BEST OF THE BEST AND WORST OF THE WORST
The 10 best and worst movies of 2015
Rather happily, and thanks in large measure to an over-abundance of film films released at year’s end, all the better to keep them fresh in the minds of Academy voters (who will nevertheless have their hands full), 2015 was about as good – or better – a year at the movies as a film fan could hope for, even if the riches weren’t entirely spread out over 12 months.
And, even better, it wasn’t just the independents doing good work. There were some very satisfying big-studio outings, including some popular franchises (Creed, The Martian, Star Wars: The Force
Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Kingsman: Knights of the Secret Service), and some heavily-promoted films that didn’t entirely connect with audiences (Black Mass, The Walk, Everest). Independent films, documentaries and foreign films brought forth Grandma, Mr. Holmes, Time Out of Mind, Best of Enemies, The Wrecking Crew, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Clouds of Sils Maria and Anomalisa. Any one of these films would do justice to any 10-Best list. I just had 10 others I liked better.
The dramatization of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the ongoing coverup was American filmmaking at its best:
Intelligent, compelling, dramatic, credible – one of those rare films where every element comes together perfectly.
A peerless ensemble cast – including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Jamey Sheridan and Stanley Tucci – and observant direction by Tom McCarthy (a career best) have yielded what is likely, and deservedly, being touted as an Oscar front-runner. What could be done to improve this film? Nothing. Not at thing.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Steven Spielberg’s reputation as a master filmmaker gains more stature with this fact-based Cold War spy saga that admittedly takes a few dramatic leaps but nevertheless retains the core essence of an important story as yet untold – until now.
Tom Hanks, his own reputation secure, offers an excellent star turn as lawyer-turned-Cold War strategist James Donovan. Hanks is so effortless that his performance may well be overlooked at Oscar time (as it was for Captain Phillips), but he and Mark Rylance (as convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel) are in superb form. Credit is also due the literate and intelligent screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen.
THE SEVEN FIVE
Tiller Russell’s knockout tale of police corruption is shocking, suspenseful and vicariously thrilling – and it happens to be a documentary.
The saga of Brooklyn’s 75 th Precinct (the “Seven Five” of the title), which would infamously become known as “the dirtiest precinct in America,” is a penetrating and persuasive parable of greed, corruption and moral decay – conveyed in sharp, vivid terms that would do Martin Scorsese proud. Little wonder that the story has been optioned by Sony for a dramatic film. But for those who complain, not entirely without reason, that some factbased stories fudge the facts, here’s how it really happened.
With a big assist from screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her surprise best-seller) and an even bigger assist from an eye-opening cast, director Lenny Abrahamson achieves the seemingly impossible feat of bringing this story of captivity to the screen in undiluted fashion.
Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay are likely Oscar contenders as a mother and son who have been imprisoned by a sexual predator in a single room for over five years. When they eventually achieve their freedom, Tremblay is exposed to a world he has never known and Larson to a world that has changed considerably during her imprisonment. Backed by Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers and Tom McCamus, this succeeds as both a psychological thriller and a tribute to love and the human spirit. A truly unique accomplishment.
Saoirse Ronan comes fully into her own as a first-rate leading lady in this evocative, nostalgic adaptation of Colm Toibin’s best-selling novel, beautifully scripted by Nick Hornsby and directed by John Crowley.
It’s a coming-of-age tale, hardly unfamiliar screen territory, but Ronan blooms before our eyes as the Irish immigrant who comes to Brooklyn in the 1950s and makes a name for herself, before being tempted by her old life when she revisits Ireland. Never once does the film lapse into maudlin sentiment or melodrama, never once does it become the soap opera it easily could have.
Paolo Sorrentino’s wistful, wildly imaginative and surprisingly moving elegy to both youth and old age may remind some viewers of last year’s Birdman for its surreal, “flight-of-fancy” tone, but Sorrentino has clearly been inspired by the works of Federico Fellini, and this is one film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the late maestro’s classics.
A health spa in Switzerland is the setting for the quirky goings-on, with Luca Bigazzi’s breathtaking cinematography equaled by Sorrentino’s playful approach and a wonderfully appealing cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda. (Youth is scheduled to open in January.)
The critical acclaim for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle’s (somewhat) speculative look at the life of techno-god Steve Jobs was almost unanimously overwhelming. So was the apathy of ticket-buyers, who missed out on a sharp, savvy entertainment that was both highly theatrical and sometimes very moving.
Michael Fassbender is superb as the mercurial Jobs, effortlessly (and appropriately) dominating the proceedings in nervy yet charismatic form, with top support from Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and especially Kate Winslet.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Yes, it’s too long, but Quentin Tarantino’s epic Western shapes up as perhaps the genre’s best offering of this century. (Admittedly, there has been a noticeable lack of competition on that front.)
With customary flavor, panache and self-indulgence – to say nothing of a fabulous ensemble cast including Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, James Parks, Zoe Bell and Channing Tatum – Tarantino has crafted one of his very best films, albeit not one for all tastes. Then again, when has Quentin Tarantino been to all tastes? (The Hateful Eight is scheduled to open in January.)
The fact-based dramatization of the controversial CBS News reports of President George W. Bush’s stint in the Texas Air National Guard was, again, critically lauded and ignored by audiences – who evidently didn’t care to revisit the issue. (Maybe it was because CBS refused to run TV spots for the film? Naahhhh “¦) With Cate Blanchett as producer Mary Mapes, upon whose book the film was based, and Robert Redford’s fascinating portrayal of legendary anchorman Dan Rather heading an excellent cast, this is a first-rate examination of the impact of news upon the corridors of power and, indeed, the impact of political power upon news. Despite some complaints from certain quarters (one can easily guess), the film isn’t necessarily one-sided; there’s plenty of room for debate. That’s one of the attributes of screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s auspicious directorial debut.
The Pixar/Disney track record may not be as pristine as it once was (Planes: Fire & Rescue, anyone?), but when it comes to first-rate entertainment for all ages, they’re still the team to beat, and they deliver again with this eye-popping, hilarious, heart-warming adventure/ comedy about human emotions.
Amy Poehler (Joy), Bill Hader (Fear), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Mindy Kaling (Disgust) and Lewis Black (who better to voice Anger?) are the conflicting moods within the mind of a little girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) who’s miserable over a recent move. To say much more would spoil the many surprises and imaginative touches the film has to offer “¦ but given its massive box-office gross, most people have already experienced them for themselves!
Hard to believe, but the first major release of 2015 would remain so freshly foul that it claimed the crown nearly 12 months later as the worst film this reviewer saw the entire year. There’s something, I suppose, to be said for that.
Once again, Liam Neeson’s on the run – this time suspected of murdering his wife (Famke Janssen gets to exit the series) – doing his best Harrison Ford Fugitive impression as he tries to convince dogged detective Forest Whitaker of his innocence while single-handedly dispatching dozens of gun-toting goons. Fortunately, the canny cop realizes that no man who brought his ex-wife warm bagels could have killed her. If that solution sounds inspired, this movie’s for you.
The raunch-comedy era would seem to be coming to a close, none too soon “¦ but far too late for this insipid, brain-dead corporate farce that sees Vince Vaughn (flop sweat present), Tom Wilkinson and James Franco in desperation mode as a trio of businessmen trying to get their careers on track. (Not doing movies like this might be a good start.)
Sienna Miller, Nick Frost and James Marsden – able actors all – also found themselves in this wreck of a movie that, despite the usual party-hearty preview attractions, barely cleared $10 million in US grosses. Clearly, audiences saw that Business was finished.
Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for The Theory of Everything and may be in contention for another in The Danish Girl after completing this long-delayed sci-fi farrago whose delay could – and perhaps should – have been indefinitely delayed. Filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski, who masterminded the wildly successful, and almost equally overrated, Matrix trilogy, aimed high with this attempt at a latter-day science-fiction franchise, one that ultimately made one long for George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels.
Redmayne’s inter-stellar villain allowed him to ham it up (before going on to greener pastures), and one couldn’t help but feel bad for a cast that deserved better: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum (as some sort of wolf-like alien), Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, Tim Pigott-Smith (currently receiving raves on Broadway as Prince Charles). Even bad sci-fi has fans, so there is something of a following out there “¦ accent on “something.”
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.:
What would seem an easy score for Guy Ritchie, adapting the much-loved (and plenty campy) NBC spy series of the ’60s became yet another box-office flop for Warner Bros., killing what could have been a fun film franchise stone dead.
Henry Cavill, the current Superman, and Arnie Hammer, the former Lone Ranger (another franchise non-starter) provided handsome but wooden contrasts as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, involved in glossy, uninspired Cold War shenanigans. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki provided glamor, Hugh Grant and Jared Harris provided exposition, and this bridge of spies sunk into the Thames head-first.
Johnny Depp can do comedy. Gwyneth Paltrow can do comedy. So can Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn and Jeff Goldblum, but this ill-conceived adaptation of the popular comic novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli was yet another potential franchise that never got out of the gate. That’s because it’s not funny.
Taking a few (tattered) pages from Swinging ’60s London and the films of Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas, the laughs are sparse and meager, leading one to consider not so much why a cast of this caliber would consent to make the film, but more important matters like the grocery list.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2
By coincidence, Chevy Chase happens to appear in both of these failed comedies, but appears so briefly he cannot be blamed. Both films are examples of successful comedy franchises that went to the well once too often – and found it had run dry.
The original Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), replete with silly concept, was a genuine surprise. The sequel was everything the original threatened to be. Resurrecting the Vacation franchise, even with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate at the wheel, indicated that some things should stay in the ’80s.
Everyone loves Reese Witherspoon. After all, isn’t she America’s Sweetheart – or at least one of them? Everyone loves Sofia Vergara, who’s proven her comedic chops on “Modern Family.” How could a big-screen pairing of these fetching, funny ladies miss? Simple: They have nothing to do here. This is just a lazy, well-worn retread of countless mismatched buddy movies (1988’s Midnight Run comes immediately to mind.)
Once again, what looked like a slam-dunk for Warner Bros. – which had a lamentable year at the box-office (Pan didn’t help matters any) – proved a sour disappointment. Even the outtakes at the end weren’t funny.
Poor Forest Whitaker. He tries hard in Taken 3 and again here, and once again his talents are squandered – this time in a cliche-riddled boxing melodrama that would have seemed dated in the ’30s.
The story of a champion boxer who loses everything but wins it all back through determination and hard work was originally earmarked for Eminem, who turned it down (think about that), and eventually played by a buff and tough Jake Gyllenhaal – another fine actor wading through this melodramatic morass.
Whitaker plays (what else?) the crusty trainer. Rachel McAdams plays Gyllenhaal’s wife, whose murder sends him spiraling into despair and ruin. Incidentally, her murder – the pivotal point of the plot – is never solved. Think about that, too. Everything Creed did right, this did wrong.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
The slick, sleek, shallow adaptation of E.L. James’ slick, sleek, shallow trilogy of best-selling novels was hyped to the heavens, insuring a huge opening weekend at the box-office. Mission accomplished. Then began a precipitous drop-off as word of mouth had gotten around and all the die-hards went the first week. (By contrast, Kingsman: Knights of the Secret Service opened the same weekend in second place, yet ended up grossing almost as much in the end.)
The heart-warming, empty-headed story of a coquettish, innocent college student (Dakota Johnson, lip-biting emphasized) seduced into a sadomasochistic relationship with hot-shot mogul Jamie Dornan was just as absurd, if not as entertaining, as promised. The consensus (predominantly women) at the end of the screening I attended was spoken aloud at the fade-out: “Is that it?” Yes, it is. And the next one promises more of the same.
Even a visionary filmmaker is entitled to fail every so often, but Guillermo del Toro’s admittedly gorgeous Gothic chiller is all style, no substance, and frequently laughable storytelling. Coming from so talented a source as del Toro makes this a crushing disappointment – although his worldwide legion of fans will strive their mightiest to capitalize on cult-classic status.
Borrowing bits and pieces from any number of sources – Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Thomas Hawthorne, Roger Corman, Dario Argento, Mario Bava and just about anyone who ever wrote a spooky sentence or directed a spooky scene, the trappings completely overwhelm the efforts of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, playing unbelievable roles in unbelievable fashion – and that is not applied in a complimentary fashion. One of the true missed opportunities of the year.