Let’s get straight to it, shall we?
No doubt one of the strangest films of the decade, Alex Garland’s directorial debut was one part horror story, one part sci-fi romp, and one part cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.
Domhnall Gleason is Caleb, who is expecting to help out Oscar Isaac’s Nathan with a secret AI project. Then he meets Ava, a droid who seems to be learning. Similar to a darker toned version of Her, Garland’s movie starts off uncertain of its direction, but takes a wild turn toward the end.
Ex Machina certainly doesn’t look or feel like a filmmaker directing his first movie, as there’s a sense of confidence and assurance throughout the film, something that would be increased a few years later with Garland’s followup. Even in its strangest moments, this film has a lot to say about the ideas it wants to convey.
This is one of the lushest, sweetest films of 2015, and one that was liked but likely not as well loved as it should have been. Saoirse Ronan continued another run of beautiful performances, this time as a woman who is looking to make the most of her life having come from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950’s.
There’s a clear level of care involved in each element of this film, from the writing by novelist Nick Hornby, to Ronan’s performance, to the direction of John Crowley, and the cinematography of Yves Belanger, everything is just splendidly done.
Brooklyn is an endearing film that has sort of disappeared among people talking about the best films of the decade. I’m not making that mistake.
Me and Earl, the Dying Girl
This is one of those movies that I didn’t see coming. Based on a YA novel and featuring a less than appealing title, I wasn’t expecting a quirky, thoughtful, and often poignant movie about life and death and the impacts they can have on friendship.
But Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl is all of that and more. Greg (the “me” of the title) and his friend Earl spend their time making parodies of hit movies and otherwise being teenagers who don’t fit the traditional mold. When Greg finds out his friend Rachel is dying, he and Earl set out to make her a little less sad.
In the midst of the quirky films within the film, there is a sweetness and an honesty about this film that makes it stand out above other films in its general genre.
Forget weirdest movie of the year, The Lobster might be the most bizarre, yet wholly original films, I’ve ever seen.
Set in a near future where the world has fallen apart, single people are taken to a hotel to mingle and hopefully find their mate. But after 45 days, if they haven’t matched up, they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice and sent into the woods. See. I told you. Weird.
There’s no explanation as to how the world got to this point, or even how the powers that be would actually go about turning people into animals, but the idea is so very absurd, I found myself giving into the concept without any explanation.
Partly that says a lot about the performances, especially the lead role from Colin Farrell in a career altering performance, which ground the film in spite of it’s strange ideas about the world we might soon be living in.
Exactly what writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is getting at isn’t quite clear, but there is a sense that he sees something in the world that he finds strange and wants to highlight. The “leave it to the audience” approach is a little infuriating, but it also makes for a mind-bending movie watching experience that is never boring.
In case you weren’t sure, I really respect the work that Pixar does. Almost all of its films are good, and often they are great or groundbreaking, and Inside Out is one that falls into the great category. Its characters are emotions, its setting inside the brain of a pre-teen girl named Riley, and yet its ideas are true to life and, in spite emotions being the focus, never feels manipulative.
As always, Pixar worked hard to make this film appeal to both kids and adults, with silly characters like Anger and Bing Bong combined with a real sense of what it means to look inside the mind of a young girl. Part of the goal is to remind the viewer how to properly handle the emotions that rear themselves on a daily basis, and gives kids (and adults, too) the okay to express themselves.
Per usual, the film is beautiful and features great voice performances from the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, among many others. But the story and the truth of what it has to say are what gives Inside Out its staying power.
When I first heard about this movie, I sought out the book upon which it was based and devoured it. It’s often bleak, but more importantly, it’s told from a very specific point-of-view, one that didn’t seem to me to be ever remotely filmable.
And yet, using a script by the novelist Emma Donoghue, the film manages to pull back a little, but not too much so as to lose the claustrophobic feel that the story needs, especially during its first section when Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are stuck inside the titular room.
The movie, however, is mostly focused not on Ma and Jack being trapped, but on the way they are both still trapped even after their being released. The film is about mental health and the impacts that the experience of being kidnapped has on both mother and child, and consequently the impact that the mother’s mental state has on her child.
Featuring powerhouse performances from both Larson (who won an Oscar for the difficult role of Ma) and Tremblay (who, for some reason, wasn’t nominated for his wonderful work), Room isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a beautiful and important one.
This film gets a lot of flack for its portrayal of its title character, the elusive man behind the success that is Apple Computers.
Told in the most unorthodox of manners, it is director Danny Boyle’s attempt to tell the story of a man who almost nobody knew through the very thing that most everyone knew him for: the introduction of his most famous products.
It’s an inventive script by Aaron Sorkin, who also managed to make an engaging script out of the creation of Facebook in The Social Network, and while lightning doesn’t necessarily strike twice for Sorkin, this movie is still likely better than many give it credit for.
Steve Jobs doesn’t achieve all its goals perfectly, and there are a great deal of questions about how true a lot of the story’s details are (along with some problems with the relationship between Jobs and his daughter), but Boyle and Sorkin’s film is nothing if not outside the box thinking.
It’s exactly what Steve would have wanted.
Matt Damon, it turns out, might be one of our best living actors. I say this because he manages, like Tom Hanks in Castaway and others before him, to make The Martian immensely entertaining and watchable in spite it be just him onscreen for much of the movie’s run time.
It’s also wild to think that this was among the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and even though it likely had little chance to win, that it was there in the first place was rather impressive.
There’s a fair amount of intrigue on Earth, too, and supporting roles from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover all guarantee the movie will continue to be packed with entertainment and star power even when Damon isn’t the focus.
Ultimately the point is that he’s always the focus, however, whether he’s onscreen or not, as the point is survival for his Mark Watney. And survive he does.
The Big Short
That this movie got made at all is something of a miracle. That it works so effectively is simply wondrous, and is a tribute to the great cast of actors that director Adam McKay brings along for this movie about the financial crisis.
Christian Bale is here, as are Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Marisa Tomei. Not to mention the massive number of supporting characters like Max Greenfield, Karen Gillian, Melissa Leo, and Rafe Spall, among others.
Edited at a frantic pace, The Big Short tries to make sense of all the numbers required to get even a basic understanding of what happened, all while maintaining an entertainment value that doesn’t make sense given the subject matter.
It’s a smart movie about big ideas that often leaves you exhausted as a viewer, but it’s quite impressive that it got made and that it works so well.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
I’ll get into this more later, but The Force Awakens, while a quality reboot of the Star Wars franchise, isn’t exactly breaking any ground in terms of the series’ history. It hits a lot of the same notes as the original Star Wars, something that director J.J. Abrams no doubt did on purpose. And while it is wildly fun and introduces a whole score of great new characters, it isn’t a great film.
What it does is effectively kickoff the final trilogy of the now-called Skywalker Saga in a way that feels lovingly done and effectively crafted. Abrams is nothing if not a great ideas guy, even if he’s not always efficient in finding answers to the ideas he has.
But the characters of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, BB-8, along with the return of old favorites like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Leia, and the brief cameo from Mark Hamill are all effective and pull you into the universe yet again.
To my mind, the series would get better from here (although the ending remains to be seen), but The Force Awakens is a truly effective restart to the saga of a galaxy far, far away.
I’ll begin with this: as well made and effective as The Revenant is, it remains a movie I have no intention of seeing again.
Based on the true story of Hugh Glass, who survived being mauled by a bear on the American frontier in the early 1800’s, only to pull himself back to civilization by the power of sheer will.
The role won star Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar, something many thought was well overdue, and while it isn’t my personal favorite of his performances, the immense physicality of the role certainly pushed him ahead in the Oscar race.
But like I said, this movie, while beautiful shot by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki and under the direction of Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won his second straight Best Director Oscar for this film, is a difficult rewatch. That’s exactly why I haven’t watched it since the first time I saw it, and have no intention to revisit it any time soon.
That says nothing about its quality, just how difficult a film it is to watch.
Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The End of the Tour*, The Last Five Years, Chappie, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Man Up, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, Irrational Man, Aloha, Jurassic World, Results, Ant-Man, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation*, Paper Towns, Spotlight*, Pitch Perfect 2, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Bridge of Spies*, Spectre, The Peanuts Movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Macbeth, In the Heart of the Sea, Concussion, Joy
Didn’t see: Point Break, The Hateful Eight, Carol, Crimson Peak, Beasts of No Nation, The Walk, Pan, 99 Homes, The Intern, Trumbo, Our Brand is Crisis, The Visit, Suffragette, Anomalisa, War Room, Straight Outta Compton, The Man from UNCLE, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Fantastic Four, The Gift, Mr. Holmes, Self/less, Magic Mike XXL, Ted 2, Amy, Southpaw, San Andreas, Poltergeist, Sicario, Spy, The Age of Adaline, Far From the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, Get Hard, Trainwreck, Hello, My Name Is Doris, Focus, McFarland USA, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Cinderella, Fifty Shades of Gray, Jupiter Ascending, Dope, Tangerine, Cake, The Wedding Ringer, Blackhat