If the first half of 2015 was full of great movies, the second half was arguably even better. And while one film in particular loomed large on the horizon, there were plenty more great cinematic moments to enjoy before we travelled back to a galaxy far, far away...
July - Action vs Emotion
Not the strongest beginning, for what is there to say about Terminator: Genisys? I fear I rather over-reviewed it at the time; on reflection it offered proof that not every classic film series needs or deserves a reboot. It did pose an interesting question (with relevance for the Church) around whether old things still have their use in a world obsessed with newness, but in truth it was a bit of a disappointment which still refused to kill off the series once and for all. Better fare arrived in the shape of the tragically compelling Amy Winehouse documentary (called simply Amy), and then the month really got going, with the best superhero film of the year in Ant-Man. Paul Rudd was excellent as thethief-turned-hero in a film with plenty of interesting theological themes, including an exploration of how 'good fathers' see us not as we are, but as we could be. And in a flurry of summer releases there was still time for the surprisingly moving Southpaw, the guilty pleasure of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and the Pixar animation Inside Out, widely-regarded as one of the films of the year. The latter provided a brilliant opportunity for children and parents to talk about emotions, while evoking a heady mix of them in mums and dads around the country (not least guilt).
August – More turkeys than Thanksgiving
Josh Trank's Fantastic Four reboot was far and away my worst film of 2015. A clunky script and disastrous pacingunited reviewers worldwide in dissent and disappointment, just as they were by the subsequent release of Pixels, which I couldn't bring myself to see. By all accounts though, the tale of aliens which attack earth with 1980s video games was as misjudged as it sounds. From that nadir, things improved somewhat; Joel Edgerton's The Gift (in which he also starred) was a deliciously dark little film about Jesus' Golden Rule and what happens when it becomes subverted, and Guy Ritchie's Man from U.N.C.L.E. was inoffensive action guff with a bit of style if not substance. Unfortunately, a month which also included Hitman: Agent 47, Trainwreck and Sinister 2 is never going to be remembered for its outstanding contribution to the cinematic canon.
September – Triumph over adversity
As Autumn arrived, the quality of the big cinematic releases steadily began to improve. While hugely violent, American Ultra was at least a very clever, very well-made and very under-rated film, while Me and Earl and the Girl (about as arthouse as I get) was a witty, inventive and moving account of teenage cancer. Tom Hardy divided critics when he played both Kray twins in Legend, which either glamourised gang violence or provided a perfect portrait of the horrors of '60s London, depending on who you talked to. Everest won the prize for 'most inventive use of a Crowded House song', but perhaps more relevantly offered a compelling case for unity which the Church would do well to learn from. David Oyelowo and Kate Mara took the Christian subculture mainstream with their two-hander Captive (to somewhat sniffy reviews), which essentially told the story of how Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life prevented a murder. And September saved the very best until last when Matt Damon was left on Mars in Ridley Scott's The Martian. A brilliantly-told story of hope and isolation echoing the biblical parable of the Lost Sheep, it won rave reviews, including from this site.
October – Exploring evil
The emergence of a new acting great clashed with the continuing decline of a cinematic icon, when MichaelFassbender's Macbeth was released alongside Robert De Niro's The Intern. The former was a darkly intense portrayal of what Shakespeare called 'vaulting ambition'; ironically the latter was about how in later years you're much more relaxed about what you say yes to. They were followed by one of the year's most surprising and visually arresting films, Sicario, Dennis Villeneuve's vivid, shocking drama about US attempts to limit the devastation caused on home soil by South American drug cartels. Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro were all electric in their lead roles, while the intense soundtrack refused to let enthralled audiences relax for a moment. Another acclaimed drama appeared in the shape of Suffragette, Sarah Gavron's part-historical retelling of the fight for women's votes which had plenty of interest for the theologically-minded viewer, while Joe Wright's Peter Pan prequel Pan fared less well, its title proving ironically apt where the critics were concerned. And at the end of the month, another hotly-anticipated blockbuster appeared in the shape of Spectre, Daniel Craig's fourth – and possibly final – James Bond movie, which explored the concept of ultimate evil. The 12A certificate was questionable, but the action sequences were spectacular. And I'm just putting this out there: that Sam Smith theme tune is a grower...
November - For your consideration...
In a year full of explosive blockbusters and high-stakes dramas, Brooklyn was a surprise treat: a beautifully-scripted,thoughtfully-shot film about homesickness with a positive view of the Church, and which didn't need to go to extremes in order to entertain and move audiences. The documentary He Named Me Malala won huge acclaim for its sensitive but powerful telling of the story of a young girl who miraculously survived a Taliban shooting to become one of the world's foremost peace campaigners. The Steve Jobs biopic was ultimately a little disappointing considering the awesome talent involved, but still managed to provide an interesting insight into flawed genius.
And since splitting things into two parts when one would have done perfectly well is now the done thing (wink), we finally got to see the of the Hunger Games saga with Mockingjay part two. The film looked at how a seemingly godless world struggles to govern itself without resorting to cyclical violence and immorality and felt eerily prophetic in the light of events in the Middle East. Despite all that, November still wasn't done – it delivered Steven Spielberg's tense Bridge of Spies, an entirely transformed Johnny Depp in Black Mass, and Cate Blanchett in unconventional love story Carol, all of which received rave reviews. With February's Oscar ceremony looming, studios were beginning to bring out their big guns. And that's not even to mention The Good Dinosaur, a beautiful animation from Disney Pixar, which by that studio's tremendous standards was disappointingly only very good.
December – Force Awakens, world goes nuts
Believe it or not, there were other films released in the final month of 2015. Christmas with the Coopers and Victor Frankenstein gamely filled in the first two weeks, but eventually the biggest behemoth of them all moved into view. Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieved the near-impossible by matching and even surpassing the great expectations of millions of fans worldwide, delighting audiences with its mix of characters and plots old and new. It was packed with spiritual themes too, including fatherhood, light-in-darkness and equality, and recreated a universe where faith is both mocked and proved worthwhile. Taking up the unenviable task of following that, Ron Howard's Moby Dick drama In The Heart of the Sea turned out to be unexpectedly excellent; a claustrophobic tale with a paradoxically vast setting, with some serious hints to drop about climate change.
My top five...
It really has been a vintage year for mainstream cinema. Serious critics might look on it less favourably, but for fans there has been much to admire and get excited about. It's been my absolute pleasure to sit through almost all of the films listed above (I confess, I didn't make it to Christmas with the Coopers), and so just for fun I've ended up with the following personal top five. I've agonised over it, and it's just an opinion - see if you agree...
5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Just beats out Star Wars for its inventiveness and beautifully redemptive ending.
4. The Theory of Everything – A truly brilliant central performance from Eddie Redmayne.
3. Inside Out –The ultimate emotional rollercoaster; I haven't cried so much at a film in years.
2. Sicario – As tense and immersive as cinema comes; I'm not sure I took a breath in the closing tunnel sequences.
1. Selma – One of modern history's most important stories, about one of the world's greatest-ever Christian leaders, superbly told.