Plot and Theme’s Top Ten Movies of 2015, Plus Stray Observations!

Now that all of the days of 2015 are safely in the past, it is an appropriate time for me to take my shot at one of those heralded “Top 10” lists. This list comprises only movies released in 2015, and only contains movies which I had the opportunity to see (alas, no The Revenant or Macbeth). I will provide links to the actual reviews I did of each of these films, as well as an interesting (well, I suppose that’s debatable) observation that relates to each film. Also, feel free to yell at me in the comments about the patently incorrect opinions that I hold, or to lobby for your favorites.

We’ll start with #10 and work our way up.

#10 – It Follows

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Original Review

This low-budget horror film actually debuted at Cannes in 2014, but for all intents and purposes no one got to see it until it sneaked up on everyone in March of this year. One part allegorical warning against teenage promiscuity and one part supernatural slasher flick, It Follows manages to make a shambling, slow shapeshifter into an insurmountable terror. The talent of director David Robert Mitchell flashes in the staging of the sequences and a keen understanding of how to build tension. Also notable is the soundtrack: a popping cacophony of video game sounds that informs greatly upon the action at hand. The ambiguous ending should inspire multiple viewings and arguments, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Observation:

The low-budget Indie horror films are spectacular lately, aren’t they? It Follows, The Babadook, What We Do in the Shadows, and Housebound are just a few examples from the last couple of years, and they are all fantastic despite wildly different tones. Some lean more towards comedy, and some are dead-straight terrifying. Keep your eyes open for more of these in the coming year, especially the much-anticipated The VVitch, which opens near the end of February 2016 and I will continue to spell that way because people actually type that into Google and are rewarded by being pointed to Plot and Theme.

#9 – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (AKA MI:5)

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Original Review

For the most part, the Mission: Impossible franchise follows a unique trajectory: each film is better than those which precede it (MI:1 is probably better than MI:2, but it is close – and really a matter of how you feel about John Woo). After Brad Bird knocked MI:4 (Ghost Protocol) out of the park, it seemed folly to expect the next iteration to continue the trend, but somehow director Christopher McQuarrie manages to do just that. The cold open features Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, still amazing) holding onto the side of a plane during take-off, and the rest of the narrative lives up to this grandiosity. It isn’t all crazy action set pieces and high-powered globetrotting, either. The theater scene in Vienna showcases McQuarrie’s talents for building tension, and the underwater heist sequence is utterly heart-pounding. Populated by an outstanding ensemble cast, the ending and the ultimate big bad may be a little weak, but this film does everything else to perfection.

Observation:

Strangely, 2015 was The Year of the Spy Film. I count at least 6 big-budget Hollywood spy films released this year: Spy, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, MI:5, Bridge of Spies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and Spectre. Undoubtedly, MI:5 was the best of the blockbuster films, and Kingsmen was the best surprise of the year. Spy and U.N.C.L.E. were also surprises in their own ways, playing up the comedic elements of the genre. Bridge of Spies was a bit of a disappointment given the talent assembled for this film, but it is still worth a watch. And, at the bottom of the ladder is the latest Bond film, Spectre. At the beginning of the year, there was no way anyone would predict that there would be five spy films better than the latest entry of the spy franchise, but here we are. Sometimes Hollywood falls into these kinds of weird genre love fests and a whole bunch of those films come out all at once. Studios get wind that their competitors have a certain kind of film in the works, so they figure out how to put together a similar film. For some reason, this year, everyone had a spy film to put out. And the king of them all was Mission: Impossible (honorable mention: Kingsmen).

#8 – Sicario

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Original Review

Full disclosure: I am absolutely obsessed with Denis Villeneuve. At the beginning of 2015, I had seen exactly zero of his movies. At the end of 2015, I have seen six of his seven features (missing only his very first). His latest offering, Sicario, is a tense, shades-of-gray look into the war on drugs, especially in the context of the Mexican drug cartels. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benecio del Toro, this film pulls no punches and reaches cold, grim conclusions. Blunt is the audience proxy, as she gets whisked through the proceedings and must confront the moral ambiguity of what victory in this “war” entails, and both Brolin and del Toro are outstanding. Villeneuve’s direction draws meaning from each sequence, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as jaw-dropping as always, and at times utterly horrifying. Sicario may not be Villeneuve’s greatest film to date, but it is an important look at the futility of the war on drugs, and how if we choose to fight it with the weapons we have, we assure our own moral denigration.

Observation:

Like I said, I am a Villeneuve obsessive. His career arc seems to be one where each successive film has greater attention from the public, and that will certainly continue as he tackles Blade Runner 2. As a fan of the original, it really looks like all of the dominoes are lining up for Villeneuve, and I believe he has the talent to knock it out of the park. But, Blade Runner 2 is not his next project! Before he gets to work on this film, he is tackling a film based on a Ted Chiang short story called, The Story of Your Life. This is a fantastic story, and really plays to Villeneuve’s strengths as a director (complex ideas, non-linear storytelling, and darker themes). It stars Amy Adams as a linguist and Jeremy Renner as a physicist who attempt to communicate with a group of aliens who land on Earth. I am calling it now based on nothing more than Villeneuve’s pedigree and the quality of Chiang’s story: this movie will be amazing. Keep your eyes open for it.

#7 – Brooklyn

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Original Review

As a treatise on homesickness alone, Brooklyn would be a worthy film, but it is much more than that. It is a wonderful period piece, taking us back to the world of the 1950s. It is also a powerful depiction of an individual’s pursuit of happiness. All these themes are woven together by superb acting and the deftness of John Crowley’s directorial hand. Sairose Ronan’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, as she is able to portray complex emotions with subtlety. Often, Ronan does very little acting at all, and simply trusts Crowley to let the camera wander over her face for lengthy stretches. The supporting performances flesh out the story and its world, especially lending a bit of levity into a story that could have been quite dour. Brooklyn is a small film, but its themes are profound. When it makes it way around to the On-Demand scene (or pops back into theatres for Oscar Season), be sure to give it a look.

Observation:

An outstanding issue in Hollywood (and film in general) is that women are grossly under-represented in all areas. From engaging roles, to all manners of creative positions, to control of film on a production level, there is a decided paucity of women. And while Brooklyn, and to a larger extent all film in 2015, did not erase this discrepancy, one gets the feeling that thing are reaching a much-needed tipping point.   A number of films showcase unique and intriguing female characters. Brooklyn was the best I saw, though Mad Max, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carol, Room, The Danish Girl, Spy, Sicario and many others succeeded as well. Hopefully the industry is moving away from the idea that women are simply less-talented in the realms of screenwriting, directing, and producing and we’ll start to see a more feminine perspective ringing through in the near future.

#6 – Mad Max: Fury Road

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Original Review

The best action film of the year was about a not-so-leisurely road trip. The latest iteration of the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road reached pinnacles that few other action films can boast. Throughout its bare-bones storyline, it manages to emerge as thematically relevant, develop multiple interesting characters, and provide mind-buzzing entertainment. Tom Hardy was fine as Max, but this is Charlize Theron’s movie, as Furiosa steals the show. The set pieces are great, and the action somehow ramps up the whole way through. Practical crashes and CGI details blend seamlessly, which is a testament to George Miller’s aptitude. I am convinced that this movie will not pop quite as much on the home theatre screen, but there are whisperings that George Miller will release a black-and-white version of the film back into theatres. So, if you missed it during its first run, you may still get a chance to experience the best action film of the year as it was intended.

Observation:

One of the details that really excited movie critics about Mad Max was how it used practical effects (Star Wars inspired similar fervor). In a time where CGI has become the de-facto technique for creating difficult sequences, it is a breath of fresh air to see a movie get it so right. The trouble is, George Miller used dozens of CGI techniques in Mad Max – you just didn’t see them. And the most tense and gripping sequence from Sicario, when the DEA agents crossed the border back into America – yep, CGI. Miller routinely augmented the practical effects that he captured on digital cameras with true CGI, and the blending resulted in making the latter invisible. For his part, Villeneuve created the standstill traffic jam with practical effects in an abandoned parking lot. The rest of the sequence – that which stretched ahead to the secure US border and behind to the dilapidated Mexican one – is all CGI. Look back on the best films of 2015, and you’ll find this pattern repeating: film makers who created their vision in front of the camera and then augmented it in the computer dazzled us, whereas filmmakers who hung green curtains on a sound stage and fixed it up in post received only eye rolls.

#5 – Amy

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Original Review

The lone documentary to make my list, Asif Kapadia’s telling of the Amy Winehouse story remains one of the most haunting films I saw in 2015. This documentary is at once a retrospective on Amy’s life and a condemnation of the culture responsible for her creation – and eventual disposal. Using only archival footage of Amy, and her own voice and writings, Kapadia paints his canvass with the intricacies of her life, and only asks her friends and family for clarification. The result is certainly an indictment of Amy for her poor decisions, and her family for enabling them, but it also points a finger or two directly at us, the viewer. The film showcases the poisonous nature of fame and the frenetic tendencies of the crowd: they can delight at your ascent from nothing and celebrate your talent, but it is way more fun to watch a star tumble.

Observation:

Of all the films I saw in 2015, Amy may be the one that stays with me for the longest. I knew very little about her during her career, but I distinctly remember chuckling at latenight talkshows joking at her expense. I vaguely recall news stories documenting her failings and struggles with fame, and I remember thinking that her death was a deserved inevitability. Amy not only informed me of the details of her life and the brilliance of her talent, but also illuminated the errors in my perspective. And, while there may be little I can personally do to help the next celebrity who collapses under the weight of the vampiric 24-hour tabloid cycle, I can at least know that I will not contribute flippantly to such a destructive charade.

#4 – The Martian

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Original Review

Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. This was another astounding ensemble cast, and everyone is used with purpose and to perfection. The story itself unravels as a kind of science fiction Apollo 13 with a bit of Cast Away thrown in, and the themes evident in those films also shine through in The Martian. The capacity for the human spirit to endure and the ingenuity of the mind are front-and-center. This results in a thoroughly inspirational and spellbinding film of survival and courage, but there is a great deal of humor as well, most of which derives from Matt Damon’s sardonic character. Put it all together and you get the best Blockbuster of the year: a great film in every right, and one which will be remembered for years.

Observation:

And you better live it up, because Ridley Scott is in for another stumble or three. I am a gigantic fan of Scott, but other than The Martian, his recent offerings have been complete misses. Many pundits cheered The Martian as a sign that Scott was back and that this was a reason to be excited about his next pieces. From my point of view, that’s a step too far. The Martian is undoubtedly great, but I predict that it was merely a blip due to an outstanding script and the ensemble to end all ensembles. His direction is technically strong, and he manages to squeeze extra meaning from a number of scenes through certain choices, but this is not a indication of what’s to come. The pre-production stories which are beginning to surface surrounding Alien: Covenant (the Prometheus sequel which is not named “Prometheus”) and Alien 5 (the Aliens sequel being directed my Neill Blomkamp) do not lend much confidence that Scott is ready to go on a run. Hopefully I am wrong.

#3 – Ex Machina

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Original Review

And now for the actual best science fiction film of 2015. Alex Garland’s directorial debut is perfection. The story takes a single idea – the Turing test for identifying artificial intelligence, and ponders it from numerous angles. In that sense, Ex Machina could be thought of in the spirit of Asimov’s robot novels contemplating the ramifications of the Three Laws of Robotics: they take a framework for thinking about artificial persons and try to tease out the unforeseen issues. Garland structures the story around three characters: the eccentric genius Nathan (Oscar Issac) who creates the A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander) and the gifted programmer whom he enlists to proctor the test, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Each actor’s performance is impeccable, but Vikander goes above-and-beyond in her portrayal of Ava. This is simply a fantastic movie, and should be seen by everyone, not just fans of the genre.

Observation:

Over the course of 2015, the fervor over remakes, reboots, sequels, and franchises in general reached a peak. Of the top ten grossing movies from 2015, only two were not part of a franchise, and only one was a piece of original intellectual property (The Martian was based on a novel, and the only original IP lands at #2 on my list). While financial success does not portend artistic strength, it is reasonable to interpret that since lots of money goes to these safe, known properties, money will continue to go there, so studios will keep churning them out. So, what’s the solution? GO OUT AND SEE THE UNIQUE FILMS THAT GET MADE. In the context of Ex Machina, this means supporting smaller, independent films and studios – and not just waiting until digital download to do it. Respond to good word-of-mouth and then spread some of your own. Seek out the little films and then champion them. There are so many out there that I can easily list off more than a dozen movies that I wanted to see from 2015 but didn’t get to – and I focus on seeing them! You can bitch about Furious 7 having a $150 million opening or whine about a Memento remake all you want, but if you passed on Ex Machina, Spotlight, It Follows, Inside Out, and dozens of others, then you are not helping. There is no lack of original material on the Big Screen – there is a lack of people who care to seek it out and see it.

#2 – Inside Out

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Original Review

And speaking of high-grossing original IP, Pixar comes to the rescue with an absolute gem. There was not a more original story with more compelling characters in the whole of 2015. And what’s more, the animation was used to such specific effect that the story was incapable of being told in another medium. Thematically, the film depicts the importance of emotion – all emotion – in living a healthy life, and does so with astounding beauty. The voice-acting is superb, the plotting nearly perfect, and the world-building is both complex and understandable, which is a testament to the prowess of the storytellers over at Pixar. This is a fantastic film.

Observation:

Continuing the discussion of high-grossing movies and original IP, Inside Out is the only film not based on existing IP to gross in the top 10 domestically. This observation is related to the previous one in that it is based on how to focus on good movies over cash-grabbers, but steers away from the Indies. The big-budget films that turn out great usually do so thanks to high-quality talent at the production and directorial levels, so I tend to focus there. Pixar is a stalwart for sure, as they produce powerful content habitually (though I am concerned about their upcoming slate of sequels). A potential competitor is none other than Disney animation, as Zootopia and Moana both appear to be promising. Moving beyond animation, the best way to find quality original content is to notice the directors and production companies that make things you like and pay attention to what they have in the chamber. As I have mentioned before, Denis Villeneuve is my guy right now, but I also have my eyes peeled for anything done by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and even weirdos like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé. For production studios, I am always stoked when A24 puts money behind a project. The important thing is to find people making the things they want, which usually means people making things on a moderate budget (or, people who have Oscars so the studio lets them do whatever). Then, just as before, seek these out and see them in theatres and let people know if and why they are important.

Honorable Mentions

Before we get to #1, I’ll take this time to mention those films which narrowly missed out. The obvious omission is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I have made my opinions on that movie well known. I still think that it is a fine film, but took too few risks in an attempt at a soft reboot of the franchise, mostly as a way to completely absolve the damage done by the prequels. Hence, it is not deserving of a top 10 status, but was close. Creed could have taken the place of Mission Impossible, and is the one film I wish I had room for. It was rousing and inspirational, and portends great things from the relatively new director Ryan Coogler. Steve Jobs was also great, and I responded to the structure of the narrative more than most. The performances were all engaging and should earn a few Oscar nods among them. Another film just outside of the top ten was The Hateful Eight, which was enjoyable and decidedly Tarantino, but it was just missing the grandeur of his latest few works. Love & Mercy likely changed the way I watch movies for the remainder of my life for being such a superb example of diegetic music, and the acting was great, too. And lastly, Trainwreck was a solid raunchy romantic comedy that did a great deal very well. All of these films are worth seeing, but I only had room for 10.

And a second honorable mention paragraph? Yep, this one mentioned films that I desperately wanted to see from 2015 but for one reason or the other didn’t get a chance. Top of the list is The Revenant, which simply hasn’t been released in my area yet; I’ll be seeing that ASAP. Other films I missed because their releases were too short or limited and Madison, WI didn’t have them on many screens. These include things like Carol and Room, and when I can find a way to watch these ones, I anticipate that I will enjoy them. And, some films I just didn’t go out and see but should have. Straight Outta Compton is my primary omission from the year, but there are others as well.

#1 – Spotlight

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Original Review

My favorite and the best-made film of 2015: Spotlight, another film that was both haunting and affecting. The story (and title) is based on an investigative team of reporters at the Boston Globe who slowly uncovered the extent of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual assaults on young children. Like All The President’s Men, this is a press-level procedural focused around piecing together a cogent story from disparate interviews, paper trails, and other provable facts. Put bluntly, these kinds of stories can be horribly boring. Director Tom McCarthy’s major success is making these plot elements unfold more like Mad Max than Law & Order, which is an astounding feat. Further, the film boasts the best ensemble cast of the year – in a year where that is saying something. The subject matter of the film may be icky, and the strongest sequences of the film depict that feeling faithfully. But the result is well worth it: a film that revels in the discovery of the truth, no matter how horrific.

Observation:

You should see Spotlight before it wins Best Picture.

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