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

 

13 April 2015-04-13

Laurence Fishburne and Lin Shaye meet

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Signal (E One, cert 15)

An underrated sci-fi adventure about three young hacktivists who are abducted by aliens and then wake up in a clinical facility where Laurence Fishburne and co – all in hazmat suits – are looking after them. We arrive at the facility about 15 minutes in to the film, so I haven’t given away much of the plot, which uses tropes of Close Encounters, The Matrix and Vincent Natali’s Cube to great effect. Director William Eubank ties it all together with clean and precise direction of his stars (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cook, Beau Knapp), and the Mogwai-meets-Wendy Carlos soundtrack by Nima Fakhrara lifts it yet another notch. If I were being picky I’d say it moves from the “getting to know you” first act to the “let’s get out of here” third act with not very much actual development – plot or character – in between. But this time it’s forgivable, because this is a good story well told, with a sparing use of special effects which, when they hit, have a neutron-bomb precision and effect. Ignore whatever else you’ve read about this – some people only wake up when Tom Cruise or Marvel or DC are involved in something – it’s very well worth checking out.

Full review here.

The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

What We Do in the Shadows (Metrodome, cert 15)

Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement takes on the vampire genre, rescuing it from the damp grasp of the Twihards etc and lighting a fire under its cape. Feeling like a series of sketches just about held together by a loose narrative, the action follows a group of undead bloodsuckers who house-share in New Zealand, who go out together in the evening to clubs, where one night they meet and befriend a human, whom they decide not to eat/drink/kill/whatever. That’s it in terms of plot, enough to link the various jokes together, which involve one or other of the vampires, who handily represent most manifestations of the type – one’s a pale, shivering Nosferatu (called Peter), another a Vlad the Impaler, another knits rather camply, and so on. And when these jokes threaten to pall, Clement and co-writer/director/star Taika Waititi brings in the werewolves, the big joke here being that the antipathy between the two groups (Twilight again, but also Underworld) is essentially schoolyard yah-boo stuff. This allows Rhys Darby to utter the film’s funniest line, which I won’t ruin by repeating. It’s a very funny film, and even though it feels like it’s about grind to a halt at any second, it never does.

What We Do in the Shadows – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Snow in Paradise (Curzon, cert 15)

The snow is in fact cocaine, half-inched by cadet criminal Dave right at the start of this geezer drama, the ramifications of which echo right to the end. No, the world doesn’t need another London criminal drama, but this one punches well above its weight. That’s largely because of Frederick Schmidt’s tough yet tender playing of Dave – a star is born, surely – because the film has a plot which uses Muslims as an interesting, atypical (these day) spiritual counterweight to the venality out in the big bad world, because director Andrew Hulme impressionistically locates us in Dave’s head as his life goes from shit to bust, and because of Kevin Pollard’s heavily jazz tinged soundtrack. It’s not your typical geezer pleaser, in other words, as if Hulme has set out to make an anti-Guy Ritchie film, and succeeded.

Snow in Paradise – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Kon-Tiki (Soda, cert 15)

Destined for release in 2012, this Norwegian adventure about the making of national hero Thor Heyerdahl has taken a while to hit any sort of screen. And halfway through, as directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg give us an overhead shot of a whale shark cruising menacingly beneath his balsa wood boat, you understand why – 2012 was the year of Life of Pi. Heyerdahl’s adventure used to be the stuff of childhood mythologies – how this Norwegian anthropologist set out to prove that the Polynesians had crossed the Pacific using Palaeolithic technology – and it lends itself to a big screen treatment. All those handsome blond men, the blue sea, the sun, big marine beasts, phosphorescence, flying fish, epic storms, desertlike calms and so on, all the paraphernalia of the ocean-going adventure. And it is adventurous, even if the budget doesn’t quite stretch to the sort of period accuracy we now demand – especially in the early, money-raising sequences in a supposedly 1940s New York – and even if some of the actual adventurers, especially as they start to disappear behind variously ginger beards, become interchangeable.

Kon-Tiki – Watch it/ buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Predestination (Signature, cert 15)

A few years ago Ethan Hawke made Daybreakers with the Aussie Spierig brothers. It was an unusual take on the vampire genre – the vampires were in charge and it was humans who skulked around the edges. The Spierigs are doing something similarly offbeat with the time-travel story, and they’ve got Hawke back involved, as a time-travelling bar tender listening to the strange late-night story of one of his patrons. He turns out to have been born a she, and has journeyed through time attempting to … what, exactly? I’m not sure, but starting a story with a “once upon a time there was this time-travelling hermaphrodite” is so unusual that our interest is piqued. This strange creature’s story is certainly wild, like a Douglas Sirk film on some bizarre modern drugs – mad improbability, emotional turmoil, despair, redemption, all done in flashback and intoned in gruff tones by the remarkable Sarah Snook, who looks like a 21-year-old Leo DiCaprio. If she always also somehow resembles the beautiful woman she is, Snook is nevertheless sensational as this time travelling curiosity, while the Spierigs’ decision to tell us that time travel was invented in 1981 tips the wink as to what they’re about – this is idea-rich, plot driven sci-fi of the sort that the 1980s excelled in (Terminator, Total Recall), and if it never ever looks “real” (the bar the entire story is told from looks lifted from a daytime soap where the script has indicated “Bar: interior”), that’s because the Spierigs are playing with the pastiche, rather than trying to get it right. So, as they head towards the climax and the time paradoxes start to fall over each other, there’s no point complaining that “it doesn’t all add up”. Audacity is the whole point. Watch back to back with Daybreakers. Why not?

Predestination – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Black Sea (Universal, cert 15)

A submarine adventure set in a sea where the Nato/Russian empires catch and starring Jude Law as the sea dog getting a motley crew of superannuated good old boys and unfashionable ethnics together to find Nazi gold. It’s The Italian Job meets every submarine adventure you’ve ever seen – the law states you can’t set a film on a sub without there being some deep-sea jeopardy. To the clearly recession-influenced script, writer Dennis Kelly adds plenty of paranoia – as befits the man who gave us Utopia on TV – and has a great if mostly underused cast to help him out. Why cast actors of the calibre of David Threlfall, Scoot McNairy and Grigoriy Dobrynin only to waste them? To secure funding, I suspect (a Brit, an American and a Russian, respectively). Only Aussie Ben Mendelsohn cuts through, but then he is playing a bit of a wild-eyed loon whose increasingly unhinged behaviour precipitates the crisis that sends the vessel to the bottom of the sea – that’s no spoiler, surely. Ultimately, as Law gets a touch of Mad Captain’s Disease and things go a bit Hunt for Red October, it’s clear that this is a collation of tasty cold cuts that needs a unifying theme or a look or a chutney to hold it all together. Director Kevin Macdonald seems fresh out of all of them.

Black Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Maidan (Dogwoof, cert E)

Footage from Maidan Square, Kiev, as the pro-Europe demonstrations of 2013 morphed into the anti-government revolution of 2014, the ramifications of which we’re still watching. Notably, there’s no commentary at all, just a camera in the crowd watching fairy statically. It’s the atmosphere that stands out – like a free festival, it’s full of ramshackle, impromptu outbursts of song and good cheer, all comers are welcome, the fringe dwellers are in there with the mass, call-and-response eruptions of “Glory to the Ukraine; Glory to the Heroes” are common. On the downside the lack of organising principle means a lack of plot, and your interest in (“enjoyment of” seems to be the wrong phrase in the circumstances) of this report from a key moment in recent European history will depend on your political engagement. For me, as with news reports from the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, I’m struck by how obviously European this former Soviet colony looks – those streets could be Berlin or Paris or Madrid. And how, as the government increase the pressure and bring in water cannon and tear gas, how much like an older Europe Sergei Loznitsa’s camera makes it look – of the wide, people-strewn higgledy-piggledy canvases of Hieronymus Bosch.

Maidan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015