My Top Films of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

Since childhood, the Road Warrior series has existed in the same realm of mythic action blockbusters as the Star Wars original trilogy, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, etc… even though they were so totally different in texture and genre. Nonetheless, it felt like director George Miller was operating on the same level of world-making albeit on a far smaller budget and with a more punk rock, dangerous feel.

Flash forward 30+ years, past his strange but even more successful journey in to the “Babe” and “Happy Feet” series, and George Miller proves again that he has more energy, creativity, and action blockbuster adreneline running in his 70 year old veins than all of the younger blockbuster directors half his age (yes, JJ Abrahms and Joss Whedon included).

Mad Max: Fury Road
What drugs was George Miller taking when he dreamt up this insane shot, almost all practicals shot in-lens? What was the reaction of his crew (and poor Tom Hardy) when he showed them what he wanted?

There are “films” and there are “movies” and Fury Road distinctly falls in the second category, gliding effortless like some crazy, distilled, freebased movie drug working it’s chemicals in every sensory nerve. I understand many people might be turned off by the excess spectacle, but I prefer to celebrate this directorial masterpiece as the absolute peak of movie-making – visions, rhythm, and choreography that demand multiple viewings on the big silver screen.

Mad Max: Fury Road
The movie gave us the best action heroine since Ripley in “Aliens”. Miller knows that the best action spectacle and operatic melodrama can operate in the same plane of existence.

I’m disappointed that Miller didn’t receive Best Director at the Oscars this year.

2. Room

Room Poster

The less you know about this film, the better. If you haven’t heard or seen this film, I would advise stopping here and watching it with as little knowledge as possible.

That being said, I’ll say that this film is just ambitious as “Mad Max: Fury Road”. It’s also as ambitious as “Boyhood”, my favorite film from 2014.

Room
How do you tell a wrenching story of abuse and kidnapping from the subjective point-of-view of a five year old boy? How do you communicate the kid’s “rebirth” in a new world?

The film has been marketed with a high-concept: mainly that a mother and kid are locked in a room with almost no contact with the outside world for years on end. Certainly most of the attention had been paid on the first third of the film and how much thought has been paid towards the concept of a kid who has never seen the outside of the same four walls. Much has also been said about the amazing Brie Larson.

However, what really stood out for me was the subtle finesse and grace in the second part of the film when we break out into the greater world and see the ripple effects of the original crime. The film does a great job of portraying the viewpoint of five-year old Jack as he ventures outside for the first time. I loved the complex details of each of the supporting characters – the grandparents. the step-grandfather, the doctor, etc. In particular, a gripping scene in the middle of the film when a bit of excellent police work by a small supporting character leads to possibly the biggest applause moment of 2015.

Both “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Room” lead as my favorite films of 2015 because they speak the special language of film so well and in such an ambitious, but different ways and couldn’t be done by any other medium.

3. Creed

Creed

“Creed”, unlike the prior two movies, doesn’t quite have such an ambitious agenda. It’s an out-and-out crowdpleaser that happens to contain some performances and characters that are far better than expected for this kind of movie.

 

I’m already a huge Michael B. Jordan fan since “Friday Night Lights” and his seeming inevitable climb to being one of Hollywood’s greatest new stars is cemented by this performance. He’s always charismatic and a standout in all if his performances, but his portrayal in this film as an upper-middle class African American fighter with a chipmon his shoulder in a typically lower class sport is so specific that I feel like I’ve met and grew up with this character. This specificity extends through other performances.

Director Ryan Coogler knows just how to get the best from Stallone, letting the elder boxing trainer with one foot out the door into the next life play for maximum sentiment. Something tells me that Coogler is a big “Cosby Show” fan. Of course, there is the awesome Phyllisa Rashad delivering her usual classy motherly performance with inner strength. However, I was also getting a strong vibe from Tamara Robinson as the love interest. Most definitely we haven’t had enough big film on-screen portrayals of upper-middle class African Americans that everything devolved to a comparison to a TV show from 30 years ago.

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Tamara Robinson in the love interest role adds texture and characterization to her role as id there is a whole other film to be made with just her.

 

4. Brooklyn

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This is the feel-good, lovingly shot film that you can take your mother to (like I did). Like other films released in the late part of the year, the costuming is gorgeous, the characters tastefully acted, and it hits all of the right beats. Usually, I would question such Oscar bait-y  films. Yet, there are many things to love about this film. Saoirse Ronan is an unlikely lead, but shines through in this star-making performance and will definitely be seen in many future roles. The camera loves her wide eyed, expressive face. Nick Hornby screen writes and finally does away with his witty but occasionally overbearing tendency for unnecessary voiceover and lets the actors do their acting work. The film is populated with a dozen lively supporting roles that each have their own complexities. I was happy to watch the film twice and can safely recommend it for just about everyone.

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5. The Martian

It was really tough to choose between Spotlight and The Martian for the last spot in the Top Five, but ultimately I have to go with the film that I feel like I’ll probably be re-watching (I’ve already watched it twice). I don’t think I need to go on further about how humorous and fun and awesome the movie makes science doing science-y work feel like. I will say that this is Ridley Scott returning to portraying interesting characters working together in an interesting team dynamic. Usually, his brother Tony Scott gets more recognized for this kind of “men being men in the military” kind of film, but Sir Ridley occasionally also excels when he reaches into this territory (or in this case, men and women being awesome together).

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6. Spotlight

A great procedural drama… Everyone talks about Mark Ruffalo’s climax speech (something which inevitably play eventually in his “In Memoriam” clip), but I didn’t really grok to his performance — it seemed more like mimicry and took me out of the film. Instead, I really appreciated a lot of the smaller supporting performances: Liev Schreiber’s super-understated character with some fascinating choices. The handful of adult molestation victims were essentially cameo roles, but really were some of the best performances of the year. These were the things that stood out for me rather than the procedural flow of the film.

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7. Spy

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Comedies never get enough recognition come awards season, but there was ONE spy movie this year that excelled and it certainly didn’t have 007 in it.

8. Ex Machina

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Cool, sleek, and with an fascinating performance choice by Oscar Isaacs. It didn’t quite hit me quite as much as Her, but certainly had enough interesting points to it.

9. Paddington

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Released at the very beginning of 2015, this film had a horrible trailer but turned out to be a quirky, loving, and surprisingly good kids movie.

10. The Revenant

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I feel like Innaritu’s films are getting more and more about the spectacle and less about character. I’m placing this on my list just because of Emmanuel Lubezki’s miraculous cinematography and not because I especially liked the film or Leo’s performance.

Honorable Mentions

Ant Man antman_poster   Star Wars: The Force Awakens star_wars_poster Inside Out inside_out_poster Sicario sicario_poster Steve Jobs steve_jobs_poster The Big Short big_short_poster

Dishonorable Mention

Jurassic World: In a year with amazing female performances and characters (Furiosa in Mad Max, Brie Larson in Room, Melissa McCarthy in Spy, etc.) this movie seemed hopelessly out-of-date with it’s “women in peril” themes.

 

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  • Paul Tuohy

    Hi Stephen,
    It’s good to see you’re still active. I found you through my research of rating systems. I’m currently planning on a podcast that looks at rating systems and their affects on industries. Would you be interested in a short interview?
    Please contact me at: [email protected]