2015 In Retrospect

2015 was, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, the largest ever year of 100 Films — or 200 Films in a Year, as it’s currently known. For 2015 only, I think, because I have no intention of trying to replicate that feat next year (see here for more on that topic).

How better to finally wrap up a year than with a look at the best and worst, right? As always, my picks are not culled from films freshly released in 2015, but from this list of my personal viewing. (For what it’s worth, that list includes 22 releases from 2015, as well as 37 from 2014, some of which others would count as 2015 titles… and some of them have indeed made my best-of list.)

You can also vote for your favourites from my pick, and find out which 50 most noteworthy new films I didn’t see. There might be a few surprise along the way, too.

So without further ado…



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

In alphabetical order…

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher
Marvel may dominate the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC has the edge in animation — and work like this is going to do nothing to change that. An uninteresting story that’s blandly told in every regard, this is a total waste of time.

Blitz
There are a lot of very, very good actors in this Jason Statham vehicle, but it’s a terrible film that’s even below standard for the star, let alone his supporting cast. So bad it feels like a spoof, there is no good reason for anyone to watch this movie.

Jack the Giant Slayer
X-Men’s Bryan Singer is the latest filmmaker to take a fairytale and give it the Lord of the Rings treatment. That formula doesn’t work here, unfortunately. The result is a flat, cheap-looking, overlong bore. Another waste of good talent.

Parabellum
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.” I guess this isn’t a movie, then, because it’s not real life and it’s boring as can be. My least enjoyable viewing experience this year.

Runner Runner
Again, talented stars (Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton) slum it in a poorly-constructed thriller with no thrills. That it’s from the director of The Lincoln Lawyer, an excellent thriller that made my top ten a couple of years ago, only makes matters worse.



The Ten 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

Given the extraordinary personal achievement in my viewing this year — doubling my titular goal — I’ve decided to also double my year-end top ten. It seemed appropriate.

Obviously I haven’t done such a percentage-related increase (or reduction) of my list before now, but then no previous year has seen quite so remarkable a change in my viewing total. In other (smaller) years, these additional films may well have made the cut, so this is a way of giving them their due. (Besides which, my list is numbered, so you can ignore #20 to #11 if you want.)

Final point: although this list isn’t limited to 2015 releases, there are six included, so I’ve noted their ‘2015 rank’ too.

2015 #6 After all the behind-the-scenes kerfuffle, Ant-Man probably had the lowest audience expectations for any Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man. Perhaps that’s what allowed it to become the mostly purely entertaining Marvel movie since Iron Man, too.

The Mission series here reconfigures itself as the modern equivalent to classic Bond, washing down espionage thrills with gadgets and humour. The result is fantastically enjoyable, and only so low on this list because of a certain other film a bit higher up…

John Cusack and Minnie Driver have never been more likeable as a guy and the prom date he jilted, brought back together by their high school reunion. Oh, and he’s now a hitman, in town on a job. Consitently funny, this is first-rate action-comedy entertainment.

An idiosyncratic crime drama from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog stands alongside the otherwise-peerless Léon as a hitman movie that may not deliver enough action thrills for some, but is seeped in distinctive qualities of its own.

Martin Scorsese’s best-regarded works may hew towards the mainstream-intellectual, but here he sets his sights on genre material — specifically, a psychological mystery thriller — and produces a corker. Heavily Gothic in tone, it’s the first of several such films on this list.

A British-made India-set ‘Western’, this beautifully shot Boy’s Own adventure is rollicking old-fashioned entertainment from start to finish. It’s buoyed further by a cast of top-drawer British character actors, topped off with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. Magnificent.

One of the most acclaimed films of all time — if we’re talking “the history of cinema”, it’s certainly more important than anything else on this list. Almost 90 years old, it remains surprisingly accessible to modern eyes. An exceptionally affecting experience.

2015 #5 In a year overloaded with spy thrillers, this Bond pastiche stood out by, a) getting in early (it was released last January in the UK), and b) being a helluva lot of fun. Thematically questionable it may be, but the filmmaking verve is a joy to behold.

2015 #4 2015’s highest grossing film, this sequel/reboot of the beloved franchise has proved somewhat divisive. It certainly has flaws in characters and plot, but director Colin Trevorrow has bottled genuine Spielbergian awe and wonder, and that counts for a lot.

If this were only a top ten, I’d’ve slipped this in higher up, as much to recommend it as anything. In many respects it’s a familiar mismatched-people-fall-in-love rom-com (hence why its position dropped), but the uncommon melancholic tone makes it feel unique.

I’d wager it’s impossible to describe a Wes Anderson film without recourse to words like “quirky” and “unique”, both wholly apt epithets for The Grand Budapest Hotel, naturally. Others include hilarious, clever, inventive, controlled, and delightful. The last may be the most appropriate of all: this is a film full of delights, from the performances, to the dialogue, to the locations, to the design, to the camerawork. Anderson is the kind of filmmaker who has a cult following, which can sometimes be a bad omen. Based on this evidence, his fandom might just have the right idea.

2015 #3 There has been an awakening — have you felt it? Well, of course you have. Everyone outside of China has. Half of them twice. The J.J. Abrams-led return to a galaxy far, far away may have received a mixed reception, due to it essentially being the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits cover album, dealing in nostalgia more than it does originality… but it’s clearly been made by fans with an eye to crafting something that’s both enjoyable and recognisably Star Wars-y — two balls the prequel trilogy less dropped, more hurled to the ground. It’s a thrilling adventure with likeable new characters and, in my opinion, interesting new villains. There’s scope for the makers of Episodes VIII and IX to produce something even better off the back of this, and that’s exciting.

Terry Gilliam’s 1984 for 1985 is set in a dystopian Britain almost as bad as our current one, where mindless, faceless bureaucracy rules the day. It’s the kind of film where a typo can lead to a man’s death; where Jonathan Pryce fantasises about being a sword-wielding angel fighting a giant silver samurai; and where Robert De Niro turns up as a terrorist plumber. You know, if Wes Anderson is “quirky” and “unique”, I don’t think we’ve yet invented words to describe Terry Gilliam…

I promised you more Gothic and here it is. Director Chan-wook Park places 7th on my top ten for the second year in a row with this dark psychological thriller about a reclusive teenage girl who meets her uncle for the first time when he comes to stay following her father’s death. He’s charming, but mysterious — what are the secrets that everyone seems to know but her? Dripping with style and atmosphere, Stoker is a feast for the eyes and ears; a beguiling, sensuous, classically Gothic thriller.

2015 #2 Director George Miller returns to the Mad Max series after a 30-year hiatus for the stand-out action movie of… well, “the year” seems to undersell it. Once upon a time he was bold enough to make a chase the entire third act of a film; now, the chase is the entire movie. This is action filmmaking elevated to a genuine art form — literally, if the award season buzz is anything to go by. While the done-for-real stunts are busy boggling your mind, there slips by a story that’s surprisingly rich in theme and character. It gives added weight to a type of storytelling that could only be achieved on film — there’s a reason Miller started with a storyboard and only bothered to write a screenplay when the studio insisted.

A third dose of Gothic now, this time with a heavier dose of the “horror” element that’s so often attached to the term. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are mother-and-daughter vampires on the run, hiding out in a seedy seaside town, where Ronan tries to lead some kind of normal life as a perma-teen while her mother’s busy doing what she’s always done: whoring. These vampires aren’t glamorous or sparkly, but damaged and discarded. Byzantium is not a very popular film, but its tarnished charms and fatalistic stylings, powered by two strong central performances and atmospheric direction, made me love it.

Selecting these 20 films was tough, then putting them in order was just as hard, but one thing was a lock from the start: these are my top four films I saw in 2015. The only question was the order they went in, which on another day may have been completely different — any one of them could’ve been #1. This little-seen documentary (Channel 4 premiered it in the middle of the night a few months ago, although it’s available on YouTube) takes us to a small, poor town in India where the locals make their own movies, and they’re a roaring success. It’s an inspirational film about living your dreams even when the world won’t let you, though undercurrents of reality stop it from becoming too tweely self-congratulatory. I’m not overstating it when I say I believe this is an absolute must-see for any lover of film, and probably a good many people besides.

I feel like I’m being in some way Awkward with many of this year’s choices, because there’s a notable strand of films that aren’t particularly well regarded by viewers en masse (see: #11, #7, #5, now #3). Well, I’m not being awkward, dear reader: I loved all of them, and I loved this one most of all. Like several of those others, it crafts a unique mood with lashings of style, in this case inspired by ’80s movies and music. Dan Stevens is a mysterious ex-soldier who enters a family’s life and brings a load of trouble in his wake, but is he (anti-)hero or villain? Even by the end, you might not be sure. Witty, exciting, stylish, idiosyncratic, this is one guest I want to stay forever. (Sorry — it seems I can’t end any piece about this film without a terrible pun.)

34 years before Fury Road, there was The Road Warrior. A post-apocalyptic Australian Western, it sees Mel Gibson’s titular drifter drafted into defending an oil-rich community from a violent gang of fetish-attired marauders. While the film has much to offer throughout, the real joy is the third act: a balls-to-the-wall multi-vehicle chase, as Max and co attempt to escape in a heavily-armoured oil tanker and the gang give chase in a fleet of vehicles. Maybe it’s not as slick or extravagant as Fury Road, but it was done without a lick of CGI (for all Fury Road’s “done for real” claims, there’s an awful lot of computer work across that movie) and that added tangibility gives it the edge for me. Not to mention that it did it first — without Mad Max 2, we wouldn’t even have Fury Road.

2015 #1 Not as life-affirming as Supermen of Malegaon. Not as stylish as The Guest. Not as groundbreaking as Mad Max 2. Certainly not as ‘significant’ as a host of films further down this list. But from the moment the familiar beats of the famous theme tune begin to pulse over the company idents at the top of the movie, Rogue Nation engages you in a perfectly-crafted entertainment. It delivers sequence after sequence of finely-tuned action-thriller excitement, both from Tom Cruise’s crazy stuntwork and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Hitchcockian control of espionage scenes. The plot may only be solid rather than any great shakes, but it’s supported by likeable heroes, a menacing villain, and well-pitched humour. It’s all topped off with Rebecca Ferguson, who could hold her own in a stand-off with Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron for 2015’s most kick-ass heroine. Mission perfected.


As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. Multiple selections are allowed, so feel free to pick several favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, I welcome your scathing criticisms in the comments.


Despite doubling the size of my selection, this was still a really, really tough year for picking favourites. Competition was harder than ever, not just because I watched 200 films (47% more than even my next biggest year) but because I made a conscious effort to watch fewer time-killers and more things I’d really been intending to see. As a result, films that I enjoyed immensely or admired intensely fell by the wayside, leaving several big guns to duke it out for the limited slots.

As if doubling my top ten wasn’t enough, the tightly-fought race got stuck for a while at 30 titles. The closest to making it in was my 1,000th film, Mark Cousin’s epic 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (so epic that my review draft is still in the form of 4,300 words of notes). It hurt to leave it out, but something had to go. The remainder of those 30 (which I guess would be #22 to #30, then) were, in alphabetical order, The Babadook, Gone Girl, High Noon, Looper, Paddington, Scanners, Spectre, Stranger by the Lake, and Wings. In most other years, any of those could’ve found themselves comfortably in my top ten.

I can’t end this without mentioning the 38 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. 17 of them made it into the top 20 — I won’t list those again, so you can go find the three four-star imposters for yourself (clue: they’re right at the end… or start, in the order I’ve written it). The remaining 21 five-starers were Argo, The Babadook, Boyhood, Boyz n the Hood, Dreams of a Life, Filmed in Supermarionation, Fury, The General, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, High Noon, Interstellar, Looper, The Philadelphia Story, sex, lies, and videotape, Shallow Grave, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Stranger by the Lake, Whiplash, Wings, and The Wrestler. Reading through those again, there are several I feel should’ve been in my top 30… or 20… but what would I take out in their place? This year’s been too good, clearly.

Finally, on the same topic, there was one five-starer from each of my additional kinds of reviews (I love it when that happens — so neat). They were: non-list review 2001: A Space Odyssey, extended cut X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, and short Feast.


Naturally, there were a considerable number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see. In my annual tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films — chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety — that were released in 2015 and that I’ve not seen.

As is so often the case, it’s a funny old mix, because there were some films that seemed too ‘significant’ to leave out. This is why, despite recording my progress with these in my statistics every year, I’ll never, ever see 100% of them. For a current example, Minions is the 5th highest grossing film of 2015, so on the list it goes; but I didn’t really like Despicable Me and haven’t watched Despicable Me 2, so what are the chances I’ll ever decide to spend some of my time on Minions? Pretty darn slim, I reckon.

Anyway, the 50 I’ve chosen to highlight — some of which I do very much want to see — are…

Amy
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Black Mass
Blackhat
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Chappie
Cinderella
Creed
Crimson Peak
The Danish Girl
Everest
Ex Machina
Fantastic Four
Fifty Shades of Grey
Furious 7
The Good Dinosaur
The Hateful Eight
Home
Hotel Transylvania 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
In the Heart of the Sea
It Follows
Joy
Legend
Macbeth
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Martian
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Minions
Pan
Pixels
The Revenant
Room
San Andreas
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Sicario
Snoopy and Charlie Brown…
Spotlight
Spy
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton
Suffragette
Taken 3
Ted 2
Testament of Youth
The Visit
The Walk


And so, after all that verbosity, the largest ever year of 100 Films comes to an end.

Apart from the 21 reviews I still have to post, of course. (In that respect, 2014 isn’t even finished yet.) But no matter, it will be done.

For now, all that remains is for me to thank you for reading, to wish you all the best with your own film-watching endeavours (having spent several days shut away in my own world of statistics and lists, I’ve a few people’s posts to catch up on!), and to say “see you soon” for 2016 — the 10th year of 100 Films! I have some stuff planned…

The Climactic Monthly Update for December 2015

Happy New Year’s Day, dear readers!

The quest for 100 films has little regard for it being the first day of a new year, however — it’s still the start of a new month, which means it’s time to reflect on the last. And as it’s the last month of 2015, to reveal just what my final tally actually was…


#183 Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
#184 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
#185 Terminator Genisys (2015)
#186 A Most Wanted Man (2014)
#187 Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)
#188 Begin Again (2013)
#189 Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
#190 Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt
#191 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
#192 About Time (2013)
#193 Happy Feet Two (2011)
#194 Morning Glory (2010)
#195 Dreamgirls (2006)
#196 Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
#197 AfterDeath (2015)
#198 Heaven Can Wait (1943)
#199 Slow West (2015)
#200 Dressed to Kill (1946)


  • #200 is the final Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. It’s taken me almost eight years to get through that series — longer than they took to make — so it seemed an appropriate choice for such a momentous number.
  • With four WDYMYHS films left, I managed to watch… one. That was Le Mépris. On the one hand, not watching 25% of my list is a bit of a failure. On the other, watching 75% of it means I’ve watched nine films this year that I should’ve seen but hadn’t got round to, and almost certainly wouldn’t’ve got round to without WDYMYHS. So it shall continue next year, though I’ve not decided on the selection process yet.
  • Remember back in my October update, when I mentioned re-watching the Veronica Mars movie to get 2014 finished? Bloody well didn’t bloody happen, did it! I’ll do it in January.
  • Apropos of not very much, the version of Rawhide sung by the elephant seals in Happy Feet 2 is awesome.


The headline news here is, of course, that this year I reached #200.

That’s my highest final tally ever, by 64 films — 47% higher than the next best year! You could add together my two poorest years (2009 and 2012) and you’d still be nine films short of 2015’s solo total. Anyway, more whole-year stats in my next post — for now, let’s just look at December.

This month I watched 18 new films. Most importantly, that exceeds this year’s ten-per-month goal, making 2015 the first time I’ve done it for a whole calendar year. (It’s also the 19th consecutive month.) It’s only the second-highest December ever, just behind 2008’s 19, but it does pass the December average (10.86; now 11.75) and beats December 2014’s total of 15, the 11th month this year to beat its previous equivalent (only November let the side down). In terms of 2015, it beats the monthly average of 16.67, and is actually the third highest month of the year, settling in behind the record-breaking feats of September and October.

I always end these analyses with a look ahead to the rest of the year… which is now over. So what for 2016? Having reached 200 films in a year, will I be seeking to equal it next year? Perhaps even to better it? I can confirm that…

No. No I won’t.

There are so very, very many films that I want to see — and they keep making more of the darn things! So many that even watching 200 new films isn’t enough to make a serious dent in the “to see” list. But there are also TV series I want to watch, books I want to read, audio dramas I want to listen to — not to mention movies I want to re-watch — and the film fixation engendered by a goal as vast as 200 new films in a year is counterproductive to doing anything but watching new films. So of course 100 Films will continue, and maintaining my ten-per-month streak would be nice, but if this time next year I’ve watched 200 new films and not watched many TV series, or read books, or listened to audio dramas, then I won’t be dancing a victory dance. Quite the opposite. Whatever the opposite of “dancing a victory dance” is.

In conclusion, my personal goal for next year is… well, 100 films — that’s why it’s the name of the blog. But I’ll be aiming to maintain my ten-per-month run, making the target 120+ Films in a Year. Plus lots of TV and books and audio drama and films I’ve seen before and special features and goodness knows what else. There still won’t be nearly enough time, anyway.


Thanks to the advent calendar, 44 films were reviewed this month(!) Here’s a full alphabetical account:



The 7th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there aren’t a great many stand-out options here. Although I hugely enjoyed the new Star Wars, and some other 2015 blockbusters I caught up on weren’t as bad as expected, the winner is easily best-of-year contender Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there are still a few three-star-level contenders here. In the end, I decided to pick the film I felt I was most likely to never bother to watch again, and while there are a few I’m not likely to ever revisit, the least likely was AfterDeath.

Best Use of Time Travel
Was it to visit a wondrous future city of joyous technological advancement? Or to spend more precious time with your dying father? Or to send a cyborg to protect your mother from your robot enemy before your best mate arrives to stop that enemy murdering her before you’re born then trying to disable said robot enemy before it’s ‘born’? Or to get Emilia Clarke naked? How about using it to make Rachel McAdams fall in love with you in About Time. That and the dad thing.

Best Theme Tune
Oh sure, there’s John Williams on Star Wars… but of course there was. And I’ve already said how much I liked Rawhide in Happy Feet 2, but it’s not functioning as theme tune there. So the winner is composer Joe Kraemer finally giving Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme a suitable big-screen rendition not once but twice in Rogue Nation.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
When you think about it, this should come as no surprise. In a month that featured 47 new posts (it sounds a little insane when you put it like that), the most-read is one that was a hive of activity for 25 days: the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015.


…will be 31 days into 2016. Before all that, though, I’ll thoroughly look back and dissect 2015 — the largest year of 100 Films ever!

(Dog-loving regular readers will be pleased to know that (further to September’s update) Millie is still with us, and coping admirably with there already being a new Irish Wolfhound puppy in the family.)

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

2015 #184
Christopher McQuarrie | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English, Swedish & German | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Rogue NationIt’s an overcrowded year for spies on the big screen (as previously discussed), so I imagine Paramount were very glad they were able to make the last-minute decision to pull this fifth Mission: Impossible movie forward from its original post-Spectre release date to a summer debut, before audiences perhaps felt the genre was played out. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: for my money, Rogue Nation is the best James Bond movie released in 2015.

Beginning a year or two on from the last Mission, we find IMF’s star agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) investigating the Syndicate, a shadowy terrorist organisation that may not even exist. Hunt finds proof when he’s kidnapped by the Syndicate, escaping with the help of one of their operatives, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Unfortunately, this is the moment when Washington politicking by CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) sees the IMF shut down. So, naturally, Hunt goes on the run, determined to find and eliminate the Syndicate.

Rogue Nation has a nicely straightforward yet nuanced espionage-y plot, though its hard to accurately summarise its inciting incidents without giving too much away. Suffice to say, it’s not long before Hunt is reuniting with former IMF teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther (Ving Rhames), as well as forming an off-and-on alliance with double (or triple?) agent Faust. They’re aligned against the Syndicate, led by the excellently named Solomon Lane. He’s played by Sean Harris, on fine form as a very still, very quiet, very bespectacled villain. Even though you know the heroes are going to win, it becomes hard to see how they’re going to manage it, so powerful and threatening is Lane.

Crazy stuntsObviously this uncertainty is also thanks to the story constructed by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. Some automatically dismiss the plots of the Mission films, saying they’re just an excuse to link some death-defying stunts performed by Mr Cruise. Although there may be an element of truth to that, I don’t think this is a bad storyline by any means. As I said, it’s fairly straightforward (there’s no mole in IMF! Hurrah!), but the intricacies keep it engrossing and keep you guessing. And anyway, the action sequences it ties together are first-rate. You’ve pretty much seen the opening plane stunt in the trailer — heck, you’ve seen it on the poster — but it’s still a thrilling opener. Then there’s the opera sequence, a massive logistical challenge for the filmmakers that they’ve crafted to perfection, making one of the most effective and memorable spy sequences for a long time; arguably, ever. There’s a rich pedigree of such scenes set in theatrical spaces, be they by Hitchcock or even in otherwise-poorly-regarded Bond films, but Rogue Nation’s sits proudly alongside them.

Unsatiated by creating two iconic scenes, McQuarrie and co set about offering even more: there’s an underwater sequence where Hunt has to hold his breath for fully three minutes while diving, replacing an underwater computer chip, and escaping; there’s a crazy car-vs.-bike chase through the backstreets of Casablanca; that’s followed by an equally manic bike chase along the motorways and windy cliff roads of Morocco… If the climax — a runaround through the foggy streets of London — feels a little underwhelming by comparison, it’s through no fault of its own. In my Ghost Protocol review I discussed the Mission films’ consistently lower-key finales, and Rogue Nation is no exception, although I’d contend the sequence works well enough that it’s still one of the franchise’s most effective climaxes.

Team improbableAs alluded to above, this is probably the most globetrotting Mission film yet: it starts in Belarus, before taking in Washington D.C., Cuba, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London. It’s things like this that lead me to describe it as a James Bond film. There’s also the balance of a serious plot line with plenty of humour, the use of outlandish just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and the fact that the series can’t retain a female cast member for more than one film (though that last one isn’t a positive). For all the effort Spectre made to bring classical Bond elements back into the fold, Rogue Nation arguably feels more like a classically-styled Bond movie. It’s not a faultless like-for-like comparison — one of Rogue Nation’s best points as a Mission movie is that the whole team are necessary to complete the mission, a defining factor of the TV series that many felt went awry in the movies, with their focus on Cruise — but the almost-indefinable sensation of this experience is Bondian. It’s not stealing that style, though: considering Ghost Protocol had it too, and Craig-era Bond has abandoned it for a ‘classier’ action-thriller mode, it’s something the M:I series has come to own.

Indeed, of late the Mission films have come to feel more like a series than they did previously. It’s now quite well known that every Mission film has a different director, a conscious choice on the part of star/producer Tom Cruise to give each film a unique flavour. To be honest, I’m not sure how well that’s worked. M:I-2 drips with John Woo’s personal style (to the distaste of many, as it turned out), and I suppose the first film is pretty Brian De Palma-y, but since M:i:III things have got distinctly less distinctive. That was helmed by J.J. Abrams, whose only stylistic point is “lens flare”; and it was his first feature, so he didn’t even have that yet. The fourth film was by Pixar’s Brad Bird, making his live-action debut. This fifth isn’t McQuarrie’s first film, at least, but it is only his third, and the first was 15 years ago and I’m pretty sure no one remembers it. Now, none of these chaps did a bad job — far from it, as Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are among the series’ best instalments, perhaps even the two very best — but I think you’d be hard pushed to tell the last three films came from different creative brains.

InterrogationSo on the one hand the recent news that McQ (as current regular collaborator Cruise calls him) is returning to write and direct the sixth Mission is a shame, because it breaks a twenty-year rule; but on the other, I’m not sure it matters. Plus, by taking on the dual role of sole writer and director, you could argue McQ’s Missions are the most auteur-y of the lot, even in spite of the lack of a terribly unique visual style. Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that I was a little disappointed when it was announced there wouldn’t be a sixth director for the sixth film, because I always thought that was a neat idea; but as the idea hasn’t actually had much effect, who better to ask back than the man who wrote and directed arguably the best Mission: Impossible film of them all?

Perhaps that’s because (according to Abrams in one of the special features) McQuarrie wanted this to be a sort of “greatest hits” for the M:I franchise. He’s done that pretty subtly — you don’t feel like you’re watching a string of ripoffs from the first four — but he has done it, with sequences and locations that recall the previous films, and some nice hidden Easter eggs for the hardcore, too. Technical attributes are equally up to scratch, with some lovely lensing by Robert Elswit. He shot most of it on 35mm film and it pays off, with an indefinable classy quality. The score is by Joe Kraemer, who I’d not heard of before, probably because the main thing he’s done is score both of McQ’s previous films. No matter, because his work here is top-notch, and certainly the most memorable Mission score I can, er, remember. Wisely, he’s taken the iconic main theme as his starting point, also used Lalo Schifrin’s other beloved M:I piece, The Plot, and mixed recognisable motifs and elements from these throughout his own compositions. It works marvellously, and helps contribute to not one but two of the best title sequences the Mission films have yet had. Yes, two, in one film. It feels kinda greedy, but I enjoyed it — when you’ve got a theme that good, why not highlight it twice?

Obligatory photo of Rebecca Ferguson in that dress with those legsThe cast are liable to get lost among all the grandiose goings-on in a film like this, so its a testament to the skilled team that’s been assembled over the past few movies that they absolutely do not. Cruise is Cruise — surely by now you know whether you like him or not. I always feel like I should dislike him, especially given his crazy real-life religious views, but on screen I find him very entertaining. Rogue Nation is no different. Hunt is on the back foot for a lot of the film, and Cruise is at his best when he’s playing someone who’s almost the underdog. He’s also a more talented comic actor than he’s normally given credit for, and that glimpses through here too. Most of the time comedic duty is handled by Pegg, of course, who provides a good foil as Hunt’s sidekick for much of the film. More surprising, perhaps, is the amount of humour Jeremy Renner brings. It’s much less obvious, dryer and more sarcastic, so the contrasting tone is fun. He’s paired with Ving Rhames for a long stretch, who returns wholesale after sitting out Ghost Protocol but for a cameo. The pairing may come up just short of feeling inspired, but nonetheless makes for an entertaining change. Elsewhere, Baldwin offers a neat, not-too-clichéd turn as the CIA ‘villain’, while Tom Hollander pops in for a funny cameo-level turn as the British Prime Minister.

But the real star of the film is Rebecca Ferguson, marking the second male-led action franchise this year where the movie has been stolen from the male hero by the female ‘support’. (The other, of course, is the much-discussed Furiosa in Fury Road.) Ilsa Faust is a fantastic character, whose allegiances are regularly questioned — every time you think you have her pinned down, something changes. She’s an immensely capable agent, but Ferguson also finds her vulnerable side when needed. She’s no damsel in distress — far from it — but she’s not just a cold man-but-with-boobs action heroine either. (Incidentally, it would’ve been very easy to illustrate this review with half a dozen pictures of Ferguson being awesome. But I resisted. Though I should’ve made room for this.) As an action movie leading man, and a producer who can shape the film how he wants, it’s to Cruise’s credit that he allows everyone else to share so much screen time — and to save him on more than one occasion too — and especially so when one of those characters is pretty much stealing the limelight out from under him.

Mission acceptedAs the fifth film in a franchise that has always carried a slight “pretender to the throne” air, Rogue Nation should feel played out and tired. Instead it seems fresh and invigorated, with a spot-on tone, likeable and fun characters, a real sense of jeopardy and menace (missing in so many modern action films), and some of 2015’s very best action scenes — and in the year of Fury Road, that’s really saying something. McQuarrie has already spoken about learning lessons from this so he can make the next one even better. I find that hard to imagine, but that’s his mission, and I choose to accept it.

5 out of 5

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.