If there is one film you should see this year (other than Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) because people might spoil that one for you if you’re not careful) it is Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). Adapted from the book of the same name by Andy Weir, the film boasts a stellar cast (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, the list goes on and on…) as well as snappy dialogue, and relatively accurate science (I said relatively okay. This is Mars after all.) It’s the ‘everything you could want in a movie’ for this year. There’s action, humour, emotion, and a fantastic soundtrack. There has never, and may never be again, a more apt use of the songs ‘Starman’ and ‘Hot Stuff’. Actually, there’s never been a better use of Disco music in a movie full stop. But at the heart of this piece is a powerful and moving lesson about just how strong the human spirit can be when it is pushed to its limits. How deep can you dig? How patient can you be? How long can you survive? Because in the wise words of Watney, “At some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say; ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
With 2016 set to be the year of the Superhero, it must be assumed then that 2015 is the year of the Blockbuster. And if there is one film that stands well above its competitors it can be none other than the one that flies in from a galaxy far far away… Yes, I talk of the one, the only, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), a film that unsurprisingly takes out the best blockbuster of the year title, not only because it has become the fastest film to reach $1 billion dollars, but because it is exceptionally well put together in the face of overwhelming odds. I mean, would you have wanted to direct a $200 million dollar film that could potentially be the laughing stock of the cinematic world? Didn’t think so. But JJ Abrams has the guts and glory to go far, staving off the critics and the studio big-wigs to craft a film that is energetic, respectful to its origins, and really just a damn fun ride to go on. It never dips, it never delays, and it sure as hell never disappoints, meaning that fans all around the world will once again be in anticipation come 2017 when Star Wars: Episode VIII storms into theatres.
When you carry a near two-and-a-half hour movie by yourself, my belief is that you deserve all the praise coming your way. So when Matt Damon took on the arduous task of portraying stranded astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian (2015) he automatically gained a leap forward on my Best Actor pick for the year. Once I saw the movie however, the reasons to acknowledge his wondrous performance only got clearer and clearer. Although it is easy to boil Damon’s acting decisions down to merely a cross between his constantly cheerful character Benjamin Mee from We Bought A Zoo (2013) and his ‘think outside the box’ handy-man Jason Bourne from the Bourne franchise (2002 – 2016), his work here is instead finely nuanced and hilariously uplifting, unlike anything we’ve really seen him play before. I’d go so far as to say it is maybe even the best performance he’s ever put to screen. And yes, he is helped along generously by a witty script, fantastic supporting cast, and especially by the wise direction of master filmmaker Ridley Scott. But underneath all of this is an intense portrayal of one of the most timeless stories put to screen– that of the battle a person wages within themself to decide to survive. He is every one of us in his magnanimous will to live, and despite his frustration and perils he still manages it with a smile. Damon isn’t playing Mark Watney here, he damn well is Mark Watney. And that demands respect.
It was the surprise hit at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year after taking out the People’s Choice Award, so it should come as no surprise then that the stunning leading lady’s performance in Room (2015) is up there as the best of the best for the year. Brie Larson’s turn as Ma in the film adapted from the book of the same name by Emma Donoghue is nothing short of a revelation. Confronting, emotional, and heart-breaking, Larson never holds back, giving the role her all and channelling the fierce love a mother has for her child as easily as if Jacob Tremblay’s Jack was her own son. Many have already called her as the strongest contender for the Best Actress Oscar come February, and I have no qualms at all to state the same. The fire she kicked into gear in Short Term 12 (2013) is again intense and bright here, and ultimately, she deserves everything she’s going to get along the blazing path it is burning.
With so many powerful and evocative performances on display this year, it was a hard task to narrow them down to just one. A task that proved impossible when it came to this category. For not only were there two impressive debuts that stood out above the crowd this year, but they came from two young actors making their big-budget film debuts. So tying this year as the best breakout performers were Oona Laurence as Leila in Southpaw (2015), and Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room (2015). Portraying a maturity beyond their years, whilst retaining their childlike innocence and vulnerability, these two actors prove that sometimes less is more when trying to convey intense emotions. At only 13 and 9 each could easily have a long and celebrated career in film ahead of them, meaning this could be the year we look back on a go – ‘That’s when I saw it. The spark. That’s when I knew they were going to be great.’
Managing to one-up his brilliant cameo in X-Men: First Class (2011) all those years ago (Admit it, you’ve never heard a line more appropriately delivered than the ‘Go Fuck Yourself’ he growls to Charles and Erik), Hugh Jackman once again manages to take out the honour of best cameo this year, playing none other than a poster of Wolverine. Yes, that’s right, a poster. A beautiful goddam poster. Providing some wise (and unexpected) words to protagonist Greg about how to go about discussing a cancer diagnosis in a tactful way, Jackman’s moment in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) is the icing on top of the depressing but realistic cake the film turns out to be. It’s not the adrenaline pumping scenario we’re used to seeing him in, but the whimsical way in which our expectations are altered, certainly makes it a worthwhile one.
It was, undoubtedly, one of the most haunting musical pieces to reverberate off the walls of the cinema this year. Whilst ‘Starman’ ironically bounced around the surface of The Martian (2015), and ‘See You Again’ brought tears to the eyes of Furious 7 (2015) fans everywhere, a simple tune full of rising crescendo’s and swelling refrains is what calls out to be acknowledged as the best use of a song this year. Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) takes the number one position because of how unashamedly it reflects upon the nature of our existence. Playing across the final moments of the film the song is one of beginnings. And one of endings. No words, no whispers, no waking from its spell. Just three minutes were something so beautiful and so raw can reach across the screen and pierce your soul. Now that’s life.
John Williams is the master of music. Having scored tracks for films as vast and varied as Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and the entire Indiana Jones (1981 – 2008) series, Williams could be forgiven for wanting to slow down after six decades in the industry. But not only has he chosen to forsake retirement (at least for now), he is powering ahead to provide beautifully orchestrated pieces like the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack. Paying homage to his iconic pieces, whilst firmly constructing the magic for a new generation of fans, the score undoubtedly has to rate among the best of the year. Whilst ‘Rey’s Theme’ holds a special place as an uplifting new melody, it has to be ‘Torn Apart’ that is the score’s highlight, the sudden turn in the piece lifting towards a crescendo and taking our hearts along with it. When it stops, so too does our breathe. And sadly, we never really quite catch it back. So although he may be 83, but here’s hoping Williams has still got enough force to see him through the next trilogy. Because Star Wars just wouldn’t be the same without him.
Now don’t get me wrong, there have been a tonne of beautifully constructed, action-packed, and dramatically infused trailers that have debuted this year. Most of which made their mark come December, as they tried to one-up each other in an effort to find their clips attached to JJ Abrams Sci-fi megalith Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But there is one singular moment which drives Captain America: Civil War home as the most memorable of the bunch. The moment Chris Evans’ patriotic Cap remarks that “I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice, but he’s [Bucky] my friend”, before Tony Stark looks forlornly towards camera and utters the line “So was I…” It hits you right in the feels, and that’s even before a parody version featuring Adele’s ‘Hello’ mixed over the top made its way online. Forget about the newfound Poe and Finn bromance, cause here comes two buddy pairings for the price of one, as the superheroes realise it’s never quite light or dark when taking a side.
Although Cap’s pep talk in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) is one for the history books, with him stating; “You get hurt, hurt 'em back. You get killed, walk it off,” it is strangely not the best line of dialogue from this year’s pickings. Not even Matt Damon’s quip as Astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian (2015) that he will “have to science the shit out of this” can take the crown. Instead, we are once again boarding the feels train with the winner going to the gorgeous but tragic line “Take her to the moon for me, Okay?” as said by Richard Kind’s imaginary friend Bing Bong from Inside Out (2015). The character, who is an elephant-cat hybrid made of pink fairy floss, easily represents the inner child in us that fades as we head further and further into adulthood.