The Best and Worst Films of Spring 2015

January through April is a time typically made up of award season leftovers, pre-summer spectacle, and more than a few throwaways. Here are PopMatters' choices for the best and worst of the last four months.

In case you haven’t noticed, the summer movie season is upon us. In fact, many would argue that, with its stranglehold on the box office over the last four weeks, Furious 7 began what traditionally occurred between May and August of every year. Of course, when money talks, no one connected to the studio system walks; they run to the nearest script doctor and demand their piece of the plentiful pot.

This makes the months between spring and fall a free for all of repeats, remakes, sequels, serializations, copycats, and crap. The times both before and after those periods are dumping grounds, places for pictures that don’t have an easy selling point, an obvious (or appreciative) demographic, or enjoy a contractual obligation regarding a release, and/or any old write-off sitting up on the shelf.

Indeed, winter 2015 had its fair share of noble failures (Jupiter Ascending), pure financial pandering (Disney’s Cinderella), and unusual indies (The Voices). There was also a plethora of excellent documentaries, including looks at rape on campus (The Hunting Ground), the horrors at Penn State (Happy Valley), and a telling take on Scientology (Going Clear). We also witnessed some flawed family films (Strange Magic), the continuation of a YA property audiences no longer care about (Insurgent), a safe sex version of a famed soccer mom erotica novel (Fifty Shades of Grey), and what should be the final installments in Liam Neeson’s middle-aged action hero streak (Run All Night, Taken 3).

Out of all this aesthetic turmoil, we’ve come up with our choices for the five best and worst offerings of the last four month. We’ve even thrown in an extra title on each side as a Dishonorable/Honorable mention.

The Worst

Dishonorable Mention: Blackhat

We include this otherwise well-made movie among the worst of 2015 for a couple of reasons. First, it’s from Michael Mann, a director we expect a lot more from than a sloppy, silly cyberthriller; and second, it’s a timely subject treated without an ounce of intelligence or style. Part of the problem comes in hiring Chris Hemsworth — Thor himself — as the lead. You could dip him in a vat of tech knowledge and award him a collection of legitimate PhDs and you’d still have some hunky dude talking incredulous techno-speak to you. While this film was anticipated, Blackhat undermined any of those feelings with a single sentence from Hemsworth’s lips.

5. Unfinished Business

If it wasn’t for Dave Franco giving one of the best clueless innocent performances ever, this entire movie would be a misfire. Instead, it’s a wholly unlikeable excuse for ugly Americans to prove their title while corporate ethics are thrown out the window for a plethora of sex jokes. We are supposed to care about Vince Vaughn and his ongoing business rivalry with Sienna Miller, but the film offers no real reason to care except for the requirements of the three act format. An entire film about Franco’s character, from his group home to his casual carnal encounters with women around the world, would have been preferable.

4. Get Hard

Otherwise known as “Fear of a Gay Planet”. Will Ferrell can argue all he wants that this is a comedy, and that the rampant homophobia is nothing but “jokes”, but how does one defend the sequence where his uptight white character is facially assaulted by a phallus? If jokes about the Johnson were gold, this movie would be Ft. Knox. It’s also not a very likeable comedy when it comes to people of color. Instead of finding a satiric way around the obvious stereotypes being discussed, the soggy script and added improvisation only reinforces them. The pairing of Farrell and Kevin Hart has a lot of potential, but Get Hard pissed it all away.

3. The Boy Next Door

Jennifer Lopez takes a break from rating barely capable TV talent to make an erotic thriller than can’t even get its literary references right (when, exactly, was The Iliad written, and how did you get a “first edition?”), even though her character is supposedly a teacher of the subject. Of course, the minute she sees the luscious abs and come-hither stare of her 19 year old next door neighbor (played by 27 year old Ryan Guzman), she slips up. It’s all downhill from there, as she can’t control her throbbing urges and he has a secret — he’s a killer, duh.

2. Hot Tub Time Machine 2

When this movie was screened for critics, yours truly watched the first ten minutes and wondered, “Did they put the right reel up on the screen?” So bereft of jokes, humor, and/or purpose, this sequel to the highly successful original forgot to pack punchlines when it moved on to franchise Phase II. And the odd thing is that it was made by the same people responsible for the original revisionist ’80s era spoof. John Cusack can claim a victory of sorts; he decided not to return for the sequel, and only he survives with his dignity intact. Everyone else in this unfunny disaster are only in it for a paycheck.

1. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

When you consider the first film managed to exceed expectations and pull down some significant box office numbers both domestically and internationally, the desire for a sequel was/is a no-brainer — and so is the resulting follow-up. The biggest mistake made here is taking a reasonable loveable fat jolly dude and turning him into an acerbic, whiny tool. Our titular hero is now such an out-and-out jerk that his only hope for romance is a script-forced tryst with a hotel manager who is clearly out of the character’s league. In fact, she’s not even a possible fantasy team pick. This disaster is proof that relying on gags about overweight people isn’t inherently funny.

The Best

The Best

Honorable Mention: Lost River

It arrived at Cannes with great fanfare. It left as one of the most despised and divisive titles since David Lynch unleashed Wild at Heart and won the Palme d’Or in the process. Obviously influenced by the aforementioned American auteur, as well as such idiosyncratic cinematic voices as Harmony Korine and frequent collaborator Nicholas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is beautiful to look at and tough to get a handle on. It takes the troubles of a single mother and her two sons in a dystopian present day Detroit and turns it into a fable flirting with a fairytale, including elegant shots that suggest magic when there’s misery all around.

5. The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew has been lying in wait for years, difficulties with rights and performance clearances causing most of its delays. Now it’s here, and most importantly it’s tremendous, an overview of the various California session musicians who shaped the sound of the ’60s up and down the West Coast. From the Beach Boys to Sinatra, the Monkees to the Mamas and the Papas, there was barely hit single or album that this group didn’t play on, their professionalism and perfectionism allowing many an artist to blossom. With many of them either dead or dying off, this documentary becomes a loving elegy to a now defunct musical ideal. Today, bands can play. Back then, it was all Crew.

4. Focus

Most of the major studios use January through April as a dumping ground. Sure, you’ll see an occasional 300 or franchise filler, but for the most part, they lob junk at us like the Cineplex is a landfill. Warners, on the other hand, saved a solid comic thriller for these wintery dog days and came out with a winner. Will Smith is his usual magnetic self, but it’s newcomer Margot Robbie (last seen stealing The Wolf of Wall Street away from Leonardo DiCaprio) as his con-woman in training/potential paramour that makes the whole thing magic. There is real sexual chemistry between the two, and they’re just part of a terrific entertainment.

3. It Follows

Usually, when something is hyped as “The Best (insert genre here) of (specific or generic time frame)”, we critics cock a skeptical eye. After all, we’ve been burned more times than our singed aesthetic can handle. But in this case, the slow burn suspense of David Robert Mitchell’s horror classic matches perfectly with the story’s high concept considerations to create, without question, “one of the best horror films of the last ten years.” Believe it. With a layer of sexual subtext so vivid that it carries many past the movie’s solid mastery, we wind up with something both terrifying and telling, 2015 explained away in fear and filmmaking finesse.

2. Paddington

The first teaser trailer looked absolutely awful. Then it was announced that Oscar winner Colin Firth, hired to provide the voice for the CG version of the classic British bruin of the title, had left the project. Suddenly, this movie went from curiosity to possible crap without a single frame being seen. Now, after witnessing the brilliance of Ben Whishaw as the marmalade loving bear from Peru who falls in with the proper UK family, along with his sunny human companions, no other choice fits. The Mighty Boosh‘s Paul King took the task of realizing this adaptation and created a family film masterpiece. Even a campy Nicole Kidman can’t destroy this film’s undeniable charms.

1. Ex Machina

While the concept of A.I., or “artificial intelligence”, is an overused trope in science fiction, frequent Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), manages to find a way to make it both wholly new and comfortably familiar, thus allowing his unusual love triangle play out, perfectly. While Oscar Isaac’s internet entrepreneur comes off as shady, we soon learn that his “experiment” has more depth and dimension than any other free thinking robot in recent memory. There is so much going on here, both blatantly and beneath the surface, that this is one of those times when the phrase “you have to see it to believe it” clearly applies.

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