Before I get started, an announcement

I thought I will mention something before I dig into the films themselves.

2015 has been the year for Youtube when it comes to movies and television critique. Since recently, dozens of movie critics and discussion channels have skyrocketed in popularity from thousands to millions of subscribers. They have very steady schedules of content release and a lot of talent keeping the content fresh and topical on these channels, not to mention community engagement and Hollywood support. If you love movies and love thinking about them, you probably already know the YouTube channels I'm referring to: CinemaSins, ScreenJunkies, HowItShouldHaveEnded, Nostalgia Critic, and quite a few more.

Being someone who is also subscribed to all of these guys, I felt that there's really nothing I could add to the conversation other than voicing my preferences in film, which if you've read my past reviews, you would have a pretty good idea of anyway. As such I have decided to close this blog from 2016 onwards.

It isn't that I am too busy to spare a few minutes writing up my thoughts on each movie I saw; it is because the write up feels redundant, and I'm not a person to work on something if someone else is already doing it, does it faster and far better. In fact, I wrote a few pages of review notes for the latest Star Wars film, but frankly there's already thousands of other reviews out for it before I even got to the proofreading stage, so I hesitate to add to the digital landfill of low traffic blogs on something that I don't believe has value at this point.

However, 2015 has been a fun year to be a moviegoer, with many successful and good quality things coming out of both Hollywood and the independent scene; even the bad stuff is entertainingly bad in most cases. This is why, as part of having some proper closure, I decided to do one last post: an extended lookback instead of just of simply the best and worst list. Don't worry, that's included as well, and there will be no spoilers on any films so don't feel you need to watch the film on the list to keep reading. It is kind of long so get a cuppa!

So is 2015 better than 2014?

Almost every film I saw this year had a wide global release, but a lot of them are what you would call indiewood films: standalone Hollywood-made movie that tried to do something different to its peers, and with a budget. Sure, I watched all the Marvel stuff, the Hunger Games finale, the remakes/reboots/sequels, and the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks shenanigans. Those were generally fine, but it was more fun to check out things that were a bit of a coin flip in terms of quality; things that stood on their own and may either stand the test of time and become a classic. I would say the non-franchise stuff was overall better than ones part of a franchise.

However, 2015 is also a year of great success for Disney as a megacorporation. With their acquisitions of Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, they are one of the most valuable and iconic commercial empires in the world, and in the coming years will continue breaking revenue records with a ballooning schedule of planned films/merch for its franchises, paying big dollars to attract capable directors/actors and keeping its loyal fans reasonably entertained and coming back till 2020.

The quality of blockbusters in general has also been better this year than in 2014, though none of them were amazing like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or even attempted groundbreakers like Interstellar, at least not to me. Films that took risk were, as usual, mostly independent/standalone ones. I did notice that a few studios have been pushing for diversity in their character castings, with more female starring roles as well as greater African-American and Latin American representation. Still barely any Asian though; I guess there shouldn't be anything else to expect, but I still hope for more ABC leads in mainstream Hollywood films one day (this is one of the reasons I have learned to love Agents of SHIELD on TV)!

The most prevalent themes in big films this year were introspection and survival, about wanting to be good in a world of growing scarcity and threat; taking chances at doing something that matters with the ever-present adversities. Some films simultaneously explored the concept of trust in our modern world; the need to always question the people you are with and the things you are doing. There's also a lot of existentialism that served as an undertone in this year's stories, perhaps reflecting the cinematic appetite of the millennials growing up and entering young adulthood, still finding their place in an overcrowded world of innovation and ideologies.

I know these are somewhat general thoughts, and you might argue that films have always carried these themes, but I believe that the undertone is more heavily emphasised now than they used to. In the past decade, the political/social commentary thing was usually incidental, and the focus was on the action or disaster. Now it has reversed, where the action or disaster is incidental, while the political/social commentary is pretty much the main dish, even in most of the blockbusters. Put it another way: when watching many films this year I never once though the main characters would die. Rather, the focus was the journey their character goes through.

The moviegoing audience is increasingly educated and aware of world issues, and they find it more and more difficult to be immersed in a film unless it acknowledges modern issues to some extent. Every film needs to be some sort of commentary so that its audience can then have a commentary about it. We are increasingly unable to suspend our disbelief because we see film as a statement for our own reality. It's only effective escapism if we believe it could really happen in our universe. Next year looks to be even more of this type of near-future analogue storytelling, so better learn to love it.

Anyway that's roughly how I saw film in 2015 as a whole. Let's dive into the lists!

The Good list

As I said earlier, 2015 is a pretty good year with many films that, while not perfect, definitely offered something to its audience. The best 8 of these films I think are must-watches, but I'll leave the best for last.

+8: Star Wars The Force Awakens

I don't really need to talk much about this film. I think everyone has already been seeing the Internet and even their friends/family talking to death about it. I have watched it too and yes, it is definitely a good film even if it doesn't add much to the stories that came before. J.J.Abrams has successfully rebooted this franchise for a new generation, which means that old fans may have to just accept the reality that the story will be a bit of a retread in places. Daisy Ridley who plays Rey is a very compelling character and the strongest heroine in a Hollwood film I have seen in a while, even as quasi-feminist films are all the rage right now. And while I cannot say it raises the bar for Star Wars at the movies, it certainly reinstates it. I will not be surprised if they cross the $2 billion mark by new year.

+7 Mockingjay Part 2

In some ways, this year is all about closing one door and opening another. One of the doors being closed is The Hunger Games saga, which has finally come to a bloody conclusion. All I can say about Part 2 is that it is as faithful an adaptation of a book as you can hope for, and while I felt they should never have split the Mockingjay film into two parts, there is enough happening to keep your attention for its two-hour runtime. It does turn into a thriller somewhere in the middle of the film, and the way the war ends on the screen is also a bit unusual, but any problems I have are nit-picks. I think this has been a good series, with a bit more substance than its peers, and far stronger performances by the main cast as well. It paved the way for female leads in other Hollywood films, and helped keep the young adult fiction genre viable for much longer than I expected. The whole series is worth a watch if you haven't already, even if you never read the books.

+6: Kingsman - The Secret Service

as I mentioned in my SPECTRE review, this year has been a great year for the comedy spy genre. And the first that came out was Kingsman, which I honestly had no expectations going into the film. Not only was this film funny, it had its own style, plenty of humour and very well-choreographed action that you can really get into. The story itself is a bit conventional, and the villains' scheme isn't very well thought out, but everything else about this film I loved, and it is by far the best spy-origin story I have seen in the past few years, even against Casino Royale.

+5: Spy

while I liked Kingsman more and consider it to be the better film of the genre this year, Spy was a bit juicier as it took more risk with a truly character-driven story. This is because the film attempts to make fun some of Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of spies having to all be hunks or hotties with perfect field performance, and villains being completely one-dimensional. The film makes the spy world appear more down to Earth, and does so with non-stop slaughter of jokes that left me in stitches more than once. Not all the jokes work, but there is enough effort in this film for me to give it a big thumbs up, and highly recommend it as one to watch with friends on an indecisive Friday night.

+4: The Imitation Game

this was my favourite biographical film of the year, and it is about a person whose life story has so much relevance to my own line of work, albeit not as dramatic. Alan Turing's life as an anti-social, gay, and undoubtedly brilliant man all rolled into a World War II setting already makes for a compelling story, but with masterful screenwriting and great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, this film is one to become a classic alongside films like A Beautiful Mind, Shine and The Social Network

+3: Ex Machina

another film that has some relevance to my day job is this meta-moralistic visual essay on artificial intelligence and humanity. It is a film that will keep you in suspense and questioning everything from start to end, on motivation, ethics and truth, with a grim conclusion about the events that may unfold in the much-anticipated technological singularity. Yet at the end of the day, this film isn't anti-technology, but rather a refreshing update of the Frankenstein story.

+2 Inside Out

I've already talked about this film before, but one thing I forgot to mention was the music. Pixar's music is always one of the highlights in their features, and the motifs composed for this film really works, and plays a large part in establishing both melancholy and ebullience in relevant scenes. Every tune is memorable and I remember trying to learn a couple of them after I got home from the theatre. I can't say I did the same for any other movies that came out this year.

Other honorable mentions (no particular order):

The Bad list

There weren't really that many films I would consider truly bad, which by my definition, needs to be both unsubstantial as well as unenjoyable. Even the films I list below were good in some ways, but overall not good enough for me to say it's worth a watch if you already missed it.

-5 Mad Max Fury Road

I figured I needed to bring this up first because according to most critics, this was actually a groundbreaking film. My first thoughts after watching this film was that it sucked as a movie because it had virtually no story and no character development. Sure it had plenty of colourful and interesting characters, but they didn't develop much, save for the relationship between the two lead characters. I'm not saying that the choreography wasn't amazing. On the contrary, after learning that all the car chase scenes were done with practical effects instead of with digital technology, it did gain my respect. However, I have seen many films that also emphasised a lot on practical effects and creative filming, but they did it while still telling an interesting story and creating a cohesive universe. As much as I want to switch to a thumbs up, I still think it is at best an experiment in filming, and not good entertainment if you have to sit through two hours of it. But who knows what I'll think in a few years; this film does have some cult classic potential.

-4 Pixels

this is Adam Sandler's latest film which combined Independence Day with Wreck-It Ralph. It had a really fun premise that, while not super original in 2015, could have allowed for a lot of fun concepts to bring to the big screen. Well they do try quite a few things, but there is too much stupid in the film, especially with regards to Sandler's rag tag team of 'gamers'. It almost works as a 'so bad it's good' type of film, a guilty pleasure of sort, but overall it just feels lazily written, and at times our nostalgia for arcade games is receiving the middle finger too. Like many of Sandler's project, they might be good dumb fun, but they should just stay away from the sentimental elements because it doesn't mesh well with the tone and stupidity of the scenarios.

-3 Blackhat

if you ever want to make a movie about computer hacking that turns off real computer hackers just with the opening sequence, this is your bet. Although the story and drama in this film is not that bad, it is the epitome of misrepresentation of not just what hackers are like, but also how hackers work. I watched this back to back with Ex Machina, and boy are they two very different films. Blackhat isn't as much about computer hacking as it is about crime, and while they put in some effort to make the hacking concepts and techniques based on real things, I think it will ultimately confuse or annoy people, depending how much of the technical stuff you can follow or care about. I do appreciate they try to make the film global with native speakers for all the foreign language conversations, so it's not a truly bad film, but they should've changed to another film title. It's about on par with some of the low budget techno-action films of the 90s.

-2 Tomorrowland

this is the 'Meet the Robinsons' of the year. It is ambitious but flimsy, creative but illogical, and wants to share a great message for kids but probably ends up confusing them. Even after watching the film I'm still not sure what exactly happened, and what the point of anything was. Tomorrowland itself is fairly generic as far as sci-fi future cities go, and any charm all the characters have is drowned in questions about what's happening and why. For a film about inventors, they don't spend much time explaining, well, anything. Guy is just smart so he can build all this cool stuff, girl is hopeful and therefore she will change the world. It is a film that promises big ideas and hope, but ultimately nothing more than clever marketing and poorly delivered product, it is basically what you get when someone tries to make Kickstarter into a movie.

-1 Terminator Genisys

the whole Terminator franchise is a bit of an allegory to the problem with time travel. Every time you try to change something, the future gets worse, which is what has been happening with the Terminator films with each iteration. Genisys is not only a bad film in itself, it is also a big insult to the sci-fi genre because it doesn't abide by any rules, not even the ones it sets up within the film. The characters aren't that interesting (even if well acted), the twists are stupid, and Arnold feels so worn out and defeated in his own franchise that he's more of an overstaying cameo. The film is poor execution and poor taste; it is to time travel films what Pixels was to arcade games, but not even good enough to be a guilty pleasure.

Other dishonourable mentions (in no particular order):

And The Best movie of the year, in my opinion, is...

The Martian

There really is no competition. This film had to work on so many dimensions to work at all. It had to uphold the scientific accuracy of recent space genre films like Gravity and Interstellar. The story had to be interesting since it's focused on one man stranded on a desert planet. It had to be well-acted by the main character. Just like the mission in the film, this movie was either going to be a complete hit or a near miss, with very little option of being remembered as anything else.

I loved this film from start to finish, and even though it's not as re-watchable as some others like Kingsman or Star Wars, it is a film that feels like it could have been made in any decade and it still would have worked. On a second watch, it held up better than I remembered. The Martian is the Cast Away film that no critic can complain about, and my vote for the best Hollywood film of 2015.

So what's next?

As I said at the start of this post, doing movie reviews is an overcrowded niche, and given other priorities emerging in my personal and professional life, I have to be selective about what I can and should keep alive. While I love movies and enjoy discussing them, I'm perfectly happy doing it the old school way, or even just hearing what others have to say about them. Film criticism is not my training, and so I feel the project time I have after work and on weekends should be devoted to things related to my craft (will be posting shortly about next year's endeavours).

On that note, I wish you a merry Christmas and I might see you at the movies some day!

Joey out