The Best Films of 2015

Is it wrong of me to complain about how many good movies there are right now? Is that in bad form? Well, I guess that never stopped me before: there are simply too many good movies out there for me to watch. I can’t keep up. I just can’t.

Of course, I’m not angry. Better to have an abundance than a drought, even if the big screen is severely lacking in comparison to its small-screen competition these days. But, again, it’s hard to keep up with everything, man.

I tried. I tried really hard, but even with the delay of this article (this list comes out over a month after I wrote my worst list last month), I still wound up short. I couldn’t make it through some favorites on my peer’s line-ups, namely Beast of No Nation, Listen to Me Marlon, The Duke of Burgundy, Phoenix, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence, Heaven Knows What, Tokyo Tribe, Grandma, Iris, 45 Years, Macbeth, Queen of Earth, The Tribe, Victoria and Son of Saul, just to name some of the ones I was itching to catch up on. I didn’t even see Junun, the newest from my favorite director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Sometimes I feel like a bad movie fan.

But I did see a lot of movies this past year. I mean, a lot. Maybe not as much as previous years, but more than my fair share, I can assure you. And I saw a lot of movies I liked, which is why we’re here today. As always, there were some that really impressed me that didn’t even make it into my honorable mentions. Movies like Love & Mercy, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Second Mother, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Tangerine, The Wolfpack and The Voices — films that really struck a chord with me when I saw them — didn’t make the cut. And that’s not even mentioning Carol, Entertainment, Bone Tomahawk and Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, movies that were filmed with technical precision, acted almost flawlessly and offered a ton of things to love, but just didn’t earn enough goodwill to make it with the best of the best. It’s a tough race, guys. Don’t discourage yourself. You all put up a good fight.

But none of those films are in my top 10 list. Instead, these are the ones that made the cut. It wasn’t easy; I had to second guess myself several times in the process. I’m still not sure if I’m completely comfortable with the ones I picked. But they were, in fact, picked —and I’m not going back on them now. It’s time to move forward. I gotta rip this band-aid clear off, and celebrate the motion pictures I’ve decided are the best of the best of the previous year. I mean, we’re hours away from the Oscars telecast. It’s now or never. So let’s get on it, shall we?

Honorable mentions: Mr. Holmes, Slow West, The Primary Instinct, Mistress America, The Gift

Runner-ups: Spotlight, What We Do in the Shadows, Mississippi Grind, The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Nightmare

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10. The Hateful Eight

Is Quentin Tarantino our most audacious working auteur? It certainly takes some balls to shoot a 65mm Panavision western largely inside a small wooden haberdashery during a snowstorm. And with his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, the Pulp Fiction filmmaker is still as uncompromising and unrestrained as ever.  It’s a hoot-and-hollering, snoot-nosed, punched-up, rough-nut, foul-mouthed, root-and-tooting old-school Old West fable, with lots of vengeance on its mind and packets upon packets of blood to leave bone-dry in the process. It’s not without its faults (aren’t we all?). It occasionally reeks in self-indulgence, and it suffers from excessiveness just as often as other recent films from the writer/director do. But it’s Tarantino, dammit — not only working with another stellar cast of familiar character actors (Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demián Bichir) but handing them one of his best screenplays to date to go. Even with nearly three hours on its plate, it’s among the tightest, most gripping and extremely entertaining features the no-holds-barred filmmaker has put together yet. It’s an unflinching, ice-blooded work of a director well into his craft, letting his love of cinema be shown through mercilessly throughout. It may be about a despicable bunch of low-lifes, but there’s a lot to love here.

Leigh’s wild-mouth performance is the best in a very good line-up, with Russell, Goggins and Jackson also provide some of their best work either in years or to date —or both. It also has some fantastic cinematography and an killer original score from the master himself, Ennio Morricone. Though the feature borrows a lot from others (as per usual for Tarantino, especially John Carpenter’s The Thing —which Morricone also scored, and bothered some unused tracks from to compliment the score here), its reverence to its execution, its deliberately well-groomed pacing and love of blood, guts and limbs flying in many different directions proves Tarantino’s still got it, and knows how to appeal to my sensibilities. The Hateful Eight is the best movie he’s made in years, and I sure hope it’s not the last great movie we’ll get from him. I can’t imagine it will be. I won’t believe it. Don’t make me do it.

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9. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a high-end adrenaline rush of a movie. It’s a towering achievement in mad-cap frenetic energy and batshit craziness, featuring some of the best practical stunt work you’ll ever see in a modern blockbuster. Does it come a little short in the story department? A tad. As many have pointed out before me, the fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise is basically what happens with these dystopian characters decide to make a left turn while driving their rad gas-guzzlers in the desert. Doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when it comes aided with two-headed lizards, young suicidal men with stray paint in their mouth and white make-up all over their dehydrated faces, a woman with a buzz cut and a robot arm and a blind guitarist strapped to a top of a truck blasting hot licks on an instrument that shoots out fire, it’s a gloriously mad thrill-ride of a picture.

Everything about it is just so damn good, from the editing to the choreography to the sound mixing to the cinematography. It’s a frantic film where every inch of passion is squeezed onto every single frame. It’s almost tiring in its masterful execution of mayhem, but never once do you feel lost in the shuffle or out of the loop. Mad Max: Fury Road is a simple movie by design, but not a dumb one in the slightest. It’s a giddily bonkers movie, and it’s an absolute blast. Much like Martin Scorsese at the helm of The Wolf of Wall Street, director George Miller can not only match the enthusiasm found in filmmakers half his age, but outpace them with time to spare. He’s not afraid to revel in the crazy, drive headfirst into pure chaos and doesn’t blink his eye for a second at whatever other looniness may come out in the process.

It’s the kind of blockbuster you wish you saw more regularly at the multiplex, but that would ultimately make the whole shebang less special in the process. For much like Creed later down on this list, Mad Max: Fury Road shows sequel-hungry Hollywood how it’s done, and it sprints shiny and chrome into Valhalla with insanity for days. There’s nothing mediocre about it.

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8. Inside Out

I’m among the few who thinks Pixar hasn’t had a false step yet. Yes, their last couple films are not without their shortcomings. Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University and, most recently, The Good Dinosaur don’t quite live up to the high standards of Toy Story 1-3, Monsters Inc., Up, The Incredibles and WALL-E before them. They’ve most definitely hit a rough patch these past couple years, but amongst it all, they hid an ace in the cannon: Inside Out, one of the most audaciously clever, heartwarming, heartbreaking, tender and maddeningly inspired films to come in years —animated or otherwise, Pixar or not.

2015 was a pretty damn good year for animation, as I’ll discuss a little further later down the list, and the latest from director Pete Doctor (Up) was among the cream of the crop. Telling a story that might not be as original as it promises — Fox’s short-lived sitcom Herman’s Head did do this idea about two decades prior, and Osmosis Jones, as the Nostalgia Critic pointed out not too long ago, also worked with a similar idea maybe a little less than ten years later — but what the inside-the-mind film lacks in complete novelty, it most definitely makes up for in creativity, ingenuity and sheer inventiveness.

The set pieces, characters and color designs are among the most eye-popping and majestic the studio has produced under their banner. The voice work, from Amy Poehler as Joy to Lewis Black as Anger, are exceptionally well-cast and played to a T. The writing is among the most honest, mature and emotionally gutting the company has put together to date. And just like the good ole’ days, it’s hard to walk away from it without the room getting a little dusty before it’s done. It might not quite be top 5 Pixar, but that’s a very high bar to jump — and this new film easily gets close. Inside Out is a beauty and a marvel to behold, and proves Pixar still has what it takes to steal our hearts and win over our emotions.

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7. James White

James White is not going to win over a ton of admirers. Producer Josh Mond’s feature directorial debut is a character piece centered around an unappealing lead and a heavy subject matter. It wasn’t meant to become a crowdpleaser. But from the extended first frame until its very last, I loved the hell out of his little movie. The kind of riveting, hard-knocking indie film that I found hit maybe a little too close to home for my complete liking, it’s a diligently small-scale work of restraint that bleeds honesty at every turn and never falls short on being as beautiful as it is tragic. It’s an engulfing little number that’s not afraid to tell it as it is, and let the audience come to understand and ultimately accept its lead character, played all-so-wonderfully by Girls alum Christopher Abbott, rather than love him from the start.

Supported mightily by Cynthia Nixon as the titular character’s ailing mother, and also steered very, very well by co-stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Ron Livingston and Makenzie Leigh along the way, it’s a powerhouse picture, and promises a very strong future for Mond in the director’s chair. Even when it gets more dramatic and more aching, it never rings false. It’s a staggering, fire-bellied work of finding yourself when the world around refuses to let you be yourself. It’s a mature, thoughtful piece of upright majesty, and it’s exactly what I like to see when I look out for these little movies. Much like White himself, it won’t have a lot of friends, but those who do end up enticed will stick around for the long run.

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6. Creed

Don’t call it a comeback: Rocky’s been here for years, rockin’ his peers and puttin’ suckers —Russian and otherwise —in fear. Yes, the Rocky series has most certainly had its hills-and-valleys over its plane of existence. The sequels, no matter what affections I’ve had for Rocky III and others have had for Rocky IV in the past, have never quite reach the heights of its 1976 Best Picture-winning peer. And while Rocky Balboa left things on an admirable high note nearly ten years ago, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) proved there was still a fire burning, lightning chewing and thunder crapping inside the heart of the Italian Stallion’s series — and how right he was.

Creed, the seventh film in the MGM franchise, may just be the best to date. Easily the most enjoyable and emotionally skyrocketing any Rocky film has been in decades, it’s a towering achievement in persistence. It’s a shockingly good character examination taught well by the original film, highly respectful to the films that preceded it afterwards and not afraid to do its own thing in the process. While the titular boxer often plays second fiddle to the new champion in the ring, Adonis Creed (played with a wallop of a punch by Michael B. Jordan), this is just as much Rocky’s film as it is his younger trainee’s. Neither step on each others toes, thankfully, and Sylvester Stallone’s long-earned on-screen charisma never overshadows Jordan.

With that said, Creed features some of Stallone’s best acting in years —maybe his best ever, in the right moments. He fits into this character like a boxing glove at this point, and Coogler gives him the right stuff to knock this one out cold. It’s a powerful tribute to his legacy, and one that’ll likely be rewarded handsomely with an Oscar later tonight. And he completely earned it. Because Rocky is a fighter — in more ways than one — and he, Coogler and everyone else involved with this one proved he’s still fighting with a vengeance.  Rocky’s still flying high. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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5. The Night Before

I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the only critic in the world who has this one on his top 10 list. But I don’t care. Screw the haters. I was floored by this raunchy R-rated buddy Christmas comedy. It’s easily the funniest and most wildly imaginative comedy I saw last year, and it proves that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are unstoppable when they work their magic under the well-commanded gaze of director Jonathan Levine (50/50). The Night Before may look like your average holiday stoner flick on the surface, something not too far along the lines of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas from a few years prior. And it some ways, it is. There are dick jokes to spare, many joints hit and shots guzzled before it calls it a wrap, and more than a few celebrity cameos throughout the tidings this yuk-fest brings. But there’s also a throbbing, beating heart in the proceedings as well —one that feels whole, genuine and complete, and finds plenty of room for the nice bromance sweetness found in the best Rogen pictures, which this is one of.

It’s a wild ride, but an absolute pleasure to watch. There’s never a dull moment, and Levine and his co-writers, including Rogen’s long-time writing collaborator Evan Goldberg, constantly find ways to one-up themselves and keep movie flowing at breakneck speed — all while paying careful attention to character development and providing plenty of laughs in the process. In a time where good Christmas movies are rare, save for an Arthur Christmas now-and-again, The Night Before is the best present of them all. A joyful, earnest, winning seasonal greeting that never falls short on love and soul, it brings a lot of happiness and goodwill to this Grinch’s old heart. It’s one I’m very much looking forward to seeing under my own tree in the future, and one I’d feel honored to have on rotation for several Christmases to come.

 

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4. Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the very definition of a lovely film. Meticulously wonderful and slight in design, it communicates feelings both big and small, fragile and gigantic, in the most painstakingly beautiful of ways. It’s a small wonder to behold, a work of near-flawless execution. And even when it borders on schmaltzy material, the filmmakers always find a way to ring out something gentle, honest, touching and downright moving at every turn. It’s a gem of a film, and a gift to the art of patient, quietly captivating cinema at some of its most dialed-back and becomingly fantastic.

And man oh man, can we talk about how good the cast is for a second? Saoirse Ronan is perfectly cast in the lead role: inquisitive, sensitive and deeply relatable in all the right ways —as she communicates a universal appreciation for finding yourself in a very big world, and the discovery of every delightful or heartbreaking facet it holds dear. And Emory Cohen is a real find here, providing a nice balance between good-hearted sentimentality and hard-headed puppy-dog loyalty. Also great is Domhnall Gleeson —whom I’ll talk about again in just a moment — proving himself, once again, just as versatile and talented an actor as his father.

Brooklyn is a sensationally old-fashioned film in all the right senses, a love letter to the art of cinema and the notion of finding yourself in the real world or in some realm in-between. It’s the kind of movie you’ll love to show your grandma — or anyone in your family, for that matter. It’s the Best Picture contender that stuck me the most, and though it’s not at all likely to take the top prize later this evening, it’s the nominee that bewitched me the most. And the one I’m likely to continue praising in the years to come.

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3. Ex Machina

As calculated and meditative as original sci-fi films come today —or any day —it’s staggering to think Ex Machina is novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s first go-about in the director’s chair. An accomplished, astonishing feature that’s easily ten times leaner and smarter than most of the garbage released in the loose genre today, it’s the kind of adult, thoughtful feature you wished was produced more often on the big screen. Guided with great intelligence and sterling captivation by our leads, Star Wars: The Force Awakens co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, as well as potential soon-to-be Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, it’s a commanding display of theological depth and heady science social commentary. While never short on heavy dialogue, its incredibly intercut sets and luscious cinematography always appeals to the eyes, and its state-of-the-art visual effects are simply incredible in their execution. How they were able to make a movie that looks this good on this budget is baffling to me, but it’s just another testament to Garland’s assured skills as a freshman filmmaker.

There’s so much to chew on and meditate here. It’s the kind of movie that swims in your head for days, and invites you to think about its constructive insights into present day technological advancements for much longer.  Good sci-fi movies are always ten steps ahead of their audience. Ex Machina is about 50 steps ahead — never impatient for us for catch up, but not one to waste a moment in the process either. It’s a crowning effort for not only its genre but for the future of cinema. It reminds us that contemplative, mature filmmaking should — and will — always find a place in the theater, and it most definitely lives up to the I in A.I. Also, Isaacs dance scene along is enough to make this one worth a watch. Do yourself a favor: put down Terminator Genisys and plug this one in the machine instead. Your brain will thank me later.

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2. The End of the Tour

Late author David Foster Wallace was easily among the most accomplished and thoughtful writers of the past two decades. His work is unparalleled and masterful in its execution, if a little long-winded as a result, and the tragic figure deserves to be celebrated as one of the most revolutionary writers of our time. It’s hard to pinpoint his greatness into one two-hour film, and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) had a hell of a task bringing the pained figure back to life with his fourth feature The End of the Tour, an adaptation of the memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and translated vividly from page-to-screen by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies. Ponsoldt pulls it off beautifully, gracefully displaying the flawed philosophical figure in a light sympathetic enough to appreciate his greatness but never afraid to show off his bitter weaknesses. I’d like to think Wallace would approve.

A cathartic celebration of writing, living and the pleasant mundaneness of middle America, The End of the Tour is an endlessly fascinating character piece anchored by two incredible lead performances by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as our two Davids: Wallace and Lipsky, respectively.  Segel may never look or sound like the mystical author, but he makes the performance rooted in honesty and cemented deeply in existential angst. It’s easily the best work he’s produced thus far as an actor, and how he was blindsided for an Oscar is unquestionable to me. He acted circles around everyone nominated for Best Actor this year, in my humble opinion. Eisenberg matches him in his contemplative, ever-questioning turn — never afraid to flip the script at the right moment while adding layers-upon-layers to Wallace’s allure and Lipsky’s interpretation of the man.

It’s a grand celebration at a writer who never wanted to be celebrated as something he wasn’t, but found himself living up to standards impossible to overcome. It’s a goldmine of fragile wealth and insight into minds of those brilliantly wondering into their mid-life struggles. As such, The End of the Tour paves the way for a lot of gratitude and heart for an artist who took his life much too soon, and promises to give a new generation of word builders like myself the inspiration to feed on life and look for different ways to see its pain and excellence in every single step.  It’s a special movie in a lot of ways, but most special of all for how it brings out the magnificent in the commonplace. Wallace wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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1. Anomalisa

Anomalisa paralyzed me as I watched it. I was left in a literal state of shock by how good this new movie was by the time the credits rolled. It’s arguably the best film I’ve seen in this decade, and quite possibly one of the richest, deepest, most honest and true movies I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s a masterful work of art, the kind of film I pray to see at the cinema. It’s the type of work that made me fall in love with cinema to begin with, the type of film that reminds me just how captivating and bewitching the art form can be when done right. And Anomalisa does so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so many things right. It’s a masterpiece of a film, a vision captured in flawless detail and done with masterful strokes of genius. It’s the stuff of dreams, and for certain the most human movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. And that doesn’t change one iota by the fact that it’s staged around puppets, utilized by some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold.

I could spend hours praising Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s film, and I already have. I don’t even know where to begin talking about how many things Anomalisa does so well. It’s ultimately one of those movies you need to see for yourself to witness in its full glory. Is that a cop-out on my end? Sure, but it’s the truth. There’s nothing I could say that could give this godsend of a movie its full due. There’s so much to dissect; there’s so much to unravel that I can’t wait to see it many more times to get a full sense of its masterful artistry. So I’ll just say this: Kaufman, the man I would have no problem calling the best working screenwriter in the business right now, has done it again. He’s found more ways to marry the mundane with the extraordinary than ever before. He and Johnson have discovered vital ways to make the rich tapestry of life seem so approachable and so massive in its scale. They’ve created a vividly realized work of absolute essentialness, the kind of film that needs to be studied and looked at over and over again.

I know not everyone is going to appreciate it as much as I did, and I’m sad to know that’s the case. It certainly didn’t win over my audience as much as it did me when I saw it, and I can somewhat see why. It’s a challenging film in some rights, and a highly unconventional one to boot. But I implore everyone to give Anomalisa a shot, and to see for yourselves everything it has to offer. It’s a gorgeous work of aching sorrow and contemplation, and an endless stream of fully-realized self-reflection. It’s more than just the most brilliant, moving and inviting film I’ve seen from 2015: it’s the most realistic one too. I don’t care if it features only puppets. It’s the truth, and the movie I’m proud to call the year’s absolute finest.

 

Thanks for reading everyone. To check out my worst list, click on the link here.

 

 

 

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The Worst Films of 2015

Hey everyone. *In my best Aaron Lewis impression* It’s been a while…

Yeah, it has been a bit since I’ve trenched into the netherworld of The Watching World. From the looks of it, I haven’t posted anything here since July, and while that feels just like yesterday to me, I must admit that it’s been a good six or so months since pen has gone to paper here. Or fingers have gone to keyboard…..you get the idea.

I’ve been busy with a few things. I apologize for leaving without saying goodbye. But I’m back now, and I’m hoping to be a little more active here in 2016. But we’ll see. I don’t want to make any promises, but I do want to get down to business. More specifically, I finally want to get the most putrid, horrid, disgustingly awful, no good, very bad films I had the displeasure of sitting through in-or-from 2015 out of my system. I want to live a healthier life. I want to get some happiness where these movies denied me pleasure. I want to talk about the real bad movies of the previous year.

That’s right. You can complain about Fifty Shades of Grey, Pixels, Chappie, Mortdecai, Jupiter Ascending, Pan and Minions all you like. But I’ve truly seen the worst of the worst, the most vile of vile, and the kind of films that question whether sane judgment actually exists in a world where they co-exist inside. I’ve sat through films that make Aloha actually look like a Hawaiian vacation. I’ve seen through these eyes movies that make the rest of my body recoil at the very thought of them. I’ve seen films that question why I even watch movies in the first place. There was some internal yelling involved. There was excessive drinking when alcohol was in reach. There was internal contemplation to found — but that may have come whether I saw these movies or not. It wasn’t pretty. But it’s over; well, it’s almost over. And I couldn’t be happier to get these movies out of my life for good.

Of course, I can’t see everything. And until the doctors diagnose me as the robot I truly am, I will have to rest knowing I’m merely human, and that the likes of Burnt, Rock the Kasbah, United Passions, The Last Witch Hunter, Grace of Morocco, Sinister 2, Point Break, Knock Knock, The Green Inferno, Old Fashioned and Secret in Their Eyes all escaped my sight — whether they deserved to be mentioned here or not. Sure, I guess I could have stuck it out and snuck them in later, I suppose. But sometimes, you just got to put your foot down and tell yourself it’s time to make a worst of the year list. I mean, it’s almost February already. I think I’ve waited long enough.

So without further ado, here are my picks for the worst films of 2015.

(Dis)honorable mentions: The Runner, Jem and the Holograms, Vacation, The Leisure Class, Outcast

Runner-Ups: Home Sweet Hell, Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, Terminator Genisys, The Gallows, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

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10. Serena

There’s never a real sure-thing in Hollywood. With that said, though, Serena looked as close to a sure-thing as the picture business could make today. A period piece based on Ron Rash’s acclaimed novel of the same name? Check. Reuniting Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, the powerhouse couple who electrified the screen together in both Silver Linings Playbook (another adaptation) and American Hustle? Boom Goes the Dynamite! You got Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning In a Better World and Brothers, the 2004 one where Tobey Maguire doesn’t yell a lot or destroys a kitchen, to direct? Sold. What could go wrong?

Well, apparently everything. The hush-hush details leading up to its consistently delayed debut were a bad, worrisome sign from the start. I mean, at that time, you could have a movie of Lawrence and Cooper reading the phone book back to each other still make $40 million, at least. What could possibly compel the filmmakers to hold this one back? Well, the answers were fairly evident when Serena did, eventually, get a (very quiet) limited release/VOD debut early last year. For one, the chemistry between our leads was completely evaporated, lost likely in the wooden dialogue and over-editing found throughout. Second, the characters never developed naturally, producing wildly outrageous moments without sound or reason. Third, the melodrama created was more irksome than charming, and it never gained that old school Hollywood feel with a mild mix of modern realism that he wanted to obtain. It was, in all honesty, an embarrassment for everyone involved, a spectacle of a disaster not often seen today. And not a fun one either. It was actually a dull, pandering one at that, and one that proved Lawrence wasn’t as unstoppable as we once predicted. It’s a damn shame, really. Serena is surrounded by trees throughout, literally, and yet it can’t find the forest around it. Perhaps earlier on, someone should have yelled “TIMBER” loud enough for everyone to hear, especially before it collapsed as mightily as it did.

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9. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it anymore. Who honestly still cares about these Alvin and the Chipmunks movies? What kids are even that interested in these anymore? They are all the same at this point. They all hit the same cues, the same juvenile jokes and expected checkpoints, and they become more insultingly lazy as they go along. They exemplify everything that we’ve come to expect from boardroom family films these days. It’s clear their inception is defined solely by the best pun an executive can deliver for a title, and that their existence is solely to get as much easy cash as they can grab before its curtains are shut to a close. It’s careless and pathetic, and never has it been more so than with its fourth (!) installment, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.

I’ve never been especially mad about this franchise before this sequel. I get their objective. I know 20th Century Fox has marketing goals to meet, and I’ve always found them fairly watchable and forgettable — if not much else. Maybe it had to do with David Cross no longer being around, replaced by a sadly gung-ho fellow Arrested Development cast member Tony Hale? Maybe I’m just getting more restless as I get older and these movies appeal to my demographic less-and-less? Maybe, after seeing such wonderful family movies like Inside Out and genuinely good-natured ones like The Peanuts Movie prior, it just seems even more degrading? It could be a varied of these things, but one thing is for certain: The Road Chip is not only the worst of these live-action write-offs to date, but it’s a bewilderingly maddening, insistently careless piece of scat, and there’s nothing here that deserves you going one second on this road trip. Not even an all-too-brief cameo from John Waters can make any of this bearable, and if you can’t make me enjoy the warm presence of a national treasure like Mr. Waters, you’ve clearly done something terribly, horribly wrong. And that’s nothing to sing about.

Speaking of singing……

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8. Pitch Perfect 2

I will never understand the appeal of Pitch Perfect, and I’m okay with this. Though it may seem like it at times, not every movie is made for a white, 22-year-old American boy like me, and nor should they be. Movies are meant to reach across multiple audiences, multiple generations and to the hearts of many different personalities, and I don’t really think the filmmakers had a guy like me specifically in mind for this initial film. That’s alright. I’ve made my peace with not understand the phenomenon that is Pitch Perfect. I wish Anna Kendrick would be spending her time doing something more justified to your natural talents, but if she gets a good paycheck and more fans every day from it, then I’m happy enough.

And while I can’t get with Jason Moore’s 2012 film, I can almost form an idea as to why people like it. But I have no idea what made people like its follow-up, the Elizabeth Banks’ helmed Pitch Perfect 2. A flavorless, meandering, clumsily presented and terribly shot sequel without any of the mild wit, occasional charms and sometimes likable supporting characters from the first, the comedy sequel is not only a bland, sterile and pointless affair aping on the goodwill of the first go-around, but this terrible also-ran is also consistently aimless, boringly dull and weirdly more mean-spirited than ever. Add in some often horrifically broad racial stereotypes as spice, and you get a new comedy that’s as tone-deaf as could be.

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7. The DUFF

When endlessly quoting Mean Girls and watching it over-and-over again to revisit their favorite parts, kids today tend to forget that the big components to the 2004 comedy’s success (beyond being massively funny) are its unabashedly large heart and its wonderful beating, always astute brain. With every clever diss and witty put-down the characters give to one another, there comes a genuine love for these characters, a rich understanding of who they represent and a sincere appreciation for the genre they’re also lampooning. Much like Clueless the generation before, the catchy one-liners and bouncy pacing are all just pink and fetch-as-all-hell icing on top of its delicious cake. It’s a genuinely sweet-hearted movie, with just the right amount of edge and cleverness to pull off something special and essential.

Ari Sandel’s latest, The DUFF, wants so very desperately to be the Mean Girls/Clueless of this half-finished decade. Based on the relatively popular (and, from what I’ve heard, pretty good) YA novel of the same name by Kody Keplinger, it observes all the little beats, pays close attention to the lingo it bounces around on the regular, and tries to capture that feverishly snappy energy for its own good. But it fails, horribly, in doing so. There’s almost nothing to attach onto in this film. Every character is practically as broad and wacky as could be, lacking any real insight or depth into our current culture as it says all the familiar terms or throws out the names of every popular social media site it can recall. The writing is all over the board, never consistently grounding the characters, developing them in any interesting ways or giving them anything funny or interesting to do. Worse of all, though, it wastes absolutely every second it has rising talents Mae Whitman and Bella Throne (also briefly starring in the aforementioned The Road Chip), as well as seasoned vet Allison Janney, on the screen. It’s a nauseating, painfully unfunny comedy with all the beats but none of the flair, and definitely lacking any heart or brains to make it work.

What results, then, is a high school comedy that often feels like homework, and an assignment you know you’re bound to be a big, fat D on by the time before it’s done. It might be clueless all right, but not exactly in the way it hoped.

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6. Accidental Love

It wasn’t exactly David O. Russell’s year in 2015. While I’ll defend Joy more than most, it definitely didn’t live up to the high standards of The Fighter, American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook before it, and the infectiously likable chemistry he helped ignite on-screen between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence proved to not be as infallible as we hoped with the aforementioned Serena. But no blow came harder to the Three Kings filmmaker than the shameless release of his undead remains of his unfinished 2008 political farce Nailed — which the producers decided to distribute under-the-radar this past year under its horrifically generic new title, Accidental Love.

I should stress that this wasn’t Russell’s final vision, nor should he take the full blame for its failure. Credited under the non-existent Stephen Greene (which may just become this new generation’s Alan Smithee), Accidental Love was meant to become a cheeky intellectual high-brow comedy based on Kristin Gore’s (daughter of Al) decently-received novel Sammy’s Hill. It would have served as his transition from indie darling to mainstream favorite, featuring career-defining work from Jessica Biel and show Jake Gyllenhaal as the wonderful actor we now recognize him as today. But this did not happen, for something went afoul and caused it go down in a blaze of furry unlike any failure I’ve seen in the past some years. Everything goes wrong here. The tone is wholly inept, and suggests that this would have never quite worked even if Russell didn’t jump ship in 2010. The characters are all far too broad to pull off something this wannabe-intellectual. The film constantly meanders its plot and tone to the point where it’s an frustratingly uncomfortable experience to endear, and proves downright embarrassing work for Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener and James Marsden. It’s a horrendous failure, and one that doesn’t show a lick of the talent and intelligence found in Russell’s other pictures. It’s a healthcare stare that never had a pulse to begin with, and to know that the producers dug this poor reject out of the grave for a quick buck is beneath the most deplorable actions of Washington D.C.’s most detestable.

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5. Any Day

I feel genuine pity for Rustam Branaman’s Any Day. Unlike many films on this list — and not unlike its central protagonist, played with as much diligence as he can muster by Sean Bean — there’s a honest-to-goodness desire to make this thing great. With every fiber of its being, it wants to become a modern masterpiece. Every scene is itching to become something profound, sweeping and elegantly moving. It wants to make something beautifully tragic, and tragically beautiful, but all it can do is live up to one part of that equation.

For Any Day is a baffling-to-no-end nightmare, the kind of ham-fisted melodrama that you kinda need to see to really understand how terrible it is. Every ill-conceived moment hinges on being more incompetent than the next. Every line of dialogue appears more confused than the one delivered before, and every actor on-board flounders to make the best of this ill-gotten Christian-morale demon from hell. Branaman comes as earnest as could be, and having interviewed him around the film’s poorly-received release, I think he believes he made some special. I didn’t have the heart to make him feel otherwise. For he does as well as he can, I think. He knows his limitations (he wants to make an exceedingly adult film, but can’t use harsh language, extreme violence, strong sexuality, etc.), but Any Day is, nevertheless, a disaster on every level. Seriously, I can’t even really begin to describe how bad this movie ends up. It gives God’s Not Dead a run for its money any day of the week.

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4. Smosh: The Movie

I’ve never been especially kind to YouTubers making their transitions to the silver screen. This time last year, I ranked Shane Dawson’s Not Cool as 2014’s worst film (and it may also very well be the worst I’ve seen this decade so far, for it’s definitely one of the worst comedies I’ve ever had the displeasure to watch). I’ve never even given Smiley or the Fred movies the time of day. Nor really should I ever, I think. And I don’t have any kind words to say about Smosh: The Movie — the first (and hopefully the very, very last) film from the Internet-craze-of-14-year-old tweens sensations Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla — either, really.

To the mildest of credit to Hecox and Padilla, the Internet personalities had no role writing or directing their shitstorm of a big-screen debut, a dimension which far exceeds the dimensional boundaries these two should have ever reached. Those duties went to Eric Falconer & Steve Marmel (Fairly Oddparents) and Alex Winter, respectively and unfortunately. And I cannot — for the life of me — figure out how anyone with genuine talent like these men could have been just mildly responsible such an atrociously sluggish and indistinguishably bland slap of laughless childish garbage as this.  As boring a Bill & Ted rip-off as you could possibly imagine (which makes the involvement of Bill himself, Winter, all the more disheartening), Smosh: The Movie would go through the motions if it had any motions to go through. As one would expect from two people who made their living on fastly-edited four-minute videos, they display no range, style or flair in their feature debut. They throw and wag their arms in the air at every minute and hope the audience applaud them for doing things “good enough” when it comes to generic bathroom jokes and bad shtick, as well as some half-assed romances to boot.

It made me long to watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for a number of reasons, one of which being that I could actually get some real laughs. But also so that possibly, just maybe I could discover time travel for my own and erase a timeline where I saw this movie in the first place — and maybe even one where these two dingbats had a career in the first place. Oh thanks, Smosh: The Movie. You’re making me sound like an old man now. Unsubscribe.

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3. Just Before I Go

Dark comedy is an art form unlike any other. It takes a deft sense of timing, and a rich understanding of world the filmmaker is trying to create and what characters live inside it. It takes a perception that’s both morose and inviting, letting you glimpse into a place that may not be kind, but comes from a keen awareness of life’s bitter ironies and it’s sweetly ironic tendencies. It’s a balance few can really, truly master. Often times, those who do tend to lose their stride over time. Compare the works of filmmakers of Danny DeVito and Todd Solondz in the ’90s to their last couple films behind the camera. It doesn’t come gracefully, and it lives-or-dies from the right vision in the director’s chair.

Now, Courteney Cox is probably a lovely-enough woman. I’ve never been a huge fan of hers, but I always think actors have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to becoming directors in their due time — especially when it comes to dark dramedies like this. Actors inherently know people well. They study them, they become them. They know about diverse perspectives and different points-of-view. And maybe Cox knows what it’s like to be a man who lost everything and wants to end it all, but life and its little quirky ideas won’t quite make it happen the way he’d like. But if she does, then she sure as hell didn’t prove it with her feature directorial debut, Just Before I Go. The Friends alum’s history as a director before this film comes squarely from the world of sitcoms — having helmed several episodes of the recently-concluded Cougar Town, which she also headlined — and, boy oh boy, does it show. Every supporting character comes like the wacky best friend from your least-favorite half-hour in ABC’s comedy block. Every scene is shot without static or friction. Every line of dialogue feels like it’s waiting for the laugh-track to finally cue up. And this doesn’t produce the sensitivity, heart or wit needed to make David Flebotte’s sullen screenplay resonate on any level. It’s a mesh of personalities that don’t match, resulting in a horribly clumsy, awkwardly painful mess of a dramedy, and in that regard, it makes a pretty convincing case for why Seann William Scott’s character wants to kill himself throughout the movie. And there’s nothing to laugh about in the process.

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2. Hot Pursuit

There’s nothing worse than a bad comedy. And as it may have become evident at this point, there’s nothing I can stand less than a yuck-fest that can’t produce a single smile on my face. Where other genres can suck, at least they can find little, unintentional pleasures. A bad drama can become a stitch. A bad horror film can produce the same results. A bad action movie can provide some ironic fun. A bad mystery can be a joy to cackle. But a bad comedy does nothing for you. It gives you no pleasure, intentionally or not. It gives you no sanctification. It only brings you misery, boredom and agony. It gives you nothing.

Hot Pursuit is a nothing of a movie in many, many ways. It’s a road trip buddy cop movie with no new ideas. It’s a female bonding film with no chemistry or sexiness between our leads, Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara. It has no spark in its engine, no ambition in its drive. It has no funny one-liners, snappy moments or fun action beats. It’s a slog and a bore, an embarrassment and a bother. It doesn’t do anyone any favors, and in a time where it’s more important than ever to have women prove themselves in the comedy business (Hot Pursuit was also written, directed and produced by women, including EP Vergara and producer Witherspoon), this is a horrifying step-back, and the lowest of the low marks in Warner Bros.’ weakest year in history. It’s the kind of comedy that is so inactive in its pursuits that it never ever gets mildly warm. To even suggest there’s anything “hot” about this lifeless corpse is an egregious insult altogether.

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1. Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

Human Centipede III (Full Sequence) is a movie designed for nobody to like. Any pleasure it derives is getting people to be as disgusted by its very existence as much as possible. Where writer/director Tom Six shot for goofy fun with 2009’s First Sequence, and went for at least some artistic merit with 2011’s Full Sequence, Final Sequence (and I’ve never wanted a title to live up to its title more in my life) is made squarely to see how fucked up it can be —with no reward for its actions and nothing to justify its extremities. It’s putrid for the sake of being putrid, but not just in the horrible ways it aims to be. Every single awful attempt at humor falls flat — with returning lead Dieter Laser destroying any goodwill he earned the first time playing a new character and giving the year’s single worse performance as a prison guard who rapes his secretary constantly, tortures his prisoners by cutting open their ballsacks or waterboarding them with boiling hot water for kicks and eats dried up clitorises on the regular. Every character is more despicable than the last. And then Six has the gull to cast himself as himself, stopping the movie to have everyone on screen praise and adore him as if he’s practically the second coming of Christ. That may be more disgusting than the 100 + human centipede he creates before this insufferable bore comes to a close.

Worse than anything else, Human Centipede III is so terribly offensive that it doesn’t become offensive at all. It fails to be the one thing it’s trying actively to do to make us hate it, and that ultimately makes you hate it even more. I defy one person (besides Six and the filmmakers) to stand up and say this movie is made for them and entertained them. I can’t imagine anyone who could possible sit through one scene of this dreck and be entertained — and this is from someone who had to debate with himself whether-or-not the first movie was actually kinda genius. To say Six’s latest is a disgrace to good taste and proper filmmaking would be to suggest that Six had any sense of decency to begin with. And knowing Six from these three movies now, he probably gets off on such extreme schadenfreude.  So let me throw one last piece of salt on your wounds, Mr. Six: You’ll never be a real filmmaker, and you don’t deserve to be called one. So I won’t ever call you one ever again. And I don’t want to see you make another picture-to-sound in this business for as long as I live. After watching this one, though, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that too much.

 

That’s all for now. I’ll have my best of the year list later this week. Thanks for reading, and I hope you give the next list a look too!

Best Movies of 2015 So Far

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By Will Ashton

Hey everybody. Long time no talk. How are we doing? What’s new? How are the kids?

Anyway, to the one or two whom read my ill-informed musings here on the site, I wanted to let you guys know where I’ve been. With my staff writer position at TheCelebrityCafe.com, and my contributions to Rope of Silicon (as well as, briefly, writing for College Magazine) — in addition to doing some other things like, you know, graduating from college — I couldn’t give my love and affections to The Watching World the way I’ve wanted to. But I’m back again, if just for a little, and I’m hoping to make this at least a weekly effort. No promises, but I have goals dammit. Among those also includes getting a job, so we’ll see how successful I become with my hopes.

In my triumphant return, however, I would like to take this moment to celebrate the movies which took my fancy this year (so far). While 2015 is not as well-spread in the cinematic goodness as it was last year, that’s not to put down those films which really accelerated themselves and displayed some excellent showmanship in the art of cinema. And based on the handful I’ve seen of late, some of which haven’t even gotten a formal release, it looks like the best may still be to come.

So with enough of my personal life on the line and whatnot, let’s take a look at my top ten favorite movies of the year thus far.

10. It Follows

So many great things have already been lauded towards this horror-turned-mainstream pleaser, so I’ll try to keep this brief. It Follows is not only extremely tense in its stripped down premise but also displays the polished skills of its up-and-coming filmmaker. Mature beyond its years and mounted with technical skill galore and a well-guided young cast, this is one horror film to remember, specifically as it follows you well after it comes to a close.

9. Paddington

That this new Paddington movie is not only decent but one of the most downright charming family features in years is probably among 2015’s most delightful surprises. Bolstering the sophistication of the original source material while intelligently adding both new-age sensibilities and the writer/director Paul King’s whimsical touch, this is as proper and lovable a send-off and introduction to the English bear as one could hope and imagine. Even when it falls down formulaic narrative tropes, it still invigorates a nicely wry sense of humor and confident intelligence which is so-often missing in these family adventures. Live it to the Brits to make a family movie that’s, thankfully, as sweet and tender as a marmalade sandwich.

8. It’s All So Quiet

A taunt, character-driven study on life and its fleeting existence, It’s All So Quiet is fitting both as a send-off to its late lead actor Jereon Willems and as a well-meditated examination on what we do when morality escapes us. It’s certainly a slow film, deliberate in almost ever sense and content to stay sullen at every given expense. But through this does the movie speak to the woe-some, burden soul, trying to find life again in the wake of death.

7. Louis C.K.: Live at the Comedy Store

While not quite on the high-mark of Louis C.K.’s best stand-up specials like Hilarious or Live at the Beacon Theater, or even his amazing FX series Louie for that matter, Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater is still yet another brilliantly astute examination of life, its woes and whatever oddities and ramblings come in its wake from the 47-year-old comedian celebrating the high-point of his career. Whether its talking about the layers of people misunderstanding his friend’s family’s interlaced racism or talking about the details through which one jacks off a female rat, C.K. is as ferocious and biting a comedian as ever, and like a gift which keeps giving, C.K. delivers another fine display of his skilled storytelling on stage.

6. Love & Mercy

An affectionately handled but intelligently reserved portrait of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy is a passionately tender and heartfelt examination of one’s dedication to their art, in the wake of personal struggle and mental wrought. Featuring John Cusack’s best performance in years, what makes this so captivating is how it avoids the cliches of music biopics and, therefore, is enthralling even though it’s based on real-life events. Fascinating, heart-wrenching and more emotionally sincere than most inclusions in the genre, this music biopic is music to the ears.

5. What We Do in the Shadows

Both vampires and the mockumentary format are becoming quite stale these days thanks to repetition. So leave it up to one-half of Flight of the Conchords, Jermaine Clement, and his Eagle vs. Shark director, Taika Waititi, to bring life back into the undead with their hilarious What We Do in the Shadows.  Briskly packed with as many clever asides as possible, even when the movie gets tiresome it’s so jam packed with great belly laughs that it’s hard to complain. Add in its rich attention to character and mythology, and you have not only the funniest movie of the year so far but one of the best vampires lores to come in ages.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

In a day-and-age when tentpole reboots are almost required to become as formulaic and monotonous as possible, to see 70-year-old George Miller not going recapture his original spunk but accelerate it to the ninth grade — all while making a plot not only coherent but highly thoughtful — is a pure wonder. Distinctly envisioned, tightly edited, astoundingly filmed and bursting at the steams with energy, Mad Max: Fury Road is an exhilarating and progressive action-thriller, and just the kind of movie you’re typically dying to see in the theater.

3. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

I described this one as “a John Hughes movie birthed by the love child of Jean-Luc Godard and Wes Anderson,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s astoundingly confident teen dramedy is a weeper not unlike its fellow Pittsburgh-shot YA adaptation likes The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but through its own quirky voice and acute vision, this Jesse Andrews adaptation becomes one of the most well-polished and vivacious coming-of-age films in some time. Through its fantastic cinematography, heartfelt performances and bouncy energy does Me & Earl & the Dying Girl sing, and what a lovely voice does it sing with.

2. Inside Out

While I’ve enjoyed every movie Pixar’s put out so far — and, yes, that includes Cars 2 — I’ll be the first to admit the company hasn’t brought their A-game to the plate since their incredible (and one-time finale to the series) Toy Story 3 back in 2010. Bogging themselves down with unnecessary remakes and one original tale (Brave) which only live up to some of its full potential, with Inside Out the CG company is back to their vibrant, masterful selves. While not quite as good as, say, WALL-E or Up, that’s not to short the film for its ever imaginative story which is both mature and enjoyably childish, expressive but reserved and featuring one of my favorite characters seen on screen this year with Lewis Black’s Anger.

1. Ex Machina

The kind of intelligent, lyrical sci-fi tale which is only rarely seen at the cinema today, screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is just the kind of movie to stick with long after its over and make you contemplate the intercity of its high-minded society that’s, scarily, not too far away from ours. Featuring some astounding performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander and among the best grounded visual effects brought to the screen thus far, it’s the best of both sci-fi worlds, and hopefully a reminder to Hollywood of how important it is to remember the second part of A.I.

With the goodies out of the way, I think it’s time to get the bad ones listed too. What do you guys think?

Top 5 Episodes of ‘Silicon Valley’ Season 1

By Will Ashton

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Among the most engaging new TV comedies of 2014 is Silicon Valley, the newest work from Mike Judge centered on an up-and-coming tech company centered in the titular town. While the season has been somewhat up-and-down, if not undeniably wobbly, there is still a lot of good here, it just might need a season or two to really nail itself down. Much like Community did between its first and second seasons.

While there were only eight episodes within the first season of this new HBO sitcom, there were enough good ones that deserved to be singled out and looked favorably upon. So, with that in mind, let’s look at the top 5 episodes of Silicon Valley, season one.

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5. Fiduciary Duties

Directed by Maggie Carey

While certainly not the best episode in the season, this episode is successful at making good use of the little things. Particularly, through Big Head—who is mostly forgotten about in the rest of the season, sadly—and Peter Gregory, who, in my opinion, is the show’s best character, and certainly its most fascinating. It is clear that the showrunners had some big, big plans for this character, but, unfortunately, due to actor Christopher Evan Welch’s untimely passing, they had to awkwardly find ways to not get the character involved inside the show. Which is a shame, in more ways than one of course, but more so when reflecting on how great he was in episodes like this.

4. Signaling Risk

Directed by Alec Berg

Again, not the best episode of the season, but this was one of the ones that was the best at establishing the communitarian nature of these guys, especially in witnessing them come together to form a team. While not the funniest episodes, this is one with a little more heart than most, which is certainly needed in a show that makes its fun through the dry, computer-savvy generation of 20-somethings today.  This is one the episode with the best one-liners or the funniest gags, but it is definitely the most heart-felt episode as far as I can remember.

3. Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency

Directed by Mike Judge

After a couple of wobbly, unfocused episodes, this season finale finally was able to focus on what the show was establishing itself about, while also making sure that they bridge the gap between what they needed to finish and what they needed to establish for the time to come. With what could be one of the funniest and oddly smartest recurring dick jokes in television history, along with some great character moments throughout, this episode is able to bring the show back its brains and its laughs in a success one-two punch. Above all, however, it brings the hope back that this show will continue to be a promising and hilarious show for our time.

2. Articles of Incorporation

Directed by Tricia Brock

Following the inconstant second episode, this third one was what brought things back together—if even for just a brief period of time. With the writing back and perhaps sharp as it ever is this season, along with great jabs and character moments all around, this episode was definitely one of the show’s biggest successes and high notes thus far. This is when the show started to pull together its great one-liners and building on its chemistry between its cast, while also at least somewhat sure-footing what the show should make itself out to be.

1. Minimum Viable Product 

Directed by Mike Judge

Of course, however, there is no denying that the pilot was the strongest, funniest and refreshing episode of the season. With a confidence that sadly started to disappear with the rest of the season, and a sharpest that would eventually come and go, this was when the show truly was at its peak and most inspired. The writing is the best, the one-liners are to die for, and the story is definitively at its tightest and most focused here. All rather rare for a show to do at once, let alone one that is a comedy. That is what made this pilot so special, and showcased what greatness this show could truly be.