I was going to open this year’s list with a lengthy reflection on how 2015 was supposed to be this mammoth, insane, momentous year in geek culture cinema before Batman V Superman blinked and scurried off to early 2016 and a couple of other big movies got pushed back, but let’s face it, no one ever reads the intros to “best of” lists, so fuck it. Here’s the 10 best genre flicks I saw in 2015:
10.) Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
That seems like one colon too many, doesn’t it? At any rate, this spy thriller franchise still proved it had a lot left in the tank thanks to Tom Cruise’s outlandish plane stunt, director Christopher McQuarrie shooting the hell out of the thing, and a mesmerizing turn from the new female lead Rebecca Ferguson. The opera sequence in Rogue Nation is one of the sexiest, most intense, and beautifully executed set pieces of the year. A little advice though, guys – I think it’s time to put a moratorium on the whole “the team is officially disbanded and must go underground to stop the bad guys” plot. Four out of the five movies is plenty.
9.) Crimson Peak
Director Guillermo Del Toro’s grand homage to the gothic horror-romance subgenre was probably the most visually stunning film I saw in 2015. The titular manse is a macabre mix of opulence and decay – the perfect setting for Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska to don ruffly Victorian accoutrements and portray characters haunted by both literal and metaphorical ghosts. Crimson Peak is not a scary movie by modern horror standards, but it’s full of dread and plenty spooky, and the third act is a descent into full-on, shrieky, stabby madness.
8.) Kingsman: The Secret Service
Imagine a young James Bond adventure with a little bit of Attack The Block and Trainspotting thrown in the mix and you’ll have a pretty good grasp of just how bonkers this Matthew Vaughn-helmed adaptation of the Mark Millar-Dave Gibbons graphic novel truly is. Taron Egerton is impressive as a British juvenile delinquent recruited by a secret order of impeccably tailored, gentlemanly badasses who have protected the world from megalomaniacs (like this film’s bizarre, lispy Samuel L. Jackson) for decades. The brutal, chaotic, completely batshit action sequence in the church is one of the most savage things I have ever witnessed; it’s one of the best cinematic moments of 2015, and an instant classic.
7.) The Martian
Based on the best-seller by Andrew Weir, The Martian is a shining example of the indomitability of the human spirit. Matt Damon shines as an astronaut stranded alone on Mars for close to two years with only his will and potatoes grown from the fecal matter of his crew members to sustain him. Though perhaps not as sweeping or imaginative as 2014’s Interstellar, The Martian nonetheless succeeds where Christopher Nolan’s grandiose attempt at heady science-fiction came up short — it’s way less ponderous and plucks those heartstrings far more deftly. An all-star cast featuring the likes of Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain (yes, she was in every movie in 2015), Chewitel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and others helped to round out a powerful and meaningful theater experience.
6.) Inside Out
Pixar’s latest is the only 2015 film that made me cry. That’s really saying something in a year with a new Rocky movie and the return of the classic characters to the Star Wars franchise. Inside Out didn’t just put a lump in my throat and a few tears my eyes; I was practically sobbing over the fear and overwhelming sadness young 11-year-old Riley experienced during her traumatic move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Lovingly crafted by director Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, wonderfully animated by the Pixar team, and brilliantly voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black and others, Inside Out is a whimsical, wildly creative, and vibrant journey with surprising psychological and emotional complexity. It’s a film that shows us that every emotion we have—even the most profound sadness—is vital to our mental well-being and enriches our lives. Extra special kudos have to be doled out to the knockout performance of Richard Kind as Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing-Bong. Never forget.
Once Avengers: Age Of Ultron “underperformed” at the box office and the early Ant-Man marketing landed with a thud—not to mention the turmoil surrounding Edgar Wright leaving the project at the last minute—a legion of haters and hack critics were ready to bury this film under a mountain of “Marvel Studios formula finally fails” thinkpieces and pre-written one-star reviews. Imagine their surprise when Marvel head Kevin Feige and replacement director Peyton Reed figuratively shit in their collective cereal by delivering a fresh, funny, and inventive late-summer crowd pleaser that combined a heartwarming daddy-daughter story with a high-tech heist film, as well as Marvel’s usual colorful superhero spectacle. Paul Rudd slays as the diminutive Avenger, and the climactic action sequence set in a child’s bedroom was a stroke of mad genius.
4.) Avengers: Age Of Ultron
History may show Age Of Ultron to be one of the most misunderstood blockbusters of our time. At one point in this film, The Avengers stand together against the evil A.I. Ultron and face an onslaught of his robotic drone duplicates. Mind beams and lasers and magic hammers light up the screen in a dazzling spectacle of pure comic book majesty fans could have never dreamed possible only 15 years ago. But 2015 seemed to be the year once grateful and enthusiastic audiences and critics became jaded and entitled. They complained about a “forced” Hulk/Black Widow romance that actually made perfect sense, made accusations of misogyny against Joss Whedon over a completely misunderstood line of dialogue, and obtusely discounted James Spader’s snarky, fractious Ultron as “too jokey and not dark enough.” Perhaps appreciation for Age Of Ultron will grow in time, because after all, how many blockbuster directors have the balls to stop their sturm and drang right in the middle of the proceedings to visit a farmhouse so that, among other character building moments, one of our heroes can sum up the movie in one line: “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.”
3.) Ex Machina
A lonely young programmer wins the opportunity to travel to the home of his billionaire/tech genius employer to help test the artificial intelligence and emotional interaction capabilities of the world’s first fully functioning android in writer-director Alex Garland’s tense, intimate, riveting, and haunting exploration into human psychological manipulation. Model and former ballerina Alicia Vikander is utterly hypnotic as the robotic Ava, transitioning effortlessly from seductress to innocent angel in the blink of an eye, while Oscar Isaac delivers a nuanced, terrifying performance as an isolated control freak teetering on the brink of becoming a tyrannical madman. The best science-fiction always lends itself to multiple interpretations, and Ex Machina certainly raises endless questions and variables about privacy, technology, and modern social issues. Some saw the film as a triumph of feminism with a main character who seizes her own agency from the men trying to control her, while others felt it was more about how equally deceptive both men and women can be in developing a relationship.
2.) Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s return to the wasteland is a master class in world-building, visual storytelling, astonishing production design, and practical stuntwork/vfx. It’s a modern-day sci-fi action masterpiece; a maelstrom of high-octane, fuel injected, heavy metal demolition the likes of which has never been seen before, and may never be seen again. A grunting, stoic Tom Hardy filled Mel Gibon’s dusty boots adequately, but the real star of the show was Charlie Theron’s fierce Imperator Furiosa, whom Men’s Rights Activists, Gamergaters, and other gutter trash howled at with impotent rage. Their failed boycotts and empty words fell harmlessly away like pebbles bouncing off Furiosa’s war rig, and Fury Road has gone on to win numerous best picture of the year awards and find itself atop many “Best Movies Of 2015” listicles.
1.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Sometimes you don’t know how badly you’ve missed something until it suddenly appears in your life again. The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie I’ve been waiting over 30 years to see; it’s the perfect blend of nostalgic iconography, bravura modern filmmaking wizardry, amazing characters (old and new), and powerful thematic elements. It brings back everything that has been missing in Star Wars since 1983 – it brings back tangibility, it brings back adventure, it brings back fun, it brings back heart, it brings back…hope.
The Force Awakens also brings back the crucial quality of simplicity. Gone are the trade embargoes, dull senate procedures, and long-gestating Machiavellian plotting of the prequels; replaced with an opening crawl that grabs you by the throat, an establishing sequence that plops you right in the middle of some dramatic, propulsive action with just a shred of context, and a good old-fashioned good vs. evil conflict. And while the film doesn’t explore any brave new territory in its plot mechanics (yes, the rumors are true, its structure trades heavily on the 1977 original), it soars to new galaxies with its crop of fresh-faced, bold characters and devastating new developments in the ongoing saga of the Skywalker family.
Newcomer Daisy Ridley’s Rey in an instant icon. She’s tough, fierce, feisty, resourceful, and brave, yet deeply sad and intensely lonely due to the circumstances of her life. Ridley portrays Rey fearlessly and is utterly captivating in almost every way; she’s a female hero for a new generation, a character with cross-age and cross-gender appeal. Little girls and young women will no doubt be cosplaying Rey and buying merchandise of this strong yet vulnerable new hero for decades to come.
It took a while for Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy to convince JJ Abrams to direct The Force Awakens, because the guy’s not stupid – he fully realized the enormity of the challenge ahead of him. Not only would he have to produce a film that was a complete 180-degree turn away from the tonality, acting style, visual aesthetic, and special effects approach of the near-universally loathed prequel trilogy, but he also had to simultaneously court a new generation of fans while winning back older diehards who were skeptical there was any narrative material to mine after Vader’s redemption and the defeat of the Empire after Return Of The Jedi. It was a no-win situation on many fronts, yet, with the help of Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, JJ has won. In fact, he pulled off the impossible.