First, the good news: 2015 was a fantastic year at the movies. There were great original stories, sequels done right, adaptations that match their source material and more. But for every great movie, there’s a ton of bad ones too. Here’s our picks for the best and worst science fiction and fantasy films of 2015.
Sure it’s still fresh in our minds—but can you imagine a world where The Force Awakens isn’t a movie we revisit just as much, if not more, than the year’s best movies? That enduring quality is a testament to J.J. Abrams’ ability to deliver not just an insanely fun movie, but one that’s positively brimming with lore. You want to see it again, as much as you want to sit down and talk about it. Add to that the star-making performances from the new cast—Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and others—as well as heart-melting return performances from Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and others, and you’ve got the perfect balance of nostalgia and futurism.
Matthew Vaughn has quickly become one of those filmmakers we just can’t get enough of. His latest, Kingsman, is a hilarious, high-energy spy film that mixes James Bond cool with modern pop sensibilities into something that feels fresh but also grounded. It’s an origin story, buddy picture and epic adventure, all rolled into one. Colin Firth is great as always, but the real revelation is Taron Egerton as Eggsy, a punk kid who grows into a formidable, suave, spy. Bonus points to Samuel L. Jackson playing this year’s best Bond villain—and that includes Spectre.
If Crimson Peak was what we thought it was going to be (a gory, period ghost story) it probably would have been good. But the way it defied our expectations is what makes it really good. Guillermo del Toro crafted a twisted, gothic romance, that uses violence and horror as set dressing to show how truly gruesome marriage and family can be. Jessica Chastain is chilling as the sister with a dark secret, Tom Hiddleston is perfectly mysterious as her brother, and Mia Wasikowska is just the right amount of innocent to fit directly in the middle. Amazing production design, music and cinematography all make for a truly unsettling, transporting ride.
Ridley Scott was on a bit of a cold streak of late, but with his adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular novel, The Martian, he brought back everything we love about his films: epic scope, personal story, big action and a great sense of humor. Matt Damon’s mostly one-man show as an astronaut stranded on Mars gave audiences a human story, a dramatic story, scientific insight and lots to cheer for and laugh with. Then, on the Earth side, an all-star cast is there to play Greek chorus as we marvel as the story unfolding on screen. The result is a well-balanced blockbuster that doesn’t pander to the audience.
The fifth movie in a franchise should not be good. And it definitely shouldn’t be, arguably, the best movie in the franchise. But Christopher McQuarrie’s take on Mission: Impossible is just that. It combines all the scope and gadgets you want from these films, with a story that makes the good guys bad. And then this film adds in one of the year’s best characters, Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson. In Ilsa, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has not just a formidable rival, but an ally equal to himself. And that gives Rogue Nation a whole new level of gravitas on top of the great set pieces.
The horror genre is such a tough nut to crack. It feels like everything has been done, redone, reimagined, twisted and spit out so often that originality is almost impossible. Of course, it’s not, and this year’s best example is David Robert Mitchell’s deceptively simple and utterly terrifying, It Follows. Something is coming to get you, and it’s coming right now—but it’s coming slowly, and could be anything. Mitchell’s camera is beautifully loose, keeping the audience on their toes at all times as to who the villain even is. And the story is so basic, the debate over what it’s a metaphor for becomes as rewarding a conversation as which was the scariest part. Spoiler: it’s all of it.
Pixar is known for coming up with ideas that seem obvious after the fact. And yet, few have been as good as Pete Docter’s Inside Out, which makes memorable, wonderful characters out of the emotions in a girl’s head. They live in one of the most fascinating, beautiful and vast settings Pixar has ever created—the human mind—and that’s not even mentioning the story. That’s the best part, how Joy and Sadness’s adventure through the mind, leaving Fear, Disgust and Anger in control, completely nails what it’s like to be 11 years old. Inside Out is smart, absolutely hilarious, and utterly heartbreaking, all in ways that only Pixar can do. It ranks right among the best films they’ve ever made.
Making a good comedy is hard enough. But making that comedy a good horror movie, a good character piece, a fun narrative that’s aware of itself and more? It seems impossible. And yet that’s what co-writers and directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi do with this amazing film. It’s a vampire comedy/mockumentary that can’t be truly appreciated on just one viewing. There’s humor that’s hilarious and obvious, but also so much nuance, it’s almost maddening. The characters are rich, the costumes and settings are beautiful, and it all combines for an absolute gem of genre-mixing. It’s a film you and your friends will be quoting late at night for years to come.
A mad genius has created a beautiful, intriguing A.I. He brings in a high level employee to test it. And from there, the mind games begin. Alex Garland’s endlessly fascinating cyberpunk thriller has it all. From a purely design standpoint, Alicia Vikander’s Ava is one of the most beautiful things on screen this year. But it’s the way she manipulates Domhnall Gleeson’s character, as he’s trying to manipulate Oscar Isaac’s character, coupled with the grand ideas of progress and change, that elevate the film. Then, in the end, the whole thing gets flipped to being about something totally different. Ex Machina never lets up, always keeps you guessing, and won’t allow you to look anywhere else because it’s all so magnetic.
At the beginning of 2015, as much as everyone was looking forward to the latest George Miller Mad Max movie, no one could have predicted it would be as good as it was. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just good, it’s monumental. It’s the best action movie of the year, the best genre film of the year, and maybe the best film of the year in any category. The film tells an incredibly tight, straightforward story, which leaves room for a ton of insight, both on-screen and off. Then there’s the jaw-dropping practical action and gorgeous cinematography, coloring and music. Simply put, you’ve never seen a movie like this. And on top of all that, there’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a unfathomably cool, strong and multi-layered lead character. If Fury Road was about Max, it would have been great—but flipping it and making it about Furiosa is what transcends everything.
Tomorrowland should have been on the other list. It’s directed by Brad Bird, starring George Clooney and co-written by Damon Lindelof. It’s a Disney movie about the adventure and promise of the future. And yet, there’s almost nothing there. From the very beginning of the film, ideas and concepts are set up but never fulfilled. Relationships developed, but not really paid off. The film is wasted potential, wrapped in disappointment, with endless good intentions at its core. As Paleofuture’s Matt Novak said when we were debating this list, “It’s a waiter giving a lecture about sizzle and never bringing out your steak.”
The first Ted film came out of nowhere. It was raunchy, it was surprising, and it was hilarious. We expected more of the same with the second one, but not exactly the same. Ted 2 is two hours of awkward. The same jokes from the first movie, recycled into different situations. Even the seemingly interesting story— the talking teddy bear fighting to be considered a person—gets lost in a hodgepodge of odd story beats and wacky characters. There’s nothing cohesive about Ted 2 and it just disappoints you over and over again, like getting the same Christmas present two years in a row.
No, you didn’t jump back to the worst of 2013 list. Seventh Son, the fantasy film starring Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, actually came out in 2015. It just sat on a shelf for two years before release and was shuffled between studios. So really, the fact that no one wanted to release this movie should tell you everything you need to know. Beyond that though, the biggest problem with Seventh Son is it’s just so boring. You never care about anything going on, which is crazy when there are multiple Oscar-winning actors for you to look at, along with some big, boisterous special effects. You watch it, and immediately forget it.
The first 20 minutes of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four are not bad. I remember thinking, “Hey, this might actually work.” The characters are interesting, the motivations are promising and it’s paced very well. But very soon after that things don’t just fall apart, they crumble like a building in an earthquake. Bad decision on top of bad decision make the film move along an impressively stupid trajectory. You should never question the smarts of these iconic characters, but here you do, right up to the most boring and pointless climactic battle scene of the year. This all hurts even more when you remember what this great cast, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, are capable of with a good script.
If you think about it, I bet you remember the first time you saw both of James Cameron’s Terminator movies. They were so fresh, frightening and entertaining they became cultural landmarks. Since then though, the franchise has struggled to find its footing—and while Terminator Genisys isn’t quite Terminator Salvation bad, it’s another huge misstep. The idea of flipping the franchise on its head because of time travel was a good one, but the end result feels like non-starter. A ton of posturing to bank on nostalgia and not enough ideas that push things ahead. This is a different Terminator, but it’s not even close to what preceded it, and that makes it a crushing disappointment.
The reason video game adaptations are so difficult is they lack a personal touch. In a game, you put yourself into the main character and that gives it a whole other layer of enjoyment. Hitman: Agent 47 takes that blank slate video game character and is detrimentally true to the game. Rupert Friend, so good on Showtime’s Homeland, is painfully bland as this perfect killing machine. So much so that the movie suffers the same fate. A few action beats are okay but the plot and characters provide almost nothing to even come close to a level of human interaction needed to make a film watchable. Agent 47 is as fleeting as a bullet up into the air.
Not every story needs a prequel, let alone one of the best known stories in the world. Talented director Joe Wright tried to make something special with Pan, the first chapter in the story of Peter Pan, but what he ended up with was a busy, overly vibrant film that feels artificial at each and every step of the way. Yes the cast is good, and the effects impressive, but when a story is this engrained into the public consciousness, the musical outbursts and wild effects work against the audience’s engagement with the material. Everything just melts into a world of green screen.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is enraging. You almost can’t believe you are watching a movie that’s populated with such annoying, unredeemable, unlikeable characters. The jokes miss, the super-fun idea at the core is totally squandered, and just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it gets better. And that’s the truly painful part. After watching this terrible movie, the end credits scene is vibrant, shocking and interesting, unlike the rest of the movie. You can’t help but be stunned the idea for something cool was there, but they instead decided to just be dicks.
Stop the presses! A movie starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James is really bad. What’s more surprising about Pixels, though, is a movie by Chris Columbus, with Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage and a plot that wants to pay tribute to the great genre comedies of the ‘80s is really bad. Pixels has very little to redeem it. The story is lame, characters are worse, there’s no excitement, no laughs, it’s like a movie studio vomited hundreds of million dollars onto a screen and this was a result. Okay, some of the effects look cool. We’ll give it that. But when that’s the best thing you can say about a movie with this caliber of talent behind it, it’s a damn shame.
Jem and the Holograms separates itself from every other movie this year by barely being a movie at all. Director Jon Chu cocked back and swung for the fences with an ambitious blend of new media, fan interaction, filmmaking, music, sci-fi and romance. But he not only misses, he let the bat slip, it flew into the stands and killed your parents. Almost nothing about Jem and the Holograms makes sense. It barely represents the franchise it’s reimagining, the plot feels like a 90 minute supercut of a 22 episode season, and it squanders any chance it had to grab onto its quirky, fun, girl power themes. Jem and the Holograms is a remarkable failure on every level, and definitely the worst film of the year.
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