Top 10 Films of 2015

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.

10. Brooklyn

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.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

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.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

8. Sicario

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.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

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.

Inside Out - Emotions

6. Girlhood

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.

Girlhood - Cast

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren

4. Foxcatcher

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.

Foxcatcher - Carell and Tatum

3. Bridge of Spies

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.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks & Mark Rylance

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.

The Martian - Matt Damon

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

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.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): A24Fox Searchlight Pictures, Universal Studios, Lionsgate, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Pyramide Distribution, Sony Pictures Classics, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures

Foxcatcher (2015)

★★★★★

Foxcatcher PosterDirector: Bennett Miller

Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Sport

Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo

You could single out any number of attributes and relate them to Bennett Miller’s directorial portfolio, but depth wouldn’t be one. The New Yorker has created four films since 1998 and, at a rate of one film every four or five years, Miller obviously doesn’t take job choices lightly. After a seldom seen documentary feature called The Cruise (1998) and his critically acclaimed biographical drama Capote (2005), Miller tried his hand at exploring the inner workings of American sport on the big screen. Moneyball (2011) was polished and affecting, but never set out to irritate because it was never meant to be that kind of story, just as baseball isn’t that kind of sport.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, is that kind of story. Whereas Moneyball told a consumable tale that reflected the everyday popularity of baseball, Miller’s latest piece bathes in the sweaty discomfort and disassociation of wrestling. It’s uncensored, but subtly so. It’s damn good too.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an amateur wrestler. We first meet him as he somewhat timidly relays semi-encouraging words to a less than half full hall of school children. Perhaps timidness is the wrong adjective. Mark isn’t necessarily a shy person, but his inability to open up is reflected in his distanced demeanour. All he knows is an everyday, basic existence. And amateur wrestling. Tatum excels as the hard-boiled grappler, his physicality more than matched by a powerhouse emotional range that develops alongside the story. He hobbles as you’d imagine a wrestler would, and wears sweatpants and an unforgiving exterior in and out of the gym, unlike the more outgoing Dave.

Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is Mark’s older brother, the man Mark is filling in for during the opening scene. Dave is also an Olympic champion and, for one reason or another, the more popular brother. Ruffalo brings an awkward charm to the role; we’re instantly drawn to him as he graciously interacts with American wrestling officials, Ruffalo dragging his toes as he shakes hands as if to highlight an inert clumsiness. The siblings train shortly thereafter, and Foxcatcher unleashes its first taste of the brutish sport — as Dave gets the better of Mark the latter lashes out, emphasising Mark’s simmering displeasure towards his overshadowing older brother.

Both men receive the opportunity to head up an all-American wrestling team at Foxcatcher farm, funded by John du Pont (Steve Carell). “Du Pont, a dynasty of wealth and power”, are the words that echo from a History Channel-esque montage about the rich family. Mark accepts, aspiration outweighing alertness, whereas family man Dave rejects. Though the film breeds an air of morbidity from the outset, it really kicks into gear upon the arrival of a terrifying looking du Pont. The three primary actors deliver wholly, but it is Carell’s skin-crawling turn as the internally maniacal financier that’ll stick in the memory and continue to probe long after the final pinfall. Assisted by facial prosthetics more suited to the latest House of Wax horror instalment, Carell maintains false poise that’s ready to burst. He’s devilish and utterly detestable.

Miller’s film teases the inevitability of chaos bred from a relationship between the three men, but refrains from delivering on the fact until the final act. Much of the first hour and a half of Foxcatcher instead focuses on the relationship between du Pont and Mark, a partnership that is clearly on iffy terrain from go. Their first face to face meeting at the farm is one of a catalogue of tension filled moments; du Pont sells his wrestling project to Mark (the multimillionaire wants to foster a gold medal batch of grapplers) under the guise of honour and patriotism. Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson’s score is noticeably absent here as we hang on du Pont’s every word in tandem with Mark.

Although the screenplay relays a number of striking lines — “Horses are stupid. Horses eat and shit, that’s all they do” is a particular stand-out that comes from the mouth of du Pont, breeder of amateur wrestlers — the piece doesn’t necessarily rely on words to succeed. Rather, it’s about tension and ambiguity and the toxic atmosphere burning the three men involved. The overarching moodiness serves a purpose, but it is also a necessity given the real life framework. Foxcatcher resembles David Fincher’s Gone Girl in many ways, though the Gillian Flynn-penned film alleviates tension via brief moments of humour, unlike Foxcatcher. This incessantly serious approach works given the context, and Miller’s tactful management of the potentially tricky sullenness is a true masterclass in pressure-building on screen.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s unsurprising that the camera refuses to shy away from raw moments — shots are dynamic when showing matches and totally still otherwise. Greig Fraser’s cinematography effectively positions the audience in amongst any wrestling and as such captures the fleshy warring in full flow. Both Tatum and Ruffalo ought to be commended on their very immersive abilities, and it’s also worth noting the most horrifying celebratory expression in recent memory from Carell after a victory.

The culmination is game of pawn playing, a deliberation of moral values, and of blind understanding. Three men are at the forefront, their rapport with each other and with amateur wrestling challenged. Foxcatcher might only be Bennett Miller’s fourth film in almost 20 years, but it is absolutely his most accomplished.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images credit (©): Sony Pictures Classics