31 December 2015

Favourite 5 films of 2015

When it comes to writing this annual summary of my year in film, I can only think to start by saying that it's been a weird year. Firstly, in my eyes it's been a far from strong year for film. Only three jumped out at me as saying "I must be on your year end list" - one of those, Whiplash, has been my favourite film of the year since I saw it in January. There has been very little else that has gotten me as remotely excited. That is one reason why this list has been pared down from my usual ten to just five favourites - in previous years there's always been a lot of internal debate as I try to whittle the list down to ten, but this year I couldn't even find ten films I wanted to include.

Secondly, as the numbers below attest, I have just not watched anywhere near as many films as in recent years. On the one hand I've had to become more selective about what I see - the film geek approach of watching as much as possible at the cinema had to go on hold as life got in the way this year (for the best). Whilst I also found that that something called "television" seriously affecting my time too.

As has been the case for some time now, the satisfaction derived from the long-form storytelling offered by a television series is becoming harder for film's more ephemeral self-contained stories to match, when they're intended to be enjoyed in a single sitting. With so much out there of such high quality, it can be hard to strike a suitable balance of film and TV viewing when you want to watch it all! Purely out of curiosity, I worked out that in 2015 I watched all of these drama and comedy shows, either in their entirety or at least half of (depending on whether a series traversed year's), and it was even more than I realised:

Agent Carter (S.1), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (S.2 half), The Americans (S.3 half), Arrow (S.3 half), Ballers (S.1), Better Call Saul (S.1 half), Between (S.1), The Blacklist (S.2 half), Bloodline (S.1), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (S.2), Catastrophe (S1-2), C.S.I (S.15), The Flash (S.1 half), Game of Thrones (S.5), Girls (S.4), Gotham (S.1), Hannibal (S.3), Murder In the First (S.1-2), The Newsroom (S.3), The 100 (S.1-2), Orange Is the New Black (S.1-3), Sens8 (S.1), Silicon Valley (S.2), The Strain (S.2), Suits (S.4), Supergirl (S.1 half), The Walking Dead (S.5 half, S.6 half), Wayward Pines (S.1), The West Wing (S.7), Zoo (S.1)

Moving back to film, the numbers are below, and everything I watched this year can be seen in order of viewing here: http://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2015-films-watched/

128 - total films watched (-42% YOY)
40 - films watched at cinema (-88% YOY)
63 - films released in 2015 watched
4 - films to be released in the UK in 2016 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2015

And so, in alphabetical order, these are my favourite 5 films of 2015 (favourite does not objectively equate to being the best, rather these are the films I liked the most) based on a 2015 UK release date: 

Good Kill

War is hell. We've had that hammered into us by films for years. Good Kill is one of the first to represent that concept in the digital age, essentially - war is hell when conducted remotely from a container in the Nevada desert. Ethan Hawke is superb as the disaffected air force drone pilot spying on and bombing targets in the middle east from a dark, air conditioned cockpit in a box filled with computer terminals. It effectively shows the surgical precision and ruthlessness with which (potential) enemy combatants are taken down. But more than anything it amplifies the helplessness of watching from 30,000 feet up and thousands of miles away - is what you're doing right and are your actions justified? What happens when you can only watch as something bad repeatedly happens and the mission dictates doing nothing? And then you're expected to drive home and kiss your wife good night and be ok with your life. It's inevitably something we've never considered and the whole film is a sucker punch as you can't help but empathise with these characters. Good Kill is one of the most thought-provoking and affecting films of the year.

Jurassic World

The biggest films at the box office this year have been sequels - that was always an inevitability - but what is surprising is that the sequels no-one thought they wanted were by far the best. There was really no need to return to Isla Nublar and rehash the idea of dinosaurs in a theme park. The actual awe of seeing these amazing creatures in action was seemingly passé, and it has been fourteen years since the last film after all. But Jurassic World stomps over any doubts. We clearly really do want to see what happens when the park is open and watch these creatures run amok again. The effects are even more incredible and the film is rife with thrilling set pieces. Chris Pratt further cements his exceedingly likable leading man status, whilst Jessica Chastain provides fine stern fun. All the while the underlying story of us needing bigger and better entertainment is prescient if unsubtle. It seems that watching dinosaurs on screen is still incredibly fun, in what is surprisingly one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Mad Max: Fury Road

If you had told me a year ago that one of the most batshit crazy films of 2015 would be a $150m plus key summer release from a major studio, I wouldn't have believed it. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film like no other from this year, and we should rejoice as studios just do not throw money at crazy ideas like this anymore. That it works should come as little surprise... George Miller, the original creator/director of the Mad Max series, is the man driving this film. Tom Hardy makes for an intriguing Max even when he is channeling Bane in the first half, whilst sneakily making Charlize Theron's Furiosa the actual lead was an inspired touch. But more than anything, it utterly convincingly makes the argument for practical effects over computer generated fakeness. In fact, by flipping the script so that CGI enhances the backgrounds rather than the action makes for a more visually arresting and enjoyable film. Kudos to all involved for making what is ostensibly a two hour car chase into one of the most exciting and unexpectedly great films of the year.


Spring is one of the most interesting horror films I saw in 2015. It lacked the technical skill or stylish visuals of other contenders such as It Follows or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but it succeeded thanks to heart and its sense of mystery. And like both of those films, it's actually pretty subtle as horror films go. The understated moodiness of warm Italian climes adds an alluring feel to the picture, as the mystery behind Nadia Hilker's Louise draws you in. The blossoming romance between her and Lou Taylor Pucci's Evan feels right and you can't help but root for it to work - something that you didn't imagine at the start of the film. As a low budget film there's certain aspects of the effects work that could've been improved but it works because of the ideas it has. Most satisfyingly of all, it completely pays off at the end, which is something most horror films struggle to do without following the tropes of the genre - with a better conclusion It Follows might have actually made this list. Spring may not be one of the best films of the year, but it was certainly one of the most impactful and for that reason it stayed with me.


My early front-runner for film of the year and it never fell behind. Whiplash is lean, focused and hits hard. There are really two elements that make this film work so successfully: the sparring between Miles Teller's student jazz drummer and his teacher J.K Simmons, and the music. The music is loud and in your face every time it kicks in and starts to swing, making it a character in its own right. But ultimately it comes down to Teller's drive to be the best at the expense of all relationships in his life, and how much abuse he's prepared to take from Simmons' revered mentor. And it is abuse. Simmons is on sparkling form, tossing out vicious barbs and take-downs at anyone not meeting his exceptionally exacting standards, but once you worry he's one note he offers a depth and pathos that catches you off guard. And then everything syncopates, leading to the type of crescendo that you wish more films had the skill to pull off, leaving you exhilarated. This is exemplary filmmaking.
[Read my full review here]

The also-ran:

For what it's worth, these are the small handful of films that were close to being good enough to appear on this list, but just quite weren't there for whatever reason:

Ant-Man - the best superhero film of the year because it plays like a heist movie. Excellent casting and plenty of fun (Marvel gets character introductions right!), but Jurassic World was just that bit more enjoyable.

It Follows - a fascinating plot and superb camera work that reminds how something as simple as clever, deliberate camera movement can create tension. Great score too, just a shame it didn't lead to a more satisfying conclusion. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service - tremendous fun thanks to Matthew Vaughn's proclivities to go over-the-top, alongside some great casting. But it didn't sustain the energy all the way to the end, and was marred by some unwarranted, brief sexism. 

Sicario - if the whole film was like the first half, this would definitely have been on the list above. An excellent hour of mystery, intrigue and thrills (the trip into Juárez is phenomenal filmmaking), but it loses steam in the second half ending up too anti-climatic. If it had kept this up all the way though... 

(And Birdman would've been on this list had I not seen it on it's limited London run at the end of December last year, prior to wide release on 1st January - hence it appears on my 2014 list).

28 December 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2015)

There's something fascinating, and quite bemusing, observing the excessive reverence heaped upon a cultural icon that many people are deeply passionate about, when it has no hold over you. It's not very often that a film of this ilk appears to suddenly take over all cultural dialogue, but December 2015 might as well be now known as "Star Wars December". The confusing media obsession in the run-up, the same question from every person at work - "when are you seeing it?", the over forty year old man sitting two seats down from you with his wife and child who fist pumps at every little moment that reminds him of his youth from the name and title song grandly launching to characters reappearing who have not been seen since 1983, the five star reviews that feel divorced from any rationality. It seems that almost everyone is slavishly in the grip of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and can it really just be because there are more sacred cows present than you can wave a lightsaber at?

If you've seen any of the previous films in the series then chances are at the very least you will enjoy The Force Awakens, unless you actively detest anything to do with Star Wars. This is a film that's very clearly designed to entertain and it definitely delivers on that front. It has a pace that means it doesn't linger too unnecessarily on any one moment, and the action scenes benefit from the processing power that visual effects teams have available now, offering up space fighting thrills that are as good as any we've seen elsewhere (or previously). And there's something enjoyable about the reprisal of one of cinema's more iconic characters after more than thirty years, but a lot of the film's issues stem from this very same place.

The Force Awakens suffers greatly from playing things far too safe. Throughout there's the sense that J.J. Abrams is being very cautious as he doesn't want to put a foot wrong, so any adventurousness is abandoned in favour of blatantly recycled story beats and more than one occurrence of contrived deus ex machina plotting to move the story along. It's understandable that he would want to avoid being as reviled as George Lucas became after the prequels (Episodes 1 - 3) and his tinkering with the original series (a separate, very interesting conversation could be had about the creator's prerogative to continue to play with their creations after presenting them to the public) - so why put yourself in the position of pissing these people off too whilst adding another film to this series? Yet the irony is, his revamp of Star Trek from 2009 does feel adventurous and is a hell of a lot of fun because he dares to play around with characters that people similarly love, and through this he makes an exciting film. If Abram's wasn't so reverent to Star Wars' past, perhaps certain elements of this film wouldn't feel so pedestrian or forced.

It is interesting to see the return of a handful of original cast members (surely the real reason for the overwhelming excitement surrounding the film), even if they are shoehorned in. It's hard not to enjoy Harrison Ford pulling off Han Solo's roguish charms again even when he frequently feels too old to be back in the saddle, whilst his interplay with Chewbacca continues to be one of the best bits of the series. Carrie Fisher's Leia brings very little to the party so it's pleasing we spend more time with Han and Chewie. But really the two leads are Daisy Ridley's Rey and John Bodega's Finn. Bodega fits in pretty convincingly and pulls off the American accent well. Ridley on the other hand is just really bad casting. To be fair to her she gives it her all, but she never feels right for the character, and that plummy, straight-out-of-drama-school posh British accent is so jarring and utterly wrong for the setting of the film that it constantly pulls you out of the film. Sure, the archetypal British accent works well for villains, such as Domhnall Gleeson having great fun going almost over-the-top as General Hux, but not for Rey. As for primary villain Ren (Adam Driver), he proves very menacing and suitably scary with his mask on (and is a highlight in these scenes), but once it's off he's like a little boy and the illusion shatters, particularly the first time, which is a shame.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like it is part of the series and it is appreciably better than the prequels, which is the least that anyone hoped for. It's another entertaining slice of kid-friendly fun that, due to the tangible history accompanying it, offers that rare essence of cinema that we so infrequently experience now. But the way it steals far too obviously from the original films serves as a distraction and makes it all feel too hollow - maybe this makes it more recognisable and was required to set-up a couple of more interesting sequels? It's a shame J.J. Abrams isn't directing Episode VIII (Rian Johnson is definitely an interesting choice for this), as maybe we'd see him do the opposite of his Star Trek films and deliver a great second film. The Force Awakens is solid entertainment, but its mere existence seems to be the sole reason for the perplexing hyperbole surrounding it.