Come with me on a journey through time and space, to the world of 2015 –
When I looked back on 2015’s release schedule in preparation for this saunter down memory lane, I was frankly appalled at how dismal most of the year really was, especially since I actually once compared it favourably to 2016 when penning that year’s Top Ten. There was a lot of garbage and mediocrity this year that I had apparently repressed until now. That being said, most of the films on the Top Ten itself still hold a special place in my heart and in my film library, but everything else? Cinematic flotsam and jetsam. Incidentally, this was one of those rare years where I decided to watch (nearly) every movie nominated for Best Picture, so make of that connection what you will.
Let’s get this retrospective started –
10) Mr. Holmes. Sir Ian McKellan portrays an aging Sherlock Holmes the only way he should be played – like a cantankerous grandpa who thinks you made the word “wi-fi” up just to annoy him. Based on one of those non-Doyle stories made possible by public domain laws that Disney hates, this Downton Abbey-esque drama sees London’s favourite consulting detective face off against his greatest foe to date – his memory, which is rapidly deteriorating after ninety-three years of strenuous use. Sherlock-mania was still in full-swing when this was granted its limited release – BBC’s Sherlock hadn’t yet jumped the Victorian-era shark and CBS’s Elementary was still garnering peak ratings. In all, this is a sentimental take on the golden years of the world’s greatest sleuth that aims for pathos over thrills and succeeds without ever feeling too schmaltzy. Sir McKellan’s Mr. Holmes is a nuanced, touching, eccentric, slightly-mischievous grouch with a carefully-guarded tender side who revisits his greatest regrets on his quest to catharsis. This is a quaint film that is best viewed on a Sunday afternoon over a cup of tea with a shot of brandy stirred in with the sugar. 7/10
9) Straight Outta Compton. Having been cut from the sort of scholarly, introspective cloth that is more interested in ruminating on society from afar than grinding with it in the eye of a mosh pit, my musical tastes have always gravitated more toward the prog rock offerings of the 60s and 70s than the gangsta rap scene of the 80s and 90s. As such, before 2015 I was only passingly acquainted with Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and the N.W.A – which I admittedly always thought was pronounced “Nwah.” Sweeping, group-centric biopics like this are notoriously tough to pull off, because unless they’re helmed by Martin Scorsese they tend to be either 98% fabricated or a dispassionate highlights reel of the subject’s most infamous exploits. Straight Outta Compton manages to sidestep these pitfalls and paint a broad yet intimate picture of its magnetic but flawed players, whose spot-on casting should have won somebody an Oscar. Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson is a charismatic up-and-coming star who might actually be a secret clone. Anyway, Goodfellas in the hip hop biz is entertaining and educational. 7/10
8) Kingsman: The Secret Service. This film is an enigma. As an action spy comedy hybrid, it’s unquestionably entertaining, energetic, hilarious, and robust, but it’s also baffling because there’s no conceivable reason why it should be good. Can Kingsman even be called good? Narratively it’s a disaster, suffering from jarring tonal shifts, a scattershot script, glaring plot contrivances, and fundamental identity issues. What is this even trying to be? A sincere but lighthearted pastiche of spy films or a carefully-calculated lampoon of specific genre conventions? It’s not entirely sure and neither were critics, and yet we all enjoyed ourselves anyway because there’s something so endearing about it despite its faults. Maybe it’s Colin Firth’s poise. Maybe it’s the startling but well-executed church brawl sequence. It’s definitely Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp. If Kingsman has a secret ingredient, we’ll never know it in our lifetime – and that’s okay. This film is kind of like an enthusiastic class clown with ADHD – nothing he says or does makes a lick of sense but you like him anyway because he’s so damn charming and doesn’t take himself that seriously, and occasionally he’ll crack a joke that’s sophisticated enough to make you suspect he’s known exactly what he’s been doing all along. So, Kingsman is either intentionally ridiculous or accidentally genius – either way, I got a kick out of it. 7.5/10
7) It Follows. What happens when you have unprotected sex with someone afflicted by an invisible, unstoppable, shape-shifting STDemon? The answer is, It Follows… you relentlessly until you’re dead. This was a pleasant surprise, and one I equate to Nightmare on Elm Street for being a brilliant, concept-driven horror whose premise alone works sufficiently as its pitch. Just the second outing for director David Robert Mitchell, It Follows puts a unique spin on the tried-and-true horror trope of punishing teenagers for having sex while still rising above all temptation to exploit them for it. Mitchell also avoids conventional horror staples like jump scares, instead employing a Kubrickian atmosphere and eerie imagery to keep his viewers perpetually unnerved. It’s as if a terrible, nameless evil lurks just below the surface of every frame, ever threatening to leap out and grab you but ultimately settling for putting a chill in your extremities. This film is like a tepid bath in an unfamiliar house on a windless night – you’re not exactly comfortable but can’t quite pinpoint why. Suffice to say, I was wholly entranced, only breaking gaze to ask myself how this could possibly end satisfactorily. Well, apparently satisfactory endings are overrated – the Third Act confrontation takes a literal dip that holds It Follows back from true Great 8 status, but the journey is still worth the price of admission. 7.5/10
6) Sicario. “Susan, scrap my flight to Mexico,” is something I would say if I had a secretary, international business connections, or a job. Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro wage a brutal war on the Cartel in a taut thriller that consistently changes the rules of the game, even tricking you into thinking you know who the protagonist is until that final, explosive sequence. Thrillers of this caliber are always shocking on two fronts – on the obvious narrative one (when the script is well-written) and then on the real-world one (because it’s far uglier than we could ever know). Sicario is like a better, weightier Lord of War in that it serves to indict real political corruption and expose the shady behind-the-scenes machinations between the supposed heroes and villains. Open one filing cabinet too many in your intemperate curiosity to know how the system really works after we’re all tucked safely in our beds at night and you may be horrified to learn that the lines separating good and evil have long ago been blurred. Law enforcers vanquish evildoers for the sole purposes of installing more compliant ones in their place, scoffing in the faces of anyone naïve enough to cleave to their moral compasses or tout the immutable letter of the law. Sicario packs a punch and gives audiences much to mull over, like whether or not they should spring for that vacation home in Juárez. 8/10
5) Inside Out. Bing Bong, NO! Every once in a while, a story comes along that cuts straight through my jaded, nicotine-encrusted exterior and taps into the iron lock box that houses an organ my physicians insist is a heart. When such feeling-inducing stories aren’t select, saccharine episodes of Futurama, they can be expected to be one of Pixar’s greatest hits. In this fifteenth studio release, the personified emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust guide their melancholy preteen host Riley through a transitional phase of her life, teaching her to navigate her emotions while learning the value of the roles they themselves play in her development. The end result actually invoked a tearful reaction from this critic, with this entry’s opening line having been cried out at the screen in such anguish that I spilled half a glass of wine on my roommate’s formerly white cat. The true magic of Pixar lies in how vibrantly they humanize their characters – whether they be sentient toys, blue-collar working monsters, or, in this case, human emotions – and that magic is alive and well in Inside Out. This was a colorful and imaginative venture through the human mind that rendered my heart strings tugged… and rest assured that will never happen again. 8/10
4) The Witch. God bless my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies, which I recall only permitted this cinematic treat less than a week on its smallest screen to accommodate four straight weeks of the SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water movie. Then again, I suppose the Symposium just recognizes that our local cultural appetite seldom aspires for more than a warm Budweiser and a bag of jalapeño Cheetos. “The Witch was the dumbest movie ever,” I recall one lumbering associate spouting after its release, his troglodytic brow furrowed in aggravation at having to use so many big words in one sentence. “You know what’s a frickin’ good movie? Battleship with Taylor Kitsch…” Beam me up, Scotty. Anyway, for a film about a witch preying upon a seventeenth-century New England family, The Witch is peculiarly light on the supernatural aspects, instead relying on the cinematography, isolated setting, and sheer human paranoia to generate horror that works. In that regard, this is not unlike The Thing in Puritan times, and still would have been just as compelling had there not been a witch all (in fact, there practically isn’t). This is a claustrophobic, bleak tale that may be one of the best horrors I’ve ever seen, as it proves that when individual survival is on the line, there’s little stopping us from ripping each other to pieces. 8/10
3) Ex Machina. Nebbish programmer Domhnall Gleeson is summoned to the remote estate of trillionaire, narcissistic genius Oscar Isaac, who commissions him to examine an alluring humanoid robot he constructed for evidence of human consciousness – or so it seems. A callback to those “boring” cerebral sci-fi films of the 70s, Ex Machina is an exploration of the usual themes of humanity, awareness, sexuality, and gender roles, only in pristine HD. Snooty as I certainly am, I generally prefer straightforward stories as opposed to esoteric “What Does it Mean?”-style films, which can be blatant vanity-projects that demand you appreciate how staggeringly brilliant the man behind the camera is (though I do give exception where Kubrick, Cronenberg, and their artistic equals are concerned). This film deftly captures the best of both worlds, devoting ample screen time to articulating its Asimovian ideas while still functioning as an orderly, character-centric story for those who aren’t interested in impressing strangers on the Internet with their interpretations. Even the striking finale manages to appeal to two sets of viewers – those who crave a merry frolic into the sunset and those, like myself, who relish a feel-bad ending. So, Black Mirror: The Motion Picture is a slow burn to a dynamite finish that is breathtaking to behold and just bittersweet enough to fill my iron lock box with gladness. 8/10
2) Mad Max: Fury Road. What a lovely film. The best part about ranking Fury Road high on a three-year-old Top Ten list is that I’m under no obligation to justify myself for it. This is pure, cinematic excellence – you know it, I know it, and George Miller knows it, which is probably why he saved his richest, wildest bite for last. Just as The Road Warrior has the dubious distinction of being one of those rare sequels that surpasses the original in quality, so Fury Road may count itself a member of that elite club of reboots that are also superior fare. I realize the latter is a bold claim, but I hold that Fury Road is at the very least on par with the originals, especially the middle chapter of the trilogy. Having recently conducted a back-to-back rewatch of both The Road Warrior and Fury Road, I was honestly torn between which I love more. Fury Road is obviously smoother, crazier, and more stylish, fully embracing Miller’s established post-apocalyptic bizarreness and unadulterated insanity and amplifying them past the point of reasonable limits. The end result is a spectacle-fueled experience that is equal parts ridiculous, thrilling, and emotionally resonant. It’s a close race, but I’m compelled to name Fury Road the victor by the nose of a bumper-mounted skull. I suspect it’s a secret masterpiece, but until I earn the right to assign a Masterful 10, Fury Road will have to make do with a 9/10.
1) Krampus. You better watch out – for this criminally-underrated Christmas horror comedy when scouting films for your family this upcoming Yuletide season. Disheartened by the strife besetting his household, ten-year-old Max abandons his holiday spirit and his belief in Santa, prompting a chilling visit from the Krampus and his festively-themed goons. Dark, twisted, and mirthfully funny, this loving salute to Joe Dante is the reason Fury Road isn’t topping the podium this year – though it was again a close race. I have a soft spot for horror comedies (Cabin in the Woods, Gremlins, and Slither being particular favourites), and this one feels like it was produced in the 80s and then allowed to marinate for a few decades. Indeed, the spirit of Gremlins is alive and well in Krampus, due in no small part to its implementation of traditional puppetry and animatronic monsters, which may be Weta Workshop’s finest, creepiest work to date. The character dynamics and performances are strong, with Adam Scott and David Koechner actually proving themselves to be effective dramatic actors when given the opportunity. The audio mixing and editing also deserve praise, both for their ambient horror strains and for delivering the most ominous rendition of “Silent Night” I’ve ever heard. Though currently only clocking in at an inexplicable 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, Krampus is a Christmas classic in the making – just be mindful that you’re watching the one directed by Michael Dougherty of Trick r’ Treat fame, as there’s a slough of B-movie variants floating around that could only dream of a 65% critical approval. 9/10
Avengers: Weekend of Ultron. Marvel knows how to make a palatable 7/10, though this is becoming less impressive with each outing. At the time of release I gave this the usual Good 7 rating, but if I ever felt like rewatching it and reassessing, it might be less. Or more! You’ll be the first to know.
The Force Awakens. I liked this well enough upon release, but like Ultron I haven’t attempted a rewatch since. In light of Rogue One, Last Jedi, and my rapidly diminishing interest in the Star Wars universe, maybe I wouldn’t like it so much now. Halfheartedly, 7/10.
Regarding this year’s Osc-Noms – Bridge of Spies, Spotlight, Creed, The Martian, The Big Short were all fine, I guess. 7/10. (Shrugs). What more do you want?
Bone Tomahawk. Goodness. Just when I thought nothing could shock me anymore. True Grit meets Cannibal Holocaust isn’t bad – in fact, it’s mostly good… if you’ve got the stomach for it. I just don’t think I do. 6.5/10
Every auteur has a love letter to themselves at some point in their career. Tarantino delivered his this year with The Hateful Eight. I truly wanted to give this a poetic 8/10, but unfortunately, it’s a two-hour stage play stretched into three and shot in 70 mm, despite being set almost entirely inside a log cabin. 6/10
Spectre. Daniel Craig remains the pinnacle of Bond portrayers, but Spectre retreads the same romantic ground as Casino Royale and the same familial ground as Skyfall, just less effectively. 6/10
The “Partial Return to Grace Award” goes to M. Night Shyamalan for The Visit, which I suppose I’ll grant because he hadn’t yet made Split and made me despise him again. This movie is obvious but okay, held back primarily by its reliance on the tired found footage format. 6/10
Black Mass. From what little I recall, this is a dispassionate highlights reel of the subject’s most infamous exploits. 5.5/10
The “I Feel Like Calling Something a Turd Award” goes to The Revenant. This overrated snooze-fest starred the wrong actor. If it had been about Tom Hardy and not Leonardo DiCraprio it would have been a fantastic story. It wasn’t. And it’s not. 5/10
Ant-Man. I recall downing three beers, half a bottle of rye, and a glass of wine the night I watched this, but I assure you it was Paul Rudd that put me to sleep. 5/10
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The question I find myself asking people whenever the matter of whether I liked an MI movie is addressed is, “Was that the one with the Burj Khalifa?” I’m told this wasn’t that one. 5/10
The “How Not to Make a Comedy Award” goes to Daddy’s Home. I actually saw this in a real live movie theater. I kept forgetting it was a comedy because sometimes I’d go over an hour without laughing. 5/10
Maggie. Arnold Schwarzenegger is my hero and cinematic surrogate father of choice, so I’m reluctant to slam any portion of his filmography, even the truly bad chapters. Still, a movie about his daughter succumbing to the zombie virus squandered all potential and ultimately flatlined. This was unquestionably the year’s greatest disappointment. 4/10
Jurassic World. To quote my old philosophy professor whenever I asked him his opinion on something, “Just read my dissertation.” 3/10
The “This Sucked Harder than a Vacuum Cleaner Award” goes to Chappie. In this movie’s defense, I didn’t actually finish it. In my defense, it’s because it was a Roomba turd. 3/10
What do you get when you combine all the comedic content of both Get Hard and Spy? Still not even enough laughs to fill an Eddie Murphy-era SNL sketch. Both 2/10.
Skipped: Terminator Genisys, for the exact same reason I’ve never seen the Ghostbusters reboot or Alien Resurrection. N/A