Unlike Part 1, there was really no doubt about these 5 films. The only late charge was by Creed, which jumped up after my initial infatuation with The Hateful Eight died down. One of the common themes of the half of the list, and honestly should be a part of every critical review, is great performances mixed with terrific storytelling. Producing a top flight movie isn’t rocket science, but it does require a finesse that cannot be achieved by cutting corners.
Every film in this section is worthy of a Blu-Ray purchase and multiple viewings. As emotionally draining as a few of these can be, they are not to the level where it is too depressing for a second viewing. They each grabbed my attention for entirely different reasons and proved that sometimes taking a chance on a movie can be the most rewarding experience.
[Obviously, there will be spoilers for some well-known films, so if you have not seen these films and don’t want to know key plot points. STOP READING, and return when you are ready. You have been WARNED]
As a Philadelphian, there are a few things about my city that only a native would understand, such as, why everyone calls Columbus Blvd., Delaware Ave. and why there was a statue of a fictional boxer before there was one for the city’s real-life heavyweight champion. Rocky Balboa is character that came at the exact right time for a city that needed an inspirational icon. The city’s boxing legend, Joe Frazier, was at the end of a storied career and the city itself was still in a downturn because of a “restructuring” in the manufacturing industry. The people needed to feel pride in something that represented their city.
Enter Rocky Balboa.
Over the next three decades, Rocky would become an icon for the city’s blue-collar population, and would become a staple with the local sports teams. Sylvester Stallone also found himself as an adopted son of Philadelphia, and even gets asked to comment on the city’s sports teams despite the fact that he lives in Beverley Hills and was born in Hell’s Kitchen. It is rare that a character becomes so intertwined with a city that it is sometimes difficult to remember that Stallone is an actor portraying Rocky and not actually Rocky.
Now that Stallone is way too old to play an active boxer, the series hopes that a slight reboot with a connection to the other popular character in the series will be able to continue the tradition. Creed is everything you want in a Rocky movie and more. It is more in line with the Academy Award winning first entry than it is with more ridiculous ones later in the series. Creed is more raw than cartoon, which cements it as the second best movie of the six. (We don’t speak of Rocky V).
The film is an acting clinic between Michael B. Jordan and Stallone, who make you feel every up and down in their unique relationship. The performances are what make this movie because, just like the original Rocky, the focus is on character development, not boxing. As deserved as Stallone’s Golden Globe was, I believe it was a shame that Jordan portrayal of Adonis was not recognized. He and his character had big shoes to fill, and he made the pressure look so realistic that the emotions were effecting you as if you were in the room with him. It was truly a sight to see.
4. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
Star Wars is a franchise that I have enjoyed but never really became obsessed with, so when they announced a seventh one, I was intrigued, but didn’t have it circled on my calendar. It was only until the weeks leading up to the film that I felt any anticipation for its release. And I’ll be honest, my reason for seeing it was partly because I have this borderline masochistic rule where I will see any movie — any movie — that has a beautiful woman and/or Sam Rockwell (This is quickly becoming Oscar Issac) in it.
This has led me to watch a multitude of awful films — Twilight Series, ATM, Paper Towns, etc. — and some surprises — 10 Years, Superbad, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc. — which would leave most people gun-shy but not me, I run headfirst into the unknown every time. Fortunately, The Force Awakens was one of the best ones I’ve seen under this rule. It also helped that Daisy Ridley kicked ass as Rey, and instantly made me forget why she original piqued my interest.
While it is pretty obvious that the producers played it safe in the story telling, it was also needed to palate cleanse the audience after the dreck that was the prequels. Essentially the plot is a retelling of the A New Hope, but the similarities were more calculated than lazy because the Star Wars series is really a story of the Skywalkers (Yes, I am in the Rey is Luke’s daughter camp) so it is understandable that all three trilogies begin with a kid whose lost their parents and is now living on a desert planet.
Where the movie really connected with me is how they blended the two previous trilogies in subtle ways while eliminating what they felt was not necessary to the story’s canon. Understanding this is why it is obvious that Rey is a combination of Luke’s piousness, Anakin’s engineering skills and Leia’s strong will, and will clearly be a Skywalker. Even though there were moments where the writers were trying to convince the audience that she was the next Han Solo, but this is just a red herring and a pretty good one at that.
The Force Awakens is a lot of fun and made enough of an impression on me that I not only saw it twice, but I attended both a Midnight showing and an early morning one. I would not call myself a dedicated Star Wars fan overall but I would say that I am a huge fan of The Force Awakens. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Oscar Issac is in it as he quickly challenges Sam Rockwell for his spot in my rule; there will more on him later.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Fury Road is unlike any film I’ve seen this year. Even the action oriented Furious 7’s pace looked like a leisurely stroll compared to this high-octane film. Once the action starts, it never stops and you really don’t want it to end. Like Star Wars, I’ve seen all the earlier films in the series, but I didn’t really worship them. So my only draw to this film was the constant praising from my friend who spent an entire weekend asking everyone — including our Uber driver — if they’ve seen the movie. Since I trust his opinion on most things, I went to the first show I could and I wasn’t disappointed.
The one thing I struggle with is trying to explain people why this movie is one of the best of the year. It is one of those rare films that is show, not tell, which makes it difficult when you’re asked to write about it for a website. If you like fast cars, jaw-dropping action and watching a blind guy who just wants to rock and has no interest in fighting, then Fury Road is a movie for you. The cinematography is terrific and it is very easy to be sucked in to the apocalyptic world of Mad Max.
One thing I must discuss is Charlize Theron tour-de-force performance as Furiosa, and why I am excited for this new trend of powerful women in film that has replaced the faux girl power that has permeated since the late-90s. Furiosa’s personality is a combination of a tough as nails fighter, an independent thinker and vulnerable human being. She doesn’t need Max’s help but she appreciates his effort to help her cause. It is quite impressive that in a movie where the titular character is not the baddest ass in the film, Fury Road doesn’t suffer one bit. This is all because of Theron’s performance, and one that should be celebrated.
2. Inside Out
This movie, man.
It has been a long time since I’ve been this emotionally invested and effected by movie, and an animated film at that. Like most Pixar films, there are two layers to Inside Out: one for the kids and one for their parents. But unlike earlier movies, there is an entire plot an emotional part that is unseen by the children that the film was marketed to. And it is one of the hardest his stories that Pixar has ever produced.
Inside Out introduces five funny and cute characters known as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear that kids will love and buy all their merchandise, but never really understand their deeper meaning. It is not completely their fault because they are probably all younger than Riley and haven’t experienced those emotions that she feels in the film. Their parents, on the other hand, completely get the subtext of every scene. The interactions between Joy and Sadness, and Riley’s personality transformation are all too familiar for the adult crowd, and depending on how the lead up to puberty went, you are either nostalgic or a complete wreck throughout the film.
Where the writers succeed the most is how complex ideas such as depression and getting older are handled with very simplistic representations. Each layer of the story is conveyed without any part of the audience feeling left out. The kids are focused on the adventure to make Riley happy again and take everything literally, while the adults are clued in on Riley’s emotional journey and what the metaphor is for each action. The best example is when Bing Bong — Riley’s imaginary friend — is lost in the forgotten area. The kids feel sadness because the character is essentially dead, but the adults get sad because of what his “death” represents. It is this duality that makes this a special movie.
Inside Out dug its emotional hooks so deep into me that it was the closest I’ve come to crying at the end of a movie in a long, long time. It was a roller coaster that I wasn’t expecting going in, and a movie I think should be required viewing for anyone at any age. It is as close to a perfect animated film that I have seen. Instead of making popcorn for this film, you should make sure that you are holding a box of Kleenex. You know, for when your kids cry.
1. Ex Machina
There are very few sci-fi movies that you walk out of and think about for weeks afterward. You begin to consider the real world applications of the theories or technologies presented, and whether they would be harmful. It is the type of film that has this hold over you that you need to find out everything about it, from the tech they are talking about to who the actors are in it. The feeling provided by this type of movie is both intoxication and exhilarating. Ex Machina made an impression on me both in an entertainment sense and an educational one.
For the purposes of this list, I will stay within the confines of the film. Ex Machina is a powerhouse of a movie filmed in a very minimalistic way. It is as close to stage play as a sci-fi movie can get. The amount of scenes with two people in chairs talking and doing very little else to convey the story would look boring on paper. But on the screen, it is enthralling and beautiful to watch. I feel bad for Domhnall Gleeson because no matter how well he performed in a scene, his co-star would be on a whole other level, especially Oscar Issac.
Issac is as on top of his game as he can be in this film. Even the strange dancing scene works because of the effort he put in earlier to develop the character. Nathan is no doubt insane but Issac makes you want to listen and believe every word he says even if your bullshit detector is at a 10. It was the type of performance that made me investigate his filmography and wonder why I never noticed him before. This is his version of Sam Rockwell’s Moon.
Even with the tremendous performance of Isaac, the one actor that impressed me the most was Alicia Vikander, who played the android, Ava. The way she effortlessly transition between naïvety and calculating was on a level that I haven’t seen in a while. She was spell-bounding and it was hard for you not fall for her as hard as Gleeson’s Caleb did. She was beautiful and charming, but also as smart as an A.I. should be. She was both the great success of Nathan career and his biggest mistake because he created an A.I. that could both pass the Turing Test and still be as cold-hearted as machine should be. Vikander’s subtle changes in line delivery as Ava became more and more aware is only evident during a second viewing because it is only noticeable once the ending is known.
Ex Machina is the one movie this year that I haven’t stopped thinking about, which is something that hasn’t occurred since The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012. It is helluva film that can be missed.