Directed by J.J. Abrams
Star Wars, the cinematic behemoth. The meaning of pop culture. The religion of the new age. I decided to base my judgement of The Force Awakens on whether or not it was better than the prequel trilogy that preceded it. Thank my lucky Millennium Falcon, it was. When you have the childhoods of millions of people in the palm of your hand, it’s in your best interest not to Jar-Jar Binks it, and J.J. Abrams would’ve known that from the beginning. A sort of New Hope for millennials, Episode VII has the winning formula in spades, with solid action sequences and a surprising amount of humour that felt both traditional and fresh at the same time. Whilst I thought the dialogue was at times a bit hammy and clunky, I instantly thought of the five year olds who would be running around, reenacting these scenes – brought back down to Earth, I remembered that these films are meant to be for everybody, and for everybody they are.
It doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, instead feeling more like an homage to the past and a set-up for the future, Episode VII does do precisely what it probably wanted to do in the first place: make every single person in the audience feel like a kid again, watching Star Wars for the first time. Oh, and make over $1.5 billion in the box office.
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Mississippi Grind is like drinking a bottle of bourbon: it’s warm, familiar, and you know you’re gonna have a pretty good time until you’re about two-thirds of the way through. But you’re gonna still drink it all the way, aren’t you? Because hey, life’s short, and by the end of it, you’ll most likely know more about yourself, and what you’re capable of. You’ll face your demons, and maybe you’ll call an ex-girlfriend. Maybe your parents. Reality can hard to face, but maybe it’s for the best if you’re happy to just sit there and drink a bottle of bourbon, right? But maybe you don’t need to change, or even want to. Maybe you are the bottle of bourbon. Drink up.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
The much-loved Sundance smash of the year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is the bittersweet coming-of-age film full of pop-culture references and witty, insecure teenagers that everybody’s talking about. Adapted from the novel of the same name, Earl features a few minor differences in narrative from it’s written counterpart, that might – depending on who you are – alter your perspective about the lead character, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). The film version is perhaps more emotionally solipsistic than the book, as we dive into the subjective imagination of “Greg-the-filmmaker”, replacing verbal and internal reflection with pastiche-heavy scenes, Sergio Leone soundtracks and Wes Anderson camera movements aplomb. I encountered moments in the film where I would find myself both enjoying and disliking it at equal measures – part of me enjoyed the playfulness of it’s style, but other times I found it on the level of “irritatingly quirky”. Part of me was hugely turned off by how narcissistic and lazy the protagonist character was, but the other part of me saw a validated truth in the character: people like Greg Gaines really do exist, and to my very real frustration, they might never have their third-act change-of-heart, like we hope Greg has by the film’s conclusion. I’m probably getting off-track here – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is still an intriguing, melancholy experience, which is still grounded in real emotions, by a great cast and a beautiful soundtrack by Brian Eno. Who knows, it’s the kind of film that could help people.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
I saw The Assassin at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), and it was a strange experience on a few levels. Prior to this, The Assassin won Hou Hsiao-Hsien the Best Director prize at Cannes, so naturally the session I went to was packed out to the brim. Interestingly however, no other session I went to at MIFF had as many walkouts as this one. People were constantly trickling out of the door for the first half of the film. The projector in the cinema was certainly out of focus, but still – who’s to blame for the disparity? The film or the audience? The film plays out in 4:3 aspect ratio, and contains a certain stillness that one would assume Western audiences maintain an aversion towards to this very day. What do most audiences want when they pay their money to see a film? Do they want to be challenged, to be opened up to different cultures, or simply distracted from their own lives for two hours? Who knows. Regardless, The Assassin is by all means a different experience: one that pays tribute to an ancient history and tradition, with a stoic style and form that is as uncommon as you’ll find in today’s contemporary cinema. It may not deliver at an electrifying pace, but it’ll become a film that lingers inside the soul, with every frame filled to the brim with beauty.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Phoenix is a testament to small-scale filmmaking with big ambitions. The ability to make a post-WWII period-piece on a budget of $4 million is borderline phenomenal, and Phoenix uses every last dollar to impressive effect in it’s production design and lighting. Phoenix plays out like an inverted Vertigo, with themes of identity, deception and manipulation at the forefront. Strong performances and a controlled sense of time and space grounds the film, as we feel our way through the haze with our characters, struggling to reconnect with what was lost in post-WWII Berlin.
Directed by George Miller
People are going crazy over this film and it’s not hard to see why: in a blockbuster-filled climate, over-saturated with CGI and family-friendly values, Fury Road is unabashedly unapologetic with what it wants to be. Loud, brash and bordering on insane, Fury Road is the popcorn-munching movie equivalent of presidential candidate Donald Trump (perhaps that’s quite a leap). Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron work their acting chops to bring some level of pathos to the screen, but some other casting choices ended up as severely distracting, and actually quite grating to hear at times. Is the film attempting to criticise misogyny, or misogynist itself? It’s debatable, but casting Rosie Huntington-Whitely as a mute damsel-in-distress personally brought back some harrowing Michael Bay flashbacks. At the end of the day however, Fury Road is still a non-stop adrenaline rush that is honestly quite rare these days, so maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, some people love Donald Trump.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson brings us into the paranoia-filled, drug-fuelled world of Thomas Pynchon’s 1970-something LA. Staying loyal to the novel, the film grooves left and right alongside Joaquin Phoenix, as he tries to navigate his way around the absurd and surreal to solve a mysterious disappearance. Audiences have come out of the film citing it to be slow, incomprehensible and confusing. It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around it myself, but I must say that I neither agree nor disagree. Inherent Vice is ultimately a different experience, one that acknowledges cinema and genre tropes of the past, that at the end of the day, encapsulates the bewildering disorientation of the times and it’s citizens, through it’s dialogue, cinematography and plot. Inherent Vice is hard to understand – but so is so much of the world we live in. While maybe not the most ideal way to blow off some steam, maybe all we can do is sit back, light a joint and allow ourselves to embrace what we cannot, and will never, fully understand.
Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Portraying mental illness in cinema is always a difficult challenge for filmmakers, as you always run the risk of showing the character as unnecessarily disadvantaged, or defining the character entirely based on their disability. Still Alice had a great chance of falling into overly-sentimental territory, but Julianne Moore’s mesmerising performance keeps the film afloat. We stay with her for essentially the entire duration of the film, and watch as she tries endlessly to maintain her identity for as long as she can. The film doesn’t approach the narrative from a particularly subjective point of view: as an audience we feel more like a family member, watching someone familiar to us slowly disappear. If Julianne Moore should ever disappear in real life, the world would surely become a much darker place.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Bennett Miller proves yet again that he’s one of the greatest working directors that has always remained under the radar (by choice). His patience as a filmmaker shines to the point of being fiercely aggressive as Foxcatcher highlights in its balance of restraint and tension. At it’s core, Foxcatcher is about the demons inside us, fuelled by the expectations we have of ourselves and the need for acceptance from the people we want it from the most. The incredibly physical performances from the lead actors and the control of the director bleeds into this hyperreal world where tragedy is set in stone from the opening frame. All you can do is witness the world slowly burn before your eyes.
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Benedict Cumberbatch leads the frontier of 2015 cinema as mathematician and granddaddy of computers, Alan Turing. The film ticks all the boxes in translating Turing’s story to the big screen, but in the process, never really takes any risks and feels weighted down in trying to make us empathise with Turing’s position through overdramatised sequences that feel far too familiar and frankly, out of place in an adaptation of a true story. The film feeds information to the audience in a far too convenient and manipulative manner, and I just feel as though we never really get to see into the mind of Turing, instead always being kept at a distance, which is why the effort to empathise ultimately fails. What results is brief history lesson and a saccharine taste left in the mouth.