As the summer of 2015 ends and Oscar season descends upon us, it’s important to recognize the films of the first half of the year before they get buried in the second. We slogged through the tough waters of winter and saw the shiny beacon of summer deliver movies worthy of both popcorn entertainment and inspiring creativity. So before the Oscars shake up my end-of-the-year list, here are the best and worst movies of the year so far.
Best Movies of 2015 So Far
If you haven’t seen these yet, do your self a favor and have a movie night.
If Jack O’Connell was thrown a bone with last year’s Unbreakable, he’s been given a steak with ‘71. Set against the 1971 riots of Belfast, O’Connell plays a soldier left behind when his unit is forced to retreat from gun-toting Catholics. Alone on the dangerous streets, he attempts to navigate through the tense environment with gunshots, explosives and betrayal behind every corner. Composed with grit and tension by first-time movie director Yann Demange, I could not tear my eyes away from the screen as the film never stopped building on its action and drama. Bombs went off unexpectedly with fatal consequences for those caught in the explosions. Corrupt officials spun a web of influence to keep the missing soldier in the dark. Chase scenes played out with exceptional camera work and a real driving force with the way O’Connell busts through walls and doors to avoid gunfire. For being based on true events with an action element, Demange loads this picture up with a surprising amount of accuracy and emotion sure to keep any viewer entranced.
4. It Follows
Independent horror is quickly becoming the hot scene for fresh and talented filmmakers. And while there are plenty of great new indie horror titles out there to recommend, It Follows has become the breakout hit of the year. What’s most striking about this picture isn’t just the effective scares of a paranormal curse that causes ghosts to mercilessly stalk their victims, nor is it the eye-popping style of its Detroit-shot cinematography that echoes the beauty of John Carpenter. What’s most enjoyable is that writer/director David Robert Mitchell conceives likable and relatable teenagers for this plot. Something as simple as one teenage girl coming inside from the pool and dripping some of her wet hair on her couch-bound friends just resonated with me, bringing back those slow summer days of youth. It helps that Mitchell based this story on his own nightmares during his teen years. He plucks beautifully from this moment in life for a horror picture that is all style, all brains, and all frightening. For what could have been a base parable for unprotected sex, Mitchell conducts one of the finest horror pictures of the decade.
3. Ex Machina
In Alex Garland’s hard science fiction picture, Ex Machina, artificial intelligence does not ask stupid questions about love. Instead, the A.I. known as Ava desires an experience outside her enclosed space, where her first date would be that of a busy intersection. Nathan, the computer programmer chosen to test Ava’s effectiveness, begins to form a bond. But he also questions whether or not he can trust her or her deeply-flawed creator, so much so that both seem to fear one and other. You can perhaps sense where all this is going, but that’s alright; Ex Machina manages to play out perfectly with a unique atmosphere. It’s refreshing to finally see special effects of robots being used for something other than a showy climactic battle. And even though there is a boiling point of violence, it’s more Blade Runner than I, Robot in the way it handles its finale with intelligence and beauty.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Is there any more praise left to bestow upon George Miller’s masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road? As the fourth entry in the Mad Max saga—30 years since the last movie—Fury Road really does fire on all cylinders. Miller skillfully throws the audience back into Max’s post-apocalyptic world with little introduction or exposition. The visual approach of the film with little dialogue creates a fully-realized culture around one of the grandest chase scenes in cinema history. Fury Road‘s characters are all incredibly eye-catching and memorable, from the mechanically-armed and unstoppable Furiosa to the beastly-breathing Immortan Joe. I’m staring at the artbook right now and am resisting every urge to flip through it for its mountain of gorgeous design and production stills. Endlessly quotable, never dull, and always thrilling, Fury Road begs to be witnessed multiple times for all its glory, both shiny and chrome.
1. Inside Out
Pixar’s latest animated feature, Inside Out, is a testament to their devotion to a good story. Aside from being psychologically sound and incredibly inventive for an animated world, it speaks volumes towards Pixar’s commitment to masterful film making over forgettable animated fluff. It was director Pete Docter’s devotion to creating a unique story, chugging away at it, tossing it out when it was not working, and going back to the drawing board that made Inside Out one of the best films of the year. Whether you’ve experienced moving away or not as a kid, just about anyone can relate to the plight of 11-year-old Riley and the conflicting emotions inside her head. Every aspect to the inner workings of Riley’s thoughts and memories carries both a creative edge and an emotional punch. Maybe it’s just the perspective of being both a child who moved at that age or a parent who can feel for a child growing up, but Inside Out hit all the right heartbreak buttons for me harder than the likes of Up or Toy Story 3. Yes, it’s that sad, powerful, and amazing.
Worst Movies of 2015 So Far
Get ready for the duds.
You can’t hide behind that mustache, Johnny Depp. Your name is all over this early bomb of 2015. Based on the Mortdecai novel series, this comedy is overblown on budget and underfunded in humor. A gaggle of big names all turn out to play one-joke characters is this strange farce. All of Johnny Depp’s comedy derives from his mustache. All of Gwyneth Paltrow’s comedy derives from her hating Depp’s mustache. All of Paul Bettany’s comedy revolves around him being the silent giant that sleeps with all the girls. Not once do any of these accomplished actors get a chance to venture out of their cartoonishly created characters. (How do you cast Jeff Goldblum and still end up with a tired character?) But it’s Johnny Depp who is the biggest disappointment, placing his quirky character acting on autopilot for the most amateur of jokes. If he really wanted to play a cartoon character, he should make another Rango. At least then the animators can fill in the blanks.
4. The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)
Tom Six’s latest (and hopefully last) chapter of the Human Centipede trilogy wants to be the most offensive and politically incorrect movie of the year. While it certainly is a vile little piece of horror trash, it fails to live up to such expectations. For as much blood, gore, poop, rape, and racism that Six throws at the screen, The Human Centipede 3 comes off much milder in comparison to his previous installments. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a terribly awful experience worthy of being the worst of the year. But in its attempt to reach the highest peak of offensiveness with its comedic meta formula, the end result just doesn’t match the depressing depravity of The Human Centipede 2. In that sense, The Human Centipede 3 is a double failure in that it’s not a good movie or the most offensive movie. It’s just a strange oddity that hates itself with such meta dialogue as, “nobody should enjoy this” and “I don’t want to hear about some sick filmmaker and his poop fetish.”
It’s fair to say that this big-budget Adam Sandler vehicle is the millennial equal of the The Wizard. It’s a movie that wants to be about video games and nerds, but has no idea about how to go about conceiving such a script. Spat out by Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, Pixels not only fails to capitalize on its core audience, but is just downright unfunny and incredibly offensive. Where else can you see a film where women are literally trophies? For all its meager attempts to favor nerds and bank on nostalgia of video games, Pixels is a travesty of a movie that has no idea what it’s talking about on any level (including its own nostalgic visions of the 1980’s). I don’t care that much about video games and even I found myself shouting back at the screen about how there are no cheat codes in Pac-Man. If a non-gamer such as myself was angered by this picture, I can’t even imagine the frothing vitriol from the gamer community.
2. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
There’s one word that comes to mind with Paul Blart, and it’s “glutton”. He’s a glutton for slapstick, a glutton for awkward, and just plain a glutton. The character is no more than one big fat joke that Kevin James plays up with no shame and no humor. Once again tasked with foiling terrorists in an enclosed space, Blart wobbles around as the tubby, absent-minded hero once again. Mall Cop 2 features no clever comedy, no major developments in character, and no shortness of Kevin James falling flat on his back. What is present in the picture is an unbelievably shameless plug for the Las Vegas Wynn hotel and resort (featuring Mr. Wynn himself). The movie seems to pride itself as being the first to take advantage of the new Las Vegas movie tax incentive. That’s probably it’s only claim to fame as nothing else in the picture works or even tries to work. If you’re really grasping at straws, you could say the movie has some diversity for Blart teaming up with a security guard force and one of its members being a sassy black guard from Minnesota. She’s not allowed to say or do anything all that memorable, but at least the one-joke, stereotypical nature of Blart feels somewhat inclusive of different races and genders. They can be fat and unfunny as well in this universe.
1. The Cobbler
Most of the films on this list seemed to be destined for disaster, but The Cobbler is most disappointing in that it may have had a shot at being decent. Sure, it stars Adam Sandler, but he’s teamed up this time with accomplished writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). Could be good, right? It’s not just bad—it’s surprisingly awful. What starts as a sweet tale of a lonely New York City cobbler soon morphs into a cliché save-the-block plot. Even when Sandler appears held back in this little production, he’s still given plenty of moments in the script to be crude and unlikable. As if terrible writing around the gimmick of Sandler being able to literally step into anybody’s shoes wasn’t enough, The Cobbler features one of the most left-field, middle-finger ending ever conceived. Even M Night Shyamalan would blush. I normally don’t like picking on smaller films for lists like this, but The Cobbler just sent me over the edge with that ending that it begs to be placed on a list of the worst movie endings of all-time.