Thursday, February 25, 2016

Nathan's Top 15 Films of 2015

I was worried for the majority of the year that 2015 was going to end up as one of the weakest years in recent memory. I'd say it took a good nine months for me to really start putting together a list that seemed respectable. But once that started happening, it was like the floodgates opened. Film after film kept jockeying for a top spot. Part of that was due to seeing a couple notable films well after they were released, but mostly it boiled down to a continuing trend over the last five years or so of the post-summer lineups matching up with my interests.

That was another notable observation I made in 2015: I'm just not into most summer blockbusters anymore. Fewer and fewer summer tent poles have shown up on my end-of-the-year list over the last several years, but this was the first year where I really had trouble even mustering up the energy to see the majority of the them in theaters. A good reason to point to would be the stranglehold that superhero films have on the middle of the calendar. That, my friends, is a fad that I have mostly grown tired of. Superhero films have just gotten too damn goofy for me to get into them at this stage in my life. That's not to say I don't like goofy movies - you'll find a good chunk of them on my list below - but there's a time and a place for goofy and superhero films doesn't seem like the best spot. When so many superhero films center around the fate of the world being at risk, would there really be so many jokes being thrown around? If I'm watching the world being threatened in a film, I want it to be more than a rumor that things might go bad. Yet that is something Marvel - who dominates the market at the moment - has totally lost their grip on. How can I think of the characters of these films as heroes if it never feels like they're in danger?

But enough about the films that don't do anything for me, I'm here to tell you about the films that hit the mark - and there were a great number of them. You'll find a pretty good split between well-known titles and under-the-radar gems. Hit the jump to get started!

     15. Black Mass
I consider myself a Johnny Depp apologist. I hate that I have to use that term to describe my appreciation for him as an actor, but the guy seems like one of the most popular guys to hate on these days. While I can understand the someone like Michael Bay getting the heat he gets from critics - who I'm also a fan of - I've never understood why Depp gets such a bad reputation for playing the characters he does. It's just all jealousy right? He gets to play all these weird characters and makes millions of dollars doing it. To me, it just seems like the guy has life figured out. Enjoy the thing. Because of that, I was glad people judged his performance in this film objectively - other than the obvious Best Actor snub, of course. This performance was brilliant. Depp just totally transformed into another human without the aid of much makeup. He's so scary in this film, mainly because of those cold blue eyes. The dinner scene where Depp's character is talking about a family recipe just seemed like it was destined to be playing during the Oscars when they were listing the Best Actor nominees. Apparently all the hate isn't gone because that was arguably the best performance this year and got no award recognition. What a shame.
     14. Creed
I'm far and away the biggest Rocky fan in this group. The Rocky anthology sits at number four on my Top 10(ish) All Time list, so I was very skeptical about how much I could get into a film that I knew wouldn't involve Rocky fighting. The film completely exceeded my expectations, however. From a technical and tonal standpoint, Creed matches up with Rocky I more than any of the sequels. That was easily the most refreshing quality of the movie. Kudos to Michael B. Jordan for nailing the title role. His character was really easy to get behind, but in a way where you didn't feel manipulated into getting behind him. Ultimately though, my love for seeing Stallone fight kept it from being higher on the list. The main thing the film did was make me want to go watch the Rocky films.
     13. Jurassic World
If this film was only judged on the experience I had at the theater, it would rank much higher on this list. If I hadn't seen the film in theaters, it probably wouldn't have made the list at all. This was a rare example of when a summer blockbuster did exactly what you wanted it to do. It had great effects, a soundtrack that just sounds wonderful in a theater setting, and tense dino action. A lot of that would've been lost had I not seen this on the big screen. One aspect that would've shined like a diamond regardless of the screen size was the brilliantly bad-ass dinosaur fight scene. I will argue that was one of the greatest fight scenes in the history of cinema. Allow me to elaborate. It helps if you are a fan of professional wrestling (which I am; WWE Attitude Era, mainly), because essentially that fight was the greatest professional wrestling match of all time. I would be willing to bet that whoever planned that scene was influenced by wrestling because it used all the elements that have made for the best matches: a major underdog, a seemingly unbeatable villain (heel), an epic team-up, and the pop (more wrestling lingo) that comes when the crowd favorite (The raptor Blue) makes a triumphant return. Basically all that stuff is so much more effective when it's animated dinosaurs fighting and not big dudes you know are following a script. If that scene doesn't get you jacked up, check for a pulse.
     12. Legend
Tom Hardy is one of my two favorite actors right now. The other will show up later. The guy just owns the screen when he's on it. Literally everything he does is money. It would be easy to think that he's just a quiet mean guy who scowls a lot based on some of his most recent films, but if you've followed his whole career, you know the man has tons of range. This film perfectly captures how much range he has. The biggest reason for that is he plays twins with drastically different personalities. There's the quiet, intimidating, suave twin; and there's the funny, odd, loose cannon twin. He plays both characters flawlessly. I never for a second thought I was watching one actor play two characters, it just felt like two completely different actors who happened to look alike. Without Hardy's brilliant dual role, the film doesn't carry nearly as much weight, but that's what a great performance can do.
     11. The Final Girls
I like watching a good horror flick. I love watching a good horror comedy. So this was right up my alley. It took some of the biggest weaknesses that go with standard horror plots and turned them into strengths. I don't want to discuss the plot too specifically because it really benefits from going into it not knowing what direction the film ends up going, but I will say that one of the biggest strengths of the film was how much heart it had. I have zero issue showing emotion while watching a film if it's done well, and this might have been the closest I've ever come tearing up in a horror film. This is easily one of the lesser known films on the list but genuinely deserves a watch.
     10. The Revenant
I mentioned in the "Legend" description that Tom Hardy is one of my two favorite actors, so you can imagine how excited I was when I learned he would be paired alongside my other favorite actor, Leonardo DiCaprio. There isn't a better duo you could've given me, other than maybe that Stallone/Schwarzenegger - in their prime - action film we never got. DiCaprio, who has been almost comically under-appreciated by the Academy, finally seems primed to take home the hardware he should've taken home on multiple occasions before. It's definitely a deserving performance - you can practically feel his pain through the screen - but it's not his best role in my opinion. Both Depp and Hardy had more to do in their leading roles in my opinion, but DiCaprio clearly had one of the most physically challenging roles of all time and is so long overdue that I'm happy to finally put this discussion to bed (hopefully). I really believe we could hear boos if he doesn't win again.
     9. The End of the Tour
I hadn't heard about this film until I was sitting there watching it. The film mostly takes place in a town that's like 45 minutes from where I grew up as a kid and have been to on numerous occasions, so I liked that added element to begin with. That quickly became insignificant because the writer that Jason Segal is playing in the film completely demands that you listen to what he is saying. The entire film is pretty much a long conversation between Segal's character and a journalist played by Jesse Eisenberg. I don't pretend to relate to all of his opinions, but you can't help but be captivated by someone who was brilliant as he was complicated.
     8. The Martian
I've never been a huge fan of the outer space sub-genre of sci-fi. Mainly, I don't like watching films where the actors are confined to such small spacecrafts. I'm not claustrophobic but I do get that feeling a little when I watch films mainly set in space. But give me a film where the characters have room to move around and the film becomes much easier for me to enjoy. Plus throw in Matt Damon - another favorite of mine - and it's definitely easier for me to get on board. Damon has been involved in two of the best sci-fi films in recent years, "Interstellar" being the other (Side Note: "Interstellar" has become my favorite film of 2014). I also loved the humor that was added to "The Martian". Most of the time, people in space seem really depressed, so it was nice to have Damon lightening the mood with the comedic presence his character had.
     7. Inside Out
I've really grown to respect animated films the older I get, oddly enough. I think the genre allows you to portray things in ways that you never could with live actors. Take this film: it portrays human emotion in a way that wouldn't have been possible in a live-action film. I said earlier in my post that I love films that bring out emotion in you, and so the fact that "Inside Out" explored emotion as its central plot easily clicked with me. The animation is also great, but overall it's the theme that will make this film enjoyable for adults. The witty dialogue will be easy for people of all ages to enjoy. I think this is one of the smartest films I've seen this year, and one of the smartest animated films I've ever seen.
     6. Sicario
I love films about crime. I love films about the drug industry; they've always been incredibly fascinating to me. "Sicarrio" is one of the most tense and real portrayals of that genre in a long time. I can't really imagine having to deal with that as a career every day. More so, I can't imagine being one of the people trapped in the areas where the drug cartels are so prominent. They have to constantly live in fear, right? I don't blame people for wanting to get the hell away from places like Juarez. It seems like one of the worst places on the planet to live. The main highlight of the film is the captivating performance turned in by Benecio Del Toro. I'll say it right now: him not getting a nomination for Best Supporting Actor is the biggest snub of the year. Not just a nomination, he should've won by a landslide. His performance is that good; brilliant, in fact. I know people have slammed the Oscars for their lack of diversity, but the quality roles they overlooked overall this year is pretty alarming.
     5. Spectre
I'm the biggest James Bond fan here. "Skyfall" was one of the best James Bond films ever. From a technical standpoint, it's easily the best. So when I heard that "Spectre" was bringing back the longest running plot line the organization that shares the name of the film, and which was prominently featured in most of the early Sean Connery films, I immediately got worried. The Spectre organization was set up over multiple films before they really got into what it was and the main characters who ran it. Yet none of the previous Daniel Craig Bond films mentioned it. I was worried that it would be impossible for the story to not feel rushed. I didn't think it would be possible for them to make the organization feel as important as it was in the early Bond films. The critical reviews only strengthened those thoughts, as they mirrored most of my concerns. So much to my surprise, I loved it from the opening scene until the final credits rolled. This was easily the most "James Bond-like" movie that Daniel Craig has done. They had a good mix of the darker tones that made all the other Craig films work for today's modern audiences, yet the set pieces and action scenes were much more bright and flashy. They achieved a perfect balance of new and old. Did the Spectre plot and villain feel rushed - yes - but the movie was so damn fun to watch if you had seen all the older Bond films. So is this film more difficult to enjoy if you haven't seen the older ones? Sure; but luckily I've seen them all so I got all the references. Even though this film is lower on this year's list than "Skyfall" was the year it came out, "Spectre" is my favorite Daniel Craig outing as James Bond.
     4. Freaks of Nature
If "Spectre" was a fun film, "Freaks of Nature" was a total blast from start to finish. Like I said earlier, I like horror comedies more than straight horror films and this film is such a perfect example of why. Every single person in this film has a scene where they really get to shine. I know we never talk about films that we may have seen in the coming year but I have to bring up "Deadpool" since it ties into why I love "Freaks of Nature". "Deadpool" was pretty fun, and it's nice to see a superhero unrestricted by the PG-13 rating, but the swearing in "Deadpool" came across as really juvenile. It was like listening to a guy who just learned all the curse words and decided to go nuts. Same for the audience that we sat in the theater with. It's like none of them had ever heard the F-word before. Now go back to "Freaks of Nature"; the vulgarity of this film flows so much better, and is far more funny. There are some rants that happen in this film where my stomach was hurting from laughing so hard. Plus, this is another horror comedy that really sneaks up on you and hits you in the feels. There's so much heart in this movie - miles and miles of heart, in fact. I hope more people discover this little gem. It deserves an audience.
     3. Staten Island Summer
Here's another film that flew under most peoples' radar. I don't pretend to understand much about marketing; why some films get wide releases and other films basically have to hope to get discovered mostly via word of mouth - this was a film that really didn't get any theater play, but if it had I'm positive it would have been on a lot of peoples' best-of lists. It's a coming-of-age tale that almost everyone can find some nostalgic tie to. There's nothing complicated about the plot: a bunch of lifeguards at a public pool enjoying their summer and are gearing up for the end of the summer blow-out party. All the characters are likable, even the characters you know you're not supposed to like. It's light, but it's very easy to watch.
     2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
I love all of Matthew Vaughn's films. He's one of my three favorite directors at the moment. I don't know that there's a director out there right now that consistently delivers movies that are just plain fun to watch. He blends action and humor perfectly, and Kingsman is his latest home-run. The guy just doesn't make anything other than great movies. It doesn't help that there were so many James Bond vibes going on. Plus, nobody can put together a soundtrack better than this guy. I didn't think anyone would top "The Devils Rejects" use of Free Bird but after seeing Kingsman, I stand corrected.
     1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The last few years have been hard picking my #1 film, and most of them have changed since I made those lists. That wasn't the case this year. Mad Max was #1 from the moment I saw it, and nothing ever came close to topping it. As far as action goes, this film is perfect, folks. It knows what it is, and it doesn't deviate from that path. It's an action film, that's it. There's no sub-genre that so many films these days try to stretch themselves into. It's pure, adrenaline-pumping, non-stop action. The set pieces are perfect, the stunt work is some of the greatest ever, and the use of so many practical effects sets it apart from almost every other action film over the better part of the last two decades. All of the casting worked to perfection, too. Does it benefit more from being on the big screen, obviously - who wouldn't chose to see a movie on a screen 100-times bigger than their home TV? But that doesn't take away from how great of an accomplishment this film is. And the 9 Academy Award nominations it received is just further evidence to support my statement that this is one of the greatest action films of ALL TIME! How many other action films can sport those credentials? Even if action films aren't your thing, respect the craft, care, and passion that oozes through the screen when you watch it. It's a special film that I fully believe will continue to resonate and be talked about for years to come when people mention the all-time greats of the action genre.

Thanks for reading. Andy will be revealing his picks tomorrow, so make sure to check back then!