The year 2015 was a mixed bag. Donald Trump was Donald Trump (ugh). The New England Patriots won another Super Bowl (yawn). Employment rates went up (yay!). Adele remained the most overrated thing since the Sleep Number bed (just stop!).
Equally mixed was the year in film. Filled with some stunning highs and some diarrhea-inducing lows, it was difficult to define it as an up or down year in the ol’ cinema.
As always, I’m tempted to dismantle the shit storm of terrible films that passed through our sacred cinemas in 2015 (“Furious 7,” “Aloha,” “Hitman: Agent 47,” “Inherent Vice,” Taken 3,” “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” for example). Alas, this is the sole exercise for which I try to look at the brighter side of what is put in front of my eyes.
With that said, what follows is a list containing the top ten films of 2015*:
1) SPOTLIGHT – If you’re looking for stunning visual effects, endless laughs or thrills unlike anything you’ve ever seen, “Spotlight” is most likely going to disappoint. Investigative journalists uncovering the well-avoided sins of the Catholic Church will hardly rival super heroes or space battles at the box office, but the the visceral effect this film has on the moviegoer is hard to put into words. Ruffalo, Keaton and Schreiber are truly great, but there is no star in this cast. Rather, the entire cast is the star. It’s a sum-of-all-its-parts effort. I found myself wishing that the journalists would brandish AK-47s and mow down Cardinal Bernard Law and the offending priests while screaming “Say ‘ello to my lil’ friend!”, but it wasn’t meant to be. And frankly, the usual Hollywood bluster wasn’t needed here. “Spotlight” is an amazing telling of a simultaneously gut-wrenching and inspiring story needing no fluff. Brilliant. Oh, and there were ZERO texting teenagers in the theater. So, there’s that.
2) EX MACHINA – I’m on a bit of an Oscar Isaac overload these days. The guy’s a fine actor, but watching him folk sing his way through “Inside Llewyn Davis” and lame his way through “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has me wishing both he and his agent would come down with a case of the 48-month flu. That said, I tend to forgive sins of the past, if they are followed by acts of contrition like “Ex Machina.” From first-time director Alex Garland, this film is sleek, smart, stylish, unpredictable, creepy, sexy and 309 other adjectives all at once. Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly cast as a naive quasi-hero. Alicia Vikander plays the cold, but uncomfortably sexy, humanoid perfectly. And, yes, Oscar Isaac is wonderful as the brilliant, perma-drunk and egomaniacal creator. Outside of some pacing issues, it’s nearly a perfect film. Me likey!
3) BLACK SEA – I know what you’re thinking. What the hell is “Black Sea” and why has it made zero top-10 lists by actual paid critics? Excellence two-part question. First, “Black Sea” is a dark, claustrophobic thriller with a stellar sleeper cast and a true edge-of-your-seat script. Second, critics dismiss it because they are stupid, refuse to acknowledge anything as brilliant unless it stars Leonardo DiCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence, and see Jude Law (the film’s lead) as a primped-up d-bag. To each his/her own, right? Wrong! Succeeding where so many submarine flicks have failed, this one starts dark and stays dark until the final credits. Jude Law, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are all exceptional, and viewers will find themselves rooting for and against just about every character at least once. The ending doesn’t exactly wow, but the tension throughout does. [Note: this one made just over $14.32 at the box office, so I admit it may be a stretch. Give it a try, though. For me.]
4) KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – I once made out with a severely cross-eyed girl in college. Sure, I never quite knew where her right eye was looking, but damn, that girl could kiss. “Kingsman” reminds me a bit of that experience. During the first 30 minutes, you’re not quite sure where it wants to go. It’s chirpy, then it’s action-packed. It’s Bond, then it’s Austin Powers. I just couldn’t figure out where that eye was looking. Then, it settled in and makes out with your brain for the remainder. What I realized is that this is how you blend humor with action and thrills. Results = fun. It’s so damn unique for a spy flick that you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Super violent, quirky, bawdy, and doesn’t take itself too serious…at all. Colin Firth is great. Taron Egerton is great. Samuel L. Jackson, while making use of an annoying and unnecessary lisp, is even pretty great. There are a couple of hiccups towards the climax, but much like my cross-eyed make-out partner, perfection is overrated. I only hope they can keep up the fun and originality in the sequel(s) to come.
5) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – The trailer of “Fury Road” alone was one of my cinematic highlights of 2015. What it promised was a fantastic two hours of chaos, color and action that will churn your stomach. Very similar to me after I eat leftover Indian food. Tom Hardy is quietly menacing in as Max, Charlize Theron is solid as the female heroine, and hundreds of pale-skinned actors you’ve never heard of do a wonderful job as pale-skinned, woman-stealing, blood-hijacking creeps. It’s the kind of movie Jimmy Stewart would’ve gravitated towards had he not met such an early death at the age of 89. There is very little substance to this movie, but it is more than made up for by the frenetic pace, killer visuals, and frenetic pace. Oh yeah, the pace is pretty frenetic too. Style matters, and this one’s got plenty of it. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it on the big screen, I suggest watching at home on no smaller than a 160″ SUHD 4K TV. Anything less, quite frankly, is just plain disrespectful.
6) THE BIG SHORT – Much like “Spotlight,” nothing about this film will make you feel happy about modern American society. By the time the end credits roll, you will be angry, feel a little dirty, and will want to murder at least three or four Wall Street banking executives before you put your head to pillow. A highly effective encapsulation of the Wall Street banking/mortgage crisis that caused our recent economic collapse, “The Big Short” looks at the despicable humans who looked to profit from a system that let the rich get richer while the rest of us took it in the arse. Make no mistake, nobody in this story is a good guy, although some are less shitty than others. Great performances are everywhere, although relatively small in scale. Bale, Gosling, and Carrell are all terrific. There is humor among the gross reality of the story. [Note: Please, please, please check out the wonderful documentary “Inside Job” before you see this one. It will give you a better understanding of what happened while we all obliviously sat by and watched.]
7) AMERICAN ULTRA – You’ve never heard of this one, have you? Don’t blame you. The studios spent about $32 on marketing to promote it and the cast is made up from the twitchy guy who played Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), the depressed chick who likes sacking up with vampires (Stewart), and another twitchy guy who drove a Vista Cruiser (Grace). Not selling it well, am I? My bad. This comedy-action flick about an oblivious super-spy stoner is full of action, clever dialogue, punchy jokes, and perfectly cast bit players (Goggins and Leguizamo). I’ll admit, it’s a relatively forgettable movie in the long run, but while you’re immersed in it, it’s a ton of fun. Hell, even Stewart carries her weight in this one. Implausible, I know. But true.
8) STEVE JOBS – Ashton Kutcher was brilliant as Michael Kelso on “That 70’s Show.” You may think I’m being sarcastic, but I’m dead serious. One of my all-time favorite sitcom characters. Brilliant. Now, Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs”? No thanks. Give me Michael Fassbender 11 out of 10 times. Combining the writing/dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and the thoughtful direction of Danny Boyle was the first killer move. Signing Fassbender, Winslet, Bridges, and Rogan to the cast knocks it out of the park. This film is so well paced and the character interactions are flawless. Like many, I’m a bit over the whole Steve Jobs as God storyline, but this is hardly that film. Here, he’s as massively flawed as he is brilliant. This one is considered a box office bomb by most standards, but I blame that on Mr. Kutcher as much as anyone. You feed the public one steaming pile of shit about Steve Jobs in 2013, why would anyone want to risk sitting through another two years later. Off topic, here is my favorite Kelso quote: “I have the three things women want: I’m hot and I’m smart.”
9) THE NIGHT BEFORE – It’s funny. No, check that, it’s hilarious. Stupid, crude, and extremely simplistic. It also has a little heart mixed in there (three best friends following a Christmas tradition they’ve embraced since one lost his parents years earlier). Forget all of that, though. It’s really fucking funny. Mackie and Gordon-Levitt are kinda throw-aways, although they’re not terrible. Seth Rogan is the key here. Not exactly my favorite comedic actor, he is urine-releasing funny as an expecting father who is given a smorgasbord of illicit drugs by his loving wife at the beginning of the night. The scene where he frantically vents about his anxiety related to his impending fatherhood in a bar bathroom had me laughing harder than anything I’d seen since Jeff Bridges had a blowout in a broken toilet in “Dumb and Dumber.” In a year where comedy seemed to take a back seat to drama and lame-ass superheroes, it was such a pleasant surprise to just be able to laugh and laugh hard.
10) THE MARTIAN – A bit long. That’s what this movie is. It’s a bit long. Other than that, “The Martian” is how you make a space exploration flick. Previous Mars-related films like “Red Planet” and “Mission to Mars” failed largely because they sucked huge donkey balls from start to finish. This film has zero donkey balls to be seen. Logic would tell us that steering clear of said donkey balls is the key to success. But I digress. Damon knocks it out of the park with his performance as a left-for-dead astronaut stranded on Mars with nothing but human feces, potatoes, and his wits. He almost single-handedly guides the story from start to finish. Survival stories are rarely funny. Those heavily laden with science are even less so. But director Ridley Scott and the cast do a fine job of keeping things light, despite the sometimes melodramatic tone of the film. You can probably guess how it all ends, but the journey is no less enjoyable. Did I mention that the movie’s a bit long? It is.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Spectre,” Black Mass,” “No Escape,” and “McFarland, USA.”
*This list only includes films that were seen on the big screen. Documentaries, indies and other films viewed on DVD did not make the list. There are plenty of incredible entries for each of those categories, as well. So, get to viewing, folks!