The return of a quality Hollywood, at least for now

I’m tired of watching Michael Bay blow things up and oversexualize women for almost three hours.

Most years, there are some really great films, but rarely are they ever produced by Hollywood. Instead, Hollywood focuses on the mass audience. By that, I mean they produce dumbed-down, explosion-heavy entertainment that people can “escape” to.

Let’s use 2014 as an example. While “Guardians of the Galaxy” had a huge heart, was clever and rightfully catapulted the hunk of a man Chris Pratt into super stardom, there was also “The Amazing Spider Man 2” and Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Both of the latter starred Oscar nominees, and yet, both were totally uninspired sequels only made with the intention of making billions of dollars across the globe. This neglect of making quality films first and blockbusters second has left me cold. In typical American fashion, everything is about the money.

But while Hollywood will clearly keep rebooting stale franchises with no intentions of crafting intelligent or inspired entertainment, 2015 at least showed what can happen when Hollywood steps out of its boring comfort zone and allows filmmakers to not get bogged down by appealing only to the masses.

Yes, there were some duds this year. I’m looking at you, “Terminator Genisys.” Who thought it was a good idea to spell it like that? But for the most part, there were clever and forward-thinking big-budget films — films that finally rivaled the talent and quality behind the smaller, smarter prestige pictures that flood the Oscar season, such as “Spotlight,” “Carol” and “Room.”

“Jurassic World” totally made us forget about the first two films, forcing us to buy into the  nostalgia-inducing moments that made us realize why we loved Spielberg’s classic in the first place. Also, director Colin Trevorrow showed that indie directors with a vision can make the leap from a mere $750,000 budget (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to the blank-check filmmaking that Hollywood can offer. Then once again, Chris Pratt solidified himself as my generation’s Harrison Ford with his perfect combination of dashingly good looks and movie star charisma.

Then there are “Furious 7” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” which were better than they had any right to be. It would be a lie if I didn’t say that “Furious 7” got me choked up at the end, when director James Wan gave a touching sendoff to Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Connor. While the two-hour film was full adrenaline-filled car chases and Dwayne Johnson’s oversized muscles, the last 10 minutes were some of the most tearjerking in film this year. The last 10 minutes were so good that Wiz Khalifa rode the film’s goodwill to a Grammy nomination earlier this week: the film’s ending song “See You Again.”

“Mission: Impossible” on the other hand, was just pure, fun entertainment. It knew both its strengths and weaknesses as a franchise, and only played its strengths with huge, brilliantly choreographed set pieces and Tom Cruise’s undying leading-man magnetism.

Then there’s the recently released “Creed,” which proved a number of things. It further illustrates that Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) is a director to be reckoned with. It shows that Michael B. Jordan is an amazingly gifted actor despite his role in the egregious “Fantastic Four.”

Then lastly, Sylvester Stallone, after years of lame 80s throwback action films, proves that when he has the right script, he can be an award-worthy actor. To be honest — and I’m sure I’m not the only who feels this way — “Creed,” and especially Sylvester Stallones performance as the aging and ailing Rocky Balboa, was surprisingly some of the most affecting work this year.

With all that being said, there are three films that stand out as crowning achievements of what Hollywood can do, and they all did it in entirely different ways: “Straight Outta Compton,” “The Martian,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Let’s be honest, we all went to “Straight Outta Compton” because we like N.W.A’s music but not necessarily because we thought the movie was going to be one of the biggest critical and financial hits of the year. Or maybe that was just me, but come on, the trailers didn’t show how good it really was. Yet somehow, the film shattered all expectations financially and critically and has positioned itself among the prestige pictures for Oscar consideration.

Following N.W.A’s origins up until when Dr. Dre founded Aftermath Records, the film, directed by F. Gary Gray, is a sprawling and relevant epic about not only N.W.A’s individual careers but also social injustice. Shot by the talented Matthew Libatique and starring practically an ensemble of unknowns, “Straight Outta Compton” is a compelling mixture of an entertaining biopic and social statements on racism, police brutality and corporational greed found in the United States.

The next is a complete contrast in many respects but is just as great. “The Martian” doesn’t have any socio-political statements to make; instead, it focuses on telling an uncommonly intelligent, optimistic story about a stranded botanist-astronaut doing his best to survive on Mars by using the power of science. Directed by the master Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon in one of his greatest performances, “The Martian” is a welcome return to form for Scott and for Hollywood making optimistic blockbusters.

Lastly, the film I believe is Hollywood’s crowning achievement this year (and possibly the century), is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” As humans, we have an unexplainable attraction to action movies. But to be frank, most action movies these days are poorly shot and so choppily edited that it’s hard to even understand what’s happening amid the action.

This is where the legendary director George Miller (creator of the “Mad Max” franchise) comes in. Pulling Academy Award-winning 73-year-old cinematographer John Seale out of retirement, the two have crafted one of the most perfect films ever to combine the visceral power of sound and image. Technically perfect across the board and using mostly practical effects, the film crafts an expositionless story about women’s liberation from an evil tyrant.

Starring the commanding Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, leader of the women’s rebellion, and the always-brooding Tom Hardy as Max, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the synthesis of what Hollywood filmmaking can and should strive to be. The film represents what happens when studios allow filmmakers to express their unadulterated vision on the biggest of scales.

Because the studio quality found in 2015 might never happen again, cinephiles everywhere should cherish what we did get before heading back into the glut of stale franchises in 2016.

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