2015 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

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Well hello there!  I wound up skipping my Best of 2014 list because when 2015 rolled around there were still too many “2014” movies that I hadn’t been able to catch.  Then one thing lead to another…and it was March!

So here we are starting the fifth year of this blog!  Hard to believe it and boy, does time fly.  Below I’ve compiled my list of the best and worst of 2015.  At first I was going to do a Top 10 for both because I absolutely had candidates to fill all the slots, but then I decided to stick with five each to truly highlight the best of the best and worst of the worst.

As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  My readership and subscriptions continue to increase every month and it’s all thanks to your word of mouth, likes, and shares.  If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

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5. Mad Max: Fury Road – like a lightning rod, the fourth Mad Max film conducted the kind of electricity that could fuel a dozen other pictures.  Director George Miller upped the ante for not only summer blockbusters but for filmmaking as a whole with his non-stop action flick that took no prisoners and left most 2015 films in its fiery dust. Starring Tom Hardy but owned by Charlize Theron, this Mad Max signaled the start of the summer season with a rocking battle cry. Truly amazing.

4. Creed – the best unexpected TKO of the year, Creed is really Rocky 7 but don’t let that stop you from entering the ring.  Star Michael B. Jordan brings a blistering intensity to the role of a young boxer trying to make a name for himself out from under the shadow of his legendary father’s career.  The biggest surprise is original star Sylvester Stallone stepping into the mentor role for his best performance since the original Rocky.  Stallone is valiant, vulnerable, and, under the direction of writer/director Ryan Coogler, fairly unforgettable.  A champion of a film.

3. Carol – anchored by two of the strongest performances of 2015, this love story between young Therese and married Carol is an achingly beautiful achievement from director Todd Haynes.  Delicate as a flower but steely enough to cut deep, it’s a picture about the understanding and acceptance of one’s own desires. Unlike anything else I’ve seen this year, it’s a gorgeous looking film that lingers in the memory long after you’ve left the theater.

2. Brooklyn – the most charming film of 2015, Brooklyn is a sweet love story set against the backdrop of Ireland and New York in the 1950’s.  It’s funny, sad, poignant, and delightfully underplayed so that by the time it reaches its emotional climax the tears it wrings from you are well earned.  Superbly acted and glowing with grace, it’s a wonderful wonderful period piece.

1. The Martian – the best film I saw in 2015 (twice) is Ridley Scott’s grand space adventure adapted from Andy Weir’s best-selling novel.  A full meal of a movie, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here from comedy to action to drama to suspense and even some surprisingly emotional arcs.  Powerfully led by Matt Damon and a small army of familiar faces, movies like The Martian are the reason why we go to movies, to be transported and changed. 

Honorable Mentions: Paddington, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Cinderella, Jurassic World, Magic Mike XXL, Far From the Madding CrowdThe Visit, Sicario, Crimson Peak, RoomStar Wars: The Force Awakens

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5. Love the Coopers – arriving like a stale piece of fruitcake, this turkey is reason enough for even the sweetest Christmas fan to say “Bah Humbug”.  It’s an obnoxious and lazy attempt at creating a warm family togetherness film with neither the direction nor the performances to help it rise from the sludge. Wasting the talents of its diverse ensemble cast, this is a White Elephant of a yuletide film.

4. Point Break – making the original 1991 film look like High Noon in comparison, this atrocious remake diverts so far from its dopey origins that it should have just ditched the title and shrugged off the obvious comparisons from its detractors.  With his unforgivable man-bun, heinous fake tattoos, and not good enough for the Sci-Fi channel acting, Luke Bracey leads the film right off a cliff sans parachute.  More focused on being an eco-message film than a heist flick, it sports beautiful cinematography but is overall a lamentable effort.

3. The Lazarus Effect – Kudos to you, Olivia Wilde.  You appeared in two of my least favorite films of the year.  Beautiful as she is, Wilde just can’t seem to find a film that suits her in the acting department and The Lazarus Effect is a prime example. Barely 80 minutes long, there’s no amount of spiritual help that could raise this one from the graveyard of bad horror thrillers.

2. Aloha– pay no attention to the critics that championed this gigantic turd of a film in 2015…they’ve been blinded by a devotion to a filmmaker that has lost his way.  Cameron Crowe’s colossal misfire makes every wrong turn in the book, from casting pale Emma Stone as a Native Hawaiian with a half-Asian father to an inability to assemble a movie that makes any kind of sense.  Legendary in its production for going through titles and reshoots like candy, the final product was more of an ‘adios’ to Crowe’s storied status in Hollywood.

1. The Water Diviner – this waste of a film won three Australian Academy Awards.  Three.  And one of them was Best Picture.  Well, turnabout is fair play and I’m awarding Russell Crowe’s directing debut with Worst Picture of the year honors.  An interminable slog through an incomprehensible plot and ridiculously banal performances, I was praying for some sort of divine intervention to cut the screening short.  It’s bad from the moment it starts until it releases us from our agony.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions: Inherent Vice, Blackhat, The Boy Next Door, Woman in Gold, Terminator Genisys, The Gallows, Dark Places, American Ultra, Freeheld, Jem and the Holograms, Victor Frankenstein

 

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Most Misunderstood

Hot Pursuit – Ok, so I’m not going to sit here and waste my time telling you that Hot Pursuit is a good movie because it’s fairly derivative from countless other female buddy pictures, too broad for words, and in the end is an inconsequential blip on the careers of stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.  Where I took issue was how the movie was dragged through the grime by critics that would laud the same type of movie had it been released with males in the leading roles.  People took actual offense that Witherspoon went from an Oscar nominated turn in Wild to something so lightweight as Hot Pursuit and I kinda just wanted to tell ‘em all to scoot up a tree.  The film plays right into the strengths (and assets) of both leading ladies and is ultimately harmless.  It’s not great entertainment, but it’s not the garbage mess that people would have you believe.

Honorable Mention: San Andreas

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2015

The D Train – I’m a die-hard anti-Jack Black fan but even I had to admit that The D Train was one of the more unexpected small victories of 2015.  Black is winning as a lovable loser running his class reunion that makes a bid to get a famous-ish classmate to attend.  Flying out to California to convince the guy (James Marsden) to make an appearance, the film takes an unanticipated turn that audiences just won’t see coming.  The film has a dark charm and strong performances to justify your seeking it out.  I think you’ll be surprised…I was.

Honorable Mention: Mistress America

Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should:

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Song of the Sea

The Hunting Ground

Beyond the Lights

Playing by Heart

Good Kill

Starry Eyes

The Taking of Deborah Logan

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2015

Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 146

Total Movies Seen at Home: 176

Grand Total for 2015 (not counting films seen multiple times): 317

Where I Saw the Most Movies: Showplace ICON – 66!

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie ~ This is My Life

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A stand-up comic neglects her two daughters in the midst of her newfound fame.

Stars: Julie Kavner, Samantha Mathis, Gaby Hoffmann, Carrie Fisher, Dan Akyroyd

Director: Nora Ephron

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Shortly after writer/director Nora Ephron passed away in the summer of 2012 I began looking for This is My Life, her directorial debut from 1992.  I’d seen it numerous times and even owned a copy on VHS but it was just nowhere to be found so I eventually forgot about it.  Enjoying the films she wrote like Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally…, I was more interested in the films she directed.

I wasn’t about to revisit You’ve Got Mail mostly because the AOL age update to The Shop Around the Corner is so dated you’d need to be an amnesiac emerging from a time machine to really enjoy it.  I also wasn’t up for the sappy but still warm to the touch PG-ness of Sleepless in Seattle.  And even Madeline Khan’s presence in Mixed Nuts couldn’t get me to take that mess for a spin again.  No…it had to be This is My Life or nothing.

Flash forward a few months later to a sleepy Sunday morning and I was browsing On Demand making the Sophie’s Choice between…well…Sophie’s Choice and some Bruce Willis movie when lo and behold there was This is My Life streaming for free.  Jackpot!  93 minutes later I remembered why Ephron’s no-frills first feature was high on my list to see…and her name is Julie Kavner.

There seem to be two audiences that know Kavner.  One is from her days playing sister to Valerie Harper on Rhoda and the other only recognizes Kavner as Marge, the animated matriarch on The Simpsons.  Kavner (Radio Days) has rarely had a chance to let loose on screen, certainly never in a leading role which makes this bittersweet comedy a real gem.

Adapted by Ephron from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, This is My Life is the story of a department store cosmetics lady that wants to be a stand-up comedian.  Raising two daughters as a single mother, she gets by by making due and making others laugh.  When her star begins to rise and eventually takes off, mother and daughters get some hard lessons on the price of fame.

As is the case of most films about comedians, very little of the material is actually funny with Kavner’s character telling some pretty dusty jokes about the trials of being a single mother. (Zoinks!)  It’s very hard to make material that works better live seem as immediate as being there and that’s one of the areas the film struggles through…but thankfully the rimshot jokes wind up playing second fiddle to the drama taking place offstage.

It’s easy to see why this film got lost in the shuffle at the box office.  With no bankable star and a female heavy presence, audiences and studios didn’t know what to do with it so it flamed out quickly and landed on video soon after.  Though it’s no work of art, there’s an assured charm to it all that makes even the more conventional emotional outburst (and there are probably two too many) work.

While Ephron had some true triumphs as a writer, her career as a director was spotty.  Of the eight films she directed less than half are worth a second viewing and that’s being generous.  Still, films like This is My Life aren’t likely to be made even in this day and age so this laughter through the tears melodrama is a worthwhile reminder of what made Ephron’s voice such a special one.

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

Mid-Day Mini ~ Indian Summer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario they used to attend as children which is now threatened with being closed down.

Stars: Alan Arkin, Matt Craven, Diane Lane, Julie Warner, Vincent Spano, Sam Raimi, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, Kevin Pollak, Bill Paxton

Director: Mike Binder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  This is truly one of my favorite movies and my appreciation of it has only grown as I’ve become an adult.  Released in 1993, Indian Summer was called out as ‘The Big Chill goes to summer camp’ — a not entirely unfair comparison when you consider it involves a group of friends gathering together after years apart to reminisce about their youth, rekindle old flames, and come to terms where their life journey has taken them.

Why this film has become as valuable to me as an adult is the way it handles the sensitivity and humor that’s found in the transition people go through as they age.  Some people can never really outgrow their teen angst or feelings of inadequacy…just as some see maturing as a way to start over again.   Director/screenwriter Binder (Crossing the Bridge, The Upside of Anger) manages to shuffle a wonderful cast around in situations that may seem like retreads of any number of films…without ever making them feel old-hat.

That’s partly thanks to the breezy script but most certainly attributed to a fine cast of actors who interact with each other and their surroundings over the course of their week-long stay at the summer camp of their youth.  The standout to me is still Perkins (The Doctor, Avalon) as a wise-cracking but wise single that has something to say in every situation but closely guards her own emotions.  She’s followed by Lane’s grieving widow that maybe hasn’t truly accepted the loss she experienced.  Warner and Spano are appealing actors that I miss seeing in film — their troubled marriage  has impacts on several other characters.

Craven, Pollack, and Williams too have nice turns with their well-drawn characters and a scene stealing Raimi (director of Oz The Great and Powerful and the original The Evil Dead) is a riot as a simpleton handyman around camp.  Academy Award winner Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) balances his deadpan aloofness with a warmth that reminds us all of someone we look up to and want to emulate.

Filmed on location at Binder’s Canadian summer camp, the movie absolutely glows with a vibrancy that few films can really capture well.  Returning to this film at least once a year I find myself drawn to its wacky humor, late-night hi-jinks, and serious heart – it has an authenticity that keeps me smiling and continues to be a film I whip out when someone needs a recommendation for quality entertainment.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Mermaids

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An unconventional single mother relocates with her two daughters to a small Massachusetts town in 1963, where a number of events and relationships both challenge and strengthen their familial bonds.

Stars: Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling

Director: Richard Benjamin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Maybe not so much a hidden gem as an underappreciated one, Mermaids is a quirky comedy about an eccentric single mom nomadically raising her daughters in the early 1960’s.  The film was a perfect fit for the talent involved…though there were several key players that weren’t originally signed on when the movie moved into production.

First off, director Richard Benjamin was the third director of the movie after Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz both were ix-nayed by star Cher.  Speaking of being replaced, blonde brit Emily Lloyd was supposed to play Ryder’s role until it became clear that Lloyd bore little resemblance to the woman supposed to be playing her mother.  So Benjamin and Ryder stepped in and I can’t imagine the film any other way.

For all the jokes and jibes Cher has received over the years, she’s a damn fine actress and hasn’t really turned in a performance that was an embarrassment.  As Mrs. Flax, she’s relaxed and carefree…keeping the kind of home we’d probably like to visit if she was the mom of our best friend.  A bit of a man-eater, she meets her match when she arrives in a small New England town and takes up with Hoskins’ lovable sh0e-salesman.

The story is seen through the eyes of Charlotte (Ryder, Frankenweenie) as she struggles with her love of all things holy and a burgeoning attraction to a local caretaker (Schoeffling).  Not wanting to turn out like her mother and feeling like she has to be a surrogate parent to her sister Kate (Ricci, in her first film), Charlotte takes several missteps that have ramifications both humorous and dramatic.

Based on a novel, Mermaids has a fair share of laughs that go in tandem with some serious exchanges.  Cher and Hoskins have an opposites attract chemistry that glows as does Ryder with the handsome Schoeffling who knows how to play conflicted with the best of ‘em.

With Benjamin’s sensitive direction, a nice attention to the early 60’s time-period, and a greatest hits soundtrack, Mermaids is received swimmingly whether it’s your first or thirty first viewing.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Smooth Talk

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie Wyatt’s sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs.

Stars: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Elizabeth Berridge

Director: Joyce Chopra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 90’s I went through a period of really hating Laura Dern.  There was something about her gait, her delivery of a line, her bird-like features that really rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t take her seriously or sit through one of her films without feeling rumpled.  Then the strength of her work in recent years (including a remarkable performance in HBO’s just canceled Enlightened and memorable supporting roles in movies like The Master and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) made me change my mind, encouraging me to seek out some of her earlier work.  Now, I’m enraptured.

That’s how I happened upon Smooth Talk, a true hidden gem of a picture that kept me on the edge of my seat thanks to a star performance by Dern as a California teenager flirting with danger over the course of one hot summer.  Based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why.  With direction from Chopra and a Spartan script courtesy of Tom Cole what begins as a familiar look into teen angst in the mid 80’s turns into…well…I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The film is surprising in its turns but never feels like it’s exploiting our lead character or the audience as it unwinds its careful yarn that may remind you a bit of Little Red Riding Hood.

Dern is astonishing here, navigating some tricky material that couldn’t have been easy to play.  She’s supported well by Williams as a mysterious stranger that sets his sights on Dern and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as her mother that holds her to a different standard than her other daughter.  It’s an effective film for a lot of reasons, not the least is its look into a loss of innocence from multiple points of view.

This plays on television quite often so keep your eye out for this one – it’s rare to find a film so assured and unexpected.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.