Film Review of the Year 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road is a shot in the arm to action cinema, a genre that has grown tired and stale, and to the audiences who have become content with such sub-par entertainment. It does everything that an action film should do, yet that so many get wrong: the stunts are lucidly shot and edited, so you can always tell what is happening; the effects are all practical so you are actually watching cars flip and explode; CGI is only used in the film for adding bits of debris and compositing shots. The result is beautifully choreographed carnage that looks and feels real because, well, it is real. It’s an intense, relentless and breathtaking work of cinema.
Not only that, but all of the character development happens through the action, not dialogue. There’s no scene where they sit and talk about themes, instead you trace the arcs of Furiosa, Max, Nux and even the Wives simply through what they do. Every gunshot fired, every explosion avoided and every punch that lands is therefore far more meaningful and the audience can actually invest in what is going on. The big ideas of the film - redemption, humanity and what you live for when everything falls apart - are also drip-fed without ever forcing it into the film. At last, an action film that properly realises the potential of cinema as a visual medium!
Mad Max: Fury Road is not only the best film of the year, it’s also the best action film of the 21st century so far.
2015 was a golden year for all things animated (although only in the UK, two of these films were US releases last year). Tomm Moore’s wonderful, wondrous Song of the Sea was an immaculately hand-drawn piece of myth making about a selkie-girl and evil owls that subtly explored themes of loss and grieving for the youngest audiences. Moore’s films are not just pretty artworks of symmetrical framing and abstract perspectives, each shot is carefully chosen to serve the story; no other films look like Song of the Sea, and few others are as good.
From Japan, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was seen by very few in the UK due to a limited cinematic release, but those who did see it discovered something truly beautiful. Like The Song of the Sea, the stunning aesthetics, here sketchy lines and lots of whitespace, serve the narrative and ideas as opposed to an empty display of beauty. This is, as with all Ghiblis, a film where spirits and gods both exist and shape the world, and where humans live in tension with their relationship to these spirits; anyone expecting an endorsement of their own Western expression of faith or secularism alike will be a little put out by clouds full of minstrel moon-maidens. Yet, as C.S. Lewis said, “imagination is the organ of meaning,” and Japanese folklore is a deep well of imagination through which to explore meaning, resulting in a profound and beautiful film.
What these animations show is that cinema ostensibly aimed at children can still contain deep, complex themes and explore interesting concepts, something evident in Pixar’s wonderful Inside Out, which managed to explain nuanced ideas in ways that children could understand, while still being funny and entertaining. Rounding out the year in animation is Don Hertzfeldt’s sublime stick-figure sci-fi World of Tomorrow, a surreal short that’s about time travel (sort of). Hertzfeldt’s style is hard to explain, but essential for anyone who likes their humour with a dose of weirdness.
The Character Dramas
Most of the year’s best films didn’t include a single explosion, or at least of the big flamey type. I’m sure many critics described J.K. Simmons’ performance as explosive in Whiplash, a film which made jazz seem like the most important thing in the world. The story is simply about one drummer who tries to excel under the tutelage of an aggressive, sweary and abusive teacher. It seems odd to highlight a film for its editing, but the syncopated rhythms and attention to detail shown in Damien Chazelle’s film gives it an energy like nothing else; the final ten minutes are among the best concluding moments of any film ever.
The best performance I saw this year was Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, a film that sets itself up as a melodrama - love triangles and long-distance relationships form crucial plot points - but undercuts it with a subtlety that makes every development seem very real and credible. Ronan is mesmerising in the central role and the camera knows it, lingering on her face as she conveys a wealth of emotions using only the smallest gestures. The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, and it is rare film that manages to be funny, sad and romantic in equal measure without any one of the elements undermining the other.
I was also moved by the study of Martin Luther King in Selma, a film anchored by David Oyelowo’s phenomenal central performance, and Italian beekeeping drama The Wonders. This one is perhaps a little more niche, but fans of slower paced dramas, Victor Erice’s films and coming-of-age tales will undoubtedly fall for its hazy, sun-baked charms. Finally, little-seen World War I drama Testament of Youth has lingered long in my memory since I first saw it in February. It’s a war film that never shows a single shot fired, instead depicting the aftermath with heart wrenching detail. It’s a film that captures the monumental loss wreaked upon Europe in the Great War with subtlety and grace.
Big Budget Brilliance
As well as Mad Max, this year saw a few other big budget studio films that managed to rise above the usual Hollywood output. Amazingly, Star Wars: The Force Awakens turned out to be a brilliant adventure story with compelling new characters, a fun expansion of the galaxy and probably the best seventh film in a franchise ever. Similarly space-bound and surprisingly good was The Martian, the first decent cinematic release from Ridley Scott since Gladiator. I loved it, in particular, as it featured something I always enjoy in films: competent people, doing their job well. I defy anyone to see this and not leave with a big smile on their face.
Guillermo Del Toro’s ghost story Crimson Peak was a financial flop but has already earned a loyal fanbase among those who did fall for its moody, morbid atmosphere. Perhaps some felt cheated that it wasn’t particularly scary; the marketing majored on the ghosts, but the film doesn’t. All spectral apparitions, which are properly creepy even though horror fans probably won’t blink, are there to serve metaphors, annoying those looking for the fear factor. I loved it - the product design is gorgeous, using the red clay of the titular location to make it seem as though the walls are bleeding, and the storytelling is slow and rewarding for fans of Gothic romances.
At the other end of the scale, Disney’s Cinderella was a completely sincere, sweet and straightforward fairytale with no pretensions to postmodernism or reinvention. I may be the only film critic I know to include this as one of their favourites of the year, but I smiled the whole way through, so there.
The Worst Films of the Year
The films that I would deem to be irretrievably terrible, one-star disasters this year are the messy Aloha, the criminally dull Wild Card and the scabrous, toxic Kill Your Friends. However, the film I enjoyed the least this year is a critically acclaimed French drama named Eden. It tells the story of a DJ during the rise and fall of garage music in the French Touch movement of the ‘90s. Many cinephiles I know and respect adored this film, but this is unfathomable to me. It’s a drama vacuum, or an anti-drama, where whole scenes plod aimlessly by without purpose or momentum. The actual clubbing scenes themselves are shot with all the flair of Bargain Hunt, panning across a room of people jumping up and down without once capturing the appeal of the music. So many scenes are just a static camera looking at the lead character bouncing joylessly behind a mixing deck. It’s an endless cycle of drugs, dancing and the dullness in between, which is definitely the intention of the director but that doesn’t make it any more compelling. It’s visually drab, terribly performed and one of the most excruciatingly leaden and eventless films I’ve ever endured. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a keener sense of despair than when I thought it was about to end and the words PART TWO appeared on the screen.