#1. Kingsman: The Secret Service
I saw this movie very early in the year and once it was over, I broke into applause and giddily turned to Matt and said “wow, that movie is going to be hard to beat for my best of the year list.” As the months ticked by, I never saw anything that came close to the joy this movie brought me.
I went to see it again several times and I loved it even MORE in subsequent viewings. This movie is SO MUCH DAMN FUN, and it has more than earned its spot at the very top of my list.
This smug, campy, gleefully violent spoof of classic James Bond movies is funny, thrilling and above all, fearless! Scene after scene of amped-up violence is vividly shot with the most clever use of popular music since ‘Pulp Fiction.’ It’s stylish, it’s silly, it’s smart-ass and it’s cocky. Bottom line: the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and I loved every minute.
‘Kingsman’ takes many conventional spy movie situations and gives it a subversive spin. The plot is simple: a street kid is recruited to join a top secret spy organization, ass kicking ensues and our lowly hero has to step in to save the world.
The fight choreography and violence is not unlike a bloody ballet and it’s directed in a way where you can see what the heck is going on (none of that annoying fast cutting that plagues many action films). The church shootout scene is one of the best in-your-face action sequences of the year.
‘Kingsman’ imaginatively and effectively reinvents the genre and is the type of movie that gets me excited about the future of cinema.
#2. Love & Mercy
‘Love & Mercy’ should be required viewing for any musician or fan of music, period. Even if you are unfamiliar with The Beach Boys or the tortured genius of musician Brian Wilson (shame on you if this is the case), there’s plenty to love and learn about in this fantastic musical biopic.
The premise is very clever: one man’s story is told in two separate decades (the 1960s and the 1980s) and Wilson is played by two different actors (Paul Dano as young Brian and John Cusack as older Brian). Both bring their own special take to portraying the creative genius and the psychological torture of the same man, and both are phenomenal.
The movie’s non-linear structure is unlike most biopics, jumping back and forth with dual storylines twenty years apart, ultimately bringing a satisfying fresh take on the genre. The 1960s scenes center around the creative experimentation and process of the now-classic ‘Pet Sounds’ album. This absorbing study gives insight into the mind of a visionary, gifted, genius musician at the height of his career. When the early stages of what will later become a debilitating mental illness start to show, my fellow Beach Boys fans will start to feel a knot in their gut because we all know what comes next.
The dual storylines with back-and-forth timelines are far from distracting and actually keep the momentum moving. The film flashes forward to a portrait of a troubled, lonely soul who is a prisoner in his own home (and to over-medication) and then back again to an energetic young musician, high on life (and LSD). The 1960s are filmed with bubblegum pastel colors and give a stark contrast to the cooler blues and grays that dominate the 80s scenes.
The movie feels partly like a documentary when we see the young Wilson in his studio, and you can’t help but feel the excitement because it’s like you are in the same room at the same time a legendary album is being created.
This understated movie feels deeply personal and there are scenes that made me feel like an intruding voyeur, but with the disturbing comes enthralling. And ‘Love & Mercy’ is both.
#3. Shaun the Sheep
As a huge animation fan, I’m very saddened by the current state of animated movies. I often see one disappointment after another, but luckily “Shaun the Sheep” saved the day! Pay attention folks: this delightful little stop motion film from the U.K. is what a high quality animated movie looks like!
So much of the junk coming out of Hollywood today is aimed at kids with ADD or (even worse) panders to sitcom loving adults. You won’t find third-grade reading level characters here, nor any annoyingly “hip” catchphrases, nor idiotic pop culture references. What you will find is that rare animated film that treats its audience and its characters with the respect they deserve (and should demand).
The premise of the movie is a simple one: when their beloved farmer goes missing in the big city, the barnyard animals from the English countryside’s Mossy Bottom Farm set out to bring him home.
There’s no spoken dialogue in the film, so you have to pay close attention and focus on what’s onscreen or you’ll risk missing one of the many rich visual jokes! The fact that this is basically a silent movie makes the achievement of the stop-motion animation all that more incredible: the characters’ emotions are solely communicated through their facial expressions and the highly choreographed odd grunt here and there. My fellow animation fans will get a kick out the staggering attention to detail, and this movie will especially resonate with my fellow animal lovers (animal adoption is explored and encouraged in this movie).
This is not a stupid ‘kid’s movie’: there’s some serious social commentary packed into this classic tale with a positive message of loyalty, friendship, and kindness to animals. This movie is quirky, funny and has a big, fuzzy heart!
#4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I gathered up my light saber and Yoda hat and got in my car around noon on December 17, 2015, heading to the largest IMAX theater in town to secure my place in line for that evening’s premiere. ‘Please don’t let it suck, please don’t let it suck’ I kept repeating aloud.
I had back to back tickets for “The Force Awakens,” one for the 7:30 pm screening followed by the 10:30 pm screening. My heart was already jumping out of my chest with anticipation and nervousness but as soon as that familiar green LUCASFILM logo flashed on the giant screen, the lump in my throat had turned to tears in my eyes.
I am so happy that “Star Wars” didn’t let me down; in fact, it exceeded all of my (very high) expectations! Seeing this back to back on opening night was thrilling and the movie only gets better with subsequent viewings.
Everything about this movie worked for me. Everything. From the practical effects (no more crappy computer generated animation messing up the Galaxy) to the impossibly talented cast of (mostly) unknowns to the visionary costumes to the multitude of references to fans of the original movies (and the Disney rides) to the big plot twists and heartbreaking surprises, I’m pleased to say this film has earned a coveted spot on my list.
It could’ve easily gone the other way. This is exactly the movie I wanted — no, that I NEEDED — it to be. This is just good old fashioned classic sci-fi storytelling on a grand scale. Thank you, J.J.!
#5. Ex Machina
“Ex Machina” is one of those rare movies that actually left me speechless as soon as the credits rolled. I’ve seen thousands of movies during my life but nothing quite like this. It’s refreshing to see a movie where it’s not assumed that the audience is comprised of a bunch of mouth breathing idiots.
This provocative film is a hybrid of a hyper-intellectual science fiction film and a decidedly operatic feminist manifesto. This movie doesn’t whisper: it SHOUTS. Never before have I been so manipulated in my perception of reality, gender and morality by a movie (though “Compliance,” which made my Top 10 list in 2012, came close).
Want to see what savvy, talented filmmakers can do on a miniscule budget? Then this is your indie movie! This thrilling think piece is one of the finest examples of the science fiction genre I have ever seen.
Disclaimer: “Ex Machina” isn’t for everybody, as evidenced by our audience. I’d say a good third of the theater walked out halfway through and the majority of the remaining viewers were very confused and/or angered by what they had just seen. If you like to push your boundaries and explore complicated ideas, check this one out.
“Sicario” rattled my nerves so much with its vigorous intensity that I had a hard time sleeping after I got home from the theater. This movie takes a tense feeling of despair and foreboding and amps it up to a level 10+. It’s a highly accomplished entry into the adult thriller genre, with an unabashed ferociousness that isn’t often seen in mainstream movies.
The morally questionable ‘heroes’ of the story are brought to life by top-notch performances from Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt and Benecio Del Toro. The gorgeous sweeping aerial cinematography and grainy hand-held scenes give a startling realistic look at some of the harshest aspects of humanity (even if you know nothing about the technical aspects of filmmaking, you will appreciate the extended night vision sequence; this movie is so beautiful and looks so fantastic that the film geek in me can’t help but heap gushing praises about the beauty of the images on display here).
It’s stylish but also substantive, exploring the gritty and grisly side of America’s ‘War on Drugs.’ My stomach was in knots (in a good way!) and my hands were gripping the armrests during many scenes, a clear sign of a successful thriller. It’s super intense, sensationally bold, and keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. “Sicario” is a film that should be on everyone’s must-see list.
#7. The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
A recurring theme of my top 10 list this year is humor: 2015 was the year of comedy movies that made me laugh and laugh and laugh some more. ‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ is not only one of my favorite movies of the year, it’s also one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.
This Swedish film is a textbook example of pitch-perfect snarky, irreverent humor. Think of the title character as sort of a super eccentric Forrest Gump, a man who over the years finds himself in the most ludicrous of situations, often culminating in the type of hilarity that will literally have tears of joy running down your cheeks.
The film reads like a “who’s who” of comedic devices and touches on just about every comedy genre out there (dark comedy, satire, slapstick, prop comedy, risqué comedy, bathroom humor, political humor, spoof, pratfalls, wordplay and more).
There is a lot going on in this nonstop farce — the craziest and most unbelievable events happen in rapid-fire succession, so try to keep up. Leave your literal mindset at the door: it’s best to just sit back and go with this undeniable gem of a movie.
#8. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
Irreverent, vulgar and borderline offensive, this movie was my biggest surprise of the year. I went in expecting nothing and within the first 2 minutes, ‘Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse’ had its blood-spattered hooks in me and wouldn’t let go.
This is a fun movie in the same vein as zombie classics (‘Zombieland,’ ‘Zombeavers,’ ‘Shaun of the Dead’) with a little teen sex comedy (‘American Pie,’ ‘Eurotrip’) thrown in for good measure. Just when you think you’ve seen all of those standard zombie movie conventions (and kills), an arguably instant cult classic like this comes along and thrashes out a (bloody) imaginative take on the genre.
Not only is ‘Scouts Guide’ fun, it’s also really, really, really funny. The firecracker one-liners keep things moving but the far-from-subtle parody somehow manages to balance comedic nudity and lowbrow gags to stay, well, smart. This is a brainy movie about nerds by nerds for nerds and it shows. (Example: there’s a scene set in the “Lawrence of Alabia” strip club — not a typo — where the LIVE*NAKED*GIRLS neon sign shows the word LIVE flickering.)
There were several times during this movie where I was laughing so loudly that I missed some of the dialogue — and even more often where I was doubled over with a cramp in my side from a severe case of the giggles. It’s THAT hilarious.
If you’re a fan of gross-out bathroom humor, bloody B-movie violence and (especially) juvenile sex jokes, you must see this movie! It’s so much fun.
‘Grandma’ is overflowing with such a confident feminist message that my jaw dropped when I saw that it was written and directed by a man. I realize that makes me sound a bit sexist myself, but writer/director Paul Weitz has captured something here that I formerly thought was impossible: he has accurately and truthfully written real, substantive, fully-formed women characters. Of course all of the lead female characters have their flaws, but they feel so authentic. They speak and act just like real women. There’s no sugar coating what’s going on here, and I found that refreshing.
When a teenage girl shows up at her grandma’s house asking for money for an abortion, there’s no preaching or discussion or overly dramatic monologue — they realize there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with so the two set off on a mini road trip to visit friends from the past in order to borrow the needed funds.
While the cast is female-centric, there are some great supporting performances from men too (Sam Elliott’s performance will absolutely break your heart — I think it’s some of the best work he has ever done). Lily Tomlin is so great in her role as Grandma that I yelled at my t.v. when the Oscar nominations were announced and her name wasn’t in the running.
Nothing in this movie rings untrue. There are no irrelevant scenes here — not one.
‘Grandma’ is one of those rare little movies that truly excels at what I like to call the “independent spirit”: it’s all at once hilarious, sincere, bawdy and abrasive, yet somehow genuinely touching.
With many failed reboot attempts this year (‘Poltergeist,’ ‘Point Break’), I was super nervous about seeing one of my all-time favorite movies, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” getting the updated treatment. If anyone was primed and ready to hate the ‘new’ “Vacation,” it was me. Somehow this movie managed to win me over; so much so that I went to see it 3 times in the theater.
Ed Helms was born to play Rusty Griswold, bringing his oddly nerdy and affable humor to the role. This isn’t a straight-up remake of course, but there are lots of little references that are super rewarding to those of us who grew up watching and re-watching the original on a worn out VHS tape.
The movie has just enough raunchy adult snickers and naughty gags to keep things interesting, but it never crosses the line into grossness. Is it goofy? Yes. Is it stupid? You bet! BUT IS IT FUNNY? Hell yes! Look, this isn’t a perfect movie but I can overlook the flaws because it’s so dang funny. Not every joke here lands but the ones that do hit a home run. And who knew Chris Hemsworth was such a gifted comedian?
BEST MOVIES OF 2015: HONORABLE MENTIONS
Each of these movies came so close to making my Top 10 list. Here are the runners up (aka numbers 11-20):
11. Danny Collins
12. Straight Outta Compton
13. I’ll See You In My Dreams
14. No Escape
15. The Age of Adaline
17. San Andreas
18. American Ultra
19. Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)
20. Ricki and the Flash