I have to admit, 2015 was a great year for movies. We saw a huge glut in horror films, the welcome ongoing resurgence of the anthology film, Tarantino smashed in to theaters with his new film, and audiences told Hollywood which type of nostalgia is genuine, and which is just exploitative crap trying to take our cash. Some nostalgia like “Creed” and “Goosebumps” were a success, while other efforts like “Jem and the Holograms,” and “Tomorrowland” bombed big time inspiring groans and eye rolls. Most of all we saw the return of “Star Wars,” the “Jurassic Park” series, and the Western. To add some pleasing news to the latter, Kurt Russell was a part of two of the most talked about Western entries of the year. Long live Snake Plissken.
As always our commitment to covering the indie film world has prevented us from watching every movie in 2015. Especially now with many films available on various formats in digital and physical form. It’s tough to keep up. But out of the large array of films we saw in 2015, these were the best.
GREAT MOVIES that almost made the cut includes the horrific We Are Still Here, the darkly funny and creepy The Visit, the underdog superhero flick Ant-Man, another Marvel Cinematic Universe installment The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the shocking and haunting dramatic thriller The Gift, the meta horror comedy adventure Goosebumps, the wonderful feature film adaptation of Charles Shulz’s comic strip The Peanuts Movie, the beautiful Pixar animated drama Inside Out, the gory Tarantino mystery The Hateful Eight, the sequels Fast and Furious 7 and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, the entertaining horror anthology Tales of Halloween, the gripping documentary Call Me Lucky, and Ridley Scott’s exciting survival drama The Martian. Now on to the Top 10…
10. Turbo Kid
Directed by François Simard, Yoann-Karl Whissell, Anouk Whissell
Epic Pictures Group
Release Date: August 28th
Buy It Now
“Turbo Kid” conjures up what’s best about the eighties and nineties and drops it in to a wonderful tale about friendship, hope, and fighting evil. Not to mention the directing team also include loads of gore, and a bunch of dark comedy involving severed heads and limbs. “Turbo Kid” is one of the viral sensations of the year that thankfully transformed in to a damn fine original experience where the end of the world is bleak and hope can only really be found in relics of the past. The Kid is someone who is basically on his own, left to fend and scavenge for himself. He finds a purpose in Apple, an enthusiastic and charming young girl who bonds with the Kid.
When she’s kidnapped by the evil Zeus and his band of BMX riding nomads, Kid has to conjure up courage and go to battle with them in an effort to save Apple. He also finds a reason to settle a score with Zeus once and for all, all the while providing the civilization around him with some sense of order and hope. “Turbo Kid” is funny, charming, exciting, and garners a brilliant cast of actors to take this seemingly small idea and turn it in to an epic apocalyptic tale that gives us hope for a better tomorrow. I’d love to see more of The Kid in the future, but if we only get this one installment, I’m happy we were able to visit this universe just once.
9. The Final Girls
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson
Stage 6 Films
Release Date: October 9th
Buy It Now
No other horror film this year gutted me more emotionally than “The Final Girls.” While most horror geeks took issue with the fact it’s a PG-13 spoof of the “Friday the 13th” movie series, a lot of people missed the point of what “The Final Girls” intended. True, the icing on the cake presents a clever and raucously funny spoof of slasher tropes, but the delicious cake underneath is a gut wrenching and absolutely heartbreaking tale about grief, coming to terms with death, and accepting that sometimes life is just so goddamn unfair. Taissa Farmiga is excellent as young Max, the daughter of Amanda, an ex-scream queen still struggling to regain her career as an actress. After a vicious car crash, Max is left orphaned, and is stuck in an infinite loop, revisiting her old home videos and clinging to the memories of her mother.
Max is mysteriously thrust in to her mother’s old movie and meets her mom’s character Nancy, who she gains a bond with. Max’s attempts to keep Nancy from dying immediately connect with her need to prevent her mother from dying, and then eventually facing that Nancy has to die in order for Max to move forward and escape the prison of her horror movie. Much like how Max has to eventually let go of her own mother if she hopes to move forward in her life. Never has “Bettie Davis Eyes” been used to such an emotional effect. “The Final Girls” is an accomplishment with top notch performances all around with Farmiga and Malin Akerman stealing the show, hysterical comedy, and a universal theme almost anyone can connect with.
8. The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
20th Century FOX
Release Date: December 25th
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s revenge epic is a nasty and mean picture that explores the journey of one man from the clutches of death as a basic race war rages on in the background. Iñárritu focuses on Hugh Glass, the leader of a group of pelt hunters that are ambushed by Native Americans. When Glass is ravaged by a wild bear, he’s left for dead by rival John Fitzgerald. Left to watch his son be murdered by Fitzgerald, Glass climbs from his own grave and seeks out Fitzgerald, braving the elements and battling mother nature herself to get his own form of balance in his life.
Iñárritu’s photography and direction are stark and brilliant, depicting the world surrounding these men as vicious and unforgiving while also beautiful and awe inspiring in their own way. Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Glass is remarkable, depicting a man who survives literally everything thrown at him for the sake of justice. Iñárritu never lets Glass off the hook, even when he’s in his right to avenge his son. Iñárritu fills the film with excellent supporting turns by Tom Hardy, and William Poulter, while also depicting another group of men being exploited and victimized in their own right, all of whom have little say over how justice is inflicted, and will eventually have to give their land over to the white man whose blood seeps in to the sacred Earth before their eyes.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by JJ Abrams
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release Date: December 18th
I think in the years to come, “The Force Awakens” will hold up more to scrutiny than the George Lucas fueled prequels ever did. That’s because while “The Force Awakens” uses its opportunity to introduce us to the universe we already know, it’s a jumping off point to what Disney and LucasFilm plan to be an ongoing series of films that they hope will outlive us. For a launch pad in to a bold new era, “The Force Awakens” is a fantastic and excellent entrance point that welcomes new fans, and provides old fans with a buffer course of what made the original trilogy so much fun. What adds a new flavor to this new series is the huge array of new directions and enthusiastic new hero molds that modern audiences can get behind.
Now we’re following a strong female warrior in the making, an African American man who decides to find an identity when he’s been programmed to kill his entire life, and a brilliant X-Wing Fighter leading the charge against the new villain of The First Order who happens to be Hispanic. “The Force Awakens” brings us down to the basics once more, leaving out the political claptrap, for a simplistic adventure about redemption, finding a purpose, and real regular people becoming heroes. I had such a wonderful time sitting through “The Force Awakens,” and I can only hope this is a new era of great films that can erase the stigma that’s been built around “Star Wars” for a long time.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: November 25th
How do you get out of the shadow of a giant and carve out your own destiny? And how do you do it when you have come to loathe and hate the person whose you just can’t quite escape? “Creed” is a masterful and wonderful continuation of the “Rocky” legacy that follows one of the crucial characters in the Rocky Balboa mythology and explores how much of the original series had its consequences and victims, too. The often beloved “Rocky IV” took with it Apollo Creed, and we learn he left behind a son named Adonis. Adonis is a juvenile delinquent prone to fighting to unleash his rage, but despite reconnecting with his birth mother and garnering a steady home life, he just can’t quite simmer down the fire in his belly, and the rage he feels toward a father he never knew. Michael B Jordan takes a remarkable leap forward playing the complex and tortured Adonis Johnson whose desire is to fight and become a world heavyweight champion.
To do so, he turns to his father’s old friend Rocky Balboa, who is now the stuff of legends. Sadly, “Creed” makes the idea of the “legend” an aspect truly tragic and bittersweet and now Rocky’s old trainer Mickey is merely a banner on a gym wall, while frail hermit Rocky Balboa is really just a poster on his old gym wall. What Adonis eventually figures out is that he doesn’t want to be a legend, so much as prove that he can take on life, and survive the harsh realities he’s had to live with. He becomes so much more important than a champion, and finds something better with Rocky Balboa, and the community of his old home town. Sylvester Stallone’s turn as the elderly Balboa is mind blowing, as he depicts Rocky as a sad and broken man whose entire life meant nothing as his real success: his wife Adrian, is now gone. “Creed” is a fantastic sports drama and one that should be held in high regard beside “Rocky.”
5. It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Release Date: April 3rd
Buy It Now
No other horror film this year left me literally squirming in my seat and filled with paranoia than “It Follows.” Not only is David Robert Mitchell’s horror drama something of an original masterpiece with a truly terrifying monster, but it’s a beautiful exploration of the loss of innocence, and the self contained world of the young and how it can be corrupted very easily. Maika Monroe is the unfortunate recipient of a sexually transmitted curse that makes her the victim of a relentless entity that stalks its victim slowly and steadily. Like the daunting reality of adulthood, and sexually transmitted disease, the entity of Robert Mitchell’s film is slow, merciless, and completely unbiased in its attacks. And once it strikes, it strikes hard and violently.
Much of the monster in “It Follows” manifests in to unusual human forms that mirror the desires and fears of our characters Monroe’s character is stalked by an elderly woman in her first encounter, and one character is even attacked by a busty woman in an open robe who proceeds to consume his life force and leave him a twisted form of his past persona. “It Follows” is a mysterious and enigmatic horror film that gives us enough information about the monster to keep us constantly guessing when and where it will pop up and how it will eventually get to the characters of the story inflicted with the sexual curse. “It Follows” stuck with me for weeks after I finished it, and I wanted to go back for more to unfold more of the complex ideas and sexual overtones that David Robert Mitchell so skillfully injects.
4. Mad Max Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Release Date: May 15th
Buy It Now
I literally had no hope and zero expectations for “Mad Max Fury Road.” When I’d come across a headline about its filming, I’d just wander off and hope it eventually came in to theaters to make no dent. Whodathunk George Miller would return like a bulldozer out of hell to deliver one of the best post apocalyptic films of all time? Not just that, but Miller introduces us to a Mad Max for a new generation as played by Tom Hardy, and he’s easy to accept since Miller retains much of the energy and charisma that made Mel Gibson’s original portrayal so excellent. Hardy doesn’t try to top Gibson, but plays the role with the same effectiveness, taking the character in to a darker direction as an anti-hero plagued with the ghosts of people he could not save.
Max is literally thrust in to a massive war involving young women fighting for their independence in a violent new world order ruled over by oppressive men. “Mad Max Fury Road” acknowledges its legacy while forging a new wave of apocalyptic epics, where Max is not just the hero of the piece, but someone who bears witness to the worst of humanity, and the hope that can arise when good people step up to help the innocent. Through watching the heroism and unflinching self sacrifice of hero Imperator Furiosa, Max manages to find a new reason to keep going, and hopefully find someone he can help much in the way Furiosa has. “Fury Road” is a remarkable film from top to bottom and one hell of a rousing action picture.
3. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Release Date: April 24th
Buy It Now
Watching “Ex Machina” is like watching two characters set a computer to play chess, and then experiencing the disastrous results of what happens when the computer plays the game and wins without a single mistake. Alex Garland’s much acclaimed science fiction thriller lives up to every iota of hype it accumulated. It’s a striking, brilliant, and very profound message about playing God, and what happens when your creation suddenly realizes it doesn’t particularly need a God to continue move forward and evolve. Alicia Vikander is a revelation as the enigmatic humanoid robot named Ava whose entire persona is incredibly questionable from the moment we meet her. Though she’s programmed, she’s also a machine capable of independent thought and reason. When Caleb is given a chance to visit world renowned CEO and programmer Nathan Bates, Caleb is offered the opportunity to explore the vast world Nathan has built for himself, as well as meet the marvelous creation Ava.
Nathan is asked to perform the Turing test on Ava, and before long what’s intended as an experimental meeting between a man and a machine, transforms in to a conflict of emotions and psychoses that leaves the circumstances between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava incredibly questionable and always fuzzy. Garland is wise enough to keep audiences enough in the dark, placing us at the same level as Caleb, who meets Ava and begins to form some sense of affection toward her. His lack of self-awareness becomes a serious liability, prompting Garland to consistently take a step back and ask us to review the current situation and whether what we’re watching is truth, or just a programmed function within Ava and Caleb, both of whom are vastly different entities, but in some form manipulated in to their meeting and interaction. Alex Garland is a brilliant screenwriter whose directorial debut is mesmerizing, complex, and filled with undertones about evolution, theology, and the blurred lines between artificial life and actual life.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Open Road Films
Release Date: November 6th
It isn’t so much that decades have gone by where in the Catholic church has allowed priests to roam free molesting and raping children, it’s that whether we know it or not, we’ve allowed them to consistently victimize the innocent without so much as a jeer thrown in their direction. It’s still a consistent case of victims coming forward to confess being sexually violated, and the general public either ignoring or dismissing the heinous crimes that have been committed. “Spotlight” doesn’t sensationalize the case of the Boston Globe investigating allegations of molestation against the Boston Catholic church, but instead depicts how ingrained this sense of normality has been programmed in to society where admittance of horrific deeds by the church is incredibly out of the ordinary. McCarthy and co. never let anyone off the hook, destroying the foundation of silence and long legacy of rape from the Catholic Church.
The reporters also have to take on the weight of guilt and regret when they realize they’ve been sitting on news of these crimes for decades and have yet to act on righting these immense wrongs. Though “Spotlight” is a seemingly under the radar and low key drama, it works wonderfully as a tense thriller where every move is crucial to the discovery of a key element in the case against the Boston Catholic Church. What’s worse is that the more the reporters dig deeper and deeper, the more this sexual violence comes to light, exposing them as potential adversaries for an institution known for ending careers and tarnishing reputations. McCarthy leads a remarkable cast, all of whom represent some form of personal involvement with the case, from McAddams’ character and her interaction with her devout grandmother, to Michael Keaton who witnesses how easily these crimes are swept under the rug. “Spotlight” is an important and brilliant drama, and one that should be celebrated.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Emma Donaghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus
Release Date: September 4th
Lenny Abrahamson’s drama had every opportunity to be a one note film that should have ended after its gut wrenching first half. Thankfully, “Room” is a masterpiece that maintains its momentum, focusing on a three pronged tale about the long lasting effects of a horrendous crime. Brie Larson is amazing as a young woman who has been living in a small room with her son Jack for a very long time. She’s been robbed of an identity, a persona, and individuality and chooses to once and for all use one of the only consolations of her violent circumstances to grant her ultimate freedom. From the small womb of the room they’re literally held hostage in, the pair have to somewhat adapt to the outside world once more, and try to re-adjust to the massive landscape and variety of people that they’ve been secluded from for many years. For Jack it’s a humongous shift in routine and rewiring of approaching life, to the point where even walking up and down the stairs requires some kind of instruction.
Larson’s character’s re-entrance in to her life is probably the hardest, as she has to face that many people moved on after so many years held hostage in the room. She also has to confront stark realities about how far the people in her life have changed and were forced to moved on. “Room” is not just about trying to break free from a horrific crime, but living through the aftermath of a horrendous crime, and how one is supposed to rebuild and regain their life when it was virtually stolen from them. “Room” packs in gut wrenching moments of sadness and grief, and an ending filled with immense uncertainty and a long road ahead for a mother and son who can hopefully prove successful thanks to their bond.
Guilty Pleasure of 2015:
Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
Buy It Now
People were much too hard on “Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” a fun and hilarious zombie comedy that really acted as a love letter to the sub-genre, while also unfolding some genuinely interesting characters to root for. There are some hilarious bits of gross out humor as well as some excellent tribute to horror of yesteryear with a prologue very similar to “Night of the Creeps,” and a trampoline scene that felt like a live action take on “Zombies Ate My Neighbors.” Hitting the ground running from minute one, “Scout’s Guide” brings with it an ace cast who derive endless laughter, including Logan Miller, Ty Sheridan, and Sarah Dumont who is an absolute babe as hard boiled cocktail waitress Denise, who teams with our boy scouts to fend off an endless horde of the walking dead. “Scout’s Guide” was a great time in a year filled with ace horror entries.
YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T SEE IT, BUT YOU SHOULD, YOU REALLY SHOULD:
Isao Takahata’s 1991 Studio Ghibli animated drama is a masterpiece of coming of age, family, and reflecting on a life that ultimately transformed young Taeko in to a woman constantly living backward. “Only Yesterday” is one of the few Ghibli films never released in the US and never on DVD or Blu-Ray, but has been seen by film buffs wise enough to seek out imports or television airings. We saw “Only Yesterday” years ago when it aired in America on the cable channel “Turner Classic Movies,” and fell in love with the gripping, emotional, and beautiful tale of a repressed woman seeking some form of expression, and reclaims a sense of her own individuality as she ventures back home thinking back to her childhood. If you’re a fan of mature dramas with complex characters, and strong women, “Only Yesterday” is a pitch perfect entry in a long list of masterpieces from Studio Ghibli and Isao Takahata. It’ll surely grab some tears from movie audiences when it debuts, finally. Check it out when it enters in to theaters in 2016.