In this second part, we continue our trek up to the top of the list of the best films from the first half of this year. And we are aptly at the halfway point, having previously covered earlier selections.
A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent authenticity, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead (played luminously by Carey Mulligan), says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory adaptation or a feminist injunction, this big-screen adaptation goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words.
: THE SECRET SERVICE: What a fun little spy thriller this is. When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy. Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being silly and preposterous is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute by minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee. Why haven't you seen this film yet?
2. EX-MACHINA. This is the other true find of this year. A canny examination of what it means to be human, the film is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to machines, the closer the machines will get to refusing to take orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnifcently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. You are told to avoid the superlative when writing about film, but the heck with that. If you have lost the ability to completely, obsessively, unapologetically fall in love with a movie, then maybe you shouldn't write about films at all. George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD is stark raving mad, but then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into the history books. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of bearing children. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice as a chase across the desert makes up the majority of the film. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then may be this film is not for you. But watch this film to understand how to make every frame matter. Watch it as a masterclass on three-dimensional story-boarding, on the project management of physics in an action sequence. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future.
And so, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD takes the undeniable, unshakeable number one position amongst films that made their way to the big screen in the first half of the year. Odds are that it may retain its perch at the top when the end of 2015 rolls in.