February is a lot shorter than January’s behemoth edition with just 3 films.

First up, Jupiter Ascending has some stunning visuals. If you took the Wachowski’s latest film as a series of isolated moments, it can be absolutely striking. Sadly, those moments are tied together as a film; and a terrible one at that. The plot is nonsensical, largely told in exposition, and with characters for whom it would be a stretch to call them “sketched”. Some of the devices and ideas tying the world and action together are beyond dumb, the gravity skates being a particular low point. This film is awful, and I’d wager a contender for worst film of the year. (See my Jupiter Ascending Twitter review).

Selma is a fresh take on the American civil rights movement, focussing on the period Martin Luther King took his campaign to Selma, Alabama. It’s a fascinating insight into both a small moment of the movement, and does a reasonable job of showing that King was a visionary but not perfect. David Oyelowo puts in a fantastic performance as the lead, demonstrating King’s well-known oratorial prowess, and some of his frailties. At times the swelling music and sweeping visuals can be a little on the Oscar-bait side, but this is a movie worthy of that grandeur. Very good. (See my Selma Twitter review).

Finally, Kingsman: The Secret Service is the kind of big, silly, fun, comic-book chaos that you expect from a Matthew Vaughn film. Sure, it doesn’t quite make sense, and some of the action is a little more chaotic than clear, but it’s entertaining. It’s not going to win any awards, but some films don’t have to in order to be enjoyable. Good. (See my Kingsman: The Secret Service Twitter review).

Fairly easy but deserving win for Selma in February.

Welcome to Film Fight 2015! I haven’t checked to be certain, but I believe this is going to be the biggest month yet with 9 films in the fight. Even the thought of tackling this number has delayed this post by a silly amount. Because this was during the season for Oscar releases, most of these are going to be better than average.

First up, Big Hero 6 rightly makes a big deal of the main character’s robot, Baymax, and his understated and unintentional humour. He’s a great addition to an otherwise barely sketched cast of characters, none of whom get enough individual screen time to get beyond a single character trait. I’m not expecting nuance, but a little more than we get would be nice. That said, the film is the kind of fun adventure we’ve come to expect from Disney Animation Studios. It’s certainly not the best kid’s animated film you’ll see, but it’s far from the worst. (See my Big Hero 6 Twitter review).

St. Vincent has Bill Murray play a grouchy but funny old man, a role with which he has become more than comfortable. Keeping the act fresh is the introduction of a single mother and son as neighbours who begin to rely on him. All of the characters build just enough, their interactions work very well, and the movie ticks along nicely. A funny, and at times sweet, comedy. Well worth seeing. (See my St. Vincent Twitter review)

Taken 3 is the next inevitable cash grab in the series, following the surprisingly great original. There’s nothing new here, and many of the ideas have been done to death. It’s formulaic, but fun; entertaining, but with an utterly nonsensical plot. The action set pieces that we’re always moving towards are reasonable enough but you won’t care about any of the cast, making those sequences fairly hollow. Watch if you want something mindless. (See my Taken 3 Twitter review).

The relentless pace and movement given to Birdman by both its seamless editing and direction define it. There’s no looking away from Michael Keaton’s lead performance as an actor losing himself to self-doubt and self-obsession, a nihilistic narcissism played out between stage performances. The supporting cast are equally brilliant, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone, each bringing their own distractions. We’re never allowed to see what is real and what is imaginary, where the play within the movie ends and the lead’s breakdown begins. An excellent movie. (See my Birdman Twitter review).

Foxcatcher is based on the true story of a millionaire funding wrestling in the US, for mostly vanity reasons, and the two brothers who get caught up in his ill-conceived act of egotism. The lead performances are exceptionally strong. Steve Carrell shows a serious side we haven’t seen before, and Channing Tatum puts in a great physical performance as an awkward, lumbering wrestler. As a whole, however, the movie is languidly paced. Until the very end, you want things to move just a bit faster. Worth seeing. (See my Foxcatcher Twitter review).

Never before has musical performance been so tense as in Whiplash. I can think of few films that had my muscles tighten so much as when the lead, an aspiring drummer, performs as hard as he can whilst being berated by his bully of a coach, fantastically played by JK Simmons. As you might imagine, the film sounds incredible, one of the few times going to the cinema pays dividends unless you have a high-end sound system. The story itself is weak (you’ll see most of it coming) but it’s the two thoroughly unlikeable main characters going head-to-head that make this film something you. Excellent. (See my Whiplash Twitter review).

There are many war films that have something to say that would be worth hearing. American Sniper is not one of them. Its few messages (the impact of war on veterans, the unflinching/harmful patriotism of some) have been said far better in other movies. The plot itself, focussing on a sniper chasing one of his counterparts over the years, is dull: each of the four main segments are similar enough that even the few action sequences are pretty unengaging, with the only stand-out being the scene used for the trailer. Not worth seeing. (See my American Sniper Twitter review).

I have a lot of time for James Franco and Seth Rogen. Their comedy is often juvenile, but it frequently tickles me just the right way. The Interview is not one of those occasions. The premise is thin, the jokes are one-note (and it’s a dud), the progression is contrived, the acting is weak, and there’s really not much else. It fails to do just about anything well. There are a million better comedies to see than this. (See my The Interview Twitter review).

Finally, Ex Machina is a fascinating and gripping take on some very important issues. It’s an exploration of AI, human nature, and manipulation. There are enough twists and turns, layers of complication, to keep things moving nicely. Alex Garland has shot this beautifully, squeezing surprisingly great and nuanced performances from his small cast. This is an exceptionally good movie, directorial debut or not. (See my Ex Machina Twitter review).

There are at least three movies that could win the year this month, but only one gets through. Very hard to call, but I think it has to be Birdman, for keeping up that pace and quality for so long.

Yes, most of the Film Fights this year were terribly late, with roughly half showing up in December, but we got there in the end. So what was the best film of the year? As always, my caveat from earlier years applies: Film Fight is done in a knock-out style and, as such, only picks my favourite film of the year; there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the honourable mentions; the good films that, for some reason, did not win their month:

  • American Hustle
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • The Lego Movie
  • The Double
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Zero Theorem
  • Under the Skin
  • Starred Up
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Raid 2
  • Frank
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • Snowpiercer

Now, the monthly winners:

  • January: 12 Years a Slave
  • February: Her
  • March: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • April: Calvary
  • May: Blue Ruin
  • June: Fruitvale Station
  • July: Boyhood
  • August: The Rover
  • September: Before I Go to Sleep
  • October: Gone Girl
  • November: Nightcrawler
  • December: In Your Eyes

It was an uneven year, but it started incredibly well. January, February and March were absolutely rammed with great movies, where the mid to end of the year were a lot weaker. Looking over the winner’s list, though, and they’re all strong contenders (but not classics).

The moods evoked by Before I Go To Sleep, HerBlue Ruin, In Your Eyes and The Rover were all affecting in very different ways. The dark humour in Calvary and Gone Girl hit perfectly, with some lovely direction in both. The real-life inspired 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station showed up awful, brutal moments of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel was another strikingly shot and wonderful Wes Anderson film. Boyhood, while not the most gripping story, was a fascinating cinematic experiment.

However, the winner for 2014 (not by much) was Nightcrawler. The lead performance was a career best that no-one saw coming (the bit parts are all strong too), it’s cleanly shot, and is a very dark, satirical statement on modern journalism that never missteps. A great film.

 

The last film fight before the big finale has three films…

First up, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is that most annoying of films: the set-up for another movie. It feels very much like a cash-in. With the lucrative franchise coming to an end, the decision to split Mockingjay into two films has seriously harmed at least this part. For the vast majority of the film, we see a boring set-up and a few dull action sequences to fill it in. With the exception of one remarkably well structured sequence towards the end (the SWAT-style assault), this film is fairly tiresome, never making us care about many of the characters. To be clear, it’s not bad; merely unnecessary. Avoid. (See my Mockingjay Part 1 Twitter review).

Joss Whedon decides to do something different for In Your Eyes: his newest writing project (he did not direct), that went straight to digital services, rather than a regular cinematic release. So what does a Whedon indie film look like? Pretty great. It’s strikingly pretty, with sweet dialogue (rather than the writer’s trademark humour) and great pacing. The two leads are very good, giving a sense of reality to the central conceit (people across the country who can see and feel through each other’s eyes) and keeping the whole thing interesting until the end. Very worthwhile. (See my In Your Eyes Twitter review).

Finally, Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane, an artist who let her husband take credit for her work as it became world-renowned. While there are great moments in the performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, they are ruined by the film’s lack of tonal consistency. It can’t seem to decide whether it should be a straight biopic, somewhat light, or wildly over-the-top and thus fails at them all. It also has the worst voiceover I’ve seen in a long time. A minor character pops in occasionally to literally state what is already happening on-screen. A real shame, because the core of the story is interesting but there’s too much wrong with this for it to really work. Avoid. (See my Big Eyes Twitter review).

The winner for December is In Your Eyes. Well-written, and touchingly performed.

There are three films in the film fight for November…

First up, Nightcrawler is a stylish, dark satire about the shock culture prevalent in modern journalism, particularly the nightly news. Jake Gyllenhaal absolutely nails the lead performance as a psychotic, but fascinating, camera man who will chase down any story; it might be a career best. The pacing is excellent: always pushing forward without being relentless, leaving the viewer gripped to their seat as the story unfolds. It’s made clear that the protagonist will do anything to get ahead, but it’s quite something to see exactly what he does. Exceptionally strong. (See my Nightcrawler Twitter review).

As a fan of Christopher Nolan, it feels strange to say that Interstellar might be his weakest film. That’s not to say it’s bad, it just doesn’t live up to the high points he has elsewhere. The visuals are stunning, bringing clarity to any number of complex scenes and scenarios that involve astronomical phenomenon that are hard to comprehend. This bleeds over into the world-building which swiftly shows the end-of-days scenario playing out for humanity, and why the mission must go ahead. Despite the odd slow patch, the whole never feels like a three hour movie. All of that said, some of the dialogue is absolutely terrible, incredibly cringeworthy and painfully out of character speeches mar the otherwise good performances. Anne Hathaway’s speech in the middle is jarringly bad (due to the writing, not her performance). The central conceit in the plot (about love and family) doesn’t help much here either, turning a solid hard sci-fi film into an overly saccharine movie. Good, but flawed. (See my Interstellar Twitter review).

Finally, Snowpiercer is that rarest of things for a modern action film: clear. The linear set-up, of taking a train carriage by carriage, brings a clarity to the plot and action that is often missing in many movies. While the performances are solid (Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans in particular), it’s really the mix of different action sequences and the big, dark moment at the end that really make it all work. Mostly fun. (See my Snowpiercer Twitter review).

The winner is Nightcrawler: well-paced, looks great, and with a top-class performance. Film of the year material.

October was a busy month for me, so there is only one film in the Film Fight…

First and last up, Gone Girl is David Fincher’s latest, about a man who is accused of abducting and killing his missing wife. The pacing here is masterful, with each act taking the story in a different direction; moving from straight-up thriller to dark satire along the way. As you’d expect from Fincher, the whole thing looks gorgeous, with a golden sheen over all of those fixed camera shots. While the film is generally well-acted, there are a few of the smaller performances that are a bit broad, but nothing to really put you off. All in all a very good movie (See my Gone Girl Twitter review).

The inevitable winner is, of course, Gone Girl.

 

For September’s Film Fight, we have three films…

First up, The Guest very quickly establishes that its tongue is firmly in cheek and that, despite the unease and tension in some scenes, it is not to be taken seriously. Doing this early was a good move, as it can then play scenes as knowing, rather than misjudged. The film finds just the right balance of dark comedy, home-intruder horror, and outright action for the mix to work. Enjoyable. (See my The Guest Twitter review).

While the slow burn of a spy thriller can be rewarding, A Most Wanted Man is not. It has the hallmarks of the genre: a slow, methodical build-up of misdirection, double-agents and deep-planning. It fails to pay-off on any of it. Maybe that was the intended punch-line, that sometimes these cat-and-mouse games don’t work, but to the viewer the lack of any real dramatic moment meant it was largely dull. Boring. (See my A Most Wanted Man Twitter review).

Finally, Before I Go To Sleep has a lingering and sad atmosphere, every scene filled up with a sense of mourning for a life that has been forgotten. Nicole Kidman is fantastic as a woman filling in the details of her former life day-on-day; with Colin Firth and Mark Strong both giving good performances. While the ending is overly saccharine, and oddly out of place, the majority of this film is excellent. Beautifully shot, well acted, and with an interesting narrative. Must watch.   (See my Before I Go To Sleep Twitter review).

The obvious winner is Before I Go To Sleep, for its strong performances and great direction.

Again, a few months late, but August’s Film Fight has 4 films…

First up, Guardians of the Galaxy represents a change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Where the earlier films are straight-faced without being dour, Guardians is out-and-out comic book crazy as we see the wider cosmic parts of the universe. The cast are great, managing to pull off fun action with genuinely funny moments; playing the right level of knowing insight into the absurdity of, for example, a tree that is best friends with a psychotic raccoon. The storytelling is a little exposition-heavy at times, but you won’t mind when everything else works so well. Very good. (See my Guardians of the Galaxy Twitter review).

The Inbetweeners 2 is the result of extending a series way beyond breaking point. Where the series was funny, and the first film was okay, there’s barely anything left for a second film. There are a handful of horrible but funny moments, but most of the film is just the same reheated filler. Avoid. (See my The Inbetweeners 2 Twitter review).

The Expendables 3 is another sequel that should never have been made. As is par for the course, the opening and closing action sequences are big, extravagant indulgences that can be greatly entertaining. The problem is everything else: the awful acting, the terrible dialogue, bad pacing, pointless subplots etc. There’s very little to like when something isn’t exploding on screen. Also avoid. (See my The Expendables 3 Twitter review).

Finally, The Rover is an exceptional, cold-blooded revenge thriller against the backdrop of a society that no longer has meaningful consequences. Set in a post apocalyptic world, reminiscent of The Road, Guy Pearce delivers one of his best performances as the not-quite-right lead. Brutal, relentless and breathtaking. Very good. (See my The Rover Twitter review).

The winner is The Rover for being such a cold but gripping film.

Yup, they’re getting later and later at the moment, but here’s the Film Fight for July, with 4 films…

First up, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a fun-enough sequel to what was a pretty good kids movie. It’s not a masterpiece, feeling a little formulaic at times, but it really didn’t have to be a classic. There are sad moments, fun moments, exciting moments. It does its job of being an entertaining, if light-hearted, film. Enjoyable. (See my How To Train Your Dragon 2 Twitter review).

Boyhood is a fascinating experiment: director Richard Linklater assembled his cast every year for a few weeks, ostensibly so we can see the 7-year old boy at the centre of the film turn into a 19-year old man. While the pacing doesn’t always work, it’s great to see the actors improve year-on-year. While Ellar Coltrane, as the lead, sees the most obvious evolution, it’s great to see now-seasoned actors, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, going from serviceable at the start to great towards the end. Very worthwhile. (See my Boyhood Twitter review).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good reboot of the franchise, so it was going to be interesting to see where its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of The Apes, went next. There’s a significant time jump and the human population is all but wiped out as the film begins. A small group stumble into Caesar (the ape leader) and his new family, causing tensions to rise. While the supporting cast are sketched in overly broad strokes, the leads are well-drawn characters forced into worsening situations. There are a number of missteps (the music is overwrought, the apes using guns is never earned) but it remains entertaining. A solid action/adventure. (See my Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Twitter review).

Finally, The Purge: Anarchy takes the silly premise of The Purge (that for one night a year no crime is illegal) into a new direction. Where the original was a home-invasion horror, Anarchy is more of a suspense-thriller, in the mould of Judgement Night. Viewed through that almost B-movie lens, it’s an entertaining film. There aren’t many surprises, but the action keeps the pace up nicely. Good. (See my The Purge: Anarchy Twitter review).

For July, the winner is Boyhood, for being such an interesting cinematic undertaking.

It’s October, so clearly this Film Fight for June is very, very late. It is, however, quite full, with 6 films reviewed.

First up, A Million Ways To Die In The West is an absolutely terrible comedy. While it certainly does have some funny moments, most of which don’t rise above toilet humour, the film as a whole is almost as bad as Seth Macfarlane’s performance. He comes across as wooden when delivering anything that isn’t a gag. His knowing insights into the genre he’s pastiching get old quickly, and there’s little else going on. Boring, poorly paced, and badly acted. (See my A Million Ways To Die In The West Twitter review).

Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat, or All You Need is Kill, depending on your context) is an excellent take on the time loop genre. An unwilling PR mans gets pressed into combat against an unstoppable alien force, being forced to live through his bad day thousands of time, as he slowly becomes a weapon. It does a remarkable job of compressing the wealth of information it has to convey into a clear shorthand; you’re rarely at a loss as to where he is in the cycle, even in the midst of the fast-paced action. Exciting and well made, an excellent watch. (See my Edge of Tomorrow Twitter review).

Fruitvale Station is the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury prize winning film, based on the true story of a man who was shot by police at the titular station. It is shot in a straightforward manner, following him around for the day leading up to the events; giving us a chance to see the struggles of the man before seeing his last struggle. The performances, like the camera work, are grounded leading to a horrible unease as the ending gets closer. Great film, well worth seeing. (See my Fruitvale Station Twitter review).

There have been many hours of media activity around the West Memphis 3, so it’s not surprising to see a dramatised version in the form of Devil’s Knot. It is, however, surprising to see an otherwise decent pair of leads (Reece Witherspoon and Colin Firth) turn in such poor performances. With the exception of Kevin Durand’s small role, where he absolutely nails it as John Mark Byers, there’s nothing worth seeing here. It’s poorly paced, with overwrought music, and a lack of care. If you want to know about this case, watch the Paradise Lost documentaries. Avoid this. (See my Devil’s Knot Twitter review).

When 21 Jump Street was announced, it seemed like a bizarre, completely unnecessary and likely very bad movie reboot of a once popular TV show, in the vein of Bewitched. It turned out to be one of the funniest dumb comedies out of the US in a good while. 22 Jump Street then is that most unnecessary of things: a sequel to an unnecessary success. Thankfully, it turns out to also be pretty good. While it never hits the highs of its predecessor, it does turn in some great scenes. It is highly derivative but knowingly so, without being a simple cash-grab. Worth seeing. (See my 22 Jump Street Twitter review).

Finally, Cold in July is… well, barely memorable. I am writing this significantly further on from seeing the film that I would like, but nothing much really stands out. The film is something of a throwback to the 80s revenge thrillers that have seen a small resurgence of late. It’s quite bloody in places and with relatively good performances, but the over-the-top lighting and bad pacing put this into B-movie territory. Decent. (See my Cold in July Twitter review)

The winner this month is a tough choice. As an example of the action genre, Edge of Tomorrow is very strong, but I think it’s edged out by the slightly more worthy Fruitvale Station. (As an aside, Fruitvale Station is currently on Netflix if you happen to be in Canada).

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