The end of 2015 finds us six years into the 2010s decade in film. At this point, the best films over the last half decade are beginning to rise to the top while we (try to) patiently wait for the yet-to-be-seen-or-made masterpieces that will conclude this arbitrary collection of time. Critics all too often bemoan the state of the art form as one of constant stagnation or degradation. However, close inspection reveals that the problem has less to do with the works rather than the larger industry that produces them. Admittedly, overreliances on disaster epics, cash grab comedies, or awards bait restricts genuine originality in favor of safe bets. But you would be a fool not to look back on past eras and see antecedents for mediocrity. In any age, the forgettable lines the bargain bins while the remarkable stands the test of time. Had we ever seen an animated film as emotionally dense as Inside Out? Had a seventy plus year old director ever made an action movie as on edge and youthful as Mad Max: Fury Road? Did The Big Short make our understanding of the financial system even more tragically comic? The fact that these and many more questions exist prove that 2015 was very much so a solid year for movies. Sure, Hollywood had a record year at the box office but it’s how the movies made us feel and think that will indelibly stick with us. Now, on to my superlatives and the top 10.
Michael Bay Award for Assault on Subtlety: Furious 7
It’s a shame that we didn’t get Bay himself to defend his crown in 2015 but it seems Hollywood spared no expense to step up to the plate to deliver a handful of shockingly hollow experiences at the movies. There were a few I considered in this slot (Terminator: Genisys, Kingsman: The Secret Service, San Andreas) but the more I thought about it, no other answer roared as loudly as Furious 7. And funny enough, it’s probably the best of these contenders. The seventh installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise had the obligation to give a proper sendoff to fallen cast member Paul Walker, build on the villains established in prior films, and juggle a continuity on the verge of collapse. The action scenes were even devoid of emotion, with exotic CGI backdrops replacing the concrete authenticity present in earlier films. But all of these things seemed to be irrelevant as the film coasted to a billion and a half dollars worldwide, a rare feat for a franchise on its seventh entry. The similarities between this series and the Transformers franchise are simply too many to count. They both feature robotic behemoths that have nothing on their minds outside of flattening anything that gets in their way. But to be fair, I think Optimus Prime has more life to him than the being that society has continued referring to as Vin Diesel.
Best Use of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Furious 7
Who would have thought that Furious 7 would have stolen two awards this early into the proceedings? I was tempted to go with San Andreas on this one since he delivers a good, thankless performance in a big, dumb action movie that’s entertaining while it lasts but fades almost instantaneously. However, his reprisal of Luke Hobbs was filled with signature moments, an accomplishment when considering that he’s sidelined for two thirds of the movie until the climactic finish. Choosing a single bit of greatness proves to be a Herculean task: how about that part when he says to his daughter “Daddy’s gotta go to work” before literally ripping of his cast. What about when he takes down a predator drone with an ambulance? No, it has to be when he repurposes said drone’s machinegun as his own personal tool for mayhem. With Walker now out of the picture, the series would be smart to push Johnson to the co-lead position with Diesel. Every scene the two stars share together gives off a sense of narrative and off-screen standoffishness that make their teaming all the more fruitful.
Johnny Depp Award for Biggest Non-Performance: Black Mass
At this stage in his career, Johnny Depp seems to have lost the ability to act beyond what his hair and makeup team dictate. I initially walked out of Black Mass estimating his performance was “eh” in a relatively favorable light but my memory of it has only made Depp’s mannerisms and voice resemble a mediocre act in a Boston comedy club. He fumbles his way through the movie in a manner embarrassing for a man who once gave such inspired performances in such films as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ed Wood, and even the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Sadly, the final film in that grouping has turned out to be a crutch for the actor to hang all of his most tired tricks. Someone needs to sit him down and frankly tell him that he’s capable of so much more if he’s willing to evolve his technique instead of further fossilizing it.
Progress Report for Comic Book/Superhero Movies: D+
Though I would say the state of cinema in 2015 was overall in a good place, the medium’s most prevalent genre did next to nothing to compliment it. A lack of DC films left Marvel carrying the brunt of the load and the propulsive energy created from 2014 felt totally wasted. Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie I liked more than I didn’t, in retrospect feels like an inevitable slog that wasn’t helped by its titular villain Ultron’s (James Spader) been-there-done-that scheme that took every opportunity to further drive our heroes apart. Ant-Man, as visually daring in parts as it was, just couldn’t escape the shadow of a much better movie that director Edgar Wright would have made if not for his departure from the project. Kingsman: The Secret Service, another bad adaptation of another bad comic book yarn from Mark Millar, failed to homage classic Bond-era spy flicks by trying to inject a childish sense of “humor” that flashes one back to the countless Tarantino rip-offs that littered the late 90s. Finally, the dumpster fire known as Fantastic Four left me so disappointed that I was unable to even collect my thoughts in time for a review. In short, the dismal performance for the genre in 2015 made me, a lifelong fan of comic books and the characters that inhabit them, feeling the dreaded symptoms of “superhero fatigue”. And the coming onslaught of 2016 doesn’t promise to help things.
Joe Dante Award for Best-Doomed-To-Be-Forgotten Genre Movie of the Year: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
I almost gave this distinction to the terrific Krampus (itself a classy homage to Amblin-era flicks) but recognized that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. better fit the bill since the former movie will forever be tied to the tradition of Christmas movies, even furthered by its identity as a Christmas horror movie. In a year of Bond, Mission: Impossible, the bad but for whatever reason beloved Kingsman, and even a slowly paced but marvelous film by Steven Spielberg, Guy Ritchie’s made a throwback that many of these movies danced around but never fully committed to. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, two talents still in the process of being swallowed by the studio machine, made a good pairing whose back and forth never grew stale. Alicia Vikander was in better movies this year but her sexiness here was as palpable as anything else on the big screen. Ritchie continues to construct fantastic set pieces look near effortless with a regularity that makes you wonder if he’s on juicing on a drug tantamount to cinematic HGH. I may have labeled the film as forgettable in my review but my thoughts have returned to it more than I’ve anticipated.
Most Overrated of the Year: It Follows
Anyone who knows me is aware of my general distaste for horror movies. I’m a fan of some but most leave me cold to their overly designed quests for terror. When I hear about the year’s next great horror film, I try to be cautiously optimistic that it’ll deliver while I brace myself to the inevitability of being immune to its charms. In 2015, It Follows fit this description for my yearly shrugging. Don’t get me wrong: the atmosphere was rich as the obscured nature of the haunting presence left me guessing like very few efforts from the genre do. However, the intentionally coldness the film grants to its characters made their ultimate safety only so important to me. Halloween, a clear influence of It Follows, succeeds not only because Michael Myers is a compelling villain but also thanks to Jamie Lee Curtis’s significant building on the scream queen tradition. You could argue It Follow’s yawn inducing characters are the product of a contemporary hollowness on the part of teenagers fueled by technological adaptation. But It Follows is unsure of what era it’s even taking place in, filling the frame with slightly older cars, clothes, and even monster movies that play on TV. I’m all for well-earned ambiguity but don’t let it be as distracting as it was here.
Most Underrated of the Year: Krampus
As I mentioned earlier, the film’s blend of Christmas cheer and grisly horror will allow for it to be properly discovered on home video. Even so, Krampus grossed a respectable $61 million on a $15 million budget. It’s Rotten Tomatoes score charts it at a just-fresh rating of 66%. Personally, I found the movie a thrilling ride as heartwarming as it is heart stopping. The wordless opening of shoppers fighting bitterly for overpriced junk would be even more hilarious if it wasn’t so familiar. Most holiday movies put its characters through Hell just so we can have the canned ending to teach us about “the true meaning of Christmas”. Instead, Krampus doesn’t let its protagonists, and by extension its audience, off the hook quite so easily.
No matter what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science would have you think, 2015 was an exceptional year for actors of color in mainstream cinema.  Jason Mitchell turned out to be one of the many standouts who made Straight Outta Compton the hit it seemed fated to be. While the movie itself turned its early energy into more conventional fare, Mitchell was anything but. The actor made the case that the film would have been much better served as a more singular biopic of Easy E instead of being forced to carry the weight as a thorough detailing of NWA’s exploits. I can imagine a near future where Mitchell is boxed into into only playing similarly charismatic but tragic characters that just have the young talent retracing his steps. Hopefully, he’s allowed to do more varied roles.
Daisy Ridley also felt like a breath of fresh air in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Seemingly plucked from nowhere with only a handful of meager credits to her name, director J.J. Abrams rightly gambled on Ridley, who takes her opportunity to lead a global phenomenon and runs with it. Much discussion has been generated online centered on Rey’s identity as a “Mary Sue”, a term that describes an overly competent character that doesn’t allow for the proper amount of conflict. I find such a reading though downplays the vulnerability and wide eyed wonder that Ridley affords her role. She may have the technical know-how to make the Millennium Falcon fly again but the look alone that she gives as (SPOILER) Luke’s lightsaber comes spiraling into her hand shows a character that has a lot to learn about her place in the greater galaxy. (END SPOILER) I cannot adequately express my excitement for seeing the rest of her journey and how Ridley will adapt to the story presented to both her and us.
Trailer of the Year: Joy
Where there probably better trailers this year than Joy? Sure. Did I select this choice so I could briefly highlight this film for what it was? Definitely. There was a point when many would consider David O. Russell an underrated filmmaker, as his early films have a twee spirit that seemed a bit lost in the shuffle of the late 90s/early 00s. With The Fighter, what many call his return to respectability, he settled into a more conservative rhythm of movie after movie that fit a bit too snugly in the category of “Oscar Bait”.  Each passing movie has seen an increasing number of critics abandoning the bandwagon that was launched with The Fighter. Joy was even less enthusiastically received than American Hustle and it’s a real shame. It has problems (a bloated collection of stories and characters that don’t always work in harmony, Jennifer Lawrence playing a real character considerably older) but it’s this at times misused energy that make Russell’s films as exciting as more narratively or technically perfect works. Joy’s trailer is a good representation of this: its disinterest in selling you on what story it’s telling, its use of a familiar rock song, the growingly chaotic symbiosis of sound and image that finally grants us catharsis with the pure delight of seeing Lawrence blast a shotgun. I’m as interested as ever in seeing where Russell’s muse takes him next.
Favorite Piece of Film Writing in 2015: “The Action Figures and Lost Legacy of Batman Forever, 20 Years Later” by Noel Murray, The Dissolve
Anyone aware of the film blogosphere in 2015 realizes that it was the best of times as often as it was the worst of times. If you’re a fan of cinema looking for unique critical perspectives or appreciations, than you know you don’t have to look too hard for compelling work. However, the economic realities of sustaining such spheres are appearing increasingly dire. One of the toughest casualties in recent memory was The Dissolve, a site started in mid-2013 that effortlessly rode the line between covering mainstream and independent cinema with the same level of scrutiny and fervor. Picking just one of their brilliant articles was hard but my all-time favorite kept making the case for its inclusion. Noel Murray, a critic who now freelances for various sites, used his recurring column “Adventures in Licensing” to discuss the merchandising and forgotten history of Batman Forever. Murray checks his way through the cast/creative decisions and illustrates how they were reflected in the toys that followed. As someone whose childhood was spent watching the movie (along with every Batman movie I could get my hands on) on repeat and playing with any and every toy I could convince my parents to buy, this was such a breezy piece of writing to read. In fact, my very first memory on this planet Earth is of many playing with a Batman Forever action figure. While he looks back on the movie with a critical eye that’s tough but fair, he admits that it’s the fans of my generation who will forever waive its flag as a pleasing work of chaotic idiocy. This piece, as well as the others in the “Adventures in Licensing” column, draws the hidden connections between the movies we consume and the merchandising made as a result (or in this case possibly a catalyst). It’s this brand of adventurous probing that The Dissolve was all about. Its absence in my film going life serves as a daily reminder.
Best Pre-2015 First Viewings: (tie) It Happened One Night and Wet Hot American Summer
Often times, “end of the year” lists neglect to mention the fantastic movies one sees for the first time that predates the year in question. Granted, said lists are meant to first and foremost highlight the latest films that have proved memorable or noteworthy. Still, I wanted to take the chance and shine a spotlight on a pair of films that have given me as much joy as anything else I saw this year. Firstly, Frank Capra’s early masterpiece It Happened One Night was an opportunity for me to see more of the director’s work while also getting a chance to see what we would now consider ancient prototype for the modern romantic comedy. Sometimes, seeing classic, influential films can feel like homework as you find yourself checking off a mental list of sources. Here though, It Happened One Night felt as vital and alive as this year’s Trainwreck, thanks in no small part to the antagonistic romance of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
A comedy much more recent but no less funny was Wet Hot American Summer. As an avid consumer of alternative comedy like Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Eric Andre Show, it was infinitely cool to see one of the medium’s most rewarding Rosetta Stones. I laughed out loud the whole way through and was amazed to see the amount of talent sprung from the movie who went on to do bigger (but not necessarily better) things. I’ve yet to watch the Netflix prequel series but hope to sometime soon. I’d be much more likely to just sit down and watch the film again.
Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Leftovers (Season 2)
Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone that this slot didn’t go to the concluding half season of my favorite show of all time in Mad Men. As great and satisfying as it was, the sophomore season of The Leftovers left me excited week after week in a way very few TV shows have. The divisive first season frequently felt like a torture chamber of grief and dread that was artistically powerful but emotionally costing. The second season, equally fearless, uprooted its central characters and set them up in a new setting, forcing them to interact with people not nearly as beholden to loss as them. That is, of course, until an unforeseen set of circumstances forces both sides to prey on the strengths and weakness of one another. The cast is uniformly excellent but the work of Justin Thoreau and Regina King remain at the forefront of my mind. Standout episodes include “Lens” and “International Assassin”. I would say more but I really hope you check out both seasons for yourself, as long as you’re ready for a televisual rollercoaster unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Performer of the Year: Samuel L. Jackson
It’s always a shame to see Samuel L. Jackson, one of the medium’s most idiosyncratic performers, phone it in. The last decade and a half of the actor’s career has mostly consisted of him taking small parts in blockbusters or independent movies that misuse his unprecedented brand of energy. Luckily, he decided to get back to work in 2015. Apart from a forgettable reprisal of Nick Fury in Age of Ultron and a role in Barely Lethal (a movie I simply haven’t seen), Jackson stole the show this year. While I’ve already made my grievances with Kingsman abundantly clear, his turn as its stuttering villain Valentine was a fun diversion in a movie where so many such detours fell flat. Additionally, Jackson’s voice gave Chi-raq some welcome moments of coherence that were mostly deprived from the audience. Finally, his performance as Major Marquis Warren commanded our attention from a fantastic ensemble in The Hateful Eight, proving once again that Jackson and director Quentin Tarantino are one of the best actor-director pairs around.
And before I get to my top 10, let me first list in no particular order some Honorable Mentions that left me thinking and entertained in 2015: The Big Short, Chi-Raq, Trainwreck, Krampus, The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, and Beasts of No Nation.
Also, some movies that I failed to see in time for the making of this list: Anomalisa, Spotlight, Tangerine, Son of Saul, The Look of Silence, as well as countless others.
You would think that we would’ve learned better than to keep questioning Tom Cruise’s place in modern Hollywood with his continual raising of the bar, wouldn’t you? Every time we try to forget about how he’s the greatest living action star, here he comes hanging on for dear life on the side of a plane or nearly drowning right before he’s resuscitated and gives chase on car and motorcycle. Sure, I’d love him to return to more dramatic work but his ruthless grin is as thrilling a tic as anything you’ll see nominated for an Academy Award. This time, Rebecca Ferguson stands toe to toe with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in a pairing that the series would do right by reprising. Plus, who doesn’t love to see the mumbling Ving Rhames, the stumbling Simon Pegg, and the grumbling Jeremy Renner back in the saddles of their respective characters? If not for Mad Max: Fury Road, Rogue Nation would be the action film of the year that forges a new path for its franchise’s future.
- Going Clear
Speaking of Tom Cruise terrorizing his enemies…Alex Gibney’s essential documentary on the history of Scientology illustrates why the church remains a danger to both the culture at large and the individuals it targets. The church’s loopy narrative is mostly told by ex-members who try to shed a light on how a cult like this can get such a firm grasp on its converts. Paul Haggis, director/screenwriter of such films as Crash and Million Dollar Baby, recounts his own tortured past with the group and himself questions how anyone can fall into their lies and intimidation. Sections of the documentary cover Cruise and John Travolta’s roles in the church, challenging fans abilities to reconcile their artistic merit with their personal abuses of power. Sadly, the film’s launch on HBO has minimized its discussion in most “end of the year” lists, which is a darn shame.
- Queen of Earth
Elisabeth Moss, hot off her role as the iconic Peggy Olson on Mad Men, takes on a role of unparalleled difficulty in Queen of Earth, the latest film by Alex Ross Perry that tells the story of two longtime friends forced to come to grips with a relationship on the downslide. Moss delivers a career best work that is my choice for performance of the year, which features her regularly confronting hard questions and difficult emotions. Katherine Waterston is nearly as good as her friend who finds as much comfort tearing her down as she does building her up. Queen of Earth was the most unsettling film I’ve seen all year and its visual beauty is underscored by an unease that concludes in the film’s final maddening moments. This is the only movie I’ve yet to see from Perry but I heartily look forward to visiting his previous work.
- Ex Machina
Even though Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, its surefootedness no doubts stems from his previous efforts screenwriting for films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. The film may have a small budget that would restrict many to calling it a “chamber drama” but one gets the sense that this is the movie Garland would make no matter what budget he was offered. The lead trio is universally excellent, with Domhnall Gleeson delivering an understated performance while the great Oscar Isaac and fresh faced Alicia Vikander get slightly meatier roles. It’s easy to describe Ex Machina as “Her as a thriller” but that is a disservice to the film’s own quiet world building.
It seems a bit odd to place the latest installment in the Star Wars saga as low as this. No movie in recent memory has consumed more of my thoughts, feelings, and anticipation. The Abrams helmed The Force Awakens simply had to be good to stoke the fancy of millions of fans ready to embrace a franchise that had long disappointed them. But The Force Awakens delivered in a major way, thanks to the emphasis on characters and humor that felt simultaneously classic and modern. It’s not quite seamless, as narrative shorthand makes re-watches acutely aware of the rewriting that certainly occurred all the way up to the film’s premiere. But the film’s concluding minutes suggest a series that will rely less on nostalgia than the strength of its new, imaginative leads.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
I had heard rumblings over Fury Road’s troubled production over a period of years, so much so that I silently shook my head and presumed that this movie was just not meant to be. All this time later, I’m happy to report that the long gestating project turned out to be an unqualified success. George Miller’s long awaited return to the Mad Max series was an even greater accomplishment than we could’ve hoped for. Tom Hardy comfortably slid into the role Mel Gibson once made famous but it was Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa that led the movie into uncharted directions. Miller has recently announced that he’s not returning for any future installments. While many fans are disappointed, they should come to grips with the fact that the filmmaker made such a superb film that there’s nothing left for him to prove.
Chris Ryan of Grantland called Sicario “the Apocalypse Now of the Drug War” and that analogy certainly feels right on the money. Sicario is much less interested in the particulars of the crusade than it is with the age old questions of why we fight and how far we’re willing to go to resolve conflicts that will be present long after we’re gone. The script may be light on character moments but thankfully the stellar cast breathes life into a world that is apt to suffocate them. Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro both give Oscar caliber performances but even the scene stealing Josh Brolin, often cloaked in shadows or reflected in mirrors, has continued to resonate with me. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins frequently allow their characters to be lost amongst the landscapes and the eerie score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is a non-diegetic touch that makes the coming dread a backdrop all its own.
- The Hateful Eight
Quite recently, I’ve come to realize that the filmography of Quentin Tarantino is very hit or miss for me, particularly his last half dozen films. The Kill Bill films are fun symbioses of kung fu and spaghetti western mythologies but the failure of Death Proof, as ambitious as it was, illustrated the problems of trying to recreate the pleasures of exploitation filmmaking without properly recognizing the context that spurred them. Inglorious Bastards is one of my very favorites from the director, as its structure and collision of genres (both hallmarks of his work) are perhaps Tarantino at his most daring. Django Unchained, on the other hand, was my least favorite of his that gave credence to many of the arguments critics level at him in regards to touchy racial politics and indulgent asides that fail to adequately loop back to the main narrative. So, you could say it was time for me to love a Tarantino film again and The Hateful Eight certainly fit the bill. The 70 mm roadshow, which I was fortunate enough to see, was a borderline subversive move for a movie that mostly consisted of close-ups in an oversized cabin. Picking a favorite cast member is tough but the unexpected alliance of Jackson and Walton Goggins was a treat to see. I must admit that the critical malaise towards the film is disappointing, mostly because I think The Hateful Eight is a thoroughly gratifying piece of thought provoking entertainment.
Like many of the great films of 2015, Carol left me instantly wanting to discover or rediscover the guiding filmmakers’ prior works. Todd Haynes, Carol’s director, has made a career out of taking cliché ridden forms (melodrama, biopic) and artfully retooling them with such skill that one hardly sees the tracing. It doesn’t hurt that he enlists terrific actors: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deliver such honest portrayals that awarding one over the other is a rather pedestrian enterprise. Similarly to Queen of Earth, Carol was shot on 16 mm, giving the film a voyeuristic mood complemented by unbalanced frames that may leave you straining to see what’s on either side of the subject. No other movie in 2015 made me more aware of the medium of cinema than Carol but don’t think for a moment that the style takes away from the elegant story at hand.
- Inside Out
Years ago, when I heard about the initial stages of Inside Out and the premise it suggested, I was positive that the concept was so strong that the possibility of Pixar mucking it up felt like an impossibility. Thankfully, I was right. Director Pete Docter (director of previous Pixar classics with Monsters Inc. and Up) gave the studio a much need uplift after a period of mediocre efforts. Inside Out is quintessential Pixar: a seesaw ride of emotions that has you crying one minute before laughing the next. Subsequent re-watches only deepen the heavy themes at play, fashioning the rare movie that appeals to adults just as much as it does to children. Many movies rely on world destroying superweapons or convoluted “stakes” to keep audiences interested. Inside Out outclassed and outperformed them all by simply taking aim at Riley’s emotional well-being. The fact that this movie was able to create a vocabulary for how people of all ages grapple with complex emotions is no small feat. Inside Out is the year’s most quotable, memorable, funny, sad, and ultimately fulfilling cinematic experience. It wasn’t hard for me to choose it as my #1.
Well, that about does it for 2015. Here’s to hoping 2016 is even better. But before we go, let us conclude with a clip from Furious 7 that helped inspire the title of this piece. See you at the movies!
 I’m looking at you The Towering Inferno, Have Rocket, Will Travel, and Out of Africa.
 I would actually count the year overall a bit of a down one in comparison to the last few (2012-2014) but that’s only because those were so strong that a very good year just looks like the slightest decline.
 Though he looks to be back in the game for 2016 with 13 Hours.
 But only by a bit.
 But rest assured, we have another film coming up later that would fit this description.
 But luckily, I think my Letterboxd review says it best: “Frustratingly, the latest cinematic offering of the Fantastic Four neglects the melodramatic and zany fun of the property, swallowing itself in shadows and ‘grit’ to the point of invisibility.”
 You may remember my reflections on the genre here: https://blockbluster.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/blockblusters-first-annual-oversized-halloween-spooktacular/.
 Not always the most accurate measuring stick for quality.
 I personally rank Silver Linings Playbook as my favorite of these latter films.
 But seriously, I didn’t plan on these two being beside one another. Oddly enough, that’s just the way they fell.
 Shot on 16 mm.
 Grantland: another unfortunate Internet casualty of 2015. http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/are-my-methods-unsound-why-sicario-is-the-apocalypse-now-of-the-drug-war/.
 You thought I was done with this one, didn’t ya?!