In a year so stacked with good films, I found it noticeably tough to pare down what surprised me to just five choices. Case in point: I don’t think any of us saw the majesty of Mad Max: Fury Road coming, but I’ve talked about that one enough this week. Or Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic no one was supposed to care about. Or the unrepentant glee of Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. Or the undeniable pleasures of a low stakes film like Learning to Drive. Instead, I managed to focus on some options a bit more off the beaten path, the sort of films that often get smaller wide releases and tend to come and go before anyone even notices they were there (well, with one exception in this case). As far as the disappointments go, well they should be pretty self-explanatory. They can’t all be winners.
Similar to the invigorating Dear White People from 2014, Dope is a new school take on a high school drug comedy with an old school flair. With a talented core of young actors (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons) playing 90’s hip hop nerds who spend their afternoons watching old VHS tapes of Yo MTV Raps!, playing in a pop punk band (with music supplied by Pharrell Williams) and studying instead of doing/selling drugs or joining gangs on the mean streets of Inglewood, California, Dope boasts an energetic appeal that rarely falters even as its events get more and more ridiculous. A stealthy reboot of Risky Business for the digital age with a razor sharp crackerjack script, the film only really slips up in the way it ends, but it is a minor complaint at best. This is a star-maker for Shameik Moore, and the sort of film I didn’t even know existed until a week or two before its release. Little films like this are the beating heart of the cinema; not every movie can be Jurassic World or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and something like Dope, with its street-level stakes and humanistic charm, may not rise to the top, but it’s always there, offering a respite from the CGI destruction.
High concept horror movies are starting to become a dime a dozen, especially in this post-Blair Witch world. Unfriended, which was released to little acclaim and fanfare in the middle of this year, sets itself away from the pack by taking place entirely on the desktop computer of a teenage girl, never breaking away from the screen for the whole 83 minutes as the Skype conversation she has with her friends turns deadly due to the malicious force of the ghost of their bullied friend who committed suicide. The conceit is often cleverly implemented, from the music (there is no traditional score, but when the ghost takes over her computer, it takes the time to play music from her collection to set the mood) to the way she zips around from window to window to the messenger conversations that contradict what they’re saying to each other’s faces. It doesn’t quite come together by the end, and when it gets arch it arguably gets too arch to the point of silliness, but I was amazed by just how long I was impressed by this silly little movie.
I noted yesterday about how the trailer for Ricki and the Flash scared me off of seeing that film in the theater, and Paddington befell a similar fate. While its trailer did not reveal every single detail of its plot like Ricki and the Flash did, it managed to turn me off all the same by focusing on one particular scene in which the rambunctious bear destroys a bathroom through his curiosity. It was cute, but made the film seem like children’s fare and nothing else. Imagine my surprise then that, when finally catching up with the film at home, I discovered a charming and warm little family picture with tons of heart and a delightfully arch villainess turn from Nicole Kidman. Similar to Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (I bet everyone speaks about those two movies in the same breath all the time) in the way it portrays the immigrant experience through a nonstandard lens, Paddington may not be biting, but it is effective. The screwball comedy from the trailer feels better within the context of the film, and it all just...works beautifully. Sometimes we need to find something light and airy amongst all the seriousness and darkness and superheroes destroying cities and depressing documentaries. Turns out Paddington is just the sort of amuse-bouche we need.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Surprising in that it essentially came out of nowhere from a first time director (Marielle Heller) and stars a first time actress (Bel Powley), The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a bit of an unassuming film, a throwback 70’s pastiche of a coming of age story about a 15 year old girl’s sexual awakening via an affair with her single mother’s boyfriend, but it is made with a fiery spirit. Combining live action and some overlayed animation (think American Splendor, which feels very much apiece with the whole film, not just aesthetically), The Diary of a Teenage Girl has a lot of competition in the “young girl coming of age” category (pitting it against Brooklyn, Mustang, Girlhood, Inside Out, etc), but it manages to hold its own. Powley is a revelation, and well supported by her two more famous supporters, with Kristen Wiig playing her hard partying barely-an-adult mother and Alexander Skarsgard as the man caught between mother and daughter. I wasn’t entirely bowled over by this film the way, say, Michael Phillips was, but this is just the sort of film to quietly skate by under the radar that should be seen by many many more people than it has.
I’m going to level with you: Creed is the first Rocky movie I’ve ever seen in its entirety. Nothing against Rocky, but I just never found the time. So color me tickled pink that Creed was such an energetic and expertly put together film, managing to subsume itself into the waters of inspirational sports films without shambling through them, punching up the tired tropes with exciting camera work and engaging performances. I had a healthy respect for Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler’s first film (itself also starring Michael B. Jordan), but this is a huge step up for him, but in terms of storytelling quality and visual splendor. The cast is splendid from top to bottom, and the fight scenes (including an extremely well choreographed long take match) are inspired. Creed could have been a silly little spinoff or a cash grab, a cynical attempt to keep Rocky in the minds of viewers. But instead it manages to be a shot in the arm for the often stale sports genre (look no further than the often stale Southpaw from earlier this year, a film that is forgotten within twenty minutes of its credits rolling), and a hell of a calling card for Coogler moving forward.
2015’s Marvel Movies (Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron)
This is the first year since Iron Man burst on the scene in 2008 that Marvel did not release a single film that I found to be worth my time. Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bloated mess that seemed much more concerned with setting up the next ten movies to come than telling a coherent self-contained story. It’s no wonder Marvel Studios basically killed Joss Whedon as a big time director; his exit interviews after the film’s release did not paint a kind picture of the sort of strain he found himself under while trying to make the Disney bosses happy and still retain some sense of authorial voice (which didn’t really happen, unfortunately). Their late summer release, Ant-Man, was stalked by the specter of its former director Edgar Wright, and managed to break away from one of the most visionary action comedy directors of the age by being decidedly generic in nearly every way. Archetypal characters with no particular traits that stand them out from the crowd prevent the film from ever leaving second gear. Considering how much Edgar Wright has done in the action comedy genre in his career, and the result we got from this Peyton Reed directed filmic equivalent of the color beige, Ant-Man is perhaps the most worrying example of Marvel Studios choosing homogeneity and brand building over artistic vision. We knew this was the case, of course, but it’s depressing seeing it so directly proven by clawing its way to the fore in two straight films like we got this year.
The prospect of Tom Hardy playing dual roles as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, two legendary (hence the name) East London gangsters from the 1960’s, seems like a slam dunk. And with the writer of LA Confidential providing both the screenplay and the direction, it couldn’t possibly disappoint, right? Hardy certainly does his part, infusing Ronnie with the manic, anarchic glee of his role in Broson and Reggie with the cool sophistication of his role in Inception, but what I didn’t see coming was how surprisingly and stultifyingly ponderous it would be in practice. The decision to focus more on Reggie’s relationship with his wife (played by Emily Browning) could work under the right circumstances, but here it just never engages. Christopher Eccleston’s police inspector never feels like a true foil, and by the time this 130 minute film that feels like it should be 85 reaches its series of false finishes in the third act, you’re left with nothing to do but beg for it to end. And when it does it offers little respite, though no longer having to endure it is certainly a creature comfort. Just a massive misfire in nearly every aspect.
If, at the beginning of the year, you polled the movie-going public about which big summer tentpole was likely to be a sure success both critically and financially, Tomorrowland would probably have been close to the top of that list. Brad Bird was batting 1.000 leading into the release of his fifth film. Sometimes, the weight of expectation can be a burden, but I’m relatively confident that if a completely unknown quantity directed this film, it would be just as unimpressive. Consistently bland in its old school heart on its sleeve optimism, Bird (and co-screenwriter Damon Lindleof) never finds the correct hook to make his story resonate. Hugh Laurie is burdened with a nonsensical cartoon villain, marking possibly the first time ever Hugh Laurie was not enjoyable to watch on screen. There are some good performances from the younger set, and one action set piece that can be quite enjoyable, but it’s all in service of nothing for no one. If this is what our future holds, I’m fine with it taking its time to get here.
Spy franchise rehashes (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Spectre)
It is puzzling to me that so many enjoyed Christopher McQuarrie’s shot at the Mission: Impossible franchise, a naked retread of the much superior Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (directed by a pre-Tomorrowland Brad Bird when the world was his oyster and disappointment was unfathomable). This film has almost an identical plot, with Ethan Hunt and his crew once again forced underground and once again battling a shadowy megalomaniacal villain, and it drastically suffers from diminishing returns. The action is fine, and the cast is clearly having fun, but the film never feels like it lurches out of first gear (I was so bored by this movie that I wrote a review that I never bothered publishing, because...meh). The same can be said for Sam Mendes’ banal Bond film Spectre, such a massive drop off from the joys of Skyfall (and, humorously, the second film that features the big bad hiding in plain sight via a seemingly hidden bullet proof box, following in the footsteps of Rogue Nation). Both of these films feel oddly inert despite all the movement on the screen, chock full of characters and villains and scenarios that mean nothing. In this never-ending year of spy films (Spy, Bridge of Spies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman: The Secret Service, et al), Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Spectre find themselves at the bottom of the barrel, a case of going to the well one too many times and finding it bare.
Of course, Fantastic Four is a bad film. Everyone knows that by now. But what makes it so frustrating is the hints of something worthwhile that intermittently bob to the surface of the cesspool. I’ve already written about its body horror elements this week, and while that is the majority of the good feeling, there are intermittent sparks from time to time that give the slightest hint of life underneath it all. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve seen studio intervention this blatant, down to Kate Mara’s horrendous reshoots wig and the One Year Later plot hijack that basically shoves everything Trank worked to set up for a quick and dirty crowd pleaser of a third act that succeeded in pleasing no one. Trank got some stick for tweeting out that he was sad the world would never get to see the movie he made/wanted to make, and while most seemed to write him off as a troubled director/petulant child who was meddling with their beloved characters, I pretty much agree with him. What is most depressing about the failure of Fantastic Four is what it means for superhero stories moving forward; people will point to it as a reason not to branch out from the status quo, a cautionary tale for all the wrong reasons.
Tomorrow we scrape the bottomest of the barrel as we take a look at the ten worst film experiences I had to endure in 2015.