After reading Jordan R. T. Spencer’s article on his favorite movies of last year, I was inspired to do something similar.
I considered doing a Top 10 (or so) list or going over every film I saw that was released in the year that was 2015, but I didn’t have a lot to say about some of them that hasn’t already been said. Besides, listicles have never been my deal so, if I was going to do one, I may as well do it my way.
I have opted to specifically spotlight 8 films that, I think, I can recognize in very specific ways, possibly offering some unique insight. I will, however, end with my favorite film from 2015.
Here goes nothing:
A wide array of opinions, features, and other content is available on this story of a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is attacked by a bear and left for dead after his son is murdered by another trapper (Tom Hardy). The film is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who also directed Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Babel. The Revenant is a incredibly well-choreographed, spectacularly shot film with long, drawn-out sequences that illustrate both beauty and brutality, often in the same frame.
What is interesting is that I’ve not seen my initial reaction to the film mirrored by anyone who is talking about it. In point of fact, with the story being focused on revenge and the various depictions of violence, The Revenant takes the time to make audiences uncomfortable. The drawn-out shots that seem to take forever add to the tension and make each moment of painful release all the more intense. It is a film that embraces the visceral.
And it is woefully misdefined. I feel as though there are large swathes of people talking about this film as though none of the emotional paths the audience is ushered down have ever been explored. Meanwhile, I walked out of that noting the similarity to 1970s Grindhouse revenge exploitation films.
The Revenant is a horror film for non-horror audiences.
Horror, as a genre, has long utilized viewer discomfort as a means to garner a visceral response from the first time someone wrote something that was meant to scare. Fans of horror films are used to this response, having watched Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Eli Roth’s Hostel or Cabin Fever, and anything by Dario Argento or Takashi Miike, time and time again. Horror filmmakers seek out the visceral and make an art form out of specifically garnering that reaction, which is exactly what Iñárritu was going for.
The Revenant may have a higher pedigree than a lot of other horror and exploitation flicks, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be remembered as exactly that.
What We Do In the Shadows
I recently started to re-watch This is Spinal Tap, often mis-credited with having started the mockumentary genre (realistically, A Hard Day’s Night, with the Beatles, might really deserve the credit, although there were many prior to that), and I noted how primitive it felt. Mockumentaries have become a standard comedy sub-genre (just as found footage has become a standard horror and science fiction sub-genre), so when a new one comes along that offers something different, it can be very refreshing.
What We Do In the Shadows is exactly that. Written, directed, and starring Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) and Taika Waititi (who was in, believe it or not, Green Lantern playing an Inuit), alongside the creme-de-la-creme of New Zealand comedy talents, Shadows portrays four vampires from various realms of vampiric lore who live in a flat in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand. The narrative of the documentary-style film shows the vampires attempting to adapt to modern life, encountering modern technology and social media for the first time while analyzing the various trappings of the vampiric myth.
By the end, what you have is a remarkably intelligent and funny film that portrays the fantastic in very mundane and accessible ways. Shadows is easily one of my favorite films of 2015.
I feel like this film chased me across the various streaming outlets for much of 2015 and, late in the year, I relented and watched it on a Saturday. I was taken in by the grim world view and the setting, which is, all at once, futuristic, dirty, and claustrophobic. Infini doesn’t attempt to persuade the viewer that this vision of the future is perfect, nor does it try to shine some dark mirror on our very souls. Instead, it introduces a world that looks very much like ours, were you to slide the timeline slightly forward.
This may be somewhat to Infini’s detriment, as it did not play well with critics. Many indicated that it was nothing more than a rip-off of Alien or any countless other films that merge science-fiction with horror. However, this seems a bit unfair. Certainly, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece has set the template by which all sci-fi thrillers will be compared, but to do so can cause one to overlook the additional layers added to make a film unique.
With Inifini, the key character; portrayed by an excellent Daniel MacPherson who is generally known as an Australian television host; the truth behind the threat they all face, and the ultimate resolution have the benefit of being highly original. Without bias, this film presents some interesting and unique ideas that I did not see coming.
Once in a while, that’s enjoyable.
The Good Dinosaur
The other film that Pixar released, in 2015, The Good Dinosaur did not earn any of the accolades of the first, Inside Out. Many critics noted that Dinosaur did not seek to achieve the complexity of Inside Out, nor did it build upon emotional platitudes in the same way. There had also been a great deal of documentation on the troubled production of the film; many critics having noted that the director and produced had been removed and the entire cast re-worked along with, according to some, the script. With such a complex and compelling drama going on behind the scenes, no wonder the expectation was for a remarkably complex plot.
But bashing The Good Dinosaur for its simplicity is missing the whole point of the presentation. The narrative that was, for the most part, invented by the media around the film did not take into account a wide array of factors that went into making it. Technologically, the undertaking of making the world of The Good Dinosaur is absolutely amazing. The design team undertook a monumental task and it paid off, as the film is visually stunning. Myself, generally a detractor of films that rely on technology to stun over story (I’m looking at you, Avatar), I found enrapt in the world that had been created. The silliness of the cartoon dinosaur characters over the generated set pieces simply make the whole experience all the more enjoyable.
And the story? Well, the story is basically The Journey of Natty Gann. It’s simple, precise, and classic; all done as a juxtaposition of the complexity that the undertaking of the production necessitated. In many ways, the simplicity of the narrative is refreshing and I can’t help but wonder if this was not the case prior to the change in staffing.
But when all is said and done, the short prior to the film, Sanjay’s Super Team, was the real treat, for me. Never before has anything produced by Pixar affected me as that did. It’s worth a watch, no matter who you are.
Going into The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I’m not certain what I expected. There was a high degree of expectation from the overall pedigree of those making it, but there was also the usual hesitation I have when I see something that seems so dedicated to getting an Oscar.
What I got, however, was a shock.
I’m not an IMAX kind of movie-goer. I don’t think everything looks better a million feet high (I definitely did not feel that way about Star Wars: The Force Awakens). However, there are some film experiences that you cannot comprehend unless they are presented in a certain way. The IMAX sequences in the Dark Knight come to mind, for example.
The Walk, in its entirety, needs to be experienced massive to be fully understood. The film is remarkably well done, telling the true(ish) story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire saunter between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Throughout the film, one cannot help but feel both the exhilaration and the acrophobia from the heights. The tension is built perfectly.
Frankly, it’s just a damn good film from the guy that brought us all the Back to the Future films.
As much as I cannot wait to watch The Walk, again, I can’t help but think something will be lost seeing it on the small screen. Still, I’m pleased that I had the opportunity to be one of the few, worldwide, to see it in its original presentation.
It is criminal that The Walk, its creators, and its performers were completely ignored while significantly inferior films and performances are honored.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
There were a bunch of spy movies, this year, and they were all pretty good. Kingsman: The Secret Service served up irreverent, ultra-violent, post-modern insanity, while Spy, with Melissa McCarthy offered a fun, hilarious, and poignant twist on the genre, and Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation dropped the fifth entry of that franchise with as much fun as the last couple films have had.
However, there were two spy films that completely stood out from the rest… scratch that, all five of these stood out, but I’m going to focus on two of them.
The first is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Dusting off the premise from a Cold War-era spy show that had none other than Ian Fleming as a contributor, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. presents the concept of an American and a Soviet spy who are forced to work together despite their inherent antagonism for one another. These characters are fantastically played by superheroes Henry Cavill (a.k.a. The Man of Steel) and Arnie Hammer (a.k.a., unfortunately, The Lone Ranger), with the refreshing Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the object of both men’s affections.
With Guy Ritchie directing, U.N.C.L.E. offers as many thrills as one might expect, with high-octane chases and intense fights. However Ritchie is also the master of interpersonal tension with highly-developed characters, and U.N.C.L.E. does not lack in this, either. Ultimately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. succeeds in subverting and transcending a highly-formulaic genre and tell an engagingly original tale.
The premise, as original as it is, make one realize that Sir Ian had more than one trick up his sleeve, but that first trick…
If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is Fleming’s other stroke of genius, then Spectre embraces, fully, his first.
From the moment Daniel Craig first hit the screen, in Casino Royale, we have seen the deconstruction of the story of James Bond. The anti-hero has loved, lost, and revenged across three films, dealing with a bevy of dangerously resourceful madmen, as he went. However, the true source of his pain; the true architects of the conspiracies of the world has always eluded him.
In Spectre, he finally discovers them, and everything changes.
This is a critical component to enjoying the film, I think. It reintroduces the sheer insanity and ridiculousness of the world of James Bond while inviting the audience into the final transition from the acceptable to the unbelievable. Throughout the three films that proceeded this tale; Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall; elements of the real world are slowly eroded and, at last, in Spectre the world of Bond is fully-realized.
Spectre is love letter to lifelong fans of the James Bond franchise. It has all the trappings of the classic Bond, but with a modern flair. This has been attempted, prior, but never succeeded to the degree of Spectre, partly because of the fact that Craig’s fourth Bond film relies on the prior ones to help define it. In a vacuum, the film doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense.
However, alongside the three prior films, we are presented with an amazingly diverse and multi-dimensional narrative, which rewards avid viewers and, frankly, somewhat punishes those who are less inclined to the Bond world.
In other words: watch Spectre only if you have watched the prior three films, recently.
Now you’ve got your plans for the weekend.
For three of the last four years, Marvel has produced my favorite film of the year.
For the last two years, those films were expected to be bombs.
In fact, I think it can be said that both Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy out-performed nearly everyone’s expectations. Many will agree that Ant-Man was a much better film than Avengers: Age of Ultron (or, as Sean noted on a recent podcast, the ‘Few Days of Ultron’) and almost no one thought it would be any good.
People crapped on this movie from the moment it was announced. Websites and fan sites and entertainment outlets all thought that this was going to be the biggest flop Marvel would produce. In fact, I once wrote for a website, where I was the only voice saying to give Ant-Man a chance, that published a positive review of that Michael Bay Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick!
I did not crap on Ant-Man for one very simple reason: movies are not comic books.
Certainly, Ant-Man (be it Scott Lang or Hank Pym or Eric O’Grady) is not one of the more popular comic characters. The reason for this is that his powers don’t seem all that spectacular, in a comic book. But note how many films have been produced about people shrinking down, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, etc. All of these are about getting small and, if you combine all those premises with a superhero, you end up with Ant-Man!
Alongside this, the superb choice of Paul Rudd is the support of Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly who enable Rudd to display layers of who the character of Scott Lang can be. Stealing the show, however, are Lang’s band of thugs, led by the unparalleled Michael Peña, whose Luis brings the best comedy into the narrative.
As with many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the villain is a little lacking, but Corey Stoll still does a superb job of chewing the right scenery and providing as much menace as needed for the first of many Ant-Man films.
As someone who has been a comic book fan across five decades, I’ve long said that the best characters for film are not the ones who are the most popular in the comics. Ant-Man, I believe, proved this hypothesis.
Now, let’s all get excited for our Hit-Monkey film.
And there we have it!
Eight flicks that I feel are worth having a conversation about from 2015. This all came from a simple case of inspiration from a very capable writer.
Hey, you know what, if you feel inspired, write something up and email it to me! I’ll be happy to take a look at it and it may end up getting published!
And enjoy your movie-going in 2016!