Scenes of the Year 2015

As 2015 shambles over the horizon and we cautiously snuggle up to 2016, it’s time for me to indulge my now annual tradition of picking my favourite bits from what 2015 had to offer. As always, a few caveats before we start. Firstly, I haven’t seen every film 2015 had to offer. If you think there are some unforgivable omissions- click “email” in the info box at the top right of the page and tell me how I got my own opinions wrong. Secondly, some of these entries concern what some would consider spoilers, so proceed with caution. With all that in mind, here are my picks for the filmic moments of 2015:

1) Mad Max: Fury Road – Chain gang

Fury Road is probably my favourite film of the year. I loved every demented second of it. I knew that it would feature on my list in some capacity but, considering the film was basically one long action sequence, which bit to pick? I decided that the brutal chain fight involving Max, Furiosa and an unconscious Nux was the one for me. It’s not the most impressive sequence in the film, nor the one with the biggest bangs, but it was a great piece of physical storytelling. Few words are spoken, but we learn truckloads about the characters involved. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is a fucking beast who will do anything to protect her women and, on the other side, Hardy’s Max is a survivalist who will do anything to ensure that he keeps ticking. It’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence that has the confidence not to bombard us with rapid editing to make the fight seem more chaotic. Max finally bests Furiosa with the help of Nux, but it’s clear that the two are equals who could do a lot worse than work together.

2) Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Kylo’s Sith fits

I really enjoyed The Force Awakens. It’s not a perfect film as there are many instances of narrative corner-cutting present, but none of that ended up mattering. Star Wars is back and I couldn’t be happier. New villain Kylo Ren was the highlight for me. Initially, Ren is every bit the Vader-like badass. He’s legitimately intimidating and clearly powerful. However, as the film goes along, the mask slips and we see that Kylo Ren is a petulant youth who freaks out when things don’t go according to plan. My favourite bit was when Ren is given some particularly bad news. He proceeds to lose his mind and hacks the shit out of a control console with his lightsaber, fueled by pure rage. Later on, Kylo unleashes the beast on a conspicuously empty chair. Two stormtroopers round the corner, see the carnage and wisely decide to back off, providing a big audience laugh. There are other scenes later on in the film that are more than worthy of a place here, but I pulled a muscle even thinking of the linguistic gymnastics I’d have to execute to avoid describing who the main players were.

3) Kingsman: The Secret Service – God Hates Firths

I was primed to completely love Kingsman. It was sold as a Bond pastiche done by the team behind Kick-Ass. I enjoyed it, but not to the breathless excitement levels I expected. However, one scene clearly stood out as a pick for this list. Colin Firth’s Galahad finds himself in a Deep South church full of the sadly non-fictional racist, homophobic and odious end of the Christian faith. After making his excuses and attempting to leave, Samuel L. Jackson’s villain activates his mind-altering app that causes murderous rage and violence in anyone close to an electronic device. What follows is an extended, bloody and ludicrously over-the-top sequence where Colin Firth unleashes the fury and takes out the rioting masses to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. It’s the perfect accompaniment as the scene is just as awesomely indulgent as the song itself. The main thing I loved was that fact that it was Colin Fucking Firth in the centre of the ruckus looking every bit the hard-bitten action hero. Fantastic.

4) The Martian – Hot Stuff

I don’t think The Martian would have worked quite as well without Matt Damon grounding the whole thing. We have to spend a lot of time in his company and he’s insanely watchable. His character, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars and he starts to make plans to survive long-term, documenting his progress with the numerous cameras left behind by the NASA mission. Watney realises he needs the rover to go long distances and hatches a dangerous plan to keep himself from freezing at night. He digs up a decaying plutonium radioactive isotope to keep himself warm and stows it in the rover. He takes his mind off the potential nuclear disaster in the backseat by going through the absent Commander Lewis’ music collection and picking the “least disco” track possible: Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. It’s Damon’s withering look to camera that got me, but I couldn’t help but smile when he started dancing and stomping to the beat. I didn’t think a film could equal The Full Monty‘s inspired use of the song, but The Martian did just that.

5) Fantastic Four – Heads you lose

Fantastic Four was shite- no two ways about it. However, this list is about calling out the good when I see it. FF would never make any best of list, but Scenes of the Year? Sure. Y’see this scene summed up the film for me. It was a glimmer of something shiny in amongst the sewage runoff that trickled into cinemas. There’s one scene that concerns the awakening of Toby Kebbell’s Dr. Doom, who is restrained and examined after being rescued from an alternate dimension. Doom is bitter and resentful about his initial abandonment and uses newfound telekinetic powers to exact revenge on some innocent guards and scientists. He breaks his bonds and slowly walks down a hallway, exploding peoples’ heads with his mind. It’s a dark scene that reminded me more of Scanners than anything else. I’m a sucker for Frankenstein’s monster style breakout scenes, hence its inclusion here.  It was a hint at a darker and more interesting take on the tale. I’m not saying that I would want to see a grittier take on the Fantastic Four- far from it. I would have just liked to have seen how far they would have taken it had the studio not got scared and sanded off 90% of the edges.

6) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation –  Puccini pummelling

I’m happy for the Mission: Impossible series to go on for as long as it wants to. Whilst Rogue Nation didn’t quite hit the highs of Ghost Protocol for me, it was still a sodding blast. The stand out scene was a sequence set at the Vienna State Opera during a performance of Turandot. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are desperately trying to foil an assassination attempt. Hunt creeps around, exploring the precarious rigging hung high above the stage before confronting a would-be sniper. Hunt battles with the big man in a sequence that reminded me of the sort of old school Bond scraps that happened between Roger Moore’s 007 and Jaws. The sequence cuts between techie Benji, Hunt and Rebecca Ferguson’s morally grey Ilsa Faust who, rather memorably, rests an arm on one of her fine, elegant legs as she lines up her shot with a custom rifle. All of this action is beautifully edited in time to Puccini’s music and everything comes together to become a great scene as well as a real series highpoint.

7) Avengers: Age of Ultron – Vision expresses

I know it probably seems like I’m being deliberately contrarian at this point in the list. I dug Age of Ultron a lot and so picking out a sequence for important cataloguing purposes was tough. The obvious answer was the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster scrap, but when it came down to it, it was the final confrontation between Ultron (James Spader) and Vision (Paul Bettany) that encapsulated the strengths of the film. Despite a massive CGI filled finale, the film came down to two complete opposites talking in a forest. Both parts are perfectly cast and I thought Joss Whedon’s dialogue fucking sang at this point. Broken and defeated, Ultron is confronted by the god-like Vision. Vision calmly explains how he’s come to support humanity’s plight. Ultron dismisses this out of hand and calls him “unbearably naive” to which Vision replies, quite truthfully, “Well, I was born yesterday.” Bettany’s delivery is perfect and it sells the moment wonderfully.  I can’t wait to see more of him in future Marvel films.

8) John Wick – Dinner reservations

If you like your action, John Wick is a must see. It’s an admirably pared down film about a retired hitman who unretires himself after thugs kill his dog and take his car. The film’s directed by stuntman Chad Stahelski, so the fight choreography is understandably top drawer. All the action scenes could go on here, but it’s the home invasion scene that takes the prize. In it, Keanu Reeves’ titular hero takes on armed goons and -spoiler alert- fucking destroys them. The action is slick and impactful. Wick pops off headshots like he’s using an aimbot and the scene unfolds at an insane pace. After an amusing interlude with a cop coming to the door, the cherry on top is when Wick dials a special number to confirm a “dinner reservation for twelve” as he looks round his corpse-strewn house.

9) Ant-Man – Train set-piece

Marvel’s now-standard “risky” prospect Ant-Man charmed me. No pun intended, but the smaller-scale focus on fathers reconnecting with daughters as well as action sequences revolving around shrinking powers convinced me that a film based around a C-list Marvel hero was no bad thing . The big (small) set pieces were all fun and inventive, but it’s the final battle between Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) that gets the nod. They fight in Rudd’s daughter’s room, with her train set becoming the main battleground. Zoomed in, the fight is just as epic, loud and violent as most blockbuster end sequences, but director Peyton Reed occasionally gives us a real world view of a tiny lightshow happening around a toy train going round a track. It feels fresh and funny, which are two of the film’s main strengths as a whole. Hats off to whomever came up with the idea for a Thomas the Tank Engine cameo too.

10) Ex Machina – Dance floored

2015 was undoubtedly the year of Oscar Isaac. Whilst I didn’t like A Most Violent Year as much as everyone else, he was definitely the best thing in it. With the one-two punch of portraying tech genius Nathan and roguish ace pilot Poe Dameron, he cemented his place as one of my new favourite actors. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is an insidious bastard that preys on your unease. You feel something’s not on the level with the eccentric Nathan but you’re not sure what. When Domhnall Gleeson’s nervy programmer Caleb confronts assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) for some answers and a drunk Nathan walks in, you know something’s going to go down, but a disco dancing scene probably isn’t first on your list of possible outcomes. Both Isaac and Mizuno display some sweet moves and the scene manages to be both fun and unsettling in equal measures. An impressive feat.

11) Furious 7 – The last ride

Few series are as unapologetically cheesy and stupid as the Fast & Furious franchise. I mean none of that negatively. The series delivers ludicrously fun action and I love it for that. However, real world shit impacted on F&F‘s dumb party when main cast member Paul Walker was tragically killed in a car crash. As a result, Furious 7 became tinged with a palpable sadness and it became the entry that hammered home the series theme of family. The ending was handled perfectly. Our gang watch Walker’s Brian laughing on the beach with his family and realise that this is where they must part ways. We get a montage of moments from previous films with Vin Diesel’s almost fourth-wall breaking voiceover. We cut to Toretto, driving his Charger around a winding road before Brian pulls up next to him in his signature Supra- “Thought you could leave without saying goodbye?” O’ Conner smiles.  The two race for a stretch before hitting a fork in the road and taking different paths. It’s a genuinely touching and honest tribute and easily worth a place on this list.

Avengers : Age of Ultron

It’s what NASA uses.

Avengers : Age of Ultron (2015)

All of Marvel’s movies are treated as big event movies, but Age of Ultron is a special case. Perhaps it’s the wrong way of thinking, but people automatically want to know if Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. My answer is an annoying “kind of”.

Born out of Stark A.I. meddling, the Avengers have to face a new threat to global safety, a rogue program calling itself “Ultron” (voiced by James Spader) that has concluded that humanity’s extinction is the only logical outcome. He recruits two superhuman experiments in the form of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to aid him in stopping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As is often the case with sequels, Age of Ultron is darker than the first. It explores the personal fears of each Avenger and leaves them broken and scarred. That’s not to say it tips the balance into all-out ludicrous grimmery. At its core, the film is still a fun, comic-book adventure with plenty of gags and moments of levity.

Age of Ultron certainly starts better than the original Avengers did. We open in medias res, with the team waging an assault on a Hydra castle deathbase to retrieve Loki’s series-important mind-control sceptre. It was so comic-booky and fun, it immediately brought a smile to my face. Loathe as I am to use the word, the banter between the team was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I genuinely love these characters and it’s great to hear them bounce off each other. As someone who has sunk many hours of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, the little team-up attacks will always delight me on a level I can’t quite explain. In comparison, Avengers 1 took a while to get up to speed. The first 20 minutes or so feel weirdly low-rent and out of place when held up against the rest of the film. Lessons have been learned with Age of Ultron and it shows.

After being shoved to the sidelines in the first film, Age of Ultron finally spares some focus for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Joss Whedon delves into the character’s personal life and he becomes the heart of the film. What I love about this is that he’s used as the necessary humanity in a team full of overpowered supermen. You can have your big personalities doing loud and awesome things, but you still need something to ground it. There’s a surprising budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. It’s a strange pairing but it makes total sense. I found it all to be rather sweet. There’s one scene at the Avengers HQ bar where Romanoff flirts shamelessly with the awkward Banner that completely sold their relationship to me. It’s like a film noir exchange and the Whedonness of the writing came through strongly. He loves damaged characters and putting unlikely couples together and having you root for them is kinda his thing. I have to say, I’m liking Tony Stark less. It’s completely intentional too. Stark sees the Avengers as a stopgap solution to Earth’s problems and is working on an endgame. He’s trying to cut the barbed wire again. His shortsightedness leads to Ultron. Although it isn’t directly his fault, he definitely has to shoulder some of the blame. His talk with Cap whilst chopping wood definitely shows the fissures appearing in their ideologies that will lead to Civil War. I can’t wait.

Ultron is a fascinating villain. He has Stark’s wit hardcoded into his programming and so he ends up with just as many one-liners and witticisms as our heroes. His monologues are perfect for James Spader’s amazing voice and as a result Ultron is utterly compelling. The film has a running theme of evolution and Ultron embodies that. There’s one scene where Ultron destroys his body mid-speech with a newer, more powerful form without pause that is just a fantastic moment. This is an odd sentence, but despite Ultron’s desire to wipe out humanity, he didn’t seem that evil to me. Part of it is his cold, robot logic. He’s not evil because he enjoys it, but because it makes sense to him. Part of it is the fact that he’s so damn entertaining. It all adds up to him being insanely misguided rather than straight-up evil. I can appreciate that it’s a more interesting take on villainy, but it didn’t have the immediate, visceral appeal of someone who is an out-and-out bastard. However, I expect this to become less of a problem on repeat viewings.

Whedon is a master of the ensemble piece. He manages to accommodate a whole bunch of new faces whilst keeping things balanced with more familiar ones. Nearly all the characters are well served by the script and they all get moments to shine. Reviews have already levelled their few criticisms of the film at there being too many characters, but I think it’s a lazy criticism. It’s like the similar “too many villains” problem that is often brought up. For me it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Game of Thrones manages to balance a crazy amount of characters and plotlines each week. The execution is the problem, not the idea.  Age of Ultron does incredibly well with sharing focus. The only real casualty (and there’s bound to be one in a film like this) is that the film has to set up more universe building things with teases for Black Panther and future Avengers films. Thor gets a largely pointless subplot to find out about the Infinity Gems and to me it took away from the main narrative. It fucks with the pacing sightly and makes the film baggier. Having said that, I liked Andy Serkis turning up as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer with a deep fear of cuttlefish.

I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about The Vision because I can. The stakes feel higher when Paul Bettany steps up. He’s such a great character. He’s the opposite side of the coin to Ultron. He’s got the robot logic, but he also sees the value of humanity. Bettany plays him as a gentle, ethereal being and it completely works. As I watched the caped Vision float in mid-air, delivering beautiful monologues, I came to a bit of a realisation. Vision is a better Superman than the current version of Superman. That’s not a tough feat, but Vision embodies everything I like about a God-like figure trying to teach humanity rather than destroy it. His final dialogue with Ultron is also incredibly well-written and it shows you can have your huge, destructive setpieces as well as have time for simple conversation about differing ideologies.

Those destructive setpieces I mentioned? Age of Ultron has bucketloads of them too. My favourite was the scrap between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in his purpose-built Hulkbuster suit. The finale is the single most comic-booky thing I’ve seen on screen to date and I loved it.

Age of Ultron falls just shy of The Avengers’ greatness for me. It’s a better made and certainly a better realised film than the first, but I didn’t experience as many air-punchingly great moments as I did with the original. However, that’s not to say the film fails because it doesn’t. It’s another excellent Marvel film. The cast are great, the film is visually spectacular and it’s very well-written. It’s funny, but when I’ve discussed Age of Ultron with people, it’s the little character beats that I talk about rather than the impressive action sequences. More films should be made like that. Character resonates for so much longer than explosions do. I’ll give it four stars, but will qualify it’s a very high four. As I feel that half the country has already seen it, it seems moot, but the film gets a huge recommendation from me.