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.

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