2015 is pretty much over, and what a year it’s been for fans of entertainment. I keep trying to think of a better overall year with content for EVERY fan as we have had in 2015, and I can count that number on one hand. No matter what you thought of specific films or television shows, you have to admit there was a ton of quality out there, if you had the time to sift through it all.
Now of course comes the hard part, narrowing ALLLLLLLLLL of that down into a tiny list of the Best of the Best. We all have these lists – that we will share on social media or with our friends at parties – but whittling a massive amount of great material down to the 10 or 20 BEST things of any year can be a daunting task, let alone a year like 2015 has been.
While we all ponder our own respective collections, I like to put together something different every year. A listicle that is more about the year as a whole, rather than just a few random titles (many of which you will see on 50 listicles over the next month anyway). No, this is a list of the biggest surprises in movies and television from 2015.
What changed this past year? What did we never see coming? What were we wrong to expect? Surprises are what we’re talking about here. We get so consumed by the concept of explaining why we think Ex Machina is revolutionary, that we forget that it took us completely by surprise as one of the most exciting feelings to experience as a fan. Surely there were other surprises throughout the year?
There absolutely were. By my count, at least 10 of them. Are you ready? Let’s do this.
10. Rated R Returns
That’s right, rated R movies are BACK! Not only are they back with a vengeance, they are great films that people are actually paying to see. Remember when Hollywood told us that rated R movies were dead? That the only way we were getting them was over their dead bodies? No? Well, they said it. We were just all too busy paying for PG-13 nonsense that deserved to be told bloodier and with far more F-bombs. We were all being neutered.
2015 brought R ratings back home. Want the ‘Ooooooooooooo yeaaaaaa’ back in your sexy-time drama? Dirty yourself up with a little Fifty Shades of Grey. Ok, I admit this first one isn’t a very good film, but many ladies loved it, so what do I know? Want to see a rap biography that isn’t sissified down to Vanilla Ice levels, yet maintains strong and consistent character work from a group of ‘street thugs’? Straight Outta Compton is your gin and juice. How about a James Bond-ish spy flick where body parts fly and our hero gets the girl right in her knickers? The Kingsman is at your service.
Hollywood lied to us. As it turns out, people WILL pay for R-rated opuses of sex and destruction, when they are made competently for the respective audience. With films like Deadpool and Fifty Shades of Black hanging just over the horizon, this R rating thing might last a little longer than your typical passing fad.
9. Not Even Death Can Kill The Fast And The Furious
Bad form, right? To mention death in the same sentence as Fast and the Furious? Well, guess what? Paul Walker – one of the two stars of this vampiric franchise (sorry, Vin, it’s not just you that people love) – did, in fact, die during the filming of Furious 7. He and Swayze are off molding pottery together somewhere. A horrible tragedy in itself, and also one that almost guarantees a film either gets scrapped or – at the very least – is pasted together so half-assed there is simply no recovery. These circumstances kill ordinary franchises. Thankfully, these guys wear capes.
What you certainly do NOT expect is the film takes months off, incurs millions in additional costs and reshoots (some of those incorporating Walker’s brothers as fill-ins), and then releases to become one of the most critically beloved and financially successful in a franchise already seven movies deep! I mean, I love movies with parachuting cars and Statham fisticuffs too, but this is bonkers. What the hell just happened?
I have no idea, but it has to be some kind of voodoo-magic Walker left Vin and company in his will. Not only did director James Wan retool this film to give us some of the most memorable action scenes in the entire franchise, he also made us cry in a movie starring Vin Diesel, The Rock, and Jason Statham. A movie that revolves around idiotic plot devices, flying cars, and acting more monosyllabic than a caveman offering life advice.
You win, Paul Walker. Our love for you springs eternal. Great, my eyes are raining again. Damn you.
8. Every Series Should Be An Event Series
This is becoming the coolest trend in television. Instead of dropping 22 episodes of a show – and let’s face it, after 22 episodes a season, who can remember what the hell is going on? – now networks are doing small blocks of shows, and then spinning them off in different directions for future seasons.
Secrets & Lies revolved around a character desperately trying to prove his innocence in a heinous murder as a hard-nosed cop closed in on him. After the tale resolved itself, the network renewed the show, but will bring it back and pit it on the course of a new sordid tale. Wayward Pines wrapped up its riveting storyline with the death of a major character, only to be renewed for another short season where it also will have to take on a different storyline.
American Horror Story might be the first to use this model successfully, but it’s hard to deny how well it played in 2015. This ‘Event Series’ trend is brilliant in its simplicity, designed to capture the wandering imagination of a generation sick to death of investing in 7 or 8 seasons of meandering television and then be left with a huge whiff of an ending that makes you rethink your entire existence. Now we can invest our preciously limited time in shows that, with the exception of a character or two, are resolved by that 10th or 13th episode. We receive an actual resolution.
We wanted immediacy, we demanded results, and our terms are finally being met.
7. Women Don’t Need A Man’s Help Anymore
Finally. It’s talked about every year – how female characters are becoming more independent – yet it rarely seems to establish itself as the norm. I know this might surprise you guys, but ladies will do just fine without us. They no longer need us to save them, to complete them, to support them. They have become fully-fledged characters, instead of accessories. This was already the case in much of television, but movies have languished in the proverbial dust. In 2015, we finally have achieved some measure of stability – Women are done serving the role of damsel-in-distress.
Look at some of the biggest films of the year: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Cinderella, Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, Insurgent, Joy, Spy, and on and on. Even in male lead films like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ant-Man – the ladies are not sitting idly by waiting for their studly knight to come save them from whatever threat it is they’re facing. No sir, they take the fight to them. Hell, in many of these films, THEY are doing the saving.
Not only are they finally being treated as characters and not just set-dressing in skimpy outfits, we no longer have to suffer through 47 pages of dialogue explaining why they are so damn tough. Do male characters need 45 minutes of daddy issues to explain why they are kicking ass at a hefty clip? Neither should ladies. Take Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Does she whine and mope about her lot in life, pining for Finn to come save her from all the bad men in the galaxy far, far away? NO! She just figures things out and moves forward, like MOST women would. Ain’t nobody got time to pine.
Welcome to 2016. Where we finally treat female characters with the respect they’ve deserved since at least 1920.
6. Two Movies And One Book
Speaking of tough chicks, how about that Katniss, eh? Remember her? She just concluded the final chapter in one of the biggest franchises of all time? No? Ohhhhh, that’s right. You probably don’t remember because THAT FINALE SUCKED!
Ok, maybe sucked is a bit too strong. How about ‘blew chunks’? Still too harsh? Fine, can we agree it wasn’t very good, that is, unless you suffer from severe insomnia? The Hunger Games was a franchise I absolutely adored. A strong central character portrayed by one of the strongest actresses in her generation, a horrific predicament, a terrifying backdrop for ongoing conflict…and then when we finally get to the stunning conclusion – WHAM! Nap time.
This is the very real concern with splitting a fairly short book into two complete movies – one of them might just suck. With Harry Potter and Twilight, we kinda got lucky. Both of those films had their final film split into two, and the weaker film was the Part 1 in both instances. But Hunger Games had two really good films to start us off, then a weak Part 1, followed by a damn near comatose Part 2. You would think the camera holding on Jennifer Lawrence’s gorgeous features for minutes on end would keep me entertained. Much like a stare-down with a Cheshire Cat, eventually I just wanted to pass out and fall down a rabbit hole.
The surprise at play here is that now I have no interest in ever revisiting this franchise. This ending was so melodramatic and anticlimactic, that I simply never want to visit this world again. I say that as a huge fan of the first films. Let’s stop splitting a single book into two movies. We get it, you guys need the money, but it is killing the memory of some great franchises.
I can’t be the only one that feels this way…right?
5. Smart Television Is Alive!
Mr. Robot, where have you been all of our lives? I mean, WHO saw this coming?! The winner of the 1987 Jack Nicholson Wanna-Be Competition and a kid whose biggest claim to fame is a PS4 game combined to form the most intelligent duo in cable television…ON USA NO LESS?!
Not only does Mr. Robot showcase the truth and blandness in computer hackery (it’s true, using a laptop to crack code is not done in milliseconds of furious typing by the sexiest teen on the CW), it also respects the characters and premise enough to stay with it where most shows would break away for forced angst and cheap character flaws. This is a series that shows REAL people with REAL fears facing the REAL threats of modern-day America – mental illness, social awkwardness, and technology. This is damn smart television, and we need more of it.
If Mr. Robot sounds benign to you, how about any of these other awfully intelligent shows: 12 Monkeys, Outlander, Better Call Saul, Jessica Jones, House of Cards, John Oliver, and many more. We live in an era where every sensibility is being served delicious helpings of thoughtful and inspired television at our whim.
I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.
4. Horror Isn’t So Scary
Speaking of hungry, I’ve long been a fan of horror films, just about any variation of them. Slasher, supernatural, monsters, whatever. Feed me, Seymour, FEEEED MEEEEE! What surprised me in 2015 was just how tame they’ve become.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always gems if you look hard enough. Krampus and Crimson Peak were refreshing changes of pace, but overall – bubkis. Poltergeist, It Follows (yea, I said it), The Green Inferno – what kind of hot, sticky garbage are you throwing at us? We’re no better than retreads, clever yet meandering artistic ideas, and just plain hack directors? I guess we now know why Japanese horror keeps whooping us in the chills department year after year.
For all of the fantastic cinema and television at play this year, bloody fans such as myself have suffered horroribly. Ok, intentionally misspelling that wasn’t funny enough to take my mind off the very plain fact that we need some fresh and brilliant insight in the horror world on the big screen. I love my indie film bright spots (Thank you, Gravy and Final Girls), but I also want to venture to the Cineplex with my $37 Diet Coke, and not suffer through one more Paranormal Activity experiment gone awry. I have the largest bag of popcorn and drink legally allowed on the planet – I want to be so terrified that every ounce of it lands on the lady in front of me.
We deserve better, Hollywood. Make us so scared that lady will brush popcorn out of her hair for 3 hours after that movie ends. Give us what we crave…or maybe we’ll scare you just a little.
3. ‘Are You Not Entertained?!’ – Streaming
Ala carte can kiss my ass. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting for cable to catch up to consumer demands. We haven’t watched TV the way they think we should for years. Thankfully – in 2015 – Netflix, Apple and Hulu are sick of it too.
That’s right, cable, you’re in a street race, and streamers are revving their engines. For far too long, these cable giants have dictated what we can watch, and how much it’s gonna cost us. Everyone bitches about the price of popcorn, but they rarely blink an eye at the $100+ cable bill for the 87 channels they don’t even want to watch. Why? Because they felt powerless. Big cable always wins.
Well, this year Davey showed up in the form of streaming internet to take on the Goliath known as cable. You want TV shows when you want to watch them? No problem. You want commercial-free? Lay back, daddy’s got you covered. Netflix, Apple, and Hulu have done more to advance the state of modern television in one year than cable has done in 30. You know it’s working when the government wants to ‘get involved’ and find out why streaming video doesn’t count against your data cap. There’s money in them thar hills of 1s and 0s! And if there’s money, that means they are finally winning.
Get the stitches ready, Big Cable. There’s about to be a title fight.
2. The Movie Star Era Is Officially Over
Paul Walker’s ghost was a bigger movie star than any other actor working in Hollywood in 2015. That’s right, I said it. An apparition was bigger than George Clooney, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Will Ferrell, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Movie stars are, with rare exception, dead. Kaput. Gone.
Does that mean there are no more entertainers for us to follow? No, of course not. 24 hour television and media needs to have something to fill up the space, so celebrities will always be relevant. But bankable? Not so much.
No longer does an actor’s name guarantee you a hit film or a huge opening. The Martian didn’t do boffo business because audiences were dying to see the next Matt Damon flick. Jurassic World didn’t blow up, regardless of what EW tells you, because of Chris Pratt. Marvel didn’t sell Ant-Man solely on the marketability of that mega-star, Paul Rudd. Star Wars sure didn’t NEED Harrison Ford to make a bazillion dollars (though I’m sure it didn’t hurt). With movies costing so much these days, people only spend money on a film that is an absolute MUST-SEE, and George Clooney just isn’t worth $40 a pop anymore.
Whether it is for big laughs, pretty pictures, fast-paced dialogue, whiz-bang effects – now more than ever, what’s on screen is what is selling audiences on films. S.S. Wilson, a screenwriter I had the privilege of speaking with recently, said it best: ‘Hollywood is run by marketing’. He is absolutely right, and 2015 proved it with absolute certainty.
The era of silver-screen stars is over. With so much press available on actors, the mystery and appeal – one of the most appealing aspects of a ‘Movie Star’ – are gone. We already know everything about them, from who they date to where they eat, so there is no real need to pay a fortune just to get our fill. We have our fill at our own disposal, online or in our personal collections. We want new, exciting, FRESH!
If 2015 taught me anything, it’s that movie stars now come with an ever-shortening expiration date.
1. You CAN Recreate Your Childhood
I will be the first to admit, I am not a fan of reboots or remakequels or whatever the trendy term is now for taking a dormant franchise and jazzing it up for a new generation. I’ve gone on many rants about ‘Be More Original!’ or ‘Get Off My Lawn!’, one of those. My personal theory has always been that you absolutely cannot recreate a moment in time, so let it go. Those phenomenal experiences you had as a kid are gone. Stop trying to live in your own past and let your kids have their own. As the hipsters say, Frozen that sh!#.
Well, aren’t I the cranky old bastard? As it turns out, you CAN go home again. I’m a grown ass man, and like a grown ass man, there comes a time when I have to admit the depth of my wrongness. So here I stand, on my soapbox of negative energy, confessing you absolutely can have those experiences again…if they are done right!
Yea, more often it fails (Terminator: Genisys says, ‘What’s Up?’). But thrice this year, it’s happened. Three different times, I have walked into a theater skeptical, damn near cynical, and then walked out like I was a 10 year-old kid again.
I walked into Mad Max: Fury Road with massive levels of hype, but at a flat zero in terms of expectation. As far as Mad Max goes, only Mel Gibson deserves to wear that title. And while I would argue Charlize Theron is a better Max than Tom Hardy, it would be difficult to debate that the film took me back to those gritty underground flicks from the 80’s. George Miller. That son-of-a-bitch did it.
Then I walked into mega-hype #2 – Jurassic World. Here is a franchise that hasn’t gotten the tone right since the very first film. As much as people love to act like the first film was the smartest thing since manned space flight, it was and still is just a dinosaur rampage film, told through the lens of the most talented director of our time. So, forgive me if I did not equate Colin Trevorrow on the same scale as Mr. Spielberg as I sauntered into the cinema.
Yet, somehow, I walked out of that stupid movie (say what you want, it’s a pretty idiotic plot) with my fists in the air, waving them like I just don’t care. I was a kid…yet again. It wasn’t art, nor should it have been. It was an absolutely fun dinosaur rampage film, as it should have been. Most importantly, it reminded me why I so love the first Jurassic Park – the textures of the designs, the realistic effects, and – especially – the level of awe and wonder it inspired in me as I gazed upon creatures I never thought I would witness. Jurassic World reminded me of that.
And then there was Star Wars.
Oh, I know, you’re sick of hearing about Star Wars. Believe me, I get it. If ever a movie has been oversaturated with overexposure, it’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Honestly, I was sick of the marketing before I ever walked into that theater. I don’t need Luke Skywalker to sell me a Buick. I don’t want Wookie pancakes. I don’t need more stuff, I just wanted my Star Wars.
My Star Wars. What a funny sentiment, right? But that’s what it is to each of us fans. We feel a sense of ownership, of proprietary responsibility to protect its legacy. Is it right? Absolutely not. We are nothing more than sports fans acting like ‘Our Team’ should do exactly what we tell it too. Still, after the dreadful prequel experiment, I needed MY Star Wars again. I needed to be taken away – not to a world with awful dialogue, Senate meetings, and random pre-teen Jedi massacres – I needed to be taken to a galaxy far, far away. To a land when the conflict was simple – Good guys versus bad guys. Where destiny need not be explained away, it was felt. Where characters were more than just solid actors begging for a part, they BELONGED here. Their story wasn’t told, it evolved. Most of all, I needed to have fun.
With a sold-out audience, against the laws of good storytelling and common sense, rejecting every cynical bone in my body – I felt 5 again. Everything I wanted, I needed, came to life on screen that day. Was it a perfect film? Hell no. There is plenty wrong, forced (pun intended), or derivative in The Force Awakens. I am not talking about film constructs or merits. I am talking about the experience.
If you can put our learned adult curses aside, the criticisms and nitpicks, sit back and soak in the experience – it was everything I wanted it to be. It reminded me what it was like to see this for the first time. As I saw a child with his father and grandmother, all laughing and applauding, I knew this was it. Complicated family lineage, coincidences, predictable plot developments aside – The Force Awakens was an absolute blast. This was MY Star Wars.
All three of these moments proved to be my biggest surprise of 2015. If a studio believes in the material, and they find a filmmaker who loves the property as much as any fan, it just might be possible to recreate those childhood memories again.
Even in a galaxy far, far away.
What surprised YOU the most in 2015?