Sunday, July 05, 2015

Half-Time Top Ten

I promise that this is the last picture of Inside Out I'll use for a while. Probably.
2015 is halfway done, so what better time to look back on the year so far and ponder how things are going, cinematically. Blockbuster season is throwing up its usual grab bag of interesting and terrible movies, with a handful of brilliant films in there for good measure, while even the early spring dumping ground had something to offer. It doesn't feel as strong as last year did through the same point - I have to admit that I'd be pretty disappointed if this ended up being my Top Ten for the year - but it's a solid start.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon)

This is the one film whose inclusion makes me trepidatious about saying this has been a good year so far. It's not a bad film, but it's messy and struggles under its obligations to Marvel's bigger picture. I enjoyed it a lot, but if Age of Ultron is still in my Top 10 at the end of the year - or even in the Top 20 - then we'll have had a pretty poor year.

9. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)

It's hard to separate Citizenfour from the story it documents since Poitras not only chronicles Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of the NSA's surveillance program, but played an integral part in it. That lends it the feel of a paranoid thriller, complete with shadowy forces trailing Poitras, but also makes it feel as much like an historical moment as a work of cinema. Despite the weight surrounding the film, Poitras captures the moment with clarity and humanity, bringing attention to Snowden's actions while also doing a huge amount to humanise him.

8. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Garland's debut plays like an adaptation of a really cool short story that no one actually bothered to write. With its limited focus on a handful of characters, it manages to dig deep into the concept of artificial intelligence, the point at which machines might equal or surpass humanity, and questions of sexuality and identity. It's also really fun, particularly whenever Oscar Isaac gets to play an über-dickhead, and features one of the most delightfully left field dance scenes of the year.

7. What We Do in the Shadows (dirs. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement)

While it doesn't bring much new to the mockumentary form, What We Do in the Shadows does the old tricks so very well that it barely matters. The script shows a keen awareness of the tropes of the vampire genre, as well as its cinematic heritage, and Waititi and Clement find plenty of ways to play with their inspirations while grounding the comedy in the petty disagreements of housemates who happen to be hundreds of years old.

6. Paddington (dir. Paul King)

After its meme-ready poster gave rise to #creepypaddington and the underwhelming trailer made it look like the film was going to be nothing but gross-out gags, I was skeptical of Paddington. Yet in the most stark example of how you should never judge a film by its ads, Paddington turned out to be completely wonderful. It's warm, funny, perfectly acted by a great cast (with Ben Whishaw being an inspired last-minute choice to voice the bear after Colin Firth dropped out) and a message of inclusiveness and acceptance that made me legitimately proud to be British. It has a fine line in bear puns and cross-dressing as well, which further shores up its credentials.

5. Cinderella (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Kenneth Branagh might have seemed like an odd fit to direct a live-action Cinderella (though no more of an odd fit than he was for Thor or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) but its mix of lavish production design and off-kilter humour really played to his strengths. It's an immensely enjoyable film with a sweetness that feels completely unforced, and which very rarely veers into outright schmaltz. It also makes just enough tweaks to the familiar story - such as giving the stepmother, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett, a more developed and sad backstory - to feel fresh.

4. Bitter Lake (dir. Adam Curtis)

Curtis has pretty much perfected his particular brand of agit-prop filmmaking at this point and it's on full display in one of his most complex and hypnotic works. In detailing the ways in which Afghanistan has appeared at the nexus of much of post-WWII politics, and its reputation as the place where Empires go to die, he creates a film rife with meaning and portent, but which also finds moments of humour and humanity in its many juxtapositions.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

Considering how long Miller spent trying to make a fourth Mad Max movie, a process which saw it being briefly developed as an animated movie at one point, there was little reason to expect that the final product would be particularly good. It was heartening to discover that it was not only good, but legitimately great. A thrilling action movie with a lean, propulsive plot, astonishing chase sequences that seamlessly meld physical and digital effects, and a feminist streak that sets it apart from just about every other blockbuster out there. It also has, in Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), an action heroine every bit as compelling and inspiring as Ellen Ripley.

2. World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)

One of the best short films I've ever seen, one which packs more jokes, invention and emotion into 17 minutes than most directors manage to fit into entire careers. Hertzfeldt is a unique and brilliant talent, and any year graced by World of Tomorrow is an incredibly fortunate one.

1. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen)

I've written enough about this over the last few days, so suffice it to say that it's one of Pixar's very best films, and the simplicity of its message and the complexity of its presentation moved me deeply.