Top 8 films of 2015

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Willow Yang/Staff

Inside Out

With “Inside Out,” Pixar extended its streak of gambling on out-of-left-field, ludicrous-on-paper ideas (a bunch of anthropomorphic toys, a cooking rat and a robot love story are just a few the successful ones). This time, it’s 11-year-old Riley’s emotions as they bicker and banter over day-to-day tribulations. But once again, Pixar uses its half-crazy ideas to highlight life’s quieter moments. This time, Riley is coming off a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Inside Riley’s head, where most of the movie takes place, the remarkably relatable emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear — travel to vibrant locales such as Imagination Land and Abstract Thought as Riley deals with troubles such as bad hockey practices, gross vegetarian pizzas and missing her friends. The resulting adventure is an absolute blast full of thrills and laughs and is a joy to look at, both in the Candyland-like mind and San Francisco. In the end, all this sensory overload gives way to a deeper message, as Pixar movies tend to do: Sadness isn’t just OK, but it is absolutely vital. It’s a message that people tend to let fall into their Subconscious, and the final moments will have everyone reflecting on the power of this daringly original masterpiece long after Joy and Sadness leave our screen.

— Kevin Lu

Mad Max: Fury Road

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is the best action movie of the year, of the decade and possibly the century. Directed by the legendary George Miller (who is somehow responsible for both the “Mad Max” franchise and “Happy Feet”) and shot by the pulled-out-of-retirement John Seale, this film vrooms from start to finish with unmatched energy and gonzo storytelling. Standing not only as the greatest technical achievement of the year, as the editing, compositions, sound and production design are all superb, the film also has a strong feminist stance rarely seen by Hollywood films.

Starring Tom Hardy as the brooding Max and the award-worthy Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, Miller crafts a story about those who fight to survive in a world full of people who have lost their minds and worship terrifying and false self-proclaimed prophet Immortan Joe, played by the Mad Max alumnus Hugh Keays-Byrne.

When the action is as pure and unbridled as it is in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it’s hard not to be impressed. And we certainly were!

— Levi Hill

Ex Machina

Essentially a chamber piece about the Turing test, “Ex Machina” poses questions of artificial intelligence and the ethics of the people who make it. Plus, the film includes the most “WTF” impromptu dance scene of the year. The movie follows a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he is invited to the secluded estate of his billionaire employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test out whether an android by the name of Ava (Alicia Vikander) has enough artificial intelligence to pass as a human. The film asks if artificial intelligence can have more humanity and compassion than humans, and thus, it asks what it means to be “human.”

From debut director Alex Garland, the novelist and screenwriter responsible for “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” “Ex Machina” is the best pieces of speculative fiction released in a long while.  The film was made on a limited budget, but the production design and the visual effects are all worthy of praise. Centering mainly on dialogue over action and ideas over effects, the film weaves a quietly unnerving tale of machismo and gender dynamics with stellar performances from the three central actors. Breakout actress Vikander, in particular, has a tough role of seeming human while clearly being a robot under someone’s control.

“Ex Machina” is an haunting allegory of the limits we put upon each other. Philip K. Dick, the father of modern science fiction, would be proud.

— Levi Hill

Willow Yang/Staff

Willow Yang/Staff

The Martian

The release of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” reiterated the question posed in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Interstellar”: Just how much money will we spend retrieving Matt Damon from inaccessible places? With an opening weekend exceeding predictions by a solid $10 million, the answer seems to be: Quite a lot. The film follows the travails of astronaut Mark Watney, who is stranded alone on Mars after being injured and thought-dead during an evacuation from the planet. Using his skills as a botanist, he must find ways to stave off the innumerable factors trying to kill him (lack of food, equipment malfunction and just Mars in general).

The film steps beyond a typical summer blockbuster (despite it doing very well as one); Matt Damon’s fantastic performance, a clever script and beautiful cinematography are all contributing to its atypical Oscar buzz. “The Martian” also caught the attention of the scientific community, labelling it one of the most scientifically accurate movies about space ever made. Yet it is the film’s distinctly emotional elements that make it great. It captures the insatiable human drive for exploration and expansion, the weight of loneliness, the belief in something greater and the ability for mankind to come together over a common purpose, even (or perhaps, especially) when that purpose is a single stranded astronaut.

— Imad Pasha

Spotlight

Boasting a star-studded cast with movie giants such as Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight” illuminates the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation of the Boston Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals. Embracing the spirit of a detective novel, the plot is astute in detail and quietly builds momentum, never for a moment falling prey to gimmicky drama or heavy-handed characterization. Rachel McAdams isn’t sexy and Mark Ruffalo isn’t a rugged hunk. Rather, their characters are average and face the frustrations and joys of average people, even sporting the dull business casual attire for the part. The film’s power lies in its sheer mundanity and shows how horror pervasively lurks in the spaces that we trust the most.

The Boston Globe journalists have given the survivors a platform for speaking honestly. Now, “Spotlight” has given viewers a medium for thinking critically. It highlights the fragmentation of the truth as well as the knee-deep corruption in one of the most established institutions in the world.

— Stacey Nguyen

Straight Outta Compton

“Straight Outta Compton” was the most surprisingly great film of the year. Not that we went into the film expecting it to be bad, but under the confident direction of F. Gary Gray (“Friday”), “Straight Outta Compton” became a sprawling, incredibly entertaining biography epic that no one saw coming.

Charting the careers of the major members of N.W.A from their humble beginnings to their diss-heavy breakup and the eventual inception of Aftermath Entertainment, the film also found a way to be socially and politically relevant to our times now. The film doesn’t shy away from showing the racism, corruption and police brutality that inspired much of what inspired N.W.A’s lyrics. Along with the film’s relevancy, it still has an amazing group of mostly unknown actors, all of whom deserve a considerable amount of praise. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his father, Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E are worth mentioning as both give truly affecting performances.

Ultimately, “Straight Outta Compton” is one of the best, fiercest pieces of commercial cinema this year.

— Levi Hill

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an impactful look into the life of a teenage outlier. Based off the 2012 book of the same title and crafted by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, this dynamic movie is ostensibly analogous to the story of “The Fault in Our Stars.” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is complete with a girl afflicted with cancer, an awkward yet endearing male protagonist, and a quirky mutual friend. But the plot quickly evolves into something more profound, and the cliches of the young-adult drama give way to legitimately funny, surprising and heartbreaking moments, with an especially great performance by Nick Offerman as the eclectic, sociology-major father to the male protagonist. The audience quickly learns (and the narrator makes the point to assert) that this is not a story about love. The acting is convincing and real, and the cinematography features fairly impressive and original angles, courtesy of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, with heavy use of tracking shots and top-down views that keeps viewers visually engaged. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has ingenuity abound and delightful moments that will make you rethink what it means to enjoy a young adult film.

— Sam Gunn

Anomalisa

“Anomalisa” is another surreal exploration of the human condition from the wonderfully bizarre and brilliant mind of Charlie Kaufman (writer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation”). In beautiful stop-motion animation that is simultaneously realistic and artificial, Kaufman follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famous motivational speaker who is unable to connect with anyone in his life. To illustrate this, everyone in his world has the same exact voice regardless of race or gender, all performed by the great Tom Noonan. To make matters worse, every single character has the same facial structure, further showing our lead character’s inability to connect.

That is, until one eventful night on a business trip, he comes across an anomaly. Lisa, sensitively voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, stands out from the rest, as she not only sounds different but looks unlike anyone else Michael meets.

Through this simple yet wholly original set up, Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson ask, “What is it to be human?” In typical Kaufman fashion, the film never truly reveals itself, but nonetheless, it leaves an undeniable impression.

— Levi Hill