2015 then. How best to sum the year up? Jurassic World chomped its way through the global box office with enough bite to break the Marvel mould (defeating those pesky Avengers in the process). Jurassic World was also part of a popular franchise revitalisation scheme, one that included fellow big hitters Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The latter, of course, is currently challenging Avatar for the highest-grossing movie of all time crown.
Heroines took centre stage: the battle-hardened Furiosa; the admirably persistent Kate Macer; the multi-skilled Rey; the emotionally resilient Riley. Critics hailed everything from smart sci-fi to nifty nostalgia while maintaining a sense of analytical balance by dealing stinging verbal blows to the likes of Entourage (full disclosure: I still haven’t seen it). Adam Sandler evaded baying cinema audiences though, opting instead to take his claptrap to Netflix’s smaller screen.
But there was plenty of good stuff too. Lots. So much, in fact, that gems such as It Follows, A Most Violent Year, Carol, Spectre, Macbeth, Ant-Man, and Whiplash haven’t even made it onto my list of top films. Cinema, as is always the case, is ending the year in pretty good hands. Here are 10 reasons why.
Sentimental love stories are a tough thing to get right. You can overdo the romance and end up with a gallon of unappetising sap, or you might underserve the tender connection and leave audiences cold. John Crowley avoids both traps and instead tells an immigrant tale that blossoms with the aid of a genuine, lovely screenplay. Saoirse Ronan unveils a career-best performance as an Irish lass caught up in a turnstile of emotion; she is helped through the barrier by Emory Cohen, oozing 1950s appeal, and a poignantly plagued Fiona Glascott.
9. Ex Machina
Alex Garland, whose screenwriting portfolio includes Danny Boyle’s sci-fi masterstroke Sunshine, paves his own directorial path with another, smaller science fiction spectacle. The scale might have changed but, like Sunshine, Ex Machina thrives on simmering tension and ambiguous characterisation. Domhnall Gleeson plays an employee who’s afforded the opportunity to spend a week with his innovative boss, Oscar Isaac. The catch? Alicia Vikander’s uncannily human-like android. It is a glossily realised melting pot of intellect and deception.
Emily Blunt takes the lead as a gutsy FBI agent in Denis Villeneuve’s latest English-language film. Those that preceded — Enemy and Prisoners — focused on weighty themes and this is no different: Juárez, Mexico is the volatile setting and drug cartels are the violent subject. Roger Deakins’ cinematography transports us to a place we’d rather not be, juxtaposing coarse imagery with oddly beautiful landscapes. There’s also one of the scenes of the year: a traffic jam imbued with unadulterated anxiety. The ensuing beads of sweat could fill a river basin.
7. Inside Out
Pete Docter heads up an instant Pixar classic, another one of those ‘for all the family’ rarities. Inside Out has that vital energy and colourful exuberance youngsters cherish, but its beauty lies in its multi-collaborative screenplay that sends adults on a moving analytical journey. It examines social growth, mental strength (or lack thereof) and even the importance of parenthood. Admirably, the piece never shirks away from tough subject matters which means the rewards are plentiful.
From one human drama to another, Girlhood follows the exploits of a teenager flirting on the fringes of adult life. A sister at heart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Céline Sciamma’s touching tale tackles everything from commercial idealism, to economic division, to the richness of human interaction. Newcomer Karidja Touré is exceptional as the adolescent at the centre of proceedings, matching innocence to dissent with a natural flair beyond her years of experience.
The Force Awakens was either doomed to fail or destined to thrive. Either way, J.J. Abrams had an enormous task on his hands: without relying too heavily on fan service, the former Lost aficionado had to reclaim the magic of the original trilogy while also paving the way for future intergalactic adventures. We should hardly have worried given Abrams’ reboot track record (see Star Trek). His film is packed full of affecting nostalgia and is arguably the funniest instalment to date. Perhaps most importantly, the Class of Episode VII are as fresh and exciting here as their iconic ancestors were back then.
Laughs aren’t quite as forthcoming in Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s tragic sports-drama based on true events. It follows the Olympic-driven efforts of amateur wresting siblings Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively, and their increasingly noxious relationship with trainer John du Pont. Steve Carell has the showiest role as du Pont, both terrifying and disturbing, however all three actors are equally effective. It is not an easy film to sit through, but it is a tremendously well-constructed piece of macabre cinema.
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up for a fourth feature outing, their latest effort an absorbing masterclass in classic filmmaking. Set at the height of the Cold War — Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is crisp throughout, especially when we reach Germany — it sees Hanks in his typical everyman getup as a principled lawyer out to defend a potential Soviet spy. Mark Rylance’s grounded mannerisms humanise a would-be enemy (there are no real enemies on display, only opposing pawns) while Thomas Newman’s exquisite score mixes patriotic brass with a touching piano melody.
2. The Martian
Being stranded on Mars for close to a thousand Sols eventually proved to be quite the grating experience for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), but spending a couple of hours at the cinema with the botanist was a complete joy. Ridley Scott brings more than just visual spectacle to screenwriter Drew Goddard’s fantastically witty take on Red Planet isolation. Damon is very funny throughout, and his moments of emotional weakness are wonderfully played too. The Martian must also boast the most impressive cast of 2015.
George Miller borrows from his own barnstorming back catalogue in order to rewrite the rules of action. Working within a genre that seemed destined to bow before digital effects for the foreseeable future, the director shot most of Fury Road using practical stunts and real life locales. Tom Hardy excels as Max, but the true lead is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a rampant survivor hell-bent on outmuscling tyranny and redressing social equality (yes, really). If any film managed to tap into the year’s cultural zeitgeist, it was this — and with absolute style.
Images credit: Collider
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