Slam Adams’ Top 50 Movies of 2015 (Part 2)
Eligible films: Any movies released during the 2015 calendar year in theaters or indie distributed VOD in the US.
30. What We Do in the Shadows
Whenever I think the mockumentary is about to go the way of the dodo, something comes along and proves me wrong. From a few of the minds that brought us the awesome HBO series, “Flight of the Conchords,” What We Do in the Shadows is about a crew documenting the lives of vampires living together in the modern era. Monsters meets “MTV’s The Real World.” Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement revel in the geekiness of this corner of the horror world. Each of their characters represent a different era of vampire entertainment, and they are having the most fun when playfully displaying the “rules.” If you are already reading this site, there is a good chance you already know them. They are never more fun then when these guys are nonchalantly running through them.
29. Manson Family Vacation
When you see something called Manson Family Vacation while scrolling through Netflix, you don’t expect something funny and surprisingly sweet. Jay Duplass, of the Duplass brothers, plays Nick, a straight-laced family man who has always had a tumultuous relationship with his big brother, Conrad, played by Linas Phillips. Conrad was adopted when Nick’s parents didn’t think they could have children. Conrad was always a bit of a black sheep, and now he has a serious serial killer fetish going on. He drags his brother to see sites associated with Charles Manson and his infamous family while the two wax poetic about what is really important in life.
Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa creates order of chaos using music video flourishes to dance around cliches. It is pretty important considering the plotline is pretty much a cliche. Bright kid with his whole life in front of him and the grades to get him there gets in over his head with local trouble-makers that threaten to bring everything down. Thankfully, he just might learn something about himself if he can get out alive. Don’t worry about that stuff. It is simply a vehicle for Famuyiwa to form a visual feast to hand his interesting insights about coming-of-age, insights that seem both specifically tailored to the black American experience and universal at the same time.
27. The Salvation
Good Westerns are made so rarely nowadays, it is crazy that this year saw 5 great ones (including The Revenant, which may or may not actually count), all which are on this list, The Salvation only being the second one. It stars an impressively steely Mads Mikkelson as a veteran of the Second Schleswig War, who has moved to America for a new start. Now with his feet on the ground, he invites his wife and child to finally join him, only to lose them immediately to the seedy outlaws that infect the old West. This is Mads chance to become The Punisher if The Punisher was a cowboy in a movie that figures out how to be fresh by being old-fashioned.
Rory Culkin, younger brother of Home Alone’s Macaulay and Scott Pilgrim’s Kieran, gives one of the best performances of the year. I’m not sure why that is such a surprise. He has been giving uncharacteristically mature performances for his age specifically as Mel Gibson’s young son in Signs or a young birthday boy who plots revenge on his schoolyard tormentor with his big brother in Mean Creek. He stars as the titular Gabriel on the road to see his girlfriend and then his family. As his journey goes on, harsh truths about Gabriel are revealed with raw emotion in a movie that is sensitive enough to make him a tragic hero instead of a villain.
25. Inside Out
The term “all-ages movie” is often misinterpreted as kid’s movie, but that is so far from the truth. “All-ages” simply means that it is appropriate enough for every age, and if you think nudity, cursing, and bloody violence are the tools to making a good movie, than you are watching movies wrong. Those things don’t add up to much without some kind of thrilling and/or mature story to back them up. That is Pixar’s forte (Cars franchise not withstanding). Inside Out is one of their best efforts in a while. It was a colorful and whimsical look at the way our brain negotiates our emotions and how they each have their part to play even if they aren’t Joy.
24. The Hateful Eight
Tarantino wears his influence on his sleeve: Reservoir Dogs and The Thing, but as Westerns. It is an interesting tense mix, that starts off pretty slow. It gains more and more momentum as it carries on though. I think this is Tarantino’s first movie with subtext. There is a lot of things about race relations and the American dream (good and bad) that can be unpacked, especially since the gunslingers aren’t just classic Western archetypes. They also symbolize different American POVs. It also has Tarantino’s most verbose script. Words have always been one of his best weapons, but this time it truly shines above the music and the violence. And he has the kind of cast that can really carry it, especially a runaway performance by Walton Goggins, an actor who should be much more famous.
23. Mississippi Grind
Addiction dramas area dime a dozen and quite often they about the utter destruction of a person. There are so many poisons that literally eat away at people that they can’t seem to quit. Gambling addiction is much different. It is not about being sick, it is about chasing a dream. It is about chasing hope, something any good artist can relate to. Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden excel relating to problematic heroes. Here, they team up Ben Mendolsohn’s degenerate gambler with Ryan Reynold’s wayward rebel in a road movie overflowing with chemistry harkening back to the buddy comedies of an older Hollywood.
22. Star Wars: Force Awakens
I am young enough to have never seen the original versions of the Star Wars movies, so I can safely say I have never really been excited for them. The updated versions are good (I can see the old classics beyond the revisions), and the prequels are boring as sin. It is just nice to be excited about a franchise I always felt like I should be excited for. It doesn’t surprise me at all that JJ Abrams was able to deliver on George Lucas’ original vision considering the biggest criticism of his Star Trek movies has always been they were more Wars than Trek. The old school cast slipped into their roles like they never left while a new cast came in with more compassion and humor than the franchise as ever seen, full of all the old practical effects tricks that made the originals such a thrill in the first place.
21. Appropriate Behavior
Hey, its another one of those “isn’t sex weird?” movies I have already mentioned a few times. This one is written, directed and stars Desiree Akhavan. She plays a woman struggling to coincide her prudish Iranian family’s values and her hip, pansexual Brooklynite lifestyle. Even though her character’s head isn’t always on straight, Akhavan clearly has it together enough to realize that sometimes finding yourself means failing to live up to other people’s expectations no matter how you might want to fall into line. This is all elevated by her warm and funny approach that never lets her insecurities or identity crisis become too melodramatic.
20. Bone Tomahawk
Bone Tomahawk sets Kurt Russell and his makeshift posse against some feral, cannibal troglodytes that have raided their hometown and made up off some of their neighbors. What could have easily been some kind of cowboys vs caveman shlock-fest actually ends up having much more western in its DNA than horror. These horror-genre mashups tend to always skew horror, which unfortunately means leaning on tried tropes and easy scares. This movie instead relies on solid character building all heading towards one well-crafted scene of grotesque terror. A perfect reminder of how to truly scare people.
19. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
This action franchise just refuses to self-destruct. It might actually be getting better with time. For the first time in its franchise line, it actually seems to strike a perfect balance between stylish action-adventure and tense spy thriller, thanks in no small part to one of Tom Cruise’s usual collaborators, Christopher McQuarrie. This installment gets plenty out of Tom Cruise’s leading man repertoire (his kick-ass heroism, his disarming likability, and his well-timed deadpan sense of humor), but he still has the scenes stolen from him by the likes of Simon Pegg, who doesn’t let a sense of humor get in the way of his field agent being competent, or relative unknown Rebecca Ferguson, whose stone-face attitude puts her on equal footing with her male counterparts, if not higher.
It is sad when older actors are relegated to roles that are beneath them because they simply don’t write interesting roles of her certain age. That is why it is so nice to see something like Youth come along. Youth sees best friends Michael Caine, a retired composer, and Harvey Keitel, an aging filmmaker, taking personal time at a swanky resort where they come to terms with their quickly progressing ages. It’s strongest element is its very strange tone. It is almost whimsical with a lyrical tone that makes all these heart-breaking moments feel less like an obituary and more like a eulogy, a celebration instead of a funeral.
17. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
This movie reminds me of last year’s Obvious Child. Obvious Child was a fairly basic rom-com for the most part, but when you think about rom-com, you think about crap about lofty romantic ideals with low-hanging-fruit comedy. Obvious Child made the bold move to actually be romantic and funny. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a Sundance favorite, is basically the same thing but for the indie, quirky, white kid comes of age type of movies. It is actually interesting, actually funny, and through some pretty intense cinematography for an indie dramedy, it is actually crafted beyond the actor’s ability to stutter.
16. Ex Machina
Writer Alex Garland, who helped create 28 Days Later and the R-rated Judge Dredd movie, makes his first foray into feature filmmaking with this tale about artificial intelligence. After winning a lottery to visit his enigmatic boss’ mystery location, a techie is given the opportunity to test the limitations of a robot pet project’s ability to pass as human. Garland is able to scale back his usual sci-fi adventures into locked room war or words where Oscar Isaac’s prideful maniac and Domhall Gleeson debate morals while both become more and more smitten with Vikander’s nuanced robo-girl.
Spring is dedicated to both scaring you with its terror and delighting you with its romance. The underrated Lou Taylor Pucci goes on a trip to Italy that his late parents always wanted him to take. There he meets an exotic beauty, played by Nadia Hilker, and starts up a whirlwind romance similar to the kind in Richard Linklater’s Befor Sunrise movies. That is until a dark secret of Hilker’s is revealed, and their future together is threatened by her beastly nature. Like Bone Tomahawk, its ability to seamlessly combine two genres and allowing them to stand on their own instensifies both emotional reactions and make for a more emotionally intricate experience.
How often do the seventh installments of a franchise ever get properly recommended? I can’t imagine it is often, but that is exactly what happens with Creed, a spinoff of Sylvester Stallone’s popular Rocky franchise. It was like watching the first Rocky all over again: the lunkhead charm, the sweaty workmanlike training scenes, and the proud-to-be-sappy personal triumphs. This time around Stallone takes a back seat and a supporting role to Fruitvale Station’s filmmaker and actor combo, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. The film centers on the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps and convincing Rocky to train him. While Jordan continues to prove he is destined for a long and successful career, the film’s greatest triumph is giving Stallone the kind of heartful performance he has been searching for in Rocky Balboa.
The Spirig brothers revel in their genre fare with cool ideas and a solid grasp of tone. They also have Ethan Hawke in their corner, which has helped to elevate both this and their previous film, Daybreakers, above the inherent schlockiness of the genres. That proves especially valuable with this film since it is a character piece masquerading as a sci-fi actioner. You won’t find car chases, locked rooms, and other sci-fi trappings here, instead you will find the tragically complex life story of a gender confused character played by Sarah Snook in what should prove to be a starmaking performance.
12. The Revenant
If DiCaprio misses out on the Best Actor Oscar again this year, he should at the very least win for Most Punished. Shot in the actual blistering cold, DiCaprio plays a Native American trained tracker escorting a group of fur-trappers through some pretty rough terrain. When he is attacked by a bear, he miraculosly survives to seek revenge on those who left him for dead. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu follows up his trippy Birdman with the ultimate actor endurance test. He captures the beautiful landscapes with a dreamy drifting camera angle and contrasts it against uncompromising danger brought to life by DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hardy, two of the most committed actors working today.
11. Son of Saul
Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama is a dizzying and haunting recreation of a concentration camp. It documents one man’s attempt to give a young boy a proper burial, who survived his original gas chamber execution only to be smothered by a Nazi doctor. Shot in extreme close-up of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish concentration camp prisoners who aided in disposing of gas chamber bodies or become victims themselves, Nemes puts you right in the chaos shuffling through small corridors and big groups of people. You peripheral vision is blinded and so much of the background is out of focus. It really helps maintain the constant menace even when Saul is out of immediate danger.