2015 was an incredibly busy year, and when I sat down to write this post, I wasn't sure if I'd actually been to the movie theater enough to justify making a list of favorite films. But after going through old ticket stubs, I was surprised to find that I'd still done pretty well, and I've since spent the past month catching up on many of the big releases that fell through the cracks. At this point, I've managed to see 34 of the movies released in 2015, and for the first time in a while, I've managed to catch ALL of the best picture nominees. This has been a great year for movies across the board, and there are still a bunch on my "to-see" list, but I think I've waited long enough to jot down some thoughts on the ones that I liked most.
As far as criteria goes, this is a list of personal favorites that represent everything I love about going to the movies. I don't strive to be objective, but I do think many of the films on this list are objectively good, if there's such a thing. Here we go:
If I'm being totally honest, I probably wouldn't have seen this one if it wasn't a Best Picture nominee. However, it ended up being one of the most moving and engrossing films I saw this year and easily the most downright "pleasant" experience I had at the movies. The story of a young Irish immigrant trying to make a life for herself in 1950s New York plays to universal themes of isolation and the conflict between one's desire for comfort and the lure of adventure. Anchored by the stellar Saoirse Ronan as Ellis and featuring a great supporting cast (including this year's inescapable Domhnall Gleeson, who will show up twice more on this list), Brooklyn is driven by a fairly simple plot that contains just enough well paced twists and turns to keep things moving.
This was also one of the most unexpectedly funny films I saw this year, thanks primarily to the ensemble of women living with Ellis in a Brooklyn boarding house. The script wisely avoids the clichés of headmistresses and defiant young socialites we've come to expect from this sort of setup, and the witty dialogue between the girls sets a much less serious tone. Humor is one of the qualities that elevate a movie like this for me, so that, combined with a poignant ending that truly stuck the landing, made this one of the year's best.
In 2013, Marvel proved that it could dig deep beyond its core roster of superheroes with Guardians of the Galaxy, the box office juggernaut that prominently featured a wisecracking space-raccoon as one of its central characters. After pulling that off, anything was possible, and the floodgates were truly open for movies led by anyone (or anything) in their stable of lesser-known comic book protagonists. Somehow, an Ant-Man movie STILL seemed like an absurd proposition, but the studio once again demonstrated that they can churn a quality movie out of just about any property.
Led by the effortlessly-likable Paul Rudd, Ant-Man strikes a perfect blend of tongue-in-cheek humor and heist-thriller drama, and features some of the most clever and well-executed action set pieces of the year. Where the movie really succeeds is in its decision to tell a smaller-scale (pun intended), lower stakes story that focuses on its characters rather than another "Earth on the brink of disaster" scenario. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily are great in their supporting roles, and the script takes advantage of its ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe without being burdened by any obligations to other films in the franchise. While I greatly enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron for its stunning spectacle and ambitious expansion of the MCU, Ant-Man is a return to the charm and wit that got the studio off the ground in the first place.
#8 The Big Short
I went into The Big Short expecting a less "Scorcese-y" version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but Adam McKay's adaptation of the Michael Lewis bestseller is a truly original piece of work. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling portray the real-life financial wizards who somehow foresaw the 2008 housing crisis a few years before it crashed the U.S. economy. McKay, who is best know for broad (and hysterical) comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, proves adept at navigating a complex subject, using every trick he can to educate the audience on things like mortgage-backed securities without abandoning his duty to entertain. There are some crazy stylistic choices, particularly a series of fourth-wall breaking segments and some wildly unconventional editing decisions, but they are confidently executed and serve the goal of making an otherwise dry topic as engaging as possible.
My personal bias (and eagerness to become better informed) factored heavily into this one making the list. While I'm not the most well-versed on the inner-workings of the economy, I've seen and read enough material (before seeing this movie) to know that many Wall Street players got away with murder when it came to illegally manipulating the financial market. Eight years have gone by with nary an arrest made, so Americans like me are left with movies like this (and the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street) to at least provide a bit of catharsis and justice in the court of public opinion. What's disheartening is that, as the final few title cards show, no matter how much we seem to acknowledge the mistakes that were made, so little actually gets done to make sure it won't happen again. But I like to believe, perhaps naively, that films like The Big Short can have an impact by informing us and keeping the discussion alive, so this one gets points for being entertaining AND enlightening.
#7 Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs has the components of a film I'm predisposed to love: a script by Aaron Sorkin, a story set behind-the-scenes of the tech world, and a narrative gimmick that arouses my curiosity; in this case, the decision to frame Job's life story in the moments preceding the public reveal of three key Apple products. The structure provides a refreshingly original approach to what could have otherwise been a by-the-numbers biopic, and the real-time, theatrical nature of the script allows for plenty of the high-energy walk-and-talk dialogue Sorkin is known for. Michael Fassbender settles into character quickly enough to make you forget his lack of physical resemblance to Jobs, and Kate Winslet is perfectly cast as Jobs' long-suffering but ever-loyal assistant. The whole thing is held together by Danny Boyle's kinetic direction and clever decision to shoot in three different formats to mirror the three time periods being represented.
Some audiences and critics have taken issue with Sorkin's liberal interpretation of the facts when it comes to Job's relationship with daughter Lisa Brennan (as well as the girl's mother, Chrisann), and while I haven't read Walter Isaacson's official Jobs biography, I can sort of see where they're coming from. However, the movie, by its nature, is not attempting to truthfully recreate the details of Jobs' life on a point-by-point basis. Instead, Sorkin is using his artistic license to distill what he considers to be the core elements of Jobs character, as well as the relationships that defined him, into a story that's entertaining without being pedantic. Yes, the film takes liberties with the truth, but anyone who wants undiluted facts can (and should) watch the documentary, read the book, or dig into the archive of Apple keynote videos on YouTube. If we were discussing a film that was to become the definitive point of reference for a lesser-known figure, I might be more critical on the basis of accuracy. But Jobs is a cultural icon who's had a massive impact on all of our lives, and I think that leaves him open to dissection and interpretation.
The first time I saw a trailer for Creed in theaters, a clearly audible series of groans and laughs emanated from the audience. I may have participated. The Rocky series was already six movies deep, spanned three decades, and seemed to have fully run its course in terms of the titular character's storytelling potential. So it was hard not to let my cynical side take over and see this as a desperate attempt to capitalize on the franchise's popularity by transitioning it to younger blood and retelling the same boxing stories. The concept seemed contrived, and the film left my radar almost as quickly as it showed up.
But then Creed was released, and glowing reviews started piling up, accompanied by proclamations on social media declaring it one of the best films of the year. In situations like this, I love being proven wrong and was thrilled to hear that this underdog of a movie might actually be a champion. Despite wanting to rush out and see it immediately, Gina and I spent a few weeks catching up on Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa (the sixth installment, released in 2006). Thoughts on those movies, and how they hold up, could fill an entire other post, but I believe watching them primed me to enjoy Creed on a different level.
And enjoy Creed I did. Writer and Director Ryan Coogler's first entry in the franchise brings together the best elements of the previous films and then elevates them with an emotionally engaging script and inspired boxing action. Much to its credit, the film takes its story and character seriously and doesn't get mired in the kind of "ironic winks to the past" that have plagued other recent reboots (*cough*, Jurassic World). All of the references to previous Rocky's are used judiciously to frame Creed's narrative, and beyond that, the movie stands on its own. Michael B. Jordan carries most of the weight as Adonis Creed, infusing the character with the right balance of confidence and vulnerability, and Sylvester Stallone is worthy of praise for his subtle, touching performance in the supporting role. The boxing scenes, shot in stunningly choreographed long takes, are the most visceral and convincing I've seen not just in this series, but in any boxing movie period. Every punch lands with a staggering force, and the sense of being "in the ring" has never been more palpable. With some genius editing choices during the final fight (one of which might be my favorite "cut" in a movie this year), Ryan Coogler delivers as affecting a climax as you can hope for from a Rocky movie, and it absolutely left me clamoring for another.
#5 Inside Out
Pixar's greatest gift has always been its unique ability to simultaneousl satisfy kids and adults without patronizing or excluding either group. Inside Out, however, might be the first film in their body of work to appeal to parents more than their children. During the Sunday afternoon screening I attended, the youngest audience members were more restless and distracting than usual, likely because this movie doesn't engage them on the same level as a Toy Story or Finding Nemo. But that's not an indictment, because for adults, Inside Out is as clever, imaginative, and moving as any of the studio's best.
The story centers around Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose emotional inner-workings are physically depicted by characters who represent Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As Riley enters a formative period in her adolescent life, we see the emotions in her head literally vying for control of her actions, which proves both hilarious and insightful. But what's truly impressive is how much deeper Pixar delves into the concept. The world of Riley's brain is brilliantly realized, from the depiction of her memories as tiny, glowing orbs to the many "islands of personality" that portray her traits. The rules of the world are all clearly and concisely delineated, so that every time Riley does something in reality, the reaction inside her mind makes perfect sense (and vice versa). Once the story really gets rolling, dreams, imaginary friends, and even abstract reasoning come into play, all to awe-inspiring effect.
Many of these elements are a bit complex for anyone under the age of ten to fully appreciate, but for teens and adults, the film is a feast of thought-provoking ideas propelled by gorgeous visuals and one of the best scores of the year courtesy of Michael Giacchino. There are some touching moments that catch you by surprise, and the story never runs out of steam on the way to its poignant, tear-inducing climax. Inside Out is a wonderful execution of Pixar's most high-concept premise yet, a movie that gets better with every viewing and easily the year's best animated film.
#4 Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
I already posted extensive thoughts on this one, but in summary, Episode VII makes the list because it overcame enormous hype and expectations to deliver a satisfying, if a bit safe, reboot of the beloved franchise. The new characters (and actors) are exceptional, the visuals strike the right balance between modern CGI and practical effects, and the script recaptures the feeling of adventure and discovery that mesmerized me as a child. Of all the movies in my top ten, I'll admit this one's presence (and position) are the result of my bias as a massive Star Wars fan, and who knows if my opinion will change once the hoopla has fully subsided (although with the release schedule, will it ever?). Having seen it three times, I'm comfortable saying it's a favorite, and it has unquestionably left me excited for more.
There is nothing particularly awe-inspiring about Spotlight. Unlike some other favorites on this list, there are no flashy extended tracking shots, no outside-the-box editing techniques, and no bombastic standout performances. What distinguishes this film is the decision to forgo any of those things in the service of a story that demands a straightforward approach. Based on the Boston Globe investigation that exposed the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in 2002, Spotlight's greatest assets are its brisk pacing, stellar screenplay, and fantastic ensemble cast.
"Competence porn" is a term I've come across on the internet recently to describe the satisfaction a viewer derives from watching film or TV characters be great at whatever it is they do. I think it's a bit broad (it could technically extend from James Bond all the way to the contestants featured on Top Chef, which is quite a spectrum) but in my opinion, competence porn is most appealing when it involves ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, particularly if they're real (or based on real) people. The lawyers on Making a Murderer, the White House staff on The West Wing, or Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong are examples that fit this slightly narrower profile. The journalists in Spotlight, led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, fit right into this category. As we watch them unravel the conspiracy, it's the process that draws us in; their ability to dig through data, their tenacity in following up leads, and their perseverance in the face of adversity are simply entertaining to watch. The movie almost never leaves the perspective of these journalists as they do their work, which makes the exploration of such a difficult subject tolerable without downplaying the horrible truth they're exposing.
Like The Big Short, this is a film that could be called "important," a label that sometimes carries a stigma for lending artistic credence to a piece of work that only warrants attention for its content. As mentioned earlier, there isn't much here that I would hold up as remarkable in terms of technical or creative achievement, so I'd be hard-pressed to argue against that point (to be honest, I really didn't even like the score for this film). But when the subject is so significant and the real-life events are simultaneously as tragic, enraging, and inspiring as they are here, there's almost a responsibility not to let bells and whistles distract from the core storytelling. No film I saw this year had as profound an impact on me in the theater as this one, and if nothing else, it will hopefully spark renewed support for the kind of in-depth investigative journalism that allows stories like this to be uncovered.
#2 The Revenant
Although Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's 2014 Best Picture winner, Birdman, was one of my favorite films of last year, I still had to be sold on seeing his follow-up, The Revenant. Survival stories can be a chore to watch. They're often predictable (especially when based on real events), unpleasantly bleak, and revolve around similar circumstances (lost at sea, lost in the wilderness, lost in space). The Revenant seemed like a cold, dreary, and familiar way to spend two and a half hours in a movie theater. As it turns out, it is VERY cold and dreary, but anything but familiar, because Iñárritu supersedes the tropes of survival movies with an engrossing tale of perseverance coated in the exquisite visuals he's become known for.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an 1800s fur trader who, after a perilous encounter and an unthinkable betrayal, finds himself alone and desperately fighting for his life in the North American wilderness. In a near-wordless role, DiCaprio conveys all of the suffering and anguish his character is experiencing, which is brutal yet mesmerizing to watch. His performance is amplified by deliberately slow pacing, which lends authenticity to his transformation from a man on the verge of death to a survivor seeking revenge.
Every stylistic choice helps sustain the sense of isolation Hugh is experiencing. Once again, Iñárritu utilizes lengthy single-take shots that are perfectly choreographed and executed, and the lack of cuts enhance the audience's presence in the environment. There are also an unfathomable number of breathtaking landscape shots interspersed throughout the film, all impeccably composed. A subtle, atmospheric score and fantastic sound design draw you into the experience even further.
As with Birdman, a lot of my appreciation for this film involves how it was made. Shooting in punishingly cold conditions, using only natural light (a huge restriction), and incorporating multiple complex single-take shots unquestionably makes this one of the most challenging projects ever undertaken. That the film came out as gorgeous as it did is a testament to the commitment of the crew, actors, and Iñárritu himself, who admits to being crazy but clearly has the vision to backup his wild demands. Regardless of what what genre he tackles next, my ticket is already sold.
#1 Mad Max: Fury Road
This is why I go to the movies. To escape completely into a vivid and fully-realized world. To root for and against compelling, complex characters. To be stunned by the artistic ambition of talented filmmakers. To laugh, to cry, to ride an adrenaline-fueled roller coaster of thrillingly-conceived action sequences. And at the end of it all, to be left with something rich enough to warrant fierce discussion, analysis, and hopefully, praise. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road ticks every one of these boxes, then goes on to invent a whole new set of boxes and ticks them too. He has raised the bar for action filmmaking in a way not seen since 1999's The Matrix, and upturned conventions enough to impress genre-enthusiasts, mainstream moviegoers, and professional critics alike.
I went into this film with no relationship whatsoever to the original Mad Max trilogy. I was aware of its existence as a Mel Gibson franchise from the 80s, and it was on my "to-watch" list, but I had not seen a single entry in the series. The trailers for Fury Road (none of which I viewed) received rave reviews online, but having grown accustomed to brilliantly edited trailers, no one believed the movie itself could actually meet, nevermind exceed, the sheer insanity they depicted. So as I sat down in the TCL Chinese Theater on opening weekend, popcorn in hand, 3D glasses on face, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
Two hours later, I stumbled out onto Hollywood Boulevard fully converted and ready to preach the Gospel of George to anyone who would listen. I would go on to see it again two more times in a single week, because it demanded to be re-experienced in as big and loud a format as possible. Rather than succumbing to the usual effects of heightened scrutiny (such as uncovering plot holes or continuity errors), the film actually improved with each successive viewing.
So what makes Fury Road so special? First and foremost, world-building without exposition. This is a movie that throws you into a fully-formed apocalyptic wasteland without a primer and expects you to glean its inner-workings from the story as it unfolds. Every mysterious element is contextualized in a way that allows you to understand it without having it explained, from the cult-like fanaticism of the War Boys to the slang that permeates the dialogue. As a result, not a single second of the film's two hour run time goes to waste, there are no unnatural exchanges between characters meant to subtly fill in background information, and the viewer is left with a more rewarding experience by having to extrapolate from what visual and aural clues are there. And best of all, the whole approach feels elegant and effortless, as if to ask why any movie would go about constructing its universe differently.
Second, the action choreography, cinematography, and practical effects work in tandem to put sequences on the screen that are unlike anything seen before. Miller used fully-operational vehicles and a first class stunt team to capture as much of the spectacle in-camera as possible. There is plenty of CG imagery as well, but it blends seamlessly with what was physically shot, creating a final product that is convincingly grounded in reality. The elaborate chase scenes were meticulously storyboarded in advance, and the framing by cinematographer John Seale is meant to hold attention on one part of the frame. Thus, editor Margaret Sixel never needs to rely on chaotic editing to make up for inconsistencies in the action. Everything tracks cleanly, and the pacing masterfully builds momentum as each sequence reaches its climax.
But even with all this incredible world-building and tour-de-force action filmmaking on display, what elevates Fury Road to a position of greatness is a multi-layered subtext that gives significance to the spectacle. This isn't just action for action's sake, or "let's find the best excuse to justify a demolition derby in the desert." Those movies exist, and I've enjoyed many of them, but Fury Road sets itself apart by commenting on feminism, religion, patriarchal societies, ageism, and a variety of other subjects in an unobtrusive yet meaningful way. How great is it to be coming out of a movie like this discussing Furiosa as a new feminist icon, or the real-world parallels evoked by the War Boys' sacrificial tactics, or the biblical symbolism of the various warlord factions? The movie lends itself to these forms of analysis without ever outright demanding to be taken seriously, a quality that is difficult to pull off and the true mark of greatness in an otherwise astonishingly awesome piece of work.
I won't even get into the fantastic performances, brain-melting score by Junkie XL, or top-notch 3D post-conversion, because at this point, I've made myself pretty clear. Mad Max: Fury Road shall ride eternal, shiny and chrome, as a movie that will be discovered by future generations at midnight-movie showings, in film-school dorm rooms, and most certainly, on whatever giant screen happens to be gracing my living room.
On to a few special categories, inspired by the SlashFilmcast, who stole these from...another podcast. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: SPECTRE
The Daniel Craig era will now be remembered as being wildly uneven, as Casino Royal and Skyfall were the highest of highs, while Quantum of Solace and SPECTRE represent the lowest of lows. With few exceptions (such as the gorgeous Day-of-the-Dead-set opening sequence), nothing works here: confounding story choices, uninspired action scenes, and Craig's sleepy performance are just the tip of the iceberg. And it may be unfair to lay this one at Bond's feet, but it is officially time to retire plots centered around the perils of mass surveillance. I know it's relevant, but it absolutely needs to be given a rest. Bad guys, please find other ways to terrorize the populace.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Spy
I skipped this one while it was in theaters thinking it was a generic spy spoof driven by fat jokes at Melissa McCarthy's expense. I unfairly doubted her and director Paul Feig though, because this is a hysterical comedy that, like most great parodies, skewers the genre while simultaneously acting as a solid entry into it. As with The Heat, McCarthy is dynamite, especially when playing against the excellent supporting cast. To its credit, the movie goes out of its way to avoid cheap jokes and has a lot of fun working laughs into the action scenes. This gave me a lot more faith in Feig's upcoming female-led Ghostbusters.
EVERYONE LIKED IT BUT ME: Anomalisa
I haven't felt the urge to walk out of a movie in a long time, but this one came close. I love Charlie Kauffman's work, especially Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two of my all-time favorites. But nothing worked for me here, and walking out of it, I was frustrated and angry (the last time that happened, after watching Do the Right Thing, I realized a few days later why it was a work of genius. That didn't happen this time). The main character is fiercely unlikable and, fortunately for me, impossible to relate to. The stop-motion animation is impressive, but its use isn't sufficiently justified (despite the trick it pulls off with characters faces). And the sense of hopelessness and dread you're left with at the end feels cruelly unnecessary; even if this film is attempting to depict a tragic mental plight, why couldn't it offer a ray of light at the end?
EVERYONE HATED IT BUT ME: Jupiter Ascending
I was at a bar recently, and Big Trouble in Little China was playing on the TV screen high above the selection of liquor, sans audio. I'd never seen it, but every few moments I'd find myself glancing up to see another batshit-crazy image featuring wacky sets, wild special effects, and a mulleted Kurt Russell. I made a mental note to finally check it out, and when I did, I was disappointed to find that the film itself didn't quite live up to the visuals (although its reputation as a cult classic was understandable). Jupiter Ascending is 2015's Big Trouble in Little China. Twenty years from now, some bartender will throw this up on a Friday night, and a dozen nerds will glance up thinking "is that a young Eddie Redmayne?" and "what the hell is going on with this alligator-alien creature?" They'll go home and rent it the next day, only to be disappointed that the story is a mess of brilliantly imaginative sci-fi ideas and terrible cliches. But it's visually spectacular and another testament to The Wachowski siblings' world-building ability.