Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Best Films of 2015

It's the end of another year, which means it's time for my Best Films of 2015 list! As with last year, this includes the best movies, best scores, and best trailers from all of last year. Admittedly, there have been a lot of movies that I've wanted to see this year that I just never got a chance to watch before writing this post. Those movies include many that could have possibly found a place on this list, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Steve Jobs, The Revenant, Concussion, The Good Dinosaur, and Spotlight to name a few. However, as I'm more of a blockbuster movie kind of guy, I decided to focus my limited time, energy, and resources reviewing the films that most people would be seeing. With that in mind, here is my list of the best films of 2015!

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Honorable Mentions

While I was hoping this film would make an appearance much higher on this list, Spectre was still an entertaining sequel to the masterful blockbuster that was 2012's Skyfall. Bringing back familiar Bond tropes while showing us things we've never seen in a 007 movie, Spectre did a pretty good job of blending the old with the new in a relatively novel way. The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, even if the subsequent plot doesn't quite measure up (particularly the love story).

Now, lest you consider me a hater of this movie because it didn't make my top 10, let me just say that The Martian is easily one of the most entertaining films of the year. What ruins the experience a little bit for me was not only the extraordinary hype this movie was generating, but also its lack of any real substance behind its narrative. Sure, we all enjoy seeing Matt Damon play the cocky guy with all the answers, and no one can see the situation he's in and not feel some amount of sympathy for his plight. However, the most interesting scenes in the movie was when NASA had to work around bureaucratic red tape in order to right the wrong they committed in the first place by leaving him on Mars. Still, The Martian is incredibly fun despite it's lack of depth, and it wasn't easy to leave it out of my top 10.


What a pleasant surprise this movie was! After the goofy pratfalls and overabundance of slapstick comedy that dominated the teaser trailer for this film, I had very low expectations for Paddington. However, this was hardly the childish affair I was fearing it to be. Instead, we got a clever, witty update to the classic character with genuine heart and humor that adults can enjoy just as much as children. Packed with familiar faces, this is one of the cutest movies of the year and one that should have been a bigger hit at the box office. Grab this film on Red Box for the family if you haven't seen it yet!

Speaking of surprises that came out of nowhere, I had no idea what The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was until I showed my parents the trailer and they explained its 1960's TV origins. This and the combined talent of director Guy Ritchie (whose first Sherlock Holmes film is criminally underrated), and actor Henry Cavill (who is the perfect Superman, in my book) made me seek this out relatively early on in its theatrical run. It's a fast-paced, exciting action thriller with tons of humor and excellent chemistry between its two leads. Though the box office numbers may not justify it, I sincerely hope we get a sequel before too long.

While this was on my most anticipated list at the beginning of 2015, the fact that it just missed out on the top 10 list at the end of the year isn't a statement on my feelings about it. In fact, it may have slightly exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways (particularly with Michael Douglas). Ant-Man is a nice change of pace for Marvel, and one that does an interesting job of setting up for Phase 3, and this summer's Captain America: Civil War in particular. While the villain is pretty generic and parts of the emotional journey don't hold up on multiple viewings, I think the character of Ant-Man is a great addition to the Avengers, and I really hope to see more of Hank Pym in a future sequel as well.

Top 10 Films of 2015

This is a series that continues to get better the longer it goes, which is practically unheard of with Hollywood franchises (just look at the Terminator series). Tom Cruise outdoes himself with death-defying stunts that make his acrobatics outside the tallest building in the world in Ghost Protocol look like child's play. Christopher McQuarrie does a tremendous job writing and directing a meaningful, complicated story that keeps you guessing all the way through. Top that off with a creepy villain, a great group of supporting characters, and an ominous score and you get probably the best movie of the entire M:I series.

How cute was this movie?! It also didn't make it into my most anticipated list, but its combination of nostalgia and cleverly executed humor completely won me over within seconds of watching the first trailer, let alone the movie itself. The lack of modern technology makes this a bit of a time capsule to simpler times, and hopefully this will bring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts crew back for a new generation to enjoy. Here's hoping they make a sequel!

#8   Bridge of Spies

I just barely caught up on this one, but it didn't take long to realize that it was worthy of a spot on this list. Steven Spielberg is such a master storyteller that he can make even the most seemingly mundane interactions fascinating to watch. Not that Bridge of Spies is boring, mind you. The conflicts depicted in this film are not only gripping and suspenseful, but also culturally relevant to our time. Plus, the acting across the board is top notch, especially with Tom Hanks (no surprise there) and Best Supporting Actor hopeful, Mark Rylance.

#7   Cinderella

So far, each film in this list shares a common characteristic... none were mentioned in my top 10 most anticipated films of 2015. I certainly wasn't expecting Cinderella to be one of the best films of the year when I first went to see it, but two hours later I walked out with tears in my eyes having just seen one of the best live action Disney adaptations ever made. Kenneth Branagh does a wonderful job of bringing this familiar story to life in a new way, and somehow manages to flesh out the character even further than we've even seen it done before. The acting is great and the production design is beautiful, but the real standout is the score by Patrick Doyle (which I'll talk about more below). All-around, Cinderella is a magical experience!

It shows how strong of a year we've had when a movie I really loved doesn't crack the top 5. While Mockingjay Part 1 left me a little unfulfilled with its fractional storytelling (though I still enjoyed it), Part 2 picks up the slack and gives us all the spectacle as well as the emotional satisfaction that a finale is supposed to deliver. Jennifer Lawrence is as great as ever, but it's Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark that really comes into his own during this movie. If nothing else, Mockingjay Part 2 finally makes us understand the love triangle and even picks a clear favorite that we can all fully support. Its ending is an obvious standout, and the epilogue is one of the most touching scenes of 2015.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a flat-out entertaining film with loads of action scenes and humor that will make it almost impossible for viewers not to have fun. Despite the backlash this film has suffered, it's still one of the better Marvel films out there, and even improves upon the first Avengers movie in many respects. Ultron as a villain is pretty much on par with Loki in my opinion, and his minions are far more formidable than the Chitauri from the first film. Cap that off with the introduction of new characters like Scarlet Witch and Vision and this is instantly unlike any other Marvel movie we've seen. Bring on the Civil War!

#4   Inside Out

Inside Out is overflowing with imagination and heart, which have become Pixar staples over the last two decades. Though they recaptured Oscar gold with Brave (a movie I love despite the mixed  audience response), there were many who felt that the animation powerhouse was in a bit of a nosedive following the one-two punch of Cars 2 and Monsters University. All of these fears were instantly silenced the moment Inside Out was released, garnering a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly making every grown man and woman openly weep. The themes of losing childhood memories with the onset of puberty is one that every adult can relate to, and the kids will love it because of its vibrant colors, hilarious dialogue, and imaginative visual flair. Inside Out is not only one of the best films of the year, but it's also one of the best Pixar films ever made.

Yes, its box office was eclipsed by another highly anticipated blockbuster, but that doesn't stop Jurassic World from being one of the most entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking films of 2015. Featuring a fully-functioning park with tens of thousands of patrons per day, this movie finally shows the fulfillment of John Hammond's vision. Everyone says that it too closely mimics the first movie, and while they're not entirely wrong, the thematic concerns of Jurassic World are pretty unique. Not just focused on the moral debate of resurrecting extinct species via cloning, this movie takes a more meta approach by examining the greed that comes from desensitization. But beyond that, it's also just an incredibly fun ride with scenes of terror and humor perfectly blended into a big-budget homage to the 1993 classic. No other movie of 2015 surprised me as much as Jurassic World.  

#2   Creed

As a huge fan of the Rocky series (hence my FlashBack Friday retrospective), I was a little hesitant about another theatrical release that would carry on the story. However, when the director and lead actor were announced, I began to have a little hope that Creed might live up to at least the mediocre films in the franchise. To my very pleasant surprise, I walked out of this movie convinced I'd just seen the best film of the year. Obviously it didn't quite get there, but that is to no fault of the tremendous achievement this movie is. Ryan Coogler taps into a relatable story that is solidified by the amazing performances (especially Michael B. Jordan and soon-to-be Oscar contender, Sylvester Stallone), but it's the technical proficiency of the fight scenes that makes Creed unlike anything we've ever seen. This movie is an adrenaline rush, and I cannot wait to see if this spawns another series of films that we can enjoy for years to come.

Yep, it was that good. As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I couldn't resist the hype that was surrounding The Force Awakens. In fact, by the time we got a little closer to its release, I realized that this wasn't just the most anticipated film of the year, but my most anticipated movie EVER! That isn't to say that it's my favorite movie ever, but it certainly delivered on the hype that Disney's marketing geniuses were promising. Every single aspect of this film was exactly what it needed to be, from the terrific acting (from newcomers and familiar faces alike), to the groundbreaking visual effects, to the emotionally resonating story that leaves us desperate for the next episode. The Force truly has awakened with this movie, and while it's well on its way to becoming the biggest box office success of all time, I'm just looking forward to revisiting this film again and again for generations to come.

Top 10 Scores of 2015

If you've read any of my reviews (which I hope is the case, as you're on my movie review blog right now), you know that I have a fascination and love for movie music, to the point that it can be a major contributing factor to my overall enjoyment of the film itself. There have been a lot of interesting scores released in 2015, and whether I liked them for their electrifying energy (Mad Max), their inspired spin off of an old favorite (Creed), or their sheer angelic beauty (Cinderella), I've decided to rank all of my favorite scores of this year with a brief description of each and a corresponding track to give you a feel of it. Hopefully this is entertaining for those who share my love for movie music, or at the very least helps someone out there appreciate the artistry of film scores a little bit more.

#10   Mad Max: Fury Road (Junkie XL)

Junkie XL has always been good at pulse-pounding beats, and he brings that in full force with his score for Mad Max: Fury Road. I'm excited to see what he brings with his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer for this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice!

#9   Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Joe Kraemer)

Really, the most memorable tune in this soundtrack is the Syndicate theme, played briefly at the end of this clip. I haven't heard much from Joe Kraemer, but if he keeps up this level of quality I think he'll eventually become a big player in the world of movie scores.

#8   Spectre (Thomas Newman)

Yeah, it's not as fresh or as well done in general as his score for Skyfall, but Thomas Newman brings in an interesting new flavor in Spectre (particularly in this clip during the "Day of the Dead" ceremony). Newman is a tremendous composer, and he more or less creates a worthy successor to the previous film.

#7   Sicario (Johann Johannsson)

Relatively new to the world of Hollywood film composing, Johann Johannsson creates a haunting, frightening piece of music that establishes a very foreboding feeling around its every note. Some may not be into the slightly creepy tone of this score, but I consistently find myself drawn to it for some reason.

#6   Chappie (Hans Zimmer)

The movie may have been a disappointment for most people, but this score is incredibly underrated. Zimmer is my favorite composer working today, and the percussive melodies mixed with underlying background bass creates a unique mood that could only make a movie better. I haven't seen Chappie, and I almost don't want to, if only to preserve the greatness of this music on its own.

#5   Creed (Ludwig Goransson)

It could have been seen as an impossible task to create a theme to rival the iconic "Gonna Fly Now" from the original Rocky films, but Ludwig Goransson does a heck of a job establishing a new tune that both fits inside the series and sets this film apart as its own thing. If you are looking for new music to work out to, look no further than the inspiring and adrenalizing horns and drums of the Creed score.

#4   Jurassic World (Michael Giacchino)

Michael Giacchino is sort of the heir apparent to John William's legacy, and here he literally takes on this mantle by reprising one of Williams' most iconic pieces. Luckily, Giacchino is talented enough to make it his own by creating a gorgeous new theme that stands alone in my mind. The standout track for me is probably "Pavane For a Dead Apatosaurus", which is so beautiful and sad that it literally brings tears to my eyes on its own, let alone in the context of the movie.

#3   Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

I didn't think it was possible for Giacchino to match his Academy Award-winning work from Up, but he definitely comes close with this quirky, imaginative score that perfectly complements the movie's humor and ideas, but also contains a deep emotional core that is at least 50% of the reason so many of us broke down in tears in the theater. All I can say is it's a crime that this probably won't get an Oscar nomination.

#2   Cinderella (Patrick Doyle)

Believe me, this movie's inclusion on so many of my end-of-year lists is as surprising to me as it must be to you. Still, there was just something so charming and beautiful about this movie that I couldn't resist its magic... and that something is this incredibly gorgeous music by the criminally underrated Patrick Doyle. It's rare that I fall in love with a score this quickly, but I literally had to turn to my wife halfway into this film and whisper "this music is amazing!" That song is the clip I've chosen above, so give it a listen. It's a terrific score that elevates the material to a much higher level than I would have thought possible for a live-action adaptation of Cinderella.

#1   Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (John Williams)

Wow. What a wonderfully layered symphony this is! I had to try to lower my expectations for John William's return to the Star Wars universe, but after seeing the movie I was swept up in the story and characters - thanks in no small part to John Williams' inspired composition. The themes of each character are stuff of pure imagination and wonder, especially the tremendous track simply titled "Rey's Theme" (which is the clip I've chosen for this entry). I love the way it builds, beginning with an intriguing and simple melody before growing into a sweeping and moving orchestration that will send chills down your spine. The action music in this score is great as well, particularly the ominous horns that signal the presence of Kylo Ren on screen. I keep uncovering new treasures in this score, perhaps culminating with the incredibly emotional track "The Jedi Steps" that plays over the movie's final scene. Williams has done it again with a Star Wars soundtrack that gets better and better the more you listen to it. It'll probably get nominated for an Academy Award, and rightfully so. I just hope the voters will give it the recognition it truly deserves by handing one more Oscar to the legend that is John Williams.

Top 10 Trailers of 2015

Like my list from last year, this is only going to include trailers for films released in 2015 (hence the omission of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and others). It's also important to remember that just because a trailer looked good, doesn't mean the movie lived up to what was sold by the marketing team. These could include either teasers or theatrical trailers, but for each one I picked I've posted the corresponding video. With that in mind, let's take a look at the best trailers of 2015!

#10   Steve Jobs

I was already anticipating this movie solely for the involvement of Aaron Sorkin as the screenwriter. Then, when the cast and crew started to come together, it was clear that Steve Jobs was a film I couldn't miss. Unfortunately, the combination of a fairly limited release with a pretty packed schedule prevented me from catching this one prior to writing this post. But let it be known, this trailer more than did its job of selling a fast-paced, dramatic and clever exploration of a mere snippet from the famous innovator's life.

#9   Creed

Had this trailer debuted prior to my post for the most anticipated films of this past year, there's no way I would have left Creed off the list. Seeing a bulked-up Michael B. Jordan and the excellent cinematography was probably enough to get me in the theatre, but combine that with the perfect timing for revealing Rocky back on the big screen and I was completely sold on this film without needing to see another piece of footage beforehand. And in truth, I didn't... which is lucky, as many people say the next trailer gave away a little too much.

#8   Fantastic Four

Like I said, not all of these films lived up to their potential. This trailer had me from the get go with the slow build and the mystery it was building. It felt kind of like a Christopher Nolan movie (perhaps a little too much), and the cast definitely had me intrigued to see what would happen next. Little did we know that the ambiguity wasn't an artistic choice, but rather a desperate attempt to cut around the stink-pile that Fox turned this promising project into. Still, it's a pretty cool trailer when all is said and done. It even had me predicting it to be one of the most interesting and unique comic book movies ever... and it kind of was... just not in a good way.

#7   Tomorrowland

Talk about unfulfilled potential... this teaser for Tomorrowland promised a mystery that was equal parts intriguing and inspiring. Unfortunately the film turned out heavy-handed and manipulative... but that doesn't ruin how well this trailer was designed, with the truly unique use of visual effects when the pin transported the girl to Tomorrowland, and the inclusion of a tiny clip of George Clooney to top it all off. Just goes to show that trailer editors can make anything look interesting if it has a few things going for it.

#6   Spectre

I just realized that most of these are teaser trailers, and I think the reason for that is that the mystery is far more interesting than the answers later footage reveals. That was certainly the case for Spectre, which gave the impression of a cold, calculating conspiracy thriller with a dark and sinister villain at its heart. While some of that came to fruition, it was a little bit disappointing to see what Sam Mendes and company ultimately gave us in light of this fascinating teaser. The cinematography is brilliant and the minimalist music sets the mood perfectly.

#5   The Peanuts Movie

Unlike most of the trailers featured on this list to this point, the teaser for The Peanuts Movie sold us exactly what the movie ended up delivering: a charming throwback to a beloved series with a combination of modern and classic elements. The humor is great, the music is incredibly nostalgic and heart-warming, and the entrance of a clumsy Charlie Brown is a perfect button to this teaser. I knew this movie was going to be great from the moment the first teaser was released, and this footage just sealed the deal for me.

#4   Inside Out

Wow, even just watching this trailer makes me tear up! Pixar and Disney have a tremendous marketing team (more on that later), and they perfectly encapsulated what makes this movie so special in less than 3 minutes. Inside Out has tons of imagination, emotion, and humor that makes it a must see for film-goers of any age. It's no wonder this movie ended up making over $300 million at the domestic box office with a trailer this good.

#3   Mad Max: Fury Road

Not likely to give away the plot of the movie... because, let's face it, is there really a plot to this movie?... the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer sells us on the insane amounts of action and spectacle that will mostly comprise the bulk of this 2+ hour movie. George Miller creates a dazzling and otherworldly post-apocalyptic vision unlike anything we've ever seen, and if that doesn't sell you on this movie, than nothing else will. Notable are the abundance of practical effects that give this movie a realism that most summer movies can only dream of achieving. And I got that all just from watching the trailer! Did I mention that this movie looks all kinds of crazy?

#2   Avengers: Age of Ultron

This trailer was so exciting that I had to watch it about six or seven times when it was first released. Ultron looked so scary and tough, and the Avengers were all turning on each other, and we saw the Hulkbuster suit, and Captain America's shield was broken... Yeah, this trailer showed a lot, and almost all of it was paid off in the actual film. True, it doesn't quite have the serious tone that this trailer hints at, but it was enough to propel Age of Ultron to the number 2 spot on my most anticipated films of 2015. It's only fitting that the trailer falls in the same spot on this list.

#1   Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Honestly, I could have picked any of the trailers for The Force Awakens, but the combination of new renditions of classic Star Wars music mixed with intriguing, adrenalizing, and dazzling scenes that somehow managed to remain spoiler-free made me more excited for any movie in my entire life. This trailer still gives me chills, and the utter perfection of Disney's marketing of this film is almost as inspiring as the movie itself. The perfect mix of nostalgia while pushing into unexplored territory was the right tact for this trailer, which beautifully captures what the film does as well.

And that's it! It's been a killer year in movies, destroying box-office records and bringing back several old franchises with terrific new installments that bode very well for the future. I'll be posting my most anticipated films of this coming year in a couple of days, so keep an eye out for that. There is a lot to look forward to, that's for sure. Bring on 2016!