2015 in Review: The Top 10December 30, 2015
When historians look back at 2015, it will be known as the year when Star Wars: The Force Awakens shattered nearly every non-inflation adjusted box office record. However, although that was certainly the biggest story of the year, it wasn’t the only one. 2015 allowed Hollywood to forget the disappointments of 2014 and it didn’t take J.J. Abrams’ quasi-remake of A New Hope to achieve it. The year’s box office started strong with the surprising success of American Sniper, a movie whose domination was so unexpected that analysts spent the better part of two months trying to figure out how Clint Eastwood’s war movie could amass $350 million domestic. (Because the movie was given a one-week limited release at the end of 2014, it is “officially” designated as a 2014 film, but nearly all its gross was accumulated in 2015.)
The summer was dominated not, as expected, by Avengers: Age of Ultron, the disappointing (in more ways than one) Avengers sequel, but by Jurassic World. The latter film struck the right balance between nostalgia and current appeal, thereby attracting not only those in the age 13-25 demographic but those who were in the 13-25 demographic in 1993 when Steven Spielberg rolled out Jurassic Park. That pretty much means that everyone from 13 to 50 were in the film’s crosshairs and most of them (even those who usually shun multiplexes) saw it.
On the acting front, this was the year of Tom Hardy and Alicia Vikander. For Hardy, 2015 represented an opportunity to build on an established reputation and hardly a month went by when he couldn’t be seen in something. Hardy appeared in five productions during the course of the year including the critically lauded Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. Vikander, largely an unknown a year ago, left Hardy in the dust, appearing in seven movies with 2015 US theatrical openings, including Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, and (on the more commercial side) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Although Hardy and Vikander didn’t share a title this year, both appeared opposite Domnhall Glesson, whose four appearances included Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Gleeson joined Hardy in The Revenant and was reunited with Vikander, his love interest from Anna Karenina (he was Levin to her Kitty), in Ex Machina.
This year’s Top 10 was difficult to assemble. A number of very good films got left off. Even allowing for the five extra “honorable mention” slots, there were some titles that (had they been released 12 months earlier) might have made the 2014 Top 10 that didn’t merit a mention this year. 2015 was that much better not only in terms of revenue but overall quality - and not just in the blockbuster category.
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical):
#10: Mad Max: Fury Road: I recognize that I had this listed as #3 on my mid-year list (behind It Follows) but the passage of a few months and a second watching improved the film’s standing in my view. Fury Road hits the trifecta: it’s exciting, visually spectacular, and boasts a compelling narrative. Tom Hardy almost makes us forget Mel Gibson although, as has been pointed out, one could argue that Max is a supporting figure to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Fury Road didn’t make the biggest box office splash but its impact was strong enough that we’re likely to get another opportunity or two to visit this deliciously deranged world.
#9: Creed: Like Fury Road, Creed brings back a character who has been out of the cinematic spotlight for a while. The decision not to call this Rocky VII allowed the filmmakers the freedom to put the Italian Stallion in a supporting role this time around. A fusion of traditional boxing movie tropes with an existential meditation about how time diminishes all things, Creed shocked critics and movie-goers alike by being the best Rocky movie since #1. For my money, it’s the best seventh installment of any series.
#8: The Revenant: The Revenant is a powerful movie that needs to be seen once (and perhaps only once). I’m not sure I want to watch it a second time. This is not “fun” cinema but it is undeniably arresting. Maybe if I could fast-forward through some of the brutality to experience Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography or Leonardo DiCaprio’s sublime, career-best performance. There’s a lot to appreciate about The Revenant but this won’t be on my list of go-to films when I’m having a bad day and need a pick-me-up.
#7: Inside Out: Possibly the most adult film Pixar has given us since Toy Story 3, Inside Out continues the studio’s commitment to making movies that work in different ways for the children that form the core of Disney’s demographic and the adults who take them to the theater. Although The Good Dinosaur may be Pixar’s more “kid friendly” 2015 offering, Inside Out has greater depth and breadth. Easily the best movie released during the January-August time frame, it remains one of the full year’s best offerings.
#6: Sicario: My comments for this forgotten gem are similar to those that I made for The Revenant. It’s a tough, uncompromising motion picture elevated by a top script and two tremendous performances (Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro - he’s more likely than she to be recognized by the Academy next month). It also doesn’t fit into the “light entertainment” category. Unlike The Revenant, which at times has a languid pace, Sicario pushes forward with brutal momentum, often feeling like a conventional thriller as seen through a glass darkly.
#5: The Big Short: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shudder - all at the same time. Director Adam McKay has done the seemingly impossible. Not only has he figured out a way to explain the underpinnings of the 2008 financial crisis but he has done it without taking a professorial approach. Nothing boring about watching Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, to be sure. If not for Trainwreck (which just missed the “honorable mention” list), I would have called The Big Short the funniest film of 2015. It offers plenty of laughs but, like some of the best comedies, there’s nothing shallow about the foundation and, the deeper you look, the more this seems to belong in the “horror” genre.
#4: Carol: I guess I’m a sucker for a well-told love story, and Carol is one of the best to have come along in the last few years. Not only is the chemistry between the leads (played by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) superb but Todd Haynes’ moody, atmospheric direction makes the 1950s setting come alive. Compare this to generic tripe like The Longest Ride or cynical “erotica” like Fifty Shades of Grey, and the difference is readily apparent. Carol has a heart and soul and is made for viewers with minds.
#3: Spotlight: An exploration of investigative journalism of a kind not often seen since All the President’s Men, Spotlight is an endlessly engrossing look at the process associated with uncovering secrets and putting them in front of the public. With a quasi-documentary feel, Spotlight brings the viewer along as its characters clear away the cobwebs surrounding one of the most heinous cover-ups of the far-ranging Catholic Priest scandal of the early 2000s. Immeasurably aided by a fantastic ensemble of actors, director Tom McCarthy’s low-key approach results in a tale that grabs the viewer’s attention early and holds it for two hours.
#2: The Martian: For the better part of two months, The Martian was at the top of my provisional Top 10 list and I would have been happy to see it finish in that position (even though it just missed four stars). I saw the film twice theatrically and it held up beautifully on the second viewing. It’s a survival tale but unlike others (such as The Revenant), it doesn’t revel in gloom. There’s humor and heroism here. It is, ultimately, a feel-good story not a downer. Credit Matt Damon’s charisma and Ridley Scott’s ability to get the most out of a premise when he’s truly invested (obviously the case with this film).
#1: The Hateful Eight: The Hateful Eight has proven to be somewhat polarizing but that’s expected. This is not going to “convert” Tarantino-haters into fans and it may even divide some who have lionized the director’s past projects. For me, it’s a blast - the most hyperkinetic, energized 3 hours I spent in a theater all year. The thing I appreciate about The Hateful Eight is that I never felt I knew what was going to happen next, and that’s a rarity. The cinematography and music are wonderful and, as is always the case, Tarantino’s dialogue never feels like it’s just moving the plot along. This isn’t Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, but I could make a case that it’s the best movie the director has made since those two. Put it alongside Inglourious Basterds and call it a tie for #3 in the Tarantino oeuvre.
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