Nate’s Wrap-Up of All the Best and Worst, Best Worst, and Worst Best 2015 Films
And so my friends 2015 has given way to 2016, much like the previous year gave way to 2015, and here we are again to take stock of another year at the movies. I didn’t personally find as many movies to be passionate about this year, though there were several great films, but it was a great year for action cinema, which is showcased in my Best of the Year list. This was a year that got the blood pumping. I saw a career-low number of movies this year (80+), which is likely because of the demands of my full-time teaching job, but likely also the fact that 2015 as a whole wasn’t up to snuff. I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I review the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted the world of cinema.
But before going into all that 2015 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2014. There weren’t too many changes after catching later releases, so the final revision is thus:
2014 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Birdman (formerly number 9)
9) The Raid 2 (formerly number 10)
8) Noah (unchanged)
7) Guardians of the Galaxy (unchanged)
6) The Boxtrolls (unchanged)
5) Life Itself (unchanged)
4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (unchanged)
3) Selma (unchanged)
2) Whiplash (unchanged)
1) Snowpiercer (unchanged)
And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2015
10) The Big Short
The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that director Adam McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments. McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public.
9) Ex Machina
Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. It’s essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland’s effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It’s a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland’s scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that is a testament to Garland’s artistic vision. It’s a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn’t forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters.
8) The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Bel Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.
If you’re looking for an Oscar movie this award season that will be perfect for grandparents, I direct you to the perfectly pleasurable Brooklyn. While the story is set in the early 1950s, this movie could have been made in any decade of the film industry. There’s a classical sense to its storytelling that is rather universal about the struggles of self and independence. While this movie is awash in the period details of 50s New York City, it really could be told anywhere. The personal struggles of Eilis are completely relatable, which makes her an instantly engaging heroine. There’s something quite nourishing about watching decent people try and navigate their desires while maintaining their decency. Eilis is a woman who doesn’t speak in paragraphs but in short succinct sentences. She’s guarded but observant, and Saoirse Ronan’s face is our great tapestry for understanding Eilis and her changing demeanor. We can watch her process the intimidating and invigorating world and read her thinking. Brooklyn is an easy movie to be carried away with. It’s full of honest and earned emotions that resonate from its reletability, tender heart, and gentle observations of watching a woman navigate the choices of her life. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts, but with actors this good and with a script this tailored to deliver emotional uplift and satisfaction, those are some mighty impressive parts.
6) The Martian
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb.
5) Kingsmen: The Secret Service
Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsmen: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taran Eagleton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsmen explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.
Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. Writer Taylor Sheridan has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. With Prisoners and now Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied.
3) Inside Out
It feels immeasurably satisfying to finally have the Pixar we all fell in love with back and running. Pixar once again does an amazing job of guiding you through a new world and its various parts, all while expanding and complicating this environment while staying true to its internal logic and keeping an audience properly oriented. You know you’ve watched an impactful film when even thinking back on moments starts the process of tears welling in your eyes. The sense of discovery with the movie is alive and well, and each new revelation of Riley’s inner mind adds to the fun. Far more than a big screen version of the 90s comedy Herman’s Head (anybody remember this one?), this is an exceptional animated film that will appeal to all ages but, I suspect, hit adults even harder than their little ones. It’s a wonderfully poignant film about the struggles of growing up, of holding onto your past definitions of yourself, of accepting the full barrage of emotions, including the necessity of sadness. It’s relatable in many aspects and this further compounds its power. It’s dazzling with its creativity, it left me cackling with laughter (a superb Chinatown reference almost had me fall out of my chair), and it left me weeping at various points. Inside Out is a return to form. This is the Pixar we remember.
It’s hard to think of a more emotionally grueling and uplifting movie this year than Room. It drops you right into a scary world and, thanks to its carefully balanced tone, the film eschews sensationalism and gets at the beating heart of its survival story, namely the love and protection of a mother for her son. It is an emotionally powerful story that hits the big moments, the small moments, and everything in between. It left me analyzing it and rethinking it for hours, the repercussions still reverberating through me. Within the first twenty minutes of watching Room I already knew this was one of the best films of 2015. It just connects so vividly and succinctly, effortlessly powerful and yet skillfully avoiding sensationalism and exploitation while telling an entertaining survival story that still resonates with emotional truth. The performances from mother and son are outstanding and Larson and Tremblay form a heroic duo that take hold of your heart. It doesn’t mitigate the darkness or the cruel realities of its premise but Room also doesn’t dwell in the darkness, castigating its characters as hapless victims forever broken from their incalculable suffering. They are resourceful and resilient and while their trauma will not be forgotten it is not the one defining moment of their burgeoning lives. It may sound maudlin but it is the power of love that resonates the longest with Room. That love at first is about protecting the innocent, and then it transforms into healing and acceptance. I hope everybody gets a chance to see Room, a remarkable film with two remarkable performances and plenty to say about the humanizing benefit of love.
And the best film of 2015 is…..
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
I knew minutes into the film that my appetite would not be quenched and I needed to see it again, which I did less than 12 hours later. A week later I saw it a third time in the theater. There are few things more exhilarating in the realm of motion pictures than a well-executed, well-developed action sequence, and Mad Max: Fury Road is a blistering, awe-inspiring masterpiece of brilliant carnage. What director George Miller has achieved onscreen is visionary. The level of execution is so rarely seen at such a large scale, and with so many moving parts, that I was delighted and curious how something this extraordinary could escape the risk-averse studio system. I also appreciated just how much thought Miller and his team put into crafting their world. Every detail feels like it adds to the overall richness of Miller’s vision. The adrenaline just doesn’t turn off from the get-go, and Miller keeps throwing out new tricks, new stunts, and new cars to astound and amaze. Rarely does an artist get to work at this level in the studio system let alone succeed with a final product that still manages to be strange, mordant, uncompromising, and completely riveting. This is a near-perfect action movie and a thrilling high-wire act of practical filmmaking bravado. There isn’t a department in Fury Road that wasn’t at the top of their game. Mad Max: Fury Road is the standard I am going to judge all summer movies by for the rest of the year, and I imagine many will be found wanting. I could continue to heap praise on the movie but the most persuasive stance I can make is that if you fail to see Fury Road on the big screen, you will always regret this decision. I am a disciple of Fury Road and witness my brethren and me. This movie was made for the biggest screen, the loudest sound system, and an endless bucket of popcorn.
Honorable mention: Spy, Electric Boogaloo, Goodnight Mommy, What We Do in the Shadows
10) Jupiter Ascending
I was holding out hope, thinking that maybe Jupiter would be silly but fun in a Fifth Element way, but instead ladies and gentlemen, we have an heir to 1980’s campy Flash Gordon. The Wachoswkis are certainly imaginative filmmakers but their ambitious world-building impulses get the better of them and their story. Jupiter Ascending is a rarity in Hollywood, a big-budget epic that overpowers you with a singular sense of style and imagination; it just so happens that so much of the creative fireworks are laughably terrible. The Wachowskis don’t do anything in half-measure, and the film is put in overdrive. There’s a mess of characters and peculiar details to make this world feel larger than life and tethered to the idea of fun. Then why oh why did we have to be saddled with such boring, one-dimensional characters and a secret princess storyline lifted from countless sources? In the past, the Wachoswkis have found ways to turn pop philosophy and pop-culture into an entertaining alchemy that separated them from the sci-fi pack of imitators, which were legion. I still have great fondness for the original Matrix (you can keep the sequels), V for Vendetta, and especially Cloud Atlas of late. The Wachowskis are ambitious filmmakers and they have the imagination and narrative sensibilities to achieve great things. It’s just that with Jupiter Ascending it feels like their real passion was in all the background artifacts, the minutia of the worlds, the alien costumes and makeup, the histories of worlds. It certainly wasn’t on a story or characters or a credible romance. I have to admit that Jupiter Ascending is entertaining, just not in the way its creators may have intended.
The plot of the movie is almost insulting with how little conflict there is and when there is any how easily it all wraps up into lazy wish fulfillment. Will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have sex with an attractive woman, or will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have to wait to have sex with another attractive woman? What a pressing conflict for a feature film. It’s just a consistent reward system for characters that stumble from one good thing to another. Scene to scene, it feels like some sort of party that the filmmakers expect you to be grateful for attending. It’s not even a fun party. If you were a fan through all eight bro-tastic seasons of the TV show, chances are you’ll probably find the movie easy-going and enjoyable. If you’re like me and grew tired of their boorish antics, the repetitive humor and plotting, and the casual misogyny, then a big-screen version where the boys get to continue their ways and get more rewards, where everything works out for everyone, will be highly fatiguing. If this is indeed the last ride for Vince and the boys from Queens, well they went out pretty much like they did four years ago, and isn’t it great to still be a rich white guy in Hollywood? Oh yeeeeeah. Oh yeeeeeeah.
8) Terminator Genisys
If you’re a fan of James Cameron’s iconic Terminator franchise, you’ll probably want to hold onto something as you watch Terminator: Genisys, which hits “delete” on the franchise and starts from scratch with, we’ll call them, “mixed results.” Much like its ongoing star, the Terminator franchise is old but not obsolete, and even a disappointing movie reminds us just how much life can come from this series. It’s got a sense of fun that entertained me enough for one viewing. The characters and action sequences and iconic in our pop-culture, which makes erasing them from a new movie plot problematic. If you strip everyone’s fond memories of the first two Terminators and start over, what’s left? You can repeat some of the more memorable scenes (the Hollywood adage of “same but different”) but this does little other than make you remember how much you preferred it the first time (see: Star Trek Into Darkness). I wish Genisys had been more risky because so much of it feels far too safe, from the average action sequences, to the boring characters, to the ho-hum conclusion meant to set up a new trilogy of movies in this brave new non-Skynet world. I haven’t watched Terminator: Salvation in many years but I’m curious to see it again if for no other purpose than to determine which is the least of the Terminator films.
It’s not going to be called conventionally appealing, or successfully funny, but Mortdecai is not exactly the colossal unwatchable bomb that critics brought out their knives for in the first month of 2015. It’s a curiosity that has some merit in its failure but it’s hard to lambaste this lark too much because it never takes itself too seriously. Johnny Depp plays Mortdecai, a roguish art dealer who also traffics in stolen paintings. Gwyneth Paltrow is his co-conspirator and wife. Paul Bettany is Mortdecai’s long-suffering manservant always getting into dust-ups or occasionally shot by his master. The weird left turns the comedy keeps taking don’t exactly make the movie better but they save it from being completely unmemorable. Your enjoyment factor will weigh heavily upon your tolerance for Depp in full foppish mode, an effete dandy who struggles with his conflating love of his mustache and his wife’s distaste for it. The entire story is a shaggy dog caper about stolen art that involves the Russian mafia, MI 5, and Nazi gold, and nothing matters. The actors look to be having a good deal of fun, playing dress up and trying on silly accents. I can’t say I laughed out loud but I did occasionally smile at the absurd commitment. I mostly sat wondering how something like this gets made, and then I saw that Depp was one of the producers and that answered that question. Mortdecai may not be worth the invective but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
6) Fantastic Four
Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.
5) Knock Knock
Knock Knock is an unbalanced and unintentionally funny morality play that is so poorly executed, ham-fisted, and awkwardly developed that it’s more horrifying mess than horror. That’s the biggest failing of Knock Knock is that it could have worked as a thriller if Eli Roth and co-writer Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) had fully developed their scenario. There’s a fine story of events spinning out of control as one man gets in over his head trying to cover up his indiscretion. Rather than playing as a slow-boil hostage thriller or a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality play, Knock Knock more approaches a failed farce. Roth has been a filmmaker who found dark and creative ways to mix humor into his horror, but Knock Knock is one where his signature humor doesn’t feel intended. After a long drought behind the camera, these two releases have shown me that Roth’s interests have become a bit more base, his skills a bit more ramshackle, and his sick sense of humor a bit more misapplied. After Cabin Fever and Hostel, I had high hopes that Roth would follow in his mentor Tarantino’s footsteps and rise above genre trappings as an artist. With news that Roth will produce a Cabin Fever remake for 2016, well I think my hopes for the man have gone up in smoke.
4) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
While Die Hard 2 is a fairly mundane follow-up, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is a true test of everything we hold sacred. Midway into the movie, I thought my review was just going to be my unintelligible suicide note. Somewhere along the way, Kevin James and co-writer Nick Bakay decided the lovable lug needed to be a modern-day Pagliacci and be the crying clown America deserves. The opening act feels like notorious cinematic sadist Lars von Trier designed it. There won’t be a joke (I’ll be charitable and refer to them as “jokes”) that you won’t see coming a mile away and still roll your eyes when they arrive. The first Blart film wasn’t going to be confused with Tom Stoppard but it at least had some action conventions it could tweak. This go-round can’t even manage that, and so we’re inundated with tired slapstick and comedy that rarely rises above the most obvious joke at every opportunity. I should not have been expecting much from Paul Blart 2 simply by the choice of jokes highlighted in the trailer. If you wanted a cursory reminder, it included Blart fighting a bird, Blart punching an old lady, Blart running into a plate glass window, and Blart getting kicked by a horse in what should be a spine-obliterating accident. Let’s take this last gag and really explore how it’s indicative of Paul Blart 2. The foundation is a dumb act of slapstick, but that’s not good enough and so it’s exaggerated to even dumber magnitude. With the help of self-loathing CGI artists (they can’t all be Jurassic World), Blart ricochets across a street and violently bounces against a car door. It’s not enough that a horse kicks this guy; he has to get kicked by a super horse because it just wasn’t funny enough. That sums up the comic ethic of Paul Blart 2: when stupid isn’t enough, amp it further, and then be proud about what you’ve done.
3) Jem and the Holograms
Jem is a very confused movie and it’s a very stupid movie, and its most stupid mistake is completely abandoning any appeal this otherwise out-of-time 80s pop-culture relic might have had with its nostalgic core audience. he structure of this movie also drove me mad, compounded by being 118 goddamn minutes long. Why is this movie two measly minutes short of a full two hours? Why is this movie only 39 less minutes than The Revenant? he story is pap to leap from one musical montage to another, and when Jem does try and remind you that these singing sisters are supposed to be, you know, characters with, like, feelings, it uses the full misplaced force of a sledgehammer. Jem and he Holograms is the kind of inspirational movie that will inspire nobody, a musical coming-of-age film with terribly and terribly underwritten characters that are a note-note collection of adjectives and different fashions (this one has colored hair, oooo). The music is passable but nothing that justifies the rocket success and intense devotion we witness on screen. The story is so emotionally sappy yet phony, the structure maddeningly padded out and given the idiotic daddy scavenger hunt, and the editing insertion of cutaway clips of YouTube artists drove me mad. After an hour I realized what I was watching: the Josie and the Pussycats movie absent any of the social satire. This movie makes Josie and the Pussycats look like Doctor Strangelove.
2) The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence
Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”
And the worst film of 2015 is….
1) Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser
How bad does bad get? That’s the question with Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, a sequel 14 years in the making to a one-joke character from an actor now in his 50s. It’s so bad that this movie is a Crackle original, a streaming service that I don’t think people know exists. You can feel every degree of sad desperation while you watch. There are so many scenes that just seem to prattle on indefinitely, varying from one or two angles, as if they only had time to film one take and kept encouraging their actors to just keep throwing things out there in the misplaced hope that somehow somebody would strike gold. It does not happen once. David Spade returns and he’s whisked away Wizard of Oz-style into the past where he watches his beloved girlfriend choose his rival (Mark McGrath) over him. It’s a weird Back to the Future Part 2 alternative timeline and one where McGrath also plays his character’s father in an inexplicable scene where he allows his family to unknowingly jerk him off. I hope that last sentence begins to reveal the true depths of comic despair that is Joe Dirt 2. It’s not that it’s powerfully unfunny, it’s not that the plot is completely inconsequential, it’s not that the jokes end up being weird pop-culture references dating back to the 90s (Buffalo Bill in 2015?), it’s not that Spade looks like he’s fulfilling some deal with the devil, it’s not that the movie has no purpose and no reason to exist, it’s that Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser is like a communal funeral. You watch it and you mourn; for those involved and for your lost time. If you can find a more pointless, depressing, past-its-prime sequel, then I think the seventh seal has been opened, spelling the doom of mankind. I figured Adam Sandler would be responsible somehow.
Dishonorable mention: Minions, Chappie, Pan, Fifty Shades of Grey
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: I’ll See You in My Dreams, Sicario, Self/less, Beasts of No Nation, Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
Worst titles of the year: Jupiter Ascending, Project Almanac, Accidental Love, The Water Diviner, Terminator Genisys, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip
Titles that could be confused with porn: Mississippi Grind, The D Train, Sleeping with Other People, Get Hard (yes, obvious still counts), Black Mass, The Lady in the Van
Biggest Disappointment: Tomorrowland. Brad Bird is a filmmaker with an unimpeachable resume of animated and live-action hits… until now. This idealistic sci-fi message movie would have been easier to swallow if it wasn’t so oppressively scolding and stuck on can-do platitudes to be anything beyond an earnest motivational poster that will ultimately be ignored. It’s a pretty film with some fun moments, but Tomorrowland is a reminder that not all nostalgia is credible, not all dreams are equal, and messages are digested better when the audience cares about what is happening and (key point here) understands it. I expect Bird to rebound with his next project, but man he turned down directing Star Wars for this movie. Yikes.
The Best 10 Minutes of 2015: The church massacre in Kingsmen. This instant-classic sequence is breathlessly rendered madness set to the rockin’ heights of “Free Byrd.” Matthew Vaughn deserves all your studio money, Hollywood.
Runners-up: Conclusion of Mad Max: Fury Road; stuck in traffic in Sicario; the football bet with B.D. Wong in Focus; the dramatic escape from Room.
2004 Jude Law Award for Being in Everything: Domhnall Gleeson
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2015: One of the three times I watched Mad Max
The Exodus: Gods and Kings Award for Whitewashing (Soon to be Renamed the Gods of Egypt Award): Rooney Mara playing “native” princess Tigerlily in the generally miscalculated Pan; the otherwise delightful Emma Stone playing a “half Asian/half Hawaiian” character in Aloha.
MPAA Vagaries: I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Eddie Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.
The Plot of Run All Night in a Nutshell: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.”
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2015: Nostalgia. Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens were all big-budget releases the dipped heartily into fan nostalgia, with some teetering into fan service. Each movie wanted to remind you what you loved about the original, to stir those old feelings, and purposely recreated scenes, dialogue exchanges, characters, and plot points. I know many millennials who consider Jurassic Park to be their own Star Wars, a film that delighted the imagination and imprinted a love of movies at a young, impressionable time. Then there’s Star Wars itself returning to its cinematic roots in style and approach, delighting the fanbase that was demoralized from the prequels. Terminator Genisys went off on a new timeline but squeezed in all sorts of references to the older, better movies.
Worst Use of Time Travel: The teens in Project Almanac could have used time travel to save lives, but I guess that’s not as fun as seeing Imagine Dragons backstage. Sigh. Kids these days.
Sex Curse Birds and Bees: Before It Follows hits the skids in the third act, I was pondering the greater implications and logistics of its sexually transmitted curse. Does “passing” it along require some form of genital contact? Does it require fluid exchange? If you wear a condom, does the prophylactic also protect your sexual partner from the transmission? Does the curse function relatively the same for same sex couples? What about people with non-functioning parts below the waist? Can someone who suffers from erectile dysfunction pass the curse along? Can it be transferred onto inanimate objects? Can men ejaculate into some sort of container and then send the container into space via the space shuttle and be protected? Actually, banging an astronaut who’s about to live on the space station or go to Mars might be the smartest move.
Best Sendoff: Paul Walker in Furious 7
Worst Sendoff: Daniel Craig in Spectre
Phony Fake Out Award: The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry (Christian Bale) is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hindenburg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in fames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.
Post-Apocalyptic Lessons in Feminism: What the Men’s Rights Activists seem to have lost in their caterwauling about Mad Max: Fury Road is that feminism is not a zero-sum game; one person gaining stature and opportunity does not mean it’s taken away from another. Just because Furiosa is strong it doesn’t make Max weak. Furiosa being a compelling lead character does not diminish Max. It makes him an even better character because he recognizes her value and his own limitations, like a scene where he voluntarily hands over a rifle because he knows she’s the better marksman. No one has to explicitly point and say, “Girls can do it too.”
Pre-Apocalyptic Lessons in Feminism: In Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, her character isn’t really a trainwreck of a person. She can be mean and self-destructive, but her shocking behavior isn’t all that shocking. She drinks and has sex with multiple partners and does not feel shame in this. Look out, world.
Can We Stick These Dumb Kids Back in a Maze? Award: The Scorch Trials
The Star Trek Into Darkness “He’s TOTALLY Not Kahn… Okay He’s Kahn” Award: Christoph Waltz reprising Blofeld in the James Bond vehicle, Spectre. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.
Could Have Been Norbit-ed: Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending. He speaks in this effete whisper for the entire movie, one that is hardly audible at all, except for the occasional line where he screams and spasms, making the contrast all the more funny. He constantly holds his head back like he’s in danger of nosebleeds. This is a performance of such startling misdirection that I physically felt bad for Redmayne. He seemed to be reaching out to me, pleading through his glassy eyes, communicating, “Help me.”
Scene Stealers: Lebron James in Trainwreck, Michael Pena in Ant-Man, BB-8, The Force Awakens, David Morse in Concussion
Bahd Acchents: Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs; Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Black Mass; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jo Go-Lev!) in The Walk
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2015: The centerpiece of logical fallacy in Terminator Genisys (spoilers) is killer robot John Connor. I was never really that invested in his character to care that much that he was turned into the film’s bad guy. What I do care about is that Genisys just completely gives up in this moment. If he was just trying to stop Sarah and Reese from stopping Skynet/Genisys, that would be one thing, but John 2.0 is actively trying to kill his parents … before he is conceived. When it comes to time travel, we can accept some degree of suspension of disbelief with plot holes but John wiping out the reason for his existence is just too much. He half-heartedly explains his theory that they’re holdovers from another timeline, so they can just do as they like with no greater repercussions to their own pasts. Maybe, but there’s not two Sarah Connors in this timeline, so killing your mom is still going to negate all your evil robot business, son.
Runners-up: Pick…. anything from Jupiter Ascending; noose as a murder weapon in The Gallows; Bryce Dallas Howard’s high heels in Jurassic World.
Missed Opportunity: With Straight Outta Compton, it’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects. It comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Jerry Heller or Suge Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Director F. Gary Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.
Best Sex Scene: Anomalisa. The love scene has garnered plenty of press just for the fact that it’s an animated film and our two characters are fully rendered, though this goes beyond just having recognizable parts. The way the bodies move, the way the lines and creases fold, the way people react to the inherent awkwardness of sexual congress, it’s all faithfully recreated and done so without a hint of comedy. This is by no means the raucous copulation from Team America. It’s a surprisingly touching moment.
Thora Birch Award for Hottest Actress in 2015: Alicia Vikander. This Swedish actress was everywhere in 2015 and we were all the better for it. She left an indelible impression as an android questioning her reality in Ex Machina. She followed it up with a game performance in the fizzy, fun, and underrated Man from U.N.C.L.E. and concluded the year with an Oscar-nominated (lead) performance in The Danish Girl, stealing the movie from the titular Danish Girl herself, played by Redmayne. This woman isn’t going away any time soon folks and your eyeballs are but one part that will be thankful.
Runner’s-up: Alexandra Daddario in PG-13 T&A with San Andreas; Nathalie Emmanuel in Furious 7; Sofia Boutella as the blade-legged henchwoman in Kingsmen.
Running Out of Ideas: Neil Blomkamp (Chappie)
Best Onscreen Death: The exploding head fireworks of Kingsmen. BOOM.
Runner’s-up: Family dinner, Sicario; creepy opening to It Follows; “You Know Who” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Bing Bong in Inside Out (still not over this, Pixar).
Best Villain: Tom Hardy in The Revenant. A second viewing was not a kind experience for me, and every minute felt more like twenty, but what kept my attention beyond the sterling cinematography was Hardy’s performance. Hardy imbues depth into his antagonist, and while you won’t exactly be rooting for him to get away you can see the guy as more pragmatist than mustache-twirling rogue. He even has an interesting back-story surviving being scalped that informs his decision-making. I wanted Hardy to just take over the movie and leave DiCaprio wheezing in the snow.
Runner’s-up: Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s Daisy in The Hateful Eight; Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron; crazy grandparents in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2015: From Anomalisa: “Aren’t we all looking for our own anomaly, someone whose voice slices through the din? Once those moments run their course, some of us grieve and some of us ascend, made stronger and more complete from the sum total of those magical experiences.”
Runner-up from 50 Shades of Grey: “Anybody who requires his paramours to sign legal documents about what he can put inside them seems like somebody not worth knowing.”
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies.
Kingsmen: The Secret Service
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
What We Do in the Shadows
The Final Girls
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Age of Adaline
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Danish Girl
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Run All Night
In the Heart of the Sea
The Last Five Years
The Peanuts Movie
Straight Outta Compton
Where to Invade Next
Fifty Shades of Grey
The Green Inferno
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
The Ridiculous Six
Jem and the Holograms
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence
Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser