My Favorite Movies Of 2015Posted: January 2, 2016
Happy New Year, folks! As always, beginning a new year means reflecting on the old one, in cinema as much as anywhere else. 2015 was quite a good year for movies indeed, and while I doubt anyone will wholeheartedly agree with my selections I would hope that everyone still found their share of films to enjoy and learn from. But this is my blog, so it’s my list we’re talking about first and foremost… so let’s get to it!
One thing I will cop to regarding this year’s list is the predominance of blockbuster action films. This was a very good year for tentpoles and mainstream entertainment, sometimes in ways that weren’t properly appreciated by the audience at large. But more to the point, I think that as I get closer to really tapping into my own artistic impulses, I found myself more drawn to the types of stories I want to write myself, and this list is the result. Now, without further rambling, my Favorite Films of 2015:
Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s easy nowadays to shrug off Marvel movies, as they’ve made so many so fast (and so consistently) that one might take them for granted. But to me, Joss Whedon’s sophomore MCU effort is a tremendous example of sequel storytelling that is worth recognition. It’s a film that gives plenty of what the audience wants (Hulkbuster fight!) while also defiantly refusing to be a retread of its predecessor, structurally or thematically. Whedon smartly builds not just on his previous film but all the Phase Two films to do some really compelling things with his characters, and the stunning ensemble cast drives every beat home. To me, Age of Ultron is exactly why you shouldn’t sleep on Marvel… and why Whedon remains one of the best.
The Big Short: I don’t know shit about economics, other than money is important and I don’t make enough of it. And before seeing The Big Short I had a vague sense of what bad behavior drove us to the Great Recession. But after seeing Adam McKay’s career-redefining opus I now know and understand enough to be absolutely furious at the once and future state of our economic system. McKay and his cast don’t let anyone off easy, making it quite clear how pretty much everyone was culpable in this crisis, while trying desperately to educate the audience so that MAYBE this shitstorm won’t repeat itself. But McKay never loses his ability to be hilarious either, often having a ton of fun with the fourth-wall-breaking lecture segments. The Big Short is an issue movie unlike any other, and one that is absolutely vital in this day and age.
Creed: While some of the franchise films on this list are built on years-long love affairs I’ve had with their characters, my experience with the Rocky films begins and ends with the first one… and yet I could not have loved Creed more. Ryan Coogler builds on the history of Rocky as a film and as a character to weave a powerful new narrative, combining an understated technical ability with an impactful emotional backbone. And besides another electric turn from Michael B Jordan we also get Sylvester Stallone’s best performance ever, one that holds up as one of the best of the year. I may not love Rocky, but I love Creed, and I can’t wait to revisit his story soon.
Crimson Peak: At the very least, Crimson Peak is a tremendous exercise in style, design and tone. The rich color pallet and constant unease perfectly complement the impressive main set, which is one of the best practical effects in a great year of them. But all of those great stylistic accomplishments would be meaningless without any emotion behind them, and del Toro nails the tragic heartache of his characters. As always he shows a ton of empathy for even his most monstrous characters, aided greatly by the performances his cast gives him. Crimson Peak is trademark del Toro, and how could I not love that?
The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a challenging film, even more than his previous efforts. While his work has always been marked by an aggressive style and level of violence, The Hateful Eight has the added weight of an unshakably bleak worldview to go along with it. But for those willing to journey with Tarantino into this darkness, they will find one of his most thoughtful films, and one of the best performances Samuel L Jackson has ever given. Combined with the rest of the colorful characters one would expect in a Tarantino film, the gorgeous cinematography, haunting score and cathartic gore, The Hateful Eight is both exactly what you want from a Tarantino film and an effective maturation of his style at the same time, a win-win for the director and audience alike.
Inside Out: Our emotions are everything, in life and in art, and that is particularly the case with this latest Pixar gem. Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen’s film is as beautiful on the page as it is on the screen, and as with all the best Pixar films it’s message is just as important for adults as it is for kids. It’s one of the more honest explorations of sadness I’ve seen in a film, one that considers how all emotions relate to each other and how little of our adult experience can be reduced to just one feeling at a time. This is something that we often try to forget or ignore, and we often dismiss a person’s negative moods as something they should get over rather than confront and accept. Inside Out is as complex as any adult film I’ve seen, one that entertains and inspires and emotes as only the best films really can.
It Follows: I didn’t fully “get” It Follows when I first saw it. It clearly had a ton of thematic depth under the surface, but the one downside to its intentionally-murky mythology was that it was hard to nail down what the exact metaphor (if any) behind the high concept really was. But this was the sort of uncertainty that bred curiosity, not frustration, and it provoked some great discussion as any good film should. Add in the intense slow-burn and discomforting mood and it’s no wonder I was eager to revisit it. Thankfully David Robert Mitchell’s film more than holds up upon additional viewings; the scares don’t dissipate and the themes reveal themselves more. It Follows is emblematic of an entire generation of indie horror, and serves as a reminder of all the tremendous chillers lingering on the fringes of cinema, waiting to be discovered.
Kingsman: The Secret Service: James Bond is an essential part of my cinematic/pop-culture DNA, but I have never loved the tropes and rhythms of 007 more than in this brilliant deconstruction of them from Matthew Vaughn. Kingsman takes the broad strokes of Bond and puts them to hilariously audacious use, tackling themes of class while continuing Vaughn’s frantically cartoonish action sensibilities. With all the fantastic action scenes this year, the church fight in this film still stands out as an impressive piece of work, and the rest of the film matches that scene in overall greatness. Featuring a star making turn for Taron Edgeton and a badass Colin Firth, Kingsman is Vaughn’s best film yet, and a reminder of how much of an evil genius the man really is.
Mad Max: Fury Road: The latest adventure of Max Rockatansky is something of a cinematic singularity. It is the latest effort of a bona fide celluloid visionary, it is a gigantic Hollywood reboot/revamp blockbuster, it is a hardcore action film, it is a startlingly blunt feminist manifesto, and it is a damn masterpiece. George Miller returns to his Wasteland with aplomb, crafting a stunning stunt extravaganza that externalizes character and theme in a whirling dervish of twisted metal and endless violence. Even without the mind-numbing action, the powerful performances and character arcs demand your attention; in particular, Imperator Furiosa is a hero for the ages. While this list in particular is filled with great adventure films, there is nothing quite like Fury Road, and cinema is so much better for it.
Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation: I’m as surprised as you are, believe me. As big a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise as I am, I still wouldn’t have expected the newest installment to come anywhere near this list. And yet, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise delivered a powerhouse old-school action film with poise and precision. The set pieces in this film are uniformly excellent (the opera fight remains my personal favorite) and Cruise is as committed to the totality of Ethan Hunt as ever. Add in a star-making turn for Rebecca Ferguson and some lovely melancholic character moments, and Rogue Nation becomes the best film in the franchise and a sleeper favorite for yours truly.
Sleeping With Other People: While the indie film world has slowly been redeeming the tropes of the romantic comedy genre, they have remained a lot like their studio-friendly brethren in being more about the “comedy” than the “romantic”. This is where Leslye Headland’s sophomore film comes in. Sleeping With Other People is achingly, painfully romantic, and I found myself more invested in this relationship than in almost any other comedy I’ve seen. This is due in equal measure to Headland’s sharp script and the charismatic performances of Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, all three of which are defined more than anything else by honesty. There is an uncompromising aspect to their approach to this relationship that allows the laughter and tears to land with equal force, all without undermining the rom-com tropes the film is built on. I love the love in this movie, warts and all, and that’s what sets it apart from other comedies this year for me.
Spotlight: The impressive thing about Spotlight (besides, y’know, all of it) is how it remains this quiet, unassuming procedural while also containing this crusading, righteous fury. The film is an ode to journalism, a critique of insulated community and a tragedy of shattered faith, wrapped in a very matter-of-fact procedural package. Tom McCarthy’s film pulls no punches in its exploration of the priest abuse scandal, but it also isn’t melodramatic; rather, it allows the characters’ quiet dread to connect to the audience and allow us to arrive at the emotional impact on our own terms. This is what elevates Spotlight above the standard Oscar-bait fare: it does not bludgeon us over the head with its point, but presents it plainly, trusting the audience to see it for what it is. It’s heartbreaking in effect and impressive in execution, and the result is one terrific film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Star Wars is back, and I’m glad I can be glad about that. While The Force Awakens might not be a perfect film (in many of the usual ways that JJ Abrams films aren’t) it succeeds in being a fun, energetic return to the galaxy far, far away. Most importantly, it introduces a fascinating new cast of heroes that I can’t wait to see more of, driven by pitch-perfect casting and performances. There is an undeniable liveliness to this film, and an unrestrained joy in exploring the Star Wars universe anew. This, more than the New Hope-esque plot beats and Original Trilogy callbacks, is what makes The Force Awakens a film for the fans: it is excited about its universe as we are, in the same way that we are. It’s a film that plows past its narrative hiccups and embraces the adventure and character of Star Wars, and in my mind that makes it a success.
As for which of these movies is my favorite of the year… I don’t really know if there is one. While I liked these movies very much (and markedly moreso than the films I saw that didn’t make the list) none of them has really distinguished itself from the others. They are all more or less on the same level of quality as far as my preferences and criteria are concerned; given that, I could just name Star Wars my number one just because it’s Star Wars. But at this point, the question becomes not “which of these films is my favorite?” but instead “why aren’t any of these films my favorite?” And the only answer I can think of, as pretentious and masturbatory as it is, is that no one made my favorite film because I need to make it for myself. Because ultimately it feels like my Favorite Films this year are just dancing around what I really want, and that’s something I need to recognize and act on in 2016. In the meantime, I’m glad to have seen all of these films, and I can’t wait to see what will follow them in the year to come.