Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Alex's Top 15 Films of 2015

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. I think another problem with my list this year (and my eagerness to put it together) had to do with the fact that I felt like it was an overall down year. But I originally remember feeling that about 2014, as well, and that turned out to be a great year - so who knows; maybe I'll feel that way about 2015 after I let it settle for a while, too. Who knows. But right now, I feel that my interests in the overall field was as muted as ever I can recall.

That all being said, there were still some really fun and well-made films that we got a chance to see in 2015. They might not have been all-timers, but there were some great selections. And as our site focuses more on the praise than the criticism of film, I want to make sure we're doing that here. I still enjoyed plenty of films, there just weren't any that really hit me hard and made me think they could be around for a long time. But 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; I'll make the case for 15 of them below.

So now that I've flopped around for two paragraphs on why I apparently love and hate movies, let's dig into my favorites from 2015!

     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.
     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 very 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 (no pun intended) my love of Star Wars and the fantasy genre? 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 still 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 at the top of 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. It was a really fun movie to watch, but that's probably about it - 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. I love this setup in films; this is a genre/concept/feeling that just works for me. I really liked these characters, and in so many ways this reminded me of the summer I worked at the movie theater. 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.
     10. Sicario
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 a lot of 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 also 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.
     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, ever. I know his style can be polarizing to a lot of people, but I just dig it. Everything about it is perfection to me.
     8. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Looking over my list, this one feels the most unlikely for my usual tastes. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised, though, since its director, Matthew Vaughn, has put out some pretty good entries in his short career. "X-Men: First Class" is probably my favorite superhero movie, "Layer Cake" was a fun art house treat when that came out, and even though I didn't much care for it, I respect "Kick-Ass". He clearly has a vibe going that works for me in these clever/silly films. Kingsman was a movie that was just a blast from start to finish. I loved the style of the action, and above all, I really did feel like his concept was incredibly clever (one of those things where you're walking that fine line between parody and homage). It felt fresh while also feeling true to the roots of the genre. Plus, that church scene - I could watch that every day.
     7. Spotlight
I really wanted this movie to end up higher on this list. It was incredibly engaging and well done, but I think it was maybe a little too serious to end up any higher (not that I felt the seriousness for this content was incorrect, jut generally speaking, for my tastes). It's well documented 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. I'll be happy if this wins Best Picture.
     6. The Big Short
I love movies like this that provide insight on lesser-known historical items. This was a really fascinating way of looking at the 2008 housing crash and to see what some players were doing behind the scenes. Knowing that the government knew about it but did nothing 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 (I didn't think any of these were "bad guys", just people who wouldn't listen when they tried to warn them. I don't fault them for making a little money in the process). 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. I wish it would have treated me a little more like an adult. But aside from a few moments, I dealt with that aspect just fine. I'll be happy if this wins Best Picture.
     5. The Revenant
Right after I saw this I put it at #2 on my list, but its (presumably) low watchability factor ultimately pushed it down a few pegs. I still really love it and I consider it the most beautiful/elegant film I saw all year, but I don't imagine I'll be re-watching it very often. The cinematography and music score were easily some of the best on film 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; it's almost relaxing to me to see the slow progression and sprawling landscapes. Almost like how watching baseball has a magical quality that can instantly calm me down and make me forget about any of my worries, I feel similarly with westerns like this. Plus, I've long been a DiCaprio fan, and since this will probably earn him his first Academy Award I've been rooting for it a bit more. I'll be happy if this wins Best Picture.
     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. Similarly to "Steve Jobs", this was another film that was dialogue driven. 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", "A Beautiful Mind", "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" sci-fi films I've seen in a while. When it comes to science fiction movies, 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.
     2. Creed
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 ways a story like this was always 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 (that means there's a standard to live up to, though). Luckily, 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 Rocky films and I understand that without that element it's hard to carry a film on boxing alone. 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 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 this year just didn't have the cream at the top to ever push it down. 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 - P.S. 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. Like I said, there was nothing I disliked about the film - that was good enough to put it in the top spot this year.

A few notes for the recap here: first, the order of this list is just what I'm feeling right now. This could - and probably will - change a little over time. Last year's list has held up incredibly well for me so far, so who knows; maybe I'm just getting better at identifying films that will actually hold up for me. But still, never take a list like this as a definitive, end-all compilation. There are ebbs and flows. Second, I do feel I saw a pretty great amount of 2015 films. I don't think I did quite as good as last year, but I think I saw everything (that I know of) that would have been in contention for a list like this. The few films I did miss out on ("Brooklyn" and "Carol", most notably), while they might be well-crafted films, I doubt they would have been real contenders here. I could be wrong, of course, and I do still need to see them both, but for now, I'm OK having missed them in regards to this post. But almost anything else that isn't on this list isn't here because I found these 15 titles above to be "better".

I think that's about it. Derek will be revealing his list tomorrow, followed by the rest of the gang after that. Thanks for reading!