December 30, 2015

The Best and Worst Films of 2015

For several years running, two or three standout films have buttressed my annual Top 10 list, with a solid seven or so following as filler. Not in 2015. But a deep roster of terrific movies covering a wide range of genres graced silver screens this year, including 20 or more films that would occupy most year’s selections of superlatives.

If there are themes to my Top 10, it’s the bleakness of our world (The Revenant; Room; Spotlight; Sicario; It Follows), the future (The Martian; Steve Jobs) and a blend of both (Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina, my top two films of the year).

Here’s my best and worst films of 2015, accompanied by comments drawn mostly from my reviews. Also included are a few of the most unexpected surprises and disappointments this year.

Top 10 Films
Best Film of 2015: Ex Machina—The plotline is an A.I. version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) spends a week with brilliant, billionaire bro Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test his newest creation, a female replicant named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Filled with philosophical and religious subtext, writer-director Alex Garland conjures an arresting, sobering portrait of humankind’s predilection for both invention and self-destruction. And you’ll never hear Oliver Cheatham's "Get Down Saturday Night” the same way again.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road—Like an artist working in his medium, director George Miller paints an immersive, post-apocalyptic epoch where societal structure is upended and its most susceptible members—mainly women and children—become natural resources. The film is part super-hero flick, part Western, with Tom Hardy as a monosyllabic man-with-no-name and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa falling squarely in the lineage of action heroines like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner. But it’s mostly a rock opera divided by acts more than scenes, a symphony in which the relentless action and visual intensity builds to a kinetic crescendo.

3. The Revenant—Centered around the theme of (re)birth, director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu’s epic neo-Western that reimagines a film genre set amid the infancy of our nation’s early 19th century westward expansion. In the end, the survival and revenge story of trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cinematic tour de force.

4. The Martian—Combining heart and mind, this is an ultra-modern technical achievement wrangled into a throwback cinematic experience. There’s the grand backdrop of space operas like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff, but in service to a jarringly accessible narrative and characters. It’s Matt Damon’s best film in at least five years, maybe more. It’s director Ridley Scott’s best film in 15 years, maybe 33.

5. Steve Jobs—Essentially a three-act opera, the film doesn’t comprehend Steve Jobs—maybe no one ever did. But through this stylized marriage of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, Danny Boyle’s direction and Michael Fassbender’s terrific acting, we feel like we know the man who put a thousand songs in our pocket.

6. Room—Brie Larson deserves an Oscar for her gripping portrayal of an abducted woman forced to rear her child (a terrific Jacob Tremblay), the offspring of her kidnapper, in a small squalid shed for over five years. The first half highlights their efforts to cope with their hellish unreality. Equally arresting is their subsequent attempt to cope with freedom.

7. Inside Out—There aren’t many animated films that delve into the vagaries of abstract thought, much less parsing such subsets as “non-objective fragmentation” and “two-dimensional perception.” But Pixar Animation's best offering in years embraces rather than eschews its psychological complexities, blending them into a kid-friendly adventure that appeals as much to the adults in the theater. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you may even think. It’s a mind trip with tons of heart.

8. Spotlight—It’s not “All the Pope’s Men,” but this chronicle of The Boston Globe’s research into decades of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts and an ongoing cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese illuminates the steno pads and shoe leather worn for the sake of authentic investigative journalism. The film also boasts the best ensemble cast performance of the year.

9. It Follows—Writer-director David Robert Mitchell pays homage to the horror movie genre by taking its most familiar trope—sex equals death—and making it literal. But the film’s biggest impact is mirroring society’s post-9/11 paranoia, triggered by an opening scene of a young girl terrorized by unseen forces and ending with a final shot that leaves both the characters and viewers seeing supposed threats on every street corner.

10. Sicario—If No Country for Old Men and Zero Dark Thirty had a baby, it would look like Sicario. Director Denis Villeneuve’s bleak appraisal of today’s border war on drugs embeds the viewer in one bravura action set piece after another, filmed by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins. Benicio Del Toro is captivating. There’s little that informs the root causes of the drug war, only its cruel, corrosive effects. 

The Best of the Rest (alphabetically): 45 Years; Beasts of No Nation; Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Carol; Creed; Love & Mercy; Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Youth

The Bottom Rung
My roster of the worst films of 2015 comes with the typical disclaimer that I did not see every candidate being touted for this ignominious honor, such movies as Love the Coopers, San Andreas, Mortdecai, United Passions and the Adam Sandler dual submissions The Cobbler and The Ridiculous 6. Hey, I can’t see them all.

But the films that made my cut remain a worthy assemblage of awfulness. Keep this list handy so when you end up renting any of these, I can say I told you so.

Worst Film of 2015: Serena—Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s coronation as Gen Y’s answer to Bogie and Bacall hit a spectacular snafu in this Depression-era misfire set in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The film’s aspirations are transparent: it’s MacBeth meets There Will Be Blood with a dash of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, all set atop Cold Mountain. Danish director Susanne Bier fashions this misbegotten mumble-bore by making every possible misstep. The dialogue is replete with two-syllable words and six-word sentences that sound as if they originated on college rule paper. Johan Soderovist’s treacly score channels backwoods musak. The characterizations are rudderless, and the jarring editing lurches from one miswritten scene to another linked only by strained narrative sinew.

The Boy Next Door—Starring Jennifer Lopez, the film is basically Swimfan with the genders reversed and a cougar (sorta) on the prowl. It’s a Lifetime movie on steroids, with B-movie gore coupled with a thorny premise and Skinemax-level titillation and dialogue.

Fifty Shades of Grey—“Don’t forget your safe words,” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) tells Anastasia “Ana’ Steele (Dakota Johnson) before the tamest bondage montage this side of a Miley Cyrus video. Unfortunately, it’s the film’s audience who needs a safe word designed to rescue them from this film adaptation of writer E.J. James’ nightstand fixture, a flaccid affair with little plot, even less character development and kinkiness rendered into kitsch.

Hot Pursuit—The film that proves women are equally adept as men at fashioning mind-sapping buddy road flicks. The screenplay squanders star/producer Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara’s proven comedic talents and potential charismatic pairing.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2—Gone is the goofs-out-of-water historical conceit of the 1980s-set original, replaced by a profane, pointless and humorless script that goes forward in time but backward in everything else. A few farcical non sequiturs elicit mild chuckles, but the storyline largely lurches from one lazy, bodily fluid-filled set piece after another. Pack plenty of bromine.

Jupiter Ascending—Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski are still dining out on The Matrix, and the filmmakers brazenly ape their seminal sci-fi thriller for their latest bit of sci-fi silliness. It’s like a Disney World amusement ride stretched over two hours. It’s MoonQuake Lake, the fake movie briefly seen during the recent Annie remake. It’s a 5-dollar DVD bin knockoff of Star Wars.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—Irksome and too cute by half, the film attempts to blend tragedy, comedy and coming-of-age teenage angst with not a single likeable character in sight. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film shows the wear of its Sundance workshopping.

Mistress America—This screenplay by star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach is pure pastiche, written with a tin ear for the way sentient beings actually communicate with each other. But the gnawing problem is that while Baumbach and Gerwig make passing attempts at skewering millennials, this feels like a New York milieu with which they are both intimately familiar and fond. It’s self-effacement bordering on self-referential, resulting in a work so farcical that it’s insulated from offending anyone, except the audience.

Pitch Perfect 2—If the awful acting and grating caterwauling don’t ward you off this pointless sequel, the one-trick Rebel Wilson and her date-rape quips ought to do the trick.

True Story—… feels like anything but, a pedestrian procedural grasping for a good yarn.

Most Unexpectedly Pleasant Surprises
99 Homes
The Intern
Kingsman: The Secret Service
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Straight Outta Compton

Most Disappointing
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Black Mass
The Good Dinosaur
Furious 7
The Hateful Eight
Our Brand is Crisis

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