Mike's Top Ten Movies of 2015

2015 movie poster collage.jpg

What better way to start Back to the Features than with a good look at the past year in film. Also, what better way to get to know me and my tastes than to read about me and my tastes. I watched a ton of movies this year, so it was hard to carve out a top ten; however, after many tears and snacks, I did it. While I did put it in order for those that must have order, it really doesn't matter what goes where after number one - I love them all. Without further delay, I bring you my favorites of 2015:

1. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

This one seriously made me feel some feels, guys. I was raised with the original trilogy and, like most of you, I’ve been waiting to find out what happens after Return of the Jedi for what seemed like an eternity. With that built-in backstory and build-up alone, it’s hard to compete with this movie as an experience – and that is exactly what it was: not just a movie, an experience.

J.J. Abrams had to thread so many needles for this movie to work (and it does!) that it’s a bit of a wonder that he’s still alive, sane, and wearing pants on a consistent basis. Yes, it is a bit derivative and even on the second viewing it lost a little bit of the magic for me; regardless, that first time through in the theatre was euphoric – it felt like I was a kid again experiencing it all for the first time. Due to that, there’s just no other place on this list that it could go. It may be Episode VII in the order of things, but, this year, it’s number one in my heart.

2. Sicario

Sicario is some heavy stuff, folks. Of all the movies I’ve seen this year, outside of Star Wars, this one has stuck with me the most. It simply invades you - I haven’t been able to shake it, and I saw it back when it was released in August.

I’m not much for plot overviews, but, for those that don’t know, it’s basically an action-thriller about an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) that gets thrown into a very complicated point of the drug war near the US/Mexico border.  Strangely, when I mention it to people, they rarely know which movie I’m talking about. If you are one of those people, put this one towards the top of your must-see list immediately!

The director, Denis Villeneuve, has been quietly honing his skills for the past few years with the surprisingly solid thrillers like Prisoners & Enemy; however, this one takes the cake. It “clenches the cheeks” from the first scene and doesn’t let up until the last. It’s chock full of fantastic performances (from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, & Josh Brolin), great cinematography, powerful writing, and all of that is magnified by an absolutely hair-raising score from Jóhann Jóhannsson. Bravo, Denis & Company, Bravo!

3. Kingsman: The Secret Service

While Mad Max tended to be the exception to most critic’s “Thou Shalt Not Include Blockbuster Action Movies in Thy Top 10” rule this year, I think this one is just as deserving, if not more so.  With this fine film, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class), went from an interesting action director to someone I will follow blindly into any theater at anytime…even if he’s adapting a Nicholas Sparks book (Please don’t hold me to that, Mr. Vaughn). The guy knows how to take what’s been done and put his own innovative stank on it. He makes this bond-esque spy movie feel refreshingly new and charmingly old school all at once.

Also, if you watch any of his movies you know the guy knows how to pick a cast –this movie is no different. Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth (who knew he could do action with such ease?!) all turn in great performances, but his secret weapon is the relative newcomer, Taron Egerton. The whole movie hinges on him and he does not disappoint. Yes, he’s charismatic and can do the action, but the guy’s got heart for days. I really think he could be a huge star in the coming years – drama, action, comedy, whatever genre Kevin Hart movies are….you get the point: He kills it.

And, come on… that church scene. Damn.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

The man who invented post-apocalyptic cinema reinvents it 30+ years later. This film is what many critics defined as the “best case scenario” for a Hollywood blockbuster this year. For the most part, I agree. It’s got style AND substance (take note, Michael Bay). Tom Hardy does his always-dependable “silent & brooding” type, but it’s Charlize Theron that makes the movie her own. I’d also argue that Nicholas Hoult deserves recognition for wringing every bit he can out of what he’s given in the film.

With all of that said, the real star of the film is the man himself, George Miller. The Mad Max films have always been his babies and it’s obvious that this one is no different. This film simply would not be anywhere close to what it is without his stubbornly uncompromised vision. I just hope the studio understands that, and doesn’t take the franchise out of his hands.

5. The Revenant

Who knew you could make such a brutal survival story so damn beautiful? Alejandro González Iñárritu is making one hell of a career out of taking stories that could be fairly straightforward in another director’s hands and turning them into epic, complex masterpieces.

Part of the reason he’s able to do this is due to outstanding lead performances he gets time after time – this one is no different. Leo not only earns the Oscar this go round, he earns enough respect for everyone to overlook the whole vape-pen thing – but, seriously dude…what the hell? Let’s also not forget the great supporting performances from Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, & Domhnall Gleeson (Can we take a moment to acknowledge that this guy was seriously busy making awesome movies this year – Star Wars, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, AND this?? Holy cow, dude.)

Alejandro’s other secret weapon is the man they call “Chivo” – cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men). I don’t know if this guy is capable of a bad choice – to quote The Police, “every little thing (he) does is magic.”

This is also a movie that walks the line of being realistic, but, to Alejandro’s credit, never crosses over into “crazy dumb-dumb land” (this is the stupefying territory Michael Bay calls home – two shout outs in one list!)– which could have been very easy to do.

Bottom line, it’s a solid, thrilling piece of art. You really can’t go wrong here.

6. Room

Despite repeatedly hearing great things about this one, I avoided seeing it for quite a while. It just felt a little too “Oscar Bait-ish” – I was sure it would be perfectly adequate, but nothing to write home about. A lot of times you see these types of movies and they are exactly what they expect them to be – nothing more, nothing less. That in itself can be a bit disappointing. This is the reason Spotlight didn’t make my top ten this year. It’s a perfectly good movie with some great performances, but it didn’t surprise me at all.

I wasn’t wrong about Room being Oscar Bait, but it’s extremely well-made, well-acted, and surprisingly more tense than I was expecting. There wasn’t a false move in the entire movie. This can be extremely difficult when you’re dealing with child actors, but Jacob Tremblay is absolutely pitch perfect. Many people are raving about Brie Larson’s performance, as well. They’re right – she’s fantastic, but if you saw her in Short Term 12 two years back, you knew she had this in her.

The whole movie hinges on the audience feeling everything this mother and child are feeling – as I said, the performances are there. Danny Cohen’s cinematography completes the circle. The room itself feels claustrophobic, the outside world feels foreign and blinding at first.

It’s an emotional roller coaster that I highly recommend lining up for. Do it.

7. The Big Short

The Big Short is its own monster. It’s funny, dramatic, thrilling, bewildering and, most of all, infuriating. Then again, how can any decent movie explaining the recent housing market collapse not be all of those things?

Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys, Step Brothers) is known for his sophomoric humor – it’s his bread & butter. This movie has glimpses of that when necessary, but it is much more reserved & innovative than his usual fare. Those of us who paid close attention to The Other Guys underlying message know Adam’s had this brewing in him for a while. The Big Short is Adam McKay unleashed, and with the best cast you could have possibly imagined. Everyone pulls their weight with style – most notably, Steve Carell & the ever-dependable chameleon, Christian Bale.

I could blab about this one until you want to hit me over the head with a hammer. To keep things short, let’s just say that this is the movie equivalent of the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from Mary Poppins – it’s necessary medicine, but McKay knows to heap on a truckload of sugar to make people swallow it. I know it can’t change policy, but hopefully it can simultaneously rile & educate people enough to start a discussion; however, as you can see, there’s a lot of money in blissful ignorance. Go America…

8. The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Hi, my name is Mike and I’m an addict. Right off the bat I’ll acknowledge that superhero movies may be my drug. Just like Star Wars, I grew up worshiping these characters. If there’s a superhero movie coming out, I’m chomping at the bit to see it, discuss it, see it again, annoy you with more discussion, see it again, and so on.

Most critics are shouting “superhero fatigue” is coming, I’m shouting, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?!” I say all of this to reveal my bias – I tend to give these films more leeway in some areas and less in others. I haven’t had to be too picky in recent years, as we truly are in the golden age of superhero movies. Not only are we finally where we need to be technologically to properly adapt these characters to the screen, we have people making them that actually understand how to write for and use the characters. Basically, we’ve been spoiled. Due to the spoils, we’ve become even more critical.

The first Avengers was when the public fully realized these spoils. It’s also a movie that had two big advantages over its sequel– One: It was greatly underestimated -not a lot of people thought it would work at all. Secondly, it was the first of its kind.  So, when it somehow worked, people ignored/forgot a lot of little imperfections and praised the living hell out of it.

I’m babbling endlessly here, but I needed to preface this review with that because I believe Age of Ultron didn’t get a fair shake from most critics and fans – who have become extremely spoiled and entitled.

Whenever a Marvel movie drops, I tend to re-watch a lot of the Marvel universe (MCU) movies that have preceded it. With Age of Ultron, I went hard - I watched every single damn MCU movie there is. And, why not? Let’s not pretend I hadn’t re-watched them a bajillion times anyways. This just gave me a proper excuse. My point, is that I came in to Age of Ultron with a clear memory of the movies that had come before.

If we judge Age of Ultron solely on what had come before, I still maintain that it’s one of the more impressive (if not most impressive) Marvel movies yet. Even just compared to the first Avengers film, it’s more emotionally complex, exciting, funny and infinitely more intricate. Joss Whedon swung for the damn fences with AOU - he took everything that worked in the first movie and built upon it. With all of that said, I still constantly see people online calling this movie garbage, and I just don’t understand it. I guess that’s why this sounds less like a review and more like me calling B.S. on the internet. Yes, it has flaws like every other movie before it (Marvel has a villain problem, Thor’s bath of confusion, etc) – even with those flaws, I’d still argue that it’s a better movie. I could dissect the movies scene for scene, but this isn’t the time nor the place for that kind of nerdery. So, since this is my dang site, it gets called one of the best movies of the past year. Suck on that. 

9. The Martian

The Martian was the best book I’d read in quite a while. It combined many things that I love: humor, sci-fi, heart, science, and page-turning suspense - to name a handful. It’s basically a love letter to NASA and the human spirit….and MacGyver. I couldn’t put it down.

I’m happy to say that the movie is very loyal to the book. It condenses where it needs to while leaving the heart of the story and the main character, Mark Watney, intact.

Ridley Scott returns to the genre he helped shape with classics like Alien and Blade Runner – how can that alone not excite you? On top of that Drew Goddard, one of the most in demand writers in Hollywood, decided that he needed to make this his next project. Those two powerhouses paired with the dream cast of all dream casts makes this hard to hate (Ridley has said that he got every single actor he asked for. I guess that happens when your name is Ridley Scott).

What can you say? It’s a great story with a great director, writer, cast, and crew. It’s about as close to a sure thing as you can get these days.

My only thing is this: I still like the book better. You get more unfiltered access to Mark’s hilarious thoughts and brilliant intellect. You also feel more danger with every obstacle that comes his way. The ending was also far more emotional for me in the book. It would have been amazing if Ridley made this into a 10 hour mini-series. The book would have most definitely been able to sustain it with the amount of detail that it contains.

Either way, the movie is still a good enough distillation of what made the book great. I’d still recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have the patience to dedicate a week or two to the book,

10. Creed

Well, this one was unexpected. If someone would have told me that they were going to do a hybrid sequel/reboot to the Rocky franchise about Apollo Creed’s offspring and that it would be good, I would have laughed, slapped that person in the face, and set them on fire. FOR REAL…maybe. At the very least I would have rolled my eyes more heavily than I have since I first watched Rocky V. Yet, here we are, and I’m putting this movie on my top ten list. They sky is falling, people.

Not only is this movie great, it’s probably the best of the franchise. I say probably due to the fact that Rocky IV is probably the most America movie that ever America-ed, and it’s hard to put anything above that. America.

Regardless, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) put together one hell of a boxing movie that acknowledges what has come before while pushing the franchise bravely into the modern day. Luckily, he knows not to lean on Rocky too hard – it is Adonis’ movie after all. He also knows to cleverly subvert audience expectations on what the movie would be.

In the wrong hands, this story would have simply been a “by the numbers” remake of the first Rocky with cardboard characters and a cameo by Sylvester Stallone to round it out. In Coogler’s hands it’s a loving homage, a thrilling barn burner, and an intimate character study all rolled into one. It’s a Hollywood film that retains the heart of an indie.

While Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, & Tessa Thompson give excellent performances and all have moments to shine, my only gripe with the movie is that the opponents Creed faces are given very little screen time and are a bit flat as a result. Again, that’s just me nitpicking a very strong sports film. I’m definitely looking forward to the inevitable sequel, and also director Ryan Coolger’s take on Marvel’s Black Panther.

Honorable Mentions:

These ones didn't quite make the cut, but they were all solid movies that I'd also recommend if you have seen everything else on this list...freak. 

Ex Machina

Spotlight

Brooklyn

Trainwreck

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

The End of the Tour

Love & Mercy

And that's the end, folks. Feel free to leave some comments about how awesome I am or am not...