The Top 9 Movies of 2016

For a year that seemed as long as 2016 did, it already feels like it was an eternity ago. In addition to the feeling that glitz just isn’t as enjoyable as it was twelve short months ago, maybe that’s why awards season feels a bit less enticing this year; 2016 happened a lifetime ago, can’t we just put it to rest?

Regardless, there’s a feeling that the movie year truly ends and begins anew with the Oscars. Most of what is in theaters now are the breakout dramas of 2016 that are finally being released to cities other than L.A. and New York, or whatever the studios decided wouldn’t sell in more competitive months. After February, movies get judged as part of 2017, rather than the scraps of the previous year. And by February, thanks to delayed wide releases and conveniently leaked screeners, schmucks like me get a chance to finally catch up on the more elusive films of the previous year. While I didn’t see everything I wanted to, there were nine movies that felt a cut above the rest.

(I set the cutoff at the point where I felt comfortable not giving a shoutout to a film, although there are honorable mentions at the end)

(Oh, and all reviews and ratings, 2016 or otherwise, can be found here)

9. Green Room (RT 90%, IMDb 7.1)

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Green Room is a perfect example of what to do when suddenly given a bigger budget. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a low-budget work of wonder, and Green Room uses its extra money to beef up the cast, but maintains its predecessor’s mastery of tension through claustrophobia. Green Room is absolutely brutal stuff, but continually engaging and suspenseful rather than gratuitous. I’m incredibly excited for whatever Saulnier comes up with next.

8. Manchester by the Sea (RT 96%, IMDb 8.0)

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At what point is a movie just too damn sad? Manchester by the Sea toes that line, coming very close to plain misery porn, but finds enough humour in its ludicrously dark premise and Casey Affleck provides enough humanity to keep it from falling into absolute melodrama.

7. Little Sister (RT 95%, IMDb 6.3)

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A small-scale family drama that ends on a photo montage may seem a bit trite, but Little Sister does a fantastic job of examining how we assign stereotypes even to those we are closest to. It helps that its small cast is plenty charming, and its central brother-sister relationship is just the right kind of feel-good.

6. The Witch (RT 91%, IMDb 6.8)

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The Witch is an exercise in atmosphere, mood, and restraint. Taking a lesson from Jaws, the monster is seen early and then rarely afterwards; even when the monsters finally make a tangible impact, they do so often just off camera. But the way The Witch shows a family tear itself apart on paranoia, akin to an actual witch hunt, is a thing of unsettling mastery. The period setting adds to the consistently unnerving nature of the film, tapping into the eeriness of the woods for a constant sense of unknown danger.

5. Hell or High Water (RT 98%, IMDb 7.7)

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

One of the best qualities a film can have is a colorful and interesting world that nonetheless feels like something you could just walk right into. Hell or High Water does a remarkable thing for a neo-Western, in that it hits all the right Western vibes, but still feels distinctly modern. There’s a big hat and a great one-off scene with a cattle wrangler, but it mixes Western themes and modern rural issues into something entirely of its own. It also stages some of the finest bank robbery scenes this side of Heat, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

4. The Invitation (RT 89%, IMDb 6.7)

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Who would have thought that, aside from Manchester by the Sea, the most intriguing film about pain and grief last year would be a horror flick? The Invitation takes a setup mired in loss and turns it into a slow-burning, gut-churning suspense. It effectively asks what we would do in the same situation, asking when suspicion should turn into worry, when worry should warrant action, and what social capital might be associated with action. More than any other movie this year, in a year full of great horror movies and thrillers, The Invitation left me squirming.

3. The Handmaiden (RT 94%, IMDb 8.1)

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The Handmaiden is, at its heart, a fun heist romp. Its premise is sheer pulp, and it knows it. Hell, a major set of the characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and Park Chan-Wook has made a masterpiece of exactly that. Its unabashedly erotic and unforgettably stylish.

2. Moonlight (RT 98%, IMDb 7.9)

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Moonlight is exactly as good as the reviews say it is, and if there is justice in the world, it will walk away with Oscar gold tonight. In a world where identity politics has become a dirty word, Moonlight at once takes intersectionality incredibly seriously and deconstructs it. The main character, Chiron, is black, is gay, is poor. But this isn’t a shortcut for awards or for pity. “Who is you Chiron?”, he’s asked in the third act. “I’m me,” he responds, even if not completely sure what that means. Moonlight explores what self-identity even is with plenty of visual and narrative style, calmly low-key while being innovative in all respects.

1. The Lobster (RT 89%, IMDb 7.1)

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While movie worlds may be the most entrancing when they feel tangible, like in Hell or High Water, they’re the most fun when they hold a warped mirror to the real world. The Lobster puts its satire on thick; no one would call its take on couples culture subtle. But it is sharp and multifaceted, inviting drunken dissections that can go on for at least the length of the film itself. It’s also one of the damn funniest deadpan black comedies ever made; poor Biscuit Woman alternatively makes me wince and laugh just thinking about her. For all its batshittery, The Lobster was the best time I had in theaters last year.

Honorable MentionsGhostbusters, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, La La Land, Don’t Think Twice, Tickled, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Into the Forest, Sleeping Giant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Christine

Haven’t Yet Seen: Paterson, Jackie, Elle, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, 20th Century Women, Tower, Cameraperson, The Witness, Captain Fantastic, OJ Made in America, The Saleman, Toni Erdmann, Krisha, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Silence, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

One of my favourite details about Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a small one about air transit. When The Bride travels to Tokyo to face O’Ren Ishii, she brings her sword on the plane. She doesn’t check the sword; she just carries it with her to her seat. Kill Bill came it in 2003, near the height of TSA mania, so this was obviously not an oversight, but I also don’t think it was simply a rule-of-cool moment either. I think Tarantino wanted to imply that the world of Kill Bill was one where The Bride’s story was unique, but not unbelievable. One where “assassin” was just a particularly exciting job option, maybe even with a booth at the school fair. In that tiny shot, Tarantino defined the structure of the entire universe of his film.

John Wick, which I’ll go to bat for as one of the best films of 2014, has a similar conceit. Wick is part of none-too-secret assassin’s guild, which has its own currency and lavish hotel. The first film used this for two main reasons, comedic relief and lending some in-universe plausibility to the absolute chaos that Wick creates. It’s a slapdash bit of mythos that allows you to enjoy the headshot ballet without worrying about real-world ramifications, but is entirely tangential to the revenge narrative. John Wick 2, on the other hand, leans entirely on this mythos, relying on it to kick off, propel, and wrap up its plot. In doing so, it reveals just how derivative this conceit is; scenes where Wick uses the guild armory to load up feel like a rehash of Kingsman, of all things, and no new interesting characters are introduced on the management side aside from the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. The mythos provides the bones well enough, but little in terms of narrative muscle.

In fact, the whole first half is a bit of a slog. A high-ranking guild financier calls in an old favor from Wick, asking him to assassinate a rival for a position on the guild board. Wick then ends up the enemy of both factions, each represented in action sequences by their dragons, played Common and Ruby Rose. The machinations behind this are related to the simple but arcane guild rules, and never feel as urgent or intimate as the revenge motivation of the first film. It has its villain pose a similar moment of personal affront to Wick early on, but it feels like a weaker retread of “kill dog, steal car”. The villain throughout the whole movie is pretty weak and unmemorable, highlighting just how underappreciated Michael Nyqvist was in the original. For a fair portion of the first half, it becomes a bit difficult to agree with Wick, and when he mows down a group of guards that he provoked himself, its almost enough to call the movie on its nihilism.

But when it comes together, hot damn does it come together. Around the halfway mark, the shoe finally drops, starting with an absolutely thrilling catacomb shootout and not stopping until the credits roll. At this point, the universe comes to life, including a magnificent extended sequence where seemingly everyone everywhere on the streets is out to get Wick. Even though the main villain never quite works, Common and Ruby Rose are both good presences, managing to come across as genuine threats to the nigh-invulnerable Wick and also injecting some much-needed personality. The camerawork clicks too, with a museum providing a consistently interesting and unique backdrop to Wick’s violent opera, in addition to the aforementioned catacombs. Director Chad Stahelski still opts for relatively long (for a modern action movie), smoothly swerving takes, allowing us to appreciate every detail of the fight choreography even as it flies past us. While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.

B+

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John Wick: Chapter Two (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Ruby Rose, and Ian McShane

Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • I called Wick nigh-invulnerable, but he does get shot and stabbed more than once. However, after a quick bandage, he’s back on his feet and back to kicking ass. Die Hard this is not (nor does it have to be!).
  • SPOILERS: The point I’m getting at with losing Wick’s sympathy is when he kills Gianna, and then takes out a group of her guards. He’s acting as an unprovoked assassin here, so it’s tough to not sympathize with the guards, and also makes Common’s Cassian seem briefly like a potential side-hero. The movie seems aware of this, as it throws in a scene where Gianna threatens a competitor’s children to make sure we have no sympathy for her, but it still feels morally a bit uneasy momentarily. Thankfully, Ruby Rose’s Areas comes along to betray Wick immediately afterwards and give him enough moral high ground to kill about fifty people and keep our sympathy afterwords.
  • SPOILERS: I’m still a little upset that Wick and Cassian never teamed up; Cassian understands that Wick was the tool, not the brain, behind the assassination, and Wick was going after the guy who put the wheels in motion. While I’m sure he would have turned down a team-up, I was waiting the whole damn movie for one of them to at least bring up the possibility.
John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

La La Land is a destination worth the journey

Hot damn, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. Whiplash, the best movie of 2014, ended with one hell of a bang, a rebellious drumming extravaganza that hit an insane number of climactic character beats while also working incredibly well of sheer spectacle alone. Chazelle’s latest, La La Land, similarly sticks the landing, and its final ten minutes left me an absolute wreck. In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo. If you subscribe to the school of moments-make-a-movie, La La Land is probably the best picture of the year. But while the rest of the movie builds beautifully to that last hurrah, its less engaging than one might expect, with most of the musical numbers working just well enough and the plot mechanics feeling all too familiar.

La La Land opens with a big musical number, as commuters hop out of their cars in L.A. to sing a sunny ditty about their dreams to make it big, putting a smile on their professional anxiety. It’s a fun sequence, if not a bit over-hyped, but after that and an opening number for Stone at a Hollywood party, La La Land turns into much less of a theatrical musical than advertised. It wouldn’t be a Chazelle film without a reliance on music, but only on four or so occasions throughout does it call on its characters to sing (at least in a non-diegetic fashion; on a related note, word of the day: Diegesis). This might disappoint some of the musical theater fans out there, but it works for the film. In their first real meeting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get to connect through singing in an adorable and adorably rickety meet-cute (they aren’t quite Rogers and Astaire). But their second big coupley moment is entirely instrumental, and finds Chazelle at his most directorially creative. And it works perfectly for Gosling and Stone, who have an immediate chemistry that the entire film is built around. Stone in particular fleshes out a familiar character type in interesting ways, becoming the true beating heart of the film. Even though the title portends to be about Hollywood as a whole, the film is intimately focused on these two characters, to the point where the third-billed actor has maybe two minutes of screen time. The tight focus helps, as even when the movie loses its grip here and there, the core relationship at the centre is always believable and worth rooting for.

La La Land is nakedly in love with the past, and some of its more interesting moments come from mixing old-fashioned tropes with the new (such as key fob woes translating to spontaneous tap dancing). Chazelle also has occasional unromanticized streaks, letting his camera focus on the cracked sidewalks that could come from anywhere in the world (and, you know, that whole traffic jam musical number). But this is a movie where an attempt to modernize jazz is mocked (if not utterly dismissed), and Chazelle seems to take that sentiment to heart. While it modernizes some old tropes, it doesn’t reinvent them, and comes up a bit short of a revolution (which is a lot to ask of any movie, but the buzz around La La Land earns the request). It takes more time in the middle than it should, and by the end, maybe believes in the dream of Hollywood a bit too much itself. While not as optimistic as its cast of commuters, this is certainly a less cynical film than Whiplash was. But, once again, I keep coming back to that final act in my head. Even if its a bit of an uneven journey, the destination is an absolute triumph.

B+

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La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

La La Land is a destination worth the journey

The Handmaiden is extremely artful pulp

Non-English movie trailers will sometimes go very far out of their way to hide the fact that their film isn’t in English. The trailer for Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, follows this tradition, and is incomprehensible as a result. It is, however, one of the most striking trailers of the year, and promises a pretty visually distinct piece of film. I’m happy to say that, while The Handmaiden is not what I expected based on the trailer alone, it lives up to that promise, marrying arresting film-making with a twisty narrative.

Park Chan-wook’s films, in a way, feel like a distant cousin of Quentin Tarantino’s (who championed his breakout, Oldboy). The Handmaiden at it’s best contains similar stylistic touches, such as denoted act breaks and nonlinear narratives, and it’s plot certainly has a lot in common with Western con movies. Effectively, the movie concerns itself with the relationship between three characters in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea: wealthy isolated heiress Hideko, grifter posing-as-noble Fujiwara, and petty thief turned handmaid Sook-hee. Fujiwara enlists Sook-hee to be his eyes and ears as he tries to marry Hideko from under her abusive uncle’s nose, but Sook-hee and Hideko soon find themselves drawn more towards each other. It’s fun to watch it all unfold, although those expecting a mind-blowing twist in the vein of Oldboy may be let down; while the movie is quite far from traditional, its plot machinations are fairly traditional (although very engaging).

What pushes the film up quite a bit is Park’s style. Most of the film takes place in Hideko’s mansion, which crosses English and Japanese architecture much like Park wears his English and Asian filmmaking influences on his sleeve. The movie threatens to be a haunted house flick briefly, and many times evokes Park’s early gothic drama Stoker. But Park and production designer Ryu Seong-hee give the film a vibe of its own, selling the oppressive opulence of Hideko’s life. Moments of pitch-black humour help to cut the tension effectively, including the best noose gag ever filmed. Where Park’s instincts falter a bit is when it seemingly exploits the Sook-hee/Hideko relationship for pure titillation value. To its credit, even the exploitation isn’t without thematic relevance; a subset of characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and the closing moments cement the idea that Park set out to make exactly that. But the narration and interaction sells the attraction between the two well enough, which leaves the explicit scenes feeling a bit superfluous.

Even if a bit exploitative, The Handmaiden is a sharp, stylistic, and engaging piece of liar’s fiction. It successfully creates a universe of its own and fills it with memorable images, characters, and moments. It has plenty of bite, but also an underlying sweetness that’s a bit surprising from Park. I can’t wait to watch it again.

A-

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The Handmaiden [Agassi] (2016)
Dir. Park Chan-wook
Starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jim-woong Jo, and Jung-woong Ha
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

The Handmaiden is extremely artful pulp

Sully is a toothless tribute

Movies about recent events that use still-living people as their basis can be tricky, as its natural to try to celebrate their best qualities and not smear the name of anyone who’s still around to be upset. Sully, Clint Eastwood’s new film celebrating the Miracle on the Hudson and the pilot (Chelsey Sullenberger) who successfully ditched the passenger plane in the river, certainly paints a kind portrait of every person involved, from the crew of the jet to seemingly the entire city of New York. Its a hard movie to get upset about, but its also completely devoid of dramatic tension, and while it flirts with some thematically interesting  bits on gaslighting and hero worship, it ultimately has no more insight and asks no more questions than the news coverage of the event already did.

The movie doesn’t open with the actual events of the miracle on the Hudson, and for a moment it seemed as if it would trust its audience enough to not bother re-enacting them. However, halfway through, the movie flashes back to the incident, showing it through the eyes of the air traffic controllers, the boats on the river, the passengers, and the crew, but there’s no revelation in any of this. Since the movie has already told us that everyone made it out safely, there’s no dramatic tension even for those who know nothing of the real story. It doesn’t provide insight into Sully’s character, as the first act and the mere casting of Tom Hanks already tells us that he’s capable, relatable, and good-hearted. Instead, the main event is rendered a pointless sideshow that distracts from the only interesting plot point in the movie: Sully’s self-doubt. A safety board investigation runs throughout the movie, doubting whether Sully had to ditch the plane or if a safe landing was possible. There’s no doubt that the board will eventually see things Sully’s way, but there is very briefly doubt that Sully believes in himself. There’s just not enough material in that to mine for drama without allowing for a bit of bite, or at least a less hagiographic tribute to Sully.

Even at 96 minutes, it quickly runs out of things to say, ending on the equivalent of a rimshot and an “oh you!”. As a reenaction, Sully is at least well filmed. Eastwood stages some striking shots during the flashbacks, particularly once the plane is afloat, and its evocations of 9/11 are certainly no accident. Hanks is warm and likable, but its the kind of role he could play in his sleep. Aaron Eckhart is a nice presence as first officer Jeff Skiles, whose relative lack of fame next to Sully gives Eckhart a bit more room to maneuver. He exudes a low-key charm, and puts up a strong claim for Mustache of the Year. That being said, the positivity of the movie is refreshing, celebrating the coming together of a city and unqualified triumph in the face of disaster. It’s unchallenging and often hackneyed, but surely watchable, and an effective-enough time capsule of one of the most dramatic near-misses in aviation history.

C

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Sully (2016)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)

Sully is a toothless tribute

Quick thoughts on The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is a difficult movie to critique, simply because it’s pre-release buzz and controversy overshadow it to such an extreme degree. There’s an implicit bias to like the movie simply because of the story its telling without a white director in the chair, but Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s history of sexual assault puts a rather strong damper on that enthusiasm. I’ll admit right away that I can’t provide an objective analysis, both because of these external pieces of knowledge and because of my own separation from the source material as a white non-American without in-depth knowledge of this corner of history, but nonetheless, I have some issues with The Birth of a Nation that don’t prevent it from being quite striking at times.

Nate Parker is credited as the lead actor, director, producer, and writer for The Birth of a Nation, and while his complete and utter ownership of the project is commendable, his position as the centre of the film shows clearly on screen. He’s a fine presence as Nat Turner, but in its laser-focus, nearly every other character feels flat. The movie finds its way to the rebellion in a very workmanlike way, piling trauma upon trauma on until an inevitable snapping point (including, uncomfortably, two major instances of sexual assault), but rarely with much nuance. Parker stumbles on the odd arresting visual along the way, such as a recurring dream sequence in the woods or a white child leading a slave on a leash, but misses just as often, such as with a recurring angelic vision of Cherryanne or a smash cut to bleeding corn. But there’s depth to the story that is mostly glossed over. As presented, Turner’s relationship to his owner Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, is a dramatic gold mine, as the two grew up together yet find their power dynamic greatly shifted when the senior Turner passes. As it stands, Samuel is a parable of deserved damnation to those who claim virtuousness by simply being “not the literal worst”, but the interpersonal dynamic isn’t fully explored. The movie also skirts the morality of the rebellion, avoiding the murders of the children of the plantations. Given the circumstances, it’s possible to make Turner a sympathetic figure even with said moral crises, but avoiding the issue entirely sanitizes the rebellion to (rightful) revenge porn. The score also seems to be something out of a costume-drama bargain bin, although it makes tremendously affecting use of Nina Simone in the late going.

While The Birth of a Nation isn’t as engrossing as it should be, it tells a story worth telling with a reasonable amount of panache. The most evocative piece of the whole work may be its title, reclaimed from an early-20th-century KKK-boosting epic. It suggests a very different birth of America, one built of a very different revolution. For that alone it earns points.

B-

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Penelope Ann Miller
Rotten Tomatoes (74%)

Quick thoughts on The Birth of a Nation

My Top Movies of 2015

I love end-of-year list season. I don’t know why, but subjective rankings of fiction just works for me. In celebration of list season, here are my personal favourite movies of 2015. I haven’t seen nearly every movie this year, but I tried to see all of the major awards contenders. I’ll mention some of the notable absences, along with my pick for worst picture of the year, at the end. Out of the subset I did catch, the following were pretty fantastic!

The top movies of 2015.

16. Anomalisa (RT 92%, IMDb 7.5)

Charlie Kaufman is likely the most reliably original major screenwriter working, and Anomalisa certainly continues that trend. He’s in comfortable territory, once again crafting a wild cinematic experience through allusions to delusions. There’s room for debate on how sympathetic the main character is (I say he’s not at all, but that its still compelling), but Anomalisa is clearly an affecting and memorable piece of work. See it blind though; this is a movie worth avoiding spoilers for.

15. The Overnight (Rotten Tomatoes 81%, IMDb 6.2) (On Netflix)

The Overnight promotes itself as zany, and zany it is. A story about a dinner party that very quickly reveals itself as a potential swinger situation, it plays its first major gag far too strongly such that the remainder seems believable by comparison. It works, and the rest of the movie is hilarious even when quiet, and the great cast of four manage to sneak in some honest-to-goodness character work. It’s a funny and quick 90 minute excursion into bohemian quasi-cringe humour, and an admirable showcase for the prosthetic penis makers of Hollywood.

14. Sicario (RT 93%, IMDb 7.7)

As much as I’ve found things to like in the last two films by Denis Villeneuve (Enemy and Prisoners), Sicario is the first unqualified English-language success for the Quebec director. Sicario sees Emily Blunt slowly squeezed out of her own movie, making the viewer’s perspective on her marginalization all the more visceral. The movie ends incredibly strongly, and in a year where Supporting Actor is relatively empty, Benicio del Toro simply demands recognition. Most memorably, the border shootout is among the tensest film moment of the year.

13. Inside Out (RT 98%, IMDb 8.3) (On Netflix)

Pixar has been in a slight relative slump as of late (when Brave counts as a slump, that’s a good sign), but any doubts that they could still create movies that stand up to their classics were firmly quashed with Inside Out. It’s as conceptually original and earnestly emotionally devastating as any of us would expect from them, and deals with depression in an insightful way. The 2D sequence alone is enough to show the creative juices still flow, and the tragedy of Bing Bong beautifully affords a genuine and touching arc to a ridiculous character.

12. Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (RT 93%, IMDb 8.4)

There were many ways that The Force Awakens could have gone. With Abrams in the director’s chair, a polished product was a guarantee, but would it have the right voice? The first new Trek was enjoyable, but was distinctly not Star Trek. Thankfully, Abrams and co. pulled through, and The Force Awakens was not only a lot of fun, it just felt like Star Wars, with its lived-in and dirty universe and glorious puppets. The new trio of main characters are all compellingly written and wonderfully cast, Kylo Ren is a fantastically flawed villain as opposed to a Vadar rehash, and reconnecting with the old trio was every bit as uplifting as expected. It copies the beats of A New Hope a bit too closely (particularly with Death Star 3), but it sets up the sequels in a very important way: it let’s us know that Star Wars can still be Star Wars.

11. Brooklyn (RT 98%, IMDb 7.6)

On paper, Brooklyn looks like a traditionally weepy period romance. What doesn’t come across on paper is how much spark it has. Brooklyn’s period setting is not only window dressing, it truly builds its world into a quasi-fantasy setting that nonetheless feels very alive. Saorise Ronan is a fantastically compelling lead, and Emory Cohen’s New Yawk love interest borders on cliche but is saved by Cohen’s insane amount of charisma. The love triangle that eventually develops works because its not really about the romantic pairings; its about choosing whether to keep your roots or start anew. At its heart, its timeless.

10. The Hateful Eight (RT 75%, IMDb 8.0)

I’m a Tarantino apologist in a strong way, but The Hateful Eight is certainly patience-testing. It takes a long time to set up, and that setup is chock full of casual racism and misogyny. But when it gets going, it turns into an extended riff on the bar scene of Inglourious Basterds or the stage-play effect of Reservoir Dogs. This is a Tarantino whodunit in the guise of a Western, and it results in some of his most memorable moments. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, and Demian Bichir (and Kurt Russel’s mustache). If you dislike Tarantino, The Hateful Eight likely won’t work for you,  but its an absolute treat for the faithful.

09. Son of Saul (Saul fia) (RT 95%, IMDb 7.9)

Holocaust dramas have a deserved reputation as bleak slogs that are designed to depress people into giving them Oscars (no matter how good Schindler’s List and The Pianist actually are). Son of Saul is certainly bleak, but it is far from a slog; its a lean 1h45, and through its story beats and camera techniques feels utterly distinct from its bretheren. Filmed entirely in close-up, Son of Saul blurs the horrors of Auschwitz by keeping you with Saul but also makes it impossible to look away. It also works very well as a character study (its Kaufmanesque in a sense), with Saul’s motivations never spelled out despite him being our sole viewpoint. It’s a trip through the depths of hell, and a very memorable one.

08. Spotlight (RT 96%, IMDb 8.2)

The journalists-on-a-mission genre has a solid pedigree, but hasn’t shown up in a big way recently. Spotlight is an stupendously entertaining throwback to a classical kind of filmmaking: no tricks, no gimmicks, just great actors and a great story. The ensemble works together fantastically, with no one performer attempting to selfishly upstage the production (which may be why it doesn’t have a hope at the individual acting nominations). The story itself is well known, and they avoid over-sensationalizing an already sensational story. It’s brick-and-mortar, but its enticing stuff.

07. Creed (RT 94%, IMDb 7.9)

Like The Force Awakens, Creed sticks to its predecessors blueprint so strongly that you could argue it does nothing new. Also like The Force Awakens, it builds exceptionally on the story beats of the original to create something fresh and fantastic. In updating Rocky for the modern age, Creed throws in some new tracks (the long-take boxing match is absolutely stunning) while having a very classical feel and uplift. Michael B. Jordan continues his world takeover with a charismatic lead performance, and Sylvester Stallone is the best he’s been since, well, Rocky. The loveable lug had a decent swan song in Rocky Balboa, but Creed is a much better, emotionally affecting take on the later years of an athlete. I’m not sure if I want Creed 2 (lest it be like Rocky 2), but Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone have made a worthy and worthwhile capper to the Rocky franchise.

06. Clouds of Sils Maria (RT 89%, IMDb 6.8) (On Netflix)

Clouds of Sils Maria is easy to dismiss as pretentious, but its about pretentious actors, so maybe its not such an insult. Obviously, its a beautiful movie, taking place in the Swiss alps. But its also a weirdly enjoyable buddy drama, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart bouncing off of each other with incredible chemistry. It’s dense, and I need to see it again to fully unpack it, but even its surface-level discussion of aging in an industry based on youth is compelling. It presents itself as capital-f Film, but when the film is this engrossing, its forgivable.

05. Room (RT 95%, IMDb 8.3)

Out of the movies that should have a legitimate shot at Best Picture, Room is truly the best. It should be a festival of misery and discomfort based on its subject matter, and it manages to be watchable despite not necessarily flinching. Were it a story of survival, this wouldn’t be possible. Instead, its a story about parenting, and a fantastic one at that. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both fantastic. Larson let’s us in on Ma’s strength while surrounded in hopelessness, and director Lenny Abrahamson does a fantastic job of keeping us in Tremblay’s point of view, even if some additional narration was necessary. Room provides a cathartic tearjerker to be sure, but it relates its extraordinary machinations to relatable experiences. More than a quick cry, Room has the thematic depth to give it real weight.

04. Ex-Machina (RT 92%, IMDb 7.7) (On Netflix)

Ex-Machina finds itself in the Moon position this year as the indie sci-fi phenomenon which dives into a single concept with aplomb. Even though the effects are impressive (and effective when diving into body horror), its a much more cerebral film and mostly an actor’s showcase. The three leads are all up to the challenge, with Oscar Isaac proving himself a chameleon and Alicia Vikander announcing her presence in a big way (how she’s up for an Oscar for The Danish Girl and not this astounds me). Some have problems with the ending, but it worked for me. Some have problems with the dance sequence, but that may be my favorite single scene of 2015. It’s an excellent slice of sci-fi, and director/writer Alex Garland is clearly someone to watch closely.

03. Cartel Land (RT 90%, IMDb 7.4) (On Netflix)

Cartel Land is shocking in not only its subject matter, but in just how it exists. Director Matthew Heineman somehow got his camera in live raids and operations of a group of Mexican citizens rebelling against the cartels. Live fire is exchanged, a hostage is questionably questioned. It’s compelling, tense, visceral, and grim. It’s main subject, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, is fascinatingly flawed. The American counterpart, Nailer Foley, isn’t nearly as compelling, but serves as an interesting counterpoint and the contrast is stark. Its ambiguities really sell it though; it avoids easy answers or editorializing, forcing the viewer to question everything they see. It’s maybe an unsolvable riddle, but one that needs to be considered.

02. It Follows (RT 97%, IMDb 6.9) (On Netflix)

Lately, it seems like the best horror movies either smirk their way through it (Cabin in the Woods) or are really dramas at heart (The Babadook). It Follows is a great movie in many ways, but its a great horror movie in the truest sense: its very very scary. Its central conceit, that the monster can look like anyone and will always walk towards you very slowly, is the kind of thing that could have been very jokey, but it quickly dispenses with that by showing just how brutal it really is. There is clearly subtext in how the haunting spreads (its sexually transmitted), but its not heavy handed. Maika Monroe continues her domination of the indie scene, and has a great take on the Final Girl trope. It’s terrifying to watch and exceptional to dissect, and an instant classic.

01. Mad Max: Fury Road (RT 97%, IMDb 8.2)

How could anything else hope to top Mad Max? A genre film this bonkers usually is received as divisive, but Mad Max is unquestionably a great work. It’s something of an update of The Road Warrior, but much more consistent and with a much bigger budget. Rather than using that budget to get lazy with CGI, Mad Max is a beautifully practical film with an insane aesthetic. On top of how great it looks, its also wonderfully quotable and populates its world with memorable characters. Obviously Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the centrepiece, but populating the fringes really makes the movie: characters like Rictus Erectus, the Bullet Farmer (from the bullet farm, naturally), and the Doof Warrior leave impressions just through sheer presence. On top of all this, its the most thrilling movie of the year by a huge margin. Its essentially one very long action sequence, which only hits the brakes sporadically and yet somehow has enough narrative thrust to be consistently engaging. The first chase is a masterclass in building a scene, and the final is insanely packed without every being unclear. There were a lot of great movies in 2015, but Mad Max’s grip on my #1 spot has never been in doubt.

Stray Picks and Outliers

  • Shorts don’t count I guess, but go find a way to stream Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow. It’s twenty minutes well spent, and maybe exactly what you’d expect from the creator of Rejected with fifteen years of maturity added. It’s bonkers and incredibly touching.
  • Slow West and Tangerine were both too messy to really stick, but were among the most distinctive films of the year. They didn’t entirely work as a whole, but individual moments within make them must-sees.
  • Speaking of westerns, it was a good year for them. In addition to The Hateful Eight and Slow West, Bone Tomahawk barely missed the list, I’m in the minority for being lukewarm on The Revenant, and I’ve heard great things about Jauga.
  • Alongside Kingsman and San Andreas, Unfriended stands out as one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. A short, sweet, and stupid horror movie that executes its flimsy premise to the fullest extent.
  • Meanwhile, although far from terrible, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was one of the year’s biggest disappointments for me. The actual biggest disappointment crown, though, goes to the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, which has plenty of good ideas mixed with even more bad ones.
  • With the major exception of Mad Max, it was not a great year for the summer blockbuster. Avengers 2 was exceptionally mediocre, and Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys and Spectre were straight-up awful. There were some solid options outside the sequels though: Kingsman: The Secret Service and San Andreas were both far more fun than expected, and The Martian (which narrowly missed the list) was one hell of a crowdpleaser.
  • As for the notables from this year missing from the list, Beasts of No NationCarol, Bridge of Spies, and Straight Outta Compton were all solid enough, but I didn’t connect strongly with any of them. The Revenant was beautiful, but a slog, and The Big Short was certainly fun edutainment but rather poor as a drama or comedy.
  • If I had to round out  top 20, throw in Kingsman, The Martian, Bone Tomahawk, and the compelling documentary Approaching the Elephant, which examines a Lord of the Flies scenario developing in an experimental school system.
  • Hollywood VIP of the year: Domhnall Gleeson’s agent. Gleeson is a nice presence, but how did he end up in so many big films this year? The Revenant, Brooklyn, Ex-Machina, and even Star Wars! When will Gleesonmania end!?

Still To See

  • On the foreign film front, I still very much need to see at least PhoenixThe Assassin, and Mustang.
  • On the documentary front, The Look of Silence and Amy are high on my to-see list.
  • The premise of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, based on a real-life story about someone looking for the buried treasure of Fargo, is so batshit that I’m ashamed I haven’t found the movie yet.
  • Chi-Raq looks bonkers enough to be either brilliant or awful.
  • While for some reason the franchise hasn’t worked for me since the first, I can’t ignore how much good press Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation has. Well, I’ve ignored it so far, but I should cave eventually.
  • I still haven’t seen the previous three, so a marathon is in order before I can get on board with the rest of modern society on Furious 7.

Worst Movie of 2015

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The Water Diviner (RT 63%, IMDb 7.1 somehow)

Dear fuck I hated this movie. Russell Crowe has psychic powers or something and flirts with Olga Kurylenko for some reason and cries a lot because he wants an award again I think. For a movie as batshit crazy as it is, it doesn’t even have the decency to be interesting.

Runners-up: SpectreTerminator: Genisys

My Top Movies of 2015