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

 

4 May 2015-05-04

A bad day for Kendal in The Last Survivors aka The Well

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Foxcatcher (E One, cert 15)

Not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra in many ways, Foxcatcher tells a similar true story of a young impressionable man being taken up by an older man and being groomed, things all falling apart when the young man says “enough”. With Soderbergh the spotlight was on strapping Scott Thorson and his gay relationship with Liberace, whereas Foxcatcher focuses on potential Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and the strange grip that the super-rich amateur wrestler John du Pont, owner of the Foxcatcher gym, had over him. The hoo-haa surrounding the film is generated mostly by the really rather remarkable performance by Steve Carell as du Pont – mouth-breathing, unsettling thousand-mile stare, creepy tics. Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz isn’t too much of a stretch from the admirable Tatum we’ve seen before – he’s a beefy guy, after all. What is more impressive is seeing Mark Ruffalo also entirely convincing as Mark’s older brother, coach and similarly jockish wrestling dude. The names Sienna Miller and Vanessa Redgrave also figure in the credits – the former in it so little that fans might feel aggrieved, the latter there to add an old-school Freudian mother-love angle as the patrician parent John du Pont simply can’t live up to (shades also of Behind the Candelabra). To be honest, the film drags a touch in the middle and resolves itself shockingly though not entirely satisfyingly – but then that’s real life for you (look up Mark Schultz or du Pont on Wikipedia if you want to ruin the film). It’s not as good as its rep, in other words. But it is a good film, and excellent as a portrait of the otherness of the extremely wealthy, and the way in which, by deferring to these weird creatures, we ordinary mortals foster their self-belief and grant them power.

Foxcatcher – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Turned Towards the Sun (Matchbox, cert E)

Even people who don’t read the Daily Telegraph acknowledge that it’s head and shoulders above its rivals in several respects. One of those is its obituaries section, which makes a specialty of old guys and gals who die in relative obscurity but whose earlier lives were beyond remarkable. They’re war heroes, quite often, and this documentary about 90-something poet Micky Burn functions much like a Telegraph obit as it winds back the years on this fascinating man. I don’t want to give too much away, because there is so much more than we see at first glance – just some really old guy having his hearing aids checked out at the hospital. Or second glance – Burn was one of the soldiers who sailed on a suicide mission into the Nazi-occupied port of St Nazaire in the Second World War and tried to blow it sky high. Or third glance – he was a prisoner in Colditz (“fucking place”, he calls it), where he operated the famous radio in the attic. Fourth glance – he talks in French to French journalists keen to interview him on the anniversary of the St Nazaire raid; in German to the tour guides on his first return to Colditz. Fifth glance – he has an unusual sexual history, and the further you go into that, the stranger it gets. Sixth – he saved the life of Audrey Hepburn, and the name-dropping doesn’t end there. I’m going to stop there because one of the joys of this lovely documentary is the way it parcels out its revelations. Expertly made by Greg Oliver, it trumps the documentary he co-directed on Lemmy of Motorhead (called Lemmy: The Movie) because Burn’s life is much, much more fascinating than that of one of the real hellraisers of rock. And also, because Burn realises he’s at the end of a long haul – “I’m old and feeble,” he giggles when he can’t even get the lid off a jar of instant coffee, “and near my end” – and this makes him remarkably, astonishingly frank. His poetry isn’t bad, either.

Turned towards the Sun – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Last Survivors (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

Also known as The Well, The Last Survivors is a post-apocalyptic thriller with more going for it than you might expect from a budget this low, a cast list this sparse. It flips the usual dynamics of these sort of things, with a female lead (Haley Lu Richardson) as Kendal, one of the last survivors of a ten-year drought that has seen rapacious corporations moving to secure the last few non-privatised sources of water. Inside, pale and suffering from kidney disease, is her children’s home “brother”, Dean (Booboo Stewart, pausing before stardom in a remarkably minimal role). While out somewhere in the parched landscape is ten-year-old Alby (Max Charles) who trumps even Kendal for wariness, tenacity and resourcefulness. If you’ve seen the German post-apocalyptic thriller Hell, then you’ll recognise an influence on the bleached-bright looks of The Last Survivors. There’s also a grungy Mad Max thing going on too, to the point that I was surprised it wasn’t an Australian production. It’s a simple film but an admirably simple one – we know who the bad guys are, there is enough of a Macguffin (the search for a distributor cap which will allow the survivors to escape) and even when the bad guys lapse into Tarantino-villain loquaciousness, the actors speaking the lines manage to undercut the verbiage with low-key performances. Nice touch. Nice film, in fact. Looking forward to director Thomas S Hammock’s next.

The Last Survivors aka The Well – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Unbroken (Universal, cert 15)

I’d heard bad things about this directorial effort by Angelina Jolie. So I was surprised when at first it delivered a strikingly effective battle sequence out in the Pacific. And almost immediately after that a tense claustrophobic crash-landing onto an aircraft carrier. Then there followed a fairly brisk bit of establishing childhood back story – this is a biopic about Second World war hero and athlete Louis Zamperini (a blameless Jack O’Connell). And then there’s a bit about Zamperini taking part in the 1936 (aka Hitler) Olympics. Moving forward again we see Zamperini and the crew of another plane ditching into the sea, whereupon we get a story of survival on a life raft – catching fish, rationing water, sunburn, storms, rain, sharks, and so on. Around about here the misgivings are starting to solidify – this is all a bit bog standard, no? And then on to another stage in Zamperini’s life, as he is captured by the Japanese, and Jolie gets another genre to sink her teeth into – the PoW drama. Which she tackles like all the other sections thus far, with efficiency and not a spark of originality. And on it goes, with expectations raised that any second we’re going to meet the cruel unfeeling Japanese commandant, that our hero is going to be doing a lot of solitary, that at some point he’ll be forced into a Christlike posture in some echo of Cool Hand Luke. It all comes to pass. This would be admirable were it still 1966, or if Jolie gave us some hint that her pastiches have a purpose beyond the erection of a religious shrine to old Hollywood by one of its dynastic clanswomen.

Unbroken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Asylum (StudioCanal, cert 18)

The Asylum goes by two other names: Exeter and Backmask. Someone in the producer’s office was clearly worried about this film. They have every reason to be. It is, after all, very familiar – a gang of largely anonymous party-animal teenagers go to an old asylum where they are monstered most royally by a malevolent spiritual presence. And yet, in spite of the fact that you can call the plot shots in advance and could set up a drinking game for the “who’s going to get it next” deaths, the whole thing is rather watchable. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because the film knows exactly what it is, and just gets on with the job it has to do as briskly as possible. In this it is aided by Marcus Nispel, who brings a German efficiency (sorry for the national stereotype, but he does) to the direction, which gets in fast and doesn’t hang about. But it’s not all nuts and bolts – there is a grippingly choreographed exorcism scene and some freaky horror touches which nod to The Exorcist (Nispel also directed the remakes of both Friday 13th and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so knows his stuff). Most noticeably, in spite of the fact that the film has its complement of hot girls, one of whom even slips her bra off under her T shirt during a game of strip poker, Nispel heroically resists sexualising the young women. Instead he concentrates on the gore. And this might be why I like it: a priest head first through a car windscreen, toothbrushes plunged – handles first – into someone’s eyes, a fair bit of blunt object trauma. And then it’s the outro credits with the band Quarantine thrashing away, their music – slick, energetic – matching a film whose smart dialogue makes it clear that it’s seen Cabin in the Woods and is carrying on regardless. Give everyone involved a cigar.

The Asylum – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

National Gallery (Soda, cert 12)

Though the name Frederick Wiseman seems to be one to bandy about in a culturally knowledgeable way, I’d never heard of the 84-year-old documentarian before. It was the cachet of the name that prevented me from dismissing out of hand what looked initially like an incredibly old-school fly-on-the-wall documentary about the UK’s storehouse of Old Masters, the National Gallery in London, as the sort of thing the BBC might have produced in the early 1970s. It can’t be avoided that, at three hours, you could get most of a TV series out of it, or that, with its front-and-back-of-house approach it harks backwards – the janitor and the conservator, the marketing people and the gallery director, the guys who hang the works and the people who queue to see them – all presented without voiceover, without fuss. Also old school is the fact that it’s interested in what people do rather than what they are – don’t come here looking for fireworks as background niggles become conflagrations on camera, there aren’t any. Instead Wiseman relies on a simple fact: that the gallery is a fascinating place, full of people passionate about being there, and the ones who work there have jobs that are interesting in and of themselves (who knew how hard it was to get the lighting right on a Da Vinci, or that modern conservation work on paintings is done on top of a layer of lacquer, so future generations with more advanced knowledge or techniques can strip it all off again?). And Wiseman, by returning constantly to the same well-to-do class of person, whether in the viewing public or behind the scenes, is also making a point about culture, prestige and power. Also very 1970s.

National Gallery – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015