Happy New Year, gang! Yep, 2015 has come and gone, and even though we still don’t have proper hoverboards like we were promised, it was a damn good year. For one thing, 2015 marked the rare alignment of my three greatest obsessions: I went to Disney World with my family for the first time in 22 years! I watched the New York Mets battle their way into the World Series for the first time in 15 years! And then, of course, we made a triumphant return to a galaxy far, far away. Doesn’t get much better than that! But as it happens, 2015 was also an exceptional year for movies in general, loaded with scintillating sci-fi, massively entertaining blockbusters, deeply moving dramas, and much more. (Oh, and did I mention STAR WARS?!?) I went to the movies 161 times in 2015, which marks a fairly steep decline from my 2014 total of 190 (not to speak of my record-setting total of 209 in 2013). What can I tell ya -- I was busy! Or maybe I've long since peaked and am now entering my slow descent into oblivion. Either way, the overall quality of 2015 was top notch and my Top 10 list is a doozy -- maybe the finest all-around list that I've put together since I’ve started putting together such lists over a decade ago. Let's get right into it, shall we?
10. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD -- There were several titles vying for this spot, but in the end I went with the one that I think will be the most rewatchable. I like the original Mad Max films but have never been a huge worshiper at the altar of George Miller (though HAPPY FEET did sneak into my Top 10 a decade ago... go figure). However, in his return to the Wasteland, he takes his post-apocalyptic world-building skills to new heights. This film is a relentless chase flick that plays like a wild fever dream, filled with crazy visuals, insane set pieces and mind-boggling effects mixed with fully-realized characters and quotable dialogue (“What a lovely day!”). The fact that Max (Tom Hardy, easily stepping into Mel Gibson’s shoes) is sort of supporting character in his own movie is kind of wild in its own right -- but indeed, this story belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, an instantly-iconic warrior that raises the bar of female badassery and transforms the film into an action classic as well as a timely feminist exclamation point.
9. THE MARTIAN -- 2015 was a great year for sci-fi and this one may be the most purely fun and entertaining of the bunch. The story is simple: During a NASA mission gone wrong, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars with no communcation, a dwindling food supply, and little hope of surivival -- but thanks to his ceaseless optimism and ingenuity, he embarks on a wild plan to “science the shit” out of his situation and get back to Earth. The material feels tailor-made for both Damon and Ridley Scott, both of whom absolutely nail it. For Scott, especially, it’s his first great movie in a while following a string of stinkers, which makes me very happy. Everything from the visuals (actually worth seeing in 3D!) to the supporting cast (Jessica Chastain!) are top notch. It’s a thrilling, inspiring (please oh please, let us put a man on Mars in my lifetime), funny-as-hell sci-fi extravaganza and I loved every second of it.
8. SPOTLIGHT -- Simply put, this movie about the Boston Globe team that broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early ‘00s should go down as one of the all-time great journalism procedurals. Unobtrusively yet expertly crafted by Tom McCarthy, it is an intricately detailed, deeply engrossing (but never exploitative) story of teamwork, truth, and morality. The ensemble cast is outstanding, with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams & Co. all working at the very tops of their games. The film moves briskly and maintains a very high level of tension even if you know how it plays out. It would not be a stretch to say that this is the best and most powerful love letter to straight-up, hardcore, old-school investigative journalism since ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. (It almost makes me wish I’d remained in the field after graduating from NYU with a journalism degree… ah, hell, I lost my train of thought.)
7. ROOM -- This heartrending film by Lenny Abramson features one of the year’s best performances from an actress who is quickly becoming one of the best on the planet. Everything Brie Larson does seems so effortless and natural -- regardless of whether she’s making us laugh or cry -- it’s impossible to not get caught up in her performances. In ROOM, she plays Joy, a woman who is being held prisoner in a small room along with her young son, who has spent his entire life in that room and knows nothing of the outside world. While enduring endless abuse from her captor, she must raise and educate her son while attempting to shield him from the evil that surrounds them and trying to figure out a way to escape. The chemistry between Joy and her son (Jacob Tremblay, a revelation) is remarkable and provides the foundation for a truly harrowing, spiritual, and deeply emotional movie-watching experience.
6. CAROL -- Anchored by two towering performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and impeccably directed by Todd Haynes, this is a film of unparalleled beauty and nuance. The story of two women who fall in love in New York in the 1950s, the film features impeccable attention to period detail, lush cinematography, and a dreamlike score, all of which put you smack dab in the midst of their forbidden romance. Indeed, dialogue is sparse by design -- after all, this is a romance that cannot be outwardly expressed -- as such, you feel every ache of desire, every subtle glance, gesture, touch and pang of heartbreak. Blanchett never ceases to amaze -- her screen presence is unmatched -- but Mara more than holds her own. Exquisite, elegant, evocative, quietly melodramatic (if that makes sense), nostalgic and bittersweet, I can’t remember the last time a movie has made me swoon so hard.
5. ANOMALISA -- The latest existential triumph from Charlie Kaufman, a man who has his finger on the pulse of humanity’s neuroses like no other, is a brilliantly surreal yet achingly familiar exploration of loneliness and what it means to be human. And it is portrayed entirely with stop-motion puppets. It’s a simple story of a broken individual named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who checks into a hotel the night before he is supposed to speak at a customer service conference. Every character Michael encounters -- from the hotel desk clerk to his ex-girlfriend that he awkwardly meets for a drink at the hotel bar -- is voiced by the actor Tom Noonan, representing the banality of the world that surrounds him. But when he meets Lisa, an equally depressed soul who happens to have the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, they form an instant bond. From there... well, things get weird. Kaufman’s screenplay is at once soul-crushing, honest, hilarious, intellectually stimularing and downright bizarre. The puppet animation is mildly creepy yet weirdly expressive, creating a fully-realized and immersive world. It really must be seen to be believed. Charlie Kaufman is a goddamn genius and I really hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for his next project.
4. EX MACHINA -- This certainly isn’t the first movie about the perils of artificial intelligence and it won’t be the last, but it is definitely one of the best. It sort plays like a twisted sci-fi Willy Wonka at first: A lonely computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest (or a Golden Ticket, if you will) to meet with his reclusive-billionaire-genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac, sporting an epic beard), who is on the verge of creating the world’s most advanced artificially intelligent humanoid, which he has named Ava. It is Caleb’s job to perform a Turing Test to determine if Ava (perfectly and unsettlingly portrayed by the lovely Alicia Vikander) passes muster. Suffice to say that she does -- and what follows is a legitimately frightening, darkly funny, eerily erotic mystery/thriller. Writer/director Alex Garland (who also wrote 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE) weaves a taut, heady tale with unforgettable imagery that sticks with you long after the credits roll, and asserts himself as a sci-fi force to be reckoned with.
3. BROOKLYN -- Directed by John Crowley, based on the book by Colm Toibin with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, this is a wonderful, wistful and wise film about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the story of an Irish lass named Eilis (portrayed with Oscar-caliber grace by the lovely & talented Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her provincial life and emigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Once there, she transforms from a scared and lonely soul to a cool and confident young woman, goes to school, meets a new beau, and attempts to forge a new life for herself. The film is filled with charm and whimsy, vibrant prodution design, tremedous performances and snappy dialogue. It taps into the full spectrum of emotions with utmost sincerity as it questions what it means to feel “at home.” Ronan was a great child actress (see: ATONEMENT and HANNA, among others) but she takes her game to a whole new level and gives us one of the most remarkably expressive performances of the year. BROOKLYN is classic filmmaking at its finest and an absolute joy to behold.
2. STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS -- What is there to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? I never thought we’d see the continuation of the Star Wars saga, but amazingly, Disney, J.J. Abrams & Co. took the reigns and absolutely knocked this latest installment out of the park. It fires on all cylinders, perfectly capturing the look and feel of the original trilogy and tapping deeply into our sense of nostalgia. (Indeed, while Abrams may not be the most original filmmaking mind on the planet, he IS a master at paying homage to his heroes.) It adds surprising new depth to our favorite heroes, and perhaps most importantly, introduces awesome and instantly-iconic new characters who are wonderfully realized by fantastic actors (Daisy Ridley, we will be watching your career with great interest). A few geeky nitpicks aside, there isn’t a moment in this movie that I don’t love unabashedly. I’ve seen it five times on the big screen so far and it has made me exult and cry and get goosebumps and smile gigantic goofy smiles every time. After a lifetime of devouring the original trilogy, special editions, prequels, soundtracks, radio dramas, Expanded Universe novels, animated series and more, this may be the most exciting time to be a Star Wars fan because for the first time, we literally have NO IDEA what’s coming next! And I, for one, can’t wait to find out. Only 503 days ‘til Episode VIII....
1. INSIDE OUT -- Yeah, that’s right, even in the Year of Star Wars, there is none higher than Pixar when they are on top of their game. And that is most certainly the case with this work of staggering genius that ranks among their most ambitious and very best. It’s the story of a young girl named Riley and the emotions that live inside her head. Things seem great for the first 11 years or so -- but when Riley’s family moves to a strange new city (San Francisco!), it throws all of her emotions into disarray and sends Joy and Sadness (voiced to perfection by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, respectively) on a wild journey through the deepest recesses of her mind. Directed by Pete Docter, one of the greatest minds in the Pixar brain trust, the film is a veritable smorgasbord of wonder and imagination and belly laughs and vibrant visuals that will take many viewings to fully absorb. But then it turns around and knocks you for an emotional wallop (it made me cry no fewer than three times) and offers a powerful thesis about the human condition -- namely, that Sadness is a necessary part of life and often goes hand-in-hand with Joy. I’m getting choked up right now just thinking about the cathartic final act. And the collapse of Goofball Island. And the selflessness of a character named Bing Bong. There are few things more satisfying than a true Pixar masterpiece and this is one of the best of the bunch -- and the best movie of 2015.
Other Noteworthy Titles (in alphabetical order):
45 Years. Ant-Man. Appropriate Behavior. Bridge of Spies. Cinderella. Creed. Crimson Peak. The Danish Girl. The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Dope. The Duke of Burgundy. The End of the Tour. The Gift. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The Good Dinosaur. Goodnight Mommy. Grandma. The Hateful Eight (70mm Roadshow). I Am Chris Farley. It Follows. Jupiter Ascending. Jurassic World. Kingsman: Secret Service. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Love & Mercy. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Mistress America. Mr. Holmes. The Night Before. The Overnight. The Peanuts Movie. Phoenix. Presdestination. Sicario. Sisters. Slow West. Son of Saul. Spy. Straight Outta Compton. Suffragette. Tomorrowland. Trainwreck. Trumbo. When Marnie Was There. While We're Young. The Wolfpack.
And now... the Bottom 10:
10. ROCK THE KASBAH -- This film about a washed-up rock manager who travels to Afghanistan for reasons I don’t even remember is a painfully misguided mess in pretty much every way, but the fact that it is such an unfortunate waste of Bill Murray's presence is what really seals the deal.
9. THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT -- This movie is bad, but I didn’t intend to include it in the Bottom 10 until I watched the trailer for the next installment (RESURGENT? DETERGENT? I don’t even know) and realized that I couldn’t remember a goddamn thing about this one. These wannabe-HUNGER GAMES dystopias are all starting to blend together and I’m starting to hate them.
8. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 -- No Cusack, no nostalgia, too much rehash, no real laughs... this needless sequel sux cox n dix as it utterly fails to recapture lightning in a bottle. Not terribly surprising, but still disappointing because I love the first one a lot.
7. VACATION -- Another stupid, unecessary sequel/reboot/whatever of an ‘80s classic that brings absolutely nothing new or interesting or funny to the table. Stop the madness! And please give Christina Applegate something better to do.
6. THE GALLOWS -- A horror movie that is so utterly forgettable that I simply couldn’t forget about it when compiling this list. Truth be told, I barely remember the movie at all... but its existence annoys me and I’m including it on this list out of spite.
5. SEVENTH SON -- Great actors are allowed to slum it from time to time, but man, what the heck were Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore thinking when they signed onto this lifeless mess? That said, it is way more interesting if you think of it as a BIG LEBOWSKI dream sequence....
4. TAKEN 3 -- For fuck’s sake, will people please stop taking Liam Neeson’s shit?? It is not going to end well. You’d think that watching Neeson unleash his particular set of skills would continue to offer a particular set of thrills... but no. (In fact, the pun I just made is better than the movie itself, and that’s pretty bad.)
3. PIXELS -- At this point, an Adam Sandler movie in the Bottom 10 is pretty much a given. This one had potential due to the nostalgia factor, but in actuality it is shockingly dull with an awful script and far too few laughs. A huge waste of good idea and further evidence of Sandler’s sad fall from grace.
2. MORTDECAI -- Ugh, why, Johnny Depp, why? This film is a wretched misfire on every level and such a horribly gratuitous vanity project (Depp so desperately wants it to be his PINK PANTHER that you kinda have to feel sorry for him) that for a while, it made me question whether he has EVER been good or if his entire career has been smoke and mirrors. Fortunately, he rebounded somewhat with his performance in BLACK MASS later in the year... but that does not excuse this awful, miserable, unfunny dreck.
1. POLTERGEIST (2015) -- In the long, sad history of unnecessary remakes, this may be the most egregious and misguided of them all -- a terrible rehash that completely loses sight of what makes the original great and fails on every level. It angers, saddens, offends, and depresses me to think that some millenials probably prefer this to the original (which is arguably my favorite horror movie of all time). Further evidence that we, as a society, are failing miserably. Now let us never speak of this abomination again....
THE YEAR IN REVIEW!
A Few Titles That Just Missed the Top 10: As mentioned, there were several titles vying for the last spot in the Top 10, but sadly, not all of them could make the cut. First off, there’s SON OF SAUL, an intensely visceral tale about life and death in Auschwitz that you don't watch so much as feel in your gut. Filled with devastating imagery and a hellish soundscape, it is as a horrifying as it is riveting. CREED is unquestionably the best Rocky movie since the original -- a monumental, exultant triumph featuring a starmaking performance by Michael B. Jordan as well as Stallone’s best work in years. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is powerful, original, hilarious and honest -- arguably one of the best coming-of-age films ever made. In a perfect world, Bel Powley would get some Oscar love for her performance. SICARIO is an expertly-crafted film on every level: Denis Villeneuve is a master of tension and Emily Blunt, James Brolin and Benicio del Toro are all at their best. Plus it features masterful cinematography by Roger Deakins and a potent score by Jóhann Jóhannsson -- it's a perfect storm of greatness. Lastly, there’s PHOENIX, a post-WWII melodrama that hung onto my Top 10 for a while -- it features amazing slow-boiling intrigue and atmosphere and one of the most spellbinding endings of the year.
Guilty Pleasures: For a movie that was one of the biggest box offices blockbusters of all time, there sure are a lot of JURASSIC WORLD haters out there -- but screw those people, because I love it. It is fun as hell and the return of the old-school T-Rex is one of the great exultant moments in any movie of 2015. (Granted, I’m biased -- give me dinosaurs on the big screen and my inner-ten-year-old is pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it.) I was also one of the few who really liked TOMORROWLAND -- it is not perfect but I’ll take a hundred ambitious sci-fi ventures from Brad Bird over 90% of everything else out there (heck, I even bought a Tomorrowland pin for my hat when I went to Disney World!). Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance, CRIMSON PEAK, is another movie that I expect to revisit again and often -- it a master class of atmosphere and production design surrounding a creepy, ethereal, well-acted little melodrama (plus: Jessica Chastain!).
Pleasant Surprises: One of the earliest and most pleasant surprises of the year was the live-action CINDERELLA. I was skeptical, since the original is my favorite classic Disney Princess film, but the remake is vibrant, sincere, surprisingly empowering and stays true to the original -- no LOTR-style battles or attempts to de-mystify villain for a change. Lily James is a perfect Disney princess and Cate Blanchett is wonderfully evil. Easily the first truly great live-action Disney remake. Speaking of staying true to the source material, THE PEANUTS MOVIE is perfect in every way that a Peanuts movie should be. I was one of the few who did not like DJANGO UNCHAINED at all -- I found it to be a bunch of bloated, self-indulgent Quentin Tarantino nonsense -- but THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a nice return to form. As great as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are together, their last movie (BABY MAMA) was not very good. SISTERS, however, is hilarious and much smarter and more subversive than the trailers make it out to be. I have to admit, I was entertained by TERMINATOR: GENISYS even though all signs pointed to it being a trainwreck; that said, let’s leave well enough alone now. Finally, I have to give credit where credit due: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not a good movie, per se, but Sam Taylor-Johnson, Dakota Johnson & Co. actually managed to take the horrendous source material and wring out some semblance of nuance and humor. Kudos!
Disappointments: Admittedly, I enjoyed AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON in the moment, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much of a bloated mess it really is. Plus I think I’m really starting to suffer from superhero fatigue (here’s hoping CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and BATMAN vs. SUPERMAN breathe new life into the genre). After the greatness of CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY PART 1, my expectations for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 were high -- however, it cannot not stick the landing and is instead an uneven slog of a finale. SPECTRE isn’t terrible but it does make me realize that I’m suddenly as bored of Daniel Craig as James Bond as he apparently is himself. CHAPPIE is packed with ideas, however most do not work -- it falls somewhere between an interesting mess and a fascinating trainwreck, but either way, it’s a far cry from DISTRICT 9. JOY is a tonal mess and easily my least-favorite David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper/Robert de Niro collaboration so far (although J-Law is really good). Finally, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is generally heartfelt and charming but probably Pixar’s most forgettable movie to date, which is almost more damning (although, INSIDE OUT does cast a wide shadow, so I’ll have to revisit it later).
Underrated: Anybody else see a little picture called PREDESTINATION, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook? It’s a fantastic slice of sci-fi, full of heady themes of time, fate and identity. It deserves more love. Haven’t seen nearly enough love for LOVE & MERCY, the Brian Wilson biopic starring John Cusack and Paul Dano -- a complex, off-kilter look at a complex, off-kilter genius. I’ve actually seen a lot of backlash against ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, which I don’t get -- it’s a well-cast, brilliantly-written and deeply moving testament to friendship & film, death & living. SLOW WEST, a western starring Michael Fassbender, is a good-looking and full of weird characters and wry humor -- it somehow feels familiar yet unique at the same time. Finally, there’s BRIDGE OF SPIES, which seems to have been mostly written off as “slight” Spielberg, but is actually really good and perfectly suited to both Spielberg’s and Hanks’s talents and sensibilities (although I think it just got a bunch of BAFTA nominations, so maybe the tide is turning).
Overrated: Truth be told, there weren’t many films in 2015 that were generally loved that I hated. Mostly, I just had a few quibbles here and there. For example, I liked CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, an absorbing story of aging and identity, but all of this praise for Kristen Stewart’s performance seems a bit much. Yes, she was better than usual, but she still only has, like, one and a half facial expressions. Also, the more I think about STEVE JOBS, the more tiresome I find it to be despite great performances from Fassbender and Kate Winslet. THE BIG SHORT is another one that is pretty good overall, but all of the Oscar buzz is already making me turn against it out of spite -- it is not THAT good. Also, I remember seeing a lot of praise in the Twitterverse from people whose opinions I trust about a movie called MOMMY... but its grating performances, awkward dialogue, annoying aspect ratios and weird soundteack did not work for me at all. Sorry gang!
Chewie... we’re home: I should talk a little more about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and this seems like a good spot. I’m also going to issue a ****SPOILER ALERT**** so if you are one of the three people in the depths of the Amazon rainforest who haven’t yet seen the movie, you might want to jump past this section. Sometimes movies are just movies, but Star Wars is not just a movie. Whether we’re talking about the original trilogy or even the prequels, Star Wars is a way of life, every detail of which gets absorbed into my lifeblood. I’ve now seen THE FORCE AWAKENS five times and I find new things to love every time. I love Max von Sydow and wish that he would appear for a minute and a half in every movie. I love Poe’s buddy-buddy relationship with BB-8. Poe cracking wise with Kylo Ren -- “Who talks first?” Rey’s introduction and her sledding down the sand dune. Rey sitting outside the fallen AT-AT and the small smile that creeps across her lips as she tries on the dusty old X-Wing helmet. BB-8’s squeal of delight when Rey allows him to come home with her. Finn and Poe’s instant bromance -- if Episode VIII involves the two of them adventuring and bantering together, it is going to be awesome. Finn and Rey’s first meeting, which awesomely subverts the “saving the princess” trope upon which the entire Star Wars saga had been built (Rey is so f’ing badass). “The garbage will do!” BB-8’s thumbs up! The triumphant return of Han and Chewie! “Yeah... I knew him. I knew Luke.” (FYI, I’m getting verklempt as I’m writing this.) Kylo Ren’s parentage revealed. Rey’s vision when she picks up Anakin & Luke’s old lightsaber, including the voices of Yoda and Obi-Wan (including new dialogue by Ewan McGregor! Please, Disney, pay him whatever it takes to reprise his role in a spinoff film). Red-armed Threepio! Han and Leia... “Same jacket.” “Naw, new jacket.” Kylo’s attempt to probe Rey’s mind only to find that she is more than a match for him. “You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.” “THAT’S NOT HOW THE FORCE WORKS!” (Best line in the movie.) “Escape now, hug later.” And then... the catwalk... “BEN!”... Han’s utter confidence in Leia’s belief that there is still good in their son... “I know what I have to do but I don't know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?”... and then a flash of red, Chewie’s anguished roar, Han touching his son’s cheek and falling into oblivion. Kylo Ren = irredeemable? (I think so.) Chewie nailing Kylo with the crossbow, which I can’t even fully enjoy because I’m still crying. And another wintry scene. “We’re not done yet!” The unsettling way Kylo pounds his bleeding wound. Finn holding his own. Kylo summoning his grandfather’s saber with the Force -- but it calls to Rey!!! Awesome duel between the battered, petulant darkness and the raw, innate light. Bye-bye, dopey, easily-destroyed superweapon... but at least Han Solo’s final resting space is a star that is presumably visible in the night sky from nearby planets. Rey and Leia’s embrace. Artoo awakens! (I’m really gonna need more Artoo and BB-8 interaction in future films.) The steps of the Jedi temple... John Williams’ swelling score, which, by the way, has been pitch-perfect throughout (Rey’s Theme is one of the best motifs in the entire saga)... a hooded figure stands alone... and he has a badass Jedi beard! Luke and Rey! Ugh, I love this movie so much and can’t wait to see it again. But for now, I’ll stop geekgasming so we can move on.... ****END SPOILERS****
Animated Goodness: Obviously the conversation here must begin with INSIDE OUT, the best movie of the year, animated or otherwise. Pixar gave us a double-dose this year with THE GOOD DINOSAUR, and while it is slight Pixar, it is still enjoyable. Oh, I almost forgot about FROZEN FEVER, the short fillm that preceded the live-action CINDERELLA! The return of Anna & Elsa & Co. is hilarious and catchy. Meanwhile, MINIONS is funny at times but wears out its welcome pretty fast -- a series of short films (a la Scrat from ICE AGE might have been preferable). On the grown-up side of the spectrum, there’s Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant ANOMALISA and Studio Ghibli’s beautiful WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE. Lastly, PADDINGTON trailers looked godawful but the movie turned out to be one of the best, funniest and most heartfelt live-action/CGI-hybrid family film adaptation of a beloved character in recent memory.
The horror... the horror: IT FOLLOWS is a great film, dripping with a pervasive sense of dread mixed with suburban ennui, effective chills & subtext. It wears its Carpenter & Craven influences on its sleeve and it works. GOODNIGHT MOMMY is also atmospheric and deeply unsettling -- it will keep you guessing while creeping you the fuck out. I really liked THE GIFT and its effective, slow-boiling storytelling, believable performances and twists upon twists. Joel Edgerton is the man. Meanwhile, Eli Rothy’s THE GREEN INFERNO is too silly and doesn't push the horror envelope nearly enough. Unpleasant at times, but it's no CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: FINAL SEQUENCE is the long-awaited conclusion to the epic trilogy -- it is terrible but does feature a batshit insane performance from Dieter Laser. THE VISIT is neither Shyamalan’s best nor worst -- a bit contrived but there's enough weird humor, effective performances and legit chills to make it work. UNFRIENDED has something to say about society/technology and the storytelling gimmick works -- it’s an effective thriller for its time and place. THE LAZARUS EFFECT is kind of like SPLICE meets LUCY, alebeit not as crazy as that implies -- still, it has an engaging cast (Olivia Wilde is a perfect specimen) and some thrills. MAGGIE is a bleak, thoughtful little zombie film featuring an understated performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger (!). I’ve already discussed THE GALLOWS -- it’s bad. Like its predecessor, THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 is heavy on atmosphere (the WWII setting adds some thematic depth), but it's just not very scary. KRAMPUS is messy but effective holiday-comedy-horror fare featuring lots of dark humor, legit weird/creepy imagery, and a game cast. Lastly, there’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION, which I thought was supposed to be the final one? But maybe not? I don’t know. Anyway, it’s not bad, and I’m too invested in the series to stop now.
Indies, Foreign Films & Docs, oh my: All sorts of good stuff here. DOPE is a movie I dug a lot thanks to a powerful message and fantastic performances -- plus it’s hilarious. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is a moody, stylish, sensual, romantic, weird and often quite funny slice of art house erotica. KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER is another great slice of weirdness from the Zellner Bros. that will make you think about FARGO in a whole new light. I’m still thinking about the ending to PHOENIX, which absolutely must be seen. WILD CANARIES is kinda fun if you enjoy hate-watching a bunch of insufferable Brooklyn hipsters and their screwball shenanigans. GIRLHOOD (not to be confused with Linklater’s BOYHOOD) is shrouded in bleakness but offers glimmers of hope -- a powerful coming-of-age tale with a host of fantastic young performances. WHITE GOD is gripping, unsettling, emotional and bizarre fantasy and strong political allegory -- too bad dogs aren’t eligible for Oscar nominations. THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT offers an unsettling look at the human condition that will make you cringe and laugh awkwardly. David Cronenberg’s MAPS TO THE STARS is hilarious and filthy, imperfect but unpredictable -- Julianne Moore is brilliant but Mia Wasikowska steals the show. If the excellent APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR does for Desiree Akhavan what TINY FURNITURE did for Lena Dunham, I, for one, will be following her career with great interest. Not sure what (if anything) WELCOME TO ME has to say about mental illness and exhibitionist culture, but it sure is hilarious and weird; one of Kristen Wiig’s better performances. GOOD KILL is a thoughtful, potent look at drone warfare and an even better character study starring Ethan Hawke, who is just on top of his game right now. Gaspar Noe’s LOVE is self-indulgent, angsty and overly melodramatic but also visually & emotionally titillating -- 3D cumshots and all. If GOING CLEAR was a movie about a fictional religious cult, I might think it was a bit too over the top -- but man, Scientology is more fucked up than we thought we knew. THE WOLFPACK is about a group of brothers who are locked away in their Manhattan apartment, sheltered from the outside world, and entertain themselves by reenacting their favorite movies -- it is just as fascinating and bizarre as it sounds. We got a double-dose of Noah Baumbach in 2015 -- MISTRESS AMERICA and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG are both excellent and worthy additions to his filmography. I AM CHRIS FARLEY is a warm and loving celebration of the man and his unmatched comedic genius -- you will laugh and you will cry. I'm sure sleep paralysis is terrifying for those who suffer from it, but THE NIGHTMARE is repetitive, not very informative and generally dull. Ethan Hawke is back again in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION, in which he waxes philosophical about life, music and everything with the great pianist Seymour Bernstein. KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK is a deep, intimate, stylish, mesmerizing look into the man's life, mind and legacy. Likewise, AMY is an incredible portrait of a talent gone too soon. Finally, while it isn’t an indie nor a foreign film nor a doc, this year in review would be woefully incomplete if I didn’t mention STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON -- granted, I’m no N.W.A. scholar but it is a truly electric, engaging and resonant biopic featuring a host of tremendous performances.
Action Movies (Good and Bad): MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION continues the awesomeness of one of the most underrated long-running series -- Tom Cruise may be a lunatic, but when it comes to movies, he's a lunatic in the best way. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is a healthy slice of ultra-violent, hyper-stylized, super-entertaining, smart, funny goodness. SAN ANDREAS uses every cliche in the diaster flick handbook, but uses them well -- plus, the Rock is a perfect disaster flick hero, not just because he's badass, but because he plays it earnest like nobody's business. EVEREST is a cold, indifferent environment and the movie feels much the same way -- nice visuals, but fails to pack any real emotional punch (Expedition Everest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom is way better). ANT-MAN follows a familiar origin story template but its breezy humor, cool visuals make it a fun additin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- besides, Paul Rudd has always been a superhero to me. RUN ALL NIGHT is generally solid and it pits Liam Neeson against freakin’ Ed Harris! Worth watching for that alone. NO ESCAPE never feels plausible but still ramps up the tension while putting its protagonists through a surprisingly nasty wringer. A few bursts of ultra-violence cannot help THE GUNMAN overcome a convoluted plot that is not nearly as intriguing as Sean Penn thinks it is. Finally, FURIOUS SEVEN is batshit insane and arguably the best of the series, action-wise, providing a slew of dream matchups (Rock-Statham, Diesel-Statham, Rousey-Rodriguez, Walker-Jaa, maybe others) God knows where they’ll go from here -- but I’m kinda praying for a crossover with Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS!
Quality Comedies: There were some good ones this year. TRAINWRECK is f’ing hilarious and Amy Schumer is a powerhouse. Like most Judd Apatow films, it's at least 20 minutes too long but didn't bother me this time -- must revisit soon and learn all the quotable lines. I mentioned SISTERS earlier and it’s worth mentioning again -- Tina & Amy for President! (Seriously, I’d vote for them in a second.) THE NIGHT BEFORE offers funny stoner holiday hijinks AND actual insight about life and friendship in your 30s. Fun cast and chemistry all around. Melissa McCarthy finally, thoroughly asserts her comedic dominance in SPY, and Rose Byrne is awesome, too. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is a very smart and funny rom-com with lots of insight about modern love, sex and dating. THE D TRAIN is a cringe-worthy look at the fine line between nostalgia and delusion. Sometimes funny, often dark, with an unexpected twist. Similarly, THE OVERNIGHT is very funny and raunchy and you're never quite sure where it's headed -- kudos to a great cast (Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) who was clearly game for anything. Lastly, the Old English Thespian Avengers assembled once again in THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and I’ll be damned if I didn’t like it once again. Can they make it an epic trilogy??
Young Adult Dystopia Overload: I’ve already discussed the disappointment of THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 (hell, we didn’t even get to see Katniss in the red bodysuit in the poster... what a gyp). But man, the whole “young adult dystopia” genre is out of control. THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT was terrible, as we also discussed. THE MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS is a trial indeed -- two-plus hours of repetitive nonsense that falls completely flat and ruins the goodwill generated by the surprisingly decent first installment. On the other hand, I did like a movie called PAPER TOWNS, which is based on a YA book, albeit not a dystopia. So that’s something. I dunno, maybe I’m just getting too old and crotchety for this shit.
The Year of Domhnall Gleeson... and Alicia Vikander... and Oscar Isaac: All three of these great actors were in a bunch of movies in 2015, almost all of which were excellent, and at times they even overlapped. They all starred in the incredible EX MACHINA, which you may recall from my Top 10. Isaac and Gleeson were also both in THE FORCE AWAKENS, and while Poe Dameron is the more iconic character, General Hux is intriguing in his own right. Meanwhile, Gleeson was also in BROOKLYN and THE REVENANT, rounding out of the all-time great individual years. Isaac was also apparently in a movie called MOJAVE (written and directed by William Monahan), which I didn’t see but would like to. As for Alicia Vikander, she has asserted herself as one of the finest actresses of the moment, with tremendous, scene-stealing performances in TESTAMENT OF YOUTH and THE DANISH GIRL. (She was also in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., which I did not see -- but I’m sure she’s the best thing in it. Come to think of it, she was also in SEVENTH SON... but we’ll chalk that up to her desire to work with Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore.) All told, if these three actors keep working at anywhere close to this pace and level of quality, it bodes very well for the future of cinema.
A Bad Year for Bradley Cooper: On the other hand, three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper did not have such a great year at the movies. JOY is a dud and his performance is not particularly memorable. His performance in ALOHA is better, but the movie is a stagnant misfire AND came under fire for being borderline racist. Lastly, in BURNT, Cooper does what he can as a bad boy chef with a heart of gold, but the movie is a mild diversion at best. Sorry, Brad... sucks to be you. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t, because you’re still Bradley Cooper and therefore your life is still better than all of ours combined. Womp womp.
Quentin Tarantino vs. Alejandro González Iñárritu in the Battle of the Epic Wintry Westerns: Between Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT and Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT, I spent over five a half hours watching epic wintry westerns last year. Both are exceptionally well-made and worth watching, but I have to give the edge to QT here. EIGHT is the very definition of a slow-boiler -- it boils and boils (and boils some more) and you feel every bit of the tension until it finally boils over in the wild final act. Great performances abound, as well as rich cinemtography and a sinister score by the great Ennio Morricone (it doesn’t hurt that I saw the 70mm Roadshow presentation, complete with overture and intermission -- everything is better with an overture!). REVENANT, meanwhile, is noteworthy primarily for Leonardo DiCaprio’s towering performance. His full immersion into a difficult role is nothing short of astoninishing; time will tell if the Academy agrees. The movie itself is visually gripping and occasionally harrowing, but ultimately the story is slight and the journey is a bit of a slog.
Lucky 7’s: Seriously, between THE FORCE AWAKENS, CREED and FURIOUS SEVEN, was 2015 the best year ever for seventh installments of popular franchises? I think so... with all due respect to 1988, the year of FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD.
Performances of Note: Now I’m going to run through a slew of movies that featured great performances (regardless of whether the movie itself is great). I really hope that Chartlotte Rampling snags an Oscar nod for 45 YEARS, a quietly devastating British drama about a crumbling marriage -- She conveys incredible emotion with the mere twitch of a lip or arch of a brow and it is just incredible. John Cusack managed to transcend his John Cusack-ness and capture the essence of Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY. We’ve already talked about Alicia Vikander several times , but her performances in EX MACHINA, THE DANISH GIRL and A TESTAMENT OF YOUTH are worth mentioning again. I enjoyed the existential musings of THE END OF THE TOUR and Jason Segel’s performance as David Foster Wallace is a big reason why (maybe someday I’ll even crack open INFINITE JEST). Michael Caine is fantastic as an aging maestro in Paolo Sorrentino’s well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing YOUTH. Will Smith had a solid year with engaging performances in two very different movies, CONCUSSION and FOCUS. Meryl Streep does her Meryl Streep thing in RICKI AND THE FLASH and it’s as entertaining as you’d except. Carey Mulligan is one of the great young actresses working today and she gives commanding performances in both FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD and SUFFRAGETTE. TRUMBO is a good movie about the movies and Bryan Cranston is very good in the movie. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is a lovely little film about aging and living, featuring great chemistry between Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. SOUTHPAW is a by-the-numbers boxing drama but Jake Gyllenhaal sells it with every ounce of his being. Kristen Wiig is great in the aforementioned WELCOME TO ME; she also does good work in THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL and a little thing called NASTY BABY (she also pops up in THE MARTIAN -- heck of a year for Kristen!). Tobey Maguire is great as Bobby Fischer in PAWN SACRIFICE, which is at once an effective character study of a mad genius, a solid Cold War period piece, and an intense sports movie (about chess!). Al Pacino has that old-school glimmer in his eye in not one but two under-the-radar gems: First, DANNY COLLINS, a cheesy but sincere, funny and hugely enjoyable story of an aging rock star who tries to turn his life around after discovering a letter written to him by John Lennon years earlier. Also, MANGLEHORN, a dreamy, melancholy film about life and regret starring Pacino as an eccentric, curmudgeonly cat dad (aka me in 35 years, probably). Speaking of curmudgeons, Harrison Ford made a pit-stop on his way back to the Star Wars galaxy and stole the show from Blake Lively in THE AGE OF ADELINE. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Ian McKellan sneak into the Oscar race for his performance as an aged Sherlock Holmes in the excellent MR. HOLMES. Tom Hardy pulls double-duty as gangster twins in the otherwise messy, mediocre LEGEND. FREEHELD manages to tug on all the right heartstrings thanks in no small part to Julianne Moore & Ellen Page. And finally, there’s Eddie Redmayne -- no, I’m not referring to his likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated transgender performance in THE DANISH GIRL, but for his wild, over-the-top villain in the Wachowskis’ batshit bizarre sci-fi spectacle, JUPITER ASCENDING, a glorious mess of a movie whose primary influences appear to be late ‘70s/early ‘80s Star Wars ripoffs and Disney Princess films -- trust me on this one!
A Bunch of Movies You Would’ve Thought I’d Have Seen But Nope: One reason why I saw 29 fewer movies in 2015 than I did the year before is because I cut down a bunch of crap and sequels and bullshit. It’s true! I actually showed some restraint! Here is a brief list of movies I DIDN’T see on the big screen, off the top of my head. I actually felt bad not seeing VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN becaiuse I like to support Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter career, but this just looked like shite. Had no interest in GET HARD. Can’t stand Seth MacFarlane so TED 2 was never gonna happen. Even George Lucas’ involvement couldn’t get me to see STRANGE MAGIC. Had no interest in HOT PURSUIT. Fool me once, shame on you -- fool me twice, shame on me -- hence, I skipped INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3. Ditto for SINISTER 2. I’ll probably watch THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. eventually because of Alicia Vikander but I am not in any particular rush. I actually really wanted to see THE WALK but never got around to it. PAN looked like an unnecessary debacle -- I doubt I’ll even bother to watch it at home. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, um, no. I heard so many awful things about JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS that I was tempted to see it for the sake of Bottom 10 completion... but I think I made the right choice in the end. Couldn’t drag myself to see Brad and Angelina work out their marital issues or whatever the hell happens in BY THE SEA. Had no interest in LOVE THE COOPERS and you couldn’t pay me to see the POINT BREAK remake (I don’t even really care about the original). Come to think about it, the only 2015 that I didn’t see that I really wanted to see was MACBETH starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard -- this one, I will definitely get to ASAP. As for the rest, I have no regrets! Quality over quantity in 2015 and beyond!
And that, my friends, is that. Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Cyber-bullying? A lightsaber through the heart? (Oops, is that a spoiler?) Hey, I can take it!