Well, here we are again.
It’s been a good year for film as far as I’m concerned, and today I’m going to start ranking the films I’ve seen this year. It’s been a bumper 12 months for me, and that’s why I’m starting so early. The next few days are going to be dedicated to this exercise, leading up to the top 10 and awards on New Years Eve.
Note: this list and subsequent awards are based off Irish release dates.
Unjustly hoisted into the role of being a battleground for free speech, The Interview is the surest sign yet that the Rogen/Franco/Goldberg stoner comedy assembly line has run out of steam. With puerile ineffective humour, drab direction, racism, sexism and homophobia all popping up at various points, The Interview loses even more when you realise how old the main participants are getting, still stuck pulling self-humiliation comedy as a career, and not even looking like they enjoy it much anymore. Only rarely eliciting laughs and limply botching any effort at making a higher political point about its subject matter, The Interview should be the death knell of this genre. Unfortunately, the situation surrounding the film is likely to lead to a renaissance. Mores’ the pity.
An unfortunate waste of precious little effort, this offering from a member of the “Romanian new wave” is a lazy piece of filmmaking, little more than aimless commentary over recycled footage. The opportunity for the director and his father to offer insights on or discuss Romanian football, politics or the confluence between the two goes a begging while we are subjected to the turgid goalless draw in front of us, and one cannot help but feel like Adrian Porumboiu is doing the idea of “minimalist” a gross disservice by failing to make the most of this premise’s potential (which is actually vast when you think about it). Instead it’s just dull and, what is worse, needlessly so. My irritably inspired notes weren’t wrong: “new wave shite”.
With so much going for it – the director/writing team, one of the most bankable guys in Hollywood as the male lead and a rising star as the female lead – you’d expect Focus to at least be bog-standard. That would be disappointing, but credible. Instead, due to very strange narrative choices, a poor script and a complete lack of engagement with the main characters, Focus is already falling flat, and that’s before you come to understand what little chemistry Smith and Robbie have onscreen. The word “limp” doesn’t do the bland, excitement lacking interaction between the two of them justice. Absent that vital spark, Focus manages to reach true dud territory, redeemable only when it breaches the threshold of “so bad, it’s good”.
Good Kill should be better than it is. It has an established director who has tackled the moral ambiguity of war before. It has a great leading man in Ethan Hawke. And it has a hot button topic ripe for a good screen portrayal after some not so good attempts before. But instead Good Kill is just tired, rehashing arguments that already seem incredibly dated and making caricatures out of its supporting cast, in service of a drone debate that adds precious little to the discussion. With a “home in crisis” sub-plot plumbing similar depths in terms of being played out, and January Jones doing her best impression of cardboard in the role of the wife, no part of Good Kill can really stand up and say it’s doing all that it can do. Not even the usually reliable Ethan Hawke can make much out of the material at hand.
I have great time for the DC animated department, but I am forced to acknowledge that this is down more to nostalgia at this point than appreciation for their more current efforts. The Halcion days of Bruce Timm’s universe are long gone. Attempting to mix an Aquaman origin story with the rest of the titular team’s members, Throne Of Atlantis tries to have its cake and eat it too, but winds up throwing the cake out the window in the process (or should I say, through a wall?). A weak main plot blotted by poor dialogue and performances, aborted sub-plots that promised things that were not delivered on and some haphazard animation choices – not least, the over the top and oft ridiculous violence portrayed – combine to paint a bleak picture for the future of the “DCAMU”. And that is a universe I am no longer likely to indulge any further.
On the surface, Toa Frazer’s Maori action epic has a hell of a lot going for it: the setting, the surrounds, the little known martial art of mau rakau and the imposing presence of Lawrence Makoare in the role of “Warrior”. I can certainly say that I was up for it heading in. But The Dead Lands rapidly falls apart due to the predictable lacklustre revenge storyline, the disappointing performance of the lead and the repetitive nature of both the fight scenes and their direction, which appear to have served as the main draw, but which unfortunately proved dull affairs indeed. Subtitle issues and trippy sequences of the dead speaking to the living don’t enliven things too much either. Too long by a good half-hour and with a concluding message that really didn’t fit the rest of the film, The Dead Lands fails to realise the full potential of its varied ingredients.
From the moment this unnecessary addition to the franchise apes the original music in the iconic introduction to the dinosaurs, only for the introduction to a CGI amusement park, Jurassic World is rubbing the audience the wrong way. And it gets worse and worse: the plot is full of holes, Chris Pratt is shamefully underutilised, there is no main character, the film portrays some utterly warped gender politics and there are so many unintentionally hilarious moments that the entire experience almost works better as a comedy than as a semi-serious action drama. Sure, the kids sub-plot is decent and there are one or two “wow” moments, but Jurassic World is a pale imitation of Spielberg’s masterpiece, one that goes out of its way to demean the audience before laying out something that is as unpalatable as it could possibly have been. Nostalgia bait of the worst kind, and I suppose more are coming.
You could say that, if all a film has going for it is the performances of its two leads, then there might be something salvageable in there. But you really just can’t say that for Legend, Brian Helgeland’s attempt to create a modern biopic of the infamous Kray twins. While Tom Hardy is working his socks off in the lead roles, everything around him is varying levels of sub-par: the uninspiring visual direction, sets and musical choices, the poor supporting cast (especially Emily Browning’s doe-eyed and bland narrator, who drags the film down a few pegs single-handed) and a story that jumps from plot point to plot point as fast as it changes tone, weirdly comedic and then deadly serious scene to scene. Helgeland can’t figure out what kind of point he wants to make about the Krays, and Legend winds its way down to a sudden and unsatisfying conclusion.
3D animation, following a disappointing spell from Pixar and the financial difficulties of Dreamworks, seems to have a reached a point where the sublime and the astonishing is less and less frequent, in comparison to the competent and uninspiring. Minions is a definite part of that trend, a flat spin-off from a much more enjoyable progenitor. Where the Penguins of Madagascar delighted in their wonderful four man(bird) band of comedy back-and-forth, the Minions are stuck with the same old gags and the inept mixing of the puerile and the childish. It’s not really their fault though: the Minions were never more than intermission fillers really, good for a quick laugh or gag in Despicable Me or its sequel. They can’t carry a whole film themselves, Minions rapidly outstaying its welcome, with most of its best material in the opening 15 minutes. With Sandra Bullock’s Scarlett Overkill not exactly lighting the world on fire, Minions is struggling to keep its yellow head above water, and not even the genuinely good comic interjections of John Hamm can save it. An assembly line animation in a genre that is becoming dominated by assembly line animations, Minions seems less a worthwhile artistic endeavour to me than it does a centrepiece for an obnoxiously pushed range of merchandise. Please Pixar, save us.
There is a good story somewhere within the confines of Dawg Fight, but it probably needed a ballsier director and a will to challenge the surrounds of UFC and MMA to find it. “Dada 5000’s” quest to find an outlet outside of crime for the disaffected inhabitants of West Perrine is a noble enough one, and it is impossible not to be fascinated by the way that an unsanctioned but tolerated backyard MMA event is set-up and executed. The film’s best moments revolve around its supporting players, as they batter each other in the crudely constructed ring and outline the reasons why they are doing so, as well as looks at how the local community gathers around the spectacle. But the glorification of MMA that goes on rapidly becomes distasteful, and the dismissal of concerns that Dada’s activities are both dangerous and illegal simply doesn’t sit well. Dawg Fight winds down to a predictable conclusion that doesn’t do enough to create the kind of sentiment that is required, and ultimately feels like a bit of a lost opportunity. The rise in popularity of MMA is ongoing, but I have yet to see the kind of exploratory documentary on the topic that deserves serious kudos.
Tomorrowland had so much good about its make-up – a director whose work I genuinely looked forward to seeing, a great cast, and an interesting premise – but Brad Bird well and truly threw all of that out the window when he decided the film should be, essentially, a lengthy diatribe criticising the very audience paying to see it. Between not so subtle rants at people enjoying post-apocalyptic fiction to childishly patronising digs at the lack of belief in the possibility of a better world, Tomorrowland rapidly becomes somewhat insufferable, with its own humdrum-ness – at the end of the day, the major issue of the film is still decided by blowing up a MacGuffin, and the film is full of lazy script choices and plot beats – not exactly aiding Bird’s case. The relationship between Clooney’s exiled inventor and the perpetually young robot Athena is the films real saving grace, a thoughtful exploration of AI and the potential ramifications of romantic feelings between humans and self-aware technology, not unlike Her, with Raffey Cassidy’s Athena being the films true stand-out. But that can’t cover up the films bizarre treatment of its viewership, the disappointment of the titular location, Clooney’s lack of drive in his performance, the lack of anything important for Britt Robertson’s nominally main character to do after the first half hour or the misuse of Hugh Laurie. Give me Fury Road any day.
At its best, Dark Horse could be classed as one of the better kinds of sports stories: featuring a true underdog making good, in the form of an allotment raised horse and its somewhat impoverished owners, who are the stars of the documentary for the most part. You would have to be made of stone not to be impressed by the life story of “Dream Alliance”. But there is a certain stretching out of credibility here: too much of a demonization of the horse racing industry, too much ignoring of the professional trainers who turned Dream Alliance into a prize winning example of his species, and maybe a bit too much tugging on the heartstrings. The story is undoubtedly interesting, but told over too long a running time, and the audience will be happy to see the credits roll, long after the more engaging titbits about the realities of breeding and racing horses fly by. A quirky cast of characters fill the screen and keep Dark Horse moving along to an extent, but they can only do so much. A worthwhile distraction for an hour and a half, but in no way a film that will leave a lasting impression.
You could never deny that the Wachowski siblings have their visions: big expansive visions, full of verve, colour, evocative imagery and dazzlingly fantastical worlds. But what they don’t have, for Jupiter Ascending anyway, is good characters, good plot, good script or good backbone. Mila Kunis’s Jupiter has a by the books journey of a chosen one/hero rising, but is seriously undercut by the lack of agency that she actually has, as Channing Tatum’s half man/half dog Caine flies in for the rescue at least five times in the course of a bizarrely paced two hour adventure, which drags badly in its second half amid self-indulgent comic escapades and a succession of poorly written and performed antagonists, not least Eddie Redmayne’s croaky Balem. Jupiter Ascending is a film that is acting more epic and amazing than it really is: you can’t fault the visual design, or the potential scope of the universe being presented. But all of that is meaningless if it doesn’t have the story or the depth to fit it all together and make it work. The Wachowskis went for a preponderance of style over substance in this one, and the end result just fails to suck you in properly.
Roald Dahl’s septuagenarian romance is a dim and hazy memory for a much younger version of myself, and Dearbhla Walsh’s attempt at bringing it into something resembling a modern state is a bit dim and hazy too if I’m being honest. Two giants fill up the screen in the lead roles, with Dustin Hoffman doing a bit better as the lonely but inventive Mr Hoppy, with Judi Dench’s Mrs Silver suffering from the rank stupidity of her character as taken directly from the book, significantly harder to stomach on screen. Well shot (Hoppy’s apartment in particular) and scripted, the film suffers from some of the additions: boorish Mr Pringle who exists just to add a firm roadblock to the romance, James Cordon’s patently unnecessary narrator (why is he so popular?) and just the overall length of the story (90 minutes of film taken from 62 pages).
But it does manage to bring some of Dahls’ literary warmth and humour into a visual medium, and one cannot help but be touched by the unlikely romance that blossoms between two unlikely people, or the central message of love transcending boundaries of age and circumstance: at least one of those things is not to be found in many love stories nowadays. Sentimental (to a fault at moments) and beautiful, this is a worthy addition to the existing canon of Dahl adaptations. It just really needed some fine-tuning, and some extended faith in what Dahl himself created. Hopefully, we will soon be seeing more adaptations of the great writer’s works.
Crystal Moselle’s documentary hooked me in with the large amount of critical praise it was able to garner, but the end result is surprisingly unexciting. The story of the Angula family is one ripe for an interesting investigative effort: the patriarch out to create his own “tribe”, the manically controlled family, the obsession with films as an escape, and the incredible amount of effort that goes into recreating them to an exact detail. And large parts of The Wolfpack, such as those focusing on the brother’s efforts to step out into the real world and make lives for themselves, do work, as a look at how inventiveness and imagination can thrive in even the dingiest and unfortunate of circumstances.
But not enough is made of the available material here. The father, clearly a child abuser who just so happens to be losing control around the time of filming, gets an all too easy ride from Moselle, as does his enthralled spouse, responsible for little less than criminal activity. Issues of mental illness get largely sidestepped, the timeline of footage is all over the place and the narrow focus on just the Angula family prevents any larger examination of their situation in the context of their immediate neighbourhood, the authorities or anything else. There are many hallmarks present of a first time documentary director, and I do not think that The Wolfpack was worth all of the kudos it explicably received, lacking a certain amount of finesse or conviction. Over-rated it is.
What are the many things that Josh Trank and his production got wrong when it comes to this critically despised superhero offering? The film is too short for the story that it wants to tell. Kate Mara is unnecessarily side-lined as Sue Storm. The tonal changes from act to act, and even scene to scene, are jarring and smack of studio interference. The bad guy doesn’t get enough time. The film lacks sufficient action. Everything moves too slow, and then everything is going too fast. The ending is rushed, and the very end is hopelessly banal. Fantastic Four very much feels like a jigsaw puzzle that has been put together the wrong way.
Because the pieces of something much better did exist. Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell and even Toby Kebbell’s refreshingly cynical Doctor Doom are surprisingly decent in the few interactions they have. Despite its relatively low budget, it looks OK, and what action there is, is perfectly acceptable for the genre. The script occasionally does burst into life, and in the moments where Trank was allowed to create his first instinct, a superhero origin through the guise of a horror movie, Fantastic Four really does begin to stand out. But for whatever reason – blame the studio for altering things, the director and his apparently unhinged behaviour on set, the lack of promotion or the unrelenting hostility of nerd/geek community media – the overall end product is average at best, and terrible at worst. Not 8% on Rotten Tomatoes terrible, but not very good.
Tomorrow, we continue on with 40-31.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures, Contre-Alle Distribution, Siehe Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures, IFC Films, Warner Home Video, XYZ Films, Universal Pictures, Netflix, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Film4, BBC and Magnolia Pictures).