This past year, I spent a lot of time at the movie theater. I helped Kickstart a project by a local second-run cinema, and in return got free movie tickets for all of 2015. While I never actually wrote any reviews up until now, I did keep a record of everything I saw. And since Oscar night is drawing nigh, now seemed like a good time to get my two cents in regarding the year’s slate of films. I’ve decided to break my evaluation down into three lists: the best of 2015, the worst of 2015, and a final list of films which “pleasantly surprised” me by turning out better than I expected going in.
Bear in mind that I’m only considering the movies University Mall Theatres showed. This means that many of the year’s films are excluded from consideration, and that some films from 2014 crept in (second-run cinemas are funny like that). Movies I saw in other theaters during 2015 include Krampus and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as first-run viewings of Jurassic World and Inside Out. Movies shown at University Mall which I missed include The Book of Life, as well as the older films Iron Man and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
What follows are my picks for the ten best films of 2015 (again, of the ones I saw). This time around, I tried to go beyond my habit of simply choosing my “favorites” to come up with a good sampler of the year’s most objectively impressive cinematic offerings. Interestingly, there’s a fair bit of overlap between my picks and the Oscar nominee lineup… I don’t know whether or not to feel validated by that.
10. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Ex Machina follows a computer programmer who gets invited to the secluded home of his billionaire boss. The eccentric boss, an alternately creepy and hilarious “genius” type played to the hilt by Oscar Isaac, reveals that he has created an artificially intelligent android, and brought the programmer aboard to administer a Turing Test. This test evaluates whether an A.I. can convincingly pass as human. As the programmer gets to know the android, a beautiful woman-bot named Ava, the line between man and machine begins to blur…
This film pleasantly surprised me in a number of ways (and if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to stretch my “best of” selections to ten entries, it would have appeared in the corresponding list). First off, the filmmakers didn’t use the twist ending I was expecting (that the programmer is himself the robot being tested). Instead, we get a genuinely chilling story of revenge, as the manipulative Ava, who turns out to be only the latest in a long line of increasingly clever sexbots, uses her wiles to turn the two men against each other.
Finally, this movie deserves an award for “Best Use of Budget.” Costing only $15 million, the independent feature (Garland’s directorial debut) has the polished look of a much more expensive film. The robot effects would be right at home in a J.J. Abrams flick, and seeing them in what is otherwise a very “shoestring” film (small cast, one location) is initially jarring. But the three lead actors turn in convincing performances, and the idiosyncratic elements eventually gel to create one of the year’s more unusual successes.
It may also be worth noting that, with its squadron of hot lady-bots, Ex Machina features by far the most nudity of the year, even outstripping (heh) Fifty Shade of Grey for that dubious distinction. So take that as you will.
9. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Shawn Levy)
If this were a list of my personal favorite films, Secret of the Tomb would rank much closer to the top. The Night at the Museum movies feel like escaped relics from the 90s, evoking other “inanimate objects coming to life” movies such as Jumanji and The Indian in the Cupboard. In another Jumanji parallel, Robin Williams appears in a lead role. And while the film as a whole is enjoyably silly, Williams’ performance as a waxwork of Teddy Roosevelt gives the movie warmth and a real sense of heart .
The film premiered in December 2014, more than four months after Williams’ death, making it his last on-screen appearance. Knowing this going in to the movie made his final scene as Roosevelt so much more powerful. In the scene, Teddy accepts a death of sorts, as the tablet which has given the museum figures life for three movies is to be shipped away to England the next morning. Before reverting to his lifeless state, he assures Larry, Ben Stiller’s protagonist, that though we may feel wary of the future, every sunrise brings new possibilities. It’s practically perfect in pace and tone: sad, sentimental, and hopeful. And Williams even gets in one last manic gag.
Teddy actually appears once more, alive again, in a brief epilogue to the film. The tablet returns to New York temporarily, as part of a touring exhibit by the London Museum, and all the familiar faces are revived. At first I felt this was a misstep, diminishing the power of the earlier “goodbye” scene. But after I thought about it, this too seemed symbolic. Robin Williams may be gone, but every time we pop in one of his movies, he’ll come to life again, just for a while.
It was also nice to see the trio of old museum guards (the redeemed antagonists of the first film) appear. They were sorely missing from the the second film, and the story wouldn’t have felt complete without an update on their fates. Like Williams, Mickey Rooney died shortly after filming his scenes, and the film is dedicated to both their memories.
8. Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn)
Prior to Kingsman, Matthew Vaughn brought us Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Had I known that going in, I would have been pumped, with or without the promise of free chicken. Instead, I went in with a clean slate, and got to experience the distinct pleasure of being blown away by arguably the best opening scene of the year.
Kingsman is a British action/comedy spy flick based on a comic book miniseries. It owes much to the tradition and tropes of James Bond movies, a fact which is explicitly pointed out and poked fun at several times over the course of the film. But rather than a “spy spoof,” “fast-paced thriller,” or any other subgenre that might be put forward, I’d describe this movie as “hyper-stylized.” An exaggerated sense of polish and panache pervades just about every frame of the film. The “Kingsmen” of the title, secret agents with codenames and lingo borrowed from Arthurian lore, are all hyperbolically fastidious. Their affected style includes a pristine vintage wardrobe and demonstrating “gentlemanly” behavior. This devotion to decorum, however, doesn’t stop them from breaking into equally stylized displays of brutal violence every five minutes. These fight sequences are all expertly choreographed, shot, and edited, often to comic effect. Unfortunately, this contributes to the movie’s one major downside: moments of weirdly jumbled tone.
Like every spy movie worth its salt, Kingsman features a wealthy, megalomaniacal villain, played here by a lisping Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s character is a mobile phone tycoon, and early in the film announces a plan to distribute special data chips which will allow customers to access the internet for free. Of course, he has ulterior motives: by broadcasting a certain signal through the chip, he can trigger the innate aggression of anyone nearby. In perhaps the film’s most talked-about scene, Jackson tests the signal on a room full of people. That room just happens to be a church, and Kingsman lead superspy Colin Firth is on the scene. This means we get a solid four minutes of ultraviolent ballet as killing machine Firth massacres the entire congregation, ostensibly against his will.
But how is this scene supposed to make us feel? On the one hand, an agent apparently on the side of “good” is being forced to murder people. On the other hand, it’s being done in a stylized, over-the-top way, to the point that the violence becomes comical. But then again, this scene is supposed to demonstrate the sinister nature of the villain and his plot. But then AGAIN, in the previous scene we’ve learned that these churchgoers are a hateful, racist cult, making their slaughter…what? Acceptable? Funny? Certainly not poignant or sad. It’s kind of a mess.
But the movie redeems itself somewhat at the climax, when Jackson puts his scheme into full effect. First, he descends into a bunker with a few thousand of the world’s richest, smartest, and most powerful people to wait out the coming apocalypse, “Mask of the Red Death”-style. Then, he triggers the aggression chips, and THE ENTIRE WORLD BREAKS INTO A FISTFIGHT. In a seriously cool series of transitions, the camera leaps around the globe from city to city, setting down briefly in places like Rio and Paris to watch the violence unfold. Luckily, our spy-in-training protagonist manages to infiltrate the bunker and hack the brain implants protecting the villain and his crew, and the scene ends with TEN THOUSAND HEADS EXPLODING. If the filmmakers had gone all the way and actually used some physical blood, rather than a sloppy computer effect, this movie might’ve just shot to the top of my list.
As it stands, Kingsman still has a lot going for it. Aside from a few moments of questionable CGI, the film has a very impressive and distinct aesthetic. The action setpieces are all creative and well-orchestrated, with the young agents’ training sequences (including navigating a quickly-flooding dorm and a skydiving rescue mission) particular standouts. And with Colin Firth and Michael Caine as venerable superspies, you can’t go too wrong.
7. Spy (Paul Feig)
2015 was a good year for action/comedy spy movies. The admittedly poorly-titled Spy manages to one-up Kingsman by being simultaneously funnier and better-natured. I think the most succinct description of Spy is it’s “like Paul Blart, if Paul Blart was a woman, and the movie was somehow good.” The film stars Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA employee who works a desk job providing remote intelligence to a dashing field agent, the James Bond-esque Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed in the line of duty and his murderer acquires information on the identities of all current field agents, Susan volunteers to assume his mission, and her boss reluctantly agrees. Much of the film’s comedy revolves around McCarthy’s out-of-place appearance among the typically glamorous secret agents and locales so common in spy movies. This effect is doubled halfway through the film, when Susan’s coworker Nancy (played by the gawky Miranda Hart) arrives to provide backup. But the film never seems to come off as cruel toward Susan. She and Nancy prove to be capable agents in spite of their atypical appearance, and they end up out-spying the more stylish villains and saving the day.
The film is reliably funny throughout, thanks in large part to the contributions of several supporting characters. Jason Statham is uncharacteristically hilarious as a rough-and-tumble super-agent who pops up throughout the film to scoff at Susan’s inexperience. Peter Serafinowicz shines as Aldo, an Italian spy who automatically flirts with any woman who wanders by. And finally, whoever plays the Q-inspired, deadpan “gadget guy” deserves major kudos.
Spy made me laugh harder than any other movie this year. And though it’s not a cause I frequently trumpet, it’s refreshing to see some women in lead roles who defy the typical standards of beauty.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
I always wondered when they’d make a movie with road pirates. You know, pulling up alongside other cars with cannons ready, or boarding them mid-drive via gangplanks and grappling hooks.
Well, here it is.
Fury Road, the fourth chapter of Miller’s post-apocalyptic series, opens with titular desert wanderer Max being kidnapped by a group of sickly mutants. The mutants haul Max back to their home, an oasis ruled over by the disfigured tyrant “Immortan Joe.” There, Max is chained to one of the mutants to serve as a source of healthy blood. When one of Joe’s lieutenants absconds with his “breeders” (sex slaves prized for their healthy genes), Max has no chance but to tag along with the pursuing army.
So begins a feature-length car chase. Furiosa, the wayward lieutenant, tears across the desert in the “War Rig,” a heavily-armored 18-wheeler. Close behind are Joe, his mutant “war boys,” and their fleet of impossibly cool apocalypse hot-rods. For his part, Max does manage to catch up with Furiosa, but she and the cargo of “brides” win him over and he aids in their escape and the eventual overthrow of Joe.
There’s a lot that Fury Road does well. It’s easily the most visually striking movie of the year…all the more remarkable due to the film’s reliance on practical effects rather than CGI. The fleet of surreal vehicles was more or less “real,” a feat which alone merits some kind of award. The action sequences (again, virtually the entire runtime of the film) are breathtaking, as is the cinematography. In terms of creating a seamless, comprehensive “look,” Max and its desert vistas leave even the stylish Kingsman in the dust.
So why isn’t it #1 on my list? Well, let me first say that Mad Max dominated the field when it came out, and as of May seemed like a prime candidate for best movie of the year. But then came the second half of 2015 (i.e. “Blockbuster season” & “Oscar season”), and it got some competition. Of course, Mad Max will be well-represented at the upcoming Academy Awards, with a whopping 10 nominations, including Best Picture. So it’s got good things in its future, regardless of what I say here. But I couldn’t in good conscience give my top spot to a two-hour car chase. There’s literally a point in this movie when Furiosa and crew realize they’ve journeyed too far out into the desert wasteland. They come to a stop, think a moment, then decide to drive back the other way. Thus the first two acts are a car chase in one direction, and the third is…the same car chase, but in the opposite direction.
Nevertheless, Miller accomplished what he set out to do. In an interview, he claimed to always try to make his movies “car park films,” meaning that after you see them in a cinema, you’re still thinking about them when you make it to the parking lot. I saw Fury Road late at night, and came out of the theater to an empty parking lot around 12:30 am. You’d better believe I broke a few traffic laws on my way home, racing through the abandoned streets to earn my spot in Valhalla.
5. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teaming up on a Cold War period piece?
Bridge of Spies tells the story of James B. Donovan, a lawyer recruited to serve as defense attorney for a Soviet spy captured in the U.S.. Later, Donovan journeys to East Berlin to arrange the exchange of “his” spy for Gary Powers, the American spy pilot shot down over Russia in 1960’s “U2 Incident.”
I was trying to think of how best to describe the spirit of this film, but in doing my research for this post I found a review by Richard Roeper which hits the mark perfectly: It’s like a modern Frank Capra movie. Tone-wise, it seems specifically to owe a lot to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hanks’ Donovan is the idealist caught in the binds of bureaucracy, yet refusing to compromise his principles. When he agrees to take the Soviet spy’s case, Donovan’s superiors expect him to simply mount a competent defense, to give the impression of a fair trial (and not give the U.S.S.R. too much propaganda fuel). Instead, he takes up his role with gusto, fighting for acquittal and appealing the case all the way to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the search of the spy’s apartment was conducted in violation of the 4th Amendment. And though he faces ostracism and even threats of violence to his family, Donovan sticks to his guns. He gets to make a lot of noble speeches on the topic.
“How can you sit there and say we don’t have a rule book?” he says. “It’s called the Constitution, and it’s what makes us Americans.”
Hanks goes full Capra again later in the film, when Donovan is called on to diplomatically arrange the spy-swap. While in East Berlin, he learns of another American citizen being detained, a student caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Immediately, Donovan decides to extricate the student as well as the American pilot. Donovan’s CIA contacts explain repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that the only person they care about retrieving is Gary Powers. But Hanks sticks it to the man, as Donovan stands up to the Soviet, East German, and U.S. governments all at once to bring his countrymen home. Even the Soviet agent gets back to his family.
In addition to the echoes of Capra, Bridge of Spies also bears many similarities to Spielberg’s last directorial project, 2012’s Lincoln. We get a contentious point in American history brought vividly to life, a celebrated actor portraying a pivotal individual, and a heavier dose of humor than you’d probably expect. Most of Spielberg’s standard team is on board as well, including Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn. As in Lincoln, Kahn gets plenty of chances to shine, with more than a few cuts cheekily calling attention to themselves. In my opinion, Bridge of Spies deserved an editing Oscar nod (Lincoln got one).
But part of my love for this movie is purely sentimental. It was the last one I watched for my “Year of Free Movies.” It was also the first time I found my name on the “Special Thanks” pre-show text card (amid more than 2,000 names). Also, two of my friends came to watch with me. Also, they smuggled in whiskey. It was a good night.
In that spirit, I wish Bridge of Spies the best of luck at the upcoming Academy Awards.
4. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen)
In some ways, Inside Out marked a return to form for Pixar, after a string of only middling successes. It’s unquestionably their best film since Toy Story 3 in 2010… though I’m still a bit wary of their current “one sequel to every two originals” model. Considered on its own, however, Inside Out stands as a powerful piece of filmmaking: befitting its subject matter, unusually cerebral and emotional for a “kids’ movie.”
The filmmakers did a remarkable job striking a balance between the two worlds – the “inside” and the “out” – of the unfolding story. You come to care about both groups of characters, and in true Pixar form, you’ll feel your full emotional spectrum moved, manipulated, and milked by film’s end. But my favorite aspect of the movie has got to be the design of “Headquarters” and the rest of protagonist Riley’s whimsical brain-world. The vibrant realm, bursting with color and devoid of right angles, reminds me of classic Disney designs from the 1960s (specifically the work of Mary Blair, the concept artist behind the “It’s a Small World” ride). In fact, aside from its 21st century animation tech, the film as a whole seems like it could have been an episode of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, alongside other “edu-taining” offerings like “Our Friend the Atom” and “Mars and Beyond.” Thus, even though it might detract from the thrust of the action or the story’s emotional core, I enjoyed every bit of Joy and Sadness’ trip through the various “departments” of Riley’s brain. From the prank-inclined “forgetters,” to the “dream boy” machine, to the shortcut through “abstract thought,” the inner sequences perfectly channeled Wonderful World’s tradition of conveying “big ideas” in an engaging and colorful way.
I feel the movie’s debt to the Epcot attraction “Cranium Command” must also be acknowledged. The 1989 show was part of the “Wonders of Life” pavilion, an anatomy-themed building shuttered in 2004 (just after I first visited Disney World). It took place inside the head of a pre-teen boy, with the events of the “outside world” visible through windows where the eyes would be. Inside, we experience the first day of the boy’s new “pilot,” tasked with steering him through the day based on input from other “employees” representing different systems of the brain and body: the cautious and analytical left brain, the impulsive right brain (Jon Lovitz), the robotic hypothalamus responsible for involuntary muscles, etc. Now, I know the symbolic depiction of “brain pilots” is not an entirely original idea, but it’s interesting to note that one of director Pete Docter’s first jobs was creating animated material for Cranium Command.
Ooh, ooh! One final thought on the film’s design: I love the slightly fuzzy, “Muppet-y” texture of the emotions (particularly Fear). I don’t think it’s coincidence that the two surviving original Muppeteers, Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, make cameos..
3. The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)
The Walk tells the story of Philippe Petit, a Parisian street performer in the early 1970s who concocts a plan to walk across a wire strung between the towers of the newly-constructed World Trade Center. Once he hits on the idea, the movie unfolds like a heist film, as Petit assembles a crew of clandestine collaborators to help him accomplish his “coup.” Eventually the plan comes together, and through a bit of espionage, some creative problem solving (how do you toss a steel wire weighing hundreds of pounds 50 yards?) and a few lucky breaks, Petit walks the wire on the morning of August 7, 1974.
To be completely honest, this was probably my favorite movie of the year. What can I say? I’m a sucker for Zemeckis. But, if I was going for some semblance of objectivity here, I couldn’t put The Walk at #1. It does some things a more “perfect” movie wouldn’t: Namely, in the words of critic David Rooney, it relies too heavily on “cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.” Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with an affected French accent) serves as narrator, “hosting” the movie from atop the Statue of Liberty. I can see how people could grow tire of Petit’s “artsy-ness,” as even his own father eventually does. He acts as though wearing a top hat and riding a unicycle is the world’s most noble profession, and we get to hear him wax poetic on the matter at length. If you came away from this movie wanting to tell Petit to “get a real job,” I’d understand. I think the biggest problem is that, while most films follow a protagonist striving to accomplish a goal, they tend to establish why the protagonist has that goal. We never really learn why Petit wants to pursue a “career” as a street performer, and so he very nearly comes off as either shiftless or fake. But Gordon-Levitt’s charms keep him afloat through the slow first act, and the film picks up in pace and quality once Petit dreams up his World Trade Center walk.
And that, of course, is the whole point. This film is about the power of realizing a dream. Even if that dream is “pointless.” Even if it’s just “because it’s there.” Even if the dreamer simply wonders “wouldn’t it be cool if?”
And that’s how it hooked me.
Prior to The Walk, Petit’s story had already inspired several adaptations. I’d previously seen Man on Wire, an Oscar-winning documentary from 2008. As such, I probably wouldn’t have watched The Walk if not for my free ticket. It was a case of Titanic syndrome: I “knew how it ended.” But Zemeckis won me over. Petit’s dream has a potency, and I was captivated by it the same as were Petit’s “accomplices,” and later the people of New York. His iconic feat was just about the closest thing possible to a victimless crime, and, as the pitch-perfect ending reveals, the city ultimately waived most of the charges against him. Instead of jail time, Petit was “sentenced” to give a free wire-walking performance in Central Park. From beginning to end, Petit’s story has a grace which the passage of years (and the Twin Towers’ own tragic fate) can do nothing to tarnish. And with his trademark visual effects prowess, Zemeckis makes that “beautiful day” live again.
2. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
Straight Outta Compton is a biopic charting the rise and eventual dissolution of the hip hop group N.W.A.. Basically, it’s like That Thing You Do!…if the Wonders’ breakout hit was “Fuck the Police,” and Guy Patterson died of AIDS.
Maybe not a perfect comparison. Let me try again. I liked this movie for the same reason as I liked The King’s Speech: It tells an engaging, (mostly) true story about a part of history I had previously known next to nothing about. For instance, I had no idea that, prior to his “star turn” in such unforgettable films as Are We There Yet?, Ice Cube was one of the world’s most influential and popular rappers. What’s more, the film opened my eyes to the connections between performers and producers I had once known only by name: In addition to “Cube,” Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Suge Knight all play a part in this tale of gangsta rap’s origins.
Now is probably a good time to point out that I’m not exactly a connoisseur of rap. But that made Straight Outta Compton all the more remarkable, because it still managed to suck me in. I felt the most poignant element of the film was its depiction of the tension between young African-Americans and the police. This conflict, as timely today as ever, rises to a head in the movie when N.W.A. receives a letter from the FBI forbidding them to perform their song “Fuck the Police” at their next concert. When they do anyway, prompting a riot and the group’s arrest, it stands alongside “I Am Spartacus,” The Shawshank Redemption‘s opera scene, and Dead Poets Society‘s “O Captain My Captain” as one of the great “stick it to the man” moments in film.
But in between the racially-charged confrontations, AIDS deaths, and Suge Knight beat-downs, Straight Outta Compton finds time to work in some humor as well. My favorite moment in the film comes when record label agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) proposes managing N.W.A. The fledgling rappers ask Heller about his previous experience, and he rather sheepishly admits that his most successful clients to date have been claymation sensation the California Raisins. Their sneers and laughter fade, however, when Heller points out that the Raisins’ debut album, “The California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs,” went platinum.
Speaking of Heller, he goes from being one of the most genial to one of the most grating characters over the course of the movie. I almost couldn’t believe it when, after embracing N.W.A. and their frequent use of racial slurs (you can guess what the “N.” stands for), he suddenly balks at one of the rappers making a mildly disparaging Jewish joke. But I guess Heller really is that over-sensitive… the real Jerry is currently suing Universal over his representation in the film.
1. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
Let me start by saying that EarnThis editor Dan has already reviewed The Martian in depth, and delivered a slightly more sober assessment of the film than I’m going to give here. True, the “Earth” cast seems a bit bloated with superfluous characters. True, the gimmicky 70s soundtrack feels derivative of Guardians of the Galaxy. True, it’s by no means a perfect movie.
But I loved it all the same.
Way back in my review of Cast Away, I praised that film for its “simple but compelling premise.” Well, The Martian takes that same premise and amplifies it by an order of magnitude. It’s the ultimate castaway story: instead of a desert island, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must survive alone on the surface of Mars.
Alone. On an entire planet. That doesn’t even have air.
40 million miles from any possibility of assistance.
As such, The Martian may be the purest embodiment of “high-concept” filmmaking in recent memory. “What if you had to survive alone on Mars?” is simply a must-watch setup. I saw the trailer and knew I couldn’t stay away (even if my ticket didn’t happen to be free). Watching Watney puzzle through procuring even the most basic building blocks of survival is inspiring. Tom Hanks in Cast Away may have needed to catch food and make fire, but Damon as Watney must grow food and make water. Seriously, he makes water. Truth be told, I still haven’t seen The Revenant yet. But I’ll bet even bear-mauled Mr. DiCaprio didn’t have to manufacture his own water. That’s the gosh darned niftiest bit of science-survival this side of Breaking Bad.
And that message, that science is a powerful force for human progress, is ultimately the film’s strongest point. NASA was heavily involved in production of the film, and it’s easy to view the movie as a thinly-veiled commercial for the agency’s Orion program. But this is one instance of blatant product placement I’m okay with. Space exploration is one of the most important things we do as a species, and I’m on board with anything that motivates public interest (and financial investment) in the field. Plenty of people believe NASA overspends on space missions of dubious value, when we have more pressing concerns here on Earth. But let me blow your minds for a second here: EARTH IS PART OF SPACE. Anything we can learn about the universe at large stands to increase our understanding of our own world, its place in the cosmos, and our prospects for survival should anything endanger it.
I don’t know how things are going to pan out on the old red carpet tomorrow night, but the Academy could do worse than to honor a film like The Martian.