Wow! What a year it’s been for movies!
The North American box office crossed $11 billion; two studios crossed $2 billion; franchises raked in bucks, and a lot of movies that should have done well, flopped. It was crazy.
Whether you were into superheroes, caper flicks, horror, comedy (rude or not), big budget or low-fi sci-fi, romance, or well done big dumb fun, it was available to you. Of course, there were bad examples in every genre, too. But here, we’re looking for the Good Stuff and there’s so much of it that the potential is for an honorable mentions list that could be a second Favorite Fifteen list. That’s how many good movies there were this year.
As always, these are my seventeen (!) favorites. Your mileage, etc…
17. Furious 7 (Universal Pictures) – Paul Walker’s final go was appropriately bittersweet; the physics were implausible and the feeling of family overcame plotholes. It was mad, sad, glorious, impetuous fun.
16. Maggie (Lionsgate) – tender, melancholy, wholly satisfying zombie movie with Arnold Schwarzeneggar playing a father grieving the loss of his daughter to the zombie infection even before she’s turned. Maggie removed all doubt about Arnold’s dramatic chops and Abigail Breslin was fine as the doomed title character.
15. Unfriended (Universal Pictures) – a horror tale told by and through social media. Original, scary and unexpectedly powerful in its melding of cybertech and supernatural. An unexpected gem.
14. Pitch Perfect 2 (Universal Pictures) – scandal and redemption form the spine of the second Pitch Perfect film. It’s as smart and knowing as the original and made Elizabeth Banks a directorial force to be reckoned with. It was, in short, aca-frikkin’ awesome!
13. Trainwreck (Universal Pictures) – Amy Schumer’s film debut, directed by Judd Apatow. Rude, crude, sweet, sassy and an unexpected joy – Schumer showed some dramatic chops; LeBron James showed some serious improv skills and Bill Hader played the lead female role. Trainwreck is a unique spin on Apatow’s crude with heart approach – also lots of fun.
12. Paddington (TWC-Dimension) – the first all ages film of the year turned out to be the second best all-ages film of the year. The brave, sweet little bear from darkest Peru benefited from an intelligent, witty script, a great cast and a director who understood that this was film for kids of all ages.
11. Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures) – the recounting of the rise of N.W.A. – and their equally speedy disintegration – is director F. Gary Gray’s magnum opus. This not the standard rags to riches tale – it’s about the cementing of a musical form into a permanent part of our cultural structure, and the abuse of talent for gain. It’s about reading before you sign, and about taking a unique and personal story to the public in a unique way. It’s almost Shakespearean in its depth and tragedy.
10. Turbo Kid (Epic Pictures) – a low-fi homage to post-apocalyptic films of the ‘80s set in the far off future of 1997. It’s an inventive, wacky, melodramatic affair that finds a comic book superhero fan becoming the superhero he’s always read about. It’s fast-paced, remarkably witty and filled with all the action, blood and heart that one could ask for – and yes, there’s a robot girl pal. Sometimes, fun is all you need.
9. The Big Short (Paramount Pictures) – the story of a handful of men who say the crash of 2007/8 coming and bet on it – getting rich while the world’s economy teetered on the brink of failure. It’s a remarkable comedy until it becomes a tragedy when they relai8ze they weren’t gaming a working system, but a corrupted, fraudulent one.
8. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Paramount Pictures) – the first of two epic franchises to feature a female character who is arguable as good as (or better than) the franchise’s main character. This time out, Ethan Hunt and his team are facing an evil counterpart to the Impossible Missions force – only the IMF has been disbanded. They aided (or are they) by a female double agent (Rebecca Ferguson) who matches Hunt skill for skill. Hunt’s team emerges triumphant but only because of her. Ferguson deserves an action franchise of her own. May I suggest Captain Marvel?
7. Love & Mercy (Roadside Attractions) – the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s descent into madness juxtaposed with his ascent from out of it. Paul Dano and John Cusack are brilliant as the younger and older Wilson and Elizabeth Banks shows award-worthy chops as the woman who helps Wilson escape the abusive relationship he had with his psychiatrist. Amazing story; great music.
6. Carol (The Weinstein Company) – when rich, worldly and gorgeous Carol buys a train set for her Christmas present, she is struck by store clerk Therese – who is equally impressed by her. This love story is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel from 1952, when such things were scandalous (she published the novel pseudonymously). Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara echo Katherine and Audrey Hepburn in their performances in this exquisitely directed film from Todd Haynes.
5. The Martian (20th Century Fox) – Ridley Scott and Matt Damon team up to create a sci-fi movie that not only doesn’t shy away from hard science, it makes it palatable to huge audiences. In and of itself, that’s pretty amazing. Then there’s the story of the astronaut stranded on Mars for over a year while NASA tries to figure out how to rescue him. The Martian is Scott’s best film since Alien and Blade runner. Damon’s performance is so natural that it almost undercuts the fact that it’s brilliant.
4. Ant-Man (Marvel Studios) – even though he didn’t direct it, Edgar Wright’s fingerprints are all over Ant-Man. With its impeccable cast and unsettlingly brilliant effects (will Thomas the Tank engine ever be the same in my eyes? I think not!), this is the most joyfully entertaining movie from Marvel outside of Guardians of the Galaxy.
3. Ex Machina (A24) – Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) thinks he’s won a contest to spend a weekend with his tech company’s genius boss (Oscar Isaac), but he’s really been chosen to examine an android AI (Alicia Vikander) to see if she could pass for a real person. Games are being playing – but by whom and to what end? Brilliant sci-fi; brilliant film.
2. Spotlight (Open Road Films) – the story of the investigative reporting team who uncovered and exposed one of the most appalling scandals in history – the systematic abuse of children by the Catholic clergy and the cover up that showed it was systemic and not merely local. The best film about investigative journalism since All the President’s Men.
1c. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.) – the other franchise to introduce a female character that is equal to the male lead – or, in this case, probably better. George Miller reinvigorates his Mad Max franchise by telling a story about a handful of women who have decided not to be property anymore and do something about it. Max persuaded to help them, but the real lead is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Miller’s post-apocalyptic world feels real because of the incredible detail, but brilliant effects (practical and CGI) are secondary to the action – and Furiosa rules the action.
1b. Inside Out (Disney•Pixar) – quite possibly Disney•Pixar’s greatest film, Inside Out is the story of how a little girl’s emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) learn how to work together. It’s at once a visually brilliant and compelling tale and a way to talk to children about their emotions – and help them understand how and why they feel the way they do (it’s already being used as an aid for children’s emotional therapy). The word genius comes to mind.
1a. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm) – SWTFA is a remixing of elements of 1977’s original Star Wars: there are characters and situations that are analogous to those of the original movie, but they’ve been tweaked in fresh ways. It’s the same, only different. It’s not just that the lead is a woman (and that’s really cool), or that the male lead is black (though that’s cool, too) – it’s that the film has the swashbuckling heart that the first trilogy had and the second one lacked. And like the original, certain events make it apparent that stakes are high enough to give the fun factor (which is high) just enough edge to an audience of the edge its collective seats.
Honorable Mentions (I did mention that there would be quite a few, right?) in alphabetical order: The Age of Adeline (Lionsgate), Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios), Bridge of Spies (Disney), Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight), Cinderella (Disney), Clouds of Sils Maria (Sundance Selects), Danny Collins (Bleecker Street Media), Everest (Universal Pictures), 45 Years (Sundance Selects), The Hateful eight (The Weinstein company), Hotel Transylvania 2 (Sony Pictures Animation), Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.), It Follows (RADiUS-TWC), McFarland, U.S.A. (Disney), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Fox Searchlight Pictures), The Walk (Sony Pictures Releasing), WildLike (Amplify Releasing) and Z for Zachariah (Grindstone Entertainment Group)
Photos courtesy of A24, Disney/Lucasfilm, Disney•Pixar, Epic Pictures, Lionsgate, Marvel Studios, Open Road Films, Paramount Pictures, Roadside Attractions, TWC-Dimension, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company