Happy New Year everybody! Is it too late to say Happy New Year? I thought March was the cut-off point. Anyways, here’s a list of films I enjoyed in 2015*. Beware of SPOILERS; there’s plenty of ’em.
* Just to let you know, there’s a couple titles that might have made the list but that I didn’t get a chance to see yet, like THE HATEFUL EIGHT, CREED and THE REVENANT.
Let’s be honest, 2015 was not a great year for films. It did have a lot of potential to be great; I remember looking at the list of upcoming titles early in the year and feeling almost dizzy at the amount of promising stuff. MAD MAX, AGE OF ULTRON, FURIOUS 7, SPECTRE, STAR WARS, the list goes on. Sadly though, almost all of it ended up disappointing me to varying degrees. I think we can all agree that SPECTRE, the most pathetic attempt at a James Bond film since DIE ANOTHER DAY, is easily the worst offender of the bunch. However, when it comes to ROGUE NATION (RT rating of 93%) I seem to be one of only a handful of people willing to call it out on its bullshit.
I’m not saying it’s a terrible film. It’s got a lot going for it. Tom Cruise is as good as he’s ever been, Rebecca Ferguson should right now be offered every female superhero role in the world if there’s any justice, and even at 130 minutes the film is never boring, because there’s just so much action. Unfortunately, that’s also where the disappointment comes in. Yes, there’s a lot of action, but it’s all poorly executed, extremely generic stuff. I honestly feel bad for Cruise. Can you believe the things that guy did for real, just to make the stunts seem more convincing? Hold his breath for six minutes, hang on the side of an actual airplane while it’s taking off… that shit is incredible. Which makes it all the sadder that every one of those stunts is delivered on screen without generating any tension or excitement whatsoever. In the end, most of the action scenes just seem like lifeless, generic pieces of filler. What a waste.
ROGUE NATION, when it comes down to it, is just a fairly pleasant action film. I do still enjoy films like that, but in a better year this would not have come close to making my top ten.
A small film, but an utterly engaging one, filled with great performances. Oscar Isaac is completely convincing as a manipulative asshole millionaire (which is even more impressive after seeing STAR WARS, where he is just as convincing playing a flawless hero) but the main attraction is Alicia Vikander. She’s been everywhere this year, and rightfully so. A great actress with a stunningly beautiful face and a voice I want to record and listen to while I fall asleep, every night for the rest of my life.
The climax did let the whole thing down a bit though. Throughout the film so many different explanations are suggested for the mystery that is central to the story, that the one they end up going with could not live up to some of the more interesting ones that are dismissed along the way.
This one’s got some powerful, tense moments, plus one of my favorite performances of the year. Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro may be just a supporting character, but it’s his story that ends up packing the biggest punch and he rules the screen whenever he’s on it. By contrast, Emily Blunt seems a bit useless. She’s a great actress but the story is not about her, even though she’s the supposed lead. She’s always on the sidelines, always catching up. Some of the decisions she makes are downright stupid, or maybe it’s just that we don’t get enough information to understand where she’s coming from.
Still, this is a dark, gripping film, supported by a pulsating ambient score that really manages to get under your skin at times. I’m not sure whether I’ll revisit this one often (or at all), but I’m very glad I saw it at the cinema.
7: FURIOUS 7
Like ROGUE NATION, this is another one that didn’t exactly deliver as promised. Prior to release, director James Wan described the film as being a 70’s style revenge thriller in the Fast & Furious universe that could be summarized as follows: “Vin Diesel & Bros VS Jason Statham.” Instead, what we got was: “Vin Diesel & Bros go on missions for the CIA while Jason Statham shows up from time to time to shoot a gun or maybe punch someone, then goes away again for twenty minutes. By the way, he doesn’t even play the main villain, you guys are cool with that, right?”
So yeah, there’s not nearly enough Statham in here for my liking. He’s great when he does appear though, and most of the action in the film works. Or at least it does in the extended cut, which is on the blu-ray. That cut seemed to have much more breathing room in the action scenes, longer shots to improve the flow and overall comprehensibility. A good example is the opening scene, where Statham casually strolls through a hospital in one long take, showing the damage he caused by blasting through it earlier when he came to get his brother. In the theatrical version they speed up the footage every few seconds, rushing through the mayhem, not allowing you to savor it. The extended cut shows the same scene without speed-ramping, giving you much more room to bask in its awesomeness.
An even better example is when Statham fights The Rock. In the theatrical cut, the editing is all weird. When The Rock asks Statham what he’s doing in his office, the very first thing Statham says is: “Like I said… I’m here for the team that crippled my brother.” Wait, what? Like you said? You didn’t say anything! Don’t patronize me, motherfucker, I’ll kill you! Then the fight starts and it’s completely cut to ribbons in the editing room, every shot so short you hardly understand what’s happening. Imagine my surprise when I watched the extended cut and behold, suddenly their conversation makes sense, the fight has more build-up and the shots are held long enough for you to actually register all their moves. It’s such a big improvement that I can’t figure out why they didn’t just release this version in the first place.
Besides the lack of Statham the film is also hurt by being too long and by having a chaotic, underwhelming climax. Still, on the way there it casually delivers one of the best action sequences of the year (the assault on the armored truck in the mountains) and I must admit I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for this franchise and its asinine characters. In the end, even though it’s a long way from being the film I truly wanted it to be, I greatly enjoyed FURIOUS 7. It’s a good time, funny and spectacular and highly rewatchable… as long as you stick to the extended cut.
6: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
The original AVENGERS from 2012 is widely considered to be a perfect blockbuster. It was a massive succes, both critically and financially, the likes of which only come around every decade or so (bascially, whenever James Cameron decides to drop another film). And even before that Joss Whedon could do no wrong. There’s no words for how much I love BUFFY, ANGEL, FIREFLY and SERENITY. What I’m trying to say here, is that there may have been a tiny bit of pressure on the dude’s shoulders to deliver yet another work of absolute brilliance. Only this time… he didn’t quite manage it.
For starters, the story is so dense that even the second time you watch it, it’s easy to miss little nuggets of super important information. Some stuff feels weirdly rushed, like when Thor goes into a cave for three seconds and suddenly seems to know exactly what needs to be done to defeat Ultron. Speaking of the big evil robot, he was a bit underwhelming, wasn’t he? Certainly we were all expecting a bit more based on Whedon’s early descriptions of the character and the fact that he got the great James Spader to play him. In the end Ultron was just a bit too jokey and not as menacing as he should have been.
Apparently the flaws I just mentioned were enough to ruin many people’s viewing experiences, which is a shame, but they sure didn’t ruin mine. The joy of seeing these great characters, played by these great actors, all together on screen again is simply too powerful for that. I just can’t get enough of these guys interacting together, spouting Whedon’s witty dialogue, especially when they’re not punching CGI robots or collapsing CGI buildings, but when they’re just shooting the shit at a party or laying low at Hawkeye’s farm. That’s when the old Whedon magic shines, making those scenes my favorite parts of the whole film. Although I got far less enjoyment out of the action bits, they did still get my blood pumping on occasion. That long shot at the end when our heroes are all fighting together against evil, heroic music playing underneath? Goosebumps!
So fuck you, internet. AGE OF ULTRON is good. It may not be up to Whedon’s usual level of quality, but by all reports this was a gruelling project for the man. Apparently there was lots of tension between him and Marvel, resulting in him looking exhausted in every interview he gave on the film, and at one point literally stating that making this movie “broke” him. Knowing that, I’d say the end result is pretty damn impressive.
5: NO ESCAPE
If you haven’t heard of NO ESCAPE, it’s the one where Owen Wilson moves to an unnamed Fourth World country with his family to go work for a big Western company. It should have been a good deal, but almost immediately upon his arrival all hell breaks loose. It turns out there’s been a coup and the locals are heading to the streets to duke it out with the police. Not only that, hunting season is opened on all Westerners, especially those working for Wilson’s company because, he quickly finds out, it’s fucking evil and has put many of the locals out of a job. What follows is a bloodbath, the streets are swarming with angry dudes and they’re slaughtering any foreigners they can get their hands on. Now Wilson needs to get his family across the border to Vietnam or see them suffer a fate too horrible to imagine.
Wow, talk about an underrated film! I’m not sure why so few people enjoyed this ultra-effective survival horror flick (current RT score: 46%) but I had an absolute blast with it. Maybe it’s because I’ve got two little girls myself, just like Owen Wilson does in the film (although his are a little older than mine) but man, I was right there with him during the entire ordeal, heart racing, on the edge of my seat. There’s that scene where he’s forced to throw his girls from the roof of a building just to have a chance at escaping certain death, or the one where they have to stay hidden and quiet and his youngest daughter has to pee, and he tells her to just go in her pants… “But… I’m not a baby!” Soul-crushing stuff.
And then in the end, when they’re already safe, NO ESCAPE unexpectedly kicked me in the nuts one last time by having Owen finally tell the story of his daughter’s difficult birth. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried a few tears during that, and I don’t cry easily. This year, INSIDE OUT is the only other film that managed it, but again – daughters. That stuff just gets to me. If you like to be put through the emotional wringer every once in a while, and if you enjoy watching Pierce Brosnan being a bigger badass than he ever was as Bond, then you really should check out this underrated gem.
One last thing: I don’t agree at all with the accusations of racism thrown at this film by critics. Sure, the story is about hordes of mindless, blood-thirsty Asians who specifically want to slaughter a wholesome family of American caucasians – but this film was made for Western audiences and it’s a horrorfilm, its job is to scare its target audience. I bet a lot of Western people, maybe even without realizing it, have a deep fear of cultures they don’t understand. NO ESCAPE capitalizes on this, tweaking and exaggerating its premise to create the perfect nightmare scenario for the Western viewer. As with anything, you can go out of your way to feel offended by this film – maybe you even think it’s the only socially acceptable response. In my opinion though, that’s a silly and tiresome way to go through life. Just enjoy a good film when it comes along. There’s not enough of them as it is.
This one surprised me. No way had I ever thought this was going to be good after everything that happened on the way to it getting released. Just read my review if you want to know the details; what matters is ANT-MAN had no right whatsoever being actually good, let alone ending up as one my favorite Marvel films. It’s the vibe of the thing, it’s so easy-going, funny and charming. The story has a relatively small scale and it’s better for it, as it makes everything feel more personal and engaging. Plus, the cast is just great. Well, maybe not Evangeline Lilly, but she had a bit of a thankless role so maybe I shouldn’t judge too harshly.
ANT-MAN is a film I can watch over and over and over again. I’ve seen it three times already; I’d like to watch it again right now. Can’t think of anything more positive to say than that.
3: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
This is the big one, the one that really makes me feel like a grumpy, nitpicking douchebag. By all rights, I should have been in love with this movie just like the entire rest of the world. Do you remember that first trailer? Damn thing had me erect for weeks. It couldn’t have looked and sounded any better; there was no film I wanted to see more badly than this one. And then I did see it. And I thought it was pretty good.
These are some things stated by critics in their reviews:
“Usually if you’re still watching a movie for the first time, it’s kinda premature to start thinking “this is a masterpiece.” Not so with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. This is a movie that will transform people’s brains.”
“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is an instant action classic. This film will be talked about for years – decades.”
“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – A Modern Action Masterpiece.”
And then there’s me:
“It’s pretty good, you guys.”
Honestly, I do like the film a lot. There’s so much to enjoy, from the performances of Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, to the blissful simplicity of the story and its sheer dedication to delivering vehicular mayhem. I have nothing but respect for director George Miller, who’s in his seventies but delivers the type of film a young, hungry director would make (or, more likely, try to make). What an insane collection of messed up looking vehicles, costumes and characters. The level of world-building on show here is just epic, there’s no other word that does it justice. Also, it’s gotta be said that this type of film – an R-rated action film with this kind of budget, delivering this level of spectacle using mostly practical effects – simply doesn’t get made anymore. That we got one at all in 2015 is a goddamn miracle, let alone one that’s this good.
And yet… still I found myself constantly wishing it was better.
Take the editing for example, which I feel everyone’s been praising like crazy. Yes, I do agree Miller is mostly able to make it clear where all the cars are in relation to each other, even during the big set pieces when it’s a hundred of them bumping and crashing their way through the desert. But we’re not quite dealing with perfection here. There was a lot of quick cutting going on, instances where I couldn’t tell why certain cars were exploding, or cases where a shot of a particular crash was held so briefly that my mind had no time to process it. Look, there’s lots of insanely beautiful shots in this thing of vehicles getting destroyed, and when you put all those shots in a row with a cool soundtrack underneath, you get a trailer that makes the film look like it’s going to piss orgasmic bliss right into your fucking eye sockets. But when you watch these amazing shots as part of the actual sequences in the film… it’s just not quite there. The rhythm is off. Especially in the final stretch of the film, starting when Max finds himself on the Demon Guitar Player’s car right up until the major crash that ends it all. The whole bit feels strangely stilted and unexciting, even though this is the finale and I should be on the edge of my fucking seat.
What doesn’t help is the lack of gore. I’ve heard friends say they don’t believe a higher level of violence was necessary, but for me it would’ve greatly increased the flow of the action. Compare it to the Extended Edition version of Helm’s Deep. It’s much better than the theatrical version, not just because you get to see orc heads roll, but because the shots are held longer and you get a way better sense of what is going on and more time to process what you’re looking at. In FURY ROAD you see many guys falling, cars crashing in a shot that lasts but a split second, people getting hit by a chainsaw or an arrow or whatever, and it cuts away so fast your brain can’t keep up. The result is that there’s hardly any impact to these things, if any.
Another thing that frustrates me is FURY ROAD’s refusal to commit to the ground rules of action. You got a muscled henchman in there that gets a lot of attention? You’re basically promising me a big spectacular fight at the end between the hero and that guy, and when I don’t get it, I’m gonna be disappointed. Max does come across Rictus Erectus, the beefcake son of final boss Immortan Joe, but there’s no fight whatsoever. In fact, Max does absolutely nothing, surviving by sheer luck while Furiosa crawls up to Joe’s car and finishes the whole thing for everybody.
I can give you dozens of little examples like these, reasons for why I feel it’s not even close to being the masterpiece its being heralded as. But in the end, what it comes down to is just a gut feeling. A set of personal ideas of what an action film should be that FURY ROAD does not adhere to. It’s a great film and I respect the hell out of it, hence its third place on this list. But, I’m saddened to say, it just did not click with me the way it did with most of you out there.
2: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
All throughout 2015, ever since I saw it for the first time almost exactly one year ago, KINGSMAN has been at the top of this list. I tend to go crazy for Matthew Vaughn’s films and this one is no different. Sometimes I feel like everything Vaughn thinks is cool, I think is cool. It’s like he knows me personally and every time he’s about to make a creative decision, he asks himself: “What would my buddy Mappelboom like to see?” Which is why he decided to make an ultra-violent modern riff on James Bond filled with great characters (forget Mr. Darcy and King George – this is the defining role of Colin Firth’s career) and the most tightly shot and edited action scenes in any film this year. Vaughn’s desire to please me is blatantly obvious even in the smallest details, from casting Mark Hamill and that guy from Coupling in tiny roles, giving the villain an awesome henchman who actually gets to fight the hero at the end, to his choice of songs to include in the film. Money For Nothing and Free Bird? Now you’re just spoiling me!
Speaking of Free Bird, that sequence in the church is without a doubt the funniest, most energetic, ludicrously violent and thrilling action scene in any film that came out in 2015. It’s every bit as exciting as last year’s kitchen fight from THE RAID 2, it just blows me away every time I see it.
After MAD MAX let me down, I was convinced that nothing could steal first place away from KINGSMAN. That feeling stuck with me all throughout the rest of the year… right up until 16 December.
1: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Seeing STAR WARS in first place may not come as a shock to my family or anyone who’s known me for a while – even as I’m writing this I’m wearing STAR WARS boxers for God’s sake – but it sure came as a shock to me. After all this time I had precisely zero faith that anyone would be able to bring back the old magic, not even J.J. Abrams. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, STAR TREK and even STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS were expertly paced, hugely entertaining blockbusters, but I just wasn’t sure that style was right for STAR WARS.
Well, I was wrong. Abrams has made an absolutely fantastic STAR WARS film that truly made me feel like a kid again. I was right back there in that sandbox, digging a hole and dropping my Kenner action figures in there one by one, burping loudly each time. THE FORCE AWAKENS has flaws, sure – the most obvious one being how derivative the story is of the original trilogy, especially NEW HOPE – but what it gets right is so much more important. It nails the characters, the emotion and the heart. I honestly love all three new main characters. You just immediately accept these guys as part of the new canon and I’m sure they’ll soon be just as beloved as our Lukes and our Hans. Speaking of Hans, Ford hasn’t been this awake since AIR FORCE ONE. He’s obviously enjoying himself here and truly feels like an older version of the same guy, which I would not have thought he was able to deliver at this point.
Overall there’s just a warmth to this film, provided by these characters, that makes me put it above something like KINGSMAN. I guess that’s the one thing missing from Vaughn’s film – its characters are super cool, its action is amazing, but there was no emotional attachment from my side. No matter how awesome Colin Firth was, when he died I didn’t feel much. But when Han Solo gets it… oh boy. And when Finn and Rey finally face off against Kylo Ren, the fight choreography may not be as thrilling as any bit of random fisticuffs in KINGSMAN, but I was a hell of a lot more invested in the outcome.
Kylo Ren, by the way, might be the most interesting villain this franchise has ever had – certainly the most three-dimensional one. Only after seeing the film did I realize he was basically Anakin Skywalker from the prequels, but done right. I loved his angry outbursts, the way he carries himself and his voice, both in and out of the mask. It’s a great performance from Adam Driver and I can’t wait to see what his character’s arc is going to be throughout this new series of films.
And that’s the best part. That we’re now going to be able to look forward to more of these, every two years (plus the stand-alone films released in between). The sequels will not be directed by Abrams, so who knows whether they’ll be as good as this one. But for the first time in forever I can say that a little bit of faith has been restored to me. Maybe these films can bring back a bit of the old magic. Can’t hope for more than that.
Well, that’s 2015 for you. Let’s see if 2016 can do better. It’s off to a good start with DEADPOOL, I can tell you that. Check back here in a few days for my review.