Movies

Top 5 Films of 2015

Earlier today I saw a lot of “Top Lists” for the year of 2015 and this led me to throw up something on Twitter. Then I quickly realized I should dedicate more time to my favorite films from the years. There’s not many times I get to be wholly positive, so instead of posting a clumsily thrown together list I made in Notepad, here’s a detailed explanation of five of my favorite films from 2015. I would have gone for a full top ten, but I really didn’t see that many movies I liked enough to put on a list. By the way, Sicario (with Emily Blunt in FBI gear up top) is not on this list, although it makes for a great feature image.

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5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’ve written a little bit about how one aspect of this movie bothered me, but that doesn’t do justice to how pleased I was with the overall result. J.J. Abrams and company managed to bridge the gap between the old fans and new fans and gave us the “Episode 1” that everyone wanted. It’s almost like we can pretend the prequels never happened. Unfortunately, there’s already a movement among big-time Star Wars fans that say the film had “too much fan service,” but I think these complaints can only be had after leaving the theater and realizing you liked the movie. The Force Awakens is the first time that audiences cared more about new characters than old ones, but the creators didn’t know that we’d like Rey, Finn, or Poe, so we got a little glimpse of who they are instead of focusing on them completely. As someone who has never been a huge Star Wars fan, this film has gotten me onto the hype train, to the point that I’ve reinstalled Knights of the Old Republic and I’m considering a replay. It’s easy to feel good about Star Wars right now, as long as I push back the thought that the “marvelification” of the franchise will happen any minute now.

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4. The Gift

I wrote on social media immediately after seeing this movie: “The Gift is a great movie because it advocates all my world views. Don’t get married. Don’t have relationships. Don’t have friends. Don’t invite people over. Don’t meet people. Never trust anyone.” Four months later, I think this still accurately represents why I liked The Gift. If not for that reason, I think it’s one of the best “It’s good, just watch it,” experiences you can have. I went to see The Gift on the premise that it was about a “creepy neighbor,” and that’s it. It’s a film that plays with your expectations more than once. The less you know about the movie the better. In other words, it’s good, just watch it.

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3. Kingsman

As far as I’m concerned there were three James Bond movies released this year: Spectre, Kingsman, and Missions Impossible: Rogue Nation. I could go into the details of why they latter two are totally James Bond movies but you’re better off skipping Rogue Nation and just watching Kingsman. A kid gets drafted into British secret service and has to infiltrate an evil lair and save the world using gadgets. All he needs is a double 0 in front of his name. Kingsman had the benefit of being released earlier in the year, several months before Spectre brought “being fun” back to Bond, so at the time it was a breath of fresh air to the formula that had been bogged down by the self-seriousness of Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. Kingsman is funny, charming, but also smart. All of this is made clear by the inclusion of Colin Firth in the main cast. When you read about a movie like Kingsman, and see someone like Firth being in the cast, you’d usually think “I wouldn’t think Firth would do something so brain-dead,” well that’s because it’s not. Like with many British films, there are layers of classism stitched into the fabric and Kingsman is no different. You walk away wondering if there was something more going on. Even if there wasn’t, it was the most fun I had at the theater all year. P.S. Love Samuel L. Jackson’s costume design.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that’s story is told almost entirely through pictures. That’s a statement that can’t be said for most movies, and that’s okay. We have writers, actors’ performances, witty dialog, and ways of conveying information that’s pleasing to audiences outside of just pictures. In reality how many stories could you tell with just pictures? Still the novelty of watching Fury Road and realizing how much I knew about the world just by watching it had a big effect on me. Take for example this fight scene between Max and (the real main character) Furiosa. We learn key things about both characters: Furiosa is willing to kill Max, Max is not willing to kill Furiosa or the Wives, Max will work with Nux, but only to the extent that he has to, Nux has a deluded sense of friendship, and it appears that both Max and Furiosa want to use the truck to get away from the incoming horde. There’s no “we’re on the same side here Max!” scene between Furiosa and Max, because the audience already knows. The entire movie assumes a level of intelligence from the viewer. The low bar that they have seen the visuals on screen and were paying attention. But this isn’t some pretentious nonsense from film class. It’s an action movie made by an old guy who’s been making action movies since the 70s, and it is fucking rad.

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1. Ex Machina

Ex Machina automatically had to be in my Top 5 after I realized it had started not one, but two, heated debates between friends and family over the implications of the ending of the film. It’s nothing incomprehensible like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fundamental understanding of what you believe “life” to be and if you think that definition translates when it’s being applied to biology versus synthetics (or to use simpler words: humans versus robots). Ex Machina is a film that sparks conversation and I envy any work of art that can accomplish that. That alone would force me to give it a recommendation but the rest of the film is also a marvel. It’s small in scope, with only four characters and “one” location, but it covers huge ideas like artificial intelligence, human connection, and the definition of “life.” It’s short in runtime, barely making it past an hour and a half, but you learn so much about the characters, their motivations, and quickly learn about complicated concepts. It’s a tightly written film, every second has a purpose and various moments have the potential to stay with you long after it’s over (I know which one has stuck with me the longest). On top of all that it’s undeniably charming thanks to the best performance from Oscar Isaac I’ve seen from him yet, as the super-genius super-self-centered Nathan. His character is a joy to watch and he jives well with co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander who do their part to service the film.

There isn’t a weak point to Ex Machina and every aspect of it I try to think about just inspires another sentence or two of praise, and I haven’t even mentioned the set design or soundtrack. Top 10 lists (or Top 5 lists) are always subjective and graded on nothing, but Ex Machina is the film that affected my life the most and made me love the medium more than I already do. I think that’s justification enough to praise it as my favorite for 2015.

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Movies

When Heroes Deserve to Win

This post is not about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except for the fact that it was brought about by something that happens in The Force Awakens and it bothered me (if you’re ultra sensitive to spoilers this is your warning to stop reading). The thing is, what happened actually happens in stories all the time, and it bothers me all the time, but despite my best efforts to articulate the reason why it bothers me everyone I talk to usually just shrugs it off and says something akin to “but it’s just an action movie!” So this is my final attempt to articulate the point.

So what are we even talking about? Without spoiling too much, at the end of The Force Awakens there is a fight between good and evil and good wins. That’s fine. The problem is that the “good guy” in this fight has no reason to win other than it being the end of the movie. There may have been an arc, and some crazy things may have happened along the way, but there’s no reason for this particular good guy to be the person who wins. In fact, this particular fight is two good guys versus one bad guy, and the first good guy proves unsuccessful. Is there something different about the two of them? Why does the second good guy get to win? Why do either of them deserve to win? The Force Awakens makes no clear point, but there should be a reason past “because they are the good guys,” and I have some ideas. Stories have proven that the reasons the good guy should win is because of a transformation in their character or because specifically their character was the only character who could’ve accomplished what was needed.

Let me be clear, when I say “deserves to win,” I don’t mean the endless fan theories of who is technically stronger according to lore. This is not the comments section of a YouTube video for a Game of Thrones fight sequence where they argue that “yes, technically character X was hungry from traveling for two days, that’s why he lost to this character who was described as a less proficient swordsman.” I’m talking about something quantifiable that isn’t left to endless debates. The first example is when a character makes a fundamental change to themselves. When they reach a new understanding, or finally overcome a hardship that has plagued them in the past. There must be a deeper reason our character was unable to defeat their foe, otherwise they would’ve proved victorious in the first battle.

I think the example that best describes this concept is Neo from The Matrix. If for some reason you haven’t seen The Matrix. Throughout the entire film the antagonists known as “Agents” are so omniscient they can’t even be hurt. They dodge fists and bullets alike and any resistance against them is a fool’s errand. Neo’s only protection against the Agents is to run away. That’s not all Neo is running away from. The moment he’s awaken from the Matrix he’s told by Morpheus he is “the one” that can defeat the agents and save mankind, but Neo doesn’t believe this. The entire film is Neo expressing disbelief in Morpheus’ vision, while also testing the extent of his strength just in case he is the savior of them all. This of course means that all of Neo’s encounters with agents ends in devastation, since he never truly trusts he is “the one.” The turning point is when he “begins to believe.” Neo starts with small victories, such as the famous subway station fight, and after getting the support of Trinity he becomes “The One.” The film ends with Neo destroying the agents.

Neo deserved to win because he was not the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning of the film. He went from doubting the Matrix and Morpheus, to truly believing he was The One. The barriers that blocked his success were not physical strength or wits, but a personal journey that he had to complete. There’s no alternative version of The Matrix that you could write that would’ve satisfied viewers that removes Neo realizing he had to be The One and instead has Morpheus and gang using wits and big guns to defeat the machines. I think The Force Awakens has the same problem. There’s no reason why our hero deserved to defeat the villain. There’s hints at a transformation, a problem that plagues them from the past, but it’s dropped in favor of overpowered force sensitivity and suddenly being really good with a lightsaber. Even Luke Skywalker from A New Hope fits into the “deserves” criteria. Luke gained a connection with Obi-Wan and “used the force” to blow up the Death Star! Our Hero in The Force Awakens was force sensitive but had no mentor, and didn’t utilize it to become victorious. Luke had to meet Obi-Wan, learn about the Jedi, believe in the force, and combine it with his skills as a pilot to achieve victory, which brings me to my next point.

"He's beginning to believe."

There’s another way The Force Awakens could’ve satisfied audiences which is by making the characters the only heroes who were fit to complete the task needed. Characters exist outside of the script and come to the story with their own abilities and experiences which can prove useful for the story at hand, in fact it might be why they are in the story at all. Take for example Mal from the lesser-seen Sci-Fi film Serenity. Mal is a reckless smuggler who gets blown up and patched up a lot so he’s prone to surgeries and getting things replaced and biologically moved around. The villain of Serenity has a lot of interesting things going on but most importantly he has a very specific Shakespearian kill move. The kill move consists of the villain paralyzing his opponent by jamming his hand into a bundle of nerves in his opponent’s torso, then laying his sword down in front of them which causes them to “fall on their sword.” Well, Mal has gotten so many injures that when the villain tries to paralyze him at the climax of the film, it doesn’t work, because all those nerves were already blown away ages ago thanks to the numerous injuries Mal has had over the years. This allows Mal to sucker punch the villain and easily defeat him. If anyone else had been facing the villain they would’ve met a Shakespearian demise.

This might sound like a cop-out execution but it’s a more common tactic than you think and I assure you it’s satisfying in almost every story it appears in. It’s kind of like Indy shooting the swordsman but applied to a finale, it’s a scene that captures the character’s existence. No one else would’ve handled it that way but them, which is why it had to be them. Our character has a unique trait, or a unique way of thinking, that gets them out of the situation that would otherwise stump other people in the creative universe if they were placed in the same situation. This is what makes their story special and why we are following their tale, among other things.

Serenity is actually pretty okay.

The Force Awakens had two chances at this because it takes two good guys from very different backgrounds. It’s possible they could’ve used their textured past to their advantage in this situation. They even could’ve combined the two and accentuated what blends them together against a common foe but again that was not the case. Their experiences during the film, and before the film, are never hinted at in contribution to this finale. It’s a plain fight where the good guy wins because that’s what they’re supposed to do, right?

I’ve found that more and more stories have forgotten about the “deserves to win” philosophy, whereas at one point it was assumed. Even movies that are bemoaned by audiences as devoid of any creative thought like Avatar still follow this principal. Whereas John Wick, a film beloved by a cult following, completely ignores this concept. It’s really bizarre because writing it into your film inherently improves the film by giving your character dimension and purpose. The only criticism I’ve heard against this type of thinking is that it’s unnecessary for some films, but I disagree. Even something as brainless as a summer blockbuster film could be minimally improved by a few throwaway lines that adhere to this principal. It doesn’t take much effort to make our stories a little bit better, don’t we deserve that?

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