MIG’S SHORT TAKES – Films of 2015

I don’t know about you, but to me, the year 2015 seemed to have more sequels than average. Additionally, more of them were below average when it comes to quality than many other years. Consider all of these sequels released before the holiday season:

Avengers: Age of Ultron…meh

Pitch Perfect 2…meh

Jurassic World…meh, even despite the presence of Chris Pratt

Ted 2…funny, but still meh

Terminator Genisys…MAJOR meh (but a guilty pleasure of mine)

As always, there are exceptions: Ant-Man, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and the sensational Mad Max: Fury Road, but for the most part…meh.

But then, in typical Hollywood fashion, the holiday season begins, and with it the Oscar season, and look what happens: Mockingjay Part 2, and the big kahuna, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I have no great insight here, just felt like mentioning that I had to slog through some sub-standard sequels to get to the good stuff that 2015 had to offer. So let’s get to it. Here are nine of my favorite movies from 2015. I would recommend each and every one of these for viewing during the 2020 Quarantine.

1. EX MACHINA, 1/21/2015 – From Alex Garland, the guy who wrote “21 Days Later” and “Sunshine”, comes this marvelous sci-fi cautionary tale about artificial intelligence and the dangers of playing God with science. Alicia Vikander steals the show in her Golden Globe-winning turn as Ava, a robot like no other, who is being tested to see if she can pass for a human. The visual effects are stupendous, much more effective and convincing than any CG dinosaurs or starships. And the ideas presented are mind-blowing. If something can be programmed to mimic human behavior exactly…how would you know, really KNOW, if you’re a human or something MIMICKING a human? “Ex Machina” deserves to stand with Spielberg’s “A.I.” and Scott’s “Blade Runner” as one of the best movies yet made about the tricky concept of artificial intelligence.

2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 5/15/2015 – “Fury Road” feels like what you would get if you crossed a demolition derby with a military ammo dump. I don’t really have a cerebral/intellectual defense for this movie. I can tell you that, whenever I do watch it, I turn the volume up as loud as I can take it, every time. And I just drink in those psychotic visuals featuring some of the greatest movie vehicles of all time. And those explosions. And the fire tornado. And the chrome spray paint used by the half-life Warboys. And, you might be cool, but you’ll never be big-ass-truck-carrying-a-blind-guitar-player-suspended-on-wires-in-front-of-a-wall-of-speakers-and-oh-yeah-the-guitar-is-also-a-flamethrower cool. And let the record show that Charlize Theron is a stone-cold bad-ass. That is all.

3. THE VISIT, 9/11/2015 – Regrettably, M. Night Shyamalan has made more than his fair share of terrible movies, so it’s no surprise that most people have not seen this low-budget entry from the once-venerated director. And that’s a shame, because this is a surprisingly effective little movie that kept me guessing until the end. Two children visit their grandparents for a week, and all is well until the behavior of the grandparents becomes decidedly odd and eventually downright creepy. I definitely don’t want to give too much away, but for those familiar with the Shyamalan tendency for the last-minute twist, I can say unequivocally that, while there are a couple of surprises at the end, they definitely are NOT in the vein of his previous films (“It’s a dream!” “They’re aliens!” “They’re in a comic book!”). You’ll just have to trust me. This was far, far better than I expected.

4. SICARIO, 9/18/2015 – When you step back and look at it from a distance, not an awful lot happens in “Sicario.” But it’s HOW the story is told that makes it a compelling watch. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”, “Arrival”) is superb at creating and maintaining an air of suspense from the end of the opening credits to the final blackout. It actually feels like a missing chapter from “Traffic”, Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus about the drug trade. That’s not a knock, but a compliment. I was riveted and fascinated by the story and the sparse, but startling, action sequences. And I also liked that, like “Traffic”, it offers no easy answers to the drug war. We want results…but should we sacrifice the moral high ground for the sake of those results? The easy answer is “no”…but, after watching “Sicario”, you may think about that answer for a little longer than you used to.

5. THE MARTIAN, 10/2/2015 – “Cast Away” meets “Apollo 13.” “The Martian” is currently one of the movies in a small rotation of films that I will pop in when I don’t really know WHAT I want to watch. It’s just so satisfying on so many different levels. The human story is compelling. The visual effects are stunning. The humor never feels forced, and there is a LOT of humor, which makes it easier to absorb the mountains of technical information bombarding the audience at every turn. Without all that tech info, the audience would not be able to truly appreciate Mark Watney’s situation: marooned on a planet, more alone than any other man in history. The ease with which this movie combines that dire situation with stress-relieving laughter is astonishing. (And by the way, if you haven’t read the book on which this movie is based, do yourself a favor and read it. It’s fantastic.)

6. CRIMSON PEAK, 10/6/2015 – Director Guillermo del Toro followed up the bombastic explosions of “Pacific Rim” with this much more somber gothic romance. I cannot stress that term “gothic” enough. This movie oozes gothic sensibilities from every frame, from the unsettling ghost seen within the first five minutes, to the overwhelmingly atmospheric, run-down Victorian mansion, to the multiple restless spirits that seem to dwell within, to the red clay draining from the walls and floors…so the house itself seems to bleed. del Toro makes films that feel like the kind of thing Stephen King would write, and this is no exception, especially when it comes to the ghosts themselves and their purpose in the story. This is a perfect Halloween movie for the romantics in the audience. Mary Shelley would have LOVED this film.

7. LOOK WHO’S BACK, 10/8/2015 (Germany) – I have tried no fewer than three times to write a full review of this movie, and I have been stymied every time. It is simply impossible for me to put all of my feelings down in a way that’s not just a recap of the film. Here’s the plot: For reasons never explained, Adolf Hitler, materializes, alive and well, in present-day Berlin. He is discovered by a TV producer and is persuaded to go on a road trip through Germany to get off-the-cuff reactions from people who speak with him. There are absolutely hysterical sequences that I can’t even hint at if I don’t want to get banned from the internet. And then the movie takes a U-turn into the kind of disturbing satirical territory that would have made Jonathan Swift do a double-take. Your eyes will register what you’re seeing, but your brain may not comprehend it. This movie is equal parts hilarious and offensive. At one point, I thought “Blazing Saddles” was the high-water mark of using offensive material to create a brilliant comedy. Not anymore. “Look Who’s Back” takes the freaking offensive comedy cookie. (DISCLAIMER: I take no responsibility for the damage this movie may inflict on your sensibilities, delicate or otherwise. I can assure you this movie is unimaginably offensive. It’s also hysterical, blindingly intelligent, and deeply disturbing. You have been warned.)

8. THE REVENANT, 12/25/2015 – Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu followed up his Oscar-winning “Birdman” with this fascinating survival story, based loosely on fact, about a fur trader in the 1820s who is left for dead in the woods by his own men, after he was mauled by a bear. As is the case with all of Iñárritu’s movies, the genius is not necessarily in the story, but in the storytelling. There are one or two long takes, something he’s fond of using, but we also get these hypnotic, evocative dream sequences as the hero, a man named Glass, slips in and out of delirium while he recovers from his wounds. It was also filmed on various real mountain locations in the U.S. and Argentina, using only natural light. Kubrick would have approved. And, of course, there’s the inhuman performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, a performance composed predominantly of wordless sequences as he treks across the wilderness towards, he hopes, revenge. Something else Kubrick would have liked. This is a feast for the eyes.

9. THE HATEFUL EIGHT, 12/30/2015 – Tarantino’s eighth film may not have the visual pyrotechnics of the “Kill Bill” movies, or the storytelling complexities of “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglourious Basterds”, but it was still able to grab my attention and hold it for nearly three hours. If you cock your head and squint, you’ll see that it’s really a loose re-telling of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, with a group of people holed up in a blizzard, unable to escape, with an unknown killer among them. It’s actually quite ingenious. Tarantino wrings surprises out of the locked-room situation in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible until I watched them happen. In today’s climate, the liberal use of the n-word may turn heads – the story is set in Wyoming shortly after the Civil War – but it never feels out of place. Like the bozos in “Blazing Saddles”, these people just don’t know any better. (You know…morons.) That issue aside, this is just a brutally entertaining murder mystery that would have shocked Agatha Christie to her core, but which also owes a lot to her influence.

OTHER NOTABLE FILMS FROM 2015: The Witch, Inside Out, Trainwreck, Bridge of Spies, Spectre, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Good Dinosaur (Full reviews of “Ant-Man”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, “The Big Short”, and “Spectre” can be found elsewhere on our website.)

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