The most important movies of 2015

Annual top 10 lists are stupid, lame and wrong. They’re easy to write, boring to read and represent everything wrong with modern film criticism. At this site, we aspire to track the progress of movies over time, so instead of simply list-bating out another drop in the ocean of top 10 lists, here we’re going to talk about the 10 most influential movies of the year and what their influence might be.

Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

1) Fifty Shades of Grey

In many ways, the year’s first major hit was pre-ordained. Based on a controversial best-seller, everyone knew it was going to be a smash hit, and everyone who had read or heard about the book knew it was also going to be biblically awful.

The novel’s first-draft feel and hilarious word choice was the butt of every joke for months leading up to the movie’s release, but many who took it more seriously than that took pains to illustrate how unhealthy the story’s central relationship is and how abusive a character Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) is. For one reason or the other, most people wrote this movie off.

The person who didn’t write it off, though, was director Sam Taylor-Johnson. Responsible for bringing a laughing stock of a story to life and with author/producer E.L. James hanging over her shoulder, Taylor-Johnson spat in the face of what the movie was supposed to be and did everything in her power to make it great, and it shows in some important ways. This movie is full of fantastic shots, and the remixes Beyonce put together for it are astounding. As reviled as this movie is and should be for the commercialism and celebration of domestic abuse that it represents, people did put love into its making. There is still high-level art at play here.

It’s become in-fashion to bemoan the lack of creativity in Hollywood. In this world of prequels, sequels, remakes, reboots and rehashings, original stories simply aren’t viewed as profitable, or at least not as a safe enough bet that they can get funding. It’s sad that more new stories aren’t told, but if the bean counters aren’t happy, no one is. Fifty Shades of Grey proves that creativity can still exist and still thrive even within these boundaries. Disney and Warner Bros. are catching on with their super hero and Star Wars series, which are all turning into massive anthologies helmed by the best directors they can find. Art and commercialism have been mostly on separate-but-equal terms for a long time, but it looks like we’re turning a corner that’s going to allow them to frequently exist in the same movies again.

2) Ex Machina

Image courtesy A24 Films.

Forgetting, for a moment, that it is a truly, completely perfect film, Ex Machina has extreme significance to the future of science fiction. The genre has always been a vision of the future, but the future as depicted in fiction is and always has been a function of the present. In the 1950s, visions of the future warned of the dangers of communism and McCarthyism. Star Trek’s disparate alien races famously parallel other countries in the late ’60s, and its stories were obviously derived from the social issues of the time period.

But as times changed and fears and technology evolved, sci-fi stayed the same, with most films taking cues from Star Wars and Metropolis. No matter what happened, the future was full of skyscrapers, flying cars and single-biome planets. Until Ex Machina, that is.

Ex Machina is the first science fiction film to play with the ideas of Google and smartphones turning against us. The film centers around Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the genius programmer who created Bluebook — Google by another name — using the same software to create artificial intelligence, hacking the world’s cell phones to match faces with emotions, even using the pornography profile of his Turing tester, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), to create an android he would be attracted to.

The film is stunning and new visually, as well. In addition to being an absolute masterpiece of direction and cinematography, the movie looks like nothing else that’s ever been made. Writer/director Alex Garland restricted his design team, allowing them only to look at 17th century or earlier sculptures and paintings for inspiration, making sure Nathan’s androids and underground lair had an entirely original design. The resultant movie is one that is spectacularly unique, shaming a genre that is ostensibly an evolving look at the future but hadn’t been updated this drastically since its inception.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie made practical effects sexy again.

Action blockbusters have evolved several times over the years. The current paradigm that series like Transformers, The Hobbit and every other damn disaster movie owe their origin to came about in 1991 when Terminator 2: Judgment Day hit the screen. The corny, awful film wowed audiences with its special effects, and CGI intensive sequences began to take over for stunts as the keynote visuals in mass-appeal movies. Stunts remained integral, with many series such as Mission: Impossible, the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies and most superhero movies incorporating both stunts and CGI, but the scale was tipping fast. By the 2010s, computers were generating everything even mildly difficult to produce practically. The height of absurdity in this time period was 2011’s Green Lantern, in which even the super-suit wasn’t real.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, everything was real. Every vehicle in the movie was built and functioned on sand. The movie was shot on location in the real Namib Desert. Almost everything you see in this movie actually happened and was actually caught on camera. More important than the action’s impeccable resultant quality or the fact that the film is a masterpiece even outside of it is the fact that this was the hype point of the movie. Before it came out, the practical effects were what everyone was talking about. That was the selling point, and it sold to the tune of $375.8 million worldwide. The film is likely to sweep the technical Oscars and George Miller has the inside track for Best Director. Suddenly, practical effects are in-fashion again, both commercially and artistically.

4) Jurassic World

Jurassic World was supposed to open at around $125 million. Box office forecasters are a lot like weather forecasters — the job is consequence-free and therefore inherently untrustworthy, but they don’t often get it wrong. They got this one wrong. The film ended up with the largest opening weekend of all time with a colossal $208.8 million, and no one saw it coming. The movie reset Friday, Saturday and Sunday all-time records and became the fastest movie ever to $1 billion worldwide, hitting the mark after just 13 days in theaters. Furious 7 had set that record at 17 days in April.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

The records would be short-lived with The Force Awakens coming out in December, but it’s still a curious case study because no one really knows why this movie did so much better than expected. The best explanation I’ve seen is that, where kids’ movies like Inside Out and Minions have a leg up on the competition because every kid who wants to see them comes with a parent or two in tow, Jurassic World had a weird reverse of that scenario, with adults that loved Jurassic Park dragging their kids to the movie. The other explanation is that lead actor Chris Pratt is simply that big of a star, and after this and 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s a hard point to argue. Pratt should bear the brunt of World’s success in the form of a Scrooge McDuck vault of money for every role he takes over the next few years, and we’re going to get to see him in all those roles. The movie was OK at best, but the success couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Jurassic World was the flagship for a record-breaking year by Universal. With hit after hit including Furious 7, Minions and Straight Outta Compton, the studio became the fastest ever to reach $2 billion domestically in a year.

5) Fantastic Four

Another case the forecasters got wrong, this time going the opposite direction. Fantastic Four was supposed to open at around $45 million, but the critical revulsion against it was so strong, it only ended up with $26.2 million. Most movies get a grace period for the first weekend, since the opinions of actual people are so much more important than those of critics, but this one was received so poorly it didn’t even get that.

What also didn’t help were the stories coming out of production. The movie initially caught a ton of flack for casting a black actor, Michael B. Jordan, to play Johnny Storm. Obviously changing a character’s race is not the end of the world, but it was a non-vital decision that drew a lot of negative attention and didn’t have a real reason behind it. Then, it was announced in January that the film would have extensive reshoots. Rumors swirled that Fox was unhappy with director Josh Trank’s vision and behavior on the set, and that he was essentially not directing the reshoots. Then news came out that the reshoots had eaten into the 3D conversion budget and they weren’t willing to put more money into it, meaning the film wouldn’t be released in any kind premium format. This is possibly the single dumbest production decision in Hollywood history, as even without the horrible reviews and nightmare stories about the production, it cuts a modern movie’s ability to turn a profit in half. Everything came to a head the night of the release, when Trank tweeted out his disapproval of the theatrical version of the film, a move that is estimated to have cost up to $10 million in tickets. When all was said and done, Fantastic Four had made just $168 million worldwide from a $120 million budget. The 2017 sequel was cancelled, and Trank lost his Star Wars movie.

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Fantastic Four was easily the year’s most destructive movie. It wasn’t just a flop, and it wasn’t just one of the worst movies ever made. This was a major public embarrassment for Fox, which was only producing the movie so the property rights didn’t revert to Marvel. Now, that looks all but guaranteed. Unless Trank can vindicate himself with his next project or by getting a director’s cut released, it may mark a sudden end to his career, which was hugely promising just months ago.

6) Straight Outta Compton/The Martian/The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Each of these movies went for long runs at no. 1, and none of them were really that great. It wasn’t their quality that kept them there, but the lack of competition.

Straight Outta Compton, facing a week-old Fantastic Four and a massive failure opening against it in The Man From U.N.C.L.E, opened with a stellar $60.2 million, then pulled in $26.3 million in its second weekend against newly releasing flops Sinister 2 and Hitman 47. In weekend three, Compton stayed at no. 1 with just $13.1 million, with the only real competition coming from gospel drama War Room. No Escape and We Are Your Friends had two of the worst wide release openings of all time that weekend. The overall gross, $87.8 million, was the second lowest weekend total all year only to Halloween weekend, the traditional caboose in this context. At the behest of priests everywhere, War Room would overtake it over Labor Day weekend.

The Martian was hotly anticipated, opening at $54.3 million, just shy of Gravity’s record for October releases. Then it remained no. 1 with $37 million as Pan flopped hard. Then, new release Goosebumps took over with a $23.6 million opening, just edging The Martian’s $21.3 million as Bridge of Spies and Crimson Peak disappointed. Goosebumps would fall too hard next week, and The Martian took over again with $15.7 million as The Last Witch Hunter and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension disappointed and Rock the Kasbah and Jem and the Holograms suffered two more of the worst wide releases ever. Then, over Halloween weekend, The Martian remained on top with just $11.7 million as new releases Burnt and Our Brand is Crisis made just $5 million and $3.2 million, respectively. Spectre released next week.

Part two of Mockingjay was also highly anticipated as the conclusion of an acclaimed young adult series adaptation, opening to $102.7 million, though this was considered a disappointment by Lionsgate. The movie held strong over Thanksgiving weekend with $52 million, staving off newcomers The Good Dinosaur and Creed. Then it earned another $18.9 million, barely holding off surprising newcomer Krampus. Then it edged out disappointing new release In the Heart of the Sea with $11.4 million the weekend before Star Wars was set to hit theaters.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

These three movies didn’t squelch the competition as much as they represented how uninteresting the competition was. In a year that is generally viewed as one of the best ever for Hollywood because of how well the top-earners did, this stretch of four months saw flop after flop after flop, with the worst movies opening in thousands of theaters to not even $2 million. Most of the movies released during this time period had next to no advertising, and while the assumption seemed to be that the reigning champ would be too old past week two, these three streaks are proof positive that people won’t go to see a movie just because it’s new.

7) The Visit

Genres go through cycles, and horror’s tend to be more obvious than the others. Toward the end of every fad subgenre, a movie comes out that deconstructs it, and for found footage, The Visit is that movie. In addition to being beautifully shot and full of uncharacteristically well-choreographed sequences, the movie is constantly cheating with its camera use, spitting in the face of the idea that a character is the one moving the camera. Making fun of and fixing the subgenre all in one movie, this represents found footage’s last gasp. There’s not going to be another good one after this. The entire conceit is now invalidated.

8) Beasts of No Nation

What usually happens at film festivals is major studios send representatives to bid on films they think are good enough to release as prestige pictures. But at the Venice Film Festival in September, there was a new distributor on the block — Netflix. The streaming service bought the distribution rights to child soldier epic Beasts of No Nation for $12 million and planned an online release, partnering with another new distributor, Bleeker Street, which would handle the theatrical release.

That theatrical release turned out to be quite small. Viewing Netflix’s coinciding streaming release as a violation of theaters’ traditional 90-day window of exclusivity, four major theater chains boycotted Beasts of No Nationeffectively killing its ability to turn any kind of profit. Netflix didn’t give a damn. The film’s success can’t be measured by any traditional means since Netflix doesn’t release its viewership numbers, but the company said it was happy with the amount of people watching this, and posits that more people have seen it than would have if it were released traditionally.

This could very well be the beginning of the end for theaters. After toppling the rental industry, Netflix has cannibalized television completely, with several streaming services that follow its model and even premium channels making their own streaming services in Netflix’s image. If the company is turning its eye to new releases, there’s no reason to believe it can’t rearrange that market as well.

9) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Everybody was really happy for Jurassic World but knew its records wouldn’t last because this monster was coming down the pike. World gently nudged The Avengers off the top of the best all-time opening list, but Star Wars drop-kicked it, opening with a monsterous $248 million in the U.S. It also topped Jurassic World’s international opening record with $528 million, despite not opening in China until Jan. 9. It’s still not out there. Star Wars would also take the fastest to $1 billion record in just 12 days, again, without the second largest movie market in the world.

Almost as impressive as the records this movie has is the records that it could have had. If the China release date had been the same as the U.S. one, we’d be talking about a $600 million international opening at minimum and $1 billion in nine or 10 days, the kind of records that seem destined to never be broken. At the end of the year, after only two weeks of release, it had already passed Jurassic World for the top grossing domestic movie, but remains behind it and Furious 7 at the international box office because of China. This movie willfully left all-time international records on the table. The entire history of cinema is a toy to it, a globe pushed to the corner of the bedroom and never looked at. It will pass Avatar’s all-time domestic record of $760.5 million, a record it spent three solid months as the no. 1 movie to establish, sometime today, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Just as Jurassic World is for Universal, The Force Awakens is the biggest movie in a big year for Disney. Alongside The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Inside Out, this is Disney’s third movie in the top six domestic grosses on the year, representing each of its three beloved franchises — Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars. Universal owns the other half of the top six, and the pair of them own nine of the top 20. These two studios suddenly have way more chips at the table than their competitors, and it could lead some of them to fold in the near future.

10) The Hateful Eight

While The Force Awakens is breaking Avatar’s record, The Hateful Eight has much more in common with its legacy. Quentin Tarantino dug up camera lenses that hadn’t been used for 50 years to bring this movie to life in glorious 70 mm Panavision and resurrected the roadshow, an archaic format of movie distribution. The roadshow version of the film featured an overture, an intermission and 10 extra minutes of footage, making it truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But best of all, it was actual film projected onto a screen, and not a digital print. Of the 100 theaters that screened it, many had to be retrofitted with technology that the digital revolution has rendered obsolete. The roadshow brought in $46,107 per theater, which isn’t at all bad for a release this wide — it sits at no. 124 on the all-time openings list as far as per-theater averages go, but the vast majority of the movies ahead of it are either the biggest openings ever — The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, The Avengers — or were in fewer than 20 theaters nationwide their first weekends.

It’s not putting up the kinds of numbers that guarantee every theater and studio will be scrambling to replicate the technology, as Avatar did. But where the changes Avatar inspired are some of the worst things to ever happen to cinema, The Hateful Eight’s format rewards strong, traditional moviemaking and rewards moviegoers with a better quality film, with visuals that can never be completely replicated by digital projection or a DVD.

It may not cause the same sweeping changes in premium formats as Avatar did, but one can hope. At the very least, it was a loving gift to cinephiles everywhere.

Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.

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One Response to The most important movies of 2015

  1. Pingback: The most important female characters of 2015 | Reel Entropy

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