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 even 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 is 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!

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2015

9 November 2015-11-09

Saoirse the kelpie goes for a swim


Out This Week



Song of the Sea (StudioCanal, cert PG)

The Irish tricolour is firmly nailed to the mast in the follow-up to Tomm Moore’s animation The Secret of Kells – opening and end credits are in Gaelic – a whimsical tale of a young lad unaware that his dumb younger sister is in fact a kelpie, a mythical sea creature. Moore has set out to do the things with animation that Pixar rarely does, using its possibilities in a more expressive, impressionistic way, recalling Studio Ghibli and Sylvain Chomet, though the resolutely 2D approach also contains echoes of Noggin the Nog and other Smallfilms productions. The story is pure Ghibli though – children, separated from parents, off on an adventure together, in the company of enchanted animals, a quest story that’s simple and easy to digest. The same can’t quite be said for the tendency towards Oirishry – Brendan Gleeson (as lighthouse keeper dad) lays it on thick, to be sure – and there’s that slight tugging suspicion that by recoursing to old legends based in an undisputed ethnicity, Moore is ducking some of the discomforts of multi-cultural identity (part of what might be called the shadowy “ethnic European” tendency of the past decade or so). But while the viewer’s focus is on the animation there’s unlikely to be a quibble, because it is genuinely lovely, free and fluid. The way, for example that the Old English sheepdog accompanying the children will turn into a teardrop when sad, or the way the father’s gigantic protecting hand resembles a large homely ham. I had deep misgivings about The Secret of Kells, and its espousal of the “feel, don’t think” mantra – the Star Wars legacy. Song of the Sea is all about feeling too, but this time with our eyes open, using the evidence of the senses. So, if a kelpie is what your daughter or sister appears to be, you should give consideration to the fact that it might be true. Here endeth the lesson.

Song of the Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Palio (Altitude, cert 12)

From the producers of Senna, the blurb said somewhere, as if that meant anything at all. Except in this case it seems to. Because Palio is a similarly urgent, fascinating documentary, and it combines knowledge about a world most of us know nothing about, with a simple story of an underdog trying to have his day. The world is the Palio, the horse race run in Siena twice a year, in costumes and under conditions that can’t have changed much since the 15th century. And the men are a young buck called Giovanni Atzeni, the protégé of one-time champ Bastiano, and the reigning 13-time king of the course, Bruschelli, a wily, tough ball of gristle whose face betrays his nervousness at the arrival of this upstart, who looks, it must be said, like not much of a threat at all. Maybe Bruschelli’s anxiousness is down to his being a middle-aged man in a young man’s game. And what a game it is – a brutal hurl three times around a track the size and shape of a large city roundabout (albeit one hedged by beautiful Renaissance Italian buildings), at each of whose tight corners horses are likely to skid off, jockey might career into walls, the tangle of horses might collapse in an almighty pile-up of bone and muscle. The whole thing is rigged, in Italian style quite openly, with moneyed jockeys able to pay lesser riders to hold back or obstruct an opponent. And the rules include being able to beat a rivals horse repeatedly across the muzzle with your whip, not to mention punching, kicking, whatever it takes during the race’s brief 90 second-ish duration. Director Cosima Spender carefully gentles us into the world, so that by the time we see the first of the two races, we know exactly who the men are, and how the race is run. I was so gripped it was as if I had backed one of the riders. And then, for the second race (which I initially thought was a bridge too far), she does it again. No knowledge or love of horses or horse racing required.

Palio – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Beatles 1 (Apple, cert E)

Here’s a fairly simple proposition – that Beatles CD of remastered US/UK number ones which came out about 15 years ago, its visual equivalent. The CD sold by the containerload and I suspect this DVD/Blu-ray will too. What you get is the promo vid to each song. But hang on, some will say, weren’t promo vids invented by Queen with Bohemian Rhapsody? No, they weren’t, though the myth persists, largely because of the cannibalistic nature of TV documentary research. Digression over. Here, simply arranged with a simple bright red intertitle card announcing each one, are the hits from 1962’s Love Me Do to 1970’s The Long and Winding Road, the early years mostly composed of black and white TV footage, or promos shot in the studio. These have cleaned up spectacularly, and look great, even though many have clearly used originals from the days of 405-lines TV. When 1966’s Paperback Writer kicks in, shot on colour film, the effect is electric. If you like the Beatles, you’ll already have a favourite. If you don’t, you might be surprised to note how tight the band is, how driving Ringo’s drumming is on Day Tripper, those uncanny and unique harmonies that Lennon and McCartney were so adept at in the early days, and how we’re witnessing the invention of the modern world of lifestyle as we watch four lads initially presented as working lads, banging away on their instruments, straining for the high notes. By the later promos, they’re just, you know, hanging out. The second disc contains the B reel material, which hasn’t been subjected to same fanatical level of restoration.

The Beatles 1 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Brand: A Second Coming (Metrodome, cert 15)

The last film I saw by Ondi Timoner was 2009’s We Live in Public, her exhaustive and fascinating documentary about Josh Harris, one of the first wave of internet entrepreneurs. Compared to Harris, Russell Brand is nowhere near as interesting, though there’s obviously mileage in the story of a comedian/junkie whose ADHD restlessness has driven him towards politics – fame is the lure, we’re led to believe, as it possibly was when Brand embarked on a Hollywood career, or married Katy Perry. The film divides into two halves – the story so far (in brief: raised by his mum, abandoned by his spitting-image cheeky-chappie dad, who took him to hooker parties when Russell was 16, an early show-off, a self-starting stand-up who played to empty rooms, early success, total drugs flame-out, rehab, Sachsgate etc etc). Then it’s on to where he is now, a political conversion prompted by a Comic Relief visit to Africa, where he spent some time with Kenyan kids who sorted rubbish on a gigantic festering dump. This ultimately led him to write his book, Revolution, which he understands will ostracise him from the very media who made him. “I’ve got a limited life now, using the machinery of my old life to promote my new life,” he says, astutely, before blowing into some US TV daytime news show and completely dominating it like a circus ringmaster or music-hall MC – the styles of entertainer he most closely resembles. At some level Brand is a dreadful foghorn of a man. But he’s a useful foghorn – at the GQ Man of the Year awards when he pointed out that one of its sponsors was Hugo Boss, who made uniforms for the Nazis, he made clear the reacharound relationship of the media and big business. It’s a free media, as we’re often told, but it’s their free media. In the same way Brand is “a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”, he yodels to a crowd at one of his shows, a mix of comedy and consciousness-raising that situates Brand in the line of Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. We see Brand hashing out the relationship between fame and integrity with Katy Perry (while they were married), with Stephen Merchant, David Lynch and Mike Tyson. Apart from his honesty about his dishonesty, it’s this boundary-crossing restlessness that is the most interesting aspect of the man, why he’s so derided in some quarters (for getting involved in the New Era housing demonstrations in East London, for example) and written off in others. Jeremy Paxman, who snottily interviewed him on TV, reckons that when it comes to politics “he’s divined something that people feel”. And he’s right, something’s is amiss with politics right now, and neither left nor right (nor even those labels) can fix it. “Don’t follow him, for god’s sake,” laughs one of Brand’s friends in this fascinating documentary with a tendency, like Brand, to ramble. The friend is probably right.

Brand: A Second Coming – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Technotise: Edit & I (Simply, cert 15)

A mix of the glorious and the not so great, this grungy animation from Serbia – an event in itself – is like an episode of Scooby Doo as written by a rogue team of escapees from 2000AD comics. It’s obsessed with war, fixated on pneumatic female breasts and centres on a hot female student on a Alice-like Wonderland quest (after having a memory chip implanted to help her pass exams) in Belgrade in 2074. Slobodan Milosevic turns up in a flashback, and there’s the lingering suspicion that the whole thing is in fact an allegory about the recent Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian nastiness. A feeling reinforced by the distinctly retro look of some of the hover-vehicles. Is that a Trabant? The animation is tasty though, in the way it shifts perspectives in a highly dynamic way, and its use of expressionism to convey inner thoughts sets it in a distinctly European animation tradition, a welcome change from the pursuit of realism which Pixar and wannabes seem to be on. Take an E and watch it – if the title weren’t clue enough, it is all a bit 90s.

Technotise: Edit & I – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Self/less (EV, cert 12)

Tarsem Singh is a bloody good lighting cameraman who should never have been given a directing gig. After The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror Mirror – all dire – he returns with his latest go at film-making with an in-theory-fascinating story about a billionaire buying a young man’s body. Ben Kingsley is the mortally ill billionaire, Ryan Reynolds the young man, an empty vessel who has been grown in a hydroponic tank and is lying there ready to be personated. Personised? Of course, it turns out that the whole “grown in a tank” story is bollocks and in fact Reynolds is a mind-wiped real person with a history and everything, which the billionaire, now inhabiting the limber body, sets out to find. Hang on, you might think at this point, why is a mega-rich man who has shown not the beginnings of an interest in humanity suddenly discovering a soul at this point? Has his brush with death humanised him? Or his proximity to someone else’s more virtuous – because simple and poor – existence? Singh allows Reynolds to give us no clue. Instead, after some fun scenes in which the old/young man – in superhero-first-discovering-powers style – puts his new bod through its paces (sex and fast cars), it seems cointent to devolve into a basic running/shooting chase thriller. Singh is a wood/trees director. Individual scenes are fine – a car chase here, some action there, a lot of Apple product placement pretty much everywhere. But he’s no idea how to weld things into a whole. Nor has he any idea where the drama in any given scene is, or should be. In one tiny, emblematic moment, we see a car driving into a gas station, an establishing shot which takes Singh about eight edits, of which seven are unnecessary. And, for all its neatness of concept, great looks, occasional action highlight, fine acting, choice locations, and so on, that’s the story of the whole film – flabby. Cut out half an hour and we might be getting somewhere. Another Tarsem Singh movie is already in development. Please God.

Self/less – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2015