Our 25 year wait for Welsh football success

Wales v Northern Ireland - EURO 2016 - Round of 16

Football Soccer – Wales v Northern Ireland – EURO 2016 – Round of 16 – Parc des Princes, Paris, France – 25/6/16 Wales celebrate at the end of the match REUTERS/Christian Hartmann Livepic

June 5th 1991. A nine-year-old boy is taken by his dad to his first ever football game in the grandiose setting of the Cardiff Arms Park. The Game is Wales V Germany, a qualifier game for Euro 92. The boy has never seen such a crowd of people before and absorbs the atmosphere, in awe of the occasion. Sixty six minutes pass in a cagey game and then… suddenly a ball is hit passed the German defense, Liverpool’s prolific goalscorer Ian Rush runs on and hits it beyond the German keeper. Wales 1- 0 Germany. At this moment the crowd around the little boy absolutely explodes with excitement; thousands of men leap to their feet to cheer the goal, the little boy, who was contently chomping on a hot dog before the advance in play, is almost knocked off his chair by the excited crowd around him. The hot dog falls to the ground. The boy no longer cares about the hot dog and joins the grown men around him dancing and singing and going absolutely crazy with excitement; this crowd are making the loudest noise the little boy has ever heard. Remarkably, Wales hold out against a barrage of German attacks to win the game 1-0. At the final whistle, the crowd erupts in a scene of the kind of all out jubilation you can only ever see when an underdog triumphs against a champion.

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That boy was of course me and this is one of my earliest memories in life. Wales had beaten a team that had been declared the best in the world at the World cup that was held in Italy just one year before. It was one of the greatest results in Welsh football history and I was there for my first ever taste of international sport. Wales had a remarkable qualifying campaign that year, going on to beat Belgium and finishing the group in second place, just one point behind Germany. Unfortunately, this wasn’t good enough to qualify in those days though as there were only eight teams in the competition, so only the number one placed team progressed to Sweden in Euro 1992. In order for Wales to qualify back then, we would have had to finish ahead of a German team that had just been strengthened due to the reunified of East and West Germany. Plus West Germany, who provided the bulk of the team, were the current world cup holders. That German team got to the final and were beaten by Denmark, a team who only qualified due to a civil war excluding their group winners Yugoslavia. Denmark wrote their own fairytale football story back then; it’s a chapter that Wales are on track to emulate in Euro 2016.

 

Two years later, the same team which featured Welsh legends like goalkeeper Neville Southall and goalscorer Dean Saunders had a great world cup qualifying campaign. It came down to our final game against Romania. If we had won it, we would have made it to the U.S.A world cup, the first time we would have competed in an international football competition since 1958. Noticeably, this was a year that England had failed to qualify for the tournament. This is a night that any Welsh football fan over the age of 25 can recall with painful memories; hearts were broken all around the country as a great campaign ended in a loss that was hard to endure. The game was poised at 1-1 and then Wales were awarded a penalty. A nervous looking Paul Bodin stepped up. If he scored, he would have surely sent Wales to World Cup 94. The crunch as the ball hit the bar was a poleaxing blow to both the fans and the team. Minutes later, Romania went on to run up the other end and score, sending themselves through. Romania went on to become one of the stand-out teams of U.S. 94 and a few years later, Romanian players could be seen in many premier league teams. As for Welsh fans, young and old, we were taught a painful lesson about just how tragic a sporting loss could feel. That night in ’93 taught me a harsh lesson in loss. We were left to wonder about what ifs for years after that.

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The Welsh manager Terry Yorath, who had brought the national team to the brink of qualification for two major tournaments, was harshly sacked, much to the anger of the Welsh crowd who had enjoyed the valiant spirit of the team in his tenure. The next decade or so saw Wales go through a footballing dark age as managers like John Toshak, Mike Smith and Bobby Gould, all took charge and failed to steer the national side back in the right direction. Our golden generation of players, who so deserved to go to a tournament, had to retire without their international dreams ever being fulfilled.

Embarrassing defeats against Moldova and Georgia, extinguished any hope that we had of ever getting to a major international football tournament.

Wales as an emerging football force had well and truly been dismantled. With confidence low, we lost badly to the Netherlands and Italy and dropped further and further down the Fifa rankings.

After about a decade in the football wilderness, the reign of Mark Hughes started to show promise. We had some top quality players like Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy and we started a rebuilding process. This group of players had an excellent qualifying campaign for Euro 2004. We had led all the way and in anticipation of getting to Portugal in 2004, some of my friends had already booked their tickets to go, it seemed that certain. Alas, we struggled in the second half of the campaign and we had to settle for 2nd place. This was still enough to land us a two leg qualifier with Russia. Hopes were kept alive with a solid 0-0 in Moscow, but Hughes’ picked a defensive minded team and we lost the return leg in Cardiff 1-0. This was another sucker-punch ending to a Welsh campaign, which left me and the whole city of Cardiff in a depressive slump and yet another campaign that saw us so near but so far away. After that our Welsh hero Ryan Giggs decided to hang up his international boots.

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Mark Hughes then left the national team for a post at Blackburn. A popular figure in the Welsh football pantheon then took charge, Gary Speed. Speed gave players like Aaron Ramsey their first taste of international football. He started a rebuilding process that saw us pick up some wins against Switzerland, Norway and Bulgaria, and Wales started to get some respect back. We climbed to 45th in the Fifa world rankings and were named Fifa’s’ biggest climber. Hopes were high that Speed could take Wales to the next level and then suddenly, we were all left in shock when news broke that he had committed suicide. His close friend Chris Coleman took over, in time for the World Cup 2014 qualifiers but Wales, seemingly haunted by the death of their promising manager, had some disastrous results, the worst being a terrible 6-1 defeat by Serbia. A few wins over Scotland gave us hope of qualifying; hope that was finally extinguished by a 2-1 home defeat to Croatia. And Coleman hung on to the job by a thread.

By now, Welsh fans had been hardened by decades of near misses, so this latest chapter in failure to qualify didn’t upset us as much as some of the others.

Nations in the group stages of the current Euro 2016 campaign were boosted by FIFA’s decision to expand the amount of teams competing from 16 to 24. Wales were also boasted by a vote of confidence in the team from FIFA which – somewhat bizarrely – saw us moved up to 10th in the FIFA world rankings. We went on to have a brilliant campaign that saw us beat a great Belgium side. We lost our last game against Bosnia but we had all ready won four games and drawn two, so we progressed as Cyprus beat Israel to help us go through.

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We had done it! Wales had finally made it to a major competition after decades of heart-breaking near misses.

After finally breaking onto the big stage, I think we were just hoping that Wales could do the nation proud and get out of the group. History had taught us to air on the side of caution when it comes to the Welsh team. But with superstars like Gareth Bale and excellent Arsenal midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, as well as a squad featuring players like Ashley Williams, Chris Gunther and Ben Davies, to name just a few, all players who play week in week out for Premier League teams, we were quietly confident that we could at least give some top teams a good game.

The performance of the Welsh team at Euro 2016 is beyond our wildest boyhood dreams. As children, we just dreamed of one day getting to these competitions. We had faint feelings that if we did get there, we could impress. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see that this has been the case.

I think the way Wales took on the Slovakian’s in our first match of Euro 2016, surprised us all though. They played like a team who had experience in the biggest arena in international football. We took on the opposition. Bale showed his composure with a great free-kick that ignited a sense of belief. Ramsey and Allen ran the midfield and Robson-Kanu popped up for a massive goal. We won the game 2-1 and anyone of Welsh origin felt immense pride. In the England game we were pushed back and pinned in our own half for a lot of the game. Our explosive counter-attack had been nullified. Bale made us delirious with hope that we could beat our old football neighbour England. That hope was snuffed out by a late goal from Daniel Sturridge in an eventual 2-1 loss.

The way we responded in the Russia game absolutely surprised us all. The force of Wales’ Ramsey and Bale-led explosive counter-attack, was finally revealed. We took the game to the Russians, with wave upon wave of positive football. We lit up the tournament with our exciting attacking football earning a deserved 3-0 win. Wales were finally on the international map and the rest of the nations applauded with respect. England had beaten us, but we topped the group ahead of them, which is much better really.

Northern Ireland in the round of 16 was always going to be a difficult opponent from a Welsh perspective. Wales prefer to be the underdog and that game saw us the favourites. Northern Ireland were very difficult to break down, and their decision to sit back, killed any chance of our counter-attack. It was great that pressure resulted in a 1-0 win and we were progressed to the biggest game in our nations history: a quarter final against Belgium.

Wales v Belgium

This was a Belgium side that made the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2014. It was Belgium’s golden generation. In the previous game they had finally looked like they were going to live up to their potential. But Wales enjoy playing against Belgium. We have a history of lifting out game against this nation and this again proved to be the case. After going 1-0 down, we weathered the Belgium attacks, showed no fear, responded positively and went on to equalize through a determined Ashley Williams header. And then Robson-Kanu left three members of the Belgium defense doing passable impressions of statues, with a Cruyff tribute of a turn that gave him a point blank shot on goal that he slotted away with ease. A Vokes header late on wrapped up an amazing win in the biggest game in Welsh football history. Most of us who remember the last few decades of Welsh football history have not stopped smiling ever since.

The line ‘biggest game in Welsh football history’ became redundant a few rounds back now though. It goes without saying. Wales have broken record after record at Euro 2016. We are the smallest nation to ever qualify for a semi-final in a major tournament. The pressure is off Wales as unlike with England, there has been no expectation to succeed. Debilitating pressure has not hampered the psychology of the Welsh team. We have played in a way that has won us friends around the world. We have a manager with a plan and a team determined to play for him. They have extra determination in wishing to honour their departed mentor, the late Gary Speed.

By contrast our opponents Portugal, finished third in the group; a position that would have rendered them out in any other competition. They have somehow progressed to the semi-final despite not winning a single match in 90 minutes in the whole competition. But in a way, they have nothing to lose either and will be relishing a semi-final game against a small nation like Wales, instead of the usual football powerhouse nation that get to this stage of the competition. They also have a big game player in Ronaldo, so you can never discount Portugal. Plus this is their seventh semi-final, so they are experienced at this stage of the tournament.

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This might be the start of a football revolution in Wales, or it might be our one tournament in the limelight. We may never be here in this stage of a competition again. We have enjoyed every minute of it and we as Welsh fans will remember the best chapter in our football history for the rest of our lives. Who knows what emotions we will be feeling tomorrow. But as of right now, Wales are just one game away from a European Championship final. Prior to this tournament, no Welsh person I have ever met thought that was possible. Will our football fairy-tale continue? We are feeling confident, but you just never know with Wales. We have had too many false dawns. We do have a feeling that in Euro 2016 we have a belief and determination unmatched by any other Welsh side. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to a final. Who knows if we can get over this big hurdle. But for now lets get motivated with a chant you will hear all across Wales today. C’Mon Wales! C’mon Wales!!

My score prediction. Wales 1 – 1 Portugal (Wales to win 2-1 after extra time).

 

 

 

 

 

Oscars 2016 preview

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The build up to the Oscars 2016 has of course been overshadowed by a racial row started by Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, who both drew attention to the lack of black nominations in a list they re-dubbed the ‘Lilly White Oscars’. The Academy had left themselves open to criticism last year after failing to nominate Ava DuVernay for her excellent direction in the powerful Selma and David Oyelowa, who gave as astonishing a portrayal of Martin Luther King as you could have hoped to have achieved. This year, you could argue that black actors Idris Alba (for his performance in Beasts of No Nation), Michael B Jordan (for his compelling performance in Creed) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (for his uncanny portrayal of Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton) were all worthy of nominations. Perhaps the argument being made is justified, however the people making the argument are not exactly the people who should be. Spike Lee has not made anything that is going to trouble the Oscars for a long time – he’s actually gained more publicity for starting this row than he has for his recent films. Jada Pinkett Smith and now her husband Will Smith are obviously using the race row to vent their personal frustration that Will Smith didn’t get a nomination for his role in Concussion. Given that Will Smith has already been nominated twice – for his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness – he is hardly in a position to launch a prejudice argument, so he has done what is considered a faux pas around actors: he has shown frustration at a lack of personal recognition. The Smiths would have been better off voicing their disapproval in a year Will didn’t have a big worthy-looking film in contention.

The Academy make many mistakes of course, but they don’t set out to deliberately exclude people of colour despite what appearances over the last two years may suggest. In the last fifteen years, black actresses who have won Oscars include: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Monique (Precious), Ocatvia Spencer (The Help) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). And in 2008, two black actresses were nominated – Viola Davis (The Help) and Taraji P Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). There were also nominations for Queen Latifah (Chicago) and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) going back a bit further. In the male category since 2001, Denzel Washington (Training Day), Jamie Foxx (Ray), and Forest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) have all won the best male actor award and there were nominations for Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Denzel Washington (Flight), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). It’s worth pointing out that the first black person to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel way back in 1939 for her role in Gone With the Wind. Still, all this said, there should definitely be a shake-up in the infrastructure of Hollywood, with more racial and gender diversity involved in the directing, writing and producing roles within the industry. I’m sure the race row will have given Oscar host Chris Rock an endless amount of material to satirize come the ceremony.

Moving onto the films that have been nominated, whilst there are clearly some glaring omissions, it is an excellent collection of films. I would have really liked to have seen Inside Out break down the stigma against animated features and make it onto the Best Picture list since it was such an all-round outstanding piece of work. It would have also been nice to have seen the nail-biting Sicario land a nomination, the thought-provoking Ex-Machina and the really compelling Love and Mercy – a film that doesn’t seem to have made it onto the Academy’s radar this year.

The Best Picture

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The Big Short

The more films that can raise awareness about the ridiculously unscrupulous financial dealings that led to the subprime mortgage crisis, the better. That said, there was something duplicitous about The Big Short since it was directed in the style of a seventies investigative journalist film, with characters who seem to have an air of concern about the market, but really were as concerned with self-interest as those who created the crisis in the first place. It all made for a film that was too arch to really generate the moralistic outrage at the actions of the financial industry that you might expect from a film covering this terrain. The film is about betting, but it is a brave man who’d bet his house on this winning the Oscar as it’s an outside bet rather than a sure thing. For full review click here:

https://darrenmoverley81.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-big-short-film-review/

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Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg’s 30th film is a cautionary tale of why it is of the utmost importance that fear, hatred and bigotry are not allowed to influence the path to justice within the democratic system. It focuses on a tense stand-off between America and Russia during the Cold War over a spy exchange, but the the parallels between the politics of the period in which the film is set and the climate of fear that is currently being cooked up around politics in America, is rather striking. The great thing about Steven Spielberg when he is wearing his political director hat is that he is a very even-handed and balanced filmmaker. Both the Americans and the Russians are shown to be operating using similar tactics, and Spielberg is a Hollywood filmmaker who can show all the grey areas involved with a portrayal. He avoids demonizing the perceived communist enemy and because of this delivers a compelling, informative and consummately crafted film. Considering he hasn’t gotten a directing nomination this year, it seems that Spielberg and his film are somewhat rank outsiders this time, but I would be quite pleased if Bridge of Spies won, since it is one of the most expertly made films on the list and has a sobering political message that speaks volumes in these fear-driven times.

 

Brooklyn

What was so compelling about this story about a quiet Irish girl moving to New York in 1952 in search of a better life, was that it really seemed to understand the thought process and feelings involved when you decide to uproot and move to the other side of the world, away from everything you have ever known. Anyone who has done this for real could relate to the turbulent emotions one experiences when committing to such a radical life change. For the many who haven’t, Brooklyn gave a naturalistic insight to how you change as a person when you decide to leave home. It gave an even account, capturing all the positives and benefits that come with such a move and all the negatives too. It’s a small film that seemed to have really broken out of its niche and compelled a wider audience, but Oscar glory seems a journey too far for this little film.

 

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s lively fourth installment of his petrol-driven dystopia has proven to have had the fuel for a year-long run at the Oscars and is perhaps a surprise inclusion in the list. While it definitely is a distinctive-looking film with memorable action sequences, it was very light on plot and for large periods of the film was little more than a long extended car chase that had a striking resemblance to an episode of eighties cartoon The Wacky Races. In favour of the film, you could argue that the tyrannical rule of the imposing and menacing character was an inventive advancement of the Max Universe. If you look deep enough too, you could say the oppression of the masses at the hands of a elite, ruthlessly powerful resource-hording cartel, is even more slyly satirical of our own gap between the have and the have-nots than The Big Short is. On the other hand, you could say that all the politics involved around the importance of oil that was so stark and thought-provoking in Miller’s earlier Mad Max films, was entirely lost in a film in which oil was so wantonly used within the never-ending car chase sequences. In terms of best picture success, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t exactly look in pole position to win the best picture race. A victory would probably even surprise fans of the film.

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The Martian

Despite its subject matter of an astronaut tragically stranded on The Red Planet, The Martian is probably the most all-out entertaining film on the list. Ridley Scott managed to capture on film all the wit and science-driven comedy that made Andy Weir’s novel so enjoyable. Fans of the book breathed a huge sigh of relief as director Ridley Scott (never renowned for his levity) managed to find a mirthful tone that totally captured the vibrancy of the central character Matt Watney’s infectiously positive attitude to his own survival. However, in terms of Oscar glory, the amusing tone which made the film so charming may count against it since The Academy usually favours something with a more serious and worthy tone. Plus the fact Ridley Scott is not nominated as Best Director when he gave the film such bounce, is a telling sign that The Martian will remain stranded on the list.

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The Revenant

The bold production choices involved with this punishing and powerful revenge-driven survival film made it such a unique cinematic experience with all the right criteria for Oscar glory. Usually films that have a shoot that goes way passed the due end date run into major problems, but in the case of The Revenant, the extension to what was a grueling filmmaking process added to the suffering of the cast and crew and therefore the extraordinary sense of realism to the film. What it lacked in story depth, it made up for in natural atmosphere, tough drama, and a believable recreation of an early America that is usually lost to the history books. The commitment to the recreation of time and place was commendable by Mexican director Gonjalez Innaritu and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki. Few films this year have managed to bring to the screen such a vision of a lost world. Like The Martian, it is essentially a one man survival story, but contrasting The Martian it has a serious tone that will definitely strike a chord with Oscar voters. Unlike the cast and crew, The Revenant won’t be left out in the cold. It has to be the favourite for best picture 2016. For full review click here:

https://darrenmoverley81.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/the-revenant-film-review/

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Room

Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film took a very dark subject matter that has been in the news a number of times in the last decade and absolutely transformed it tonally into a film that gave a strangely life-affirming insight into the bond forged between a mother and child. Read the synopsis of Room and you would expect a dubiously toned exploitative drama to unfold. I don’t want to elaborate any further on why the story should seem so sinister because to really experience the full impact of Room it is better to see it completely in the dark about why a mother and a child are living in an entire existence in small confines. As the magnitude of what is actually happening in Room begins to dawn on the viewer, you realize that the film has worked because of the deceiving naturalness of the interactions between Brie Larson as the mother and Jack the little boy – wonderfully played by Jacob Tremblay. I think it would have been a justifiable inclusion on the Best Supporting Actor list since the entire film is made by his childlike innocent interpretation of events in a similar way to the way a child’s imagination was used to perceive events events in Beasts of the Southern Wild a few years back. And imagination proves to be the keyword as the film stands as a tribute to the power of a child’s imagination to transform the grimmest and most mundane of settings into a place full of wonder and intrigue. It’s definitely the most original film on the list, but originality is rarely the main criteria to guarantee Oscar success.

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Spotlight

Journalists in film often come across as pesky self-serving irritants that characters usually offer just one line to: that being, no comment. There was a golden era of journalism films (the seventies), when films like All the President’s Men captured the power of journalism when taking on corrupt power structures. Tom McCarthy’s film owes a great debt to seventies films of that ilk and has the same natural style direction. The scandal Spotlight (a team of investigative journalists who work as a sub-sect of the Boston Globe) begin to uncover is so shocking, heartbreaking and damning for the Catholic church that the story requires no tricks or melodrama to bring it to life, it is rendered more powerful by the focus being on the committed interaction of the team who are determined to overcome every obstacle to bring the truth to light. In the hands of McCarthy, such mundane office tasks as people flicking through directories and running to use photocopiers become such lively and suspenseful moments when you realize the significance of them. In a time when journalists face tremendous pressure to put stories out quickly rather than accurately, it was really commendable to see a film focus on a team of journalists who realize the importance of painstaking attention to detail over a long period rather than a rush for a fast, sensational story. The film brought such gravitas and insight to the process of journalism and the story was deeply involving. It is an underdog story, and considering it has such a low-key, no thrills approach to filmmaking, the film is something of an underdog in this category too. A win would secure it a wider audience, which would ensure that more people are reminded of the horrifying wrongdoing that has been going on within the Catholic church.

Personally I would like Spotlight to win the Oscar, since it has the most compelling and involving story which has a much wider significance. If it can’t win, my second favourite would be Bridge of Spies since it is a reminder of why fear and hatred should never be allowed to blind political judgement, rather timely in regards to the modern political pathway we appear to be going down. It seems, however, that the momentum is firmly with The Revenant.

Best Director Nominees:
Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”)
Adam McKay (“The Big Short”)
George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“The Revenant”)

Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”

 

Considering it is his first Oscar nomination at the age of seventy, George Miller would be the romantic choice for Best Director. I would personally like to see Lenny Abrahamson win as he took a subject that was really quite sinister and completely transformed it into something with an entirely different tone to that expected, so it is a tribute to the power of direction get audiences to see something from a different perspective. The Academy have proven themselves to not be against a split win between Best Director and Best Picture in the past, but this time I think they will go for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for The Revenant, to give the film the top two awards. It would also mean the Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu would be the second ever director to win back to back Best Director awards as he won it for Birdman last year. Given the controversy around the lack of ethnic diversity in the nominations, it would probably help to award the Best Director statue to a Mexican filmmaker over a white counterpart.

Best Supporting Actor Nominees:

 

Christian Bale (“The Big Short”)
Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”)
Mark Ruffalo (“Spotlight”)
Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”)

Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”

This is a category that is wide open. It would be a remarkable story if Sylvester Stallone won for Creed, forty years after being nominated for his performance as the same character in Rocky. He is very tortured in the film and it is one of his best ever performances, he could very well win. Mark Ruffalo has been consistently excellent and the determination he infused to his character with in Spotlight gave the film such spirit. However, the film is much more of a ensemble piece with uniformly excellent performances. I would like to see theatre actor turned film actor Mark Rylance win for his beautifully restrained performance in Bridge of Spies. He nailed the Scottish accent and created such a memorable character which demonstrated the importance of silence in the acting process. I would like to see Mark Rylance win, but Mark Ruffalo will take it and you can’t argue with that.

 

Best Supporting Actress Nominees:

Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”)
Rooney Mara (“Carol”)
Rachel McAdams (“Spotlight”)
Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”)

Kate Winslet (“Steve Jobs”)

 

Jennifer Jason Leigh has been an excellent actress, but her character in The Hateful Eight is too much of a caricature to be a justifiable winner, plus Tarantino’s film was horribly misogynistic and Leigh was something of a human punchbag in the film. Rooney Mara in Carol gave a performance that was all longing gazes and sexual awakening. Rachel McAdams captured just how troubled her character was when exposing the Catholic church scandal. Kate Winslet was very commanding holding her own on screen with Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, but her Eastern European accent was a little inconsistent. Alicia Vikander’s star continues to rise. What a year she has had. She should have been nominated in this category for her intelligent performance as the sophisticated AI in Ex-Machina, I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, so I can’t comment on whether she should win. It seems like a two horse race between Winslet and Vikander and on a hunch, I tip Vikander to win.

Best Actress Nominees:
Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)
Brie Larson (“Room”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”)
Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”)

Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”)

 

Cate Blanchett is the life and soul of Carol, giving a performance suggesting a woman who has sexually blossomed in a world of repressed emotion. She is mesmerizing and if she took home her third Oscar, (she won for Blue Jasmine a few years ago and Best Supporting Actress for her role in the Aviator) it would be a fair result. She is an actress with such screen presence with the class of Katharine Hepburn, an actress she played and won an Oscar for in Aviator. Jennifer Lawrence in Joy gave quite a devoted performance to the character. Charlotte Rampling was the surprise inclusion, but her turn in 45 Years had garnered considerable acclaim among UK critics.  Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn created a character who grew in confidence as the film progressed. Brie Larson’s powerful turn in Room captured the array of emotions that one would experience in the situation her character was in. Larson is a safe bet to take the award and she will be a worthy winner.

Best Actor Nominees:

Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”)
Matt Damon (“The Martian”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”)
Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”)

Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”)

Bryan Cranston continues his complete career transformation playing Trumbo, a blacklisted writer in 40’s Hollywood. It is another big charismatic performance by Cranston, an actor who now seems to have far more gravitas. Matt Damon is an actor who can mold himself to any role he plays. It is a career best from him; he’s never been able to lead a film like this. Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance is all agony and tortured masculinity. The Academy has always liked someone committed enough to go that extra mile to bring realism to the performance. Di Caprio has come such a long way as an actor. He’s been nominated countless times and if he loses again, it will be rather awkward. He should have won for his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but he will win for The Revenant. Michael Fassbender had a hard acting challenge with Steve Jobs as Aaron Sorkin’s script required him to be as prickly and socially alienating as humanly possible. Fassbender’s performance allowed us to see a sinister side to Jobs that we hadn’t seen before and like Di Caprio, Fassbender has been consistently excellent in the last decade. Is Eddie Redmayne really in the category of actors good enough to win back to back Best Actor victories? I’ll leave people who have seen The Danish Girl to answer that question. I think if he wins, even Redmayne himself will feel somewhat conflicted that the award didn’t go to one of the other actors in the list who have been outstanding over a wider selection of films than Redmayne.  Fassbender would be a worthy winner, but the momentum is with Leo and The Revenant will prove to be the big winner on the night.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

 

Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen (“Bridge of Spies”)
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley (“Inside Out”)
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (“Spotlight”)
Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”)

 Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus (“Straight Outta Compton”)

 

There are a great selection of screenplays here. It’s really nice to see Alex Garland get some recognition for Ex-Machina, but Inside Out on many levels had the most original story. I suspect the Academy will go for Spotlight as it will likely miss out in the Best Picture category.

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

Emma Donoghue (“Room”)
Drew Goddard (“The Martian”)
Nick Hornby (“Brooklyn”)

Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”)
Phyllis Nagy (“Carol”)

I would like to see Drew Goddard take this one for The Martian was effortlessly transformed into a screenplay. I suspect it will go to Emma Donoghue for Room, which would be a good choice too.

Best Animated Film Nominees:

 

“Anomalisa”
“Boy and the World”
“Inside Out”
“When Marnie Was There”
“Shaun the Sheep”

 

This is probably the most certain award of the night. Nothing will trouble Inside Out and as I made it my film of last year, I totally agree that it should win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short – film review

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Unravel the horrible mess that caused the 2008 financial crisis and you will find a tangled web of various strands of corruption, lies, fraud and – if it wasn’t for deregulation – corporate crime attached at the end. It stands to reason then that filmmakers are going to be pulling at the threads for years, uncovering interesting dramatic and provocative stories to help us understand just how the Western financial system tied itself up in so many knots that it almost permanently strangled the world economy.

In 2011, Margin Call was the first film to reveal that the power-players in the financial sector were not in control of the monster they had created. Then last year’s 99 Homes showed us how banks put a wreaking ball to the hard working person’s livelihood with little regard for the emotional impact it would take. Those two films successfully turned the crumbling economy into powerhouse economic thrillers. Adam McKay’s The Big Short – adapted from the novel penned by Moneyball scribe Michael Lewis –  has rather less heft than those two films, partly due to its overly arch (and rather patronising) style and partly due to just how difficult it is to connect with characters who appear to be looking for the solution but are really part of the problem themselves.

The main players are Michael Burry (Christian Bale) as an assured to the point of arrogant financial expert who bets on the failure on the U.S economy. At least appearing to have slightly more of a moral conscientiousness is Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) who gives the impression of holding angst in the pit of his stomach in regard to the impending economic catastrophe that will cripple the American economy. However, he undermines his suggested moral outrage by being eager to profit on its failure. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), is the social salesman of the piece – a guy who has had such a loss of faith in the integrity of the subprime mortgage system that he likens it to a Jenga game. He might be relatable were it not for the fact that he’s motivated only by the thought of his bonus check. There are a range of other characters equally as money-driven. Tellingly, the only character who seems at least a little bit concerned for the fate of the average person, (played by Brad Pitt) is marginalized to the point of having just a cameo. So what you get is a wry, weightless film that seems somewhat confused about its aims. Is it a statement that the new American dream is to just leech off a dying system? Or is it a film attempting to evoke a sense of moral outrage in an audience possibly unaware at just how insidious the financial system has become? The film at different times appears to switch between those two conflicting themes, leaving it uncertain in tone.

How you react to the film may well depend on just how much you know about the causes of the 2008 subprime-mortgage crisis that brought catastrophic failure to a banking establishment previously deemed too big to fail. If you know absolutely nothing about the details of the crisis, then the arch, glib, and highly simplified visual metaphors that the director uses to explain confounding financial terms like CDO, subprime mortgages, and derivatives may well inform you of what you need to know. In which case, you may get a side helping of anger with your entertainment. However, if you know quite a bit about what caused all the problems, then you may feel that the film entirely cops out from giving the banking industry the grilling that it so severely deserves. This is a film that falls well short of providing us with the answers anyone who has bought a mortgage in the last ten years deserves.

Financial jargon is of course very boring, so McKay tries to liven it up with quick-edits and meaningless visuals to bring a whip-pan flashy style to the proceedings. The hope is to present numbers for a generation fed on MTV-style edits. McKay wants to bring a Martin Scorsese sense of pace and verve to the film. It will definitely have the desired effect with some people. Quite frankly though, this idea that everything has to be jazzed up to be cool and interesting is part of the reason why we allowed the financial system to get away with what should essentially be criminal activity in the first place. Watching a scene that sees popstar Selena Gomez explain how a derivative works may be amusing but really it hints at everything that is wrong with the world: that we have to have celebrities explain everything to us or we don’t care. To be fair though, McKay is in on the joke, but it would be nice to see something avoid hiding behind the detached irony that seems to define the age we live in. It all feels a lot like the way day time television commercials try to explain things to the watching masses.

This all captures the main point of the film; it is entirely fixated with style and sacrifices substance because of this. if you are aware of the facts surrounding just how morally bankrupt the financial system was pre-2008 then, you realize there is a much more interesting story here in this world that the film isn’t bold enough to deliver. The characters are perceptive and opportunistic due to the fact that they bet on failure. They are portrayed as the ‘Davids’ against an army of nefarious ‘Goliaths’ and we are supposed to side with them as they are the lesser of the evils. But really they are just leeches, so it’s hard to will them to success, which nullifies the crusader vibe the film tries to create for them.

The film could be re-dubbed The Vultures of Wall Street; but there is a Wolf of Wall Street and maddeningly that wolf appears in the film, bewilderingly portrayed as some sort of naïve lamb, unaware of what is about to happen. That wolf is of course Goldman Sachs. This is a film that champions a bunch of financial experts betting on the failure of the American banking system. The film is based on real financial figures who are framed as being the only ones aware, but the truth is a lot more people knew and profited from the situation; these characters were just riding on the coat tails of the major players – chiefly Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs didn’t just make billions of dollars betting on the same failure the characters do in the film. No, they did something far worse: they pressurized the U.S government into deregulating the banking industry; then their greedy investments led to all the toxic sub prime mortgage problems. After that they said nothing, sold them in the millions to other banks, totally abusing their power in the process. Then they took out the kind of insurance policies that the ‘betsters’ in the film take out, ensuring they would make money in the advent of the failure they had brazenly engineered. Just to finish off, they lied about it in the judicial system, got caught and still received billions of tax payers money during the crisis and all they get is a few passing mentions in the film. If you are privy to this information, you cannot help but be outraged that the film fails to mention this. As a result it feels like someone made a film focusing on parasites feeding on a monster that we are never allowed to glimpse. If you can’t go after Goldman Sachs in a film allegedly exposing the problems with the U.S banking system, then when can you?

If you want to read more about just how Goldman Sachs were the real architects and prospers of the real Big Short, click on this link to a well-informed Rolling Stone article.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-people-vs-goldman-sachs-20110511

As a result of going after the minnows instead of the sharks, the film feels rather phony. What’s more, it has a feel to it as though it wants to be a seventies investigative journalist piece in the style of All the President’s Men; at one point a ‘betster’ actually likens himself to Redford’s character in that film. It’s all rather duplicitous though as it tries to hook people in on the idea there is a flicker of moral concern, but really the director is very pleased with the minor achievements of his central characters. It’s more of a con-caper movie than a legitimate expose of the system we so desperately need. It’s the Ocean’s Eleven of financial economic thrillers then. The Big Short is maddeningly trite for those in the know, but will provide some easily digestible insight to the crisis if you are not. Overall though, Mckay’s film doesn’t measure up to other films that have taken on the financial catastrophe of 2008.  6.2 /10

The Revenant – film review

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”I think there is a hunger for audiences to see something completely extreme and difficult”, so said Leonardo DiCaprio, to Variety magazine in regards to The Revenant. After a summer and a Christmas of films delivering fantasy blockbuster escapism, the unrelenting rawness that defines The Revenant is strangely refreshing and sobering, standing as it does as the perfect antidote to all the hyper real special effects-led fantasy that has come to define a film with a big budget. Di Caprio’s comment may well prove to be on the money then, and credit to New Regency for bank-rolling a film with such a bold and ambitious vision – an unusual risk in a cinematic industry that usually favours the safe option.

Just a year after scooping a best director win for Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu returns with a film that is punishing, grueling and relentlessly tough, but deeply rewarding to watch because of the sheer ambition and remarkable determination from all involved to make it a cinematic experience with the utmost authenticity. Iñárritu takes us back into the troublesome past of the Wild West, immediately throwing us into a startling ambush sequence, as a band of opportunistic pelt traders endure an onslaught from a Native American tribe. In among the enthralling chaos we meet Hugh Glass, (Leonardo Di Caprio) a 19th century explorer with a son who is half-Native American himself, and Fitzgerald, (Tom Hardy) an American trader motivated by self-interest and financial reward. The two have a prickly tension that later morphs into an all-out resentment as their relationship frays. Thus begins a Western that is three-quarters an arduous survival story and one-quarter revenge-driven drama.

Iñárritu uses filming locations in Canada and latterly Argentina with breathtaking landscapes to successfully convey a haunting atmosphere that perfectly evokes the sense of time and place that his vision requires: the American wilderness in 1823. The Mexican director has seemingly taken a leaf out of Terrence Mallick’s book with a film that juxtaposes stunning shots of a natural wilderness with horrifying brutality and barbarism. But while Mallick’s films like The Thin Red Line and New World take an almost poetic reflection to horror playing out in a beautiful natural world, Iñárritu’s intention is to rattle audiences, drag them out of their chairs, and make them accompany Glass on his agonizing journey. He is remarkably successful at immersing his audience into this lost world; at times you can almost taste the frozen tundra that the film unfolds on.

If you experience The Revenant, you may come out of it asking just how Iñárritu managed to pull off a film that is this staggeringly realistic. A little research will reveal that it was an extremely problematic production. It massively overrun, costing News Regency over double the $60 million U.S dollars they originally put into the film. Usually troubled productions destroy a film, but the difficulties filming are exactly the reasons why The Revenant is an extraordinary achievement.

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If the film has an organic look to it, it is because Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubenski insisted on using natural light and only filming for one-and-a-half hours a day, only at dusk. That is the reason why the production overrun, causing the cast and crew some considerable suffering under plummeting wintry temperatures and actually battling off frost-bite for real. It will prove to be a blessing in disguise – the film is about suffering and that is absolutely reflected within the performances. The entire cast look completely worn down, haggard, and suitably broken; their real pain proves to be the audience’s gain. DiCaprio takes method acting to a whole other level. He learnt not one but two Native American languages that his character uses more than English in the film and if you think the scenes where he devours uncooked flesh look real, it’s because he insisted on that being the case. It’s a tough physical performance by Di Caprio as he’s asked to convey excruciating bodily and psychological pain purely by bodily movements, grimaces, guttural groans and extreme anguish. It’s a performance that appears as visually agonized as Jim Caviezel’s in The Passion of the Christ, but his Glass is a lot more of a realistically realized character than Caviezel’s Jesus.

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We all know that DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for his frequent on-screen intensity, and surely his time has come. It is a testament to how far the forty-one year old actor has come that, while we may doubt whether the character’s body could survive such punishment, we do not doubt the character’s spirit and will to survive. Equally as impressive is Tom Hardy, who nails the twisted, slightly unhinged character he is playing. Hardy makes Fitzgerald a strangely relatable rogue, whose actions are somewhat understandable in a cutthroat world where weakness usually leads to death. He’s much more of a man for his time than the usual evil character that revenge movies are set up around. Although there is a rather familiar genre template working under the realism, the timing of Hardy’s character’s actions throw the audience off the scent of where the story could be going. Overall, the Hollywood formula is well buried and because the emphasis is on surviving in the harsh wilderness, the revenge aspect of the story is much more muted and therefore much less conventional.

Following on from last year’s Slow West, this is another Western that acknowledges the ill-treatment and doomed fate of the first nation people. It’s this aspect of the film that provide it with more depth and soul than you’d expect to get in a revenge movie.  The opportunistic plundering of the Native Americans’ land at the hands of the pioneers is seen to be planting the first seeds of a captialist system that will eventually decimate everything they need for survival. The film also nods to the damage done by labelling them ‘savages,’ hinting at the irony of this in a world in which the actions of everyone were cutthroat. The central character has a strong connection to the Native Americans with a depiction that recalls to mind Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves. The scenes featuring Native Americans are arguably some of the film’s most poignant. From a chief in search of his daughter pleading with the French for help, to a lone tribesman, isolated and surviving off the land; there is a suitably mournful aura of loss reflected in the depiction of the Native Americans, which thematically and spiritually allows them to form a deeper bond with DiCaprio’s central character. Like every other aspect of the film, it’s all made beautifully organically.

Iñárritu favours long, drawn out takes over multiple cutaways. His style had quite an effect in Birdman, but in The Revenant his unorthodox film-making methods provide a breathtaking level of intensity. The bear attack sequence is simply astonishing. To say it is unflinching doesn’t come close to conveying just how powerful a scene it is. Realistically shot, the camera never pans away as a totally unpredictable and mesmerizing dynamic ensues between a bear protecting its cubs and a father who throughout the film is motivated by the same parental instinct as the bear. You are left wondering whether this scene exhibits the best animal effects work since The Life of Pi or whether Di Caprio has put even more madness in his method by taking on a grizzly for real. Suffice to say, it’s one of many sequences that will shake and shock you in a film that has painstaking commitment to realism.

The Revenant is not for the faint of heart, but sometimes cinema has to throw you out of your comfort zone. Secretly, a lot of people want to see if they have what it takes to survive in the extreme wilderness – if this sounds like you, then this courageous, daring, and hard edged survival film is a perfect winter watch; you’re the people DiCaprio was looking to entice with his words. Go and see it on the big screen to ensure that a message is sent back to Hollywood that there is a hunger for films with such extraordinary naturalism. 9/10

The Top 10 Films of 2015

 

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10. Jurassic World

The theme park you had waited twenty-two years to arrive finally opened and it provided more spectacularly thrilling excitement than a season ticket at Disney World could have done. For my money, Jurassic World was the most enjoyable blockbuster romp of the year. So many sequels are entirely superfluous, but a Jurassic film that promised to show us what that famous dinosaur park would look like when open had such a justifiable reason to be made. It was absolutely thrilling to see dinosaurs on the big screen again under the Jurassic franchise banner. The film had the power to induce that look that Sam Neil once had when he saw the first dinosaur – the look all nineties’ children had when they first glimpsed the prehistoric creatures back in Spielberg’s original; the look of awe-inspired and total enchantment. When the dinosaurs inevitably broke free and went on their storming rampage, the stakes were higher and the film turned into an intense B movie horror featuring action with a little more bite than the original. It was generally well-done B movie fun but there was also a surprising amount of corporate satire involved through the Bryce Dallas Howard character, depicted as out of touch with the reality and human side to the behemoth project she presided over. The film played as a cautionary tale for single minded businesses that jeopardize safety in the pursuit of even bigger profits. That gave the film an extraordinary amount of relevance in an age that always puts big business first no matter the costs. OK, so it asked us to suspend disbelief like no other film this year, but hey the mood was so enjoyably intoxicating that we went along with it, even when Bryce Dallas Howard outran a T-Rex in stilettos.

 

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9.  Foxcatcher

Virtually overlooked in the Oscar hunt, this icy, unsettling and mesmerizing character study was one of the most interesting but underrated films of the year. Its lack of recognition was perhaps something to do with the fact that the film’s potency really begins to be unlocked after the film’s credits have rolled, due to the fact that what was going on with Steve Carrell’s portrayal of millionaire wrestling mentor Jon Du Pont, doesn’t really become apparent until the final few frames of the film. To register the magnitude of the clever deception game Carrell employed when playing the character, you had to go away and think about it, and then watch the film again to see just how masterful a performance it was by Carrel and just how ambiguous the execution of director Bennett Miller was too. In two films, now this and Capote, Bennett Miller has given a masterclass in portraying the power of the art of manipulation. His skill here was managing to make audiences view the Du Pont character in the same way that his wrestling prodigees – two sympathetic performances from Chanum Tatum and Mark Ruffalo – did; as a knowledgeable, professional paternal figure, but the truth was something with Norman Bates-eque levels of creepiness, and an absolutely contentious Citizen Kane like cautionary tale of the emptiness of wealth.

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8.   Love and Mercy

Think of Brian Wilson and The Beach boys and your mind leaps to sun-kissed Californian dreams and timeless breezy summer inflected songs. Tellingly, the film condensed this aspect of Brian Wilson’s life into an opening credits sequence leaving the majority of the running time open for a revealing portrait of the tortured musical genius behind The Beach Boys’ music. A brilliantly well-rounded character-study of Wilson emerged via a pair of outstanding performances from Paul Dano – as the younger more creatively expressive Wilson – and an uncharacteristically socially awkward John Cusack – playing the broken down, unstable older version. In a direction master-stroke from director, the two performances were intercut, slowly allowing the audience to get a real intimate sense of Brian Wilson’s troubled persona. The film wasn’t concerned with fame or The Beach Boys success, it focused on the emotional truth of Wilson, so it created an intimacy that biopics rarely have. If you were a fan of The Beach Boys peerless Pet Sounds album, the film gave a joyous insight to Wilson’s unique creative expression on the musical arrangements on one of the best albums ever recorded. Dano captured the nuances of the man, with a career best performance that might register him an Oscar nomination. The suggestions the film made about Wilson were absolutely fascinating. He was portrayed as a musician who was in tune with all sounds around him, sometimes it created the inspiration for musical perfection at others led to a heightened cacophony of noise that troubled him enough to the point of instability. The final act was deeply evocative as we were taken deeper into the murky relationship he had with his therapist (an ever-excellent Paul Giamatti) which was counter-balanced by one of the purest romantic plot-lines of the year. Love and Mercy was an absolutely majestic film, commanding so much empathy for the enigmatic Brian Wilson.

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7.  Selma

By not nominating one of the year’s most provocative and powerful dramas in the best director category for black female director Ava DuVernay, the Academy unwittingly proved the potent points that she made within the film, an irony that you would have assumed Academy members would have tried really hard to avoid. That irony being that black people have to work incredibly hard to overcome the prejudices in a system which is designed largely to favour the interests of privileged upper class white people.

There is often a churlish response to political dramas like these that they are often broadly director Oscar bait. I can only imagine that anyone who thought that in connection to Selma either hadn’t seen the film or hadn’t registered the main point of the film. The story about the Martin Luther King-led civil rights movements in Selma did a lot more than document the racial struggles that went on in the period. It made some candid and profound insights to the American political system as a whole, suggesting that you have to be extraordinarily astute and patient to make even small differences to overturn horrible institutionalized injustice in a biased political system. The tone was harrowing, hard-hitting and rousing, passion stirring drama that injected some much needed political anger in anyone who saw it. It would have been tempting for a black director doing a Martin Luther King biopic to portray said leader in a purely reverential light. But actually this was an honest depiction of the civil rights hero, which by including some of his flaws and fallacies allowed audiences an intimate insight into who the man was and how he challenged a prejudiced system with dignified defiance. Not nominating Brit actor David Oyelowo was another shocking oversight by the Academy. His passionate performance really captured the command of the man as well as his politically astute attitude, and effervescence for the cause. It was one of the most important films of the year and its lack of recognition shines a light on the fact that in the time since King, all prejudices towards African Americans still haven’t been overcome. Selma was a beautifully handled portrayal of the politics required for revolution.

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6.  The Martian

Director Ridley Scott managed to do something that had always eluded the cinema industry: he made a great film set on Mars. Jovial, upbeat and jaunty are not words you would associate either with a space based disaster movie or a Ridley Scott film, but surprisingly that was the tone of The Martian and it made the film a joy to behold. Anyone who had read Andy Weir’s superb source material knew the cinematic potential the story had. The Alien and Blade Runner director used his wealth of sci-fi experience to recreate the Mars landscape in believable fashion. One thing you are always guaranteed with in a Scott film is wondrous eye-popping cinematic worlds, which made him the perfect choice for The Martian. He gave us a vision of Mars we hadn’t seen before. A lived in vision of the red planet, with mercurial beauty. No aliens, just an astronaut botanist, stranded alone with a determined survival instinct. What was really surprising though was how well Scott directed the comedy, translating the rapid fire wit of the book on screen with some aplomb. And turning the book’s running gag about how Mark hates commander Lewis’ disco music, into the films soundtrack was a stroke of genius that totally transformed the tone.

Matt Damon gave his most likeable performance ever, perfectly capturing the character’s blend of scientific adeptness, winning charm and spirit-lifting sense of humour. We were rooting for him to survive, and in a uplifting ‘all-for-one-one-for-all message’, so were NASA and the rest of the world.

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5. The Water Diviner

Gallipoli. 1915. A military general preps his soldiers for a last stand in trench warfare. They clutch their guns and take a moment before charging into battle to fight the invading forces. A Turkish flag is waved.
By setting his opening shots from the Turkish point of view, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut managed to generate a significant amount of empathy for the Turkish people who suffered during this conflict. In turn, that made this a very even-handed depiction of a World War 1 conflict that saw tremendous loss of life on both the Allied side and Turkish side. By choosing to see the film from the perspective of the Turkish standpoint, the film avoided portraying the Turks as bloodthirsty evil savages, the kind of propaganda that the film goes on to suggest made so many young Australian men enlist to fight against Turkey or the Ottoman empire, as it was known back then. In a year in which Clint Eastwood got an Oscar nomination for American Sniper – a film that over-simplified the Iraq conflict and portrayed the country as a place in which America are the force of good vanquishing the evil enemy – a film that played as the antidote to American Sniper’s horrible propaganda, should have generated more publicity and media attention. However, it’s easy to see how it was overlooked in a media climate which continually fans the flame of fear and actively participates in war-propaganda.

Russell Crowe captured in poignant detail how countries stir-up patriotism in their young folk and send them off to wars for causes they don’t understand against forces they are indoctrinated to believe are evil. What was truly remarkable and unique about this massively underrated war drama is that the majority of the film took place after the war had finished. The fascinating plotline saw Russell Crowe’s grieving paternal figure head to Gallipoli in the ever more desperate hope of finding out what happened to his three sons. What was really interesting was a narrative that saw him meet the general in charge of his sons and the general who ruled the opposing sources. A plotline that saw all three parties discuss and reflect on the senseless loss of life suffered on both sides, highlighted just how foolhardy and futile sending young men to fight for causes they don’t really understand is. The film had a lot to say about how difficult it is to adjust to life after war. As a result, it was one of the most affecting films of the year and one of only two films this year which moved me to tears.
Russell Crowe’s anti-war movie was cinema as a historical redemption project. Poignant, hard-hitting and valiant, The Water Diviner played as the perfect antidote to the war-mongering propaganda machine which went into overdrive this year with American Sniper.

 

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4.  Sicario

Canadian director Denis Villenuve has been one to watch for a while now. He takes seemingly well-worn story plot templates – the detective story in Prisoners, a doppelgänger thriller in Enemy and now the narcotics drama in Sicario – and fashions a story around them that is entirely unique and totally immersive. Sicario was so tense, unnerving and provocative in its portrayal of the CIA’s involvement in the American-led war on drugs, that it felt like a story that shouldn’t have been declassified. The film came equipped with the thrillingly unnerving sense that we were being taken on a tour of a world we really shouldn’t have seen. Our way into this world was through Emily Blunt’s fresh faced cop, who was taken closer and closer to the heart of darkness in regards to the drug war, stewarded by the dubious mentorship of Josh Brolin’s disarmingly casual CIA operative.

No film this year ratcheted up the suspense or tension that Sicario did. The film practically pulsated with tension as the film became ever more ominous and foreboding, upping the ante on the ever darkening atmosphere. Look out for a certain Oscar nomination for Roger Deakins’ gritty cinematography and hopefully a long over-due win. Villenuve made his audience come out of the screen shaken and haunted by what they had seen in this remorselessly unnerving voyage into the dark reality of the drug war.

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3. Birdman

This year’s best picture winner definitely lived up to the hype. Hollywood satires are often very telling of a side of show-business the media rarely reflect. This particular Hollywood satire took us deep into the twisted psyche of a washed up former blockbuster star as he struggled to reinvent himself as a serious Broadway actor. The film was helped in some way by a cathartic performance from Michael Keaton, a former Batman who knows what it is like to play a prominent hero and then watch your fame slowly diminish later. The film had a thrilling art imitating life vibe; Keaton gave a brave, emotionally honest, yet very funny performance as the eponymous character. Mexican director Alejandro Inaritu directed the film with considerable verve, invention and imagination, creating a likable off-kilter feel to the film. The consistently witty suggestion that the character of Birdman existed as a destructive figure in Keaton’s character’s head was a biting satire on the dangers of being typecast in one role. The outpouring of love that came from Hollywood from actors and movie professionals for Birdman only served to prove that the film brilliantly explores every star’s deep, dark hidden anxieties involving diminishing opportunities arising from not being relevant anymore. That suggests it was thrillingly on the nose. Easily this was one of the most imaginative films of the year – a surreal, biting, offbeat golden egg of a film.

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2. Ex_Machina

Acclaimed script writer Alex Garland marked his move into the director’s chair by making a film that marked the evolution of the A.I. movie. So sophisticated was the persona of Ava, a super advanced robot that she made a Blade Runner replicant look like a clunky robot. An absolutely enthralling three-way character drama emerged between her, a fresh-faced computer program and a new spin on the mad reclusive technical genius played brilliantly by Oscar Issac. What made the film so fresh, interesting and involving was the shape-shifting power game between the three characters, which resulted in an audience uncertainty as to how exactly the story would play out. The dynamic between the three characters became so unnerving that it morphed the film from the cerebral A.I. drama it was on paper to a full on thriller. Garland was so convinced of the humanity and emotional understanding that his A.I. figure had that he designed her to visually remind us that she is a robot, by displaying her wiring and circuitry. What was clever about it was despite the obvious robotic look, she was hands down the closest a robot has come to replicating the persona of a human in screen history. As a result, Ex_Machina was an extraordinary cinematic experience and easily the best science fiction film of the year.

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Film of the year: Inside Out

Pixar’s latest film totally eclipsed everything else this year in terms of wit, invention and imagination. While the mainstream movie industry do not exactly prioritize originality, Pixar are the exception. The much beloved digital animation studio have all their dials set to creativity. They have spent years consistently pioneering and pushing animation forward, which has given them the platform to come up with something special; and special was the word for Inside Out. Pixar took our brains to another dimension; the inner dimension; the impossible to see dimension of a child’s mind. As it turned out, that was a game changer for the animation genre.

This was a film that worked on every level. Cinema has spent the last hundred years trying to give us brave new worlds; this makes it extraordinarily difficult to take us to a world that we haven’t ever visited. Remarkably, they did that with a film that imagined the mind of a little girl as controlled by her emotions. Technically the story was extraordinary as we witnessed the emotions of a little girl – all brilliantly rendered as characters – as they have a significant impact on the mood of an increasingly troubled sympathetic little character. Watching the emotions jostling for position, all impacting on the behaviour of the girl created the most involving and suitably emotionally moving story of the year. The script was brimming with wit, flair and creative genius. But what really made Inside Out marvelous was Pixar’s decision to visualize the invisible . We all have emotions, some more than others and children particularly so, so making a family film that visually conceptualized that which we can’t see and therefore can’t totally understand, was inspirational.

Pixar have often been credited for making truly universal films that work on multi-dimensional levels, which are equally as satisfying for the younger and older generations. With Inside Out, they opened the door to an entirely new stratosphere of possibility. Not only did the comedy work on two levels, but they made one of the most emotionally rich and textured family films of all time too. A family viewing of Inside Out could help children understand the maelstrom of emotions they feel and give parents a visual metaphor to help them understand the changeable, turbulent and volatile nature of their children. Watching a beautiful story unfold about how emotional misunderstanding can lead to a fraying relationship must have been extraordinarily resonate for anyone who is raising or has raised children, and children themselves would feel the impact too. This had the power to unite and connect generations of families – it could save families hours of time and confusion trying to decipher the enigma that is their own child. That right there translates into hours of therapy for young and old with just one viewing. In an age where diagnosing emotional difficulty in children with stigma-associated labels like ‘autism’ is the new norm, the relevance of Inside Out was profound. What’s more, the relationship within the film between the two polar extremes of Joy and Sadness played out beautifully. We are living through an age in which social media creates an impulse for us to project our happiest moments to all our friends and family – that has led to some distortion of reality and almost a shame factor to any emotion outside all out joy, so seeing a storyline that reflects on the significance of sadness was extraordinarily insightful and therefore profoundly moving.

When you really take an interest in cinema, you see that a huge aspect of what cinema is about is understanding the human condition in all its infinite complexity; Inside Out offered more insight into a side of the human condition than you could ever expect to get in one film. That was one of the many reasons why this was an absolute masterpiece and easily the best film of the year.

The top 26 films of 2015 (part 1: numbers 26-11)

The year in cinema kicked off with a film that kept a very different beat and was just about everyone’s tempo as blood splattered on sticks in Whiplash and ended with stick-wielding of a very different kind as the Star Wars crew dusted down their lightsabers to reawaken the force in easily the most eagerly anticipated film of the millennium – Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The Oscar race featured a plethora of compelling dramas; the ever expanding summer blockbuster season delivered more eye-popping visual spectacles as audiences welcomed the return of an even bigger team of Marvel superheroes with the Ant-man joining the party late in the season for quite an enjoyably off-beat romp. Before that of course, Mad Max: Fury Road kick-started the summer with one long high-octane chase sequence that for me sacrificed the post-oil world point of the originals, but left seemingly everyone else and all the critics astonished enough to have it top their end of year lists.

As the dust settled on another blockbusting summer, smaller, well crafted character-driven films started to arrive as studios started to prepare the release of their more prestigious, cultured and art-house pictures. 2015 was also notable for the rise of robots perhaps due to an evermore technology-obsessed present. Cold War tensions between America and Russia seemed to resurface in the news which was reflected in a cinematic year littered with espionage films – keen eyed audiences might have spied at least six films with a spy theme, The Imitation Game, The Kingsman, Spy, The Man From Uncle, Spectre and Bridge of Spies.

As always, it was an excellent year for cinema; 2015 delivered an eclectic bag of really enjoyable films. The subjective nature of film means that every end of year list will be different. And despite their continued popularity, lists ranking films are inherently flawed as they run contrary to a medium that is so widely varying. But hey, their purpose is to alert people to films that might not have received big publicity campaigns, to celebrate achievements in cinema and to flag up some surprises. Here are my choices for 2015…

Get Hard

 

26. Get Hard

One of the year’s genuinely laugh out loud comedies, Get Hard lampooned the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in modern capitalism. The over-the-top improvised wackiness of Will Ferrell’s schtick can often irk and amuse in equal measure, but his comedy shenanigans as an over-privileged white company boss who was reluctantly heading to prison for a list of corporate crime charges really was hilarious. Some people found the racial stereotyping that his character generalizes black people with as offensive; those people obviously missed the satire. This was comedy therapy in a modern America where a staggering number of black people are incarcerated for minor drug offences, while suited and booted white corporate criminals frequently evade prosecution. The script totally exposed the daftness of our system and was much more than the crass throwaway comedy it appeared to be. The film isn’t offensive due to the fact that Kevin Hart plays it straight as a hard-working family man, bemused by Ferrell’s character’s idiotic stereotyping of him. There wasn’t one moment where Hart’s skin color was the butt of a joke; the butt of the joke was consistently over-privileged bigoted white attitudes. Comedy sparks consistently flew between Hart and Ferrell, who had a dynamic that definitely recalled to mind the chalk and cheese setup between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in films like Stir Crazy. Even all the improvised verbal madness worked. I honestly could not understand why so many critics kicked it around. If you didn’t catch it – Get Hard.

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25. Leviathan

This grim, gritty and bleak Russian drama reached out to all the little people in the world fighting to keep their family homes as governments (compromised by the interests of business) crush the life out of them. The story involved one such man struggling to keep a house he’d built with his own hands, in a system manipulated to work against the interests of the working man. It was a scathing attack on the corruption inherent in the Russian political system, with a suggestion it has become so monstrously unethical that it is worthy of being likened to a biblical monster – the leviathan of the title. It was an astonishingly hard-hitting and deeply provocative neatly plotted drama, that captured in uncompromising detail, the ill-treatment of the poor. It was Oscar nominated, but it’s somewhat surprising that Russia ever let it slip out into the international world given the anti-Russian government stance the media has started to adopt. There is a strong suggestion that shows the little man has no tools to fight in a ruthless modern capitalism, in which lawyers and politicians predatorily feed on the poor like monsters. Eye-opening, powerful and moving, Leviathan was illustrative of the role cinema can play in the fight to expose the corruption that is now a huge part of our alleged democracies.

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24.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Disney ran, in every sense, a forceful marketing campaign for the new Star Wars film. They adhered to the business strategy: to speculate is to accumulate and boy did it work. Star Wars: the Force Awakens has already smashed box office records and is now well past making a billion dollars in ticket sales alone. Abrams learned from the mistakes of the prequels by sticking closely to both the old story formula and the DIY style George Lucas used to build the Star Wars universe. Aesthetically, it didn’t put a foot wrong; a visual style uncannily similar to the originals meant that audiences were taken on the nostalgia trip to their childhoods they hoped for. It was really exciting to be taken back into the Star Wars universe and when all the old characters were introduced you couldn’t help but give out a gasp of delight as if you were welcoming back long lost friends. The new characters freshened things up, with John Boyega having the best and most relevant story as a morally conflicted storm-trooper. On the whole though, most new ideas were purely cosmetic and some long term fans started to get the feeling that the new story was heavily recycling on old storyline. Narratively, the Force Awakens was one of the least ambitious blockbusters of the year. A better title would have been The Force Comes Full Circle. Still, the considerable visual spectacle it provided as well as Abrams decision to use old techniques to construct the movie makes it an extraordinary achievement in cinema, a possible game-changer in blockbuster filmmaking and thus it’s worth a place as one of the films of the year.

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23. Straight Outta Compton

Obligatory tirades of expletives aside, this was a version of late eighties/early nineties gangster rap that you could take your grandma to. In other words, it was rather sanitized and it’s clear that the members of NWA who went on to become gangster rap royalty, most notably Ice Cube and Dr Dre had complete creative control. The self-aggrandizing of their images mirrors the kind usually reserved for gangster rap records. Still, the story of the rise of NWA was absolutely captivating, possessing the power to please long time fans, silence detractors of the music and bring mainstream credibility to a much maligned form of lyrical expression. It was a solidly directed musical biopic, a brilliant nostalgia trip for the now thirty-somethings who grew up in the time period listening to the firebrand rap stylings of the NWA crew. Director F Gary Gray obviously set out to bring integrity to the medium, framing the NWA crew as reflectors of all the gun-totting gangster world rather than perpetrators. Ice Cube’s son, playing the man himself was a chip off the old, err, ice block, with an air of confrontation and attitude that was uncannily similar to the big man. The tone was so infectious that it was almost impossible not to dust down the old NWA CDs and remember the politically charged anarchy of rap rather than its materialism-worshiping present.

 

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22. It Follows

Due to the nineties ironic horror moves like Scream, we all now know that if you have sex in a horror movie, you are destined to snuff it. This clever and genuinely unsettling little horror film made that ironic slasher subtext the actual plot with a character who is literally doomed after a one night stand leaves her with a strange curse that will lead to her death. In an inventively subversive and cheekily ironic twist on the slasher genre, she has one way out of this fate: she has to have sex again to pass it on. It was kind of like an evil Pay it Forward. What constantly ratcheted up the tension was the rule that this phantom anti-sex curse could possess anyone with the intent to kill; this meant that anyone in the film could be a threat; extras just shuffling into shot were just as foreboding as those clearly going for the jugular. It did that Final Destination trick of totally capturing the audiences’ imagination to the point where audiences are looking around at everyone and everything, wondering if a threat could materialize from that object or that person. Therefore it was relentlessly unnerving. The climax, that found almost as inventive a use for a swimming pool as Let the Right one in did a few years ago, was a full-on finale to cap off brilliantly what was a perverse little pleasure of a horror film.

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21. Whiplash

Since it so often keeps the background beat, drumming seemed an unlikely topic to be moved to the foreground for an intense character -driven drama. But when unlikely topics are given new perspectives, excellent cinema is created – case in point: Whiplash. J.K Simmons totally subverted the kind of benevolent father figure role he has played in things like Juno, to play a ruthless, painfully direct, borderline psychologically abusive mentor and deservedly walked away with a Best Supporting Actor award for his efforts. His acerbic, angry manner was absolutely mesmerizing, as he fired out a tirade of uncomfortably direct, painfully honest feed-back to an aspiring jazz drummer. The film was a unique exploration into what it takes to get to the top in your chosen profession, with a suggestion that turning ambition into achievement is an utterly grueling process involving significant blood, sweat, tears, and determination. Its startlingly eye-opening portrayal of the sacrifice you need to make it to the top resonated deeply with all those who saw it. In more ways than one, Whiplash was one of the most hard-hitting films of the year.

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20. The Imitation Game

Alan Turing should be revered as one of the greatest Britons of all time, due to his instrumental role in engineering an instrument that cracked the German’s enigma code, which in turn prevented a complete Nazi takeover of the UK. Secrecy of course surrounded this project and eventually Turing paid a very heavy price for his unanimity. By contrast, on film, Turing’s story has been well-documented. There was an underwhelming film called Enigma back in 1997 and there have been countless tv movies of his remarkable story. Director Tyler Mortem had to find a new angle on the story and that he did, focusing on Turing’s alienating social difficulties which contrasted with his ingenuity. The result was a biopic that paid reverence to Turing’s brilliance whilst capturing perfectly why he had so much difficulty being understood in the conservative period he lived through. Turing is of course as enigmatic as the code he proved successful at cracking, so whether Benedict Cumberbatch’s characterization gets close to the truth about the man is open only to those who really knew him. But as a film, the decision to portray Turing on the autistic scale was inspiring, giving audiences a chance to understand what, to this day, is still a massively misunderstood condition. This was an even more insightful exploration of what it would be like to be autistic than Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar winning turn in Rain Man. As a result of such a nuanced turn from Cumberbatch, astute audiences got a real glimpse into the frustration of a man whose brilliance and social awkwardness alienate him. This was powerful, essential, thought-provoking cinema and proof that when the biopic doesn’t remain steadfastly sycophantic to its subject, fascinating cinema is made.

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19. The Kingsman: The Secret Service

A chaff class zero was refashioned into a working class hero, with the help of Colin Firth’s slick gentrified assassin in this thrillingly action-packed, inventive and colourful comedy spy drama.

There was more innovation on show in this than in Q’s workshop. Kick-ass, X-Men first class and Layer Cake director Mathew Vaughn continued his impressive trend of directing high-octane action scenes with verve, panache and considerable style. With such a commanding grasp of action direction, it is only a matter of time until a big studio franchise will be knocking on his door. Given the ever growing gap between the poor and the rich in Britain, it was great to see a film satirize the way opportunity is handed to the offspring of the elite but never to the poor. The snobbery and pomposity – that shows no sign of abating in the UK – was turned on its head with an action film with a nice, pro-democratic message to it. Samuel L. Jackson fashioned a memorably unique villain; a character whose scheme, involving population-curtailing technology, made a lot more sense than most Bond villains’, which made him a rather interesting and contentious figure.

Firth’s open-minded spy extraordinaire was a great character; a guy who believed in equal opportunity and saw potential, not class. The film was all about how strong mentorship can lead to great things: an inspiring message. The film had an almost Dickensian tone to it in its portrayal of an under-class deprived of opportunity. If Dickens had imagined Oliver Twist as as an underling who aspires to be a hero in the spying game, his story might have felt something like The Kingsman. Yes, it’s Bond meets Dickens and it was exciting, inventive and explosive cinema.

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18. Spy

Continuing the year’s trend of unorthodox spy heroes was Melissa McCarthy in Spy. A side-splittingly hilarious all out satire of the espionage genre. Jude Law and Jason Statham were very sporting in their decision to totally send up their on-screen slick personas, but it was McCarthy who was on top comedy form, with a character that morphed from a frumpy desk-bound operative to an all out totally convincing action megastar. The great thing about the spy genre is that it is so outlandish and borderline ridiculous that it begs comedians to lampoon it. This year, the soon to be Ghostbusters 3 director Paul Weig delivered a film with a rapid comedy fire trigger finger. This was not the dumb, throwaway comedy that it appeared to be, we weren’t laughing at the idea of Melissa McCarthy being a spy as appearances suggested, but absolutely laughing out loud with her as her smart, sassy dialogue delivery cut down her adversaries. I was unconvinced about the comedy of Melissa McCarthy in films like Bridesmaids, but this changed my mind about her as she gave the standout female comedy performance of the year in Spy.

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17.  99 Homes

If Oliver Stone decided to do a drama based around the sub-prime mortgage collapse in 2008, his film may have looked something like 99 Homes. This unsettling, upsetting but perceptive economic thriller shone a light on the dark side of capitalism; a dark side that saw working and middle class homeowners forced out of their residences while the banking establishment ruthlessly repossessed their homes, gorging themselves on cheap money like a vulture picking at the bones of a discarded lion kill. In 99 Homes, that vulture was a ruthless but enterprising estate agent played by Michael Shannon, a cold-hearted businessman who was out to maximize his profits regardless of whose lives he destroyed. Watching him become a Gordon Gecko-like mentor to Andrew Garfield’s character, a hard working family man desperately trying to scratch a living in a dying economy, was one of the most maddening, provocative but insightful relationships of the year. ‘The system bails out the winners and discards the losers’, stated Shannon to Garfield in a speech that echoes the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Wall Street’s Gecko. What follows is a scathing expose on just how ruthlessly inhumane capitalism has become. An intriguing and hard-hitting narrative unfolded as Garfield’s character had his head turned by the life line big bucks can offer, as a gripping morality tale played out. The whole film was a rightfully scathing attack on just how ruthless this advanced stage of capitalism has become. Thomas Jefferson once said, “If the American people ever let private banks control the issue of their money, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of their property until their children wake up homeless and the continent their fathers conquered.” 99 homes is a disturbing and important Wall Street type thriller that proves Jefferson’s  statement entirely accurate.

 

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16. Slow West

The modern re-visitation of the old Western format has been a welcomed modern trend, since this was a genre much used for propaganda in the past that is now being used for heart-stirring character driven films. Slow West was a beautifully told story that managed to hit home hard with its central point of just how trigger happy the old west was, but still, as the title suggested, let the drama unfold in a steady and patient fashion to allow audiences to get a feel for the characters, deliberate on each of their motivations and to wonder if there was more to the paternal dramas unfolding than meets the eye. Beautifully and poetically written, this art-house Western got to the heart of the old West and gave audiences a chance to get a feel for how volatile survival in the open plains would have been. The central story played out against a backdrop that mournfully nodded to the terrible fate of the Native Americans.

Cinema’s hardest working and most variable actor Michael Fassbender was perfectly suited to the role of hard-nosed gunslinger. His character forged an interesting paternal relationship with Ben Mendelshon’s doe-eyed hopelessly naive Scottish character who was ominously out of his depth in cutthroat outlaw territory. What really made the film engaging was its refreshing take on a love story – love here was portrayed as a force that could make one blinded to reality. Slow West unfolded with a mood and reflection on the West that recalled to mind Jim Jaramusch’s excellent Dead Man.

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15. Carol

Cinema has always held a unique power to allow us to understand and relate to all the nuances of an emotional mindset entirely removed from our own experiences of the world. Director Todd Haynes has always been uniquely gifted at that; with Carol, he outdid himself in terms of conveying emotional complexity with his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, a character study of two women which was both written and set in the fifties. A tale of sexual and emotional awakening played out against a background of stilted fifties suburban life. Recreation of time and place was rendered meticulously by Haynes, but it was the central relationship that really bewitched.

Haynes’ direction captured the sense of longing experienced by two women coming to terms with the physical and emotional feelings that they begin to awaken in each other. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara had a connection and chemistry that quietly transfixed all lucky enough to have watched it blossom. A beautifully layered and textured love story played out which captured all the complexity of the characters’ varying mindsets. The whole film was a beautifully rendered study of the transformative experience of genuine human connection. There are often rightful complaints that cinema doesn’t write deep enough roles for female characters, so this highlights just what a great and unique film this is. Carol continued a much welcomed progressive attitude to homosexuality in cinema previously reflected in recent classics like Love is Strange and Pride. That one of the year’s most richly satisfying love stories between two same sex characters came out in the year gay marriage was legalized in America, was wonderfully fitting. Anyone who still opposes this change should watch a film that really captures why this progression should have happened decades ago.

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14. What we do in the Shadows

What do you get when you put a variety of vampires in a house for a faux documentary? The answer: one of the most inventive and consistently funny comedies of the year. Flight of the Concords fans were well aware of the comedic talents of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi from the New Zealand-based tv show.  The pair wrote, directed and starred in What We Do In The Shadows. They delivered a cracking naturalistic, dry-witted horror comedy, which pierced the vampire film genre with impressively sharp comedic teeth. The film opened so many keenly observed strands of satire in regard to vampire and werewolf mythology. It was all out hilarious from start to finish. Putting vampires in a student-like domestic setting provided gag after gag, from vampires squabbling over who will do the blood-splattered dishes to a vampire in a relationship with a now elderly former beau – an hilarious dig at that well-known teen vampire romantic saga. Easily one of the funniest horror comedies ever made.

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13.  Wild Tales

Hell hath no fury like an Argentinian scorned. This insanely unorthodox revenge theme film had a unique structure. In a sense, the structure was a series of short films that seamlessly overlapped thematically. The film had a black comic edge and a deep vein of anarchy that would make Tyler Durden slow clap with approval. Judging by the series of excellently written stories on show in Wild Tales, Argentinian society is suffering from the same simmering tensions as the rest of the capitalist world. The entirely captivating stories in Wild Tales played on themes affecting many societies such as money corrupting the course of justice, road rage, using people, cheating spouses and stifling bureaucracy. Inventive, punishing, darkly satirical, Wild Tales was a blast. Catch it now, before Hollywood cottons on to its potential and remakes it.

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12.  Spring

In a nice stroke of irony, one of the most believably naturalistic romances of the year was in a film that rests firmly in the horror genre. Although romance and horror have always been two seemingly diametrically opposing genres, when they are blended convincingly, something quite wonderful happens. This understated art-house horror romance did just that, with two leads whose chemistry was hypnotic and palpable.

Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead evoked memories of Richard Linklater’s Sunset series, with a story about a soul-searching American adrift in a decadent Tuscan town, who begins to fall for a seductive and enigmatic Italian. It was exactly like the Sunset series then, but to the director’s and cast’s credit, the vibe between the couple was as memorably strong as the Sunset pair. So absorbing and beautiful was the romance, that it made you forget that it was a horror film. This achieved the greatest trick the film pulled, as when the horror was subtly laced in, it was genuinely shocking and unnerving. The film had such credible characters that it earned the right to go full-on with the creature feature for the last act. The directors made great use of the location to create atmosphere, in a film that was beautiful, soulful, yet really creepy. In a soundbite, it was Before Sunset meets Don’t Look Now.

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11. Song of the Sea

Irish studio Cartoon Saloon took the same approach to their own Celtic mythology as studio Ghibli did with Japanese folklore with this beautifully rendered animated feature. The very first frame set up a dreamily spiritual tone; the film floated onto the screen casting a hypnotic spell which slowly pulled audiences into a melancholy yet uplifting fable. Few people outside of Ireland will know much about the Selkies, a race of angelic figures with an unusual connection to seals. The story involved one such Selkie and her spiritually in-tune yet mute daughter, their connection with a mystical race of kooky faeries and a misguided owl-adoring witch. It was a tale fizzing with mystery and intrigue, and the film moved along with an inviting mixture of innocence and fairy tale magic that recalled to mind the delightful charms of My Neighbour Totoro. The visual artistry and attention to detail in every frame was awe-inspiring. It’s hard to remember a 2D Western animation that created such a beguiling atmosphere and convincing aura of spirituality.

Japanese Studio Ghibli has proven again and again that ancient folklore becomes so vivid and enchantingly surreal when rendered lovingly with hand-drawn animation. Tom Moore clearly takes inspiration from the works of Hayao Miyazkai – there are visual references to his films and other Studio Gihbli classics in every frame – proving that Irish folklore could potentially be the same goldmine of ideas for animation as weird old Japanese legends have been for Ghiibli. Given the standard of animation, the warmth of the characters, the imaginative stylistics and the spine-tingling, palpable sense of spirituality on display in Song of the Sea, that’s an inviting prospect. Hopefully Ireland could be in for a new wave of animation re-imaginings of their folklore, and with a couple of features under his belt, Tom Moore is starting to become to Irish animation what Miyakzai is to anime.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Why has the unrivaled popularity of Stars Wars endured for over thirty years? Well, perhaps it’s because Star Wars was the first franchise to strive to give us a world to explore, but it didn’t just give us a world, it gave us a galaxy and one far, far away at that. It was one of the first films to give us a vision of what lies beyond the edge of our galaxy, and that was enthralling. With that comes a new Universe of possibility: new worlds to explore, new beings to behold and new adventures to enjoy.

Star Wars showed us interplanetary exploration – with that comes infinite narrative possibility. Nowadays, franchises, giving us ever-expanding worlds are the new cinematic norm, but Star Wars has heightened appeal, that little bit of extra cinematic cosmic dust because it is a pop culture phenomenon that has aged well. It has a mythology that has allegedly un-sprawled over a huge passage of time and now that decades have passed, the franchise itself has that history. The people who loved it when they were young, are now fully grown and some have children of their own who also feel a love for the franchise with considerable force. That creates a unique cinematic opportunity to engage fans. Although that is potentially more people to disappoint given the reaction to the last films arriving under the Star Wars banner.

 

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Over a thirty year wait combined with an aggressive marketing campaign from Disney – they didn’t pay over 4 billion dollars for the franchise rights for nothing – has made Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most anticipated movie in cinema history. With J.J Abrams at the helm – a director who reached for the stars before and had nothing but success re-imagining Star Trek – the right filmmaker appeared to be secured. So with this new story, does he boldly go where no Star Wars film has gone before, or is this only a case of another Phantom Menace style farce awakening?

Thirty years on, rising from the ashes of the dismantled Empire, a new dark force has arisen intent on spreading Empire-esque totalitarianism to the Star Wars Galaxy:

The First Order. Resistance against the First Order’s formidable power, seems futile. But there is a new hope of a rebellion movement, in the form of a daring fighter pilot and a new droid, who holds a very important map which may give telling details to the mysterious disappearance of the last Jedi knight. A morally conflicted storm-trooper (Finn) and a trash metal collecting minion (Rey) may also have a part to play in the ever-growing resistance movement. The First Order’s Vader-esque masked commander Kylo Ren, intends to succeed where his predecessor failed: by permanently destroying all remaining trace of any dissent. However, underestimating the threat of a Jedi-led rebellion cost the Empire dearly. Have Ren and his officials in chief amassed a big enough storm-trooper army to swiftly extinguish any trace of that much needed new hope?

The dark-side of great anticipation is great disappointment. So it’s worth saying that the astute J.J Abrams, on the whole, avoids this dark-side. He has learned from the mistakes of the prequels and made a key decision to move production away from the CGI heavy style which undermined the last trilogy and rebuild the Star Wars Universe from scratch. That is a commendable decision which makes the Force Awakens a sensational cinematic event. It’s a joyously entertaining crowd-pleaser of a film. But mirroring the duality of the story… there is good and bad with this Star Wars film….

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But first, the good points. In a move that foreshadows the story, the new droid holds the key. He holds the key because, like in the originals, he was built from scratch, so the actors actually authentically interacted with him. Abrams has taken the tough route, building production sets, using the same puppetry style and models that George Lucas originally employed. It’s Lucas’ nuts and bolts filmmaking approach – computer effects are only used when absolutely necessary. The film has an authenticity that makes it seem absolutely in the Star Wars Universe. It’s like a lost seventies film that has been locked in a vault for nearly four decades.

Abrams is proving that it doesn’t matter how advanced CGI becomes, it cannot rival the soul created from making something in the real world. The reaction the film is getting comes from this, which suggests, the droid and everything else in this Star Wars film may be the key to a change in attitude to blockbuster film-making. Either way, the DIY style makes the film feel lived in and makes the set-pieces sensationally immersive, thus thrilling to experience.

However, in terms of narrative ambition the film really is bereft of imagination, which does detract away from the experience. Considering there has been a thirty year wait to discover what happens next, finding out that what follows is the same cycle of familiar events, is unforgivable.

Spolier alert zone:

Yes, Abrams had to pull the narrative back in line with A New Hope to get the fans back on board and also keep the continuation logical, but the amount of repetition is unbelievable. It almost feels like they didn’t go in with a plot but instead a checklist of everything that worked in the first film: attack on desert planet – check. A droid holding an important message– check. A masked deep voiced villain – check. An identical evil plan – check. An unbeatable planet-sized weapon – check.

The list of crossovers goes on to the point where you would be forgiven for thinking this is a remake rather than a stand-alone sequel. There is even a green wizened old (this time female) alien, who might have been used in a romantic love at first sight plot-line with a certain other old wizened green alien.

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End of spoiler alert zone.

The Empire Strikes Back director Lawrence Kasden wrote the screenplay. This almost feels like he is saying to the long term fans, ‘look at what I would have done if i’d directed the first one’. The story is telling of the inherent problem of hiring a fan-boy to helm the new film. While Abrams’ enthusiasm for the Star Wars Universe emanates from every frame of this, he clearly wants to do his own version of something he saw when he was ten years old. He is incredibly referential to the original, so the film lacks the much needed story invention that could have made this an all-round masterful film. Abrams directs Star Wars like a child delicately playing with his father’s vintage toys; he’s clearly enthusiastic, wanting to touch and play but he’s terrified of breaking them, just like that child would be. When the First Order’s unambitious master plan is revealed, you half expect the old familiar characters to wander around with confused expressions suggesting De Ja Vu.

Whilst Abrams’ desire to be as loyal as possible to the originals is understandable, Disney’s intention to keep as close to the first trilogy exemplifies the company’s cynical approach to filmmaking. You can almost feel Disney’s business remit coming through the film: don’t screw it up Abrams – stick to the original blueprint. Disney may continue to amass obscene levels of wealth, but they are creatively bankrupt and if Walt was still around, he would have left the Empire-like behemoth that keeps his name and started his own production company.

The story may be ridiculously repetitive, but the approach to the tone and character interaction does freshen up the style tremendously. The film manages to have a lot of off-beat humour that doesn’t upset the gravitas of the struggle. It’s a pleasure to watch in that sense. Plus the film has so many cards to play in the form of so many characters that have become pop culture icons in the thirty plus years since the last film. We are just desperate to see those characters again and you can’t help but give out a whoop of delight when you see just how well Abrams reintroduces those familiar faces, the highlight his joyous reintroduction of the Millennium Falcon. The palpable reaction of excitement that arises from their entrance is down to how long it has been since you have last seen them on screen. At times you get the sense that the passing of time is as much responsible for the direction of The Force Awakens as Abrams is.

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Star Wars was about Imperialism and therefore it parallels events that have happened in the last hundred years and continually threatens to happen again. With that in mind, the character Finn, a dissenting storm-trooper, dismayed that he is fighting on the wrong side, has a story that foreshadows a returning vet from the Middle Eastern combat zone. It’s the film’s one plotline that does feel fresh and thematically relevant.

Pacing wise, it’s nice to see a film find the right balance between character-interplay and set-pieces, the story may be well-worn but the action direction certainly isn’t. There’s a refreshing lack of Zack Snyder/Michael Bay style unremitting action; instead the action direction serves rather than overpowers the story, a style that delightfully evokes memories of the original as intended.

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In regards to the depiction of the dark-side, The First Order may be depicted on a larger scale, but there is a lack of character depth to Kylo Ren that leaves you actually ruing the demise of Vader. For one, he doesn’t have the same valuable reasons for pulling on a Darth style mask as Vader did. He seems to have done it to give himself a sense of menace he otherwise lacks, which sums up his superficiality and lack of depth as a character, perhaps the point is that he is a poor imitation, but the narrative isn’t very satisfying.

One last spoiler alert:

Although Kylo’s Ren’s character does have the one moment in which the film makes a bold, George R.R Martin style move. It is somewhat emotionally manipulative though as audiences aren’t nearly as invested in Ren’s backstory to justify the move. However, it does setup a potentially even more dark sequel than The Empire Strike’s back was.

End of spoiler alert.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to prove to be a great cinematic conjuring trick, as it is going to deeply satisfy most long term fans with a tactile physicality that is entirely immersive. However, break out of Abrams’ mesmerizing spell and the film suddenly isn’t as satisfying. When the spell is broken, the mechanics of the film are revealed and the lack of a new story is exposed. Ultimately, the film is like one of the scenes within: devised of parts that have come from something that went before. Perhaps Abrams even nods to this with a central character who starts out working as a person collecting old mechanical parts to be reassembled which a collected with the intention of making something new. Fitting that really. Now that the hype has run it’s course and the hyperbole has died down…perhaps it’s time that the Backlash strikes back… 7.6/10