10. The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)
This isn’t really so much a movie as two fantastic performances with enough around them to get away with it. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both simply astounding as Stephen and Jane Hawking, and that’s basically all you need to know. Plus Maxine Peake’s in it, and that’s always worth an extra ten points.
9. Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore)
Writer-director Moore’s admirable attempts to turn Ireland into a significant producer of animated movies all by himself gather pace here. A considerable improvement on his first (decent) movie, The Secret of Kells, it forms a basic but solid quest plot around various Irish folktales, focusing on selkies. I find his distinctive visual style, a sort of flat, heavily-patterned affair that comes off like papercraft meeting a nicely-made Flash cartoon, gorgeous in small doses but a bit too abstract to carry a whole film. Regardless, any individual frame is breathtaking, the voice cast is excellent and, in Moore’s finest moment, he had the wit to hire the amazing Bruno Coulais to do the music. Coulais’ stunning soundtrack, mixing his typical style (see Coraline) with Irish melodies, singlehandedly papers over the weak points.
8. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’ve never read any Thomas Pynchon, but I’ve heard enough about him to comprehend that an adaptation (indeed, the first film adaptation of any of his novels) by the never-uninteresting Anderson would be worth a look. And so it proves with this delightfully frazzled comic thriller, a brother-in-arms to the legendary The Big Lebowski. After Anderson’s furrow-browed, viciously serious The Master, this sees him rediscovering the joys of comedy, funnelling Joaquin Phoenix’s perma-stoned PI Doc Sportello through a California that, as someone more astute than me has already pointed out, is visualising the curdling of the ‘60s dream into the ‘70s hangover (the film’s set in 1970). Surrounded by people even weirder than he is, Sportello’s attempts to work out what’s happened to his ex-girlfriend is hindered by the likes of Josh Brolin as a simmering pile of arbitrary rage disguised as a policeman, Martin Short as a cocaine-hoovering dentist and Joanna Newsom as the book’s narrator, who’s probably a figment of his imagination. It sounds nonsensical, but it adds up while you’re watching. Try to explain it after the fact, mind...
7. Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Here’s a film that just wouldn’t’ve worked without a specific actor. James B. Donovan – an insurance lawyer hired to defend a Soviet spy captured at the height of Cold War paranoia – was probably a more complex figure than the script offers, but the film character is decent, dogged and open to optimism, but smart and never naïve or credulous. Basically, if Tom Hanks wasn’t available, the crew might as well have shut up shop and gone home.
Happily, Hanks was available, and in an equally exquisite bit of casting, Mark Rylance landed the part of the spy. The result is a classy, restrained drama/thriller with heavy dollops of wry humour at the ridiculousness of the state of the world at the time (the Coen brothers worked on the script, and it shows) that remains essentially hopeful about humanity. And given how spectacularly shitty 2015 could be at times, that’s something worthwhile.
6. Big Hero 6 (dirs. Don Hall & Chris Williams)
In which Disney realised that they’d bought Marvel, fine, but as well as getting ALL THE MONEY from the live-action films they could use their re-energized animation department, flying high again after the noughties slump, to make EVEN MORE MONEY by finding a Marvel title that hadn’t been done yet.
I haven’t read any of the Big Hero 6 comics, but apparently the movie takes a few character names and that’s pretty much it. And that’s fine, ‘cos the movie is huge fun. More or less a cross between The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, it’s a gorgeous, charming, funny blast. It does come off the rails slightly in the second half when, with the distinctive and delightful cast introduced, it starts blurring into Generic Superhero Movie territory – it’s about the time you suspect the execs suddenly smelt the whiff of sequel potential – but it’s not enough to ruin the movie. And a special note must be made for the setting: the city of San Fransokyo (hey, guess which two cities it’s a mix of) is probably my favourite location of the year.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams)
You had a moment, didn’t you? Where the “long time ago” bit faded out and the music kicked in and you thought “Holy shit, I am seeing A NEW STAR WARS”. And it was glorious. But it would’ve been gloriouser if it had actually been fully a sequel to Return of the Jedi, as opposed to about 40% a sequel and 53% a remake of A New Hope (the remaining 7% being a remake of The Empire Strikes Back). There was nothing wrong with the story but c’mon. It’s a shame, too, because the new bits were really good. Boyega and Isaac were instantly great new leads (Ridley took a little while to grow on me but she got there, plus she had the hardest role as the vanilla Luke-esque hero), Kylo Ren could’ve been Moody Teenage Anakin Talking About Sand all over again but was about one million times more interesting, the effects and design were a joy and the guys from The Raid were in it. Still, the relative paucity of actually new plotting has got me proper intrigued for where Episode VIII’s going to go. Maybe that was their plan all along?
4. Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárittu)
Ah, metatextuality. Done badly, it’s the most tedious, irritating, obnoxious thing this side of [INSERT PERSONAL HATE FIGURE OF CHOICE HERE]. Done well, it’s rather wonderful. Birdman does it well.
Michael Keaton’s thinly veiled exploration of the ups and downs of his own career post-Batman, where the film really succeeds is in its depiction of backstage life. Anyone who’s worked in the theatre – I did drama to A-level as well as a couple of amateur productions – will find a lot to recognise here. And the clever-clever conceit of the film apparently being one long unbroken take, despite the fact it clearly isn’t (it takes place over about three weeks, for one thing), actually serves the theme here rather than just being a bit of showing off. It’s a great way to display the harried hustle and bustle behind the scenes of a live performance. The one reason the film isn’t higher in my list is the presence of a cartoonishly vile theatre critic who adds nothing to proceedings and feels like she’s wandered in off another, considerably worse movie. Well, her and the irritating jazz-drum soundtrack, which matches the pace of the script well but gets distractingly annoying by the midway point. Other than those two downers, this is a glorious piece of work.
3. Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow)
I’ve been trying to work out where to put this in my list for yonks. It’s certainly a top ten – is it a top three? One thing’s for sure, I loved it. It’s the only movie this year I saw twice at the cinema. I was a dinosaur-obsessed eight/nine-year-old when Jurassic Park came out, and it was more my Star Wars than Star Wars ever was. I’m reasonably certain I could act out the entire movie if required. And Jurassic World is very close to the sort of movie I’d make if I was given the job of making a Jurassic Park sequel. It’s a film made by people that know that a real, honest, uncynical, wide-eyed blockbuster movie is one of the most delightful things in the world. (And making a film without any cynicism when it’s the fourth in a series is pretty impressive.)
It’s not without flaws, with one or two fairly obvious plot holes, some set pieces that feel like remakes of the first film’s set pieces and some secondary characters that could have done with more developing. But there’s so much honest love in it that you can forgive it. And, interestingly, I saw it first in 3D then 2D, and the 3D really did add to the two best shots of the movie (the initial sweep over the park when Gray throws the windows open near the beginning and the T-rex looming out of the darkness near the end).
2. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)
I like films with a quiet confidence. Mind, I also like films that are ridiculous noisy nonsense and consist largely of people kicking each other in the head, but the “quiet confidence” bit is important once in a while. Foxcatcher, based on the bizarre true story of an oddball millionaire who attempted to found a wrestling school and have his team triumph at the 1988 Olympics because, well, he could. Much of the press coverage surrounded Steve Carell as aforementioned oddball millionaire Jon du Pont, a rare dramatic role, but I felt the real revelation was Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, du Pont’s star signing and main hope for medals. As an actor more usually seen playing charismatic, confident men, Tatum’s turn as a lumbering, shy giant devoid of grace and with just enough brains to realise he’s a hopeless case if left to his own devices was stunning. I genuinely don’t get why he was passed over for an Oscar nomination in favour of Mark Ruffalo doing A Typical Mark Ruffalo Turn (very good, but we’ve seen it before) as Schultz’s brother Dave.
My other criticism of the movie is that it’s unclear that the climactic moment occurs several years after the rest of the plot – I assumed it was a few months ago, and it wasn’t until I investigated the real case I learnt otherwise. Mind you, that is the only other criticism. Other than that, it’s pretty much flawless. Quietly confident, and could’ve easily been number one on this list.
1. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen)
The very best films – indeed, the very best offerings of any art form – cause you to look at the world in a new way. For a few days after watching Inside Out, I was wandering round imagining a quintet of brightly-coloured emotion-people inside everyone else’s head.
Pixar’s brilliant The Numskulls-with-emotions conceit sees an eleven-year-old girl’s reactions to her family’s move from a rural area to San Francisco. A faintly contrived accident sees two of her emotions that run her brain – Joy and Sadness – lost in a different part of her head, leaving the remaining combo of Anger, Fear and Disgust to try and keep things stable. It works about as well as you can expect.
What’s brilliant is that the story, from the outside, isn’t the stuff of great drama. Joy was Riley’s most prominent emotion before the accident/move collision, so on one level this is simply the story of a girl who didn’t want to move and is now miserable about it. It’s something that a lot of people will have experienced, and it’s brilliant that a fairly unremarkable story is the basis for a major movie from one of the world’s best-known studios. Most people have unremarkable lives, but that doesn’t mean their experiences aren’t important to them. I’ve rarely seen a fantastical metaphor tied into real-world emotions so well.
It’s also just a pleasure to see Pixar firing on all cylinders again, after their five-year slump following the sublime Toy Story 3. When they’re on form, mixing wit, intelligence, delight and creativity, there’s no-one to beat them. As was the case for my list this year. (EVERYONE: “Nice wrap-up segue, Sam!”)
SPECIAL BONUS AWARD ROUND!
A strong line-up this year, with new instalments in the Star Wars and Terminator series going up against offerings like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Chappie and Tomorrowland. But the winner's gonna have to be Big Hero 6's Baymax, innit? Balalalala!
Edge of Tomorrow Award For Most Generic Renaming
Mitch Cullin's neatly titled novel A Slight Trick of the Mind was almost called that for the film adaptation. Then they decided (not unfairly) to alert people to the fact it was a movie about Sherlock Holmes and changed it to Mr. Holmes. Meh.
Joke That I Can't Decide Whether It's Quite Funny Or Too Obvious
There's a lengthy sequence that spoofs arcane bureaucracy in Jupiter Ascending which clearly owes a debt to Terry Gilliam's classic Brazil. To the point that at the end of the sequence Terry Gilliam turns up himself. Do you see? (On the plus side, it'll make Jupiter Ascending a handy answer for future Pointless rounds involving Monty Python. Make a note.)
Most Unpleasantly Unwarranted Protracted Death Scene
Yes, distracted PA Zara dropped the ball by losing her charges in Jurassic World and thus indirectly contributed to the Indominus Rex reaching the main park and smashing the aviary on its way, thus sealing her own fate. But did she really deserve the longest and most elaborate death in the entire series? Brrr. (Put that nasty whatnot Hoskins through the same wringer and I wouldn't have minded.)
Best Pun I Didn't See Coming
Bill, the comedy about Shakespeare's early life, posits that he was a lute player before getting kicked out of the band. (Historical accuracy may not have been super-high in the script.) The band was called Mortal Coil, so really I should've seen them exiting the film with the line, "Well, guess we'd better shuffle off."
Most Entertaining Piece Of Typecasting
When the makers of the Harry Potter films needed a woman to play a half-giant, they went for Frances de la Tour. When the makers of Into the Woods needed a woman to play a full giant, they went for Frances de la Tour. Apparently she's changed class in the intervening ten years?
Most Entertaining Piece Of Reverse-Psychology Typecasting
With minor spoilers, I guess. Alan Tudyk has played roles in three Disney Animation films on the trot. In Wreck-It Ralph he played a harmless guy who turned out to be the villain. In Frozen he played an obvious villain who turned out to be a minor distraction from the real villain. And now in Big Hero 6 he plays the obvious main villain who turns out to not actually be villainous at all, just a bit of a jerk. Place your bets now on what variant he'll play next!
Turns out, when Pollux from the Hunger Games series undoes his ponytail/topknot/manbun/thing at the end of Mockingjay Part 2, he makes an excellent Jesus. Well, it made me chuckle.
Best Improvised Weapon
During the battle that kicks off Macbeth, we briefly see one soldier running across the screen. He's holding a deer's antler, and he's not afraid to use it!
To prepare for his role in The Force Awakens, Domhnall Gleeson clearly watched Peter Cushing's performance in A New Hope and thought, "Call that a ridiculously evil Nazi analogue? I'll show you a ridiculously evil Nazi analogue!" He promptly deploys maximum sneer and doesn't let it drop for the whole movie. Even Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton is applauding.
The Force Awakens again. At some point in the movie, some random
Imperial First Order type mentions "turbo lasers". They're lasers....BUT TURBO!