The best movies of 2015
2015 was a year of widely anticipated movies and sequels. But whether it was the Hunger Games saga wrapping up, Mad Max getting a long-awaited sequel, or even Avengers: Age of Ultron, nothing could match the excitement and the hype for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while some of the sequels were good (and some were even great), most of my favorite movies this year were originals. So without further ado (and no spoilers), here are my top five movies of the year.
The Martian was a return to form for director Ridley Scott. I was initially dubious of casting Matt Damon as stranded astronaut Mark Watney, but Damon nails it with a perfect mix of charisma and ingenuity that defines Watney. Scott's direction is excellent, mixing in some found footage shots from the various cameras in the space station as well as the video diaries Watney uses to explain his progress. The movie is mostly faithful to the source material, but has slightly more professional writing (a pro) while skipping over some plot points and pitfalls (a con, but understandable given the time concerns).
To say I was surprised by McFarland USA is an understatement. Sure, it's a movie about running, and Kevin Costner stars, which are two pretty good indicators that I'm going to enjoy the movie, but I didn't think it'd be anything other than an entertaining if mindless two hours.
And to an extent, that's all McFarland USA is. It doesn't challenge many sports movie cliches like a Friday Night Lights or Moneyball, and Kevin Costner is basically playing himself. But it all sort of…works. Not many people saw McFarland USA because Disney released it in February (probably because of how sports movies have fared lately), but this is a movie that deserves more attention than it got.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The best action set piece in Rogue Nation (or MI:5) is the first one after the opening credits, which is set in an opera house and brilliantly choreographs multiple hand-to-hand fights, several more gunfights, and seemingly countless twists and turns as mysterious characters unwind their plans. All of this is juxtaposed against the live performance of the opera Turandot and composer Joe Kraemer uses the themes from the aria Nessun dorma to compliment his own score (which was one of my favorites of the year).
None of the later sequences in Rogue Nation quite reach those same heights, but the movie stays above-average with an excellent motorcycle chase and a solid third act. I've now only seen two Mission: Impossible movies, but this one was better than the original Mission: Impossible, and it's one of the most fun action movies of the year.
5. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is an indie film and never got a wide release in theaters, but it's one of the most original sci-fi movies in years.
The premise of the film is that a software engineer for a Google-like company is offered a chance to visit the CEO of the company at his house/retreat deep in the wilderness, and upon arrival learns that he's there to conduct a Turing test of some new AI that the CEO has built. It's simple enough, and what struck me most about this movie is how content it was to stick with that premise and keep everything simple. It's a heady movie that reminded me a lot of Blade Runner in places and Her in others, and manages to avoid many of the science-fiction-artificial-intelligence cliches.
Fantastic acting by Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander add to the surreal and somewhat creepy atmosphere, the cinematography is beautiful and the score is minimalist but effective. Ex Machina is a movie that you may not have seen or know much about, but it's a movie you'll be thinking about for weeks after you see it.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was directed by J.J. Abrams, who recently resurrected another long-dormant space franchise, and while The Force Awakens is clearly a Star Wars movie, it's also clearly a J.J. Abrams movie. Gone are (most of) the lens flares of all his previous movies, gone are the impossibly clean and shrink-wrapped environments from the Star Trek movies, but he's kept most of his other visual flourishes (like crash zooms) while incorporating some Star Wars effects like transition wipes. The Force Awakens obviously has the best special effects of any Star Wars movie (it has at least 10 years of technology on any of the other films), but Abrams wisely opted for less CGI and more practical effects, and the movie looks beautiful for it.
The best part of The Force Awakens is that the best part is the new characters. They're the best part because while The Force Awakens isn't a perfect movie, the new characters alone are reason to come back for Episodes 8 and 9. Rey, Finn, Po and BB-8 each have their own rich backstory and arc, and the actors who play the three humans (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac) are well-cast and play their roles well. And as for BB-8 – who reminds me favorably of Wall-E – he steals every scene he's in, and is more effortlessly funny than his predecessors C-3PO and R2-D2. It's a credit to the writers that by the end of the movie I cared way more about the new characters than the returning characters (from the original trilogy), who were used well for the most part and didn't dominate the entire storyline like I was afraid they would.
Which brings me to the only part of The Force Awakens I didn't really care for, which is that it's a little derivative. Some of the repeated ideas work well; some of them just feel like forced fan service, included only to have a cool shot for the trailer and sell more tickets. For now, I'm willing to forgive the repetition. After all, The Force Awakens wasn't only a sequel, it was a franchise reboot of sorts, and if starting on similar ground is the step the writers need to get to new ideas, then I'm okay with it. But if Episode 8 is just a rehash of Empire Strikes Back, that'll be a bit more problematic. For now though, The Force Awakens did exactly what it needed to do, was one of the most enjoyable movies of the year, and deserves all the records it's setting at the box office.
3. Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was the most dialogue-heavy movie I watched this year, but if there's anyone who can write tons of dialogue effectively, it's Aaron Sorkin. It's his script that's the star of the show, but excellent performances by Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and Katherine Waterston help make Steve Jobs an excellent if unconventional biopic.
I also published a longer review of Steve Jobs after I first saw it, and so I'll keep this summary short.
2. Bridge of Spies
I loved Bridge of Spies, which I've been looking forward to for a few years now and lived up to my expectations in every way. Steven Spielberg's direction felt effortlessly flawless, Tom Hanks delivered another routine stellar performance, and relative-unknown Mark Rylance was one of the best supporting actors of the year. This is the first Spielberg movie in many years (and only second ever) to not be scored by John Williams, but in his place Thomas Newman composed my favorite score of the year, complimenting the beautiful cinematography to produce a movie that's a joy to watch and listen to.
I also published a longer review of Bridge of Spies after I first saw it, and so I'll keep this summary short as well.
1. Inside Out
Pixar hasn't had a universally acclaimed hit since Toy Story 3. Their releases since then – Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University – were liked but not loved (although I liked Monsters University more than most). But Inside Out is the year's most original and inventive film, and is not only universally acclaimed, it might be one of Pixar's all-time best.
We'll start with the story, which is complex on its face but masterfully simplified so viewers of all ages can understand it. It's a story about the personified emotions of an 11-year old girl named Riley, who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and deals with the ramifications. It's a wonder that not only did Pixar manage to simplify the human mind the way it did, but it does so in a way that's so convincing you barely notice that things are being simplified for you. For example: there are five emotions because Pixar needs five emotions to tell the story, but the movie convinces you that those five emotions are all that matter. This is a hallmark of the best Pixar films: they give the illusion of a huge world while keeping the viewer blissfully unaware that he's on a meticulously-crafted, precisely-guided story path. It's sort of like you're walking through a long glass tube surrounded on all sides by an ocean-size aquarium: the world around you feels massive, but you never feel lost.
Let's talk about those five emotions, who are cast brilliantly: Amy Poehler as Joy, who controls the happy emotions that Riley feels while running the rest of the mind with the fearless optimism of Poehler's most famous role, Leslie Knope; Phyllis Smith as Sadness, who's really only known for her role as Phyllis Lapin-Vance from The Office but gives an excellent and surprisingly funny performance here; Mindy Kaling as Disgust, who brings a lot of The Office‘s Kelly Kapoor's energy and humor; Bill Hader as Fear, who doesn't have a previous role he can just extend but his voice works well here; and Lewis Black as Anger, which works really well because Angry Lewis Black has been working for years. This movie would have worked with other voice actors, but it excels because these voice actors are perfect for their roles.
Pixar's animation is and always has been the best in Hollywood, and in Inside Out it's nothing short of sublime. For a story as abstract as Inside Out the animation not only has to be technically flawless, but it has to be visually interesting, and Pixar delivers both in spades. The level of craftsmanship here shows the immense pride Pixar takes in its work, and the result is a masterpiece.
The score for Inside Out was composed by Michael Giacchino, a veteran Pixar composer who delivers a score that's wonderfully jazzy, playful and zany. He uses the piano with great effect in the beginning, and as we journey deeper inside the mind the music gets a little more electronic. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Up, Ratatouille or The Incredibles, but this is a more challenging score and therefore has to be more daring.
All in all, there were a lot of great movies this year, but for me, originality won out and that's why Inside Out was my favorite movie of 2015.
Some movies I'm looking forward to in 2016 are: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, Jack Reacher 2, The Bourne Betrayal, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Finding Dory. Let me know in the comments if I'm forgetting any, or if you want me to save you a seat for one of them. Happy 2016, and hope to see you at the movies this year!