Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Mark Hammill
Twenty-nineteen was a big year for pop culture climaxes. In April, Avengers: Endgame drew Marvel’s 22 film ‘Infinity Saga,’ if not the the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, to a close. May saw the culmination of Game of Thrones’ eight season run. Popular consensus suggests that one stuck the landing better than the other. Neither, however, carried quite the same level of pressure as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and, we are told, final film in the central series which we are apparently now calling ‘the Skywalker Saga.’ Since its debut in 1977, Star Wars has in many ways defined contemporary blockbuster filmmaking as both a narrative and a franchise. Unfortunately, while a perfectly adequate piece of blockbuster filmmaking, watching The Rise of Skywalker confirms what has been suggested by the previous two instalments: that this has been a trilogy without a clear, overarching plan. Continue reading
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Thandie Newton
One of the things which made the original Star Wars trilogy the site of such intense fandom is that it created the sense of a universe that was bigger than just what we were seeing in the story. Through the details of different planets and aliens that we glimpsed it provided incredible scope for the imagination to run wild. It is this potential that Disney is trying to tap into with their Star Wars ‘anthology films’ – those films which are not classified as episodes of the central saga. Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second on these anthology films, after 2016’s Rogue One.
While fighting with the Imperial infantry on Mimban, young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his new, wookie friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) fall in with a group of smugglers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Continue reading
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Gwendoline Christie
When The Force Awakens was released in 2015 to relaunch the Star Wars saga it had three specific functions: nostalgia, preparation, and reassurance. It had to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars, it had to establish the new generation of characters who were going to take on the franchise from our old favourites moving forward, and, after the prequel trilogy, it had to leave us confident that they weren’t going to screw this up. The result was a film that was a lot of fun, but was fairly criticised for playing it a bit safe. It set a platform and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the storied saga, has built on that platform. Nowhere near as dependent on nostalgia as The Force Awakens or even Rogue One, The Last Jedi is liberated to be more adventurous with its narrative. Continue reading
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen
While The Force Awakens was a massive success last year, becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, it is Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One that represents the first real test for Disney’s audacious plan for the franchise it took over in 2012. While being a rollicking fun ride, The Force Awakens was also a noticeably safe first step, with its heavy focus on nostalgia and unashamed recycling of story elements from the original trilogy. Rogue One, on the other hand, is the first of the stand-alone Star Wars films – stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away which focus on characters outside of the central saga.
Rumours are spreading through the galaxy that the Empire is building a weapon capable of destroying planets (while its name is not spoken until a reasonable way in, those familiar with the series will know straight away to which weapon they are referring). 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: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Black screen. Blue lettering. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and then BANG! With the blast of that iconic fanfare and the crawling text, we are once again away. 32 years after we saw Luke, Han and Leia finally defeat Darth Vader and the Empire in Return of the Jedi these iconic characters return to the big screen in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This most revered of franchises, now under the control of Disney, has been handed on from its creator, George Lucas, to writer-director J.J. Abrams. Abrams showed with Star Trek in 2009 that he has a gift for rebooting storied science-fiction franchises, but this is another level entirely. But faced with the near impossible burden of audience and industry expectations – this is, after all, a movie which anything less than becoming the highest grossing film of all time will seemingly be an underperformance – Abrams and his team have delivered.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi knight, has vanished. In his absence a new dark power, the First Order, has risen from the ashes of the Empire. Continue reading
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel
Do you want to know just how hot a streak Marvel Studios are on at the moment? They have taken a minor comic book series about a motley crew of space adventurers that includes, among others, a green woman, a talking raccoon and a walking tree and they’ve turned it into possibly the best sci-fi adventure movie in decades.
Having been abducted from Earth as a child, Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill travels the galaxy as a treasure hunter (read thief). Quill steals a mysterious orb, which turns out to be significantly more valuable, and dangerous, than he imagined. So he teams up with an assassin, Gamora, a pair of bounty hunters, Rocket and Groot, and the physically imposing Drax the Destroyer to sell it to the highest bidder. However, it just so happens that the orb contains one of the powerful Infinity Stones, and when it falls into the hands of the evil Ronan who plans to use it to destroy the galaxy, it falls to Quill and his rag tag bunch of misfits to save the day.
Despite being around since 1969, the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series is not exactly a household name. This means there are a lot of new characters, places and concepts that need to be introduced to the viewer in the first act of the movie. Amazingly, though, it doesn’t become exposition heavy. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t bother giving us complete backstories and origins for all of the characters. It doesn’t seek to answer all of our questions, but rather just to give us as much information as we need. As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t take a while to warm up; it gets rolling at the beginning and keeps going until the end.
Director James Gunn and his team have succeeded in making Guardians of the Galaxy completely different to The Avengers. After that first franchise was so successful, the temptation would have been there to copy that blueprint and import new characters and stories. But while there are minor narrative elements which connect Guardians of the Galaxy to the Avengers universe, and we will no doubt see a crossover film at some point in the future, Guardians of the Galaxy has a completely different style and tone.
For starters, it is not a superhero movie. It is a 1980s-style science-fiction adventure movie much more akin to Star Wars. This eighties resonance comes from within the narrative. Quill was abducted from Earth as a child in 1988, and as such all his points of reference are from the eighties. Similarly, the film cleverly uses music from that era to set the tone. The only memento Quill has from his life on Earth is a Walkman with a mix-tape of seventies hits his mother made for him. That mix-tape – including tracks from 10CC, Blue Swede and David Bowie – serves as the soundtrack to the movie, and from the outset of the film it is really successful in creating a very different, fun vibe.
Guardians of the Galaxy is also far and away Marvel’s funniest film. The Avengers, and in particular Iron Man, have always had that wise-cracking element of humour, but this film takes it to the next level and is legitimately comedic. Gunn and Nicole Pearlman’s screenplay is so sharp. They have given each of the characters a unique voice and can therefore draw different types of humour from each of them.
Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as Quill, bringing an irreverence to this mash up of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. It has potential to be a real star-making performance for Pratt, which could propel him from TV star to legit movie leading man. The CGI pairing of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, voiced by Cooper and Diesel respectively, were among the movie’s biggest question marks. But Rocket turns out to be a scene stealer and Groot, despite only being able to say “I am Groot” in different inflections, is used well to both comic and emotional effect.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios have given us the most exciting, fun and fresh blockbuster movie in years, maybe even decades. For those of us not old enough to have been there, this could be as close as we will get to knowing what it felt like to experience Star Wars for the first time back in 1977.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood
In 2009, J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise wildly exceeded everyone’s expectations, taking almost $400m at the worldwide box office, and establishing Abrams as the next big thing in blockbuster moviemaking. Almost immediately talk started about a sequel, and four years later we get Star Trek Into Darkness, a title seemingly in dire need of some punctuation (Seriously, doesn’t Star Trek: Into Darkness just look more right).
This second instalment continues on from where the 2009 film left off, again acting as a sort of prequel to the original television series and subsequent films. After Star Fleet headquarters are attacked by terrorist John Harrison, Kirk and his crew are sent on a revenge mission to blast Harrison the smithereens. However Harrison is hiding out on Kronos, and their mission risks sparking an all-out war with the volatile Klingons, so Spock persuades Kirk instead to attempt to take Harrison prisoner and make him stand trial. They capture Harrison and bring him aboard the Enterprise unaware that there is more to him than they knew and that aboard the Enterprise is exactly where Harrison wanted to be (If only Kirk, Spock and the gang had seen The Dark Knight… or The Avengers… or Skyfall).
At the heart of Star Trek Into Darkness, as with the previous film, is the symbiotic relationship between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. They are completely different from one another. One is impulsive and instinctual. The other is logical and calculated. Both frustrate the hell out of the other, but both are also dependent on the strengths of the other to make up for their own deficiencies. They are mutually dependent. While the first film told the story of how these two met each other and came to be a team, this film deals with how they came to truly respect one another and see the value of each other. Both Kirk and Spock at key moments in the film must force themselves to think and act like the other in order to tackle a situation. That Abrams is able to effectively keep human relationships at the centre of such a large scale sci-fi blockbuster is what separates him from contemporary blockbuster makers like Michael Bay (Really, did anyone care about the human characters in Transformers?) and leads to the inevitable comparisons with Spielberg.
Abrams strikes the perfect balance, respecting the established lore of the Star Trek universe without being constrained by it. He homages classic characters and story elements, but isn’t afraid to take some creative liberties to freshen up the story. This may frustrate a hardcore Trekkie, but for the rest of us it gives the film a sense of newness and freshness. This combination of respect for existing lore with a willingness to take ownership bodes well for his next project, the seventh instalment in the Star Wars series.
In the Trekkie community the Star Trek franchise has one of the most devoted followings you will find. But rather than merely seeking to cater to the existing fan base, when Abrams set out to reboot the Star Trek franchise he looked to broaden its appeal and introduce these classic characters to a new audience. And again, Star Trek Into Darkness is big budget blockbuster filmmaking that will appeal to more than just the devoted Trekkies. It is a big movie, containing some top notch action sequences and terrific special effects, on par with anything you will find in blockbuster sci-fi cinema. Add to that a healthy smattering of humour, mostly courtesy of Simon Pegg who has a slightly larger role as Scotty, and you end up with a film that really is everything a great popcorn movie should be.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean