Thursday, 31 December 2015


So here it is, folks, my Top Ten Films of 2015. Some of these films may not have been made in 2015 but I saw them in 2015 and that's what makes them eligible for the list.

The films are listed in purely alphabetical order. It was hard enough to pick a Top Ten, let alone rank them...


Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking documentary shows the young Amy Winehouse as a pleasant, funny and talented individual who loves to hang out with her friends, wants to sing the songs she loves and doesn't care about fame. Knowing how the story ends makes these early scenes particularly poignant and it shows what Amy could - and should - have been if her sudden rise to prominence had been handled differently.

The second half of the movie becomes more and more difficult to watch as the paparazzi descend on the poor girl, her lifestyle somehow having been deemed public property when she probably should have been left alone. The constant flashes of dozens of cameras are hard enough to take when watching on a screen so I can't even begin to comprehend what it's like when you're the subject. It left me with the feeling that the public's need to scrutinise every aspect of a celebrity's existence means we were all complicit in Amy's tragic demise and I left the cinema both upset and angry. Skilfully done, Mr Kapadia, that's the sign of a powerful piece of work.


Dominic Brunt's follow-up to relationship drama/zombie infection hybrid (I will never tire of typing that) Before Dawn sees best friends Bex and Dawn (Victoria Smurfit and Joanne Mitchell, both excellent) pursuing their dream of opening their own cafe with a little help from benefactor Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger) who agrees to invest some of the cash upfront to get them started. Problem is, Jeremy's a loan shark and, as his intimidation tactics become more and more violent, there seems to be no way out.

Uncompromising, brutal and with 2015's most despicable bad guy in the shape of Slinger, Bait is an accomplished horror/thriller which features two well-developed central characters we genuinely fear for when bad things begin to happen. Even Slinger isn't a one-dimensional rent-a-psycho, demonstrating a calm, calculating, businesslike approach to even the most hideous acts of terrorisation. You'll still be absolutely desperate for him to get his comeuppance though.

With genuine thrills, a story that gets straight down to its grimy business and a memorably bloody climax, Bait delivers on every level. And for a fraction of the cost of your average Hollywood attempt at something similar. Which would be nowhere near as good, by the way. 


Whizkid programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited by the CEO of his company (a to spend a week at his private estate in order to fully test the artificial intelligence of state-of-the-art robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Alex Garland's sci-fi mind-bender, offering up big questions about what it means to be human and whether a machine could ever come close to replicating that experience.

Vikander excels as Ava, delivering a subtly off-kilter performance which is supplemented by absolutely beautiful effects work, painting a thoroughly credible picture of the next step in A.I. It's thrilling, it's funny and its payoff was something I wasn't quite expecting. You will probably be asking yourself an inordinate amount of questions, as I was, once the end credits begin to roll.


Joel Edgerton writes, directs, produces and acts in this smart, suspenseful tale which sees married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) relocate to California in search of a fresh start where they run the into the somewhat odd Gordo (Edgerton), an old acquaintance of Simon's. At this point you'd be right to expect the familiar stalker movie playbook to be run but proceedings take an unexpected turn and the plot evolves into something far more intriguing and satisfying whilst still delivering a couple of quality scares.

Edgerton is excellent, constantly keeping the audience off-balance by having Gordo be unrelentingly awkward and downright strange throughout so you're never sure if he's harmless or just very good at pretending to be that way. Acting honours here though go to Jason Bateman whose facade slowly, surely begins to crack over the course of the movie and reveals something much darker and disturbing underneath. The nicest gift of 2015, a thriller that subverts expectations and delivers a fine conclusion that doesn't descend into the gorefest so many other directors would have opted for.


My favourite movie from this year's Celluloid Screams festival features Henry Rollins as Jack, a curmudgeonly type with a very, very, very long list of previous jobs, a murky secret and a daughter he never knew he had showing up out of nowhere to disturb his routine of watching TV, playing bingo and frequenting his local diner, where potential romance with caring waitress Cara could blossom if only he wasn't so bloody morose. Well, that and the fact that....but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Comedy horror is notoriously difficult to get right but He Never Died is adept at wringing both the yuks and the yucks out of its premise. There are plenty of hilarious moments (Rollins' deadpan reaction to almost everything that befalls him - be it mundane or extreme - is particularly amusing) but the laughs are never allowed to undermine the genuinely nasty twists and turns of the story. More adventures of Jack, please!


Certainly not to everyone's taste - if you're not a fan of the Aaron Sorkin's trademark rapid-fire walk/talk schtick then two hours of it isn't going to win you over, nor is its overtly theatrical three act structure, each act a different product launch (Macintosh, NeXTcube, iMac, in that order) and portraying a different crossroads in the life of Steve Jobs. Then there's Steve Jobs himself of course, complex, controversial and possibly not the most sympathetic of characters at the best of times. In fact, there are more than a few things about this film that appear to be putting you off watching it.

Don't be put off. This is talky, but the dialogue is snappy, it's barbed, it's funny. You'll need to keep listening as well for seeds that are planted in Act One but don't bear fruit until Act Three. So you're not convinced by the clever-clever script? Well, I don't know why you wouldn't be but, in that case, see it for Michael Fassbender's performance. His portrayal of Steve Jobs shows a man who doesn't need to be adored as long as he fulfils his vision. Yes, he's a dick quite a lot of the time but you can see why. You won't come away from this hating Steve Jobs - you might not love him but you'll certainly understand him. You want a more sympathetic character? Kate Winslet plays someone nice in this. You'll like her. Come on guys, Danny Boyle directed this! He's great! Just watch it, okay?


Linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in a movie that have been an easy target for criticism regarding Oscar bait but treats its story and its characters with a credibility and sensitivity that I hope would have won over most of the cynics. The performances are great across the board in this, but Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart and, of course, Julianne Moore herself are worthy of a special mention.

Free of the soapy histrionics that plague too many movies of this kind, what you're left with is a warm, resonant and profoundly affecting look at how Alice and her family tries to come to terms with such a life-changing event. There are no easy answers nor does this film suggest so.

I'll admit that I sat in my car after the screening and couldn't drive away for several minutes because I was sobbing into the steering wheel. To whoever waited for that parking space until I got my act together, your patience was appreciated. I'm sorry couldn't see who you were, everything was still a bit blurry.


Perry Blackshear's micro-budgeted tale of rekindled friendship and suffocating paranoia is a masterclass in using limited resources to their absolute maximum. A cross between an indie bromance and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, best buds Christian and Wyatt find themselves hanging out together again after a long time apart. Christian listens to a lot of self-help advice on his media player. Wyatt listens to people on the phone telling him that the apocalypse is coming and he is one of the chosen few who will battle the evil creatures intent on taking over the planet...

If I've made this sound a little wacky let me assure you that TLLP plays it absolutely straight, steadily cranking up the feeling of dread and throwing in the odd unexpected jolt to really set the nerves jangling. The final fifteen minutes delivers tension like nothing else I've experienced in a long while, building to a moment which had the entire Celluloid Screams audience holding their breath. The conclusion is brilliantly handled but that's all I'll say, there's no giving the game away here.

It's possible that you may watch this and wonder why I was waxing so lyrical about it but you should seek this out because it's something truly different. Personally, I thought it was wonderful and shows that horror has far more to say as a genre than just having a bunch of college kids being killed by an axe-wielding maniac (although, done well, there's nothing wrong with that either).


A movie about drumming that's shot as if it was a thriller. complete with a towering, terrifying performance from J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, the tyrannical conductor of a music conservatory's jazz band who will stop at nothing to unlock the potential he sees in student Neiman, played by Miles Teller.

Simmons, as Fletcher, is simultaneously horrible and hilarious, barking blistering criticism at his stumbling charges all in the pursuit of ultimate greatness. It would be easy for Teller to be overshadowed in what is a much less showy role but he plays off Simmons well and when push comes to shove Neiman isn't exactly the most likeable of people either. He's just a sweetheart next to Fletcher. Hell, anyone's a sweetheart next to Fletcher.

Exhausting, intense but ultimately uplifting and chock-full of great music, Whiplash provided an early 2015 treat which was seldom bettered.


Just outside the Top Ten but still a must-see. Again, they're listed in alphabetical order as follows:

Ant-Man - A lower-key Marvel superhero movie, played as a comedy heist thriller? Yes, please.

Foxcatcher - Superb performances from Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo in a shocking true story.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night - Ana Lily Amirpour's striking, stunningly shot black and white vampire tale with an iconic performance from Sheila Vand.

John Wick - Action nirvana as Keanu Reeves almost makes me forget he was in Knock Knock by kicking some serious arse. And Lovejoy's in it!

Mad Max: Fury Road - It's a two-hour chase. But it's an AMAZING two-hour chase with some truly bonkers stuntwork.

The Overnight - Patrick Bryce's offbeat, chucklesome tale of a family playdate that turns very odd very quickly.

Straight Outta Compton - Great, energetic N.W.A. biopic that only sags when contract wrangling comes into it. Peerless tunes though.

The Voices - Ryan Reynolds as the world's nicest murderer with talking pets and a couple of talking heads in his refrigerator. See it for psychotic, misanthropic cat Mr. Whiskers if nothing else.

We Are Still Here - Ted Geoghegan's atmospheric, Fulci-inflected possessed house movie with Barbara Crampton, a ton of atmosphere and something unspeakably nasty in the basement. 

While We're Young - Fortysomethings Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts befriend twentysomethings Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in Noah Baumbach's rather fine comedy/drama.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015


Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Director: Ron Howard

Massachusetts, 1850. Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) is carrying out research for his latest book and is particularly interested in the ill-fated voyage of a whaleship called Essex which has led him to a boarding house and its proprietor Tom Nickerson (Gleeson), reputed to be the last surviving member of the Essex's crew. Initially Nickerson refuses to divulge any information to Melville but Nickerson's wife insists that her husband rids himself of the torment which has plagued him through the years and so the tale begins, with Nickerson as a 14-year-old greenhorn witnessing not only a battle between whalers and whales but between George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), Captain of the Essex and First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth)...

Despite the obvious CGI on display here, Ron Howard has delivered a resolutely old school seafaring saga in which men are men and whales are brutally slaughtered for oil. The hunting sequences have an undeniable sense of style and tension but I feel I should warn potential viewers that whilst the movie pulls back on the full gory horror it still shows enough to demonstrate what a tough and questionable job it was even back then. As far as I'm concerned, the movie is showing exactly how things were back then - whale oil was a commodity and there was never a shortage of men looking to profit from that commodity. I can't say I didn't feel uneasy watching those sequences but the reality is presented here, as difficult as it may be to take.

Of course, a voyage wouldn't be known as "ill-fated" if something didn't go desperately and tragically awry and the second half of the movie piles on the grimness for the crew of the Essex as things go from bad to very bad to even worse than that. Supplies dwindle and the previously unthinkable has to be considered. This isn't so much feelgood as feel worried then feel shocked and then feel slightly nauseous.

Given the rather bleak goings-on this is still a mostly engaging yarn due to its effective action sequences and some fine performances, notably Gleeson as the haunted Nickerson and Hemsworth as the unflappable Chase. It's a shame that we don't learn too much about Cillian Murphy's character, in fact we learn so little about his character that I was annoyed about the astonishing waste of Murphy's talent. Also, the clash between Captain Pollard and his spiky First Mate Chase doesn't possess the dramatic heft it should, taking a back seat when it ought to be front and centre. It also doesn't help that the character of Pollard is given very little depth, which makes the confrontations rather lopsided - Chase seems the very essence of seafaring knowledge and Pollard seems like a bit of a twit.

As a matter of fact, save for the parts played by Hemsworth and Gleeson, the characterisations are sketchy to say the least. And, if I'm being really honest, Gleeson's role isn't the most complex but he has more to work with than almost everyone else in the cast and he elevates the proceedings with some deft, sympathetic playing.

So what we have here is an old-fashioned adventure yarn with a somewhat less old-fashioned darker edge, crafted by a director who's shown time and again that he knows what makes audiences tick. It teems with quality thesping talent. Who knows, with a favourable prevailing wind, ITHOTS could have been something special but it finds itself in the doldrums too often to make it the voyage of a lifetime. Having said that - and pausing to apologise for my dreadful nautical punnery - there's still enough here on balance to make it just about worth your time but it's a long way from being one of Ron Howard's best.

Monday, 28 December 2015


Starring: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph
Writer: Paula Pell
Director: Jason Moore

When Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey) discover that their parents are about to sell the family home in which they grew up they decide to throw one last party there, a throwback to the boozy, carefree shindigs of their younger days. Surely nothing's gonna go wrong, right? Especially with Kate's childhood enemy Brinda (Rudolph) hovering on the periphery...

If you really don't want to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and would prefer to sit in a cinema where the audience isn't making lightsaber noises (unless you saw Sisters at the same time I did, in which case I apologise for the lightsaber noises I was making, I was still excited from seeing TFA), Sisters provides a generally chucklesome and occasionally hilarious alternative to a galaxy far, far away.

The main reasons that this comedy works are, of course, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, who could wring laughs from a reading of a microwave oven's warranty details. There's material here that would struggle to raise a smile in normal circumstances but Poehler and Fey are gifted comedy performers who play off each other brilliantly, often elevating the ho-hum to ho-ho.

Their characters make for a pleasing contrast too, Poehler's sensible, organised Maura providing the perfect counterpoint to Fey's spontaneous, chaotic Kate. And yet the film isn't full of OTT bickering between the pair, instead their relationship is warm and believable and any moments of snark evolve in a natural way given the escalating craziness of the plot.

Although the movie does belong to Poehler and Fey they are given suitably fine support. Rudolph has a lot of fun as Kate's uptight, Game of Thrones-loving nemesis, Ike Barinholtz makes the most of his role even if he's just there as a potential suitor for the recently divorced Maura and John Leguizamo totally nails it as a sleazy yet somehow affable ex-classmate. James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, as the parents of our titular twosome, really ought to be given more to do here but they're enjoyable to watch (although hearing Wiest drop the film's single c-bomb took me aback slightly).

For me, it's John Cena - yes, that John Cena - who walks off with the supporting honours for the second movie in a row, having sent himself up very nicely in Trainwreck and now bringing the funny here as mysterious, stone-faced drug dealer Pazuzu. It's a character which plays to Cena's strengths and the fact that his apperances are carefully rationed throughout the second half makes it even more of a treat.

Sisters doesn't quite deliver on the comedic promise of its stars but the Poehler/Fey double act is finely honed and there are far worse ways to while away a couple of hours. Yes, there were clunky moments and far too convenient resolutions but I was quite taken by its sweet nature - Dianne Wiest using the c-word aside. Dianne, you're so lovely as well. I couldn't believe my ears.

Saturday, 12 December 2015


Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent
Writer: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt

Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) pitch up in a secluded French coastal town where Roland hopes to get the creative juices flowing for his next novel. It's far from plain sailing though as he struggles with the ghosts of his previous literary failures and his wife struggles with the ghosts of something terrible in the recent past. As if that wasn't enough, the arrival of another couple (played by Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) threatens to shake their world even more...

From the very first second of By The Sea it's clear that Angelina Jolie Pitt set out to make her version of a Euro arthouse flick and to be fair it has the beautiful scenery, the languid pace, the tortured characters, the long silences and the portentous dialogue. However, whereas the best examples of the genre take all of these elements and spin them into something magical, this movie only serves to highlight what happens when the hoped-for alchemy produces something far from gold.

For starters the dialogue, although delivered with admirable conviction by an undoubtedly talented set of performers, borders on parody. I know that art films are littered with lines that no person would actually say but there are entire scenes full of them here which a) jolted me out of the piece and b) had me (and others in the cinema) stifling giggles on a few occasions.

Secondly, Roland and Vanessa aren't that likeable a pairing, which wouldn't be a problem if their trials and tribulations were enough to sweep the audience along. Unfortunately that isn't the case. Roland gets drunk a lot, which makes him babble on (and on, and on, and on) about his crumbling marriage and inability to write. Vanessa spends a lot of time either in bed or on a sun lounger and cries a lot. Oh, she goes food shopping as well. They meet up in their hotel room of an evening and say cryptic things to each other. Next day Roland's back in the bar and Vanessa's wondering if they need more groceries. Contain your excitement, folks.

Actually, there is one genuinely interesting character - Michel, the "patron" of the local bar. Played by Niels Arestrup, he's a delight to watch even if he's relegated to dispensing advice to the increasingly pissed-up Roland. It's good to see Pitt and Arestrup talk in French rather than have them revert to English but even then things don't work out as they should because their verbal back-and-forth seems to have been stripped from a Linguaphone Conversational Arthouse Movie tape - "I'd like a gin, please", "How long have you been married?", "How do I get to the railway station?". Actually that last one isn't in the movie but I was ready for it, along with "Qu'est-ce que vous faites le week-end?".

As for Laurent and Poupaid, their newlywed couple is there to provide the obvious sparks, to allow Pitt and Jolie Pitt's characters to indulge in some odd, voyeuristic behaviour and to suggest potential infidelity on all sides. Some of the symbolism here should really have been accompanied with a klaxon, especially the point at which a card game for two played by Laurent and Jolie Pitt switches to a card game for three when Pitt joins the proceedings. You see, the first game can't be played by three, but the second game can. Hmmm, could that be suggesting something else other than a card game? Let me think...

I was at least expecting this would rally at the end as the drama reached its peak and something finally had to give but I should have been prepared for yet another disappointment. The ultimate revelation about Jolie Pitt's character, which should have been the explosion of everything the story had built up to, was sadly lacking in drama and the film fizzled out from that point, leaving me almost none the wiser than the point at which I'd joined things two hours earlier. Roland's Citroën was very nice though.

I applaud Angelina Jolie Pitt's decision to write and direct something so unrelentingly uncommercial so it gives me absolutely no pleasure to report that this is bloody awful, pretentious nonsense with a plot that is obstinate in its will to go nowhere and two tedious, navel-gazing main characters you'd cross the street to avoid. Even the artistically-justified nudity and sex is dull. If you're going to see this just to get a look at Angelina's boobs then you deserve everything you get.

By The Sea could have been a memorable voyage into enticingly deep and dangerous waters. As it is, it never gets out of the shallows and you might very well have had enough of wading around them before its 122 minutes is up.

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Wednesday, 9 December 2015


Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong
Director: Francis Lawrence

*** WARNING: Team Peeta or Team Gale? There's a pretty big hint about what goes down in this review but surely most of you guys will have seen this by now ***

Picking up from where the somewhat underwhelming Mockingjay - Part 1 left off, Katniss (Lawrence) is still reeling from the surprise murder attempt by the brainwashed Peeta (Hutcherson) and has designs on making her way to the Capitol to take out President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the man responsible for Peeta's torture. Meanwhile, rebel District President Coin (Julianne Moore) has her own endgame in mind...

After the arena-free opening part of Mockingjay, the continuation of the story does give the audience a new type of Hunger Games, this time as Katniss and her band of soldiers tries to make their way to Snow's mansion through a heavily booby-trapped Capitol with all manner of lethal devices ready to dispense instant death to anyone foolish enough to trigger them. If that wasn't enough, there's the threat of the "mutts" - nightmarish, murderous creatures whose appearance is teased for an almost unbearable length of time in the film's standout sequence. This is tense, brutal stuff and although it's cleverly edited to make the audience believe they've seen more than they have it's right on the limits of the 12A certificate.

Mockingjay - Part 2 is without doubt the most downbeat ending to a blockbuster series I can remember*. Even Nolan's Batman trilogy hauled itself out of its oxtail soup-lensed grimness to deliver a cheery conclusion. Here, political machinations result in a grim gut-punch of a climax as all parties converge on the Snow mansion leaving you wondering just who the good guys are - Katniss aside, of course. It's a brave decision to end the series in this way and even the fresh hope offered in the final scene doesn't erase what's gone before.

That said, it's far from a great movie. The plot is pretty much focused on the mission to get through the streets of the Capitol to the ultimate target and not much else. Something major happens at the end which potentially could have sparked anarchy but is dealt with very neatly - bit of expository chat with Haymitch, job done. Although there are effective moments (the aforementioned battle with the mutts is a genuine seat-grabber) there are also far too many flat spots, a lot of them to do with Peeta's struggle to regain his memories of Katniss before Snow messed with his mind.

Fair play to Josh Hutcherson who does what he can with a pretty duff character but it's hard to feel a lot of, well, anything much for Peeta and his romance with Katniss never really convinced across any of the movies. Hemsworth fares better because he has more to work with and it does seem on the face of things as though he and Katniss are somewhat better suited but fate intervenes to cause irreparable damage to Team Gale.

Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in their usual high standard of work (Harrelson, in particular, could have done with much more screen time) but the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence whose portrayal of Katniss proves that you can build a franchise around a strong role model for women and still have it be commercially successful. She has carried four movies effortlessly and deserves all the plaudits she receives.

And so The Hunger Games ends on almost as sombre a note as it began. As a series of movies, the quality has been uneven - my favourite by a long way is the terrific second instalment Catching Fire - but even at its low points the refusal to pander to the lowest common denominator was refreshing in such a commercial endeavour. This final episode does fall foul of the "too many endings" syndrome but I'll forgive it that in order to give Katniss Everdeen the send-off she richly deserves.

* Okay, the conclusion to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith was pretty grim but, by the time I'd slogged through Episodes I and II, my reaction to Hayden Christensen's legs being lightsabred off by Ewan McGregor was more of the "that's what you get for boring me rigid for two whole movies!" type. Harsh, yes, but fair.