2015 gave us far more than ten movies worth remembering. But due to a cultural love for top-tens that no one encourages more than I do, I’ve assembled a list of my own. Without wasting any time, here they are:
10. Ex Machina
It’s very difficult to produce something in 2016 (or in this list’s case, 15) that’s actually unique and different from the small rotation of formulas that powers modern cinema as whole. Whether it be heroes saving the world or the young couple overcoming that misunderstanding that took place about 75% of the way through the movie to live happily ever after, most movies are just repackaged versions of films we’ve already seen. While I’m sure you could dig up and cite one that’s just like it, Ex Machina is truly different. More importantly, it’s brilliant. Artificial Intelligence is an idea that’s been visited and revisited for a long time now, but this movie added layers of suspense and moral ambiguity that separated this early 2015 gem from anything else in the modern science fiction genre. The abrupt genre shift in the film’s second half only pulls audiences further out onto the edge of their seats. On top of all this, it was Oscar winner Alicia Vikander’s best supporting role of the year.
9. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s fifth or sixth best movie is still more than enough to make a yearly top ten list. This hyper violent, absurdly aggressive collection of stylized characters creates one of the least boring snowed-in nights you’ll ever see. In many ways, you’ve seen it before. Most of the compliments aimed towards this film could just as easily be sprinkled over those that the eccentric director has given us in the past. But the Tarantino formula hasn’t aged a day. The Hateful Eight uses memorable characters to send the simple but powerful message that no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what color your skin is; you’re probably a terrible person in your own special way.
8. The Big Short
From the makers of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys comes the most astute big banking movie in history that dissects the mid 2000s housing and real estate market. The Big Short turns one of the more corrupt, convoluted systems in our nation’s history and turns it into a Golden Globes nominee for Best Comedy. This crash course tutorial through the basics of the housing bubble tells the disturbingly true story of America’s blind eye towards corporate crime and the “too big to fail” façade that kept it all afloat. As it turns out all you need is one great script here, one great cast there and the occasional Margot Robbie bathtub cameo to make the dense material not only digestible, but tasty.
In case you felt this year’s Best Picture candidates lacked some sense of emotion, you’re probably in the large majority that didn’t find time to go see Room. Brie Larson delivers the performance of the year as we witness her struggle, both as a prisoner and a mother. Against all apparent misery, Room thrives as what ultimately amounts to a feel good story. The script isn’t unnecessarily dark, trusting the audience’s intelligence and knowing they don’t need too much help understanding how unfortunate the situation is. For those who still haven’t seen it, Room is filled with hope and a deep appreciation for freedom and family.
I am fully aware that all but two of the Best Picture nominees are either below Ant-Man on this list or not on it at all. Personal taste certainly factors in, but Ant-Man took a B-list Marvel hero and turned him into a lovable movie with incredibly wide appeal. As I always say, Marvel tends to struggle with tone. But the sense of humor was such a natural, effortless presence behind my favorite comedic actor all of moviedom. Paul Rudd was the only actor who could make ridiculous cool without leaning too heavily on silliness. He never takes the easy joke, always favoring reactionary humor over more on-the-nose punch lines. The action was surprisingly well constructed. Ant-Man was actually awesome, on top of a charming script that you could tell Edgar Wright once had a hand in. This was quietly one of the best Marvel movies ever made, a much needed hit to bridge the gap between the bloated Age of Ultron and what will hopefully be the unparalleled Civil War.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
Much like Ex Machina, the Mad Max soft reboot is unlike anything we’ve ever seen from its genre, other Mad Max films included. George Miller’s return to the wasteland raised the bar for action so incredibly high that Fury Road is unlikely to become a trendsetter. I’m fairly confident we wont see another movie like this for a long, long time. Sometimes, franchise films aren’t built for the copy-and-paste atmosphere of today’s world. When Paranormal Activity was a huge hit, a stampede of mediocre found footage movies followed (including the subsequent Paranormal Activities). When Marvel made the connected universe work, everyone else scrambled to do the same. Now that the rated R Deadpool is a success, the Internet demand for more R-rated superheroes is already swelling. Sometimes, a great movie is meant to be just that. Of course, if Tom Hardy and George Miller want to give this another go, I’ll be the first in line to watch it happen. But Mad Max should take pride in the one of a kind vibe that is immune to imitation. From one post to the next, I’ve found just about every way to phrase a compliment regarding the film’s action, sense of character, direction and overall production value. This time I’ll leave it at this; only Mad Max can do Mad Max.
I was pleasantly surprised by Spotlight winning the back and forth race for Best Picture. More often than not, The Revenant’s momentum appeared to be too much to handle. But when given the proper attention, Spotlight stands out as the obvious choice between the two. Drama doesn’t have to be so dramatic. Sometimes, it’s just interesting. From the highly sensitive subject matter to a script that brings the small-time investigative group to life, aspiring writers should look to this movie as a storytelling role model. There were many films this year that told stories through visual stimulation and powerful imagery, and from all this emerged a champion based on journalism. I kept waiting for the frustrating journalism movie checklist, whether it be the whiney “you’re never home” spouse or the overeager protagonist who you’re supposed to like but want to punch in the face. But Spotlight gets everything right, and earned the Academy’s most prestigious honor.
3. The Martian
While I was thrilled to hear Morgan Freeman say “Spotlight,” this was my personal favorite of this year’s Best Picture nominees. The Martian is the most complete movie of the year. It settles into the rare space between funny movies and powerful films, an area just called great movies. The criminally overlooked Ridley Scott knew exactly what he wanted this film to be, and that decisiveness was much needed. Otherwise, The Martian could’ve been about a thousand things ranging from slapstick comedy to just about the most depressing movie you’ve ever seen. It has the solo adventure of Castaway, yet is also considered an ensemble movie due to the remarkable rescue effort. The distribution of time between storylines on Earth, Mars, and in space is Pulp Fiction good. The odd but perfect choice of music gives the giant desert some personality. Visually stunning, cleverly written, and emotionally driven, The Martian fills whatever movie going taste you may have. From Private Ryan to Mark Watney, let’s hope Matt Damon never stays out of trouble.
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Manners…maketh…man. While the high-octane violence and overall light-speed nature of Kingsman may not be for everyone, people who like this movie absolutely love this movie. I am one of said people. To put that in perspective, I saw this movie six times in the first six months of its existence. And there were multiple times after that. Kingsman writes a love letter to James Bond while jabbing him in the ribs. The perfect parody isn’t just satire, it’s a great film in and of itself. Austin Powers is a great spy parody. But if you’re unfamiliar with James Bond, some of the more clever humor feels like there’s a joke that you’re just missing. Kingsman provides a great beginning to end spy movie with added benefits for fans of the genre. It’s completely self aware, referencing and defeating stereotypes that plague more typical spy movies. The humor and script carry a sense of class and charm that raises your tolerance for a pretty insane level of beautifully choreographed carnage. The Free Bird scene alone cements Kingsman’s place as a legendary action movie, while also very abruptly deciding whether you’re in love with this movie or can’t even be around it. Collin Firth, Sam Jackson and the up and coming Taron Egerton each manage to steal the show, leaving the show unstolen I suppose. From a personal standpoint, this movie grabbed my attention and showed me the kind of movie I would someday want to make. Given the fact that such high praise for a film that really spoke to me is sitting pretty at number two, it’d probably take the revival of a legendary franchise or something to take the top spot.
1. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Movies are often judged relative to the hype surrounding the project. Age of Ultron wasn’t all that bad but, given the standards of Marvel’s best, it was disappointing and that’s how I see it. Most of the Force Awakens hype was closer to Empire Strikes Back than Attack of the Clones, so they risked a similar fate. So when a movie faces immeasurable hype and proceeds to catapult straight over it, the feat is doubly impressive. Whether or not Force Awakens is your favorite Star Wars, it is a universal home run. Star Wars has always been driven by iconic characters, and J.J. Abrams gave us a full slate of new ones to fall in love with. We get just the right balance of new vs. old as original characters are given meaningful roles that are ultimately used to usher in the new cast. Kylo Ren is a more complicated villain than the thuggish force wielder many were expecting, and I view his vulnerability as a positive as we keep an eye on the franchise’s future. Rey was such a strong protagonist and role model that millions of Internet dwellers were forced to Google what a Mary Sue is. Finn is the lovable underdog that Star Wars needs to maintain its against-all-odds charm. They left plenty of issues unresolved without giving us less than 100% of a great movie. Star Wars is back, and the movie responsible for that is absolutely going to be my number one film of the year.
To wrap up some quick omissions, The Revenant is wildly impressive but overall I much prefer the ten listed here. Inside Out is great but it would’ve taken Up-caliber Pixar to crack this year’s list. Mission Impossible 5, good as it was, wasn’t quite Mission Impossible 4. And Steve Jobs could’ve used more than one setting to compliment a great script. All in all, 2015 was a great year. This could’ve easily been a top fifteen if people were as infatuated with that number. In a year, let’s touch base and talk 2016.