10. BONE TOMAHAWK
We begin with a film that most folks reading this are unlikely to be familiar with. S. Craig Zahler’s feature debut Bone Tomahawk is a remarkably entertaining exercise in genre-bending. A western that shifts from drama to comedy to grotesque horror in seamless fashion. Not since Snowpiercer have I seen more drastic tonal shifts work so effectively. A scene of abject violent horror which had me crawling out of my seat is followed immediately by one of the biggest belly-laughs I had in 2015.
Zahler explores the myths and cliches of the American West through a lens of practical realism; surmising what the actual impact typical boilerplate tropes that are rampant throughout westerns would have on an old fashioned tale of rescuing a damsel in distress. Zahler takes cliches such as the town simpleton, stubborn heroic sheriff, and deferential wife’’s usual narrative functions and either turns them on their heads or explores a more realistic influence they would have on the outcome of a well-traveled story. Richard Jenkins plays an old fool whose stupidity stretches beyond a well-trotted character trait to become a great detriment to the characters around him. Kurt Russell plays the iconic western sheriff whose heroic arrogance gets dropped on his head at a climactic moment of the film by Lili Simmons (playing the captured Samantha) – the aforementioned deferential female who just so happens to be a doctor and the smartest character in the film. Samantha spends a majority of the film held in captivity not just by her actual kidnappers, but by the ignorance of the male characters.
I’d be remiss if I did not at this point mention the rescue at the heart of the plot is of two people from a group of cave-dwelling cannibalistic barbarians. John Ford’s The Searchers featuring dismemberment and people eating. The all-male rescue posse is so consumed by their heroic pursuits they spend little time thinking strategically; underestimating the gravity of the danger they are facing. My favorite moment of the film was when the sheriff (Russel) and Chicory old fool (played brilliantly by Jenkins) arrive at their destination and are greeted by a shocking act of brutality. Their first instinct at the sight of such depravity is to reassure Samantha that although her husband was injured, they left a trail for him to come find them at the den of her cannibal captors.
“Why did you do that? (... )Here? To this place?”
“….We didn’t know what it was like.”
“This is why frontier life is so difficult, not because of the Indians or the Elements - but because of the idiots.”
Old school John Wayne style macho-heroism, making things worse.
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION
Here’s the best James Bond movie of 2015, a complete popcorn entertainment from start to finish. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt for the fifth time and as the movie is quick to point out, Hunt is really more of an idea than a person at this point. The only real continuity from the prior films to this one is Cruise’s character’s continued ascension to what Alec Baldwin’s CIA director describes as “the living manifestation of destiny.”
The franchise solely functions as a showcase for Cruise – and for good reason; one could make a case that Cruise is the greatest pure movie-star alive. Laying waste to other Hollywood pretty boys that were shoehorned into blockbuster by studios; Cruise himself always seemed destined for this title, going back 30 years. Constantly shadowed by his bizarre personal life, yet seemingly existing as an actor separately from it - Cruise often gets a bad rap due to the mounting evidence that he is in all likelihood a huge weirdo. But a Cruise apologist like myself has never allowed this to get in the way of enjoying the Tom Cruise Cinematic Experience. Hell my dad used to claim (and probably still does) that the guy never makes a bad movie, a notion that is demonstratively false (Rock of Ages) but my devotion allows me to spin in my brain as 100% accurate. Cruise is a relentlessly charismatic performer – with a grand commitment to his craft, which is best exemplified by the fact that that's actually him in the trailer hanging on the side of that Airbus A400m as it takes off.
Cruise as Ethan Hunt is the embodiment of his own mythology. No matter what’s going on off-screen, it does not seem to stop Cruise the movie star. Last year’s HBO Scientology documentary Going Clear painted Cruise as a driving force behind that problematic uhh ‘religion’ – which is a premise that most certainly has merit; but to someone like myself who spends most of their free time watching movies and utilizing them as catharsis, it frankly does not phase me. As a blockbuster performer, Cruise is unequaled.
Ethan Hunt in the 5th iteration of this franchise becomes a representation of Cruise the star – the relentless pursuit of his goals, stopping for and at nothing to complete his mission (at one point his character clinically dies only to get up and pursue the bad guys on a motorcycle) as unstoppable as he is entertaining. Cruise's larger than life big-screen persona is similarly grand enough to sway me into believing my father's notion. I would be delighted if the Mission: Impossible films were pumped out at the same rate as the ridiculous Fast & Furious franchise. Every two years Tom would display his charisma and physical abilities as Ethan; Cruise and Hunt slowly melting into one – the living manifestations of destiny.
8. THE MARTIAN
Ridley Scott has been the target of a lot of derision from yours truly. This derision mostly stems from his underwhelming recent efforts; Scott is the director of two of my favorite science-fiction films of all time in Alien & Blade Runner – and since the latter he’s helmed a substantial collection of disappointments… humorless disappointments. So it was my delightful surprise that at 77 Scott has produced his most successfully entertaining film in over a decade. You would have to go back to 2003’s Matchstick Men to find a film by Sir Ridley that I would describe as un-ironic fun.
Based upon a book by Andy Weir which is basically Cast Away in space, coupled with the scenes away from the Red Planet which Scott crams with a who’s who cast, adding to the deep bench of ensemble work in 2015. The Cast Away portion of the film follows the story of stranded astronaut Mark Watley (Damon), who after being abandoned on the Red Planet attempts to survive on Mars using… SCIENCE. Yes for the second year in a row Damon plays a scientist stranded in space, albeit this time much smarter and not nearly as unintentionally hilarious as the lunatic scientist he played in Chirstopher Nolan’s exposition factory Interstellar. The scenes where Watley tries to “science his way” out of starvation are just as compelling as the Tom Hanks survival drama it apes. Damon’s solo work is commendable as he holds our attention by his lonesome for half of the running time, deploying the scientific method over and over again.
The real joy in The Martian comes from the NASA Earthlings attempts to bring Watley home. There is a remarkable amount of entertainment housed in scenes of very smart people (played by a gaggle of talented performers) weighing the scientific pros and cons of a potential rescue. Jeff Daniels plays a smug Sorkinesque version of himself that on the surface seems destined to be unlikable – but Drew Goddard’s script is smart enough to put reason behind his NASA director's skepticism; he makes arguments why risking everything (including more lives) to save Watley may not be for the greater good, adding layer to the conflicts between himself and Watley’s peers making the debates they have all the more compelling.
The moments between the characters at NASA and on the spaceship of Watley’s crew that inadvertently abandoned him, are used by Scott to juxtapose the barren Martian loneliness we experience during most of Damon’s scenes. The isolation and doom hanging over Watley's survival prospects clash with the vibrant collaboration on Earth so violently, that it makes our desire for Watley to successfully get back to Earth all the more insatiable. We want Watley to get home not only because we wish for him to survive, but because Earth-set moments in The Martian are so fun. It is refreshing to have a Scott film that uses intelligent characters to drive the story rather than visuals - it’s hard to believe that the morons in Prometheus share the same cinematic pedigree as the delightful folks in The Martian.
7. THE BIG SHORT
The Big Short is a movie directed by the guy who made Step Brothers; starring Brick from Anchorman – which is currently in a 3 way tie for Best Picture favorite with HBO Original Movie Spotlight and its diametric opposite The Revenant; all of this is an unexpected and warmly welcomed surprise. Adam McKay manages to create a coherent, informative and most importantly entertaining film out of some seriously complicated material from author Michael Lewis' book of the same name. The Big Short is another 2015 film benefiting from stellar ensemble work, from a deep bench of actors. The performances and McKay’s screenplay (co-written by Charles Randolph) do a damn good job making the circumstances surrounding the financial crisis cinematic. The dialogue is woven with details about Credit Default Swaps and sub-prime mortgage trading without ever feeling like someone is just reading Lewis' text to you.
The robust cast is given ample opportunity to flex its acting muscles as men who took advantage of a market house of cards. Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling play somewhat fictionalized versions of real folks that serve as excellent audience surrogates - two guys with completely different perspectives on the ills of the financial system but who are in their own ways complicit in its demise. Carrell's Mark Baum stomps around offices as a moral superiority, disgusted by the Big Banks - finding himself conflicted when presented with an opportunity to "profit off of their stupidity." Gosling's Jared Vennett is the narrator of the proceedings, effectively moving the plot along - Vennett does not show the same sanctimonious feelings towards the proceedings as Baum, but rather paints himself as a guy that knows it is better to bet against the American Housing market's continued prosperity when you know its doomed than to not. The standout of the cast however is Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a savant of sorts who saw the collapse of the Housing market years in advance. Spending the runtime completely isolated in his office from the rest of his A-list costars, Bale basically exists in his own film; so deeply buried in the persona of Burry that he even gives off the impression that he has a glass eye without the use of a prosthetic. Bale almost managed to distract me from McKay’s unfortunate decision to shoot Dr. Mike Burry’s scenes like an episode of the office.
McKay’s directorial choices are in some instances maddening – some scenes shot like a documentary, others like a music video; I wish there was more consistency with how he moved the film along. On the contrary the storytelling choices McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph choices are refreshing. McKay and Randolph clearly realized quickly there is no squeezing a start to finish crowd-pleasing narrative from the stones of Lewis’ text. Unlike another Lewis adaptation, the film thankfully refrains from forcing a climax out of whatever the housing market-collapse equivalent of the Oakland A’s breaking that record no one remembered they had. McKay presents this story as roller coaster of greed, closing with the notion that we have only gone down the first 200 foot drop – another plunge being all but inevitable. There are no real heroes in this film, only villains and profiteers with foresight. A system doomed to relive its own demise. No lessons learned. Recurring financial Armageddon. Did I mention this flick is hilarious?
6. THE GIFT
One of the biggest surprises of the year, writer/director/actor Joel Edgerton Woody Allens a twisted Hitchcockian domestic thriller that is so effortlessly fastened together it makes me wonder why we don’t get a few of these a year. Seemingly marketed toward the contemporary gore-filled horror crowd, it’s a pleasant realization when the damn thing zips along efficiently without any use of real on-screen violence. Edgerton plays Gordo, a former classmate who attempts to slide his way back into former high school classmate Simon’s (Jason Bateman) life. Gordo's overly friendly attempts to reconnect are met with defensive derision from Simon, setting in motion the conflict between the old acquaintances. Bateman, Edgerton and Rebecca Hall’s (Simon’s wife Robyn) performances are what give this relatively simple story its weight. Bateman is perfect as Simon; a polished, handsome and successful executive who is deep down such a spectacular asshole it borders on sociopathic. As the film plods along it quickly becomes apparent that Simon used to be (and perhaps still is) an enormous bully, and it is his unwillingness to own up to his past transgressions against Gordo that create the nightmare he and his wife Robyn find themselves in. Simon doubles down on fraudulent self-interest more frequently than the villains of the previous film on this list. Contrasting the surface-polished Simon is Edgerton's Gordo (unfortunately nicknamed ‘Gordo the Weirdo’ as an adolescent), physically off putting in both mannerisms and general appearance, but deep down looking to forgive and in-turn be accepted by Simon. Edgerton nails this performance, coming across as weird and maladjusted without ever doing anything that could be described as overtly peculiar. I forgot quickly who was behind Gordo's dead-brown eyes; by contrast Edgerton is typically such a boring stiff I was even rooting for his rageaholic brother to beat the hell out of him in the 2011 MMA film Warrior.
The Gift unwraps itself (no pun intended) from the perspective of the blameless Robyn, who serves as a one woman jury for the audience; evaluating the decades old conflict between Gordon and Simon one reveal of information at a time. Her character is completely in the dark at the outset; like if A History of Violence was told from Maria Bello’s point of view. The proceedings are a psychological see-saw for both the audience and Robyn, at first we fear Gordo’s friendly but somewhat creepy advances and the unfamiliar place they are coming from. Slowly our perspective shifts, evolving into a visceral reaction to Simon’s past-deeds and the desperation he shows in preserving his own self-interest. The bullying Simon subjected Gordo to persists into the present in a gripping scene where he half-asses an apology that devolves into some severely uncomfortable verbal abuse – dehumanizing Gordo once again. Edgerton’s screenplay manages to keep the circumstances gray. Gordo is clearly damaged by the abuse he received as an adolescent, and the complex revenge he enacts on Simon is enough to ruin anyone psychologically; yet if you believe in the character of Gordo up until that point, you know that this revenge is just that – psychological. In all likelihood there was no physical abuse or violence in reality - unfortunately for Simon though it does not matter as his punishment is the torment of thinking something deeply personal to him is the result of an unspeakable horror that he indirectly caused.
A comeuppance fit for a bully.
Part II Coming soon.
2015 Honorary Mentions: THE MEND, SPOTLIGHT, TANGERINE