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

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Superhero

Superhero films, much like any other genre, have been around for decades — dating back to around the Second World War and even further according to some accounts. However it has only really been since the turn of the 21st century that superhero films have found their place in the cinema, where they are now some of the most successful films ever made, both critically and commercially.

The following are five of my favourite superhero films, all of which, unsurprisingly, were produced in the last decade.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

“So where’s the nearest Subway?” “Dude, it’s 1942.”

Released in 2011 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the prequels to The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans as Steve Rodgers, a small man who is transformed into a super-soldier known as Captain America in order to aid the war effort (the film is set during the Second World War — which now has two mentions already in this post!). With the assistance of Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America must prevent Hitler’s Head of Arms — played by Hugo Weaving — from acquiring unlimited energy to fuel masses of highly volatile weaponry.

Although not the most entertaining Avenger — we’ll see him later — Captain America, at least in my eyes, is the most interesting. Unlike the other films under the Marvel umbrella, Captain America: The First Avenger is set in the past which clearly gives it a distinction the other films do not have. Director Joe Johnston administers a much-needed injection of colour and vibrancy to the Captain America franchise, utilising the war setting magnificently, attaching emotion to the film and endowing depth to each individual character. As opposed to other superhero films, for example Thor, the plot is not cut-and-dry and the nostalgic setting combined with very worthy performances from the cast amounts to an entertaining film.

Captain America: The First Avenger is underrated in my opinion — there is enough action, depth and freshness for it to be placed up there among the best superhero films of recent years.

The Avengers (2012)

What is a best-of list without the biggest superhero film of all time? Having been brooding around and popping up throughout each of its predecessors, The Avengers finally hit screens in the summer of 2012 and blew every other superhero film out of the water financially. Directed by sci-fi mastermind Joss Whedon and stuffed full of all the usual Marvel superheroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and so on), The Avengers follows, well… the Avengers on their quest to stop the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his army of monsters from forcing the Earth under his control.

When I went to see this film, I experienced it in 3D and with moving chairs and all sorts. While the 3D was disappointing, the whole moving chairs phenomenon really added to what is a film full of massive set-pieces (New York, for one) and action sequences. Whereas Captain America beforehand was a little tentative in regards to action and more focused on the story of one man, The Avengers is all about running, jumping, flying, exploding, crashing, banging and comedy. Whedon prevails through the daunting task of getting all of the characters enough screen time to warrant their appearance in the film, as everyone from Iron Man to Phil Coulson to Black Widow plays an essential role. Collectively, the performances from the cast are humorous and serious when need-be (mainly humorous though), but the stand out actor in this film is Mark Ruffalo, who is outstanding and by far the best Hulk yet.

Overall, The Avengers amounts to just about everything you expect when you go to see a superhero film at the cinema. It is extremely fun.

Watchmen (2009)

“I’m telling you, i am the Batman.”

After the publication of the comic and years of development issues, Watchmen finally graced cinema screens in 2009 under the guidance of Zack Snyder. Starring an ensemble cast consisting of the likes of Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Malin Akerman, the plot is set in an alternative Cold War timeline in 1985, where a group of retired vigilantes are the targets of a conspiracy in the United States, forcing them to band together one more time to uncover and expose the shifty goings-on.

Not long removed from his bloody, visual epic 300, Zack Snyder carries some familiar elements with him in the creation of Watchmen: it is one of the most violent films the superhero genre has seen (in that sense, it stays truer to the comic) and is also one of the most visually intriguing, feeling like you are genuinely watching a graphic novel play out on-screen. When it was released the film divided opinion among audiences, with some critics proclaiming that it is too close to the source material and thus the plot is too contrived and thus unable to breathe. Others appreciated the true nature of the film and that it did not shy away from the violence depicted in the graphic novel, which many superhero films tend to do in order to reach a wider audience (in terms of cinema, an 18 certificate alienates a large percentage of the potential audience a film may acquire had that film received a 15 rating). For me, having never read the Watchmen graphic novel, the film is a success and the characters — although blotchy in places — are encapsulating, particularly Rorschach who is portrayed sublimely by Jackie Earle Haley.

Visceral and ambitious, Watchmen successfully offers a different perspective on the superhero genre in the 21st century.

Iron Man (2008)

“I need to pee again.”

The first instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, hit cinemas in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr as extravagant billionaire Tony Stark, the film follows Stark’s unavoidable creation and eventual utilisation of the Iron Man suit, along with his new-found philosophy to use the suit against evil.

Iron Man is as close to a perfect superhero film as you can get, without actually being perfect: a charismatic lead, a simple-yet-effective plot, a smart and witty script and entertaining action. Unfortunately its only downfall is a significant one — the villain. Jeff Bridges does a fine job as the sleazy, egotistical partner-turned-adversary to Iron Man, but the character itself is not very interesting and is flawed in places. Regardless, the focus of the film is on Robert Downey Jr and his portrayal of the title character. Downey delivers a cocky, effortless and witty performance, yet still provides enough humanity and emotion to make the audience sympathise with an otherwise pretty obnoxious billionaire. Supporting characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) offer the extra support Stark requires in order to achieve the correct balance between overly brash, and sentimental. The two Iron Man sequels are not quite as good as their predecessor, but it would be a mean feat to achieve such status again.

The first offering from Marvel and by far the best, Iron Man almost has the correct concoction of elements to create the perfect superhero film.

The Dark Knight (2008)

“This isn’t awkward at all.”

Although I have The Dark Knight stated above as my favourite superhero film of all time, the trilogy as a whole should be at the summit. The only reason they are not is because this post would probably become a bit repetitive and boring. It would be like watching Saw 4 and then realising Saw 5 is on its way. So while much of the focus here will be on The Dark Knight, I am really including Batman Begins and The Dark Knights Rises as my top superhero films of all time too.

Directed by the majestic Christopher Nolan and released in 2008, The Dark Knight stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and follows on from the events in Batman Begins. Wayne (as Batman), teaming with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), take down an unrivalled number of criminals and bring them to justice. This causes The Joker (Heath Ledger) to devise a plot aiming to bring Gotham to its knees and reduce its heroes to nothing more than the level of The Joker himself.

I mentioned just a moment ago that Iron Man comes so close to being the perfect superhero film. For me, The Dark Knight fills that spot. Everything about this film hits the bullseye. From the dark, unnerving atmosphere to the themes embroidered into the plot to the incomparable performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker (a performance that earned him an Academy Award in 2009). Ledger’s Joker is unpredictable, viscous and intelligent, and is arguably the greatest villain of all time in a superhero film (you will get no argument from me though). Although Ledger steals the show, Christian Bale more than holds his own as Batman — cool and stylish on the outside, but unsure and under pressure on the inside. The two bounce off of each other with immaculate chemistry. The sheer volume of characters in the film has been questioned by viewers (such as the need for Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent), but for me every character plays an essential part to the story — incidentally, Maggie Gyllenhaal is far more suited to playing Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes was in Batman Begins. Hans Zimmer once again provides the haunting soundtrack, which adds more substance to the already eerie atmosphere.

A film about values and hope, The Dark Knight is not just a great superhero film, it is an outstanding piece of cinema. The Dark Knight is the superhero film we needed, but probably not the superhero film we deserved. Sorry, I just could not help myself.

 

Okay, so now for a few honourable mentions. These films are great too:

Batman (1966) — A feature-length film inspired by the Batman television series, Batman: The Movie takes more of a comedy angle than a violent one, with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin respectively. Comical, over-the-top fun.

The Incredibles (2004) — The only animated film on the list, The Incredibles achieved universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike after its release. An entertainment-fest about a family of superheroes out to save the world.

Kick-Ass (2010) — Right from the opening scene (poor kid) all the way to the closing dialogue, Kick-Ass is a hilarious superhero comedy for an older audience. Nicholas Cage is actually good in this film. Just about.

Thor (2011) — A few eyebrows may have been raised when the director of Hamlet and Henry V was announced as the man at the helm of the superhero film, Thor, but Kenneth Branagh answered any questions by providing a flashy, amusing and solid re-introduction to the Thor character.

X-Men: First Class (2011) — This was pretty close to getting into my top five. Not only is the film encapsulating, energetic and youthful, it is also extraordinarily performed — particularly James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.