by Heath Holland
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
This movie almost didn’t make my top ten. As it is, it’s the only superhero movie you’ll find on my list, which is a testament to Joss Whedon and his ability to make his work stand out from the din of other superhero stories that now flood the theaters each year. Also, I love James Spader’s take on Ultron and the fact that we now have a cinematic version of The Vision, which I never in a million years would have imagined could happen. Where some comic book movies want to distance themselves from their four-color origins, Avengers: Age of Ultron embraces exactly what it is, and is the better for it.
9. Scooby-Doo and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery
Listen…LISTEN. This stupid little movie from Warner Bros. Animation just makes me really, really happy. It may have taken Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley well over thirty years to figure it out, but they finally did: KISS is a cartoon. By marrying all the rock and roll posturing and the iconic imagery of The Demon, The Star Child, The Spaceman, and The Catman with the universally-loved Scooby Gang, this movie manages to create something special. You don’t need to be a KISS fan to enjoy the film, but viewers that have a passing knowledge of the band and their infinite capacity to market and promote themselves as the greatest rock band in the world will pick up on the MANY inside jokes made both with the band and at the band’s expense. This direct-to-video movie is so much better than it had any right to be, and is better than any animated movie I saw in theaters during 2015.
Being a Disney fan can sometimes be a real challenge, especially when the company seems intent on big blockbusters and mega-sequels instead of innovating in the areas they once pioneered. I imagine Tomorrowland is the kind of movie that would have made Walt very happy because he was constantly pushing for a better future and working to ensure that tomorrow is brighter than today. That was the whole idea behind EPCOT in the first place, and this movie is loaded with classic Disney history. Unfortunately, there are lots of problems with this movie, most of which I lay at the feet of director Brad Bird because I see the same problems in several of his other films. The movie was also marketed as something that it absolutely isn’t. However, at its core, Tomorrowland most reminds me of those Disney movies made in the early 1980s under the Eisner era that are about optimism and hope (it reminds me particularly of Flight of the Navigator). I like that it requires something from the viewer and presents a challenge. It’s not timid with its opinions about our culture, and while George Clooney’s character is cynical, Britt Robertson’s character is endlessly optimistic. Let’s be clear: that ain’t me. I’m George Clooney’s character, jaded and bitter; but I want desperately to be Britt Robertson’s character because she seems to be having a lot more fun. The movie reminds me that who I am is my choice. Yes, that makes me throw up in my mouth a little, but it makes me EMBARRASSED about throwing up in my mouth. Even though it tanked and is one of the biggest box office disappointments in Disney’s recent history, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see Disney make more of. Only they won’t, because it tanked.
7. Turbo Kid
I didn’t grow up with movies like Turbo Kid, but I really wish that I had. Luckily for me, the filmmakers clearly did, and have crafted a very retro post-apocalyptic adventure filled with buckets of humanity and heart as well as buckets of blood. They have done this without a wink to the audience and without a shred of irony. Clearly the people responsible for Turbo Kid wanted to make a movie that was not homage to their influences, but that could exist in the same world as their influences. I think they succeeded. It’s great to see Michael Ironside doing what he does best, and how fantastic is Laurence Leboeuf? I don’t actually have much to say about this movie other than that it’s really, really fun and that I’ll be watching it for years to come. It feels like it’s been around forever.
The Hateful Eight
I don’t know which I like more: the movie, or the 70mm presentation of the movie. Seeing this film on film was like a religious experience. Everyone in the theater was there because they love what movies can be, and even though I go to the movies all the time, this was completely different, like a shared communal experience. I think the movie itself is one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films, and this movie was clearly made by the man who made Pulp Fiction, my favorite of his. I love how smart and layered his screenplay is, and I love the selection of actors he’s chosen to bring the tale to life. This was the year Kurt Russell came back in a big way, and he shines in this movie, but everyone is uniformly fantastic. I also think The Hateful Eight marks something of a jump forward for the director; I applaud his choice of relying on Ennio Morricone’s score work and scaling back source music. To be clear, I love Tarantino’s use of existing pop music as well, and LOVE how he used Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home,” cut from 1967’s forgotten western-comedy The Fastest Guitar Alive. The song finally has a home in an actual movie, just like it was intended to all those years ago. The Hateful Eight was confirmation for me that Tarantino is more than a cinephile with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies; he’s also still an incredibly unique and talented director who seems to have actually gotten better with age. Please stick around, Jackrabbit Slim.
5. Bone Tomahawk
This movie feels like a classic western along the lines of John Ford’s The Searchers until it’s nothing like that anymore and becomes something altogether terrifying. Another outstanding cast and another excellent Kurt Russell performance that reminds me a bit of his turn as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Bone Tomahawk is filled with dry humor and crackling dialog that feels true. The screenplay and direction, both from S. Craig Zahler, are outstanding and manage to bring something fresh to the western genre when it seems like everything has been done before. I could probably flip-flop Bone Tomahawk with The Hateful Eight on this list, but they’re both so completely different. I’m just happy to have them both. Is the western making a comeback? The last couple of years seem to indicate that it is, and I couldn’t be happier.
Mad Max: Fury Road
What is left to say about this movie that hasn’t been said already? I don’t think any of us were expecting this to be such a tour de force, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to connect so deeply to the characters. Charlize Theron gives a truly stunning performance, Tom Hardy steps right into the role of Max without a single stumble, and George Miller managed to create a movie in today’s studio system that is unlike anything else and feels to me like the work of an auteur. A publication I subscribe to ran a review the weekend the movie opened that said Mad Max: Fury Road was all action in service of nothing, and I STILL can’t believe that someone could watch this movie and not feel like they’d witnessed something incredible with Max, Furiosa, and Nux. I was so affected by the film that when the closing credits hit, I literally held my breath. This is by far the most stunning, unexpected theatrical experience of the year for me.
3. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Almost all of my initial complaints about this film have worn away with repeat viewings. To be clear, I wish Disney had taken more chances, but then it wouldn’t have resonated with so many people (see number 8). No, this is the movie that Disney needed to make to relaunch this franchise and ensure that everyone was on board before they move forward. As this film sets records all over the world, it can be forgiven for sticking too closely to the plot of 1977’s landmark Star Wars and for borrowing images and beats from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The job was to remind people why they loved Star Wars in the first place, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. George Lucas has said that all the episodes of Star Wars are the same song over and over, with variations. Therefore, The Force Awakens begins the song once again, but with new players holding the instruments alongside the seasoned veterans. I’m fairly certain that the things I was looking for in the film --and was disappointed that I didn’t find-- will feature prominently in the future episodes because they’ve laid all the groundwork in this film. There’s a lot of people complaining about what this movie ISN’T (I was one of them), but I want to focus on what it actually IS. The Force Awakens is a fantastic ride that puts immeasurable value on its characters (we like them so much that we complain they weren’t in it enough), especially a strong female lead that doesn’t need men to save her. It offers a villain who is transparent in his flaws and still on his journey into darkness, unlike any we’ve seen in a Star Wars film before. And it does these things in ways that excite us and remind some of us of our childhood. There’s another word for what The Force Awakens is: “accessible.” Yes, I have nitpicks and quibbles, and I’m a little sad that Star Wars is now owned by a huge corporation and is no longer the world’s biggest independent film series, but who cares? If Coca-Cola somehow obtained the rights to sex, would we then grumble about sex? I don’t want to miss something wonderful because I can’t let go of the little things. I’m going to enjoy this ride while it lasts.
This movie was even better than I was expecting it to be, and I was expecting it to be great. I came to it for the further adventures of Rocky Balboa, and while I did get that, I got a new character to love in Adonis Creed. As someone who embraces every single movie in the Rocky series and considers Sylvester Stallone to be my favorite living star, Creed delivers on its promises and manages to draw from every single existing film in the series that came before it while at the same time serving as a launching point for a new hero. Each Rocky film has something to say about a particular stage of life (some more than others), and this film offers one of the most valuable lessons of all with Stallone turning in what I think is the best performance of his career. And full disclosure, this version of Rocky, almost a decade since we last saw him, reminds me very much of my father. If the torch has truly been passed to a new contender and the story of Rocky Balboa has been completed, I’ll happily follow Creed. Michael B. Jordan embodies all of the qualities I’ve come to love about Rocky while still being a completely different character. I think this is an incredible movie, and any other year it would have been my favorite.
1. Love & Mercy
I read a book about The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in March (Nearest Faraway Place, by Timothy White) that covered a lot of the same material that we see in Love & Mercy, unaware that this movie would be dropping in the summer. I consider myself a pretty big Beach Boys fan and feel very protective of Brian Wilson, which is understandable, given his fragile state, yet undeniable genius. Because of Hollywood’s tendency to dramatize and sometimes exaggerate real life events, I chose to avoid Love & Mercy for months because I felt sure that the movie wouldn’t be respectful to the man himself or the events surrounding the involvement of Dr. Eugene Landy, and also because I just couldn’t stand the thought of another one of THOSE movies that dramatizes the birth of a famous band. The last thing we need is another biopic about a rock star in which some actor with an inflated ego gets an Oscar nomination for pretending to be someone we love. I needn’t have worried, because as protective as I am of Brian Wilson, I think the filmmakers feel even more protective than I do. And while I’m sure some dramatic license has been taken, so much of the movie is actual fact and is drawn from historical record. There are lots of lines that reference things that the movie doesn’t have time to explore, but that they have chosen to include because it informs the characterization. Impeccably researched and presented in a way that anyone can appreciate, Love & Mercy is like many of the songs by Brian Wilson himself: beautiful, but with a touch of sadness. It’s the best thing I saw in 2015.