We’ve almost reached the end of 2015, and it was a big year for movies. It’s been a year of long-awaited sequels, broken box office records, and some really fantastic movies. There was a lot to love from the movies in 2015, and a few things that weren’t quite so good, so here are my favorite and least favorite things from the world of cinema this year. I generally don’t do a “top 10 films” list, because I don’t get a chance to see everything, and many of the so-called “Oscar bait” films don’t get wide releases until after the year is over. Of course, the best part of 2015 at the movies was getting to interact with so many great people here on the blog, and on Twitter and Tumblr, but I lack the words to properly express my grattitude for you taking the time to read what I write, comment, and discuss movies with me. So instead I present my favorite (and least favorite) movie-related items from the year, comprised of films, characters, scenes, events, themes, and trends from 2015. And let’s hope 2016 is even better!
My Top 12 of 2015
1 – The Optimism of Tomorrowland
I could easily fill this list just with Tomorrowland. It’s easily my favorite film of the year, instantly jumped into my top 5 of all time when I first saw it, and my appreciation for it has only grown the more I’ve seen it. Brad Bird and writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen crafted a captivating world, rich characters, and an emotional story, all presented onscreen with superb acting, amazing design, and plenty of humor and heart. But what stood out the most to me was the film’s message of optimism. In an era where the trend in cinema is towards the dark and dystopian, Tomorrowland is the light that shows an alternative way of thinking. But beyond just being an example of optimism, Tomorrowland fights back against the growing darkness, with a sharp criticism of dystopian thinking, arguing for the importance of optimistic stories as an inspiration to positive change in the world. Nowhere is this ideology more apparent than in Casey Newton, the film’s protagonist and seemingly the last person on earth who hasn’t accepted its imminent destruction. Casey is the person who asks how we fix all the problems we see in the news every day, and who takes matters into her own hands when necessary. She’s a dreamer, who not only believes in a better future but wants to bring it about. I’ve written a lot about Tomorrowland, so check out my analysis if you want to hear more, but to me Tomorrowland represents a confirmation of my own beliefs, proof that I’m not as crazy or alone in my views as I might think, and is one of the most different films to come along in a long time.
2 – The Women of Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road was a film that shouldn’t have worked, a long-delayed sequel we didn’t know we wanted brought to us without the series’ big star. It was a triumph for a variety of reasons, from its insane stuntwork to the compelling world they created for the film to the gorgeous and balletic action sequences, all set to a brilliant, pulse-pounding score. But by far the best part about Fury Road was how little the titular Mad Max mattered when compared to the slew of heroic, complex, and varied women characters who dominated the film. Max served mostly as a witness to a story of women escaping their enslavement at the hands of a madman, rescued by the most badass chick in film history to be taken to a land of safety run by women. I never expected Fury Road to be so strongly feminist, filled not only with kickass women warriors, but a wide variety of women none of whom were shoehorned into some sort of storytelling trope. They may be victims, fighters, wise sages, or leaders, but that’s never all they are. The only thing better than so many fantastic women characters headlining the most intense action film in years was watching pathetic fanboys erupt all over the internet when they realized that this latest Mad Max movie wasn’t about Mad Max at all. In a world where long-awaited sequels are usually content to retread old ideas, it was refreshing and encouraging to see at least one example where a familiar universe was used to bring us something new. Forget more Mad Max films, bring me the continuing story of Imperator Furiosa.
3 – Two Faces in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
There was a lot to love in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as more than a few things to complain about, but the moment that continues to stick with me the longest after two viewings is the film’s final seconds. What I loved most was not the character reveal, but the contrast of the two faces in those final moments as a lightsaber is held between them as an offering. One face young, filled with longing for meaning, purpose, and answers, with hope for the future, the other old, wondering whether to rejoin the fight, filled with painful memories and reluctance to open up once again. It’s brilliantly filmed, and in the style of all Star Wars movies takes place without dialogue as John Williams’ score swells. After the action, explosions, chases, and escapes of the previous two hours, it’s even more impressive that The Force Awakens ends on such a quiet, emotional, and ultimately human moment. I may have had issues with some parts of this latest journey to a galaxy far, far away, but the film’s ending has me doubly excited for what’s to come.
4 – Two New Faces in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Speaking of faces, The Force Awakens was completely stolen by two new faces, Rey and Finn, who stood out among the effects and the classic returning characters to immediately forge a deserving place at the Star Wars table. While still filling familiar mythic spots in the story, Finn and Rey felt new and fresh, bringing emotional and vulnerability to this new piece of the saga. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, was especially great, both highly skilled but lacking in self-confidence, wanting to find a place in the world but feeling like she has none. John Boyega’s Finn, on the other hand, is a man who knew his place in the world but whose conscience forced him to cast that aside, sending him out into the galaxy without the security of the only life he’s ever known. But the best part about this duo is the way they work together as a pair, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their first sequence together, on the run from the First Order. They bring emotion to the action, lending tension and drama to their swooping escape in the Millennium Falcon, but then they awkwardly and excitedly praise each other’s skills in a way that feels believable from a pair of adrenaline-soaked young adults caught up in something bigger than the both of them. They brought real humanity to The Force Awakens, and it speaks volumes that they were able to steal the film out from under the likes of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and the weight of the Star Wars franchise.
5 – Sadness the Hero in Inside Out
Inside Out was one of the best and most creative films in Pixar history, with a brilliant script and fantastic voice performances. But what really sets the film apart is its use of the character Sadness. Dumpy, pathetic Sadness, fond of saying things like “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems” is in fact the hero of the film, not in helping her and Joy return to headquarters, but in helping Riley repair her crumbling relationship with her parents. Sadness is viewed throughout the film as a burden both to Riley and the other emotions, always in the way, messing things up, and ruining otherwise positive moments. But in the end Sadness’s strength finally shines in her ability to bring people together for comfort, solace, and understanding. Sadness is what creates empathy in others, and allows Riley and her parents to finally be honest with each other about their new situation and their feelings. It would have been so easier for the filmmakers to keep Joy as the hero, and have her return coincide with some sort of epiphany in Riley that would allow her to see the silver lining and turn everything into a positive experience, but instead they took the harder road and the result feels far more real. Inside Out is a movie that acknowledges that we all get sad, we all have bad things happen to us, and sometimes we’re stuck in a depressing situation, but that there’s a reason for all of the emotions we feel and there shouldn’t be any shame in being overwhelmed by Sadness from time to time. After all, she can be a hero, too.
6 – Ant-Man as a Heist Movie
I really didn’t know what to expect from Ant-Man. It had such a troubled production, with the departure of its original writer/director Edgar Wright, and it felt like the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a part of Phase 2, but took place after the climactic Avengers: Age of Ultron, making it feel like an afterthought. Add that to the fact that an ant-sized superhero is just kind of ridiculous when held up to gods, geniuses, and super-soldiers, and Ant-Man seemed destined to be the first true Marvel failure on the big screen. But I think we were all surprised when the end result was a funny, creative, and downright fun film that succeeded because it felt so very different from everything else we’ve seen in the MCU. Sure the cast and the script were surprisingly great, but what really caused Ant-Man to stand out was the fact that it’s a heist movie at its core, with more in common with Ocean’s 11 than with Thor or Captain America. The premise gave the film an edge, but it also gave it a reason to have a hero who can shrink to the size of an ant, giving him just the right scenario for his powers to be useful rather than silly. It’s far too early to tell how Ant-Man will mesh with the rest of the Avengers (though his fight against Sam Wilson was hilarious), but the film was the perfect introduction to a character that otherwise shouldn’t have worked.
7 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron should really be higher on this list. It’s one of my favorite films of the year (ahead of The Force Awakens, and Ant-Man at least), but for some reason it slipped this far on the list and I’m not sure why. It’s a phenomenal film, the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so much deeper and more interesting than anything that came before it. But at the same time, it already feels a bit like old news. With Captain America: Civil War just around the corner, and Marvel’s Phase 3 stacked up behind it, Age of Ultron looks more like just a bump in the road in the face of an advancing juggernaut. But to treat it like just another film in the series is to ignore the masterful writing and directing of Joss Whedon, who went far beyond the simplistic joining of superheroes and witty dialogue that sustained the first film. He expanded the roster of the Avengers, bringing on the Maximoff twins and Vision, while simultaneously bringing new depth to many of these characters despite it being their 3rd, 4th, or even 5th outing, all while keeping up the action and the humor we’ve come to expect. But it was never intended to be the snappy, funny superhero movie we’ve seen before in the MCU, instead it’s a film about damaged people struggling to find their way, something infinitely more appealing but not necessarily as suitable to run on TV over and over again and catch 20 minutes of before changing the channel. Age of Ultron is a movie to be savored, reflected upon, and digested, and just as Ant-Man gave us something different, so too did the latest outing of The Avengers.
8 – The Scenery in The Good Dinosaur
The Good Dinosaur was a fun, simple film with a good heart, but what made it stand out from the pack was its gorgeous, photorealistic scenery. Watching the film was like taking a vacation through the National Parks of the Pacific Northwest, and at times I wished the dinosaurs would get out of the way so I could just admire the view. Mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, grasslands, and deserts have never looked more real, and it helped drive home the Western feel of the film. How well the scenery will hold up on your average living room television I don’t know, but it was breathtaking on the big screen.
9 – A Real James Bond Car in Spectre
Spectre was in many ways a return-to-form for the James Bond franchise. After a reboot capped by the enormously successful Skyfall, Spectre took things back to their roots, and it felt more like a modern version of a Sean Connery film than the previous style of Jason Bourne-inspired action. But my favorite part of this classic-style Bond film was the return of the gadget-filled car, a staple of Bond throughout the ages. Not only did Bond’s new ride (an Aston Martin, of course) come with machine guns, a flamethrower, and an ejector seat, it also meant the return of an honest-to-goodness car chase to the series. The previous Daniel Craig incarnations have had some great action, but most of it has felt very un-Bond, but this chase (and the film as a whole) had a level of polish that felt intimately familiar to fans of the franchise. I know some will miss Bond’s rougher edges, but I for one am happy to see that the series hasn’t lost what made it special.
10 – The Beauty of Cinderella
Continuing in the new tradition of last year’s Maleficent, Disney brought us a live-action retelling of Cinderella, and it was, quite simply, one of the most lusciously gorgeous films I’ve ever seen. The production design, the breathtaking costumes, the lavish sets, the special effects, and an excellent score by Patrick Doyle all combined to make Cinderella feel like stepping into a dream. The ball sequence in particular, with Cinderella in her stunning blue dress dancing with the handsome prince, is one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen on film. But director Kenneth Branagh isn’t content to merely dazzle us with surface flash, as the beauty of the moment lends emotion to Cinderella’s journey, the images heightened knowing what it means to this poor, put-upon young woman, who has seen so much heartache. For 10 minutes or so we can forget that Cinderella must return home to her evil stepmother and stepsisters who abuse her, because she herself has forgotten in the glory of the moment. The film’s beauty draws us into her experience, when time seems to stop and everything seems right. Cinderella as a whole was a great adaptation of a beloved classic, but for a brief stretch it became something even more, a feast for the eyes that warmed the heart.
11 – Mars Pathfinder in The Martian
We all have had moments watching a film where something makes us laugh while the rest of the audience is left scratching their heads over why that crazy person won’t just shut up. (A great example of this for me is in the film The Core, when I first realized they were about to burst into a giant geode before the movie actually revealed it, and I laughed so hard I had to hide my face on the floor to stop disturbing those around me. What I can I say, I work with rocks all day and it was hilarious.) I had another one of those moments watching The Martian, a great film with a perfect mix of tension and humor, all capped by a fun and relatable performance from Matt Damon. After being left for dead on Mars when his crew is forced to evacuate, Mark Watney is forced to improvise to find a way to survive. After ensuring he has enough food to last until rescue, he searches for a way to restore communication with Earth, and decides to find the long-dead Mars Pathfinder probe (and its rover, Sojourner) and use its radio and primitive electronics to talk to NASA. I started cracking up as soon as he headed off across Mars on some mysterious mission, guessing what was coming despite not having read the book. It’s such a brilliant idea, and it’s so well executed in the film, just the sort of “science the shit out of this” ingenuity a guy like Watney would come up with, and really encapsulated the creativity and pro-science, pro-engineering, pro-exploration, and pro-NASA message of the film.
12 – D23 Expo
On a personal note for my final “best” of the year, I was lucky enough to attend the D23 Expo this year for the first time. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience, and an absolute joy to spend three days among fellow Disney fans. The exhibits were awesome, the panels lots of fun, but for me the best part was getting to see sneak peeks of Disney’s upcoming animated and live-action films. From Ellen DeGeneres introducing us to Finding Dory, to Randy Newman performing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, to the audience’s reaction at the first trailer for The Jungle Book or Captain America: Civil War, to appearances from Dwayne Johnson, Harrison Ford and the cast of The Force Awakens, Ben Kingsley, and Johnny Depp in character as Jack Sparrow, it was simply magical. I’d never been to any type of convention before, and the energy was infectious. I hope I can return in 2017, but if not it will be a memory that lasts a long time.
My Bottom 3 of 2015
1 – Jurassic World
I keep thinking I should give Jurassic World another shot. After all, I’m a fan of Chris Pratt (especially now that I’ve watched Parks and Recreation) and Bryce Dallas Howard, I think the design work they did for the film of creating a believable, working dinosaur park was very good, and I feel like the bones of a good movie with something interesting to say are in there. Plus, of course, there’s the nostalgia factor. And then I remember why I hated it so much. It was just so bad, with so many things that infuriated me. There’s the ridiculous plot element of Vincent D’onofrio wanting to use Velociraptors for the military, there are the myriad of plot holes, there’s Claire’s damn high heels, and the ludicrous, fan-service ending. But even beyond that is the fact that they made a sequel to a film with deep, interesting things to say about the ethics and morality of science and made a film that ignored all of that. They took Jurassic Park’s most compelling aspect and discarded it in favor of more dinosaur carnage, explosions, and action that is never grounded enough to be interesting. Add in the fact that they try to have their cake and eat it too by mocking product placement and corporate sponsorship while simultaneously being stuffed to the gills with it (Samsung! Pandora! Margaritaville!), and I’m convinced I’ve made the right choice by sticking with just one viewing. There was so much potential in Jurassic World, which makes the end result that much more disappointing.
2 – Everything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens outside of the movie
I may have enjoyed The Force Awakens very much, but boy am I tired of hearing about it and seeing it everywhere. The media blitz for it has just been overwhelming, with Star Wars-branded items to be found in every corner of every store (BB-8 oranges, for pete’s sake!). But even beyond the seemingly endless commercial tie-ins, by the time the film came out I was so tired of the discussion of it. The breathless obsession over every scrap of news, every image, and every clip online has been exhausting to watch. Each frame of the trailers has been analyzed, dissected, put under a microscope, and debated in an attempt to uncover one more secret scrap of information about the film. It’s an aspect of fandoms in general of which I’ve never been a fan, even if I’ve taken part from time to time, but it reached a fever pitch with The Force Awakens that was off-putting to me. I’m not a spoilerphobe, but I also don’t feel the need to learn as much as I can before even getting a chance to see the film. And I definitely don’t want to take characters or moments we have a small glimpse of and craft my own interpretation before the film is even released, I’d rather wait and see how they fit into the story. But by the time The Force Awakens premiered, everyone had an opinion on Kylo Ren, his motivations and his methods, had decided that Rey would be the single greatest sci-fi heroine of all time, had worked out which newcomer was the child of which older character (Finn is Lando’s son!), and was already setting up romantic pairings and writing fanfiction. Some of those assumptions, deductions, and fan creations may have been correct, but when we reach a place where the film itself becomes superfluous because we’ve already written it in our heads based on mere glimpses it’s become time to dial things back a bit. I’m hoping the mania calms down a bit for the next few films in the series, now that the anticipation of Star Wars’ return is out of our system.
And, of course, there’s also the fact that the excitement over The Force Awakens provided a new opportunity for everyone to dust off their scorn for the prequel trilogy and to drag George Lucas through the mud again. He’s been very gracious (and of course was very well paid) in giving up his universe for other people to play around in, and about the fact that his story was discarded in favor of something more commercial and more interested in fan-service, and I hate to see some of the vitriol that has been slung his way. Love (as I do) or hate the prequels, you have to admire the fact that Lucas stuck to his guns and told the story he wanted to tell regardless of public opinion. He may have his flaws as a writer or director, but he’s a man of vision, and he crafted a story and a world that is almost universally beloved, and it saddens me to see the way he’s treated for it. George Lucas did not ruin your childhood, let’s not ruin his 70s by using the success of the new films as a new way to trash him.
3 – Joss Whedon’s disappearance
Speaking of directors and harassment, let’s talk about Joss Whedon for a moment. One of my favorite writers and directors, Joss has disappeared since the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. He quit Twitter, saying he’s writing and doesn’t want deal with the distraction, but we’ve been given no hint of what he might be working on (beyond a comic book called Twist). Joss oversaw Marvel’s Phase 2, from The Avengers through Age of Ultron, acting as a Godfather of sorts to the films that came between (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention Agents of SHIELD), and he’s made it clear that the five years he spent in the MCU have taken a toll. Add in his statements about some of the changes to Age of Ultron forced on him by the studio (sacrificing part of Thor’s vision quest in order to keep Hawkeye’s farm in the film), and it’s easy to see why he wanted to step away. And I’m sure he’ll be back, probably with something surprising like his brilliant Much Ado About Nothing. But what really bothered me was the reaction of a small but vocal section of the fandom to aspects of Age of Ultron. There was a lot of hate and anger directed his way over the choice to hint at a romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, and especially to her description of herself as a “monster” because of having been sterilized as part of her training. (Clearly, Joss doesn’t think she’s a monster, but the scene is instead a commentary on society’s sexist and misguided way of judging a woman’s worth by her reproductive abilities and choices. But that’s a topic for another time.) Joss quit Twitter right as the online reaction to those parts of the movie hit their peak, making it seem like he was driven away by angry fans, which probably isn’t as true as it looked at first glance. Regardless, it’s been a quiet 6 months from Joss, and I can’t wait to have him back, preferably with something unexpected (and feminist, of course) up his sleeve. I hope 2016 brings us new Joss shows, movies, comic books, and whatever else his unique mind sees fit to deliver.
Now it’s your turn! What were your favorite and least favorite film-related things of 2015? Favorite movies, performances, songs or scores? Favorite news or trailers? Favorite scenes or quotes? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for a great 2015!