As the new year begins, we take one final look back at 2015 to identify once and for all what the best nerdy movies of 2015 were. Despite our complaints about Hollywood’s lack of originality, or its overdependence on franchises or previously established intellectual properties, this is still not an easy list to tabulate; in the year 2015, there were more than enough contenders to make two Top 10 lists. Since we’re in the business of playing favorites, however, 10 and only 10 could be chosen, and so we chose.
Making the cut this year were a fair number of sequels and spin-offs, but also a hardcore science-fiction film, an allegory-filled horror entry, a bloody western, a charming animated movie, a documentary, a mockumentary, and the only movie that took A.I. and all its implications seriously in a year full of killer, self-aware robots. Submitted for your approval, here are the Top 10 Films of 2015 (and the 5 Worst ones).
10) Atari: Game Over
Atari: Game Over isn’t the most innovative documentary released this year, but it is fascinating from an internet meme/legend-tripping point of view. The sordid history of video gaming’s early days hasn’t been a story really explored, and the dig in Alamogordo, NM to find those long lost E.T. video game cartridges is the frame upon which director Zak Penn hanged the oral history of Atari’s rise and fall. Don’t get me wrong, the archaeological aspect is fun (though ruined in advance by the news), as are remembrances of the “good ol’ days” of Atari gaming from noted nerds, but Penn reminiscing about the golden age of gaming with the men that were there on the ground floor is fascinating. It’s a history of startling cultural importance, and one that isn’t really known by the layman. It’s a tale of ambition, creativity, and hubris – and perhaps a modern Icarus-like parable. In 1982, Atari flew too close to the sun, and almost killed the video game industry when it had just barely got off the ground.
9) It Follows
Like a lot of interesting movies, It Follows cuts the audience in half pretty evenly between those that got into it, and those that did not, so I suppose its ranking here counts us in the former category. Like a lot of great horror movies, you can read into it whatever you want. Is it a screed about sexually transmitted diseases? Date rape cultural? General promiscuity? None of the above? Whatever the movie is “about,” it’s the way that David Robert Mitchell tells the story that sets it a notch above. It’s got mood, it’s got atmosphere, and it’s got an unyielding sense of foreboding, making it feel in some way like a direct descendant of the original Nightmare on Elm Street (R.I.P. Wes Craven), especially since the film’s teenage protagonists are battling an ethereal supernatural force. Part of the beauty of It Follows is that the film, like many great horror movies, leaves so much to the imagination, and leaves the story open to further, shall we say, encounters with the so perfectly named “It.” Just no prequels please, we really don’t need to know where “It” comes from.
8) The Hateful Eight
What is there to say about the Quentin Tarantino adaptation of an Alfred Hitchcock movie based on a novel by Agatha Christie stuffed inside a John Ford Western about Samuel L. Jackson outsmarting a bunch of white people (and a Mexican)? If you like Tarantino, this is the most “Tarantino” of his movies since, perhaps, Death Proof; a genre exercise dressed up to do what the filmmaker does best, have people sitting around talking before a tremendous act of over-the-top gore and violence. That may not be your bag, but strong performances by Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, and most importantly of all, Jennifer Jason Leigh, make The Hateful Eight extremely watchable from beginning to end. And that frontier scenery, shot in glorious in 70mm, is completely worth seeking out for all you cinephiles, for only Quentin Tarantino can make a locked-room mystery intercut with such magnificent vistas captured by the widest possible lens.
7) What We Do in the Shadows
The recently-passed vampire craze was enormously focused on the gothic romance side of things (tip of the hat here to Magic Mike XXL’s male stripper Twilight parody), but what was missing from that trend? A decent mockumentary about a stubborn group of vamps trying to make it in modern Wellington. Filmmakers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi do for vampiric domesticity what Christopher Guest did for dog shows and community theater: find the wonderfully awkward and bizarrely quirky side of a subculture. Like many great parodies, What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t shy away from the genre it’s sending up, so this vampire movie is as gory (if not gorier) than most entries in the genre. What really sells it, however, is the incredibly charismatic cast, armed with a script with some very quotable lines and a level of inventiveness with vampire lore that has not really been seen since E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 “behind the scenes” look at Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire. With Waititi now on deck to make Thor: Ragnarok next, it will be interesting to see if Marvel’s God of Thunder (and friends) will be able to reap the benefits of his unique voice and humor.
6) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
In the weeks and months to come, the knives will surely come out for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – you can argue it’s already begun, with all that talk about how it copies from A New Hope and how Rey is a Mary Sue – but for a brief, shining moment, we were all in Star Wars nirvana again. Granted, it wasn’t going to be hard for J.J. Abrams and company to overcome the prequels, but Abrams’ success comes from focusing on the singular element George Lucas forgot in his last three films: fun. The Force Awakens has so much energy, humor, and delight packed into its running time, you can’t help but leave the theater smiling. If it skimmed too closely to the plotting and tropes of the original Star Wars (despite Lucas’ indignation), that’s fine, because Abrams realized correctly that the first duty of Star Wars is to entertain, and by gum, we were very entertained indeed.
5) Ex Machina
Artificial intelligence was a major theme in a lot of nerdy movies this year, but only one came close to saying anything poignant on the subject, and it was the small budget, independent, British one starring two guys from Star Wars (Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaac). In an interesting mish-mash of inspirations, the plot sees Caleb win the chance of a life-time in a Willy Wonka-esque contest to collaborate with his Steve Jobs-ian boss, Nathan, to test his greatest creation: Ava, an A.I. What begins as a kind of science bro’s Weekend at Bernie’s becomes a startling tense drama about survival, the human condition, and whether, if the day should come when we create artificial intelligence, we will be able to fully understand the implications. Far beyond the cartoonish-ness of Chappie and the superhero action of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Alex Garland dared to take the subject seriously and created a compelling three-person drama where one of those people just happened to be a robot. Speaking of which, did Alicia Vikander have perhaps the best breakout year of any actor since Michael Fassbender in 2011? Believe it.
Sometimes it takes six tries to get back to the heart of what made the original film so great in the first place. Perhaps that’s the lesson of film in 2015, but it almost definitely seems to be the lesson of Creed, which may have been viewed as a cynical studio move to capitalize on a beloved brand, but turned out to be one of the most enthralling, crowd-pleasing movies of the year. Clearly, director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan make a good team, and in Creed they capitalize on the trust and rapport from their work on Fruitvale Station to put a new spin on the Rocky formula that feels both familiar and groundbreaking at the same time. As for Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone shows incredible trust in Coogler to effectively handle Stallone’s most beloved character; Stallone casts off all sense of ego in order to show Rocky’s age for all its sad inevitability. Creed, like a previous franchise mentioned on this list, proved that in 2015, seven was a lucky number again.
3) Inside Out
Somewhere, some university psych professor smiles proudly at the work of former students Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen on Inside Out, which after a triad of duds put Pixar back on the creative hot streak it enjoyed with Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 (and was then upended by The Good Dinosaur). What on the surface seems like a silly but sincere story about the goings-on in a girl’s head, becomes a master’s thesis on growing up, the complexity of memory, and how one’s feelings are not singular in terms of the emotion they evoke. The kids can enjoy the colorful characters – led with incredible energy and pathos, respectively, by Amy Poehler as Joy and Phyllis Smith as Sadness – while the adults are engaged and transfixed by the subtlety and insight of the story. And if you didn’t cry when last you saw Bing Bong, you are an inhuman monster that we’ll never speak of again.
2) The Martian
Science! In Hollywood, even the most hardcore science-fiction movie has a moment where the hero must admit that the only way he or she can make it out of their predicament is to “believe,” but in The Martian, Ridley Scott dared to say that the only way a scientist can solve a science-based problem is to use science… and humor. While the The Martian probably isn’t funny enough to deserve a Best Comedy nomination at the Golden Globes, it is to the credit of screenwriter Drew Goddard that the central predicament is treated with good-natured humor, and to the credit of Matt Damon that he played astronaut Mark Watney as someone just as struck with the disbelief of being stuck on Mars as the audience. Of course, the film is technically excellent because of Scott’s directing ability, but after a string of duds, it’s nice to see Scott get his talent back on track, and it’s especially nice to see him working it in the sci-fi genre.
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
The year 2015 was the year of the “Legacyquel,” a term coined by Screen Crush’s Matt Singer to describe films like Jurassic World, which are all at once sequels, remakes and reboots. Mad Max: Fury Road might well have fit into that mold if it weren’t for the fact that it was breaking all the molds. No one knew what to expect from George Miller in continuing the story of a wanderer in post-apocalyptic Earth 30 years after the last entry, but what we got is a pulsating, unrelenting, and engrossing two-hour chase movie filled with wild characters, wilder car designs, and what maybe the most interesting and powerful sci-fi heroine to ever come along in the form of Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron. Sandwiched between franchise films that played upon hidden clues, sequel-building, and nostalgia, Fury Road created a breath of fresh air by making a brand name film that was pure in intention: making something awesome.
Now, in the interest of balance, here are the FIVE WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR!
5) The Divergent Series: Insurgent
The first movie was interesting, but it wasn’t great, and while these are based on books with a devoted following, it’s safe to say that Divergent proves that “devoted” doesn’t mean “good.” The second film in the series meandered from one locale to another – like a small, slower, duller Fellowship of the Ring – introducing us to the various factions inside post-apocalyptic Chicago and then breaking the story’s own set of rules by introducing us to a whole new faction. Great actors like Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet are all wasted while saying utterly stilted dialogue like, “I’m factionless because I don’t fit in any one faction.” Mock Hunger Games and Twilight to your heart’s content, but you a at least know what those movies are about, and what the characters are trying to achieve. It’s hard to believe the Divergent series has got this far, and it’s harder to believe that there’s still two more movies left based on this stuff.
Pixels was proof positive that a successful two-minute viral video doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a blockbuster movie – and the fact that Adam Sandler was at the center of this, in the midst of what was might be his worst career year ever, didn’t help. What really didn’t help, though, was that the feature-length movie based on the charming and inventive French short seemed too preoccupied with reveling in ’80s nostalgia and not preoccupied enough with creating characters we care about, or telling jokes that are funny, or maybe just pretending that it’s 2015 and that Gamergate actually happened. Sandler indulges all his worst tendencies, while director Chris Columbus gets to indulge none of his, and what we’re left with is just one, big missed opportunity.
Who would have guessed that Neill Blomkamp, the man that landed on the scene so resoundingly with District 9, would strike the proverbial iceberg more than once (counting Elysium)? Chappie had an interesting idea at heart, basically the same idea at the heart of Ex Machina, but it ending up failing as both drama and science fiction. Blomkamp’s ill-advised casting of Die Antwoord, who’s acting range includes shouting and shouting louder, didn’t help, and neither did a plot that depended on a high-tech company appearing remarkably unconcerned about their own internal security. And then, in the end, the climactic battle where Chappie fought a bigger, uglier police robot prototype, felt like a cover version of Robocop. Ultimately, the whole exercise felt like a dare: could Blomkamp make a robot movie so cartoonish, so preposterous, that it made Short Circuit look like Terminator? Yes, as it turns out, he could!
Is it seriously this hard for Hollywood screenwriters to understand computers and the internet? Not only was this a startling technical miscalculation in the conception for 2015, but it still would have felt ludicrous in the mid-90s, and the golden age of “scary” internet “thrillers” like Virtuosity and The Net. Why? Hacker magic. When you’re a hacker, you can do anything, so when an evil hacker is doing bad hacker mojo, you need a good hacker to fight for truth, justice and the American way. Chris Hemsworth has never looked less comfortable than sitting behind a keyboard pretending to know the difference between a router and modem, and while Hemsworth is a talented guy, the Son of Odin is so much better used chasing and fighting bad guys than he is hacking stuff.
1) Fantastic Four
You have to go quite a way to make the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies look like Shakespeare by comparison, but somehow Josh Trank did it. With studio interference written all over it and the shadow of the director’s own dismissive (then later deleted) tweet, Fantastic Four went from “promising spin on accepted superhero movie tropes” to “dumpster fire of ‘nuke the fridge'” proportions. It’s not that you can tell exactly where and when the extensive reshoots begin and end, and it’s not that the film spends over an hour setting up a story that’s never paid off in the final 30 minutes, but it seems that Trank and company at some point lost the thread of the movie they were trying to make, and tried frantically tried to fill the gaps so they had something resembling a finished film – and even at that they failed. Miserably. If we ever get a Fantastic Four movie again, even if it’s taken back into the bosom of Marvel Studios, it will be a minor miracle.