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Another year, another Film Fight almost over. While the monthly posts were later than I’d have liked, they weren’t as bad as the previous year. As per my annual caveat, Film Fight is done in a knock-out style: it’ll select my favourite film of the year, but there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the honourable mentions. Films that were good, but were beaten in their own month:

  • Big Hero 6
  • St Vincent
  • Foxcatcher
  • Whiplash
  • Ex Machina
  • Catch Me Daddy
  • The Voices
  • Child 44
  • Spy
  • The Overnight
  • Southpaw
  • The Legend of Barney Thompson
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
  • Straight Outta Compton
  • Sicario
  • Suffragette
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Mississippi Grind
  • Steve Jobs
  • Bridge of Spies

Then the month winners:

  • January: Birdman
  • February: Selma
  • March: Predestination
  • April: Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • May: Mad Max: Fury Road
  • June: Slow West
  • July: Ant-Man
  • August: Trainwreck
  • September: The Martian
  • October: Macbeth
  • November: Kill Your Friends
  • December: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

As always the first month or two of the year, had some exceptional films. The middle and very end of the year had the usual big budget films, with some nice smaller films squeezed in between.

Trying to pick a winner is very difficult. A few big Hollwood blockbusters made it through (Age of Ultron, Ant-man, Star Wars) that might not have made it in other months. They’re all good films, but there is little unique about them that won’t be repeated again next year. For a genuinely unique action film, we need to look to Mad Max: Fury Road. Relentlessly paced, clear action, with some of the best characters of the year; it’s a visual action treat.

The Martian showed us that you can do a big budget sci-fi film, with action and characters we care about while trying to stay grounded in reality. Predestination went the other way into time-bending craziness, pushing the sci-fi boundary without sacrificing on characters.

Macbeth is an extraordinary piece of film-making: incredibly acted and with some of the best visual storytelling in decades. Birdman was similar, capturing some excellent performances in a relentless edit, constantly blurring reality.

What should win? I’m genuinely torn between those last two to the point I’ve considered a tie for quite some time. However, I think I’m going to give it to Birdman. While both films were well-acted and directed, the editing in Birdman is exceptional. Constant motion keeps the pace up, while never really letting you see what is real and what isn’t. A very well deserved win.

For the final Film Fight of the year, we have five films.

First up, Black Mass tells the story of real gangster, Whitey Bulger, and his secret pact with the FBI. The film is fairly fragmented with no clear or interesting vision as to where it is going to go; with each scene more like a way to fill out the timeline in patchwork than form a cohesive whole. Johnny Depp puts in his first good, serious performance in years as the lead. He’s genuinely brilliant: compelling, frightening, ruthless, and cold. It’s very easy to forget who you’re watching. Depp aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend this. Probably not worth seeing. (See my Black Mass Twitter review).

Bridge of Spies is another collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so you probably know what you’re going to get: a safe Hollywood drama, great production values, well-acted, and with masterful direction. The story (of a lawyer forced into defending a Russian spy, then into a trade negotiation for an American spy) has measured pace and quiet tension. You know things will likely work out, but there are enough bumps along the way to keep it interesting. Of note, Mark Rylance has a stand-out performance as the exceptionally calm Russian spy, never cracking and always being entirely believable. An unnecessary epilogue aside, this is worth seeing. (See my Bridge of Spies Twitter review).

While Pixar have done exceptional work over the years, it feels like they phoned in The Good Dinosaur. To be clear, it’s not a bad film. It’s pleasant enough, and looks incredible. However, it lacks any of the magic of a Pixar film. The plot is uninspired and unoriginal, the pacing is a little leaden, and the lead character is fairly dull. Spot, the caveboy who joins Arlo on his adventure, is the film’s highlight: fun, wild, and sympathetic. Overall, the movie is forgettable. (See my The Good Dinosaur Twitter review).

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have made some great comedy separately, and have been in a decent film (Baby Mama) together before, so expectations were somewhat raised for Sisters. It doesn’t quite live up to that. The characters are thin, even for a comedy, and much of what you see plays out a little predictably. That said, the central house party is funny, even when it is failing to surprise. Okay, but not great. (See my Sisters Twitter review).

Finally, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a return to form for the franchise, following the largely awful prequel trilogy. We get interesting characters, fun dialogue, some excellent action sequences, some great little character moments, and everything else we found in the original trilogy. It’s far from perfect. There are plot elements that are a little tired and others that stretch credulity too far, even given the premise, but these are very much forgivable in the context of this family adventure. Very good. (See my Star Wars: The Force Awakens Twitter review).

The winner for December is Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It may not have won a stronger month, but is worth seeing.

For November, there are 4 films in the film fight.

First up, Spectre is the latest in a run of underwhelming Bond films. While the grittier tone is where the series needs to be, it is constantly undermined by nonsensical plotting and terrible, cheesey, contrived ideas. The opening sequence is fairly impressive (a long tracking shot through a busy crowd, into a hotel) and Mendes has an extraordinary eye for framing; some of the stills are genuinely stunning. However, the action scenes are muddled and lack excitement. Coupled with one of the worst final acts in Bond history, there is very little to like here. Avoid. (See my Spectre Twitter review).

Kill Your Friends is similar in tone to American Psycho, and that’s not a bad thing. Here we see a dark satire of the cutthroat nature of the music industry through the eyes of an A&R man who doesn’t really care for music. Brutal, dark, and funny, the subtle shifts in mood as the protagonist begins to crack keep us engaged. Worth seeing. (See my Kill Your Friends Twitter review).

While many that knew him say this account of the man is very inaccurate, Steve Jobs is reasonably good as a film. The performances are at its heart. Fassbender and Winslet are excellent, delivering the fast and tight dialogue we expect from Aaron Sorkin’s work. The wider cast are generally good (Seth Rogen surprising in a serious role), with only Job’s daughter coming off as weaker. That said, the film is far from perfect: the drama feels contrived to fit into the three-act structure, with much of the emotional content consequently coming across as hollow. Solid, but somewhat flawed. (See my Steve Jobs Twitter review).

Finally, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part 2 wraps up a series that has been hit-and-miss. Part 2 is a far better film than Part 1, in so far as it is a complete film. It has some fairly exciting action moments, but they are let down by some of the flattest character moments in the series so far. Far too many of the loose ends being tied up don’t serve the story. They’re really there to pad out a reasonable runtime into epic grandeur, a move that falls flat by ruining the pace. If you’ve seen the rest, then you’ll see this. Otherwise, it’s not worth the time. (See my The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part 2 Twitter review).

The winner is Kill Your Friends, as the most entertaining, well-paced film of the month.

October looks to be a great month for Film Fight, with 5 films.

First up, Macbeth is an astounding take on the Scottish Play. The performances by the leads are exceptional, with good performances throughout the rest of the cast. Fassbender outdoes himself here, with Marion Cotillard (as Lady Macbeth) every bit his equal. I’d recommend this film based on seeing those two alone. However, there is more on show here: the visual storytelling is eye-opening. Every shot, every edit tells the story by itself. You could happily switch off the dialogue and understand everything. That takes real skill. An excellent film. (See my Macbeth Twitter review).

Denis Villeneuve has directed some grim films before, like Prisoners, but nothing quite like Sicario. There is an unsettling brutality that pervades the film, as Emily Blunt gets drawn into the war on drugs by a CIA agent, played by Josh Brolin. The set pieces are nerve-tingling, never rushing to the pay-off, always escalating towards what you know is going to be a ferocious end. That’s without saying anything about Benicio Del Toro’s character, who comes into his own in the last few acts. The measured pace and beautiful visuals help balance the more graphic aspects of the film, but this is not easy viewing. Very good. (See my Sicario Twitter review).

The story of Suffragette is told from a perspective we don’t see enough of in the history of the suffragette movement: that of an ordinary woman (rather than Emily Pankhurst et al). Through this lense, we are shown exactly why this historic movement is so important (if that wasn’t already clear). Carrie Mulligan puts in a great performance, surrounded by a decent cast. It generally looks good, with natural lighting adding to the ambience. The film is only slightly marred when it does something a little more fast paced (what we might call an action sequence), where the visuals are a little muddy. All in, a very good (and important) film. (See my Suffragette Twitter review).

Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first original feature film, focussing on child soldier’s in an unspecified African country. While Idris Elba leads the cast as a commandant who indoctrinates captured children into his cause, it is one of the children we follow. Through the eyes of Agu, we see the devastating effects of war on children, the film rarely flinching when showing us the atrocities committed. It’s well-shot and well-paced throughout, keeping the audience engaged with a very difficult subject. Worth watching.  (See my Beasts of No Nation Twitter review).

Finally, Mississippi Grind is the story of an habitual gambler and loser, meeting another gambler who is everything he wishes to be. A road trip ensues and the plot unravels. Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelson are great in the lead roles, playing off each other well. It’s not a buddy comedy, by any stretch, but the interplay of the main characters is what makes the film. The overly happy ending lets down an otherwise grounded, and even film. Worth seeing. (See my Mississippi Grind Twitter review).

Any of the films in October would have stood a chance of winning most other months this year, but the winner for me has to be Macbeth. Fantastic performances and directing make the film an exceptional whole.

September was a mixed month, with some good films and some not so good.

First up, American Ultra is an over-the-top comedy about a guy who is activated as a mind-altered CIA assassin, but whose stoner tendencies have messed up all but the most reactionary programming. Eisenberg nails the role, as he does most of the time, switching effortlessly between burnt out and hyper deadly. The comedy is stock, but the action is quite energetic. Darkly funny, well-paced, and enjoyable. Fun, but not essential. (See my American Ultra Twitter review).

Gangster films often have a gritty edge, an underlying tension that everything will go wrong. Legend has no edge, no grit, and very little to recommend it. Unnecessary narration starts us off on the wrong foot, and continues on throughout the film. It’s meanderingly paced, save for a few obligatory scenes of the Kray Twins getting into fights with their enemies (and each other). The only real standout is Tom Hardy, excellent as both the superficially charming Reggie and the deranged Ronnie. It’s an excellent performance in an otherwise dull film. (See my Legend Twitter review).

The D Train is an indie film about a desperate high school reunion organiser trying to get the popular kid (now an actor) to attend the next big reunion. This involves him farcically lying and cheating, and getting further and further into trouble while wooing his target. The humour is timid and seldom, but often enough that it makes for decent viewing. The film is reasonably well made, with some neat framing choices. Okay. (See my The D Train Twitter review).

A biopic should be more interesting than Life, a boring look at the life of Hollywood icon, James Dean. It shouldn’t be entirely written off: the performances are good, if understated, with some decent dialogue. For a film told from the perspective of a photographer, it also looks the part, with a number of great shots. However, it is also turgidly dull. Glacial pace and lack of any real dramatic conflict mean every scene is utterly flat. Writing this review 2-3 months after seeing the film, I had to use IMDB to remind me the film to which “Life” was referring; it is that forgettable. Avoid unless you’ve had trouble sleeping. (See my Life Twitter review).

Finally, The Martian is the story of an astronaut left for dead on Mars, his crew who feel guilty, and the NASA staff back on Earth trying to rescue him. It tries to stay grounded in its fiction, but isn’t above having a big dramatic/action scene if it helps. Matt Damon is very likeable as the lead: you want to see him survive and be rescued, no matter how hopeless his plight seems. Pacing is great, one overlong sequence aside, as there’s always another crisis, some way in which the plan crumples and needs reevaluated. The stakes are always clear and the danger palpable. As blockbusters go, this is of the highest quality. Must see. (See my The Martian Twitter review).

The winner for September is The Martian, as one of the best big films of the year.

August is a surprisingly big month, with 8 films in the Film Fight, making it also more than a little late.

First up, The Legend of Barney Thomson is the directorial debut of Robert Carlyle, with himself in the titular role as an unlikeable barber who accidentally becomes a murderer. While the police investigation thread doesn’t quite land, Barney and his mother (a scene-stealing, excellent turn by Emma Thompson) are engaged in a dark comedy that never strays too far into farce, but remains larger than life. Very good. (See my Legend of Barney Thomson Twitter review).

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is exactly what you expect from the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have some of the biggest practical stunts in cinema, stylish fights, and excellent choreography/editing; the Opera scene stands out as particularly well done. We also have a convoluted, slightly nonsensical plot, but that’s par for the course. Sit back and let the action wash over you. It’s worth seeing. (See my Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Twitter review).

Pixar are still the best animation studio out there. Inside-Out is another good example of their output, but is a little lacking. The imaginative worlds they build have always been fully-formed, and make sense from an internal point of view, but the world inside Inside-Out seems to lack cohesion. The film itself is funny and at times emotional, which is probably no surprise for a film about the embodiments of a child’s emotions. It’s not a bad film but does feel flimsy in places, even for a kids film. Okay.  (See my Inside-Out Twitter review).

Marshland is a story about two Spanish detectives with very different approaches investigating some rural murders. The plot itself is able, if a little generic. There’s nothing particularly fresh in the story or characters, you’ve seen variations on this before. It is, however, a very solid effort in the crime fiction genre. Where it excels, however, is in the visuals. The aerial shots are gorgeous, and the colours, framing and lighting are world-class throughout. Good. (See my Marshland Twitter review).

Trainwreck is that rarest of things in American cinematic comedies: a fresh take. While elements of it are standard set-pieces, it builds smart jokes on top of enjoyably gross humour. For once, the character building is actually pretty good, with the leads getting more than the standard fall-from-grace and climb-back arc. Amy Schumer shows her comedy translates from stage to TV and now to cinema. Very funny. (See my Trainwreck Twitter review).

Meanwhile, Absolutely Anything is that saddest of things: a comedy with absolutely nothing new to say, not even the jokes. The premise is stock (Simon Pegg unexpectedly gets the power to do whatever he wants), and is propped up by tired cliches and reheated stereotypes. Nothing here develops beyond the terrible, narrow starting point. A comedy with no redeeming qualities. Avoid.  (See my Absolutely Anything Twitter review).

Yet another comedy: Vacation digs up the classic National Lampoon series for a modern take. While it fails to better those films (which are admittedly of their time), it manages enough funny, if disjointed, moments to make the whole experience pleasant. Both Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are likeable as the new leads, and the supporting cast each deliver the little that is asked of them. Not a classic, but okay. (See my Vacation Twitter review).

Finally, Straight Outta Compton is the dramatisation of the rise and fall of NWA, and its stars. At two and a half hours, the slow start feels like it might be a slog, but things pick up by the halfway mark as the group splinters and the real drama begins. The performances as a whole are decent, and the subject matter is interesting enough. It’s probably a little longer and less focussed than it could have been, but overall it works. Good. (See my Straight Outta Compton Twitter review).

The winner for August is Trainwreck. While none of the (many) films this month was faultless, I think I’d probably see this one again soonest. Note: Barney Thompson had originally been the winner in my first draft, but I changed my mind between writing this and publishing it.

July is traditionally big studio film territory, and that is what we have this year. Four films…

First up, Terminator Genisys is yet another entry in a franchise that should be facing its own Judgement Day. The film immediately sets to ripping apart the timeline to great effect, but quickly squanders its boldness with a plot about an evil Facebook-like company. There are some great set pieces, but they’re undermined by the clunky exposition and bad acting (Jai Courtney is especially flat). It’s a better film than its immediate predecessor, but that wouldn’t be hard. Fun, but not a classic. (See my Terminator Genisys Twitter review).

Seth MacFarlane certainly has his style of comedy and, as in Ted 2, it’s starting to wear a little threadbare. Even if you like his heavily referential/gross-out jokes, here they’re presented as a loosely connected series of sketches barely held together by the thinnest of plots. There are a few funny moments, but it’s largely devoid of anything to hold your interest. Avoid this movie, there are many better options. (See my Ted 2 Twitter review).

When Ant-Man was first announced, it wasn’t clear how they’d fit a character who is more grounded in the golden age of comics, despite his relative latter day importance. This film manages it with a few knowing winks and a fairly unique heist. When it’s being light and breezy, Ant-Man does very well. The small scale set pieces work surprisingly well, with both action and comedy moments aplenty. It doesn’t, however, earn a few of the main character beats. The relationship between Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne feels particularly unearned. Light-hearted and fun. (See my Ant-Man Twitter review).

Finally, Southpaw is built on every boxing cliche that you can imagine, from the rise-fall-rise structure, to the external struggles (family, drugs), and the training montages. We’re not getting originality so what are we getting? Well, another jawdropping performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who couldn’t look more different than he did in Nightcrawler, and an absolutely gut-wrenching plot involving his daughter. Some of the emotional moments are genuinely affecting, even if some of the relationships are by the book. It’s a mixed bag, but a solid film. (See my Southpaw Twitter review).

It’s difficult to pick a winner this month, with a serious film and a fun film that could win other months, but I think Ant-Man edges out for the simple fact I’d watch it again sooner than later.

June’s Film Fight is back up to the nearly standard four films…

First up, Spy is, as the name suggests, a spy film. Melissa McCarthy gets to show off her comedy skills as an agent who is thrust into the field after years behind a desk, and does so admirably. The comedy works as a mixture of great lines, unexpected brutality, some slapstick, but never becoming a spoof. The extended cast are mostly good, but this is definitely McCarthy’s film. We feel sorry for her, but in a way that keeps us on-side. Very funny.  (See my Spy Twitter review).

Jurassic World is an attempt to bring back the classic dinosaur franchise and, for the most part, uses that as a reason to coast on what we’ve seen before. Chris Pratt is as likeable as he usually is, but almost nothing else in this film works. The plot doesn’t hold together, seeming like an excuse to glue together a bunch of set-pieces. Most of those action sequences are done with CG that is bad enough to undermine them entirely, with the jungle bike ride being particularly awful. This is empty spectacle. A fairly mediocre waste.  (See my Jurassic World Twitter review).

Michael Fassbender stars as a classic near-silent outlaw with a good heart in the Slow West. Following a young man’s journey across the American frontier to find his love, the story is enjoyable if obvious. Instead it’s the beautiful and simple cinematography, coupled with the lead performances, that make this something special. It gets enough right that its few faults become glaring (an unnecessary dream sequence and epilogue, an out of place song), but not overbearingly so. Well-acted, beautifully shot, and generally very good. (See my Slow West Twitter review).

Finally, The Overnight does a kind of comedy that you rarely see: building up an uncomfortable tension for over an hour before releasing it in a big moment. There are laughs along the way, but the focus is very much on the weirdness of the situation: a couple meeting new friends at their kid’s playdate, that gets a little out of hand. The whole (tiny) cast is great, and it’s extremely well-paced, save for an unnecessary epilogue. Very worth seeing. (See my The Overnight Twitter review).

There are three good films this month, but I think I’d probably revisit Slow West over the years to take in those performances and scenery.

For May, Film Fight has 4 films…

First up, Child 44 is a slow-paced thriller, starring Tom Hardy as a Russian officer trying to link together the disappearances of several children. It takes its time to cover the ground it needs to, building up slowly over the 2 hour or so runtime, without becoming a slog. While some of the accents are weak and the action sequences are ill-advised (but infrequent), it manages to do what it needs to do fairly well. Solid. (See my Child 44 Twitter review).

Samuel L. Jackson seems like he’s open to do pretty much any film that seems like it’ll be fun, and Big Game is no exception. It’s clearly on a tiny budget given its action aspirations, but does surprisingly well within its constraints. Following the dual plots of a boy sent into the Finnish wilderness to become a man and the attempted assassination of the US president, that quickly come together, it starts silly and remains generally fun. It’s definitely not a classic, but is an entertaining enough way to pass an afternoon. (See my Big Game Twitter review).

We’ve waited a long time for another in the series, so it’s good to see that Mad Max: Fury Road does not disappoint. This is a film that manages to get a surprising amount of world-building and characterisation through the deluge of action; with Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa a clear stand-out. The main event, however, is the relentlessly paced and breath-taking action. Tere are several lengthy sequences of chases that are always crystal clear, and constantly moving. While the handful of quiet scenes are a welcome relief, they are weaker than the rest of the film. An excellent action movie that is as technically brilliant as it is fun to watch. (See my Mad Max: Fury Road Twitter review).

Finally, Tomorrowland is probably the most well-meaning film you’ll see for a long time; focussing on a central message of trying your best to improve the world. It’s genuinely nice to see such a hopeful message given in a fun way. Sadly, the film doesn’t quite get to where it is trying to reach. It’s inoffensive, but fairly bland. None of the action sequences really grab you, the plot is a little flimsy, and it does get more than a little heavy-handed when delivering its core message. All in, it’s pleasant but forgettable. (See my Tomorrowland Twitter review).

The winner for May is Mad Max: Fury Road. Great action is rarely done with this level of clarity.

April is a little quieter, with just three films…

First up, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary that covers the early years of Cobain’s life, through his success with Nirvana, his relationship with Courtney Love, and ultimately his death. It starts off strongly, by showing a side of the icon that we rarely see, his formative years, in such a way that we both get insight into and sympathy for his later struggles. There are powerful moments throughout the piece, but the presentation is somewhat lacking. Lengthy montages over Nirvana songs make up the bulk of the piece, and these are the weakest segments by a long way. It works far better when it’s being a more traditional talking-heads documentary. Languid pacing ultimately ruin an otherwise interesting take on the man. Mediocre, meandering, maybe dull. (See my Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck Twitter review).

Keanu Reeves has a reputation for being a little wooden as an actor, and John Wick does very little to shake that, even amongst a movie full of forgettable performances. The story is pretty weak, and the world building is a mess, but it does have some fairly spectacular action sequences. The action choreography works extremely well, stylised and efficient gun play throughout. It’s fun but absolutely mindless. (See my John Wick Twitter review).

Finally, Avengers: Age Of Ultron gives us exactly what we now expect from these films: a large ensemble (including some newcomers), fight against a huge threat (in this case, the titular Ultron, played well by James Spader), in a series of increasingly large scale battles. It’s a high quality blockbuster action film with everything that implies. It’s polished, fun, exciting, but very much of its genre. If you like the rest of the Marvel canon then you’ll know whether you want to see this; it’s not the best in the franchise, but it’s certainly not the worst. (See my Avengers: Age of Ultron Twitter review).

The winner for April is Avengers: Age of Ultron. It wouldn’t win in a stronger month, but I’d watch it again long before seeing the other two films.

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