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

 

9 February 2015-02-09

Luke Evans as Vlad the Impaler in Dracula Untold

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Dracula Untold (Universe, cert 15)

Dracula gets the superhero treatment, bagging an origin story that places him somewhere between Batman and Superman – Batman’s damaged psyche (the Turks want to take his son) and Superman’s special powers (thanks to a “gift” from an ancient cursed beast that lives in a dark cave). It’s the story of the 15th century Romanian/Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler, not such a bad guy if you ask many an East European, who claim he was more bark than bite, a sentiment this film largely goes along with, until his mwah-ha-ha transformation, at least. Shot in Northern Ireland and with Game of Thrones looks, it stars Luke Evans as the enlightened humanist Vlad and Sarah Gadon as his wife, a Hammer Horror female modelled on Ingrid Pitt. For the baddies there’s Dominic Cooper looking splendidly plush as Mehmed the Turk, whose Janissary army wants Vlad’s son – more as a token of his fealty than for the son’s contribution to any war effort. This is the incident that prompts Vlad to resort to desperate measures, his visit to the beast in the cave, his “temporary” adoption of supernatural strength, speed, shapeshifting and the rest of the vampire panoply. It’s a maddening film, dabbling in incendiary ideas – Islamic threat, the notion of Christianity as a playground fantasy – and then dropping them as soon as it’s picked them up. But once it’s got its giant slabs of exposition out of the way in early scenes, it settles down to being a sumptuous period drama – the costumes are particularly ravishing – with some effective battle scenes. Top marks to Charles Dance, as the aged master vampire (or whatever he is), a properly sinister presence the film could really do with more of.

Dracula Untold – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Palo Alto (Metrodome, cert 15)

Gia is the latest Coppola to take up directing (she’s the grand-daughter of Francis) and she’s opted for a subject and treatment not unlike her cousin Sofia’s feature debut, The Virgin Suicides. Fairly bored rich suburban kids getting into trouble, in other words. Looking back at The Virgin Suicides, Sofia managed to draft in James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito while rising stars Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett added youthful vigour. Gia has gone for an approach that fuses name and youth – this cast is full of Hollywood siblings, Jack (son of Val) Kilmer, Emma (niece of Julia) Roberts, Christian (son of Michael) Madsen. There are more. It’s a bit of a stunt, this casting, but in the case of the two leads it works really well, Jack Kilmer and Emma Roberts playing likeable teenagers of the drink-puke-screw variety who really should be together but callow youth and other distractions keep getting in the way. The whole thing is based on short Cheever-esque stories by James Franco, who takes an effective supporting role as the charming but skanky football teacher with an eye on young Emma. There’s a strong sense that we’ve seen all this before, but Coppola handles it all well, gets good performances out of her cast and crew and manages a couple of directorly touches just to show the film’s not using the “classic 1970s director” preset on some iDirect software. It’s a warm-up for the next stage of her career, and not a bad one.

Palo Alto – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

What If (E One, cert 15)

Does anyone want to see Daniel Radcliffe as a romantic lead? I honestly doubt it, but there are a few “aahs” to be had from this romcom co-starring Zoe Kazan – and thank god it does. It’s the boy-meets-girl-but-she’s-already-got-a-boyfriend story which asks the question – can a man and a woman just be friends? When Harry Met Zoe, you could say (Harry Potter? Zoe Kazan? OK, OK). Prompting a lot of mooning about on Radcliffe’s part, the grammar nerd called Wallace who meets witty wallflower Chantry at some party that’s otherwise full of woo-hoo jocks and cheerleaders, and then meets her man (Rafe Spall, very funny), who warns our bijou hero that he’d “better not try and put your penis into her vagina”. And the screenplay drops little wit-bombs like this to keep us awake while it engineers the two “friends” into positions where, yes, he might consider doing just that. But Wallace is a decent guy, and Chantry is a decent girl and, no, this wasn’t setting me on fire either. But it is a nice film, if that isn’t too wet an adjective, gentle and periodically funny, even if it’s so self-effacing, like Wallace’s character, that you want to give it a slap.

What If – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Maze Runner (Fox, cert 12)

Another contender for the YA movie crown, this one set in a vast volcanic crater where young men live together in Lord of the Flies fashion until it comes their turn to run into the a deadly maze alive with murderous beasties. Or have I got that wrong and the young man who eventually does run into the maze does so against orders? I really can’t remember that well, and I think it’s the fault of the film, rather than my memory, because what The Maze Runner actually seems to consist of is a series of confrontations between our rebel hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of the lads. They are to varying degrees happy to live in this zoo and accept its strictures; he’d rather live in the free world, the jungle. It is at base another Ayn Rand screed against over-powerful government, though big ideas are a mere pretext for its true ambition – to divert some of those Hunger Games dollars its way. But it’s undeniably done well, with energy and a good cast – Dylan O’Brien a believable hero, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter standing against him, Kaya Scodelario (styled to look like Kristen Stewart) as token and largely pointless girl. More on the way.

The Maze Runner– Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Life after Beth (Koch, cert 15)

A cross between Warm Bodies and Shaun of the Dead, Life after Beth is a sharply written zom-com with lots of jokes and a great cast – Dane DeHaan as the grief-stricken guy who is overjoyed to discover that his dead girlfriend Aubrey Plaza isn’t quite as dead as she at first appeared. And what’s more she seems to like him a lot more passionately than she did when properly alive. Set, like Shaun of the Dead, in a well drawn stultifying suburbia, it derives much of its humour from that same disjunction, between the bland everyday and the bizarro, but also from its mode of delivery, which is Australian daytime soap – “She’s a zombie?”, rising inflection, says DeHaan to Plaza’s parents (John C Reilly, Molly Shannon, both straight-faced throughout). Aubrey Plaza throws herself into the role as the young woman who doesn’t actually realise she’s a zombie, who shouts “shut up you bitch” at DeHaan, licks his face and rubs her nethers into his groin to try and get him to fuck her. There’s nothing hornier than a freshly dead zombie, it seems. These little bits of lore – she is also immensely soothed by smooth jazz – sit nicely against the slew of Jewish zombie jokes that writer/director Jeff Baena gets off his chest as more of the undead return from the grave – “What happened to all the Formica” says one member of the walking dead on returning to the house that used to be her home. Very funny, highly inventive. Highly recommended.

Life after Beth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Enemy (Curzon, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal reteams with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve for a paranoid arthouse melodrama about a lecturer who becomes fixated on an actor who looks exactly like him. Exactly exactly. So the lecturer seeks out the actor and it all kicks off. More plot description than this would ruin a very plot driven film, but of course at one point person A is going to pretend to be person B – you’d feel shortchanged if he didn’t. But will one kill the other? Take his wife? Assume his life permanently? Effect some massive swindle-switch? Watch and see, enjoying on the way Villeneuve’s nods to Hitchcock’s “innocent man” theme and his conjuring of a mood that’s about 50 per cent David Lynch, spiced with elegant visuals and a haunting soundtrack that are on their own a joy to behold.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Overnighters (Dogwoof, cert E)

The Overnighters gets a bad case of Capturing the Friedmans towards the end, as it tries to produce a gotcha ending that changes the entire nature of the film. It doesn’t quite work and sits uneasily on what has been a fascinating documentary about a Lutheran pastor who is trying to give shelter to the many incoming males who are turning up in his North Dakota town hoping to pick up work locally in the fracking industry. Jay Reinke is a nervous, righteous and perhaps a touch self-righteous man who is standing alone against his entire town, who really don’t want him to be helping the homeless – “they have no intention of building anything,” says one stone-faced member of his congregation. “These people, they rape, pillage and burn and then they leave.” Another puts it differently – “This is not my home any more.” And there you have it, the illegitimate fear-mongering and the legitimate regret, the negative reaction to immigrants the world over. Most of the immigrants are skill-less blue-collar men in late middle age who are having one last go at making it after a life of failure and regret, and watching Reinke trying to hold back the townsfolks’ negativity (and his family’s veiled hostility) while pleading with the overnighters to keep their heads down and noses clean is what makes this admittedly overlong film such gripping, if often grim, viewing.

The Overnighters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015