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Best and worst 2015: Movies

BEST

• Frank (NC16)

There are coming-of-age stories in which a young person grows up suddenly one summer after falling in love with the wrong girl or guy. 

Then there is the comedy Frank.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) falls in love with a rock band, becoming its keyboard player, and finds nihilism, the obsessiveness quest for artistic perfection and a couple of suicides. Did we mention this is a comedy? 

Michael Fassbender as band leader Frank wears a doll head that he never removes. It is an audacious trick to pull on the audience, but the film earns the right to play it by staying sweetly sincere, delivering humour without sarcasm or ironic distance. 

Lenny Abrahamson, from Ireland, is a real actor's director, working with screenwriter Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats, 2009) in this funny, moving record of what it means to be consumed by music and the pain that comes with it.

• The Martian (PG13)

In a season of disappointing big- budget sci-fi flicks, many of them incoherent (Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Jurassic World, Fantastic Four), dull (Tomorrowland) or plain dumb (Pixels), two blockbusters stood out: Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. 

The Martian was the more original and daring because it was not a franchise movie and neither can there ever be a sequel, unless astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is extremely unlucky. Also, it relies very little on computer effects and not at all on heroes in spandex.

Director Ridley Scott takes on the story of a rescue of a man stranded on Mars and makes it the best of this year's crop of summer blockbusters, without sacrificing the realism that made Andy Weir's science-fiction novel so powerful. 

• Carol (R21)

"Lesbian romance" or "period drama" might be used to classify this movie, but those labels fall short of describing the emotional depths that director Todd Haynes wrings out of the screenplay. 

As in all repression romances, in this story of two women who fall in love in Eisenhower-era America, there are the stares of longing and coded speech. Rooney Mara as shopgirl Therese and Cate Blanchett as the socialite of the movie's title do plenty of that. 

But in this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, Haynes envelopes the women in a world that feels just a little faceless and out of sync. The effect is subtle, but powerful, and makes the women feel like the only real humans in a land of make-believe. It is a quality that lifts this work above Oscar-bait standards.

WORST

• Entourage and 1965

This is a tie between bro comedy Entourage and Singapore period drama 1965. They are remarkably similar. Both started life as straightforward brand-affiliated projects. On the path to completion, however, something happened: They gained a sense of their own importance.

Entourage, based on the now- cancelled cable show about a Hollywood star and his parasitic friends, used to be content with showing lunkheads in Paradise, men for whom sybaritic rewards come in spite of their boorishness. In the movie version, someone decided that these men would be cretins no longer, but creative geniuses who deserve awe and respect. Bad call. 

The drama 1965 blends race- relations messaging, history lecture and conspiracy thriller into one unhappy, fevered dream of a movie, created to mark the nation's 50th anniversary.

Bizarre characters and casting choices, astounding plot coincidences and a desperate climax are just the highlights - the rest is filler disguised as a civics lesson.


BEST

• Ex Machina

Novelist Alex Garland of The Beach (1996) fame makes an auspicious directing debut with this cool, stylish and deeply unsettling sci-fi drama.

Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked by his mercurial boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to probe the thin line between human and artificial intelligence, and artificial intelligence just happens to come in the shapely android form of Ava (breakout Swedish actress Alicia Vikander).

The questions come fast and furious: Why was Caleb chosen? What is Nathan hiding? Are deception and seduction uniquely human traits? The disturbing ending is just perfect.

• The Theory Of Everything

While only Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar, he and Felicity Jones gave two of the year's best performances in this warm, honest biopic of famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking directed by James Marsh.

Redmayne's Hawking was a layered one - cheekily charming, prey to doubts and frustrations and someone capable of falling in and out of love. Jones was just as compelling as the fiercely supportive first wife who was very much his equal.

• The Songs We Sang

Film-maker Eva Tang's documentary about the Singapore music movement known as xinyao is both heartfelt and meticulously researched. It is ambitious in scope as it traces the roots of today's glittery Mandopop to the music written by students in the last days of Nanyang University before it merged with the University of Singapore in 1980.

Besides interviews with key musicians such as Billy Koh and Liang Wern Fook, there is also rich use of archival material from televised performances and newspaper articles.

WORST

• Blackhat

For a movie that was supposed to be a globe-trotting cyber thriller, Blackhat was deadly dull. The story made little sense and wasted the international A-list cast assembled, from Chris Hemsworth to Tang Wei. The director responsible for this travesty was Michael Mann, whose previous work included well-regarded titles such as historical epic The Last Of The Mohicans (1992).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe