Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles
After a real misstep with the spin-off The Bourne Legacy, which tried to continue a franchise without its titular character, star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have been lured back after nine years to the franchise they both declared they were done with for Jason Bourne. However, in watching this fourth instalment in franchise (we should take our lead from this film and just pretend The Bourne Legacy never happened) it is difficult to see what it was that caused their change of heart.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has been off the grid for a number of years but he is tracked down by old ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). She has hacked into the CIA’s system determined to expose their black ops programs, including Treadstone, and in the process has uncovered some information about Bourne’s father. Continue reading
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Thirty years on and Max is still king of the road. It is not often that you see an action movie at the pointy end of lists like this, but in 2015, at the ripe old age of seventy, George Miller took the world’s directors to school. Mad Max: Fury Road showed that a singular creative vision can elevate the action film to the level of art. Miller effectively tapped back into that part of his imagination where Max resides and delivered a visually stunning, kinetic action masterpiece. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes but Charlize Theron is the real star. Full review
2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
It is exciting to see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is no other way to describe Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. While much was made of its visual style, with the whole film appearing to be one continuous shot, Birdman is so much more than a single shot gimmick. Birdman has complete unity of form and vision. Every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with Iñárritu’s vision and the thematic concerns of the film. The casting of Michael Keaton and subsequent critical acclaim for his performance also made for one of the stories of late 2014/early 2015. Full review
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a special little movie, an indie which won over audiences on the festival circuit before getting a theatrical release. It is a coming-of-age story about an insecure high school senior, and aspiring filmmaker, whose mother insists that he befriend a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Genuinely funny without ever undermining the seriousness of its subject matter, touching and poignant without being schmaltzy or overly sentimental, the film is a beautifully affecting piece of cinema brimming with youthful creativity. Full review
4. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland)
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is great small science fiction. A young programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to put a humanoid robot he has created through a Turing test, a series of interviews intended to determine whether she has achieved artificial intelligence. With only three real characters, Ex Machina is an impressively performed chamber piece which draws its drama out of conversations and dialogue. Shot on a modest budget, that money has clearly been spent in the right places because the visuals are outstanding, with the robot, Ava, being one of the year’s best CG achievements. Full review
5. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
After a pretty underwhelming last decade, Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. Following the fight to survive of a botanist left stranded on Mars, it is a different type of science fiction film, one that turns on the solving of problems and seeks to excite us more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions. Carried by the charismatic performance of Matt Damon, The Martian is enjoyable, irreverent and absorbing, a much lighter film than you might expect after reading the one line synopsis. It also features a great disco soundtrack. Full review
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
In the hands of a director, J.J. Abrams, who grew up with Star Wars and understood what the fans loved about it, The Force Awakens managed to recapture the look, feel and fun of the original trilogy. A transitionary film, it allowed us to catch up with beloved old characters while also introducing a collection of engaging new ones who will carry the franchise forward. Faced with almost impossible levels of expectation, to have people walking out of The Force Awakens not underwhelmed would have been a victory. That audiences have come out of not just satisfied but genuinely excited is a testament to how good it is. Full review
7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, was the pleasant surprise of the year. The first Rocky film not written by Stallone, Creed offers a fresh take on the material, knowing when to lean into the cliché and when to turn it on its head. While Rocky himself is only a supporting character in this story, Sylvester Stallone delivers a career best performance. Full review
8. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Taking us inside the mind of an eleven year old girl with a cast of characters made up of anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen employ sophisticated visual metaphors to simply and effectively explain how memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. Deceptively simple yet deeply profound, Inside Out is a beautiful film about growing up, farewelling the simplicity of childhood and learning to appreciate the full gamut of emotions that bring depth and texture to life. Full review
9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Finally The Big Lebowski has a friend in the ‘stoner noir’ subgenre. Inherent Vice is the most flat out enjoyable of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (a filmmaker whose work in the past I have tended to appreciate rather than enjoy). Set in early 1970s California and featuring some magnificent costumes, Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery which will require a second or third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its multiple narratives. But if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy this humorous head-scratcher. Full review
10. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Not the most high profile doco of the year, but it was the pick of them for mine. During his life Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself: memos, memories and recollections, self-hypnosis tapes. Listen to Me Marlon uses these recordings to narrate a biographical documentary on the legendary actor. The result is practically a posthumous autobiography, an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, it is a unique documentary befitting a unique talent. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): ’71 (Yann Demange), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Selma (Ava DuVernay), Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)
If there was one winner out of the Sony hacking scandal it was this horrible film. Cyber terrorists demanding that Sony not release this comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was a sure fire way of turning a film that would otherwise have shuffled quietly into obscurity into one of the must-sees of early 2015. Attention grabbing concept aside, The Interview did not warrant this spotlight.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Kristin Wiig, Aksel Hennie
In a long career that has had its share of hits and misses, Ridley Scott has managed to consistently make one great film per decade. In the 1970s it was Alien. In the 1980s it was Blade Runner. He showed he was more than just a great science fiction director with Thelma & Louise in the 1990s and the swords and sandals epic Gladiator in the 2000s. After a bit of a recent dry patch (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor, Prometheus, Robin Hood), Scott has returned to form with a film which could well be his great offering of the 2010s, an adaptation of the Andy Weir novel, The Martian.
The Martian gets straight into it, establishing its scenario instantly. Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is 18 sols, Mars days, into the Ares III research mission on Mars when an enormous storm hits, forcing his team’s immediate evacuation. Struck by debris and assumed dead, Watney is left behind. But he is not dead. And despite being stranded 55 million kilometres from home, he has no intention of dying. Continue reading
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
The most significant moments in our history are made up of many, many stories. These stories provide the colour and the detail that give the greater narrative its significance. The story of the Monuments Men, a small group of experts who headed into war torn Europe to preserve a culture, is one of these stories and it has been brought to the screen by actor/director George Clooney.
As the Third Reich marched through Europe in the Second World War they collected important artworks and cultural artefacts from churches, museums and homes with the intention of displaying them in the planned Führer Museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz. By 1944 the tide had turned in the War, the Nazi’s were retreating and fears started to arise that they would destroy their stockpiles of artworks as they moved out. “You can wipe out an entire generation,” explains Clooney’s Frank Stokes, “You can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.” Even with the War seemingly all but won, were a history to be lost in its final stages the victory would be an incomplete one. So Roosevelt green-lit the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, in which a small team of art historians, architects and curators were sent into the warzone with the job of finding, retrieving and returning the stolen works.
The Monuments Men is George Clooney’s fifth feature film as a director. It has an old-fashioned adventure story feel to it. They are, after all, treasure hunters. But in creating this tone, Clooney seems to have sacrificed his own unique style in favour of something which feels like it is merely trying to imitate an older form. The narrative is episodic in nature. As the Monuments Men split up and head to different points of the European continent on different missions we move between their different stories. Some of these episodes are amusing, some are touching, some are exciting. However, with our attention being split between eight co-protagonists, none of the characters are given enough time or depth to really engage us. There are simply too many of them for a two hour movie. That being said, Clooney has assembled an all-star cast, with the likes of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett and, of course, Mr Clooney himself. While it may not have the wow factor of the Ocean’s 11 cast, it is none the less an impressive collection of talent and it is the charisma of these actors, more so than their characters, which keeps you engaged in the film and represents its greatest strength.
The Monuments Men looks great. It is beautifully shot by Pheldon Papamichael and the production design is top notch. It focuses in on a really fascinating and unique story, but unfortunately it fails to reach the heights that story deserves. It is not quite as funny and irreverent as it could have been – especially considering its cast – but neither is it as serious and gritty as it could have been. Instead we are left with a very earnest and sentimental film which at times is just a bit bland.
Rating: – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp made the world sit up and take notice in 2009 with District 9, a powerful allegory for apartheid era South Africa and one of the most original science fiction films in recent memory. The success of that film – it took $210 million worldwide off a $30 million budget – has afforded him a larger canvas for his second film, Elysium.
The year is 2154 and Earth is in ruins. Those who can afford it have moved off-planet, taking residence on a man-made habitat in Earth’s orbit called Elysium, where they protect their standard of living by using what’s left of Earth’s resources and protecting their borders from undesirables. On Earth we meet Max, a career criminal trying to live straight. A work accident sees him exposed to a severe dose of radiation, the result of which is he only has five days left to live. His only chance at making it is to get to Elysium.
Despite being a genuine Hollywood movie this time around (the budget is estimated at $115 million) with an A-list cast, Elysium maintains a similar feel to District 9. Again, Blomkamp is engaging in socially conscious science fiction. While Elysium is not as specific and allegorical in its focus as District 9, the film seeks to engage with a number of prominent social issues including the gap between the haves and have-nots, illegal immigration and the seeking of asylum, and the necessity of universal healthcare. It is difficult to imagine that a more overtly socialist Hollywood blockbuster has ever been made.
The film looks amazing. While Blomkamp mainly gets praised for his narrative and broader aesthetic, he is an adept user of CGI. Naturally, as a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium contains its share of spectacle, but it is the subtle, unobtrusive way that the film employs CGI which is most impressive. One of the most effective uses of CGI is in the simple way that in the scenes on Earth we can see the distant figure of Elysium hanging in the sky. It has a strange beauty and you can imagine how its constant presence could serve as a torturous reminder to Earth’s impoverished inhabitants of the good life that is just out of reach.
This time around the story is set in America but Blomkamp retains the international flavour which was such a point of difference in District 9. The rundown Los Angeles setting, actually shot in Mexico City, possesses a similar dustbowl aesthetic to the Johannesburg shantytowns of District 9, and stands in stark contrast to the lush greenness of life on Elysium. Both on Earth and Elysium we hear multiple languages spoken. Sharlto Coply, the star of District 9 who is back as the vicious agent Kruger, is even allowed to speak in his natural South African accent.
Blomkamp had a hard act to follow after the success of District 9. Not only was that film so clever and brilliantly executed, it also had the advantage of being a complete surprise. Elysium, as one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters, has no such luxury. Blomkamp’s offering doesn’t exceed expectations, but it does enough to satisfy them and is definitely the most original and interesting of the big-budget event movies we’ve seen this year.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds
With Hollywood determined to play it safe and stick to generic cliché and recycling trusted ideas, subscription television networks like AMC and HBO have become the home of innovative and interesting filmmaking. So it is fitting that one of the most interesting films of the year should be a television movie. Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, Steven Soderbergh’s film is a behind-closed-doors biopic of one of the world’s most flamboyant and conflicted entertainers.
Behind the Candelabra explores the final decade of Liberace’s life through the lens of his relationship with his young companion, friend and lover Scott. As time goes on, their relationship becomes more complicated with Scott’s identity disappearing into the world of Liberace as the entertainer seeks to adopt him and even buy him facial reconstruction surgery so they can look more alike, all in the name of being family.
Having been in gestation since 2008, the project was turned down by practically every Hollywood studio on the grounds that it was, as Soderbergh puts it, “too gay.” So it fell to HBO, who have made their name by taking chances that commercial networks wouldn’t dare, to make the picture. As a result, Behind the Candelabra was released on television in the US, but it has been given a cinematic release in Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom.
Today, it seems astounding to think that people would be unaware that Liberace was gay. But his fame predated the rise to prominence of gay culture and sensibility in America, and the film gives insight into how closely guarded and managed, not to mention litigated, his secret was. A scene in which Scott reads a passage from Liberace’s autobiography emphasises the extent to which the entertainer has been forced to live and perpetuate a lie.
The screenplay also touches on Liberace’s Catholicism, which he maintained despite that church’s stance on homosexuality, but doesn’t choose to make it a major issue.
With Michael Douglas attached to play Liberace, the production was delayed for a couple of years as he battled throat cancer, but it was worth the wait as Douglas’ performance is tremendous, some of the best work of his long career. In a role in which it would have been very easy to resort to caricature, Douglas gives Liberace incredible depth and complexity, showing him to be at once lonely, insecure, jealous, predatory, possessive and controlling. We also get some impressive scenes of Liberace working his magic on the ivories thanks to seamless digital work, compositing Douglas’ head onto a piano-playing double.
In the role of Scott Thorson, Matt Damon serves as the audiences entry point into the extravagant and glittery world of Liberace. He is as confronted as we are when he first arrives in Liberace’s home, but as he settles into his surrounding so do we. Casting the 42 year old Damon in the role of Scott, despite the fact that Scott was still a teenager when he met Liberace in real life, allows the film to focus on the authenticity of their relationship without having to deal with the awkwardness of the immense age difference.
The strong headline performances are backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast including Dan Aykroyd, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds and a heavily made up Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, who is himself nipped, tucked and botoxed within an inch of his life.
Unsurprisingly in a film about the most flamboyant showman ever, the costume, set and production design takes centre stage with some fabulous recreations of Liberace’s signature costumes and his “palatial kitsch” home.
Despite being at times quite funny, overall it is a terribly sad, melancholy film, about an immensely talented, successful but conflicted man who is crippled by his need to please people, and who chooses to keep such a central part of who he is secret from the world so as not to be dismissed as a “silly old queen.”
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean