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

 

16 February 2015-02-16

Brad Pitt in Fury

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Babadook (Icon, cert 15)

The Babadook is a horror story about a nervous lone mum with a hyperactive and emotionally fractious six/seven-year-old child who was born the day his father died… in the car which crashed rushing his labouring wife to the hospital. If that isn’t the backstory to something psychologically intense, then what is? The Babadook has a lot going for it – the sombre production design and the creepy drawings in the book about the ghoulish Babadook that the mother ill-advisedly reads to her child as a bedtime story are just for starters. But it succeeds mostly, like all the best horror films, because it taps into a deep basic fear. And it does so while pulling an elegant switcheroo, in terms of its horror focus. Which is why somewhere around halfway in you might be feeling, as I did, that you’d seen the likes of this before (creepy kids are horror staples, and this does seem to be inspired at some level by The Innocents). And then the Babadook, ie the true focus of the film, reveals itself. And oh yes I could see why this film comes so highly recommended. Terrifying.

The Babadook – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Fury (Sony, cert 15)

Writer/director David Ayer’s film are often about male camaraderie in extremis – see Training Day and End of Watch. Fury continues the theme in a drama about a tank crew in the dog days of the Second World War just trying to hold it together until the fighting ends, though the last stragglings of fanatical Nazism are conspiring against them. What does and doesn’t happen in Fury isn’t as important as its relationships – Brad Pitt heads the cast as the battle hardened but essentially avuncular Wardaddy, leader of this tank crew, Logan Lerman is the rookie from whose point of view we are introduced to the guys, Shia LaBeouf is impressive as a dead-eyed grunt who’s seen too much, but by the time we get to Michael Peña, Ayer has kind of given up on defining characterisation. But then the dehumanising effect of war is at least part of what Fury is about – shots of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, people’s heads in a combat zone popping open like water melons, basins of blood being chucked onto the soil in field hospitals. This faintly plotless film – they’re “heading for Berlin” – doesn’t give Ayer quite enough of a hook to hang his usual concerns on, and on two key occasions (one is the “taste of how things used to be” interlude halfway through, the second is the slightly inexplicable “death or glory” finish) Ayer goes into painting-by-numbers war-film mode. But the relationships are still fascinating, its doggedly unglamorous approach is refreshing and it’s learnt from Downfall the importance of sound design in a war film – when that ordnance starts coming in, you really feel it.

Fury – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Book of Life (Fox, cert U)

One of the best animations I’ve seen since Pixar stopped being good, The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo Del Toro and clearly carries his DNA. And it juggles pretty well a story that takes place on multiple levels – in the present where a museum guide is telling a rough and ready gang of urchins the story of Manolo and Joaquin, a pair of Mexican lads from back in the day who jockeyed for the favours of the beautiful Maria. And behind that another story of two ancient immortals, Xibalba and La Muerte, who take bets on which boy is going to win. So why is it so good? First, the animation, which isn’t technically too special, but really makes claims with its sheer artistry, beautiful spaghetti western colour palette, delight in rococo characterisation (especially older people, who are often a jumble of features, warts, potato noses and moustaches) and anarchic action – a touch Bugs Bunny, a fair bit of Ren and Stimpy. Then there’s the use of music, which mixes jaunty and enjoyable new compositions with well chosen existing tunes done mariachi style – from Radiohead’s Creep to Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, plus Bizet, Beethoven, Grieg and Mozart. But a lot of it is because it deals with death, through the prism of the stories surrounding Mexico’s Day of the Dead, in a way that manages to be positive without becoming too metaphysical or soppy. And the voice talent is pretty good too, particularly Ice Cube as the Candle Maker – the immortal who adjudicates between La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) when their bet runs a little awry. Highly recommended for any age group.

The Book of Life – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 Love, Rosie (Lionsgate, cert 15)

An adaptation of one of Cecelia Ahern’s chick-lit novels, which usually feature lovely girls and unattainable males, Ahern’s light touch, wit and knack for everyday language separating hers out from innumerable romances which do just the same. Here Lily Collins is the girl, a bright, trembling and gorgeous thing not above having meaningless sex with a stranger, being a 21st century creature, while Sam Claflin, who’s obviously done the Hugh Grant rom-com course, dithers and stutters his way through the whole film as the boy who got away, but who remains very bestest friends with Rosie from the other side of the Atlantic. The trailer tells the whole story perfectly – they’re childhood friends who should become sweethearts but he goes off to America and instead of following him out there she gets accidentally pregnant and decides to keep the child and stay in the UK, while he goes through a succession of wildly attractive girlfriends and has a fabulous life out there while she bumps along the bottom over here and misses him like crazy. Deep breath. And if it’s just plot you’re after, the trailer is actually all you need to watch. Clearly a film of this sort is not aimed at a middle-aged saddo such as myself but I felt for the leads, could pick up on the warm glow that director Christian Ditter bathed everything in – did the middle-class British life ever look cosier? – and the will they/won’t they business is stretched repeatedly to breaking point but never quite snaps. As tremulous as a petal it may be, but that, surely, is the point.

Love, Rosie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Way He Looks (Peccadillo, cert 12)

Meanwhile, romance of a different sort, and again tremulous, but for a different reason. Because this is a gay romance and seems determined not to scare the horses with actual, you know, doing it, and instead settles for moony longing – though I think there might have been a suggestion of a hand moving under a blanket at one point. Maybe. The story of a blind Brazilian kid Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) whose galpal Gia (Tess Amorim) really fancies him, though he doesn’t like her in that way, a feeling reinforced when new kid Gabriel (Fabio Audi) joins their class, so attractive he becomes the focus of all the girls’ lust. How Leo and Gabriel finally get together is what the film is about, fairly obviously, and it’s all done in such a straightforward way – like a daytime Australian soap – that its lack of guile is disarming. Add to that fresh performances and a roster of characters who are all, at all times, exactly what they appear to be – Leo’s overprotective parents, say – and you’ve a slight, unthreatening film delivered without any side whatsoever. But why is Leo blind, you might ask? It’s got to be a metaphor, surely – for not seeing what you truly are, perhaps – though even that is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact way that, you know, it might mean nothing at all.

The Way He Looks – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Keeping Rosy (Metrodome, cert 15)

Keeping Rosy isn’t a story, it’s four different stories that by rights shouldn’t be together in one film. In the first one we meet Maxine Peake, a high flying executive too busy to have kids who is suddenly fired and goes home to find that her cleaner is smoking (and she’s been told about the smoking) and appears to have stolen a bottle of champagne from her employer’s fridge (which only contains champers and sushi – nice touch). After a quick altercation with the cleaner something awful and spoilerish happens and story two begins, with Peake now dealing with the consequences of what’s just gone down, quite literally. Within ten minutes story three has begun, and Peake and her Money London apartment are again its focus, and like story two it has no real thematic connection to the earlier stories. By story four, The Inbetweeners‘ Blake Harrison has turned up, playing an Iraq veteran who now knows what Peake has been involved in and wants quite a lot of money to keep his mouth shut. Things pick up here, partly because Harrison plays a blinder as the bad guy, partly because it looks for a minute as if all four plots are going to somehow cohere. They don’t. But there’s enjoyment to be had from the always great Peake, holding together what looks like a 1940s woman-in-peril melodrama that’s been subjected to some sort of postmodern messing about.

Keeping Rosy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

United We Fall (Metrodome, cert 15)

Casting about for another film to review this slightly thin week, I read a few critiques of United We Fall, which aims to do for superannuated Manchester United footballers what Spinal Tap did for old rockers – take the piss. Opinion seemed divided quite evenly into lovers and haters. I’m with the lovers. Not because all the jokes about a quintet of players reminiscing about the 2010 season work, but enough of them do. And its actors are really very good – James Rastall as the dumb one, Ryan Pope as the chippy northern one, Jonathan Broke as the erudite, intelligent and decent German goalie, Jack Donnelly as the cock-blocking Beckham type always out to extend his brand, and Matthew Avery as the wildly enthusiastic African one who learnt how to play football kicking a human head into a bucket. Director/writer Gary Sinyor has had a patchy track record since 1992’s Leon the Pig Farmer (it includes the 1999 Chris O’Donnell romcom The Bachelor so “patchy” is being kind) but he keeps things moving at a pace here, surely aware that the mock-doc is hardly conceptually novel, nor is pointing out that footballers are often self-serving, overpaid racist homophobes. But what can I say – I laughed, frequently.

United We Fall – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015