2015 in review: Why ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Creed’ were the year’s most noteworthy films
When reviewing The Mask of Zorro (1998), acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert said that the film wistfully reflected “a reminder of the time when stunts and special effects were integrated into stories, rather than the other way around.” Such reflection still rings true today with the rise in big budget movies seeking blockbuster status and a rich return on investment. With these films, it is rare for the story to come first and have the special effects be in the supporting role.
The films that do manage to break this mold invariably prove to be intelligent as well as crowd pleasing and profitable. Though they are scarce, when they do arrive, they prove to be something special. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller, and Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, are two such films. These noteworthy films presented their characters and stories solidly as priorities before turning their attention toward the kinetic car chases and blistering brawls. By doing this, Miller and Coogler enhanced our experience and allowed our imagination, which has been left hungry after years of mindless action, to once again feel the “magic” in a time where it had begun to seem like this magic on the big screen was no more than an elusive, celebrated memory.
The “auteur” driven era of American filmmaking has been extinguished for nearly 40 years. For some, it began in the summer of ’75, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws swam into theatres, instantaneously and permanently changing the landscape of what (and how) American films, as well as audience expectations of films, should be made. In the divergent opinions of other dedicated cinephiles, this change came about in June of ’77, around the time when George Lucas’s original Star Wars was released, completely overwhelming William Friedkin’s neglected Sorcerer, an “existential” thriller featuring Roy Scheider. Lucas’s victory over Friedkin in the summer of 1977 suggested more than immense monetary triumph; it was the defining cinematic example of the old being definitively replaced by the new. For better or worse, American movies have never been the same since Chrissie Watkins was devoured by Bruce, the behemoth from beneath, and the opening scroll of the original, great space Western captivated and enthralled moviegoers around the world.
Friedkin, who famously won the 1971 Best Director Academy Award for The French Connection – the gritty, groundbreaking (it was the first R-rated Best Picture winner) drama that centered on two New York City narcotics detectives – had been relegated to the sidelines as quickly as he had been initially placed on the pedestal of theatrical reverence just six years earlier. But the public’s appetite for character-driven pieces had subsided; now, it was about films as “events” with plot and character becoming arbitrary functions that would only serve the intent of shepherding the film into a subsequent set piece.
The effects of the modern blockbuster system on the auteurs of today is both dejecting and damning. Spielberg and Lucas warned a few years ago of an impending Hollywood “implosion” which would occur from audience fatigue and then rejection, as a result of the gargantuan influx of hopeful tent poles being released week after week, barraging theatres throughout the country. Steven Soderbergh, a wonderful, innovative filmmaker, has all but retired from making movies, rebuffing the trajectory that mainstream film-making has adopted of late that is exclusively aimed at an opening weekend win.
Both Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Coogler’s Creed arrive at a time when audiences are beginning to reject, as Spielberg and Lucas had predicted, the theatrical overkill that had been so readily accepted towards the end of the seventies. Both directors, the former a 70 year old veteran with the heart of a film student and thirteen releases under his belt, and the latter a novice, not yet 30 years old, with the sensibilities of a seasoned professional and only two movies on his résumé, have reinvigorated this system, proving that other directors beyond Christopher Nolan are able to link the aperture between economics and craft. Fury Road is essentially a two-hour chase film and Creed is basically a retread of the original Rocky. Yet the innate skill and care with which these films were made elevates both far beyond cliché into gripping, transcending experiences.
The stories are classic. Max Rockatansky and Adonis Creed, Furiosa and Rocky Balboa, are survivors living one day at a time in pursuit of their individual goals, whether they be survival and respect or freedom and purpose. The foundation of both franchises having already been established afforded both Miller, returning to Max’s wasteland for a fourth round, and Coogler, entering Rocky’s ring for the first time, with the special opportunity to inject wonderful, welcomed characterization into these four leads, allowing us to truly empathize with their plights. A gesture from Furiosa, who Charlize Theron plays with as much unflinching toughness as Tom Hardy’s Max, after realizing that a great effort and a death were all in vain, is as affecting as the twenty-foot fireball that later blazes in the background as Hardy’s Max clings to a skinny pole on a pivot – a stunt reminiscent of (and influenced by) logic-defying Chinese acrobatics. Max looks on in awe at what he’s just witnessed, as we look on in awe at the entire film, a reminder of what escapism is capable of and meant to be. Similarly, as thrilling and as brutal as it is to see Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan (now deservedly teetering on the brink of superstardom) surmount his athletic obstacles abroad, it’s equally as wrenching to see our beloved Balboa’s reaction to some unexpected news. Stallone, relegated in the best way possible to a supporting role both as a character and behind the scenes, shows exactly what he’s capable of when presented with appropriate material and healthy direction.
Both films are compelling examples of what can happen when mainstream entertainment is put in the hands of passionate filmmakers. Dramatic depth and escapism need not and should not be mutually exclusive entities. 2015 has been a year of many great films which deserve to be celebrated. Fury Road and Creed, however, are something different: they’re marvels, proof that the auteur system isn’t broken, and that for films to be great, sometimes they just have to be great fun.
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