2015 was my last year of film school. It was a very busy year – we posted one set of films, and then developed, shot, and posted an entirely new set of films – but in spite of all that, I managed to see twenty eight new release films. I’ve always felt that, while working in the film industry would be (and will be!) an absolute dream, it would all be for nothing if I didn’t still get to go see movies in a theater on a regular basis. Getting to see a movie at least every other week was an important part of keeping me sane during this very intense year.
Unlike in years past, however, the twenty eight films I saw were almost entirely major wide release films, the bulk of them larger budget blockbusters. I don’t mind this – my tastes, particularly post-film school, have always trended more populist than anything else – but it also means that my top ten are pretty much films you’ve all seen already. For those curious, I ranked all twenty eight films I saw over on my Letterboxd page.
Instead of doing a big ol’ “TOP TEN OF 2015” post like I might have done in years past, I wanted to bring your attention to some films I really liked this year that didn’t do so well at the box office, and probably flew mostly under your radar. They’re films I think are super interesting at their worst, and very effective and surprising at their best. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll give them a shot –they’re all worth your time.
So let’s get started!
The Walk (dir. Robert Zemeckis, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt | domestic box office: $10,137,502)
Were it not for the colossal failure of Victor Frankenstein, this film would have the sad distinction of the worst saturated (2,500 – 3,000 theaters) opening weekend of 2015. It’s a shame – the bizarre attempt to bill this film as a major IMAX event release seemed to turn people off. Well, either that or the heavy marketing focus on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s somewhat grating accent. It was a poor campaign that made the film look absurd and imminently skippable.
What a shame indeed, because it turns out the movie is fantastic. Telling the story of Phillipe Petit, a high wire performer who, in 1974, strung a high wire between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and performed atop it for forty-five minutes, The Walk is a gorgeous film that seeks to entertain its audience first and foremost. That’s rare a lot of the time these days – even big tentpole summer films have obligations to the almighty dollar and the sequel machine that can often get in the way of pure entertainment – but it’s especially rare for the fact that it succeeds so handily at doing that.
I saw it on a Liemax 3D screen, and while I could take or leave the 3D, the large projection format did the movie wonders. Zemeckis has often flirted with the bleeding edge of technology in his late-period films: see both The Polar Express and Beowulf for proof positive of that. Here in The Walk, however, his use of technology is the least ostentatious that it’s ever been: instead, it’s calm and confident. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolszki uses these big sweeping wide shots of key events tactfully, but more often chooses to let the screen be filled by actors and their faces. The large frame shooting style isn’t abused for scenery porn, but rather just to convey an appropriate sense of scale at key moments. More often than not, Zemeckis is perfectly willing to frame his actors in traditional close up, rendering their faces gigantic on the large projection screens.
Which is fitting! This is a film that, like most of Zemeckis’ work, deals in big, outsized emotion. It’s not a subtle, nuanced film with morally ambiguous and complex characters. It’s a film about a man with a dangerously single-minded vision, overcoming seemingly impossible odds, and creating something wonderful. It’s an uplifting film that isn’t afraid at all to be cheesy and schmaltzy – but it works. There’s a reason Zemeckis used to be talked about in the same breath as Spielberg, and this is it: he’s not subtle about the emotional impact of his films, but he goes for broke and manages to make the sledgehammer feel delicate. The swelling musical cues as Petit crosses the high wire between the towers are obvious, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make you smile.
There’s a thread throughout the film about why an artist creates art. Young, headstrong Petit rebels against his teacher’s insistence on the compliment (italicized for French!), a moment in a performance when the performer bows to the audience, in thanks and appreciation for their patronage. But up on the wire, at the moment of his greatest accomplishment, made possible only by the help of his many “accomplices” (as he calls them, perhaps fittingly, given the heist movie vibe of the second and third acts), he finally feels gratitude. It’s a powerful statement about the reasons artist create: not for personal gain – or even, most of the time, for personal expression alone – but instead for the audience. As an artist myself, that’s profound, and embodies my filmmaking philosophy.
It really disappoints me that this film performed as poorly as it did. It’s a remarkably sweet and hopeful film that left me with a smile on my face long after the credits rolled.
The Gift (dir. Joel Edgerton; starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton | domestic box office: $43,787,265)
This film was a pleasant surprise! Though it did fairly well at the box office (especially against its reported $5 million budget), in my experience, it has been more or less overlooked by people who aren’t diehard fans of the thriller genre. Which is fine! This movie is so great because it is, more or less, a straight and narrow thriller movie, with all that entails.
Unlike so many modern thrillers, The Gift has a deceptively simple premise, runs with it for an hour and a half, and then ends with a small twist of the knife to leave you with some bite. Edgerton’s directorial debut features a couple, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall), who meet an old high school acquaintance of Simon’s, Gordo (Edgerton, acting as well as directing), after returning to Los Angeles from Chicago. Gordo very quickly proves to be perhaps a little overly friendly, which quickly descends into some expertly done scenes of profound discomfort. Gordo’s just-slightly-off vibe showcases Edgerton’s long underappreciated acting chops, while Bateman’s suburban douchebag is an effective use of his typecast persona (even as it hides something more sinister), and they play off each other wonderfully, pulling the mild-mannered Robyn in between the two men’s ostensibly childish feud.
Of course, this is a thriller film, so things quickly turn dark, and this is where Edgerton shines as a director. There are some top-tier scenes of tension even as they’re almost entirely set in the same location for the bulk of the film – Robyn and Simon’s new home, a well-chosen one with large glass walls and windows that leave most of the house exposed at all times – shot in effective long take and paced well in the edit. This isn’t a film with particularly horror aspirations, but the tension is so finely tuned that it wouldn’t be out of place in Blumhouse’s more genre offerings.
I’m talking as little about the plot as possible simply because it’s a joy to watch it all unfold. It’s not a particularly shocking film – other than the knife twist at the end, there’s really nothing terribly surprising in the film – but it unfolds in a uniquely interesting way. Even if you can predict the plot points, seeing how Edgerton frames those points inside of compelling moments of tensions is the fun of the film. While many will surely object to a development at the end of the film – a development that even I am a bit discomforted by – the ride up to that point is a wonderful little thriller film that surprised me, and reveals Edgerton as a fully-fledged director even on his first effort.
Goosebumps (dir. Rob Letterman; starring Jack Black | domestic box office: $43,787,265)
I saw this with three other people, and our opinions of it were split exactly down the middle. Two of us were fans of it, and two of us absolutely hated it. Since it’s in this list, you can imagine which side I fall on. In spite of that, though, I can understand why a lot of people will be turned off by this film. It’s 1) not scary, 2) profoundly goofy, and 3) fairly by-the-numbers. But since when have those three things discounted a film from being fun?
Look, I grew up on the Goosebumps books too, and I remember being terrified by them as a kid, despite being unable to stop reading them. I loved that experience and it is in large part responsible for my love of horror today. But come on –there’s no way they could get away making a film intended for children that would actually terrify them on that level.
In large part that’s because the ready availability of true-blood horror films on streaming services. A kid who stumbles across Saw on Netflix isn’t going to be terrified by R.L. Stine’s classic It Came From Beneath the Sink! (and Saw isn’t even close to the scariest movie available on Netflix). It’s a very different world for kids these days – they’ve seen a lot scarier stuff than most of us, so to create a movie that would actually terrify them would be an insurmountably difficult task to get past the studio and the moral watchdog groups.
So this movie, wisely, leaned into the other defining aspect of the Goosebumps novels – their campy, playful spirit. Seriously, go back and read them. They’re still a little spooky, sure, but Stine is a master of dark camp. This movie fully delivers on that aspect of the original books.
It’s a neat, inspired spin on it too. Rather than adapt a single Goosebumps tale (which the 90s TV series already did pretty admirably, especially for some of the all-time classics like “The Haunted Mask” episodes), it pulls out a bit and imagines a fictional world with a fictional R.L. Stine (Jack Black), who lives in secluded suburbia down in Georgia with his daughter. A new boy-next-door shows up, and, thinking Stine is abusing his daughter, breaks into their house, opens one of the Goosebumps manuscripts, and sets the magical contents of that book loose – in this case, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. Eventually, the terrifying dummy from Night of the Living Dummy (Slappy, voiced also by Jack Black) breaks out and begins to rally Stine’s creations to prevent him from sealing them back in the manuscripts.
It’s a fun, Scooby-Doo-esque fantasy monster caper with a lot of really clever setpieces (the Garden Gnomes in the kitchen was particularly inspired). While, yet again, nothing in this movie will surprise you, it’s no less fun for it. There’s a charm to these sorts of safe-but-cute kids’ movies, and Jack Black’s surprisingly muted performance as Stine is perfectly suited to the film (despite his tendency to go a bit over the top and dominate the films he’s in). If nothing else, your future kids are going to be watching this on Halloween. It’s good fun – just give in and have a nice time.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (dir. Guy Richie; starring Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander | domestic box office: $45,445,109)
This movie is a bit of a mess of parts that don’t quite cohere, but it has such a sense of style and charm that I have to recommend it.
It’s a spy movie of the classic US vs. Soviets formula, even though the main duo of spies are actually an American and a Russian working together. There’s still an almost cartoonishly evil organization to thwart; there’s still a charming, affable, morally upright organization guiding our spies; there’s still a “Bond girl” (though one who, refreshingly, is much more than she seems). It’s nothing new for spy movies, but it’s a damn fun one overall.
Napoleon Solo (Cavill, and boy what a name) is an American superspy who gets paired with Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer, doing a serviceable but somewhat silly Russian put on), a Soviet brute of a spy, to steal the secrets of a Nazi scientist from an organization bent on using it to destructive ends. Along the way, they enlist the help of that scientist’s daughter, Gabriella (the Oscar-nominated, but not for this film, Alicia Vikander). What follows is a fairly formula spy romp.
Where this movie shines is in the moment. There are a lot of great setpieces in this film, even as there are a few unforgivably bad ones (there’s an extended car chase sequence at the end that is so horribly photographed that I genuinely could not follow what was happening, despite watching it twice and trying my best). Cavill’s charming all-American spy is a far more interesting character than he is given credit for, and is so effortlessly likable that you have to wonder how his Superman is so dour and boring. Hammer shows some real chops here as well, with a gift for comedic timing and an ability to play silently really well off Cavill’s mouthy Solo. A scene where the two briefly discuss what to do with a captured goon is played entirely in one take, as Cavill and Hammer just let their chemistry carry the scene, all the while the goon suffers through an accidental electrocution behind a door in the background. It’s just one of a bunch of stylistically interesting comedic touches that make this film a lot of fun to watch.
It’s a film where a character literally says the phrase, “How’s that for entertaining?” It’s not exactly playing coy about its goals. In typical Guy Richie style, there’s not much substance here – it’s cool spies with cool toys doing cool stunts for most of the run time – but a few late story twists provide some much-needed context for the rest of the film and make the whole affair a lot more interesting. Alicia Vikander, though initially not given nearly enough to work with, comes into her own in the last act as a fantastically interesting character who could easily anchor a film on her own. She outshines both lead spies, easily.
Though the film never really coheres – each setpiece is stylistically distinct, and doesn’t feel super tonally consistent – it’s still a good ride through some fun scenes with good actors having a great time. You could do far worse than this film for a fun movie night.