The Best (and Worst) Films of 2015

My movie-going experience of 2015 was a mixed cinematic bag crammed with big-budget franchise sequels/reboots and compelling stand-alone films.

Did Star Wars live up to the hype? Is Age of Ultron a worthy successor to the first Avengers film? These and other burning cinematic questions are answered in this, my list of the best and worst films genre films of 2015.

5) The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?

Director Jon Schnepp’s documentary about Tim Burton’s aborted big screen take on the Man of Steel is an interesting look behind the scenes of a production that couldn’t get out of its own way.

Schnepp snagged interviews with almost everyone behind the scenes: Kevin Smith who wrote the first draft of the script; producer Jon Peters, whose take on the iconic character and ideas about the film’s story are as fascinating as they are bizarre; and director Tim Burton himself, who still seems to lament the demise of the project.

The highlights of the doc are of course the “giant spider” story — which Kevin Smith has made infamous — and test footage of Nicholas Cage dressed as Kal El in the funkiest, most misguided Superman outfit ever designed.

All in all, the doc is a neat exploration of a lost film that has become something of a fandom legend.

4) Ant-Man

This smaller entry in the MCU is a much needed antidote to the sprawling, overstuffed misfire that is Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s nice to get back to a character-driven origin story with smaller stakes — literally and figuratively.

Paul Rudd is funny and charming as Scott Lang, the career criminal who reluctantly inherits the mantle of the Ant-Man from former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Hank Pym, compellingly portrayed by Michael Douglas. Rounding out the main cast is Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne (Pym’s daughter), and Corey Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross. And they’re fine. But the real standouts are supporting players Bobby Cannavale as Paxton, the stepdad to Scott’s daughter (I know Cannavale primarily from Boardwalk Empire, so it was refreshing to see him as something other than a murderous psychopath), and Michael Peña, a member of Scott’s criminal circle and the funniest part of the film.

3) Ex Machina

In this age of mega-blockbuster franchises, it’s wonderful that small, high-concept, Science Fiction films like Ex Machina are still being made.

This unique foray into the thorny moral questions surrounding the creation of Artificial Intelligence exemplifies the SF tradition of exploring big ideas, but it does so in a small, compelling, character-driven film.

Chief among those characters is Ava, the intelligent robot played with nuance by Alicia Vikander. The movie is worth watching for her evolution alone. But the entire affair is buoyed by a genuinely creepy, come-at-you-sideways performance by Oscar Isaac, who plays the reclusive tech billionaire who created Ava.

2) Kingsman: The Secret Service

My second-place film features breathless action, humor, wonderful chemistry between a cast of talented newcomers and veteran actors, and a brief but pivotal appearance by Mark Hamill. Yes I speak of none other than Kingsman: The Secret Service. (This set-up worked really well on the radio, when you couldn’t see the title coming.)

Kingsman was the surprise of the year. Who knew Colin Firth could kick so much ass? Taren Egerton and Sophia Boutella have career making turns as British super spies in training, buoyed by an old guard that include Michael Caine and Mark Strong. And let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson chewing up the screen in his best villain role sine Unbreakable.

Kingsman is a post-modern, post-Cold War homage to spy films like James Bond, written with a 21st Century sensibility — and I mean that in the best way possible.

1) The Martian

I could praise The Martian for its masterful performance by Matt Damon, and for incredible supporting performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels and (once again) Michael Peña. They all deserve any accolades I might throw their way.

But the real star of The Martian is science. At heart, this film is an unabashed and unapologetic celebration of science, embracing rational thought and the power of human ingenuity to solve problems and conquer the unknown.

Kudos to Ridley Scott for his adaptation of indie author Andy Weir’s breakout bestseller, and for sparing us from any stupid prayer vigil montages or sermons on the power of faith in hard times. Mars will kill you no matter who you pray to. If you want to survive, you’d better get busy growing poop potatoes.

Worst Film) Fantastic Four

I guess it’s official: no one at 20th Century Fox knows how to adapt Marvel’s First Family for the big screen.

It’s a shame, because Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell are actually really good in the roles or Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben. With a good story, this film might have been a smash.

But the script is complete shit — a messy misfire of an origin story — and the film was further hampered by a bizarre, behind-the-scenes fight between director Josh Trank and Fox that all but derailed the production.

It’s too bad there aren’t several other superhero film franchises for comic book fans to fall back on…

Biggest Disappointments) Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron / Mad Max: Fury Road / Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I guess it’s very difficult to capture lightning in a bottle twice, even if you’re Joss Whedon.

As much as I love the characters and the idea of a big team-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron never really equals the sum of its many frantically-moving parts. Ultron is the most two-dimensional MCU villain yet, and two hours of CGI superheroes fighting endless hordes of CGI robots can wear on even the most enthusiastic fan.

This movie reminds me of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is like watching a cinematic construction crew laying groundwork for the future of the MCU, and oh yeah, Cap is in it, too, over there somewhere. The more these films become about continuity bulking, the less I’m enjoying them. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they find the right balance for Avengers 2.5 Captain America: Civil War.

I read so many articles about how Mad Max: Fury Road was nothing less than a cinematic revelation, a transformative film-going experience unlike any other before it, so it was impossible not to go into it with impossibly high expectations.

And I’ll give Fury Road this: Charlize Theron fucking nails it as Imperator Furiosa. Tom Hardy is just fine as the stoic, damaged Max. And the visuals are stunning. But they’re just not enough to carry the movie.

Because in the end, the real stars of the movie are the vast wasteland and the cars, and watching the film’s endless chase sequences feels like watching someone else play a video game.

Speaking of impossibly high expectations, let’s get to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film succeeds and fails in equal measure.

The long-awaited sequel is wonderfully cast and the first third of the film is a massively fun thrill-ride that introduces us to three terrific new characters: Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron (sorry, but I’m not crazy about Kylo Ren). But as soon as the Falcon, Han and Chewie enter the picture, story structure and logic are sacrificed on the altar of fan service and call backs to the original trilogy. In fact, the entire plot was kind of a rehash of A New Hope.

The film’s chief failing is that it takes place at the exact wrong time. It alludes to a ton of interesting stuff that happened in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi — but we don’t get to see any of that. And it’s set before any of the really interesting stuff gets going in the new trilogy. I hope Episode VIII carries the story forward without being so hampered by nostalgia.

And there you have them, my best and worst films of 2015. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

When I presented this list on the yearly film review show of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, I was surprised to find that my fellow reviewers were all over the map when it came to their favorites and least favorites. There were very few films common to all of our lists, and I’m curious to see if that trend continues here.

-30-

Listen to the Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction 2015 film review show!