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Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“CREED” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


Donnie’s, not Apollo’s, legacy.

I find it interesting how much Creed lives in the shadows of its predecessors, just like its main subject does. Creed is not trying to be a movie like Rocky, and likewise, Donnie Johnson-Creed (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t trying to be a boxer like Rocky. Creed really isn’t even a movie about Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed, and it’s just as well because Donnie doesn’t want to be remembered as Apollo Creed’s son. Both the movie and the character are aspiring to leave their own marks on a world where pretty big marks have already been left by key figures from their past. The fact that the movie is trying to do this with Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of Rocky Balboa makes its challenge all the more difficult, but Creed pulls it off with plenty of emotion and style to spare.

You know exactly how Creed is going to play out. Or do you? When the movie begins, you think this is going to be another rags-to-riches story similar to Rocky or The Fighter, and indeed, the opening scenes makes it look like it’s going to play out that way. But Donnie starts his story with the riches, then backtracks to the rags in order to train and become a pro boxer. Why would he sacrifice all of his money and his high-class lifestyle in order to become a fighter? His motivation is not explained until much later, but when it is, it’s nonetheless heartbreaking.

He moves to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky for training, who as you remember from his last film quit boxing and now owns an Italian restaurant. He insists to Donnie that he doesn’t do that anymore, and he doesn’t even want to be involved with fighting from the ringside. Yet, he eventually suspends his discontent and commits to training this new kid for the ring. Why? He never says why in the movie, although I suspect it’s for the same reasons that Micky decided to train an Italian nobody in the original Rocky.

Creed is a hot-blooded sports drama, ripe with all of the adrenaline, action, and emotion that you’d come to expect in boxing movies. Like its main character, it works independently from its inspirations, despite having very deep ties with the rest of the Rocky franchise. When I first heard that this movie was coming out, the one thing I did not want it to be was another Rocky picture. Of course, it’s going to sell itself as a spinoff, but as a film, I did not want it to focus on Rocky, nor did I want it to try and mimic the franchise formula. It’s called Creed. I wanted its emphasis on that character’s story specifically.

Luckily, so did writer-director Ryan Coogler, who approached in telling this story not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Does the movie fall for some of the genre conventions? Of course it does, but the conventions don’t matter as much as the intentions behind them. When Donnie steps into the ring, you don’t want him to win the fight because he’s the main character, but because of all of the hurt and pain he’s gone through up until this point. When he and Rocky talk, you don’t want the conversations to be meaningful because he’s talking to the Italian Stallion, but because the words they’re exchanging are genuine, honest, and real to each other. Coogler succeeds in not only making a powerful fighting drama, but a powerful drama period. He throws quite a few emotional punches in there that I wasn’t expecting.

Of course, for this dynamic to work, Jordan and Stallone need to have the chemistry to make these characters feel real. They have it in spades, and I would even challenge this dynamic to be as likeable as the one between Rocky and Mick in the original. Jordan is electric as Creed, a young rebellious sort who is full of energy, vigor, and passion, not letting any punk young or old telling him what he can or can’t do as a fighter. Do we need to go into Stallone? He’s done the character for years now, and he’s just as great now as he was nearly 40 years ago. Again, he throws a few emotional jabs I wasn’t expecting, but I’ll stop there so that you can experience it for yourself in the theater.

This is simply one of the most motivating films of the year, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. It takes its characters and their emotions seriously. The actors service their roles well and make them believable and real. My only complaint is that this movie has to suffer for being called a “franchise film”, but what do you expect? Let’s face it: the title wouldn’t have been as interesting if it was called Johnson.

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“FANTASTIC FOUR” Review (✫)

Not so fantastic.

That’s it. I give up. We will never have a good Fantastic Four movie in this lifetime that will do Marvel’s first superhero family justice. We have had four live-action bouts with the Fantastic Four now. The first one was never theatrically released. The next two installments was campy melodrama that should have premiered on SyFy. Now we have the newest reboot, and it’s safe to say this movie deserved the fate that the first movie suffered from.

The Fantastic Four team consists of Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and his adopted sister Sue (Kate Mara), with the third wheel being Latverian computer whiz Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who is an anti-social douchebag that is spoiled, rotten, selfish, privileged, and self-obsessed. King Joffrey from “Game of Thrones” is more well-mannered than this POS.

If you know anything ever about Marvel movies, you know the formula. Person X gets caught in an accident. Person X gains super powers. Person X struggles with said powers. Person X eventually learns to control them, fight the obviously-labeled baddie, and then commits himself to a life of fighting crime. The only difference between Fantastic Four and the other Marvel formula movies is that it’s more obvious with this film. And it’s persons instead of person.

In hindsight, Fantastic Four is not easy to adapt into film. For one thing, their powers are so complacent. A rubber man, an invisible woman, a human torch, and a rocky troll is not the ideal superhero team I would line up to see. The other problem, though, is their comic book origins. Compared to other heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and Captain America, the tone with the Fantastic Four comics is much more lighthearted and even comical. Be honest: can you even keep a straight face with a name as silly as “Fantastic Four”?

All the same though, the concept doesn’t matter as much as the payoff. This movie could have worked. The members of the Fantastic Four have vibrant personalities and character traits that make them both memorable and likable. That’s the reason why Marvel’s first family has survived all these years: it’s because they’re enduring. People relate to them, and despite their meta-human circumstances, their problems and emotions with each other are all human.

We didn’t relate to them as superheroes. We related to them as characters.

That’s a problem for this movie, though, because this movie neither has personality or character. Good lord, where do I begin? When the lineup for this movie’s cast was announced, I was skeptical at first, and I was right to be. Not only can none of the actors hold the screen presence on their own: their chemistry with each other was disastrously non-existent. The cast didn’t even seem to really care about their roles. Every half-hearted expression, every line of dialogue and every motion seems disinterested and bland. Nothing works when these actors are on the screen together.

Teller, for instance, is an atypical and complacent scientist character, a step down from his bravado performance full of passion and drive in last year’s Whiplash. Kebbell is just as forgettable as Teller is, except he’s more of an asshole about it. Mara is beautiful but witless, her character cluelessly wandering about as if she’s there just so the studio can say they’re gender diverse. Michael B. Jordan, who is a standout in movies like Chronicle and Fruitvale Station, appears here just so the studio can say they’re racial diverse.

Side-note: I’m all about racial diversity in movies, but if you’re going to cast two actors as siblings, at least have them be the same race. Saying Mara’s character is adopted doesn’t count as being diverse. It’s an obviously cheap effort to be labeled “racially diverse.” If you genuinely want to be racially diverse, recast everyone as African Americans. Don’t put in a half effort.

But out of all of the actors, I feel the most bad for Jamie Bell. He’s not even on the screen for most of the film: he’s replaced with this ugly gargoyle reject that looks like a combination of John Cena with a pile of rocks. I’m not even kidding, he looks freggin’ horrendous. What were the visual effects artists thinking with this? I get that Ben Grimm is supposed to be this big, ugly figure, but not this ugly. Not the kind of ugly that makes your vomit turn inside out, then go back into your stomach. It offends me to think that Bell was basically thrown into the tracking suit and have his performance replaced by this ugly CGI creation. With the other cast members, they at least have the opportunity to give a convincing performance before they fail. Bell isn’t even given the opportunity to fail. His performance is canned the minute the visual effects artists placed a 3D model over him. You could have cast a stunt double in this same role and get the same result from it: a big, bulky figure that just stiffly sits and stands like he has to go to the bathroom really bad. I haven’t seen a CGI creation this putrid since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from last year.

The movie’s flimsy, indistinct plot is just as bad as anything else is. What is the plot of this movie? Four people get superpowers, mope about it for a few hours, then have their final battle 20 minutes before the movie ends. That’s it. There’s no character building here, no heart, no humor, no unique elements or surprises to this film that makes it stand out from the standard superhero fare. The Avengers was just as fun, if not more so, for its characterizations and dialogue as it was with its action. Guardians of the Galaxy was wacky, clever, in-cheek fun that had a blast roasting itself. Shoot, even the original Fantastic Four movies had more charisma than this. This movie was so downtrodden, so serious, and so stupidly depressing that I felt like I was watching gothic fan fiction of the Fantastic Four. If you thought Man of Steel was too dark for a superhero movie, you haven’t seen Fantastic Four.

This is a disinteresting, joyless, illogical, poorly acted, written, produced, and directed experience. The cast must have heard the film’s whimsical title and wondered if they were on the wrong set.

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