Starring: Lily James (Downton Abbey), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Derek Jacobi (Gladiator), Helena Bonham Carter (Les Miserables)

Director: Kenneth Branagh (Thor)

Writer: Chris Weitz (About a Boy)

Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes

Release Date: 13 March (US), 27 March (UK)

And so Disney’s trend of adapting their animated classics into live-action films continues, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. New versions of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo are all in various stages of development, and I’m sure even more will come as long as the people keep paying. Why they keep paying is still a mystery to me, as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent were gaudy, ill conceived and just all around missed the point. Cinderella seemed destined to walk the same path from the word go, and I was all set endure another lame rendition of a childhood story. But, to my surprise, Cinderella is actually…OK. It didn’t blow my mind and it’s still somewhat pointless, but it was OK.

Of all the fairy tales, “Cinderella” is the one that holds up the least well under modern scrutiny. The messages about kindness and perseverance still work, but its antiquated vision of the feminine ideal and the lack of a proactive protagonist don’t do it any favours. This new version, for the most part, tells the story straight with only embellishments to pad out the runtime to feature length. Whilst this reverence to the source material does give it a charming old-school vibe (and I’ll certainly take it over the misguided revisionism of its forbearers), the extended length does make the original story’s flaws that much more apparent. With a fresh perspective and more time to tell the story, it would have been nice if the contrivances of the fairy tale were explained with some logic or at least commented upon for their lunacy, but all of it is taken with a straight face. Many of Maleficent’s flaws are felt here too, such as the inconsistent tone and use of pointless narration to drive home the obvious, but it at least feels cohesive and doesn’t attempt any forced symbolism. But for as much as Cinderella doesn’t do much to fix the source’s flaws, it compensates by driving home what does still work about the story. The whole “be brave and kind” message is shoved down your throat a bit too much, but it’s certainly sincere about it and that’s why it ultimately works. By the film’s conclusion, even with all the holes in logic and questionable lessons for the female audience, it’s still hard not to smile.

There’s not much to the character of Cinderella on the page, but Lily James is earnest enough in her portrayal that you can buy it for the most part. She does nail the persistence of the character, always doing her best to stay kind even under the most heinous of circumstance but still showing enough humanity underneath to understand her torment. These moments make those when she finally gains her freedom to feel earned, and James’ whimsy and excitement in these moments really pay off. However, it still would have been nice if she had a little more to do. There is still no moment where she directly impacts the plot, as everybody else still either does things for her or she does exactly as she’s told. Her words do have a strong impact on the prince and she does eventually lash out at her stepmother, but other than that she is still a passive presence in her own story. Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine is somewhat cartoonish at first, as are the stepsisters, and their behaviour becomes more unbearable than necessary by the time the ball arrives. However, when the story finally explains Tremaine’s motivations, combined with Blanchett’s go-hard-or-go-home performance, it does finally make the character work and turns her into more of a Machiavellian string-puller than just a shallow woman. Richard Madden’s Prince Charming is as pleasant as his character’s namesake and his chemistry with James makes the prospect of these two falling in love so quickly seem plausible. However, I wish there was more to his relationship with his father (Jacobi) and the scheming duke (Skarsgard). Helena Bonham Carter gives a very expected performance, but her screen time is brief and her quirks are reined in enough to avoid completely destroying the already shaky tone.

Disney always throws a lot of money into their productions, and rarely do they waste their expense. Cinderella’s visuals are very ornate, packed full of colour and detail, which gives it that striking fairy tale feel. All of it is certainly along the right lines, but I think a lot of it goes too over the top. The costumes often look sickly and overdesigned, the visual effects too cartoony and glittery, and Patrick Doyle’s score often emphasises the emotional beats a little too forcefully. I appreciate all the effort that’s gone into the production, but there is such a thing as doing too much work.

Cinderella certainly isn’t a film that needed to exist, but I wouldn’t call it a waste of anyone’s time. The movie’s simplistic charm combined with some welcome changes, assisted by strong performances from all the main cast, make this a version of the story told a thousand times one that may be worth sitting through once more. I still feel more could have been done to make the story more relevant to a modern audience or comment upon the more dated parts of the source, but it doesn’t soil the memory of the original either. I know a lot of this review has been me essentially saying “it’s not as bad as Maleficent” over and over, but really I’m just that thankful that it isn’t. I wouldn’t urge anyone to rush out and see it, but if you’ve got kids or you’re curious enough, it may be worth a watch.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

PS: The short Frozen Fever that plays in front is charming and it’s nice to see those characters again, but it is very brief and probably would have been more at home as an extra on the Frozen Blu-Ray. I’ve not been one to be bothered by Frozen’s never-ending popularity, but this and the announced sequel I think is too much at this point. But that’s a discussion for another day…

Starring: Sharlto Copley (District 9), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Contilla (Crank), Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens)

Director: Neill Blomkamp (Elysium)

Writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell (District 9)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 6 March (US, UK)

When District 9 hit the scene in 2009, Neill Blomkamp was suddenly hailed as “the next big thing”, and I was among those people heralding the film and its director as exactly what science-fiction cinema needed. In retrospect, that hyperbolic attitude seems a little childish now. Whilst I did enjoy Blomkamp’s sophomore effort Elysium, it paled in comparison to its predecessor (especially when the tone, message and aesthetic of both pictures are so similar). The mild letdown of Elysium has even led to Blomkamp recently admitting he felt the film was made prematurely made and without enough thought. A brave thing for any director to do, but perhaps he should have saved his apology, because his new film Chappie is an even bigger step down for the promising director.

Chappie’s plot could easily be summed up as a reverse-RoboCop: instead of a human becoming robotic, it’s a robot that learns to be human. However, the comparisons to the Paul Verhoeven classic don’t end there, with several scenes and characters feeling directly ripped from it with little change. A city overrun by crime, a corporation gaining control over law enforcement, a bitter employee trying to push his inferior product, and many others are elements shared by both pictures. Blomkamp is certainly known for paying homage to other sci-fi films, but he’s very much stepped over the line into blatant now. But putting those obvious similarities aside, there are a lot of good ideas under the surface of Chappie. Topics such free will, nature vs. nurture and transhumanism are certainly interesting areas to explore, but the film either glosses over them too quickly or tackles them in morally questionable ways. This is especially true of the film’s third act, which I personally think was interesting direction to go, but it’s way too heavily foreshadowed and is then quickly rushed through to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. But I think the main reason Chappie ends up faltering is not so much in the story it’s trying to tell, but in the characters that inhabit it.

I’ll get the exception to this out of the way first: Sharlto Copley as Chappie himself does a great job. There’s such a warm naivety and endearing nature to Copley’s performance, made clear in even the slightest change in posture or hand gesture. His voice can be a little grading at first, as can his childish attitude, but you quickly warm to the character and Copley manages to gain the most (and possibly only) sympathy of any character in the film. Dev Patel’s Deon is the only other character that comes close to being relatable, but he’s far too weak and pernickety; he only ever once gains the high ground in a scene, and he has to resort to using a gun to do so. Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, members of South African rap group Die Antwoord, ostensibly play themselves here (and if the fact their character’s names are their own isn’t enough, the film is full of their music and they often even wear their own merchandise), and their inclusion is just baffling. Ignoring the fact that Ninja is just an outright bad actor (Visser is passable at best), their characters are irredeemable and vulgar. I get the idea of the childish Chappie being easily swayed into malicious deeds by them and learning a lesson about morality from it, but it takes up a huge portion of the movie and fails in that time to establish any redeeming qualities about these characters; by the time sh*t hits the fan, I was actively rooting for Ninja to die. Faring even worse is Hugh Jackman, whose stock villain is so lacking in motivation that it kills the otherwise serious tone of the picture. Seriously, why is this guy so dead set on getting his death machine of a contraption on the streets despite the obvious flaws in logic that even the movie points out to him? Why is he going to such ridiculous lengths to do so, endangering the lives of countless innocents in the process? Why is he taking so much glee in the rampant destruction he’s responsible for in the third act? And why doesn’t Sigourney Weaver just fire him? Oh yeah, Sigourney Weaver’s in this movie. I had totally forgotten, and you probably will too because she’s essentially pointless.

Even in all of this mess, at least Blomkamp’s skills as a visual director have not deteriorated…much. Despite having a very similar look to both his previous films, Chappie remains a visually compelling film through strong production design and flawless visual effects. The design and animation job on Chappie synchs perfectly with the live action environments, and combine with Copley’s performance beautifully. However, Blomkamp’s need to constantly pay reverence to his influences butts in here too; whilst Chappie’s bearing likeness to the robot from Appleseed is somewhat subtle, the resemblance between Jackman’s MOOSE robot and ED-209 from RoboCop is so blatant that it’s all you’ll think about when you see it. Hans Zimmer’s score is decent but feels lost under the noise of the constant Die Antwoord songs used throughout which, and I know this is just my musical taste, sound overly produced and just downright annoying. But it’s not just our stars’ products being constantly shoved in our face, as distributor Sony once again feels the need to shove their various products in our face with numerous Sony phones, laptops and PlayStation 4s seen constantly throughout. Sony has been especially guilty of product placement lately (see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for the most egregious example of this) and they really need to stop being so obvious with it.

Chappie isn’t outright bad, but it is heart-wrenchingly disappointing. The film has plenty of potential with its themes and ideas, but other than its titular character there is no one participating in this story to care about. The morals the film espouses are questionable to say the least, and the similarities to other pieces of sci-fi fiction are Oblivion-level obvious. I said in my review of Elysium that I feared Neill Blomkamp might become the new Andrew Niccol. He’s certainly on that path now, and he’d better make sure that new Alien film he’s making is good or he’ll be stepping on M. Night Shyamalan’s turf pretty soon.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

As good a year for film as 2014 has been, no 365 days can be completely crap free. In my somewhat masochistic goal to see as many movies as possible (I saw over 100 in 2014), I’ve come across some really bland, disappointing or just outright awful cinema. Some of these you may disagree with me on, others you may have never even heard of, but again this is all subjective; that’s why it’s called my “most despised” list rather than “worst”. But enough procrastinating. Let’s start digging through the trash.

First, a few dishonourable mentions that managed to scrape by:

Need for Speed – Aaron Paul shows he doesn’t have leading man potential in this lame brained car movie that makes The Fast and the Furious movies seem reasonable by comparison. The cool practical stunts are fun, but what isn’t fun are the thinly broad characters, ludicrous plot and the cringe-worthy attempts at humour.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Kenneth Branagh’s attempted reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise wasn’t exactly bad, but it was achingly bland; a store-brand imitation of the modern spy thriller. I never thought I’d say this, but Chris Pine is no Alec Baldwin.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles A lame and derivative reinvention of the classic franchise that combines all the worst elements of modern reboots and Michael Bay-isms. Only saved by some cool action sequences and the strained efforts of Will Arnett.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – The definition of “too little, too late”, this belated follow-up to the 2005 film is just more of the same with no new tricks despite the nine year jump in film technology and technique. As much of a has-been as Frank Miller himself.

  1. The Quiet Ones

I know I’m starting the list off weak here, but that’s only because this movie is so bland that I’m actually struggling to remember most of it. Full of the same old horror tropes but with a superfluous 70s filter, The Quiet Ones is a dull and obvious horror flick that has ambitions of doing new things but always chickens out and goes for the expected scare.

  1. The Expendables 3

It’s the best of the franchise…but that’s not saying much. The Expendables 3 is still the complete waste of an idea that all of these movies have been. A thin plot, an abundance of poorly-written characters, bad humour that mostly relies on puns and movie references, and action sequences neutered by a PG-13 rating all contribute to this movie once again failing to live up to the series’ potential. Everyone involved here should know better and I wish they’d spend their time making better movies. Except Kellan Lutz. He just needs to go away.

  1. The Equalizer

Denzel Washington wastes his time and talent in this adaptation of the TV show of the same name. Feeling like an episode of the show stretched out to over two hours, The Equalizer is a slog of a film full of clichéd villains played by wasted character actors (seriously, why even hire Chloe Grace Moretz if she’s only going to be in the movie for about ten minutes?) that only remains vaguely watchable thanks to Washington’s own natural charm.

  1. That Awkward Moment

This movie poses itself as a romantic comedy for men. Pity the film’s definition of “men” has been replaced with “immature douchebags”. Wasting the talents of its impressive main cast of Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zac Efron (yes, this movie is even below Efron’s usual standards), That Awkward Moment seems less like a modern view of romance and more like a series of rejected plots from a bad sitcom. Crass, immature and loud in all the wrong ways, That Awkward Moment proves that rom coms for men can be just as pandering as those for women. Let’s just hope Teller and Jordan’s luck together is better with this year’s Fantastic Four.

  1. Horrible Bosses 2

There are bad comedy sequels, and then there’s Horrible Bosses 2. Played like if an idiot tried to remake the first film, the flimsy plot and dumbed down characters sink what few vestiges of humour are left in this premise. Every actor here is either bored or embarrasses themselves, and do I need to mention that Charlie Day essentially gets raped at one point and it’s played for laughs? Thought so. My advice: just watch the first one again and try to forget this one even exists.

  1. The Maze Runner

Young adult adaptations have gotten so cocky at this point that they’re convinced they’ll get a sequel. That’s especially a problem when it causes the filmmakers to not even bother explaining the rules of their two-hour movie before it’s over. The Maze Runner is the prime example of how not to create a mystery, replacing vagueness and dangling questions in place of the tension and intrigue that should be there. There are so many moments of illogic in this movie that it infuriated me, and the cock-tease ending just makes it all the worse. There is some potential for a good movie here, but the complete lack of consistency and rationality make this one a really hard sit for those who like their stories to make sense.

  1. Transcendence

transcendence-poster

Over a year ago, I had this on my most anticipated films of 2014 list. Now the mere thought of it makes me both shudder and laugh at the same time. Transcendence is one of those films that thinks it’s smart and has something to say, but is actually about as intelligent and informed on the subject of technology as an 80 year old luddite. The pacing is sleep-inducingly slow, the characters all act like idiots, the message of the film is confused and keeps switching sides, and even for an advanced super AI system some of the things Johnny Depp does in this movie are head-slappingly idiotic. Wally Pfister, you may be Christopher Nolan’s buddy but an accomplished storyteller you are not.

  1. Divergent

Whilst Maze Runner was merely confusing, Divergent’s main sin is being mind-numbingly dull and hackneyed. When the film isn’t just ripping off The Hunger Games but without any of the stakes, all that is left is a bad teenage love story and supposed “social commentary” for people whose only experience of hierarchy is the structure of high school cliques. Who the heck wants to watch that for two and a half hours? Teenage girls obviously, as thanks to them we’re getting three more of these. [groan]

  1. The Giver

I’ve never read the book this film was based on, but despite that I can tell this is a horribly done adaptation. The core ideas at the story’s heart are strong, but the execution is just bafflingly awful on every conceivable level. Great actors like Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep are bad, everyone else in the cast is even worse, the pacing and structure are all over the place, and the symbolism is so forced that everything might as well have a “this means something important” sign on it. The Giver might be trying to say something good, but it goes about it in the worst way possible.

  1. Dracula Untold

If this is how Universal wants to start the reboot of their Monsters series, then they’re off to a really bad start. Dracula Untold is a complete mess of a film that acts less like a horror movie and more like a bad superhero origin story. The legendary vampire is depicted here with a tragic back-story and noble motivations, but yet we’re somehow supposed to still be scared of him. The story then completely loses any moral complexity by pitting him against a villain so shallow and remorseless that you end up disliking both sides of this idiotic conflict. The plot rushes past so quickly just to get to the next CGI-filled action set piece, there is literally no time to linger on anything and the result is unfulfilling and incomprehensible. Sorry, Dracula Untold. Not even the presence of Charles Dance could save you.

  1. I, Frankenstein

I, Frankenstein

Did anybody actually expect this to be good? All I was hoping for was at least something as enjoyably dumb as the Underworld movies, but this didn’t even manage that distinction. Being surprisingly reverent to the source material and featuring a renowned but utterly wasted casted, I, Frankenstein doesn’t quite seem to know what it is. Is it a horror movie? An action flick? Fantasy? Science fiction? A weird, nonsensical combination of all of the above? Yeah, I think it’s that last one. Combine that with dated special effects, inconsistent logic and a complete lack of self-awareness, and this is one concept that probably should have stayed just that.

  1. Lucy

Continuing on the theme of movies that act like they’re smarter than they are is this preposterous sci-fi action movie from the long past his prime Luc Besson. Scarlett Johansson does her best with the limited material, but is left throughout most of the movie looking like a mannequin and yet is still the most compelling character. I can excuse a film having a preposterous premise as long as it entertains, but Lucy is so off the wall that it becomes dull. Johansson becomes so untouchable and overpowered by the film’s climax that there is absolutely no tension or drama, and in the final few scenes the movie suddenly decides it wants to be 2001: A Space Odyssey for no reason. Lucy tries to be both intellectual and entertaining, but instead ends up just being stupid.

  1. 3 Days to Kill

Speaking of Luc Besson, he wrote this next piece of action-packed drivel. Kevin Costner’s character may be the one dying in 3 Days to Kill, but it’s his own career that should be put on life support after this turgid mess from hackmaster McG (and yes, that is really is the director’s name). The action sequences are dry, the humour feels like it was taken from a completely different film, Costner looks like he’s going to fall asleep at any second, Hailee Steinfeld continues failing to live up to her promise in True Grit, and what the f*ck was up with Amber Heard’s character?

  1. Exodus: Gods and Kings

Another year, another reminder that Ridley Scott is not the director he used to be. Tackling the story of Moses, a tale told several times on screen already, it seems Scott’s angle on the material was to make it really boring and emotionally detached. Despite a staggering 150 minute run time, the film makes little effort to establish a strong relationship between Christian Bale’s Moses and Joel Edgerton’s Ramses, leaving the film’s central conflict feeling hollow and uninteresting. Scott also wastes his excellent supporting cast, leaving such recognizable faces as John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver with essentially nothing to do. When Exodus isn’t just dull, it is laughable; this is epitomized in several scenes where Moses talks to God, who is depicted as a precocious and monotone kid and all sense of seriousness is lost. It’s a profound waste of time and money for everyone involved, but especially the audience’s.

  1. (A New York) Winter’s Tale

I honestly couldn’t describe this movie to you in a way that makes sense nor that lives up to what watching it is actually like. All you need to know is that there is a magic horse that is actually a dog, Russell Crowe with a terrible Irish accent, and Will Smith as the Devil. No, I’m being serious. Will Smith is Satan. That’s not even mentioning the laughably bad screenplay full of ridiculous dialogue and awkward plot turns that essentially make two-thirds of the story entirely pointless. All I had to say was “Will Smith plays the Devil”, and you’d know there’s something wrong with this picture. Stay away unless you really enjoy laughing at bad movies, because there are some priceless moments here.

  1. The Anomaly

I hate to pick on the little guy here, but The Anomaly is just flat-out bad. Noel Clarke of Doctor Who and Kidulthood fame directs and stars in this wannabe sci-fi thriller with production values that even the most average TV show would laugh at. The plot, whilst having a decent premise, is a poorly structured and over-expositional mess that lacks personality and development. The fight sequences are over-choreographed and uninspired copies of those you could find in a Zack Snyder production, whilst the special effects look unfinished and not much better than what a 14 year old could do whilst messing around with Adobe After Effects. The British film industry really could do with more genre fare instead of relying on the usual costume dramas and bad comedies, but if this is all it can muster then maybe that explains why we don’t get more.

  1. Ride Along

When making a comedy, a key thing you need to make sure of is that your movie is actually funny. Sounds obvious, I know, but so may comedies somehow forget to do this and instead just shout nonsense to fill the void. Ride Along is yet another entry into the buddy cop genre with barely an original idea in its head, with every plot development and character beat predictable to a T. Ice Cube just looks bored throughout whilst co-star Kevin Hart attempts to liven the proceedings but just ends up embarrassing himself. Not much more to say but dull, dull, dull…and somehow we’re getting a sequel in 2016. Oh, Hollywood. You so silly.

  1. Pompeii

The idea of mixing Titanic and Gladiator sounds like a good idea…if any more effort was put into it beyond that elevator pitch and it was the year 2001. But in 2014, Pompeii looks about as lifeless of a film as the ash-covered victims of Mount Vesuvius itself. Kit Harington utterly fails as a leading man, and his co-stars do little to help; only Kiefer Sutherland manages to entertain, and that’s only because he’s so awfully OTT. Derivative, poorly paced and laden with corny dialogue, Pompeii certainly fits in with the majority of director Paul W.S. Anderson’s filmography.

  1. Transformers: Age of Extinction

Ripping apart a Michael Bay movie is kind of pointless since it’s clear he doesn’t care what people with brain cells think, but it’s a task that still needs to be done. Whilst not as offensive as Revenge of the Fallen, Age of Extinction is certainly the most tiresome Transformers film yet. The plot is meandering and feels improvised, the runtime is grossly overstretched, the product placement is so overdone it’s practically disgusting, and the main cast actually makes me pine for the days of Shia LaBoeuf. Bay says he’s done with the franchise and that’s nothing but good news. Then again, he said the same thing after Dark of the Moon, so it’d be no surprise if he came back for more incomprehensible robot carnage. I was willing to defend this man after I enjoyed Pain & Gain so much, but now he’s once again lost any goodwill I had towards him. Good luck in movie hell, Michael Bay. You’d better hope they have teleprompters.

  1. Palo Alto

When James Franco isn’t hanging out with Seth Rogen, he’s making pretentious twaddle like this. Based on his collection of short stories, Palo Alto is also the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (yes, there is yet another Coppola) and it just reeks of indie nonsense. It’s the kind of film where every character is a wretched human being, but not the interesting, engaging, Scorsese type of wretched. No, this is essentially watching a bunch of dumb teenagers making stupid mistakes or just generally being arseholes with no real motivation or meaning. I get that it’s meant to be a slice of life, but can’t that slice at least have some meat to it? This is easily the longest and most excruciating 100 minutes I have ever endured, and you would have to tie me down Clockwork Orange style to make me watch it again…and we haven’t even hit the top five yet.

  1. Sabotage

Speaking of unlikable characters, David Ayer’s Sabotage managed the impossible task of making Arnold Schwarzenegger not only boring but also utterly repugnant. He and the entire cast of this film are absolutely awful as both characters and actors, behaving like a bunch bro-douches and not even having the decency to do it convincingly. The plot is somehow both needlessly convoluted and bafflingly predictable, and the film’s grimy tone and pessimistic attitude just makes for a soul-crushing experience but not in a good way. Thank the movie gods for the fantastic Fury, because otherwise I’d be after Ayer’s head for this.

  1. The Legend of Hercules

I’d say this movie is actually far too hilariously bad to feature on this list, but The Legend of Hercules is just an utter disaster on every level. The acting is marginally better than a primary school nativity play, the writing is trite and moronic, the action sequences are outdated and lacking in impact, the costumes look like they were bought at a fancy dress store, and even the music isn’t very good. However, The Legend of Hercules gets everything so wrong that it actually starts to become entertaining in a riffable kind of way. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Mystery Science Theatre 3000, this might actually be one worth watching; it’s even available on Netflix right now, so go ahead and laugh your ass off. Otherwise, just stay away and watch Dwayne Johnson’s surprisingly enjoyable Hercules movie from this year instead.

  1. Tarzan

And it’s strike number three for Kellan Lutz on this year’s list for starring in this utterly curious CG adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic ape-man. Beyond the motion capture animation looking stilted and the character models lifelessly off-putting, this version of Tarzan just doesn’t really make any sense. When the story isn’t just meandering around without any real purpose, with events stitched together by bafflingly written narration, it’s just ripping off Avatar. The characters are stock and dull, the dialogue is laughably simplistic and performed by actors who don’t even sound human, and it doesn’t even seem to understand the key concepts of Tarzan. I have no idea how this movie actually got made, but it exists and it is just bemusing to the nth degree.

  1. Maleficent

Whilst many movies on this list are objectively worse, no movie pissed me off more than Maleficent did. I have talked about this movie at length several times already, so please read my detailed autopsy here if you want to know why this one ticked me off so much, but allow me to cover the basics. The plot is an utter mess with no cohesion or structure, the characters are so watered down and simplistic that they make early Disney characters seem as complex as those on Game of Thrones, the acting is abysmally lifeless thanks to poor direction, the supposedly feminist message is utterly ruined by completely misunderstanding the concept of feminism, and do I really need to repeat why that wing-cutting scene is distressingly awful on so many levels (and yes, Angelina Jolie has said since that the subtext was totally intentional)? It just confounds me to no end that not only did Disney OK this movie and spent $170 million on it, but that it is the fourth highest grossing film of 2014. People, have you learnt nothing from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? Keep your money and stop encouraging them to keep doing this. Disney, I love 90% of what you’re doing right now, but this trend either needs to stop or you need to actually put some effort into these.

And for the longest time, that would have been the end of it. But in my quest to see as many films as possible before the year ended, I actually came across a film I loathe more than Maleficent. Behold! The utter abomination of cinema that is…

  1. Sex Tape

Where…do I even…start? Well, remember how I said that comedies need to actually be funny? Sex Tape goes the extra mile and confuses being gross for being funny, and therein lies this movie’s crippling flaw. Every “joke” is just talking graphically about sex and, whilst not wanting to sound like a prude, I tend to find that makes me wince more than laugh. I enjoy some pretty messed-up stuff for entertainment, but Sex Tape doesn’t do it in a creative or interesting way. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel are utterly awful in this, interacting and reacting to each other in ways no sane human being would do in this or any situation and instead come off as sex-obsessed mental patients. The constant Apple product placement is excruciating, literally stopping the movie to showcase Siri or comment on how durable iPads are, and I haven’t even gotten into the plot of this monstrosity yet. The set-up of having to race around trying to stop people from seeing a sex tape isn’t a wholly bad idea, but the way it’s executed here is just idiotic beyond relief; once it’s revealed who’s behind this whole ordeal and their motivation (or completely unconvincing lack therof) is brought to light and then inconsequentially shoved to the side, I knew I had found the worst film of 2014. The movie ends with Diaz and Segel violently destroying their sex video Office Space-style, which just made me want to do the exact same thing to every copy of this movie in existence.

2014 has been a magnificent year for film, and now has finally come the time for me to honour my personal highlights. Just be clear: these films aren’t picked and ordered based on their achievements, merits or contribution to the art; that’s why it’s called a “favourites” list and not a “best of” list. These are purely the films I enjoyed most this year; the ones that got the most emotion out of me and that I’m sure I’ll watch several more times in the future, both foreseeable and distant.

Before I start proper, a few quick honourable mentions:

Bad Neighbours – Gut-bustlingly hilarious and surprisingly thoughtful, Bad Neighbours is the classic frathouse movie done right and features a wonderful comic turn from the often-maligned Zac Eforn.

Chef – Jon Favreau returns to his indie roots with this pleasant and comical road movie. If nothing else, it will make you really hungry.

The Fault in Our Stars – A film that is equally charming and tear jerking, The Fault in Our Stars manages to find the right balance of sympathy and sadness in this romantic drama.

The Skeleton Twins – Bill Hader delivers one of the most overlooked performances of the year in this charming but incredibly black comedy. Well supported by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Luke Wilson, it’s a depressing delight.

Snowpiercer – This one would have made the list if it actually got UK distribution (I was lucky enough to see it at the Edinburgh Film Festival), but because it didn’t I unfortunately can’t officially count it. But when and if it does, I urge you to check out this bleak Korean sci-fi actioner that is equal parts Paul Verhoeven and Terry Gilliam.

  1. Paddington

Starting off the list is a film I certainly couldn’t have predicted would make it. A delightful and unequivocally British film, Paddington perfectly captures the charm and spirit of the beloved children’s character. Mixing slapstick, Mary Poppins and the quirks of Wes Anderson into one, the fact that this film not only works but even exists is a marvel. Sure, it’s predictable and cheesy but that’s all part of the experience, and this movie just wouldn’t be a Paddington Bear film if it took itself any more seriously. If you’ve been holding out on this one for fear it’s another disaster on the level of Alvin & The Chipmunks, put your fears to rest and watch Paddington.

  1. Selma

A shocking and no holds barred depiction of the events in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Selma is the Martin Luther King biopic this generation deserves. Featuring a fantastic leading performance by a nearly unrecognisable David Oyelowo and impeccable direction from Ava DuVernay, it’s one that has really been overlooked this awards season in major categories and certainly deserves an audience. It’s a brave, provocative and important film that isn’t afraid to show the depravity of the events it depicts, and you should be sure not to miss it.

  1. The Boxtrolls

Animation studio Laika continues to top themselves with this disgustingly charming creature of a film. Harking back to the days of Labyrinth and Return to Oz, when kids’ films weren’t afraid to be scary, The Boxtrolls is a quirky and humorous adventure that also manages to be a satirical jab at the class system. Featuring fantastic voice work from the likes of Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade and gorgeously grimy animation, this is certainly a film not for the more squeamish children but is perfect for those kids who are looking for something just a tad darker.

  1. Cold in July

A simple but suspenseful thriller that constantly changes gears, Cold in July is an old school film from its setting to its aesthetics to its amazing synth score. Michael C. Hall is great as a simple man who gets caught in an ever-deepening hole of an odd situation, finding himself caught up with an unstable Sam Shepard and a scene-stealing Don Johnson. The three of them together create one heck of an odd trio, and watching them delve deeper into one depraved situation after another keeps you hooked. A small but satisfying tale, Cold in July should be one to seek out if you like a dark mystery.

  1. The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything is a love story first and a Steven Hawking biopic second, and that’s what makes it so accessible and wonderful. Rather than glorifying Hawking’s scientific achievements, it focuses on the man behind those theories and the truly spectacular life he managed to live in spite of his unfortunate illness. The film could have been seriously trite in the hands of someone less skilled, but under the direction of Man on Wire’s James Marsh and with fantastic performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything is a sweet and heart-warming film that never becomes too treacley for discomfort.

  1. The Imitation Game

The story of Alan Turing is one that needs a movie in this day and age, and The Imitation Game fills that need stupendously. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is as great as you’d expect, portraying one of the most important but also overlooked and mistreated figures in World War II, but also features strong turns from the likes of Keira Knightley, Mark Strong and Charles Dance. It’s a story that shows the dangers of keeping secrets, why some should be kept and others brought to light, and what happens when one man’s simple choice negates the importance of his accomplishments. It’s a captivating and important movie, and one that should definitely be seen by fans of history and young people struggling to come to terms with themselves.

  1. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal is near unrecognizable as the darkly charming Lou Bloom in this dark look into the world of news broadcast, and his Oscar snub is a serious misstep in my book. It’s a film about a bad guy but one we disturbingly learn to understand as he manipulates his way to the top, leading to a finale that is both shocking and unprecedented for any film to take. Gyllenhaal isn’t the only one to shine, with both Rene Russo and Bill Paxton giving some of their best work as they get tangled in this one man’s unsettling job. Comparable to the likes of Taxi Driver and Network, Nightcrawler will get under your skin and make you feel incredibly uncomfortable, but you will be unable to take your eyes off it.

  1. Fury

David Ayer’s had one schizophrenic year. After releasing Sabotage, one of the worst films of the year, he quickly follows it up with one of the best. Fury is bleak even for a war film, depicting the final days of World War II as depressing and scarring even in the wake of victory. Brad Pitt may be the one on the poster but it’s Logan Lerman who’s the real star here, perfectly portraying a boy forced to become a man in a war he wants no part of. Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf are equally terrific in their roles, whilst Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena are harsh but relatable in their parts. It’s a film full of dark characters, morbid situations and harsh imagery, but one with enough hope that you want to see it through to the end. Fury is not for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly a journey worth taking and solid proof that Suicide Squad is in capable hands for comic book fans.

  1. 22 Jump Street

Comedy sequels rarely ever work and this movie knows it. Through sheer personality and incredible self-deprecation, 22 Jump Street manages to be just as satirical, self-aware and absolutely hilarious as its predecessor, if not more so. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are among the best comedy duos in genre history and take everything up to 11 from the action sequences to the hysterically overt homoeroticism. All of that, plus the best credits sequence ever conceived, and you’ve got yourself not just the best comedy sequel, but also the best straight-up comedy of the year in general.

  1. The Raid 2

Gareth Evans’ The Raid was one of the most refreshing actions films in recent memory, and with the sequel he has done everything he can to try and top it. Whilst the plot is a little bloated compared to the first, the action sequences are far more varied and better in every conceivable way. The final third of this movie is an onslaught of fantastically visceral fight scenes that will leave you wincing but begging for more. Hollywood has already taken some notes from the first Raid, but now they really need to update them thanks to this gut-bustingly glorious follow-up.

  1. Wild

Reese Witherspoon delivers a fantastic and emotional performance in this true story from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee. Telling the story of a woman walking a thousand mile hike in order to figure out her life, Wild manages to avoid becoming a pretentious piece of nonsense about the human spirit in the vein of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and instead focuses on our character rather than the environment she is in. Featuring an equally spectacular turn from Laura Dern, Wild is certainly a journey worth taking.

  1. Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s artful and disturbing Under the Skin is certainly not for everyone, but I do urge you to at least try it; I won’t blame you if you decide to turn it off though. Scarlett Johansson has had a really successful year, but here she delivers one of the best performances of her career as a cold but alluring alien/sexual predator who slowly learns what it means to be human. The beautifully morbid cinematography, haunting imagery and eerie score all contribute to make a cinematic experience unlike any other, and one of the bigger surprises of the year.

  1. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he started 14 years ago to deliver another awesome X-Men movie that definitely pushes the series’ good/bad ratio over to the right side. Loosely adapting one of the comics’ most beloved storylines and combining the cast of the original trilogy with First Class, Days of Future Past delivers everything you could want from an X-Men movie: an entertaining story, a multitude of characters old and new, memorable action beats and, most importantly, a good heart. It’s rare to see a film series acknowledge the mistakes of its past and work so hard to try and fix them, but Days of Future Past does that to the best of its ability.

  1. The Guest

From the creators of the indie horror gem You’re Next comes this 80s throwback picture that should not be missed by any genre fan. Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame is creepily charming as a soldier staying with the family of his deceased friend whilst hiding a dark secret, and whether busting school bullies or just having a beer he’s a magnetic presence. Mixing elements of thriller, horror and action in a fashion most comparable to the early works of John Carpenter and James Cameron, The Guest is a gloriously entertaining hodgepodge of a movie.

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Who would have thought that one of the best superhero movies in recent memory would star Captain America? But once you’ve seen The Winter Soldier, you’ll understand why. Harking back to the classic political thrillers of the 70s whilst mixing in elements of their contemporaries, The Winter Soldier asks more difficult and divisive questions than most straight thrillers of its type. Analyzing the ethical problems surrounding drone warfare, pre-emptive strikes and the warped world view of the American government, and then pitting that against a hero so patriotic and optimistic that even Superman would say he’s overdoing it, creates for a superhero movie that is far more than it seems on the surface. Featuring fantastic action sequences, great chemistry between Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, and one hell of a twist that shifts the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves that superhero movies can be both entertaining and thought provoking.

  1. Edge of Tomorrow

One of the most disappointingly unseen films of this year, Edge of Tomorrow may suffer from a troubled production history, misrepresentative marketing and a title that makes it sound like a bad soap opera, but it is certainly worth far more than that. Tom Cruise lets go of his ego and allows himself to play the coward in this sci-fi action flick that plays like a mixture of Aliens and Groundhog Day, in turn delivering one of the most honest performances of his recent career. Emily Blunt steals the show consistently, proving she has serious action chops and providing one of the best examples of a female badass since Ellen Ripley. As funny and clever as it is bombastic, Edge of Tomorrow is a perfect blend of brains and brawn that should satisfy any audience.

  1. Boyhood

Richard Linklater spent 12 years slowly making this deceivingly simple little film about one boy’s life, and in the process created a coming of age tale that truly encapsulates what growing up is like. This isn’t a sentimental film that paints youth like a corny piece of nostalgia where everything is perfect. It has its highs, but it also has its lows as we follow this boy deal with pretty much everything a child deals with at some point. Featuring wonderful supporting work from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, Boyhood is a remarkable and unmissable film that would be a landmark even without its strange production history.

  1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes reignited the long dormant franchise and provided both an interesting sci-fi tale and some of Andy Serkis’ finest work to date. That’s a high bar for a sequel to cross, but Dawn leaps over that hurdle effortlessly. The film has plenty of entertainment value packed into its action beats, but it’s the quieter moments that make Dawn so special. It balances that fine line that most movies fail to stay steady on by making every character relatable and justifiable in their actions; no obvious heroes and villains here. It paints a dour picture of our future, but one still filled with hope, and in doing so creates one of the best sci-fi dramas since District 9. Apes together strong indeed.

  1. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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The tale of Hiccup and Toothless continues in this animated fantasy adventure, and I do mean continue. The creators could have easily rested on their laurels and made a rehash of the first film, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 moves the story forward in a natural, meaningful and surprisingly adult way. It is just as fun and full of whimsy as its predecessor, but the story has matured with its characters and audience, allowing the franchise to go to places most kids’ films are too afraid to go. With endearing characters, breathtaking animation and plenty of heart, How to Train Your Dragon 2 surpasses the original and is easily DreamWorks’ finest achievement to date.

  1. Noah

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Want to make your biblical epic more than just the usual pandering nonsense made purely for devout Christians? Hire an atheist director. Darren Aronofsky’s daring, grand and often bizarre interpretation of the tale of Noah’s Ark often resembles The Lord of the Rings more than The Ten Commandments, creating something very different from the director’s usual work but one that also perfectly fits in with them thematically. His vision of Noah isn’t a paragon of all that is good, but a flawed and possibly deranged man whose decisions are constantly questionable, and that skewing of the norm is something found throughout the movie. It makes for a story that works for both a religious audience and a general one, painting everything from its characters to its message in an ambiguous light. It can be enjoyed as a religious film, an art film or a straight-up fantasy film; it’s all up to your own taste. It’s divisive for sure, but if you haven’t seen Noah yet I urge you to at least try.

  1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is easily one of the most cynical films I have ever seen, which I usually don’t like especially when targeting this subject matter, but it does it so right. The film doesn’t just go on about how film and acting and the media are bad but offer nothing in return. It approaches everything with a sharp and biting wit that points out everything wrong with the Hollywood machine and the egos of its stars. However, it does so whilst being self-aware, ripping to shreds even the cynics who do that all the time. Michael Keaton’s performance here is sure to define his career and I would be overjoyed if he picked up an Oscar this year, and the rest of the supporting cast including Edward Norton and Emma Stone deserve similar praise. Alejandero Gonzalez Inarritu’s engrossing tale of art and insanity is an absolute joy from start to finish, and anyone with an interest in any creative medium needs to see this now. You may learn a thing or two.

  1. Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a stellar example of a simple premise done to perfection. This is the type of film that most directors would do in their sleep, but David Fincher’s meticulous directing style means this is far more than just another mystery thriller. The story starts out as typical as you could imagine, but soon spirals down paths that cannot even be discussed without going deep into spoilers. Ben Affleck gives a fantastic performance as Nick Dunne, an imperfect man who is looking for his missing wife, but maybe not because he loves her and he quickly becomes as big a suspect as anyone. The entire supporting cast is equally excellent, especially those playing against type; this is a film that makes Tyler Perry look awesome if you want proof of that. But it is Rosamund Pike who steals the entire show, ridding herself of her usual persona and giving us one of the most fascinating characters of the year. I can’t say much more without giving the whole thing away, so just stop here and go see Gone Girl.

  1. Whiplash

Whiplash is an experience more thrilling, suspenseful and eerie than most major motion pictures, and that’s saying a lot considering it’s a film about jazz drumming. Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut is both an inspirational and cautionary tale about the lengths one must go through to achieve their dreams, and the toll it can take when pushed too far. Miles Teller is fantastic as a talented but egotistical drummer who will do anything to be the best, but it’s J.K. Simmons that’s the one to watch as an incredibly deranged music teacher but with methods to his madness. Exciting, shocking, and with a catchy jazz soundtrack, Whiplash is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.

  1. The LEGO Movie

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You would have every right to be suspicious about The LEGO Movie on first glance, but you would have to be a complete idiot to right it off as nothing but corporate pandering. Taking the typical hero’s journey formula and flipping it on its head, The LEGO Movie is a deconstruction and a celebration of every classic story told that pulls everything apart and sticks it back together in new and creative ways; much like real LEGO when you think about it. Everything from the animation to the writing to the voice acting is pitch perfectly off kilter, filled with that infectious charm and wit that permeates all of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller’s work. It’s a film that works just as well for adults as it does for children, teaching both audiences a valuable lesson about creative freedom and examining the nature of our increasingly controlled society. As the movie so often declares: “Everything is awesome!”

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy

There were certainly more important films made this year; films that say important things and revolutionize the art form. But in terms of pure entertainment and enjoyability, in terms of what impacted me and pop culture at large as well, my favourite film of the year has to be Guardians of the Galaxy. An irreverent, humorous, action packed and heartwarming romp of a sci-fi adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that out of the box concepts can be successful in this day and age. Sure, a large part of its success is down to its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it stands well enough on its own too. Chris Pratt owns it as the lovably goofy Star-Lord, ably supported by Zoe Saldana’s deadly assassin Gamora, Vin Diesel managing to gain huge sympathy with just three words as the sentient tree creature Groot, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is as awesome as you’d expect as a gun-toting raccoon, and Dave Bautista is a deadpan revelation as the literally confused Drax. The story may be standard and the message can be summed up as “having friends is good”, but it’s the characters, the world and that rocking soundtrack that keeps me coming back. It truly is the Ghostbusters of this generation: a concept so bizarre on paper but also full of so many fun ideas and quotable lines that it manages to break through to the mainstream. I truly hope this film’s success encourages Hollywood to take a chance on more risky ideas, and I can’t wait to see the further adventures of these space-faring rapscallions.

And now, as is my tradition, please enjoy this video compilation of my picks for you to reflect on:

Starring: Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Douglas Booth (Noah)

Writers/Directors: The Wachowskis (The Matrix)

Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes

Release Date: 6 February (US, UK)

Over fifteen years later, Lana and Andy Wachowski still owe their entire career to the success of The Matrix. Other than their criminally overlooked debut Bound, it is their only consistently good film. The Matrix sequels were enveloped by the worst aspects of the original and became convoluted philosophical nonsense, Speed Racer was an admirable attempt to bring an anime to life but ended up being sickeningly trite, and Cloud Atlas was a muddled mess of tones that never melded together cohesively. But despite these constant failures, they still seem to get funding for their elaborate projects. A Matrix fan myself, I really want the Wachowskis to make another good movie and I was hoping desperately that Jupiter Ascending could be the one to restore faith to their name. But once again I find myself leaving the cinema disappointed, and I don’t think I can keep it up any longer.

Jupiter Ascending’s plot is simple at first glance: yet another hero plucked from obscurity to realise they are destined for something greater and must go on an adventure to save the world. However, despite the straightforwardness of the narrative (which I have no problem with if told effectively), the film feels the need to bombard proceedings with endless scenes of expository dialogue that spoonfeeds every minute detail of the universe it inhabits. It never becomes impenetrable like some of the dialogue in The Matrix Reloaded, but it does have the banality of what you might find in the Star Wars prequels; lots of talks about inheritances, contracts, profit margins, and all sorts of other needless details that bog down a lot of escapist fiction these days. However, it’s that same tiresome exposition that holds up the limp narrative. Despite the amount of detail that has gone into creating this world, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t do anything new on a storytelling level. There’s not a single plot reveal or character moment that doesn’t feel worn or strained, and the film’s lack of awe and wit despite the bizarre surroundings just make it feel that much more dull. I get the strong impression that a lot of material was cut from the movie considering the rushed storytelling and hanging threads (for example, what was the point of Sean Bean’s daughter and where did she disappear to after her two scenes?), but even with those scenes restored I doubt the film could be any less engaging.

In terms of performance, I cannot fault the cast of Jupiter Ascending. They do well with what they are given, but that material does reflect excruciatingly badly on them. Channing Tatum comes out of this the most unscathed, managing to inject a lot of his natural charm into a character that completely lacks any on the page. Sean Bean also manages to keep his head high, but he’s not given enough screen time to leave a lasting impression and is mostly there for expository purposes. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis tries hard but the character of Jupiter Jones is a terribly ineffective protagonist that, whilst I wouldn’t class as sexist, doesn’t reflect well on the role of women in film. For most of the film’s crushingly stretched runtime, she completely lacks any strong motivation or urgency; she is merely dragged from scene to scene to have the plot explained to her. She is constantly thrust into situations that she never does anything to get out of, and is always (and I mean ALWAYS) reliant on Tatum to rescue her at the last second. I get that she’s a fish out of water, but a little more of a take-charge attitude would have alleviated this issue. By the climax she does become a little more proactive, but otherwise you could replace her character with a very important teapot and the plot would make about as much sense. Kunis’ chemistry with Tatum is dreadfully forced, mainly because their relationship is sporadic and unnecessary, and like the film itself she also lacks the right amount of wonder considering her bizarre predicament. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable or extraneous, but current Oscar frontrunner Eddie Redmayne is a complete and utter embarrassment here. Tasked with playing one of the most unthreatening villains in recent cinema history (who doesn’t even meet our heroine until the story’s climax), Redmayne reads every line in a comically raspy whisper that I guess is supposed to be threatening, occasionally mixing it up by bursting into a shouting fit like a wimpy Al Pacino. Again, I think the problem lies more with the Wachowski’s direction that Redmayne himself, but it is a sadly sour note for the actor in the midst of what may be the defining moment of his career.

Whether the film is good or bad, you can always at least rely on the Wachowskis to make a visually striking film, and in that respect they don’t fail. Jupiter Ascending does look very impressive on a technical level with vibrant cinematography, impeccable visual effects and a fantastic orchestral score by the great Michael Giacchino. There are some cool concepts on display like boots that let you skate on air or instant spacesuits, but I do have to question the bizarreness of the production design. Everything from the sets to the props to the vehicles looks unnecessarily garish and overly busy, with more attention being paid to whether it looks cool over whether it makes aesthetic sense. Even more outrageous are the costumes, which would make those seen in The Hunger Games seem subdued. I get that it helps separate these alien worlds from our own, but too often I found myself questioning why any sane person would design these things this way. The Wachowskis do have a strong love for anime and a lot of that spirit can be found here, but after Speed Racer you think they would have learnt that not all of its odd embellishments translate to live action effectively.

Jupiter Ascending is sadly another mess of a film from the Wachowskis. There are redeeming qualities here and there, but the core components of story and character just don’t work. The narrative is riddled with intricately dull dialogue and predictable plot turns, our protagonist is essentially a prop in her own story, and all the supporting roles are either underdeveloped or laughably overplayed. At this point, the Wachowskis have seriously dipped their toes into Shyamalan territory and it’s going to take something really impressive to get them out of this rut.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Taron Edgerton (Testament of Youth), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella (StreetDance 2), Michael Caine (Get Carter)

Director: Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class)

Writers: Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass)

Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes

Release Date: 29 January (UK), 13 February (US)

As Kingsman: The Secret Service points out, spy movies have been quite serious as of late. Gone are the days where plots hinged on crazy gadgets and world domination, and in its place are government conspiracies and leaked documents. That’s not to say that the modern spy movies are bad, films such as The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale helped revitalize the genre, nor am I exactly pining for the days of such ludicrous nonsense as xXx or Die Another Day. What is needed, however, is something to balance the scales. Kingsman is that much needed balance, and you need to see it right now.

Based on the comic book by Mark Millar, Kingsman is similar to Matthew Vaughn’s other adaptation of a Millar series, Kick-Ass, in many ways. Not only does it have the same irreverent, self-referential tone and humour, but also it also similarly treats the source material as more of a guideline than a blueprint. It takes the broad strokes of the story, changes up certain key details, cleans off the excess and creates something that is both recognizably Kingsman but also very much Vaughn’s own film. In general terms, the film’s plot is very simple and takes a lot of cues from both classic spy movies and typical hero’s journey stories, but is surrounded by so many of Vaughn’s flourishes that it feels fresh and new. The plot moves at a brisk pace, jumping between the stories of Eggsy (Edgerton) and Harry (Firth) swiftly to tell the whole story and balancing time between character bits and brutal action sequences. It is unapologetically ridiculous and crude, but it also has a solid core to it and knows when to pull on the heartstrings. Additionally, in the midst of all the espionage action, Kingsman also manages to be a movie about something relatable and timely: classism. Whilst neither the rich nor the poor are painted in a bad light, it does touch on the injustices of the class system and creates a hero in Eggsy that shows that greatness can come from any walk of life.

Whilst the marketing has played up Colin Firth as the star of the film, who is excellent in his role as he effortlessly pulls off the gentleman spy routine, he is neither the main character nor the standout performer of the movie. Those honours belong to relative newcomer Taron Edgerton, whose role here may well define his career. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin is a very typical protagonist, but also unique enough to stand out from the crowd. He’s an aimless chav who wastes his talents doing stupid things (kind of like a South London Will Hunting), but behind that tracksuit are a witty mouth, a sharp mind and an honest heart. He’s a hero for the common man who sees through the elitism of his fellow agents, and Edgerton pulls it off with flying colours through genuine charm and strong comedic timing. He’s a wonderfully entertaining protagonist, and also an actor certainly worth keeping an eye on for the future. Among the rest of the Kingsmen, Michael Caine plays a very typically Michael Caine role but does it as well as you’d expect, Mark Strong surprisingly doesn’t play a villain and is very amusing as the mentor Merlin, and fresh face Sophie Cookson is charmingly pleasant as fellow new recruit Roxy (major points also for teaming her with Edgerton and not having a romantic subplot). Samuel L. Jackson plays villain Valentine very atypically and creates a bizarrely appealing and memorable antagonist, whilst his henchwoman Gazelle is played coolly by Sofia Boutella and certainly stands out as the film’s most visually appealing character.

Matthew Vaughn’s fingerprints are all over this movie, which means plenty of humorous violence and seamless blending of old school trappings and modern techniques. The film’s action sequences are entertaining to the max, not only thanks to wonderfully inventive and intricate fight choreography but also effective cinematography and editing. Vaughn shoots the action with longer takes and fewer cuts, instead using rapid camera movement and sped-up footage to increase pacing and impact rather than relying on cheap tricks like shakycam and fast cuts. The overall effect creates action that is just as gripping as any fight from a Bourne film but without losing comprehensibility, and action directors should really take notice of how it’s executed here. Vaughn already showed his love of 60’s cinema in X-Men: First Class, and that same sensibility shines just as brightly here in Kingsman. From the colourful set design to Henry Jackman’s score that very clearly evokes the work of John Barry, it’s a film that owes a lot to the past but is also very much of its time. The film’s soundtrack is also put to great use in several scenes, including what might be the best use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in anything ever. My only real complaint is that the visual effects look a bit naff at times, but that is a very minor issue in what is otherwise a fantastically executed picture.

The real sign of a great movie for me is that it gets me to smile. Kingsman: The Secret Service managed to do that for me before the opening credits were even over, and that smile sustained for the next two hours. Matthew Vaughn does it again as he takes another good comic book and turns it into a fantastic movie, and is the start of what could be a potentially amazing franchise. The story is simple but effective, mainly thanks to Vaughn’s energetic direction and Edgerton’s endearing performance, the action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory, and it wraps it all up with an effective message about the nature of class. It may seem hyperbolic to declare a movie one of the best of the year when the year has barely even started, but I’m calling it now: if Kingsman doesn’t make my top ten of 2015, it will have been one bloody great year for cinema.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), Oscar Isaac (Drive), Sonoya Mizuno

Writer/Director: Alex Garland (28 Days Later)

Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes

Release Date: 21 January (UK), 10 April (US)

Alex Garland has had his hands in many of the great genre films of the past decade or so. With screenwriting credits like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, it’s surprising that it’s taken him this long to jump into directing. His freshman effort is Ex Machina, which explores the subject of artificial intelligence and the many questions we’ve asked about it over the years. It’s a topic that’s been done many times before, but it hasn’t been done by Alex Garland, and the result is (much like 28 Days Later) something familiar but also different in all the right ways.

Though a moody and often slow picture, Ex Machina never wastes your time for a second. It throws you straight into the plot and gets across all necessary information through natural story progression and imagery rather than a text dump that says “this is the future and there are robots and stuff.” From there, the story unfolds slowly but intriguingly, putting you in the mindset of protagonist Caleb (Gleeson) and making you question every plot turn. Ex Machina also does a great job of throwing you the unexpected; it never gives you the obvious answer even when it seems like it’s going to. This teasing and the atmosphere create a story that feels easy to predict but isn’t, and that kind of playfulness just makes the twists the story takes that much more impactful. The film explores many of the key questions about the nature of AI that have been explored before, but it does so cleanly and without too much technobabble (even Nathan (Isaac) has to keep reminding Caleb to stop speaking in technical terms). But just because a film is ponderous doesn’t mean it can’t have a heart, and Ex Machina never gets too serious for it to become emotionless. The relief is sporadic, but among these moments include Ghostbusters references and a disco dance number; I’ll let you ponder how those fit in.

The cast of the film is small but excellent, allowing for both more time to be spent with these characters and the actors to develop them. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is a typical but likable protagonist, who’s smart enough to be proactive but no so smart that it’s unbelievable. He’s flawed and human, making more mistakes than the average main character would but in a way that is completely relatable given his circumstances. Oscar Isaac gives a subdued but powerful turn as Nathan, yet another example of cinema’s recent obsession with making Steve Jobs-like figures the antagonist. But Nathan isn’t your typical threat in any way, as not only does he act completely friendly throughout most of the film but, in many ways, he is completely justified in his actions. He’s not exactly a totally sound human being, but there is logic to his methods and you can sympathize with his frustrations. But it’s Alicia Vikander as Ava that is the real star of the film. Giving arguably the best performance of an AI character since Alan Tudyk in I, Robot, Vikander balances that fine line between believable and artificial to create a convincingly inhuman character. A lot of that syntheticness comes through her eyes, which manage to give that “uncanny valley” effect you often see in CG characters but for real. Her blank, ethereal face often creates something of a Kuleshov effect; are we actually reading an emotion on her face or are we just reading one reflecting from Gleeson’s face? There’s a real depth to the performance that I can’t go much more into without delving into spoilers, but it’s certainly a major standout in a film that has many standout elements.

Ex Machina serves as great example of how to do sci-fi on a limited budget. Based on the small cast and enclosed location, it’s clear that there wasn’t too much money to throw around but they’ve spent it in all the right places. The set of Nathan’s house is futuristic but simple, creating for a believable environment but one still slightly otherworldly. The cinematography is simple but effective, with slow camera moves and cool colour pallete that add to the threatening ambience of the picture, whilst the music is minimal and oozes in at just the right moments. But once again it’s Ava who steals the show with her fascinating design and the effects implemented on Vikander to make it happen. I’m sure a lot of it is through green screen and rotoscoping, but it’s still very hard to see the seams in the illusion. It’s a very impressive effect and clearly where the money went on this film (and deservedly so).

I cannot recommend Ex Machina enough. It’s a tightly told, intriguing and bold film that does everything a great sci-fi film needs to do. It’s a grand idea done with simple methods, and serves a solid template for how the British film industry should handle genre pictures. Gleeson and Isaac put in solid performances, but really you’ll just be waiting for Alicia Vikander to appear on screen again. If you love sci-fi stories that keep you guessing and don’t give simple answers, then this is certainly one for you. 

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Miles Teller (Divergent), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man), Paul Reiser (Aliens), Melissa Benoist (Glee), Austin Stowell (Dolphin Tale)

Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle (The Last Exorcism Part II)

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date: 10 October (US), 16 January (UK)

You can wring intensity out of anything in film; even the simple act of reading can be made nail biting if enough stakes and drama are put behind it. And yet there are so many films where explosions go off and the fate of the world is at stake…and you don’t feel a thing. Whiplash is certainly a film made by someone who understands the power of intensity, and uses it to make a film about jazz drumming so gripping and ferocious that you’ll be on the edge of your seat more firmly than you would during any overblown action sequence.

We’ve all heard the story of the underdog rising the ranks to greatness, where everyone underestimates him and he has to prove himself to become the greatest. Yeah, Whiplash is that story but with any sentimentality or sweetness ripped out through the chest. This is a film that pulls no punches. In fact, it practically assaults you with punches. It is a story that shows the painful cost of pushing yourself too far, but also somehow manages to encourage you to do so. By no means does it encourage the behaviour on display, but it does show that there is a method to the madness. It’s an ambiguous film in message, but not in a vague “eh, I’m not sure” kind of way and that’s refreshing to see. The pacing here is pitch perfect, keeping the threat high but always slowing down at just the right moments to let it sink in. The film does at one point feel like it’s come to its climax and then keeps going, but you’ll be glad it does. The final ending may seem abrupt to some, but it just drives the themes home so well that any more at that point would have been overkill. I know I’m being vague, but you need to go into Whiplash as blind as possible if you want the best effect. Just don’t go in expecting sunshine and rainbows, or you’ll just come out feeling more abused than you should.

Whiplash is really a two-man show, and you couldn’t ask for much better performances than those given by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Teller has been doing solid work for the past few years but mostly in below-average movies, and here he’s finally given some material that allows him to how much talent he actually has. He imbues Andrew Neiman with a lot of complexity, creating a character that is sympathetic but not always likable. You understand where he’s coming from but that doesn’t stop him from being an arsehole sometimes. He’s a flawed human who is being asked to be perfect, and even if he didn’t have a superiority complex that would an impossible task. A scene at a family dinner really drives this home, as Tellar manages to balance that fine line between underappreciated artist and self-aggrandising wannabe. It’s a performance that very much sums up this generation; one full of ego-filled youngsters who think they’re already the “next big thing” and are therefore better than everyone else, unaware that all of them have the exact same idea and have yet to get anywhere near that dream. But as great as Teller is, he’s got nothing on Simmons’ career-defining performance as Terence Fletcher. His ferocity, his demeanour, his crude wit, the way he moves his hands to silence people; all help to create a character that, whilst somewhat OTT, is still a conceivable human being and it’s both wonderful and frightening to behold. But much like how Andrew can fall into being selfish, Simmons also manages to weave bits of sympathy into Fletcher to balance him out too. A scene where he explains his methods and goals to Andrew actually has you getting on his side, but never to the point where he’s redeemed. Simmons most certainly deserves all the buzz he’s been getting for his performance, but to completely overshadow Teller’s efforts would be a crime and he deserves just as much praise.

It’s hard to describe how great Whiplash is, especially when I’m still in awe of it. It’s just something you have to experience for yourself. Damien Chazelle’s directorial feature debut is a simple but engrossing masterpiece of cinema, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver the best work of their respective careers, ably supported by a sharp script, a jazz soundtrack that can be both electrifying and ominous, and some of the best editing I’ve seen in a long time. But above all, it’s a necessary cautionary tale for anyone aspiring to greatness that never sugar coats itself for one moment. It’s one of the best films of 2014 and my personal pick of the Best Picture nominees as of now, and fans of film, music, or any form of art need to see this movie right away. It may cause you to question your dreams, but it may also encourage you to try that much harder at achieving them.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Danny Huston (The Aviator), Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Terence Stamp (Superman II)

Director: Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands)

Writers: Scott Alexander & Larry Karazewski (Ed Wood)

Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes

Release Date: 25 December (US), 26 December (UK)

Remember when Tim Burton’s filmography was, well, not so weird? Granted, Burton’s never really made anything completely grounded in reality, but there was a time when not everything he touched had to have pale faces, German Expressionist art design, a kooky score with a child choir and the presence of Johnny Depp. Big Eyes is Burton’s return to his slightly less eccentric days and, in many ways, it’s a spiritual successor to Ed Wood (which, if I haven’t mention before on this blog, is my all-time favourite film). Not only does it have the same directing and writing team, but both are also period piece biopic dramadies about an unappreciated artist. Does Burton have the chops to return to more innocent times and tell a realistic tale, or has he spent far too much time in Wonderland to connect with us mortals anymore?

At its core, Big Eyes is essentially about creative expression and its importance to art and artists. Margaret (Adams) is an artist who paints her peculiar portraits in order to express herself. Walter (Waltz) sees the beauty in art, but doesn’t really get the meaning behind it and is more interested in cashing in. It’s a clash of ideals more than simple ownership, and it’s that conflict that keeps Big Eyes alive and interesting. The story is structured in more of an episodic way rather than as a flowing narrative, often relying on large time jumps to get to the juicier action, which does unfortunately make the pacing feel a little stop-start. The film does also sometimes feel a little overstretched even with its modest runtime, but I wouldn’t say I was ever bored. In terms of tonal balance, it’s definitely more of a drama but the comedy does shine through consistently, especially in the final courtroom scenes when the ridiculousness of the situation really comes to light. However, as good as the third act is, I thought the ending was a little abrupt and lacked payoff. After spending three quarters of the film watching this woman living this lie under threat, she finally breaks free…and then the whole thing is satisfyingly resolved but at an alarmingly fast pace that makes the conclusion lose a bit of impact. It’s certainly an entertaining story and one that hits the key beats well, but I think it just needed a bigger kick at the end to really drive it home.

On Burton’s merits, Big Eyes is a fine enough film, but it’s the efforts of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz that really stands out. Adams’ Margaret may be weak-willed and frightened at first, but there is always that strong moral centre shining throughout that keeps us on her side. Sure, you may want to yell “leave this bastard already” at her several times throughout, but I feel that’s kind of the point and it makes the moment when she finally does that much more powerful. It’s a more subtle and dainty performance from Adams, one that contrasts well with the more slimy Walter. However, Waltz does a great job of not portraying the man as a complete monster from the start; much like how Margaret is swept up by his initial charm, so are we. But when he turns from man of romance to scheming money-grubber to downright despicable, Waltz transforms at the snap of a finger without making a big deal of it and the real power of his performance kicks in. But whether delightful or vicious, Waltz also always manages to inject humour into the character; his final scenes in particular are full of comedy gold as his confidence and lies begin to cause his downfall. His and Adams’ chemistry is fantastic whether deep in love or deep in argument, and their friction is what really makes Big Eyes work especially in those final moments. The rest of the cast is fun though relatively unimportant; Jason Schwartzman has some funny lines as a rival art dealer, and Terence Stamp channels Peter O’Toole’s performance in Ratatouille as a snobby critic who gets into an entertaining conflict with Waltz.

Burton’s pulling back of the gothic is certainly most obvious in the film’s presentation in what is easily the most normal looking movie in his catalogue. That’s not to say it’s bad though, as the work on display here is still excellent and Burtony enough to be recognisably his. He has done an excellent job of mimicking the look and feel of the 50s and 60s not just the authentic production design and costumes, but also through simple but elegant cinematography. Though shot digitally, it retains a vintage look through the use of camera set-ups, lighting and colour grading; it looks so good that I would have thought it was shot in film otherwise. In a similar tonal dampening, Danny Elfman’s score is far more subdued that his usual collaborations with Burton, creating music that is far more fitting to the story’s tone and period setting.

Big Eyes is a welcome return to more conventional filmmaking for Tim Burton, and it’s great to see he hasn’t fully lost touch with reality. Adams and Waltz’s performances ultimately overshadow Burton in terms of wow factor, but that’s not to demean his solid efforts here. The story is inspiring and well-told, though I think it just needed a little more emotional impact to reach those Ed Wood levels of heart and pathos. It’s certainly worth a watch for both Tim Burton fans and those interested in the arts, and I’d certainly prefer to see more films like this from Burton rather than see him return to his old, worn-out habits.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit (St. Vincent), Daniel Henney (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), T.J. Miller (How to Train Your Dragon), Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch), Genesis Rodriguez (Tusk), Damon Wayans Jr. (Let’s Be Cops), Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), James Cromwell (Babe), Alan Tudyk (Frozen)

Directors: Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) & Chris Williams (Bolt)

Writers: Jordan Roberts (You’re Not You) and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird (Monsters University)

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 7 November (US), 30 January (UK)

Having acquired Marvel back in 2009, the idea for Disney to use one of the comic book company’s properties as the basis for an animated feature seemed like a no-brainer. The idea to pick a property so obscure it makes the Guardians of the Galaxy seem mainstream is an odd choice, but then again using a lesser-known set of characters allows for a lot more wiggle room; from what I’ve heard, the adaptation is incredibly loose anyway. Regardless, this isn’t really a Marvel movie. It’s a Disney movie, and I’m judging it based on those criteria. How does it fare?

In certain ways, Big Hero 6’s story is very typical of the superhero genre and in others ways it’s very different. On one hand, it follows the basic structure in several key facets: the tragic backstory, the rise of the seemingly unstoppable supervillain, and our hero learning to overcome his problems in order to save the day. It’s predictable for sure, with several major reveals that will probably shock children but seem ho-hum for knowing adults, but the superhero action and breezy comedy helps soften the somewhat cliché narrative. But at its core Big Hero 6 is very much a Disney film, in that it’s more about sending a strong message to kids. In this case, Big Hero 6 is about dealing with loss; the symptoms it causes, what happens when that loss makes you do bad things, and how to move on comfortably. It’s an interesting subject and one that is handled well throughout most of the film thanks to the strong relationship between Hiro (Potter) and Baymax (Adsit). However, the message feels kind of undercut during the third act of the film. I can’t say too much without spoiling the ending, but all I’ll say is that it affects the motivation of the villain and the film ends without giving proper character resolution to his relationship with both the hero and what he was fighting for. It’s a shame, because the topic is handled with maturity and reality with no sugar coating otherwise, and I felt the ending takes an out that mars what the story is trying to get across.

Where Big Hero 6 mainly shines is in its characters and the comedy that is derived from them. Hiro is a simple but likable and intelligent character who acts just right for his age, being curious and imaginative but still prone to childlike faults. On his own he’s perfectly fine, but it’s when he has to interact with his robotic ally Baymax that the fun really kicks in. Adsit’s voice is perfectly attuned and is what mainly sells the character, getting down the robotic annunciation and inflections that so much of his humour is based around but without losing a human touch. Combined with the way the character is designed and animated, and Baymax is a character that I’m sure many children will fall in love with. If nothing else, I’m sure plenty of kids will start doing their fist bumps in a more ridiculous manner because of him. The rest of the superhero team is well balanced and entertaining as well. They do rely on simple archetypes (the tough one, the excitable one, the scaredycat and the doofus), but their personalities play off each other to humorous effect and they all get enough screen time to be distinctive and memorable characters. Maya Rudoplh’s Aunt Cass isn’t given too much to do, but she’s a joy in every scene she gets as the put-upon but chipper matriarch who can’t help but be pleasant even in anger. It’s a strong cast of characters voiced by perfectly cast actors, and my only real fault in this area is the aforementioned lacking villain.

Where Big Hero 6 probably takes most of its cues from its superhero roots is in the design area. The look of the city of San Fransokyo in particular has a very comic book look to it with cartoonish designs and bright colours, which also translates beautifully to the character designs as well. It’s a very appealing film to look at in still frames, but when in motion it really shines. Disney has certainly taken as many cues from Japanese anime as much from superhero movies in terms of the animation, which is awesome to see implemented in a western film without going too far in a Speed Racer-esque way. It’s fast, funny and full of tiny quirks that show the effort the animators put into constructing these environments and characters. Henry Jackman’s music for the film is also strong, combining traditionally uplifting Disney music, the epic feel of superhero movies (of which Jackman has composed several) and tiny pieces of oriental tunes.

Big Hero 6 isn’t quite on par with either Disney’s latest efforts or 2014 in animation, but that is some hard competition to beat. On its own, it’s a fun and highly enjoyable film for all ages that sends an honest and needed lesson for the younger audience. However, the message does feel somewhat undermined by certain events near the end, and the film does suffer from predictability and an undercooked antagonist. The way the ending played out did bother me a fair bit, but the rest of the film works so well that I can overlook it for the most part. 

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

PS: Stay through the credits, especially if you’re a Marvel fan.

PPS: The short that plays before the film, Feast, is amazing. Adorable, charming and beautifully animated, it’s almost worth the price of admission alone.