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At the movies: Top 10 in 2015

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

By Tim Lammers

There surely will be some disagreements, but here are 10 of the films that made movie-going worthwhile in 2015.

10. “The Walk” – Robert Zemeckis’ direction is at its jaw-dropping best with this stunning recreation of French performer Phillipe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) “artistic coup” – a death-defying wire walk between the void of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The point-of-view shots on the wire were among the most, if not the most, intense scenes on the big screen this year.

9. “The Martian” – Director Ridley Scott returns to space once again – sans any alien life forms — with one of the most entertaining films of the year in this tale about an astronaut (Matt Damon) who was presumed dead after a vicious storm hits his team’s Mars expedition. True, it’s mostly a one-man show for Damon, but in between, the talented ensemble including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean help create an engaging rescue mission filled with as many laughs as there are thrills. It’s a real blast (off).

 8. “Legend” – Tom Hardy flawlessly demonstrates why he’s one of the best actors today with a dual performance as twins Ron and Reggie Kray, a pair of brutal gangsters who ruled the East end of London in the 1960s. Nearly identical in appearance, Hardy immediately establishes the distinct personalities of the Krays, making you quickly forget that what you’re watching are essentially impressive camera tricks. Proceeded by his kick-ass turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and followed by his frightening turn in “The Revenant,” 2015 was the year of Tom Hardy.

 7. “The Big Short” – Four groups of Wall Street outsiders stick it to the big banks during the housing meltdown of 2008, which feels great until you realize that even after the financial Armageddon, nothing really changes. Director Adam McKay makes an impressive transition from comedy to satire and drama with a film so slickly executed that it hearkens the greatness of Martin Scorsese. Christian Bale is the best of the film’s winning ensemble cast.

 6. “Inside Out” – Pixar’s “Up” Oscar-winner Pete Docter is back with this ingenious tale of how five emotions become mixed when an 11-year-old girl struggles with her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. Like “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out” is as much an emotional roller coaster for adults as it is a visual wonder filled with laughs for kids.

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 5. “Steve Jobs” – Michael Fassbender gives a career performance as the complex, socially-inept co-founder of Apple Computers, ingeniously played out during three pivotal moments of his career. Director Danny Boyle realizes his vision more like a stage play through Aaron Sorkin’s whip smart dialogue, where Jobs’ embattled colleagues (expertly played by Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and to a lesser degree, Seth Rogen) wrack their brains trying to figure the prickly computer pioneer out.

 4.”Cinderella” – Far and away the most beautiful piece of cinema in 2015, this Kenneth Branagh-directed gem is one of the few films this year to deliver on all levels. Sometimes emotional, sometimes funny, and always full of heart, “Cinderella” has everything from stunning performances, awe-inspiring sets, gorgeous costumes, an emotional score and the recalibration of a classic character to reflect the modern age without damaging the classic tale’s integrity. Most of all, the film’s important message, “Have courage and be kind,” is one that will resonate for ages.

3. “Spotlight” – The film’s subject matter is depressing as all hell, but this film about The Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Boston Archdiocese’s priest sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s is so compelling that you can’t help but be gripped by it from beginning to end. The film not only recalls the greatness of “All the President’s Men,” but also serves as a reminder of today’s sad state of investigative journalism (if not journalism as a whole), which has been shot to hell by the Wild West Internet landscape where every media outlet has to have the story first, even if the facts aren’t completely right.

2. “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Writer-director George Miller finally gets the opportunity to make the “Mad Max” film he’s always wanted to make with this hyperkinetic road opus that can’t be described as anything but “batshit crazy.” Tom Hardy wipes the memory slate clean of Mel Gibson with his brooding performance as the title character, and Charlize Theron gives a furious performance of the aptly-titled character Furiosa.

 1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Sure, it’s not perfect, but how often can a film match the tone of the original 37 years after its release, and the monstrous expectations that go with it? The Force is back in a big way thanks to the ever-burgeoning creativity of writer-director J.J. Abrams, and this seventh episode in the “Star Wars” saga serves as a big reminder why we love movies in the first place. “Episode VII” can’t come soon enough.

 10 honorable mentions: “Ex Machina,” “Black Mass,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Revenant,” “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” “Ant-Man,” “Creed,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “The Peanuts Movie.”

Worst film of 2015: “Sisters” – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler force an uncharacteristic brand of raunchy comedy down our throats that’s dreadfully unfunny and downright embarrassing. How this film got the greenlight to begin with, is one of the great mysteries of 2015. The “Saturday Night Live” alums must know where some bodies are buried.

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Interview: Sebastian Stan swaps supervillian gear for spacesuit in ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie in 'The Martian'

By Tim Lammers

Although he’s been in the movie and television business the past 12 years, the last four have been especially eventful for Sebastian Stan, morphing from good guy Bucky Barnes to the villain The Winter Soldier in the “Captain America” movies, and playing Sigourney Weaver’s son in the acclaimed USA Network miniseries “Political Animals.”

Given his role opposite Weaver, though, makes you wonder if the 33-year-old actor has a secret agenda to work with the people who brought the sci-fi classic “Alien” to life — including Ridley Scott, who directed Stan in his latest film, “The Martian.”

“I didn’t think of that at all. I should have said that to Ridley when we were shooting. I didn’t even think about Sigourney,” Stan told me with a laugh in a recent phone conversation from Toronto. “But now I should try (to work with everyone). It was a good cast.”

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Martian” stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is separated from his crew during a mission on Mars and presumed dead after his fellow astronauts evacuate the planet. Watney is very much alive, though, and with a base camp and limited supplies, must find a way to establish communication with NASA on Earth and find a way to survive for months if the agency is to approve a rescue mission.

Stan plays Chris Beck, who with his fellow astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie) must decide to defy NASA’s orders and commit mutiny by turning around their ship to return to Mars and save Watney.

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In order for the rescue mission to work, the crew members have to be 100 percent on board with the plan, or the already dangerous plan will put Watney in greater peril. Stan said that the reason that the crew seems so unified in the film is that the actors are also 100 percent committed to what they’re doing in their characterizations, which made shooting the scenes all the more exciting.

“It is about commitment, and that’s why it works with this group. They’re so versatile and not afraid to take chances,” Stan said. “Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena — everybody — they elevate you when they’re around you. It makes you realize, ‘I’m a better actor because of these guys.'”

Also making Stan feel like he was in the moment was Scott’s insistence —

just like his other films — that he used practical special effects as much as possible.

“We really had a set to work with — it wasn’t just green screen — we really wore those astronaut uniforms and the ship was very detailed and intricate, and built from scratch,” Stan said. “Ridley and the filmmakers constantly spoke with NASA to finalize everything, including the overall look of the astronauts. It always pulls me in more when I watch a movie and I know that there isn’t that much CGI in it. It’s crazy to think that ‘The Martian’ didn’t have that much CGI.”

“The Martian” was almost an exercise in wish fulfillment for Romania native, who wanted to be astronaut as a child. But Stan, who moved with his mother to New York at age 12, said, audience members don’t have to have their sights set on the stars to relate to “The Martian.”

“The movie has right amount of humor and suspense, and you invested when you’re watching the film,” Stan said. “It feels very grounded and there’s an everyman feeling in Matt Damon’s character, just because he’s so relatable.”

Stan, who also recently starred opposite Meryl Streep in the music-themed family drama “Ricki and the Flash,” is currently reprising his role as The Winter Soldier in the hotly anticipated Marvel superhero sequel “Captain America: Civil War.” Look for that to hit theaters in May.

Interview: Ridley Scott scratches surface of possibilities with ‘The Martian’

Ridley Scott on the set of 'The Martian' (20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers

As legendary director Ridley Scott found out filming “The Martian,” making a movie about Mars does have its privileges — especially when NASA personnel are major consultants.

That’s because while the space agency revealed to the world Monday that there’s running water on the Red Planet, Scott and his “Martian” team got early word about the discovery.

“They told us months ago,” Scott told me in a phone conversation a few hours after the announcement. “We’ve had several casual meetings with NASA making the film. They’ve talked about several big slabs that looked like white rock that appeared and disappeared, and actually what they realized it was, was ice. Of course, they just made the official statement that it was ice, and therefore, water. A couple months ago, they thought it was fresh water. This morning, though, they think it’s salt water.”

Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “The Martian” follows the arduous plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), part of a team conducting experiments on Mars when a violent storm hits and sweeps him away before he can get to safety and evacuate the planet with his fellow crew members. Amazingly, Watney survives and is able to sustain himself on the Red Planet, and eventually re-establishes contact with NASA on Earth. But with limited time, resources and potentially harsh, if not deadly, elements, Watney could easily die unless NASA and the members of his crew can defy the odds and attempt a daring rescue mission.

Starring along with Damon is a diverse ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie as Watney’s fellow astronauts, and Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis among the NASA personnel guiding them.

Scott, of course, is no stranger to science fiction, having directed such genre classics as “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” The exciting thing for him is, what is considered science fiction today with a film like “The Martian,” could very well be science fact tomorrow — especially since the science of Watney’s survival and the mathematics behind the conceivable rescue mission to Mars is in theory — and much, much more — quantifiable.

Ultimately, presenting plausible scenarios is Scott’s way of showing his respect for his audiences’ intelligence, instead of relying solely on visceral visual effects to entertain them.

“It’s always great when an audience can walk away, saying, ‘I’ve learned somethingR

17; or asking, ‘Is that true?’ That is cinema at its best,” Scott said, humbly. “We need to keep raising the bar.”

And Scott believes those visions have a better shot at becoming reality — but it’s going to take a collaborative effort.

“You can be optimistic, but you can’t ever assume it will happen if you don’t have the budget it would take to get to Mars,” Scott said. “I still question why it can’t be an international joint effort, and therefore, share costs. That would make more sense. You could even share the crew. You take the best of the best and off they go.”

The great thing is, said Scott, is that going to Mars isn’t about landing there to say we’ve done it. Before realizing dreams of living there, there is the possibility that Martian resources could be retrieved to help us here on Earth.

“We’re not mining there yet, but I’ve seen discussions of going to the nearest places,” Scott said. “The only practical ones, really, are either the moon or Mars because everything beyond that is a quantum jump into astrophysics and hibernation. Mars probably has massive mineral wealth and capabilities, but whether it’s practical enough to ship it down to Earth, I’m not sure about that.”

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Keeping atmosphere light

While the circumstances are dire in “The Martian,” Scott injects plenty of humor into the film and for right reason. Ultimately, life isn’t made up of entirely serious moments or humorous moments, but both — and without humor, Watney might not have the wherewithal to survive alone, Scott said.

“You have to sometimes take a humorous stance to help you through certain situations, and I think that’s what we see with Mark Watney. He has to take on a humorous stance or else he would lose it,” Scott said.

That’s not to say Watney isn’t serious about his situation. He very much is, and he has the courage in “The Martian” that harks a classic space film, Scott said.

“There’s a film that I like quite a lot called ‘The Right Stuff,’ which relates to courage — courage under fire. You can’t weaken and have to utilize your inward strengths to see you through,” Scott said. “Courage under pressure is in the film, but it’s a life lesson as well.”

Scott plans to return to space soon, in the cinematic sense, of course, with “Alien: Paradise Lost,” a sequel to his 2012 sci-fi hit “Prometheus” pegged for a 2017 release. After that, considering the director turns 78 in November, retirement hardly seems like an option.

To man, retirement means time for taking vacations, but truth be told, Scott’s been taking trips here and across the universe for nearly 40 years through his experiences as a filmmaker.

“Once I finished ‘The Martian,’ I felt like I’d been to Mars. People ask if me if I’d like to go there for real and I say, ‘No, I like it here,'” Scott said with a laugh. “But you really do feel like you’ve been there once you finished prepping, shooting and post production. That’s the beauty of filmmaking, you know. You get to go to the 18th century, you get to go to the future and you get to go to the present in some other forms. That’s why I love what I do.”

Interview: Jeff Daniels says decisions in ‘The Martian’ grounded in reality

Jeff Daniels in 'The Martian' (photo - 20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers

Given his diverse resume over the past 35 years in the film and TV business, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that within the past couple of years, acclaimed actor Jeff Daniels has swung so widely across the character spectrum. After all, how many actors can you see taking on a screwball comedy like “Dumb and Dumber To,” the TV drama “The Newsroom” and new sci-fi action adventure “The Martian” in one-fell swoop?

“It’s by choice. If you live in the Midwest with the business taking place on the coasts, you better come up with something that is going to make your career last,” Daniels said in a recent phone conversation from Toronto. “I’ve always been interested in characters and character acting, and certainly that’s the way I was brought up in the New York theater. You’re never told, ‘You know what you did in the last play? Do it again for us’ — but that’s what they say in Hollywood, where it’s about branding and image-building. You can get around that if you go there being able to go from a ‘Dumb and Dumber’ to a ‘Newsroom’ to a ‘Martian’ if you’re up to the challenge. I know I’m up to the challenge of making each one believable. I want you believe that I can be the director or NASA in ‘The Martian,’ but also have an IQ of 8 as Harry Dunne.”

“The Martian” stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who is presumed dead on Mars following an intense storm that hits Watney and his fellow crew members on the Red Planet. Defying the odds, Watney not only survives the storm, but is able to sustain himself and eventually communicate to NASA that he is alive.

But with the lack of time and resources to get to send a mission to save him, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels) is faced with the cutthroat decision of risking the lives of Watney’s crew to reverse course and save their fellow astronaut, or possibly leave the astronaut alone to die, 140 million miles away from home.

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Martian” also stars Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie as Watney’s fellow crew members; and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover and MacKenzie Davis among those back on Earth, agonizing over the astronaut’s fate.

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“The Martian” marks the first time Daniels has worked with legendary director Ridley Scott, who, of course has directed such classic sci-fi films as “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” The interesting thing about this Scott film, however, is that the monster or enemy doesn’t come in a physical shape, but rather an unrelenting force called “time,” and time is running out quickly for both Watney and the people trying to save him.

“The movie does a great job of making everything accessible to its audience, and that lack of time is a great example of that — time and the ticking clock, and we can all relate to that,” Daniels said. “It’s a universal theme, and when that clock does stop, Mark Watney faces a cold, brutal death in space. That’s a feeling that’s in the room of every scene in this movie. You can also hear that ticking clock in every scene.”

The interesting thing is, if viewers watching “The Martian” want a villain, they can at least try arguing that Daniels’ character is one because he’s tasked with a decision that could seal Watney’s fate. One thing viewers can’t forget, Daniels explained, is that his character is more of a realist, and the last thing he wants is to have one astronaut die on his watch, let alone five more trying to rescue him.

“Certainly someone has to make that call, and as Chiwetel’s character’s says, ‘We don’t have to decide that, Sanders does,'” Daniels said. “So he has to decide, ‘Do you let one die, or risk killing six — and by the way the risk of those six succeeding is 1 percent. It’s maddening, but I don’t think it’s the first time in government or military endeavors where one has to decide whether they have to cut their losses or not. It’s a tough call.

“You get to see a lot of people make tough calls in this movie, but as Jessica’s character says, ‘Work through the problem.’ I think that’s another reason the movie is so accessible to people,” Daniels said. “They will be asking themselves, ‘What would I do if I had to decide what Sanders had to decide?’ ‘What would you do if you were Watney?’ That really pulls us in.”