My Favorite Movies of 2015

Note: There’s a couple of major 2015 releases that I have not seen yet, including The Revenant, Anomalisa, The Big Short and Carol. However, I really wanted to get this out there and update my list (if necessary) once I get to those. 

  1. mission-impossible-rogue-nation-2015-movie-action-stillMission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

The summer’s best blockbuster (well, second best…keep reading…) was a superlative piece of pure action craftsmanship, with spectacular and distinctive set pieces (including Tom Cruise really hanging from a plane, really riding a bike at dangerous speeds, and really holding his breath through a cavernous underwater supercomputer). It’s also got a mile-a-minute pace, a strong sense of humor, a lavish scale, a dynamic feature film debut for leading lady Rebecca Ferguson (who is simply sensational) and a smart, tight screenplay (despite its well-worn hook of distrusted special agents) that makes it arguably the best of all the Mission: Impossibles.

  1. predestination-2Predestination

Directed by Michael Sperig and Peter Sperig

Predestination is a heady, trippy, more-twists-than-a-bag-of-pretzels time travel story (based on a Robert Heinlein short story) that eats other twisty time travel tales for breakfast. It’s also a quirky indie picture, a heartwrenching love story, an exciting thriller and a well-oiled evocation of inching closer and closer to cerebral, existential terror. With just plain outstanding performances by both Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.

  1. brie-larson-room-02-600x350Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing performances anchor Room, a film that, on paper, sounds like one of the bleaker setups in indie movie history: a young girl is kidnapped and held captive in a tiny backyard shed by a rapist. Seven years later, she and her five-year-old son try to engineer an escape. To tell more of the plot would be severely unfair. The film’s basic conceit (that it is told from the perspective of Tremblay as the child, not Larson as the adult) does more than simply control the elements of horror inherent in this setup that could overtake the story (Larson’s performance is all the more amazing at hinting at the dark corners even while she puts on a brave face for Tremblay).  It creates a space for fascinating psychological and philosophical pondering, since Jack, the little boy, has spent his entire life in the shed (which he calls “room,”) and can only relate to it as if it is the entire universe. When Ma, who suddenly needs to enlist Jack’s help in the escape plan, tries to brief him on the existence of houses, hospitals, streets and even other people, these are concepts that his brain literally does not understand. The film’s second half, which deals with consequences in ways that stories like this never do, is agonizing, heartbreaking, tricky and compelling. Only one quibble: a musical score that tries just too hard to do some of the heavy lifting.

  1. the-gift-reelgoodThe Gift

Directed by Joel Edgerton

The Gift’s trailer promises the kind of boring domestic home invasion thriller we’ve seen dozens of times. We should have known that actor/writer/director Joel Edgerton would have had something else up his sleeve. He instead made something sharp, tricky observant, incisive and mean. He cast himself as Gordo, a shy, socially awkward guy who worms his way back into the life of former classmate Simon (Jason Bateman) and takes a shine to Simon’s wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). The two men have a more complicated and contentious history than they let on, and it only gets worse for Robyn when the men, poisoned by embarrassment, rejection, envy and sore feelings, enter a vicious and destructive spiral. Edgerton is fantastic as Gordo, and Hall is quite good (she typically is). But the real standout is Bateman, who is in a movie that knows how to use him perfectly: the way he can project smug entitlement, buried misanthropy, desire for control, or that especially snaky thing he does where he shows us the flaws in the nice-guy personas that his characters wear like imperfect masks. (One scene between Hall and neighbor Alison Tollman speaks volumes just through a quick non-verbal exchange…one of many examples of the film’s smart, nimble nature.) The Gift closes with real nastiness regarding who really suffers in games of toxic masculinity. Not the only movie this year that sounds that note.

  1. maxresdefaultDope

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

An exciting, funny, absolutely-of-the-moment coming-of-age story about three black teens (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons) in Los Angeles who are smart, inquisitive, good-hearted and sweet…but also have to survive every day in an Inglewood neighborhood so riddled with drug dealers and gangbangers, and where simple misunderstandings and innocent choices can get good kids killed. The setup (kid goes to party and accidentally switches backpacks with someone else) is classic mistaken-idenity-ish trope, but the consequences (that bag contains drugs, a lot of people really want that bag) are the beginning of a wild adventure with real stakes and real heartbreak, and it ultimately leads our heroes into grappling with real issues of identity, community and outsider expectations that have only gotten more relevant over the course of the year. It’s also a story told with tremendous energy and verve, and is one of the rare films about young people that seems to actually understand what it’s like to be young in the 21st century (it’s appreciation of music, the creation of memes, and modern day economics, is spot on).

  1. what-we-do-in-the-shadows1What We Do in the Shadows

Directed by Jermaine Clement, Taka Watiti

The setup is foolproof: a mockumentary about three vampires living in a flat in a New Zealand, reality-show-style, from some of the people behind Flight of the Conchords. It’s funny. Very funny. Very very funny. But what’s also magnificent about What We Do in the Shadows is how poignant and genuinely emotional it sometimes gets, how seriously it takes arcane vampire lore, and how it effectively mines its premise for every drop of rich, gushing black comedy. (The dialogue explanation for why vampires prefer virgins, or the scene where one of the guys’ dates goes disastrously wrong, are each worth the price of admission by themselves.) Remember, folks: werewolves. Not swear wolves.

  1. CINDERELLACinderella

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Yes, really. This well-acted, utterly gorgeous update of the 1950 Disney animated classic actually improves upon the original by leaps and bounds, creating a heroine (Lily James) who is spirited, wise, kind and passionate. She’s a more active heroine in ways that modernize the feel of the classic story without betraying it, a trick Disney has rarely pulled off with its recent fairy tale do-overs. She’s supported by a really good cast, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter and Derek Jacobi, who all find real humanity in their characters: a testament to both their skill and Branagh’s sure-handed direction, which is on par with some of his best work. The centerpiece ball scene, with its luscious production values and Patrick Doyle’s lovely score, is exquisite…but what ties it all together is the quick moment where the Prince offers to dance with Cinderella, touching her side and causing her to sharply inhale as we share her trepidation, her excitement, her joy, her dreams at this, the first man to ever touch her. That marriage of the deeply personal with the beautifully grand is what fairy tales often strive for, but seldom achieve.

  1. The-Walk-Film-2015The Walk

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The Walk is not Man on Wire. That 2008 documentary, which told the story of Phillipe Petit’s high-wire traipse across the Manhattan skyline as he tiptoed from one World Trade tower to the other, is a damn good piece of work. And The Walk, in its first half, is so heavily indebted to Man on Wire that it borrows the other film’s heist-story structure, spinning a real-life yarn about a group of crazy dreamers and ennablers who masterminded a plan to get themselves and hundreds of pounds of equipment up to the roof of the still-under-construction towers. And yes, Man on Wire is much more honest about who Phillipe Petit was as a man, warts and all, where in The Walk he is remimagined as a fanciful, cockeyed, G-rated dreamer who seems like Pepe Le Pew in more than just his accent.

But what Man on Wire could not do was put us up on Philipe Petit’s wire with him, and that’s what The Walk does. In astonishing 3D IMAX, Robert Zemeckis’ thrilling recreation of the historical event is an incredible achievement, a nail-biting symphony of tension that is as exciting as almost any action scene this year. On the wire, Petit walks, saunters, dances and contorts with acrobatic grace and precision, and these moments, which constitutes the film’s final forty-five minutes, are nothing short of gob-smacking, as two packs of police officers watch Petit  make history in jaw-dropped fascination. Wouldn’t you?

  1. brooklyn_feature-770x472Brooklyn

Directed by John Crowley

A lovely little movie, Brooklyn stars Saorise Ronan as a young Irish girl in the 1950s, who is given the chance to move to America and possibly make a better life for herself…leaving her family behind. Stricken at first by homesickness, she eventually makes friends, finds her way in New York City, and even falls in love…until home beckons with new developments that split her mind between the two countries and threaten to tear her apart. Well-acted from top to bottom, sensitively directed and sharply written (by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Toibin), Brooklyn is sweet, observant, and delicate, with a female heroine and warm sensibility that would be right at home in the same Era of Hollywood that the film is set.  Favorite moment in this wonderful movie: the extremely well-written, subdued emotional climax that occurs between Ronan and the most unlikeliest of characters.

  1. bridge-of-spies-trailerBridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is so good at making movies that he makes it look impossibly easy. Bridge of Spies, his cold war thriller that touches on the values that make us who we are, is a small movie by Spielberg standards. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer in the 1960s who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel, a man believed to be a Soviet spy. If he is, does that make him a traitor? To whom? Donovan is meant to mount a half-hearted defense in little more than a show trial, but he takes his job seriously, seeing it as his duty, which causes no small amount of consternation in those who are wondering why he is defending a man so obviously guilty. Eventually this story leads to Berlin (as the wall is going up), in which Donovan has to effectively mastermind a three-way prisoner exchange with an integrity than no one else wants to adopt (“Standing man,” Abel ruefully calls him, in a label that grows more and more pointed in a world where everyone else wants to sit). The result, replete with a little speech-making and warm humor, feels like fresh cut Frank Capra, even when the film’s second half takes a turn into slightly absurdist spycraft (which the script, by the Coen Brothers, mines for gentle, wry humor). The real heart in Bridge of Spies, however, lies in the relationship between Donovan and Abel (a brilliant Mark Rylance), which is proof enough that understanding across the Iron Curtain is somehow possible.

  1. starwarsforce_newstill1Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams

One of the year’s best pure entertainments, a triumphant return to a galaxy far, far away and a wonderful reminder (after a string of disappointments that some could argue started all the way back in 1983) that the Star Wars franchise can fly again, especially when you have a director as spirited as J.J. Abrams and a screenwriter as seasoned as Lawrence Kasdan at the helm (A new Star Wars movie that has good lines and funny jokes? Remarkable!) Yes, the plot is intentionally reminiscent of the original Star Wars, but that’s a feature, not necessarily a flaw, because it retains the mythological aura of the Star Wars saga, and the series’ by now well-established conceit that history repeats itself until things are gotten just right.

But The Force Awakens isn’t an empty-headed Star Wars victory lap, or a pointless nostalgia trip. Yes, it evokes the spirit of the beloved original trilogy, and its peppered with old hands like Harrison Ford (giving his best performance in decades) and Carrie Fisher (who has aged quite well, thank you very much). But Force Awakens is very intentionally ground zero for a brand new strain of Star Wars  fandom, so it puts front and center a bunch of new (and refreshingly diverse) faces that we fall instantly in love with. There’s Oscar Isaac’s charming and swaggery Poe Dameron, and John Boyega’s conflicted, soulful Finn. There’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, a villain who neatly sidesteps our expectations of following up cinema’s most iconic villain and delivering a baddie who is complex and vulnerable.

And then there is Daisy Ridley, a newcomer, as Rey, a young woman who has  the entire movie (nay, the entire new trilogy to follow) on her shoulders. What pressure. And yet her performance, so filled with life and energy, so expressive, makes Rey an instant classic Star Wars character, and arguably its best protagonist since…well, ever. (Yes, fans, I’ve thought about this.) The film’s climactic battle, and its signature, goosebump-tingling moment (involving a flying lightsaber that the Force redirects at a crucial moment) has brought the house down every single time I’ve seen Force Awakens in the theater. For a whole new generation of kids (and adults) who care not a bit about the previous films, the face of Star Wars now is a young girl filled with exciting, exhilarating, scary power who is now charting her own course in a huge way. And that’s a most exciting place for a long-running franchise to be in.

  1. martianThe Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott

A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one, The Martian is a nuts-and-bolts story of science fiction survival, as stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must figure out a way to live on an uninhabitable planet, helped only by equipment and supplies that have a shorter-than-he-needs shelf life. The movie retains some of the humor of Andy Weir’s book, and enlists an all-star (and possible overqualified) cast to breathe life into Weir’s characters: Watney’s homeward bound shipmates and also NASA personnel on Earth. The Martian is a smart meat-and-potatoes sci-fi procedural, with real weight in its scripting (by Drew Goddard) and real beauty in some sequences (Watney patrolling his desolate home) and an infectious “yay science!” spirit that is not only refreshing to see in a big studio production, but it no doubt will create an entire generation of science enthusiasts, just like the original Star Trek did. That such a movie came from the typically dour and pensive Ridley Scott is something of a minor miracle. So good-hearted is The Martian that it concludes at just the right moment, leading into the year’s single best closing credits sequence. One minor quibble with the saga of Mark Watney: methinks he doth protest too much. The movie’s disco soundtrack, despite Watney’s gripes, is actually pretty rad.

  1. creed-movie-still-2015-billboard-650_0Creed

Directed by Ryan Coogler

What a great entertainment. What an exciting piece of work. What a wonderful movie.

No one thought we needed this. A long-gap sequel for the beloved Rocky series…it seemed like a mistake for Ryan Coogler to cash in his post-Fruitvale Station pass on this. But we shouldn’t have doubted him. Creed is a phenomenal entertainment, returning the Rocky series to its scrappy roots and by instituting a race flip for its read, revealing that it’s a franchise that has plenty of gas left in its tank. (It’s also a movie that gorgeously photographs the city of Philadelphia, a key ingredient.) There’s so much to love about Creed: Michael B. Jordan’s electric performance and his fascinating arc, the movie’s street-level atmosphere, the sweet love story between Jordan and Tessa Thompson, the single-take centerpiece fight in the film’s second act, the rousing climax, the canny way that Ludwig Göransson samples and expands Bill Conti’s classic Rocky score, or the mentor/trainee relationship between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, with transcends any and all clichés. (Creed gives us one of Stallone’s best performances in a long long time.) The most shocking thing about Creed is that it’s a movie that would be just as good if the original Rocky had never existed.

  1. Spotlight-Movie-2015Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy

A deeply-felt ode to investigative journalism that refuses to overly lionize the subject, Spotlight is the story of four Boston Globe reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’arcy James) who in 2001 exposed the full depths of pervasive corruption in the Boston Catholic church’s handling of numerous sex abuse scandals, a story that rocked the entire world as more victims in parishes all over the globe continue to come forth. Whereas Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men won a clean victory against government corruption, Spotlight is more thoughtful. It’s about a world where the Church is more insidious, its tendrils inextricably interlaced with the DNA of practically everyone in town. This is not a story of good guy reporters, but instead of people doing their jobs and grappling with poignant, existential disquiet. (The twin ideas that this could have happened to any of them, and that they had the power to print this material earlier, weighs heavily on these reporter’s heads.) Spotlight is, like many newspaper stories, a thrilling detective story, but it’s also an engrossing slice of city sociology, and it modulates its supporting performances to devastating effect (notice how sensitively the victim interview scenes are handled, not wallowing in misery but allowing the psychological impact on each person to be keenly felt). The film’s closing scenes sound not a tone of victory, but an unmistakable note of elegy, memorializing not just invisible decades of stolen innocence but also the Spotlight team, a department that no newspaper would ever be able to maintain today.

  1. crimson-peak-stillCrimson Peak

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

A sumptuous gothic romance with tinges of horror, Crimson Peak is a marvel. With its dilapidated manor that squats on a mine of blood-colored clay, its broken ceiling that shakes snow and leaves directly into the foyer, its adjacent rooms full of forgotten wealth, decadent books, maze-like pipes, cauldrons of ooze and millions of butterflies, Crimson Peak would be a crowded place even if ghosts never showed up (spoiler alert: they do). The direction is typically fantastic, with Del Toro perfectly in his element. But what really makes Crimson Peak soar are the performances, especially Tom Hiddleston’s frightened baron who seems permanently imprisoned by unseen forces, Mia Wasikowska’s feisty, none-too-easily seduced heroine who learns how to reclaim her agency, and Jessica Chastain’s iron-cold baroness, whose soul has just about had enough of her bottled-up, repulsive family secrets. Crimson Peak is a wonderful piece of work, a passionate love letter to Hammer horror and gothic fiction that reassembles well-worn tropes into a singular, energetic, uncompromised vision. Favorite moment: the beautiful and haunting early dance sequence, which is accented by Dan Lausten’s lovely and graceful camerawork.

  1. LM_00304.CR2Love and Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohldad

Love and Mercy is a double-barreled biopic of Brian Wilson (played in the 1960’s by Paul Dano and in the 1980’s by John Cusack), cutting between two timelines. In the past, Brian is a tortured genius looking to reshape the Beach Boys’ pop sound into something more experimental, despite the objections of his overbearing father and his less-than-receptive bandmates. In the present (well, the 1980’s), Brian is a defeated shell of a man living under the thumb of corrupt psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giammati, never more slimy) who finds new purpose in his budding love affair with pretty car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, in a really really good performance).  The film’s recording studio scenes have a rarely-seen level of authenticity in movie biopics, and Dano is superb evoking the pressure and self-destruction in Brian’s determination to revolutionize music itself (the movie gives us just enough examples of the concepts he invented that we now take for granted in pop composition). The 1980’s story has its own interest; this story strand, as Melissa and Landy butt heads, with Brian caught quite in the middle, is skillful at establishing real stakes as it stokes the possibility of reconstituting a victory from decades of ashes. The movie’s final scene, which is hopeful, wistful and bittersweet, is one of 2015’s best closing scenes.

  1. sicario_stillSicario

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

The borderland between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas has been a fertile ground for filmmakers to tell stories about the tragedies and moral compromises swirling around the Central American drug trade. 2000’s Traffic covered this ground, as did the FX television series The Bridge and this year’s documentary Cartel Land. Sicario might not be the final word on the subject, but it’s one of the most fatalistic and cynical words on the subject. This altogether intimate story with a sprawling backdrop is about a capable SWAT officer (Emily Blunt) who leads a team that stumbles upon a horrific crime scene. She soon finds herself assigned to a special task force led by a morally nebulous pair of federal officers (a laconic, disturbingly relaxed supervisor played by Josh Brolin and a shifty-eyed, smoldering pile of suspicion played by Benicio Del Toro). Confusion soon becomes the name of the game, as Blunt’s cop is kept in the dark at every turn by those pulling the strings. The federal operation grows all the more morally questionable, as games are played within games that have more pawns than players. The pieces take a long time to fall into place in Sicario, with Blunt’s determined cop and her (in retrospect) naïve quest establishing a momentum which eventually grows so cancerous that it crushes her own agency (a rare example of a female character weakening over the course of a story actually working as a narrative choice, since that’s the whole point). Along the way, there’s astonishing sequences, like a snatch-and-grab black op across the border and back which climaxes in the most nerve-jangling traffic jam ever seen on film, or the haunting moment when Blunt is brought to an El Paso rooftop so she can watch the potent nighttime violence in Juarez from afar like it’s a light show. Sicario is also astonishingly photographed by Roger Deakins, crafting beautiful digital frames that at every turn show an oppressive landscape that threatens to swallow our heroine as she and her companions slide further and further into unwashable murk.

  1. inside_out_2015_movie-2560x1440Inside Out

Directed by Pete Docter, Ronny del Carmen

Beautifully designed, wonderfully animated, and exquisitely constructed, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out is an ingenious story that kids will enjoy on one level and then spend the never several years of their lives gradually meeting their parents on the level that they love it on. At the control panels in the mind (or “headquarters”) of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), there are five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Diller), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Riley is a happy kid, but a sudden uprooting of her family from Minnesota to San Francisco causes emotional turmoil, leading to a power struggle between Joy and Sadness that leads to them being booted to the recesses of Riley’s mind, where they may become lost forever. It’s an incredibly clever metaphor for the inner workings of actual, scientifically sound child psychology, and Inside Out is peppered with endless sly jokes and sight gags, as per Pixar tradition. And like their very best, the film takes its characters tremendously seriously and plumbs real emotional depths to reach its ultimate conclusion: that innocence must be lost, that it’s necessary for some things in the mind to be sacrificed, that emotions must work together, and that growing up means detaching more than a little from joy (or Joy). This is heady stuff for a kids movie, but its lessons are delivered with high energy and humor, with a pitch perfect voice cast and a singular clarity of vision that makes it one of the well-loved studio’s very very best.

  1. Ex-Machina-Download-WallpapersEx Machina

Directed by Alex Garland

It’s only once every so often that we get to see science fiction done as well as in Ex Machina, which is about the hoary concept of artificial intelligence, but links it to thoughts on toxic masculinity that feel fresh and contemporary. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer whisked away under the pretense of a company contest to meet his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac as a brilliant but brash bro who seems to have almost stumbled upon both his privilege and intelligence by accident.  Caleb is here to administer an advanced version of the Turning test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot that Nathan has created and wants to have an outsider assess. So begins the intense psychological gamesmanship of Ex Machina, which is a three-hander between two people and a robot, all of whom have very good reasons not to trust each other. Ava is beautiful, and was designed to be, which makes the lonely Caleb perhaps an easy mark, especially when she spins stories about how abusive and ugly Nathan can be (which he is, especially when Caleb discovers the previous Ava models that Nathan keeps as sex slaves). But Caleb, who is willing to see Ava as a person only if it means he can justify objectifying her, is not exactly a prize either: he’s a “good guy” who holds a reserve of deep seated chauvinism, and a willingness to patronize rather than engage. Many stories of AI are ones where humans bring about their own end, but Ex Machina makes it specific: those who usher in an artificial intelligence will probably reap what they sow, because it will be a product of their ugliness, and whatever nasty biases they bring to the table will be studied by an intelligent and curious machine who might need little persuasion to find its maker wanting.

The performances here are sensational, with Vikander (an up-and-comer) putting in tremendous work as Ava and making her a very specific machine, with convincing approximations of tentative affection, fear, and righteousness. Isaac, always one of the best things in practically everything he does, is stellar as the bro-tastic Nathan (and showing off some killer moves as he “tears up the fucking dance floor”). And Gleeson, a lonely boy who has, like many, internalized the way our society sees women, captures the right note of tainted innocence. Garland, who has worked in films before but never as director, evokes an eerie tone of calculated dread, underlined by his Kubrickian interiors that suggest a maze that there’s inevitably only one way out of, horrific as it may be.

  1. still-of-tom-hardy-in-mad-max--fury-road-(2015)-large-pictureMad Max: Fury Road

Directed by George Miller

It’s a movie that shouldn’t exist. But somehow it does. Somehow, George Miller got Warner Brothers to give him $150 million to go into the African desert and shoot an insanity-fueled action masterpiece. Because, yes, even within the context of being the fourth entry in an apocalyptic action series that once had Tina Turner presiding over the Thunderdome, Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of straight-up unadulterated, high-octane insanity. A feature-long chase sequence between quirky characters spouting weird dialogue in getups that S&M enthusiasts would never go near, shot in the brutal desert, made up entirely of real stunts, real vehicles and real explosions, only occasionally goosed by speed ramping and judiciously deployed CGI. How the hell did this movie get made? Mad Max is somehow real, and it’s the real deal.

And man, is it great. The verisimilitude is one thing: the palpable, undeniable sense that these outlandish things are actually happening, lends the action so much weight and gravity. But also the editing, the direction, the script that somehow mingles incoherent grunting with arch sentences constructed out of decayed language, or the eye-popping camerawork that prizes geography and coherency and still looking absolutely gorgeous (Michael Bay should watch this movie and weep). The film’s critiquing of ugly masculinity, personified by Immortan Joe, the Darth Vader of diseased, flabby rapist despots. The film’s pro-feminist bent, which is so good at creating roles for women that it passes the Bechdel test even if you doubled its standards. The smart storytelling that gives everyone an arc, and which illustrates quite clearly that simplicity is different than half-baked, and often valuable than complex convoluted. The brushstrokes in the world-building that the camera simply doesn’t linger on, focusing for just a few seconds each on things like the power dynamics in the Citadel, or the weird guys who wander the wastelands on stilts, or the pig-footed People Eater, or the Doof Warrior, who strums an electric guitar for an endlessly looping battle song. The sweep and scope and vision of it all, and how it bottles all this crazy energy and puts it under a whip of bat-out-of-hell momentum. And then there’s Charlize Theron’s sincerely Oscar-worthy turn as Imperator Furiosa, one of the key movie characters of 2015, and the best female heroine in a genre film since Sarah Connor. Or there’s Tom Hardy, who so ably slips into the role vacated by Mel Gibson that we don’t miss Mel one bit at all.

Or how about that this movie pissed off Men’s Rights Activists? I mean, seriously. You know you’re doing something right when you do that.

This is genre filmmaking at its very best: direct, bursting with ideas, packed with emotion, viscerally thrilling, impressively mounted, funny when it wants to be, never an out-of-place moment to be found, made with such balls-to-the-wall skill that at every turn it communicates the pure joy of filmmaking, with George Miller treating this nutty demolition derby with the zeal of a man given the world’s biggest train set, to pull from Orson Welles. Only a madman could have thought up this movie, let alone have pulled it off so well, so let that be an ultimate affirmation of what we all suspected. George Miller is a goddamn madman. God bless him.

Honorable Mentions: Bone Tomahawk, End of the Tour, Kingsman – The Secret Service, Ricki and the Flash, Spy, Steve Jobs.

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