2015 in film, with blinders on

Yours truly was truly bad at watching Great Films outside of my preferred genres this year. That aside, these are the five films of 2015 which I enjoyed the most and which I am very invested in all of you watching and talking about with me. (I guarantee you I did watch more than five -- more than ten -- films that came out this year, and that not all of them prominently featured the letter 'M' in the title. I'm not scrounging for films to fill up this list. These are the cream of the crop, y'all.)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. barely has a plot. Importantly, however, it doesn't pretend to have much of one. It's like unusually well-written crack!fic: put a KGB agent, an CIA agent, and a German mechanic on the same team. (For kicks, tell the German and the Russian they're engaged.) Dress them to the nines. Send them to Rome. Stir the pot, &c. Watch what happens. The split-screen chase scenes and the spy-fi "here's what actually happened three minutes ago" flashbacks are charming. Nothing makes sense and nobody is using their native accent, but with new friends as cool as these, who cares?

Rogue Nation is stylish and has a plot (an improbable one, yes, but one that absolutely revels in that improbability), and (additionally!) features one of the more compelling characters the M:I films (and summer blockbusters in general, for that matter) have ever produced -- in the form of Rebecca Ferguson's (mysterious, dangerous, compelling) Ilsa Faust. Among the several excellent action scenes, you'll find 1) a motorcycle chase à la Mad Max involving scarily tight (like, knee-half-an-inch-from-the-ground tight, like how-old-is-Tom-Cruise-again tight) turns, 2) a terrifying knife fight, 3) myriad agents and double agents scrambling to get to their target before their target gets to them, without interrupting a performance of Turandot, all set (of course) to "Nessun Dorma." (The opera scene is unparalleled; no amount of description will do it justice. Get thee to a rental.)

Fury Road is a righteous revenge romp through a post-apocalyptic desert, and it's as glorious as that sounds. The story is simple. Everything else is up-to-eleven insane, and it wouldn't have worked any other way. Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa is in charge, here; titular Max is just along for the (ultraviolent, supersaturated, extraordinary) ride. The world-building in particular is top-notch: I don't remember any expository dialogue. I don't remember any dialogue at all, for that matter. It's primarily action, short sentences here and there, lots of trucks and motorcycles and giant desert war machines -- but the crazy thing is that it all works. You have to see it to believe it.

The Martian wins my Sincerest Film award this year. "Sincerity" is totally feelings-based and (as such) nearly impossible to parameterize, but -- the main requirement, for me, is that I feel better about people / the human race / the world / the universe after watching the film; that I leave the theatre (or turn off the DVD player) with a distinct sense of hope. It's Luke Skywalker looking off into Tatooine's binary sunset; it's Will Hunting going to see about a girl.
The Martian, for its part, is really, really nerdy, which is part of why it's so great. (The book's prose, as a result of its being so meticulously correct in its scientific detail, left something to be desired -- I get it, dude! You did your research! But all this research comes across so well in this new medium, in which clunky description is replaced by screens and fast talkers.) It's Apollo 13 without the burden of being Based On A True Story and the serious-face handling that such a billing necessitates; it's wonderful and original and gorgeous and hilarious and (refreshingly, for this list) not at all implausible. It's reviving big-budget sci-fi (in a way that Gravity, in its -- well, gravity -- couldn't match and Interstellar completely failed to) and it's doing it magnificently.

Ex Machina has four (maybe five) characters total, one of whom never utters a word. (And two of whom are in The Force Awakens, but that's a story for another say.) It is a small film, but it certainly asks the biggest questions of any film I saw this year.
Everyone's so good, first of all: Oscar Isaac's Nathan is a mad genius, Domnhall Gleeson's Caleb is wide-eyed and in total awe, Alicia Vikander's Ava is the most convincing robot I've ever seen onscreen. (The latter may be a result of too many movies/shows that either focus on androids who look/act exactly like us -- Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica -- or else robots who look/act nothing like us -- Doctor Who, Star Wars, pretty much every summer blockbuster. Vikander's Ava may be the only android I've ever seen onscreen.)
Does Ava possesses consciousness; does she perform actions consciously as opposed to automatically? This is the question Caleb spends much of the film trying to answer for Nathan, but as the paranoia and suspense build throughout (as I said, it is a small film -- many times, positively claustrophobic) we, with Caleb, begin to question our own "humanity".
  • How much humanity does a robot need to have to become "human"?
  • We are, to an extent, "programmed" to feel feelings and to think thoughts; the human body is an elaborately wired machine. Ava, too, is like this. What differentiates us from her? Our biology -- but that's a rather technical definition of being human, not taking into account what's encompassed in the word "humanity." Our experiences -- but Ava, too, could have our experiences, if only she could enjoy freedom of choice. 
  • Is it wrong to experiment on a being such as Ava, to keep her cooped up, if she does indeed feel all that a human does? 
  • What does she want?
It's heavy stuff, but Alex Garland is kind enough to let up on the AI philosophizing for thirty seconds in the middle to show us the creepiest dance break I've ever witnessed. Talk to me after you watch it -- the ending answers (perhaps) a couple of questions, but opens up a world of more.

Movies I wish I'd watched (of which there are far too many): The Big Short, Sicario, Mustang, Tangerine, Brooklyn, Jupiter Ascending, Macbeth, Spotlight.

Movies I wish I hadn't watched (of which there are mercifully few): Spectre.

Movies I thoroughly enjoyed that I watched for the first time in 2015 but that are not from 2015: The Social Network, American Graffiti, Whiplash, Respire, Good Will Hunting, Nightcrawler, Air Force One, V for Vendetta, The Devil Wears Prada, The Conversation.

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