The Best Films of 2015

Caren Pistorius in Slow West

 

 

 

There’s a tendency among people who watch a lot of films to boost ones that stand out rather than ones that are good. This can lead to some perverse choices in the “best of” lists that proliferate at this time of year. So that probably explains the rogue nature of the list below – ha ha. If you’re expecting to find Spectre (not at all bad) or the latest Marvel movie or Jurassic World, look elsewhere. These are just the films, of the maybe 350 films or so that I’ve watched in the past 12 months, that jumped out and grabbed me. Some of them are 2014 releases.

 

 

 

 

Ten Best

 

 

Paddington (dir: Paul King)

Operating in Mary Poppins territory, this adaptation of Michael Bond’s books is charming, funny and clever, has jokes for kids and some more thoughtful though never intrusive observations for adults, integrates the animated bear from darkest Peru with the live action brilliantly and there’s even an action-star gag by support-playing baddie Nicole Kidman that’s aimed at ex-husband Tom Cruise.

 

Wild (dir: Jean-Marc Vallée)

The redemptive drama is a hard sell, but this one about a broken woman’s long trek to self-realisation works in every way. Reese Witherspoon is believably frail as the wee girl dwarfed by her huge rucksack (metaphor), director Jean-Marc Vallée uses music perfectly and does something many directors have forgotten all about – he structures his film visually, using the editing suite to full advantage. His compositional work is remarkable.

 

Ex Machina (dir: Alex Garland)

Just as we are realising that technology’s grip is icy, and Google might not be our friend, along comes Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a dystopian slab of hard sci-fi in which geeky Domhnall Gleeson falls for robot Alicia Vikander while hipster tech uberlord Oscar Isaac looks on. A three-hander – give or take – getting perfect performances from all concerned, and it glistens like a tiny, beautifully cut gem.

 

Kajaki (dir: Paul Katis)

A gaggle of British squaddies with names like Tug, Spud and Smudge wander into a minefield and suddenly their casually homophobic banter is replaced by focused professionalism and a sharp interest in staying alive. Gruesomely tense, horrific in its depiction of the damage inflicted by IEDs, is this the best British war film since Ice Cold in Alex? It’s a great war film by any standards.

 

It Follows (dir: David Robert Mitchell)

Sexual intercourse as an engine of death isn’t new in horror films, but It Follows finds a simple and brilliant new way of telling the story all over again – zombies who are “slow but not dumb” and might appear any time, any place, anywhere, dressed in nightwear or perhaps not very much at all. A lurchingly subjective camera, expressionistic framing and Disasterpeace’s Wendy Carlos-alike score help rack up the intensity even further.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir: Ana Lily Amirpour)

The Muslim jilbab as a kind of vampire’s cape – what a brilliantly observed idea that is in one of the strangest horror films of recent times, which combines something of the mass-observation aesthetic of photographer Sebastião Salgado with the disjointed cool of early Jim Jarmusch. Shot entirely in California, yet clearly a film about and for Iran, it’s a fascinating, Middle Eastern take on the Let the Right One In “innocent vampire” genre.

 

Slow West (dir: John Maclean)

Michael Fassbender’s astonishing run continues with this out-of-nowhere debut by John Maclean, an exquisitely wrought western making clear its debt to old pulp novels and their love of hard-tack glamour and salty danger. Tense as hell, in fact the whole film is one long, slow build towards a great finale. And it looks the business too.

 

Aferim! (dir: Radu Jude)

There hasn’t been a great Romanian film for about ten minutes, but here’s a slightly different sort than what we’re used to – a historical picaresque following an 1830s cop and his son as they seek to capture a Gypsy and return him to his owner, a rich boyar whose wife has been too free with her favours. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon inspires some of the look and pace of it, and Don Quixote is clearly also a reference, though Cervantes didn’t finish on as gruesomely gripping a high as this does.

 

Theeb (dir: Naji Abu Nowar)

It takes a while for it to sink in, but what we have in Theeb – as we follow the exploits of the youngest son of a Bedouin tribe in the Laurence of Arabia-era desert – is a story straight out of Rider Haggard territory. It’s the sort of ripping adventure that once upon a time emboldened Spielberg and Lucas to make Indiana Jones but is done without a cocked eyebrow here, with genuine danger, tough decisions, cruel fate and a bit of socio-economic background (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire) all adding spice.

 

Mommy (dir: Xavier Dolan)

With Tom at the Farm it became clear that Xavier Dolan was something of a genius. Mommy is further proof, a tough drama about the stumbling relationship of a flaky mother (Anne Dorval), her aggressive, firecracker ADHD teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and their nervous neighbour (Suzanne Clément). It wears its emotions out there on a selfie stick – “fuck off” in this film often means “I love you” – and there are at least two scenes so powerful you might have to remind yourself to breathe.

 

 

 

Honourable Mentions

 

Victoria Almeida in What's Left of Us
Victoria Almeida drives the boys crazy in What’s Left of Us

 

 

Appropriate Behaviour (dir: Desiree Akhavan)

The life and times of a second generation Iranian, or of a confused bisexual, or of a girl in the big city, or of a struggling 20something – Desiree Akhavan gets it all just right in this through-the-fingers New York comedy.

 

Maps to the Stars (dir: David Cronenberg)

Still Alice won her the acting accolades, but Julianne Moore is actually better in this return to nightmarishness for David Cronenberg, as a fading star and member of a family for whom the term fucked really doesn’t cover it. The Player meets Sunset Boulevard.

 

Life After Beth (dir: Jeff Baena)

Aubrey Plaza gives it her absolute all as a newly dead zombie trying to have a relationship with old boyfriend Dane DeHaan – who finds her a whole lot more into him than she used to be – in a genuinely inventive comedy made all the better by the presence of John C Reilly and Molly Shannon as Plaza’s concerned parents. Dead funny.

The Tribe (dir: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Shot entirely in Lithuanian sign language, acted by first-timers and set in a school for the deaf where a new boy finds that the descriptor “sex and violence” barely covers what’s going on, this film sounds like a stunt – and it obviously is to some extent – but it’s a stunt that works. And the lack of dialogue is no bar to understanding when emotion this direct and action this unambiguous is concerned.

The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)

There’s a touch of The Innocents in this highly atmospheric Aussie horror about a mother driven to desperation by her needy child. Or is it the child we need to feel worried for? Sure, it goes slack in the middle, and becomes over-focused on telling us that writer/director Jennifer Kent has seen a whole load of old horror movies, but wait for the finale – barking, scary and brilliant.

 

The Book of Life (dir: Jorge R Gutierrez)

A Mexican flavoured animation with a Day of the Dead theme and a plot with a distinct Orpheus and Eurydice flavour – she’s dead and he goes after her into the underworld (ish). The visuals are spaghetti western meets Ren and Stimpy, the songs are jaunty and mariachi-flavoured and the voicework (Ice Cube in particular) is exemplary.

 

Pictures of the Old World (dir: Dusan Hanák)

“The best Slovak film ever made”, the reputation of Dusan Hanák’s disarmingly simple documentary from the early 1970s – about the dirt poor lives of ancient peasants up in the back of beyond – is entirely deserved. “I’m going to die this year, I can feel it,” says one old timer. And that’s what it’s about – quite starkly. Death.

 

Two Night Stand (dir: Max Nichols)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, It Happened One Night and The Dick Van Dyke Show are all in the mix in this subversive comedy about a girl (Analeigh Tipton) who has hook-up sex with a stranger (Miles Teller) and then gets stuck in his apartment. Old-school screwball romance follows, charmingly, smartly and at speed.

 

Predestination (dir: Michael and Peter Spierig)

Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi story All You Zombies provides the backbone for the Spierig brothers’ follow-up to the similarly idea-crammed Daybreakers, a “guy walks into a bar” tale of a hermaphrodite (Sarah Snook) who walks into Ethan Hawke’s bar and tells him a story about time travel and the paradoxes that erupt from it. Refreshingly hard sci-fi.

 

Frequencies aka OXV: The Manual (dir: Darren Paul Fisher)

Strip away the romance and what is human courtship about? Status, clearly, according to this lo-fi, highly fascinating film about “what happens when a high frequency meets a low frequency” – hot, smart girl meets average guy, in other words. It’s patchily acted and a bit speechy towards the end, but there are enough ideas in this bizarre film for about 12 Hollywood blockbusters.

Turned towards the Sun (dir: Greg Olliver)

A simple and revelatory documentary about 90-something poet and Second World War hero Micky Burn, a long-form visual version of a Daily Telegraph obituary whose power lies in the richness of Burn’s Zelig-like life. He was – just one for-instance – the guy in the secret radio room at Colditz.

 

What’s Left of Us aka El Desierto (dir: Christoph Behl)

A simple but powerful Argentinian zombie movie about a girl, a boy and another boy all locked up together in a house while the world goes to hell in a handcart outside. And inside, it turns out, once sexual dynamics and the fallout of a fetid love triangle start to exert themselves. Victoria Almeida is a powerful and provocative lead, the sexy counterweight to the hothouse atmosphere of death.

 

Tusk (dir: Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith reminds us how good he can be with a film about a guy (Justin Long) being turned into a walrus by a demented surgeon (Michael Parks) while his much-cheated-on girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) searches for him. A simple film, it somehow manages to be funny and appallingly gruesome at the same time.

 

Face of an Angel (dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Michael Winterbottom’s drama takes the bones of the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case and constructs a brilliant meditation on the modus operandi of the media, as well as a modern-day Dante and Beatrice tale in which film-maker Daniel Brühl is smitten by virginal Cara Delevingne, as anyone watching probably will be too.

 

While We’re Young (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Not-as-young-as-they-once-were couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts try to keep up with hipsters Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried in a very Jewish New York comedy – smart, dry, a touch bitter – about the importance of being not just true to yourself, but of doing this absolutely and totally properly.

White God aka Fehér Isten (dir: Kornél Mudruczó)

Kicking off with a quote by Rilke, this unique Hungarian film is like a Disney animal flick about the adventures of a mongrel, except done as existential sci-fi – what exactly would happen if dogs had the same degree of consciousness that humans have?

 

The Salvation (dir: Kristian Levring)

Director Kristian Levring used to be a Dogme man, but shouts “I’m so over all that now” with this remarkable western that’s like a fusion of Sergio Leone, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich, with a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen as a Clint Eastwood-alike quester after vengeance. If looks could kill…

 

Run All Night (dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)

Another of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners, though this time he’s back with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a deliberately retro dash for the finish in which strong, silent Neeson takes on the good guys, the bad guys and eventually the whole of New York. Hugely overwrought, entirely satisfying, it’s genre done properly.

 

Still the Water aka Tutatsume no mado (dir: Naomi Kawase)

If Douglas Sirk had been Japanese he might have come up with this overheated love story about teenage lovers hedging towards full penetrative sex as the waves crash, storms rage and their families conspire against them. Leisurely, beautiful, lusty and lovely, an unusual mix of the entirely natural and the gigantically metaphorical.

 

Phoenix (dir: Christian Petzold)

The latest of a string of dark, intelligent films that director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss have made together is a revenge drama set in the aftermath of the Second World War where Hoss, just released from a death camp, is recruited by her own husband to play his dead wife – he doesn’t recognise her, obviously – and she plays along. Oh deary deary me.

Marshland aka La Isla Mínima (dir: Alberto Rodriguez)

Stunningly good-looking policier about an ageing Franco-supporting cop and his younger more democratic sidekick investigating a murder out in the photogenic Guadalquivir marshes in 1980. Brilliantly acted and shot, with locations and music to match, it’s even got does a car chase in an entirely new way. Did I mention how good it looks?

 

Little Accidents (dir: Sara Colangelo)

Old school 1970s-style humane ensemble drama with a standout Boyd Holbrook as a survivor of a terrible mining disaster whose testimony about the event at an upcoming hearing are going to decide the futures of a whole lot of people in town. An ambling drawl of a movie, with Elizabeth Banks and Jacob Lofland almost as good as Holbrook, surely a star of 2016.

Turbo Kid (dir: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell)

Utterly on-the-nail pastiche of 1980s straight-to-VHS movie-making, a post-apocalyptic Total Recall meets Mad Max story of a BMX-riding kid, called Kid, gaining special powers, falling for a special girl (a special Laurence Leboeuf) and saving the world. Funny and gory, with in-jokes for nerds, and a fabulous John Carpenter-like soundtrack by Le Matos.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir: George Miller)

Pedal-to-the-metal furious punk-funk madness, with a barely speaking Tom Hardy as Max, the road warrior on the road with badass Charlize Theron (the film’s real star) while director George Miller obsessively choreographs the relentless chase/action mayhem around them.

 

Tomorrowland (dir: Brad Bird)

Whatever happened to the futurism of jet packs and flying cars? Brad Bird answers the question with jaw-dropping visuals in a modern-day Wizard of Oz quest-adventure coolly received by critics with ass/elbow disassociation disorder.

 

Cop Car (dir: Jon Watts)

Another of those great Kevin Bacon movies he comes up with every few years, with our guy as a really bad cop on the trail of a couple of kids who have nicked his car, unaware there’s something in the boot they really don’t want to be discovering. A high-concept B movie of real distinction, lean, simple and with smart, believable dialogue, especially for the kids.

 

Palio (dir: Cosima Spender)

A remarkable documentary about the Palio, a horse race run in Siena, Italy, twice a year, which takes such pains to introduce us to its characters – chiefly, the young buck hoping to steal the grizzled champion’s crown – that when the race kicks off, you’re really in the medieval square with the riders.

Minions (dir: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin)

After the boring Despicable Me 2, who’d have thought that a spin-off – the backstory of Gru’s little yellow helpers – would have worked this well. Brilliantly animated and written, it’s a breathless, idea-packed, funny, inventive animated comedy.

 

I Believe in Miracles (dir: Jonny Owen)

Even if you have no interest in the 1970s, or British football, or managerial legend Brian Clough, this documentary about his astonishing success and idiosyncratic style will have you hooked. “The most charismatic man I ever met,” says one former player, part of the team of underdogs he willed to European Cup success, twice.

 

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

8 June 2015-06-08

Mark Stanley as a soldier in a minefield in Kajaki

 

Out This Week

 

 

Kajaki (Spirit, cert 15)

To find a really good, really British war film (so, no, not Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, both of which are over-rated) you have to go back a very very long way. Or watch Kajaki, which is out right now.

It’s a simple, brutal and unflinching portrait of the gruesomeness of war, the camaraderie of the fighters and the raw bravery in the face of sheer terror which extreme situations reveal. Told with the straightahead simplicity and bleach-bright looks that bring to mind Ice Cold in Alex, it follows a detail of British soldiers from 3 Para as they venture into a minefield to rescue one of their number, who has had his leg blown to rags after stepping onto an IED.

Tom Williams’s script catches the “stop staring at me arse, ya throbber” casual and relentless homophobia of the men, the utter boredom when nothing’s going on, the kicking-in of training and protocol once it’s action stations. Director Paul Katis screws the tension to breaking point and keeps it there, using the pitiless glare of the sun to make the point that even without bombs underfoot, these men are in a place that will kill them in short order anyway.

I could go on, about how the homophobic banter makes sense when the men’s backs are to the wall, how heroism doesn’t look any less heroic when it’s also stupid, how the brave aren’t necessarily the best looking, and how they don’t necessarily get rewarded for it, but that would be to ruin a great film that at only one moment – and I put it down to an acting wobble (the unknown-to-me cast are generally excellent) – seemed film-y. Best plonk yourself down and engage with it.

Kajaki – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jauja (Soda, cert 15)

Coming out of Jauja (pronounced How-ha, in the Spanish way) – an in many ways simple film about a Danish-speaking father looking, The Searchers style, for the daughter who’s absconded with a handsome young soldier – was a real “what the hell was that about?” moment.

It’s set in 1890s South America, so director Lisandro Alonso’s decision to shoot it in 4:3 format, and with rounded frame edges clearly visible, might be justifiable as a harking back to the silent movies of the time. As might his single lens choice – nothing anamorphic or what have you going on here – a bog-standard piece of glass, with Lisandro staying almost entirely in long and medium shot the whole time. Nor is he moving the camera very much. But he is shooting in colour, so the whole “silent movie” thesis teeters at this point. There’s little dialogue, lots of natural sound, as surveyor Viggo Mortensen, clad in heavy coat and boots in the heat, heads away from the leering, sexually frustrated group of soldiers who have protected him and his lust-object, barely-pubescent daughter, and into the Argentinian version of the Outback, where he undergoes a series of ordeals, often lit in a melodramatic way giving the finger to naturalism, while the terrain gets more desolate and the surreal begins to encroach. Jodorwsky, I put in my notes, with a couple of question marks afterwards.

By the end, as the character Ingeborg is suddenly being addressed by the actress’s name, Villbjørk, you might well be looking around the room with a puzzled look too.

Jauja – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Girls Against Boys (Arrow, cert 15)

Austin Chick keeps threatening to make a great film. In 2002 there was the threeway relationship drama XX/XY, starring Mark Ruffalo as a bedhopping jerk. In 2008, his August was a state-of-the-nation address through the avatar of sexytime jock Josh Hartnett.

Is Girls Against Boys a case of revenge on Chick’s hitherto male-as-protagonist oeuvre? Because it’s a rape-revenge drama that sees poor wee thing Danielle Panabaker taken under the wing of sashaying vixen Nicole LaLiberte as she heads off on some extreme payback for Panabaker’s violation on the stairs of an apartment block.

Chick isn’t sure if this is grindhouse or not. He gets the power tools out at one point and it’s only a matter of time before a samurai sword makes an appearance. But there are also touches of visual poetry – don’t laugh – in Chick’s shooting style. And the way he keeps layering feminism with post-feminism, with lesbianism, and then throws in some Donovan tracks from the 1960s, is almost enough to convince that this isn’t some exploitationer with a college degree.

But exploitationer it is, Chick’s obsessive focusing on Panabaker’s face (beautiful lips, interesting angles) gives the game away. However ideologically muddy Chick tries to make the water, however vengeful the grrrls, the male gaze is all over this one. Nice try though.

Girls Against Boys – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Loft (Signature, cert 15)

There are quite a few “in their wildest dreams” films out this week (see below). First up is a remake by Erik Van Looy of his 2008 Belgian film about a gang of married men whose clandestine shagpad is compromised by the presence of a dead female. Whodunit? One of the guys? One of their wives? The girl herself?

In the fantasies of all concerned at the production/direction end, this is one of those hard-boiled early Neil LaBute dramas – Your Friends and Neighbours, say – crossed with The Usual Suspects. A lot of misogyny and a fair bit of investigative flashback and forward in an attempt to muddy the water more than is strictly necessary. And hide the fact that this is a dialogue driven and very stagey work.

Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet and Matthias Schoenaerts (the only survivor from the original) are the guys, and they’re all just fine. As is the script and set-up – with everyone concerned (mostly original writer Bart De Pauw) making it a cute exercise in the mass distribution of red herrings and in the outing of skeletons from closets. But the whole thing goes on too long, and as each revelation turns out to be something of a feint, the law of escalating melodrama/diminishing returns starts to apply.

The Loft – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Gambler (Paramount, cert 15)

The wildest dream of The Gambler is that it’s a patch on the 1974 original, starring James Caan. Now it’s Mark Wahlberg playing the cynical, possibly suicidal, floridly deadbeat English professor, who whiles away his evenings away from work getting further and further into debt with local bad men. But he can win it all back at the tables, right? Of course he can’t. Or can he?

This sort of cat and mouse goes on for an entire film. William Monahan’s adaptation of the 1974 film shows the same love of verbosity that he brought to Scorsese’s The Departed (you suspect that Monahan thinks the finest dialogue scene ever written was the “You can’t handle the truth” outburst by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, because he seems constantly to be tonally aiming there).

Wahlberg is good in this, which is a shame, really, but even more of a shame is that the film throws away Brie Larson, as one of Wahlberg’s students – we’re told she’s a genius writer, but there is no evidence of any character at all. The girl as catalyst but not agent – how very 1970s (here, Mr Monahan, is where your interference might have helped).

Around these two are a rake of character actors giving it maximum R&B – Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, Richard Schiff (squeezing a few welcome laughs out of his single scene), John Goodman. All are flavoursome and in a less flabby film (one without an added subplot about Wahlberg seconding gifted sports scholar Anthony Kelley to help him with a betting scam) might have added enough grit to gain real traction.

The Gambler – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Trash (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

In Stephen Daldry and Richard Curtis’s drama about rubbish-picking Brazilian favela kids who find a wallet containing enough good stuff to change their futures, the intention is clearly Slumdog meets City of God. But there isn’t a single moment of emotional involvement (Curtis clearly should stick to the rom coms), no “stakes”, as we now say, and Daldry’s decision to shoot the dirt-poor milieu heavily filtrated and beautifully lit entirely undermines his young actors, whose fabulous, loose-limbed, snot-grinned performances are the sole reason to watch.

Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara, clearly on “two days, max” contracts, play a priest and a church volunteer whose purpose in the country makes more sense than their presence in the film. Plot: heretofore-mentioned wallet gets the boys to charge all around the city, and they go to places high and low, pursued by bad men and the law – I can’t remember why – thus offering the armchair viewer a cross-section of a city they’re never likely to visit.

Before watching it, I’d heard a review of this film on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and thought the guest reviewer (Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, I think) was being a bit harsh – the Daldry/Curtis backlash, and all that. Having watched it, I think she was being kind, Daldry’s weakness as an action director only compounding his initial aesthetic gaffe.

But it goes on. There’s a scene where Gardo, the darkest skinned of the boys steals a bag at a train station – up comes the rap music, FFS. “It’s all crap carp carap” my notes state, my fingers doing to the words what Daldry and Curtis have done to the meticulous work of the valiant young actors’ and brilliant technical crew. Trash by name…

Trash – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mortdecai (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Saving the worst till last, the latest stop on Johnny Depp’s descent through Dante’s rings of hell reminds us that he thinks he has a gift for comedy.

Here, taking his cue from the British TV series The Fast Show (on which he once made an almost successful guest appearance), he plays the sort of character who works best at catch-phrase length, a dandified British toff who might be original and funny if we hadn’t had three films from Mike Myers featuring Austin Powers, not to mention 50 years of James Bond spoof.

So, Mortdecai is a secret agent of sorts, has a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow again excruciating as a frigid sex goddess), and an aide-de-campe (Paul Bettany – actually rather good, because he’s putting on a performance, not just messing about in the dressing-up box, Johnny).

Permutate these three through various Bond-ian situations and you about have it. I laughed twice, truth be told, and one time it was Depp who prised the chortle from me, so perhaps I’m being harsh.

Mortdecai’s real problem is its lack of energy – fatal to match British upper class languour in this respect – and the fact that it doesn’t have a very funny script. Why didn’t the producer (one J. Depp) get The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse to do it? As it is Whitehouse just got a couple of cameos. Which was nice.

Mortdecai – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015