This is the first in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include books, music, food, TV, and more.
In 2014, I saw 147 movies I hadn’t seen before. In 2015, I saw a whopping 182. Here is a breakdown of how many movies would receive how many stars, if I were to rate them using a standard four-star system where four stars is the best and zero stars is the worst:
**** = 9
***½ = 20
*** = 41
**½ = 40
** = 42
*½ = 14
* = 10
Zero = 5
(Unreviewed = 1)
(Unreviewed = 1)
Average movie rating: **½
Despite watching nearly 24% more movies this year than last, I saw 25% fewer four-star movies. On the other hand, I saw 400% more zero-star movies. Perhaps I was being extra judgmental. More likely, I was not being picky enough in what I watched.
Like last year, I will now revisit the highs and lows (and a few in-betweens) of my 2015 movie-watching experience, based on genre.
I was also captivated by The Stanford Prison Experiment, a dramatization of the infamous psychological experiment of the early 1970s. Critics weren’t wild about the film, but I found it harrowing and engrossing. Some might complain that, given the subject matter, this movie doesn’t plumb the psychology of its characters enough. But I thought the objective, empirical—call it cold if you like—approach was very effective. This is a story that doesn’t require a heavy-handed musical score or an eloquent speech in order to convey the gravitas of the situation it portrays. The facts speak for themselves.
Love & Mercy is another 2015 release, a biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Calling the film a biopic may be a bit misleading, since the film revolves around two fairly limited timeframes in Wilson’s life: the writing, recording, and release of Pet Sounds, and Brian’s romance with Melinda Ledbetter in the 1980s, a relationship nearly suffocated by Brian’s abusive psychiatric caretaker, Dr. Eugene Landy. The filmmakers chose to cast two different actors to portray Brian in these different eras: Paul Dano as 1960s Brian, and John Cusack as 1980s Brian. Dano is brilliant, but Cusack—whom I once considered a favorite actor but who has starred mostly in duds over the last couple of decades—is also commendable. I’ve now seen the film twice, and while I worried Cusack’s version of Brian was too opaque upon my first viewing, my second viewing convinced me that this is one of the best films of 2015.
When it comes to more mainstream filmmakers—those whose films have broad appeal and tend to be released by the big studios—Robert Zemeckis has long been a favorite of mine. He’s the man behind such classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, Cast Away, and the Back to the Future trilogy. In 2015, Zemeckis gave us The Walk, a dramatization of high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s unauthorized tightrope walk between the newly opened World Trade Center towers. This stunt was the topic of the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire, where Petit himself told the majority of his own story. Zemeckis attempts to replicate the documentary feel by having Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s version of Petit narrate the film, often speaking directly to the camera. In the case of The Walk, it is a hindrance. I found the constant interruptions and shifts in narrative tone distracting as they repeatedly pulled you out of the story. As a result, the film was less dramatic than it should have been. That being said, I have never experienced so much anxiety watching a movie as I did during the final act of The Walk. It was almost unbearable, and credit must be given to Zemeckis. In the end, I gave it a very hesitant ***½.
Some of the very best dramas I saw in 2015 were released in previous years. Per usual, I spent the early part of the year catching up on the critically acclaimed and awards-nominated films of the previous year. I was not disappointed. 2014 Best Picture nominees Boyhood, Whiplash, and American Sniper were all four-star movies in my book. Foxcatcher was an eerily despondent film that garnered Steve Carell a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of real-life multimillionaire John E. DuPont. As powerful as Foxcatcher was, I think the Best Actor nomination should have gone to Jake Gyllenhaal for his performance in the superior film Nightcrawler.
2014 also gave us Wild and Calvary. Critics weren’t as unanimously impressed with these two films, but they were among the top 10 or so films I saw within the last year. Meanwhile, I wasn’t quite as enamored of 2014 Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game as my fellow moviegoers seemed to be. I thought it was very good, but didn’t strike an appropriate balance between what became the two central plots of the film. The ending felt, to me, as though the movie veered off in an entirely different direction, and not in a surprising or good way.
If you’re looking for something a little more cerebral and kooky, might I recommend Frank. I gave Frank three stars, but there is something surprisingly deep and poignant about this bizarre film. It is the story of Jon, a keyboardist who joins a band headed by lead singer Frank, a man who wears a giant papier-mâché head almost 24 hours per day. Like I said, it’s kooky. But Frank speaks to more issues than meets the eye—it is an examination of celebrity, of creativity, of self-esteem and self-doubt, and maybe even of religion. It’s a very engaging piece of independent film.
I saw a bunch of animated films I’d give two-and-a-half stars, which makes them minimally recommendable. They include The Boxtrolls, Hotel Transylvania 2 (which I slept through much of, so take my recommendation very lightly), the CGI/real-life hybrid Paddington, and Home, which was much less annoying than I expected it to be. I was disappointed with The Peanuts Movie, to which I gave two stars. The film was simple and sweet, which is refreshing in this day and age, and I loved the blend of computer animation and what appeared to be hand-drawn facial features of the Peanuts gang. But the sweet simplicity and classic Peanuts feel were largely accomplished by recycling old bits from past TV specials and consistently failing to tread new ground. There wasn’t much to the film at all, really, and so it was kind of boring.
My favorite documentary that I saw in 2015 was 2007’s Young@Heart. It follows the Young at Heart Chorus in Northampton, MA, a group of enthusiastic, geriatric crooners whose average age is 81. But these folks aren’t singing show tunes. They’re singing punk rock songs from The Ramones and The Clash, belting out James Brown, and doing their best to wrap their minds, ears, and vocal chords around the weirdness of Sonic Youth. It’s a must-see.
Other recommendable documentaries include 2014’s An Honest Liar and 2015’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The latter is biased and not a terrific documentary, but it is eye-opening and compelling.
Nightcrawler, which I already mentioned in the drama section above, is the only thriller I saw in 2015 to which I would give four stars. However, there were some superb thrillers that came just half-a-star shy of a perfect score. Blue Ruin is an exercise in patient intensity, the story of a man who seeks revenge for the murder of his parents and ends up at war with another family. The film is both powerful and original, if not a bit light on actual story. I also found The Drop—featuring one of James Gandolfini’s final screen roles—to be a very strong film, though critics found it only mildly recommendable on the whole. Locke is another great thriller. Actually, I’m not sure it is a thriller in the proper sense. Pretty much the entire film takes place inside a car with only one character visible onscreen, Ivan Locke, who receives phone call after phone call after phone call that fuels his anxiety and ours. The tension that mounts is palpable, and given the film’s narrative monotony, it is surprising just how effective, gripping, and poignant it turns out to be.
Also hailing from Sweden, 2014’s Force Majeure is a deft, hard-hitting examination of human psychology. On a ski trip to the French Alps, Ebba, her husband Tomas, and their children are nearly swept away by an avalanche. When the near-disaster subsides, Ebba and Tomas remember the incident differently—and are haunted by the potential ramifications. It may not sound like much, but Force Majeure is in the top 6% of movies I saw in 2015. Pensive, if not a bit slow, the film is so realistic in its exchanges and humanity that you’ll fear what it reveals about you. It also features some powerful cinematography. Check it out.
Sci-fi, Superheroes, and the Like
Maybe my memory is faulty, but science fiction seemed to have greater representation among movies I watched in 2015 than it has in many years previous. Thankfully, many of those films were quite good. Ex Machina is one of the top two or three films of 2015 that I saw and is within the top ten films of any year that I watched during the past twelve months. The basic storyline is nothing new, centering on the possibility of human-like consciousness in androids run on artificial intelligence. But writer and director Alex Garland manages to give this familiar motif a very fresh coat of paint. It is a subdued, engrossing, stylish, and thought-provoking film.
Just a notch below The Martian, I ranked 2014’s Interstellar. While it isn’t my favorite Christopher Nolan flick, I was impressed. Further down the list you’ll find I Origins and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, two solidly commendable three-star films from 2014. 2015’s Chappie warranted only two-and-a-half stars from me, but it leaves a lasting impression. It was Short Circuit meets Robocop, and everything good and bad that you can imagine of such a thing. The plot and supporting characters could’ve been more richly developed, but Chappie himself was a well-developed and engaging character.
A lot of big films fell disappointingly flat in this category. Most of them were mildly enjoyable but far from being the epic films we’ve come to expect of superhero and franchise films. I’m thinking here of Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man. All of these were decent, but that’s about as enthusiastic as I can get. Fortunately, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 proved an exception and brought its franchise back to form after a very disappointing Part 1. I still gave the second Mockingjay installment only three stars, but it provided a satisfactory conclusion to the immensely popular series.
I branched out a bit more in 2015 than I typically do in terms of seeing older films. It’s not that I purposely avoid older films, but it’s true that I see them only somewhat rarely. Several of the classics I saw were very good or better. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver is deserving of its four-star reputation. From 1957, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal was interesting. I thought it was extremely good, but I’d like to see it again to see if I can appreciate it even more. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors was just one of several Woody Allen films I saw this year, and certainly the best of the lot.
Another well-reviewed classic I saw for the first time in 2015 was 1958’s Vertigo. I have to say, as good a film as it was, it is undeniably dated. And by “dated,” I mean there are elements of it that simply are not holding up well. This doesn’t happen with every old movie. It isn’t unavoidable. Another Hitchcock film, Psycho, remains one of my favorite films of all time, and I think it is one of the most perfectly made films I’ve ever seen. In contrast, I felt very iffy about Vertigo, which at times is downright melodramatic. This is another one I wouldn’t mind re-watching and seeing if I find it any better.
I also saw a couple of “second tier classics,” as I’ll call them. They weren’t as strong as the films above, but they were good. Included here is 1971’s The French Connection. It wasn’t all that strong on plot or character development, but you can see in retrospect how it was influential. I think that’s why it’s so critically acclaimed, but watching it in 2015, it’s nothing amazing. There is something very organically gritty about it, but the machismo feels passé.
The other good but not terrific classic I saw was the 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors. It was both clever and funny, and I was impressed by how much I enjoyed it, considering it is 55 years old. I guess I don’t expect comedies to hold up nearly so well over time.
The Overrated, The Underrated
Metacritic, which provides an aggregate score between 1 and 100 that averages the major critic’s reviews. If a movie receives a Metascore of 50, that means that on average, movie critics placed the film right in the middle of whatever their ranking system happens to be: two out of four stars, two-and-a-half out of five stars, 5 out of 10, etc. The films I discuss below were overrated or underrated based on comparing my review to the film’s Metascore. It’s worth noting that I do not mention in this section any movie that I gave one star or fewer, since pretty much all of those were overrated in my book. I’ll discuss those movies in the next section of this post.
The Disney musical Into the Woods received a Metascore of 69, suggesting a consensus of mildly favorable reviews. I gave the film one-and-a-half stars. I didn’t know it was based on an actual stage play until after I watched the movie, but that’s where the troubles begin. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, stage plays turned into movies all too easily suck. That’s because there is a difference in style between a stage play and a movie, and if your movie feels too much like an actual stage play, it comes across terribly. Into the Woods is a great example. You can tell they got nothing extra out of it by turning it into a movie—in which case, why bother? The onscreen scenery is mostly just people surrounded by trees, looking at each other as they sing. Pretty boring. And the songs were both incessant and meandering. Not a memorable melody in the bunch. It sounded like songs that someone with modest talent might improvise on the spot.
One of the most baffling movies to make this list is Snowpiercer. This futuristic, dark, dystopian film where the planet’s only remaining human beings live and die in a caste system society housed entirely on a continuously moving train—no joke—has a Metascore of 84. This means the film averages nearly a three-and-a-half star rating on a four-star rating scale. This means that many critics gave the film four stars, finding it excellent. I thought it barely warranted two stars, noting that it is “stylistically melodramatic” and “often rather ridiculous.” This one is a head-scratcher for sure.
Listen Up Phillip has a solid Metascore of 76. It is the story of a bitter, self-absorbed writer. It is extremely dull and tedious, and I couldn’t give it more than two stars. I struggle to articulate why it is that some movies that excel in realism and don’t have much going on can be so damn good while others seem like pretentious BS. Listen Up Phillip is more the latter, unfortunately. I’m sure it didn’t help that the film had a very dry tone, complete with bland, matter-of-fact narration, all too reminiscent of 1970s educational filmstrips that people my age had to endure in elementary school.
Yet another highly overrated movie is Two Days, One Night, which received a whole slew of awards nominations (and wins), including a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Marion Cotillard. The film centers on the character of Sandra (Cotillard), a woman who has lost her job to a vote. It seems her coworkers would prefer a pay raise to keeping Sandra around. With limited time to reverse the decision, Two Days, One Night follows Sandra as she goes about town, hunting down her coworkers and begging them to reconsider. It is quite literally as interesting a movie as watching someone go door-to-door trying to get people to sign a petition—because that’s almost literally what the movie is. Were there good performances? Sure. But it’s not as if there’s enough character development for us to care or even feel all that invested in Sandra’s campaign. She doesn’t even seem that passionate about it herself. And the interactions she has quickly feel like a broken record, with almost every conversation going through the exact same routine and pattern of comments. I don’t get the hype. At all. Somehow this movie has a Metascore of 89.
When it comes to underrated movies, Jason Reitman’s 2014 film Men, Women & Children carries a Metascore of 38, suggesting it warrants one-and-a-half stars on a four-star rating system. I gave the film three stars. As a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media, the movie is perhaps a bit too bleak and pessimistic. I could see some depressing plot developments coming from a mile away. And yet, despite its depressive myopia, Men, Women & Children remains believable and features very strong performances from its large ensemble cast.
Including Men, Women & Children, I saw more Adam Sandler movies this year than I probably ever have. I’ll discuss several of them throughout this blog post. One such movie is The Cobbler, with Sandler as a shoe repairman who discovers a magical relic that allows him to take on the appearance of any other human—provided he is wearing the other person’s shoes. (Deep stuff, man!) It’s a bit hokey, and for being a fairytale, it’s a bit dark and amoral. But all things considered, Sandler gave a decent performance and the movie was surprisingly enjoyable. I can only assume critics were all too eager to dump on anything involving Sandler, and I can understand why that would be a matter of habit for them. But for all this film’s flaws—and I admit that the weak yet overdone ending was a major one—it wasn’t that bad.
Moving away from Adam Sandler, I thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an okay popcorn flick. Sometimes I think it helps when you go into a movie with very low expectations, as I did with this one. Could it have been better? Undoubtedly. Could the turtles have had more personality? For sure. But goodness gracious, what can you really expect of a movie like this? I think critics had already decided it was a piece of crap before they watched it, which explains the movie’s low Metascore of 31.
Quality wise, the 2014 version of Annie was pretty much on par with TMNT. Thus, I considered it mildly recommendable, while critical reviews resulted in a Metascore in the low 30s. As a kid, I was quite a fan of the 1982 film starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett. I honestly don’t believe any of that carried over into my lukewarm appreciation of the 21st-century reboot, however. This latest big screen adaptation is Annie for the auto-tune generation, featuring new, modern-sounding songs (that I could have done without) in addition to the slightly hip-hop-ified classics. The biggest problem for me was that neither Annie nor Will Stacks (re: Daddy Warbucks) were as lovable as they could’ve been, and Annie’s time with Stacks didn’t come off as being as magical or significant to her as it should have. All of that being said, I think the film is bound to resonate with younger audiences—and maybe even a few adults.
The Worst of the Worst
If you’re an avid movie watcher, seeing a bad film now and again comes with the territory. But there’s a difference between a bad movie and an absolutely terrible one. Every year, I see one or two movies that leave me sincerely baffled as to how something so awful can exist. 2015 was no exception. I saw five total films that I gave zero stars, which is a 400% increase over my 2014 viewings. Not good. Sadly, I also saw ten one-star films, which is one more than 2014. That’s a lot more crap than I’d prefer, but at least it gives me something to say at this point in my blog post. In the interest of time, I will limit my discussion to five films: the worst film of 2015, and the four worst films I saw in addition to that (regardless of year).
Based on the limited number of 2015 releases that I saw, my vote for the absolute worst film of 2015 is Vacation. I have to admit, I was kind of excited at the idea of a Vacation reboot, and I appreciated that the reboot wasn’t actually a remake but a legitimate sequel focusing on an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) taking his own family on a road trip to Walley World. Sadly, the film was awful. It was vulgar, offensive, and unfunny. It felt like a collection of brainstormed skits held together by the thinnest of plots. I don’t know if it made enough money to warrant a continuation of the series, but at this point, I’m sincerely hoping not.
The absolute worst films I saw were not released in 2015. I gave Vacation one star, but the remaining films in my list were given zero stars. They are as follows:
Brother’s Justice. Dax Shepard tries his hand at making a mockumentary, and he does a terrible, terrible job. This movie was extremely, extremely boring. It follows Shepard as himself, shopping around the idea for an action movie (also titled Brother’s Justice) wherein he will be the star. And that’s the joke, folks. If you’re not laughing already, seeing the movie won’t help. Shephard apparently finds the idea that he could be an action star quite hilarious, since that is pretty much the only joke this movie makes. Again and again and again. Too much of the film is spent talking in earnest about making Brother’s Justice (the one you’re not actually watching), as though that idea alone is supposed to entertain us. There aren’t jokes being made, per se, which means Shepard honestly thought the proposed film within the film, and the very thought of him starring in it, was hilarious enough on its own—which it absolutely isn’t.
Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights. You knew Adam Sandler would have to show up again, didn’t you? Well, here he is. Sort of. Eight Crazy Nights is an animated holiday film from 2002, a film that exists presumably only because Sandler was quite the box office success at the time. And what do you do when you’re a box office success and can do whatever you want? Make an animated movie, I guess. All I know is the movie doesn’t exist because it had a funny script or a clever plot. Anyone capable of writing a screenplay could’ve written this. It is all so obvious and easy and unimaginative and juvenile. Rare, if ever, is the humor not scatological or offensive and at the expense of some group of people—fat people, epileptics, the transgendered, etc. Per usual, we’ve got chauvinism, with female characters being incredibly flat (except for their breasts). We’ve got scenes of deer defecating, explicitly and with a straight-on view of stools exiting the body. We’ve got scenes of people covered in feces, or farting, or with snot all over their faces, or peeing their pants, or literally eating jock straps. It’s a smorgasbord of weak, adolescent humor that I’m not sure even adolescents would find all that amusing.
And the absolute worst movie I’ve seen in the last twelve months is Open Windows. The thriller stars Elijah Wood as Nick, a devoted fan of movie starlet Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). Nick wins a contest that is supposed to result in having dinner with Jill, but while getting ready in his hotel room, the dinner plans are canceled via phone call by Chord, a man identifying himself as Jill’s manager. As a consolation prize, the questionable Chord explains that he can hack into Nick’s laptop computer and livestream footage of Jill in her own hotel room. Nick is unsure at first, but eventually accepts the offer. And from there, things spiral out of control, with Nick becoming a pawn in a game of life-and-death. It sounds much more promising than it is. It’s incomprehensible to me that anyone would give this film more than one star. It’s truly one of the absolute shittiest films I’ve ever seen. It is so unbelievably outrageous and absurd, and the acting is atrocious. I felt like I was watching a video game from the early 1990s, one that was really high-tech at the time (with real actors and everything!) but is just embarrassing now. Everything about the movie seemed so incredibly staged and choreographed and, in the case of dialogue, pre-recorded. Rarely did anyone sound like they were really talking to another person rather than reading something off of a piece of paper, alone in some isolated sound booth somewhere. It was just unbelievable. And so excruciatingly convoluted. Like I said, it’s one of the worst films I have ever seen. Ever. I’m in disbelief. Utter and total disbelief.
Here’s to the hope of good movie watching in 2016!