Another year has come to an end. And while I am most interested in creating comics, the media I love consuming the most is movies. The good ones are lessons in storytelling, pacing, and character creation that I can incorporate into my own work. My favorites this year:
Living in Salt Lake City, I know how government and journalists tiptoe around an organization big enough to be referred to as “THE Church”, lest they find themselves with unwanted backlash. This movie was a riveting dramatization of the efforts made by members of The Boston Globe to uncover the sexual abuse scandal that had pervaded the Catholic church for decades. The conflict came not from a Dan Brown-esque mysterious and impermeable evil organization; rather, simply the hesitation that members of the Church and community had in believing that something so important in their lives could hide such a pervasive evil practice that was ignored by its leadership, even when the facts stared them in the face. Denial is a powerful force to overcome.
The performances were all pretty low key (except for a particular dramatic scene performed by Mark Ruffalo) and simple, yet very evocative and gripping. A wonderful, important movie.
9. THE MARTIAN
Having finished the book by Andy Weir just hours before I saw this, I was anxious to see if the movie held up; because the book is fascinating and compelling. I am happy to say that this is a rare instance where the movie is even better. Matt Damon gives a great performance of an astronaut stranded on Mars, coming up with one solution after another to daily life-threatening circumstances until he can be rescued. His character Mark Watney is written as an optimist who can find the humor in every dire moment, and makes the viewer root for him.
Excellent performances are given by the supporting cast, also. Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Kristen Wigg, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan. I love it when an epic cast just delivers!
Special props to screenwriter Drew Goddard. He made all the right decisions in choosing what to leave out, leave in, and change regarding the book to script transition. His climax and ending actually improves on the book, making this one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. A monument to human ingenuity, grit, and heroism.
8. FURIOUS 7
As someone new to the F&F franchise (I have only seen 6 & 7 as of this review), this film does a great job of establishing character relationships and existing continuity while quickly introducing a new baddie played by Jason Statham. The gang is pulled into a high-stakes world of don’t-think-too-hard-about-it international badassery, all seemingly as weak plot devices used to showcase the most crazy, over-the-top stunts imaginable. This movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than cool people doing impossible things just for the fun of it, and that is why it works so well.
The group is hired on by agent Kurt Russell to retrieve a device called God’s Eye, which will allow the group to track down Statham; however, Statham keeps showing up at every opportunity to cause trouble anyway. The Rock is severely underused, but his scenes alone are worth the price of admission. The “Daddy’s gotta go to work” scene is absolutely one of the best things I have seen this year. Just freaking see this thing.
7. STAR WARS: EPISODE VII — THE FORCE AWAKENS
I have to hand it to J.J. Abrams. While the taste of the prequels will never fully be washed away, this man makes as good an effort as can possibly be achieved to bring the magic back to this franchise. He knows just the right blend of nostalgia, humor, effects, and characterization to pull off the wonderful feat that is The Force Awakens.
This is not a perfect movie. The plot followed too many story beats paralleling the original trilogy to make for a truly original take. Where Abrams hits a grand slam, though, is his ability to make you love his characters, and care about what happens to them; and it is in this department that Episode VII made me cheer and gasp and clap like a little kid again. Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8 and Kylo Ren are all wonderful additions to the canon, and their interactions with some of our old favorites intertwine beautifully.
6. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
It’s hard for me to be objective when it comes to Marvel movies. As a lifelong Marvel Comics fanboy, I’m just giddy that a movie like Age of Ultron can even happen. As a discerning moviegoer, however, I can appreciate the sheer technical and logistical accomplishments that brought it to the screen. Joss Whedon has put together another epic must-see blockbuster with this film.
One of Marvel’s greatest strengths lies in its casting; and one of its biggest weaknesses is a lack of compelling villains (Loki notwithstanding). Both of these are epitomized in James Spader’s portrayal of robotic villain Ultron: Spader is perfectly cast, and brings meat to what is otherwise a pretty one-note character who could have been so much more. But when screen time needs to be given to up to 10 heroes for the final battle, some things necessarily have to be sacrificed.
All things considered, this movie should have been a mess. With so many characters to work with, Whedon still crafts a fluid story, devoting for the most part the right amount of screen time to each person. Events unfold into each other as direct results of characters’ choices, not at random. The writing sets up wonderful Easter eggs that faithful fanboys and girls will recognize as precursors to Civil War, Black Panther, and the Infinity War movies, for which I am already salivating.
Whedon didn’t seem to be trying to top his first Avengers movie; there were no WOW moments like Hulk vs. Loki or “I’m always angry.” Since the newness has worn off, I don’t think it would have been possible anyway. I just enjoyed this for what it was, and it was pretty freaking good.
I had my worries about this movie, with the early production hiccups and hit-or-miss trailers, but I am happy to find that Marvel has made another gem. A heist movie with superpowers, this would have been just average without the energy and humor that Paul Rudd injects into his scenes. It’s full of fun new ideas that raise it above the label of a mere superhero flick.
While the absence of Edgar Wright as director can certainly be felt, Peyton Reed filled his shoes well enough, and fits Ant-Man very firmly in the larger Avengers universe while still keeping this a smaller-scaled (pun not intended) stand-alone story.
Michaels Douglas and Peña both elevate the material, as well. Some great performances, and some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater in 2015.
4. BRIDGE OF SPIES
Spielberg and Hanks have created a masterpiece with this film. I was surprised that a movie with so little action could be so gripping, but is just so well done! A deceptively simple tale of a man tasked with defending a Soviet spy, and later bargaining his exchange for a captured American prisoner. Sometimes a good man doing his best to do what he thinks is right can make for the best stories ever told. And I’m so glad I was told this one.
While Creed is itself a standalone film, it is also unofficially the seventh movie in the Rocky series. This accentuates the theme of legacy that this movie explores, as Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis aspires to follow his father’s footsteps in the realm of boxing. At first, he refuses to use the name Creed, to avoid both special treatment and unearned expectations. His journey from juvenile delinquent to pro boxer is a pure joy to watch, and Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky is one of his best ever.
The writing and directing from Coogler are the best since the first Rocky film, and the filming techniques he uses earn him extra credit. One of Adonis’ first bouts is shot entirely in one long take, and it is a thing of magnificence. One of the best films of the year, hands down.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
It’s rare that a director can go back to a 30-year-old well and dredge out something wonderful. George Miller pulled it off. Mad Max: Fury Road grabs you by the face, chains you to the back of a 22-wheeled death machine and drags you through a symphony of dirt, fire, blood, grease, spit, bullets, and mayhem for two solid hours.
Tom Hardy fills Mel Gibson’s shoes more than admirably; the real treat of a performance here, though, is Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa; she is fearless, badass, physical, and feminine all at once, and is really the heart of the film.
What satisfied me the most, upon thinking about it, is George Miller’s utter competence. This is the kind of movie that, 15 years ago, some studio suit would give to Rob Zombie because he’s so “edgy” and “raw.” There would have been lots of gory torture and rape scenes so Rob could go “SEE?! It’s gritty! It’s hardcore! See? See?!” George Miller has nothing to prove. This movie is actually low on blood, guts, and any sexual violence; yet it is so visceral and gritty at the same time, you see the touch of the master’s hand at work.
You will not regret letting this movie take you for a ride. It’s bonkers crazy awesome fun.
1. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION
A very worthy addition to the MI franchise. Director Christopher McQuarrie creates a perfectly-paced spy thriller, deftly guiding Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt through some of the most jaw-dropping stunts he’s ever performed. On top of that, the non-action moments are equally smart, taut, and compelling. The Syndicate gives us a villain who can match Hunt intellectually, and Rebecca Ferguson ain’t no slouch in the action department, either.
Tom Cruise is not the greatest actor in history by any stretch. However, he might just be the greatest movie star. He throws himself into everything he does with an enthusiasm that is unmatched. My top movie of 2015.