10) Jurassic World
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio
The park is back open. We get to return to the raptors and the T-Rexes that we fell in love with over 20 years ago with this reverent next stage in probably Walt Disney’s worst nightmare. While not being able to recreate the awe of first seeing the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Jurassic World instead builds on what that park would look like in modern day and that greed will ultimately always come back to bite you in the ass. The dinosaurs are fun, and Chris Pratt with them. If you’re going to go ridiculous, go all in, and Chris Pratt leading a raptor team on motorcycle through the jungle is just about that. Unfortunately we get some weaker performances from Howard, and D’Onofrio’s role is doomed to be overshadowed by his Kingpin from Daredevil earlier this year. Despite that, Jurassic World still delivers a great popcorn summer experience.
9) Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
This is a great year for Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, who both also play prominent roles in a lesser known space opera film that came out in December. In this film though, we follow Gleeson as he begins an almost Wonka-esque adventure by winning a week with an elusive tech genius played by Issac, only to find that Isaac had been wanting a subject to help him test out a new artificially intelligent android played by Vikander. Isaac does a great job as a mysterious and unhinged genius trying to manipulate everyone into furthering his advancement in AI and essentially godhood. Gleeson stands out though as we watch his descent into suspicion, paranoia, and madness while forming some sort of bond with Vikander. Vikander, by the way, walks the fine line of barely emotional to fit the role without being boring with incredible precision.
8) Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen
Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs (because he wrote the film and it’s got his fingerprints all over it) is a fascinating and very dramatized look at the life of one of personal computers’ greatest innovators, concentrated during three key public events. Fassbender has to play the tempestuous Jobs in three different eras of the man’s life, in addition to flashbacks of even earlier moments, and he does so with remarkable ease. The people around Jobs are also well realized, especially the surprising performance of Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, whose reserved and polite composure is very much opposed to Job’s brash and argumentative self. The three-act set up feels primed for a translation to the stage, and one I would definitely like to see.
7) Crimson Peak
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Del Toro knows how to make a pretty movie. The set and costume designs of this film are spectacular. The main setting of the decrepit mansion manages to be stunningly gorgeous while also eerily haunting. As we follow Wasikowska’s character across the ocean to join the siblings Hiddleston and Chastain, we are just as concerned and curious about the true happenings of this mysterious family. The film plays with the supernatural with the perfectly minimal touch, leaving this to still be a very human tale of the living that’s hard not to watch.
6) The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
First off, it’s fantastic to see Sam Jackson in more starring roles. It’s not like he doesn’t do them, but as of late he has been more well known as the supporting Nick Fury in Marvel. Jackson, Russell, and crew put on some of their best performances as several horrible people find themselves locked in a cabin during a cold winter night. This film is incredibly well shot to encompass the cabin setting to feel like you’re in the room. The film is captivatingly deceptive as you find you can’t turn away as fairly mundane conversations descend into madness and absurdity and some of the most visceral gore of Tarantino’s career. And that’s saying something. By the end of the film, you’ll find yourself surprisingly rooting for its outcome as its resolution is incredibly satisfying.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor
It’s been no secret leading into this film that we’re big fans of the book by Andy Weir about an astronaut in the near future that gets stranded on Mars and must find a way to survive and hopefully get home. Possibly aided by using someone else’s source material, Ridley Scott turns in some of his best work in years with a near-perfect adaptation of everything we love from the book. Damon is witty and humorous while spouting off mathematical equations and gardening lessons, where large portions of the film are just Damon talking to the camera. The rest of the cast also pulls off a stellar performance as they all try to get Damon’s Mark Watney back home. If anything feels off in the film, it’s perhaps the epilogue added to the end, which is original to the film. It may have stumbled ever so slightly on the landing, but overall it’s a great ride.
Directed by Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly
Numbers # and # go together pretty well. Starting with Ant-Man, Marvel took what was looking to be their first dud and turned it around into a fun, witty caper film. This film was plagued with years of pre-production delays, a famous director swap out with long-committed Edgar Wright leaving, and honestly a poor initial trailer. The final product though, polished with the help of Paul Rudd pulling double duty, proved that Marvel could make a successful film out of even its most laughable concepts. Ant-Man walks the line of being funny without becoming a bad joke with the understandably odd concept of the character’s powers, all thanks to a fantastic cast that can roll with the humor with sincerity.
3) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, James Spader, etc.
Next up is Marvel’s other major outing for the year, the star-studded blockbuster team The Avengers. The second installment in Marvel’s team-up franchise takes the team to the next stage, starting them together and taking them apart just to show what this team could do at its absolute lowest point. Unfortunately it can’t quite recreate the magic of the first Avengers film, the joy of the team coming together. The stakes also feel somewhat forced to be a set up for the upcoming Captain America film as opposed to focusing on the cosmic threat set up last time around. However, the villainous dialog of James Spader’s Ultron is absolutely delightful, and the character touches show that Marvel knows how to handle ensemble casts . That’s going to come in handy when the Avengers next work together in the Infinity War, parts one and two.
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
We were all pretty excited for a new Mad Max film, to return to the post-apocalyptic wastelands with junkyard-weaponized cars and raider gangs fighting over water more than anything else. I don’t think anyone expected the gravitas of this film though. Hardy steps into the role made famous by Mel Gibson, but despite his name being in the title, he’s just as much of a passenger as we are. This film is a two-hour road trip across a beautiful barren desert as we and Max join Theron’s bad-ass-named Imperator Furiosa as she tries to free the concubine slaves of a ruthless tyrant who chases them to hell and back. The car and stunt work in this film are stunning. The little dialog spoken is carefully chosen for maximum (or Max-imum) impact. It’s easy to sympathize with everyone, even without learning their tragic back stories, because their tragedy comes through in their actions much more powerfully. This is a “show, don’t tell” movie that minimal on complexity and focuses on the simple struggle of freedom against a harsh and unforgiving world.
1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, BB-8
Star Wars is back, and in a big way. Under new stewardship with Abrams and Disney, the franshise did an about face from the detached and convoluted prequels George Lucas tried to follow up his landmark original trilogy with. This time, we are introduced to new characters that get to explore the galaxy Luke, Han, and Leia ushered into our lives so long ago. We get another adventure with the greatest space rogue of all time as Harrison Ford dives right back into the role that made him famous without missing a beat. This seventh film (the first where the episode number and chronological order matches) is respectful and referential to the original in ways the prequels never could. Arguably it may go too far in that direction, but I think it’s all the better for it. This film FEELS like a Star Wars film should in modern trappings. We have a sense of history and stability, and that whatever direction Episodes 8 and 9 go, it’s got a great springboard.