If there's one major theme that ties together the best movies so far in 2015, it's this: joy. In some cases, there's the actual representation of joy ("Inside Out"). In others, it's an earnest happiness that pervades even the darkest of subjects ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"). And in others, it's just the joy of cinema fully realized ("Mad Max: Fury Road").
And that's nice, isn't it? Too long, the "best" films of the year have been the dark, disturbing ones. It's not that the below 15 films aren't challenging us in any way: in fact, they're challenging us to put our cynicism aside and just revel in characters that like things for a change.
So below, here's the 15 movies that gave me the most joy at the movie theater so far this year.
Melissa McCarthy is a national treasure. End of story.
"The Spongebob SquarePants Movie: Sponge Out Of Water"
Okay, hear me out: a movie that includes Antonio Banderas as a pirate bent on world domination through hamburgers, that ends with a rap battle between a time-traveling dolphin and talking seagulls must be included on a best movies list there are no other options.
"Kingsman: The Secret Service"
Well, this was a pleasant surprise. Uber-violent, very funny, and with some great choreographed action sequences, "Kingsman" was way more fun and focused than even the comic it was based on. Credit to Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who haven't turned in a bad script together yet. The duo could hold a masterclass in adaptation, and "Kingsman" would be the final lesson (for now).
The most heartwarming Make-A-Wish story ever gets the tear-inducing documentary it deserves. "Batkid Begins" moves past the backlash (batlash?) and haters, and shows why we need hope in our lives. Batman may bring dark vengeance, but he's also an inspiration, too. This movie underscores that beautifully.
Okay, so maybe this isn't a joyful experience, but it's a totally f--ked up, stripped down horror movie that rejuvenates a genre stagnating in found footage fever. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good metaphor, and the one here is a doozy.
Sure, most of it is a pretty intense meditation on artificial intelligence and the human experience, but Oscar Isaac's dance sequence is legit one of the best things that will happen in our life-time.
Not only does Pixar's newest movie have the literal representation of joy in it, it's also a joyful, sorrowful, angering, emotional, wonderful movie that stands with the best the studio has ever created. Also, it's got Bing-Bong, which I can guarantee no other movie this year will have, so that's pretty great.
There's a lot going on in Joss Whedon's "Avengers" sequel, and it only becomes richer with subsequent viewings. But the absolute best thing about it? The Avengers try to save everyone. Where most action movies are focused on upping the mayhem, "Age of Ultron" spends it's entire third act focusing more on saving people than blowing them up. That's a beautiful thing.
Most of the dinosaur destruction in "Jurassic World" would probably go against my premise of joy, except the whole point of the movie is about getting us to ogle at the idea of dinosaurs again -- particularly after decades of massive alien invasions and cities being destroyed have numbed us to the genius of the original movie. But it's the final fight, which pits the whole park against the "evil" Indominus Rex, that had me giggling like a little child.
"Me and Earl and The Dying Girl"
Yay! Cancer drama! Except the tone of "Me and Earl" isn't really about death and dying, it's about taking the main character and teaching him how to live in the world. It's joyful about cinema, it's joyful about friendship, it even has a beautiful outlook on humans, and how they interact: even at our weirdest, we find our home.
I'm beating the drum hard here, but Cinderella's whole outlook is to smile and see the best in people, and it works. From Kenneth Branagh's brilliant direction, to Lily James and Richard Madden's radiant performances, and even Cate Blanchett's pitch perfect evil stepmother, there's not a sour note in the whole movie. It's also a direct retort to the recent spate of grimdark retellings of fairy tales: this is the epitome of "Cinderella," with no twists... And that's kind of wonderful.
Hey nerds! Do you like being nerds? Then embrace your nerdery. Where most movies argue that nerds are embarrassing, or need to be fixed in some way, "Dope" is all about being yourself, even if yourself is a geek who is super into the '90s.
"Magic Mike XXL"
Yeah, the "Magic Mike" sequel isn't out until July 1, but it's so good I had to include it on this list. There's the dancing, which is insane. There's the humor, which hits perfectly. And there's the performances, which are way broader than the first film, but totally enjoyable and distinct. But really, it's on this list because of how gloriously the movie keeps hitting its central premise: that everyone deserves to smile. And that's all "Magic Mike XXL" is trying to do from the first scene, to the last. Guaranteed: if you don't have the biggest grin in the world by the time the credits roll, you're not human.
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
"Mad Max" is pure cinematic crack. It's one long chase scene with short breaks (very short breaks) to catch your breath. It looks like nothing else. And it introduced the world to Imperator Furiosa, one of the best action heroes of all time. There's so many ways "Fury Road" could have turned out wrong, but instead it went right in ever single way.
And let's talk about that joy thing again... This takes place in a post-apocalypse where there's no water, almost everyone is dead, and the few people who are healthy are being chased down by insane mutations. And yet, there's no part of this movie that isn't about hope. By the end, you could argue they're only eking out a small win, and a few more years of life. But that's not what "Mad Max" is about. In the old days we called it the triumph of the human spirit. Now, we can just call it what it is: total, sheer, awesomeness.
Even without Paul Walker's awful, horrible, untimely death, this easily could have been the last part of the series. It brings everything back to the beginning, while still amping the stunts beyond anything you've imagined in a movie before. "Furious 7" is so insanely over the top, it breaks through the ceiling and keeps on flying into space until you just can't keep up anymore.
Every member of the ensemble is used perfectly, too, from Vin Diesel's central Dom, to Dwayne Johnson's bananas Hobbs. And Jason Statham as the villainous Deckard Shaw is perfectly matched to the material.
But then it comes back to Paul Walker. His death looms large over the entire movie, and adds an extra layer of poignancy to every scene he's in. There were at least three times I was a blubbery mess in the movie, including the ending montage where the actors are saying goodbye to Paul as much as we, the audience, are too. But it's his phone conversation with Jordana Brewster's Mia that killed me, as she maybe says goodbye to her husband Brian for the (IRL) last time.
Vin Diesel boasted that "Furious 7" would win the Oscar for Best Picture before it opened. While that's maybe still a stretch, since the seventh part of a car racing series wouldn't seem natural awards fodder... It maybe should. There's still six months left in 2015, but I'll be surprised is there's a purer, more honest expression of cinema this year than this movie.