Turns out 2015 was quite a year. Back at the top of the box office charts — and breaking records left and right — were franchises originally brought to the screen by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Rocky Balboa returned for the first time in 9 years. James Bond was back. So were Ethan Hunt and the Terminator. Oh. And Mad Max came back with a vengeance.
So 2015 felt a whole lot like the ‘80s and ‘90s, but with modern sensibilities.
As usual, my list shouldn’t be read as a “best of.” I consider it simply a list of my top 10 favorites from the year. There were too many movies that might qualify for a truly “best of” list that I didn’t have a chance to see.
That said, it’d take a steel cage match between Max Rockatansky and Luke Skywalker to determine which of those cinematic stalwarts reigns supreme in my heart for 2015.
Mad Max: Fury Road — While watching Fury Road, a thought ran through my head about how George Miller shuffled over to making family movies like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet in the decades between Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road. And here he was in 2015 making a vicious, full-tilt hard-R action flick loaded up with glorious practical effects, jaw-dropping stunts and a relatively sparing use of digital effects. And he had Tom Hardy as the new Max. Clearly Miller, now 70 years old, hasn’t lost his edge over the years. The thought: What if George Lucas hadn’t lost his edge when he revisited Star Wars with Episodes I-III?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — While watching The Force Awakens, a thought ran through my head about how J.J. Abrams... Oh. Wait... Well, if George Lucas hadn’t lost his edge when he revisited Star Wars with Episodes I-III, they might’ve felt a lot more like Episode VII. Star Wars fans can hold their heads high once again. (And may the Force be with you. Always.)
The Revenant — A brutal tale set in the 1820s wild West. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar potential is debatable, but the movie – about one man’s awesome will to survive – is quite a grueling experience (and I mean that in the best possible way).
In the Heart of the Sea — A brutal tale set in the 1820s high seas. This is a well-crafted telling of the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s fictional masterpiece Moby Dick.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation — Tom Cruise came back as Ethan Hunt for a fifth — and arguably the best — installment.
Bridge of Spies — Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up again for a true story about the Cold War and spy games. It’s also very timely as the U.S. tries to determine what it means to be American and the E.U. tries to identify what it means to be European, particularly in the face of the world’s current troubles.
Creed — It’s not as good as Rocky Balboa. Really. The previous episode was the Gospel According to Rocky. Nonetheless, this one’s a nice spin on the storyline, with Stallone displaying his underrated acting chops while Rocky takes on the role of trainer for Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son. The final scene, on those famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, serves as a touching tribute to Rocky’s 40 years on the big screen.
Inside Out — An intricate story that dares to go into a young girl’s head and examine all the overwrought emotions of growing up. Clever. Funny. Pure Pixar magic.
The Big Short — Any movie that delves into the less-than-inspiring topics of mortgage rates and financial implosion and comes out with viewers smiling is some kind of piece of work. It helps to have cut-away scenes like Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bathtub whilst explaining the fineries of subprime loans.
Victoria — Extended takes are in vogue these days. The bulk of Birdman was shot in three extremely long, exceptionally staged takes. Spectre’s opening scene is a marvel of an extended take in Mexico City during Day of the Dead festivities. But Victoria tops them all. It’s a solid 135-minutes shot in a single – one – une – uno – eins – take in Berlin. Characters are introduced, relationships are established, a sinister plot develops and then things rapidly deteriorate (for the characters, not for moviegoers). A terrific piece of filmmaking.
There are also two honorable mentions.
Mr. Holmes — It was a delight to see Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) portray a matinee version of Sherlock Holmes in this post-Conan Doyle tale featuring a nonagenarian Holmes (played by Ian McKellen) sifting through the rubble of his own pop-culture self while solving a decades-old cold case and contending with the onset of dementia.
The Hateful Eight — Kudos to writer/director Quentin Tarantino for wanting to bring back a taste of the Golden Age of cinema with an old-school 70mm (film projection!) roadshow roll out of his eighth movie. Shot in Ultra Panavision 70 and with roadshow attendees receiving a souvenir program explaining — at a very high level — the significance of the presentation (including an overture and intermission), the experience was a treat. However, there are some doubts as to whether or not the movie's story itself warranted such lavish treatment.