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.

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