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. 

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