This year I saw 17 new releases (US release in 2015), mostly action blockbusters and animated family films, with a few outliers. As always, I didn’t see nearly enough to offer a comprehensive ranking (as subjective as those things are to begin with), but I can at least point to some of my favorites. (Also, I’m terrible at ranking things, so this could easily change tomorrow, and in fact has already undergone changes since I started drafting this.)
5. The Duke of Burgundy
I loved a lot about this movie, the story of a troubled dominant-submissive lesbian relationship. Director Peter Strickland’s appropriation of a 1970s European soft porn aesthetic, all soft focus and chanteuse-style pop music, is right in my postmodern wheelhouse (one of the opening credits, after “Dress and Lingerie” is for “Perfume by Je suis Gizella“). And there is a surprising streak of dry humor amidst the angst-filled meditations on control and the rigid boundaries we set for ourselves and each other. However, too many of the visual and auditory flourishes were straight out of David Lynch, particularly a sequence that felt uncomfortably indebted to Mulholland Drive, crossing the line beyond “homage.” I still liked the movie, but it may have been a victim of my high expectations.
4. Crimson Peak
After Guillermo Del Toro’s previous film, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak was a welcome return to focus on human characters and their problems, while still featuring the director’s trademark grotesque monsters (this time the bloody ghosts that haunt the titular mansion). A gloriously gloomy gothic romance, it starred a perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as siblings with a dark secret, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent caught in their web.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I was as surprised as anyone to see the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series come roaring back after a thirty year absence from the screen, but director George Miller had clearly spent the time away thinking about the logistics and meaning of his future-primitive setting. Tom Hardy is fine as the title character, but it’s really Charlize Theron’s show as the bad-ass Furiosa. In addition to updating the setting in light of concerns about environmental collapse and climate change, Fury Road gives a fiercely feminist reading of the traditionally testosterone-filled “road warrior” genre (here’s what I thought immediately after seeing it).
2. Inside Out
A return to the daring conceptual heights of Ratatouille and Wall-E, Inside Out is simply the best Pixar film in years. Unsurprisingly, Inside Out was written and directed by Pete Docter, who also created Monsters, Inc.: there’s a similar fascination with factory-like spaces and a unique “backstage” interpretation of Pixar’s usual “secret life of ______” formula. Although the focus is on Joy, Sadness, and the other personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley’s head, the film benefits from the animation studio’s increasing confidence in creating expressive human characters that don’t resemble creepy dolls. I doubt it would work as well as it does if Riley and her parents didn’t hold up their end of the story in their scenes.
1. What We Do in the Shadows
I already talked up this one as the funniest movie I had seen all year when I saw it in October, and in the two months since I haven’t seen anything to topple it from my top spot. In addition to its humor, however, What We Do in the Shadows is as tightly-plotted as an Edgar Wright film while appearing as off-the-cuff as a Christopher Guest mockumentary or The Office. It also turns out to have some clever (and often poignant) observations about family, friendship, romance, and ambition (the last represented by Jackie van Beek, a “thrall” who hopes to ascend to vampirehood, a process that resembles an unpaid internship and virtual slavery to her vampire “master”).
Honorable Mention: Speaking of Edgar Wright, like many I was disappointed when Wright left Marvel’s Ant-Man, citing creative differences. But the movie we got, directed by Peyton Reed, still has Wright’s fingerprints all over it, from the fast cutting and clever narrative tricks to the visuals, which play with scale in a number of humorous and dramatic ways. In general I’ve enjoyed the free-standing Marvel movies more than the big team-ups: as exhilarating as it is as a comic book fan to see stories overlap and interact on screen just as they do in the comics, there’s a limit to how many characters and plot lines can comfortably fit in a feature film before I stop caring about any of them.
Surprisingly Good: Home did very well for itself at the box office and mostly got decent reviews. But unless you saw it you wouldn’t know how visually inventive it is and how its sense of humor is frequently a lot weirder than the clips of Jim Parsons as an overly-literal alien shown in the trailers suggested. (I’m willing to believe that the film’s stranger touches are drawn from the book it was based on, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, but I haven’t read it.) I also appreciated the film’s emotional stakes and the revelation that Inside Out wasn’t the only family movie this year to stress the importance of empathy and accepting that sadness and grief have their place as healthy emotions. Finally, props for the good use it made of Steve Martin, who should really be considered more often as a voice actor.
Best Reboot (non-Mad Max category): I was pretty high on Star Wars: The Force Awakens after I saw it, and even after cooling off there’s still a lot I like about it. Under the new management of corporate owner Disney and director J. J. Abrams, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, visually and aurally. The return to largely practical effects is appreciated, and the new characters and their stories have some compelling hooks. As a passing of the torch to the new generation, it’s much more successful than, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which did little to make me care about Jones’ son Mutt. In fact, I liked just about everything about The Force Awakens except the plot, which is just too much of a rehash of the original 1977 film (especially considering the Death Star had already been redone in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). Considering that The Force Awakens‘ planet-sized Starkiller follows Star Trek Into Darkness, which used the same ploy of “like the Enterprise, but bigger” for its bad guy’s ship, I’m glad Abrams will be stepping aside for the next installment of the Star Wars saga. After the much-maligned prequel trilogy, however, this was probably just what was needed to right the ship and get audiences excited again.
Most Forgettable: Fortunately, this year I haven’t seen any new releases that I really hated, so I don’t have a pick for “the worst.” However, at the bottom of my list is Jurassic World, which delivered the big dinosaur action it promised but was lackluster in all other respects, both derivative and lazy. I also didn’t get much out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (see my above comments about team-ups), but unlike Jurassic World it at least had compelling characters and the advancement of the ongoing Marvel plot going for it.
2015 was also another big year for catching up on movies from the past. In addition to the second summer of exploring serials in my Fates Worse Than Death series and my successful attempt to take in 31 horror films in October, I took advantage of repertory screenings, DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and YouTube to watch a variety of older films throughout the year.
First-time non-2015 movies that I liked were (in no particular order) El Hombre y el Monstruo (a Mexican riff on Jekyll and Hyde featuring a classical pianist who has sold his soul to the devil: whenever he plays a particular piece he transforms into a murderous wolfman), Polyester, The Man Who Laughed, The Thing, Repo Man, The Wicked Lady (1945), and the double feature Grindhouse (particularly Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half, but I appreciated the spirit of the whole project). I also caught up with a few movies from 2014 that I had missed the first time around, among them The Babadook, Under the Skin (a film I respected more than loved, but which isn’t looking for my approval anyway), and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live/Die/Repeat), which did something I wouldn’t have thought possible: delivered a military sci-fi movie that both held my interest and made me care about its characters.
Worst non-2015 movie: This is easy. After seeing Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead last year, I wasn’t exactly a fan: the movie was pretty hard for me to take, both extremely gory and nerve-wracking in its disregard for conventional plotting. Still, that’s one way to make a memorable horror movie, and although I didn’t love it I was willing to explore Fulci’s filmography further. Unfortunately, the next Fulci movie I watched was 1981’s Conquest, a dismal sword-and-sorcery picture that was clearly made in work-for-hire mode. It has some stylish character designs and graphic fight scenes, and the trailer puts enough cool moments together that I expected a passable Conan the Barbarian rip-off. Alas, those moments are doled out in an extremely stingy manner and the rest is filled with walking and talking scenes that have almost no energy, resulting in a dull, lifeless slog. (As far as Fulci goes, I also ended up seeing The House by the Cemetery recently, and while I didn’t care for it much, it was a lot better than Conquest.)
That’s about it for my look back at 2015. Happy New Year, and see you in 2016!