Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

Director Olivier Assayas has a penchant of late for companion piece films. His 2012 feature Something in the Air, a film loosely based on his own coming of age in an era of widespread disillusion, was concerned with youth rebellion in early 1970s France. He mined some similar territory beforehand in his 1994 effort Cold Water, however that film only alluded to the political concerns that Something in the Air puts closer to the forefront. Cold Water and Something share some character names, similar visual cues and thematic motifs. In a way, it’s as though Assayas is using the newer film to comment on the older one, and considering Cold Water’s own supposedly autobiographical elements, one can argue that Something works as an artist looking back on how he previously looked back on his past.

This elaborate self-reflexive approach is maintained for Assayas’ latest extraordinary film, Clouds of Sils Maria, which can be viewed as a companion piece to his 1996 work Irma Vep. Both concern a veteran actress coming to terms with their place in a cinematic landscape they find increasingly baffling, and each offers a unique meta-commentary on contemporary filmmaking. Clouds of Sils Maria takes some major swings at Hollywood’s current crop of samey sci-fi and fantasy franchises along with star stories told through social media and gossip sites…

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Bad Land: Road to Fury (Jake Paltrow, 2014)

Originally titled Young Ones for its US release, Bad Land: Road to Fury has seemingly received a name change in an attempt to capitalise on the hype surrounding the forthcoming Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite the presence of that film’s co-star Nicholas Hoult, plus desert vistas and a post-apocalyptic setting where a fleeting water supply is a key plot point, Jake Paltrow’s sci-fi Western has little in common with the Mad Max series. It actually resembles, of all things, the sprawling 1956 land epic Giant

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Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

At first glance, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 Brit-lit classic Far from the Madding Crowd might seem like a strange career choice for director Thomas Vinterberg, he of former Dogme 95 leanings. Upon closer examination, however, his handsomely-mounted follow-up to 2012’s The Hunt shares many thematic similarities with that film, as well as his 1998 breakthrough Festen. All three concern people’s standings in their insular communities upended by chaotic circumstances; a few all too predetermined but most of them unpredictable twists of cruel fate…

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, James Spader voices the eponymous villain, an entity of artificial intelligence that can inhabit seemingly any mechanical host around the world that it sees fit; break one body and you’ll just find him in an ever bigger one. Ultron is the superhero film embodiment of the ghost in the machine. Age of Ultron’s writer-director Joss Whedon, meanwhile, is the human in the too-often homogeneous Marvel machine, packing his second Avengers film with wit, pathos (as a result of characters’ palpable emotional vulnerability), and some actual thematic thrust regarding the concepts of invincibility, the transient state of human existence, and America’s knack for trying to prevent conflicts that haven’t even started with methods that doom people anyway. The symphony of destruction works because this blockbuster behemoth has an actual soul…

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Life in a Fishbowl (Baldvin Zophoníasson, 2014)

Icelandic ensemble drama Life in a Fishbowl follows three wildly different people, whose lives (and double lives) intersect in strange ways, exploring the roots of the country’s economic collapse in 2008. There’s a former athlete-turned-international-banker (Kristjansson), a famous author (Bachmann) haunted by addictions and past tragedies, and a debt-ridden young pre-school teacher (Hilmar) moonlighting as a prostitute in order to make ends meet and provide for her daughter…

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

Cyber terrorism thriller Blackhat sees director Michael Mann continuing to explore themes found in his earlier works like Heat and Thief, but with a firm foot in the stylistic experimentation that has characterised his 21st century output to date.

Those with little tolerance for CollateralPublic Enemies, and, especially, Miami Vice may find little to latch on to here, but those enamoured or, at least, fascinated by his increasingly impressionistic and abstract use of digital in approaching action film scenarios will be rewarded. He’s even thrown in a couple of cheeky self-citations for the super-fans to get a kick out of – see Chris Hemsworth’s lauded hacker Nick Hathaway quoting one of Manhunter’s best remembered lines…

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Writing by Josh Slater-Williams