The 2015 movie year is a few days past now, so it’s time to keep up a tradition here at The Establishing Shot by highlighting my favorite images from the past year’s films. As always, these are those shots that really stood out and impressed me. And in a post like this there are bound to be some plot spoilers, so proceed with caution if you haven’t seen all of these films yet.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler walked a fine line between reverence and creating something fresh in this seventh film in the ROCKY franchise. Of course a lot of it is familiar, and certainly Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) figures strongly in the story, but he’s a supporting character this time and not the lead. Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is and Rocky is his trainer. That changes things immensely and even when Coogler does trot out recognizable bits from the past ROCKY movies, the filmmaker does so with a fresh spin. One of such instances occurs at the very end of the film. Those famous steps in Philadelphia that Rocky climbed while training in the 1976 Best Picture winner are revisited here, sure enough, albeit with a different effect. Rocky is now 40 years older and battling cancer so he no longer runs up those steps. He walks them, very carefully. And he’s joined by Adonis, his friend and ‘student.’ In the final shot of the film, Adonis and Rocky look out on the city from the top of the stairs, uncertain of their futures. It’s a perfect final image to a film that rests on the shoulders of the franchise legacy, but also stands completely on its own.
My favorite image from this adventure film can be easily glimpsed in the trailer. It’s the final shot shown, designed to entice us into the theaters. Indeed, it will. And once you see the shot in context, you will be even more wowed. Late in the movie, Indians are chasing 1800’s fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio). His horse is hit with an arrow and they run out of ground as they escape. Thus, they plummet over the side of a mountain and into the trees below. Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant vengeance tale has dozens of stunning images like that. Arguably, the whole film shot by the incredible Emmanuel Lubeski is one two-hour and 36-minute stunning image. Yet that single image is probably the most audacious. It also perfectly captures the desperation of Glass and his journey to kill the man who killed his son. The shot is loaded with effects, but the filmmakers imbue it with such realism, you never see the CGI. Such shots will help Lubeski win his third cinematography Oscar in as many years.
The second to last shot of this movie is a beauty. In Todd Hayne’s story about ‘forbidden love’ between knowing socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett) and naïve store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara), the setting is the 1950’s and social norms don’t allow for such relationships. But at the end, after breaking up with Therese, Carol chooses to say to hell with the time period’s conventions and returns to Therese to declare her love. The younger woman is flummoxed and does not give her an answer. Then, a short time later, Therese realizes what she wants and she seeks Carol out at a nearby restaurant. As Therese approaches Carol’s table, her courage builds with each step. And her eyes become more confident and a small trace of a smile escapes her lips. Mara is a marvel in this scene as her character finally comes into full fruition. And Blanchett’s coy reaction, which is the last shot of the film, is equally as stunning.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Another facial expression that stands out this season is that of Mark Rylance throughout Steven Spielberg’s taut thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES. Rylance plays Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and his general expression is one that is quite enigmatic. Is he perplexed? Acting the fool? Or subtly laughing at his captors? Yes, yes and yes. Rylance wryly wears the same calm, cool and collected expression whether he’s being interrogated by Tom Hanks’ government appointed defense attorney or hearing the news that he’s been found guilty of espionage in court. Such unflappability makes Abel both amusing and scary. And such clever choices that Rylance makes in his superb performance will guarantee he’s a serious contender for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
In my pick for the best film of the year (that post will arrive at The Establishing Shot later this week), Caleb, a computer company programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) is invited to the secluded home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his company’s CEO, to judge his latest invention. It’s a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and she’s so lifelike that she could pass for human. Nathan is an extraordinary inventor, but a shit of a human being. He turns the visit into a sadistic mind game between the three characters, and the malevolent boss plays friend and fiend to both parties. And then, just when the programmer has had enough of all the bullying and starts to furiously confront his tormentor, Nathan busts out some disco dance moves with his paramour Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and Caleb's anger dissipates. It’s so out of left field for the Nathan character, and he dances so deliciously in synch with his partner, that it shatters the exquisite tension of the film for the briefest of moments. I don’t know if I laughed as hard at any intentional gag in a comedy this year, so that’s really saying something about writer/director Alex Garland’s masterpiece.
MAD MAX FURY ROAD
This gonzo actioner from Aussie writer/director George Miller rebooted his 80’s franchise with adrenaline-infused glee. Neither restart or sequel, it both topped the original story of Mad Max’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world as well as bettered its technical aspects by a country mile. No film had better editing, energy or go-for-broke craziness in 2014. And in a film chock full of over-the-top visuals, my pick here was one of the film’s cheekiest best. As Imperator Furiosa escapes from overlord Immortan Joe with his slave brides, they’re chased by the dictator’s posse of cars and trucks. But hey, even bad guys have to have their tunes for a road trip, so they chain an electric guitar-wielding slave to the grill of one of their monster trucks. And as he shreds, the peghead spits fire. It’s hilarious, audacious and sinister. Much like this fantastic film itself.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION
Another great image that figured heavy in the marketing of a movie was this ballsy shot of Tom Cruise clinging for dear life to the side of an ascending plane. His super spy Ethan Hunt is both brave and desperate to confront the bad guy aboard, so such a crazed move makes sense. And this is how writer/director Christopher McQuarrie starts his movie. And the fact that the veteran actor is really performing such a stunt, albeit with ropes and harnesses visibly removed in post, only adds to the outrageousness of it. It’s unforgettable, and made the fifth film in the series one of its absolute best.
The year’s best horror movie, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, has one of the most tender images in any film this year, let alone one designed to frighten us. But because it is a thriller ultimately, that moment of tranquility doesn’t last very long. Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) has just had a sweet backseat tryst with her sensitive date Hugh (Jake Weary). In the afterglow of their post-coitus, she muses about her desires in a relationship, being buoyed by their connection and his sensitive lovemaking. It’s a softly lit, gorgeous shot of this young woman coming to terms with her desires, yet it’s shattered by his betrayal when he asphyxiates her with a drugged rag. Why he does so is just one of the insidious twists in this shrewdly told tale. And it helped turn IT FOLLOWS into an instant classic in the genre and establish Mitchell as one hugely formidable talent to keep watching.
Another great horror movie this year that didn’t get its due from critics or audiences was CRIMSON PEAK from writer/director Guillermo del Toro. It’s more of a Gothic romance than an edge-of-your-seat thriller; a frightener more akin to Edgar Allan Poe than Eli Roth. The tale did have ghosts, though they were used sparingly, and that helped ensure that their appearances packed more of a punch. One of the best moments had one of the haunting figures trying to help beleaguered heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska) understand the real horrors going on in the haunted house. It wasn’t specters. Instead, it was the spectacle of her new husband Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) engaging in an incestuous relationship with his dominating sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The ghost points to the forbidden tryst and the reveal of it makes for the best fright in the film.
Finally, it wasn’t one of the very best films of the year, but AMERICAN ULTRA contained one of the very best images, and easily one of the year's funniest too. In this stoner espionage caper film (yes, that’s the proper description), Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a super spy who’s been reprogrammed to forget that he was once an expert at killing and other nefarious skills. When his agency decides it wants him dead, his secret talents are awakened and he kills a lot of people, destroys a ton of property, and goes on the lam with his girlfriend and fellow stoner Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). At the end, after the farcical plot has run its course, and all the bad guys are vanquished, Miles is still a threat. So what do the authorities do to contain him? They taze him. And as Phoebe protests such shoddy treatment, she gets tased too. Stewart’s reaction as she’s jolted into submission is utterly hilarious, especially since she showed no some comic inklings in her stoic portrayal of Bella in all the TWILIGHT movies. Who knew she could be so damn funny? Writer Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh did, and I thank them for it.
Those are my picks for the 10 images that impressed me the most this year. What sticks in your mind? Share your thoughts here and let’s keep adding to the list of the best images in films from 2015.