Matt’s Best Movies of 2015

#1: Mad Max: Fury Road

May 15, 2015: what a day. What a lovely day. That was the day “Mad Max: Fury Road” was unleashed in theaters, and since that day the bar has forever been raised.

Like in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” director George Miller eschews computer-generated action in favor of practical effects; avoids quick cuts in favor of long takes, and the results are stunning. Scene after scene, we are treated to imaginative battles among men and mutants in a barren and beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape. This movie is a feast for the eyes and Viagra for the action-seeking soul.

Only in a movie this elaborately conceived could the namesake character – played by Tom Hardy, no less – be the LEAST interesting of the world’s inhabitants. A one-armed badass Imperator with an eagle eye and deadly aim who uses engine grease as war paint? Check. A radiation-poisoned megalomaniac who leads an army of glory-seeking sycophants? Check. A blind mutant playing a flame-throwing guitar standing on a moving truck of amplifiers? Check. They’re all here, and more, and every scene is another pulse-poundingly beautiful symphony of madness and mayhem.

I saw this film in the theater three times and once more on home video, and I want to see it again right now and I regret that I can’t do it in a theater. This was a movie MADE for the theatrical experience, and if you missed it during its run you have my deepest sympathies.

If you want to know how action movies SHOULD be made, see “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

#2: Ex Machina

As our technology continues to improve at an astounding rate, artificial intelligence begins to look less like science fiction and more like a prediction of things to come. But what are the implications for US in creating a self-aware machine? What would we have this machine do? Would we set it free, or (attempt to) force it to do our bidding? And if it’s the latter, what implications does that hold for our essential humanity?

“Ex Machina” is by far the best of the movies made to explore these questions. Set in a high-tech fortress deep within the wilderness, two men are tested by the creation of AI and struggle with the breakthrough in ways that seem not only plausible but realistic. The smartest movie of the year, “Ex Machina” is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Out of all the movies I saw this year, this movie and the issues it explores stayed with me more than any other. If you want to be challenged while you are entertained, I urge you to seek this one out.

#3: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I can’t help it. I loved this movie.

In our household, “Star Wars” is nearly a religion. We, like many, grew up on the first three movies and they played a hugely important part in our formative years. While BETTER movies have been made, there are none more INFLUENTIAL than the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Director J.J. Abrams knew how important these movies are, and faced a herculean task in making the new one. And you know what? He did a great job.

I’ve heard all of the criticisms about the plot holes. You know what? I don’t care. Yes, I know the plot is very similar to the first “Star Wars” (as a Gen Xer, to me that will always be the name of “A New Hope”). But that’s why it works so well.

Before we went to see “The Force Awakens,” we re-watched Episodes IV through VI, and then I through III. I didn’t remember feeling this way about the prequels back in the 2000s, but on re-watching, I found them to be nearly unbearable. If it wasn’t for Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson(s), R2-D2 and Yoda, they would have been unwatchable. Basically, they (especially Episodes II and III) were cartoons. Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting cartoon droids in a variety of cartoon landscapes. Face it, if they weren’t “Star Wars” movies, none of us would have watched any of them and no one would remember them.

“The Force Awakens,” on the other hand, is a refreshing callback to the original three movies. The worlds, the landscapes, the creatures, the spaceships – they all felt REAL. The acting was top-notch (seriously, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac were all nearly-perfect). The dialogue had a breezy flow to it, the characters were sympathetic, and it was (at times) really funny. And holy hell, Han Freaking Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker were in it!

Put all of these elements together and what do you have? A movie that made me FEEL what I felt when I first saw “Star Wars.” Seriously, I felt like a kid again. This took me back. But, at the same time, it isn’t all nostalgia that drives my love for this movie. The saga was moved forward in an important way: we met new characters that will guide us through Episodes VIII and IX and were introduced to the new struggles they will face, even as they echo those that came before.

If you, like me, grew up with the first three movies, they meant to you what they do to me, and you didn’t like “The Force Awakens,” you have ice in your veins, my friend. Ice.

#4: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Damn this movie was fun. “Kingsman” tells the story of a group of men and women who operate outside of the government and deal with external threats that no government can handle. While it shares some similarities with the James Bond films, this movie doesn’t suffer from the limitations of the Bond franchise. Instead of kowtowing to sensitive audiences in a world that craves PG-13, sanitized violence, “Kingsman” enjoys the comparative freedom of an R rating and uses it well. The world these characters live in is brutal and unfair, but vivid, and the villain is as colorful as they come.

Not for the faint of heart, this movie features one of the most inventive world-destroying schemes I have ever seen, with the brunt of the violence being borne by a group that is far from sympathetic. “Kingsman” was recently greenlit for a sequel; I’ll admit that I can’t wait to see what comes next for Eggsy.

#5: Sicario

How do you win an unwinnable war? How do you defeat an enemy that controls the populace of an entire town or country through fear and brutal terror? What if the only way you can beat the monster is to become one yourself?

For the life of me, I can’t understand why people didn’t like this movie. “Sicario” is brutal, realistic, and nihilistic cinema that shows the moral ambiguity the U.S. faces in fighting its war on drugs. More importantly, however, I thought it was one of the best-filmed and best-edited movies of the year.

While I really liked the entire movie, there are two scenes in particular that continue to stick with me; it’s these two scenes that I think should be mandatory viewing for cinema students everywhere. One scene is a master class in how to build tension from a timing, structure, editing and musical scoring standpoint. The other is a perfect blueprint for how to shoot a scene to make the viewer feel like s/he is really there, experiencing what the characters experience.

I hope this style of filming trickles down into other movies. I hope it replaces the Paul Greengrass-style fast-cutting version of action that has invaded Hollywood like a virus since the release of those crappy “Bourne” movies. I hope that intense storyboarding, careful filming, and long takes anchored by great acting will replace sloppy craft in movie making, where fast cuts are used to disguise major flaws and laziness on the part of the filmmaker. I hope.

#6: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

You don’t like movies with subtitles? Man, you are really missing out. Of the three straight-up comedies on my list this year, this one was definitely the best.

The story is simple enough: a restless but extremely spry 100-year-old man gets tired of being confined in a rest home and seeks adventure. Spurred on by memories of his reckless youth, he runs away and finds himself in a series of escapades with a series of new friends who quickly become his partners in crime. I had no idea what I was in for when I went to see this movie, and no film made me laugh harder in 2015 than this one.

As Andy Dufresne says in “The Shawshank Redemption,” we can either get busy livin’, or we can get busy dyin’. “The 100-Year-Old Man” proves Andy’s point by showing us that you’re never too old to live; you’re never too old to have adventures; you’re never too old to enjoy blowing things up; and you’re never too old to laugh. I love movies that make me laugh and make me feel good, too; this is one of those.

#7: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

If you thought that the zombie invasion comedy movie has been done to death (pun intended), then you obviously haven’t seen this movie.

What’s great about “Scouts Guide” is that it takes a familiar story (zombie invasion) with familiar characters (teenage boys) but tells that story in a way that feels fresh. Scene after scene is delightfully crafted, and the comedy flows naturally from it. All of the leads are likeable and sympathetic — we care about these boys and we want them to “win.” Most importantly, this film is HILARIOUS!

“Scouts Guide” was released without much fanfare and barely registered with the movie-going public this year, but it was one of the more delightful surprises of the year for me. I had such a great time watching this movie and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. If you like your comedies black and don’t mind lots of gore, I urge you to check this one out.

#8: No Escape

Suspense movies are difficult to get right. While most of them are watchable, few are able to achieve the stated goal of the genre – keeping viewers on the edge of their seat. With most movies in this category, we not only know how the story is going to end, but we can predict how the players are going to get there. Few times do we, the audience, feel that any of the main characters are actually in danger, and that lack of investment makes us disassociated with the film.

“No Escape,” on the other hand, was a refreshing surprise. The plot is relatively straightforward: an American couple (Owen Wilson and Lake Bell) relocate to a new job in Southeast Asia with their young daughters to start a new life. Within days of their arrival, the standing government is violently overthrown and the country is overtaken by rebels. During the revolt, all Americans are suspected of working with the former regime and are systematically targeted and executed by the revolutionaries. The family must run, hide, and fight their way to the U.S. Embassy to survive.

“No Escape” works so well because it taps into the primal fear of the world traveler: the worry that if things somehow go wrong, you will be isolated, thousands of miles from home with no means of communication and surrounded by people that want to do you harm. Where would you go? How would you react? What would you do? The danger in this movie feels both palpable and immediate: it’s easy for you to imagine yourself in the place of the Dwyer family and connect with them in a fundamental way.

I rarely feel as invested in movie characters as I did these, and the film has stuck with me for months as a result. If you like well-constructed suspense, see “No Escape.”

#9: Danny Collins

What do you do when you have achieved success by all the usual measures, but you’ve lost your soul in the process? Is it possible to regain what you’ve lost after you’ve lost it? Can you find your center and find your roots when you are not even sure where you left them? These are the questions asked by “Danny Collins.”

For a period of time, I lost all respect for Al Pacino. I felt he had become so disconnected from his art form (acting) that every character he played was just another ugly or stupid parody of the “Al Pacino” archetype. For the last decade or so, it felt as though he was walking through his movie roles, playing the same character or characters with only minor variations. It’s poetic, then, that he played the title role in this movie — and in the process returned to his former greatness.

Danny Collins (played by Mr. Pacino) is a Tom Jones-esque pop singer who long ago stopped writing music and has instead been reliving and replaying his past successes by touring the world playing his greatest hits. But then, he discovers a note from his past that makes him wonder if he’s still got “it” – and he secludes himself in a hotel to find out by trying his hand at writing new music.

What I loved about Danny Collins was its authenticity. The people in the movie felt real; the relationships felt real; and the problems they had to deal with were real. Danny’s success in the movie comes when he is able to connect with people and, in the process, with himself and more particularly, that version of himself that he lost when he became overwhelmed by the money, the fame, the drugs, and the women.

If you like movies that make you feel good without making you feel cheated by an overly-simplistic, saccharine and false “happy ending,” I highly recommend that you see “Danny Collins.”

#10: Vacation

I admit it. I (like you) did not have high hopes for this movie after seeing the trailer. Sure, there were a couple of funny moments in the preview but they appeared to be overshadowed by “uh-oh” humor (you know, the kind of humor where the fat guy falls down and the movie cuts to an idiotic reaction shot cued by a record scratch). Boy was I wrong.

“Vacation” is a fresh, genuinely funny movie that had me laughing from start to finish. While it had plenty of callbacks to the first three movies, it didn’t recycle jokes. This was its own movie, and these Griswolds had a personality all their own. Granted, there were a couple of stupid “uh-oh” moments, but they were relatively few and far between. More importantly, I saw things in this movie I hadn’t seen before, and most of the humor was spot-on.

Ed Helms was born to play the goofy-but-loveable Rusty Griswold, and he has perfect chemistry with Christina Applegate (playing his wife Debbie). These are worthy successors to Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo (who also appear in the movie) and I hope we get to see more of them.

This “Vacation” is one worth taking (couldn’t resist the cheesy Gene Shalit quote).

BEST MOVIES OF 2015: HONORABLE MENTIONS

Here are the movies that didn’t quite make my Top 10 list, but did make my shortlist and were all considered for Top 10 honors. I’ve listed them with the approximate slots they would have if I had to rank them (which is always the hardest part).

11. Grandma
12. Straight Outta Compton
13. The Duff
14. American Ultra
15. Irrational Man
16. The Hateful Eight
17. Paper Towns
18. Ricki and the Flash
19. The Stanford Prison Experiment
20. Z for Zachariah

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