It's that time of year again...where we take stock of all the films we saw for the year and weigh in on which ones were a waste of time and which ones were time well spent. And not like this needs repeating but I will do it anyway, this is a list comprised of films "I" felt were the best of what this past year had to offer us.
2015 was the year of redemption for many long running film franchises while also being the final nail in the coffin for others. Jurassic World surprised everyone by not sucking and also being much better than either of the previous two sequels. Mad Max: Fury Road proved that not only was there a lot of gas left in the decades old franchise but that a 70 year old man is better at making action movies than most of young Hollywood. Star Wars was finally redeemed after years of fan outrage over the devisive prequels and has kick started love for the franchise in many who wrote it off after the last film came out and the mostly Furious 7 got a free pass due to it being more of a cinematic swan song for the late Paul Walker. Probably the biggest surprise in this category has to go to Creed though from what many to be considered a dead franchise long ago.
While those films did the impossible by exceeding the huge amount of expectations laid upon them others were not so lucky. Super hero films have been all the rage over the past 5 years and we haven't seen a single reason to think their future was anything but filled with dollar signs...that is until 2015 happened. With both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fantastic Four, the two highest profile super hero films of the year mind you, causing fans to question their unwavering support for the genre it was up to the smallest hero of them all in Ant-Man to be the only bright spot in an otherwise lackluster year for super hero films. Similarly, Spectre the much anticipated follow up to the biggest Bond film of all time Skyfall, failed to catch on despite being one of the better films in the history of the franchise while it made money, Mockingjay Part 2 limped to the finish line with what can only be described as a true disappointing end for the franchise.
This was also the year of some major comebacks from filmmakers most had written off long ago. Sylvester Stallone found his voice again the in outstanding Creed while M. Night Shymalan secretly won audiences over again with his eerily creepy horror film The Visit. There were also some unexpected surprises such as the The Gift starring, written and directed by Joel Edgerton and even Fifty Shades of Grey proved to be more than just softcore porn. No film was a bigger surprise though than Straight Outta Compton which saw unprecedented success at a time of year that is known as the dumping grounds for many film studios. There is much more to say and many other films to single out so let's get to it shall we?
I know what you are thinking...wasn't this movie bad? Well I am here to inform you that not only is Jupiter Ascending nowhere near as bad as you have been led to believe but it was also one of the most original and daring Sci-fi films I had seen in a long time. Is it perfect? No, but what movie is? From the story, which is like a mix of Anastasia (the animated film) and Dune, to the densely packed universe built from scratch by the Wachowski'st, Jupiter Ascending is one of those films that is easy to just lose yourself in while taking in all of its beauty (this is one of the best looking films of 2015). The only real drawback I had was that it just tried to cram too much into its brief 2 hour runtime. Give it another 30 or so minutes to let the characters breath and the audience to get engaged with them and this could have been amazing. It is still impressive and very entertaining, just not the epic it so often flirts with becoming.
No other film released this year was as expertly made as Sicario. The acting, the direction and most of all the gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins, it was difficult to find fault with the film. On top of being a technical feat we also had one of the more intriguing on screen pairings of the year with Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. Both actors were at the top of their game here but it was their scenes together that really stole the show. While Blunt's character was clearly meant to be our guide through all the shady government dealings, Del Toro was the character that felt most true as he wasn't fighting for anyone but himself in the end which made him the most dangerous figure in the entire film which is quite impressive considering all the bad people we meet. This is what Zero Dark Thirty should have been.
The Hateful Eight
Django Unchained didn't make my list when it came out and I have sort of regretted that decision ever since. I am not making excuses but it just didn't impact me the way most Tarantino films do, not at first at least. History is not going to repeat itself this year as the prolific filmmakers latest opus, The Hateful Eight is getting the respect it is due. I made a strong case in my review for the film about its many obvious parallels to the 1982 John Carpenter horror classic The Thing, so here I just want to make it abundantly clear that regardless of that stigma the film itself is just one helluva ride the likes of which only Quentin Tarantino could conjure up. It's not really a western so much as it just so happens to take place in the western genre which is a distinction that can be made for all of the genres Tarantino deals with. Suffice it to say that if you like Tarantino's other work you will not be disappointed.
I was confused while watching Predestination, I was confused after watching it and I was confused while writing the review. Guess what? I am still a little confused when reflecting back on the film (even after re-reading my review I have very little idea what I was talking about). That may sound like a negative but I assure it is not. It is saddening that the film has seemingly slipped into obscurity after its silent release back in January of 2015 but don't let that deter you from seeking out and experiencing what I believe to be one of the best, if not the definitive time travel movie you will ever see. No other film on this list will challenge you like Predestination so be prepared to pay attention to every word, every little detail and then prepare yourself to be blown away by 2015's best kept secret.
I laughed the first time I saw the trailer for It Follows. The idea of a monster that follows you after having sex like some sort of Freddy or Jason STD is still kind of hilarious just based on that concept alone but watching the film is no laughing matter. Sometimes the simplest of concepts prove to be more unnerving than anything brought to life through big budget special effects can provide and the idea of something following you, always and unrelenting in its pursuit, that cannot be stopped or reasoned with is one of the most frightening and original concepts for a horror film in at least the past decade. While it seems the film has become a victim of its own popularity (many horror fans and critics seem to want to find reasons NOT to like it) the truth of the matter is It Follows sets a new benchmark for the horror genre that isn't likely to be topped any time soon.
Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous gothic romance Crimson Peak was dealt a bad hand. The studio didn't know how to sell it opting to push it as a straight up horror flick (which thankfully it is not) and audiences didn't know how to react to a film that didn't try to scare them every minute. The result was one of the most visually striking and narratively compelling films released this year that has been tragically overlooked by not just audiences but Hollywood in general (it has received little if any recognition for its outstanding production and costume design). If you stayed away after hearing mixed and/or negative reactions during its theatrical run make sure to give it a shot at home as you are likely to come away liking if not loving it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
People seem to be very conflicted when trying to figure out if they love, like or hate the new Star Wars film from J.J. Abrams. Whether it is a petition to bring George Lucas back (have these people seen the prequels?) or the fact that it mirrors a lot of the story beats from the original trilogy, suddenly after becoming the biggest film of all time people have started to feel indifferent towards it. I have seen it a total of 3 times now and let me just state for the record that it only got better upon each viewing which is more of a rare occurrence when re-watching a film than you might think. Yes it has its share of problems (the new "deathstar" being the most blatant example) but none of that changes the fact that we have a new Star Wars movie and better yet, it's pretty dam good.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
This one came out of nowhere. Sure, the same duo responsible for giving us the first (and better) Kick-Ass movie aren't exactly unknowns but seriously, did anyone expect this to be as good as it was? Colin Firth is a total bad ass as the gentlemanly secret service agent who takes down his enemies with a style and grace that James Bond only wishes he has. Samuel L. Jackson as the villain could have been over the top and cliche ridden but after being allowed to put his own spin on the archetype he delivered one of the most memorably awkward bad guys in recent film history (the guy can't stand the sight of blood...I mean come on, that's pretty ingenious). But most of all the entire film is just a blast from beginning to end and as a result is, in my mind anyway, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year.
I understand why nobody saw Robert Zemeckis' new film The Walk. On top of having little star power (Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a fine actor but has yet to prove himself a box office draw) and a premise as exciting as someone literally walking on a rope, you can sort of see the writing on the wall well before it was even released. Not even near unanimous critical acclaim was able to bring audiences in which is a shame because the film is a near masterpiece of filmmaking that must be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate how amazing this stunt really was. Staging it as a heist film was a masterstroke of genius but nothing compares to the final moments when we finally see Phillipe walk out on that wire between the two towers. It was both breathtaking and nerve racking to take in but it was even more compelling when you realize this actually happened.
Mad Max: Fury Road
I suspect I will get some flack for this considering I gave the film a B+ upon release but you know what, who cares. Despite that still very good grade I really loved this new and improved Mad Max despite Mel Gibson's unfortunate (but understandable) absence. Hollywood has become so bogged down in digital effects and standard plotting that when a film of this caliber gets released it is not only an adrenaline shot to the arm for the industry as a whole but a wake up call to other filmmakers who have been coasting along making mostly disposable entertainment for the past decade or so. George Miller is 70 years old yet somehow he has managed to make the quintessential action film of this era, a feat not soon to be replicated. In your face Furious 7!
People have gone on and on about the troubles surrounding the shoot for The Revenant but their issues, as bad as they were, are but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the amount of effort and dedication it took Miller, his cast and crew to bring his vision to life. Miller's near decade long journey to bring Max back to the big screen was littered with obstacles that would likely break the spirit of anyone else in his shoes, but Mad Max was his baby, it was the character that introduced him to the world of film and he wasn't about to let anything stand in his way of Max's resurrection. So after all the turmoil dealing with constantly shifting locations, missed release dates and other behind the scenes issues he was able to make what many consider to be the crowning achievement of his long and prosperous career.
Many, including myself, had attacked Fury Road for its simplistic plot and how Max himself almost felt like an afterthought to the story. In hindsight those are not exactly problems but more a way to help keep the focus on the unrelenting action sequences. Most filmmakers use a script to help guide them through the process of making their films, Miller relied on storyboards to tell his story which is indicative of what kind of film he was trying to make. He wasn't trying to tell a compelling story so much as make a film that was simply compelling to watch and soak in. It may not win any awards for its story but that doesn't matter when your film is heralded as a masterpiece of cinema that will likely always be remembered for, if nothing else, the amount of balls it took to make such an amazing action spectacle as Mad Max: Fury Road.
Previous Years Picks...
2015 Honorable Mentions
(Other films I wanted on my list but couldn't find room for)
Let's kick these off with a film that isn't really a film at all but more of a proof of concept short film that put most of its feature length competition to shame. Crowdfunded and made by one guy, Kung Fury was everything a throwback style film aspires to be but rarely achieves. If you love the 80's and have a good sense of humor then Kung Fury was made for you. Check out the full film on Youtube now...for free!
Ridley Scott's film about a rescue mission to Mars has bounced back and forth from my top picks multiple times now. The reason why it eventually landed a spot here is simply because as much as I loved Matt Damon's endearing performance whom I believe is the sole reason for its success, I still found the film highly derivative of other similar stories from Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away. But by no means is that meant as a knock on the film which is top from bottom one of the most crowd pleasing films released this year and a return to form for director Ridley Scott.
I can appreciate how beautifully shot and acted The Revenant is but as a film telling a story it struggled to hold my interest from beginning to end. As a matter of fact both the beginning and the end are the best parts (scenic vistas and cinematography aside) while the very very long middle section felt drawn out for no apparent reason other than to show us how Leonardo DiCaprio lives off the land. However none of that makes it a bad film as it does flirt with greatness every so often and Tom Hardy delivers one of the most compelling villain figures of the year.
Here is another film I struggled with to determine which category it fit into but ultimately I decided to give the nod to other more unrecognized films of the year. I loved Todd Haynes' Carol, I loved the look of the film as it recreated a near perfect 1950's asthetic and I absolutely adored both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as an on screen couple. Both women deliver career high performances and the film benefits greatly from their natural chemistry with one another. Since the film is gaining some traction thanks to the upcoming awards season there was little reason to do more than remind you to make sure you add it to your Netflix queue immediately.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
I never got around to writing a traditional review for Steven Spielberg's real world spy origin story but don't take that as me feeling indifferent to it. Spielberg has made a film here that shines a light upon a little talked about time during the Cold War which was the spy game. It was amazing to see the building blocks to what eventually became a game of life and death between the USA and the USSR who used their captured spies as bartering tools. The only reason this missed my top picks is the uneven first half of the film that took just a little too long to pick up speed, otherwise this is a much watch.
I almost put this in my top picks simply based on the fact that the Academy Awards failed to recognize it but alas it remains here. If there were one film that came out of nowhere this year and took audiences by storm it would have to be F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton. While it felt more like a cliff notes version of the story behind the founding members of the NWA, that never became an issue thanks to some great performances by a bunch of newcomers (including Ice Cube's own son who played his father as a youth) and witnessing how their behind the scenes conflicts transformed the music industry into their own personal battleground. Great stuff.
How this was received by audiences is extremely perplexing. Most seemed to really like it at first and it went on to become massively successful financially but over the course of the year it seemed as if more and more people started hating on it. Yes, Marvel tried to do way too much with it and yes, it felt more like a gateway into upcoming films than a stand alone story, but Joss Whendon's final creation in the MCU is still a highly entertaining and downright action packed film experience that just fell victim to its own ambitions.
This little gem from the director of Trick R Treat was way better than it had any right to be. Most of the time when a director hits it big with their first feature more often than not their follow up disappoints. Not in this case though as Krampus was the perfect mixture of holiday fun and horror that built upon everything that made Trick R Treat so great and even went further by improving upon it in many ways. Holiday and horror are a difficult recipe to get right but Michael Dougherty proved to be a master chef this past Christmas.
OK listen, technically Ex Machina is a near flawlessly executed film and I get that. The performances were on point with Oscar Issac turning in a particularly inspired turn as the mad scientist type and the theme, while familiar, is more relevant than ever. However, there was just no getting around the fact that the final moments of the film felt uninspired compared to everything that came before it. Anyone who has ever seen or read a Frankenstein type of story will know exactly what to expect. It's not bad (hence the reason it is an honorable mention) but it just wasn't good enough to nab a top spot on my list.
Skyfall was a game changer for the James Bond franchise. Not in the 50 some odd years has a single James Bond film ever garnered that much praise and been as financially successful as Skyfall which meant no matter how good the follow up was it would likely been seen as lacking in comparison. Spectre is a really good James Bond film and successfully mixes the new school Bond tendencies such as a more brutish and clumsy Bond into the old school style with over the top villains, evil lairs and even a car with gadgets on it. It may not be remembered as fondly as Skyfall but that doesn't mean it didn't deliver.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE
Inside Out seems to have put a spell on everyone with its clever premise but no animated film this year was as honest and pure of heart as The Peanuts Movie. From the admirable reluctance to push Charlie Brown and the gang into the modern area (you won't find any computers or cell phones in the Peanuts-verse) to the sweetness and simplicity of the story about a loser boy finding the courage to talk to the new girl next door, The Peanuts Movie is the genuine article from top to bottom. If Charles M. Schulz were still alive I believe he would not only approve of the film but would likely wonder if he could have done it any better.
You know, Ashton Kutcher got a lot of s**t for his film "Jobs", but after watching director Danny Boyle's film "Steve Jobs" based on a script by Aaron Sorkin it has become abundantly clear that he actually did a good job (no pun intended). Michael Fassbender is a great actor and does Sorkin's script proud in many respects, but both the film and its portrayal of the man himself didn't really mesh as well as most had hoped. While there are some great ideas behind the unusual approach Boyle and Sorkin took with this biopic the end result was a cold and calculated film experience that, much like Steve Jobs himself, was lacking in the human element.
Right behind Jupiter Ascending was another contestant for dark horse of the year, the Guy Ritchie directed update to the classic television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. You can point to any number of reasons why the film failed to catch on (release date, lack of star power, the audience unfriendly Cold War setting) but the one thing you can't blame is the film itself which was a fantastic spy versus spy game of cat and mouse. With Ritchie at the helm you know even if it were bad, which it wasn't, that you would get lots of energy and action which it has in spades. If you missed this one when it was released (chances are that you did) then make sure to give it a go at home and discover one of 2015's hidden gems.
THE END OF THE TOUR
I was late to the party on this one which saw a limited released last summer, but after catching it on home video I can attest to its quality. Both Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg deliver powerful performances in this in depth exploration of the human condition. Usually a film about two guys just shooting the s**t for a couple of hours might seem like a total bore but the performances and a fantastic script prove to be a potent combination. I didn't know who David Foster Wallace was before seeing this but I can now say that I am a fan of both the man and what he preached. The best part of all is that he isn't positioned as some sort of larger than life figure but more like a humble and flawed human being who just saw the world for what it is and gave his two cents on it.
Joel Edgerton's directorial debut is one of those film experiences that really gets under your skin, but in the best way possible. While there were much bigger films released around the same time it was impossible to stop thinking about this little diamond in the rough once you saw it which is always a good sign of a great film. What's more amazing than just how great the film turned out is that Edgerton, who pulled triple duty here as star, writer and director didn't fall short on any front. He truly is the jack of all trades and master of them all in the case of The Gift, a film that after you see it will haunt you like few other films can.
If I had a "Biggest Surprise" category for 2015 it would have to go to M. Night Shymalan's The Visit which was not only a return to form for the endlessly ridiculed filmmaker but just a great little horror film even without the stigma of Shymalan's name being attached to it. Aside from the redemptive qualities for its creator, The Visit functions as one of the better and more original horror films released this year. What is even more shocking is that the film actually takes the loathed "found footage" format and uses it the right way where it doesn't just feel like a gimmick. And yes in true Shymalan fashion there is a twist at the end of the film but unlike many of his other works this twist feels earned when it happens.
Amy Schumer is the only reason to see Trainwreck. It's not a bad film but it does suffer from a number of issues that if not for Schumer's talents would relegate it into rom com obscurity. Overlong, unfocused, odd shifts in tone and a bit too formulaic for its own good, all of that is forgiven whenever Schumer is on screen doing what she does best, lots of jokes made at her own expense and plenty of non-PC content. Her supporting cast is good as well with Bill Hader turning in his very first romantic lead role and the scene stealing performance by John Cena who clearly left all pretenses at the front door.
This is one of the strangest films you will see all year but it is sort of mesmerizing in its strangeness. Instead of giving us another familiar trek through the wild west with a story that quite frankly isn't all that original, we get a guided tour through a wild west that isn't so much wild as it is just outright bizarre at times. Even if you have a hard time keeping up with all the weirdness you will no doubt be lured under its spell in no time. You might not love it at first but the more time passes from when you see it the more you are likely to become fascinated by it.
Who knew this time last year that more people would love Ant-Man than the new Avengers movie? While a lot of controversy surrounded the very public exit of geek loved director Edgar Wright, most people seemed to shelve any issues they had once they saw the film itself which proved to be one of the more purely enjoyable and relaxed (as in one a couple characters instead of a dozen or more) entries into the MCU since the first Iron Man movie. Paul Rudd was great as the man in the suit but the real winner here was Michael Pena whose comedic talents stole the show every single time he popped up. Not as action packed as most comic book movies but as they say, sometimes good things come in small packages.
Any other year without the likes of Star Wars and Mad Max this long in the coming sequel and franchise reboot would be the talk of the town. Now nobody is saying it is better than the 1994 original but if you were to time travel back to 1997 and released Jurassic World instead of The Lost World as the first sequel then perhaps the franchise wouldn't have died off so quickly. Let's not forget the bonus card for the film in the form of rising star Chris Pratt who after his star making role in Guardians of the Galaxy was at least partially responsible for a lot of those tickets sold. Whoever was responsible for that casting choice (which happened before he hit it big in GotG) deserves a raise.
I am not the biggest Melissa McCarthy fan but even I can cop to the fact that her latest flick Spy was pretty darn funny. It may have taken a little too long to get going but after those initial 30 or so minutes it was pretty much consistently hilarious until the end. It wasn't all McCarthy though as both Jason Statham and Rose Byrne contributed a lot to the laugh factor. Director Paul Fieg and McCarthy will team up again later in 2016 for the Ghostbusters reboot and one can only hope whatever magic they had here will translate over to that film as well.
It's strange how many people seem to have forgotten this little gem that came out early in the year. It's strange because it did well, both critically and financially. Not even an award nomination for the superb costume or production work which is a shame. More important however is that this live action retelling of the Disney classic did what others (Maleficent and Oz The Great and Powerful come to mind) failed at and did it well. Lily James made for a perfect Cinderella while Cate Blanchett unsurprisingly turned in a magnificently devilish performance as the wicked stepmother. If you missed this one then do yourself a favor and give it a shot.
Girl power was in full effect this year with Melissa McCarthy in Spy, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, Charlize Theron in Mad Max and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars, but the one most overlooked in 2015 was Salma Hayek in one of the most bombastic action flicks that absolutely no one saw. Equal parts Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson and Robert Rodriquez, Everly delivered a consistent action spectacle backed by some of the most ridiculously over the top characters you have ever seen (the assassin hookers were a nice touch). Seriously though if you haven't seen or even heard of Everly and want a quick shot of adrenaline don't hesitate to check it out immediately.
Although I don't think this one will be everyones cup of tea I just can't help but mention it simply because of just how beautifully bizarre this Ryan Reynolds film is. Proving once again just how highly underestimated he is as a dramatic actor, Reynolds balances a performance that leans more towards tragic than comedic. He is joined by a surprisingly fantastic group of supporting actors such as Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver but the real standout is how masterfully the audience is introduced to the fever dream that is Reynolds' character's life in the film which is followed by a macabre set of events most won't be prepared for.