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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

TOP 10: The Films of 2015

Thanks to a really awesome promotion through my wife’s employer, I saw more movies in the theater in 2015 than I have in any other year.  In total, I hit the cinema 32 times over the last twelve months (though only 25 were new films, the rest being multiple viewings or re-releases).  Last year I only counted down my Top 10 films, but this year I thought it might be more fun to look at all 25 films that I saw in the theater in 2015.  Hit the jump to see what I thought of each film, counting down to my favorite movie of the year.

Before anyone gets angry that these movies are not on the list, please note that I did not have a chance to see the following in the theatre: Hateful Eight, The Martian, The Revenant, Sisters, and Creed.

The original Disney animated Cinderella was the first of their animated features that I specifically remember watching, back when I was only four years old.  Because of that, I’ve always held a soft spot for the tale, which had me pretty excited going into the live action release this past March.  With an incredible cast, including Cate Blanchett, Lily James, and Richard Madden, and a wonderful director in Kenneth Branaugh, the movie seemed like an easy win.  While I wouldn’t say that I dislike the film, it became a rather paint-by-numbers adaptation that flirted with some interesting and progressive expansions upon the original tale, but was ultimately forgettable film.  Nothing stood out to me for better or for worse, which is why it is an easy choice to put at the bottom of the list.

24. TED 2
I am unashamedly a fan of Seth McFarlane’s work and I loved the original Ted film from a few years back.  I was excited to check out the sequel this summer, hoping for more of the same over-the-top humor that made the original so memorable.  I wanted more of the same and that is pretty much exactly what I got.  The plot is secondary to the humor in this franchise, so the fact that this felt a tad lackluster in the story department wasn’t a major letdown.  I laughed throughout, but I didn’t have any of the really big laughs that the first film had—it was consistently funny, but there were no standout moments.  I couldn’t quote any major jokes from this film if my life depended on it, while I can still spout at least a dozen great lines from the first Ted despite not having seen it in nearly two years.  It was a fun afternoon popcorn flick, but isn’t something that I’m jumping to revisit any time soon.

I’m sure I’ll catch some flak for putting this critical darling—the first movie I saw in 2015—so low on the list. I know that the movie was on a lot of Top 10 lists for 2014 and was one of the most acclaimed films of the year, but I can’t say that it lived up to the hype.  Steve Carrell’s performance as John Du Pont was chilling and both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo were great as Mark and Dave Schultz respectively. I won’t criticize their performances by any means as they were all spectacular.  As a former wrestler, the story of Dave Schultz’s murder is deeply engrained with me, so I really wanted to engage with this film.  Unfortunately the unclear timeframe, plodding scene choices, and poor pacing left me bored and left my wife, who isn’t familiar with the actual murder, confused.  It was a beautifully acted film, but that doesn’t make it a great film by any means.

I hate to say it, as I am a lifelong fan of Pixar and, obviously, a lover of all things dinosaurs, but this movie was a HUGE disappointment for me.  When the film was first announced, I was excited.  When I saw the first trailer, I was overjoyed.  When I left the cinema, I was super bummed.  In a year when Pixar released a contender for their best film ever (more on that), The Good Dinosaur is a sour note for the studio that I once believed could do no wrong.  It certainly is not a bad film and was loads more entertaining than many other animated films I’ve seen from other studios in the last few years, but it does not hold up to the lofty standards of the people that made it.  Though there are sequences that are incredibly lush and there are some fun characters, the animation was often uneven and the plot was too formulaic to keep me interested through the entire runtime.  I wanted so much more out of this film, but it failed to deliver on its own potential, which is something I never thought I would say about anything that came from Pixar.

I’ve already more than enough heat for this, but I’m sure I’ll get more once people are reminded of this: I genuinely enjoyed this August’s reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise.  I know it has major plot holes. I know that is yet another origin story.  I know that the designs aren’t what you wanted, the villain wasn’t that dangerous, and that many of you are still pissed about Michael B. Jordan playing Johnny Storm.  I get that it has issues, but I also know that most people went into this movie expecting to hate it.  Much like last summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (another movie that I liked), I tried to go in with a clean slate and because of that, I found a lot of redeeming qualities.  For one, all four of the main cast members were really great as the characters they portrayed.  Two, I really like that they took chances on the characters—making Sue and Johnny adoptive siblings works for me, especially in terms of the idea that the Fantastic Four is a family not out of blood but out of love and circumstance (a theme throughout the source material). I liked that Kate Mara’s Sue Storm was emotionally distant and awkward—it made her so incredibly relatable to me.  Finally, I liked that they took chances by not following the cookie cutter superhero formula—the fight with the villain wasn’t the focal point in the movie and in general, neither were the superheroics.  Instead, it became a movie about great characters.  A very flawed movie that certainly can’t compete with the likes of the Avengers, but one that also deserves much more credit than people are willing to throw its way.

So far in this list, I have complained a bit about movies that are paint-by-numbers predictable messes whose formulaic approach felt lacking.  On the flipside of that is Get Hard, a movie that is nothing but formula and predictability, but still manages to work thanks to the strength of its cast and its humor.  Will Farrell is a mixed bag for me—Anchorman is one of my favorite movies of all time, but many of his other movies completely missed the mark—but when he is “on” he can be one of my favorite comedic actors.  Kevin Hart serves a great foil to the hapless Farrell in this movie, with his quick turns and biting sense of humor balancing out against Farrell’s more measured dopey jokes.  This isn’t a movie that will hold up to multiple viewings (it almost didn’t hold up to the first given that majority of the best jokes were in the trailers), but it kept me entertained throughout and had me laughing harder than just about any other movie on the list.  It isn’t groundbreaking, but it has enough hilarious moments that you won’t mind how predictable it can be.

I consider the fact that Minions is my 20th favorite movie of 2015 to be a testament to how happy I really was with the year in film.  I loved those little yellow bastards in both Despicable Me and its sequel, but I wasn’t sure how well they could carry their own film—what is great in the background isn’t always great in the forefront.  That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the entire film.  The animation was sharp, the pacing was strong, and above all else, it was really, really funny.  It is cute, frantic, and over-the-top which is exactly what I would expect from the movie, making it a fine addition to one of my favorite recent animated franchises.  The oversaturation of the merchandise has soured many from the film, but I think it holds up well under a critical eye and is one I look forward to watching again.

My initial reaction to Trainwreck was really mixed and I’ve had to give it a lot of thought—perhaps more than another movie this year—as to where I would put it on this list.  On the surface, it is a rather basic romantic comedy with a plot that we have all seen time and time again.  Yes, it is filled with Amy Schumer’s trademark crass humor (something that I love), but it wasn’t exactly what I (and many others) expected. I’m really not sure that I should hold that against the film though, especially when it was in many ways not a typical romantic comedy.  Schumer’s deeply flawed main character and quirky supporting cast bucked a lot of classic tropes, making this film part parody and part homage to one of the most numbing genres in all of film.  What really struck me about the film wasn’t the great jokes or its unsure approach to the genre, though—it was how genuine it felt.  Schumer made you believe her character and her viewpoint, which is something that I did not expect and it is a hard thing to fully explain.  I liked this movie.  I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to, but taking it for what it is, I genuinely enjoyed it.

Director Neill Blompkamp exploded onto the scene with District 9, one of the best science fiction films ever, but then dropped the ball with the utterly disappointing Elysium just a few years later.  This left me uneasy going into Chappie, which only became worse when I found out that the main actors would be the South African music group Die Antwoord.  I was confused, but the first footage that I saw of the motion captured Sharlto Copley as the titular robot made me cautiously optimistic.  The film itself ended up being a truly bizarre mixed bag, but one that I would say was much more good than bad.  The movie was so ridiculous at times that it was hard to take it seriously, despite the heavy themes and the gravitas of the films last twenty movies.  Much like Chappie himself, the movie struggles to find its identity and never really comes together as it was intended, but is incredibly memorable in its struggles.  It is hard to take a movie for what it is when you don’t know exactly what it is trying to be, but somewhere in the mess, Chappie finds enough footing to be entertaining.

After two disappointing sequels, I really thought that all hope was lost for the Terminator franchise.  The trailers showing 1987 Arnold fighting 2015 Arnold had me interested, but in general, I went into this film with relatively low expectations.  That being said, I thought that Terminator: Genisys did a great job with the circumstances they were given—with Arnold’s age and the fact that the franchise was left in a terrible place, Genisys craftily rebooted the franchise without completely starting over.  While the script wasn’t the strongest, the chemistry between Arnold, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, and Jason Clarke made the best of it and kept me entertained.  Terminator: Genisys took a beating from critics, but I don’t think it was deserved.  The filmmakers made bold choices to reinvigorate the franchise and I feel that they succeeded in the regard—after watching Rise of the Machines and Salvation, I was ready to put the franchise to rest, but after Genisys, I wanted more.  That to me makes this film a success.

I have never been much of a fan of The Beach Boys, but my wife loves them, so we caught a matinee of this quietly released Brian Wilson biopic.  The film flips back-and-forth between the recording of Pet Sounds, with Wilson played by Paul Dano, and the 1980s, with Wilson played by John Cusack.  Both Dano and Cusack are sublime—it might just be Cusack’s best performance and it makes a case for Dano to be a huge star.  The film had a strong supporting cast, especially in the case of Paul Giamatti, though the two lead actors really steal every single scene in which they appear.  The downside to the film is that there structure, while interesting, undercuts the story at times, making it feel repetitive and at times contrived.  By the end of the movie, I felt like I saw the same scenes in a loop, even though the plot pushed forward.  It is well worth watching for the amazing performances (I fully expect Dano to reel in an Oscar nomination next week), but don’t be surprised if you are left wanting more out of the film.

For years, I have relentlessly mocked the Fast and Furious franchise.  I had zero interest in the films and was completely dismayed by the fact that they continued to make more and more of them.  I had friends demand that I give the post-Fast 5 films a shot, but I refused to believe they could be any good.  However, when the chance to see the seventh entry for free presented itself, I watched the sixth film On Demand to prep and strapped myself in for a few hours of mindless action.  That is exactly what I got, but I cannot complain.  Furious 7 has no pretentions about being anything more than what you would expect—fast cars, beautiful people, and huge explosions.  It delivers all of those in spades, ramping up the ridiculousness throughout—by the time you reach the film’s climax, which would be irreconcilable in any other film, anything seems possible.  The Rock breaking his cast simply by flexing before rejoining the other heroes is easily in my Top 5 moments in any movie this year.  My only complaint is that Ronda Rousey’s cameo was a bit unsatisfying (she gets beat down way too fast).  Otherwise this movie is perfect for what it is and as long as you don’t go in expecting any more, you’ll leave happy (though if you have a soft spot for Paul Walker, the tribute ending may bring you down).  

When I was a wee lad, Jurassic Park was my favorite film.  I nearly wore out my VHS tape because I watched it so much.  While I loved the follow-up novel, the follow-up films crushed me.  In a similar situation to the Terminator franchise, I was skeptical of Jurassic Park being relaunched this past summer with Jurassic World.  And much like Terminator, I was really happy with the result.  Jurassic World in many ways is a paint-by-number update of the first film, but with bigger special effects and a new cast.  Thankfully, both of these aspects of the film work.  Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard were a fun duo and the child actors were solid.  There are two things about Jurassic World that really won me over, however.  For one, I loved that one of the children in the film appeared to have high functioning Asperger’s.  Normally any child character that is meant to be on the autism spectrum is so heavy-handed that it becomes cartoonish, but here it is a treated passively and is never fully called out. This gives a sense of normalcy to the child in a way that you would never expect to see from Hollywood, which deserves applause.  The other thing that I really enjoyed was how the film’s plot acts as a meta commentary on the state of entertainment and our desire for something “bigger and better.”  It pokes fun at itself and other blockbuster films (then somewhat ironically broke a ton of box office records).  

Mockingjay is undoubtedly the weakest of the Hunger Games books, so the financially focused choice to split it into two films was a bit unnerving.  When the first part of the film felt a tad lackluster, I wasn’t surprised.  That kept my expectations for Mockingjay: Part 2 super low and, honestly, I’m thankful for that happening; it made the fact the film was really enjoyable a very pleasant surprise.  Learning from the disappointing meandering of the first film, Part 2 is tightly plotted and strongly paced, building and lessening tension before it crashes into a chaotic finale and satisfying dénouement that tied the entire franchise together in a satisfying manner.  I was really impressed with how quickly the film could catch me off-guard with the sudden twists from the quiet character moments between the main characters (and their love triangle) and the wild action sequences as the Capital attempts to thwart the rebels.  While I still disagree with the choice of splitting the final book into two films, the strengths of this movie make up for the weaknesses of the previous and concludes the entire story well.  

Aside from the major franchise films that litter this list, there was no movie that I was anxiously anticipating more than Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.  Del Toro is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers and the genuinely creepy trailers for Crimson Peak had me incredibly excited to see him jump head first into the horror genre (where I felt he had only dipped his toes previously).  Unfortunately, Crimson Peak is in no way a horror film.  It is a gothic romance with horror elements.  It isn’t scary.  It probably pissed off a lot of people that went into the film hoping to be scared.  Thankfully, I was willing to roll with the punches and was overjoyed with what the film actually turned out to be.  Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston were a fantastic ensemble, though the real star was the beautiful cinematography.  This movie is simply gorgeous.  The sets were breathtaking. The costumes were amazing. The special effects were believable.  While this movie did not deliver the jump scares and terrifying elements that I expected, it did more than deliver the beautiful and lush filmmaking that one would expect from Del Toro.  Crimson Peak is a highly unique film that works on a number of levels, more than making up for the misleading marketing campaign.

10. JOY
I am sucker for David O. Russell films and Jennifer Lawrence seems to do no wrong lately, so it is no surprise that the semi-biographical film about the creator of the Miracle Mop was one of my favorite movies of the year.  While not as fully realized as his classics American Hustle and The Fighter, this film retains the overwhelming charm that makes Russell’s films so fantastic.  His version of this woman’s life (which apparently took a ton of liberties) balances a very real and relatable drama with bits of comedy that never distracts from the more serious elements.  Russell has a tendency to bring the best out of his actors, so I wasn’t shocked to see that this is one of Lawrence’s best performances, while the powerful supporting cast shines just as equally—I would list them here, but there are so many great stars and stars-on-the-making that it be a task for me to address them.  I will say that this is one of Russell’s most heavy-handed films and it does struggle at times to cover all that he hopes to accomplish, but it is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.  Russell at his weakest is better than most filmmakers at their strongest, so while this isn’t his best film because it is almost too ambitious, it remains extremely watchable and is worth the price of admission for Lawrence alone.

I actually saw Avengers: Age of Ultron twice in the theater—the first of the multiple viewings on the list.  The second installment in the Avengers film series and fiftieth or so in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a big hit for me.  Without having to present an origin story for the team, this movie hit the ground running and really didn’t let up throughout the entire run time.  With bigger action, exciting new characters, and great special effects, Age of Ultron embraced the “comic bookness” of the franchise much more than the first film did.  James Spader’s creepy voice over was perfect for the villainous Ultron, though the real story was the shift in the relationship between he Avenger squad.  While the team was able to come together in the end—with help from new members Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch—the film laid the groundwork for the rift that will be central in this upcoming summer’s Captain America: Civil War.  Balancing the setup for another film and the introduction of multiple new characters while still being an entertaining film on its own is no easy feat, but Joss Whedon and company nailed it.  Disney and Marvel could have phoned this one in completely and still made hundreds of millions, but instead they upped the stakes and continued their success.

The first movie that I saw more than once this year was Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was hugely surprising given that I didn’t have a ton of interest in the movie when the trailers were first released in 2014.  Loosely based upon Mark Millar’s comic book series (shout out to Mark, who published my first comic), Kingsman is a send up to the British spy genre through a modern lens.  Violent, vulgar, and very entertaining, Kingsman was actually my wife’s favorite movie of the year.  I really enjoyed that Kingsman works well both as a spoof to classic spy films and as a great example of the genre in its own right—a difficult line to toe, as it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but never succumbs into full goofiness.  Newcomer Taron Egerton holds his own as the films lead, the thug-turned-good Eggsy, which is impressive considering he is acting against heavyweights Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson.  His character’s transformation throughout the film showcases Egerton’s chops and because of that, I think we’ll see more of him in the coming years.  The film also shines in its fight choreography, especially a wild riot inside a church set that was shot in just one take.  In a year filled with so-called “popcorn flicks,” you won’t find a fun action romp much better than Kingsman this year.

When 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, many saw it as the biggest risk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to that point, though longtime comic book fans knew that that Groot and Rocket Raccoon alone would make it a huge hit.  In 2015, however, Marvel released what could have easily been its first major flop with Ant-Man.  Despite being one of the most established characters in Marvel Comics, Ant-Man (in any incarnation) was never a top-selling or high profile character and after the epic adventures of the Avengers, the idea of a hero that can shrink is a hard sell.  When original director Edgar Wright left the project, I was certain the film would be a flop.  Instead, the quirky, character-focused film which twisted the Ant-Man legend (combining aspects of multiple characters from the comics) kept the scope small (pun unintended) by telling the story of a father looking for redemption who just happens to stumble into superheroics.  The ever-charming Paul Rudd is perfect for the role and plays well off of his supporting cast, especially his fast-talking sidekick played by Michael Pena.  Ant-Man is immensely fun film that fits perfectly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe while being wholly unique.

The fact that the bizarre What We do in the Shadows is at #6 on this list is a testament to how strong this year was for films.  Written and directed by the duo of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, this film follows the lives of four vampires living in the suburbs of Wellington, New Zeland.  Borrowing elements of horror films but filtering them through the outrageous mockumentary style creates a disarmingly funny film that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  It was certainly the funniest film that I saw in the theatre this past year and it works so well because of how committed everyone is to the premise.  The classic rules of vampire films still apply as they would in any horror film, but the reality of these within the modern world produces hilarious results. Fans of Clement’s work on Flight of the Conchords should feel right at home with this film, though I found it to be far more accessible than his more mainstream work.  Unfortunately, this hilarious film flew under the radar for most (it only played in my town for six days, with one showing per day), but it is well worth tracking down.

The second biographical drama on the list is also, oddly enough, the second biographical drama on the list that featured Paul Giamatti as a shady caretaker for superstar musicians.  Following the rise and fall of gangster rap pioneers N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton is a powerful film that really took me by surprise.  As a longtime fan of N.W.A. (thanks to an older cousin who was super into rap and hip-hop), I had high hopes for this film but with a largely unknown cast (including Ice Cube’s son, playing Ice Cube) and an uneven director in F. Gary Gray (when he is great, he is great but when he is less than great, his films do nothing for me) I was a unsure of what we might get.  The film turned out to be utterly fantastic—hitting all of the important points in N.W.A.’s career and never shying away from some of the poor decisions made by its members that led to their eventual downfall and feuds with one another.  Add in great performances, a killer soundtrack, and a bit of nostalgia and you get one of the best biographical films I’ve seen in a long time and one of the finest movies of the year.

This is another film that might have been overlooked by a lot of people.  It was produced by a small company, most of the marketing seemed to be done in podcast commercials, and didn’t seem to pick up much media buzz (even when Alicia Vikander picked up a Golden Globe nomination).  Since many of you may not have heard of the film, Ex Machina is an intense film about a wealthy tech giant (Oscar Isaac) inviting one of his employees (Domnhall Gleeson) to his secluded mansion to test the artificial intelligence of a robot he has created (Vikander).  The premise is simple and the presentation is straight forward, with only four actors appearing in the majority of the film.  I can’t say much more without giving away some of the films shocking revelations, but I can say that the film is one that will stay with you for days after viewing.  It is haunting, beautifully shot, and incredibly well acted.  Despite only being ranked at #4 on this list, Ex Machina made a very strong case for being #1.

In any other year, this would be my #1 film.  I have loved Pixar movies from the very beginning and, other than The Good Dinosaur, I have never been let down.  I always go in with high expectations, but even with that, I never expected Inside Out to be as purely magical and amazing and perfect as it was.  Tackling mental illness and depression in children—a subject often ignored—head on and in a way that instantly relatable and understandable was a bold choice by Pixar, but one that they could not have handled better.  This is a film that I wish existed when I was growing up so I could better understand the difficulties that I had emotionally.  Plus it is hilarious.  And beautifully animated.  And it has the best voice acting cast since the push to have notable celebrities as voice actors became a priority. And Bing Bong.  Oh, Bing Bong. Even with the shocker in Force Awakens, the fate of Bing Bong might have been the most heartbreaking moment in any movie this year.  I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved this movie. I don’t want to put it at #3—but I swore to myself that we would not have a three-way tie for the year’s best film.  It is that good.  If you have not seen it yet, you are doing yourself a disservice.

What can I say about Mad Max: Fury Road that has not yet been said already?  Even though the original three Mad Max films were classics (and I’m being generous with Thunderdome) and the trailers for Fury Road were pretty much perfect, I do not believe that anyone anywhere honestly thought that this film would be as utterly fantastic as it turned out to be.  There was no bigger surprise in the cinema this year than Mad Max: Fury Road.  Nothing even came close.  On the surface, the film is nothing more than a two-hour chase scene and on that level, it is perfect.  Digging deeper, it is a shockingly poignant feminist rallying cry with a truly modern action heroine in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa.  This is the epitome of epic filmmaking, as George Miller expands upon his already interesting world with zero exposition and absolutely no wasted moments.  Everything about this film is perfectly tight.  Amazing cast, music, visuals, pacing, plotting, and overall execution—this is a perfect five star film.  There is a reason that this is the only thing that people were talking about on social media for two full weeks after release—a blockbuster by word of mouth that transcends the franchise’s fanbase.  

Was there any question?  Seriously, did any of you think that I would choose anything else besides this film?  Ex Machina and Inside Out made very strong cases to be #1 and up until December 17th, I had been adamant that Mad Max: Fury Road was on my favorite film of the year.  Unfortunately for those movies, however, they are not Star Wars.  More specifically, they are not this Star Wars.  I have gone on record as saying many, many times that I actually enjoyed the infamous prequel trilogy (based in part on having nephews that loved them the same way that my brother and I love the originals).  They were definitely Star Wars movies, but even Revenge of the Sith (the best of the three) could not live up to the sense of wonder and excitement that permeated the original three films.  But The Force Awakens does.  It lived up to the hype and the excitement.  It made up for the gluttonous merchandising the proceeded it.  It stood up to multiple viewings (three, in fact—twice in standard theatres and once in IMAX 3D).  It has one foot firmly planted in the past, with its retro special effects, homage storytelling, and appearances from the main characters or the originals; but it also has one foot in the modern world, with sleek filmmaking techniques, a diverse cast, and bold new directions for the franchise.  We are now nearly three weeks out from my first viewing of the movie and I still cannot stop thinking about it.  I want more adventures with Rey, Finn, and Poe.  I want to see how dark Kylo Ren will become as he completes his training. I want to know what Hux’s endgame is.  I want to close the door on Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie in a satisfying manner.  I want as much BB-8 as possible.  I have always loved Star Wars and voraciously consumed it in films, books, video games, and TV shows, but until I saw this movie (and this goes for all three times that I’ve seen it), I could not recapture the pure unabashed joy that I held as a child first experiencing the franchise.  Star Wars is back—finally truly back—and I could not be happier.  

What were your favorites?

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