Featured Critic Erik Yates Offers A Look Back At 2015:

What Worked….What Didn’t!

ZF Best Films of 2015 logo Web2015 was a strange year.  It may be seen as the year that Hollywood fell back in love with film.  There are the usual sequels, comic book films, remakes, and the like, but across the board, many of the films this year were actually…..shot on film!  And like last year, many of the best films were smaller ones.  But some were not.  Some were full-throttle blockbusters.  The ones that worked the best saw a return to story-driven narratives, real sets, less CGI, and more authenticity.  In other words, we are starting to see more balance in our films, even in the blockbuster films that worked.  Here is a list of my top films of the year.  I saw about 152 films this year and still need to see some that will certainly see Oscar attention in February (such as Room, and 99 Homes), so take my list as a snapshot of what I have seen up to this point.  As I see so many movies each year, its inevitable that I will miss a few strong films and also that I’ll have to see some pretty terrible ones too.  Some of these were on my Best of List for the mid-point of 2015, but with time, repeated viewings, and new films seen, have shifted somewhat.  So may I present my Best of List for 2015 with the Worst of List just after my best of picks:


BEST OF 2015:

1. SpotlightSpotlight

A film that worked at every level, with a cast working as a true ensemble despite its many stars.  The true story of the investigative unit of the Boston Globe proving the invaluable service of true journalism that simply follows the facts plays in sharp contrast to the biased news-as-entertainment deluge we have today on all sides of the political spectrum.  Following 9/11, it was possible the next most important story of the 21st century so far, as the scandal it uncovered led to a worldwide systemic look at the Catholic Church priest scandals that have affected so many people.


2. Inside Out

I had this one as my number one film in June, and it has stuck with me throughout the year as a perfect balance of the childlike wonder we have early on, and how precarious it all can be as we slowly lose our innocence, and try to hang on to it at the same time.  Pixar has achieved a great balance that works on many levels for kids, as well as kids at heart.  It also has a heavier subject matter than your typical summer animated film.


3. Ex Machinaex-machina-4000x2508-best-movies-of-2015-alicia-vikander-4800

Alicia Vikander steals the show as Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac square off in a film that forces us to look at technology, artificial intelligence, and the corruptible heart of man.  Small, intimate, and powerful. To think that 2 of the 3 main cast members would be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens later this same year and that Alicia Vikander would have 3 other roles, 2 of which were high profile (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.and The Danish Girl), it makes this film an even rarer gem.


4. The MartianMartian

For a film that was dubbed as “hard science” science-fiction, it may have been one of the most fun adventures in space I’ve had in a long time and it seemed to herald the true return of Ridley Scott to the genre after a first attempt with Prometheus a couple of years ago.  The entire ensemble cast, led by Matt Damon, drew you in, and made this story, based on the best-selling novel, a very humorous experience as well. Strong at multiple levels.


5. The RevenantRevenant

Leonardo DiCaprio has been building a strong case over the years for Oscar consideration.  Here, as a man on the brink of death, he is pushed to the furthest limits for survival in a film shoot that did the same.  Tom Hardy, already brilliant in this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Legend, adds the hat trick with this performance.  It also has a significant spiritual layer about frontier justice and the wrath of God that plays underneath this tale of revenge. It may also have the most realistic bear attack put on film that is not a documentary. Did I mention that Domnhall Gleeson from Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is also in this film as well?


6. (tie) Trainwreck and Mistress America

TrainwreckMistress America Both of these films feature sharp comedy with strong female leads.  One is more the crude-based humor of Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow, where the other is the witty banter of Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirk and Noah Baumbach.  While the comedy styles are very different, both had important things to say, razor sharp wit and social commentary that stuck with me all year.  I couldn’t separate the two in terms of ranking, so call this a bonus pick…it’s my list, so its legal!


7. The Hateful Eighthateful eight

Another film about frontier justice, this film like The Revenant, shows the relevance of the western film genre to our modern world.  Director Quentin Tarantino also emphasized a desire to bring the spectacle back to film using the Ultra Panavision 70 format (of the 1950’s and 1960’s) and actually shooting with some cameras that were used to shoot the chariot race scenes in Ben Hur.  His traveling roadshow brought the actual 70mm experience to less than 100 theaters across the country with an overture and an intermission as in the movie experiences of old, complete with a souvenir program and a brand new score from the classic composer Ennio Morricone.  The film is classic Tarantino, but it becomes an experience again, and a very strong film as well.


8. The Big ShortThe Big Short

Any time a film can break the 4th wall to explain to you complicated economic concepts while trying to show you the depressing and disastrous economic collapse we experienced in 2007-2008, and make you laugh and understand it, it is a victory. To do it with a director who has shown no signs for being able to tackle this type of subject, and then throw in a fantastic ensemble cast, and you’ve pulled a coup.


9. Star Wars: The Force AwakensStar Wars 7

J.J. Abrams has pulled off the impossible in taking on this storied franchise.  He has returned the latest film back to the tone and universe we fell in love with nearly 40 years ago, brought back the original cast while beginning a new trilogy with young stars we actually care about seeing, maybe more than our old favorites.  He has also taken a giant blockbuster film, that looks to break Avatar‘s box office records eventually, and made it look like a gorgeous film (the tie-fighters flying with the sunset in the background for example) that doesn’t look painted on, but as if it could be real locations.  He shot on film, and used models, puppets, and locations to create the effect the original trilogy had.  He has brought Star Wars to a new generation without forsaking the older generations that grew up on it.  Despite any problems, this one brought back a child-like experience that had been missing for some time in this series.


10. Cartel Land and Son of Saul

Cartel Land Son of SaulOk, another tie….but it was tough!  For my final selection(s) for this 10th spot, I’d like to offer up Cartel Land and Son of Saul.  Both are very different as the former deals with the drug cartels in Mexico and their effect here in the United States as well as on the Mexican people, and the latter is almost a first person experience of the Holocaust.  Cartel Land is a documentary that has amazing footage of the devastation the cartels are having on the people of Mexico and their hopelessness to deal with in light of a corrupt government and police force unable, or unwilling, to stop it.  Their bravery to stand against this brutality is admirable.  It also shows what the American citizens along the border are doing to deal with this problem as it spills over the border.  Powerful footage and narrative drives this documentary.  Son of Saul follows one Jewish man in Hungary (the country this film is from) who is tasked to clean up and remove the bodies of his fellow Jews after they are gassed in the concentration camp.  When he recognizes one of the victims as his son, he begins a desperate journey through the camp to find a Rabbi to provide the proper burial rituals for him.  A brutal look at the Holocaust and finding dignity despite one’s surroundings.  The camera following the protagonist constantly while blurring out the edges of the scene shows the kind of tunnel vision one must have if you are to get through such a horrific experience.  Powerful.


Honorable Mention: #11-25

ComptonPoster11. Straight Outta Compton






Love-Mercy-poster12. Love & Mercy






Seymourposter13. Seymour: An Introduction






Fury Road poster 214. Mad Max: Fury Road






Spectre poster15. Spectre






IT-FOLLOWS-AU-Poster116. It Follows






Phoenix17. Phoenix







18. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem






MeEarlDyingGirlPoster19. Me & Earl and the Dying Girl






joy-movie-poster20. Joy






SicarioPoster21. Sicario






concussion-movie.docx_22. Concussion






mississippi grind poster23. Mississippi Grind






What_We_Do_in_the_Shadows_poster24. What We do in the Shadows






Beasts-of-no-nation poster25. Beasts of No Nation






WORST OF 2015:

I’m going to do this in ascending order so that the last film you arrive at will be the absolute worst film of 2015 based on what I watched.  Here you go:


TerminatorGenisysPoster10. Terminator: Genisys: This film was so boring, had a crazy time line that messed with the originals so bad that I hope that this franchise is finally….terminated.






Seventh_Son_Poster9. Seventh Son: Despite a strong cast of Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, and the wonderful Alicia Vikander, this film felt like a syfy channel original movie….and not in a good way.





get hard8. Get Hard: Will Farrell and Kevin Hart are not a great team.  The formula they are working from is old, tired, crass for no reason, and just had a feeling of desperation.






backcountryposter7. Backcountry: A small film trying to be the “Jaws” of bear attacks and camping. Unfortunately, it is not, and after the Revenant, the bear attack here looks comical.






HomePoster6. Home: A boring animated film that made me want to leave the theater and actually go home.






PoltergeistPoster5. Poltergeist: A poster-child for why we don’t have to remake everything we grew up on.  The original, despite the now-dated special effects is still infinitely scarier than this garbage.  They missed the whole reason the original worked, removed its heart and gave us.





FiftyShadesPoster4. Fifty Shades of Grey: A lot of hype for a pretty terrible film.  It wasn’t sexy, hot, or boundary pushing.  It was creepy, had a stalker for a protagonist and was desperate in its execution to be hip and capitalize on the success of the book which was written by a fan of the Twilight films.  As bad as they are, they look like Epic films of Hollywood’s golden age compared to this….though, this, like the Twilight franchise, are being done as a series, so we will have to endure more of this.




JupiterAscendingposter3. Jupiter Ascending: The Wachowski’s have a lot of big ideas and grand visions. Sometimes they pull it off and have great success, and sometimes it feels like someone just puked them all on the screen as you watched.  This is more like the latter.





Hot-Pursuit-Poster2. Hot Pursuit: Why did Reese Witherspoon sink to this? Especially after Wildlast year.  Sophia Vergara just parodies her most extreme version of her Modern Family schtick and then they throw it together as a buddy road-trip movie.  Not one laugh, just annoyingly grating dialogue.





Ted2poster1. Ted 2: Not only is there no reason for this sequel, but it further proves that Seth MacFarlane is a one-note talent.  Any laughs you have here must be by accident.  I am convinced that Seth served up this sequel purely to make us forget about A Million Ways to Die in the West, or to enact his revenge for us panning it.  I’ll just pan this one too….sadly, that means he’ll probably just make something else I’ll have to review.  Until then…avoid at all costs.