Thursday, 31 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: The Top Three

So here we are, top 3 time. 

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I can’t review this film objectively. I grew up re-watching VHS copies of the original trilogy over and over again. I got the toys and video games as birthday and Christmas presents throughout my childhood. I dealt with the disappointment of the prequels in the same way I’ve dealt with being raised as a Forest fan long after the glory days have passed; cherish the past, pretend the present is just a temporary blip.

The Star Wars franchise holds a special place in my heart, the kind that can possibly only be created by childish enthusiasm. When I first heard they were going to reboot the franchise I was cynical (fool me once etc.) and even as the cast and crew came together promisingly told myself not to get excited.

Then the first trailer showed up online and as the John Williams score kicked in and the Millennium Falcon took to the skies, I was 8 years old again. The hairs on my arms stood on end and I had the stupidest grin plastered over my face.

There hasn’t been a film this year I’ve been more excited to see, or more scared to be disappointed by. The fact that it comes in at number 3 on this list makes it pretty clear that it didn’t disappoint. In fact that idiotic grin returned again and again as I watched.

The Force Awakens is in some ways similar to Skyfall; it’s a film that embraces the history of the franchise by packing the film with references and themes familiar to the fans while finding a fresh and modern approach. I’ll concede that it is possibly too referential at times to the original trilogy, with a number of plot points feeling a little too familiar, but I suspect that was a deliberate choice as a way to return the fan’s confidence in the series.

This is a film determined to make it clear to audiences that the magic of the original trilogy is back and to encourage us to trust in where they plan to take the franchise. The actors that return from the original trilogy all seem to love getting the chance to rediscover these roles, Harrison Ford’s Solo in particular, but the film never feels like it is trapped in a prison of nostalgia because the 3 key new additions are so damn good.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all excellent, packing their characters with complexity and potential. Who knows they may one day be as iconic as Luke, Leia and Han are for most Star Wars fans. Ridley takes a little while to warm to the role, hampered by some classically stilted Star Wars scripting, but does brilliantly to combine the confusion and excitement that Rey feels as she is dragged into a world so far beyond her fringe planet, scavenging to survive existence. Driver is superb as Kylo Ren, creating a distinctive villain, inspired by but not a copy of Vader or any of the other villains in the series. Anyone who has seen Attack the Block won’t be surprised to hear that Boyega sells the action and the comedy of his role with aplomb.

Some characters feel a little underused with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron sadly failing to be developed beyond being the perfect Resistance pilot. Given the quality of the actor I suspect he signed on with a view to greater involvement in the next films, but he feels a little one dimensional here.

If I was trying to make an objective list of the best films of the year I honestly don’t know if I could justify The Force Awakens making top 3. I’ve seen a number of good critiques of the film, especially this from VOX, that make the fair accusation that it spends too much time rehashing elements of the original trilogy. I would defend it by saying that it is establishing the world for a new trilogy and I expect the next two to be much more original, but can I honestly say I’d consider that a sound defence for the majority of films I see? Probably not.

But this is a list of my favourite films of the year precisely because I don’t want to pretend to be objective. I want to write about the films I loved and I undoubtedly loved this. I’ve wanted to talk about it constantly (not that me talking constantly is a huge shift from the norm) and I’ve caught myself humming various bits of Star Wars score more times than I can count since leaving the screening (John Williams nails the score yet again but given that he was probably the best thing about the prequels I never really doubted that he would).

The magic is back. Star Wars is back. Adult me and child me are both ecstatic about that.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road
I’m not going to spend too long on this one as I’ve reviewed it more fully already here, but it’s worth noting that several months and two re-watchings later I’m even more certain of my love for the film.

I listen to Junkie XX’s score on a regular basis, adoring the range he manages to achieve while making it all feel consistent to the world of the film. Brothers in Arms and Many Mothers stand out in particular for the emotion they evoke, but it’s great throughout and without a doubt my score of the year (sorry John Williams).

The sand storm sequence is also probably my scene of the year and it’s a credit to the composition of the scene that arguably the biggest, most CGI reliant set piece in the film works so damn well on an average sized TV. That had actually been one of my biggest concerns about the film’s staying power: I saw it twice in IMAX and I wasn’t sure home viewing would be able to capture the same scale and intensity.

And perhaps it didn’t fully. But stripping away a three storey tall screen and a sound system that shakes the seat on the deep bass notes, I was able to see just how tightly executed an action movie Mad Max really was. It is a film of glorious spectacle but the momentum of the story telling and the framing of the action mean that it works on the small screen just as well.

It’s refreshing to see Mad Max in the early conversations about the Best Picture Oscar, because it is one of the best made films of the year but it doesn’t fall in a genre the Academy usually pays attention to.

It was a pretty arbitrary decision that found Mad Max coming second this year. Part of me still wants to make it number one, but in the end it just fell slightly short. I didn’t quite end up flipping a coin but it wasn’t far off being that close. So it comes second but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it my joint top film of the year.

1. Inside Out
As I suspect is clear now, it took a pretty special film to pip Mad Max to my Film of the Year title. Inside Out is beyond special, it’s magnificent. It’s not just my film of the year, it’s possibly my favourite Pixar film ever.

It’s certainly up there with the best the studio has produced, previously my top 3 for them was Toy Story 3, Wall-E and Monsters Inc., but Inside Out probably tops Monsters Inc. for me and is close to the others if not better than them.

A stunningly realised exploration of a pre-teen girls emotions, Inside Out is fantastically ambitious, ridiculously clever and most importantly phenomenally fun. I was intrigued from the first press release, if anyone could deliver on the idea of physical manifestations of emotions and the way they interact to make us the people we are, it is Pixar.

It’s delivered with such skill, visual ingenuity and emotional intelligence that children and adults alike will find much to love about the film. It’s something Pixar have repeatedly proved themselves brilliant at, providing entertainment regardless of the audience’s age.

We’re introduced to the five key emotions in a sleek and futuristic control room as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust guide Riley through daily life. Practiced stability for Riley and her emotions is thrown into disarray by her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the ensuing chaos Joy (Amy Poehler bringing plenty of Leslie Knope to the role) and Sadness are ejected from the control room and are forced to travel through various areas of Riley’s mind to try and find their way back.

It’s from this point that the film becomes utterly genius with some incredible manifestations of the way our brains work. Endlessly inventive and gloriously realized, this is Pixar at their best. Some of it will be lost on younger viewers but there are so many ideas on display here that the momentum never drops enough for attention to wane.

Pixar films carrying an emotional punch is nothing new but this one got me as powerfully as Toy Story 3 and that’s saying something. I’d grown up with the Toy Story films so to see the representation of growing up, letting go and life-long friendships is still powerful no matter how many times I see it. I have markedly less experience of being a pre-pubescent teenage girl but the way the film explores how your emotions being out of balance can leave you feeling lost is something I’ve spent a lot of time considering.

Inside Out is my film of the year because it, rather fittingly, inspired some of the most intense emotional responses of anything released in 2015. I laughed more, marvelled more and cried more than any other film managed to trigger in me and that’s surely why I go to the cinema. To be engaged for a couple of hours and lose myself in a world and a story that makes me feel something real and important.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: Part Two (10-4)

So now onto the top 10 and the films that really stood out for me this year. It’s a great top 10 and reasonably diverse in terms of genres. The top 3 will be close behind and you can probably take a good guess at which films will make the cut, but I didn’t want any of these posts to stray beyond the 3000 word mark. We’re all busy people and have a lot of drinking to fit in over the next few weeks so I figured split the top 20 into three parts so you can have a read while you hide from your relatives or wait for dinner to be served.

10. Bridge of Spies
To return to the theme of expectations, when I first got wind of this film I assumed it would be a nailed on top 5 contender. Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a Cold War thriller, with a script pepped up by the Coen Brothers, it sounded like a dream come true for me. Throw in a bittersweet romance and they’d have nailed almost all of my “perfect film” criteria.

So it’s a little disappointing that I can’t put it higher than 10th.

In a lot of ways the film is great. There is no one better at keeping the focus on the individuals at the centre of massive events than Spielberg and no one more suited to playing the honest, put upon everyman than Tom Hanks. Both are on fine form here, as they tell the tale of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer dragged into the uncertain world of the Cold War when he’s “asked” to defend a captured Soviet spy.

Mark Rylance steals every scene he’s in as the man accused. He plays Rudolf Abel as calm and intelligent but avoids making him seem too calculating, doing an excellent job of clouding the audiences allegiances when compared to a number of the representatives of the American justice and security services. A wonderfully nonchalant response to Donovan’s confusion about his calm might end up being overused but has the Coen Brother’s touch all over it.

In the end though it is a film that feels like less than the sum of its parts. The tension never really builds as it should and I kept waiting for something truly unexpected to happen. It seems unfair to complain that a film based on a true story plays it too safe with the way the plot develops, but the film suffers from a predictability throughout.

It is probably also true that I take for granted Spielberg and Hank’s excellence, so the bar is set a little higher for them than it might be for most other people.

Bridge of Spies is an excellent film but I couldn’t put it any higher than 10th because I walked out of that screening with an unmistakable sense of disappointment. Fairly or not, I expected and hoped for more given all the ingredients that went into making it.

9. The Theory of Everything
I’d almost forgotten this was a 2015 release as, like Birdman and Whiplash, the Oscar contenders always feel a long time ago when it’s time to write these reviews, but once I’d confirmed it really did come out this year it had to make the top 10.

It’s a subtle, loving biopic that resists the temptation to treat one of the most respected figures in modern society with rose tinted glasses. Every one of the central characters feels painfully but wonderfully genuine, flawed to various degrees but complex and human.

Eddie Redmayne’s transformation throughout the film is one of the most staggering physical performances I can think of. It’s a cliché of reviewing biopics but I’m not going to pretend I didn’t think exactly these four words as I left the film: he becomes Stephen Hawking. He portrays the character with a heart breaking combination of inner strength and physical fragility, of someone fighting every day not to be limited by the circumstances of his everyday life.

Rightly he won the Oscar for Best Actor but the film wouldn’t work even half as effectively as it does without the performance of Felicity Jones as his wife Jane Hawking. Jones doesn’t get a physical transformation to showcase the characters arc; she communicates a lifetime of love, pain, jealousy and insecurity through the subtlest of changes. She gives Jane a stubborn strength, someone who deserves but would never ask for sympathy.  Jones’ career so far has been a bit hit and miss but I suspect there’s an Oscar win in her future and if you want to see her at her best check out Like Crazy.

8. It Follows
As I touched upon in part one it’s rare I really love a horror film, it’s a genre I enjoy but rarely adore. It Follows is a wonderful exception to that trend.

Largely avoiding jump shocks in favour of a growing, inescapable sense of dread it is the story of a girl, played by the brilliant Maika Monroe, threatened by a STD (Sexually Transmitted Demon in this case). From the moment she does the deed with a seemingly decent guy she is being pursued, always at walking pace, by a creature determined to kill her.

The sexual element feels both relevant to modern concerns over the dangers of promiscuity and the age old horror obsession with sex and virginity. A part of the films brilliance is that despite the premise of the threat it never feels preachy about sex. It manages to be a film about a girl being haunted because she had sex without ever feeling judgemental towards her for the fact she did and that’s a balancing act most horror films would utterly fail to achieve.

Monroe was great in The Guest (check it out if you haven’t yet, a fantastic thriller that feels simultaneously modern and a throwback to 80’s horror/thrillers) and she is superb throughout It Follows. The film wouldn’t work without her ability to combine tough and terrified in almost every scene. She’s certainly another actress destined for great things.

It’s also refreshing to watch a horror film where the protagonist’s friends actually help rather than being utter twats, so it has that going for it.

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
I’ve always been a sucker for American teen indie movies. At least one makes it into my top 10 every year and 2015 is no different.

It isn’t a huge surprise in hindsight that this one stands out. Greg is a self-conscious, overly analytical teen who is obsessed with film partly as a way of hiding from real life, who is reluctant to truly trust anyone as a friend and has an awkward relationship with a girl that toes the line between platonic and romantic. Yeah can’t possibly think why I connected with this.

The film centres around Greg and his friend Earl, whose superficially unlikely friendship is driven by a shared love for films, producing their own wonderfully immaturely titled parody efforts (A Sockwork Orange and Raging Bullshit being personal favourites). Greg’s world is complicated by his mum’s insistence that he spends time with Rachel, a girl diagnosed with Leukaemia.

What follows is a refreshingly honest, awkward exploration of teenage relationships that largely manages to avoid the melodramatic pitfalls that the film’s title might make many people think of. A healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism keeps the film just the right side of the emotionally manipulative line and gives the moments of honest emotion real power because they feel earned.

Funny and sweet in equal measure, if you want a subtler and more emotional evening I can’t recommend this highly enough.

6. The Martian
This film was a glorious surprise (here we are again with expectations, it’s almost like I planned it this way), delivering so far beyond the level I thought it might when I saw the trailers.

Ridley Scott has directed enough truly great films that I will watch anything he’s attached to at least once but there’s no point pretending that it hasn’t been a while since he delivered something really special (Black Hawk Down or Gladiator arguably, so nearly 15 years either way).

The Martian is a return to form for Scott, a film that crosses genres freely as it combines comedy, thriller, sci-fi and drama with real glee. I tend to love films that resist being pigeon holed and The Martian is no exception. It had more moments that made me laugh out loud in the cinema than the majority of outright comedy films in recent memory, had space travel sequences as thrilling as anything Interstellar offered and delivered some great sit and talk argument scenes where some of the best of the current character actor crop (Daniels, Ejiofor, Wiig & Wong) argued about the next move. Plus it’s great to see Sean Bean in a different type of role than I’ve become used to but keeping his accent.

The characters stuck on earth are great and those travelling between Mars and Earth do as much as they can with the arguably short end of the stick they’re given (not that it stops Jessica Chastain from being one of the best things about the movie because I’m starting to doubt there’s anything that could) but the question of whether this film works or not hinges entirely on Matt Damon’s Mark Watney.

The titular Martian, Damon spends the majority of the film on his own and I’m not sure he’s ever been better. Bringing every bit of his likable, homespun American charm to the role he provides the heart of the film. He’s a winningly believable combination of stubbornly hopeful and brutally realistic.

The other key strength of the film is that it manages to capture some of the optimism about human exploration of space (we’ll find a way to make it work against all the odds) without straying into Interstellar style pseudo-intellectualism. In many ways The Martian works in the same way that a film like Everest does in that it’s about human beings surviving somewhere they have absolutely no right to do so, but unlike those films that are all about individual human’s capabilities, The Martian offers a much more optimistic view of what we as a species might be capable of if we came together.

Naïve and simplistic sure, but I’m all for more films trying to remind us that we should aim to achieve more together rather than compete against each other. Especially when the story is told this damn well.

5. Sicario
A crime thriller that delights in living in the grey areas of morality, Sicario is a wonderfully tight action film, with several stand out set pieces and excellent performances across the board.
Villeneuve’s films so far have been promising but mixed. Prisoners is great but not quite as clever as I feel he wanted us to think. Enemy is a glorious concept that comes too close to being swallowed by its own ambition.

Sicario is all the promise of those films delivered without the flaws. The pace is deliberately relentless as Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate is thrown into a world where her certainty in the rule of law will be constantly questioned.

The fact that the cinematographer is Roger Deakins plays a big part in why this makes top 5. If you know me well I’ve probably rambled on at some point about how Deakins is a guarantee of quality. The go to cinematographer for the Coen brothers (and the advisor on the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which counts for a lot in my book), Deakins delivers yet another gorgeous film here.
The composition and framing of shots is both beautiful and pointed. Whether it is shots that take in both sides of the US/Mexico border or ones that emphasise the increasing descent into darkness that the main characters face, nothing is wasted or accidental.

Blunt is superb throughout as our way into the murky world of the drugs trade, and she’s complimented throughout by the ridiculously good performances of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. The latter two delight in operating in the realm of moral ambiguity that dominates the “war on drugs” and bring weight and subtlety to the roles.

Only It Follows eclipses it this year for the dread laden tension that dominates the mood of the film as it becomes increasingly hard to believe anyone will come out the other side of these events better off.

4. Ex Machina
Alex Garland had already established himself as a great screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), but this is his directorial debut and it’s one that should have everyone paying full attention.

Ex Machina is a brilliantly low key exploration of consciousness and humanity. Played out as an extended take on the Turing test, designed to test whether an A.I can pass for human, it’s a film that revels in the subtleties of conversations and insecurities.

For the majority of the film there are only 3 characters. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as Caleb, the geeky office worker that wins an employee lottery and gets to travel to reclusive billionaire Nathan’s woodland home. Nathan is played by the consistently brilliant Oscar Isaac and the interactions between him and Gleeson are showcases for two of the best actors of the current generation. Questions of intelligence, trust and ambition drive all their scenes, as both characters size each other up, machismo and machinations go hand in hand.

But for all that I love both actors, they are working in the shadows of one of my favourite performances of the year. I’d never heard of Alicia Vikander before 2015, but she has arrived in a big way now and it’s hard to see anything other than a long and successful career ahead of her. She is utterly brilliant in Ex Machina, giving her character of Ava, the android being tested by Nathan and Caleb, a wonderful complexity.

Given that the film is framed by an extended Turing test, it is essential that the audience can’t easily make up their mind any more than the characters can and Vikander plays the role with such subtlety and intelligence that I was kept guessing throughout as to how developed her A.I was. The design of the character, all plastic surfaces and whirling mechanics other than her face, serves as a constant reminder of her robotic nature, so it’s a testament to the expressive performance of Vikander that you keep being drawn in to such a degree that it’s the more robotic moments that jar rather than the human ones.

So that’s numbers 20 to 4, next up the top 3.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: Part One (20 -11)

So it’s that time of year again, when I ramble on for far too long about the films I loved, liked or endured this year. I wrote a similar blog last year but a combination of excessive ambition and predictable insecurities mean that the 8,000 word (not even joking there) sprawling account of 2014 in film will never see the light of day.

I’ve limited myself to a top 20 this time and I’m only going to talk about the top 10 in any detail. Hopefully this will save me from producing a dissertation length text that would only ever be read by me as some sort of weird self-flagellation (is there a normal kind really?)

I’m also going to split it into three separate blogs for the sake of readability, so this will be numbers 20-11, the next one will be 10 – 4 and I’ll finish off with the top 3.

I’ve seen more than 40 films at the cinema this year (thank you Cineworld Unlimited card) and my glass half full approach to film means I’ve enjoyed most of them. Only two real stinkers stand out looking back. Taken 3 was one of the most pathetic action movies I’ve ever seen, where much like Robocop last year the 12A-ification takes all the impact out of the action and I just felt sad that actors of the calibre of Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker were wasting their time with such a lazy thriller. Then there was The Visit, an M. Night Shyamalan horror movie that we only saw because we underestimated how popular Legend (underwhelming when we did see it) would be one night. Cripplingly unsure of its tone and utterly lacking in meaningful tension, The Visit was hailed by some as a return to form for the director but I’m honestly stumped for a reason why. In a rare year where a horror film makes my top 10 this stood out as a prime example of the genre done terribly.

Disappointing in a very different way was Birdman, which obviously was a huge hit with critics and awards shows. I suspect it is a victim of the effect of expectation, where us Brits getting the Oscar contenders late means those films have already been built up to often unsustainable levels of hype. Birdman was a superbly well-made film and the long single take scenes will rightly be used in film schools as a teaching tool for the next 50 years probably. But it left me utterly cold. I wanted to see what everyone else saw in it but I just couldn’t connect. It’s probably the most noticeable omission from my top 20 but I can’t honestly say I’m interested in seeing it again and given how many films I loved this year that’s enough to see it miss out. It’s worth noting that the technical excellence of Inarritu and Lubezki means I’m still really excited for The Revenant, where I suspect the setting and plot will connect with me much more.

A number of films were very close to making the top 20 and deserve a quick mention here as I would recommend people give them a try: Song of the Sea, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Voices, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Selma, Suffragette and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 2.  All have a lot going for them and it’s only my desire to actually finish this blog before Xmas 2016 that sees them passed over so quickly.

A Most Violent Year was stubbornly clinging to the 20th spot right up until Thursday, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens forced me to shift the majority of my list down one space. You’ll have to read on (or scroll but that’d be cheating) to find out quite where the latest Star Wars finds itself in my countdown.

There’s also a number of films I haven’t yet had the chance to see that I suspect might have complicated these decisions further: Cartel Land, Dear White People, Girlhood, While We’re Young, West, Macbeth, Brooklyn, Dope, Crimson Peak, Trainwreck and Love is Strange.

But I had to draw the line somewhere and this is the top 20 I settled on as of December 19th 2015. 

Here we go.

20. Whiplash
Rhythm and control are inevitably central to this film and the amount of tension they manage to create through a series of jazz concerts is truly remarkable. Miles Teller is good as the lead but it’s no secret that the Oscar winning “Supporting” performance by J. K. Simmons is what most viewers will take away. It has many of the trappings of a sports movie, but I suspect it sits alone as the first Oscar winning competitive Jazz band movie.

19. Amy
The documentary of the year, for me this manages to avoid being either an apology or a condemnation of her flaws. It carefully and sensitively portrays a girl who never really wanted to be famous and clearly wasn’t equipped for it. The soundtrack is obviously gorgeous but every track has an additional level of melancholy as you are presented with the pain and uncertainty that drove both her creativity and her self-destruction.

18. Spectre
It hasn’t been an overly great year for blockbusters and Spectre is a prime example of the way in which a number of the most anticipated films fell short. It’s actually a really enjoyable film and the sequences in Mexico City and on the train are Bond at its best, with style and tension coming together. But the twists are predictable, the majority of the action forgettable and, for me, the tone straying dangerously close to Bond of old. Skyfall set the bar high and Spectre didn’t even come close to challenging it, in fact I think that the question of how to follow the most successful Bond film ever is the root of a lot of the films problems. Where Skyfall was a brilliant mix of old and new Bond, this seems oddly unsure of where it should aim to fit within the Bond universe. And the franchise still doesn’t have a clue as how to write engaging romantic interests for Bond.

17. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
A film that delights in the impossibility of fitting it into just one genre. It’s a gothic-western-morality tale-Iranian-hipster-social commentary-gangster-drama and it’s that ambiguity that gives the film its power. Mystery and uncertainty are central throughout and while the lines are delivered in Persian and the girl in question wears a chador, it has a wonderfully timeless & placeless feel. The girl is one of the characters of the year but to explain why would be to ruin much of the joy to be found in losing yourself in this wonderfully unique tale. Plus a key scene uses Death by White Lies and I love that song.

16. John Wick
This could so easily have been just one more entry in the veteran-actioner trend that’s been so prevalent for the past few years. An action star whose defining role is looking increasingly distant in the rear view mirror and a revenge plotline looked all too familiar. Honestly John Wick doesn’t do anything hugely new but it does what it does so much better that its competitors. The action is tightly executed with a convincing mix of grace and brutality. It’s an action film that actually shows you the action rather than cutting away, which acknowledges the limits of magazine sizes and makes you feel the punches during fights. So action cinema as it should be done but far too rarely is. 

Keanu Reeves is superb as the, until recently, retired hitman and the film touches on a secret underworld of assassins without spelling out every detail. The now greenlit sequel will probably spoil much of the efficiency and mystique of this film but for once we got an old school action movie that was full of adrenaline and entertaining set pieces. And a lot of the time when I sit down to watch a film that’s all I ask for.

15. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Despite sharing a remarkably similar plot to Spectre and not doing anything hugely new with the franchise, I enjoyed the latest instalment in Ethan Hunt’s efforts to keep the world safe immensely. Part of the difference is that the MI series clearly has confidence in its formula and wants to build on its success by moving forward while the latest Bond felt like an overly cautious backwards step.

Cruise as an individual may have his issues but he makes for a fine action lead and the ensemble cast are excellent across the board. Relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson steals nearly every scene she is in and reminds the Bond franchise that a woman can be a well-rounded character, action hero and ridiculously attractive all at the same time.

The action sequences are as good as they’ve ever been in the franchise with the section set during an opera in Vienna rightly getting praise as one of the scenes of the year. It is crafted brilliantly, knowing that the key to a great pay-off is the tension you build before it.

14. Carol
Carol is the type of drama we don’t see all that often anymore. Crucial plot points are delivered through a pointed silence, a raised eyebrow or the slightest hint of a smile. The impact of the era of Lean and Coward’s Brief Encounter is unmistakable, this is an emotional drama all about the ways we repress out feelings and those moments where something so powerful happens that we can’t or won’t pretend anymore.

Blanchett is mesmerising as a socialite dealing with the repercussions of following her heart in 1950’s America and Mara manages to be naïve but complex as the younger woman trying to understand a whole host of new emotions while facing the impact of her choices. Mara is clearly destined for great things (I remember being blown away by her in Soderbegh’s Side Effects a couple of years ago) but in the end this film is all about the lead character.

It lives and dies on the seductive but complicated character of Carol. I’m not convinced Blanchett has ever been better and it is without question one of the performances of the year. She’s been widely tipped for the Best Actress Oscar and despite the film not making my top 10 I think I’d vote for her given the choice.

13. Big Hero 6
I’ve already mentioned that a few films fell short my expectations for them this year. Big Hero 6 is the absolute opposite of them. I’d seen the trailer and not given it much thought, but a spontaneous choice at the cinema one night thankfully meant that I got to enjoy a film that could easily have passed me by.

A genuine contender for funniest film of the year, Big Hero 6 delivered the heart and inventiveness that Disney has always been known for in spades. I suspect Baymax will go down as one of the great animated characters, eminently marketable but also genuinely lovable. A scene involving a low on power Baymax made me laugh harder than almost any other scene in any other film.

Before I’d seen it I’d actually dismissed the film as Disney’s response to Cars, a film driven more by the toys it might sell than the plot, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Charming and genuine throughout, with a wonderfully realised American-Japanese hybrid city, there’s a strong argument to give Big Hero 6 the crown of surprise hit of the year.

12. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The theme of expectation resulting in disappointment continued with the latest Avengers film. I saw it twice at the cinema and have since watched it again at home and loved it, hence the respectable place on my list. But honestly I expected, or at least hoped, that this film would be comfortable top 10 material.

I loved the first Avengers film and I’m a staunch fan of Joss Whedon after being raised on a diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer so perhaps it was always doomed to fall short of what I hoped for it, but I can only judge a film on how I viewed it and it felt a little underwhelming.

The dynamics between the group were superb, but the plot strayed too close to convoluted for my liking and Ultron was a disappointingly bland villain. Similarly the action sequences were packed with great moments, but were often compromised by shots that seemed designed solely to pander to comic book fans without any justification in the plot. 

I enjoyed the film immensely and the entire section of the story set in Africa was superb, full of witty dialogue and well-crafted action notes. The purely hypothetical question of “what would I have thought of this film if I’d gone in absolutely neutral?” has never intrigued me more. Would I have benefitted from the lack of expectation to enjoy a superbly well put together action adventure film? Or would it’s limitations have damaged it more if I didn’t approach it with a massive disposition to love anything Whedon does?

Those questions will play a big part in the discussion of one of my top 10 films (absolutely no prizes for guessing which one).

It’s near impossible to know for certain but the very fact that those questions are circling in my mind provides a justification for why Age of Ultron didn’t make the top 10.

11. Slow West
The opposite of the latest Avengers film, I went into this film largely on a whim, intrigued by a review in Empire and tempted by the desire to visit the Showroom (a local, independent cinema that I’ve always loved).

I’m not a big fan of westerns, one of the few genres that dominated Saturday afternoon TV when I was growing up that I never really got into. Honestly I suspect that I wouldn’t have liked this film either back then though, but for different reasons.

Slow West is the directorial debut of John Maclean and stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay, a lovelorn, naïve Scottish boy travelling across the plains of North America in pursuit of his lost love. Assisted by Michael Fassbender’s morally ambiguous traveller Silas, what follows is an often dreamlike road movie (on horseback), packed with comic, dark and most often darkly comic encounters along the way.

It is shot beautifully throughout, but the shot choice jumps up a level during the final act as one of the most gloriously staged, entertainingly deranged finales arrives.