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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part One!

Overall, I think that 2015 has been a pretty terrific year for movies. Perhaps not as spectacular as originally predicted, though.  In the months leading up to 2015, there were a flurry of articles about how 2015 was going to be insanely, unprecedentedly over-stuffed with exciting new movies.  That didn’t quite happen the way I’d expected.  Some films I’d been highly anticipating proved to be disappointments (SPECTRE, Tomorrowland, Fantastic Four, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman: The Secret Service).  Also, so many interesting films were crammed into release at the very end of the year that several of my anticipated 2015 films won’t be open around where I live until some time in 2016 (films like The Revenant or Legend or Carol or Anomalisa or Listen to Me Marlon).  This glut of end-of-the-year films also meant that while I have been able to see a ton of new movies in the past few weeks, there were several that I didn’t get to (films like Joy, Brooklyn, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, and Sisters).  Still, as I assembled my Best Movies of 2015 list, I found that it was incredibly easy to do.  There were so many movies that I loved in 2015.  I’d expanded my list to twenty films last year, and I could have easily listed thirty films this year!  But twenty feels like plenty, I think.

These are twenty films that I loved deeply, films that spoke to me and that I look forward to revisiting in the years ahead.  There are many other films that I saw and enjoyed in 2015, films such as Tig, I Am Chris Farley, Misery Loves Comedy, Sicario, The Night Before, Spy, Slow West, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Man Up, and many others.  (As usual, I spent a lot of time in the final weeks of 2015 trying to catch up on as many 2015 films as I could that I’d wanted to see but missed.  In the coming weeks I’ll have a lot of “Catching up on 2015” reviews of those films.)  As many films as I saw in 2015, and I saw a lot, there was still, as always, a humongous list of films that I’d wanted to see but missed.  Films such as Beasts of No Nation, Call Me Lucky, Room, Love & Mercy, 99 Rooms, Irrational Man, She’s Funny That Way, True Story, 7 Days in Hell, Do I Sound Gay?, De Palma, Adult Beginners, Irrational Man, and more.  So if you’re wondering why any of those films aren’t on this list, well now you know.

OK, onward!

Honorable Mentions: Selma[continued]

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Josh Enjoys the Rogue Cut of X-Men: Days of Future Past

I quite enjoyed the theatrical version of X-Men: Days of Future Past.  (Click here for my original review.)  Let me be clear, I lament how much of the classic comic-book story, by Chris Claremont & John Byrne, was jettisoned for the film.  I would so dearly love to some day see a more direct adaptation of that classic X-Men story for the big screen.  But I loved the idea of using the hook of that story-line as a way to merge the original cast of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films from a decade and a half ago with the new, younger First Class versions.  That’s a genius idea.  I thought the film worked well on its own — not spectacular, but very solid — as a super-hero adventure flick, and I absolutely adored the final few minutes which served as a tremendous course-correction on the mis-steps the franchise took with Brett Ratner’s misguided and flawed X-Men: The Last Stand. 

When the film was released, there was a lot written on-line about how Anna Paquin’s Rogue had been cut from the film.  Apparently, to keep the film’s run-time at a manageable level, an entire subplot featuring her character was cut from the film, and in the theatrical cut Ms. Paquin only appeared as Rogue for a brief instant in the final moments of the film.  That brief appearance was satisfactory for me, but of course I was curious to see what had been cut out.

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I am delighted to report that the extended “Rogue Cut” of Days of Future Past that has recently been released to blu-ray is a wonderful enhancement of the film.  The Rogue subplot has been restored to the film, but I was surprised by how many other great little bits and moments had also been edited into the film.  Pretty much all of these moments are great, and as such I feel pretty confident that this will be my preferred version of the film to watch from now on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this “Rogue Cut” is not a radical alteration to the theatrical version.  The changes are far more subtle than some of the more famous directors cuts that are out there, such as the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films, or, say, the directors cuts of James Cameron’s Aliens or The Abyss.  (By the way, if you’ve never seen those directors cuts, track them down immediately!!) The most dramatic change to the film is, no surprise, the sequences involving Rogue, which are nicely well-woven into the extended version.  The main element of this restored subplot is the mid-movie mission that the aged Magneto (Ian McKellan) leads to rescue Rogue … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mr. Holmes

In Bill Condon’s magnificent new film, Mr. Holmes, Sir Ian McKellan stars as an elderly Sherlock Holmes.  Now 93 years old, Holmes has long-since retired and lives far from London (and 221B Baker Street) in a quiet, rural farmhouse.  Holmes’ main occupation has become raising bees, and his only two companions are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).  The once-brilliant Holmes now struggles with a fading memory.  At Roger’s prodding, he attempts to reconstruct the details of his final case, the one whose resolution drove him to abandon his profession as a detective.

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Mr. Holmes is a masterpiece, a beautiful story of the later years of a former legend.  The film cleverly treats Holmes as if he were a real person (rather than a fictionalized character), about whom his partner John Watson wrote many books, and explores what might have happened to this brilliant mind when beset by old age.  I am reminded of the cleverness of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which make the case that a story’s ending becomes happy or sad based on where you choose to end the telling.  If you stop reading The Lord of The Rings at the end of the last chapter of The Return of the King, then the story has, for the most part, a happy ending.  But if you continue through the appendices and read more about the lives of the characters, through to their later years and their deaths, then the end of the tale becomes far more heartbreaking.  Such is the case here with Mr. Holmes, as the film (based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin) takes the story of Sherlock Holmes past the years of his adventures as a detective to see what the man might have been like at the end of his very long life.

The result is a gorgeous, delicate story, a wonderful character piece that is anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Ian McKellan.  Sherlock Holmes feels like a role that Mr. McKellan was born to play.  He brings great gravitas and intelligence to the role of Holmes, while also gently allowing the audience to see the man’s beating heart, his loneliness and creeping sadness at the devolution of his faculties.  It’s an extraordinary, riveting performance, one that had my attention completely glued to the screen.  It’s great fun seeing director Bill Condon reunited with Mr. McKellan, with whom he collaborated back in 1998 with Gods and Monsters (a terrific film that I really need to re-watch one of these days).  It makes me happy to see Mr. Condon freed from directing Twilight movies and back to … [continued]

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There and Back Again: Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies!

Endings are a difficult thing.  Sticking the landing of a long-form story is perilously challenging, and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of failed endings, whether we’re talking about TV shows (Seinfeld and Lost both come to mind) or to movie trilogies (as the years pass, I become more and more disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises).

I am very pleased to report, then, that Peter Jackson’s third and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is an excellent conclusion to his Hobbit trilogy.  This film isn’t going to make anyone who disliked the first two Hobbit films change their mind, but if you did enjoy those films I suspect you will love this one.  I feel pretty confident in stating that it is the strongest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (Like Mr. Jackson’s LOTR films, the first two Hobbit films were both improved by their Extended Editions, so a complete comparison of all three films isn’t really possible until next year when we get to see the extended version of The Battle of the Five Armies.  But in terms of the theatrical experience of the three Hobbit films, I think this one wins by a fairly wide margin.)

One of the reasons why?  This is the shortest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (It’s also, unless I am mistaken, the shortest of the theatrical editions of all six of Mr. Jackson’s Middle Earth films.)  This helps a lot, as the biggest problem of the first two Hobbit films was a sense of bloat.  I don’t condemn those first two films for that the way so many reviewers have, but I certainly think those films were far longer than they needed to be, especially in their theatrical form.

But this film moves, boy.  It’s got the best pacing of all three Hobbit films.  For all that I enjoyed those two films, they both felt LONG.  But this film roars by.

We begin with a great James Bond-like pre-credits action sequence in which ol’ Smaug is dealt with.  I’d wondered how much of a factor Smaug would wind up being in this film.  The answer is not much, as he’s dispatched with fairly quickly.  It works, but I will admit to having expected a but more.  I felt like this sequence was missing a little something.  Maybe more of Smaug’s dialogue?  Smaug was surprisingly silent for the first several minutes of this sequence.  I’d expected him to be gloating or boasting as he attacked Lake Town.  It’s remarkable how Smaug comes to life once he finally speaks.  Credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for how much his voice clearly was a critical … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I have written many times before on this site about how amazing Peter Jackson’s Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films were.  Mr. Jackson and his team reinvented the whole idea of both a director’s cut of a film, and DVD behind-the-scenes special features.  Both had existed before, but both were refined in a new way with the Extended Edition DVD sets.  Watching that first Extended Edition for The Fellowship of the Ring all those years ago was a revelation — a hugely different, more expansive cut of a film that I’d already loved, accompanied by exhaustively extensive behind-the-scenes features that took the viewer through every stage of the making of the film.  Through the years of the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it quickly came to be that I didn’t feel the experience of enjoying each new film was complete until the release of the Extended Editions.  The theatrical version became just a rough draft of the final version, the Extended Edition DVD.  In the years since the release of The Return of the King, I have gone back to revisit those three LOTR films many times, but I have only watched the Extended Editions.  Those have become the definitive versions of the films for me.

With the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I commented in my initial review that the lengthy theatrical version already felt like an Extended Edition, both because of its length and the way the film wasn’t focused so tightly on Bilbo, but rather filled with all sorts of digressions and expansions that I had come to associate with the Extended Editions of the LOTR films.  The Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey was only twelve minutes longer than the theatrical version.  I liked the Extended Edition, but it wasn’t nearly the all-new experience that the three Extended LOTR films were for me.  But while I liked the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey, I was head-over-heels in LOVE with the behind-the-scenes features, the two discs-worth of Appendices.  Those two discs managed to surpass even the already amazing LOTR Extended Editions.  With a whopping NINE hours of special features, they were incredibly in-depth and yet never dull or boring.  Watching the Appendices, it I felt like I got to actually experience some of what it was like making the film.  Seeing the incredible love and effort that hundreds upon hundreds of men and women had put into the film made me love that first Hobbit film even more than I already did.  (Click here for my full thoughts on the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey.)

The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels … [continued]

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“What’s the Last Thing You Remember?” Josh Reviews X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, released in 2000, was a revelation, proof to me that the complex, wonderful world of comic book super-heroes could indeed be brought to life on-screen in a fun, serious way.  There had been some great comic book movies before X-Men, of course.  Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was and still remains a magnificent interpretation of the character, and I’ve always loved the flawed but still great Superman II (1980).  Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) also was a fun film that had a huge cultural impact.  But while those films were great, even as a kid they seemed to me like totally different versions of the characters I knew and loved.  These were the “movie” versions of those characters.  They were fun, but not at all like the “real” characters.  I also recognized early-on that, while all of those films had moments of grandeur and lots of visual-effects magic, they were severely constrained by the limits of physical reality.  The sprawling stories and epic nature of my favorite comic book series were far beyond the reach of any movie adaption.

Then came Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and suddenly the impossible seemed possible.  Mr. Singer and his team (including screenwriter David Hayter and many other uncredited writers who were involved with the finished screenplay) took the X-Men, possibly the most sprawling and epic of all the different comic-book series and universes, and brought them to life in a way that on the one hand preserved their complexity (the film is jam-packed with different characters, each with their own back-story and power-set and motivation) while also boiling down the decades of comic-book story-lines into simplified versions that worked on screen.  2000’s X-Men took the property seriously (more seriously than some of the various bad X-Men spin-off comic-books over the years had done), anchoring the story in Magneto’s past as a survivor of the Holocaust.  (The decision to open the film with a prologue set in Auschwitz is an incredibly gutsy move, and is I think a critical key to the film’s success, because that scene gives a weight to Magneto’s point of view.)

Almost a decade-and-a-half later, it’s easy to look back at X-Men and see everything that the film got wrong.  We’ve been blessed with some incredibly faithful comic book adaptations lately.  Looking at how well the Marvel Studios films have brought their characters to life, we can look back at X-Men and bemoan the dull, Matrix-inspired leather look to all the characters.  While the film nailed Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto, we can complain about the characterizations that missed the mark (Storm, Cyclops).  We can comment how small-scale X-Men is, how it lacks in any real crazy … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The years during which we saw the release of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings remains one of the best cinematic experiences of my lifetime, and I don’t expect that to be equaled any-time soon.  Those three films are magnificent, but my memories of the years in which that trilogy was released encompasses not just the films themselves, but all of the excitement and anticipation and speculation, from the first-time I saw that initial teaser trailer (via a very slow download on my dial-up modem) that teased the three-film adaptation (that slow shot at the end, showing the entire fellowship, and gradually revealing the three-year release schedule for the three films, is so fantastic!!), through the release of each film and its subsequent extended edition, and of course all all of the same excitement in the years between the films, awaiting the next installment.

Peter Jackson’s first film in his three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was criticized by many but I think it’s a very strong, under-appreciated film.  I have seen the film several times, in the past year, and I stand by my original review.  The second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is very much of a piece with that first film.  The Desolation of Smaug improves on its predecessor in that, while one could accuse An Unexpected Journey of being occasionally slow or unwieldy as it was getting the story going, The Desolation of Smaug is a much faster-paced film, with far more emphasis on adventure and spectacle.

While I loved The Desolation of Smaug, there is no question that both of these Hobbit films are a far cry from the incredible quality of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  What made the LOTR films great cinema, rather than just being great fantasy/adventure films or being great adaptations, was the powerful emotional punch of the stories they told.  I am not ashamed to share that all three of those LOTR movies contained moments that brought me to tears when I first saw them in theatres.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, it was Sam’s declaration, in the elvish boat at the end, that he’d made a promise not to abandon Frodo.  In The Two Towers, it was the haunting glimpse into Arwen’s lonely fate that awaited her even if everything that she hoped for came to pass.  In The Return of the King, it was pretty much every moment that came after Aragorn’s statement, to the four kneeling Hobbits, that: “my friends… you bow to no one.”  (I’ve seen The Return of the King many times since that first viewing, and while … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson reinvented what DVDs could be when he released his extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, a month before the release of The Two Towers in theatres.  I had fallen quite in love with The Fellowship of the Ring after having seen it many, many times in theatres.  (I have never seen a movie more times in theatres than I saw Fellowship.)  I loved the film.  When I read that an extended edition was being released on DVD, I was of course excited.  I had seen (and loved) previous home-video director’s cuts of movies (James Cameron’s Aliens and The Abyss come to mind).  But I was not prepared for how bowled over I would be by the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I still remember watching it, that first time, and being shocked at how complete a re-edit of the film it was.  This wasn’t just the same movie with a few additional scenes added in.  The entire movie had been re-worked and enhanced.  Particularly in that first 45 minutes, I felt like I was watching a totally different movie, with so many little shots and moments woven into the fabric of the film that I had already loved and known so well.

That Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring quickly became the definitive version of the film for me.  I hardly ever watched the theatrical cut again.  For the next few years, the release of Mr. Jacksons’ Extended Editions of his Lord of the Rings films became a vital part of the experience of anticipating and enjoying these movies, for me.  I anticipated the DVD release of the Extended Editions almost as much as the initial theatrical release, because it seemed to me that it was the Extended Editions that represented the full, true versions of these films.  These days, when I re-watch the films, I only watch the Extended Editions.

And so I was excited when I heard that Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, would be receiving an Extended Edition release of its own.  But I must confess to not being quite as deliriously impatient for this release as I was for the extended LOTR films.  As I wrote in my review of An Unexpected Journey, that film’s theatrical release already felt to me like an Extended Edition.  Not just because of its lengthy run-time, but because of the film’s structure, which seemed to me to be overstuffed with the types of digressions and moments of back-story that characterized the LOTR Extended Editions.  So how much could the film be further Extended?

Not by much, it turns out.  The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected [continued]

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“Far over the Misty Mountains cold…” Josh Reviews The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

During the buildup towards the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Hobbit, I found myself having a hard time imagining Mr. Jackson and co. being able to top the magnificent achievement that was his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I’m sure there were times when Mr. Jackson himself had the same thought, which is why when work on the adaptation began in earnest, he was not originally slated to direct. The films (at the time the plan was for two films) were due to be helmed by Guillermo del Toro, but when the project hit the brakes because of New Line’s bankruptcy, Mr. del Toro left the project and Peter Jackson stepped in.  I’m pleased that’s how things worked out.  While I would have loved to have seen del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, that would have been a very different film indeed, and as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey began, I was delighted to find myself back in the world of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.

Is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films?  At the moment my feeling is that it is not, but I have seen all three Lord of the Rings films so many times, and my love for them has only grown over the years.  Having only had one senses-pounding viewing of The Hobbit under my belt, the film hasn’t quite sunk in for me yet, and it’s definitely conceivable that the film will rise in my estimation once I have seen it a few more times.  But for now, while I would rank this film slightly lower than the Lord of the Rings films, I still found it to be an absolutely magnificent achievement, and a ferociously entertaining time in the theatre.  I’ve avoided reading too many reviews of the film before seeing it, but I’ve seen a lot of headlines that seem to describe the film as being just OK.  I am here to tell you not to believe that hogwash.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a spectacular fantasy adventure, huge in scope but also filled with rich character work and deep emotion.

The film feels fully of a piece with Mr. Jackson’s original trilogy.  Many characters recur, of course (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum, and others), and Mr. Jackson’s team have faithfully recreated many of the iconic locations that we first saw in The Lord of the Rings: Bag End, Rivendell, etc.  There are a ton of little nods and winks to the events of the original trilogy (when I write “original trilogy,” I feel like I should be talking about Star Wars!): Gandalf once … [continued]