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

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

★★★★★

Mad Max Fury Road PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Day: May 14th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Vehicles have always played a huge part in the Maxverse and veteran director George Miller decides to hammer this point home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Various characters are seen to cherish steering wheels, hauling them around in the same way Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain clung onto a spoon in Mad Max 2. His spoon could pick at leftover tinned food, a novelty apparently long gone. Small-scale scavenging is out. This is a world dominated by distance, by grandeur, by gasoline. The spoon has become the steering wheel.

Or, maybe such pensiveness doesn’t exist within these characters. Maybe they just love to thunder across the desert. Maybe they can’t wait to get on the road. Miller certainly can’t.

After a brief prologue from Max explaining his post-apocalyptic mantra (“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive”) we hurtle into a half hour opening sequence that obliterates anything remotely resembling action we might have seen in previous films. These thirty minutes of total carnage, of collapsed worldbuilding, shoot past in an aluminium whirlwind, leaving your eyes watering and heart bellowing. It’s almost as if Miller has been waiting three decades to get something off his chest.

The plot is simple but by no means inadequate: Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself in an unlikely partnership alongside Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the pair attempt to evade the monarchical clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a slave-keeping cultish leader. The destination, or “Green Place”, dreamt up by the formerly shackled wives of Joe, is unknown. It is more or less a mystery, the characters unable to shed much light and, as such, we are left in the dark. This doesn’t matter, the journey does.

The best thing, unquestionably, about the franchise has always been Miller’s ingenious and realistic-looking action sequences. They are here in abundance, bearing the hallmarks of even greater ingenuity and somehow appearing just as authentic. Oil trucks are christened “War Rigs” and subsequently live up to the name. Amazingly, the majority of effects are practical, in line with the director’s penchant for traditional movie-making. As such, praise should be heaped upon the many stunt performers whose death-defying efforts play a key role in raising the stakes.

We are constantly reminded of the urgency facing Max, Furiosa and company: as the camera pans back towards the chasing pack, all we can see is an ominous mirage, a giant metallic silhouette in the distance. The threat is real and incoming, energised by a booming score that carries more than a hint of Brian May’s earlier franchise work. Other throwbacks to past films include: Master-Blaster-esque siblings (one of whom is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), and the occasional lower front bumper camera shot. There’s even that familiar feeling of disorientation, where the screen is so rammed full of carnage that deciphering who is fighting who becomes a task.

Of course, absurdity is tossed around like a hot potato. From vehicles in the form of mechanical hedgehogs, to an electric guitarist who looks like a cross between The Silence from Doctor Who and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, Miller has all bases covered. This includes humour: “Of all the legs, you had to shoot the one that was attached to his favourite”. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is the ideal amalgamation of odd and funny, his obsession with the Gates of Valhalla both amusing and touching. Hoult absolutely throws himself at the role, which is arguably the best of his career.

Probably for the first time, Max truly is mad. He’s no more than a splash of white body paint away from being one of Joe’s skeletal followers, growling incoherently and shifting his gun aim maniacally. Hardy sometimes deviates verbally back into Bane-mode, but he is mighty impressive as the iconic loner. The Welshman is gruff, a far cry from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the inaugural instalment and possibly more interesting too.

Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man behind Gibson’s nemesis in Mad Max, returns as new villain Immortan Joe. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Joe’s world-weary appearance could very well be that of Toecutter after toiling for decades in the scorching desert. Imagine the sunburn? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” Joe preaches to the subservient crowds upon affording them momentary respite from thirst. His voice croaks like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, and he is almost as scary too.

In a film overflowing with eccentric and domineering characters, Imperator Furiosa is two things: a warrior and a realist. She handles herself in battle while aiding the escape of five enslaved wives, who are also each pretty handy when it comes to fighting and smarts (and who all somehow manage to keep their white clothing miraculously clean). Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is especially good, steely and determined, as Joe’s pregnant prized possession. The women drive this movie; Max is along for the ride through coincidence, but it is the female characters who initiate the chase because they value life.

“Out here everything hurts,” Furiosa states bluntly. Crucially, Theron does not play her as totally wound up — she is reasonable, and willing to work in a team because it is the right course of action. As a result, the relationship between her, Max and the rest of their ragtag band imbues believability. Some might accuse these characters of being too cordial too soon. They are all survivors though, in a harsh world, with a common enemy.

Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, Mad Max has hit a new stratosphere. You can just about see Beyond Thunderdome — a perfectly fine outing, by the way — squirming in the corner. The direction, how the film has been pieced meticulously together only to then be blown apart, is all a work of art (in many other genres this would likely demand awards recognition). John Seale’s cinematography is wonderful — a night assault has the dreading echo and gloomy manifestation of something straight from Saving Private Ryan.

A Furiosa moment towards the end should, in time, cement its place in action movie lore alongside the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” and “Hasta-la-vista baby”. This is seminal cinema. The 80s had Die Hard. The 90s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Give it 20 years and we’ll be talking about Mad Max: Fury Road as the go-to action jaunt of the early 21st century.

Mad Max Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures