Tickets went on sale three months before Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens received its UK premiere on 16 December 2015, going nationwide the next day. To the satisfaction of fans and initiates alike, director J. J. Abrams eschewed the plastic feel of the series’ 1999–2005 prequels for the adventure and dry humour of particularly the first two films in the franchise: Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (1977–80).
The action is set 30 years after the third of the original films, The Return of the Jedi (1983). The First Order has grown from the ashes of the vanquished Galactic Empire and aims to destroy the New Republic – only the Resistance can stop it. This is probably Abrams’ masterstroke: to unveil new characters alongside such familiar faces as Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and even hardware like the future-vintage Millennium Falcon spacecraft. Good old-fashioned action is delivered with the latest special effects – the stormtroopers look especially stunning in their sleek uniforms – amid a very warm glow of nostalgia, which excuses the film’s rare moments of torpor. Among the new characters, the film attracted stars-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver while introducing fresh-faced Brits Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as the new series’ central protagonists, Rey and Finn (surnames and any family history are left tantalisingly open for upcoming episodes). Both acquitted themselves handsomely amid the stellar cast.
The film was shot at Pinewood Studios – the production was considered such a boon to UK industry that it received £25m of public money from the UK government, earning then-chancellor George Osborne a personal mention in the closing credits. Among the many records broken by the movie, on its release The Force Awakens became the fastest film to gross $1bn globally – in 12 days – and achieved the largest worldwide opening (and the biggest single weekend ever) of $529m. It also leapt into the top three highest-grossing films of all time, having earned $2.7bn at the time of writing, and while it may make up the $120m gap on second-placed Titanic (1997), it’s unlikely to catch Avatar (2009), at $2.8bn. Globally the film did notably better in English-language countries, perhaps thanks to the well of familiar touchstones Abrams dipped into. It grossed £123m at the UK box office, knocking James Bond’s 2012 outing, Skyfall, off the all-time top spot.
CRAIG’S BOND SWANSONG?
Skyfall, of course, was followed in October 2015 by the 24th instalment in the Bond series. Spectre consolidated the franchise’s retooling under the stewardship of director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig, although a much-hyped age-appropriate relationship in the film – with Italian Monica Bellucci as the widow of an assassin – proves to be short-lived, as 007 teams up with the latest in a line of French actresses to grace the franchise: Léa Seydoux. She certainly adds punch to the many action scenes – the film opens with a head-spinning turn at Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival – but Christoph Waltz is underwhelming as an overly familiar Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Spectre’s tech theme gives a nod to the Edward Snowden revelations but Blofeld’s scheme for world-domination feels oddly remote and unthreatening. While rumours raged that this may be Craig’s last outing as 007 – in May 2016 Mendes revealed he would not be returning as director – and the spotlight inevitably turned to possible successors to Bond’s tux, the producers might do well to concentrate their efforts on delivering a truly dastardly baddie.
Son of Saul treads territory previously mined by Martin Amis in his 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest: the Sonderkommandos, work units of mainly Jewish inmates who helped other prisoners at Nazi concentration camps to their deaths before usually being killed themselves. Hungarian director László Nemes pitches the audience into the heart of Auschwitz, revealing the anatomy of the monstrous death machine that operated from late 1941 to 1944.
Nemes’ camera hangs on the shoulder or directly confronts Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando played by poet and big-screen debutant Géza Röhrig. Clearing the gas chamber, Saul finds the body of a boy he believes to be his son, and embarks on a disastrous, 24-hour attempt to provide him a proper burial. It’s an intense journey, marked by Röhrig’s ashen face and mute eyes: bodies are known as ‘pieces’ in camp slang and there are hints too of the hopeful reasoning behind taking these apparently traitorous, fatal roles – as one of the narrators of Amis’ book has it, ‘We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness.’ Son of Saul won the Oscar for best foreign language film.
US director Tom McCarthy bears witness in an equally methodical manner to a more recent trauma in Spotlight, which focuses specifically on child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston and, by extension, wider abuse by the church around the world. McCarthy’s marquee cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber for what is essentially a newsroom drama, played out at the Boston Globe in 2001–2. Spotlight was named best picture at the Academy Awards, where it achieved the unusual status of becoming the first winner of that award to win fewer than three Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953.
Oddly, British historical drama Suffragette, about women’s struggle for the right to vote, didn’t receive any nominations from the Academy, BAFTA or at the Golden Globes. Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and produced by Alison Owen and Faye Ward, it stars Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep (as the group’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst). Horrified by the abuse of young women employees at the factory where she works, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) reluctantly becomes part of the movement, and subsequently has to face her unsympathetic husband (played by Ben Whishaw) and Brendan Gleeson’s patriarchal police inspector.
Perhaps the film lost its way from the moment Morgan chose to concentrate on a composite character, instead of a real-life figure. (Natalie Press also features as Emily Davison, who died after stepping in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, the film’s main set piece.)
LIFE BEGINS IN THE 1950S
Two literary adaptations fared better with critics and audiences. Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, first published pseudonymously in 1952. Rooney Mara stars as reticent shop girl Therese Belivet, who falls for married mother Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett); their affair proceeds slowly until the moment of consummation, which may also spell its bitter end. Director Todd Haynes showed in his previous excursion into the 1950s, Far from Heaven (2002), that he has a perfect feel for both period atmosphere and trapped emotions; the film’s time-capsule look owes a great deal to designer Sandy Powell’s costumes. In March 2016, a poll of more than 100 film critics, programmers and other experts for the British Film Institute’s Flare film festival named Carol the best LGBT film of all time.
In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan plays a young Irish woman in 1950s Ireland who, unable to find a job at home, emigrates to New York. Initially she struggles to make her way in the city and only when life seems to be improving is she pulled back to Ireland, to care for her ailing mother. Nick Hornby adapted Colm Tóibín’s novel of US immigration to great effect, where the choice between past and future is reflected in love affairs on either side of the Atlantic.
HERE COME THE BOYS
Brooklyn received a number of best adaptation nominations, but lost out to financial drama The Big Short, from the book by Michael Lewis. Charles Randolph and Adam McKay won big by conveying the complicated machinations behind 2008’s financial crash in an entertaining manner. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are just some of the big-name cast playing the traders and hedge-fund managers who predicted the US housing bubble. They’re abetted by cameos from Margot Robbie and economist Richard Thaler, among others, who drop in to explain the intricacies of subprime loans, credit default swaps and more. It’s a ride, and whether any of it sticks or not, it’s certainly a welcome rejoinder to the chest-beating machismo of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Danny Boyle tackled a script by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) for Steve Jobs. Based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, it posits the Apple pioneer’s life as a three-act drama, starting in 1984 with the launch of Apple’s Macintosh; by 1988, Jobs has moved onto the NeXTcube; and in 1998 he’s back at Apple for the iMac.
At each of these product launches, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs battles commercial and private problems, accompanied by Kate Winslet as his adoring, seemingly unflappable marketing executive. Boyle filmed each period differently – moving from 16mm, through 35mm to digital – a decision reflected in Daniel Pemberton’s engaging soundtrack.
Steven Spielberg followed 2012’s Lincoln with another historical drama, this time set at the height of the Cold War. Bridge of Spies is the true-life story of modest insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is asked to act as attorney for a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been arrested in New York; Donovan’s determination leads to him being sent to Berlin to negotiate a swap for Abel of US pilot Gary Powers.
The movie may falter a little in the second half, when courtroom drama gives way to fish-out-of-water spy thriller, but the outcome is surprisingly beautiful. In the hands of such masters as Spielberg and Hanks you could imagine this to be a homespun tribute to the (American) value of doing the right thing, but at a time of ever increasing surveillance powers it’s tempting to see Bridge of Spies as a plea for respect for the rule of law. The script, by Matt Charman, and Joel and Ethan Coen (who returned with their own high-spirited tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!), also provides a stand-out role for Rylance.
Spielberg and Rylance were quickly back in the saddle for a live-action version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, released in the summer of 2016. Here Rylance is the amiable vegetarian colossus who teams up with a young orphan (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) to defeat a tribe of man-eating ogres.
RETURN OF THE BRAVADO
When the script for Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour Western The Hateful Eight was leaked in January 2014, the writer-director initially refused to make the film. In the event, it emerged in January 2016, starring Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson as two rival bounty hunters who aim to claim the reward on Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fugitive outlaw.
The Hateful Eight is almost entirely set inside a stagecoach lodge, rendering Tarantino’s decision to shoot on 70mm somewhat bemusing – a few irresistible outdoor shots of snowy Telluride, Colorado, notwithstanding. The format had unforeseen consequences in the UK: three major cinema chains, including Cineworld and Curzon, pulled out of showing the movie when its distributor stated that ‘due to the special facilities required for the unique 70mm Ultra Panavision presentation’, the Odeon Leicester Square would have exclusive screening rights for London’s West End.
The film was nominated for a number of original screenplay awards but won instead for its score, by veteran Ennio Morricone. It was the Italian composer’s first Western soundtrack in 34 years and won him only his second Oscar, having earned an honorary Academy Award in 2007.
With The Revenant, Mexican film-maker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) pulled off a memorable feat at the Oscars: he became only the second person to win the award for best director two years running (Joseph L. Mankiewicz won in 1950 and 1951). Nevertheless, all eyes were on his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, who had never won an Oscar, despite being nominated as long ago as 1994 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Based in part on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant is the gruelling tale of fur trapper Hugh Glass, who is left for dead following a vicious grizzly bear attack. After discovering that he had been abandoned by his own team and that his half-Pawnee son had been murdered, a grief-stricken and grievously wounded Glass embarks on a mission of vengeance focused on John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, fresh from playing both the Kray twins in Legend).
The seven-month principal shoot in the wilds of Alberta, Canada, was demanding: Iñárritu shot only by natural light and the temperature often dropped as low as −40°C; vegetarian DiCaprio had to eat raw bison liver and repeatedly dive into freezing water to capture the verisimilitude the director craved. (Cinematography comes from Terrence Malick’s favoured cameraman of late, Emmanuel Lubezki.) The Academy likes nothing more than a trier and DiCaprio’s efforts were suitably rewarded with the star’s first Oscar.
However, the run-up to the 88th Academy Awards ceremony in February 2016 was marked by criticism of the lack of diversity among nominees for the major awards for the second year in succession. Stars including Will Smith and Spike Lee boycotted the event and the Academy announced that it would reform membership rules and voting rights.
TRUST IN DISNEY
Perhaps the year’s most unexpected pleasure was a live-action version of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Mocked for his 2014 mishit Chef, Favreau delivers a dark mix of Rudyard Kipling’s original 1894 book and the best of Disney’s 1967 animated movie, right down to the catchy tunes. Then there’s voice talent from Idris Elba, as the tiger Shere Khan, Bill Murray (Baloo the bear, naturally) and Christopher Walken (King Louie), alongside some startling CGI, which portrays the animals and landscapes to stunning effect.
In June 2016, Finding Dory, the latest outing from Disney-Pixar, broke the US record for the biggest opening by an animated film; its $136.2m outmatched the previous best set by Shrek the Third back in 2007. Expectations had not been high for this follow-up to 2003’s Finding Nemo – and the latest Pixar film since 2015’s mindboggling Inside Out – but the fishy tale of forgetful Dory’s attempts to find her lost parents proved irresistible, and the film also set a record for the second-largest June opening of all time, after Jurassic World (2015).
Two major 2016 films pitched comic-book figures against each other. First up was Batman v Superman, starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill as the respective superheroes, followed by Captain America: Civil War. While many were left baffled and bored by the former film, the latter proved a worthy addition to the Avengers franchise. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) square up over a superhero moratorium, accompanied by the likes of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), plus welcome comic turns from Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
World destruction was once more on the menu in a joyless Independence Day: Resurgence. If you thought 1996’s original was over the top, director Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion follow-up is a dizzying, no-holds-barred, roller-coaster ride of destruction, featuring Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) alongside many of the original stars, including doom-laden returnee Jeff Goldblum.
Liam’s brother Chris Hemsworth appears with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, 32 years after the phantom-bashing comedy first materialised. The Summer’s reboot from writer-director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) attracted fanboy ire long before release for its all-female crew – Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones – although the outcome is thoroughly enjoyable, and arguably more cinematically satisfying than its apparently sacrosanct forebear. In 2009, Star Wars’ J. J. Abrams revamped the Star Trek movie franchise, first launched in 1979. After two films under Abrams’ stewardship, director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) took over the helm for an instalment co-scripted by star Simon Pegg (Scotty) and timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the TV series. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto reprise their respective roles of Kirk and Spock, faced with the threat of Idris Elba’s Krall. The July 2016 release was tinged with sadness at the death of actor Anton Yelchin (a winning Chekov) just one month previously.