The current status and/or impact of genre cinema is a rather temperamental one and not all that easy to quantify. In 2015, a staggering amount of major releases could be attributed to genre and thanks to the critical acclaim of titles like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Assassin, there is an attention and cultural currency being placed on genre that there hasn’t been in some time. But, going into 2016, where does that leave us? This isn’t meant to be a ‘best of’ list or anything resembling the sort but, rather, an overview of trends, events and assorted happenings that all relate to genre cinema in 2015. And we begin with…
No genre in 2015 made as big of a return as the western did. Starting with – though actually ending the year on – Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm photographed, decidedly theatrical The Hateful Eight. QT’s western has all the trappings of an old school oater: stagecoaches, remote cabins, sparse landscapes, characters with questionable morals, bad teeth. But it plays out like an Agatha Christie who-dun-it with Grand Guignol violence. And it does it all to a brand new score by Ennio Morricone. It may be a far cry from the cinema of John Ford and Budd Boetticher, but it remains a western through and through and that is as clear as ever when seen in its 70mm roadshow incarnation.
Tarantino didn’t single-handedly revive the western though. 2015 has had a strong batch of horse operas going for it, perhaps stronger than any single year since 1995 which gave us Dead Man, The Quick and the Dead, and Wild Bill (which gets an unfortunately bad rap) only to have the genre be approached with much more caution following 1999’s Wild Wild West, but I digress. The standouts of this past year include the other film to star Kurt Russel (and his wonderful, flowing facial hair), Bone Tomahawk, which works as well as a horror flick as it does a western; the restrained and gorgeously photographed Slow West; Leo doing his damnedest to get an Oscar in The Revenant; and a couple foreign titles from 2014 that made their stateside debut only months ago, The Salvation and Jauja. It was a shockingly good year for a genre that has been often considered to be box office poison and typically only lends itself to above average indies and/or bargain DTV titles that tend to feature zombies for some unknown fucking reason. What’s even better though is that 2016 already has a few strong contenders in the genre for us, with Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence, the Natalie Portman starring Jane Got a Gun and the likely to be completely ridiculous Magnificent Seven remake directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring folks like Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke. Keep ’em coming.
Really, what was with the spy movies this year? It’s actually completely ridiculous. I’m not sure if James Bond even counts anymore, but we got him (about 150 minutes of him, at that) thanks to Spectre. But even beyond 007, we covered some sort of espionage map that likely hasn’t been paralleled in any other given year. Kingsman: The Secret Service offered up a surprisingly violent adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic; Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation continued the series very strong return following Ghost Protocol with more practical stunts and Tom Cruise continuing to defy death and/or gravity; Spy brought some much needed laughs over the summer yet also managed to work as an espionage film in its own right; Bridge of Spies is the only one really eyeing awards attention and also happens to be the most austere of the slate here, with some wit supplied via a script by the Coen Brothers; Man from UNCLE came and went, I forgot about it until now. Also, not strictly a spy movie, but it needs to be brought up somewhere and here just makes the most sense: Michael Mann’s Blackhat. Perhaps Mann’s most polarizing yet ambitious film, it finds the filmmaker in fine form with a globetrotting cyber thriller that makes little sense, is shot on distractingly poor video and features Thor as a hacker. It’s sort of sublime.
While we didn’t get anything quite along the lines of The Raid 2 or John Wick this year, there were a few films that stand out for fighting. The jaw droppingly beautiful martial arts flick The Assassin, which keeps the fights minimalist and quick, yet brutal; the all out fisticuffs war of the Dolph Lundgren/Tony Jaa starring Skin Trade; Takashi Miike’s absolutely insane Yakuza Apocalypse of which fighting is probably the least sensational aspect; and there were two boxing dramas via Southpaw and Creed, the latter of which deserves every bit of positive attention it is getting going into awards season and may be the finest work of Stallone’s career thus far.
The Road Movie
The obvious answer here is Mad Max: Fury Road, which is undoubtedly the most uncompromising road movie since Death Race 2000. It was a surprise hit with critics when it came out which has carried over into the awards season with numerous organizations and publications awarding it high honers. It’s also just really fucking awesome. But that wasn’t all for the road movie in 2015. Elsewhere – and perhaps just as good – is Magic Mike XXL, which is sort of like Mad Max by way of Chef, but with more bare skin and Ginuwine. It also features musical numbers that are sheer spectacle, yet not the CGI kind that we are accustomed to today. This is spectacle from the Busby Berkeley school of things and it’s all rather exquisite and body/sex positive. Essential cinema. Mississippi Grind features two down on their luck gamblers traveling down the Mississippi River and arguing (and losing) a lot, it’s special; Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is inspired by the true story of a young girl who thought Fargo was actually true and went to find the money, you know how that will turn out; And then, the coup de grâce, of the whole genre in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. Which, naturally, features a cameo by John Waters. It sort of makes sense.
I love a good domestic thriller. They were seemingly all the rage in the 90s, with titles like Single White Female and Unlawful Entry, but the genre sort of waned in the 2000s despite some solid efforts like 2010’s Dreamhome and then David Fincher had to go and make Gone Girl and open up the floodgates. But, what’s nice about this genre (which really isn’t all that much of a genre, let’s be real), is that it can lend itself to all sorts of tales and terrors. This year gave us a few choices. Though much more firmly rooted in horror sensibilities, it’s hard to ignore that domestic dread of It Follows, featuring a curse spread like an STD it hits people where it hurts most: the bedroom; also after your (or at least JLo’s) bedroom is The Boy Next Door, not a good film by any means but unabashedly excessive and entertaining, playing out like some long lost USA Up All Night entry; Keanu Reeves gets terrorized by a menage-a-trois that was too good to be true in the Death Game remake Knock Knock; The Visit finds M. Night Shyamalan in surprisingly restrained form; Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth plays out like a chamber drama that oozes vitriol and gallows dread and features a lot of running eye makeup; Shrew’s Nest is apartment horror done right, with echoes of Repulsion and Misery, featuring some shocks that will be hard to shake; The Gift may not live up to the hype piled on it during its initial run, but it’s an effective thriller with a solid cast that doesn’t know quite when to stop; The Voices, where Ryan Reynolds stores severed heads in his fridge and talks to his pets, it’s weird; Goodnight Mommy, featuring creepy kids and bugs which should unsettle most people; We Are Still Here, a haunted house flick that plays out more like a thriller and packs some surprisingly savage moments; and perhaps the biggest surprise to me all year: Unfriended, a hyper-mediated slasher film that may as well be titled “I Know What You Did Last Status Update,” urgent and ambitious filmmaking which the found footage genre needs more of.
I’ve been growing very skeptical of monster movies lately as CG just doesn’t do it for me, but every once in a while something shines. There was a good amount of that this year. The highlight of which (and maybe out of pure nostalgia) was Goosebumps. The CG is heavy, but it works and the sheer volume of different creature designs is overwhelming. It’s also just flat out fun. I expected more (a lot more) from Krampus, but the practical monster effects were a nice treat even if they didn’t really amount to all that much. Spring (which I actually saw in 2014) tends to get compared to Richard Linklater’s Before series but with a monster. I suppose that’s apt, but it really reminded me of the romantic comedy version of Species. I think that I’d rather just watch Species again though. But the monster design is cool nonetheless. Creature features came out with the harrowing bear attack film Backcountry which features one of the harder to watch scenes of carnage in recent memory, the gooey wasp flick Stung and the beaver zom-com Zombeavers, both of which wear their low budgets and excesses with pride. And then there’s Crimson Peak, obviously a ghost story, but staggeringly beautiful and Guillermo Del Toro’s best American work to date.
Sort of fiction. The future is just becoming too present for me now. I was under the impression that all of these titles took place in “The Future” but now I’m actually not so sure. Likely the most lauded sci-fi flick of the year would be the AI thriller Ex Machina, featuring a dancing Oscar Isaac and some attractive robots; Matt Damon grows potatoes out of his poop on Mars while Bill Pullman pinches pennies on Earth in The Martian, which feels like goofy 60s sci-fi with a 2015 sheen; Turbo Kid is completely insane DIY cinema out of Canada where everything exists to cause some part of a body to be opened and spray red everywhere; Chappie was reviled but has its charms, mostly in being some sort of R-rated Short Circuit clone featuring Die Antwoord; Tomorrowland is an over-long, schmaltzy Disney flick that has at least one scene that is a better Terminator homage than anything in Genisys; there was a new Star Wars movie.
It gets its own category because, fuck you. The most bombastic and soul shattering movie going experience of the year for me and intent on defying genre categorization at every turn. I keep seeing trailers for Anomalisa that claim it is “the most human movie of the year,” those people haven’t seen Furious 7 yet. It’s in a genre of its own. Makes a great double bill with Magic Mike XXL.