I’m the idiot who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my "Best Of" list, and that's because I'm often able to squeeze in a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December - mostly movies that others have told me are worth checking out that I either missed when it came out in San Diego or titles that simply never came out locally. I say this every year, but I'll say it again anyway: If you think my list of the best films from last year is wrong, or if I left out one of your favorites, feel free to comment below or make your own. I hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, streaming, rentals, and most importantly, going to the theater and checking them out on the big screen (a few of these are still in theaters). I saw a lot of good movies this year, so condensing this to 15 was not easy. So before "The List", here are a few honorable mentions:
- Green Room
- What We Do In The Shadows
- Inside Out
- Mr Holmes
- The Big Short
- Cop Car
- Bone Tomahawk
- COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK
Yes you heard me. At the end of the day, Kenneth Branagh simply shot a truly beautiful version of CINDERELLA. Lily James was perfect as the title character, and Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother was so correct. Also, Richard Madden (Robb Stark) as the prince. All of it was a perfectly told fairy tale. Branagh gets the idea of a well-told tale - this was precisely in his wheelhouse – and it was perfectly executed. Oh, and on top of that... No Singing. Thumbs up.
14. Ex Machina
The best science fiction is always about more than the face it first presents itself with, and EX MACHINA serves as a microcosm of just how men and women relate to each other in 2015. Do each of these characters deserve their fates? That's for us to decide, examine, and talk about for quite some time. Perhaps EX MACHINA is a test, not unlike the tests that Caleb gives Ava, and not unlike the tests we give to each other every day. EX MACHINA is brilliant, disturbing, and exciting.
13. Yakuza Apocalypse
When Takashi Miike first caught the attention of American genre fans in the early 2000s, it was as a purveyor of the sick, the twisted, the out-there, and the then-trendy extreme. At the time, the Japanese director was a one-man cottage industry, cranking out a half dozen or more features a year. If he ever had a signature genre, it was the gangster movie—the yakuza’s blend of middle-management and violence being fertile ground for someone with a mind for the bizarre. It was the horror flicks, though, that made Miike’s name in the West. Perhaps it’s because horror is a genre in which the unexpected is a requisite, as paradoxical as that may sound.
Nowadays, Miike’s slowed down to about two movies a year; his budgets have gotten bigger, and his style has gotten a bit more elegant. His latest, the deranged and frequently funny Yakuza Apocalypse, is in many ways a return to both his early years in the wilds of V-Cinema—Japan’s direct-to-video industry—and to the kind of midnight-movie fodder that first made his reputation abroad, albeit done on a much larger scale and with fewer quirks of style.
To put it bluntly…this film is bugnuts fucking insane ratcheted up to full-on crazy and subversive in beautiful ways. Trying to describe the strange Yakuza Vampire thing, the Frog… I mean. You’ve just got to see the fucking Frog. SO MUCH FUN! Not for everyone though. This is weird, crazy Miike. I love this stuff. I absolutely accept that no matter how weird and culturally impenetrable his INSANE films get, I’m on board for the ride through Crazy Town.
While I still feel this film would’ve been better if about 40 minutes of it was cut out - in the end, it’s still a Quentin Tarantino film. Sam Jackson’s the man and nobody does Quentin’s dialogue better. His showdown with Bruce Dern is one of the best scenes between two characters in cinema this year… Until you get to the ending. Walton Goggins’ Sheriff Mannix is a real break out character. The film is exquisitely shot and is a true ensemble film in the most gracious of manners. Everybody gets a moment to shine.
Making an intense, nerve-wracking thriller rooted in ugly realpolitik isn’t easy. Convincing the money people that said thriller absolutely requires a female lead is even harder. What makes Sicario truly remarkable, though, is the way that it deliberately, perversely diminishes ace FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) over the course of the narrative, after she volunteers to join an inter-agency task force seeking to root out the head of a Mexican cartel. As Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) get repeatedly stonewalled by an alleged “DOD advisor” - (Josh Brolin) who’s probably really C.I.A - and try to comprehend the presence of a rogue enforcer (Benicio Del Toro), it becomes increasingly clear how little chance even a scrupulously ethical and fearlessly determined individual has of challenging righteous zeal that’s curdled into institutional corruption. Taylor Sheridan’s script pulls few punches, and it’s magnificently served by director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Inside) who sustains a nearly unbearable level of tension for the duration. I look forward with great anticipation to see how Denis handles directing duties when he starts shooting the Blade Runner sequel later this year.
Sadly, this film isn’t available to watch in the US yet, and the only reason I saw it early was because I helped crowd-fund this on their Indiegogo and was treated to an online secured showing of it. Let me set the stage for you on this one. Half-human and half-machine, Henry wakes up to witness the kidnapping of his wife Estelle by a group of mercenaries. From this moment on, Henry searches and fights for Estelle with every ounce of energy he possesses. He kills, and risks being killed himself, by every weapon imaginable. The viewer, through the use of a special camera attached to someone's head, is about as face to face with the violence as anyone can get. The viewer follows each move that is made by Henry. Every throat that is cut seems as if our own hands do it. We figure out what is happening only in so much as Henry does, for both viewer and character are in the same shoes. The film is kinetic, bloody, and non-stop action. While worn down by the shaky camera work and some hokey acting, this is just non-stop zany twists, gore, rawness, and laughs. I just hope this film gets a theatrical release so I can experience it in the theater.
9. The Walk
Here was a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie where nobody died, where the impossible mission relied on the skill, courage, and fates. Now, I love MAN ON WIRE too, the James Marsh documentary detailing the beautiful insanity of Philippe Petit’s magnificent walk. And while that shows exactly what he did, I loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance of Philippe Petit. I love the story of a man who fell in love with walking on a wire and dreaming of the most perfect place to set up his daredevil line. I love that it was a covert mission that only endangered the man with the cajones to walk out on that wire. To see a view that only he could ever see. The type of film this is is SPECTACLE.
8. Crimson Peak
I kind of hate the marketing that seemed to be setting up a Gothic Horror film, when it should’ve been educating the audience as to what to suspect of a Gothic Romance, because that’s what Guillermo served up for us. CRIMSON PEAK is a true delight by a cinema master. The use of colors Guillermo gave us was as far from natural as you’d ever see, but that’s how we know we’re in Guillermo’s head. Where the light that pierces his inky blacks will be startling and stunning artistry. I loved the evil brother-sister relationship between Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as the Sharpe Siblings, and Mia Wasikowska was a vision as the supernaturally curious Edith Cushing. And I LOVE – that is often Del Toro’s vision - the monsters were not the ghosts, but the evil we do to one another as a flawed, greedy, profane humanity. I believe this is the most under-appreciated film of the year. It is exquisite.
Some of you would’ve probably ranked this much higher, but I just feel that there are other films that stood out more in my eyes. What's amazing to me about this relaunch of the Star Wars franchise is that everybody on God's green Earth has seen it and we almost all agree on the movie's flaws and strengths. It's just how much we let the movie's flaws stand in the way of our enjoyment that really sets us apart. I liked the movie the least on my first viewing and I still really dug it then. The fan service shit hasn't bothered me all that much since then, and upon my second viewing of watching it, I was able to appreciate it a little more. A lot of that has to do with taking new people and watching their reaction to the movie. In the end, Star wars is back in a huge way, and I know you all couldn’t be happier about it.
6. The Martian
No one involved in the story of THE MARTIAN or the audience watching it is more aware of how ridiculous the situation is that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself in than Watney himself. And we know this because Watney jokes about it constantly, turning what is a certain-death scenario into a story that celebrates and encourages unparalleled hope, bravery, creativity, intelligence, and camaraderie. It's science fiction that puts nearly all of its emphasis on science, that isn't afraid to bombard us with formulas, geometry, and physics as well as those who excel at figuring stuff out. Hell, Watney is a botanist, so we get a few lessons about growing things on a planet where nothing grows, mainly because there's no water (oops!). We seem to live in an age where certain groups see science and using one's brain as untrustworthy notions, and it would break my heart if audiences stayed away from this film for that reason. But The Martian has filled me with hope, so I'm going to just assume all of you are lining up as you read this. I enjoyed this one immensely.
5. Black Mass
Johnny Depp… Every time I think you’re done, you come out of nowhere with a film like Black Mass and remind others and me why we gave a damn about you in the first place. It is because of Depp’s performance alone that this film works so well. To quote my review of this film from earlier in 2015, ”To put it frank, Black Mass is a rock-solid, well-structured and brutal crime drama. It covers so much blood-soaked ground in Bulger’s sketchy history, but doesn’t shortchange the audience from understanding the man’s impact and influence. If Cooper’s approach to the genre differs from Scorsese in one important way, it’s that there are no rock-music cues or bouts of uncomfortable, dark levity to break the tension. Black Mass is pure cutthroat and mean. It looks and acts as dirty and angry as the trailers show it to be. And you can’t take your eyes off of it, especially when Depp is on the screen. That’s high praise.”
4. The Witch (mini review)
Here is another film that you won’t see until 2016, but since it had its premiere at Fantastic Fest (which I was able to attend), I’m including it for 2015. There are moments in THE WITCH full of dreadful awe, of blasphemy, of capering, evil joy. The sound design of THE WITCH is to be especially commended - theaters playing this one need to turn the volume up to 666.
The actors are terrific across the board. The children playing the twins are both ingratiating and creepy, and Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb gives an earnest performance. Kate Dickie as Katherine makes her suffering credible and true, and Ralph Ineson's guttural voice strikes a tone of portent, but William is also a man who loves his family very much and wants to do good by them. His faith and his love war within him, and when superstition takes hold of William, Ineson is convincing in both his fear and his sorrow. The anchor of THE WITCH is Anya Taylor-Joy's Thomasin - for much of the film she is our surrogate, our navigator in dark waters, and Taylor-Joy is more than up to the challenge. It's the commitment to the world that makes THE WITCH work as well as it does.
This is Robert Egger's first film. I've seen a few first films this year at Fantastic Fest that are stunning in the skills of these directors - a confidence and a mastery of tone that is enviable. I hope Eggers plays around in the horror genre for quite some time, because he's incredibly good at it. THE WITCH will haunt your dreams if you let it in. You will take joy in its wickedness. God is not here, and you will find no comfort. You will offer prayers to dark, cold stars and delight in the devil. THE WITCH is scary as hell, beautiful in its bleakness, and an instant horror classic.
Ryan Coogler's return to the ROCKY Saga was triumphant; he made the old new again. It seems deceptively easy on the surface - Apollo Creed's son Adonis (played to perfection by Michael B. Jordan) wants to find a life of meaning and purpose, and he's assisted by Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, turning in a performance of such grace and heart that it might - just might - be his best performance he's done inside his iconic character. I loved listening to the audience react in this movie, and the simple joys of a story told well and with confidence. There were a few movies this year that were spirited returns to franchises long thought finished, and many of them were surprisingly good. But CREED was probably the most unexpected of them, and also unexpected was just how good CREED turned out.
2. The Revenant
DiCaprio suffers as much as any man has ever suffered in cinema history. The 'bear sequence' is astonishingly well done and brutal in a way that makes you never ever want to go camping again. Same nightmare quality as JAWS. Ferocious animal attacks are just ungodly terrifying. Then there’s Tom Hardy - these characters aren’t big into exposition, instead you must look at them and judge them based on what we witness. And upon the surface, Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is a greedy, cowardly, ferocious bad guy. However, I was taught never to judge a man till you walked in their shoes, and a deeper look at Hardy’s Fitzgerald shows a man of pain and loss. Taught through lessons carved in flesh. Stunning film.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (To the shock of no one)
Ever since I first saw the trailer at ComicCon in 2014, I felt I had died and gone to Valhalla. I mean this is a movie— a grand, impossible blockbuster—that shouldn’t even exist. George Miller, an Aussie genre veteran in his 70s, somehow shook $150 million from Warner Bros pockets, then spent the next 7 years with it crashing cars in the desert to realize the demolition derby of his wildest dreams - the Mad Max movie he’s been working towards since the very start in 1979. Fury Road bucks just about every trend in big-budget franchise filmmaking. It’s a self-contained joy ride through its creator’s limitless imagination; an art movie stretched across the canvas of an IMAX screen. And beneath its layers upon layers of awe-inspiring imagery—a blitzkrieg of practical effects, whipped up into a two-hour car chase—beats the heart of surprisingly subversive entertainment. One that dares to put its mythic hero (Tom Hardy, a fine substitute for Mad Mel) into the passenger seat, while a metal-armed Charlize Theron leads the charge against misogyny incarnate. That this super-charged passion project made it to screens fully intact - like some spectacle from another universe - is cause to keep grinning, with or without a mouth sprayed in a glorious shade of chrome.