The cinematic year got off to a flyer with Birdman, Alejandro Inarritu's psychological study of an actor losing his marbles during a Broadway production that's meant to revive his flagging fortunes. In a neat bit of casting, Michael Keaton played Riggan Thomson, known for his superhero roles, who saw a chance of redemption on the stage. Inarritu's busy camera followed Keaton and his co-stars in dizzying fashion, brilliantly capturing Thomson’s mounting tension and anxiety amid the backstage dramas.
Studies of obsession don't get much more compelling than this. Miles Teller was the talented young music student desperate to impress his driven, despotic tutor played by JK Simmons, but relentless practice, regular humiliation and utter dedication weren't enough to guarantee he’d make the grade. You'd never think a film about jazz drumming could be this tense or emotional.
Having honed his scriptwriting skills on 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this engrossing film about artificial intelligence which features impressive turns from Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. Visually, it was a treat and the questions it raised about the place of AI in our lives are profound.
The Theory Of Everything
Directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh, The Theory of Everything told the story of the most brilliant and celebrated physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking, and Jane Wilde, the art student he fell in love with while studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. For his portrayal of Professor Hawking, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Academy Award. Will he make it two on the trot for the forthcoming The Danish Girl?
Big Hero 6
This was a family film that completely won us over, a Disney animation based on a Marvel comic but no trace of Iron Man or Captain America to be seen. Instead, this was a charming, emotionally charged tale of the friendship between a boy genius and a robot in a beautifully mashed-up world of San Francisco and Tokyo.
Clint Eastwood’s hard-hitting film about real life US military sharpshooter Chris Kyle divided opinions with some condemning it as a right-wing, pro-war rallying cry but in truth it was about how conflict affects individuals as seen from the American point of view. Bradley Cooper was excellent as the ruthlessly effective sniper in Iraq who doesn’t cope so well with civilian life after four tours of duty.
50 Shades Of Grey
It did not come as a complete surprise that the big screen adaptation of EL James’s publishing phenomenon, Fifty Shades Of Grey did not please the critics. It did however please Showcase audiences who came out in their droves for the Valentine's Day release starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Shaun The Sheep
Aardman returned to Showcase screens with Shaun The Sheep. We were invited down to their Bristol Studios and marvelled at the attention to detail of the co-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak and their team. Their efforts were rewarded with a wonderful film for the whole family as we joined Bitzer and the flock on their farm; you would have been baaa-rmy to have missed it!
The filmmaking team behind The Matrix trilogy and V For Vendetta returned with another ambitious, grand-scale sci-fi movie. The Wachowskis recruited Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and Eddie Redmayne for this story about a young woman who finds out she’s the heiress of intergalactic royalty and must save the Earth from destruction. Outrageous action and eye-popping special effects made this a cinematic spectacular.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
After the success of the first film, a second stay at the hotel with the cream of British acting talent was inevitable – and what a treat it was. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup all checked in again, along with Dev Patel, David Strathrain and of course Richard Gere, for John Madden’s gentle, enjoyable and entertaining comedy.
With fairy tales back in vogue and Disney revisiting its back catalogue, Cinderella was sure to get the remake treatment and it did so in style, courtesy of Kenneth Branagh. A cruel stepmother, nasty stepsisters, a fairy godmother and a handsome stranger are the familiar characters that Lily James’s Ella encounters. Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi and Hayley Attwell fleshed out the cast in this entertaining fantasy romp.
Fast & Furious 7
Despite the tragic death of Paul Walker, the franchise powered on to become one of the box-office smashes of the year, entering the coveted billion dollar club (we feature another two members of that exclusive club later in the review). Audiences flocked to Showcase with the promise of even faster cars and even bigger stunts from new director, James Wan (The Conjuring) and they were not disappointed! Cars parachuting out of planes, a bus that was more like a tank and a jaw-dropping cliff sequence were just some of the heart-stopping moments, in what is currently the 5th highest grossing movie of all time.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
April proved to be a huge month because as well as Fast & Furious 7, we had Avengers: Age Of Ultron which also took more than a billion dollars at the box-office worldwide. Another franchise where expectations were high after the huge success of Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon’s follow-up introduced new characters Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and The Vision, alongside Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye as they took on villainous robot Ultron.
This thrilling, stylish and giddying action film proved to be a huge return to form for Keanu Reeves as the titular John Wick, a retired hitman out to avenge his dog (yes, you read that right!). Without an ounce of flab on both star and script, the operatic bloodletting and razor-sharp wit proved a hit and the good news for us fans is that John Wick 2 is in production.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Three decades since his last Mad Max film, director George Miller returned to that post-apocalyptic world with this brilliant, manic road movie. Tom Hardy was suitably gruff and monosyllabic as Max but Charlize Theron stole the show as slave turned freedom fighter Furiosa in a storyline with distinctively feminist leanings despite the souped-up vehicles, rampaging violence and breathtaking action scenes.
Brad Bird’s bold sci-fi film cast George Clooney as a disillusioned inventor who teams up with a curious teen played by Britt Robertson to discover an amazing world somewhere in time and space that seems to exist in their collective memory. They find amazing inventions and technological advances but also realise that it’s down to them to save the world from destruction.
A great cast, led by the indestructible Dwayne Johnson, helped save California from an earthquake after the San Andreas Fault finally gave way. Brad Peyton's film did not impress critics but our audiences were wowed by outstanding effects that created shattering destruction and some heart-stopping moments.
More than two decades after Steven Spielberg wowed us with the original Jurassic Park film, director Colin Trevorrow took up the baton and brought dinosaurs snapping and snarling into the 21st century. Chris Pratt took over leading man duties as Owen, a Velociraptor trainer at the re-opened dinosaur theme park run by Bryce Dallas Howard’s emotionally repressed executive. The fun started when a new super-dino, Indominous Rex, broke out of its compound and unleashed mayhem. A superb popcorn movie that had you jumping in all the right places – currently the 3rd highest grossing film of all time.
A wistful, intriguing look at Sherlock Holmes in his later years as expertly played by Ian McKellen, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin. Very old and losing his memory, the great detective tried to solve a case that had puzzled him for decades and in doing so uncovered some uncomfortable truths. Beautifully acted and shot, Bill Condon’s film was as much about the effects of growing old as crime detection.
Director/writer Paul Feig again teamed up with Melissa McCarthy to great effect, this time in a spoof of the spy genre. As Susan Cooper, an unassuming, desk-bound CIA analyst, McCarthy excelled as the unsung hero but she was clever enough to allow room for her co-stars Jude Law and Jason Statham to get in on the pratfalls too. There were belly laughs aplenty and we look forward to Feig's and McCarthy's next big screen adventure together.
We end our round-up of the first six months of cinematic hits with another member of the billion dollar club. They’re small, yellow, speak an indecipherable language and Stuart, Kevin and Bob and their Minion friends traced Gru’s henchmen all the way back to the time when they were single-celled organisms in this hit movie. The Despicable Me prequel proved the Minions were the funniest animated characters in town.