Martians and Machines and the Dying Girl: The Best of 2015

Cautionary tones encompassed many of the best film of this year, and it's exciting to see these current and hypothetical commentaries play out in thrilling, meaningful ways on the big screen. This is what could happen if an astronaut gets stranded on Mars, underscoring the danger and dedication behind exploration pursuits of our near future; and this is what could happen if we were to develop responsive and realistic artificial intelligence, a mesmerizing warning to the hubris of science and technology that has been echoed by many of our great current thinkers. From horrific metaphors directed at the perils of unsafe sex to reminders of the consequence of investigative journalism, a lot of films in 2015 were able to strike that complicated balance between conveying a message and crafting an accessible cinematic story. That also covers Pixar's most delightful animated feature in several years, an ode to the jumble of feelings going on inside everyone and why it's healthy to acknowledge them, as well as the political overtones of feminism, resource depletion, and self-destruction found in George Miller's raucous return to the wasteland. Arranged in alphabetical order, as always, here are my picks for the ten movies -- and a few others -- that I'll be taking away from the year.

Ex Machina

The mechanics of how the human brain operates are easily comparable to the ways that a computer functions, a parallel that's produced a lineage of science-fiction in the debate over creating artificial intelligence and what, exactly, constitutes "life". With time and technological development, that conversation has evolved into a discussion around real possibilities, underscored by warnings from science's great minds. Ex Machina distills that state of the conversation into an ultra-modern lab flanked by mountains, where a scientist, brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, puts his AI program through the tests that determine the validity of its -- her -- humanity. Alex Garland displays a deft grasp on the science of the matter while constructing his haunting, thought-provoking glimpse at the realities and deceptions involved with a human's relationship with an artificial intelligence, driven by an irresistible and nuanced persona crafted by Alicia Vikander as Ava, a feasible end result of such research.

Inside Out

Pixar really needed to hit a homerun following a chain of sequels and an original work that garnered only middle-of-the-road receptions, something to prove that they've still got the magic touch when it comes to dreaming up fresh situations and characters. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they did precisely that with Inside Out by literally journeying through the mind of a child, a joyful and eloquent depiction of how feelings, reactions, and memories interact in a young girl's head as she struggles with moving away from her hometown to a new city. From the storage and longevity of defining moments in one's life to the growth of personality traits and the necessity of emotions both positive and negative, the animation studio distills the various sensations that emerge within ourselves -- Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) -- into the vessels of flawlessly-voiced characters, then reveals what happens when their checks and balances are thrown off by life's complications and circumstances. A gorgeously-crafted adventure ensues, one that's charming, thrilling, and effortlessly appealing to all ages.

It Follows

Three things make It Follows stand out from the pack of other contemporary horror films: the music, the vagueness of the rules followed by the "monster", and the blatant symbolism swirling around it. Pulsing, '80s-inspired electronic tracks match an eerie visual perspective full of long shots and voyeuristic glimpses at the victims, a group of late-teens helping their friend, Jay (Maika Monroe), after her boyfriend scares her senseless with a story about a supernatural presence that'll follow her around -- in the form of randomized people she may or may not know -- until she has sex with someone else. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell isn't entirely forthright with how this presence can and cannot endanger these kids and interact with the corporeal world, aside from a gory display at the beginning confirming that, yes, it'll kill you if you don't comply. That elusiveness, that lack of concrete knowledge on how to combat it, also opens the door for the film's unsettling metaphors about sexual promiscuity and disease, giving these morphing specters an added element of terror within this layered and surreal horror outing.

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller finally returns to his renowned post-apocalyptic environment in Mad Max: Fury Road, and the thirty years he spent away can be felt in nearly every frame of his intrepid, gorgeous trek across the wasteland. A fusion of elaborate practical effects and carefully-implemented computer wizardry form around Max Rockatansky's (Tom Hardy) flight from a tribe of captors, but his escape ends up being merely a vehicle for the true weight of the story: the parallel escape of Imperator Furiosa, luminously played by Charlize Theron, who charges ahead with five woman intended to be bred within that same tribe. Armed with a gasoline truck and anger to spare, Furiosa begrudgingly teams up with Max to embark on a journey back to her homeland in hopes of finding sanctuary, much easier said than done across the treacherous wastes with Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the tribe's determined and tyrannical leader, hot on their heels. Intricate production value, iconic dialogue, and a fierce but sincere feminist undercurrent shape into a dazzling representation of what the modern blockbuster can accomplish, both its action and its meaningfulness.

The Martian

Andy Weir spent a lot of time dedicated to the research and authenticity involved in writing a credible science-fiction adventure about an astronaut being stranded on Mars, meticulously touching on the components of survival -- water, food, shelter -- for an Earth being on the inhospitable planet. The result is humorous, insightful, and thrilling in equal measure, and would assuredly prove to be a daunting task for anyone who attempted a live-action adaptation. Up to the challenge, legendary sci-fi director Ridley Scott shook off the passable reception for Prometheus and got his hands dirty with The Martian, and his prior experience really shines in the orange-hued, harrowing journey of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he makeshifts an existence on the red planet after being left for dead during an emergency evac. The scope of the planet's eerie but handsome terrain is matched by the enormity of Watney's efforts to stay alive while waiting for NASA's next mission, either a rescue or another years-away expedition, and the suspense and jubilation that Scott evokes here becomes one of his best pictures of recent memory.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

High-school student Greg (Thomas Mann), a graduating senior who interacts with all social groups but belongs to none, attempts to mess with the audience's expectations for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: through narration, he openly discusses the nature of the film's title and how it might not match what's to happen. Whether someone believes Greg or not is up to them as they observe how he hesitantly befriends a student, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), as she undergoes the pains of coping with cancer, while his constant narration pinpointing the differences between what people might expect of their relationship based on movies and how their bond really forms amid the tough situation. That reverence for cinema can be felt throughout Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's film, adapting from author/screenwriter Jesse Andrews' novel, as Greg and his only real buddy, Earl (RJ Cyler), introduce Rachel to their passion for recreating famous movies with a comedic twist -- achieving what Be Kind Rewind couldn't in the process. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl possesses an intuitive spirit throughout, and the earnestness and warmth carry this melancholy tale to a breathtaking ending because of it.

Mr. Holmes

The character of Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed a rejuvenation in popularity over the past seven or eight years, though that regained interest has arrived in the form of revamps and/or modernized updates to the detective and his surroundings. Mr. Holmes approaches an alternate outlook on the character from a different point of view than that, illustrating how the detective (Ian McKellen) copes with aging, dementia, and alternate healing remedies as he struggles to solve his final case. The versatility of Ian McKellen's performance here might sneak under one's perception, as he essentially plays three versions of Holmes: the man whose mind has really begun to fade; an earlier and more coherent version of himself pursuing the answers to his health problems overseas; and an elder but entirely cogent manifestation of Sherlock Holmes whom tiptoes the line between the character of fiction and the person of reality while embroiled in an investigation. Surrounded by pleasantly bucolic cinematography and fueled by a plain but emotionally significant mystery, Mr. Holmes puts all the pieces together into a marvelous drama.

The Revenant

Over two-and-a-half hours of bleak, wintry desperation and unflinching violence make up The Revenant, Alejandro G. Innaritu's sprawling adventure inspired by the true story of High Glass, a fur trapper who survived a vicious bear attack, being left for dead, and other hardships throughout the frigid expanses of unsettled America. A remarkable story of determination and survival by itself -- a two-hundred mile trek coping with deep gashes and broken limbs -- becomes even more mythical through the director's unique viewpoint, using his fondness for long shots and oblique angles to capture Glass' daily scramble to stay alive and move toward the men who abandoned him. Leonardo DiCaprio speaks little as the frontiersman, often hoarse and weak due to his injuries, but the gradient of anguish and pain endured by his character renders a searing performance centered largely on his clenched, dismayed responses. While lengthy and hard-to-watch due to its persistent bloodshed, nothing in The Revenant lacks a necessary or provocative purpose, all fashioned into a brutal and beautiful portrayal of defying death.


Denis Villeneuve has a knack for hammering hard thematic material into cinematic experiences that are riveting to watch, and pairing with storied cinematographer Roger Deakins to craft his films' visual language certainly doesn't hurt in accomplishing that; their work on Prisoners transformed the touchy topic of child kidnapping and vigilantism into vigorous, gray-area suspense. Sicario takes another shot at the same dilemma: how to transform the heavy, timely content of drug trafficking between Texas and Mexico and transform it into something that audiences would want to engage. With the assistance of Deakins' eye for desolate earth tones and kinetic movement, director Villeneuve approaches the topic like an intense militarized thriller, throwing an idealistic SWAT agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), into the climate of Juarez with many of the details of her CIA-led mission kept secret. What transpires is a relentlessly tense depiction of moral ambiguity and the demands of fighting clandestine operations with equally clandestine operations, driven by the wide-eyed toughness of Emily Blunt's performance as it jibes with the enigmatic, menacing nuance of Alejandro, yet another fascinating role from Benicio Del Toro.


Frequently, there's a knee-jerk response whenever someone brings up the subject matter of Spotlight: the investigation of child abuse allegations against the Catholic church, unearthing a rampant problem that spread not only throughout Boston, but on a much grander scale. One might feel inclined to avoid it due to the discomfort involved with both its central topic and its implications to the religious institution, but that would be a grave mistake, given that far more of Tom McCarthy's drama centers on the journalistic integrity and pursuits of the Spotlight team who had to dig, and dig, and then dig some more to get to the truth of the matter. Splendid performances, led by Mark Ruffalo's diligent gusto as a field reporter and Michael Keaton's quietly distressed poise as the division's hometown editor, blend together with brisk pacing and incisive writing to underscore the enormity and necessity of investigative journalism. McCarthy makes sure that when unsettling material emerges from their findings, the gravity of it all coexists in a bracing cinematic space with the efforts and bravery required by the Spotlight team to get it out there, working this into an engaging true portrait that's not to be missed.

Honorable Mentions

Most Disappointing: Trainwreck

Don't get me wrong: Amy Schumer's first stab at writing a feature-length film, directed by none other than comedic slice-of-life veteran Judd Apatow, can be funny, sweet, and enjoyable in spurts. For those who haven't seen her variety show, Inside Amy Schumer, or her stand-up specials, like Mostly Sex Stuff, Trainwreck offers a solid primer and insight into the fictionalized version of her comedic persona, which hinges on unbridled humor about boozy shenanigans, sexual rendezvous, wonky bosses and incompatible boyfriends. Thing is, much of the material Schumer uses in her script can already be found in one form or another throughout her prior comedy, so the punchlines and gags disappoint since they frequently feel like a retread over her previous material. What keeps everything glued together is a rather ordinary yarn about a well-off yet self-destructive woman who begrudgingly undergoes some changes after meeting the right partner, which doesn't offer a whole lot to those who know what to expect of the humor laced throughout it.

Best Videogame: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

CD Projekt Red have finally discovered the right winning formula for mainstream appreciation with Wild Hunt, the third installment in the saga of Geralt, a mystical monster hunter who's frequently embroiled in politicking and social shifts while carrying out his deadly and dangerous profession. This time, however, the story has taken a much more personal detour, leading him on a search for a former pupil and daughter figure, Ciri, at the behest of her father, Emperor Emhyr, before the mythical forces of the Wild Hunt locate her first. This charge sends him galloping across the wide expanses of the Continent in a fluid and gorgeous open-world environment, where each stop on Geralt's trajectory marries rich investigative storytelling with an engaging contract system, and the tales spun about each monster he kills -- specters, griffins, and woodland gods alike -- possess as much, if not more, clever storytelling than the main plot. With responsive decisions that impact the world, intuitive dialogue that shapes different versions of Geralt, and bursts of unexpectedly emotional drama within them, Wild Hunt brings together familiar components and updates them into a notable evolution of the role-playing genre.

Favorite Blu-rays Covered in 2015 (Click Each for Review)

In Closing

In case you couldn't tell, the science-fiction geek within me got a lot of satisfaction out of 2015 ... and that was long before Star Wars swooped in at the end of the year to redeem its troubled legacy. It also crammed in a lot of substantive material within approachable and enthralling packages, blockbusters and indies and animated films alike, that gelled together into a rousing success of a year at the cinema, warts and all. Here's hoping that the upcoming twelve months will be able to deliver a slate of similarly daring and gratifying films, a daunting task to undertake that'll be interesting to observe, write about, and discuss in the times ahead. Hope you enjoyed this end-of-the-year rundown; keep in touch!


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