7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Dir. Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher)
Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander
Tom Cruise never fails to entertain and he takes home Sam Flynn’s Imaginary Award for Best Summer Blockbuster two years in a row (last year’s sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow was, poor title aside, truly an epic piece of cinema). This time, instead of dying over and over for our entertainment, he commits further to his daredevil stunts, hanging off the side of an actual airplane and holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time.
Despite script issues and a release date shift that shaved six months off post-production, somehow the film comes out better for it, a lean and exhilarating spy thriller that beats 2015’s other contenders – Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre. This franchise, now five films deep has transcended traditional franchise fatigue and has only gotten better with age, much like the Fast and Furious series.
The film’s success and the speedy sequel turnaround (the sixth film is tentatively scheduled for summer 2017) speaks for itself, as does the fact that both McQuarrie and Ferguson will be returning, the first time in the franchise a director or a leading lady have followed-up (not counting a Michelle Monaghan cameo in Ghost Protocol). Both are great news – Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust was the first person in the franchise who felt like an equal to Cruise’s indestructible superspy Ethan Hunt and McQuarrie brought a writer’s perspective to directing, while pushing himself cinematically in several sequences.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners)
Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernandez
An entry on the list of films-that-look-amazing (it was shot by world-class cinematographer Roger Deakins), this pitch-black thriller follows DEA Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, playing yet another badass after the aforementioned Edge of Tomorrow) as she is recruited to a CIA taskforce to combat the Mexican drug cartels. Almost immediately, she finds herself in over her head with enemies on both sides of the fight.
The failure of the War on Drugs makes a convenient backdrop for modern nihilistic tragedies a la Traffic and The Counselor. The script by former actor Taylor Sheridan takes the It’s-the-System approach of the former while avoiding the smug literary flourishes and Jaguar sex (the car, not the animal) of the latter.
The film cements Villeneuve as a master filmmaker in a similar vein of Christopher Nolan, making me as hyped for his next two projects, the sci-fi first contact flick Story of Your Life starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and the long-anticipated Blade Runner sequel (with Ryan Gosling starring) as some are for Tarantino films.
5. Ex Machina (my review here)
Dir. Alex Garland (directorial debut of the novelist/screenwriter of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine)
Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
It’s bold (and smart) to make your first film essentially a play about three people in a room. But writer/director Alex Garland is quite smart and knows that not only is it a) an easy first step in a directorial career but b) the conflict at the center – whether a robot has true consciousness – would make the story far grander than its simple premise suggests.
Through the prism of A.I., Garland is able to touch upon gender roles, sexuality and misogyny in new and unique ways, serviced by a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander (having a banner year with five films released) as the robot Ava caught between her creator (Oscar Isaac, bro-ish, funny, perverse and subversive) and the employee he randomly picked to act as his surrogate in the Turing tests (Domhnall Gleeson, boy-ish, soft, kind and polite).
The story and characters/actors A lot of films like Transcendence and Terminator Genisys have tried and failed miserably to tackle the growing field of A.I.
4. The Martian (my review here)
Dir. Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings)
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong
Ridley Scott is a prolific filmmaker for a 78 year-old, as masterful as he is frustrating. But every time he is counted out, he returns with a script that well-suits his talented visuals and a cast of characters audiences love spending time with. That’s exactly what happened with his previous successes (Alien, Gladiator) and what happened here, yielding the highest-grossing film of his long and storied career.
In probably the most uplifting film of the year, Damon impresses as the titular everyman astronaut while the film also adds a truly stellar supporting cast belied by the lone-survivor premise. With a cast of this caliber delivering this stunning work and the best backbone possible provided by novelist Andy Weir and screenwriter Drew Goddard, Ridley Scott’s skill is finally served as it should be.
Dir. Tom McCarthy
Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber, Brian d’Arcy, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Gulifoyle
Good journalism films are few and far between, maybe because the process of fact-finding and verifying is so rote and time-consuming that it doesn’t make thrilling cinema. So maybe it makes sense that it isn’t until an earth-shattering reality check comes that yields our greatest film tributes to journalism, like seminal Watergate chronicle All the President’s Men and, now, arguably it’s successor. Life, after all, is stranger than fiction.
Spotlight covers the titular Boston Globe investigative team that peeled back the layers on a global cover-up of preists’ sexual molestation of children by the Catholic Church. I was too young to be anything but merely aware of the scandal but the script, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, takes an appropriately methodical approach to Spotlight’s investigation, situating the film as a crime procedural with journalists at the center, instead of police detectives.
The ensemble is only rivaled by The Martian, with Ruffalo and Keaton in standing out as they’re asked to carry most of the emotional heavy-lifting. But I was particularly taken with Schrieber’s take on the mellow outsider Marty Baron, a legendary journalist who has edited The Miami Herald, The New York Times and currently edits The Washington Post. By far, the film that feels the most “important” of the year.
2. Creed (my review here)
Dir. Ryan Coogler
Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Gabriel Rosado, Ritchie Coster, Wood Harris, Andre Ward
I wrote a lot about how meaningful Creed is in my review so I won’t rehash. But even with a few weeks to think about it, it’s clear that there’s only one 70s franchise that successfully reinvented itself without blemish in the last few weeks and it wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens (OK, hyperbole, there’s technically two 70s franchises; see below).
Creed‘s mastery hides the youth of director Ryan Coogler, for whom this was only his second film, yet he delivered not only an emotionally-honest script but honest-to-god innovation in the field of boxing films without unnecessarily heightening the drama (I’m looking at you, Southpaw). I mean, just watch this scene.
Jordan gets the starmaking turn he deserves, Stallone moved me to tears, and Thompson played an actual woman as opposed to an indecipherable romantic interest. Everything works, every punch lands. Truly a revelation, beaten only by . . .
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (my review here)
Dir. George Miller
Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, ????
Where Coogler has youth and innovation on his side, Miller has the experience and wisdom to push boundaries of filmmaking in a way only decades of training can allow some to do. The first film ever made captured a train coming at a camera. Motion and action are at the core of cinema and director George Miller the director crafts a film that is entirely in motion.
A chase without stakes is no chase at all, and Miller the screenwriter gives a human cost to the film, personified not by Tom Hardy’s titular character (although he is also excellent, expertly using body language as the virtually-mute Max) but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed amputee who has survived the post-apocalyptic wasteland. She is the real star of the film and the embodiment of all its strengths, from its surprising feminist themes to the no-nonsense practicality of the film’s actual stuntwork.
Mad Max: Fury Road not only feels like a distillation of pure cinematic heroin but, also appeals to my personal peculiarity (i.e. obsession with world-building, women of power, how human connection and communities are forged). Hence, you have a rare confluence: my favorite film of 2015 is also the best film of 2015.
All my reviews, both film and TV for 2015 are archived here on the Slog. Just go the Category button and select which you’d like to view. If you’re so inclined, follow me through the cinematic landscapes of 2016. I promise I won’t lead you astray.