For some, Manchester-born film-maker Mike Leigh will for ever be associated with domestic dramas going on behind net curtains. In his latest film, though, the veteran director has travelled back in time to make his subject the English landscape painter JMW Turner, brought gurning and grunting to life by Leigh regular Timothy Spall.
The performance (which won best actor at Cannes) is so huge you expect it to burst out of the screen, and Leigh goes off on tangents, exploring everything from how artists make a living to fame and physics. But at the heart of it all is Spall, who is as wild and magnificent as his character’s landscapes.
Nothing excites movie fanboys as much as the prospect of a new film from Christopher Nolan, the British director who made Batman the glum party pooper we know and love today. His movies can seem like mind- blowing spectacles that don’t have much going on under the surface.
But Interstellar might be the film that finally brings together style and substance. Though plot details are still veiled in secrecy, we do know this is pure sci-fi – a tale of cosmic wormholes and space travel, the perfect backdrop for Nolan’s vast imagination and for stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.
The setting of this pacey thriller is the kind of dingy New York bar where the big game plays on an old TV set above the bottles of Jack Daniels – and where the dark forces of organised crime bank each night’s dirty money.
But one night a robbery puts into motion a story where twists and character development work in tandem. The Drop stars Tom Hardy, but is tinged with sadness as the last big-screen outing of the late James Gandolfini.
The Imitation Game – 14th November
For all his phenomenal fame, it is curious that Benedict Cumberbatch has yet to take the lead in a really convincing movie – his best work so far coming in supporting roles in the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Here, he stars as Second World War code- breaker Alan Turing – whose heroics in foiling the Enigma code also laid the ground for the modern computer revolution. Yet as a gay man in the 1950s, Britain treated him barbarically, and this sturdy biopic has tragedy at its heart. Cumberbatch is excellent, heading a cast that includes Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode.
It’s been a while since a great western graced the big screen – there was the Coen brothers’ True Grit back in 2010 but, of course, even that was a remake. In this darkly unpredictable fable directed by Tommy Lee Jones, the man himself stars as George Briggs, a grizzled ne’er-do-well accompanying spinster Hilary Swank as she transports a dangerous cargo across the Old West.
With a supporting cast including James Spader and Meryl Streep, the surprise isn’t that the one-time Man in Black has made a film this finely crafted, but how brilliantly off-kilter it is.
Exodus: Gods and Kings – 26th December
Even at 76, director Ridley Scott has never been a man to shy away from technology – or a challenge. Who better, then, to set about making a modern biblical epic in the form of a sprawling 3D extravaganza designed to leave audiences stunned? The story Scott has chosen to tell is that of Moses and Ramses.
As possibly the only person on the planet who enjoyed both of Scott’s most recent films, the flawed Prometheus and his misunderstood thriller The Counsellor, I might be a soft touch – but Scott is always worth the price of a ticket even when he misses the mark, and this beast of a film should be fascinating either way.
Unbroken – 26th December
Few film-makers spark the interest of the tabloids quite like the director of Unbroken, who is none other than Angelina Jolie. Her story is that of American Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini, who spent 47 days adrift on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean before two years of hell in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War.
For the film industry, though, the real story may be the unstoppable rise of its British star Jack O’Connell. Having won acclaim in the likes of ’71 and Starred Up, the one-time leading man of TV’s Skins is enjoying a meteoric rise, and Unbroken may transform his career again.
The Theory of Everything – 1st January
Another heavyweight Oscar contender, complete with another young British leading man. Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in a story that deals with the physicist’s early years at Cambridge, showing him falling in love with his future wife Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones) having just been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
Making a biography of someone still living is an ethical minefield, but the film-makers involved are talented and smart enough to navigate it. The director is James Marsh, who is best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.
Films about the film business can be smug and inward-looking – yet from Sunset Blvd onwards, they can also be the smartest and most subversive treats the movies have to offer.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton stars as a faded actor whose most famous role was an iconic superhero. Now, he’s trying to re-invent himself and rekindle his career by staging a play on Broadway. The word from the festival circuit is that Keaton has come up with the performance of a lifetime.
Foxcatcher – 9th January
In his last film, director Bennett Miller made a story about the economics of baseball into Moneyball, a movie a thousand times more absorbing than it had any right to be. The backdrop for his next is wrestling, a sport you might expect to inspire a knockabout comedy or maybe a slightly sentimental drama.
But Foxcatcher is a long way from either, being instead a superbly chilly true crime story about the meeting of an eccentric billionaire named John du Pont and Olympic gold medallists Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively). The comedy actor Steve Carell is almost unrecognisable as du Pont, and his performance gets firmly under the skin.