The Top Films of 2015 Review.
With 2015 now in the rearview mirror of memory, it seems like an apt time to revisit the successes and failures of the year – particularly with regards to the best films of 2015. It was a twelve months filled with wild expectations, especially in the wake of a 2014 that resulted in an array of classics from modern day visionaries. As a result, 2015 seemed destined to be dictated by the blockbuster, whether through anticipated sequels (Avengers, The Hunger Games) or long awaited reboots (Jurassic World, Star Wars). And the year didn’t disappoint in this regard, scoring several smash hits that set records and redefined the box office.
Conversely, as is the case for every movie-going season, there were Academy Award favorites. True stories (Bridge of Spies, In The Heart of The Sea) and topical dramas (Ex Machina, Sicario) captivated the intellect of audiences worldwide, while a select few (Mad Max, Creed) scored big with both fanboys and critics. Thrown in the mix with Oscar favorites like The Martian and Spotlight, and 2015 more than held its own as a quality year in cinema. The pressure is now on for 2016 http://www.grodworks.com/best-movies-of-2016/.
Predestination – Release Date: January 9th 2015
Based on the short story by Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination chronicles the life of a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) as he travels through time on a series of intricate missions to prevent future killers from completing their murders. But, as is the case with every hitman story, complications arise on the Agent’s final mission. This time, he must track a killer who has consistently eluded capture and prevent a horrific attack that could cost the lives of thousands of innocent people. Written and directed with immense style by Michael and Peter Spierig, Predestination is a trippy take on the time travel concept made fresh with clever dialogue and three dimensional characters. Hawke is a woeful figure as the unnamed agent, while breakout star Sarah Snook is revelatory in the role of the mysterious Jane. Destined to attain cult status with similar time machine gems like Primer (2005) and Looper (2012), Predestination is a glorious slice of high tech film noir.
Street punk Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton) is going nowhere with his life, until he’s scooped up by sly recruiter Harry Hart (Colin Firth) to become part of the Kingsmen; Britain’s uber-exclusive spy organization. In the process, Unwin learns much about how to fight, deceive, and most importantly, how to deal with a global threat when said issue comes along. Unfortunately, the threat arrives quicker than anticipated when lispy super genius Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) unleashes a weapon that causes the public to become uncontrollably violent. Unwin, with the aid of Hart and senior agents Merlin (Mark Strong) and Chester King (Michael Caine), must overthrow the self-proclaimed pacifist Valentine and save the world like only a Kingsman can. Not much in the way of originality, but director Matthew Vaughn’s sleek take on the popular comic series is nothing if not extremely entertaining. Luckily, a sequel is on the way, set for a 2017 release.
Furious 7 – Release Date: April 3rd 2015
What initially started out as an MTV style remake in 2001 has shockingly gone on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest international franchises in The Fast & The Furious. Reuniting the all-star cast of adventures past: Tej (Ludacris), Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson), Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) and ringleader Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), Furious 7 picks up shortly after the events of the last film; in which Toretto and Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) took out baddie Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). This time, Owen’s big brother Ian (Jason Statham) wants revenge, resulting in a globe trotting showdown of high speed and hard hits. Full of the typical excitement and adrenaline expected in a Fast & Furious installment, the film takes on an added dimension by honoring the memory of star Paul Walker, who passed away shortly before wrapping his scenes. In this regard, the series exhibits a subtlety that often escapes blowing up cars and crashing buildings. A fun and poignant time at the movies.
Ex Machina – Release Date: April 24th 2015
Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has struck the lotto, so to speak, when he’s selected by reclusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to participate in a mysterious experiment. That experiment presents itself in the form of artificial intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander), an invention that Bateman insists must pass all tests of humanity before she can be considered a success. Consequently, Caleb and Ava begin plunging deeper into each other’s psyche, resulting in a dangerous game of deception and questioning what it means to truly be human. As the directorial debut of Alex Garland, screenwriter behind films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), Ex Machina is a dazzling dose of science fiction and Twilight Zone-esque levels of brain bending. The main trio of Gleeson, Vikander, and particularly Isaac, are spectacular onscreen, infusing an energy that escapes most sterile sci-fi and ensures the film’s future as a cult classic.
Uniting the world’s greatest heroes after they saved mankind in 2012’s The Avengers, Age of Ultron ups the ante with a villain born from one of their own. Billionaire genius Tony Stark A.K.A. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) accidentally creates an artificial intelligence that comes to the conclusion of human termination. As a result, Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must help Stark defeat Ultron (James Spader), the uber-sentient being that puts the team to the test with a few more superkids: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As a sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron is bigger on every scale imaginable, but writer/director Joss Whedon possesses such a magically light touch that the mood stays upbeat and exciting at every turn. Some may critique the similarities to the original, but there’s lots of fun to be had as the exhilarating capper before this year’s darker entry Captain America: Civil War.
As perhaps the greatest comeback story in recent memory, Fury Road reintroduces the world to writer/director George Miller and his Outback icon Mad Max Rochastansky. This time, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by the ruthless Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and forced to go on the run after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Eventually breaking free of his iron shackles, Max and Furiosa join forces on a desperate attempt to make it to the “Green Place,” trailed by a savage bunch of soldiers and psychotic mountain men. As the film that had spend over a decade in development hell, Fury Road is an awe inspiring achievement on the part of creator Miller, who hadn’t made a Mad Max adventure since 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome. But while prior outings suffered from lack of funds or physical limitations, this action masterpiece will go down as the best film of 2015, bar none. It may not win the Oscar, but movie fans know this to be true regardless.
Spy – Release Date: June 5th 2015
From the director of Bridesmaids comes another off-the-wall comedy starring alumni Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne. This time, McCarthy is deskbound CIA analyst Susan Cooper, who through some outlandish circumstances, winds up in the thick of the action opposite field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) and suave agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). The target: locate a nuclear suitcase before it winds up in the hands of the blatantly evil Rayna Boyanov (Byrne). Of course, in the midst of said plot there’s an agency payroll worth of fat jokes, wild pratfalls, and spy spoofing that has come to be expected from cast like this. Director Paul Feig, who also helmed 2013’s The Heat, has a knack for fun spirited romps and his hot struck with comedic muse McCarthy continues here. It’s also fun to see straight men Law and Statham ham it up and skewer their typically macho personas. Spy may not hit classic status, but this box office hit is easily one of the year’s sharper comedies.
Jurassic World – Release Date: June 12th 2015
It’s been fourteen years since dinosaurs roamed the planet in Jurassic Park III, but writer/director Colin Trevorrow returns viewers to the park that started it all with Jurassic World. Finally open to the public as John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) initially intended, the park is now run by uptight Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and returning scientists like Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong); who has been busy at work on a new hybrid dinosaur. But when the mutated experiment breaks loose and begins killing other dino-species, it’s up to Claire and expert trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to save the public and Claire’s precocious nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins). Fleshed out with solid supporting turns from Jake Johnson and Vincent D’Onofrio, Jurassic World is far and away the most fun Jurassic film since the original, packed with exhilarating set pieces and top notch chemistry between its two leads. It won’t win Academy Awards, but Trevorrow and company needn’t be worried. Also to add was the highest grossing box office film in 2015.
Me and Earl and The Dying Girl – Release Date: June 12th 2015
Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward, lanky, high schooler who pretty much bypasses the whole ‘friends’ thing. But when he catches wind that class member Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg’s parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) force him to befriend her in her time of need. Neither of them much like each other’s company, but an unlikely friendship develops between the two and Greg’s offbeat pal Earl (RJ Cyler); who enjoys spoofing popular films in his short time. Comparisons to The Fault In Our Stars (2014) are apt, but the beauty in Jesse Andrews’ witty teen script is how it dodges terminal illness cliches and presents a fresh perspective. Adapted from Andrews’ 2012 novel, Dying Girl is also a gem of direction, as sophomore filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon maintains just the right amount of drama and comedy to captivate indie audiences across the globe. Who can resist a film with spoof titles like My Dinner with Andre The Giant and Anatomy of a Burger?
Inside Out – Release Date: June 19th 2015
Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) is a young girl with five personified emotions in her mind: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and each of them work together as Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the midst of the move, varying changes and maturations on the part of Riley leave her emotions duking it out over what’s best for her and her rapidly changing life. Writer/director Pete Docter, who initially developed the idea in 2009, consulted many a child psychologist while researching the film, and the final product shows that attention to detail perfectly. Each emotion is vividly captured by their respective voice actor, and the sheer chemistry shared is intoxicating to watch for children and adults alike. This spell clearly caught on with the moviegoing public, as the film went on to score the biggest opening weekend for an original title ever. When all’s said and done, some Oscar talk doesn’t seem too outlandish for Inside Out.
Dope – Release Date: June 19th 2015
Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a high school kid living in Inglewood, California: home of hip hop, drug dealers, and his best pals Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Between composing essays on Ice Cube’s “Good Day” and dressing like a member of De La Soul, the sharp honor student has it all – until local dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) saddles him with a gun and a bag full of hot money. Now on the run with multiple gangs on his trail, Malcolm encounters stoners (Blake Anderson), neighborhood crushes (Zoe Kravitz) and rapper cameos (Tyga, Casey Veggies, Vince Staples) on his way to discovering what it truly means to be Dope. Loosely based on the childhood of writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, the film has nostalgic fun and style to spare, but it does leave much to be desired when the plot finally comes to a close. In falling in line with typical teen archetypes, Dope is mainly an exercise in exciting colors and 2010’s humor.
Ant-Man – Release Date: June 29th 2015
Following Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as the second of Marvel’s B-squad, Ant-Man manages to eclipse its galactic counterpart with even more laughs and clever fun. Recently paroled thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is trying to go straight for the sake of his daughter, but the influence of his heist buddies (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I.) proves too strong to ward off. Fortunately, an attempted robbery puts Lang in touch with genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, who happens to be in need of a replacement before rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) discovers the famed “Pym Particle.” Lang takes up the Ant-Man mantle and the result is huge entertainment in a microscopic package, aided by Pym’s tough daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Working from a clever Edgar Wright script, director Peyton Reed smoothly integrates more humor than the typical Marvel release, and the results are a welcome addition to the ever growing library of superhero success. As yet another franchise starter, Ant-Man is the surprise delight of 2015.
Taking on the long line of boxing dramas, Southpaw tells the tale of tough New York fighter Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal). As a Heavyweight Champ with a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and child (Oona Laurence), Hope retires in the wake of a serious eye injury. But when tragedy strikes the family, leaving his wife dead and his daughter in protective services, Billy is forced to get out of his drug addled hell and fight his way back to the top with the aid of seasoned boxer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). Along the way, Billy learns how to become the father and friend he never was while at the top. It’s a story that’s been told a hundred plus times, but director Antoine Fuqua clearly has a passion for the content, infusing plenty of hip hop flash and musical montages to spice things up. Benefiting most from the all out performance of Gyllenhaal, Southpaw is a solid sports drama.
As the fifth addition to the ever growing Mission: Impossible franchise, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and crew return for another speedy serving of espionage and jaw-dropping stunts. Taking over for Ghost Protocol filmmaker Brad Bird, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie puts the IMF team on the defense as a group of U.K. mercenaries begin taking them out one by one. Hunt, now a fugitive on the run, is forced to team up with mysterious British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) to overthrow the sinister forces responsible. Naturally, he gets some help from the usual team members Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). McQuarrie dials down the manic action of installments past in favor of a refined suspense, especially during the eloquent theatre sequence. But it wouldn’t be a Mission: Impossible without Cruise’s wildman stuntwork, and the opening airplane gag ranks up there with the best of them. By no means the best, but still an above average action thriller.
Straight Outta Compton – Release Date: August 14th 2015
As a hip hop group, N.W.A. is about as big as it got, scoring mass record sales and cross country stardom as the voice of the streets. But with stardom comes startling turmoil, and director F. Gary Gray’s expansive biopic fleshes out the group’s history with head-bobbing clarity. Starting off on the streets of Compton, the film introduces headstrong Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), street poet Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and music producer Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) as they come together with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) to create the seminal rap album of the 1980’s. Tensions eventually run high in the group, especially when contract disputes and government tampering begin affecting the music itself, leading to tragedy for some and new beginnings for others. Gray does a bang up job covering almost two decades in two hours, and the uncanny performances of the core members solidify Straight Outta Compton as a dynamite biopic.
Sicario – Release Date: September 18th 2015
FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a hardworking and idealistic officer with a penchant for finding the truth. Which is why she’s immediately recruited by a mysterious government task force to crack down on the war against drugs in Mexico. This secretive organization, led by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), are hot on the pursuit of cartel bosses Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino) and Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cesar Cedillo); and they’ll do whatever it takes to flush out the drug dealing flunkies beneath them. In the process, Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) witness corruption, cover-ups, and murder on the fringes of the U.S.-Mexican border. As a taunt modern noir, Sicario is a brilliantly sinister plunge into the murky morals of international governments. Emotionally directed by French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, the film artfully elevates corruption on both ends, punctuated by a show-stopping performance from del Toro as the wistful Alejandro. Excellent crime drama.
Highly anticipated ever since word arose that directing giant Ridley Scott would be adapting Andy Weir’s 2011 best seller, The Martian is an amazing journey of one man’s survival in the most incredible of odds. Starring Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney, the film follows a 2035 space crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara) who land on Mars, only to leave under the assumption that crew member Watney had been killed by flying debris. But the resourceful astronaut awakens, and with little to no supplies, begins constructing a method for survival while attempting to contact his Earth base. Damon is exceptional as the wry lead character, as is the rest of a supporting cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The premise leaves wide open comparisons to 2013’s similarly isolated space thriller Gravity, but director Ridley Scott cleverly sidesteps the self seriousness of the Alfonso Cuarón film and adds a healthy dose of humor to spice things up. Something that Scott, the man responsible for recent bore-fests like Prometheus (2012) and Exodus (2014), hasn’t always been known for.
From legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes Bridge of Spies, the riveting true story of crime and Cold War paranoia. Based on the infamous 1960 U-2 spy plane incident, the film follows American lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) as he is recruited by the CIA to defend an arrested Soviet agent (Mark Rylance) in court. Besides the usual court case, Donovan also must assist the Central Intelligence Agency in safely exchanging the Russian citizen for American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As the fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Hanks, Spies offers much of the paired down period tone that punctuated films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Catch Me If You Can (2002); but this time, it’s meshed with a staunch melodramatic edge. Spielberg overlays much of the high tension from 2012’s Lincoln and the results are nail biting even with the outcome being widely known. When it comes to the masters of yesteryear, the icon still has what it takes to craft engaging entertainment.
Victoria – Release Date: October 9th 2015
As one of the more buzzed about foreign films of last year, Victoria grabs immediate attention for being shot in a single take. No cheats, no illusions, no effects, just the masterful orchestration of director Sebastian Schipper and his crew to convey this breathtaking technical achievement. It tells the story of its titular character, Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish girl who tends bar as a waitress in Berlin. Casually bumping into four young men one night, Victoria finds herself knee deep in an amatuer robbery that turns deadly before the night is over. Ironically, however, the first half Schipper’s story plays out like a child of Richard Linklater’s “Before” films, in that Sonne (Frederick Lau) and the lead actress strike up a true spark of flirtation onscreen. As things slowly dissolve into criminal chaos, this tone is overtaken by one of slightly less sincerity and more flashy filmmaking. Though its inconsistencies do it in, Victoria is a brilliantly bold achievement that warrants attention from cinephiles everywhere.
Spotlight – Release Date: November 6th 2015
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning investigation, director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is journalistic cinema at its finest. Inspired by true events, the film follows the ‘Spotlight’ unit of The Boston Globe Newspaper as they attempt to shed light on the recurring allegations of child molestation by priests. As a result, reporters Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) descend into a world of cover-ups, corruption, and spiritual justification of the worst kind. Comparisons to seminal journalism films like All The President’s Men (1976) and Zodiac (2007) are apt, but this haunting account may even be better. Whereas the aforementioned classics thrive on procedure and calculated detachment, McCarthy and his cast are fully involved in the case, seeking emotional truth in correlation with the factual truth. As a juggernaut contender in the upcoming Academy Awards, Spotlight will surely rake in nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Picking up where 2014’s Mockingjay – Part 1 left off, resistance fighter Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) prepares to launch a final attack against The Capitol and tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Aided by Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and adult supporters like Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Katniss faces the toughest battle of her life – and one that could alter the lives of everyone she loves. As the fourth and final installment in the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise, director Francis Lawrence takes little to no risks and merely shoots the novel in all its CGI-laden glory. While criticism has been tossed towards Mockingjay for splitting the source material into two parts, the real problem lies in the dull execution of what should have been a rousing finale. Earning the lowest gross of all four films, Part 2 is a notably dull capper to a series that deserved better.
2006’s Rocky Balboa wonderfully closed the curtain on the saga of Philly’s favorite son, but a new story has risen in its place: that of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of deceased great and Rocky pal Apollo Creed. Raised as the illegitimate child of the former champ, Adonis leaves his cushy L.A. lifestyle and seeks out Balboa to become his mentor and personal trainer. Though initially hesitant, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) ultimately agrees, and in the process finds the spark he thought had left his life long ago. Simultaneously a sequel and a reboot, Creed is a textbook example of interpolating the past into the great cinema of the present, as writer/director Ryan Coogler lovingly meshes these two eras. Jordan is a sparkplug as the young man living in the shadow of a father he never knew, while Stallone gives his greatest performance in years as the graying Italian Stallion. Whether as a piece of a larger legacy or just a solo outing, Creed is a smile inducing uppercut of underdog magic.
Macbeth – Release Date: December 4th 2015
Countless men have portrayed Macbeth on the big screen, from Orson Welles and Ethan Hawke to Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier; so it’s only natural that one of modern cinema’s most intense performers, Michael Fassbender, tackle the role of the guilt ridden tyrant. Macbeth, consumed with jealousy and ambition for the crown, eventually succumbs to the wiles of his Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) and murders the King (David Thewlis) to take the throne for himself. But, as was prophesized, the guilt and paranoia of his unforgivable action eventually lead to more tragedy and bloodshed. Directed with zeal by Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel, this adaptation is a triumph of visual storytelling, wrapping a spectacular Fassbender in ominous hues and cloudy imagery. The plot is faithful in it’s adaptation, leaving all creativity to the execution of the cast and crew. Luckily, that execution is a bold success.
In The Heart of the Sea – Release Date: December 11th 2015
Based on the incredible true story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, In The Heart of the Sea details a New England expedition in 1820 gone horribly wrong. Aboard the vessel Essex, crew members Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) are attacked by a mammoth whale, leaving their ship crippled and floating aimlessly amidst the sea. Low on food, water, and shelter, each man must make unthinkable choices to survive the brutal drive of mother nature. Directed with reckless abandon by famed filmmaker Ron Howard, Heart of the Sea has a harrowing true story and dedicated performances from its stars (Hemsworth lost a sizable amount of weight for the role), but the entertainment factor is sorely lacking. Instead of purging deep into the souls of these marooned men, the film superficially glides across their horrific journey, leaving very little in the way of emotional impact. One would be better off reading the novel or watching 1956’s Moby Dick instead.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – Release Date: December 18th 2015
Horrendous prequels notwithstanding, its been over thirty years since audiences last witnessed the adventures of a galaxy far, far away; but Disney Studios and director J.J. Abrams have now returned with a new generation. Set three decades after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens follows lonely scrounger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as they dodge the attacks of the evil First Order in an effort to locate legendary jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But even with the help of old alleys like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master stand in the way of a Rebellion victory. Few films have carried with them such a high level of expectation, but Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan pull off the unthinkable and deliver a rousing return to form for the world’s most famous space saga. The Force has indeed awakened.