It’s that special time of year where those with too much time on their hands like to reflect the film’s of the past of year. The standard for such reflections usually manifests in the form or top tens lists, but I often struggle in whittling down the list. I see so many movies that I enjoy. So at the risk of invalidating the list with too many movies, I’ve decided to do a top fifteen. Four honorable mentions, followed by what I saw as the cream of the crop, at least in terms of movies I’ve actually seen. Unfortunately there are movies I’d love to have gotten the chance to see and probably would have been on here, but couldn’t (Creed and Spotlight come to mind, and The Revenent and Hateful 8 haven’t come out at the time that I’m writing this. So without further ado, here is my top fifteen movies of the year:
15. Jurassic World.
While rife with clichés and some rather questionable gender roles, Colin Trevorrow’s first foray into blockbuster filmmaking is a tremendous spectacle of good old fashion monster movie fun. While hampered from touching the quality of the original (hampered by its characters and writing), this sequel/ quasi reboot eclipses the previous two entries in the Jurassic Park franchise, reinvigorating the brand with dynamic action sequences, a fun, intimidating main monster (in the form of the Indominus Rex) and delivering an epic fist pump of a climax. The best sequel in a franchise of lame sequels, Jurassic World reminds us that when you can’t be smart, at least be fun. Dinosaurs help a lot as well. Always add more dinosaurs.
14. Ant Man.
Another check in the column reading “derivative, but well done,” Ant Man surprised audiences with just how completely far from awful it turned out being. In fact, it turned out pretty damn great. The character is not well-known by any stretch, and if he it’s due to being the punching bag of jokes. He is essentially Marvel’s Aquaman. Couple that with the bad taste of behind the scenes drama and directors and actors leaving the project, well, most people just didn’t have high hopes for this movie. But that doesn’t stop three creative forces known primarily for comedy (director Peyton Reed, writer Adam McKay with a story by Edgar Wright, and lead Actor Paul Rudd as the titular hero) from turning in a slick, well written heist film with some of Marvel studios most creative and engaging action sequences to date (and one of their strongest origin stories).
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
This was complicated beast of a movie. It’s both better than it’s predecessor (the record breaking colossus that was “Marvel’s The Avengers) while simultaneously failing to live up to it. Personally, I think the story being told here is a lot more interesting than in the first one. The characters are expanded and developed into more interesting directions and the broaches some really interesting ideas. The whole conflict of the film is predicated on the idea the a superhero team taking justice into their own hands is actually damaging to the world and causing backlash among the the public in certain areas. The villain is a mentally unstable Artificial Intelligence called Ultron (created by Avengers Tony Stark/ Iron Man and Bruce Banner/ The Hulk for purpose of fighting crime and defending the earth in their stead) who shares in this notion that the Avengers must be stopped…but then eventually comes to the notion that all of humanity needs to be wiped out as well. And therein lies the film’s problems. It has so many great ideas for a sequel that COULD have surpassed the original in every way, but focuses too much on action scenes and setting up future sequels and too little on filling in the gaps in the narratives logic. At the end of the day it’s fun action film with good characters and an interesting story. Unfortunately it’s eclipses by the shadow of a much better movie that could have been made.
12. Black Mass.
This movie was exactly the adrenaline shot to the chest that Johnny Depp’s career needed. Depp delivers his best performance in years (and one of his best performances in general). The film itself offers an intense look into the Boston crime scene in the 70’s and 80’s, following the real life corruption within the local FBI as they let deranged Mob Boss Whitey Bulger run amok for decades. As a mob film it’s fairly standard, good cast, great soundtrack, moody atmosphere. But what truly elevates the film is Depp, who portrays a sadistic demon on a man with unrelenting malice, but also scenes of warmth (Whitey Bulger did have a family). Every scene with this man is terrifying, making it one of the best performances of the year as far as I’m concerned. But Eddie Redmayne is playing a transgendered person, so I guess there goes THAT Oscar.
11. Kung Fury.
If you have any love for the first ridiculousness that is 80’s pop culture, you will love Kung Fury. A super Kung fu cop travels through time and space with his triceratops partner, Vikings and a gun toting T Rex to fight the malevolent Time jumping Hitler. Special appearance by Odin, the All-father and a malfunctioning arcade game robot. This short film is a masterpiece of nostalgic 80’s LA excess and pulp Kung fu noir. It’s on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and watch it.
10. The Visit.
The Shyamalan twist of the decade…the horror movie about killer grandparents actually wound pretty great. Shyamalan seems to have remembered what made him a master of tension back in the 90’s, because this is without a doubt Shyamalan’s best film in a decade. He’s crafted a surpassingly chilling thriller that actually utilizes the found footage format better than 90% of the Handheld horror schlock saturating the box office these past few years. Aside from the great performances by its cast, the linchpin of this films success is its sense of self-awareness. This film, while scary, also has a hilarious sense of humor about itself. It realizes that it’s a silly concept, and isn’t afraid to crack jokes and let its characters laugh between the scares.
9. Crimson Peak.
While Guillermo Del Toro has yet to recapture the greatness he achieved with Pans Labyrinth, his English language films still have a good track record of being fun, stylish and brimming with creativity. Crimson Peak is no different. What I found especially clever about this movie was the little meta-fictional touches. While a horror movie, it is not ghost story. It is, as the film’s aspiring writer of a protagonist often says about her own work, NOT a ghost a story, but a story with ghosts in it. As is often the case with Del Toro’s work, the monsters at play are not in fact monsters, but products of a more insidious entity, the darkness that humanity is capable of spreading. Couple that with gorgeous cinematography, infectiously creepy atmosphere and great performance by Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, and Crimson Peak is a tremendously enjoyable gothic thrill ride.
8. It Follows.
What can I say, it was a fun year if you enjoy horror movies. While there was still plenty of dregs to wade through, there was a noticeable abundance of good, memorable movies to watch in the dark, and the one that most emphatically screamed “instant classic” was It Follows. A sleazy, dirty throwback to 80’s slasher movies (complete with thumping synth score) combined with a rather clever allegory for STD’s and teenaged promiscuity, this thriller features an instantly likable cast, slow moody tension and a brilliantly barebones simplistic, almost elemental concept for a movie monster. With the help of Kubrickian slow moving long takes and pan-and-scans, this movie carries a constant air of dread throughout its runtime that will haunt you even after the credits roll and you’re on your way out the door.
I won’t lie, I was not looking forward to Paddington when it came out. The trailers had too much of that Beethoven/ air bud/ Garfield vibe where it’s an animal doing embarrassing things much to the chagrin of some stuffed shirt who doesn’t like animals because random shenanigans=comedy gold for some reason. In a way, that is what this movie was. A bear gets into some shenanigans with a family in London and lessons about love and togetherness are learned by all. But the film is made with such passion, creativity and warmth that all of that becomes not just likable, but lovable. And the humor is so dry and unabashedly British that you can’t help but be charmed by it. The characters are all funny and likable in their own ways, the sets and art direction are colorful, detailed and rich and the camera work is just stunning. I was taken completely aback by how moving, charming and inventive a movie about a homeless talking bear wound up being.
6. The Martian.
The Martian is a very safe choice for Oscar season. The special effects aren’t groundbreaking but they’re still relatively flawless. Matt Damon carries his time alone on screen with charm and gravitas, but is also enhanced by a great supporting cast observing him from earth. The wide, lingering vistas of Mars are gorgeous to see in 3D. What makes the movie work so well is that, despite the dramatic weight of the circumstances, the movie has a marvelous sense of humor (and a fantastic 70’s soundtrack), but it still gets serious enough that you feel stakes when it needs to. All in all The Martian is a movie that you will undoubtedly feel great after having watched it. It also has the benefit of being a comeback of sorts for director Ridley Scott, who hasn’t made a crowd-pleasing film in a little over a decade.
And here we come full circle. The fourth and final (I promise) horror movie of the list, and my favorite horror movie of the year. Is it a better made film than any of the others? Who’s to say, It Follows is probably better, objectively speaking. But what the hell, it’s my list, and I loved the fuck out of this. Evil Santa demon, evil elves, demonic toys, killer gingerbread men, and likable cast in on the inherent joke of an evil Santa movie. The film is brimming with thrills, scares, and laughs with some of the most creative (and practical) monster design work I’ve seen in years. Krampus will become an annual holiday watch for me, among such classics as Gremlins, Die Hard and Batman Returns.
4. Kingsmen: The Secret Service.
Who would have thought that during a year with 2 marvel films, the best comic book films would an adaption of Mark Millar’s parody of/ love letter to the spy genre? Kingsmen: The Secret Service is kinetic, colorful, fun and dangerous with a brilliant cast and the second best action scene of the year (for first time viewers: when they get to a church, brace yourselves). This film does for Spy-fi what Kick-Ass did to superhero films and exceeds in ways I didn’t know were possible, making it one of the most fun theater-going experiences of the year. Put down whatever device you’re reading this on and go see Kingsmen…but then come back and keep reading, I like the views.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road.
And now for the first greatest action scene of the year…Mad Max: Fury Road. The entire film is a car chase, which I’ve seen people try to use as some kind of edgy, contrarian criticism of the movie that’s been hailed by many as the best of year. My rebuttal: so the fuck what? It has fun characters, good acting, the visuals and art directions are fantastic, and enough creativity and weirdness that puts David Lynch’s Dune to shame. You want deep character development? Read the between the lines, it’s there. There’s a very prevalent feminist/ anti-patriarchy message throughout the film (hell, even those idiotic men’s rights activists were able to pick up on that). To me, this movie had a little bit of everything for everyone. The film itself is an adventure to embark on, so by all means. Do yourself a favor and heed that call to action.
2. Ex Machina.
Until very recently, this was my number one film of the year. Ex Machina is a creepy, cerebral techno thriller with fantastic lead performances by Domhnal Gleeson, Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander. The setting a claustrophobic, Kubrickian maze of sterile underground hallways with stark, monochromatic coloring and a tense, pulsating score. It’s the kind of film where it would be a massive disservice to any viewer to spoil any of its twists and turns, so I’ll leave this. Review right where it is.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakes.
What can I say. It’s Star Wars. And the first good one in decades, at that. It’s emotional, it’s exhilarating, it celebrates the franchise that precedes it while introducing a superb, vibrant new cast for a new generation. Sky-flying adventure, space age mysticism, and fun, memorable characters make Star Wars: The Force Awakens the movie to beat this year, stating to quarreling franchises like a Marvel, DC and Star Trek in the most emphatic of tones: step aside kids, the king is back.
And that’s my top films of 2015. It’s been a great year, here to the next one!