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

 

2 February 2015-02-02

Rosamund PIke and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Gone Girl (Fox, cert 18)

Authors are often not the best adapters of their own work for the screen, because they’re too close to the original – Norah Ephron’s Heartburn (a novel and film about her disintegrating marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein) being the classic example. But Gillian Flynn does an impressive job turning her smash novel into a big screen property, keeping most of the plot curlicues, and maintaining for as long as possible the “did he/didn’t he” structure. Ben Affleck plays the husband painted by every shred of evidence turned up by the police as the murderer of his disappeared high-maintenance wife (Rosamund Pike). It’s another example of solid, heavily procedural glossy film-making by director David Fincher – who has been doing this sort of thing well since Seven at least (The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also rely on Fincher’s adeptness at procedure). “Solid” might seem a bit flimsy as an adjective of praise, but it’s the solidity in every quarter that stands out – Affleck and Pike’s performance, as well as those of Neil Patrick Harris (as a creepy former beau of the “gone girl”), Tyler Perry (as the hotshot lawyer the husband hires to save his skin). Other little enjoyments include the fact that the women are almost always smarter than the men, though not necessarily nicer, and that guilt and innocence increasingly become a matter of media perception, outflanking facts and the workings of the legal system.

Gone Girl – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Maps to the Stars (E One, cert 18)

After the period drama A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg returned to social satire with Cosmopolis, but Maps to the Stars feels much more like the Cronenberg of old compared to that filigree chamber piece. The King of Venereal horror is what they used to call him and there’s plenty of venereal action going on in this drama, mostly courtesy of Julianne Moore as the fading Hollywood star crashing her career towards oblivion. Though the film is more about the super-dysfunctional family of her masseur, played by John Cusack – his appalling child-star son (Evan Bird), his deranged daughter (Mia Wasikowska), his fragile bird partner (Olivia Williams). Creepiness is the overall tone and chilliness is the emotional temperature – you don’t come to a Cronenberg film hoping for characters to warm to or identify with. It’s grand guignol stuff, in other words, with Cronenberg reminding us that he was David Lynch before David Lynch was David Lynch. And if it never quite attains Sunset Boulevard levels of blackness in terms of what it actually says about Hollywood, Bruce Wagner’s script has some jaw-dropping dialogue reflecting the sociopathic solipsism of its characters and there are moments of genuine yuck that will stick with you. Again, Julianne Moore – give that woman a gong.

Maps to the Stars – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

In Order of Disappearance (Metrodome, cert 15)

Great title, hugely entertaining film, a Norwegian/Swedish co-production borrowing heavily from Mr Tarantino, and starring Stellan Skarsgård as a snowplough driver who goes on a payback rampage after his son is killed – but coolly, methodically, as you’d expect from someone who is used to keeping his vehicle on top of an icy road. The hunt rattling the nests of two gangsters – the prissy loquacious vegan known as the count (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), whose henchmen are constantly exchanging glances behind his back (highly amusing) and the gruff aged and much scarier Serbian mobster known as Papa (Bruno Ganz) who says very little at all. Both men brilliantly cast. Director Hans Petter Molland and DP Philip Øgaard have opted for a bright, clean and sharp shooting style in keeping with the crisp, snow-stacked rural Norwegian locations, this crystalline look butting heads with some highly rococo deaths. I see that Roy Andersson, director of such oddities as You, The Living and Songs from the Second Floor, has a producer credit, which might partly explain the film’s straight faced whackness, and if it at times is a little too in hock to Mr T, it does at least channel the man with wit. Such as the scene where a couple of Serbian gangsters are having a time-killing conversation in a car, discussing the merits of Norwegian prisons – the “warm food” and “no rapes” getting the matter-of-fact thumbs up.

In Order of Disappearance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Rewrite (Lionsgate, cert 12)

If you’ve ever seen Hugh Grant being interviewed you’ll have worked out that he isn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm for the acting thing, is cool about making movies and seems to particularly hate doing the publicity round. And instead of stretching himself – his appearances in Cloud Atlas perhaps notwithstanding –  he prefers to stay locked into the persona that arrived fully formed with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s a long way from being Britain’s hottest actor these days, yet the surprising thing about Grant is that his films remain, you know, OK. Here’s a case in point, a typically Hugh romcom in which Grant plays the cynical beaten screenwriter who winds up at a university teaching students who hang on his every word, though he himself doesn’t believe writing can be taught and is disdainful of anything that doesn’t come with instructions for undressing. The arc is obviously Hugh Redeemed, and the agent if not angel of redemption is Marisa Tomei, in another of those perky everygirl roles in which she’s smiley and smart, as the one mature student to somehow slip onto the old curmudgeon’s course. Expect not very much and you might laugh out loud, as I did – Grant can still deliver a line like almost no one else, is a master of interaction, and has geniuses of the craft to interact with – Alison Janney and JK Simmons, as faculty members. For those who remember Leslie Phillips “ding dong” comedies, this is essentially one of those, with Simmons as the amiable friend and Janney as James Robertson Justice in a skirt. It’s the fourth collaboration between Grant and Marc Lawrence (they previously did Two Weeks Notice, Music & Lyrics and Did You Hear about the Morgans) and Grant clearly feels comfortable with the writer/director. But he’s getting on a bit now and his romcom shtick is going to start looking creepy pretty soon, as he moves through his 50s. This is a funny, enjoyable film. But for Hugh it’s time for a rewrite of his own.

The Rewrite – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Violette (Soda, cert 15)

Biopics about artists of any sort are generally underwhelming, but about writers particularly so. This one about Violette Leduc isn’t, and that’s because co-writer/director Martin Provost also uses it as a way of casting sidelong glances at a group who continue to fascinate – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Genet and so on. Actually, Sartre doesn’t appear at all, is merely referred to (even more sidelong) but Simone de Beauvoir features heavily once the belittled, abused and ferociously ugly (Leduc’s view of herself) Violette has shed a spare man, embraced her bisexuality, learned to trust her judgment when it comes to writing and gradually been accepted by the post-War Parisian boho community she aspires to be part of. Provost gets the period look right – dark, muted colours, clothes designed to keep people warm in underheated houses, hairstyles that don’t need washing too often – and plaudits to production designer Thierry François for making not one bit of it assert itself. Everything is where it is because that is where it is meant to be. But at the heart of the film is a compare-and-contrast of two entirely different women – Leduc the homely, unkempt, unravelling and unthreatening; de Beauvoir the patrician, sleek, high tone and severe, with both Emmanuelle Devos and Sandrine Kiberlain excellent as Leduc and de Beauvoir. It’s the second “outsider” artist film by Provost, and if you haven’t seen Séraphine, about primitive painter Séraphine de Senlis, and enjoy this, then you probably should.

Violette – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Face of Love (Signature, cert 15)

A woman much in love with her husband of 30 years is bereft when he dies. Then, five years later she espies his exact spitting image and, against her better judgment, tracks down the man and sets out to woo him. Annette Bening and Ed Harris are the duo (Harris playing both the dead and the new man) and their names ought to be some guarantee of quality, you’d have thought. But there’s a tastefulness and restraint to this drama that holds it back – he’s a painter, she’s a friend of the local museum, don’t ya know. What The Face of Love needs to understand is that it’s a yodelling 1940s melodrama, rather than a deep psychological study, a treatise on grief, or some such. Symptomatic is Robin Williams as the widower neighbour of Bening who carries a torch for her, a character so underwritten he could be excised entirely without making any difference to the film.

The Face of Love – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ganja & Hess (Eureka, cert 18)

Cult auteur Bill Gunn’s unique, beautifully composed 1973 drama was financed by a production company expecting a blaxploitation movie to feed off the success of 1972’s Blacula. Instead Gunn gave them a film that faces entirely the other way – not to the urban, “I’m black and I’m proud” self-imposed apartheid of the time, but to an entirely different version of blackness, one that positions black people as people first, black second. That’s not to say Gunn is denying blackness – there’s African chant, gospel and blues on the soundtrack – but his key character, Dr Hess Green, the anthropologist who has picked up the thirst for blood while researching African tribal customs, speaks standard English, listens to string quartets and has old masters on his walls. He’s a citizen of the world. Shall I tell you the plot? I don’t think so: you just need to know that the other person in the title, Ganja (frequent Gunn collaborator Marlene Clark), is a haughty beautiful woman who will have a severe impact on this latterday, supercool (though not superfly) Dracula (Duane Jones, star of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), and that Sam Waymon (brother of Nina Simone) plays the chauffeur and also supplies the excellent gospel singing. And also that the word “vampire” is not mentioned once and there are only a couple of blink-and-miss-em blood-drinking moments. This is not for gorehounds.

A note about the picture: there’s a hair in the gate in the opening scene and it conjures the very worst “uh ohs”. But get past that, the early 1970s use of rapid zoom, and the intense grain of the image (it’s shot on 16mm, though I’d readily believe anyone who told me it was Super 8) and it’s obvious that Gunn has an artist’s eye for composition and a natural editor’s feel for the rhythm of a scene. It’s so good, in fact, that I wondered whether there wasn’t a business opportunity for someone to do a shot-for-shot remake on better film stock. Then I discovered Spike Lee just has (called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, apparently). Much much more than just a historical curio, this restoration is a complete eye-opener, a fascinating, enjoyable film, a one-off and something of a classic.

Ganja & Hess – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015