Over the next few weeks, the Birth.Movies.Death. team will be running a number of year-end top ten lists. Some of these will be straight-up "Best Movies of The Year" joints, some will be a little more niche, some may be team efforts. The idea is to invest this onslaught of numbered lists (something we're usually very much against here at BMD) with a little bit of variety, and we think you'll enjoy what we've come up with.
I volunteered to kick things off with my own list, an all-encompassing beast that touches on 2015's best moments in movies, gaming, and television. But as I proved last year, no one reads the intros, so enough of this. Let's just cut the shit and get down to business.
10. BEING LEGITIMATELY EXCITED ABOUT STAR WARS AGAIN
Three years ago, Disney bought out Lucasfilm for $4B, and it wasn't long before the studio announced the inevitable: they were moving ahead on a new Star Wars trilogy (and some spin-offs, some games, and OK, sure, maybe a new theme park or two). At the time, the news was met with widespread excitement, but for someone like me - a dude who straight-up abandoned Star Wars after the one-two punch of the prequels and the OT special editions - there seemed very little to get excited about. Oh, Disney's going to make Star Wars now? Hahaha, OK, you guys have fun with that.
And then things started sounding good. Kathleen Kennedy was brought in to run the company. Lawrence Kasdan was hired to co-write the screenplay with director JJ Abrams. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill all agreed to reprise their roles, and a fresh crop of talent (including John Boyega, a dude I absolutely love) was hired to flesh out a new generation of Star Wars characters. All of this sounded great, but I remained suspicious. I'd fallen for Star Wars hype before.
Then the first trailer arrived, and - like everyone else - I was back in Star Wars' corner. Even I was unable to be cyncial in the face of "Chewie, we're home."
I won't see Star Wars: The Force Awakens until next week, and it might very well turn out to be a steaming bucket of Bantha poo. But as of right now, I'm legitimately excited about Star Wars again for the first time in over a decade, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that feels great.
9. THIS SCENE FROM NETFLIX'S WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER
Against all odds, Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp proved that you really can go home again, and holy shit, what a blast it was. I watched all of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp in one sitting, then turned right back around and rewatched the whole thing again the following day. It's an outstanding piece of work, filled almost to bursting with a perfectly-balanced blend of fan-service nods, brand-new characters, and hilariously convoluted backstories.
The whole run is great from start to finish, but the entire season peaked in the moment pictured above: Chris Pine, playing the camp's tortured musician, climbs on top of one of the cabins and somehow defuses a massive inter-camp brawl by playing "Higher And Higher" to the crowd below. The new Wet Hot American Summer adds extended lyrics to the original film's classic tune (they do not disappoint), and Pine sells the sequence like his entire career depends on it. It's a triumphant moment.
And then, moments later, Pine is shot and his body thuds to the ground below.
8. CONFIRMED (AGAIN): CARY FUKUNAGA'S GOT THE GOODS
We've all suspected it for some time, but Beasts Of No Nation made it official: Cary Fukunaga is one of our best working filmmakers. Here's a guy who seems totally disinterested in appealing to the masses, who lets his muse take him where it will. And every time, it turns out to be something special. Beasts Of No Nation is a ferocious, deeply-disturbing, high-wire act of a film that...well, if we're being honest, I can't imagine I'll want to sit through it over and over again. But goddamn, am I glad I saw it.
And by the way, Beasts Of No Nation wasn't the only 2015 project to prove Fukunaga's bonafides: True Detective's second season - which even its staunchest supporters will likely admit was a massive step down from the first, Fukunaga-directed season - did that, as well, with the added bonus of revealing Nic Pizzolatto as something of a naked emperor (he said, with a certain stridency).
While I'm still in mourning over the loss of Fukunaga's adaptation of Stephen King's IT (::pops balloon sadly::), my hope is that Fukunaga will take another swing at the horror genre at some point in the future. Hell, so much of what Fukunaga already does edges into horror territory; just imagine what it's going to be like when he goes full-on supernatural. Whatever that project ends up being, I'll be there for it on day one.
7. THE INCREDIBLE THIRD SEASON OF NATHAN FOR YOU
I've been in awe of Nathan For You since its very first episode. It's an astounding piece of work, so unique and unhinged and consistently hilarious that I cannot believe more people aren't talking about it.
The show's third season - which just wrapped last night - offered another batch of jaw-dropping episodes, and I've decided it's impossible to single out one as a highlight. The season premiere, which involved a stunningly convoluted plot to exploit a loophole in Best Buy's price-matching guarantee, got things off to a strong start. Two weeks later, the show dipped its toes into the outright-fraud pool with "The Movement", one of the most unbelievable half-hours of television I've ever seen. The following week's episode somehow culminated with a drunk bro trying to squeeze through the narrow aisles of an antique shop while dressed in a bulky Sumo wrestler costume, only to unexpectedly up the ante by introducing the bro's even-sleazier brother.
The entire season was like this, with each new episode promising a new raising of the bar. It all arrived at an oddly touching season finale, as well as yesterday's announcement that Nathan For You had earned itself a fourth season.
And thank god. I hope this show is on the air forever.
The first Denis Villeneuve movie I saw was Prisoners, and I really liked about 90% of it. Though I couldn't help but respect the ballsiness of the third act, I didn't love how the film's central mystery was resolved. And so, when Enemy rolled around, I sorta dragged my feet on it. What a terrible mistake. Enemy isn't just one of the best films of the past decade, it's one of my favorite films, full stop. After that, I was fully onboard the Denis Villeneuve bandwagon.
The bandwagon's next stop: this year's Sicario, which is a staggeringly great film. You've got not one, but two powerhouse performances (from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, both of whom deserve Oscar nods for their work here), some of the best cinematography seen on the big screen this year (courtesy of the great Roger Deakins), and an absolutely electric script (by Taylor Sheridan) which refuses to make concessions on the audience's behalf. When someone whines that Hollywood "doesn't make movies for adults anymore", you should point them in the direction of Sicario. And Villeneuve's work, in general.
Here's how much I love Denis Villeneuve: I don't even care that he's fucking around with Blade Runner. In fact, I couldn't be more excited about it.
5. FANTASTIC FEST 2015: THE WITCH, GREEN ROOM & ITCHY-O
I am an Austinite, a Drafthouse devotee, a lover of genre films, and an all-around badass, so of course Fantastic Fest is the filmgoing highlight of my year, every year. And every year, it seems like the team behind the Fest gets better and better at what they do: the ticketing system is now 100% painless, the screening schedule is well-balanced, and the lineup...holy shit, you guys. This year's lineup was an embarrassment of riches, packed with so many great titles that I didn't even come close to seeing everything I wanted to (I'm looking at you, The Invitation).
This year's standouts were The Witch and Green Room, both of which you'll all have a chance to see over the next few months (the former arrives on February 27th; the latter opens on April 1st). These films are instant classics, movies we'll be talking about and measuring other films against for years to come. The less said about both, the better, but go ahead and reserve two slots on your 2016 top ten list now.
This year's other Fantastic Fest shout-out: a live performance from Itchy-O, the Satanic marching band (you read that right) that Devin and Meredith first encountered at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival. In my 34 years on this planet, I have seen a thing or two, but lemme tell ya: I have never seen anything like Itchy-O. You can listen to the group's work online and find video footage easily enough, but nothing I've seen or heard compares to the experience of seeing it live. "Seeing" isn't even the right word. You don't "see" an Itchy-O show; it's something that happens to you.
It is my sincerest hope that Itchy-O becomes a Fantastic Fest mainstay.
4. KURT RUSSELL IS EVERYWHERE AND IT RULES SO HARD
Kurt Russell's career has never really hit the same super-rough patch that, say, John Travolta's did, so it probably wouldn't be accurate to say that the dude's enjoying a "career resurgence"; even when he's starred in the occasional bomb (reminder: 3000 Miles To Graceland is a thing that happened), his star has never really lost its luster. That said, after the number of homeruns he's hit this year, you might be forgiven for feeling like a Kurt Russell resurgence is taking place.
First, he popped up in this summer's Furious 7, one of the most unapologetically entertaining movies of 2015. Then he crushed the lead role in S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk, a dynamite horror-western mashup whose fanbase is already threatening to outgrow its currently-held "cult" status. As if that wasn't enough, Russell's also co-headlining this month's The Hateful Eight, which marks his second collaboration with Quentin Tarantino (Russell is, by all accounts, outstanding in the film).
Three homeruns in the space of twelve months. Jesus. If they gave an Oscar for "Best Entertainer of The Year", Russell - one of Hollywood's most reliable and likable icons - would surely be a shoe-in for 2015.
3. FALLOUT 4 CONFIRMED AND RELEASED WITHIN 6 MONTHS
I've been waiting for Fallout 4 for years. Years.
It became a thing my gamer friends and I would idly shoot the shit about from time to time, wondering if Bethesda really was working on the game (as was rumored), and - if they were - how long it might be until we actually got to play it. The wait had long-since become unbearable, but when last year's E3 came and went with nary a mention of the franchise, it all started to feel a little antagonistic: why wasn't Bethesda telling us anything? Why did they want us to suffer? If you'd asked me back in January, I would've given anything for a legit update on the game.
Then, back in June, something amazing happened: on the eve of this year's E3, Bethesda Games Studio director Todd Howard got up on a stage and announced Fallout 4. The kicker? It would be out by the end of the year. I was in a San Francisco hotel room when this happened, watching on my laptop, and I was so excited, I legit got choked up about it. Finally, a confirmation. Finally, an end date. And one that wasn't that far off! I'd waited five years; surely I could wait a few more months.
Fallout 4 was the biggest video game release of 2015, and I'm sure - as was the case with every other game in this franchise - that I'll never forget the hundreds of hours I'll end up sinking into the game before hanging up my controller. But even more than experiencing the game itself, I'll remember the incredible relief that accompanied that initial, pre-E3 announcement, and the delicious anticipation that dominated the months that followed. Yes, it'd been a long wait, but it was all worth it in the end.
Other game studios might want to steal this page from Bethesda's playbook.
2. CREED DEFIES EXPECTATIONS
It'd been years since I'd watched any of the Rocky movies, and my memory of them was mostly negative (thinking back to why that might've been the case, I'm guessing that the well was poisoned by repeat childhood viewings of Rocky V on HBO: woof, son). So when we heard that a Rocky spin-off was happening - particularly in the wake of 2006's Rocky Balboa, which more or less brought the franchise to a perfect conclusion - I was...well, to say that I was doubtful would be an understatement. There may have been a certain amount of eye-rolling and snickering on my end.
Oh, my god. I was so wrong. I ended up seeing Creed three times the week it hit theaters, and I'm not even close to being bored with it yet.
Ryan Coogler's film isn't just a worthy addition to the Rocky story, it's a vital one, and it cleverly recontextualizes the same basic story Stallone told 40 years ago. All at once, it's a sequel, a spin-off, a reboot, and a passing of the torch. Coogler makes this feel effortless, but consider what an impressive feat that is. Consider how ham-handed and awful this movie could've been, how embarrassing this thing could've been for Stallone had the movie been a stinker. Consider how many electric moments this film contains (that one-take fight; Donny running through Philly, flanked by kids on bikes; Donny and Rocky facing off in that locker room; the entire final fight sequence). Consider how lucky we are to witness the rise of an actor as talented as Michael B. Jordan.
Creed is a nearly-perfect film, and were it not for the next film on this list, it would be my favorite film of year by a substantial margin.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
At this point, there's very little that hasn't already been said about George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. It is the instant classic everyone has hailed it as. It is George Miller's masterpiece. It is an astounding technical achievement, from beginning to end. It is also the best film of the year.
Like Creed, I saw Mad Max: Fury Road three times in the space of a week when it hit theaters (bonus: the first viewing was with Miller and Immortan Joe himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne, in attendance), and I have watched it another half dozen times since it arrived on Blu-ray. I am here to tell you that the shine never comes off this particular diamond: it is a flawless creation, a sort of cinematic perpetual motion machine that never lets up between its first and last frame.
Because there really is very little new to add here, I'd like to take this opportunity to focus on one aspect of the film that I think has been lost amongst all the (well-deserved) praise leveled at the film's stunts, performances, and visual effects: its world-building. Miller delivers the kind of rich world-building in Mad Max: Fury Road that we rarely, if ever, see, sketching out entire unwandered narrative avenues in the margins of nearly every scene. What's the story with Immortan Joe's "little" son? What's daily life look like over in Gas Town? What's going on up on those lush, green peaks atop Immortan Joe's Citadel? How great is it that Nux doesn't even know what a tree is?
This is masterful storytelling married with eye-popping visuals, all told via an airtight script being delivered by actors and actresses who are operating at the top of their game (will Charlize Theron ever have a more iconic role? I think not). Knowing the development history, it's not only incredible that Mad Max: Fury Road exists, but it's miraculous that it's as great as it is.
There can be no doubt: experiencing Mad Max: Fury Road - whether for the first time or the tenth time - was the absolute highlight of 2015.