2015 Volume 1: The Best of the Rest

spotlightIt’s a little disappointing that Spotlight has won so many critics awards (including the San Francisco Film Critics Circle) and is the front-runner to sweep award season. It was a good movie, sturdy and resourceful with strong performances, but nothing – absolutely nothing – about it moved the needle or did anything different than one would expect from a solid HBO film.

But it’s the one everyone liked.

That said, there were a lot of films that people loved, that did move the needle, but those were divisive.

Picking a top 10 was damn near impossible because the field was so wide with so many strong entries in so many genres. How do you pit 45 Years against The Martian? Yet, it must be stated up front that’s after so many years of piss-poor franchise product, that 2015 was the year it was okay to like crowd-pleasers again, and also the year of the comeback. Star Wars! Rocky! Mad Max! Kristen Stewart!

big_short_ver2One small caveat: I haven’t seen everything. Hence, no Sicario, 99 Homes, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, What We Do In The Shadows, or Son of Saul.

Oh, and I hated The Big Short. It was the only film I stopped watching halfway but it’s making so many damned lists at this point, I feel I should revisit it again. Even though watching it the first time was like watching a pandering mash-up of much better films. Jenga to explain the housing bubble? Margot Robbie addressing the camera in a bathtub so we’ll pay attention? The Big Shart is more like it.

But let’s move on to the good stuff! By the way, Part 1 is devoted entirely to the movies that did not make the Top Ten but are still worthy of your attention. In fact, it can be argued that history will consider a few of these “bubbling under” titles to be classics, but taste is subjective.

end_of_the_tourOne person’s WWE is another person’s torture porn.

So, let’s get all Hateful Eight up in here!

The Overture is done.

On with the main event:

The End of the Tour was a lyrical drama based on the interview between Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) after his book Infinite Jest made him the voice of his generation.

Segel, long associated with goofball bromance comedies completely flips the script as the introverted and occasionally combative reluctant celebrity. It’s also the most endearing Eisenberg has been since The Social Network.



bridge_of_spies_ver2 trumboBridge of Spies and Trumbo both exist in the same universe.

They are about average folks trying to do their jobs under the specter of the Red Scare and public frenzy whipped up over communism. Tom Hanks defends accused Russian spy Mark Rylance. It’s not long before his own government publicly looks away and Hanks has to dig down and find that Hanksian moment of fairness that makes us love him. The last half hour was a bit much but it was also so expertly guided by director Steven Spielberg that it was like hearing a familiar-sounding song for the first time.

Trumbo featured Bryan Cranston as blacklisted 1950s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He chews the scenery like he’s starring in a fifties melodrama, and yet watching these films together (as I did) is a master class in bad decision-making and Americana gone wrong.


Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is exactly what you would expect at this point in Tarantino’s career: bloated, peculiar, and more than a little masturbatory. That said, you really have to give it to Tarantino and his commitment to cinema. From the glorious 70MM “roadshow” presentation complete with overture and intermission, to the rich, duplicitous characters, and the non-linear storytelling that makes one want to watch the whole damn thing again, there really is nothing like a QT film.

Even the title is misleading: there are a lot more than eight people who pass through Minnie’s Haberdashery, the isolated spot where much of the action (and talk) happens while a blizzard rages outside.

But I’ve said it before: I’d rather have a Quentin Tarantino out there making original films, good or bad, than 100 boring cookie-cutter studio flicks.



steve-jobs-movie-poster-800px-800x1259Steve Jobs, the umpteeth biography of the late, iconic Apple founder, might have the stink of failure due to its floundering at the box office – most people thought this was the Ashton Kutcher film. But this Jobs is electric from the word go, that is if you don’t mind pages and pages of intricate and fast-paced Aaron Sorkin dialogue set to a techno score with long takes and sweeping cameras.

I don’t even like Apple products – in fact, this movie made me like them even less – but from Michael Fassbender’s “I don’t look anything like Steve Jobs” flat-out amazing performance to Kate Winslet’s endearing fussbudget that makes us love this selfish bastard, to the odd three-act structure – Steve Jobs was unique and exhilarating.



CHALFonVIAE0x56Love and Mercy also had an interesting structure: it told the story of tortured Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson from two different perspectives: as a young, gifted wunderkind plagued by his own visions and voices (as well as daddy issues), played impeccably by Paul Dano. And the older, battered has-been played by John Cusack. On the one hand, this is the best Cusack has been, maybe ever, and his interaction with Elizabeth Banks is tender and illuminating. On the other hand, Cusack’s got nothing on Dano, who embodies Wilson.

It’s tough to tell whether Straight Outta Compton should have been 45 minutes shorter or an hour longer. The epic story of the rise and fall of the hip-hop ensembleSOC N.W.A. covers a lot of ground, which is why the last stretch feels a little elongated. But for the first hour or so, Compton is an angry, vital and electrifying music biopic that has more to say about 2016 than it does 1986.

It’s also impeccably cast, with Ice Cube’s doppelganger son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. playing the old man, and a winning star-making turn by Jason Mitchell as the band’s tragic leader Easy-E. Bonus points go to Paul Giamatti as the only actor to make life complicated for both N.W.A. and Brian Wilson (in Love and Mercy) while acting in their “best interests.”



clouds_of_sils_maria_ver2The Clouds of Sils Maria is the most meta film of the year: Juliette Binoche plays Maria, an actress who became famous playing the role of the manipulative younger half of a tragic May-December romance that results in the older woman’s suicide. Stewart is Valentine, her assistant who accompanies her everywhere. Binoche is asked to star in a new version of the play, but now in the part of the older role. She reluctantly agrees, aware that it will activate unresolved issues and a sense of mortality.

As she rehearses with Stewart, we’re never quite sure who’s bickering: the onstage characters from the play, or Maria and Valentine? Is life imitating art in a pre-destined way? Is the Hollywood starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) hired to play the younger role a comment on Stewart’s Twilight past? Is Stewart’s character even real? The Clouds of Sils Maria is the most intricate cinematic puzzle of the year.

And scoff if you will at Kristen Stewart. This was the role that landed her the first-ever Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for an American-language role.





i_smile_back spotlight ex_machina_ver5 missionimpossibleposter

I Smile Back is the devastating story of a suburban mom debilitated by depression and trying to offset the darkness with casual, dangerous sex and a cocaine habit. Sarah Silverman’s performance is one of those “so real it hurts” moments that is so subtle, I found myself scanning every inch of her face for clues. I’ve known (and lost) people with depression and Silverman’s full-contact approach (not mention the suddenness and severity of the final moments) is uncomfortably real.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The summer was packed with the retro action of Jurassic World (hated it, made lots of money), Terminator Genysis (liked it, didn’t make lots of money), Mad Max (stay tuned) and Avengers: Age of Ultron – a movie so tedious, it made me stay home from Ant Man and realize I’m completely out of effs to give about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Part four in the venerable Tom Cruise series – Ghost Protocol – was pretty great. So it’s a minor miracle that Part five was even better, due in no small part to smart writing and directing from Christopher McQuarrie, a crackerjack pace, and an always enjoyable ensemble that includes Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and newcomer Rebecca Ferguson. At least she’d better be coming back!

Ex Machina is the first film from acclaimed writer Alex Garland, and it’s a minimalist masterpiece. Only three people (okay, four) inhabit the tale of a crazy scientist (Oscar Isaac), his creation: a beautiful robot (Alicia Vikander) named Ava, and the “winner” of a contest (Domhnall Gleeson) brought to an isolated tech heaven to determinate how real her AI personality is. Or is Ava possibly stacking the deck against both men in a calculated bid for something beyond herself? Ex Machina is daring, brain-bending Sci-Fi with oddball flourishes (Oscar Isaac disco dancing!) and a drop dead stunner of a finale (not pictured below).


As I said earlier, Spotlight is a perfectly good film – enough to merit a place just below my Top Ten. It’s about the crusading Boston Globe reporters who exposed institutionalized sex abuse at the hands of priests. Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and Rachel McAdams do fine work, each stealing a bit of the, ahem, spotlight. And in the end, it’s about the power of being persistent and doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. Again, it’s a rock solid two hours of sturdy storytelling.



Kill Bill did it. So did Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. This is where we leave you with a cliffhanger. What will be the Top 10 movies of 2015?

Will there be a Balboa in the woodpile? Maybe a really popular Star Wars movie? Any chance that maybe, just maybe, there will be an animated movie up in there, maybe two?

Stay tuned!








Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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