Snapshots of 2015’s Films & Television

I had a goal this year of blogging about every new film I saw. I tried to space these out so I’d only post one or two a week, and with bumping some posting slots for other things that’s pushed out this year’s reviews until nearly the middle of next year. I won’t be doing that again in 2016, because while I think there was a lot more to get out of films by at least gesturing at some analysis, it did start to feel like a chore. A certain number of films have received the appreciation they probably deserved because of the self-imposed requirement to post something, but quite a few reviews have been nominal because films weren’t interesting enough to really grapple with. A quick count shows that I saw nearly 80 new (new to me!) films this year all up of which about half were in a cinema. That’s a lot of time in a black box, and again at a rough count is about half again the number I saw in 2014. Even I wonder if that may be a bit too much of a good thing, especially because I think I probably also watched more TV this year than ever before. I’ve blogged extensively about films already, so just a few quick reminders of the best from 2015, and then I’ll try and condense what is the novel format of our age into a few sentences.

I feel like 2015 has been a weirdly consistent year for film quality. Most of what I’ve seen has been “good”, with only a few real stinkers (Inherent Vice, A Pigeon Sat on a Tree Branch Contemplating Existence and Victor Frankenstein, review forthcoming). In 2014 I saw three or four films that I came out of feeling amazed and predicting Oscar glory, but in 2015 this hasn’t really happened. The best films of this year were Mad Max, Sicario, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Mississippi Grind; other films I loved at the time have faded a bit in my imagination – I’ve not contemplated seeing Inside Out again, while I definitely would sit through a second screening of Mississippi Grind, which I think has turned out to be my favourite film of the year. I think only Birdman, from January, would be a contender against the films I praised last year, Boyhood and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of these films feel like Best Picture contenders (Birdman having already lost last year). Yet, the average score I’ve dished out on IMDb this year is feels higher than last year’s average.

This year also feels like the tide is just starting to turn a bit for female-centric films, and about time! Aside from the juggernauts that are Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, we’ve had A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightTrainwreck, GrandmaCarol, Brooklyn, Inside Out, Mad Max, Cinderella, Spy, GirlhoodSuffragetteJupiter Ascending, and Sicario. Films that under-use or evade strong female roles have now begun to feel like they’re out of touch, and I hope that franchises which elide their female elements will wake up and smell the missed opportunities – like the Fast series whittling down its female cast from 2 to 1, or Rogue Nation (review forthcoming) silently omitting any mention of the one woman in Ghost Protocol, or the shameful under-use of Naomie Harris by two successive Bond films. I mean, come on people! It’s the century of the Fruitbat or whatever. My big hope for the next Mission Impossible is that it’s about Ilsa Faust instead of Ethan Hunt, but I might as well hope to catch a Leprechaun at the end of a rainbow.

Most TV hasn’t fared notably better. The gender politics from Arrow are complex, but I think still problematic, Daredevil makes some nice gestures without getting anywhere positive, while the gender politics from Flash are straight from the Silver Age comics inspiring the rest of the show – downright disastrous. Justified did a little better, but it’s a doggedly masculine form of story, with concomitantly male gaze and so on and so forth. The two big shows which really impressed me this year both managed to have strong female characters as well as feminine points of view and alongside their conventional conflict-based scenes managed something a bit subtler.

Jessica Jones felt like the antidote to the simplistic fantasies playing out in Arrow and Daredevil. The masked worlds of Daredevil and Green Arrow are places where fear is a tool used to shape the narrative – we know Kingpin has lost to Daredevil when he gives up the prohibition on saying his name, surrendering the basic tool which made him powerful. Hitchcock said that fear was in the anticipation, and once Kingpin began actually killing his allies, he lost that crucial element. Fear drives much of the action in Jessica Jones, her fear of Kilgrave, her fear of being discovered, but fear becomes a challenge to be overcome and then discarded. Daredevil is a character living in denial of what he is, and the consequences of his vigilantism – his prohibition against killing, while putting people into comas, is a paper-thin rationalisation. Jones lives in a darker world which acknowledges the practicalities of super-powered villains. There’s just one catch, but it’s a big one. The whole action of the show is predicated on the problematic “you hurt a woman to make her strong” trope, so however well executed the show, it does feel a little uncomfortable.

Sense8 was a complex show to pull apart. On a practical level, it’s a show with 8 protagonists who’re isolated from each other until very near the end, which means that its storytelling initially feels very fragmentary and disconnected. As the characters begin to interact with each other, a kind of holistic story emerges, but it’s somewhat simple in comparison to the scaffolding used to erect the conceit of the show. I think it’s a show based around the concepts of empathy and self-discovery. Each of the characters needs to understand themselves, and they do this through their empathic connection with each other – beyond simply “visiting”, they need to understand what they’re seeing when they visit. Consequently, while there are set piece action sequences, this is a show primarily about spending time with characters you’re supposed to like, simply understanding why they do what they do.

2015 has been a good year for cinema and television. I’ve tried to engage more consistently in the films I’ve consumed, but haven’t really unpicked any television. It’s been a good exercise, but I think in 2016 I’m going to spend a bit less time in the cinema and a bit more time playing frisbee, reading, travelling. We’ll see how that goes. Reviews from 2015 will continue to go up until May next year, and I guess I’ve until then to decide what I’ll write next.

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