So here we go again, for the half dozen of my followers who can be bothered to check it out, it's my annual rave about all the movies I've loved and been deeply impressed by so far this year, before the summer blockbuster season starts (even though, thanks to this INSANE weather, it sure as hell doesn't feel like it).
As usual, the disclaimer - please remember, these are just the movies I've loved, how and why I love them, and in the order, etc. etc., over the past four months, NOT a proper full-one critical going over, which I have no doubt would look more than a little DIFFERENT. That some of these are also the BEST movies I've seen so far this year is neither here nor there ...
but anyways ... as always, this is my own personal opinion and of course some of you may disagree. Obviously I'd love to hear what you think (especially if you think there's anything I should have seen that's not here), but of course please be kind and don't go off on some unpleasant rant, yeah?
And, of course, once again, sorry it's all so LOOOOOOONG ...
As usual, starting out we have the runners up, the movies that didn't quite make the grade for my Top Ten (so far), but which, nonetheless, I still really enjoyed, and which I think are still well worth checking out.
20. SPOTLIGHT – this underdog Oscar-baiter recounting the fascinating true story of the Boston Globe newspaper’s expose of the Catholic Church’s shocking cover-up of a long-running, nationwide epidemic of priest-based child abuse is a quiet, workmanlike effort that nonetheless fizzes and crackles thanks to its tight script and top-of-their-game cast, particularly driven by stunning turns from Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and a career-best Stanley Tucci.
19. ROOM – director Lenny Abrahamson follows 2014’s quirky comedy Frank with this darker drama about five-year old Jack (an incredible performance from newcomer Jacob Tremblay), who’s lived his entire life in the claustrophobic confines of the shed where a sexual predator has confined his mother (a mesmerising turn from Brie Larson) since her teenage abduction. Despite the troubling subject matter, Abrahamson has crafted a moving and uplifting “real world” fairytale about the unbreakable bond of mother and child.
18. HIGH RISE – Kill List director Ben Wheatley continues to prove he’s the British David Lynch, albeit this time adding a hefty dose of Cronenberg (a-la Crash) with this deeply twisted, nightmarish satire on Thatcher-era “free market” consumerism based on J.G. Ballard’s iconic urban horror novel. God of Mischief Tom Hiddleston and The Hobbit’s Luke Evans are among the tenants going increasingly feral as social order breaks down in the confines of Jeremy Irons’ architect’s state-of-the-art yuppie condominium skyscraper.
17. TRIPLE 9 – a gang of corrupt cops moonlighting as bank robbers on the mean streets of Atlanta, Georgia, plan to use the ultimate distraction to ensure their success in a near-impossible raid – killing a fellow police officer, necessitating a “code-999” call that every cop in the city will rush to respond to. Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul and a trashy, nasty Kate Winslet all impress in this down-and-dirty, blood-soaked and morally complex thriller, skilfully directed by Lawless’s John Hillcoat.
16. LONDON HAS FALLEN – back in 2013, Antoine Fuqua’s grittily efficient action thriller Olympus Has Fallen was unfairly overshadowed by the thematically similar but far more glossy White House Down. This time round Gerard Butler’s tough-as-nails Secret Service agent Mike Banning has to keep Aaron Eckhart’s president out of the grasp of extremist terrorists on the bomb-ravaged streets of London. The set-pieces are faster, tighter and even more brutal in what’s definitely one of the best actioners of the year so far.
15. HAIL, CAESAR! – the Coen Brothers are at their most irreverent and playful since Burn After Reading with this charmingly winning ode to the opulent, overblown cheesiness of Hollywood in the post-WWII years. There’s a plot in there somewhere but the real pleasure comes from the brothers’ droll and mischievous pastiches on “classic” genre tropes, from clunky high-society melodrama to blatantly homoerotic song-and-dance routines. Throw in one of George Clooney’s funniest turns for ages and you’re onto a winner.
14. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – yeah ... there’s a lot to address with this one, so while it’s a runner-up there’s no way I could really do this in six lines, so ... there’s a lot wrong with 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder’s follow-up to 2013’s Man Of Steel, but there’s also a hell of a lot that this movie gets very, VERY right. Certainly it gets off to the right start – after an evocative, haunting opening title sequence recounting the terrible childhood tragedy that defined Bruce Wayne’s life, we smash into the thick of the near-destruction of Metropolis from the last movie, this time from the point of view of the now adult Wayne (Ben Affleck) as he races headlong into the chaos to try and save his embattled employees. The aftermath of this carnage leaves another indelible mark on the sometimes Dark Knight, his fervent new conviction that Superman (Henry Cavill, his Clark Kent still rewardingly intense, thoughtful and complex) is a very real threat to humanity convincingly placed, and he’s not alone – while the world is divided as to whether the last son of Krypton is a saviour or a menace, brilliant-but-deranged billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, an enjoyably insidious, creepy take on the classic nemesis) hatches a plan to take the alien down a peg with his new, deadly discovery – KRYPTONITE!! Anyways ... the main problem with this movie is that DC are trying to do too much at once, attempting to play catch-up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe by turning this into a launching pad for their own Expended Universe instead of taking their time and letting things breathe, shoehorning in as much knowing reference, nod-and-wink and rumour as they can throughout. Some is welcome, and it works – Gal Gadot’s casting as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, may have riled some fans (I for one still think Gina Carano would have been a better choice, at least from a purely visual and physical ability standpoint), but she acquits herself admirably, making Diana a robust, ass-kicking action heroine I look forward to seeing more of in next year’s standalone movie – but in other instances it’s clunky, even a little painful – the Flash’s brief introduction kind of works, but as for Aquaman and Cyborg ... no, in the end, the film’s at its best when focused on the central story, a true clash of titans as the two titular leads are brought together, first as potential rivals, then bitter foes, before finally being forced to overcome their differences and work together. Indeed, whenever Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is on screen it’s pure gold – far from killing the Dark Knight stone dead, “Batfleck” comes close to matching Christian Bale’s Nolan-trilogy figurehead in the broody charisma stakes, while Batman Begins co-writer David Goyer once again proves he understands the character as well as Frank Miller does. Added kudos are due for the inspired casting of Jeremy Irons as Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred, delivering a snarky, sardonic take on the character that rivals Michael Caine’s in Nolan’s trilogy. When the smackdown comes it’s as epic as we were promised, but it’s nearly overshadowed by other frenetic, knuckle-whitening set-pieces (particularly a spectacular chase featuring a Batmobile that nearly out-cools the Tumbler, and an awesome sequence in which Batman takes on a warehouse full of heavily armed thugs in impressive, bone-shattering style) and a fascinating, iconic dream sequence which may actually be a premonition ... ultimately the film becomes worryingly overblown in the climactic showdown featuring a certain fan-worrying monster, but even here, when the time comes for the story to deliver a major emotional blow, Snyder doesn’t shy away from an ultimate lore-faithful wink, and the denouement sets things up for future expansion far better than earlier, more ham-fisted efforts. Ultimately, Snyder mostly performs his director’s duties with the consummate skill we’ve come to expect – this may be his most visually arresting film to date, exquisitely designed, shot and choreographed throughout – and composer Hans Zimmer expands on his excellent work from Man Of Steel while building a solid new musical identity for this version of the Dark Knight, his new collaborator Junkie XL adding a darker, more edgy aesthetic (particularly the evocative, frenetic wail and thunderous percussion of Wonder Woman’s theme). Ultimately, I think DC’s August release Suicide Squad will fare much better, but this is nowhere near the car-crash many were expecting – it may be flawed, but it’s still an impressive, evocative, and, most of all, enjoyable piece of work. I for one can’t wait to see more of Affleck’s Batman, and now that DC have seen sense to make him direct it as well DC’s cinematic future’s starting to look a lot brighter now they’ve gotten past this functional stepping stone.
13. THE WITCH – very nearly ranking as my horror movie of the year (so far), debut director Robert Eggers’ Pilgrim-era period horror is a slow-burn horror of almost unbearable atmospheric power and skin-crawling creepiness. Ralph Ineson heads a uniformly excellent cast as the earthy farmer whose isolated family is threatened by dark unseen forces, while the bleak imagery and discordant score and sound design add to the stifling sense of impending doom. Never has a black goat been so inexplicably scary ...
12. KUNG FU PANDA 3 – Jack Black’s lovable overweight martial arts master Po is back in Dreamworks’ third animated anthropomorphic adventure, the arrival of his long-lost father Li Shen (a show-stealing Bryan Cranston) sending him on a quest to uncover his panda heritage, while a deadly new threat looms in the form of undead chi master Kai (a typically hilarious turn from J.K. Simmons). As funny, thrilling and moving as ever, this consistently brilliant series continues to delight.
11. EYE IN THE SKY – drone warfare continues to provide troubling, challenging subject matter in this absorbing ticking-clock thriller from Ender’s Game director Gavin Hood. Helen Mirren heads a top-notch cast as the MOD colonel overseeing an observation mission that quickly escalates into a potentially destructive impending drone strike, ably supported by the likes of Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glenn and the late Alan Rickman, restrained yet potent in one of his very last film roles.
Now, of course, time for my Top Ten movies of the year (so far, anyway). Likely subject to change given there's tons of great stuff still on the way, but for now ...
10. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – the latest collaboration between Take Shelter writer/director Jeff Nichols and his rugged, dependable everyman of choice, Michael Shannon, is likely to go down as THE serious cult hit of the year – a work of rare wonder, power and endless invention that, paradoxically, never gets too clever for its own good. Think of it like John Carpenter’s Starman re-imagined by David Fincher – aliens-among-us weirdness presented in a lo-fi, subtly cerebral way. Shannon is a typically restrained heroic lead as Roy, the fugitive father of Alton Meyer (a stunningly grown-up performance from newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), a deeply strange child whose light-sensitivity and earthquake-inducing fits are just some of the indicators that he’s something more than human. When Roy and state trooper friend Lucas (tough and taciturn Joel Edgerton) abduct/rescue Alton from the doomsday cult he’s been the messianic figurehead of since infancy, they instigate a nationwide manhunt led by shadowy government forces guided by Fox Mulder-alike scientist Dr Sevier (Star Wars: A Force Awakens’ Adam Driver in a much more likeably, exposition-transforming role), and a covert band of cultist hitmen despatched by Sam Shephard’s sleazy religious zealot pastor Calvin. Kirsten Dunst adds a welcome dash of feisty feminine spirit as Alton’s estranged mother Sarah, enlisted by Roy to help get the boy across the country to a mysterious rendezvous with unknown forces before an ominous ticking clock runs down, but it looks like the odds are stacked against them. This is a fascinating combination of low key indie-style character driven drama and super-tense, suspenseful chase thriller, a compelling push-pull of quietly affecting character beats and sudden, intense set pieces (a terrifyingly inexplicable gas station-destroying meteor storm is a particular highlight), while Nichols’ script is crafted to pitch-perfection. Wrapping up in a jaw-dropping, enigmatic climax that raises far more questions than it answers, this is big issue cinema handled on a small scale that belies its massive intentions ... basically, this is the kind of film that M. Night Shyamalan WISHES he could make. Subtle, challenging, brilliant – just like his work, Jeff Nichols really is a talent to watch ...
9. BONE TOMAHAWK – 2016’s horror movie of the year (so far) is a very strange beast indeed, three-parts revisionist western, one-part tense suspense thriller and two-parts creepy, weird and deeply inventive splatter horror ... and altogether fiendishly clever. Interestingly, the actual horror movie elements mostly BOOKEND the film – for the majority of the two hour-plus running time it’s just a western, albeit one with a distinctive, unique template. Kurt Russell is at his most craggily John Wayne-esque as grouchy frontier Sherriff Hunt, whose impulsive wounding of a troublesome vagrant leads to progressive town “doctor” Samantha (Lili Simmons) being kidnapped by mysterious, deeply feared “troglodyte” Indians, prompting a posse to be formed to bring her back. Joining Hunt is crotchety old deputy Chicory (a brilliant, lovable turn from venerable character actor Richard Jenkins), dandyish-yet-deadly veteran Indian-fighter Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox) and Samantha’s cow-puncher husband Arthur (a typically compelling performance from Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson), stubbornly determined not to be left behind despite nursing a broken leg from falling off the roof. They’re not a particularly promising rescue force, and they’re going up against a foe that the local “civilised” Indians have forever been rightly terrified of – they seem all but doomed to fail. For the most part the pace is slow and stately, giving the character dynamics plenty of room to grow and develop, and writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s genius script helps things along enormously – it really is a thing of beauty, every exquisitely written line a gem of sharp wit and rare insight, while the twistiness of the plot drives things along with impressive aplomb despite the gradual dustiness of the pace. When the third act tone shift comes it’s a doozy, pitching the action into an intriguing new realm of terrifying The Hills Have Eyes-style survival horror barely hinted at in the shocking opening, building to an intense, compelling climax that feels well-earned after all the comparably pleasant hardship that’s come before. This is a really original piece of work, a film of rare ingenuity and consummate skill that marks Zahler as one of the sure talents to watch in the future.
8. EDDIE THE EAGLE – I’m the perfect age to enjoy this film, since I was an impressionable child when oddball Eddie Edwards represented Britain in ski-jumping at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Eddie was a podgy, long-sighted amateur with no real training in the sport, who had been repeatedly turned down and undermined by the British Olympic Committee, only managing to qualify for his place through sheer grit, stubbornness and determination. Needless to say such a story of true life triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity is catnip to Hollywood, so it’s amazing that it took so long to bring it to the screen ... thankfully Matthew Vaughn (producer for Guy Ritchie for YEARS and, of course, the genius who brought Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and Kingsman to the screen) and actor-turned director Dexter Fletcher are equal to the task, here turning it into a compelling, gripping and deeply, HILARIOUSLY funny sporting adventure. Kingsman’s Taron Egerton is perfectly cast as Eddie, effortlessly capturing the man’s gurning, wonky-walking, endlessly effervescent personality, and the end result is an infinitely lovable unlikely hero we can’t help rooting for; blinding star power, meanwhile, comes in the form of Hugh Jackman as Bronson Peary, the fictional former ski-jumper who takes him under his bullish, drunkenly-charming wing and gives him some much needed tips and advice (therefore providing the audience with some much needed context, exposition and an entertainingly crafted crash course into the sport); and at home there’s brilliant support (and not so much ) from Eddie’s parents, brilliantly played by Jo Hartley and British living legend Keith Allan. Comparisons will, of course, be drawn to 1993’s excellent sporting comedy Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team who ran the same year (indeed the film even makes sly mention of said events at one point), and this does share much of that film’s comic DNA, but this would be fitting praise indeed since this reaches similar highs, and it’s certainly just as much fun ... but it’s also a moving, powerful experience, the humour tempered by an inspirational message that’s never rammed down our throats but still delivered with the due amount of enthusiastic gusto. If, by the end, you haven’t got a lump in your throat but also a big, dumb grin on your face, then you have no soul – this is without a doubt one of THE feel-good films of the year, and while the appeal may be universal it’s also a story that remains unashamedly, gloriously BRITISH.
7. 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI – Michael Bay in serious movie shocker! Who’da thunk it? All joking aside, this really is a fascinating curiosity of a film in that respect, Bay eschewing his usual overblown, glossy ADD-friendly action movie porn and questionably juvenile sense of humour for a worthy, solid story and real, believable flesh and blood characters trapped in a genuine life-or-death crisis ... but what makes this REALLY impressive is how genuinely GREAT the final result actually is, proving to be Bay’s best film to date BY FAR. Undoubtedly a substantial amount of the credit here has to go to (amazingly) first-time screenwriter Chuck Hogan (an author probably best known for as the co-creator of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain saga, and the novel Prince of Thieves which became Ben Affleck’s acclaimed second directorial offering The Town), adapting Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 fact-based book recounting the harrowing events that took place in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th 2012 – Hogan’s script is tight, taut and as stirringly epic and emotional as the material deserves. The main action revolves around a small group of ex-US military personnel (mostly former marines, army rangers and Navy SEALs), known as Global Response Staff, who act as security for the Special Mission Embassy as well as a not-so-secret CIA operations outpost known as “The Annex”, who find themselves faced with a desperate fight for survival after Islamic militants begin a coordinated attack on American personnel on the anniversary of 9-11. First trying (and ultimately failing) to rescue the US Ambassador from the Embassy, they withdraw to the Annex, digging in with the intention of defending the complex and its inhabitants until help can arrive ... no matter the cost. Comparisons with Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down will no doubt be drawn, and here they prove very favourable indeed, Bay’s surprising restraint and decision to, for once, direct with as little of his characteristic flair and excess as possible paying off magnificently – the action sequences are certainly as robust and intense as we’d expect, but they’re also shot through with real tension and an intriguing new sense of honesty we’ve never seen from his work before. This newfound integrity extends to the quieter moments, bringing real power and pathos as we’re made to really care about the men and women put into this nightmarish situation, and ultimately leading to some heartbreaking moments when the body-count begins to mount up. Rising star James Badge Dale is an affecting tough-yet-tender heroic lead in his strongest, chewiest role to date as GRS commander Tyrone “Rone” Woods, while US The Office star John Krasinski gets the chance to flex some impressive action-man muscles as Rone’s former SEAL team mate and new GRS member Jack Da Silva – both are family men who have a lot to lose, but they refuse to back down even in the face of overwhelming odds; meanwhile strong support comes from the likes of The Unit’s Max Martini as bear-like former marine Mark “Oz” Geist, rising French star Alexia Barlier as undercover CIA officer Sona Jillani, Black Sails’ Toby Stephens as Glen “Bub” Doherty, the GRS commander determined to come to their rescue despite being based hundreds of miles away, and TV veteran David Constabile (best known for roles in The Wire, Breaking Bad and Suits) as the CIA head of the Annex administrative team, known simply as “the Chief”, a timid bureaucrat who finds himself increasingly out of his depth as the situation worsens. The robust action unfolds thick and fast throughout, but between writer and director there’s plenty of genuine depth and substance to the story, and when the emotional blows come they’re as solid and powerful as they need to be without ever descending into maudlin sentimentality. This is definitely a side of Michael Bay we’ve barely caught glimpses of before now, but if this is an indicator of a new, more mature turn for the usually flashy big-kid director then I look forward to seeing what he’s got to offer in the future. With a bit of luck he’ll bring some of this new restraint to bear on the next Transformers movie ... but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT – while he came damn close with 2013’s pretty-frickin’-genius Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has never before made a true, no-holds barred classic WESTERN ... which is surprising given how many of his films have a lot of oat-opera DNA in them. Being a self-confessed movie nut, he loves all genres, but the western has long been one of his very favourites, and here, at last, we see him paying full and proper homage while simultaneously crafting one of the finest of this new cinematic century. It also sees him reteaming with no less than SIX of his best acting talent – Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell (it’s a small role but, as usual, she gives it her bubbly, peppy all) from Death Proof, Michael Madsen from Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Vol. 1 AND 2, Tim Roth of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Walton Goggins of Django Unchained and, of course, his beloved, been-in-virtually-ever-movie-he’s-EVER-made good-luck charm, Samuel L. Jackson – as well as breaking in some newbies who will, no doubt, work with him again maybe a whole bunch of times, most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh, veteran character actor Bruce Dern and even Channing Tatum! Needless to say everyone is on top – sometimes career best – form, and Jackson and Russell in particular are a joy to behold, both together and individually, while Goggins frequently steals the film right out from under them. To give away much of the plot is to spoil a whole lot of hugely enjoyable elaborate twistiness, suffice to say that this is essentially a snowbound game of “ten little Indians” set almost entirely in one location, namely a poky frontier roadhouse ambitiously entitled “Minnie’s Haberdashery”, in which the titular eight-strong mishmash of cow-punchers, Civil War veterans, civil servants and bounty hunters take shelter from a seriously nasty snowstorm, at first forming a kind of uneasy equilibrium until it becomes clear that some of the inhabitants may be up to no good. This is BY FAR Tarantino’s most fiendishly clever film, a screw-tightening Gordian knot of paranoia and duplicity in which nothing is quiet what it seems, and the tension between these eight strangers is frequently so potent you spend vast swathes of the running time perched on the edge of your seat with white knuckles waiting to see what’s gonna happen next ... but it’s also his most witty, his typically razor sharp dialogue here proving to be some of his very best, the comedy frequently turning very black indeed (personally that’s always been my favourite kind), especially when the story takes one of its frequent detours into some VERY dark territory indeed (“Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” I’ll say no more). And of course, this being Tarantino, there’s also plenty of sudden, eye-watering bursts of brutal, bloody violence, especially in the shocking, intense, surprising and, frankly, proper INGENIOUS final act. There’s added movie-fan kudos from a typically top-notch soundtrack, the main score comprised almost entirely of well-selected cues from film legend Ennio Morricone, which is never less than pitch perfect. Thoroughly engrossing and endlessly rewarding from chilly start to blood-soaked end, this is EASILY Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, and, I think, the best western of the last ten years. Fantastic stuff.
5. ZOOTOPIA – it may have been released as Zootropolis on this side of the Atlantic (due to some frankly baffling legal issues over ownership of the term Zootopia), but I prefer the original – it just fits better, mainly because, while the main setting of Disney’s first fully anthropomorphic solo animated epic for years may be a city intended to be a paradise for animals of every species to live together in peace and harmony, it’s ultimately an irony given the underlying tensions and prejudices that the Zootropolis police force’s newest member is about to discover. The rookie cop in question is Judy Hopps (an endearingly sparkly, optimistic-against-all-odds vocal performance from Once Upon a Time’s own Snow White, Ginnifer Goodwin), an adorable little bunny rabbit hired through a progressive affirmative action initiative, who initially finds herself relegated to traffic duty by her much more meaty, alpha male co-workers and Idris Elba’s gruff, couldn’t-care-less water buffalo police chief Bogo, at least until she begins investigating an overlooked missing-person case on her own initiative, which leads her to discover a potential crisis Zootropolis’ mayor Lionheart (an enjoyably oily J.K. Simmons) has been trying to keep a lid on, as a growing number of predators seem to be reverting to their savage primal natures. Her only ally is Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox con artist who knows this incredibly complex city like the back of his hand, whom she enlists (read: BLACKMAILS, really) to help her. Needless to say that as the case develops and they get to the bottom of things, their initial ingrained predator/prey prejudices begin to give way to mutual respect and, eventually, even friendship ... this is one of the very best of the new “post-Pixar” Disney animated features, coming close to equalling the giddy heights of Big Hero 6, an endlessly inventive action comedy that playfully lampoons the classic buddy cop movie conventions as well as delivering some really great fundamental life lessons about being true to yourself and following your dreams, accepting people for what they really are rather than what society or convention may want you to think, and learning to live in peace and harmony no matter your creed, beliefs or, indeed, species. The visuals are magnificent throughout, from the inspired character designs to some wildly (sorry) exotic environments and ingenious animal-based reversals on popular real world conventions, there are some dynamite set pieces (particularly an inspired chase through a bizarre mini-metropolis) and the film has a consistently zesty and playful sense of humour (zinging dialogue rubs shoulders with hilarious sight-gags and skits like the “naturist” club and the DMV run by sloths), as well as all the well-balanced heart and soul we’ve come to expect from Disney lately. It even presents us with an intriguing new extra – a likeable Shakira song ... interesting. Altogether this is another strong indicator that the House of Mouse looks set to continue their much-deserved comeback, and right now it’s a strong candidate for my animated feature of the year. Now we just have to see how Kubo & the Two Strings compares ...
4. HARDCORE HENRY – by far the most wonderfully weird and wacked out movie I’ve seen so far this year is the debut feature of rock musician turned director Illya Naishuller, an over-the-top slice of pure action movie mayhem shot ENTIRELY from a first-person perspective utilising a revolutionary head-mounted camera rig designed specifically for the film. Such plot as there is proves largely incidental, merely a driving force for the incessant, madcap action, but here goes – for the purposes of viewing we are, essentially, newly-cobbled together cyborg Henry, reconstructed in the lab of megalomaniacal telekinetic psychopath Akan (Danila Koslovsky) by Henry’s wife Estelle (rising star Haley Bennet, set to go stratospheric later this year in The Girl On the Train), who quickly engineers his/our escape from Akan’s clutches, setting an insane movie-long chase/fight/shootout/etc. into motion as Henry sets out to rescue his wife, defeat Akan and uncover his missing past, and all that kind of stuff. Told you the plot was incidental ... even so, there’s lots of inspired invention on offer throughout, while the breakneck pace lends the deeply immersive perspective a particularly mesmerising intensity as we’re thrown into the midst of explosive shootouts, death-defying parkour-heavy foot chases, tons of seriously painful punch-ups and a truly insane all-action rooftop climax that has to be seen to be ... well, maybe even then you won’t really believe it. While we don’t really have a proper leading man, there’s plenty of talent to enjoy throughout – Koslovsky is a brilliant villain, making albino monster Akan a soft-spoken, super creepy nemesis worthy of Bond, Tim Roth puts in a cracking cameo in a childhood flashback as Henry’s father, and Dasha Charusha and Svetlana Ustinova make for fun comic book-friendly eye-candy as a pair of ass-kicking dominatrix assassins, but the true, manic, scene-stealing star of the show is District 9’s Sharlto Copley, hamming it up with gusto as Jimmy, a mysterious friend/benefactor/lunatic who keeps showing up at opportune moments in a variety of guises (and, intriguingly, personalities) to help Henry out ... and then dying. (Obviously it gets explained, but I won’t give it away – the reveal, when it comes, is just too much fun. ) This is about as bonkers as a movie can get, and it’s bloody, sweary and seriously non-PC, but it’s a sheer riot from beginning to end – certainly it’s the kind of movie you have to be in the right kind of mood to watch, but go in with an open mind (or, possibly, a skin-full of beers) and you’re due a pretty massive guilty pleasure. Certainly it’s gonna be a proper tall order finding anything else this year that’ll be any more mental an experience than this one was ... and it even includes what might be the very best ever use of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now in a film (seriously, could just be even better than Shaun of the Dead’s).
3. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – back in 2008, director Matt Reeves, producer JJ Abrams and screenwriter Drew Goddard gave the found-footage genre a major shot in the arm with super-intense proto-Godzilla Cloverfield. It was an audacious, awe-inspiring piece of work, and it would have made my horror movie of the year had The Mist not snuck in under the radar. For a long time there were rumblings of a sequel in the works, but I didn’t give it much credence OR enthusiasm – it was such a singular work any attempt to follow it would be superfluous, potentially even embarrassing, and Abrams for one has always been too canny for that. Then this came along, creeping in through the back door like some kind of sneaky little indie horror, and right from the start we all knew it was going to be a very different beast. Indeed, aside from that title and a few VERY sly and subtle references, you’d never know debuting director Dan Tracthenberg’s film was even set in the same universe, never mind an actual sequel – in fact, for the majority of its running time it isn’t even science fiction ... but shit, even saying THAT might be giving too much away. Anyway ... Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a troubled young woman who wakes up in an underground bunker with her leg busted up and chained to a pipe after being run off a remote country road in the middle of nowhere. Her captor is Howard (John Goodman), who insists he hasn’t abducted her at all but in fact rescued her from a fate worse than death – according to him, there’s been some kind of massive nationwide attack, maybe nuclear or chemical, or worse, and it’s not safe above ground, nor will it be for some time. The only other person in the bunker is Emmet (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.), a seemingly grounded, rational young man who nonetheless claims there might actually be something to Howard’s seemingly paranoid, delusional claims ... and yet, as she’s allowed free reign of the bunker, Michelle can’t help suspecting there’s something else going on here, and begins plotting her escape. But even then, things are more complicated than that ... yes, this is some twisty, sneaky, super-smart stuff, a genuine mind-job of a thriller that constantly wrong-foots the viewer and keeps you guessing right to the very end. The script is dynamite, brought to vivid, super-tense life by a committed three-hand cast each at the top of their game – Winstead has NEVER been this good, creating a truly compelling, proactive heroine we can’t help rooting for right from the start, while Gallagher is likeable, engaging and seems to wear his heart on his sleeve, only to reveal hidden depths and complexities as the story unfolds ... but Goodman is the true star, turning in THE performance of his career as he takes potential pantomime wacko survivalist Howard and turns him into someone we could almost like, until he turns on a dime and gets REALLY F£$%ING SCARY. At turns suspenseful, chilling and geeky, razor sharp fun, it then suddenly opens out in the final act into something entirely different (but just as entertaining, powerful and memorable as everything that’s come before) ... and then you realise why this film shares some DNA with its predecessor. Even so, go in as good and cold as you can – it’s better that way. Or maybe just forget everything I just told you?
2. DEADPOOL – there’s a line in Marvel’s latest superhero franchise-starter in which the titular “hero” threatens to do to his nemesis “what Limp Bizkit did to music in the 90s” – not only is it just one of the HUNDREDS of comedic gems on offer here, but it could almost be an oh-so-subtle dig at Marvel themselves over how they treated this very character back in 2009 in the semi-turd that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Seriously, Deadpool got intellectually ARSE-RAPED in that movie ... which is why it’s only right and proper that they’ve finally made it up to him by giving him (and us die-hard fans) the full-blooded, uncensored R-RATED (!!!) solo vehicle he deserves. And what a masterpiece it is – not only is this one of the very best Marvel movies ever made (SERIOUSLY!!), but it’s also THE MOST pure, unadulterated fun I’ve had at the cinema since Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course nobody else could play the Merc With a Mouth better than Ryan Reynolds (in spite of the treatment of the character first time round, his casting was totally spot-on), and this time he’s clearly relishing the chance to do things right – this truly is Wade Wilson as he SHOULD BE seen, potty-mouthed, thoroughly inappropriate, more than a little crazy in the head and entirely incapable of taking even the most life-threatening situation seriously, and he’s an absolute 24-carat JOY to watch throughout, even if he does spend of substantial chunk of his screen time hidden behind a (surprisingly expressive) mask. We join the action mid-way through the story, as Wade finally catches up with the dastardly villain who gave him his extremely handy heal-any-wound mutant powers but also gave him a face that looks like the product of angry avocado hate-sex () – The Transporter: Refuelled’s Ed Skrein is a brilliantly apathetic and enjoyably self-entitled super-villain as Ajax (aka FRANCIS, a guilty secret that Deadpool NEVER stops taunting him with – at one point he even does it VISUALLY in one of the film’s very best sight gags) – only to be foiled by the well-intentioned interference of the film’s token X-Men, CGI-rendered Colossus (Stefan Kapicic, adorably proper and principled) and shaven-headed teen rookie Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand, the very definition of a sullen adolescent goth). Cue the narrative spooling back to the start of the story through one of the frequent, comic-faithful fourth-wall-breaks as we discover exactly what brought Wade Wilson to this moment – namely undergoing the potentially lethal mutant gene-therapy in order to overcome the terminal cancer threatening to steal him away from his equally foul-mouthed soul mate Vanessa (a master-class of subtle scene-stealing from Firefly and Homeland’s Morena Baccarin), only to be betrayed by Ajax’s would-be megalomaniac, disfigured and transformed into a supremely dysfunctional dark avenger. Fans of the comics of course always knew EXACTLY what to expect going in, but otherwise this REALLY IS like nothing Marvel have every done before on screen (even their original R-rated cash-cow, the Blade series, was just bloody, not bloody NUTS) – it’s as filthy and non-PC as its hero, at least 70% of the constant, knowing, inspired humour coming from a pretty dark, inappropriate place ... but thankfully it’s also consistently hilarious, the gleeful tone-setting mock opening title sequence letting us know EXACTLY what we’re in for over the next hour and three quarters. From razor sharp verbal zingers (“Oooooh! Fourth-wall-break inside fourth-wall break!”) to deep belly-laugh-inducing sight gags and super geeky nods and homages, this movie must have one of the highest hit counts in comedy history. But of course, regular superhero movie fans will not be disappointed, because there’s also some spectacular action throughout, from the insane opening freeway chase and shootout (in which our Merc must take out a cadre of heavily-armed bad guys with just twelve bullets and a pair of ninja swords) to the spectacularly over-the-top naval scrap-yard showdown (essentially it’s what the big action climax of Batman V Superman SHOULD have been). This film is a total gem from start to finish, as deserving of a long-running franchise as anything Marvel’s done so far, and EASILY this year’s best comic book movie – Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad REALLY need to deliver to beat this one. Nice work, Marvel. You’ve finally made it all up to us.
1. THE REVENANT – Deadpool would have been my movie of the year (so far) if it hadn’t been for this stone cold MASTERPIECE from Birdman writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, an epic adaptation of Michael Punke’s intense man-against-nature novel which is itself inspired by the true life legend of American Frontier Era fur trapper Hugh Glass. Leonardo Dicaprio delivers one the finest performances of his already impressive career as Glass, who is left for dead in the frozen wilderness by his hunting party after being mauled near to death by a grizzly bear, only to crawl, claw, fight and flee his way through hundreds of miles of Indian-infested hostile territory with just one thought in his grimly, unflinchingly determined mind – track down Fitzgerald (a typically mesmerising Tom Hardy, once again TOTALLY inhabiting his role as a morally bankrupt sociopath), the man who murdered his half-breed son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in cold blood, and extract brutal vengeance. There are other excellent performances on offer throughout, Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Domhnall Gleeson particularly impressing as world-weary trapper Captain Andrew Henry, while The Maze Runner’s Will Poulter and Legend’s Paul Anderson deliver quality support, and Hardy is, as always, F£$%ING AMAZING, but in the end this is Dicaprio’s film, the versatile, never-more-game star going to insanely extreme lengths to deliver through what must have been THE most harrowing location shoot in cinema history – like his character, he clearly went through hell making this film, but the end result is a truly astonishing performance that makes us root for Glass throughout ordeals that would surely kill the hardiest of men. Like his star, Iñárritu had a truly herculean task set for him, but he too clearly attacked it with rare enthusiasm, the career-making directorial skill he displayed on Birdman here creating a harrowing but enormously inspiring epic of will and survival in the great outdoors. Those long, sustained takes are the norm, rendering already robust set-pieces (like the spectacular opening Indian attack and a knuckle-whitening horseback chase in which a lonely Glass desperately flees from an entire tribe) truly awe-inspiring and, frequently, nail-bitingly tense, even a little hard to sit through in places – the bear attack is played out in one shot, in agonising real time, and is almost as painful to watch as it looks like it must feel, but it’s as thrilling as it is harrowing, while the scene in which a freezing Glass hollows out a dead horse’s stomach in order to find a place to shelter from a blizzard is both a revoltingly fascinating sequence and an amusing homage to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This is also a film of rare, haunting beauty, Iñárritu’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing some truly captivating images of raw, natural wonder, from a sweeping shot JUST over the top of a half-frozen waterfall to a nearly hypnotising high altitude panning shot through a rain-spattered cloud bank, helping the director to craft an exquisite visual tone poem to fill in the vast stretches in which there’s barely a word of dialogue, and making even the ugliest, most visceral moments of violence seem hauntingly beautiful. This is an astonishing film from a director at the very height of his powers, in command of an exceptional cast and, in particular, a leading man who’s rarely been QUITE as good as he is right here – altogether this has a VERY strong chance of still being at the top of my list come the end of the year, and indeed it’s one of THE VERY BEST films I’ve seen so far this DECADE. It’s an awesome achievement that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and it deserves ALL the acclaim it can get ...
Aaaaaaanyways ... so that's it for now, here comes the summer and all that - starting off with Captain America: Civil War,
less than 22 hours to go now ... can't bloody wait!
Now looking ahead to some of the other awesome stuff coming this summer, reckon this could be another big one. Here's hoping.
In the meantime you may hear from me again on here over the summer, otherwise I'll see you again this September with my big fat Summer Top Ten and stuff. Meannwhile see you round ...