Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top Films of 2015

Honorable Mentions:

20: The End of the Tour

19: The Salvation

18: The Stanford Prison Experiment

17: Bridge of Spies

16: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

15: The Martian:

14: Kingsman: The Secret Service

13: It Follows

12: Room

11: The Gift

Steve Jobs
     I've always been a massive Michael Fassbender fan since he came onto the scene with Hunger and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. But I wasn't extremely excited about the prospect of a Steve Jobs movie, particularly a year after Ashton Kutcher's butcher job. But I'll be damned if Fassbender doesn't pull off one of the great acting feats of his entire career--he makes you feel empathy for Jobs and the non-technology-related problems in his life. It helps that director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of 'West Wing' and The Social Network fame) have crafted a movie that--rather than focusing on the entirety of Jobs' live and his inevitable cancer diagnosis--focuses its entire run time on 3 specific (and important) product launches throughout Steve's years, and the personal relationships that are building or being broken down. It's incredibly fast-paced for a film that relies completely on its dialogue.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

     This one was a tear-jerker. Though Me and Earl and the Dying Girl contains a moment extremely key to the story that is annoyingly frustrating, enough of the film was funny, heartwarming and utterly eccentric, like if Wes Anderson still made enjoyable, low-budget films rather than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film seems to have fallen under the radar lately, even though it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, premiering to a standing ovation. A recap of the plot line--high school guy befriends high school girl who was recently diagnosed with leukemia--has all of the makings of a sap-infested lifetime made-for-television movie, but the cast does a great job in making Me and Earl a unique experience with a huge amount of heart and humor.

Mad Max: Fury Road

     Man, this movie is batshit. Back when it came out, I was browsing through the review blurbs and came upon something that stated (and I'm paraphrasing): It's like director George Miller took the studio's $100 million budget, drove it out into the middle of the Namibia Desert, and held it for ransom. And that's what Fury Road feels like: after the initial half hour, which is either so bad it's good or so bad it's laughable, this new Mad Max goes to an over-hour-long chase scene that is so innovate and so impressive and unique that it stands tall as the best action movie of 2015. Tom Hardy, who is one of my favorites (and also impresses with his acting ability much more in another film on this list), doesn't do much here other than grunt, so it's Charlize Theron as Furiosa who really stands out, leading a group of chosen women to "the promised land", even though that land is much closer to where they started than they ever could have believed.

Bone Tomahawk 
     It's not often that I can say that "this film is the first film on this year-end Top 10 List that is a Western and stars Kurt Russell", but there we have it. I can't say for sure if that points more towards the state of film nowadays or that Kurt Russell is the God-Damned man: probably a bit of both. Either way, Bone Tomahawk is a total blast for any fan of well-written Westerns with moments of abolsute horror (The film contains one of the more disturbing deaths I've seen in movies for a while--it's Unrated for a reason). A group of old-school badasses, which include Russell's Sheriff, his back-up deputy (Richard Jenkins), a highly-educated drifter (Matthew Fox), and a local cowboy (Patrick Wilson), set off to stop a scary group of cave-dwellers that have a penchant for the taste of human meat. Bone Tomahawk has an interesting script and really good performances, which already makes it a solid Western: the horror elements just make the film even more peculiar and interesting and something to seek out amidst the uninteresting movies of this year.

The Revenant 

   I loved last year's Birdman, director Alejandro Inarritu's film about a man at wit's end with love, life and acting. This year's The Revenant, a nearly 3-hour exercise in brutality about a fur-trapper who get's left for dead and then inches his way back to life for revenge, is a different kind of great: where Birdman excelled in quick dialogue and snappy play-set scenery, The Revenant--other than containing Inarritu's signature style and closeups--is a slow build with beautiful, brutal, gazing imagery (the entirety of The Revenant was filmed using completely natural light) and extremely minimal dialogue. With so little talking, all the power to Leonardo DiCaprio (as the trapper left for dead) and Tom Hardy (as a man with ulterior motives) and their typically awesome acting ability. The film could conceivably be a drag without them, with the never-ending suffering of its characters. Because of this, both actors (and the film itself) deserve significant recognition during the awards season.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

     I stated this on one of my most hated websites, Facebook, the day after I saw the newest Star Wars, but it's worth mentioning here: I was never too into Star Wars growing up--the originals are good (if too dated) and the prequels (especially looking back on them now) are nearly bad enough to just throw onto the garbage heap. Sure, his brain created the world that millions of fans love, but the best possible thing that could have happened to Star Wars happened: George Lucas gave up the reigns and returned to his troll hole. The Force Awakens is great, and the perfect re-invigoration of the franchise. J.J. Abrams manages to nod and wink to the original franchise (with much of the same plot, which isn't necessarily a detriment) while adding an exciting cast full of newcomers that rise far above the challenge of starring in the World's Biggest Movie Ever. Disney is planning on releasing a new Star Wars film every single year: if they can match the quality of Episode VII, epic sci-fi fans are in for a treat for years to come, witnessing the resolution to the stories of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren.

Ex Machina

     Ex Machina, 2015's early-year surprise, was directed by Alex Garland (the screenwriter for the awesome 28 Days Later and intriguing sci-fi film Never Let Me Go)--and it's his first go-round as a director. It was a supremely successful endeavor: Ex Machina stands out as the year's best sci-fi film, deftly exploring the notion of Artificial Intelligence like a 2-hour, well-made episode of Black Mirror. Coincidentally, Domhnall Gleeson (who was showcased in a specific episode of Black Mirror and also is in The Revenant and Star Wars on this list) is the main star here; he portrays Caleb, a programmer for a company with an eccentric hermit CEO (Oscar Issac, wonderful as always, and also is in Star Wars). Caleb "wins" a contest to spend a week with the reclusive genius and be involved in experiments with his newest creation. What transpires is a dark path down the dangerous aspects of artificial intelligence and technological singularity. 

The Hateful Eight

     The Hateful Eight, coincidentally the 8th film from Quentin Tarantino, is brutal, sometimes-cruel and occasionally dark and disturbing. But like Tarantino's recent films--such as Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds--Eight is a devilishly-violent, middle-finger-to-political-correctness alternate history telling that's packed to explode with humor, race relations, misogyny and blood. In other words, it's what we've come to expect from cinema's directing master of style and don't-give-a-fuckness. Tarantino does what he wants, and all we have to do is sit and enjoy. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, the first half of The Hateful Eight showcases the director's love of his written dialogue, with Kurt Russel, Tarantino-staple Sam L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and namely Walton Goggins chewing at the words like delicious meals. This first half, with the tension and building mystery, is nearly perfect. The second half...well, I won't spoil it. But let's just say that out of the stellar cast, all of whom are locked inside the blizzard-covered 'Minnie's Haberdashery', nobody is safe.


     Spotlight is an actor's movie, and the film, with its story of the uncovering of the Catholic Priest molestation/rape scandal, is rife with great performances: I particularly enjoyed Michael Keaton (enjoying a rebirth after last year's great Birdman) as Walter Robinson, the head honcho of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a ragtag group of journalists who spend months and years uncovering stories with their own unique brand of investigative journalism. Mark Ruffalo is solid too, portraying Michael Rezendes, a member of the Spotlight team whose passion to uncover the story is placed above everything else in his life. If Spotlight's subject matter had focused on another important matter, such as an oil spill or government corruption, I may not have enjoyed it quite as much (though it still would have been one of the better films of the year). But Spotlight so deftly showcases the hypocrisy and immorality of the people in power when practicing religion (Catholicism in particular), that it's spotlighted near the top of this list. 


     Director Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film, Prisoners, was one of my favorites of that year. What could have been a fairly common kidnapping procedural turned into something incredibly special in the hands of the new director and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, a modern master at his profession. And so it goes with Sicario, which in the hands of these experts turns into a horrific thriller about Law Enforcement and the drug trade on each side of the United States / Mexican border. Emily Blunt shines as the up-and-coming FBI agent, Kate, who puts her career first and her life a far second. But it's Benicio Del Toro, in arguably his best role in a decade as the mysterious Alejandro, who brings the film into absolute greatness. If Prisoners and Sicario are what Villeneuve has to offer, viewers are in for years of exciting and different-than-the-norm films. By the end of Sicario, you'll be reeling from your tingling nerves and thinking about this frightening world for days to come. 

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