Top 10 Films of 2015

It’s the end of January now so I thought I should finally get round to compiling by obligatory Top Ten list of the year. The reason I’ve waited a month to do this rather than make one at the end of 2015 is (partly) because I’ve fallen behind on my reviews and have been trying to catch up with them all month while also working on my dissertation which is due in two weeks. Another reason though is because I live in the UK which means that many of the American movies that turn out to be the biggest awards contenders don’t get a general release here until January and February so I wanted to give myself a chance to see some of them. I’m glad that I have now because a good number of them have ended up making my list. Overall 2015 was an exciting year. It was a year where franchises were reinvented, old hands came back and showed that they’ve still got it, and where the best films of the year were able to distinguish themselves by their sheer diversity. Regrettably there are always going to be a few films that I’ve missed or that haven’t reached the UK yet but I’m content with the list I’ve put together. Here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of the year.

 

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams

The Force Awakens

Probably my most highly anticipated film of the year, I am so incredibly pleased that this film turned out to be as great as it did. Returning to this universe was like seeing an old friend again and it pleases me to know that the magic is still there. Seeing the old faces was a real treat but what really sold me on this film was the new characters. Rey, Finn, BB-8, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren were all names that I enjoyed becoming acquainted with and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better in the sequels. The starship fights and lightsaber duels were as exhilarating as they’ve ever been and were executed to stunning effect. The sets and the landscapes were spectacular and blended well with this universe, feeling both new and familiar at the same time. Everything about this movie looks and feels like a Star Wars film and it is good to have this franchise back on top form once again. Review here.

9. Creed – Ryan Coogler

Creed

Definitely one of the biggest surprises of the year, this is a franchise reboot of a very different kind. What I liked about Creed though was how barebones it was. It wasn’t trying to outdo any of the Rocky films nor did it try to exploit the franchise’s success. Instead it tries to tell its own story with its own character in its own way. Adonis is a compelling character in his journey to prove that he has what it takes to be a great fighter and to do so on his own terms. Tessa Thompson is a welcome addition as a character who does not begin and end as a love interest. She is her own character with her own story and her own life to live. Sylvester Stallone’s return as the iconic Rocky Balboa is a triumph as he delivers the strongest performance of his entire career. Creed is a dynamic film packed with astounding character moments and stupendously choreographed fight scenes. Review here.

8. Steve Jobs – Danny Boyle

Steve Jobs

For me this was the single most compelling character study of the entire year. The film’s format allowed for a thorough examination of this tortured genius’ psyche by showing him at work and interacting with others at three different stages of his life. The entire ensemble shines in this film but Fassbender is still able to stand out as the tyrannical, egotistical mastermind at the centre of it all. As Jobs he commands an extraordinary on-screen presence and drives the entire film with an intensely bombastic performance throughout. Sorkin’s dialogue is fast, sharp and incredibly intelligent, allowing each character to interact on a highly creative and intellectual level and to keep this film moving forward with each second. This is a film that never stops moving and that commands your immediate attention from beginning to end. Review here.

7. The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight

This film is a Tarantino blend of John Carpenter and Agatha Christie set in the West with eight fascinatingly nefarious characters driving it. What’s not to love? The interactions between these characters are wildly entertaining and utterly compelling as they face a tense and unnerving situation together in their own twisted and aggressive ways. Character is king as Tarantino allows this situation to simply play out with each exchange of dialogue and each monologue until things finally come to a head. Every part is perfectly cast as each actor completely inhabits their character and employs a fluid command of Tarantino’s stylised dialogue. This film runs for three hours and at no point did I ever feel bored or wearied. I was completely invested and thoroughly entertained through it all and wouldn’t change a single scene. Review here.

6. Spotlight – Tom McCarthy

Spotlight

In terms of plot alone this was perhaps the most compelling film of the year. The uncovering of a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up widespread instances of child molestation in Boston makes for a complex, challenging and significant story and not a single second is wasted in its telling. There is an intricacy and a methodicalness to the shaping of this film as each scene carries it forward with a purpose. Not one step is glossed over and not one element is overlooked. The audience is able to become invested in this story through the characters who are confounded and challenged by what it is they discover. Each character is fully rounded and is portrayed with a naturalism and authenticity that keeps the film grounded. The drama in this film is never overplayed or exaggerated but instead remains firmly genuine and honest. Thus every single moment of drama this film conveys is completely real and completely earned. Review here.

5. Ex Machina – Alex Garland

Ex Machina

A stimulating film that raises fascinating questions about the human consciousness. This film depicts a man who crosses paths with a being who looks, sounds, feels, moves and behaves like a human being. He knows that she (or rather it) is a machine but cannot deny or ignore the feelings he has developed for her (it). With those feelings comes the uncertainty and the inevitable questions. Is this being capable of real thought and emotion? How does one tell if those thoughts and emotions are real or artificial? Is there a difference? Does this being understand the difference? The questions and themes are discussed and debated throughout this film in an intelligent and captivating way as the mystery surrounding this character subtly unfolds. The character itself is astonishingly designed, utilising some of the best us of CGI on a single character in any film, and is portrayed superbly by Alicia Vikander. Definitely one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking films of the year. Review here.

4. Room – Lenny Abrahamson

Room

Room is an emotionally profound film that manages to turn something dark and twisted into something moving and beautiful. Told and seen from a child’s perspective, there is an innocence and a heart to this film that both warms and breaks your heart. Tremblay could very well be the greatest surprise of the year with a stunning performance that beggars belief. The journey his character embarks upon is an extraordinary one and it is his performance that carries the entire film. The way that this film managed to place its characters in such a despairing situation but to then focus instead on the positive and hopeful part of their lives without diminishing their confinement cannot be understated. This film is a remarkable achievement in its portrayal of the human condition and is one of the most touching and poignant films of the year. Review here.

3. Inside Out – Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen

Inside Out

Films like this are the reason why we should never underestimate children’s films. Through ingenious storytelling, amazing characters and superb animation Pixar has constructed one of the most intelligent, entertaining and profound films of the entire year. The film’s exploration of the emotional spectrum is able to be clever and creative while still being simple enough for children and adults to follow. The themes of growing up and of being in touch with one’s emotions are universal and are presented with astonishing insight and maturity. This is a film that challenges its audience without alienating them and is able to make the viewer laugh as soon as it makes them cry. There are grown-up films that wish they could be as smart, as enjoyable and as emotional as Inside Out, a children’s masterpiece. Review here.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller

Mad Max Fury Road

The most intense, action-packed, exhilarating film of the year, hands down! Going to see Fury Road in the cinema was more than a viewing, it was an experience that left me out of breath by the time the credits rolled. What makes this film so intriguing however is that there is actually a compelling story taking place beneath all the carnage that goes largely unspoken. It is a story of survival and about retaining or even regaining one’s humanity. It’s also a surprisingly feminist film that has cleverly disguised itself as a Man Movie. Each character is given a personality and a distinctive story-arc. Furiosa in particular has distinguished herself as the heroine of the year, proving herself to be just as compelling and as badass (if not more so) as any other action hero. The car chase however is what makes this film as it boasts of some of the most incredible action ever put on screen. Fury Road is a perfect action movie and that is not a declaration I make lightly. Review here.

1. Carol – Todd Haynes

Carol

The most beautiful, stunning, immaculately crafted film that I’ve seen this year. Of all the films I’ve seen in 2015 Carol is my favourite for two reasons. Firstly is the artistry that went into its creation. Every single frame of this film looks like a photograph and everything, from the angles to the colours to the lighting, is employed to create a tranquil mood and to enhance the story. Secondly is the relationship between Carol and Therese which is portrayed with such passion and tenderness that you cannot help but be drawn in. There is a transcendent beauty to the love they share but also a deep sorrow to the circumstances keeping them apart. This film is perfectly written, acted, designed and directed to tell an intimate and passionate tale of love and no other film this year has moved me in the way Carol has. It is a marvellous achievement in art, romance and cinema and it is my favourite film of 2015. Review here.

Honourable Mentions: The Big Short, Bridge of SpiesBrooklyn, Far from the Madding CrowdMacbethThe Martian, The RevenantStraight Outta ComptonThe WalkYouth

Now here are my five least favourite films of 2015.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey – A stupid story based on a trashy book that tried to turn itself into a serious romance. This film never had a chance due to the dull protagonist, the silly writing and the lack of anything resembling a compelling romance. Review here.

4. Pan – A film that has fundamentally misunderstood the story upon which it is based and failed to capture any semblance of the magic. This film is a cliché-ridden misadventure with some truly bizarre ideas thrown in. Review here.

3. Boy Next Door – This film has absolutely no reason to exist. It is a tired story with tired characters relying on tired clichés that fails to offer anything of actual substance. Review here.

2. Jupiter Ascending – A space opera that offers drab exposition, pointless action and sci-fi rip-offs in place of character, spectacle and emotion. The film’s only redeeming feature is that much of it is laughable. Review here (although I should note that my thoughts on the film have since become much more negative).

1. Terminator Genisys – I hate everything about this film from its butchering of the iconic characters to the grossly nonsensical story to the utterly diluted tone and action. This is so much more than a bad film, this is an insultingly bad film. Review here.

Room

Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writer: Emma Donaghue


What Emma Donaghue and Lenny Abrahamson have done with Room is such an incredible achievement that it almost defies description. To take such a dark, disturbing concept and turn it into something beautiful and inspiring is nearly impossible. Yet Room tackles its subject matter with such humanity and heart that I found myself greatly moved and deeply touched. This film depicts the tale of a woman who has suffered an unimaginable trauma by being held and used against her will and cut off from the entire world for almost a decade. Yet, while the film never ignores or undermines her profound suffering, it isn’t the focus of the film. Instead the focus is on the one good, wholesome thing to come out of this ordeal, her son. By depicting this story from the boy’s perspective, a person with a pure and innocent outlook on life, Room is able to transform what should be a tale of suffering and depravity into a tale of hope and love. I haven’t seen a film that has depicted such a serious matter from a child’s perspective with such insight and empathy since To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) is five-years-old and has spent his entire life living inside Room. There is no ‘the’ because Room is the only room he has ever known. He has no conception of existence beyond these four walls. With him is Ma (Brie Larson) who, for seven years now, has been the prisoner of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the man who kidnapped her when she was seventeen. Together in the ten-by-ten-foot windowless Room Jack’s life is one of games, TV and hearing stories from Ma about a world that cannot possibly be real. Every now and then Jack has to sleep in Wardrobe because Old Nick has come for one of his visits but otherwise it’s just them and Room. As Ma gets closer to her breaking point however and Jack’s curiosity grows, she hatches a plan for them to escape Room and return to the outside world.

If another director had made this film they might have decided to stress Room’s small size to emphasise Ma’s claustrophobia, confinement and despair. Abrahamson however takes the opposite approach and allows Room to appear bigger than it really is. After all this film is being told from Jack’s perspective and to him Room is the entire world. It is the biggest thing he can possibly imagine and what we see as a wall he sees as the edge of the universe. To have this one character define the environment rather than have the environment define this other character is an ingenious move on Abrahamson’s part. Donaghue’s writing is also a crucial part of what makes this film work so well. Her dialogue is so simple and natural that she is able to tap directly into the core of these character’s feelings and express them in such an affecting way. Jack’s narration in particular, when he outlines everything he knows and can do, provides such a poignant insight into this character’s outlook and innocence that you’re never sure whether you should be laughing or crying.

Whoever discovered Tremblay deserves a medal because as Jack he gives a better performance than some of this year’s Oscar contenders. Some of the credit should go to Abrahamson for knowing how to direct this boy but Tremblay himself is the one in front of the camera and his performance is what drives this film. What is so striking about Jack is not that he is unsuspectingly living this unusual, twisted lifestyle but that he is in fact a completely normal kid. He jumps, shouts, laughs, cries, loses his temper and shares a strong and loving relationship with his mother. Larson as Ma is just as much of a star as Tremblay is. Her balance between joy and despair as she lives this disparaging, oppressive life with her bright and lovable son is moving in its authenticity and subtlety. One particular speech she gives when she desperately tries to convince her son that there is such a thing as an outside world and that it is where they really belong had me on the verge of tears.

The parts of the film that I’ve discussed just about cover the first act and that’s where I want to leave it. Room is, amongst many things, a story of discovery which is why I think the story that follows is one that the viewer should discover for themselves. I think that the trailer gives too much of the plot away because the uncertainty of what comes next is such an integral part of what makes Room such an astonishing film. The challenges that these two characters face and the growth that they experience is so heartrending and extraordinary that I dare not give it away. Films like Room that are so effective in their rawness and simplicity and which convey such a deeply moving portrait of humanity do not come often and should be treasured when they do.

★★★★★

The Hateful Eight

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino


Nobody does character and dialogue quite like Quentin Tarantino. His command of the English language is both bewildering and astonishing to behold as he crafts astounding cinematic moments through anecdotal conversations and suspenseful monologues. In Pulp Fiction he gave us an entire trivial conversation about hamburgers, TV pilots and foot massages. Not only is this discourse interesting, witty and captivating but also it allows the audience to learn a wealth about the characters and the world they inhabit without them even realising it. The characters themselves are so dynamic, fascinating and entertaining that you cannot help but love them whether they’re ruthlessly vengeful like the Bride, despicably evil like Hans Landa or even sadistically racist like Calvin Candie. This is why I was so excited by the concept of The Hateful Eight. By placing nearly the entirety of his film within a small, secluded cabin, Tarantino has created the perfect environment for his dialogue and characters to truly flourish. The result is stellar.

When a snowstorm strikes deep in the wilderness of Wyoming a collection of unconventional individuals are forced to seek shelter in a cabin and wait the blizzard out. Amongst them are the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the Mexican employee of the haberdashery Bob (Demián Bichir), the Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet cowboy called Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), the civil war general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and another bounty hunter called Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth lets everyone know that he’ll be damned before letting anyone else take his $10,000 bounty from him and will not hesitate to turn his gun on anyone who tries anything suspicious. Tensions rise as these characters start to believe that somebody isn’t who they say they are and so the situation simply plays out from there.

What follows is essentially an Agatha Christie mystery with much more violence, profanity and racism. The real beauty of this film comes from watching the interactions between these characters as they seek to work out what exactly is happening. The tension is rife as they interrogate each other, looking for weaknesses and holes, and wait for somebody to make a move or a mistake. In what is undoubtedly one of the year’s best ensemble performances, the standouts for me were Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The former plays an astute and menacing bounty hunter who constantly gets derided for his race. The role fits Jackson likes a glove as he gives what is quite possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. Leigh meanwhile is a wild, foul-mouthed, erratic criminal who gets sheer glee from being downright malevolent. Amongst an entire group of nefarious characters she is able to distinguish herself as the baddest one in the bunch. These characters take on a life of their own as their actions and interactions propel the story forward and allow the drama to unfold at a rapid yet natural pace.

Tarantino’s dialogue is as always smart, absorbing and stylishly obscene. With each crafty exchange of dialogue and each devious monologue the film’s tension grows more and more palpable as these characters learn more about each other and their situation. The viewer is never quite sure where these characters stand or which ones they can really trust. By setting this film squarely in a cabin surrounded by a tempestuous snowstorm Tarantino allows the claustrophobia to reign supreme as the paranoia slowly seeps in and grows more potent. The film’s build-up of tension is as meticulous and exciting as it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing, also (not coincidentally) starring Kurt Russell. Tarantino’s abilities as a writer and a director shine in this film and are utilised to perfection. Also worthy of praise is Ennio Morricone’s electrifying original score which is every bit as intense and stylish as the dialogue.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this film’s runtime and I simply cannot understand why. The great Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too long and The Hateful Eight is a great movie that makes every minute count. I was completely immersed by the film’s story, characters and dialogue and didn’t look at my watch once during the film’s entire three-hour duration. Tarantino has distinguished himself through his ability to blend genres and what he presents here is a spaghetti-western whodunit that only he could have made. The dialogue is typical Tarantino and is as funny, stimulating and rousing as it has ever been. Every character is compelling and memorable and each one gets a moment in the spotlight. The Hateful Eight is clever, bizarre, intense, unpredictable and riveting. Watching is was an exhilarating experience for me and I think it ranks amongst Tarantino’s best.

★★★★★

Joy

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Writer: David O. Russell


The movie opens with a dedication to “daring women everywhere”. Through the character of Joy (no surname) the film aspires to capture the voice of those women all over the world who dare to be more than others have said they can be. This film is made for the working mothers who have to work themselves to the bone every day to get by. It is for the women who possess talent, ideas and potential but have been held back by their circumstances and commitments. This film is for the women who have had to fight for their victories against the constraints placed upon them by an inequitable patriarchal system. These women have voices that demand and deserve to be heard and I admire this film for speaking out for them and for delivering a message about the value of determination and hard work. I just wish it were a better film.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced working mother of two trying to provide for herself and her entire family. This includes her reclusive mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) who spends her days watching melodramatic soap operas, her father Rudy (Robert de Niro) who has returned home following an unsuccessful third marriage, and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who still plans on making it big with his singing. Joy herself has always dreamed of applying her creativity as an inventor but had to abandon that ambition to focus on her commitments. Nevertheless her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) has always maintained that Joy has the potential to become a strong, successful woman. When Joy is inspired one day to create a self-wringing mop, she decides to follow her idea through and market her new invention. In her endeavour however she is met with numerous adversities that threaten to stop her from achieving her dream and finally realising her full potential.

In her third collaboration with David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence drives this film single-handedly as the indomitable Joy and gives what is by all means a good performance. Her character is determined, strong-willed and smart and Lawrence portrays these qualities with both humour and conviction. Over the course of this film I was definitely rooting for her and I felt for her every time one of the adversities she faced beat her down. I’m not convinced that Lawrence deserves all of the awards attention she has been getting but it is nevertheless a decent performance. The rest of the cast however were not so great. The one-dimensional characters that surround Joy seem to have been deliberately shaped into the most implausibly unlikeable people possible in order to make her situation that much worse. They include the overly-pathetic mother, the overly-contemptible father with his overly-insufferable girlfriend, and the overly-disdainful sister. I know that they’re supposed to be awful characters but it’s a wonder that Joy puts up with any of them. Bradley Cooper as well is completely wasted in his role as a television marketing executive who helps Joy gain some exposure for her creation. The only pleasant surprise for me was the ex-husband who turned out not to be the total loser that the film built him up to be.

I’ve found that there are some people who were thrown off when they realised that the dramatic crux of this movie was the selling of a mop. However if a film like Bicycle Thieves can build its drama around a bicycle then Joy can certainly do the same with a mop. I think the reason the film lost me in the end was because the concept felt a little too familiar and the story as a whole just felt pretty haphazard. The movie’s pacing was all over the place, especially in those parts where the film cut over to those segments of Terry’s ridiculous soap opera. Those scenes, while funny, just felt unnecessary. Joy’s journey as a character is fine for the most part but still feels pretty tired. It seems like Russell is trying to tell this story in a new way but for all his style and skill I think the emotional weight got lost somewhere.

I like the message that this film is trying to tell and I like that it assumes the voice of a group that doesn’t get heard often enough. The result of Russell’s efforts is a pretty decent film but lacks the fire or resolve of Joy’s character. I think perhaps because Russell stylised the film more than it needed to be, the story lost its plausibility and therefore much of my investment. I was invested enough to follow Joy to the end but I didn’t receive any sort of emotional reward from the film’s climax. I was left feeling pretty indifferent to the film’s resolution and haven’t thought much about it since. All in all the film is fine. It has a good central performance and some enjoyable moments but is all based around a story that I found to be quite unfulfilling.

★★★

The Danish Girl

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: Lucinda Coxon


In a year where transgender stories and themes were able to reach a wider mainstream audience on TV with such shows as Transparent, Sense8, Boy Meets Girl, and of course I am Cait, the transgender movement has never been more visible or widely supported. Therefore there was much expectation for The Danish Girl which many hoped would help take the cause even further. Although there is a progressive history of transgender cinema, (The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica to name a few) few of the filmmakers driving it have had the mainstream appeal of Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. Given the significant rise in prominence the subject matter has made in recent years I was curious to see whether The Danish Girl would be the film that everybody wants it to be.

The film tells the real life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to receive sex reassignment surgery. Before Lili there was Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a successful landscape artist living in 1920s Copenhagen. When his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), herself an aspiring artist, asks him to stand in for a female model Einar undergoes an awakening. As he finds himself entranced in his role as a woman, he discovers another side of himself whom he christens Lili. Over time Einar grows to understand that Lili has always been there deep within his sub-conscious and realises that she represents the core of who he truly is. This sets off a progression as Lili tries to leave her former identity behind so that she might live her life free from constraint and repression. When she discovers Dr Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), whose work concerns the practice of gender reassignment, Lili sees it as her chance for salvation.

The main problem with this film is that it is too safe. I believe the film was well-intentioned and wanted to pay all due respect to this woman’s story but it doesn’t take it far enough. Vital themes are underexplored; the focal characters are underwritten; and important questions are left unasked. The central conflict of this film is that between Lili and Einar where she must confront the reality that she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film however never goes deep enough to really explore the suffocation and confinement she must feel nor does it ever get to the heart of who Lili actually is. The focus of this film is placed on Lili’s situation rather than on Lili herself, resulting in a story without a character. The film also tries to incorporate Gerda’s struggle into the story as she confronts the prospect of losing her husband in order to help Lili. Her story is handled better than Lili’s is as the film showcases how this situation is just as difficult for her. The story is not handled badly nor would I call this film dull, it just seems airless to me. The film knows what it wants to say but it isn’t brave or daring enough to say it.

The actors for the most part do well with what they are given. I understand that the decision to cast the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili got a lot of controversy but I thought he did very well considering. His performance is understated and vulnerable and he does a good job of conveying the anguish of a person torn between two identities. Alicia Vikander has gone from strength to strength this year and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. Her character’s struggle to help the person she loves become who she needs to be even though it means erasing the life that they have together is portrayed with such heart and sensitivity. Hooper for his part gives the film a very refined and elegant look much like a painting. As a director he has often favoured extreme close-ups of his characters and employs it to effective use with his intimate shots of Einar as he discovers and explores his feminine side.

The film’s refined and elegant tone however is also its let-down. The film tries so hard to tell this story in a tasteful and sensitive way that it ends up whitewashing the elements that really matter. The focus is placed on the conceptual element of the story rather than on the human element which means that the character at the centre of it all gets downplayed. There are occasional glimpses of the film that could’ve been (I remember one particularly moving scene taking place at a peep-show) but for the most part The Danish Girl plays it safe with its subject matter. I was hoping that this film would help introduce transgender themes to a wider mainstream audience but the problem is that the film itself is too mainstream. It is a noble, well-meaning effort but a reserved one nevertheless.

★★★

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt


This is the film I’ve been waiting all year to see. Honestly, I was more excited about this film than I was about Christmas. Like most Star Wars fans I absolutely love the original films and despise the prequel trilogy. I cannot think of any other series of films that has accomplished what the original trilogy did. Not only did they create three incredible films complete with timeless characters, an epic story and groundbreaking visual effects, they created an entire living, breathing universe. Through ingenious storytelling, astonishing creativity and amazing imagination the Star Wars films transported viewers to another world and took on a life of their own. The cultural impact Star Wars has had and its influence on cinema as we know it is astronomical. It is no small task for any film to live up to that kind of legacy and, after an entire trilogy of films that threatened to destroy it, many people including myself were hopeful yet cautious about this film. While the adverts showed much promise I didn’t want Star Wars to let me down again. Thankfully whatever reservations I had were relieved as soon as I saw The Force Awakens.

Picking up thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing and the Galaxy is now in the midst of a civil war between the First Order and the Resistance. When the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes across BB-8, a droid holding the secrets to Luke’s whereabouts, it falls onto her and Finn (John Boyega), a rogue stormtrooper, to deliver BB-8 to the Resistance. Along the way they encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who agree to help them in their quest. Meanwhile a search for the droid is underway led by the dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) of the First Order. Together they command the Starkiller Base, a great weapon of planetary destruction that threatens to destroy the New Republic. As Rey and Finn are drawn further into this conflict they both must decide who they truly are and whether this is a cause they are willing to fight for.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that the story is essentially a retread of A New Hope and so I thought I’d start by addressing it. While I do agree that the film borrows heavily not only from Episode IV but from all three films, I wasn’t as bothered by it as other people were. Now, if there is one positive thing to be said about the prequel trilogy it is that Lucas did introduce a lot of original and creative ideas that showed promise. Those ideas however were let down by his failings as a writer and director. Since the prequels caused so much anger and hate amongst Star Wars fans (insert joke about path to the Dark Side here), I think it does make some sense for this film to try and relieve that resentment by bringing fans back to the original trilogy. While I certainly would have liked a more original story with some newer ideas, my biggest concern going into this film was whether or not it would actually be a good Star Wars film. If showing everyone that they could make a good Star Wars film meant recycling plot elements from the original trilogy, then I can live with that. I’m very happy with the result and am now optimistic about the future of this franchise.

Once it gets started the film makes the clever decision not to show us any of the familiar characters from the original trilogy until we’re a good half hour into the movie. This allows the audience the opportunity to get to know the new characters a bit before they’re allowed to welcome back Han and Chewie and all the others. I am very thankful that this film opted for this route because it was the new characters who ended up selling this film for me. Rey and Finn are both fun and interesting characters and I enjoyed following their journey every step of the way. I also enjoyed Kylo Ren who I thought provided Star Wars with a unique and fascinating villain. While I don’t think the criticism about Rey being a Mary Sue is necessarily without merit, I also don’t think it necessarily makes her a bad character. While it’s true that she is unusually resourceful and does succeed at just about every task she sets out to do, I think the struggle is still there. I felt like there was a lot of effort and investment behind her actions which is why none of her victories felt unearned to me. I was very much invested in her journey and thought that she was a terrific protagonist for the film.

With that in mind the inclusion of the old faces of Star Wars was very welcome indeed. I thought the film handled them in just the right way by employing them when they were needed to serve the story without ever making them the central focus. Harrison Ford is particularly good as an old Han Solo who has remained a scoundrel at heart but has been noticeably wearied by the events that followed Return of the Jedi. Carrie Fisher has also returned as Leia who is now the leader of the Resistance. Fisher falls naturally into her new role as a general and is still able to convey the same resolve and spirit that Leia possessed in the original films. Despite the amount of time that has gone by I had absolutely no problem believing that these were the same characters that they played all those years ago.

Is this film perfect? No. Does it rely too heavily on plot elements from the original trilogy? Probably. Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? Absolutely not. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with this film. However at the end of the day they don’t really amount to much more than nit-picks. The Force Awakens is a fun, exciting and wondrous space adventure that boasts of great characters, thrilling action and stunning visuals. The film’s decision to utilise real sets and practical effects pays off beautifully and allows for an engrossing and absorbing spectacle. Whatever issues I may have with it, The Force Awakens looks and feels like a Star Wars film and is one of the best viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. It has captured the magic of the original trilogy and I look forward to seeing where this series goes next.

★★★★★

In the Heart of the Sea

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendon Gleeson

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Charles Leavitt


When I went to see this film it was being shown at a surprise screening. There was of course much speculation within the audience over what the secret film was going to be. When the title was finally revealed and the film began I remember hearing a collective groan from the crowd and I even saw a few walkouts. I could understand the disappointment. After all of the anticipation and speculation I think people were expecting a film with a bit more buzz going for it. It seemed clear to me that the reason this film had opted for a surprise screening was because people were more likely to get excited for a mystery film than for this one. The truth is that I hadn’t been particularly excited by the trailer and so there’s a good chance I might not have ever gone to see this film of my own accord. Nevertheless I had paid my ticket and was willing to give this film a fair chance.

The film depicts the real-life story that Moby Dick was based on and opens with the author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down Tom Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson), a survivor of an ill-fated voyage. Nickerson reluctantly recalls the tale of the Essex, the memory of which still haunts him to his core. Also on this voyage was the seasoned first-mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The turbulent whaling expedition takes a catastrophic turn when the ship is attacked by a whale of gargantuan size and of a strangely antagonistic will. In the aftermath of this attack the crew is left stranded in the open sea and is met with the prospect of succumbing to starvation, despair and to nature herself. Nickerson recounts with the heavy heart the desperate measures the crew resorted to in order to survive.

In the Heart of the Sea is by all means a well-made film. The sets and costumes allow for an admirable recreation of 19th century New England, the visual effects used to create the whale are decent and the film does communicate a strong sense of hopelessness and dread as the crew struggles to survive. I think my problem with the film though is that it just didn’t bring anything new to the table and therefore didn’t leave any sort of an impact on me. A couple of years ago I remember watching the story of the Essex in the BBC movie The Whale, a film that managed to hit the same beats and leave the same sort of impression on me despite its significantly smaller production. Although there were some minor differences like the inclusion of Herman Melville in this film, it was essentially the same movie with a larger budget, a more famous cast and a bit of 3D thrown in. This isn’t to say that In the Heart of the Sea is a rip-off or anything like that. My point is simply that it doesn’t attempt to break any new ground or venture any deeper into this story despite the talent and the resources at its disposal.

The film is directed by Ron Howard who for the most part does a reasonable job. He delivers the tension when it is needed and does a great job of emphasising the passage of time during the crew’s ordeal. Through this the film is able to convey a strong sense of the prolonged anguish of these characters, thus accentuating their growing desperation. However I didn’t feel like the film needed to be in 3D as it neglected to take any real advantage of the technology short of propelling a few objects towards the screen. The cast delivers mostly standard performances with the most notable highlight probably being Brendon Gleeson as a man haunted by the trauma inflicted upon him and the actions he committed in order to survive.

While I can’t say that I disliked this film I wasn’t very impressed by it either. Although the technical aspects of it are well done and the story and characters are adequate, there just isn’t anything exceptional about it. In the Heart of the Sea tries to be a great, sweeping epic (like Moby Dick for instance) but lacks the depth and magnitude to pull it off. The characters are passable but are not especially interesting or memorable. The story is decent but it failed to captivate or move me in any meaningful way. The moments of danger and desolation are well-executed and do manage to provide tension when it’s needed but ultimately they never had me at the edge of my seat and they weren’t realised as fully as I think they could’ve been. As the mystery film of a secret screening it certainly didn’t live up to the hype or suspense. Instead what it amounts to is a sometimes technically impressive but otherwise generally standard film.

★★★

Victor Frankenstein

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance

Director: Paul McGuigan

Writer: Max Landis


Frankenstein, one of my favourite novels, is a tale that has ben retold time and time again in cinema. As the title makes clear this latest take on the iconic horror story places its focus on the titular doctor of Mary Shelley’s novel rather than on the creature he creates. Although it’s the creature who usually gets all of the attention, the story of his creator is just as fascinating and compelling. Victor Frankenstein is a scientific genius driven by his fervent ambition to defeat death. He becomes so obsessed with the very idea of creating another living man that he never stops to ask himself if he should. As he beholds his creation in all of its grotesqueness and ungodliness he rejects and abandons it, unaware of the dire consequences his action will have. By creating this monster Frankenstein must confront the question of man’s place in the universe, of his responsibility for the creature and its actions, and of the moral implications and ramifications that come with creating life. Although I believe the film’s screenwriter understands all of this, I still found his approach to the mythos to be ultimately misguided.

The story is depicted from the perspective of Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe), a hunchbacked circus performer whom Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) rescues from a life of subjugation and ridicule. Frankenstein takes Igor under his wing and enlists him as his assistant in his groundbreaking work. Together they hope to uncover the secrets to life and death and create a living being. The secretive nature of this project and Frankenstein’s notorious reputation catch the attention of Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religiously devoted police officer with severe moral objections to Frankenstein’s work. Igor also catches the attention of Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the subject of his affection who entreats Igor to follow his conscience and not be corrupted by his master and mentor. As Frankenstein’s obsession drives him to greater and more damaging extremes, it falls onto Igor to try and save his friend from the madness he has wrought.

The film borrows lightly from Shelley’s original novel but adds its own twist to it as a means of updating the story. Updating the story is all well and good but it becomes a problem when the updates do not compliment the story. This film tries to incorporate several new elements including Igor’s love interest, the religious policeman, a benefactor with his own sinister motivations, a backstory accounting for Frankenstein’s obsession and an original experiment preceding the infamous one in the novel. The problem is that the film becomes so muddled with all of these interweaving subplots that the story ends up trying to be several different things at once. It is difficult to become invested in a film when it keeps jumping all over the place and keeps changing its characters at the flip of a coin in order to keep the plot moving forward. Any time the film took a step forward it never felt earned because it never felt like a natural progression in the story. All of this results in a climax that was so messy and convoluted that I simply couldn’t keep up with what was happening.

There are certainly some promising ideas in this film that could have been good had they been given the proper development. However the film takes on so many of them that it doesn’t have the time it needs to realise them all. I like the idea of using Igor as a window into Frankenstein’s obsession and madness but felt that the relationship between the two was lacking. Both actors do decent jobs in their respective roles and there is definitely a chemistry there but the characters themselves are so changeable in their emotions and motivations that nothing is ever given the time to sink in. Any one of the side characters could have added an interesting element to the story had the film devoted more time to them. This isn’t the case however as the film leaves them all underdeveloped in order to incorporate other elements into the plot. Even the film’s tone jumps all over the place as it tries to be a gothic horror, a sci-fi epic, a costume drama and a buddy movie all at once.

The bottom line is that there is too much going on and not enough time to do it all in, not even with the talent that worked on this film. With a little more focus and control the parts of the films that showed promise could have been allowed to flourish. What we get instead is a confused, near-incomprehensible mess. The new ideas that the film tries to introduce to this classic tale hurt the story more than they help it and end up coming across as familiar, insipid or just plain silly. The film is at least visually stimulating and McAvoy is sometimes enjoyably over-the-top as his character becomes more depraved and unhinged. The film as a whole however is a disorderly fiasco with too many ideas and not enough thought.

★★

Carol

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Phyllis Nagy


This is a film about love. To simply label it as a ‘gay’ film does not do it justice. Yes, the central romance of this film is between two women but in truth they could be anyone. This is a film about two souls who find each other against all odds and fall in love. Their love is universal and it is absolute. The theme of homosexuality and the social attitudes towards it do play significant parts but, to me at least, they weren’t the focus. The driving force of this film was the bond that these two women shared; it was their passion and their intimacy. Unlike many of the mainstream films you might see this day there is no titillation or exploitation to be found in this union. This is a romance that Douglas Sirk would be proud of. It is a tender tale of forbidden love in a world of suppression and oppression. There is great passion in Carol but also a profound sadness as the relationship these women share brings them both so much happiness and pain all at once. Few films are as sensitive or as moving.

The film opens with a fitting homage to Brief Encounter, depicting an unheard conversation between the two leads with a clear significance that won’t be revealed until we’ve seen what came before. We find out that Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a woman from a privileged background trapped in a loveless marriage to her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meanwhile is a meek, timid girl working in a Manhattan department store but who dreams of living a more fulfilling life. A chance encounter between them leads to a friendship that gradually blossoms into a romance. This union becomes threatened by Harge however as he shows his determination to keep Carol in his grasp by any means necessary. As the love between Carol and Therese grows stronger the forces that threaten to keep them apart become more dangerous and so both women must question how much they are willing to endure for the sake of love.

That the film was able to depict such a touching and affectionate portrayal of the romance that these women share is in large part due to the actresses playing them. Blanchett delivers a sublime performance as the alluring and seductive Carol. This character exudes of class and confidence but conceals a hidden vulnerability that comes to light as Harge’s threats become more severe. There is an acute tragedy to this character who knows who she is and what she wants but cannot have it for fear of losing everything she holds dear. Mara gives a less showy but equally stirring performance as the shy, unassertive Therese. Through her relationship with Carol she experiences a sexual awakening as she discovers a side of herself that she never knew, or perhaps knew on some level all too well, was there. By falling in love with Carol she finds a strength and an independent will within herself that carries her forward even as they stand to lose each other. Between them they deliver two of the most affective performances of the year as they portray a romance that is both moving and heartbreaking.

The beauty of this film comes not only from Blanchett and Mara but also from Haynes’ direction. In his recreation of the 1950s setting he captures a mood that is both melancholy and mystical. There is a real exquisiteness to the look of this film with its gorgeous colours and transcendent lighting but it seems somehow subdued. Although the cinematography is stylish and graceful there is something very controlled and exact about the way the shots are framed. The colours are warm but they lack the vibrancy of the cinema of this time, opting for a more muted palette. The film is set in the loud, lively city of New York and yet there is a marked stillness and quietness to the imagery. The fact that Therese herself is a photographer takes on a significance as the film depicts the world around her with the same sort of abstraction and focus found in photography. The effect is simply stunning and perfectly captures the tone of the film.

It isn’t often that a film gets made which is able to illustrate a sweeping romance such as this with such beauty, such feeling and such sensitivity. Every element is employed in just the right way to create a delicate and tender portrait of love, desire and passion. It sets this film at a time when such a union as this was considered immoral and taboo, highlighting the social attitudes and injustices that threaten to keep these two women apart. It is said that we do not choose who we fall in love with. Carol depicts that feeling by providing two individuals who in spite of the lives they have lived and what they have been raised to think and believe find intimacy and contentment in each other’s arms. Whatever trials and tribulations befall them, it is that bond which remains at the heart of the film and which makes it as touching and enthralling as it is.

★★★★★

The Good Dinosaur

Cast: (voiced by) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn

Director: Peter Sohn

Writer: Meg LeFauve


This has been a landmark year for Pixar who have released two films in 2015 instead of just one. Originally scheduled for release in 2013, The Good Dinosaur ended up being pushed back by Pixar due to a problematic production which is why I thought there would be a bit more anticipation on the audience’s part. In the weeks since it came out the reception has been rather mild, considering the kind of attention Pixar’s films usually get, and it looks like The Good Dinosaur is set to be their first box-office failure. I cannot help but be surprised by this. Do people not like this film? I can certainly understand not liking it as much as some of Pixar’s other offerings but it is by no means the worst film they’ve ever made (hello Cars 2). Before this I always thought that the Pixar name was bulletproof and that even their worst films would always find an audience. By delving into this film I hope I can figure out what it is that has turned audiences off.

The film presents an alternative timeline where the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago misses the Earth. This allows the dinosaurs to evolve over millions of years into intelligent beings living lives that are more recognisably human. Arlo is an Apatosaurus whose family run a farm. Arlo is a scaredy-cat whose crippling fear of everything prevents him from getting any work done. His father Henry tries to help him overcome his fears, believing that deep within him he has the potential to do something extraordinary and to leave his mark. After an accident that causes him to be swept away from his family home, Arlo finds himself lost in an unfamiliar place where he must survive and attempt to find his way back to the farm. He runs into the company of Spot, a human caveboy whom he eventually befriends. With Spot’s help Arlo must learn to overcome his fears so that he might find his way home.

In my review of Inside Out I praised it as a shining example of Pixar’s incredible capacity for storytelling. The Good Dinosaur alternatively is a shining example of their extraordinary capacity for creating visuals. The look of this film is stunning. The landscapes are utterly breathtaking, the character designs are superb and there are certain moments in the film that can only be described as visual wonderments (like those moments with the fireflies). The visual quality of this film also extends to the storytelling as it features two characters, a dinosaur and a human being, who share absolutely no overlap in terms of language, culture or intelligence. All of their communication therefore has to be done visually through their gestures and actions. One of the strongest scenes in this film for me was when Arlo and Spot set up camp for the night and are able to talk about their families through entirely visual means in a way that they can both understand. It is such a touching and clever scene that is so effective in its simplicity and poignancy that only Pixar could have accomplished it.

The story itself is a simple one and certainly isn’t as intricate or creative as Inside Out, but I thought the simplicity was a crucial part of what made it affective. The story is simply a young boy’s quest to overcome his fear. It isn’t the most original moral to be taught in a children’s film but it is still a crucial one that I thought the film managed to teach in a clever way. Over the course of his journey Arlo meets some colourful characters and from them learns about finding inner strength and about being brave in the face of adversity. During one encounter he even learns about the value of fear, about how it is only possible to be brave when one is afraid. Admittedly the story and the morals it teaches are hardly new. Anyone who has seen or read this type of story before can guess the basic beats it’ll hit quite easily. However just because a story is predictable doesn’t mean it cannot be affective so long as it is told well. For the most part I think The Good Dinosaur is a well-told story and I enjoyed watching it unfold.

So, as someone who enjoyed this film and found it to be effective both creatively and emotionally, I’m still kind of stumped over why the film has been received the way it has. Do people not like this film or has it simply not found an audience? Pixar has never shied away from doing original stories with original characters but it has never hurt them in the past. The Good Dinosaur may not be Pixar’s most original story but, based on what they’ve done in the past, it still feels very new for them. There are also certainly issues that prevent this film from being the masterpiece that I found Inside Out to be. The characters for the most part are pretty basic, there are a few dark moments that pretty much come out of nowhere and I can understand how the familiar beats of the story could be tiresome for those who weren’t as invested as I was. While it is nowhere close to being one of Pixar’s best films I still cannot see a problem with this film that I feel justifies the poor reception it has received.

Maybe because Pixar has released such amazing films in the past with their most recent one only coming out last summer a certain infallibility has become expected of them that this film fell short of. Maybe the story was simply too familiar for viewers who expect more originality and innovation on Pixar’s part. Maybe people simply didn’t like the film because the story and the characters did not register with them. All I can write about with any real certainty is how I felt about this film and I liked it. I found the film to be visually breathtaking, emotionally satisfying and overall entertaining. Whatever issue people seem to have with this film, I’m just not seeing it. All I can see is an enjoyable film with a simple story, relatable characters and some of the most incredible visuals that Pixar has ever put on screen.

★★★★