The Big Short
When the financial crash occurred in 2008, I, and probably many others, did not understand the reasons behind it. Sub-prime mortgage sounds vaguely self-explanatory, but why that would cause something described by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) as “financial Armageddon” was not entirely clear. It is to the great credit of Adam McKay’s The Big Short that it explains the events leading up to the crash in terms that are comprehensible without being patronising and entertaining without being frivolous, in a way that highlights the staggering absurdity and horrifying greed, dishonesty and complacency that led to this economic disaster of the early 21st century. Much of this explanation comes through dumbed-down finance exposition from investment bankers Baum, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), but sometimes the film provides direct-to-camera explanations by celebrity cameos including Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez. Characters also break the fourth wall by clarifying that clichéd narrative conveniences did not happen the way they appear on screen, which serves as an interesting commentary on what the public will accept, be it narrative conveniences or massive financial incompetence. The film’s colourful array of characters, including Charlie Geller (John Magaro), Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong) could become confusing, but McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s script, along with editor Hank Corwin’s cross-cutting, deftly balance the ensemble cast, ensuring that equal attention is paid to each group of characters, whose only connection is their common goal to bet against the US economy and make a massive profit while millions of others lose their livelihoods. On that note, the film eschews judgement of its characters, allowing the scale of the events to speak for themselves so the viewer can make their own judgement – indeed Vennett at one point acknowledges and derides the judgement of the viewer over the profit he has made, perhaps suggesting that we would be no better in his position. McKay uses a wide range of cinematic techniques to express the bewildering array of data and transactions taking place, including a striking soundscape, freeze frames and split screens, whip pans and crash zooms as DOP Barry Ackroyd’s camera roams continually but unobtrusively across the frame. Sometimes the film is outright hilarious, other times it is sober and unabashedly depressing. As the credits roll, you may feel a sense of shock, outrage, admiration (grudging or not), amusement or even fatalistic acceptance, which demonstrates the impressive work of The Big Short in drawing you into this complex and potentially impenetrable story.
“I ain’t afraid to die. I done it already,” whispers Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s extraordinary survival western, you are likely to believe him, as The Revenant puts its protagonist, supporting characters and viewers through an almighty wringer. The film’s narrative is simple but relentless, as the savagery of nature and humanity alike are shown in all their brutal glory, including volleys of arrows and gunshots, avalanches, fire, water, wind and, in one utterly harrowing sequence, a bear. Stylistically, these various elements are rendered in immersive detail, as Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki present the events in a haunting, ethereal light and bring the viewer so close to the action that blood, snow and even breath smear the lens of the camera. Nor is this visceral energy presented for the sake of admiring man’s resilience, as the film is thematically ambivalent. Nature’s savagery is unmitigated, but so is its beauty, as stunning long shots of the landscape convey a sublime sense of awe. Sudden acts of violence come from men as much as they do from the mountains, often with no warning, highlighting that death is random and arbitrary. Come the end, the viewer may be at a loss as to the meaning of the events depicted. The final image is a look directly into the camera, as if asking “Now what?” No answer is forthcoming, and it may take several viewings before one can be ascertained.
Review of 2015
Finally, after copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention pondering, I have compiled my top twelve films of 2015, and ranked all the others. Enjoy!
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve Collins hits
Eleven Jobs of Steve
Ten Stars A-warring
Nine Scottish plays
Eight stranded Martians
Six dates with Carol
Five Vi’lent Years
Four hacking Blackhats
Three Ex Machinas
Two Broadway Birdmen
And emotions Inside Out!
In more traditional list format:
A hilarious, moving, brilliantly inventive, consistently creative evocation of imagination and the need to laugh and cry.
A fearless, relentless, tragicomic blasterpiece.
An eerie, beguiling and enthralling exploration of identity, consciousness and personhood.
A gripping and enthralling existential thriller of identity in a world of anonymity.
A measured, compelling and de-romanticised portrayal of the American Dream.
A meticulously crafted, exquisitely mournful period romance of forbidden love.
An entrancingly beautiful, unremittingly bleak portrayal of unflinching ugliness.
A stunning, breathtaking, frequently hilarious extraterrestrial survival story.
A brooding, bloody and blasted vision of ambition, madness and death.
A blistering, barnstorming, blockbusting bonanza where the Force undergoes a fast, visceral, referential, reverential reawakening.
A dynamic, electrifying portrayal of an inscrutable and fascinating mind.
A warm, witty, hilarious, bittersweet, moving tale of redemption, family and the choices we make.
A gloriously refreshing, wildly hilarious re-invigoration of the spy comedy-thriller.
A gorgeous, sumptuous, tragic Gothic romance, simmering with invention and emotion.
A grim, thrilling, sometimes shocking yet also redemptive finale to a mighty saga.
A meticulously measured period spy/legal/political/absurdist dramedy.
A grim and oppressive tale of isolation and the struggle for a soul.
An intricate, powerful tale of great events told through the lens of shared, social experience.
A moving, heartbreaking and yet loving portrayal of a life falling apart.
An urgent, compelling, gripping portrayal of political activism and the distance we still have to go.
A joyous, thrilling, moving, endearing, hilarious, exhilarating and dazzling animated adventure.
A dazzlingly unapologetic, beautifully romantic fairy tale, exquisitely nuanced in all the right ways.
A beautifully intimate and gorgeously landscaped horticultural costume drama.
A fresh, funny, zinging superheroic heist adventure.
An adorable, intelligent friendship comedy that keeps a man static while a woman develops.
An enormously ambitious and mostly successful tale of fear and faith within a bulging, blistering superhero slobberknocker.
A powerful and highly ambivalent tale of macho militarism and its consequences.
A hilarious, gross-out, inventive, spiky, heart-warming rom-com that just survives slipping into cliché.
A sly, witty, visceral, somewhat unbalanced but still engaging and thrilling tale of duty, redemption, haunting, power and choice.
A suave, slick, smart, darkly comic, impeccably tongue-in-cheek period spy bromance pastiche.
A beautiful, enchanting portrayal of magic, family and feeling.
A grim, compelling, intricate gangster tale of violence, corruption and loyalty.
A narratively unwieldy and preposterously overwritten, thematically confused yet gorgeously designed and furiously stylish noble failure of a sci-fi action epic that blends Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, Brazil and Soylent Green and could benefit equally from expansion or streamlining.
A grim, bleak tale of the struggle for redemption against the relentless machinery of the state.
A charming, frenetic, brutal, confused and disparate sci-fi fable.
A solid, stirring and at times humbling portrayal of humanity’s relationship with nature.
A zany, bonkers riot of slapstick humour, lunacy and BANANA!
A touching, lyrical biopic with great performances, marred by distracting cinematography.
- Fifty Shades of Grey
An exquisitely designed, beautifully paced romantic drama, botched by a rushed climax.
- Kingsman: The Secret Service
A wacky, profane, bloody, funny satire/parody of the spy film.
A blistering, relentless, visceral destructo-derby.
An unsteady but still gripping disaster flick of family, courage and ingenuity.
- Into The Woods
A boisterous, barnbusting musical that runs out of steam part way through.
A solid spy thriller undermined by a mish-mash of style and tone.
A nostalgic and self-aware if rather mechanical and lacklustre dinosaur adventure.
A handsome but sterile story of war and loss that suffers from an excess of “Englishness.”
A muddled yet sometimes heartbreaking telling of a remarkable true story.
A dour super body horror drama of growing pains, friendship and ambition.
An energetic but hollow portrayal of obsession that raises ideas before frustratingly abandoning them.
A lacklustre philosophical thought experiment on existence and meaning.
A flimsy and unconvincing sci-fi action thriller.
Turkey of the Year
A retrograde regurgitation that retches its wretched innards over a brilliant and intelligent franchise.
In the Heart of the Sea
Films at sea have the potential to be immersive but run the risk of being soggy. For the most part, Ron Howard’s latest effort succeeds in being the former, as Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) records the experiences of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson/Tom Holland) aboard the whaling vessel Essex, the “true” story that inspired Moby Dick. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay balances Dickerson’s confession with the voyage of the Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who frequently clashes with First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as they sail in search of whales. The framing story raises interesting ideas about storytelling, although these are not developed because the emphasis is upon confession of “deep truth,” which at times becomes somewhat trite. But the spectacle of sailors battling the elements make up for this with rich visual detail and visceral rushes as waves crash against the Essex and men grapple with ropes and sails. The whaling sequences are also well handled for conservation-conscious eyes, as close-ups of both the whales and the whalers convey a sense of melancholy over the slaughter of these creatures. Later, the sailors’ voyage becomes a fight for survival, and this is the film’s greatest strength, as it focuses upon the relationship between humanity and nature, both elements and animals. This focus aligns In The Heart of the Sea with other recent films such as Godzilla and The Grey that explore the place of humanity in relation to untamed nature, arrogance, obsession and humility vying for prominence among the crew, as well as their employers back on land. This gives the film an interesting depth to go with its visual spectacle and, at times, palatable suffering. While not a perfect cruise, Howard’s oceanic adventure is still an enjoyable voyage.