We’re continuing with our look back at what the cinema had to offer us in 2015. Yesterday, the mxdwn staff picked their least favorite films of 2015. We pick things up today on a cheerier note: the movies that surprised us the most in the last twelve months. The films mentioned below may not be grand works of art, but all achieved something for our staff an elusive quality that can be hard (if not sometimes impossible) to find in modern-day filmmaking: they managed to tweak our expectations for the better. Take a look at some of the films that defied our expectations.
Seeing as this is a Charlie Kaufman film, I went into it with generally high expectations. What did surprise me, however, was just how captivating a story about the mundanity of life featuring the voices of only three people (David Thewles, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan) could actually be. Kaufman’s surrealist aesthetic and writing style was the perfect compliment to its very human, yet non-human characters and world. In the very least, the film’s extensive sex scene will be surprising enough for most.
I was not too thrilled to see Paul Rudd initially cast as Ant-Man. But what do I know! He was able to successfully carry out the lead role. The casting for the movie was well done.
THE BIG SHORT
Read our review.
Who could guess that a movie about the 2008 housing crisis could be so riveting, and boisterously funny? Adam McKay pulls excellent performances from his notable cast. McKay and Charles Randolph’s screenplay (adapted from Michael Lewis’ book) brilliantly illuminates a technically dry topic with sure-handed pacing and lighthearted irreverence, without minimizing the very serious consequences of the financial crisis on people’s lives.
I walked into the theater fully expecting to see a bad movie. I was surprised to find that although it was not a great film, it was a more than decent film. I had previously been disappointed with Blomkamp’s Elysium, but I found Chappie to be a lot funnier, smarter and more emotionally moving. There were parts that needed improving, like Die Antwoord’s acting and the easy discovery of consciousness and all of its intricacies. Nevertheless, I found Chappie to be a surprisingly relatable character, and the discussions of consciousness and humanness interesting enough to carry the film. It deserves a second viewing by those who gave it horrible reviews.
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Read our review.
At first glance, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a somewhat confusing and indulgently artistic look into the world of acting and Hollywood. Under the surface, however, the film is so much more. The story centers on an aging fictional actress (Juliette Binoche) who is approached for a retooling a lesbian seduction play that launched her career, only this time she will play the older woman instead of the younger seductress. Kristen Stewart acts as her personal assistant and the two rehearse together in scenes that blend the lines of fiction and reality within the film, as well as with our own reality. Binoche and Stewart play almost paralleled versions of themselves and Assayas delivers one of the most creative and intellectually stimulating films of the year.
I long ago accepted that the Rocky series was never going to end as long as Sly Stallone is alive and that they will only ever be pretty good films. I was even starting to wonder if the original had been merely pretty good as well, elevated to greatness through nostalgia goggles. Then I saw Creed (which is really more of a spin-off as the iconic pugilist doesn’t even show up until the second act) and I was reminded why this series has gone up to seven entries. Yes, it goes through all the Rocky tropes and imagery that have become part of pop culture (of course there’s a running through the streets sequence) but it does them so well you don’t really care. Plus, it reminded me of how good Michael B. Jordan is (after a certain other film he did this year made me forget).
After the depressing misfire of Rocky Balboa, it was a pleasant surprise to see Sylvester Stallone hand off the creative reign of one his most-prized roles.
There’s a very plausible world in which a Rocky spin-off following the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed is a disaster on the scale of Rocky V. Thankfully, we don’t live in that world thanks to director Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan; we don’t live in that world. What only had to be as good as Rocky Balboa, which is a bandage for Rocky V rather than its own great movie, ended up being one of the franchise’s best thanks to great performances from Jordan, Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) and Sylvester Stallone – who should get an Oscar nomination – the movie is so much more than a remake of the original. We discussed the details after it released but the brilliance of the film was in the way all the little differences added up to make it feel like an entirely new experience.
In what was probably the most blatant case of false advertising in 2015, Crimson Peak was sold as a terrifying haunted house film pulled off with unique Guillermo del Toro flare. What is actually was, was a traditional gothic romance filled with ghosts, premonitions, killers, waltzes, betrothals, and lots of pomp and circumstance. Crimson Peak ended up being a very good movie and is one of the most beautifully shot of the year, but it wasn’t the film I thought I’d purchased a ticket for.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
This movie thoroughly surprised me in its quality and execution. Colin Firth delivered a great performance and Matthew Vaugh’s direction gave the film a cohesiveness that made it great.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS
Read our review.
If it weren’t for the rampant porousness and the directorial mishaps that led to it, this would have been one of my favorite films this year. However, I still loved the movie. After the last two Hunger Games installments, this Maze Runner series is becoming my new favorite young adult post-apocalyptic film franchise.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
Read our review.
I didn’t know anything about the film before I watched it and though I’m not a fan of films about teenagers with cancer, I thought it provided an interesting take on kids trying to understand life, death, and everything in between.
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS
When this Sandra Bullock political comedy came and went from theaters last fall, it left a stench thanks to muted reviews and lackluster box office numbers. Yet, when I finally caught up with the movie, I was elated and besotted by its energy, intelligence and shagginess. One of the smartest and most electric studio films to come out all year, David Gordon Green’s astringently funny, yet gravely topical film showcases in all its absurdity that one of America’s greatest exportable trades comes in the business of selecting world leaders. Our Brand is Crisis is rough around the edges (particularly in its final stretch where the whole thing nearly tumbles over) but has verve, smarts and a smug charm that fits its premise and features beautifully fleshed out work by Bullock. Unfairly tossed aside when it opened in theaters, I hope this movie has a second life. It will likely become even more meaningful (and horrifying) as we move forward on our 2016 presidential madness.
Read our review.
The plot of The Voices sounds too self-aware and desperate in trying to be a quirky indie film. Ryan Reynolds stars as a social awkward guy who murders people because his cat and dog often tell him to do so. He speaks to his pets and they talk back. It all sounds nuts… and it is, but The Voices is a total, ridiculous blast. It’s dark, twisted, funny and gives a chance for the usually one-note Reynolds to shine in a great performance.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Read our review.
Tired of every comedy being about man/woman/children learning to grow up and/or becoming a tired action movie? Tired of the vampire subgenre? Sure, we all are. But What We Do In The Shadows ended up being a welcome reprieve from the Apatow-brand humor machine that has dominated the multiplexes for over a decade. Shadows was simply funny – no morals, no lessons, no two-and-a-half hour running time, no endless improv routines, just humor. Co-stars/co-writers/co-directors Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi came up with a movie with genuine laugh-out-loud moments that took unique approaches to vampire lore, which seems almost impossible after being inundated with bloodsuckers on screen for so long. And most impressively, we wanted to spend time with the characters not because they had good zingers or set pieces but because they were genuinely interesting.
-Brett Harrison Davinger
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments.
Also be sure to check in all week for continued Best of 2015 coverage. Previously covered: