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

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★★

Jurassic World PosterDirector: Colin Trevorrow

Release Date: June 11th, 2015 (UK); June 12th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the context of filmmaking, it’s very easy to construe that as nothing more than an excuse for lazy writing or a general lack of ideas. Mainstream horror comes to mind, movies that retread the same ground so often that the concrete slabs below are eroding into nothingness. Jurassic World similarly stomps over familiar tracks, the same ones paved back in 1993 by Steven Spielberg.

Yet there’s an authentic admiration afoot in Colin Trevorrow’s work. Moments so sincere that any semblance of cynicism will be expunged from your psyche. A lot of goodwill has clearly been poured into the making of this fourth dino instalment, a film that undoubtedly strives to capture the fantastical magic of the first. It probably gets there in the end. We see imitation in spades and it’s flat out splendid.

Some time after the tumultuous events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar has been transformed into the tourist-attracting dinosaur paradise originally envisioned by John Hammond. Operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) invites her two nephews — gloomy Zach (Nick Robinson) and wide-eyed Gray (Ty Simpkins) — over to experience the park first-hand. When something inexplicably goes wrong, Claire and Velociraptor coach Owen (Chris Pratt) find themselves in a race to restore civility.

These characters are initially drawn rather whimsically. Chris Pratt’s Owen is the morally upright park hand who spends his time tucked away in a cabin fixing up motorcycles when he’s not training Velociraptors. Claire is work-obsessed, her penchant for sustainable order and satisfaction statistics often overruling any time spent with her nephews (both of whom also assume recognisable age-related traits). It’s all part of the writers’ plan though; imminent danger brings heroism and savviness to the fore, particularly in Claire whose transformation is punctuated in a scene where she literally rolls up her sleeves.

In fairness, there are early hints at this increasing character roundedness. Conversations about the new breed of dinosaur — Indominus Rex, a corporate attempt to freshen up the park — leave Claire flustered, suggesting she is somewhat torn by the possible consequences. “Indominus wasn’t bred, she was designed,” we hear ominously. Owen, despite treating his raptors with care and respect, is still holding them captive. The influence of corporations, poor animal welfare, and immoral science are all interesting themes that would have benefited from more breathing time in a film not contractually obliged to serve up grand bouts of action.

Occasionally, Trevorrow and his team of co-writers do return to the aforementioned themes — an exhilarating scene where Owen rides his bike among the raptors seems to suggest humans and dinosaurs are one in the same. But the moment of the movie, and a shoe-in for one of the moments of the entire year, belongs to Claire. It comes towards the conclusion, spine-tingling in delivery, and cements her place atop the annual cinematic table of quick-thinking badassery.

While Bryce Dallas Howard moulds into the cool aunt we always knew she could be — shooting errant dinosaurs and using her wily driving skills to protect her nephews — Chris Pratt remains impossibly cool throughout. He’s Indiana Jones, a surly customer not afraid to echo some juvenile Han Solo-esque one-liners. When he gets serious, he means it. The two actors appear effortless in their roles, and share an engaging, charmingly awkward chemistry.

An underfed yet sweet relationship plays out between brothers Zach and Gray too. Not helped by an unnecessary divorce plot strand, Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins are fun to watch as the generic sibling duo who eventually, predictably, come to appreciate each other. Robinson, who excelled in The Kings of Summer, has natural charisma and could be a breakout role away from superstardom. Comparably younger, Simpkins defies the annoying kid curse and puts on an amiable show here.

Other members of a pleasingly diverse cast include Omar Sy, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, and previous Jurassic survivor, BD Wong. Jimmy Fallon makes a hilarious cameo, striking a funny bone from which point the film gets gradually more amusing. Trevorrow manages to carefully balance light-hearted humour (which the franchise well known for) and rampaging action (which the franchise is also well known for). We see this during a dino football scene: the situation is terrifying in theory, but the visual of a marauding dinosaur thumping a giant glass ball around is humorous.

Action spots are aplenty, though never burdensome. Executed with boisterous energy, you willingly give into the air of childlike joy and genuine threat. One sequence sees the dinosaurs meet The Birds and we subsequently feel that film’s sense of impending, uncontrollable danger. A claustrophobic night vision routine looks like it has been lifted directly from the Zero Dark Thirty Abbottabad raid. These instigators of flickering emotion merge with John Schwartzman’s realistic-looking cinematography, and as such we constantly feel embedded in the story. This is, without doubt, a CGI masterstroke.

The same can’t be said for compelling dialogue, of which is there is very little. There are plenty of exposition-driven sound bites in first hour though, lines wrapped in a heightened dramatic effect, snippets that have an unfortunate made-for-trailer dynamic. The screenplay is ham-fisted, especially during the film’s opening third where the desire to induce peril overrides any airy character discussion. But the people and the sounds and the overall atmosphere collectively create a welcome distraction.

At its simplest — and it is often simple — Jurassic World is a nostalgic love letter to cinema. It is a wonderfully reminiscent piece bearing great admiration for Spielberg’s original, and is able to duplicate Jurassic Park’s most memorable moments without plunging into mawkish territory. We hear John Williams’ famous track early on, during a perfectly handled island tour sequence celebrating the magnificent park facilities (Tomorrowland… pfft), before it hits a crescendo coated in cinematic glee.

Those sort of goosebump-inducing moments are the foundation of the cinematic experience. Jurassic World is not the complete package by any means, but as far as celebratory storytelling goes, it has serious bite.

Jurassic World - Pratt & Howard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures