It is now March 17, 2015. Seventy-seven whole days into the new year. Already over a 1/5 of 2016 has gone by. So I really struggled with making this my first post since July 28th until I realized that most of these movies on the list have either a) become available for home viewing, or b) will be available soon. These are the 16-plus movies of 2015 that have stuck with me, seventy-seven days into those new year. Enjoy!
2015’s Holy Trinity:
This special triumvirate of excellence all hold one thing in common: they trimmed the fat. There is absolutely no slack in the rope that pulls you throughout. Every scene counts and advances the story, even sometimes in ways you’re not immediately sure of. All three movies knew when to keep the pedal to the floor, and all knew when to back up and let things breathe a little. They explored big ideas and deep emotions. They represent, to me, the best of what 2015 had to offer. And then there’s an additional 15 films I thought of. If you call it cheating to have 3 films at #1, then you’ve got other things to worry about.
1A. Mad Max: Fury Road – This movie starts with a car chase and never lets up. The accelerator is to the floor, gas pipes roaring across the blue sky. In a movie landscape that doesn’t know how to not over-explain everything, it’s incredibly refreshing to find a movie that respects your intelligence just as much as it lusts to keep you at the edge of your seat. This is propulsive action filmmaking that will be studied in film school for many years to come, with a dense mythology that only rewards the more you think about it. I saw this in May and it’s stuck to me ever since, like a sweet bit of broccoli stuck in my teeth, never keeping me from showing a big, dumb grin.
1B. Creed – I went in this expecting a good, strong effort, but never expected to be knocked out. It is ridiculous how well-made this film is – from the economy of the story to the performances to all the fine details that lead to an emotionally overpowering experience. I sat with my heart in my throat for at least 2/3 of this movie, and it earned every moment. This is a movie that deserves every string of superlatives thrown at it, wrapping it up into one beautiful, never-ending gift.
1C. Ex Machina – You would never know that this is writer Alex Garland’s first time behind the camera. Every frame is carefully composed. Every set is immaculately designed. There is an economy of story here that only an expert writer can manage. I still laugh at the first time Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) flies to Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) residence and asks when they will be approaching his home. The helicopter pilot chuckles and tells him, “We’ve been flying over it the last two hours”. It’s such a simple exchange, but one that communicates volumes. Caleb and Nathan have a series of conversations throughout the film all dedicated to the problem they are trying to solve: will Nathan’s robotic creations pass the Turing Test? Will we be able to tell they are a robot, or will they pass as human? It’s an ever-evolving, thought-provoking stream of exchanges that carries throughout the film until the very last frame, where Ava (Alicia Vikander) effectively answers their question in a way they can’t respond to. While Gleeson and Isaac have been doing great work lately and are expectedly excellent here, it’s Vikander’s performance that sticks the most. She finds a beautiful line between the mannered movements we expect from a robot, and the smoother instincts of one striving to be more human. Nathan’s entire residence, a true creation of a location, is all glass doors and entrances. Every time we see a character approach the glass, they’re reflected in a different way. It’s a rather complex but satisfying way to communicate to us just how intricate and unpredictable our definition of human is, and how quickly, with just the slightest of moves, it can change.
2. Brooklyn – Before the first frame of this film rolled, I knew I was walking into something special. Normally you can expect there to be a solid 15-20 minutes of trailers before the movie starts, and you can also expect that people are going to usher in right until the last moment before the story begins. This is, at least, what commercial theaters have conditioned me to expect. And yet, as we walked in to the theater just a few minutes after the designated start time, we hit a wall of darkness. We could only see the faintest of shiny bald heads, and it was enough to tell us one thing: this place was full. Packed. I don’t want to overgeneralize about ages, but they were all over 40 or 50 years old, and either this story hits them in a deeply personal way, or it’s the rock-solid kind of story we’ve all been starved to see, or it’s some combination of the two. I can’t tell exactly, but it doesn’t matter. Nick Hornby, who impressed me so thoroughly with his adaptation of last year’s Wild, gives the story a gorgeously simple framework to lay the tapestry over. Led by the suddenly grown-up Saoirse Ronan, everyone here gives an honest, true performance, the kind that sinks you deep into the story and yet warms the insides. In our day of technology and the internet, the meaning of ‘home’ has hung over your heads in so many ways. Long gone are the days in which people always stayed in their hometown, from birth to death. We have so many new ways to connect, as well as ever more options for transportation, and it’s led to a semi-nomadic life that, while exciting, can freak us out when we have to consider what home means to us. It’s a question that’s as timely as ever to our generation, and delivered with maximum emotional impact. This is the kind of movie you can watch with anyone, finding the universal in the specific, and guiding us through a story that reminds us home is where we are happy and where we want to be.
3. What We Do in the Shadows – The first five minutes of this movie had me laughing as hard as anything I’ve seen all year, and yet, I wondered: would it keep it up? While I continued to laugh throughout the film in all kinds of ways – giggles, barks, and guffaws – the story goes into very interesting, unexpectedly emotional directions in exploring just what it’s like to be these vampires and how it affects the lives around them. It gives a surprising gravitas to the delightful comedy, making it hit all the harder.
4. Bridge of Spies – I went into this movie not really understanding what the story would be about – it turns out you can read a synopsis 900 times and still not have a clue – but it didn’t matter. Beyond the effortless craft that blows you away scene by scene (this is what you get watching a movie from a master like Spielberg), this is a story that seems deceptively simple before sucking you in entirely. It’s a movie for the cynical age we live in, and especially timely in the face of the wrongful elitism that our presidential candidates speak with. Set in the Cold War, Tom Hanks’ character has a simple task – to defend a Russian criminal just enough it looks like the US tried, but not enough to save him – and yet he cannot let go of this kind, gentle man. To say anymore would be criminal – this is a movie as well told as anything you’ll see this year, and one that leaves you with plenty to think about.
5. Inside Out – There is a simple equation that exists deep inside the halls of Pixar and in any well-educated cinephile’s brain: Pixar + Pete Doctor = Greatness. From Monsters, Inc. to Up and now to Inside Out, Doctor has shown an uncanny ability to create unique stories with unforgettable moments and the kind of emotional stakes that drain every bit of available water out of your body. Here, Doctor is in peak form, crafting a deceptively simple adventure story that all takes place within the mind of a young, growing girl. Even more impressive – though not surprising – is how well thought-out every single thing in this movie is. The Train of Thought, the Deep End, the list goes on – and the overall message of how Joy and Sadness are more alike than they are different is one that everyone deserves to witness.
6. Kingsman: The Secret Service – Matthew Vaughn has a habit of jumping movies to create something even more close to his heart. He famously left Days of Future Past when the opportunity to make Kingsman arose. And boy, can you tell. Fueled by undeniable energy and British bite, this is the kind of fun James Bond story we all wanted before he become so, so serious. Newcomer Taron Egerton is a real find – as the quality of his upcoming movies would suggest – and the rest of the cast brings their usual A-game to the festivities.
7. Bone Tomahawk – While seeing Kurt Russell in a Western (and with epic facial hair) is always going to get me out of bed, the performance that will stick with you is Richard Jenkin’s turn as Chicory. This is one of those sneaky movies that moves like a good, simple men-on-a-mission yarn until it hits the badlands and then it hits the badlands. The otherworldly tribe Russell and Jenkins run into is something out of another, weirder movie. It possesses probably the most horrific movie kill I’ve seen in a long time (you’ve been warned!) but also the most heartbreaking bit of dialogue from Jenkins, in which Chicory’s optimism depends on whether a flea circus is a real thing or not. The electric dialogue is very Coen Brothers-ish in its constant glee of using Western language quirks to make for a gut-busting listen, and the theme music has been stuck in my head for days now. Hopefully people will give this little sleeper of a movie a chance in the coming generations.
8. The Gift – Speaking of gifts: holy hell. The movie trailer for this sat in front of just about every movie this past summer, leading me (and presumably all of America) to assume it was some dark, nasty thriller. But looks can be deceiving. While there is a bit of nastiness to this, it’s far more emotional and intellectual than anything physical. It also possesses one of the best last act twists I have ever seen in a movie.
9. Chi-Raq – You may want to check your electric bill after watching this movie as there is something pulsing and crackling throughout this entire story. Spike Lee is back with a movie that is as angry as it is aiming for something resembling hope. A modern-day, satirical take on the Greek play Lysistrata, Lee uses it to great effect in looking at the gang violence in south Chicago in a whole new way. For many people, unfortunately, this is going to be their first exposure to what is actually going on in Chicago, a place in which, from 2003-2012 saw 4,265 citizens murdered. In a time in which our gun control conversation is more heated than ever, it’s movies like this that help us realize we are really missing the point: that there is something far more devastating going on in the middle of our country, and which we are either clueless of or have chosen to ignore. Lee makes this a story that hits you hard by balancing it with extremes – every heartbreaking scene is followed by something full of life and often hilarious. While it make seem jarring at first, it shows just how close comedy is to tragedy and vice versa. We have a long way to go in this country, and Lee lets us know where perhaps our biggest gap is in bright, entertaining, and ultimately devastating fashion.
10. Paddington – Just like The Gift, Paddington had omnipresent movie trailers early on that did the movie no favors. The first teaser, in which Paddington makes a genuine wreck out of a well-decorated bathroom, made it look like a rather condescendingly slapstick story, one of which would slip through the door and under someone’s bed, completely unnoticed. And then the reviews trickled in. They all said it was not only something more, but something kind of wonderful. And it is. Every bit of it. Every detail in this movie is delightful, but more than anything, it has such a pleasant air of goodness to it that you rarely see in movies these days.
11. Call Me Lucky – This movie fell on to my radar thanks to a stellar debut at Sundance, and then disappeared before popping up on iTunes. I went ahead with it and am so grateful I did. I won’t say anymore as to spoil the story for anyone, but for anyone who thinks stand-up comedians are just damaged folks who tell jokes to mask their pain – this will give you some food for thought. Barry Crimmins – thanks to the testimonials of all the Boston comics you will no doubt recognize – was a rising comic, respected by all before he decided to pick a fight bigger than himself. Director Bobcat Goldwaith gives the story all the space and respect it deserves, carefully stepping into pretty deep and dark waters that will devastate you as much as give you hope.
12. The Good Dinosaur – Pixar raised a few eyebrows in the production of this film when it changed directors and delayed it 18 months. The story wasn’t working, they said. They needed more time and some new blood. Given the fact that previous revamped movies have led to results such as Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, and even Brave, we all gave them the benefit of the doubt. While you can definitely tell the movie went through some production nightmares – the story is noticeably slimmed down and simple, and the weirder elements involve changes that were probably more cost-effective to implement (voice acting, for example) – it is pretty amazing to me just how much they were able to accomplish. I have to give serious props to director Peter Sohn and his team for their visual rhyming. They do a masterful job of bookending the film with images that start meaning one thing in the beginning and something entirely else by the end (and bring on the tears). The central relationship in this movie – between Arlo and his “dog”, Spot – is so well-calibrated and developed that if you aren’t in total, complete tears by the time Arlo draws a circle in the dirt around Spot’s new family, you’ve probably missed out on the magic. While many critics were quick to consider this film one of Pixar’s lesser efforts, I think, all things considered, they have quite a bit to be proud of with this one.
13. Trainwreck – Having been a major fan of Inside Amy Schumer for the last few years, I could not have been more ready for her big-screen writing and acting debut. While the trailers understandably pushed the comedy angle, there is a deeper emotional core to the film that really caught me off-guard. In the film (and real life) Amy and her sister have to deal with the very trying circumstances of taking care of a womanizing father who’s succumbing more and more each day to the trials of MS. It creates a transforming anchor for the movie that helps the comedy have a bit more weight, especially as Amy has to fight through some very real emotional landmines before blossoming into a new person that’s a little more ready to live up to her potential. While very few films made me laugh as hard as this one, director Judd Apatow’s love of padding his movies with unnecessary improve takes it down a notch or two in my mind. Otherwise, this is an effort that announces to the world that Amy Schumer is ready to take over.
14. Ant-Man – This past summer, two Marvel movies were released only a couple months from each other: Avengers: Age of Ultron and this much smaller film, Ant-Man. In terms of budget and star-power, Ultron stood over Ant-Man like an ever-growing shadow. But if I would bet if you asked anyone these days which one they would rather watch again – most would reach for the diminutive dynamo. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised with a movie that had Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and comedy secret superweapon Michael Pena in it, but while the story has the familiar Marvel tropes it has to do deal with to set up future movies, it has a great deal of fun with just how weird Ant-Man really is. Also within this film is one of the best 3rd acts of 2015. After we had been bludgeoned with 3rd Act after 3rd Act that involved the destruction of entire cities and planets, it proved incredibly refreshing to have an entire epic fight take place within a suitcase, a child’s train set, and finally a bedroom. Director Peyton Reed clearly brought his A-game, love for Ant-Man, and creative solutions to this film, giving it a texture and sense of fun that even some of Marvel’s best have sometimes lacked.
15. Spy – It’s a pretty special year to get not one but two great spy movies that show us how much fun this kind of thing can be. While Paul Feig is getting better at shooting action, he wisely keeps his focus on his fantastic actors and their hilarious dialogue. Jason Statham proves to be quite the funnyman, and Melissa McCarthy gets to play an entirely new, exceedingly competent character that shows how she can kick ass and make it look fantastic. Also, an all-timer: the brutal, hilarious kitchen fight.
16. Shaun the Sheep Movie – There is no dialogue in this movie. It’s a rather simple story. As expected: it entirely went over the heads of American audiences when it hit theaters back in August. But I will say this: I watched this with two young girls who frequently struggle to pay attention during movies (or during anything, really), and they were completely transfixed by this film the entire time. There is enough effortless wit in all the character’s movements to intimidate the most vaunted of comedy writers, and all I can say is: Aardman did it again.
Beating the Odds:
Cinderella – For those of you reading this and scoffing at home – give it a try yourself. There’s nothing new in the story, but man, it is told well. The scene where Rob Stark aka The Prince sees Cinderella arrive at the ball in her new dress for the first time is about as honest and beautiful a fairy tale scene I’ve ever seen. All the actors approach this movie with care and eagerness, making an age-old story feel both modern and timeless.
Saved By The Bell:
Jurassic World – I grew up on Jurassic Park. I had the toys – the Ford Explorer with the cannon mounted to the roof and bite marks in the engine; the T-Rex with a mouth that became menacingly agape whenever you squeezed its neck – and so when The Lost World bounced into theaters, I was ready. It took me a really long time, and many, many viewings to figure out why The Lost World didn’t grab me like Jurassic Park did. It had more dinosaurs, cooler vehicles – bigger and better in the ways that appeals to a young teenage boy. After college, I took another look at it and solved the mystery: The Lost Word is not a good movie. I followed the production of Jurassic Park 3 only to shrug it off like much of the moviegoing public did in 2001. Fifteen years later, I was ready to forgive. I was ready to accept the fact my teenage brain had not aged like my body, and that big, badass dinosaurs still set off the pleasure centers in my brain better than mint chocolate chip ice cream on a summer day. As much as I enjoyed seeing a fully functional, open-to-the-public park – the kind of thing I still one day dream of witnessing – Jurassic World didn’t fully click into place for me until the very end. Watching that same T-Rex that so enthralled me as a kid lumber out of the padlock to save the day, only for the giant mesosaurus to really save the day set off those same teenage brain pleasure centers like a bag of malfunctioning alarms. I went absolutely nuts for it. I still have no idea where the story will go with the next movie. I’m not sure how much I even want to see it. But I will always cherish that final battle, where it felt like adults became the kids they always wanted to be and just had some good old prehistoric fun.
Tripped Up at the Finish Line:
Magic Mike XXL – I never got around to seeing Magic Mike, but the buzz on this film had me curious. It promised something unexpected. A message that didn’t come up often in your average mainstream film. And sure enough, Magic Mike XXL has a lot to say, specifically about how important it is to do what you love and to treat the ones you love with the passion and respect they deserve. It had me all the way until the end, and then it blew it. The finale at Myrtle Beach is supposed to be the culmination of everything the film has worked for, and while it truly delivers with the final dance sequences, it films them in a way that lets every bit of air out of the bag. Every time Jada Pinkett Smith is on screen, she’s filmed from what seems like a mile away, and the energy disappears before it can even begin to build. What should be a final, fiery climax instead can’t quite get it up.
It Follows – This is a film that is an absolute masterclass in tone. From the very first frame, you know something is up, and the steady camera movement and plaintive, insistent music just feeds the paranoia. But by the end, I felt completely underwhelmed. Each film sets up its own reality and its own rules. It Follows does this with minimal exposition and great visual storytelling. But then when it really matters, it completely throws the rules out the window. It feels like such a cheat and, more than that, completely confusing. Quentin seemed to agree.
Tomorrowland – There is a lot to like here. Brad Bird directs. Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn are a slightly-off hippy couple with an interesting small business venture. George Clooney. The first visit to Tomorrowland is packed with imagination and even dashes of wonder. There is a compelling mystery that is being built, but the third act provides an answer that just does absolutely nothing for me. I found it confusing and full of bizarre choices that just didn’t quite add up.
Jupiter Ascending – The original script was reportedly 475 pages. The average Hollywood script is about 110. If you have to condense your original story down to nearly 1/4 the size, the audience will feel it. While the actual plot itself is not particularly original, the mythology behind it is so dense it nearly stops the entire movie each time it finally gets going. Remember how Ant-Man shrinks to a tiny size but retains it’s density and, therefore, is pretty unstoppable? That’s the story machine running through this film. Once it hits the mythology beats, it becomes an immovable force and slogs through. This probably could have been made into a very expensive miniseries on cable and been given some more time to breathe. All that aside: we don’t see texture and detail like this in sci-fi very often. The designers of everything you see in the film cited many older European buildings as their inspiration and you can totally see it. Less and less are we seeing original stories given huge budgets and the chances to go in unique places – I’m just thankful the Wachowskis were able to squeak this one through the system and make it a reality.
Monkey Kingdom – If you’ve ever wanted to see a pack of monkeys ransack – and I mean ransack – a local school, robbing them of food supplies and knocking over damn near everything, then this is the movie for you. I’m not sure how they found a way to film all of this, but I’m certainly glad they did.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – I feel for Joss Whedon. It’s just about a miracle to me that he was able to string together all the storylines coming in from Phase 2 and push them out until Phase 3, all while introducing a new villian. There’s a lot of heavy lifting he’s gotta do throughout this film, and yet he keeps it fun and light. I do see why it ended up defeating him, and I do think the 3rd act rescue of all the citizens of Sokovia was a bit of a rash reaction to Man of Steel and Stark Trek Into Darkness’ destruction porn. There’s a lot to like about this film, lots of little moments Whedon clearly fought for, but they’re also lost in all the machinery that is Marvel’s ongoing story.
Aloha – I’m happy to have Cameron Crowe back, even as I wish this was a better movie. I don’t think this is the awful movie the critics made out it out to be. Yes, they probably should have hired someone at least vaguely Hawaiian for Emma Stone’s part. Yes, it does feel like 3 movies packed into one, as if Crowe did a writing exercise and then cobbled them together quickly. And yes, there is still a lot of shit that just doesn’t make any sense. But! But! There are also those Crowe moments sprinkled around just enough to remind us of why we liked the guy’s work in the first place. Sometimes you gotta have a movie to shake off all the rust, and here’s hoping this is Crowe’s way of getting up from off the floor again and making something worthy of his talent.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Like many JJ Abrams movies, this one had the all the zip and pace you could ask for. And then afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more it fell apart. You can clearly tell with this film just how much they were figuring out as they went along, and look: I get it. I totally get it. This was the assignment no one had the balls to take; to make the first good Star Wars movie in nearly 40 years, and to give Disney the confidence their investment would pay off (like we ever doubted that?). I will give Abrams and his crew this, though: I absolutely love the new characters, and I would say that TFA’s greatest strength is in just how damn excited it made me for Episode 8. There’s a new force that has awaken, and it is truly exciting to witness.
The Tribe – All my life, I have grown up surrounded by people that find sign language so, so fascinating. They find it beautiful. Enchanting, even. But while it is all those attributes, it is also a language. One of the biggest obstacles that Deaf filmmakers have had with making great movies is that sometimes what is demanded in a film with sign language defies the typical film language we are used to. We can’t do voiceover. We can’t cut to other actors when someone else is talking unless we want to miss out on all the dialogue. It’s a language that demands to be seen at all times in order for it to be taken in. To me, that’s created a challenge that has rarely been answered, and one that is an ever-evolving conversation. So when I first heard about The Tribe, and how it it used Ukrainian sign language without the benefit of English subtitles, I was definitely intrigued. But I was also wary – and ultimately curious – if this would be a story that could separate itself from the language question and tell an actual story. I will say the movie tells the story very well – even if it’s rather standard and something we’ve seen many, many times before, but what makes it most memorable is the very end. You’re not going to sleep very well after this movie, especially if, like me, you sleep in total silence.