The day of the Academy Awards is the perfect time to reflect on what the best movies of the previous year really were. As opposed to scrambling out a top ten list that gets heavily influenced by all of the year-end Oscar bait, taking some time to consider and even revisit favorites a few months later puts things into perspective, particularly in comparison to what work gets rewarded tonight. This year there was a surprisingly strong showing of studio produced and genre movies, with limited stellar output on the independent scene. The films that moved, stimulated, and most importantly (and unfortunately often not considered by the Academy) truly entertained in 2015:
10) The Martian – Ridley Scott’s assured adaptation of the best-selling novel first thrills through stimulating the brain, then goes for the heart, presenting a meticulously crafted adventure story for our modern times. If it was not about an astronaut left stranded on Mars, you’d think it was based on an incredible true story of determined survival and remote teamwork. Matt Damon does the heavy lifting, albeit surrounded by a solid supporting cast, injecting some much needed levity into a story that could have been bogged down in despair, bringing the character of Mark Watney to life as only he can – it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
9) Sicario – Emily Blunt has quickly become a leading lady to pay attention to, and her pair-up with director Dennis Villeneuve (a specialist in taut, precise, intellectual thrillers) showcases her uncanny ability to convey emotion / character with minimal dialogue. This talent is extremely important for a film that relies on her observations and reactions to the secretive and nefarious activity going on around her. In this case it’s the drug cartel motivated machinations of the CIA (represented, with a hint of malice behind his mischievous eyes and grin, by a laid back Josh Brolin), and a mysterious consultant (a scary, yet fatherly figure played with a subjugating live-wire undercurrent by Benicio Del Toro). The centerpiece is a tunnel siege shot in total darkness, alternating between infrared and night vision POV styles, a literal decent of the characters as they plunge into the purgatory of the US/Mexico border, the highlight of a film that is defined by its’ unrelenting tension.
8) Ex Machina – Written and first-time directed by Alex Garland, this film features three outstanding complex performances in an insular, claustrophobic sci-fi setting. All three leads also had amazing years, featured in some of the biggest and well-regarded movies of 2015. The film envelopes Oscar Isaac (enigmatic tech-genius Nathan), Domhnall Gleeson (hand-picked test subject Caleb), and Alicia Vikander (Nathan’s AI invention, lifelike robot, Ava) in a morality play about gender, surveillance, truth, evolution, and most invasively, CONTROL, that engages the mind as equally as the eye.
7) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Tom Cruise and co. basically out-Bonded James Bond this year by turning the British spy game on its’ head in the fifth stellar entry into a franchise that is showing no signs of wear. By switching up directors with each installment, and therefore style, tone, and theme, the series seems to only get better with age. MI:5 is sharply written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who shoots some of the best, you-are-there action scenes and seamlessly marries CG-enhancement with practical stunts, to create intelligent and exciting summer entertainment.
6) Creed – In true underdog, ‘Rocky’ style, this film defied convention and effectively managed to play on both the fondness for an indelible film character as well as introduce a new one to carry on the mantle. In a surprising move, this story does not center on a hard-scrabble lug who’s handed a shot at the title. It’s about two lonely men separated by generations who form an unlikely bond based on questions of legacy and responsibility. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, with an obvious affinity for this classic set of movies, coaxes yet another nuanced performance from his young star Michael B. Jordan as the son of the titular former champ. Stallone gives the performance of his career, revisiting his most famous creation and adding a surprising but logical new layer to this defining, almost mythical character so embedded in the public consciousness.
5) Inside Out – The amazing quality run of Pixar continues with this perfectly balanced original creation, an animated entertainment about emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust that elicits and completely earns these same emotional responses from an audience thoroughly entertained throughout. This is one of the most complex animated entries yet, taking abstract ideas and literally manifesting them on screen, resulting in clever set-ups that explain psychological response, from parenting styles, to the very real trauma and eventual acceptance that the adolescent mind goes through as we mature.
4) The Hateful Eight – The 8th full length feature written and directed by modern master Tarantino, is his loving ode to the ‘spaghetti western’. It’s also an Agatha Christie style chamber piece, a commentary of the evolution (or not) of race in America, a deconstruction of Civil War politics, and a gory blast of gratuitous violence. The movie is a pseudo-return to QT’s ‘Reservior Dogs’ roots, pitting an ensemble of character actors against each other in basically a one-room setting, setting up imaginative, compelling camera angles and scenarios. It’s truly a shame that Samuel L. Jackson was overlooked by the Academy this year for his portrayal of the enigmatic Major Marquis Warren, one of his best roles to date. As with any Tarantino film, it’s the joy of getting to know the characters, watching them interact in impeccably framed scenes, and eventually destroy each other both figuratively and literally that sets it apart from the pack.
3) Mad Max: Fury Road – Who could have guessed that the biggest feminist manifesto film of the year would come in the form of an unrelenting, post-apocalyptic, chase film courtesy of 70-year-old visionary writer-director George Miller, returning to the world of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy ably taking over in the role that brought Mel Gibson 80’s fame)? The film may bear Max’s name in the title, but in this movie he serves more as an instrument of will and destruction in support of the mission of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, redefining the action heroine) to deliver the suppressed ‘brides’ of a wasteland warlord out of an oppressed patriarchal society into an ideal green paradise. That the characters must realize they have to create this idealized world themselves elevates the material and provides the impetus for one of the most amazing action sequence ever put to film.
2) The Revenant – Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest (and much warranted) bid for Oscar gold came in the form of this riveting, unrelenting, survival revenge-western co-written and directed by recent Oscar-winning visual dynamo Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu. Centering on the Job-like plight of real-life prospector-tracker, Hugh Glass, the film’s difficult production and star’s uncompromising commitment to his director’s vision has quickly become legendary and should be rewarded, but it’s the many scenes bearing witness to the challenges of frontier life, of the horrors man can inflict on each other, that are sure to etch themselves in audience memory and leave an indelible scar for years to come . . .
1) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – When all is said and done, the most picked over, analyzed, scrutinized piece of entertainment of 2015 will continue to stand tall as the perfectly crafted blockbuster entertainment that it is. It is truly remarkable that a piece of work that was so highly anticipated, so ripe for dissection and criticism could succeed at every level. Matching crisp, inspiring visuals with a real sense of adventure, and a wonderful balance of light and dark touches (pun intended), this franchise kick-start sets up promising new potential for the galaxy far, far away. In a surprising turn, it’s the new elements of the saga that really inspire, supported by the wave of nostalgia brought through the re-introduction of each beloved character from the original trilogy. None more-so than the emergence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a new hero on a journey of discovery for a new generation of fans, with inevitable and mysterious ties to the old guard. It’s apparent right from the start that these filmmakers ‘get’ what makes Star Wars so entertaining – that serialized, matinee feel of the 1977 original, the charm of swash-buckling adventure and anthropomorphic droids, the hero’s journey, and detailed, lived-in design. It’s no secret that ‘The Force Awakens’ evokes the tropes of that first film, but what is interesting is how it plays with the mythology of the universe built prior while also being able to stand on its’ own. Never has delivery matched anticipation so wonderfully for an audience starving for true escapist entertainment in these cynical times . . .