On to this year's list...
This is one I really wanted to see in theaters but didn't manage to. (I guess there were just too many quality films released in September for me to keep up with.) I tracked it down not long ago, and I'm glad I did. I'm not sure any other movie last year had as strong an opening scene as this one, one which throws you right into things and lets you sort it out later. The tone of this one gradually shifts as the story progresses, leading to its would-be protagonist being slowly but surely marginalized in a way you don't often see.
9) The Big Short
If you had told me the director of Step Brothers and Anchorman 2 was directing a movie about the housing bubble popping in which the fourth wall would be repeatedly broken by mid-level celebrities playing themselves, I would not have had high hopes for said movie. Well, color me corrected. I tend to enjoy dark, grim movies, but there's a lot to be said for how the script and direction here were able to take a dark, grim situation and make a somewhat lighthearted movie, all without ever losing sight of that darkness. Also, did you notice how for all their bemoaning what was going on, the protagonists' only real response was to maximize how much money they could make?
I like the original Rocky, there are sequences in II and III I enjoy, and the parts of IV that take place in Russia are a blast. My mom took me to see Rocky V when I was ten though, and I remember it as the first time I was really disappointed in a movie. By the time Rocky Balboa came out, I had zero interest, and I've still never seen it. Creed was far from a "must see" for me, but at least it didn't appear 70-year-old Rocky would be fighting, and so when the opportunity to see it with four of my closest friends arose, I was happy to go. Michael B. Jordan and Stallone are both great in it, and the story added gave the original just enough tweaks for it to feel vibrant and new.
7) Bridge of Spies
I really enjoyed this movie, as evidenced by me putting it on this list. The script (by the Coen brothers) is good, the direction (by Spielberg) is good, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance each give a very good performances. All of those very good qualities though, they add up to what I'd call a really solid film, but not to a film I can imagine anyone really loving. Any other movie on this list, even the ones I have behind this one, I wouldn't be surprised to meet someone who says they really like it, but I'd be somewhat taken aback if someone told me they loved Bridge of Spies. Am I complimenting the cast and crew, or criticizing them? I'm not even sure.
6) The Martian
One of my major frustrations with many stories is that problems supposedly smart characters face are created by stupidity (like the "running upstairs instead of out the front door" trope of horror films), and/or that the solutions to problems feel unearned (like the half-assed endings my 4th grade students come up with to their stories when they don't feel like writing more). What a delight it was to see smart characters working hard to generate smart solutions to difficult problems. I need to read the book too.
5) Mad Max: Fury Road
"If you can see, the numbers all go to eleven. Right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven... It's one more intense, isn't it? ...It's not ten. ...You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? ...Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? ...Eleven. Exactly. One intenser. ...These go to eleven."
4) The Revenant
Some movies that I enjoy sneak up on me, others loudly declare way ahead of time, "You're going to like this." As soon as I read a cast sheet and the synopsis for this back in 2014, I was pretty confident it'd become something I'd like. "Semi-artsy, but not too artsy" is a good way to describe my ideal aesthetic for most movies, wilderness survival would be among my favorite sub-genres, I like Tom Hardy, and am a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, who wasn't quite up to the task in Gangs of New York (The task having been to hold his own opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, it would've been too much for almost anyone), but who has since developed enough range to pull off a somewhat similar role here.
3) Ex Machina
To me, science fiction is hard to do well, but when it is done well, it's really good. Science fiction should give you something plausible and significant to think about, both for what the future might hold and for what the present already does, and it should get its ideas across without plot holes that derail the entire exercise. Ex Machina succeeds. Meanwhile, what a year Oscar Isaac just, between this, his lead role in David Simon's excellent HBO miniseries "Show Me a Hero," and his supporting turn in that little J.J. Abrams space picture.
2) Inside Out
Who knew ripping off Herman's Head would turn out so well? This might be my favorite non-Toy Story Pixar movie, which would be high praise. (The studio chose to release two movies in the same year for the first time; their other 2015 entry, The Good Dinosaur, is my least favorite non-Cars Pixar movie.) As I said at the top, I've got a good life, and have been fortunate at most steps along the way. That said, while the dominant hue of my own memory bank would be the golden yellow of joy, but many of my most vivid and most treasured memories are colored blue, and I wouldn't trade them.
1) The Force Awakens
It didn't come up with the prequels, because even when I thought I kind of liked them upon their release, I knew I didn't love them. So it is that The Force Awakens presented me with the first Star Wars movie I loved and could actually remember my first viewing of. The original trilogy was never new for me, because I can't remember a time before I'd seen them. I went into The Force Awakens on opening night with very tempered expectations, and then it completely blew those expectations away. They found just the right balance between old and new, especially in terms of how they use new characters and beloved returning ones, and how they play those two groups off one another. Much like me, and so many other children of the 70s and 80s, Rey and Finn grew up in a world that included these incredible stories about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force. They are wide-eyed at discovering themselves suddenly a part of those stories. Comparing The Force Awakens to the rest of last year's movies isn't really fair. This is a worthy addition to the most personally significant story of my life, a new doorway between my childhood and my present. Everything else on this list is just a movie.