It’s my birthday, and as a present to myself, I’m going to imagine that Hollywood is waiting with bated breath for Culture Conquistador’s officially sanctioned, universally beloved mid-year film awards: the City of Golds!
Best Female Performance:
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Honorable Mentions: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road; Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years; Mae Whitman, The DUFF; Sally Hawkins, Paddington
The rest of the performances on this list, they’re playing for keeps in 2015, which is fine. What Ex Machina is doing, and what Vikander is doing in it, is showing an awareness that being recognized as the cream of the crop in 2015 is small potatoes. This is one of those movies we’ll be talking about reverently in 50 years. Kendrick and Whitman hold down the fort in movies that could easily go off the rails without them, and Hawkins, in a tiny role, is the reason Paddington possesses all the cozy warmth it needs. And as we’ll see shortly, Theron embodies a persona that has captured our imaginations (and won over cosplayers) in the here and now. But Vikander is on some Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Maria, genre redefining shit. We won’t know it for a while I suspect, but Vikander’s performance – which is really a performance hidden within a performance – is a game changer.
Best Male Performance:
Shameik Moore, Dope
Honorable Mentions: Ryan Reynolds, The Woman in Gold; Oscar Issac, Ex Machina**; Nicholas Hoult, *Mad Max: Fury Road; Jeremy Jordan, The Last Five Years; Robbie Amell, The DUFF
It’s one thing to give a great performance in a movie that’s working. Reynolds, for instance, is in a really good film after a long journey in the desert and, even though his performance is quiet and free from his trademark smarm, he really pops. Isaac and Hoult are in film’s so instantly iconic that every actor in them seems to be basking in a rare glow. I wanted to call out their performances, and performances by Jordan and Amell, because they have extra weight to pull humanizing characters that have a lot going against them. Jordan in particular does an enviable job of making Jamie work in a musical that makes it really easy to hate Jamie.
But you know what’s really impressive? Giving a remarkable lead performance that shines even when the movie around it falters and fumbles. Such is the case with Moore in Dope, a film that hops harshly from tone to tone, trying to encompass far too much in its frail frame. Through it all, Moore underplays like a champ and holds on to what makes his character special even as that character unexpectedly becomes a bitcoin-trading drug kingpin.
Most Iconic New Character:
Imperator Furiosa, Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Bing Bong, Inside Out; Ava, Ex Machina; Stu, What We Do in the Shadows; Owen Grady, Jurassic World
This is a fairly easy call. You look around you and ask which new character has gone from 0 to 60 in the cultural consciousness within a few short weeks or a few months, embedded themselves in think pieces and memes and Twitter feeds. Stu and Ava both have a lot of currency among the select audiences that saw the film’s they’re in. Everyone saw Jurassic World, but I had to look up the name of that film’s most iconic character to be sure, which says something.
No, the closest we have to a challenger for Imperator Furiosa would have to be the stellar cast of Inside Out, a massive hit full of original innovations like Bing Bong the imaginary friend that has the Internet bawling. Still… it’s not even close. Imperator Furiosa isn’t just a film character; she’s the mascot for a paradigm shift. She’s what we’ll think about when we think about 2015.
Best Breakout Performance:
Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland
Honarable Mentions: Shameik Moore, Dope; Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service; Nadia Hilker, Spring
Here’s what no one’s telling you about Tommorowland (including the marketing for the film, which is, in retrospect, awful): Athena is the best thing about the film. She may be my favorite single thing in any film this year, and that’s largely because because little pre-teen Raffey Cassidy is astounding. Girl has to carry a strange robot romance with George Clooney, and darn if she doesn’t devastate you with her final line. Against that, what can Moore, Egerton, and Hilker do? Only Alicia Vikander (another great Artificial Intelligence performance) would have stood a chance here, but she’s had too established a career at this point (including a big part in Anna Karenina playing across her Ex Machina costar Domnhall Glesson) to really be the out-of-nowhere sensation that Cassidy is.
Hugh Jackman, Chappie
Honorable Mentions: Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door; Roger Guenveur Smith, Dope; Bill Murray, Aloha
Guenvuer and Murray aren’t so much awful as completely wrong for the movies they’re in. Guzman is pretty awful, but I can’t hold too much against him considering the role he was given. So it’s gotta be Jackman, a great actor whose handed a meaty part in a supposedly complex film, and turns the whole thing into a cartoon. I stand by what I said in my Chappie review: Jackman’s character is supposed to be jealous, sure, but he seems like he’s been possessed by a Lovecraftian totem of envy, so outsized is his fury. Any chance Chappie has to succeed died in whatever meeting Jackman and director Neill Blomkamp had to talk about this villain’s motivation.
Best Performance in an otherwise subpar film:
Rachel McAdams, Aloha
Honorable Mentions: Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey; Alexandra Daddario, San Andreas; Douglas Booth, Jupiter Ascending; Forest Whitaker, Taken 3
Every one of these actors is starring in a pretty good mini-movie that’s trapped in a larger movie that pretty profoundly stinks; except Johnson. Once she puts away the repressed kid routine and starts to really play Anastasia Steele, she rocks it and nearly steals the movie from its own retrograde inclinations; but the way her paramour Christian Grey is presented is so rancid, she can’t save Fifty Shades. Daddario so subverts expectations in San Andreas that she renders the half of the film starring Dwayne Johnson sort of irrelevant; Booth’s segment is so entertaining it actually makes Jupiter Ascending better (the film might have actually worked been the only Abraxas child); and Whitaker actually undermines Taken 3 completely by being such a competent, assured detective – he makes Liam Nesson look like a jerk.
But this is all about McAdams, who (in a better world) would have been the focal point of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and not something Bradley Cooper needs to check in on before he can woo Emma Stone.
Worst Performance in an otherwise good film:
Nicole Kidman, Paddington
Honorable Mention: Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland; Jude Law, Spy; Scoot McNairy, Black Sea
Tomorrowland has this strange, unfounded notion that Laurie’s Governor Nix is some mustache-twirling villain, a memo which Laurie apparently did not get. What he’s doing is much better, but it also doesn’t do the film any good in the long run; it hampers the film’s ending and message.
Spy has its own strange, unfounded notion that Law, playing a spoof on Bond, should be… American? And McNairy, high strung and polo shirted, is all wrong for the grimy, submarine thriller he’s stumbled into. All of this pales in comparison to Kidman though. It is because of her that Paddington falls short of perfection. It’s not her fault the part was written – it didn’t need to exist – but here she is all the same, chewing scenery in a film that would be much better if its scenery were left thoroughly unmasticated.
Best Offscreen Performance:
Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
Honorable Mention: Richard Kind, Inside Out; Amy Poehler, Inside Out; James Spader, Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ben Whishaw, Paddington; Brendan Gleeson, Song of the Sea
Even without the wonder that is Inside Out, 2015 has been a marvelous year for voice and motion capture performances (and all this with Andy Serkis’s only work this year being actually on-camera!).
The most notable instances in live action – Spader and Sharlto Copley as Chappie – have been odd choices for their AI movies, but in the end, quirky choices made those movies better, not worse. (Chappie didn’t have anywhere to go but up…)
The disaster could have been young Ben Whishaw filling in at the last minute for Colin Firth, but Whishaw lends the perfect amount of naive warmth to his Peruvian bear.
And in the animation realm, just about every film has been a gem so far, with even Strange Magic providing some fun parts to actors with robust singing voices. At the end of the day though, this has to go to someone from Inside Out. There’s not a wrong note here, but once again, I have to admire someone who has a hard job, and Phyllis Smith has a truly monumental task turning a character that is intentionally irritating for the majority of the runtime into one of Pixar’s great hero’s and the poetic encapsulation of melancholy’s benefit to humanity.
Most Magical Movie Moment:
Furiosa’s anguished collapse in a sand dune, Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Saorsie becomes a selkie for the first time, Song of the Sea; Joy and Sadness are born, Inside Out; Procession of the Celestials, Tale of the Princess Kaguya; Final Scene, The Woman in Gold; Old vs. Young Montage, While We’re Young
What I said above ain’t a lie… This has been a landmark year for animation, and my fondest recollections of this year belong almost exclusively to that realm. This award is all about showing off the things that only cinema can do, and Song of the Sea and Kaguya are frequently transcendent, especially when they get magical – not just movie magical but fairies and aliens magical. Just as magical: the efficiency with which Pixar illustrates the ins and outs of Riley’s emotional headquarters, and Riley’s youth, in three minutes!
Live action has had some inspiring movie moments as well: While We’re Young is uneven but it has one killer montage that illustrates its conceit in five or six insightful contrasts: young hipsters do this and aging yuppies do this. And, while many may find the sight of Helen Mirren walking through her own memories sappy, I absolutely worship Woman in Gold’s climactic sequence. But nothing this year has been as powerful as the image of Imperator Furiosa, shell-shocked, walking out onto a sand dune and collapsing. It is a once-in-a-lifetime image. The colors are perfect. The framing is perfect. The performance is perfect.
Best Scene in an otherwise subpar film:
Danielle Rose Russell and Bradley Cooper reach a silent realization in Aloha
Honorable Mentions: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan negotiate terms in Fifty Shades of Grey; Super Bowl con, Focus; B.D. Wong and Irfan Kahn debate ethics in Jurassic World
Sometimes, a scene comes along in a movie that’s not working that makes you sit up and go, “Uh…. who made this? It can’t possibly be the same people who made the rest of this, right?”
Such is the case when Johnson and Dornan spar while negotiating her submissive contract – you think, “Well this is a Fifty Shades movie that might have subverted its source material’s retrograde notions about BDSM.” And such is the case when B.D. Wong gets to dig into that one scene that you just know is the whole reason he came back for another go as Dr. Wu (and probably money). Suddenly, as he roars to life, Jurassic World is alive with ideas.
Both of these are “Aha!” moments. The centerpiece of Focus isn’t an “Aha” moment, it’s just the only time that the movie’s overriding conceit – that neither we nor the female lead have any idea what’s going on in Will Smith’s head at any given time (because he’s such a tortured genius, y’know?) – actually has enough room and pacing and verve to work.
These all pale in comparison to what happens at the end of Aloha. Suddenly, you realize you’ve been watching the wrong movie all along, and there was this wonderful, moving family drama about communication hidden inside the other two movies Cameron Crowe wanted to shove down our throats. The final scene of Aloha moved me. But it also angered me, because I felt robbed that I only saw a good movie emerge when it was already over.
Worst Scene in an otherwise good film:
Fleeing in the carriage, Cinderella
Honorable Mentions: “Oh bullocks”, Tomorrowland; Anal Sex, Kingsman: The Secret Service
As discussed previously, Hugh Laurie’s performance as Governer Nix and what we’re supposed to think of Governer Nix through the rest of Tomorrowland are very at odds, and it leads to an immense amount of dissonance. Particularly when his arc comes to a head.
Kingsman is a very cheeky film on the whole. I would characterize it as laddish. But it edges once or twice into overt crassness, and it does nobody any favors when it does.
It’s Cinderella, though, that features a scene that nearly does the greater whole in. Cinderella is an immaculately designed bauble. That is essentially why it exists. Why it suddenly turns garish, festooned in obvious CGI, when Cinderella flees at midnight, I will never know.
Best Musical Moment:
The selkie’s song, Song of the Sea
Honorable Mentions: The end of “Schmuel Song”, The Last Five Years; The entire short, Lava; Tripledent Gum, Inside Out
You guys, Song of the Sea moved me so much. The entire conceit is that all the magical creatures need this little selkie to sing her song or they’ll all fade into nothingness, and it happens, and it is… it is everything. This is so killer, it beat every moment in an actual musical – a really good musical – including the moment when Jeremy Jordan got me a little misty (many people think “The Schmuel Song” is the absolute pits, and it doesn’t hold together on the whole, but I love the emotional place it goes). It beat a Pixar short that got me a LOT misty. And, oh yeah, how about a shout out for Tripldent Gum, which’ll “make you smile” and “last a while!”
Best Action Moment:
Colin Firth takes down an entire church to Free Bird, Kingsman: The Secret Service
Honorable Mentions: Melissa McCarthy has a slapstick throwdown in the kitchen, Spy; Race back to the Citadel, Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is one long car chase that is intricately choreographed and perfectly calibrated for thrills, so understand that the two scenes I’m calling out over it must truly be great. I don’t know that a lot of Spy is as great as it wants to be, but something happens when Melissa McCarthy gets in hand-to-hand (and hand-to-pan) combat in a restaurant kitchen. The comedy and the fluidity of movement made me think of nothing less than Jackie Chan.
And then there’s Kingsman, which, in one scene, may have rewritten the book on how we film action scenes. After years of Zach Snyder slooooww downs, Matthew Vaughn opts to keep his pace absurdly fleet-footed. It’s not sped-up, it’s just viscerally quick, as each move transitions into another move. It’s balletic. It’s gruesome, but it’s also legitimately beautiful.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Woman in Gold; What We Do in the Shadows
Props are due to Woman in Gold for condensing a complex true story into a satisfying picture that doesn’t feel cloying or manipulative (some may disagree with me there); that’s always tough. Props to What We Do in the Shadows for the pace with which it flings out jokes. And props to Song of the Sea for being an all-out masterpiece.
But I have to bow before what Pixar did to make Inside Out work. We’ve spent a few years dogging Pixar for abandoning originals, but you know what, it’s really hard to get an original off the ground! You have a lot of foundation to lay down without the audience feeling like they’re watching a construction project. Inside Out is masterful, and it’s best trick is the way it subverts our expectation that Joy – intent on keeping Riley happy and childlike – must be our hero and must be right. She is not, and realizing that is most of what makes Inside Out so profound.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
Honorable Mentions: Project Almanac; Aloha; The Boy Next Door; The Wedding Ringer
The Boy Next Door would be awful enough without thinking it’s some sort of subtle modern retelling of Oedipus the King. The Wedding Ringer is similarly convinced its saying something profound – about marriage – which makes it’s overall dunderheadedness all the more infuriating. Project Almanac and Aloha both have so much more potential, but both are simply not the movies they need to be. They promise us with the kernel of something effective, but drown it in pablum
Hot Time Machine 2 has nothing redeeming about it. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s time travel paradoxes make Project Almanac’s look pedestrian… this is a comedy, let’s assume that’s all intentionally screwy. From the moment the screenwriters realized they were writing a comedy that focused primarily on Lou Dorchen, the immature douchebag (mostly because John Cusack wouldn’t come back for a sequel), they should have packed up, walked out, and said “No one can make this work.” Lou Dorchen is the worst.
Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Paddington; Mad Max: Fury Road
Did I mention Song of the Sea is a masterpiece? I think Paddington (minus Kidman) comes pretty close, and is laced with so much visual wit and whimsy, and that Fury Road is right there knocking on that door. But I’ve got to give this for Alex Garland for his work on the year’s other no-reservations masterpiece, Ex Machina.
Honorable Mentions: Taken 3; The Boy Next Door; Hot Tub Time Machine 2
As I’ve already stated, The Boy Next Door and Hot Tub Time Machine are painful. Taken 3 is worse. But none of those films stood a chance. Chappie had the ingredients to be great, but chef Neill Blomkamp was not looking at the recipe, because he grabbed handfuls of everything – every performance, every idea, every theme – threw it sloppily in a bowl, and said “Viola!”
Most Underserved Character:
Jess (Margot Robbie), Focus
Honorable Mentions: Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), Far From the Madding Crowd; New Bellas (Hailee Steinfeld and Crissie Fit), Pitch Perfect 2; Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), Juputer Ascending
There have been a whole bunch of actors/characters who have deserved better. Kneecapping their storylines severely handicaps the films they’re in. Far From the Madding Crowd falls quickly apart (and, being actually good to this point, it falls from a high precipice, like so man sheep from a cliff) when Sergeant Troy shows up. Why? Because the film has taken shortcuts to establish him and it takes shortcuts to erase him. It doesn’t even bother with a shortcut to bring him back; his reappearance is jarring in the extreme. Pitch Perfect 2 does little for any of the Bellas, even giving star Anna Kendrick an entire storyline about being disengaged and disinterested, but it particularly hobbles its newest additions, a one-joke Latina and a next-gen optimist who got left the keys to the franchise without anyone teaching her how to drive it. In a movie called Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski’s have astoundingly little concern for their Jupiter beyond the faintest of Hero’s Journey outlines.
Can we pour one out for Margot Robbie though? I think she’s one of the most exciting young actresses in Hollywood, and the trailers seemed to promise that the folks behind Focus got that. This seemed to be a film about Will Smith and Robbie engaged in a tango of seduction and deception. As it turns out, Robbie was hired for her pretty face; her character is as clueless as we are. In the end, she just wants to be a pickpocket and be in love. Which means we were conned into believing there was something more there.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Paddington
Honorary Award: The Last Five Years
Far From the Madding Crowd may not work as a story, but its score is like catnip for me. I hear those tinkling pianos and rousing strings and jaunty ballroom numbers and I just roll over on a belly and wait for more. Can we save a little bit of respect for The Last Five Years too; all of its music was written for the stage, but the filmmakers do an incredible job of transferring it to the screen. As we’ve seen over and over again, making that transition is not easy.
Best Production Design:
Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Cinderella; Ex Machina; What We Do in the Shadows
I thought this would have to go to Cinderella, which excels mostly on its exquisite Production Design, but then I saw this guy. He has a flamethrower guitar. Which is the perfect encapsulation of Fury Road’s madcap, ceaseless inspiration.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
This film may actually be the branching off point for a dystopian future. We may need to send people back in time to destroy it. I’m calling it now.
Most Underrated Movie:
We’re going to be really upset with ourselves that we whiffed on this one so profoundly in 2015. Give it five years. We’ll wonder, “Why was that delightful film such a bomb? Isn’t this a Brad Bird film?”
Yes, yes it is. Respect.
Most Overrated Movie:
Pitch Perfect 2
I don’t think that people really like this film all that much. But they love this franchise. I say enough. One riff-off does not a movie make, especially with jokes this sour.
Paddington was moved back and recast. It was supposed to be troubled. It is anything but. It is a legitimate delight. Not just for a kids film. It is one of the best films of the year.
Focus looked so good. But that hope hinged entirely upon the film giving someone other than Will Smith something -ANYTHING – to do. Instead, this is an anti-fun romp about a tortured genius stumbling into happiness.
What We Do in the Shadows
The rare comedy that’s joke-to-guffaw ratio is high enough to keep you from realizing how hard the filmmakers are working to break down your defenses. You’re laughing too hard to notice anything. A brilliant film.
Cobain: Montage of Heck
This has been a really strong year for high-profile influential documentaries. Going Clear and Red Army are both phenomenal. Even Monkey Kingdom is diverting. But there’s something about Montage of Heck that seems to open the door to a new way of exploring the psyche of celebrity. Some of that comes down to access. Brett Morgan got diaries, home movies, voice recordings, and a sit down with Courtney Love. Given those weapons, most filmmakers could have made something worth watching. But that’s the thing: most filmmakers would have obtained that and called it a day; Morgan’s delivery of these finds is formally dazzling, especially when a rotoscoped Cobain reenacts moments from the singer’s life.
Best Hidden Treasure:
You probably haven’t heard of Spring. It did not come to theaters in Gainesville (to my knowledge). It does not have a star or a major movie studio pushing it on talk shows. It is a really interesting film you should seek out. It starts out less-than-promisingly but really comes into its own, and constantly evolves, from scene to scene, into a more interesting film. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfect encapsulation on what’s going on on the edges of mainstream cinema, where young guns with low budgets feel free to go a little crazy and try some interesting things.
Most Deserved Windfall:
A lot of films have made a lot of money. No film has deserved diving into a vat of its own gold more than Inside Out, and the studio that made it, Pixar. Pixar needed this. It needed us to all shut up about Cars 2. It needed to prove it could still make the next Up or Finding Nemo. Watching it pull that off is a bit like watching your childhood redeemed. It’s worthy of a fist-pump.
Least Deserved Windfall:
You’ll notice that the three highest grossing films of the year have barely appeared here. That’s because Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Furious 7 are… alright. They’re fine. I really thought about putting Jurassic World here because it has made such an ungodly amount of money so quickly, and it just is not that good, but then I remember how happy I am that people really seem to be showing their appreciation for a universe Spielberg and Crichton made so real.
So lets hop past those films, and even Fifty Shades (which, say what you will, is a fascinating cultural phenomena) and look at #6, San Andreas. What do we see in this film? Why have we made it a hit? What you see in the first thirty minutes – rumble rumble crash – is what you get for the rest of the runtime. There’s literally nothing here.
Best Movie Actually Released in 2015:
Ex Machina is so startlingly good. It’s pretty much just three characters locked in a house stylish it will make you cry. Our POV character talks with one, learns some things. Our POV character talks with the other, hears some counterarguments, learns some more things. And back and forth. Whose playing who? When you find out, and when you leave the theater after a giant gut punch, you’ll wonder if it was you who got played.
Best Movie I’m Counting As a 2015 Movie, Official Release Years Be Damned:
Song of the Sea
I’m not sure I’ll ever see movies the same away again after Song of the Sea. I’ve never seen a film that wasted fewer frames. Every frame is painstakingly artistic, is saying something. There’s this rock the family lives near, it looks like a man hunched over crying. (We see later on why.) When the family’s patriarch takes a ferry to the mainland to drink and mourn, he stands in profile, and we see that he is the double for the rock. It’s a subtle hint at the doubling that will take place between real-world characters and magical analogues. But that’s the thing – it’s subtle. It doesn’t announce itself too forcefully. Someone labored over that image and made sure it was just right – not too obvious or in your face. With every cell I have in my body, I will champion this film until the end of time.
(Also, I’m calling this a 2014 film even though I caught it at the beginning of 2015, but have you seen Selma yet? I implore you to see it. You have to now, because it’s my birthday wish. Birthday’d!)