Thursday, January 7, 2016

Top Ten Movies of 2015

2015 is over, people!

Last year is all done, and it is now 2016... The future has arrived, my friends, and let's be honest here, when trying to deal with the sudden, but inevitable arrival of the future, is there a better way to do it than to immediately look back nostalgically at where we've just been? I mean, why not start the new year off with a trip down memory lane? Sounds great, right? I certainly can't think of better way, and since no one here cares about your opinion, we're just gonna roll with this, all right? 

All right! Onward!

What follows is a list of my favorite films of 2015, and the same rules apply as always, kids. Depending on how you rate these type of things, these films might or might not be the "best" films of the year, but that doesn't really matter, because the point of this is to list the films I liked the most. In a nutshell, these are the films I recommend you check out.

Your mileage may vary...

As a bonus, below the main list you will also find a few films that almost made the list, but were edged out for various reasons, as well as a few that might have made the list if I had seen them in time. Finally, below all of that mega-awesome content, you'll find a few films that didn't make the list because technically they weren't released this year. However, I have actually had a chance to see them, and let me assure you, they are amazing. As a result, I decided to include them as just a little fyi from me to you, my friends. Be sure to write them down and keep an eye out for those titles over the next few months, all right?

Good! Here we go!

My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2015

10. Dope

High-school senior Malcolm and his friends Jib and Diggy bond over '90s hip-hop culture, their studies, and playing music in their own punk band. A chance encounter with a drug dealer named Dom leaves Malcolm with a backpack full of Dom's ecstasy, and a bunch of criminals hot on their trail. A wild adventure ensues as the friends try to survive selling the stash off, all while navigating the daily perils of both their high school and their neighborhood.

Dope is by no means a "realistic" film, but it definitely felt like an honest one to me. It was also a whole lot of fun, filled with really good performances, and some great music too. It's really been a long time since I've seen a classic "high school" set movie that not only felt fun and honest like this one does, but also felt fresh and new too. It felt this way in how it was shot, in its choice of protagonist and his interests, and in its tone and choice of location, too. I especially liked the way it approached day to day life in South Central L.A.. The neighborhood wasn't portrayed as a romanticized out and out war zone like usual, in this film the problems and daily dangers are all regulated to the background instead, just realities the characters had grown used to dealing with in their lives. I also really like that there was a lack of moralizing about their choices too. In the movie, the kids don't steal the drugs, but they do end up with them, so they have to deal with that, and when they're forced to sell them off, the film doesn't act like this is some kind of horribly irredeemable act, and it doesn't needlessly punish them for it either. That was cool. But all that aside, all the style and quirks and whatnot, the main thing about Dope is that it's just a plain old fun film, and sometimes, that's all you really need. 

9. The Martian

When fierce storms force an evacuation of NASA's mission to the surface to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney, presumed dead in the storm, gets left behind. But Mark survived, and as his crew-mates, NASA, and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to figure out a way to bring him home, Mark must utilize his brains, his wits, and his indomitable spirit to find a way to survive, stranded and alone on the distant, hostile planet.

The Martian is film that is just full of shit that totally got to me. I mean, it hit me in the deep emotional dream center. It's heroic. It's exciting. From its stunning vistas, to even its smaller moments of victory--and much like another film that appears later on this list--The Martian made me want to cheer out loud several times. Yes, it's just your basic Man vs. Nature/"How I survived..." type of film, and you can easily guess the ending, but that's not the point of the story. It may be a simple story, but sometimes all a simple story really needs is to be well-told, and The Martian's tale of survival, the triumph of human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming adversity, coupled with Matt Damon's undeniable charm, is that in spades. Tense and tight, packed with star power, and simply gorgeous, The Martian is a smart film that is made for adults, but filled with the type of wonder and love of science and exploration that could/should inspire a whole new generation of young potential astronauts. It's definitely a family film, but without it having to be so sugarcoated that grown-ups can't stomach it. It's also a classic adventure film, like I said: Man vs. Nature, all the way though, a type of thing you don't get that often anymore, let alone in good quality. This is a film that makes you want to dream big again, and that's awesome. I loved it. Plus, there's a great Boromir joke in there.

8. Bone Tomahawk

In the wild, wild west, far past the fringes of civilizations, a tough as nails sheriff, his old hang-dog deputy, a dandy gunslinger, and a battered and bruised cowboy must embark on a desperate mission deep into the shadowy hinterlands of the wilderness to rescue three people from a savage group of cannibal cave dwellers.

Bone Tomahawk is a brilliant and bloody, and at certain points, super gross horror western. Before you get worried though, it's not gore porn. It's bloody and shocking, yes, brutally so at times, but it actually handles that gore in the best way: You can't quite see it, but you know it's happening, and it just makes you cringe so hard. It's fantastically done. But that's not the film's primary selling point, in fact, it's only a small part of the film. Mostly, it's a slower, quieter film that put me in mind of the deconstructionist Westerns of the 1970s, where character work was king. Kurt Russel and Patrick Wilson are great, of course, and Richard Jennings is incredible, but the big surprise was Matthew Fox. Remember him? From the really disappointing TV show Lost? Remember, he kept telling Kate they had to go back? Anyway, he's fantastic. Who would've guessed? Anyway, the characters and their journey are what really brings you into the film, they sell it. And they have to, because for the most part, they're all there really is, because, despite some gorgeous views, everything is pretty small and tightly-framed. It's obviously a lower budget picture, but this is a film that Big Budget Films should look at, this is how you make people care about your Pixel-smashing endings, smart well-drawn characters you care about. Also, as a bonus, there's an interesting post-film discussion that can be had: "Is it possible to make a classic Cowboys and Indians movie anymore?" Now, the film-makers are obviously aware of the reasons why this particular set-up isn't that cool anymore, and they go to great lengths to separate their antagonists from any actual Native American tribes, but then the question becomes: "Is that even possible? Don't they just end up occupying the same space?" I don't want to vilify their efforts, or sour the film for anyone either, like I said, I believe the film-makers went to a lot of effort to not fall into that particular Trope, but it's an interesting question to ask yourself, I think. For me, this film was a total blast, and really well done, I loved it, and I think it's also the best "last time we need to re-visit the Cowboy vs Indians Trope" that we could ask for.

7. What We Do In The Shadows

Three vampire housemates try to cope with the complexities of modern life, all while showing a newly turned hipster vampire some of the perks of being undead.

I don't have much to say about this film, besides the fact that I loved it, except for two things. The first thing is that the movie is ridiculously funny. Ridiculously funny. This film is your basic "faux documentary" style of film, but the cast just nails it. Their delivery and timing and the way the film is put together is just fantastic. The second thing is that it's actually an awesome vampire movie too, one very well versed in all of the old myths and the usual vampire tropes. In fact, they use a lot of those old myths and tropes for some of the best comedy bits. I mean, the whole sequence about how they get ready to go out for a night when they can't see themselves in the mirror is one of the funniest things ever. And the animosity between them and the local werewolves group almost killed me. Loved it. I loved it. Seriously, people, this is a super funny film, just go watch it.

6. Anomalisa

Michael Stone, husband, father, and respected author of "How May I Help You Help Them?" is a man crippled by the mundanity of his life. On a business trip to Cincinnati, where he's scheduled to speak at a convention of customer service professionals, he checks into the Fregoli Hotel. There, he is amazed to discover a possible escape from his desperation in the form of an unassuming baked goods sales rep, Lisa, who may or may not be the love of his life.

I know, I know... Stop-motion puppets. Right from the start, that's not the best sell, is it? I understand, it was almost a deal-breaker for me too. I mean, I love Ray Harryhausen as much as the next guy, but come on... this film obviously has zero skeleton warriors in it, so why bother? It seems so unnecessary, and probably kind of pretentious. This was my thought going in. But on the other hand, it's Charlie Kaufmann. Charlie Kaufmann, people. So I went. And I was blown away. Amazed. I was amazed by the depth of the characters and the painful and touching honesty of the story, the deceptively complex narrative tricks it employs. It's an astounding film, people. Astounding. I was so amazed, I would often forget about the puppets for awhile, only to be reminded again, and as a result, be amazed all over again by the incredible technical achievement on display. And it is one hell of a technical achievement too. The skill, the attention to detail... I only have a basic understanding of Stop Motion Puppetry, the same one most people probably have: move the doll, take a picture, move the doll, take a picture, over and over, but the movements here, the facial expressions, the gestures, it's all so deliberate and naturalistic, it's simply mind-boggling to imagine the level of work that was called for in order to create this film. This is hands down your Best special Effects winner, people, nothing else comes close. And the crazy part is, that's just a side-note, an interesting little extra thing to mention, because like I said, all of that skill comes with a brutally honest story filled with very human characters. You may think you're not interested, but this film is more than worth your time, trust me. Also, there's a super realistic puppet sex scene. You heard me.

5. The Look of Silence

In Indonesia in 1965, over a million “communists” were killed by U.S. backed local death squads. The murderers are still in power. Now, an optician confronts the men who killed the brother he never knew during the genocide, his search for understanding placing his own life in very real danger.

Where The Act of Killing had men responsible for genocide comfortably talking about and even re-enacting their horrific crimes, The Look of Silence is about the families of the victims, the people forced to not only live among the murderers of their loved ones, but to interact with them daily. It's a bit of an understatement maybe to say that this seems like an awful life. Everyone in this film seems to live in this tight-lipped fear. The question "What were you doing in '65?" is a loaded one. Killer? Guard? Snitch? Victim? The Optician, a man forced to remain somewhat anonymous in the film, sits before men who have not only personally murdered hundreds and hundreds of people--regularly drinking the blood of those victims, believing it will hold off "going crazy" from the enormity of their crimes--but the men who actually murdered his own brother, and he just confronts them head on. He reveals them, and watching the children of those men hear exactly what their fathers once did is an incredible. It's a gut-wrenching thing, watching the children of psychopaths beg for forgiveness or angrily turn away, bent beneath the transference of guilt. Even more incredible is the look on the Optician's face when he hears exactly what happened to his brother. You feel frozen as an old Death Squad Boss calmly and confidently reminds the Optician that the same thing could still happen to him and his family now, if he keeps asking questions. It's unbelievable. My heart was hammering when the Old Death Squad Boss, in the most casual and seemingly friendly way imaginable asks: "What was your name again?" Chills rolled down my spine. And the Optician just faces it, calm and quiet and undeterred, his desire to understand why his brother died, why a million others died, and how someone could participate in genocide, the sheer massive awfulness of it all, this thing that damaged his family and his country so much, it's amazing to see. Amazing. My favorite part is his mother. She's the best, she's fantastic, and funny and no-nonsense, a tiny little straight-shooter, but the little noise she makes when he tells her what he's been doing will just break your heart. This is a film about both the worst that humanity is capable of, and the best. It's a hard film to watch, but it is so worth it. Make the effort. 

4. Ex Machina

Caleb Smith, a programmer at a huge Internet company, wins a contest that enables him to spend a week at the private estate of Nathan Bateman, his firm's brilliant CEO. When he arrives, Caleb learns that he has been chosen to be the human component in a Turing test to determine the capabilities and consciousness of Ava, a beautiful robot that Nathan has created. However, it soon becomes evident that Caleb has been thrust into an intense battle of wills between Creation and Creator, with life itself as the ultimate prize.

This is a film you don't want to talk about too much, because you can spoil it. The first pleasure of this film really comes from watching it the first time without knowing what the deal is, the second is revisiting the film knowing exactly how it ends, and really paying attention to how it gets there. So, with that in mind, I'll be brief. First off, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson appeared together in two films this year, and this is hands-down the better of the two. Secondly, I loved this film. Starting out with shockingly bright and wide open wilderness, Ex Machina quickly becomes shadowed and claustrophobic, it envelopes you and pens you in. It's a complex story, one seeped in sci-fi genre tropes, but very much about men and women, and how men try to impose their own definitions and identities onto women. There are so many great things about this film, from the fantastic performances and the razor sharp writing to the incredible use of lighting and space, but my favorite thing is the way the tension is kept at a slowly simmering boil right from the start. You can't quite pinpoint the reasons for that tension at first, as the characters begin to circle each other, but it quickly becomes apparent as the film barrels on into its savagely cathartic and brilliant ending, one that is definitely going to piss of more than a few people out there. This is a haunting film. It will stick with you. You'll dwell on it, and you should. I loved that.

3. Tangerine

After hearing that her boyfriend/pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, a hooker and her best friend set out to find him and teach him and his new lover a lesson.

Surprise, surprise, I loved Tangerine too (noticing a pattern with this list?). It's a really funny, really entertaining, and extremely human movie. This film is raucous and wild, the characters flying up and down the crummy stretches of Santa Monica, noisy and pugnacious, rolling through one wild night of their lives. It's a blast. And here's a cool little extra bit of trivia, it was shot entirely on an Iphone. That's incredible. Really, all Iphone, and it looks so good. In fact, if I hadn't just told you, I don't think you would have noticed. It really is amazing. And it not only looks good in general, but it looks good specifically too. The Director's eye is amazing. I can't think of a movie that captures the look and feel of that area of L.A. better, the tattered edges of Hollywood, that baked asphalt and dead palm tree strip of Santa Monica, nothing but smog-stained little strip malls millions of miles from the ocean, it was just perfect. And much like the Stop Motion Puppetry of Anomalisa, while the equipment and resulting look alone is noteworthy, it's just a footnote, because this is a really genuine film. The actors, their characters and the world they inhabit feel alive and real. It's quick and witty, nailing the big moments of life, and the small ones too. There's a great balance between funny and sad. I didn't expect to really like this film, I went from the word-of-mouth only, and I'm really glad I did. It's different than the usual film for some of you maybe, but a good story well told is a good story well told, and that is Tangerine. Seek it out.

2. Creed

Adonis Johnson never knew his famous father, boxing champion Apollo Creed, because he died before Adonis was born. However, boxing is in his blood, so he seeks out Rocky Balboa and asks the retired champ to be his trainer. Together the unlikely pair forge a bond, leaning on each other as they fight their battles, both inside the ring and out.

Creed shouldn't be an incredible film. It shouldn't be able to grab onto you. It shouldn't be able to make you cheer. It shouldn't. This should be one more attempt at squeezing blood from a long ago bone-dry stone. It shouldn't work at all, but it does. It so does. This is a exciting film, a primal film. It makes you move along with it. It makes you cheer. I mean, in a year where we were already stunned by the out-of-nowhere revitalization of a long dead franchise, who would've expected another attempted bite at the same apple to succeed so seemingly easily? Not me. In fact, when I heard this film was coming, I did not give a shit. I didn't hate it, I just wasn't even interested. I didn't think about it at all. Why would I? It sounds like a parody idea. But then... that first trailer was pretty great, and then the early reviews were really great. And the later reviews were great too. So I went, and ,man, let me tell you... I loved this film. You should too. It doesn't matter if you don't like boxing, or don't like Rocky, or if you've never even seen a Rocky film (but you really should watch the first one), because this is just a plain old great movie, from writing to direction to performances and on and on and on. It's a superior film. Top shelf. Better made then most. You believe it. You believe in it. It's a familiar story, yes, but it's a great one. I mean, if you've read this far then you're interested in what I have to say, right? Well then, listen up... go see this movie. This movie, and the next one...

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Years after the collapse of civilization, the tyrannical Immortan Joe rules with an iron fist from his desert fortress, the Citadel. When his warrior, the Imperator Furiosa breaks ranks, leading the despot's five wives off in a daring escape, he and his army of irradiated Warboys follow, hot on her tail and hungry for vengeance. Along the way, Furiosa forges an alliance with Max Rockatansky, a loner and former captive, the man who keeps Mr. Death in his pocket. Together, the pair try to outrun the ruthless warlord and his henchmen in a massive, armored truck called the War Rig, tearing across the Wasteland in a deadly high-speed chase.

Maybe this choice surprises none of you who know me? Maybe it seems like I might be biased? Maybe that's what you think, and maybe there is a little bit of that, but for the most part, you are wrong. This is more than just that.

Y'see, even God didn't believe in this film. We've talked about it before, how natural disasters, wars, and even a suddenly green-blooming desert delayed production on this film for nearly a decade. All that time ago, at first people were curious and maybe even a little excited, but after awhile people just kind of forgot about it. There's was too much happening to it, and not enough happening with it. After awhile, no one really believed it would ever happen, and most reasonable people agreed, it was probably for the best.

But we were wrong.

The first sneak peek of footage at Comic Con came out of nowhere and it blew minds. People were suddenly talking. Could this film be amazing? It was hard to believe, but the trailers seemed to get better and better each time. But then you heard that it was somehow going to be one long chase scene? It was hard to believe in this film. How could it be any good? But then it came out, and it was great. Really great. And it didn't lie to us either. The film is basically just one long chase scene, just one long 90 minute pulse-pounding chase scene filled with the most incredibly intense and shockingly beautiful action set pieces, on a massive parade of amazingly bad ass machines, all while featuring several powerful female characters, more than a few of which were able to not only rival the towering cinematic archetype of Max (so easily revitalized with new blood), but were also able to surpass him? And then, as an added bonus, it was also somehow a film that made actresses playing scantily-clad former sex slaves not seem like an exploitation too?

And all from a 70 year old Director? The film is a god damn miracle.

What else is there to say about this film that hasn't already been said? It's a genre film that deserves its awards and nominations. It's a brilliantly crafted, deceptively simple story with a stronger allegory for society than we've seen in recent "mainstream" films, let alone genre ones. It's the most beautiful post-apocalyptic wasteland ever. It's fun as hell, a complete blast from beginning to end.

If you haven't seen this film, you're missing out. End of story.

...And that's it, folks, that's the best of a pretty damn good year, as I see it.

The "Almost Made the List" list

Making a list of ten great films in a year like this can be a really difficult task, especially the closer you get to that magic number. Now, admittedly, ten is really just an arbitrary number, but I like to stick to it when it comes to things like this, because it forces you to really examine the films you have on your list, and ask yourself why you liked them. It forces you to make some hard decisions. That right there is where you separate the men from the boys, kids, as they say.

And like I said, this was a hard year to pare down.

This year was good enough that my deep, deep Marvel love wasn't enough for me to rationalize including Ant-Man or Avengers Age of Ultron, not even sneaking them in at Number 10. It Follows was also tons of fun, with a great new idea and some fantastic imagery, but the rules surrounding that idea were just too loose, so it got cut. The Tribe was an amazing and brutal film, entirely made up of deaf actors using sign language, which was really cool to watch. But in the end, I felt like it meandered too much, and ended too suddenly, so... cut. The Hateful Eight was tense and gory and fantastic, it was a really good time, especially in 70 mm. I loved it, but I'm definitely not in love with Tarantino's excessive use of the n-word, so it was cut too. And Cop Car? Hmmm... I guess there's no particular reason really, it's just more of a gut feeling. It was good. I really liked it, and the two boys were especially great, but sometimes you just don't have the stuff needed to make the cut.

All that being said, even if they didn't make my list, you should still check them out.

The "Might Have Made the List If I'd Seen Them" list

I have heard good things and bad things about all of these films. Spotlight sounds like it's good, but it also sounds like it might be the type of film that might end up winning the Best Picture Oscar even though it doesn't quite deserve it. Straight Outta Compton sounded like it might be good too, or maybe it leans a little too heavily on the myth rather than the actual people. I've heard Carol is brilliant and beautiful, but I also hear it's a little tedious and drawn out. I've heard the same pluses and minuses that were present in Birdman are also very much present in The Revenant. Beast of No Nation is supposed to be an amazing and horrifying film, but it went straight to Netflix, and if I'm being honest, I'm a little wary of films that don't get a theatrical distribution. Chi-raq is supposed to be one of Spike Lee's better films. I've heard it called "incendiary" in multiple places. However, I'm not as hot on Spike Lee in general as I used to be, y'know? And as for the last two? Room, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl? I've heard they're both amazing, and I really, really wish I hadn't missed them  in the theatre earlier in the year.

But who knows? I guess I'll find out in the next few months...

The "Films To Look For Next Year" List

Okay, so I went to Fantastic Fest this year and it was a total blast. 10/10, would recommend, as the Internet says. While there, I saw four films (among many others) that I didn't put on the list because they're technically not out in theatres yet, but damn... I most definitely would have, if they would've been released in time. I'm kind of glad they weren't though, because having them in the mix as well would've only made the paring down of the list that much harder. But let me tell you this, people, 2016 is gonna have to be one hell of an amazing god damn year if these four films don't end up on next year's list, you hear me? It'll have to be amazing.

Watch for these films.


Movie Man,

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