Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2015

And what a subpar year for genre filmmaking it looked set to be only a couple of months ago!  Until November, I wasn't convinced that I'd be able to dredge up enough really good films to make this article worthwhile, so many disappointments had the previous ten months offered up.

For a start, we'd had not a single really great superhero movie.  Big Hero 6 was an achingly minor bit of work and the weakest Disney animated movie in years.  Avengers: Age of Ultron flipflopped between excellence and mediocrity often within scenes and generally felt more like an exercise in brand-building than anything that could objectively be called a story.  Ant Man was marred by modest ambitions and even more modest direction.  Fantastic Four was ... well, I was one of the few people who somewhat liked it, but no amount of blind eye-turning could ignore how all that production turmoil had left it short of a functional third act.

Elsewhere, things weren't a great deal better.  The third Hobbit movie learned not a thing from the mistakes of the first two Hobbit movies.  Crimson Peak was further evidence - often stunningly pretty evidence, in fairness - that Guillermo del Toro has abandoned all interest in the telling of coherent or genuinely imaginative stories.  Tommorowland was a crushing disappointment coming from the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and a flat-out bad movie in its own right.  And Terminator: Genisys turned out to be exactly the film that its stupid subtitle implied.

Still, let's not despair.  Now that I've scraped my top ten together, it's not such a bad list, all told, and 2015 looks a lot better in retrospect than it did at the time.  One cheering fact is the relative lack of sequels and franchise movies; another is the presence of writers and directors who are anything but surefire certainties.  I mean, how precisely did Colin Trevorrow end up helming one of the year's biggest movies?  Strange times indeed...

10) Mr Holmes

One of those movies that seems to have been largely forgotten almost immediately after coming out, Mr Holmes was an intriguing mix of genre and prestige picture grounded in a typically marvelous Ian McKellen performance, but marred by an agonisingly sedate pace and director Bill Condon's determination to suck the life out of his film at every turn.  It's easy to imagine a more satisfying take on the same concept, or even the same material, but that's not to say that the one we got isn't worth a look.

9) Jupiter Ascending

I wish I could defend Jupiter Ascending more, because it annoyed me to no end that people were so quick to jump all over it for daring to be quirky, imaginative, occasionally silly and often flat out weird; apparently in the age of the remake, rehash and reimagining, those are transgressive sins in the eyes of the average genre fan.  Sadly, while often fun and occasionally brilliant - I don't know what the hell that Eddie Redmayne performance was supposed to be, but I want more of it! - Jupiter Ascending never quite managed to find its groove.  Still, in terms of inventiveness alone, it was ten times the movie that a certain other space opera appearing lower down this list was...

8) Jurassic World

In a better year, this wouldn't have scratched the top ten, and given that I don't have a lot of love for the franchise I went in without much enthusiasm, but you know what?  It was dumb fun, and sometimes dumb fun counts for a lot - especially when it's only quite dumb and not, say, Terminator: Genisys dumb.  With a little more of the quirky energy that director Trevorrow brought to his debut Safety Not Guaranteed, I might even have loved it a little.  As it was, it did about what a blockbuster of low ambition should do: it entertained through its running time and didn't hang around afterwards to clog up the memory.

Very nearly great and without doubt fun, The Martian might have done better to not make such a pretense of scientific rigor when under the surface it was only a little bit smarter than the average Transformers movie.  Still, it came a lot closer to proper science fiction than we're generally allowed these days, and did so with a steady supply of wit and thrills, not to mention an impossible-to-dislike performance from Matt Damon, a man who can apparently make potato-growing cool and exciting.  If only it had found more uses for its extraordinary cast, if only there'd been a little more plausibility in there, it might have been brilliant; but in a year like this one, it's hard to moan too much about a good science fiction film that at least pretended to be interested in real, actual science stuff.

6) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My first thought coming out of Star Wars: TFA, and a thought that's remained largely unchanged by the gushing adoration of just about everyone, was, "that was some technically outstanding film-making in service of a story that had no need to be told."  So however-many years after A New Hope, everything's basically exactly the same but with different names?  And more plot holes?  Well, that's disappointing, to say the least.  But if you can ignore the non-story and a couple of subpar performances - as it seems people are not only willing but eager to do - then, yes, it was pretty great.  Abrams finally got his directing act together, the new characters were a likable bunch, the whole thing looked stunning (not only in terms of Star Wars-ness but on every technical level) and, perhaps most importantly, it was good enough to bode well for the franchise going forward.

5) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

I'm going to miss this series, and I never thought for an instant I'd ever be typing that when I first sat down to watch The Hunger Games.  I'll miss its horrifying bleakness, I'll miss Jennifer Lawrence showing how you can be the star of a major tentpole and still sneak in some of that acting stuff, and I'll miss the fact that a series aimed squarely at teenagers nevertheless managed to tackle real world and very adult issues with more bite and anger than almost any Hollywood movie of the last decade.  There's no getting around the fact that the decision to split the final book in two was a stupid one made for all the wrong reasons, but part 2 suffers less for it than part 1 did; where that was a movie consisting entirely of setup, this one is basically all third act, which turns out to be not such a bad thing at all.

Why aren't more people talking about Predestination?  Well maybe because it technically came out last year and I'm cheating a little, but it was released in the UK in 2015 and anyway, I don't remember it getting much buzz in 2014 either.  Adapting Robert Heinlein's short story All You Zombies, Predestination is basically one of those puzzle movies where your role as viewer is to unravel the knot the filmmakers drop in your lap, except that rather than being a fruitless exercise in self-congratulating cleverness like Primer (there, I said it) it's a rich, rewarding dissection of human nature and gender politics that delights in taking your assumptions, chewing them up and spitting them back in your face.  Take my word ... find a copy, go in with no foreknowledge, let Predestination take you on its weird ride and you won't regret it.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road

What's to say, at this stage?  It was great.  It actually lived up to expectations, even when the expectations were absurd.  It threw traditions of structure and narrative out of every available window and yet somehow managed to tell a compelling story with three dimensional characters.  It angered boy nerds by daring to suggest that a woman could kick more ass than our dear old Max.  It had some of the most extraordinary action sequences ever committed to film.  It looked astonishing.  And ... I found it just a little bit hollow.  Which is not a remotely useful criticism, but there we go.  I loved it, but I didn't love it, and so here it sits at number 3.

2) Inside Out

Just when I'd given up on there ever being another great Pixar film, along came another great Pixar film ... for my money, possibly the greatest, though perhaps it's too early to say that.  At once overloaded with ideas and puritanical in its simplicity - if you think about it, it's never for a moment about anything other than its main character - Inside Out is a masterpiece of making immensely complex themes accessible without dumbing them down, and in particular manages to talk about grief with an honesty and insight that would shame many a miserabilist art house director.

Given Pixar's slate going forward, it's heartbreaking to realise that this might be the last great work of what has unquestionably been the defining voice of western animation in the twenty first century.  But at the same time, Inside Out is good enough that I almost feel okay about all those damn sequels.

1) Ex Machina 

I've seen this amidst a few end of year lists, which is heartening because for a while it seemed like it might go the way of Predestination and so many other great movies that didn't have the marketing budgets of those mega-franchises up there.  My expectations were muted by the fact that I've never much liked - and occasionally hated - director Garland's work in the past, so it came as all the more surprise when it turned out that he'd made ... oh hell, let's just go there, the best science fiction film of the decade so far.  Smart, intricate, challenging, unexpected and subversive, buoyed by tremendous acting from all four leads and some of the finest and most well-used digital effects work I've ever seen, Ex Machina is still fresh in my mind months after I saw it, and a few of its more potent images are probably seared there forever.  

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