Top 8 Films of 2015 (January-June)

In life it’s always worth taking a moment to stop and think. Before crossing the road, for example. During an exam. Just as you’re about to send out those inflammatory tweets. And especially when the cinematic year reaches its midpoint. At half-time, sports teams indulge in a studious team talk. This is our half-time team talk. A period of transitory reflection. Or, plainly, a great excuse to muster up a celebratory list singling out the best films released between January and June. Besides, if Mark Kermode does it, it’s worth doing.

I’ve decided not to include films released last year in the US. As such, the rankings won’t incorporate any of the 2015 Oscar crop – Birdman and Foxcatcher would definitely have made the cut otherwise. Though released this year in the UK, those are technically 2014 films. And so, from the great to the greater, let’s get going.

8. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice PosterIt is very likely that your face will resemble Joaquin Phoenix’s poster expression by the end of Inherent Vice, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film has a woozy magnetism that occasionally threatens to blind, but Phoenix’s aloof performance as an oddball 1970s detective keeps us attentive throughout (though probably not wholly aware). Paul Thomas Anderson is a really interesting director and this is another really interesting, if frequently bonkers, journey. Recurrent collaborator Robert Elswit provides hazy mood-setting cinematography. Josh Brolin also shows up bearing the flattest haircut in the history of cinema.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman PosterAn amalgamation of Kick Ass’ thumping comic violence and Bond’s narrative flow, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an at times dazzling action-comedy. You do occasionally get the sense writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s errant imagination is overruling his common sense, but it is this exuberant mentality that funds the film’s enjoyability. Colin Firth ditches the stuttering king’s speech for something more poised and abrasive, while his fresh on the scene co-star Taron Egerton delivers a breakout performance. Firth also engages in a Quicksilver-esque slow motion church battle that has to be seen to be believed.

6. Jurassic World

Jurassic World PosterAs it continues to chomp its way through the global box office, Jurassic World is fast becoming one of the biggest films of all time in economic terms. Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur delight is also a nostalgic powerhouse, respectful in its acknowledgement of Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking original but also geared towards a new generation of young, expectant cinemagoers. Underfed screenplay and character problems aside (no outright disasters), this is genuinely enjoyable cinema with a few spine-tingling moments to really savour. Listen out for the reverberations of John Williams’ glorious score, and keep an eye on that flare.

5. It Follows

It Follows PosterDavid Robert Mitchell’s second feature gained a lot of positive traction through word of mouth and subsequently found its way into cinemas nationwide across the UK and US. It Follows opens atop a barrage of tension, most of which the film never loses. There’s a vintage sheen at the fore, broadcast exquisitely via Mike Gioulakis’ rich cinematography, though we never actually find out when the movie is set (adding to the bizarre and unsettling goings-on). Maika Munroe is brilliant as the anti-scream queen in a patiently eerie horror outing that has more in common with John Hughes than it does Rob Zombie.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina PosterAnother wonderfully paced piece, Ex Machina manages to be both pristinely clinical and oddly ambiguous. Alex Garland, whose screenwriting backlog includes the stunning Sunshine, makes his directorial debut: a sci-fi mind-jolter set almost entirely within the shiny walls of a remote retreat. The director uses the element of mystery to great effect – character motives are never wholly clear. Oscar Isaac is pally yet deceitful, feeding Domhnall Gleeson’s inquisitive suspicions. Alicia Vikander also superbly captures the uncanny valley-like quality of a humanoid robot.

3. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster 2Much like Jurassic World the second Avengers get-together suffers in the screenplay department. However, here it’s a case of over-complication as opposed to a lack of perceived originality. Age of Ultron isn’t difficult to follow, there’s simply a bit too much going on. And you can understand why: these characters are tremendous fun to be around, full of inevitable persiflage, and by now the actors have clicked as a collective unit. As Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner finally gets something meaningful to do and he does it with emotional gravitas. Joss Whedon’s final Marvel bow is one of the studios’ best so far.

2. Girlhood

Girlhood PosterGirlhood, a French independent drama that hones in on one girl’s social and cultural maturity, is quite the opposite. The film is compelling to no end, aided in abundance by lead actor Karidja Touré’s standoffish performance. The first time performer really is a joy to watch and a miraculous casting find. Crystel Fournier’s stylish cinematography contrasts thematically with an otherwise gritty, urban environment, highlighting the difference between dreams and reality. The film also hosts the year’s best scene so far: a stunningly shot group dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that you’ll watch in a state of emotional fluctuation.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road Poster 2Comparing the merits of a low-key European drama and a barnstorming Aussie dystopian epic is a pretty thankless task, but Mad Max: Fury Road just about edges top spot. After a thirty year break, George Miller delivers his best franchise instalment yet. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy share the same type of niggling chemistry you’d expect to see in the middle of a high-intensity, life or death vehicular war. As Imperator Furiosa Theron is bullish and powerful, but the fact that she has a heart is why we care so much. Miller’s penchant for practical effects works a treat, helping to signify a seminal moment in action cinema.

Images credit: IMP Awards

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alan Taylor

Release Date: October 30th, 2013 (UK); November 8th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman

After Iron Man 3’s failure to ignite Marvel: Phase Two into top gear, Thor: The Dark World signals a brisk return to form for the franchise king as the film quenches any Mandarin-shaped spectres. Regardless of a few questionable plot elements, the second instalment of Thor brims with fun and is the epitome of rip-roaring cinematic entertainment, perhaps even bettering much of Marvel’s pre-Avengers universe.

With the impending arrival of the evil Alien-inspired Dark Elves — led by an utterly unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston — Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian hero Thor must put aside much of the loathing he is entrenched in and team with his imprisoned brother Loki in order to save the Nine Realms.

Tom Hiddleston returns as the devious Loki and is a joy to watch when he is present on screen (which is certainly not enough) in another scene-stealing performance. There is a slight shift in the central relationship this time round: from the son of Odin and his mortal love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to the natural-yet-severed dynamic between the brothers, and this certainly amps up the tension. Portman doesn’t have as much to do this time around and, much like Thor in the previous film, finds herself in unusual surroundings. The novelty of seeing Foster wander around Asgard doesn’t quite reach the same level of playfulness as bearing witness to the God of Thunder eating breakfast in a New Mexico diner.

The film simultaneously manages to be darker, wittier and more enjoyable as it rises above the satisfying level set by that of its predecessor. Director Alan Taylor takes a slightly different approach than Thor’s (2011) Kenneth Branagh, as he powers every nuance of the film with Mjolner and tongs. Taylor, who has recently worked on the hit television series Game of Thrones, delves into the fantasy world even more with encapsulating Lord of the Rings-esque costumes and landscapes aplenty. Stir in Brian Tyler’s grandiose score — which haunts as much as it packs a punch — and you’ve got the perfect concoction of post-Middle Earth entertainment.

Even the very occasional influx of sap quickly evaporates by way of some creepy imagery and a brooding underlying tone which was missing previously. Genuine danger manifests around the Dark Elves spearheaded by Eccleston’s Malekith — the villain’s name boasts a snake-like quality as it slithers off the tongue.

Proceedings threaten to boil over into mind-boggling territory come the final showdown, but a frantic pace and exhilarating action mesh together successfully as a means of retaining the audience’s attention.

The direction of Thor: The Dark World is set early on as action engulfs events (“Is that why everything is on fire?”) and by the time the realm-interchanging plot starts to confuse a little, the aesthetically supreme film has already delivered in pure enjoyment.