Monday, 28 December 2015

2015 in Review: The Highs...

Ah, 2015. You were always going to have big boots to fill, as all the studios raced to present their prize-pieces to audiences between the big-hitting money-grabbers which had been announced well in advance. But fair play to you, as cinematic milestones go, you did us proud. Many of your highest points have been unashamedly mainstream, and all the better for that. Because when the great flicks are playing in the multiplexes, that means more regular punters are watching more fantastic movies.

So without further ado, let's have a look at some of the movies World of Blackout has rated the most highly this year. For reasons which should be obvious, this list doesn't include either Avengers: Age of Ultron or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I was always going to love those flicks, so the fact that I did came as no surprise. This is more about the smiles I had when I left the cinema:

This was 2015, and these were the highs…

Big Hero 6
WoB Rating: 7/7
Big Hero 6 Well, the year got off to a strong start with Disney/Pixar's adaptation of a Manga-esque Marvel comic about a gang of geeky, gangly superheroes and their robotic pal: Big Hero 6. While the movie wears its anime heritage proudly, it's also undeniably Marvel, combining the label's trademark underdog- spirit with a coming-of-age adventure that will appeal to anyone who's ever loved a comic or a video game.

And while that sounds like it's going to exclude anyone over the age of 20, the heart of the story is the bond between young robotics-geek Hiro and his guardian/mentor, Baymax, built as a medical android by his brother, Tadashi. Behind the outlandish action and comedy, there's a rock-solid rendition of the hero's journey, masterfully assembled by Pixar. One of the best positive examples that behind the visual punch and high production values, a film needs great writing at its core. It's also the first film which made me have something in my eye in the cinema, this year. Both times I watched it.
"A heart-warming, adrenaline-pumping, tear-welling adventure yarn..."

Ex Machina
WoB Rating: 6/7
Ex Machina Also in January (and with a considerably straighter face), Alex Garland's artificial intelligence thriller set a bar that few other films met this year in terms of philosophical musing. Unlike other stories of its ilk which spend over half their screentime debating whether the machine in question is really conscious, there's no doubt from the off that Alicia Vikander's Ava is very much aware of everything around her and very much capable of making her own decisions because of it.

The quandary comes in the film's pondering over how she gained that level of intelligence, and the moral consequences of her actions given that she's learned entirely from human behaviour. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson play a strong support in this claustrophobic tale, as does Sonoya Mizuno to a lesser (in terms of screen-time) degree. The film might not blow you away, but it'll hang around with you for some time afterwards. For best results, watch as a companion piece with Chappie.
"Part satire, part thought-experient; although it's true that the performances are more complex than the story..."

Kingsman: The Secret Service
WoB Rating: 7/7
Kingsman: The Secret Service Oh, yes. Even for its faults (which were only underlined the second time I watched it), I couldn't help but be in love with Kingsman. A bizarre hybrid of James Bond plotlines and Austin Powers humour, the resulting film is given the same energy and sass which director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman brought to 2010's Kick-Ass.

It certainly won't be for everyone of course (and nor should it be), and the film takes no time at all in establishing its ground rules of bone-crunching violence and a potty-mouth. And yet for all its intensity, Kingsman never forgets to have fun. Given the writer-director team's previous track record with comic-book to cinema sequels, the inevitable and highly-anticipated Kingsman 2 may be a patchier affair, so enjoy this one while it's still fresh.
"A joyously foul-mouthed triumph of style and adrenaline..."

Still Alice
WoB Rating: 7/7
Still Alice A late-entry for the awards-bait that the first months of the year usually bring, Still Alice managed to arrive to a fairly low-key distribution in the UK and pretty much floored me completely. This heart-breaking story of an English-language teacher with early-onset Alzheimer's is lifted well above the mawkish rut it could easily have fallen into by Julianne Moore's masterful performance. As she gradually loses the connection with the words and mechanics of language she loves, the film examines Alice's relationship with her family, as they struggle to maintain their support throughout the course of the illness.

It's thoroughly heavy-weight of course, and not the sort of thing you just breeze into on a whim or leave on when you're skipping though the channels. In fact truth be told, it's a film I may never watch again, but that's because it left such an indelible mark the first time around.
"If you don't have Something In Your Eye™ at least once during the film, you're clearly some kind of monster…"

WoB Rating: 6/7
Cinderella And March brought a very pleasant surprise in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of a Disney classic. Not normally my thing, obviously, but the House of Mouse had already given us a fascinating redux in 2014's Maleficent. This time, however, the update of the 1950 animated film plays its hand completely straight, with no real twists or reveals hidden up its sleeve.

Branagh's love for the source-material and the purity of storytelling is evident as he employs a cast of seasoned veterans and relative newcomers to tell the best possible version of a well-known tale. All of the players are committed to their roles and bring a sincerity which steers clear of the pantomime it could easily have become. Even Richard Madden's turn as a David Essex stand-in doesn't manage to derail things (cf. Chris Pine in Into The Woods) when Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett are in full flow.
"Outstanding at being a good old fashioned Disney Princess Film™..."

Fast & Furious 7
WoB Rating: 6/7
Fast & Furious 7 Well, they can't all be worthy and thoughtful, can they? I've only ever been a civilian-level fan of the Fast & Furious series (indeed, if memory serves, I've only been watching them from the fourth movie onwards). But the loss of one of the film's central stars seems to have been what was needed for the film-makers to push the envelope and produce something really special (although both the cynic and the sap in me were disappointed to hear they're now going to make more - It looks like going out on a high is too old fashioned when there's goodwill to exploit).

But there are scorched tyres, thoroughly unfeasible stunts (in both execution and cinematography), dodgy acting, crap jokes and the kind of camaraderie you only get from a group of performers who've worked together for years. It may not be perfect, but it's the perfect Fast & Furious flick.
"An insane amount of fun, of course, and occasionally the dumbest F&F movie to date..."

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
WoB Rating: 6/7
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night Because sometimes you just want to spend a Saturday afternoon in an independent London cinema watching a black-and-white, subtitled Iranian film about a skateboarding girl vampire who listens to Lionel Richie. Intriguing is perhaps the best word to describe it, although unnerving and baffling also raise their heads on more than one occasion, too.

Although it's subtitled, the minimal dialogue and monochrome presentation make this evocative of the silent-film era, and the ghost-town in which the story takes place also has a timeless quality that defies your brain's attempts to pigeonhole it.

And just when you think everything's going to be arty-farty-subtext with the vampires existing only on a metaphorical level, no - they're actually blood-drinking murderers. So in this respect, it's already far more accomplished than those other vampire movies which didn't have actual vampires in. More importantly, it's an example of a film which is resolutely different also being utterly fantastic, proving that the cookie-cutter isn't needed if you have faith in what you're making ;)
"Creates a tension like playing Buckaroo, when you've got the mule loaded with syringes..."

WoB Rating: 6/7
Maggie Another movie which was a pleasant surprise was July's zombie flick starring the insurance salesman himself, Arnie. We're so used to him just rolling up in a movie and playing a caricature of himself that it's nice to be reminded that with smart scripting and careful direction, he can be a reasonably accomplished actor, too.

That said, this is really Abigail Breslin's movie, as the teenage girl who gets bitten in the middle of an undead epidemic, and is returned home to her family to spend her last weeks with them until 'the change' kicks in. The film never feels the need to completely upturn the established zombie-mythology, but still manages to tell the story its own way and with a few new ideas thrown in.

But ultimately - like any great movie - it's actually a metaphor for something else. It's not a particularly subtle metaphor, but it really doesn't need to be and the two stories play out in perfect sync.
"You've never seen such a thought-provoking film which also features two zombies making out..."

The Walk
WoB Rating: 6/7
The Walk And dropped unceremoniously into the Autumn cinematic wasteland was Robert Zemeckis' dramatised biopic about Philippe Petit, the performance artist who walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Coming not too long after the award-winning documentary about the self-same feat, the Back To The Future director focuses on the why rather than the how (although that's taken care of in delicious detail, too), and becomes a study in what makes artists tick, and what art even is, anyway.

Joseph Gordon Levitt grabs the lead role with both hands, and while his accent may be occasionally questionable, his commitment to the film isn't. I found myself surprisingly engrossed during the climactic act, considering that everyone essentially knows Petit didn't fall off the wire. But once again, Zemeckis demonstrates what a great storyteller he is, even when his main character is punching through the fourth wall at regular intervals.
"A reminder that the best art is created for the sake of art itself..."

Kill Your Friends
WoB Rating: 6/7
Kill Your Friends And sometimes, you just enjoy a movie because you know you shouldn't really be smirking that much throughout it. Blissfully nihilistic, this bloodthirsty and morality-free tale of the excesses of the 1990s record industry doesn't even want to shock you, per se, it just wants to play in its narcissistic, egocentric sandbox; and if that upsets a few people, so much the better.

Nicholas Hoult is great casting for the central role of Stelfox, a London-based A&R rep with more demons than redeeming qualities. Yet no matter how exaggeratedly corrupt he's shown to be, Hoult never lets go of the brittle vulnerability which makes him watchable. Not because you want him to be saved, but more that you'll enjoy seeing him being taken down. This is another movie where James Corden is surprisingly enjoyable, although don't let him know I told you that.

If all else fails, you can always watch Kill Your Friends for the Britpop-era soundtrack, because as much as I enjoyed it, even I felt that John Niven's novel had been adapted for the screen with the soundtrack album in mind ;)
"Every bit as grubby and exploitative as the business it claims to be lampooning, indeed that's very much the point..."

As much as I'm an unashamed fan of the mainstream, I do enjoy broadening my cinematic horizons when I get the chance. And if I hadn't done just that, this year, I'd have missed out on some absolute gems. While 2015's certainly given viewers its fair share of duds, this has also been a generally great year for movies.

The full list of WoB reviews for this year is right here.

Here's to 2016!

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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