“A Most Violent Year” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.

His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.

Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.

As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”

“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.

a-most-violent-year-poster

Images are from Way To Blue, The Guardian, and Collider.

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The Most Beautiful Primary

by Gabriel Valdez

Politics can be beautiful, damn it.

This beauty hides behind statistics and demographics and any number of political sciences that begin to make a voter feel inhuman.

So ignore those things for a minute. Ask what the philosophies being discussed really represent.

Are racial, gender, and community injustices root causes? Do they arise naturally, and then make the implementation of economic injustices necessary for the survival of those root causes? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Hillary Clinton champions.

Or is economic injustice the root cause that creates racial, gender, and community injustices, and uses the divisiveness of these as tools that feed the root cause of class indifference? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Bernie Sanders champions.

In other words, are racism, gender, and community bias something natural that we have to socially evolve away from in conscious ways in order to overcome? Is Clinton right?

Or are those things unnatural social constructs that are simply created and then preyed upon by economic injustice for its continuation? Is Sanders right?

That seems to be how the Democratic primary is breaking down. What are the real causes? What are the symptoms that distract us from them?

I fall squarely in the Clinton camp. Sociological studies have shown us that our biases are natural inclinations. That hardly justifies them. As a society, we’ve overcome many other natural inclinations that we deemed unwanted in order to continue existing as a healthy civilization. We consciously change our lives all the time, individually and as a society, in order to make our existences and interactions healthier.

(I mean, you’re reading this on a computer or phone that you got because it increases your efficiency at doing a number of daily tasks. We’ve already stepped irreversibly down the transhumanist path of social evolution, and we barely noticed.)

Either way, at least this dichotomy in thinking is at the core of the Democratic debate. Let’s bring demographics back into the discussion. You can see philosophy even in how groups of people lean one way or the other:

Those who’ve suffered racial injustice (people of color), gender injustice (older women), and community injustice (urban and failing industrial communities) to a greater extent than economic injustice tend to side with Clinton.

Those who’ve suffered economic injustice (young voters, low-income white voters, rural and current industrial communities) to a greater extent than racial, gender, or community injustice tend to side with Sanders.

Both candidates’ messages are evolving geographically as primary season continues, as they always do. But from the beginning, the fight for support has been over those who have been victimized most by the cross-section of these two separate philosophies of injustice:

Young voters of color have suffered the effects of severe racial injustice and the long-lasting economic impacts of the Great Recession.

Young women voters have suffered the effects of both aggressive gender injustice and those same economic impacts of the Great Recession.

And low-income white voters have suffered both the abandonment of the infrastructure of their communities and the disappearance of a reliable industrial economy.

These are the voters most “at play” for a reason, because they fall squarely between two philosophies of how to fix the world. And that they are being valued and spoken to and planned around is beautiful. It may be discussed in demographics and statistics and pop political science talking points, but the discussion itself – at its root – is about the construction of our society from the ground up.

I can’t remember anything like it in politics, anything that strikes so far down to the philosophical core of how societies choose to evolve. The arguments we have and the passion behind those arguments are very real and very crucial – these are not philosophies that share much middle ground, but they are philosophies that can and must be brought closer together.

That the Democratic primary is a discussion of social evolution is in itself a striking moment. Contrasting philosophies of social evolution are usually not the core around which any election evolves in this country, at least not since the Civil Rights movement and UFW agricultural strikes. While this primary is a very ugly one, when you can take a step back and boil down what’s really being discussed, it also might be the most beautiful one.

 

The Mid-Budget Film Awards of 2015

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.

Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?

“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.

“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.

And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.

Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.

These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.

When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.

For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:

Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.

Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.

Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.

Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.

And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”

Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario

When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.

Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.

Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.

Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.

Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
Spotlight

We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.

Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.

“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.

All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”

Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
Sicario

We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.

Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.

It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.

All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”

Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
Carol

If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.

Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.

It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.

All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
Carol
Sicario
A Most Violent Year
Spotlight
Creed
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton

Also check out our awards for Big Budget Films in 2015.

 

Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.

The Big Budget Film Awards of 2015

Crimson Peak Jessica Chastain

by S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

We’re doing something supremely weird this year. We’re breaking up the films of 2015 by big, mid, and low budget categories. We’re qualifying big budget as anything that cost more than $50 million to produce.

The reasons for doing this are multiple. The idea of genre is a lost concept. In a year when the Golden Globes award “The Martian” as best comedy, we’ve lost some sense of what a comedy even is. It also allows films to compete with other films that had about the same level of access and spending. How do you decide a best film race between, say, the $200 million “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and something like “Tangerine,” which was shot on iPhones for $100,000? The two have completely different goals in terms of how they interact with audiences.

Now, let’s talk about one thing that’s quickly apparent in the list below. It’s overwhelmingly white. Isn’t that just what the Oscars are being criticized for this year? We noticed a funny thing splitting films between budgets. The big-budget films we considered were cast far more homogenously than the mid- and especially the low-budget films. Welcome to Hollywood.

You’ll also see that “The Revenant” is nowhere to be seen in this category. We made ourselves a rule – a film has to open in at least 100 theaters in 2015 (or to come out on rental or streaming that year) to be considered a 2015 film. “The Revenant” opened in no more than four until January 8.

The reason for this rule is this: we want to consider a film when audiences actually get a chance to see it. We do this because it allows us to consider a wider range of smaller films that slip through theaters but are worthy of consideration and acknowledgement. Obviously, these don’t tend to be part of the big budget category, but the rule also means that to us, “The Revenant” is a 2016 film.

Oh, and also: we’re not separating the acting categories by gender.

Let’s dive in:

Best Supporting Actor in a Big Budget Film:
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak

 

There was also energy for Viola Davis’s FBI handler in “Blackhat.” Playing a federal agent who knows how to exert political pressure to open the right doors, Davis enjoyed a role women rarely get to inhabit in thrillers. Simon Pegg got some love from us for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” He does some remarkable work, not the least of which is buddying with Tom Cruise in a way that creates a more human space for the action star. Pegg embraced the “supporting” part of “supporting actor” in a way most actors don’t know how.

Ultimately, however, Jessica Chastain’s role in “Crimson Peak” appeared on six of our seven shortlists. In fact, she appeared on the seventh, but that was for her role as mission commander in “The Martian.” As opposed to the heroic leader she plays there, in “Crimson Peak” she is the best villain of the year. Simultaneously measured and out of control, she embodies the madness of Guillermo Del Toro’s world like few before her. She seems to be the entire Grand Guignol genre on her own, both chewing the scenery and delivering on a profoundly nuanced dramatic level. She is the single most important element of the film, playing her role with a range the Oscars overlooked. Even for her vast array of work before this, her role in “Crimson Peak” is still a performance no one expected from her.

All actors receiving a vote:
Jessica Chastain, “Crimson Peak”
Viola Davis, “Blackhat”
Simon Pegg, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”
Jessica Chastain, “The Martian”
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”
Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Donald Sutherland, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”
Julianne Nicholson, “Black Mass”
Michele Rodriguez, “Furious 7”

Best Actor in a Big Budget Film:
Johnny Depp, Black Mass

 

We liked Matt Damon in “The Martian” quite a lot. The film is carried on his back much more than it is in its design or presentation of another world, and that says something. Charlize Theron came close to nabbing this for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” She gives the angry, yearning performance that most expected out of Tom Hardy going in, and she’s the beating heart of one of the best movies of the year.

It’s Johnny Depp in “Black Mass” who deserves this most, however. Either that, or we just like our villains. Most critics had written Depp off as unable to convey these sorts of roles anymore. As the ugly, terrifying Whitey Bulger, Depp plays the most disturbing character in his career. The movie slightly fails him, being more of a historical checklist than an actual theory of the man. Nonetheless, Depp brings his ‘A’ game. His presence makes the viewer cringe in anticipation of what horror his character might commit next. Depp makes the role work even when other actors fail to make theirs work (like Dakota Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch, in a rare miss). He also seems to center Joel Edgerton’s performance, which is all over the map except when Depp’s on-screen. In that way, Depp seems to transcend even the failures of the film around him, raising “Black Mass” from good to must-see territory almost entirely on his performance.

All actors receiving a vote:
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Matt Damon, The Martian
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Mia Wasikowska, Crimson Peak
Alicia Vikander, The Man from UNCLE

Best Screenplay in a Big Budget Film:
Mad Max: Fury Road

 

This came down to a two-horse race between “Inside Out” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’d be hard to find two more different films in 2015, but ultimately, we went with “Mad Max.” The film is simply a perfect storm of storytelling, both on the page and on the screen. Writers George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris had the benefit of a decade of poring over story treatments and tightening the screenplay. There’s something special about a film that goes through that much editing.

Since it’s an apt metaphor, consider films like cars. A screenplay that a studio shops around, written and re-written by different teams of writers, is like a car taken to different mechanics. Some you can trust, some you can’t. A film that’s held by one team as a project you tinker with over years and years – it all runs as one machine. Every part is geared toward the same purpose. Nothing in the film is working against another element. That is the feeling that pervades “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Few films are brave enough to take apart the concepts of toxic masculinity that drive so many in the real world to possess and violate. Fewer still manage to address these concepts through fantastical or science-fictional means. These are too often treated in writing as the realm of by-men, for-men. A screenplay that can buck that trend, especially in such an immediate emotional way is invaluable.

All writers receiving a vote:
George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris, Mad Max: Fury Road
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Guillermo Del Toro & Matthew Robbins, Crimson Peak
David O. Russell, Joy
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
Andy & Lana Wachowski, Jupiter Ascending
Drew Goddard, The Martian

Best Director of a Big Budget Film:
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

 

This became a logjam in voting pretty quickly. The winner just about lapped the field, but “Inside Out,” the underrated “Jupiter Ascending,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” all got some love, tying for third place. It was Christopher McQuarrie for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” who took second. His beautiful sense of pace, his theatrical approach to designing a set piece, and the unexpected performances he lured from Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, and Simon Pegg all made us remember the job he did as, well, surprising.

Yet there really was no competition. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was phenomenal. Four of us named director George Miller tops in this category. It is the fusion of so many pieces working in concert together that makes a film this special. Every element of the film was in tune with the next. This is the same kind of fusion of technical and design elements you saw with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, yet with a far more urgent thematic message:

Even to the nuances, like bringing Eve Ensler in as a consultant to ensure that Miller didn’t direct the women in the film on topics he wasn’t qualified to direct. It’s not some mastery of all the moving parts of a film that’s important in a director. It’s recognizing when you aren’t best qualified to speak to something in your film, and acknowledging and bringing in someone who is.

All directors receiving a vote:
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen, Inside Out
J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Andy & Lana Wachowski, Jupiter Ascending
David O. Russell, Joy
Guillermo Del Toro, Crimson Peak
Scott Cooper, Black Mass
Ridley Scott, The Martian

Best Big Budget Film of 2015:
Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Big surprise after those last two categories. But let’s look at the films that came near. “Jupiter Ascending” already won our Most Thankless Role of 2015 for Mila Kunis. As a film that refuses to take itself seriously while also conveying messages about feminism and gender fluidity that you often don’t see, many of us held onto it as something rare and special.

We gave “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” our Best Diversity of 2015, for featuring positive women, Black, and Hispanic characters, and speaking to the relationship between misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity through the actions of its characters.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the best films ever made, period. Yet there’s something more important than just saying this is the best film of the year. It’s recognizing the trend across all these films. They all follow leading women and champion perspectives of feminism. They may not all agree on those perspectives, but feminism is hardly a movement limited to any individual’s perception of what it should be. They also all feature roles for men that aren’t sidelined to feminism, but rather engage actively as part of the cause.

The notion that these films don’t make money or aren’t as good is ridiculous. If anything, we may be proving the opposite – that the age of films geared simply to play toward poisonous concepts of misogyny and racism is over. Today, we want films that are more inclusive – of gender, of race, of sexuality, of disability. We’ve already talked about why “Mad Max: Fury Road” is good. It’s more important to begin talking about what “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a part of as a movement in film and storytelling. It’s echoed through all the films that received a vote this year:

All films receiving a vote:
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Jupiter Ascending
Inside out
Crimson Peak
Joy
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Martian
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The Best Use of Visual Effects in 2015

Chappie and dog South Africa

by Eden O’Nuallain and Gabriel Valdez

That’s kind of an odd phrasing, isn’t it? Best use of visual effects? The Academy Awards give out “Best Visual Effects,” full stop. What’s the difference?

Too often, visual effects nominations go to films that simply spent the most money on visual effects. They don’t necessarily go to the most creative film or the film where visual effects become a story element rather than a showpiece.

Let’s get started:

Honorable Mentions

“Ant-Man” used visual effects to wonderful comedic effect, but otherwise stuck to Marvel’s tried-and-true approach of flashy CGI fight choreography.

We liked “The Martian” overall, but none of us felt that its visual effects added anything very crucial to the story. The heart of the film was carried by its actors, not by its design. That’s hardly a bad thing, but it fails to make it stand out in this category.

“Jurassic World” did a wonderful job of creating a creature horror movie, but it missed many opportunities to add personality to its creatures. This made them feel glossed over at times, and a little less fearsome than we would’ve liked.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” just missed out on the cut. Each use visual effects in brilliant ways to make their worlds stand out and feel unique, but they balance on that line between contributing to the story and acting as showpieces. Each film uses its showpieces to say more, but often these themes are left to be carried by more traditional film elements. Essentially, they’re our fourth and fifth choices, respectively.

3. Chappie

If it were just up to the fidelity of visual effects, there’s no way “Chappie” makes this list. In terms of how the visual effects are used to create a singular character, however, “Chappie” is in the rarest of company. Unlike a film like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the visual effects in “Chappie” weren’t true motion capture. Instead, the effects artists were entrusted to paint actor Sharlto Copley out of every frame of the film and replace him with their vision of Chappie. It’s a rough, risky way of tossing most of the rules for motion capture out the window and rewriting them from scratch. Yet the rough-hewn, art-over-realism feel of Chappie as a character is exactly what makes him feel so human. As a character, he’s more of a collaborative artistic creation, and less a series of motion capture measurements.

2. Ex Machina

Welcome to that rarest of company. “Ex Machina” has been the subject of a lot of controversy in our discussions of film of the year. You either love it or you loathe it. We all agreed that Alicia Vikander’s Eva is the definition of why this award exists. Even if her character is more costume design than you’d expect at first glance, the parts that are visual effect are blended seamlessly. If we have to believe as an audience that Ava should be treated as real as any human, and begin to question the nature of her captivity because of it, our impulse to feel for her starts at the meeting of actor, costume, and visual effect. It’s the visual effects that may do the most to make her seem vulnerable, since we can effectively see her internal organs and brain. The artistic decisions made surrounding the visual effects are some of the most evocative in the film.

1. Jupiter Ascending

If you remember, we’re part of the cabal that basically thinks “Jupiter Ascending” is simultaneously a kind of bad and essentially brilliant film. At first glance its visual effects might seem of the set piece variety. Many of them are (gravity boots, anyone?), yet the visual effects fill a wide range of roles – they deliver much of the film’s comedy and do a lot of the work in terms of world-building. They have personality and that personality gives you incredible amounts of information about the universe you’re watching. In creating a universe that nods to “Flash Gordon,” “Brazil,” “The Fifth Element,” “Dune,” and comic book artist Moebius, “Jupiter Ascending” is essentially telling you to kick your feet up and relax as if you were watching a cartoon (the main character’s name is Jupiter Jones, for godssakes). Not enough critics did that, unfortunately.

Yet few films required their visual effects to do so much over the course of the entire movie. They are colorful, sumptuous, threatening, weird, and busy, but in the curious universe that “Jupiter Ascending” creates, they all feel home to someone and they all seem to have practical use, even if that practical use is downright bonkers. For doing more of the lifting than visual effects are usually required to do, “Jupiter Ascending” stands out.

The seven voters are S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

The Best Fight Choreography of 2015

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by Gabriel Valdez

Fight choreography is often overlooked for its ability to tell stories in ways that differ from the usual visuals of filmmaking. In many countries, martial arts themselves are infused with deeper and more mythological meanings, so why shouldn’t fight choreography on film be able to communicate these same things?

Some films this year really have gone an incredible distance in terms of the emotional storytelling they choose to convey with fight choreography.

Let’s get one thing out of the way and start with what’s not on here, however. Why isn’t “Kingsman: The Secret Service” here? That church sequence alone should get it near the top of the list, right? And while I didn’t like the film, I did think many of its choreographic concepts were technically brilliant. The problem lies in the execution.

If there’s an award that should go to someone on “Kingsman,” it should go to the editors and compositors. Watch the church scene again, if you’ve got the stomach for it (I actually recommend not doing so, but suit yourself). Count how many times a body or object crosses the screen in the extreme foreground. How many times does the camera swing away to other characters?

While the sequence may present itself as a series of unbroken takes, it’s actually composed of dozens of far quicker takes. While the conceptualization of the choreography is brilliant, if brutal, the execution is more simple. It’s what works for what the film wants, but it’s not anything special in terms of the actual fight choreography or by artistic merit. It’s not anything that belongs on a list like the one below.

Be warned, unlike most other awards, the nature of fight scenes often means seeing a spoiler in the form of a big reveal or a character’s death:

THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW.

5. The Dead Lands

Clint Elvy, fight coordinator
Andrew Stehlin, fight coordinator

The first feature film shot entirely in the Maori language, “The Dead Lands” is also the first to choreograph battles using Mau Rakau. This is the indigenous martial art of New Zealand. You may recognize the movements and unique expressions from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, which performs a traditional Maori war dance before every match.

If the “demon” in the clip above looks familiar, that’s Lawrence Makoare. He played a number of evil creatures in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, including the orc who goes one-on-one with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn at the end of “Fellowship.” Makoare brings a controlled abandon to the fight choreography, and gave an overlooked dramatic turn in “The Dead Lands” as well.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Wolfgang Stegemann, fight team & fight trainer

It’s hard to place a choreography like that of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Its presentation is remarkably theatrical for an American action movie. The fight choreography deliberately plays with what you expect, constantly changing expression and mood. The production and set design often become a silent third player in how each fight develops. This consideration lends both a groundedness and a surprising puzzle-solving quality to each fight. The sets aren’t breakaway, made for the viewer to appreciate their destruction. The sets are instead made to feel real, made for the characters to interact with.

This lends a solidity to the fights most films lack. It also allows the director to play with that solidity when he wants to really turn the screws on a character. This is the sort of thing that theatrical plays do with advanced set design. It’s typically not what you expect in a Tom Cruise film. When we talk about how technical elements are used in film, we shouldn’t just talk about the independent qualities they possess. We should talk about how those elements are folded into the film to better create a world and its visual language. In that, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is remarkable.

3. Kung Fu Killer

Hua Yan, martial arts director
Bun Yuen, martial arts director

“Kung Fu Killer” (aka “Kung Fu Jungle”) isn’t a great film on its story merits. Those trucks in the clip above were driving through the plot holes. Yet on the balance, the film’s fight choreography is varied and wonderfully complex.

The fight scenes make use of the full range of wide-screen presentation, and the language of each fight, the ebb and flow, is communicated through editing on precise movements. This precision helps earlier in the film, when our heroes investigate the murder of martial arts masters. There are particular edits we don’t see in the initial fight. Instead, these are bookmarked in our heads. When Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo looks at the crime scene, these bookmarked edits are filled in. As he recognizes what happened, so do we. It’s clever, and requires viewers to remember specific movements later on without making us realize that’s what we’re doing.

“Kung Fu Killer” easily boasts the most technically impressive choreography of the year. So why’s it #3? Because there’s more that choreography can do than being technically incredible.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Fight Choreography Kylo Ren Rey Finn

Stephen Oyoung, sword trainer
Chloe Bruce, Adam J. Bernard, Gyula Toth, choreography

You’re going to have to take my word for it, since any unlicensed clips of the film online (including the most spoiler-iffic) are erased by Disney as fast as they’re put up. What “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does right is present the control with which a fighter does (or doesn’t) fight. We see Finn get beaten multiple times, so his choreography is elementary, but full of recoveries. Constantly losing yet also narrowly surviving in believable ways walks a very fine line. That means his fighting style is too tight, too closed, the scope of his engagement too narrow.

For Kylo Ren’s choreography, we need to see someone thoroughly trained yet who lacks the discipline to adhere to that training. His choreography is built from powerful attacks that close distance quickly. Sometimes he’s controlled and sometimes he lashes out. In sword work, the more relentless you are, the more vulnerabilities you risk. It’s a choreography that defines Ren’s character as well as any other aspect of the film does.

Enter Rey’s choreography, which is built for defense and counter-attack. It’s built from stances and positions that close and then open again, attacks that rise and then fall. This gives her choreography the feel of breathing. It’s a naturalistic choreography. The body closes to focus and present less of a window for an opponent. When switching from defense to counter, the body opens back up again in its full breadth, offering a more complete window to attack your opponent.

Combined with Kylo Ren’s tendency to lash out, their choreography turns into something of a meditation. The assault of anger, of lashing out, the breathing in to contain, the breathing out to release. Overly complex choreography (see: the prequels) is ditched in favor of choreography that communicates. It’s why that last fight is so utterly beautiful. Light sabers in a dark wood as the snow falls doesn’t need help being beautiful, yes. And yet that choreography speaks to what we feel in the theater as we hold our breath, what we feel in our lives when panic strikes. It feels like the assault of fear, and the response of calm, the loss of control against the acknowledgment there is no control. It echoes some of your worst days and some of your best. It feels like the world closing in on you, and then letting yourself be a part of that world anyway.

It feels like breathing, and it lets us know we’ve been in this fight ourselves. We know what it’s like, what its emotional steps are, how it takes place in the mind, and how it feels when the fear and anger and breathing and calm all course through our bodies in a complicated mixture. The fight we see on-screen is beautiful. That we can all recognize its meaning in ourselves makes it meaningful. That’s what choreography can accomplish.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Richard Norton, fight coordinator
Greg van Borssum, principal fight choreographer / weapons advisor

It would take something truly and uniquely special to beat that out. And yet, there really is nothing else this year that compares to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” When I talk about fight choreography, I talk about the visual language it creates as part of a film. Fight scenes are often treated like set pieces, and they can be visual delights in this way. Yet a truly good fight scene is like a truly good dialogue scene. From when it starts to when it ends, something has changed for every character involved.

In no film is that more true this year than “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What makes the film so incredibly unique is that its dialogue scenes don’t really evolve the characters’ relationships to each other. They let us get to know them better, and give us better windows into their internal worlds, but it’s through the action that “Mad Max: Fury Road” tells its story. The relationships of these characters evolve through fist fights and gun fights and car chases, and it takes a rare marriage of all parts of choreography to make this happen. What are all the parts? That’s conception, that’s the base choreography, that’s how it interacts with the set around it, how costume informs what’s happening, how the stuntpeople and the actors work in concert for consistent performances, and how the editing and music can communicate a remarkable number of emotional beats inside of it all.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” develops such a complete choreographic language that there are moments toward the end of the film that become less about action in a story, and more about the physical embodiment of myth. In that rare a feat, it makes it feel like the choreography itself is some demonstration in our minds, something that we imagine as we’re told a story and then arises from us as interpreters of that story. No film in a long time has better used fight choreography simply to tell the story.

Read the rest of our 2016 Awards:

Best Diversity

Most Thankless Role

Where did we get our awesome images? Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” images are from Forbes’ “No, Rey…Is Not A Mary Sure” article, and the “Mad Max: Fury Road” image is from Nerdist’s “The Subtle Triumph of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm.” Both are highly recommended.

The Best Diversity of 2015

Diversity Poe from Star Wars The Force Awakens

by S.L. Fevre, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

Rarely has the “Star Wars” universe felt so big. Where before, white men saved a white princess (the only woman in the story) from being trapped in prison and being chained up as a sex slave by Donald Trump a giant space slug, today women and people of color are saving the galaxy with help from white allies.

And yet, criticisms persist that fans of the new diversity in “Star Wars” are simply falling for a market-tested Disney trick. But that overlooks the point.

Feminist critics been saying for years that films led by women and people of color will make money. If Disney finally decided films led by women and people of color will make money, good. Our argument wasn’t somehow free of market forces; it was based on them.

That’s not “falling for it.” It’s like telling us we fell for hitting the bullseye with the arrow we just shot. Thanks; that’s what we were aiming for.

Regardless, “Star Wars” has the same effect on children no matter why the decision was made. Girls and boys now see a woman named Rey saving the universe. She is a skilled mechanic and pilot. She can fight and men recognize they should follow and assist her when in her areas of expertise.

A princess named Leia, once told to lose weight for the franchise and stuffed into a metal bikini, is now a general who’s aged realistically. She has a broken family, and yet she hasn’t shirked the mantle of leadership in order to mourn that fracture. She’s got a galaxy that needs protecting.

Children now see a Black hero in Finn who rejects what he’s been told he needs to be. He removes a mask of aggression that’s been placed upon him according to the role society wants him to fill. That society sends him for re-education so that he’ll better remember to leave the mask on. He is a man whose unique problem is empathy in a structure that tells him this sensitivity is weakness. He decides upon his own path, and in so doing faces down the fear of being visible for once in his life.

Children now see that the best starfighter in the galaxy is Hispanic. No, Poe doesn’t get quite as much screen time, but damn, he can fly an X-wing. He’s not lazy. He’s not wearing a space poncho or speaking in a stereotypical accent. He’s not stealing anyone’s job. He’s saving the day, and gifting jackets to boot.

And finally, the villain. He has been taught to view himself as weak so that he can hate himself. He has been taught to draw strength from the rage of hating this weakness. He echoes Elliot Rodger, uploading a video of his faults to YouTube and blaming women and minorities for his perceived oppression. Or a hundred other shooters, stabbers, stranglers. Or “legalize rape” rallies. He is the young man crafted to hate, and blames anyone different or accepting of others for that hate.

Who better to fight against that voice, a voice too prevalent in our society, than women, a Black man, a Hispanic man, and white allies?

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is of a time and it is of a struggle. It may happen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it teaches us how to be heroic here and now: together, by lifting each other up.

More than anything else, its ending reminds us that after the grave sacrifices and heartbreaking tragedies we see in the world around us, in the aftermath of the most violent and unexpected acts, the most valuable thing we can do is seek to learn more, to better ourselves, to fight the fight with that much more collaboration and determination tomorrow.

Diversity Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Other films that were considered for this award were “Mad Max: Fury Road” for its bold feminist themes, “Blackhat” for its truly diverse group of professionals, “Tangerine” for its transgender protagonists and racial diversity, and “Furious 7” for its diverse cast of action stars.

Where did we get our awesome images? All come from Screen Rant’s spoilers article. Just beware of, you know, spoilers.

Movies and how they change you.