2015: The Year in Review, Part One: Birdman to Mad Max

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Well, well, well. 2015. It’s been a fantastic, multiple record-breaking year for movies, and there wasn’t a James Cameron in sight. It is also the year in which I – the lad who keeps banging on about how Transformers 4 is an excellent piece of cinema – was very sniffy about two super-successful blockbusters I by all accounts should have loved (more about those later). A handful of films that were released this year (and at the very end of last year) have already entered my pantheon of absolute favourites, heralded by trumpeting and angelic choruses, while a small few have plummeted to the dank, fecal depths of pure awfulness, heralded by a single insignificant fart, squeezed out and forgotten.

As with last year, I’ve been saving up my cinema tickets in the hope that I’ll fall off a toilet and have some eureka idea of something cool I can do with them, so I have a paper record of every film I’ve seen this year and when I saw it. With this, it is my intent to succinctly review each one of the blighters for your reading pleasure or displeasure. That’s 36 reviews, some of which are of movies I’ve seen almost a whole year ago. It’s going to be tough, like SAS boot camp, but it’s all for the good of humanity and, amazingly, that includes you.

Ready? We’re in for the long haul…

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BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), 06/01/2015: Ok, this first one’s a bit cheaty because it came out in 2014, but I saw it this year and it won 2015’s Oscar for Best Picture, so i’ll bleeding well talk about it when I like. So here it is: Birdman is a flat-out masterpiece, a straight 10/10 piece of art that really benefits from repeat viewings. The cinematography, which famously gives the illusion of the film being a single take, is a stroke of brilliance, and the characters’ search for meaning, or lack thereof, is utterly compelling. Its ambiguous ending is complete genius, working almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book in that you can see multiple possible endings within it, allowing the story to end in the most perfect way for you. I can’t speak of this highly enough.

PADDINGTON, 08/01/2015: Another sneaky 2014 inclusion, but what an absolutely charming film. As someone who grew up reading Paddington Bear and listening religiously to the audiobooks, Paddington is a the quintessential adaptation – one that retains an utmost respect for its source material while updating it for a new audience. Surrounding its beloved characters and witty plot in a wonderfully magical heightened reality, the film is universally enjoyable and an instant, timeless classic.

WHIPLASH, 17/01/2015: Whiplash is a brutally relentless yet electrifying film that has left me breathless every time I’ve watched it. As the story of a jazz drummer at a music college, it might not sound thrilling to some, but it’s almost like a war movie, with J.K. Simmons giving an exhilarating, no holds barred performance as the tutor putting Miles Teller’s musician through rhythmic hell. Masterful editing, great music and the most intense, exciting concert scenes you’ll ever see make this one of the best films of recent years.

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EX MACHINA, 21/01/2015: A thought-provoking and claustrophobic sci-fi from writer-director Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for one of my favourite films of all time, Sunshine. Alicia Vikander is enthralling as Ava, an inquisitive and perplexing human-like AI with unknown motives. In a plot that throws around ideas of godhood and humanity, Ava makes us question all the usual sorts of things we think about when the ethics of artificial intelligence are involved. It doesn’t tread any truly new ground, but it’s an immaculately-sculpted and intelligently written thriller that seems rather worryingly close to reality.

TAKEN 3, 27/01/2015: The main benefit of working in a cinema is of course getting tickets for free, so it is with said tickets in hand that I experienced the drivel that was Taken 3, or TAK3N as idiots decided it should be marketed. A few laughs were had at the film’s expense, but the dreadful, for-the-sake-of-it ‘plot’ (if it can be called that), odd family-friendly tone, terrible action scenes and weird bagel-themed subplot all lump together to form a right mess of a movie. Avoid this, make a stand against this kind of rubbish and maybe we won’t get T4KEN. Only joking, of course we’ll get T4KEN. Fuck the world.

THE IMITATION GAME, 28/01/2015: Benedict Cumberbatch is of course outstanding in this important film about computer scientist Alan Turing, whose Enigma machine was pivotal in the Allies’ World War II victory. It might be called formulaic, but it’s still a stirring, inspiring and ultimately heartbreaking tale of an incredible man. While its mainstream appeal means that Turing’s homosexuality and the contemporary issues around it are sadly almost in the background, it’s great that his story is getting the recognition it deserves.

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BIG HERO 6, 04/02/2015: Taking place in the gorgeously-constructed cross-cultural city of ‘San Fransokyo’, this animated romp tells the story of five tech-savvy kids who decide to become superheroes, along with a lovable, huggable medical robot called Baymax. The character of Baymax is a revelation, having already become a cultural phenomenon, and the film is much more about his relationship with central character Hiro Hamada than it is a rock-em, sock-em action flick. Big Hero 6 is an excellently-animated, visually stunning adventure with a genuine, sincere sweetness at its core, moving enough to make a grown man blub and smile in equal measure.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, 04/02/2015: Also referred to by addled cinema goers as ‘Stephen Hawkings’‘The Stephen King Film’ and ‘The Meaning of Life’The Theory of Everything mostly shies away from Stephen Hawking’s scientific breakthroughs, focusing instead on the personal life of the man himself. Eddie Redmayne (who I used to know as ‘that kid from Black Death’) is wonderful in his portrayal of the renowned scientist, and Felicity Jones equally so as his wife Jane. It’s your typical tearjerker biopic, but it’s impossible not to enjoy spending time with the joyously mischievous Hawking, who remains positive and resolute through every hardship thrown at him. The soundtrack is perfect too, with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s minimalist, Philip Glass-like themes reflecting the busy inner-workings of the man’s mind, which continues ticking on as his body fails around it.

JUPITER ASCENDING, 11/02/2015: Not gonna lie, I actually quite liked this trashy piece of science fiction baloney. Sure, the space-hopping story was wank and it was more over-the-top than the battle of the Somme, but it seemed to revel in its ridiculousness and take pride in its almost B-movie status. Light-years from his award-winning turn as Hawking, Eddie Redmayne got a lot of flack here for his overripe performance as the stereotypical sci-fi baddie, but I thought it worked well within such a bonkers movie. Think of it like a modern day Flash Gordon. It’s by all accounts bad, but spaceships and dragons can sure help you forget that Sean Bean is a bee.

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CHAPPIE, 06/03/2015: It’s District 9 with robots, but you could make bolognese with rice and it would still probably taste all right. Neill Blomkamp creates an interesting companion to Ex Machina, as ‘newborn’ robot Chappie grows up from infant to adult in mere days, learning about the world and his place within it. Voiced and mo-capped by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley, Chappie is a surprisingly endearing character, and we really feel for the poor chap as his innocence is corrupted by the savageness of a gang-ruled Johannesburg. The real breakthrough comes in the form of first-time actors Ninja and Yolandi Visser of South African rap group Die Antwoord, who play fictionalised versions of themselves. Acting as Chappie’s human parents, they both have their own ideas about how their battery-powered son should be raised and, along with Copley’s accomplished performance capture, give this otherwise mechanical film an emotional heart.

IT FOLLOWS, 13/03/2015: It Follows is the rarest of things these days – a spectacularly well-made and totally unnerving horror film that relies on atmosphere and dread rather than cheap jump scares. Its cinematography is flawless, as is its awesome retro synth soundtrack by Disasterpeace, and it very cleverly uses timeless, distorted reality to keep you on edge throughout. It’s refreshing to see a horror film that doesn’t treat you like a vegetable.

For more on It Follows, check out My Top 5 Modern Horror Films.

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Title’ by Disasterpeace, from It Follows.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, 24/03/2015: As far as pure entertainment goes, Kingsman is up there at the top. It’s a relentlessly fun homage to the James Bonds of yore, complete with gadgets and goofy humour. Much like director Matthew Vaughn’s previous work on Kick-Ass, the few sequences of extreme violence are contrasted with upbeat music, making them wickedly cathartic instead of gratuitous. One thing’s for sure: Colin Firth’s visit to the church is one of the year’s most memorable scenes, and likely one of the messiest too…

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THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER, 02/04/2015: To tell you the truth, 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is one of my favourite animated features. I’ve always got on well with SpongeBob’s surreal sense of humour, and the movie was as consistently irreverent and hilarious as the best moments in the show. As for this sequel, the live-action segments of the trailers gave me some doubts, but thankfully these are only a small part of the film, with the majority being classic 2D animation. It’s not as memorable as its predecessor and sadly not as (square)pants-wettingly funny, but talking, time-travelling, laser-shooting space dolphins are just one of the properly insane things this fever dream has up its sleeves. SpongeBob 2 is a kids’ film that makes adults feel like kids, and you won’t be embarrassed about laughing at it.

SEVENTH SON, 02/04/2015: I’m quite partial to the odd naff fantasy film, but Seventh Son steps too far into the nether pits of shame, even for me. The film has more problems than Jay-Z, not least Jeff Bridges’ appalling acting, which appears like he’s trying to replicate Ian McKellan as Gandalf and failing miserably, but no one had the nads to tell him because he’s Jeff Bridges. You can’t even understand what he’s saying half the time. The main protagonist is plywood, Alicia Vikander struggles with a character that you literally couldn’t write a paragraph about and Julianne Moore is wasted in the role of ‘the evil witch’, giving the part far more than it deserves. As for the plot, it’s arse and forgettable, requiring a titanic suspension of disbelief. Example: Bridges is a monster hunter, and at one point he is summoned to a cathedral or whatever, where a creature has been trapped in a cage. The cage is raised, Bridges fights the creature, Bridges defeats the creature… and traps it. Again. Wasn’t it already trapped? What was the point in any of that? You know what? AARGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Shit film.

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT, 05/04/2015: This cinematic rerelease of Ridley Scott’s masterwork is obviously not a 2015 film, but I thought I’d throw it in anyway because I saw it and why the hell not. It still stands up, it’s still brilliant and Rutger Hauer is still amazing. Enough said, really. If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, you won’t want to miss it.

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LOST RIVER, released 10/04/2015, viewed on Netflix: Another cheaty entry as I was gutted to have missed this at the cinema, but I managed to catch it on Netflix later in the year. As a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s work (Drive, Only God Forgives), it seemed like director Ryan Gosling was trying his own take on Refn’s style and this intrigued me. As it turns out, Lost River is stranger even than Refn’s Valhalla Rising (his least conventional film). It comes across rather like a collection of storyline fragments and ideas for different films, stitched together into some kind of lurid nightmare that feels like the tiniest part of a larger tapestry. Some aspects are given bare minimum elaboration, such as the supposed curse of the town of Lost River, and the unusual, ruling presence of Bully, the violent, perpetually angry gang leader played by Matt Smith. Great performances by Christina Hendricks and Saoirse Ronan get lost in the jumble of the film, but it’s a relatively compelling jumble, and while its conclusion can’t be considered satisfying, it’s a ride I don’t regret taking. Certain moments stand out, such as the soundtrack (which is excellent) harmonising with Bully’s primal roaring, and Gosling definitely shows promise as an up-and-coming director. Lost River is difficult to recommend, but might be worth seeking out if you want something a bit different. Just don’t expect The Avengers.

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Yes’ by Chromatics, from Lost River.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, 23/04/2015: Don’t expect The Avengers here either. Unlike the enjoyable but tortoise-speed first installment of the superhero team-up series, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a worthless, pointless, throwaway film that, apart from a couple of new faces and the littlest sprinkle of set-up for Marvel’s Civil War, adds absolutely nothing to the now extensive Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its action is serviceable and its comedy well-placed, but it’s the most rote superhero blockbuster we have seen in some time. The villain, Ultron, is massively underwhelming, Tony Stark is unbearably obnoxious, and we get one of the most laughably terrible character deaths I have ever witnessed. Character development is limited to a Hawkeye plot strand that fizzles into nothingness, a painfully unconvincing relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk, and the first flickers of disagreement between Captain America and Iron Man, all of which, in this film at least, we are given no reason to care about. Joss Whedon had so many problems while making this that he has departed from the series for good. It shows, mate. It shows.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, 04/05/2015: Far from the Madding Crowd is a visually and aurally beautiful film. The picturesque Dorset countryside is a breathtaking backdrop, and Craig Armstrong’s score translates it splendidly into music. Carey Mulligan is extraordinary, as she often is, and grounds this simple but powerful tale as the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene. A very pleasant viewing experience.

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 17/05/2015 & 03/06/2015: What a film. What a lovely film. Mad Max: Fury Road is without a doubt the greatest action movie I’ve seen. Director George Millier has created an incredibly fully-realised post-apocalyptic world, brimming with culture, history, religion and all the messed up people you could possibly want. It’s a high octane, two hour car chase, with minimal use of CGI and an emphasis on practical effects and physical stunts to conjure up the most thrillingly realistic action you can get. There’s no filler either, with the film racing full-throttle from one tightly-choreographed set piece to the next, leaving you completely exhausted by the time the credits roll. Fury Road has already attained cult status, with endlessly quotable lines and truly iconic characters, but perhaps more remarkable is that, in a genre that’s typically male-heavy, all but two of its protagonists are women. Max himself isn’t even the centrepiece here, acting essentially as the sidekick of Charlize Theron’s b’dass Imperator Furiosa, who dominates the screen. It’s shiny, it’s chrome, and it’s anything but mediocre. Witness it.

The adventure continues in Part Two: Insidious to Star Wars

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