Wednesday, December 30, 2015

THE BEST OF 2015 - The Best MOVIES Of The Year


- It's been quite a year at the movies. But let's face it, this will forever go down as the year of Star Wars. All year, the anticipation built for The Force Awakens. And since December 18th, it feels like all anyone who's a movie fan can talk or write or think about is The Force Awakens. So what does it all mean for movies? First of all, let's take a step back and acknowledge that Star Wars is much more than just a movie - it's a giant multimedia franchise with decades of cultural history and baggage. When we see a new Star Wars movie, we're not *just* watching a movie - we're practically watching the next chapter in our collective pop-mythology. From a critical standpoint, it's hard to talk about The Force Awakens and not get caught up in all the other *stuff* that is tangential to the movie itself. Hence, endless think-pieces that, while interesting food for thought, are often merely projecting the writer's predisposed feelings about Star Wars (and George Lucas, JJ Abrams, Disney, the prequels, the merchandising, and blockbuster movies in general). The fact is though - The Force Awakens was a pretty amazing piece of pop entertainment. It may have had some issues with its storytelling (too much contrived mystery, too much choppy plotting), but let's also admit that the film's story has been analyzed far beyond that of most big blockbuster films. If we'd put the original trilogy and/or any number of other big blockbusters through a similar microscope, we'd find as many (and likely many more) holes. The Force Awakens works so well though because it has the kind of character, heart, visual artistry, and old-fashioned "movie magic" that so many big films today lack. It's a movie that begs for a second or third viewing. It's a movie that will inspire people. That to me is the ultimate takeaway from the movie's success - the epic sci-fi stories, superhero sagas, and fantasy worlds that were once for a select few are now, officially, for everyone. Ultimately, I think that's a big net positive.

And yet ... there is another. The best big blockbuster of 2015 was, no question, the superlative Mad Max: Fury Road. It's hard to describe to skeptics just why the movie works so well - you just have to see it to understand. But no other movie this year so completely floored me. The combination of incredible characters, amazing world-design, propulsive action, and thematic depth made this one of the best action/adventure movies of all time. Prior to Fury Road, the Mad Max franchise was iconic. Now, it's a whole new level of legendary.

Indeed, 2015 was a landmark year for genre film. It Follows was one of the best horror movies of the last several years - a low-budget indie that was so creative and fun that it made you want to go make your own horror movie immediately (seriously: the movie inspired me to take a stab at my first-ever horror screenplay). Ex Machina was exactly the kind of high-minded sci-fi film I love - dark, boundary-pushing, and thought-provoking. Same goes for the future cult-classic Predestination. The Martian mixed real science with a near-future sci-fi premise to achieve greatness - and it marked a welcome return to space for the great Ridley Scott. We got a new Western from the king of genre mash-ups, Quentin Tarantino - and man, The Hateful Eight was a rip-roaring exercise in awesomeness, with an all-star cast of badass actors. And it wasn't even the only badass Western this year starring Kurt Russell! As if his role in The Hateful Eight wasn't enough, Russell also starred in the certifiably kick-ass Western/horror mash-up Bone Tomahawk, and appeared in Furious 7. 2015 was a full-on Kurt Russell Renaissance. For someone like me who grew up on movies like Escape From NY, this was cinematic bliss. Speaking of Furious 7, it was one of a couple of great action movies this year. Another standout was Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - it was a franchise-best installment, full of some of the coolest set-piece action scenes I've seen in this or any year.

If 2015 had a failing, it's that the big, prestige, Oscar bait-ish movies in many cases fell flat, at least for me. Only a handful - Spotlight, Room, Brooklyn - really lived up to their full potential. Interestingly, one of the year's best high-minded dramas came from Netflix. I was late to watch Beasts of No Nation - I mean, how good could a movie created by Netflix really be? Turns out, it could be amazing. Beasts was a true cinematic tour de force and one of the year's best.

Another underdog that proved to have championship potential was Creed. I wasn't among the doubters - I love the Rocky series, and knew it was in good hands with director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. And Creed did not disappoint - it was not just a great Rocky movie, but a great film, period. Pixar too proved itself again to be the reigning champ of animation. Inside Out was one of their best-ever films - a shockingly sophisticated, amazingly-crafted look at human emotion that was a great film for both kids and adults.

As always, I didn't see everything. But I did see a lot - and overall, I felt really good about the films of 2015. Here are my favorites.


1.) Mad Max: Fury Road

- With Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller delivered a master class in how to do sci-fi/action filmmaking right. The action is non-stop and unrelenting, but never boring. It escalates in the same manner as a great song - slowing down, picking up again, and then bringing it all home like some sort of cinematic power ballad. I could talk for paragraphs just about the world of this movie. The characters, the vehicles, the mythology, the look and feel of the movie's post-apocalyptic wasteland. But I could talk just as much about how powerful the movie is thematically: it's one of the best-ever movies about breaking free from oppression and fighting for the right to free will. The battle of wills between Imperator Furiosa and Immortan Joe is one for the ages - an epic chase through the wasteland with life itself at stake.

2.) Room

- There was no moment more tense for me in a movie theater in 2015 than the "escape" scene in Room. It was one of the most edge-of-your-seat moments I've ever experienced while watching a movie. Room completely and utterly makes you root for its characters to get away from the hellish place they're trapped in. And then, it makes you root almost as hard for them to conquer the emotional trauma that they're left with in the aftermath. Room is amazing. Brie Larson's acting here is next-level - even better than her turn in Short Term 12. Kid actor Jacob Tremblay is phenomenal - a truly affecting performance. This is brave, bold storytelling that counterbalances its darkness with life-affirming hope and joy. Go watch Room if you haven't yet seen it.

3.) Spotlight

- Spotlight works on two levels. One, it's an old-school paranoid thriller, a crackling investigative procedural that is a tribute to the power of real, nose-to-the-grindstone journalism. In a world where real journalism is increasingly rare, it's a potent reminder of what we've lost. Second, it's a jaw-dropping reminder of the evils of institutionalized abuse. It shows you the full extent of the Catholic priest abuse scandal with mind-numbing reminders about just how far-reaching the problem was and just how much effort was put into keeping it out of the public eye. The movie has a true ensemble cast. It's not a showy movie, but it has a building intensity that, by the film's end, has built to a fever pitch. Extremely powerful filmmaking.

4.) Inside Out

- Inside Out is an amazing achievement from Pixar. Somehow, it distills complex emotional truths into easy-to-understand concepts and characters. It captures the way we think and feel with startling accuracy. But it doesn't stop there - the film's representation of our thoughts and feelings shows us how alike we all are on the inside. To that end, the film is a remarkable meditation on the power of empathy. Plus, it's also a lot of fun - with a fantastic voice cast and lots of humor. Not to mention, it's got incredible visuals that fully immerse you inside the movie's literal mind-trip. To me, this stands among the finest films Pixar has ever produced - and that says a lot.

5.) The Hateful Eight

- It's a violent, brutal, mean movie, but man, The Hateful Eight is a rollicking good time. With Tarantino, you know you're in the hands of a great storyteller, and this is a story that's got a lot to say. About justice, about race, about revenge, about war, about America. But it says its piece via dynamite dialogue, via larger-than-life characters, with a style and flair and sense of showmanship that are the trademarks of a great Tarantino film. The cast here is populated by all-time badasses doing career-best work. Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all fantastic. This is a movie I won't soon forget, and it's a more-than-worthy entry in the Tarantino cannon.

6.) Ex Machina

- I was an early supporter of Ex Machina, and I'm glad to see that its fanbase has only grown in the months since its release. If nothing else, Ex Machina was further proof that writer/director Alex Garland is one of the best and most interesting filmmakers working today. The guy earned geek-cred for writing movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. But man, what a directorial debut with Ex Machina. In a world where sci-fi is too often equated with overblown blockbusters in which lots of stuff blows up, here was a smaller-scale, more intimate movie that really got into the science fiction of it all: here is this new technology - what does it say about us as humans, and how can it be used for good or ill? The movie's got three fantastic leads - Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Issac, and, in a breakthrough performance, Alicia Vikander as an instantly-iconic android with an agenda. One of the best modern science fiction films, no question.

7.) Creed

- My hope for Creed is that this is the new template for how to continue a franchise. Enough with soulless reboots that lack respect for the source material. If you're going to revive a franchise, do it the right way, and do it in a way where the torch is properly passed. Creed is the ultimate passing-of-the-torch movie. It introduces a new franchise with a new star (a great Michael B. Jordan) and a new director (Ryan Coogler) that could theoretically be the driving forces behind many more movies in the series, for years to come. But it also never forgets its Rocky legacy, and in fact, it gives the Rocky character a great role to play and Sylvester Stallone the opportunity to turn in one of his best-ever performances. Creed feels right. It's a new generation of Rocky movie that's new and fresh and different, and yet it encapsulates all that makes Rocky great. The champ is here, and his name is Creed.

8.) Beasts of No Nation

- A lot of the big, sprawling dramas of 2015 left me feeling a bit empty. But Beasts of No Nation shook me to my core. A moving, powerful, unforgettable story - it's the fictional tale of a young boy in a war-torn African country, who is recruited by an unhinged general to be a soldier in his child army. The details are fictional, but the core truths at the movie's center are all too real - an affecting, eye-opening look at the world we live in today. Idris Elba is in acting beast-mode here, turning in the performance of a lifetime as the fearsome Commandant. And child actor Abraham Attah is phenomenal - showing us how a wide-eyed, innocent kid is turned into a soulless killer. Director Cary Fukunaga shows us the unrelenting chaos of war in absorbing, can't-look-away detail. The movie is a gut-puncher, but it's one of the year's best.

9.) It Follows

- Over the last couple of years, I've been really digging the indie-horror movement that's been completely subverting expectations about what the genre can be. Now, in the wake of films like House of the Devil, You're Next, and The Babadook comes It Follows - one of the freshest, coolest, most creative horror movies I've seen in years. The movie's premise is killer - a spectral force that can look like anyone stalks its victims anywhere and everywhere, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on through sex. It's the ultimate STD. But aside from that hook, what makes It Follows work so well is the atmosphere director David Robert Mitchell creates - a creepy homage to the works of John Carpenter, and other 80's horror movie icons that emphasized mood and tone over cheap jump-scares. To cap it all off, the movie features a great lead performance from Maika Monroe, who is quickly becoming an iconic Scream Queen of modern cinema.

10.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

- What other movie generated as much pure excitement in 2015 - or ever? - as The Force Awakens? As I said up top, this is a hard one to talk about purely as a film, because there's so much baggage and weight of expectation that comes with this being the continuation of a saga that fans have waited decades for. But I will say this: the enthusiasm that people have for this movie is no accident. The secret of the film's success is taking the sort of classic, mythic storytelling of the original Star Wars and combining it with new, modern, diverse characters that feel vital and relevant for the times we live in. Star Wars has always had space-opera on a grand scale. But now it's also got a beating heart that, at times, eluded even the original films. Yes, JJ Abrams and team are building on the universe and themes that George Lucas created. But they've also launched a new era for Star Wars in epic fashion. That is no small feat. The movie is imperfect, yes. But at the end of the day, The Force is undeniably strong in this one.


11.)  The Martian

- A riveting journey into space and a harrowing survival story, this movie mixes humor, high-adventure, and a real respect for the science of it all, The Martian is a reminder of why Ridley Scott is one of the greatest of all time when it comes to epic, immersive sci-fi. It's got incredible visuals, a smart and witty script courtesy of Drew Goddard, a great leading-man turn from Matt Damon, and a stacked supporting cast.

12.) Wild Tales

- An anthology film about extremes of human behavior, this Argentinian movie is so good that it was nominated for an Oscar last year. It wasn't watchable in America until 2015, but man, I'm glad it was finally made available. It's a funny, shocking, highly-entertaining set of stories in the tradition of things like Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone - twisty morality plays that have to be seen to be believed.

13.) Brooklyn

- Even if you don't like romance, this movie is such a well done one that I guarantee it will win you over. Why? Because this absolutely charming period-piece is a winner - featuring a star-making turn from Saoirse Ronan, as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn looking to start a new life, but still drawn back to the comfort and familiarity of her home country. The movie's got a smart, funny script from Nick Hornby - and really surprised me with just how much it drew me in and made me cross my fingers for a happy ending for its characters.

14.) Bone Tomahawk

- What's so cool about Bone Tomahawk is that it would still be pretty badass even if it was just a straight-up Western. The movie's first half is just that - and even then, it kicks ass thanks to a fantastic cast (Kurt Russell in top form as the gruff sheriff, Richard Jenkins ruling it as the bumbling deputy) and old-school solid filmmaking chops. But then, the movie kicks into overdrive when it's revealed that the guys Russell and co. are chasing are actually ... wait for it ... deadly mutant cannibals! Hells yeah. If you like badass movies, then this one is essential viewing.

15.) Sicario

- A grim n' gritty descent into hell-on-earth, Sicario is a harrowing look at the violence and chaos that can erupt in Mexican border towns like Juarez as part of the covert but deadly drug-wars being raged. With her intense turn here as an FBI agent recruited for a secret mission over the border, Emily Blunt solidifies herself as cinema's reigning most-badass-female. Meanwhile, Benicio Del Toro turns in a searing performance as an operative whose emotional scars have turned him into a stone-cold killer.


16.) Predestination

- Predestination launched unceremoniously on VOD and digital-download services in January, but being a sucker for anything time-travel related, I gave it a look. As it turns out, this Ethan Hawke-starring adaptation of a Robert Heinlein story is actually really great - a well-acted film (in addition to Hawke, there's an incredible central performance from Sarah Snook that deserves to be talked about) with an absolutely killer twist ending. For me, this is a new sci-fi favorite.

17.) Crimson Peak

- Guillermo Del Toro's latest is an atmospheric gothic romance that also happens to be a ghost story. But this movie is pure Del Toro - which means its visuals are jaw-dropping, with unmatched attention to detail and an eye-popping artfulness. If you ever dreamed of a Del Toro-directed haunted mansion movie, well, here it is. And as an added bonus, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain are all amazing here, gothing it up like nobody's business. This movie deserved to do better at the box office, but like other Del Toro films it will live on as an all-time cult classic.

18.) Dope

- Dope is the sort of under-the-radar breakthrough that you love to see as a film fan. It's a Lebowski-esque crime caper, in which a geeky inner-city teen accidentally gets stuck with a bag full of drugs that makes him a target for criminals and cops alike. Shameik Moore breaks out big-time here as nerdy Malcom, and director Rick Famuyiwa shows that he is one to watch.

19.) Kingsman: The Secret Service

- "Manners maketh man." So goes the super-spy credo of Kingsmea's dapper agent played by Colin Firth. Firth kills it in this one - an insanely fun, wonderfully vulgar, over-the-top, action-packed spy movie satire that is one of 2015's best blockbusters. Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Mark Millar comic book actually improves on the source material, delivering an applause-worthy deconstruction of the Bond archetype that deserves sequels of its own. Vaughn again proves that he's one of the best, most interesting action directors working today.

20.) Cop Car

- A down n' dirty grindhouse flick featuring a killer turn from Kevin Bacon, this movie casts Bacon as a psycho cop on a rage-filled quest to find his stolen vehicle. As it turns out, his police cruiser's been taken by two runaway kids, who have no clue to what extent they've messed with the wrong guy's car. I really dug this movie - it's a total showcase for director Jon Watts. It's no wonder he's been tapped to direct the next Spider-Man movie, because Cop Car shows that he's the real deal.

21.) Steve Jobs

- I had mixed feelings about this one upon exiting the theater, but over time, I really began to warm up to it. I think the key to appreciating this effort from director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin is to realize that it's by no means a literal biography of Jobs, but a theatrical, representational microcosm of his life's defining work. It's a smart, thought-provoking look at the cost that great success and insatiable drive can take on one's soul. Michael Fassbender is electric in the leading role, and the supporting cast is also amazing - Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen each more than hold their own delivering Sorkin's hard-charging, hellfire-and-brimstone dialogue.

22.) Furious 7

- If I'm being honest, I've got to say this: Furious 7 is one of the most viscerally awesome and kick-ass action movies I've ever seen. Sure, it's all big, dumb fun - but what fun it is. Director Justin Lin cranks things up to eleven with this one, delivering some all-time great action set pieces that left me with my jaw squarely on the floor. The movie's just got a great sense of propulsive fun, with a lovable cast of action titans, including Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell, Michelle Rodriguez, Ronda Rousey, and The Rock. Plus, it has an unexpected element of heart as well. The death of Paul Walker while the movie was still filming was an unbearably sad tragedy, but the movie pays tribute to Paul in a way that is honestly and sincerely moving. I'm sure few ever expected to shed a tear at a Fast & Furious movie, but this one both kicks ass and tugs at the ol' heartstrings.

23.) Mr. Holmes

- In this tale of an aged Sherlock Holmes' final case, Sir Ian McKellan delivers an acting master class. Playing both a younger, spry-er Holmes as well as an older, more brittle version, McKellan is absolutely phenomenal. An interesting, emotionally-involving twist on the Sherlock Holmes legend, this one is a must-watch for fans of the character and/or of McKellan.

24.) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

- Another great action movie that surpassed expectations, this one excels thanks to the back-to-basics direction of Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie understands the fundamentals of constructing a great action scene, always clearly establishing the stakes and creating a palpable sense of danger for the characters. Tom Cruise brings his usual high-intensity to the movie as Ethan Hunt, but this one finally makes us care about his supporting cast as well. Plus, Rebecca Ferguson is superb as the movie's deadly femme fatale. I guarantee we'll be seeing a lot more from her in the years to come.

25.) Mistress America

- Another home run for the creative combo of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. The two created a great film with Frances Ha, and they craft another winner here with Mistress America. They really seem to be making a play to be the modern-day Woody Allen - telling witty, funny, keenly-observed stories about young people in the big city. Gerwig also continues to shine as an actress - here, she is a barely-held-together ball of manic energy that isn't quite the queen of New York she thinks herself to be. I can't wait to see more movies from this team.


26.) Bridge of Spies

- Steven Spielberg tackles the Cold War in this poignant tale of a decent man doing his best to uphold the best of America's values, during a time when those values seem all but lost. The movie gets off to a slow start, but builds towards a whopper of a finale that has a lot to say not just about the Cold War, but about where we are today as a country. Tom Hanks is reliably excellent, but it's Mark Rylance who is the show-stealer - delivering a quietly amazing performance as a Soviet Spy who wants simply to be treated with dignity.

27.) Carol

- Director Todd Haynes makes Carol a powerful story about forbidden romance - less so with words and more so with subtle gestures, glances, and subtext. The always-great Cate Blanchett is a force of nature here, but the real star is Rooney Mara - in a nuanced, understated, memorable performance that boils over with bubbling-beneath-the-surface emotion. An effective look at how beneath the surface of idyllic 1950's America lay harsh realities of social oppression and emotional repression.

28.) Straight Outta Compton

- At times, Straight Outta Compton feels a little too much like a standard-issue biopic. But when it really pops - showing us the big moments in the career of NWA that changed music and pop-culture forever - it's chill-inducingly good. The cast here is universally excellent, and the movie effectively shows how the NWA were at the forefront of a culture war that still rages today. But when the focus is on the music, the movie really shines - capturing the sonic alchemy and lyrical power that made the NWA hip-hop revolutionaries.

29.) Spy

-  Spy is Melissa McCarthy's best-ever movie, and the one that most takes advantage of her considerable comedic skill-set. Paul Feig's witty, playfully subversive send-up of the spy genre was one of 2015's biggest surprises - a film that was really funny, had shockingly great action scenes, and had a lot to say on a meta level about how a great female comic like McCarthy can be used and abused by a Hollywood system that tends to typecast her in unflattering roles. Spy gave me great hope for Feig's upcoming Ghostbusters relaunch. This guy gets it.

30.) The Big Short

- Adam McKay's foray into more serious-business filmmaking - a look at the mid-00's housing market crash that led to financial crisis - is both commendably educational and satisfyingly pissed-off. The film features excellent performances from Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and more - each playing guys who saw the crash coming, but were faced with a system that couldn't see or didn't want to admit that it was on the way. The movie goes a bit off the rails at times, with random cutaways and ADD-pacing. But it also felt like the chip-on-its-shoulder movie we needed going into the 2016 election season.


The Night Before
While We're Young
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
What We Do In the Shadows
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ted 2
Sleeping With Other People



1.) Ian McKellan - Mr. Holmes
2.) Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs
3.) Abraham Attah - Beasts of No Nation
4.) Matt Damon - The Martian
5.) Michael B. Jordan - Creed


1.) Brie Larson - Room
2.) Saoirse Ronan - Brooklyn
3.) Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road
4.) Rooney Mara - Carol
5.) Emily Blunt - Sicario


1.) Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation
2.) TIE: Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies, Mark Ruffalo - Spotlight
3.) Sylvester Stallone - Creed
4.) TIE: Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins - The Hateful Eight
5.) Jacob Tremblay - Room


1.) Jennifer Jason Leigh - The Hateful Eight
2.) Sarah Snook - Predestination
3.) Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina
4.) Kate Winslet - Steve Jobs
5.) Jessica Chastain - Crimson Peak


1.) George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
2.) Lenny Abrahamson - Room
3.) Quentin Tarantino - The Hateful Eight
4.) TIE: Cary Fukunaga - Beasts of No Nation, Ridley Scott - The Martian
5.) David Robert Mitchell - It Follows


1.) Spotlight
2.) The Hateful Eight
3.) Brooklyn
4.) Ex Machina
5.) Steve Jobs
6.) Inside Out
7.) Dope
8.) Room
9.) Bone Tomahawk
10.) Creed

And that's it for 2015 - here's to an amazing year ahead, and to a year full of great movies.

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