In what has become an annual tradition, I’ve compiled my favorite movies of the year. As a disclaimer, normally this is a “top ten” list. But, this year, instead of focusing on an arbitrary round number, I just picked the films that really stuck out for me (in this case, that would be 8). This isn’t to say this was a bad year at the movies (I’d actually argue the opposite). But, you know how it goes—work…a kiddo—frankly, I just didn’t see as many things in the theater as I would have liked (Brooklyn is a big blind spot…so is Sicario and Anomalisa). So, yeah, enough rambling…here are the best films that I saw in 2015.
The Hateful Eight
To be fair, The Hateful Eight feels like Tarantino is riffing on his trademark style rather than forging new ground—it’s long, chaptered, and talky as hell. But, can I really begrudge a maestro for playing the same note, when he plays it so damn well? I wouldn’t ask Hendrix to play the French Horn…
Having just seen this movie last night (in 70mm projection!), I have hesitations about putting it on this list. I’m still stewing on it and I’m not quite sure the film’s verbosity and mean-spiritedness add up to much more than…um…well verbosity and mean-spiritedness. But, for a three hour picture, it’s engrossing and pristinely crafted. Watching it is an undeniably theatrical experience—it takes place in essentially one room and it even has an intermission. Tarantino’s gift for gab and impeccable casting are clearly on display. And, so, while I still wrestle with the film’s themes (is it all just empty violence or a parable for America’s systemic societal racism?), I can’t deny that Eight feels like cinema in its purest form—a chamber piece full of blood, anger, and snow that gives the viewer plenty to love even amongst all that hatred.
Beasts of No Nation
I was listening to a Shahir Daud’s podcast the other day and the two hosts were discussing movies that are the cinematic equivalent of eating your vegetables—you know, “good for you,” but, ultimately, difficult to watch. I suppose you could consider Beasts of No Nation—the first feature film picked up and distributed by Netflix—to be that sort of movie. Let’s not sugarcoat things: this is a very brutal and disturbing film, following a young boy in a nameless African country as he becomes a child soldier. But, while it’s tough to watch, it’s also enrapturing—practically Malickian in its portrayal of a kid lost in a world of violence, ignorance, and military factions labeled with interchangeable acronyms. Cary Fukunaga’s direction is outstanding, with precise, gorgeous cinematography (the fact the film was reportedly shot for only 6 million is mind boggling). But, technical aspects aside, the performances are the standout here. Idris Elba gives a “Bill the Butcher”-esque turn as an evil patriarchal figure. And, newcomer Abraham Atta’s performance is powerful in its stoicism. Did I enjoy watching Beasts of No Nation? That’s a difficult question to answer. But, I do know one thing: I couldn’t look away.
Based upon the best-selling book by Andy Weir, The Martian isn’t a groundbreaking film. But, damn, it’s a really entertaining one. The pitch is simple: Castaway meets Apollo 13 (coincidentally, both Tom Hanks films). The result is easily Sir Ridley Scott’s best film in years—a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that is a love letter to science, exploration, and global cooperation. Instead of super powers, the film’s hero utilizes science, patience, and ingenuity to continually overcome insurmountable odds. While I have qualms about the cast (I love Chiwetel Ejiofor, but damn it, I wanted an Indian actor to play Venkat Kapoor) and I still think the book is a more satisfying experience (yeah, I’m one of THOSE annoying people), there’s no denying The Martian delivers when, where, and how it needs to. Plus, in a time when there is a literally a Marvel movie coming out every month during the summer, it thrills me to think that Mark Watney is essentially the coolest superhero we’ve seen on screen all year.
The Big Short
It’s surprisingly fitting that Adam McKay—the man behind over-the-top, “dumb” comedies like Step Brothers—would adapt Michael Lewis’s book about the subprime mortgage crisis. After all, the economic collapse was, in fact, over-the-top—full of idiots pretending to be smart. All of this would would feel like a farce if it wasn’t true (kind of). One thing I really like about McKay’s film is how self-aware it is—it’s constantly breaking the fourth wall in humorous and original ways. More specifically, it calls BS on its own BS, which is quite refreshing in a Hollywood system where “based on true events” is slapped capriciously on so many films. It’s also exceptionally well-made, featuring great performances, fantastic comedic timing, and kinetic editing. It’s as if McKay captured the cultural essence of Wall Street and the American housing market circa 2005-008 and spewed it it out in cinematic form. It’s an entertaining, confusing melange that will simultaneously make you laugh, yet also, feel an unyielding sense of dread about the future of the world and the people who run it. You know, uplifting stuff…
Chalk it up to coincidence, but it seems like Hollywood has been on a bit of an artificial intelligence kick as of late. From Transcendence to Her, it’s clearly a topic that is fascinating many filmmakers. In his directorial debut, screenwriter Alex Garland takes the kernel of this idea (when does a machine become human?) and gives it…ahem…new life. Ex Machina feels like a meticulous composed stage play—an incredibly engrossing three-hander that examines the interplay between the nature of consciousness, humanity, and sexuality (after all, us humans are innately sexual creatures). Beyond being a captivating piece of science fiction, I like how Garland doesn’t shy away from crafting believable characters. The protagonist, played by Domhnall Gleeson (who had a HUGE year), isn’t just some stereotypical computer nerd. And, thus, his infatuation with the charming feminine android, Ava (played by the soon to be super famous Alicia Vikander) feels more real than “icky.” The triangle is completed with the addition of the incomparable Oscar Isaac, who plays an eccentric, megalomaniac millionaire who is part super-villain, part frat bro. Ex Machina is smart science fiction film in a landscape where science fiction is almost never smart. And, oh, yeah it has this dance scene…
Max Max: Fury Road
Honestly, at this point, what more can be said about Mad Max: Fury Road? Vaulting into theaters this summer to unanimously good reviews (from both critics and general moviegoers), venerable director George Miller has crafted what is essentially a perfect action film—a landmark work that simultaneously makes a case for both the use of computer generated visual effects and practical stunts. It’s a stellar example of how action scenes can be used to advance character and plot in addition to just looking cool. That being said…damn…this movie looks cool. It’s a decadent, post-apocalyptic feast for the eyes, from the precision of the editing to the kinetic grandeur of the various set-pieces (without ever being hard to follow or resorting to shakey cam/Bourne identity bullsh-t). Mad Max is how I want all my popcorn movies to be—furiously paced, but never losing sight of a comprehensible story in the process. Bravo, Mr. Miller.
I’ve said it before: I’m not really a horror movie fan. Fetishistic violence and jump scares aren’t really my thing. But, then, there is David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—a film so confident in its tone and style that it feels like a reinvention of the genre. For indie horror films, a figurative line in the sand has been drawn: everything made before It Follows and everything that will subsequently rip it off. Taking place in a visual universe that feels like it exists out of time, the film uses burgeoning adolescent sexuality as an impetus for terror. Loud noises and conventional horror tropes are traded for chilling long takes of a demonic presence sneaking up on the film’s unknowing protagonists. It’s a device so brilliant in its simplicity, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it utilized more in other films. Who knew daylight sequences could be so terrifying? Granted, the movie’s third act plot dynamics feel a bit nonsensical (Tarantino has publically pointed out how the movie tends to break its own rules). Yet, I’m willing to forgive some plot holes considering Mitchell’s incredible mastery of both style and tone. Combine this with strong performances and beautiful, stylistic cinematography and It Follows is the best horror film I’ve seen in years.
Don’t roll your eyes at me…
Yes, I know Creed is yet another Hollywood sequel (or reboot depending on how you look at it). It’s tried and true Hollywood filmmaking—a classic underdog sports story. But, I say this with complete sincerity: Creed is flawless. It’s a sublime example of how a big studio movie doesn’t have to be vapid and/or pandering in order to be crowd-pleasing. It’s a film that not only gets its action beats right, but also respects its characters. Director Ryan Coogler (who also co-wrote the script) understands that the joy and true genius of the Rocky films (well, at the very least, the good Rocky films) is that we deeply, emotionally invest in all the major stakeholders. That comes through in Creed. It’s an emotional wallop—a film that pays homage to the past while also forging its own cinematic ground.
Stylistically, the film is kinetic without being visually unmotivated—there’s a “long take” fight sequence halfway through that is a soaring technical achievement that never feels like it’s calling attention to itself. And, Coogler manages to visually reference the original film without ever seeming like he’s “winking” directly at the audience. There will be some folks out there (assholes, mainly) who will deride Creed for being formulaic—for being too on-the-nose or too “Hollywood.” But, much like the film’s central character, Adonis Johnson (played by the always stellar Michael B. Jordan), Creed manages to honor an iconic cinematic legacy while simultaneously finding its own voice.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — In short, it’s really good, but not great. JJ Abrams should be rightfully heralded as a geek god for bringing vitality back to the world’s most popular sci-fi franchise (after the lackluster prequels nearly killed it). The movie is impeccably cast and is chock full of awesome moments. But, at the same time, I wish it didn’t rely so heavily on repeating past plot events from previous movies. Another Death Star? Seriously? And, before you label me a hypocrite (i.e. Creed is the best movie of 2015), Creed still works even if you’ve never seen a Rocky film—it’s a satisfying, complete journey. I can’t say the same about Force Awakens, where in the end, everything just feels like a setup to a bigger, better Episode VIII.
What We Do in the Shadows — A hilarious mockumentary about three vampires trying to live their lives in New Zealand. It’s a great concept and features some fantastic punchlines that play off a litany of creature lore. My only issue is that the film is essentially plotless—a string of great gags without the narrative throughline to make it all coalesce.
The Gift — Uh…why are more people not talking about this movie? Director Joel Edgerton (who also writes and stars) plays with the tropes found in countless “obsessed weirdo” movies (think Single White Female) and gives it a surprising amount of plot and character depth. It’s a psychological/suspense thriller that is about more than just genre scares. The film doesn’t completely stick the landing, but I was impressed that a Blumhouse film was able to stay in my head long after viewing.
Trainwreck — Judd Apatow’s best movie in years. Amy Schumer isn’t just an amazing joke writer, she’s a total headliner. And, Bill Hader—who plays her love interest—is charming as f-ck. Overall, I wish the film shied away from a few rom-com clichés and, like all Apatow movies, the film is “shaggy” with a few unnecessary scenes and banter that goes on for too long. But, nitpicks aside, Trainwreck is a sterling example of a studio comedy done right.
Avengers: Age of Ultron — I know Ultron is not a great movie. I realize it’s an over-stuffed, paint-by-numbers superhero action film. But, considering just how much is going on in this movie—how many characters there are, how much ground it needs to cover in two hours—it’s a miracle it’s still even watchable. I grew up playing with Marvel action figures, so Ultron makes the nerd/fanboy inside of me very, very happy. Vision picking up Thor’s hammer was a particular “squee-worthy” moment.
*Sigh* What did I expect? Yes, my expectations were too high. The original Jurassic Park is a seminal movie for me—a film I saw multiple times in theaters when I was nine…a movie that I can quote essentially from beginning to end. It’s the perfect action/adventure movie. A masterpiece.
So, with Jurassic World, I definitely came in with too much personal baggage. But, c’mon! Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we have a female lead who isn’t a ice-queen moron who tramps around in high heels (I really like how Star Wars is sort of the anti-Jurassic World in this way)? Can’t we have a villain who isn’t a complete moron (his plan is to put raptors in the military)? And, how the hell did they get Irfan Khan to star in this instead of The Martian? The more I think about this movie, the more I hate it. *Kicks Can*