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Film favorites 2015's cinematic triumphs

December 29, 2015
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Putting together year-end best lists is always fun for a film critic, and after seeing close to 100 movies over the course of 2015, I've got plenty to choose from.

I prefer to use the term 'favorite' rather than 'best' when assembling this sort of year-end list. I freely admit that 2015 has featured some phenomenal movies that either a) I have yet to see, or b) have yet to be released. I have no doubt that films like 'The Hateful Eight,' 'The Big Short,' 'Room,' 'Carol' and many others might well have earned a place here.

Additionally, I'm not nearly arrogant enough to assume that a movie is one of the year's best just because I liked it. So I'm simply tossing out some titles that I greatly enjoyed over the past year. Some of them may make some awards-season noise; others most likely will not. But for whatever reason, each of them resonated with me.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorites:

Mad Max: Fury Road

OK, so I might have said no particular order, but that's a bit of a fib; while the rest of the list is more or less random, this film is in the top spot for a reason. Director George Miller delved back into the world of Mad Max after three decades and the result was something that exceeded all possible expectations. Massive action spectacle and stunning cinematography collide literally in many cases and somehow result in a progressive and transcendent narrative. Maybe the most thoughtful action blockbuster in cinematic history.

Ex Machina

Chalk this one up as my biggest pleasant surprise of 2015. I went into this movie expecting a mildly interesting sci-fi flick with a fairly standard take on artificial intelligence. Instead, what I got was a beautifully shot, incredibly thoughtful meditation on the morality and ethical consequences of creating consciousness. It's a small, idea-driven film elevated by a provocative narrative and a trio of phenomenal performances from Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

Spotlight

Easily the best ensemble I've seen in 2015. 'Spotlight' tells a real-life story the Boston Globe's coverage of the Catholic Church's cover-up of sexual abuse by the clergy. Writer-director Tom McCarthy leads a fantastic cast including a never-better Mark Ruffalo, among others. That story is compelling enough on its own terms, but the movie also manages to put forward perhaps the best journalistic procedural film in the last quarter-century.

Macbeth

This adaptation of one Shakespeare's finest features Michael Fassbender as the titular Scottish king in a wonderfully dark production filled with fire and blood. While many successful cinematic takes on the Bard involve some sort of new twist on the material, director Justin Kurzel lets the story do the talking. His biggest move was bringing much of the play's offstage carnage to lurid, vivid life onscreen. Still, this is Fassbender's movie and he makes the most of it.

Creed

The notion of yet another iteration of the 'Rocky' franchise aroused plenty of suspicion on my part. But this was a new way in; series star Sylvester Stallone handed over the reins to writer/director Ryan Coogler and it made all of the difference. Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Michael B. Jordan and a maybe-best-ever turn from Stallone as an aging Rocky Balboa, 'Creed' is a wildly energetic and compelling reinvigoration perhaps the best in the series since the first film.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I mean, come on - obviously. It's a list of favorites; there was literally no way this movie misses the cut.

The Martian

Matt Damon has a tendency to get left places that are difficult to access. 'The Martian' shows us what happens when a lone man, armed with nothing but his intellect, a can-do attitude and rapidly-dwindling supplies, is forced to try and find a way to survive being stranded on Mars. Director Ridley Scott lives for this kind of stuff, while Damon has the charisma to carry large chunks of a film on his own. It is funny and rare these days overwhelmingly positive. One of the best times to be had at the movies this year.

Inside Out

To be fair, a Pixar offering almost always makes its way onto this list; aside from a few speed bumps, their films are generally excellent. This one deserves a place among the studio's very best. Combining surprisingly sophisticated neuroscience theories with an exceptional voice cast and trademark brilliant animation, 'Inside Out' is one of the cleverest, most emotionally complex films of the year. Not animated films films, full stop. Just make sure you have tissues handy you'll know why when the time comes.

Spy

Melissa McCarthy is an undeniable comedic talent. However, the unfortunate reality is that she doesn't always get the chance to properly showcase her gifts. 'Spy' is the perfect vehicle for her, a comedy that is both broad and witty and that allows her to exert herself physically and cerebrally. What could have been a genre parody is instead an honest homage to the spy movie heck, it IS a spy movie, albeit one packed with jokes. Note: this is easily the funniest that Jason Statham has ever been.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

There are a lot of films that almost landed in this spot; you'll see them among the honorable mentions. I wound up landing on this one just because it was such an unexpected delight. Filled with verbal and visual wit, 'Kingsman' is a fast, frenetic (and FUN) Bondian riff. The action sequences were some of the year's best, while there's no denying the joy inherent to watching Colin Firth of all people kick some ass. On another day, maybe one of those others sits here, but today, 'Kingsman' wins.

(Honorable mention: 'Trainwreck;' 'Black Mass;' 'Straight Outta Compton'; 'Steve Jobs'; 'Joy')

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