna Kendrick’s dynamic performance, and really interesting structural choices become the film’s salvation even as not every song/dramatic setpiece has the breathing room to stand out.
As a palette cleanser after the operatic Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man works well, as it scales back into a more compact package of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy. While on a second viewing not all the humor holds up, the flavor of the film is still fun, supported by a likable cast led by the charismatic Paul Rudd. The flaws are right there in your face – Corey Stoll is really trying, but Darren Cross is just a stock villain and a weak character; and in the first act it feels like there are two completely different movies running in parallel, with each paying for the other instead of harmonizing together. But with a third act as good as this has, taking such great advantage of its combatants’ shrinking abilities, Ant-Man leaves a good final impression.
23) The Walk
More than any film I’ve seen in 2015, The Walk almost demands that you experience it in the theater; but more than that, in 3D; but more than that, in IMAX 3D. The 3D here is integral to the immersion of this film depicting the true story of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center wire-walk. Director Robert Zemeckis (always noted for his trademark of dynamic and ambitious camerawork) has a field day using 3D for extraordinary depth perception and sweeping visuals in that cinematic centerpiece, but also in all corners of this movie that dramatizes a spectacular “artistic heist”, and the insane drive necessary to pull it off. In real life, Petit walked back and forth on that wire eight times, performing for 45 minutes. You can’t make this stuff up.
Predestination is a heady concoction of time travel shenanigans, with paradoxes, closed loops, and self-fulfilling timelines so ironclad, and presented with such audacity, that you can’t help but go with it. Ethan Hawke is very much the standard hardened time agent, but the barnstorming, breakout, ready-your-theoretical-Oscar-ballot performance belongs to Sarah Snook in a double role as a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John. Get this woman some awards! Predestination is occasionally on the nose, but on the whole whip-smart, and after all the dust of the plot twists have settled, it becomes a fun time travel story to think about after the fact.
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, a big-time screenwriter and one of the victims of blacklisting in the paranoid McCarthy era. The general premise is played broadly, drawing clear battle lines between the sides of righteous heroes and closed-minded villains, before blurring them with a slight flicker as the film goes on. For much of its runtime Trumbo gains a lot of traction as a pacy and appealing romp through this uncertain time in Hollywood, headlined by an ensemble committed to keep the wry humor coming right alongside the moral outrage and interpersonal drama. Of course John Goodman is in there as an executive of a studio churning out cheap and trashy “B” movies. That’s the kind of humor we’re in for, and it’s quite welcome, along with hilarious caricatured versions of such figures as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The movie gets a little choppy with the frequent time jumps, but as Trumbo says, “If every scene is written brilliantly, your movie will become dreadfully monotonous.”
20) Crimson Peak
Partially set in a new contender for one of the all-time great film sets, Guillermo del Toro’s visually sumptuous Gothic romance fills the screen with vibrant color and characters with magnetic personality, all to service the full-blooded melodrama of the story. It’s a Victorian bodice-ripper, by way of the themes and visual conceits that del Toro has always concerned himself with, making for a lovely auteur-driven film. There are ghosts here, but this is no hororshow; they’re secondary to the pulpy drama being played out between the prototypical 19th Century heroine Mia Wasikowska, the vulnerable Tom Hiddleston, and the scene-stealing Jessica Chastain.
19) What We Do in the Shadows
This charm offensive of a low-budget mockumentary gives us a sitcom-like setup of multiple generations of vampires living together in a house in New Zealand. But vitally, What We Do in the Shadows also takes its vampire lore seriously. It builds it world and gives us full-blooded yet laid-back conflicts, while all the while we get to know an endearing cast of characters. In recent news, co-director, co-writer, and star Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok. If he can do for Norse mythology half of what he did for vampires, the MCU just got even more interesting.
The latest from Denis Villeneuve takes Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, and the audience, south of the Mexican border and into a world of drug wars, cartels, and twisted morality. It’s a descent into a living nightmare, as every element of Sicario, from the cold performances to the stunning cinematography to the droning score, envelops the audience in dread. This is a beautifully constructed film depicting horrific material, giving the audience a lot to chew on. It’s just that it all tastes like ash.
17) The Peanuts Movie
The Peanuts Movie feels like the Peanuts! With an absolute minimum of anachronistic modern elements (just one or two pop songs, and not in your face), this is an hour-and-a-half charmer. It gives Charlie Brown a quintessential but uplifting arc, plays its ace Snoopy for plenty of cute and funny material, and makes great use of the ensemble cast of characters. I love the animation style, melding Charles Schulz’ line-drawn work with CG rendering. The biggest noticeable flaw here is that the Red Baron sequences are overlong, and have a couple strange elements to them. Also, given the nature of slapstick, not all of it lands, but it’s encouraging how much of it does. This is something of a “greatest hits” Peanuts movie at times, but when it’s done this well in 2015, it feels fresh all over again.
16) Pitch Perfect 2
The first Pitch Perfect was surprisingly solid, but now it’s time to meet its better. The sequel gives us a more interesting conflict/roadblock to greatness for our national a capella champions, a better joke hit ratio, added depth to several returning characters, and themes to die for that pay off beautifully in a show-stopper finale. While Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson etc are all reliably charismatic, heightening their performances to just the right ridiculous level, you could say the real star of the show is the music. And it’s on point here, with the exception being that a few early songs have non-diegetic backing beats – this is a baffling choice given that the attraction of a capella is that it comes entirely from human “instrumentation”. But thankfully the problem resolves itself over the runtime. And they do “Lady Marmalade”. Co-star Elizabeth Banks directs, and her work is excellently suited to the tenor of the material.
15) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Mission: Impossible series used to be okay. After Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, it’s great. Tom Cruise and company excel in another round of show-stopping setpieces (the plane takeoff, the Moroccan chase, and my absolute favorite, the geographically rewarding opera house scene), while also interrogating why this series works in fun and unfussy ways. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is put through the wringer but never stops with the heroics, Simon Pegg continues to prove himself vital to the series, newcomer Rebecca Ferguson nearly steals the movie, and it all culminates in the most triumphant moment of the franchise. Tentpole action filmmaking doesn’t get too much better.
14) Ex Machina
Writer-director Alex Garland has always impressed me, to the point where I believe he’s the best screenwriter science fiction has ever had. And his simple, haunting, and vibrantly alive chamber piece between programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), AI creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and AI Ava (Alicia Vikander) still packs a punch. On a second viewing, however, the twist I find so brilliant the first time around seemed a lot more telegraphed, which has a hand in lessening its impact. However, I still think the whole third act of Ex Machina is exceptional, with all the big ideas that have been building resolving themselves chillingly. Add to that an already iconic scene that breaks up the pacing and seems to be a non sequitur, but upon reflection is a brilliant illustration of the story, and where you think it’s going. (Hint: it has strobe lights.) That’s what this movie does best, in-your-face twists and turns that seem to come out of nowhere, but are actually creepily appropriate.
As a psychology minor who found social psych particularly interesting, I’m almost an ideal audience for this look at the life and work of pioneering experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram, played here with subtle gravity and a touch of profound world-weariness by Peter Sarsgaard. Several of his smaller experiments are also touched upon here, but Milgram will never escape the shadow of his crucial obedience experiments, in which subjects who believed they were inflicting disciplinary/corrective electric shocks to a “learner” escalated the shock voltage in increments to the highest setting (450) at an alarming rate. 65% of subjects went all the way! I must stress that the shocks were not in actuality being administered, but that the subject believed them to be – no real shocks to the learner. (That’s more than I can say for old-time horror director William Castle, who loved his gimmicks, and rigged mechanisms to audiences’ seats for showings of The Tingler so people could be actually shocked while watching the movie!)
This is not the venue to properly discuss the work and its implications, but the film dramatizes it and the linear progression of Milgram’s work exquisitely. I imagine the main criticism of Experimenter would be that it’s too much like a lecture at times. Fair enough, but when it is enlivened by such rich performances, and creative filmmaking courtesy of director Michael Almereyda, I don’t mind at all. Experimenter is a formally loose but coherent character study for Milgram, the people closest to him, and human nature in general – and I enjoyed it a lot.
The stories of Paddington Bear have a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; teatime adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The thing I love most about Paddington is its playful but in a way daring themes of xenophobia and immigration – this is allegory for children done oh so well. Not all of the humor works (hello, comedy cross-dressing), but when it does it’s fantastic. The marketing campaign for this movie was stomach-churning. How wrong it was.
11) Kingsman: The Secret Service
The project of Kingsman: The Secret Service is to push every element of the spy movie to an extreme, while also subverting tropes, and delivering one of the most cutting and incisive messages about class I can imagine. And the action is astonishingly realized, cementing Matthew Vaughn as a premiere action director. There are at least two setpieces here that are already iconic: The church scene; and the entire finale, capped off with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”. This is a movie that features a henchwoman with blades for legs, and ends in an explicit sexual joke. But it also boasts genuine heart alongside smarminess, a lead character who sees through bullsh*t like we see through glass, a brilliant role for Colin Firth as the refined but deadly mentor, and real themes to dig into. Honestly, I think this movie’s conceptual brilliance is even greater than my personal regard for it.
You know the Disneyfied story of Cinderella, and so does this movie. You might say the surprise is that there are no real surprises. This film is not subversive, or reliant on new twists, but instead is a straightforwardly beautiful story, updated well in certain areas, and with no shame in its sentimentality. The original film ran 75 minutes, and a shocking amount of that was devoted to animal antics, but its expansion to feature length works magically well. Lily James’ Cinderella, Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine, and Richard Madden’s Prince Charming all have wonderfully clarified personalities, and because the film does the work in establishing them, the larger-than-life spectacle of the ballroom scenes is amplified because what it means to each character has been deftly established. Indeed, there are whole sequences (the appearance of the Fairy Godmother, the ball) that for some unknowable reason get by through sheer force of majesty. There’s something simple yet stunningly realized about this production. The only thing is, the first act, all the way up to the stepsisters and Lady Tremaine bestowing Ella with the nickname Cinderella, can be a bit of a slog. Everything afterward is movie magic.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to molest one.” In 2000 going into 2001, a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups of priests’ child molestation. This is their unglamorous and fascinating story. The cast of reporters (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery) has no room for a star, and the depiction of their work is striking in its lack of showiness. Meticulous research, tenacious investigation, and sensitivity for the stories of the victims are all depicted here, tied together by Howard Shore’s utterly mournful main theme. To watch Spotlight is to be swept up into something in stages of escalation; and it has to stop somewhere, right? It’s a very human story of hard work and soul-searching, with a real sense of place in Boston. Look for it to get a lot of Oscar buzz in the Best Picture race.
8) Bridge of Spies
May Steven Spielberg never lose his touch. Bridge of Spies is tailor-made material for him, a humanistic true story of justice and hostage negotiation set against the iron backdrop of the Cold War. Tom Hanks’ James Donovan finds himself in the eye of a political storm, and eventually in a position where his moral need to do the right thing actually bore fruit. The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. And with a fiendishly well-constructed script, as well as a rich supporting performance from Mark Rylance, this true story is delivered exceptionally fluently.
Forget The Walk; Ryan Coogler’s brainchild Creed is a true high-wire act of a film. It has to establish Adonis Creed (illegitimate son of Apollo) as a new protagonist, while integrating the story into the Rocky “universe”; put an entirely new and 21st Century spin on elements of the Rocky formula; and do justice to Rocky Balboa, a character who has never before been written by someone other than Sylvester Stallone, and who has never appeared on screen without support from Burt Young’s Paulie and Tony Burton’s Duke. That this movie is as good as it is resembles a miracle.
Michael B. Jordan’s lead performance is outstanding, excelling both in physical and interior arenas. His Adonis’ perspective brings a more explicit focus on boxing to the Rocky franchise, while also highlighting yet more different sides of Philadelphia. He brings the charisma, and his collaborator Coogler has a dynamite eye for shooting. The boxing scenes in the film are simply electric, whether it’s the gob smacking oner of the fight against Leo “The Lion” (one of the scenes of the year), or the hard-edged finale. The camera gets right up close and personal with the visceral bobbing, weaving, and slugging, creating a harsh intimacy. Smart visual touches permeate the film, whether it’s a simple POV shot of a shut door, or the opponent entrance in the finale that resembles an entrance from hell itself.
Stallone is radiant and brilliantly used here, playing a vital part in the “Mickey”/trainer role. Rocky still has his easygoing dorky humor and touching decency, all with a much more wizened perspective. (And he still plays with his little bouncing ball!) The dramatic stuff works wonders because of the history we have invested in him, particularly the show-stopping locker room scene. There are quite a few similarities to the first Rocky (Rocky/Adonis convincing Mickey/Rocky to train him, the split-decision finale), and easter eggs spanning the whole franchise (from only Cuff or Link left standing, to the foldable chair at the graveyard). The line that most deftly shows Coogler’s knowledge and love for the series? When Rocky says, “Now, Paulie was my best friend, but he wasn’t very friendly.” Hilarious, heartfelt, and insightful, all at the same time.
Creed is a wonderful marriage of old and new. Adonis is a great new hero for the series, putting his own stamp on the old tropes. The use of “Gonna Fly Now” is emotionally stunning. Adonis Creed wants to prove he wasn’t a mistake. Creed has proven itself not a mistake in the slightest.
6) Inside Out
There’s a Control Room inside young Riley Anderson. Five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) live inside Riley and guide her through certain behaviors and feelings. As Riley sleeps, Joy replays a favorite ice-skating memory of Riley on the Control Room’s view screen, and mimes Riley’s movements as a fan might mime those of their favorite athlete. There’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about this scene. And there’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about the whole movie, how brave it is in its themes of embracing sadness as well as joy, how visually audacious it is, how funny yet telling the jokes are, how inherently interesting it is to hear emotions speak for themselves. And of course, in a movie all about emotions, expect them to run high, with devastating results. My only issue with Inside Out is the nature of non-Riley Control Rooms, which come across as simplistic at times. But overall, Pixar has inverted dramatic stakes so well that it gives us one of the most human films of the year.
5) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Episode VII of Star Wars boasts an exciting new cast; as Rey, Daisy Ridley is a rising star we can believe in, receiving sterling heroic support from John Boyega’s Finn. On the flip side, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is one of the best movie villains I’ve seen in a long time. While the original trilogy’s characters are more iconic, I daresay the cream of the new crop is much more interesting; Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn are among the best Star Wars characters out there, and putting aside all (very minor) complaints I have about The Force Awakens, that is something to cheer for. (I guess I could say: better storytelling in the originals, better characters here.) Episode VII stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day.
4) Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are arguably nine Avengers featured in Age of Ultron, plus a villain and a few vital supporting players. So when I say that it’s not overcrowded, I mean that I find each character has an important function revolving around the themes this movie preoccupies itself with. Can an Avenger have a normal life? How do the Avengers affect the people on the ground? Can “normal” people be given a voice? Can a “normal” person be an Avenger? How does an artificial intelligence understand humanity? My analysis of these themes can be found in the relevant section in the review linked above, and that section’s length is a testament to how fascinating I find this film’s interrogation of these questions. This is not to mention the knowing banter and glowing humor of characters that have gotten used to each other, which gives Age of Ultron a lot of needed levity.
This is a weird movie at times. There are narrative cul de sacs like Thor’s vision quest. There is a resolution to an already kind of overlong climax that feels underwhelming and confusing. There’s maybe a problem in explicitly articulating the clear intent behind the Bruce/Natasha safe house scene (watch the extended scene on the blu-ray. It makes the conflict crystal clear.). But in the face of deftly illustrated character development, committed performances from the entire cast, organic humor, and such brilliant thematic work from Whedon, these imperfections are put in perspective for me. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on character, and as someone invested in these characters, I see Age of Ultron as a gift.
3) Steve Jobs
Some of my favorite people made this. Aaron Sorkin writes. Danny Boyle directs. Michael Fassbender acts in the title role. In the film there’s a running theme about the role of the conductor’s job being to “play the orchestra”, and the metaphor extends to this film; Steve Jobs is the result of the right screenwriter, the right cast members, the right director, the right composer, the right editor, and countless others working in concert to produce movie magic. Ironically this isn’t always the most cinematic piece; there’s a rigid formalism to the structure (three lead-ups to three product launches) and verbosity to the dialogue that recall a stage play, but even so the production always feels visually interesting. And there’s stunning drama in the second act between Jobs and Jeff Daniels’ former Apple CEO John Sculley, furiously accentuated by Elliot Graham’s editing and Daniel Pemberton’s thrilling score. That scene in particular is one of the best sequences of the year for me, and Steve Jobs is one of the movies of the year.
2) The Martian
The Martian is one of the greatest science fiction movies of the 21st Century, especially when considering the word “science” in that phrase. The film constantly champions scientific ingenuity, by depicting the far-flung but still very practical puzzles that stand between survival and death for Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the contemporary efforts of earthbound characters to bring him home. Its reverent but relatable use of science may actually inspire fledgling scientists among the audience, while also delivering one of the most breezily entertaining movies of the year. Gifted with this tricky balance, The Martian as written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott is absolutely addictive viewing. Every element is firing on all cylinders, including the most likable cast of the year and a message of earned optimism. What film could be more perfectly constructed than this?
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
It all comes down to this, this miracle of action filmmaking and visual storytelling. That George Miller was given the resources to mount a fourth Mad Max, 30 years removed from Thunderdome, and that it became this perfect storm of craftsmanship, almost defies belief. But here it is, right before our eyes. The plot is simple: Despotic warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) keeps his prized breeders/Wives under lock and key, until his Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) spirits them away in search of the Green Place, where Furiosa was born. Max, a captive of Joe’s, is caught up in Joe’s pursuit of Furiosa, and eventually decides to put his nihilism to one side and help the women in their escape. The plot is punctuated by vehicular mayhem of the finest order, effortlessly rich and at times disgusting world-building, an evocative supporting cast, iconic and endlessly quotable pockets of dialogue, a score so exciting it’s unreal, and moments of quiet and characterful reflection.
In addition to being one of the great action movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is a wonderfully compact sociopolitical argument. (MILD SPOILERS) In the film, Furiosa takes the Wives to the Green Place, but its idyllic quality is lost to the sands of time. After chewing on this bitter disappointment, Furiosa and Max decide to go back the way they came, try to cripple Joe’s fleet of vehicles, and take control of Joe’s den of patriarchy, the Citadel. Through this story, we are told so elegantly that: You can’t say the system is broken without acknowledging that you’re a part of it. You can’t conjure up a utopia where none exists. You can try to effect change where before you only saw oppression. The scene of Furiosa’s success, and Max’ imparting of respect, is life-affirming stuff.
You can count on one hand the number of movies that have become as iconic this quickly. And there’s a reason for that; these symbols and concepts carry weight. The disabled female hero Furiosa, the blind, axe-shredding Doof Warrior, “witness me”, the list goes on. Well, we did witness Mad Max: Fury Road. And it was damn good.
By the Numbers
5 spy films (Kingsman: The Secret Service; Spy; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ; Spectre)
4 films with filmmakers (Project Almanac (found footage); What We Do in the Shadows (mockumentary); Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Trumbo)
4 films featuring artificial intelligence (CHAPPiE; Ex Machina; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Terminator Genisys)
4 films prominently featuring journalism (The End of the Tour; Everest (Jon Krakaur); Truth; Spotlight)
4 Hayley Atwell films (Testament of Youth; Cinderella; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ant-Man)
4 Michael Giacchino scores (Jupiter Ascending; Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Inside Out)
3 Alicia Vikander films (Testament of Youth; Ex Machina; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
3 Anna Kendrick films (The Voices; The Last Five Years; Pitch Perfect 2)
3 blockbusters with Judy Greer in the unfortunately inert mom role (Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Ant-Man)
3 Brian Tyler scores (Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Truth)
3 dimension-hopping films (Tomorrowland; Ant-Man (sort of); Fantastic Four)
3 films featuring time travel (Predestination; Project Almanac; Terminator Genisys)
3 Josh Brolin films (Avengers: Age of Ultron; Sicario; Everest)
3 Sean Bean films (Jupiter Ascending; Pixels; The Martian)
3 seventh films in franchises (Furious 7; Creed; Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
3 Taron Egerton films (Testament of Youth; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Legend)
2 dinosaur films (Jurassic World; The Good Dinosaur)
A Loose End
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Extended Edition (one-day theatrical event)
Wow. Anyone who read my 2014 year-end review knows that I had some issues with the finale of The Hobbit. In this extended cut, there is no movement on my biggest problem with the film (the dragon-sickness subplot), but two other things I found to be significant mistakes were actually, dare I say, corrected. The first is the misplaced payoff as to the Free Peoples of Middle-earth marshaling for war. In the theatrical cut, dwarves, elves, and men ready for war over political disagreements, something unprecedented in the earlier Lord of the Rings – then they just start hacking off orc heads when that army arrives. Here, the dwarves and the elves fight. And it is brilliantly executed, multi-layered because meaningful carnage is happening where there should be harmony, and tactically fitting.
Now as for the second thing, I complained before about the titular battle going on for the length of a Bible, while being kind of faceless and numbing. It would sound like the worst idea in the world to add reams of new action to an already epic 45-minute battle, but these additions work an absolute charm! The extended action is funny, weird, crowd-pleasing, draws a clearer picture of battlefield strategy, and gives most of the dwarf characters (especially the brilliant Balin and Bofur) moments to shine.
There are just nice touches throughout, whether it’s these bigger changes or something as starkly emotional as Gandalf’s impassioned words to Thorin that “this treasure will be your death”. Is there something in my eye? One negative word, however. Unless I’m mistaken, I believe one of my favorite lines from the theatrical version has been cut! It’s when Lee Pace’s Thranduil says of Dain, “He’s clearly mad – like his brother!” with a very odd line reading. Other than that, thumbs up all round.
2016 in Preview
The Coen Brothers are back with the hilarious-looking Hail, Caesar! in February… The “most technologically advanced movie ever made”, April’s mocap adventure The Jungle Book, looks like it might be a dark-horse favorite… Shane Black’s May action-comedy The Nice Guys seems ideal popcorn fare for some… Anything Spielberg is one to watch, so roll on July’s Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG… 2016 is going to be absolutely huge for comic book films, with 7 in the pipeline… The one I’m rooting for the most is May’s Captain America: Civil War, which looks to pay off years of character development… November’s Doctor Strange has the best MCU cast ever assembled (Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, Swinton, Mikkelsen, McAdams, Stuhlbarg)… If May’s X-Men: Apocalypse can stick the landing, the recent X-Men trilogy will rival The Dark Knight trilogy as a comic book saga… Finally, the one I’m most worried about is March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has the weight of a cinematic universe on its shoulders and may collapse in on itself by the strain… As a big Trekkie, I’m in Star Trek Beyond’s corner come July; it looks like a brash and weird original series episode with a message about colonialism… Also in July, the all-female Ghostbusters has a lot of symbolic and financial value riding on its quality… My second-favorite film series is Harry Potter, so November’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of particular fascination for me… In December, more Star Wars! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is being described as like Saving Private Ryan in space; it’s gifted with an exciting cast, and given the Death Star setting Darth Vader will almost certainly appear. Nerdy request: Get Wayne Pygram, who played Tarkin in Episode III, back in the role.