This was a pretty interesting year for movies. For me it was the year I realized that Amazon Prime and Netflix are great for trawling for fun but ultra low budget movies, slightly past due blockbusters and interesting middle ground stuff. I saw a lot of movies through them, including Parallels, The Reconstruction of William Zero, Kill Your Darlings and Calvary that I wouldn’t otherwise have caught. At the cinema I was especially impressed by Steve Jobs, which managed to almost completely avoid lionizing the patron saint of Silicon Valley sociopathy as well as getting the best script in a decade out of Sorkin and some amazing work from Danny Boyle. These and so many other movies this year were interesting and frequently brilliant but five others stood out.
Bradley Cooper is at his most interesting when he’s at his least comfortable. His spiky, belligerent FBI agent in American Hustle a couple of years ago was a real standout and this year he turned in two equally captivating takes on two equally broken men. Interestingly, Aloha and Burnt were also two of the year’s biggest critical failures. Aloha is less a film and more a collection of fantastic ideas, great performances, flashes of brilliances and awful mistakes flying in loose formation. Burnt is a very different story.
Cooper plays Adam Jones, a wunderkind chef who is neither wunder nor kind anymore. Off the countless drugs he was on but up to his eyeballs in debt, he puts himself through a monastic kitchen penance and then flies to London. He talks his way into a restaurant job, assembles a team and runs headlong at getting three Michelin stars, all while fending off the drug dealers he owes money to, trying to get a rival out of his head and dealing with a complex knot of personal relationships.
All of this is pretty standard fare but like all great food it’s less about the ingredients and more about how you use them. Cooper never rests during this movie. He’s always thinking, always ill at ease and never backs down from looking like a complete arse. He’s bitchy, petty, screams at his staff and keeps himself separate from them so he can focus. In other words, he’s the embodiment of the worst macho bullshit chefs, and many male authority figures, often embody.
That refusal to back down makes Burnt less a chef movie and more an unflinching portrait of creativity expressed through food. It’s a story about how the best and worst angels of any creative are always at war. It’s a story about what happens when you’re not the bright young thing anymore and most of all, it’s a story about the family you choose instead of the one you’re given. Cooper is amazing throughout, the entire rest of the cast are right there with him and it does at least one thing you’re not expecting every act. This one passed people by at the cinema. Don’t let the same thing happen when it resurfaces on DVD and on demand.
The trailers for this will have put some people off I suspect. They’re the standard issue ‘heartwarming story of faintly crap emotionally repressed Brit caring for magical old person just in time for awards season’ fare that movies like this always get.
Except, there aren’t really any other movie like this.
My dad talked about this in detail on the blog but it really stands repeating; this is the most structurally playful movie you’ll see all year. Alex Jennings plays two different aspects of Alan Bennett; the person and the writer. They live together, bicker endlessly and often comment on moments in the script that didn’t happen in real life. The struggle for control of personal and fictional narratives made into a narrative all of its own.
Then there’s the willingness to play with perception, as time passing is denoted only by greying hair and whichever vehicle the Lady is living in at the moment. Even better are the moments the film all but pokes you to see if you’re paying attention. A parade of History Boys cameos, the aforementioned arguments between the Bennetts and a dizzying finale that sees three versions of Bennett on screen once. One of whom is played by Bennett himself.
All of this could be lumpen dramatist grandstanding but instead it’s light, playful and often very dark. Jim Broadbent’s cameo as a corrupt police officer in particular is both loathsome and proves once again that Broadbent’s work is always infinitely more interesting when it’s as far outside his usual type as possible.
And then there’s the Lady. Dame Maggie Smith’s performance is towering and panicked, often at the same time. She’s a force of nature whose endless eloquence and refusal to look her situation in the eye would make the character a magical stereotype anywhere else. Here she’s the frantic, terrified, arrogant old woman who craps in plastic bags and lives in front of Bennett’s house for over a decade. She’s playful and horrified, a victim and an instigator and the most realistic exploration of a near impossible person you’ll see this year. The film, and she, end with a glorious explosion of Catholic technicolour iconography. It’s never been more earned.
One of those rare instances where the movie is better than the original text. Andy Weir’s original book is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s got a brilliant central voice, the science is both bang on and not coma-inducingly explored and there are three of the best jokes you’ll read all year in there.
But the film’s better and here’s why.
Firstly Ridley Scott when he behaves is still one of the best directors on the planet. The catastrophic narrative improv that sunk Prometheus is nowhere to be seen here. Instead it’s a tight, focused, clear eyed movie that never loses sight of the fact the lead is entirely alone.
Secondly, Drew Goddard’s script neatly solves the biggest problem the original book had, an ending which is almost literally ‘And then I was fine! The End!’ Here we don’t just get a wonderfully nervy, bashed together rescue that goes wrong three different ways we also get catharsis and consequence. The catharsis comes from Commander Lewis, relegated to a spectator in the book who is given the chance to fix the wrong only she believes she did; leaving Watney behind. It’s a great, necessary moment that gives Jessica Chastain some welcome stuff to do as well as adds to her increasingly large Captain Marvel audition reel.
The consequence comes in the final scenes. We see Watney, a little older, a little greyer, back on Earth. He’s clearly painfully aware of what his friends sacrificed to come get him and is working to pay that debt off. Even though, like Lewis’ it’s not needed. It’s a lovely round off to a film that’s that rarest of beasts; a positive, uplifting SF movie that pulls no punches but remains one of the most hopeful movies you’ll see this year. Not to mention the one with the best soundtrack gags…
Bill is the best family movie of the 21st Century to date. The Horrible Histories team knocked it out of the park in every conceivable way on this one making it not just one of my movies of the year but one of the definitive Shakespeare movies.
A lot of that comes down to a script which is crammed full of jokes of every type. Groan inducing puns jostle for space with the best musical number you’ll see this year and a truly magnificent gag involving an ops room and the basement of York Minster. This is a script that conforms to the same rules as stage magic; something funny or new has to happen every 15 seconds. And it always does.
But the real reason this works is how clever it is. There’s some insightful stuff about celebrity and ambition here, made all the mores o by the hard, arrogant edge Matthew Baynton’s otherwise amiably rubbish Shakespeare frequently shows. Better still, it’s a film whose heart is both in the right place and the right size. There’s real affection and respect for Stratford’s favourite son which, coupled with the glee it takes in showing us his clay feet, gives the back half hour way more emotional punch than you’d expect. A flat out joyous way to spend 90 minutes and a shining highlight of the year. Do not fail to see this.
Michelle McCarthy swears like no one else in movies. There’s artistry to her labyrinthine constructions of profanity and there’s a ton of them in Spy. But there’s also way more for McCarthy to do than the trailers, or the genre, would lead you to expect.
Don’t get me wrong, Spy is a comedy. But it’s a Paul Feig comedy which means it’s grounded and well observed even as Jason Statham is swearing about the CIA hiding their Face/Off machine. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a tech analyst for Jude Law’s Agent Bradley Fine. When Fine is killed on an op she’s sent in to finish the mission in the first of a wide variety of awful, awful outfits and cover stories. That’s the moment you’ve seen in the trailer, with her in the cat sweater.
If that was all the film did it wouldn’t work but there’s a lot more going on. The gender politics in the office are subtle, realistic and surprisingly dark. There’s an early moment where it’s revealed Susan had excellent field agent scores before Fine poached her as his tech support. Director Crocker, played with scene stealing calm by Allison Janney, reacts to this with a long suffering disgust that tells you everything about this workplace, what she’s had to fight against and how often it happens. It’s clever, minimalist writing that sits side by side with Jason Statham falling over and Peter Serafinowicz’s Italian libido monster. This really is a film that contains multitudes.
But it’s always McCarthy you have your eye on. She’s an amazingly deft actress, shifting gear from physical work to fight scenes to that wonderful profanitystorm and all of it feels completely natural. The quiet, not quite acknowledged anger of the character drives every joke and provides a subtle and brilliantly realized emotional spine for the entire movie. Statham’s gloriously serious, incompetent colleague is also a highlight but this is McCarthy’s movie and deservedly so. Roll on Ghostbusters from her, Feig and three of the best SNL alumni of this century.