BRIGHT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: Max Landis

Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz, Happy Anderson, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho & Brad William Henke

Whether or not you’ve actually seen it, you’ve likely heard something about Netflix’s BRIGHT by now. This fantasy-crime film is the streaming service’s first attempt at huge blockbuster entertainment (sporting a budget of around 90 million dollars) and quickly became one of the most-watched programs in Netflix history. BRIGHT left a lot of polarized reactions in its wake, with some people outright hating it and others calling it a fun gem. I fall somewhere in the middle. This film has surprisingly great moments alongside heavy-handed attempts at obvious social commentary. Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of why BRIGHT isn’t as bright as it thinks it is.

In a world much like our own, except it’s also populated by orcs, elves, and fairies, Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is a human police officer who’s wary of his orc partner Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). A few months ago, Ward was shot on the job by an orc and he currently believes that Jakoby might have let the suspect go out of orc brotherhood ties. When the mismatched pair of police officers come across a grisly crime scene, they find quiet elf girl Leilah (Lucy Fry) and a magic wand (the equivalent of a wish-granting nuke). Word soon hits the streets that the human-orc pair are in possession of the magic wand. This means that Ward and Jakoby are running for their lives from corrupt cops, gun-wielding gangsters, brutal orcs, and a mysterious group of stab-happy elves. Also, there’s something about a vague prophecy, but you can likely guess where that is going.

Credit where credit is due, BRIGHT has well-shot action sequences. Though the film’s first third is slow and filled with groan-worthy moments (more on those in a minute), the last two-thirds run at a non-stop fast pace as soon as the wand comes into play. Director David Ayer knows how to competently shoot action scenes and that talent still comes across in this film…as silly and cliched as the material might be. The visuals are slick and it’s clear that a lot of money was poured into this project. This is Netflix’s biggest production so far and it shows. With a sequel already greenlit, it’s obvious that the company was impressed by what Ayer was able to pull off.

Even though it drops the ball on numerous occasions, BRIGHT contains a few creative concepts that are a lot of fun. The idea of a magic wand as a weapon of mass destruction sounds silly, but fits right into this over-the-top crime-ridden fantasy world. The idea that fairies are treated as insect-like pests and that stereotypes are attributed to thuggish orcs and aristocratic elves is dumb fun. However, BRIGHT really falters in its half-assed world building because certain developments are just plain confusing. Apparently, the Alamo did happen and SHREK still exists in this world…despite there being orcs, elves, magic, and clearly forces that are larger than humans. Is SHREK the equivalent of a really racist cartoon to these orcs? Inquiring minds (mostly my own) want to know.

BRIGHT gets really sloppy in its not-so-subtle social commentary, which is heavy-handed beyond belief. David Ayer has made powerful statements in past films. TRAINING DAY dove into horrifying corruption in law enforcement and how gangs can hold a code of their own to protect moral people in the right circumstances (highlighted by the powerful final moments that will forever be burned into my mind). FURY dove into the unrelenting terror of World War II and just how hopeless combat must have seemed for soldiers (regardless of how much brotherhood they felt during battle). BRIGHT basically tries to dive into what TRAINING DAY did, but nearly rips off parts of the former in many key moments. One particular scene seems directly lifted from TRAINING DAY’s intense, unforgettable final third of TRAINING DAY…but with orcs are involved and a magic wand.

As the supposedly racist cop who actually seems like a flawed (decent enough) protagonist, Will Smith elicits a few laughs and delivers enough charisma in his performance. Joel Edgerton (hidden under layers of make-up and bad CGI) fumbles with his part as the dorky orc officer. Part of the reason for my annoyance with Edgerton’s orc comes as a direct result of the character himself. However, other complaints come from Edgerton’s wooden delivery of certain lines. It’s like he knows that this is ridiculously stupid and just needed a quick paycheck (hopefully to pave the way for better films like his underrated directorial debut THE GIFT).

At the end of the day, BRIGHT is about as predictable as films can get. As soon as a supporting character delivers obvious exposition (and then is immediately forgotten about afterwards), the viewer can accurately guess one huge “surprise” in the final act. This plot development feels like a further slap in the face to the viewer, aside from the fact that this film runs at two hours and easily could have been trimmed by around 30 minutes. BRIGHT really drops the ball in its misguided attempts at social commentary (racism is signified by a childish “Kick Me!” sign on an orc’s back), sloppy world building, paper-thin characters, and piss-poor writing. The pace is fast, some of the spectacle looks good, and the action scenes are fun. However, the positives and negatives balance each other out for a strictly apathetic middle-of-the-road experience. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade: C

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, and Language

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner & David Pendleton

Going into 2017, IT COMES AT NIGHT was one of my most anticipated films of the year. The posters and teaser trailer looked rock solid, while the premise sounded right up my alley. The marketing and early reviews increasingly had me hyped to see a new horror flick that looked genuinely frightening. Then the backlash arrived because the film that A24 had been advertising wasn’t tonally accurate to the film that Trey Edward Shults made. IT COMES AT NIGHT is barely a horror movie. To describe it more accurately, this film is more like a depressing post-apocalyptic drama and it’s not a very good one at that.

Some vague apocalyptic event has hit the world and a contagious sickness means certain death for all those who contract it. Lucky for husband/father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother/wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), this family of three has taken up residence in an isolated cabin that has plenty of food and clean water. When intruder Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, Paul ties the mysterious stranger to a tree and learns that Will was looking for supplies for his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Being good Samaritans, the family of three becomes a newfound group of six…until strange things occur around the property and rampant paranoia threatens to give way to darker survival instincts.

Nearly all of IT COMES AT NIGHT’s horror is regulated to a handful of nightmare sequences. Director/writer Trey Edwards Shults might be trying to show the viewer how these character’s mindsets were unraveling through these dream sequences, but this was a disappointing approach to the material. The dream sequences really add nothing much to the proceedings other than padding out the run time with spooky imagery that would have been so much cooler in the world of the movie and not the dreams of a character. Of course, the trailer milked the hell out of these nightmare sequences to sell the audience on a film that was never a balls-to-the-wall horror flick and makes the entire affair even more disappointing.

Even when taken as a depressing post-apocalyptic drama, IT COMES AT NIGHT is a mixed bag. There are good ideas here, but these are rarely fleshed out to a satisfying extent. The characters are well developed (more on that in a moment), but the events and plot points range from being too ambiguous for their own good to feeling way too rushed to leave an emotional impact on the viewer. The climax is ridiculously fast-paced and blows its load too soon after a relatively intense bit of set-up, leaving a couple of last minute twists to feel like half-hearted shrugs.

IT COMES AT NIGHT’s ambiguity will likely frustrate the hell out of most viewers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who needs every piece of information spoon fed to me and I love when movies have scenes that can be read in many different ways. However, Trey Edwards Shults seems to be feeling too damn artsy for his own good and his film will likely leave a majority of its viewers underwhelmed in one way or another. We never find out the answers to big questions and we aren’t given enough clues to form our own theories. Shults apparently made the decision to leave the audience in the dark based on the idea that we’d know just as much as the clueless characters, but that doesn’t always make for good storytelling and it also knocked what might have been a great movie down to being a dreary disappointment.

While IT COMES AT NIGHT is not a good movie, it’s not for a lack of quality acting. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is convincing as teenage son Travis, who has a large role in the proceedings from both his hormones and naïve nature. Carmen Ejogo is good as Travis’s protective mother and Paul’s loving wife. Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are believable as the new couple/parents in Paul’s home. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton is fantastic (as usual) in the role of Paul. He plays a survivalist with good intentions and sometimes those intentions cause him to make rash decisions.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is a so-so post-apocalyptic drama and barely a horror movie at all. Loads of people will be disappointed by this film and it’s not hard to see why. I think that Trey Edwards Shults clearly had some cool ideas, but failed to fully implement them in ways that were heart-pounding, terrifying, and (most times) compelling. The acting is easily the film’s strongest aspect and the technical aspects are professional for a sophomore effort. Still, the film definitely isn’t for everyone and my overall thoughts about it are mixed. IT COMES AT NIGHT is okay at best, which is a real shame because this one could have been something special.

Grade: C+

SMOKIN’ ACES (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Nudity and Drug Use

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Vladimir Kulich, Peter Berg, Joel Edgerton & Matthew Fox

Playing out like a Tarantino imitation that’s just snorted a heavy dose of cocaine, SMOKIN’ ACES is not a traditionally good movie. It’s ludicrous, over-the-top, and pushes excess for the sake of excess. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a big guilty pleasure of mine that doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it usually receives. I’d go as far as calling this high-octane action-comedy-thriller an underrated gem. Its flaws actually make for part of its charm. This was one of my favorite films in high school (so there’s definitely nostalgia here), but having recently rewatched it for the first time in years, I have to say that SMOKIN’ ACES is a gory good time that consists of bullets, blood and rock-and-roll.

FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) have been placed on a special extraction mission. Their team is close to cracking open one of the biggest mob busts in history and their entire case hinges on the testimony of Las Vegas performer-turned-snitch Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Not wanting to be exposed, the mafia has put out a 1-million-dollar price for Israel’s heart. This ginormous paycheck attracts various undesirables, including: three psychopath neo-Nazi brothers, two lesbian sharpshooters, three smart-aleck bounty hunters, and a couple of very scary killers. The casino hotel that Israel is holed up in soon becomes a bloody battleground between FBI agents and security guards against a slew of psychos who want Israel’s heart (literally).

SMOKIN’ ACES immediately lets us know that it values style over substance with a 1970s-esque credits sequence and title cards to introduce every character. These many introductions take up the first ten minutes of screen time, but are executed in a way that makes every scene naturally flow together. Much like CLOUD ATLAS cut between storylines in a flawless manner, SMOKIN’ ACES carefully balances the many plot threads that it’s juggling throughout (for a majority of the running time). This film employs flashbacks, quick cuts and different scenes of dialogue that deliberately bleed into each other (like one steady conversation between different characters in different locations). Even when the exposition-heavy introductions occasionally seem like a bit much, Joe Carnahan knows how to hold the viewer’s interest.

ACES’s characters include a colorful band of criminals, psychopaths, and scumbags (with a couple of heroic FBI agents thrown in for good measure). Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta do well in their roles as the film’s only two good guys, but the only development they’re given comes from a debriefing and a so-so bit of comic relief near the opening. Andy Garcia seems to be forcing a mind-bogglingly bad Southern accent and winds up with the film’s worst performance as a result. However, the totally irredeemable characters are where this movie shines strongest. Jeremy Piven is in rare form as cokehead, small-time crook Aces and even has a bit of an emotional story arc when he realizes how far he’s fallen. This might not be as effective as it should have been, but it’s a refreshing bit of levity to the bloody chaos ensuing in the hotel’s hallways and elevators.

Speaking of which, SMOKIN’ ACES is super violent! Machetes, chainsaws, grenade launches, creative means of dispatching someone, gruesome torture, and boxes of bullets (for many different types of guns) make their way into the proceedings. This film is ferocious in its action scenes and unabashedly depraved in its wicked sense of humor, but this makes it a blast for viewers that enjoy films like CRANK, SHOOT ‘EM UP or Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. These weapons are wielded by merry miscreants, my favorite of whom are the Tremor brothers (one of which is played by a young Chris Pine). This trio of redneck neo-Nazis aren’t subtle in any way, shape or form. They go into a place blasting and have the film’s most memorable action scene, while also delivering the most darkly hilarious moments in the entire movie.

The relationship between hired killers Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia (Alicia Keys) is surprisingly strong, though this occasionally feels like it exists purely for the exploitation factor of having sexy gun-toting lesbians. Common has a brief role that makes for an unexpectedly tense moment, while Joel Edgerton has a silent (but memorable) part in the proceedings. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Jason Bateman are sadly underused as two of the bounty hunters and a deeply depressed lawyer. The film’s biggest problems come from the storyline of Martin Henderson’s reluctant sidekick to Affleck’s bondsman. It’s not that Henderson’s acting is terrible, but most of his scenes feel drastically out-of-place. The worst of these include unfunny bits with a karate-loving preteen wangster. That all being said, this subplot’s grisly punchline is satisfying beyond belief.

SMOKIN’ ACES crams a ton of storylines into one movie and balances them surprisingly well for almost 90 minutes, but a few of these don’t receive satisfying pay-offs in the long run. The biggest examples being an intense killer known as The Plague’s anti-climactic final moment and a face-swapping baddie not receiving a great send-off. The final 20 minutes are meant to arrive as a giant shock to the viewer with two inspired plot twists. One of these is clever and the other is…well…kinda stupid. The film lays down heavy foreshadowing early on as to what the stupid twist might be and I correctly guessed it upon my first viewing. This dumb plot twist and mixed bag conclusion feel like a weak sigh to an otherwise hilarious, raunchy, and chaotic ride.

As a whole, SMOKIN’ ACES is a very entertaining action flick with spurts of insanity, plenty of humor, a cast of colorful characters, and constant fun for viewers who enjoy this sort of thing. The film isn’t perfect in that its final minutes are easily the weakest part of the entire story, there’s a noticeably terrible performance from Andy Garcia, and one subplot feels a little too “out there.” However, I truly enjoy SMOKIN’ ACES for the unabashedly silly action flick that it is. If this sounds like your kind of movie, then it probably is!

Grade: B+

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and Action

MidSpecial poster

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard & Jaeden Lieberher

After two critically praised down-to-earth dramas and one intense dark thriller, indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has moved onto stranger territory with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Clearly paying homage to early Spielberg and Carpenter, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a science-fiction slow-burn that has interesting ideas and good performances, but never fully melds either of these qualities together into an emotionally involving story. The film is worth a look for fans of old-school less-is-more science fiction, but will likely be a one-and-done sort of viewing.

MidSpecial 1

The opening minutes reveal two men and a small child hiding out in a hotel room: eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy (Alton’s father, played by Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Alton’s friend, played by Joel Edgerton). Their destination is unknown to us, but what we do know is they are on the run. You see, Alton isn’t like other children. He has abilities that have caused some to worship him and others to see him as a potential weapon. It’s up to Roy and Lucas to keep Alton out of the hands of creepy cult members and the federal government…while heading towards an unknown destination for an unspecified reason. I’m being intentionally vague, much like the first half of this film.

MidSpecial 2

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has a lot of cool ideas and remarkable visuals, but these never really reach their full potential as the film is mysterious to a fault. It’s apparent that director/writer Jeff Nichols didn’t want to give away too many details during the first half of this film. This less-is-more approach is admirable and works to an extent. We are immediately sucked into the chase and have to use our imagination to figure certain things out with clues that are slowly given to us throughout the film’s second half. Nichols’ restraint is also a negative as his glacial pacing makes for dull stretches of the story that were too damn vague and underdeveloped. The running time is almost two hours and probably could have been tightened up or expanded with a better screenplay. The combination of a half-baked script and uneven pacing cause the movie to keep the viewer at a noticeable distance from the on-screen happenings.

MidSpecial 3

In the area of performances, the big name cast members are doing their damndest to elevate the underdeveloped dramatic-supernatural material. Taking the lead is Michael Shannon as Roy, who plays his character as a loving father who would do anything for his son…despite his child’s dangerous powers. Joel Edgerton is enjoyable as Lucas and provides some unexpected comic relief. I was shocked to see that Kristen Dunst is in this film, because the marketing hasn’t really given her the time of day. Usually, I’m not a fan of Dunst, but she is actually convincing as one of Alton’s former followers turned protectors. These three well-known adult performers are joined by Jaeden Lieberher (who was previously seen in ST. VINCENT) as the mysterious Alton, who sells his young character as a weird kid who remains innocent in spite of his dangerous superhuman abilities.

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On the opposing side of things, we get an unusual antagonist in NSA analyst-turned-investigator Paul Sevier (played by Adam Driver, who was recently evil in THE FORCE AWAKENS). Driver makes for a bit of mousey bad guy and has unexpected developments as the film goes on. Sam Shepard has a disappointingly short appearance as cult leader Calvin Meyer (who was definitely inspired by Fred Phelps, as evidenced by his congregation’s hairstyles and outfits). Shepard is built up to an intense antagonist, but the threat of the cult actually manifests itself through two of his henchmen (who are only given a handful of brief scenes). Though this story doesn’t necessarily need a main villain, the screenplay might have done better to develop these threats a bit more.

MidSpecial 5

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL hooked me enough to keep me interested in where things were going, even when the slow pace came dangerously close to boring me. The performances definitely elevate this film above its shaky screenplay, which has many good ideas that never quite satisfyingly come together. This is a slight disappointment for Jeff Nichols, whose track record has been very solid up to this point, but he’ll return again with an awards season drama in November. Overall, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is worth a look for sci-fi junkies and indie film fans, but it’s a one-and-done experience that wouldn’t necessarily be any less impressive on the small screen.

Grade: B-

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

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