The buzz in the world of Hollywood journalism (if there is such a thing) is that this was a particularly good year for movies. I agree, and it makes me happy because, as an eternal optimist when it comes to cinema, I hate it when the story goes the other way.
Looking over my list this year, it was a little more difficult than usual to come up with a final cut. My top ten excludes at least ten other movies that I really enjoyed, including “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Sicario,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Peanuts Movie,” and “Creed.” These movies were all great, but the top ten was just a cut above.
Similarly, the bottom ten were a little harder to come up with, if only because I’m not sure I saw ten films that were really deserving of that moniker. Don’t worry, you’re going to get ten, if only for the sake of balance, but I’m not sure if, given enough distance, if I won’t watch one or two of them again some day. Actually, I can guarantee my kids are going to want “The Good Dinosaur,” so I’m sure I’ll be rewatching that sooner than later.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the ten best and ten worst films of 2015, in no particular order — unless you consider alphabetical an order. Which you should, because it is.
As slight as this character is, and as little known (did you catch my use of “slight” and “little” when describing a guy who shrinks? Pretty good, huh?) the team of Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd knocked it out of the park. This was supposed to be the Marvel Universe movie that finally failed and for many it was the best one so far. It was certainly the funniest, and I can’t wait to see more.
“The Big Short”
Speaking of funny, “The Big Short” is by far the wittiest film of the year. Where “Ant-Man” was only written by Adam McKay, “Short” was directed by him and manages to tell the oh-so depressing and complicated story of the 2008 global financial meltdown with a sense of drama, tension, and most of all humor. A great cast, from Christian Bale to Brad Pitt to Steve Carrel manage to steer us through the intricacies of the banking underbelly and don’t lose us for a minute. This is my second favorite film of the year.
This was probably the most unexpectedly great film I saw all year. I’d heard good things about Alex Garland’s little robot thriller in the woods, but the writing and acting is so stellar that this film hits you in ways a traditional thriller could never hope to. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson, so good in another little flick that came this year (hint: one of them flies an X-Wing) are excellent, but the prize goes to Alicia Vikander as beautiful AI gone awry.
“Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”
Speaking of surprises, the continuing tale of Katniss Everdeen has surprised me by continuing to improve with every film. Most of the time, (and I’m looking at you “Twilight”) these things are so bloated by the end that they just collapse in on themselves like a dying star, but “Hunger Games” has gotten subtler, more sophisticated, and, in the case of “Mockingjay 2” brought its heroine’s emotional journey full-circle. These films are a triumph.
Pixar started out their year strong with this beautiful, emotional tale about the beauty of emotions. Diving inside the head of Riley, an 11-year old girl, we gladly hung out with Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling. The story is hilarious and heart-warming and ranks up there with the best the company has to offer.
“Love & Mercy”
Until the onslaught of great movies this winter, “Love & Mercy” was my favorite film of the year. Another surprise, it tells the sometimes tragic, ultimately uplifting tale of Brian Wilson, the genius at the heart of The Beach Boys. Performed by Paul Dano as a young man, and John Cusack in his later years, “Mercy” offers a gripping tale, stellar performances, including the best thing I’ve seen from Cusack in years, and ultimately is filled with such hope and goodwill that I immediately had to tell everyone I knew about it. This isn’t one a lot of people have heard of, but it’s one to seek out. Preferably sooner rather than later.
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
Director George Miller accomplishes something with this latest, and possibly last, “Mad Max” movie that is rarely, if ever, done. He’s taken a 30-year-old property that few were clamoring for and completely revitalized it. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron’s white knuckle race across the wastelands is by far the most exciting, mind-blowing bit of practical stuntwork I’ve ever seen — maybe ever put to film. For some, Mel Gibson will always be Mad Max, but there’s no denying that “Fury Road” is the best Mad Max film ever made.
Ridley Scott and Matt Damon managed to take an entertaining, if amateurishly written, self-published online novel and turn it into a glorious example of the value of science. Sure, author Andy Weir deserves the credit for the idea and for making math thrilling, but Damon’s performance as the high-spirited, despite being marooned, astronaut Mark Watney is one of the highlights of his career. This movie is more fun than “Apollo 13” and “Gravity” but cut from the same cloth and I loved it.
“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”
Here’s another set of movies that keeps getting better. Tom Cruise and co. have managed to bring much needed energy into this spy series, making “Rogue Nation” the best one so far. Keep an eye out for actress Rebecca Ferguson, an actress who is definitely going places. In a year as good as this, movies like “Carol,” “Room,” or “The Hateful Eight” might have pushed “Mission Impossible” off the list, but you know what? They didn’t play here, and this movie was a heck of a lot of fun.
OK, enough fun. It’s time for “THE REVENANT”! (spoken in a loud, deep, gravelly voice — think angry Batman). That’s how a friend of mine and I keep referring to it to each other due mostly to the fact that it was the most intense experience I’ve had at the movies in a long time. Leonardo DiCaprio’s grueling depiction of mountain man Hugh Glass’ brutal journey back to life is definitely entertaining, but not for the faint of heart. Between that jaw-dropping bear attack and Tom Hardy’s amazing nuanced performance as the film’s antagonist, “The Revenant” is one that will haunt me.
Currently, “Spotlight” seems to be garnering the most Oscar buzz of any other movie out there. It’s well deserved. The film tells the amazing tale of the four-man investigative unit within the Boston Globe that played a big part in uncovering and exposing the Catholic priest sex scandal. After last year’s “Birdman” this may cement Michael Keaton’s career resurgence.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
What can I say? Having made over a billion and a half dollars, it’ll be hard to find anyone on the planet who disagrees that the new “Star Wars” movie is a bona fide success. At this point — and keep in mind that the movie’s been out for less than a month, I’ve seen it four times in the theater. After seeing it twice, I took my 8-year old son to see it, figuring it would be right up his alley. Then, after reveling in the adventures one of the best female heroines of the last decade, I decided I was doing my 6-year-old daughter a disservice by not taking her — if for no other reason than I couldn’t stand the idea of her at 30, talking with a group of friends about the films that shaped them and her having to reveal that her dad didn’t take her to see “The Force Awakens” when it came out because he was afraid she might get scared. You’ve got to recognize this film for the pop-culture touchstone that it will no doubt become. My favorite film of the year, bar none.
This was a particularly frustrating movie because it feels like a western starring Kurt Russell wouldn’t need anything else to sell it. Unfortunately, the particularly ugly cannibalism plot and a weak script get in the way of a sure thing. I never thought my complaint would be that the movie is flat-out boring, though.
This movie is more frustrating than bad. There is a lot to like about the film — the production values, the acting — but the story stumbles hard in the third act, going for pointless and fairly obvious bloody violence instead of maintaining the promise of a good old-fashioned spooky story.
“The Fantastic Four”
Wow. What a trainwreck. For once, the negative buzz spewing out of the internet managed to undersell how bad the film was. Too dark, too gritty, too dumb, and way too short — the movie is barely an hour and a half. I tried to re-watch some of this for free on a plane-trip, but I just couldn’t. I ended up rewatching the new “Vacation,” which isn’t great by any means, but is at least entertaining.
“The Good Dinosaur”
Sigh. I feel bad including this movie on the list — kind of like kicking a puppy, but the movie just isn’t good. The script is both painfully cliché and hopelessly muddled. The characters are one-dimensional and the design of the main character is almost Jar Jar bad. Especially considering how incredible the rest of the animation is. I wonder if Pixar can salvage this whole thing by editing Arlo out and selling the rest of the movie as stock footage for nature documentaries.
OK — technically this was a 2014 movie, and hardly anyone saw it anyway, but just in case you see Tommy Lee Jones on the cover and think, “Hmmmm. He was good in ‘Lonesome Dove,’ how bad could this be?” I want to answer that question ahead of time. Very Bad. One of the most depressing slogs I had to sit through all year.
“Insurgent — The Divergent Series”
If you thought the first one was ridiculous, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Since “The Hunger Games” failed to pick up the Mindless YA torch from “Twilight,” “Divergent” was right there, ready to snatch it up. Honestly, I can’t remember anything about this movie, other than that Shailene Woodley cut her hair. Looking back over my review, I called this movie “dumb, but affable.” I guess I’ll have to take my word for it, because this movie is gone.
Oh sweet potential. “Krampus” starts out OK, but what could have been the horror comedy version of “Christmas Vacation” just ends up a deflated holiday mess. Unlikeable characters, silly monsters, and a whole lot of latex add up to a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking.
Did you ever wonder whether those cute little yellow guys from the “Despicable Me” movies could carry their own movie? Well wonder no more. They can’t. While not offensive, particularly, the movie just has no one to latch onto. The Minions are what most people think they like about “Despicable Me,” but I think this movie proves that the real star of those movies has been Gru all along.
“Spongebob: Sponge Out of Water”
OK — I know I’m old, but I thought I’d give Spongebob a chance. Man was that a mistake. I know some of you are thinking, “C’mon, give the guy a break,” but with so many good children’s options out there, I don’t understand how this is still a thing.
One of the main characteristics I’ve noticed in most of these lesser films is forgetability. I remember almost nothing from this one either, except that the director Olivier Megaton (that’s got to be made up) employs so many cuts that the movie feels like you’re watching it through a viewfinder on speed. I like this new action Liam Neeson, but I hope these movies are done.
I know this ended up on several critics top-ten lists, but I just couldn’t get into Amy Schumer’s mindset here. I liked Bill Hader; I liked LeBron James, but I couldn’t enjoy the film because the lead character was such a monumentally unlikeable person. I know Schumer was trying to turn the romantic comedy on its head, but what she does instead is push women’s lib back 50 years.