This post really got away from me this year. With a job that requires much more of my time, just getting those weekly Top 5 Movie Guides up in time felt like a significant task - I can't believe there was a period where we posted 6-8 times a week; that feels impossible now. And with less free time, I have less time for movies in general, and without the constant attention, I miss a lot or don't feel I have as much time to ruminate on titles I've seen. It just takes away from my overall experience, and creates a snowball effect that results in a more subdued reaction to film and lists in general. I know the effort it took to do this completely before, and it was exhausting. While I'm thankful to take a step back now and breathe without working on the next post or the next idea - it's peaceful. All that is to say, because of my personal life, I don't feel I got as excited about this year as I often do. I'm not sure how the overall field will look in retrospect - it seems like there might have been a few gems - but I just haven't given the time to fully assess what's out there - beyond my direct reactions, of course. I have some fears that this might have been a really great year in film, but my lack of investment in watching movies this year will lead you, the reader, to think some titles weren't as great as they actually were. We'll have to wait and see on that one.
So in an effort to psych myself up, and re-calibrate all of our minds for the list below, let's remember a few things. First, I enjoy putting these lists together not to truly provide a ranking on the year, but more as a record for myself of what I saw, and a snapshot into what I thought at the time. I also enjoy the idea that that a few selections might encourage others to check out titles I really liked but that they otherwise might have missed. Sharing movies is still a great thing that I really enjoy doing. Second, lists basically mean nothing. I don't want to discourage everything we've worked on at this site, but whether it was a strong year or not; whether I saw a lot of films or not; whether I'm passionate about the details or not - you can and will have to form your own opinions about each title. Maybe there are some all-timers below that I haven't yet given the opportunity, or maybe we'll look back and it'll be a light year compared to most. Regardless, that's OK. Not every film has to be one of the greatest ever to be good - sometimes it just has to be fun. Or thrilling. Or unique. There are plenty of reasons to appreciate all kinds of film, and I think I can make a good case for fifteen of them below!
15. Crimson Peak
This title had an interesting ride in earning this last spot on the list. Right after I first saw it I ranked it right in this range. Then as I started to see other movies, it started to drop. But then, as the year started to settle, it slowly started creeping back up. Ultimately, I think I just really appreciated the classic, gothic horror storytelling. The effects were really neat, the atmosphere haunting, and I just think that if you knew what to expect with this film, it delivered in almost every area. The problem, initially, was that it was marketed as a much more exciting ghost story. But this was definitely a slow burn centered more around unsettling atmosphere than shocking scares.
14. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
I couldn't believe this made my list, but I just really enjoyed watching it. I saw this pretty late in the game, so it was a last minute addition. Going in, I had pretty low expectations. For some reason I was ready for a slow British spy movie with an awkward tone. I was thrilled to be wrong. The film turned into a humorous, engaging caper that still felt true to its roots. I also didn't think I'd like the characters played by either Armie Hammer or Henry Cavill, but they were both actually pretty great. The repartee between the two was gold. Plus, Alicia Vikander, who also shined in Ex Machina, was amazing in this. Her character was smart and, in many ways, the only competent one amongst the trio, so I hate minimizing her character to this comment, but I just fell in love with her. She was so cute.
13. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Man, I really wanted to love this movie so much. Leading up to my first viewing of it, I can recall actually getting excited again. Sitting in the theater and hearing that first note when the title comes on screen; seeing the scroll - for brief moments the giddiness of my youth returned. Was this the movie that would awaken (pun definitely intended) my love of Star Wars and the fantasy genre again? That's such unfair pressure to put on any film, but unfortunately, when you're dealing with the Star Wars franchise, that's where we're at. The film was incredibly well crafted, and I felt that Abrams stayed true to the classical components of what makes a Star Wars movie a "Star Wars movie", but I just didn't get that spark. It's sad to think about, but whatever that little piece inside of me was that made me fall in love with fantasy movies is now dead. I enjoyed watching this movie when I saw it, but I just don't think I'll ever love a movie like this again.
12. Jurassic World
For the longest time, Jurassic Park was my all-time favorite movie. I still love it to this day, though it's no longer atop that list. In almost reverse of Star Wars, I had little expectations for this movie going in. I liked Chris Pratt and was rooting for him to succeed, but I didn't know if this franchise had much left in the tank. To my surprise, the film delivered. It was a lot of fun. I loved when the little boy first opened the doors and looked out onto the park; it genuinely put a smile on my face when the music kicked in. And that final battle with the T-Rex. First of all, team-ups for the greater good always play well with me. When that T-Rex is losing and the Raptors come sprinting from off screen to tag in for the fight - I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it. Still, we again have to deal with the fact that I just don't love fantasy films the way I used to. This maybe leans a little more towards sci-fi, which does help, but the less grounded a movie is, the harder for me to grasp on. But it was a really fun movie to watch, and like I mentioned in the intro, sometimes there's nothing wrong with that.
11. Staten Island Summer
This movie was quite a bit higher on my list for a long time. It was one of those coming-of-age dramedies that just comes out of nowhere and surprises you. Independent movies like this, with real talent on board, are so pure because they're not making a movie to check a bunch of boxes at a studio. It's a group of passionate, artistic people making their vision. And this just worked for me. I really liked these characters, and in so many ways this reminded me of the summer I worked at a movie theater during college. It felt really genuine and the comedy - even though much of the time was pretty sophomoric - actually played quite well. It falls a bit on this list due to that last point, but I still really enjoyed it.
This movie had such an unsettling feel to it the entire way through. I loved it. I was hooked from the scene where Emily Blunt's character first goes to Mexico in that convoy. For so many reasons, I really loved that scene. The music, the tension, the way so many of the characters were defined with almost no dialogue - it was perfect. Emily Blunt's character was very believable as someone just thrown into this world and unsure of how to act. I definitely didn't always agree with her reactions or stances on things that were so much above her, but I got it. And still, this movie was Benicio Del Toro. His character stole the show. I know the Supporting Actor category is always loaded, but I really wish he would have been nominated. What a performance.
9. Steve Jobs
Boy, do I love dialogue-heavy movies (when it's done well). If you've ever read a single thing I've written on this site, you know I get into some pretty lengthy details. I realize that many times, because I'm not a very skilled writer, this isn't an ideal trait. But once I get started I just can't stop! When I'm watching a film and thinking about all the writing happening in that script, I really have an appreciation for it. Huge chunks of exposition are just so appealing to me; I feel like I could have watched for hours on end. Aaron Sorkin is also one of my favorite writers, and he just has a way with characters. I know his style can be polarizing to a lot of people, but I dig it. Everything about it is perfection to me.
8. The Revenant
Right after I saw this I put it at #2 on my list. It was powerful and emotional and featured a great performance from DiCaprio. But as time went on, with a film I presume will have an incredibly low watchability factor, it just continued to slide. I'm just not sure how often I'm ever going to feel like turning this on again. For all the reasons first listed I still really enjoyed it, and consider it the most beautiful film I saw all year. Both the cinematography and music score were easily some of the best on screen this year - just shot after shot that was better than the last - and the slow-burn pacing of the film was something I've come to greatly appreciate as I've gotten older. Plus, I've long been a DiCaprio fan, and since this will probably earn him his first Oscar, I've been rooting for it a bit more.
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
In a different year, on a different list, I would be surprised to see this so high on my list. I'm just not typically care for action spy movies. But for some reason, this year they worked for me (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as mentioned, was also a surprise for me this year). So who knows. Maybe I'm into action spy movies now? Or maybe writer/director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) has just tapped into a formula that works for me. His mix of creativity, cleverness, and comedy, all while tackling genres in new ways, seems to be a winning recipe. Kingsman was a movie that was just a blast from start to finish. I loved the style of the action, the uniqueness of the format, and the fine line he walked between parody and homage of the secret agent genre. Plus, that church scene - I could watch that every day.
I really wanted this movie to end up higher on this list. It was incredibly engaging and well done, and I so appreciate the literal spotlight it put on such a tragic issue we've seen in our country; I'm glad the church got called out for this abuse. But as far as my tastes in movies go, this was just too serious a telling to crawl much higher; regardless of the subject matter, a movie that's heavy like this isn't going to end up as a "favorite" on the year. The seriousness was absolutely necessary for this story, it just goes back to watchability. That said, it's no secret how much I love stories about the newsroom, so already that gave it a leg up on the competition. The ensemble cast also featured some of my favorite actors doing some of their best career work. The scene where they're all talking about past situations when they could have done more but didn't - that was so powerful. Outside of the heavy drama, there's literally nothing to dislike about this film. It's entertaining and informational. Darn it, am I convincing myself to rank this higher? I'll leave it here for now, but already this feel like it will climb over time.
5. The Big Short
I love movies like this that provide insight on lesser-known historical subjects. This was a really fascinating way of looking at the 2008 housing crash, peaking behind the curtain on some of the mechanisms that preceded the recession. Knowing that the government knew what was going on but did nothing to act or help people would have been disgusting if it wasn't so expected. But I loved the details about the teams "cracking the code" and trying to make peace with what they were doing. The way it was presented, many of the players weren't presented as "bad guys", just people making the best of a situation they knew was coming. They tried to warn the government, they tried to warn the banks. Neither did anything, and at that point, sure, try to make a little money for yourselves while you can. My one detractor for the film would be that, while I did learn a good amount, I felt that it dumbed down some of the content a bit much. It's not that I was overly aware of much of these details, just that it was presented with the assumption that they were all smarter than us watching. Maybe that's true, I just didn't want to feel they were belittling me in the theater. It just kinda rubbed me the wrong way sometimes. But aside from a few moments like that, it was just fine. The cast and details were all fascinating. If you need a refresher on the details of the housing crisis, this is as good a place to start as any.
4. The End of the Tour
I already spoke briefly about this movie in my Overlooked/Under-Appreciated list, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much here. Similarly to Steve Jobs, this was another film that was driven by dialogue. I was familiar with David Foster Wallace since he was from my hometown area, but since I've never been much of a novel reader, I didn't pay much attention. It really seems like he was a fascinating (albeit troubled) guy, and I felt appreciative to peak inside his life. I've always loved films about the "tortured genius" (Good Will Hunting, The Social Network, etc.), so that was obviously appealing here. This is another film in which I was just absorbing into its content and I wish would have lasted longer. I could have watched them talk about life, love, art, etc. for hours on end. Also, I really need to read Infinite Jest.
3. Ex Machina
This was definitely one of the better pure science fiction films I've seen in a while. When it comes to sci-fi, I prefer them sterile, precise, and (in ways) dry. I don't need flashy effects or fancy gimmicks - though the seamless effects in this film definitely helped with the realism - just give me the science to ponder and dissect. The plot wasn't necessarily one that was shockingly new (what does it mean to be human?), but it was presented in a fresh and intense way. I love future technology, so the idea that things like this could be right around the corner really appeals to me. As far as the characters go, I enjoyed and understood all of them, but thought Oscar Isaac stole the show. He was such a fascinating guy. Parts of me hated him, but parts of me really respected his ideas (we're back to the tortured genius theme). Plus, you just can't pass up that dance breakdown in the middle of the film. Strangely eerie, it also provided a chance to breathe. Singling out this scene in a movie such as this seems silly, but the more I've thought about it, the more brilliant I feel it was.
I'm not a huge Rocky fan, so I wasn't expecting a ton from this film. However, I do enjoy sports/competition/underdog tales, so in many ways a story like this was always going to be appealing to me. Michael B. Jordan is one of my favorite young actors working today, and I was happy to see him get such a big chance in an iconic franchise. It made for rather large shoes to fill, but he crushed it. I thought he did great and I really believed in his drive to be the best. I could have done without some of the relationship stuff, but that's always been prominent in these films and I understand that without that element it's hard to carry a film on boxing alone; you need something to show the audience that gives our fighter that drive. The boxing/action in the film was genuinely breathtaking; watching it on the big screen, I felt like I could feel every punch. I was dodging punches as I sat in my seat. My only real "complaint" of the film is that (SPOILER) he didn't win. I understand that in real life he probably isn't winning that fight, but come on. I'm so over the moral victory boxing match loss. I expected they'd go with that standard trope, so having him win would have been the actual shocker. Still, the film easily was engaging enough to grab this spot on my list.
1. The Martian
Even though I didn't dislike a single thing about this film, and upon seeing it instantly had it #1 on my list, a big part of me never thought it would hold this place. But as time went on, there was just nothing that gave it a real fight. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have it here, I just wish there would have been more competition - the drop-off after this is significant. Matt Damon has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, same with Ridley Scott (even though he's more known for his hard, surgical sci-fi and this was much lighter fare - okay, forget everything I said in my Ex Machina write-up; clearly those sentiments didn't hold true here). This was an incredibly easy-to-watch film (by chance, I saw it three times in theaters) that really evoked my wonders about the universe. Last year, it was Interstellar that took my top spot on this list for similar reasons. However, that film was really big and featured concepts that I (sadly) probably won't see in my lifetime; The Martian focused on a premise that feels much more obtainable. I'd hate to be in Damon's position in this film (I'd probably die in like a day), but I loved watching him find ways to solve the next problem. This was a humorous, engaging, technically sound science fiction film that seemed to work on every level. There's not a scene that wasn't enjoyable to watch, and if you want to feel good about the world coming together to solve problems, this is the film for you. This year, that was good enough for this spot on the list.
And there we have it. Another list in the books! Derek will be revealing his list tomorrow, followed by the rest of the gang after that.