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.
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.
Theaters had their share of movie hits and misses this summer. Here’s a look at the five best … and the worst.
5. “Spy” (R): Unlike the overrated “Trainwreck,” this latest teaming of Melissa McCarthy and her “Bridesmaids”/”The Heat” director Paul Feig was by far the summer’s funniest film. After hitting the wall with her obnoxious performance in “Tammy” last summer, McCarthy returned to a character with dimension – a vulnerable sweetheart who can also talk F-bomb-laced smack with the best of them – reminding moviegoers of the very things that had us fall in love with her in the first place. Having a winning cast including Jude Law, Allison Janney, Rose Byrne and an uncharacteristically funny Jason Statham to back McCarthy up didn’t hurt, either. And who says writing, direction and casting isn’t important to a movie?
4. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (PG-13): Tom Cruise continued to ramp up the intensity with more real-life, death-defying stunts in the fifth installment of the “Mission: Impossible” series, which has vastly improved since the underwhelming original. “Rogue Nation” isn’t as good as its predecessor “Ghost Protocol,” but clearly Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie have enough respect for their audiences to give them a twisty, challenging narrative to compliment the film’s exhilarating action scenes. Relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson also brings a kick-ass performance and proper air of mystery to her ambiguous female lead, and Simon Pegg gives his funniest “M:I” performance yet as Benji Dunn, Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) techno-nerd right-hand man.
3. “Love and Mercy” (R): It’s only fitting that the biopic of Beach Boy icon Brian Wilson get a summer release, and one can only hope that it’s not forgotten come awards season in the fall. Director Bill Pohlad expertly tells the riveting story of Wilson during the “Pet Sounds” era (Paul Dano) and later in his career (John Cusack), where the tortured musician endured physical and mental abuse first from his father/manager, Murry (Bill Camp), and in his later years, from manager/psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (a haunting Paul Giamatti). When all is said and done, you can’t help but be affected by the fascinating, behind-the-scenes stories and heartbreaking plight of one of America’s greatest musical geniuses. Dano is brilliant as usual in the role of young Brian, and Cusack gives one of the best performances of his career as the elder composer/musician.
ng>2. “Inside Out” (PG): After a few shaky years for the studio, “Up” Oscar-winning director Pete Docter brings Pixar Animation back to dizzying heights with his ingenious look at the changing emotions of an 11-year-old girl, Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) as she relocates with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Docter keys in on five emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) – and how they become seriously mixed up when they tamper with Riley’s memories. The film works for all ages, although adults – particularly parents – will become weepy when being reminded of their own childhoods and the rites of passage as their own children cross from childhood into adolescence. Beautifully animated with vibrant, iridescent colors, “Inside Out” is Pixar’s best since their 2010 Best Animated Feature Oscar winner “Toy Story 3.”
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (R): Thirty years after his last film in the original “Mad Max” trilogy starring Mel Gibson, writer-director George Miller comes screaming back with his hair on fire to make “Fury Road,” which is easily the most energetic, hyperkinetic, visually whacked-out ride to hit the big screen this year. The film is anchored by a charismatic Tom Hardy as the new Max Rocketansky and bolstered by yet another risky, kick-ass performance by Charlize Theron as female warrior aiding him in a showdown with the skeleton-masked leader (a menacing Hugh Keays-Byrne) of a society of post-apocalyptic crazies. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a brilliant extension of the original “Mad Max” and “Road Warrior” movie experience as it captures the bat-s*** crazy tone that made the original films cult classics. After starting with low budgets with his original films, you can’t help but feel that Miller finally got the chance to realize the vision of the “Mad Max” movie he’s always wanted to make.
And the worst …
“Vacation” (R): While “Tomorrowland” was in the running for the worst movie of the summer with its preachy diatribe about how we’re all to blame for killing our planet, there’s nothing more painful than a smattering of dreadfully unfunny set-ups and pratfalls in a movie that shouldn’t have been remade in the first place. Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, who are generally likable and talented performers, should be embarrassed about ever signing up for this dreck, which feebly attempts to retrace Rusty Griswold’s (Helms) path to Walley World (the famed destination of the classic “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983). Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo sadly show up for cameos near the end of the film, which only make you lament what might have been if maybe they would have been more creatively involved. Any amount would have elevated this “Vacation” out of its comedic hell.
Runners-up for worst summer movie: “Fantastic Four,” “Ted 2” and “Hot Pursuit.”
There are five main emotions in mind, quite literally, that drive “Inside Out” – fear, sadness, anger and disgust – but it’s joy you’ll be jumping for at the conclusion of the movie, featuring one of the most original, mind-bending storylines to come out of Hollywood since Christopher Nolan’s brilliant dream adventure “Inception.”
Unlike “Inception,” “Inside Out,” of course is meant for audiences big and small since it’s the brainchild of Pixar, and it’s easily one of the best offering from the computer animation giant since “Up.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the director and co-writer of that Best Animated Feature Oscar winner Pete Docter, whose career with his third feature effort (his debut came with 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.”) continues to soar.
“Inside Out” takes place in the mind of Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias), a rambunctious 11-year-old girl on the cusp of adolescence. Her actions are driven at a console by five emotions in the headquarters of her brain: Joy (Amy Pohler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and those emotions are about to get very mixed.
Still adjusting to her move with Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle McLachlan) from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley’s mood turns from happy to very sad and distant when Sadness begins to touch her core memories, which are each contained in tiny spheres. If an effort to keep Sadness at bay, Joy and her polar opposite are accidentally tossed headlong into the long-term memory of Riley’s brain, leaving only Anger, Fear and Disgust to help the girl navigate through her new surroundings. Attempting to find their way back to headquarters, Joy and Sadness find themselves struggling to keep Riley’s happy memories intact, not yet realizing that every emotion – not just Joy – is needed to guide the growing girl through life.
While “Inside Out” is a great companion piece to “Inception,” the audience for it is much broader. True, it’s very thought-provoking, and the narrative may be hard to grasp for the youngest tots in the audience, but what they will see develop in front of them, as Riley revisits her young life through various core and long-term memories of her life, will entertain them nonetheless. It goes without saying, of course, that the computer animation is brilliant, and the film’s vibrant colors and action is only illuminated by the film’s top-notch 3D presentation.
Beyond the youngest of audience members, kids 9 and above will better identify with the emotional weight that carries “Inside Out,” and naturally, adults, who experienced these emotions for many more years, will be the ones most moved by the movie. Life is full of many emotions, and you’ll get to relive them all again here, with joy and sadness – adding up to laughter and poignancy – at the forefront of this wonderful moviegoing experience. It may even change the way you look at things.
“Inside Out” is preceded by the Pixar short, “Lava,” which follows the song of a lonely volcano looking for companionship over millions of years. Driven by a touching Hawaiian tune penned by writer-director James Ford Murphy, look for “Lava” – as well as “Inside Out” – to be mentioned early and often as sure bets to be nominated (if not eventually the big winners) during awards season.
“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl” (PG-13) 3 1/2 (out of four)
While the title sounds pretty ominous, there’s no question Alfonso Gomez-Rejon pulls off a masterful balance of humor, heartbreak and hope with “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl,” an irreverent comedy drama that tackles a difficult subject matter with surprising results. It’s easy to see how the film captured both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, bringing an independent filmmaking spirit to a film a major studio would be leery to make.
Thomas Mann stars as Greg, an awkward Pittsburgh high school senior who’s managed to stay invisible his whole life. His only activity is making off-kilter spoofs of famous movies with his “co-worker” Early (RJ Cyler), a neighborhood kid that he won’t call a friend in fear of getting too close to him. Greg inadvertently begins to come out of his shell, though, when his Mom (Connie Britton) demands that he consoles Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow senior who’s been diagnosed with cancer. First showing up out of obligation, Greg and Rachel become fast friends, and along with Earl, they experience life’s uncertainties as “The Dying Girl,” as Rachel is called, faces a tough treatment regimen in a bid to save her life.
Naturally, people are going to want to compare “Me and Earl to the Dying Girl” to last year’s teen cancer drama “The Fault in Our Stars,” but thanks to the film’s offbeat humor and tone, it couldn’t be any further from it. Yes, there’s a very serious underlying theme to the film, but the approach to the film is anything but ordinary.
Mann, Cyler and Cooke are all terrific in the title roles, which are bolstered by strong supporting turns by Britton, Nick Offerman (as Greg’s Dad), Molly Shannon (as Rachel’s Mom) and Jon Bernthal (as Greg and Earl’s favorite teacher). It may not be the easiest film to watch, but “Me and Early and The Dying Girl” is full of zest and a wonderful celebration of life.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11”and various Minnesota radio stations.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers