Tag Archives: Cinema

The Best Films of 2015

2015 was a great year for cinema, with UK box office takings on the rise for the first time since 2012.  Big hitters such as Spectre, Jurassic World and The Avengers: Age of Ultron drew audiences in record numbers, although many of the sequels and franchise instalments of this year proved disappointing.

These are my top ten films of 2015. As usual, rather than obscure festival darlings, I’ve selected films that were out in UK cinemas between January and December last year, because too many best film lists are made up of films that haven’t yet or won’t be on general release. This is a list of great films you could have seen, and if you didn’t then you should catch up. These are all worth a watch.

10. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Force Awakens

Director: J.J. Abrams

UK Release: 17 December 2015

A runaway droid protects a critical message, an evil empire is on the rise and a young orphan is discovers their potential to use the force.

In a year full of franchise installments, this was the most highly anticipated of all, but after the disappointment of George Lucas’ hamfisted trilogy of prequels it was also one to approach with caution. Thankfully, J.J. Abrams delivered a Star Wars movie full of nostalgia for the original films that also introduced compelling characters that bring new life to the franchise. Like any Abrams production, the story evaporates if you look at it too closely, but there’s a lot of fun to be had and for that, I can forgive the film’s shortcomings.

 

9. Coherence

Director: James Ward Byrkit

UK Release: 13 Feburary 2015

The effect of a passing comet wreaks havoc on a group of friends at a dinner party.

Coherence is an experiment in cinematic minimalism – shot at the Director’s house over five days with no script and a skeleton crew. The result feels raw and naturalistic. The improvised dialogue is shouty at times but the conflicts and fractures that the group experience as the night wears on give an emotional grounding to the cosmic phenomenon. Byrkit capitalizes on an engaging premise that is perfectly suited to a tight budget.

 

8. Force Majeure

Director: Ruben Östlund

UK Release: 10 April 2015

The bond between a picture-perfect family is tested on a skiing holiday in this darkly comic drama from Sweden.

While the family are at lunch, a controlled avalanche comes uncomfortably close to engulfing the restaurant. Tension arises when Tomas, instead of coming to the aid his wife and children, runs for his life. What follows is an examination of gender roles and expectations within marriage and family and the frustration that arises when these ideals do not hold true in reality. Tomas’s masculinity is in crisis, strained by the restrictions of family life and societal expectation.

The film is punctuated by the surreal routines of the ski resort as cannons blast through the night creating more avalanches and snow ploughs hum across the slopes maintaining order. What is going on is an attempt to restrain nature, to make it more attractive and acceptable – more safe. But as the contradiction of the ‘controlled’ avalanche suggests, nature is wild and dangerous and our attempts to control its power are sometimes futile.

The family’s crisis sparks a debate that picks at the tension between who we truly are and the face we present to the world. The film loses its way a little towards the end, but after unpacking such a can of worms it’s not surprising that finding a resolution is difficult. Despite that, this is a fantastic scenario to chew over, especially when it is so artfully presented.

 

7. Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

UK Release: 27 November 2015

A lawyer who is tasked with representing a suspected Soviet spy soon finds himself deeply embroiled in the Cold War in this engrossing thriller based on true events.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the Jimmy Stewart-like man of values. He plays to his usual type here but is well suited to the role. Mark Rylance also gives a great performance as the stoic enemy agent, resigned to his fate whatever it may be.

The Coen brothers share screenwriting duties with Matt Charman, lending an air of satire and absurdity to the proceedings, especially in the convolutions of the German and Russian bureaucratic processes. The comic touches don’t outweigh the suspense, however. The film contains very little action, but the Cold War setting provides the constant threat of potential violence. The plot is driven by conversation, with numerous scenes that are basically just men talking in rooms and yet the performances and direction keep the tension high throughout the discussions, which could have been inert in lesser craftsmen’s hands. The Coens’ script keeps Spielberg’s usual sentimentality in check and the result is the product of a confident director at the top of his game.

The film is especially pertinent in raising issues with America’s treatment of its enemies, as society is quick to deny basic rights to the accused spy, with the fear of the un-American threat outweighing people’s abilities to see or treat the suspect as a human being. His trial is biased, his right of appeal is denied and the public are baying for his blood in a first act that has shades of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is easy to see reflections here of the current political climate and the ongoing ‘War on Terror’.

 

6. Tangerine

Director: Sean Baker

UK Release: 13 November 2015

Two transgender sex workers have an action packed Christmas Eve in this vibrant farce.

Tangerine was one the most talked about films of 2015’s Sundance Festival, namely for being almost entirely shot using adapted iPhones. The low tech filming technique is a perfect way to capture life on a street level, giving the film a guerilla feel. Life is the operative word here – Tangerine is a film so buzzing with energy and colour that it’s vibrancy is captivating. What is captured is a snapshot of a world that feels genuinely lived-in, every street corner holding potential for more characters and stories that extend beyond the short period we spend there.

Actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are both revelations playing fully rounded, flawed characters with foul-mouthed vigour and heartbreaking tenderness. Despite all of the laughs, the bond between their two characters is the most striking and memorable element of this breathless film. This is a Los Angeles that is far from the gaze of traditional Hollywood and a film that, though stylized, feels undeniably true.

 

5. Phoenix

Director: Christian Petzold

UK Release: 8 May 2015

It is the end of the war and German Jewish nightclub singer Nelly is a concentration camp survivor. Her face, disfigured by a bullet wound, is reconstructed with plastic surgery, leaving her unrecognizable to herself. Eager to return to her former life, Nelly searches Berlin for her husband.

Christian Petzold’s compelling post-war drama is all about the German people’s struggle in the wake of World War II. Berlin is a city ravaged by conflict and working to rebuild itself. The film plays with ideas of identity be it lost, altered or performed. Those spared the horror of the camps seem unable to acknowledge the truth, preferring to deny or distort reality. Central to all of this is the identity crisis of Nelly, played perfectly by Nina Hoss. Nelly remains an enigmatic character throughout the film and yet her ambiguity doesn’t distance her from the audience. We are kept in suspense throughout, always wondering who Nelly trusts and what she has planned. The film is beautifully understated, subtle and low key, yet gripping all the way to its electrifying conclusion.

 

4. Carol

 Director: Todd Haynes

UK Release: 27 November 2015

A department store clerk falls for an older woman in 50s New York.

Haynes’s sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt is one of the most moving cinematic love stories of recent years. Every shot is gorgeous, with magnificent period detail and costuming. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have such crackling chemistry onscreen that it is impossible not to root for the couple. The tension of being gay in the restrictive 1950s looms like a cloud over the pair and yet Haynes never makes martyrs of our heroines, giving them dignity and agency rarely afforded to queer characters in Hollywood. Carol is a work of sheer beauty, completely enveloping the audience in its exquisite world. It’s a crime that it didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture this year.

 

3. Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

UK Release: 16 January 2015

Ambitious young drummer, Andrew Neiman, strives for greatness at an illustrious music school under the watch of abusive teacher, Fletcher.

Whiplash is a tour de force, charged with energy and intensity. JK Simmons and Miles Teller excel in their roles of tyrannical teacher and driven student, bringing a complex dynamic to life. Simmons terrifies, dominating the screen and Teller’s portrayal of the the internal conflict between Neiman’s drive and his discomfort will have you squirming in your seat. Brought together by a desire for excellence, this pair have a toxic relationship that forces the viewer to question the cost of greatness.

Do artists need to suffer in order to succeed? Simmons’ character certainly thinks so, relaying an anecdote of how a young Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head when he played badly, and how the resulting shame led him to focus on becoming his absolute best. Whiplash is an unsettling film as we watch Fletcher continually push Andrew, berating and bullying him, always wondering how much more he can take. This intensity is matched by the music of the film, fast-paced, punchy jazz with energetic drumming that requires a really physical performance from Teller. The spirit of the music is suffused throughout the film, as the rhythmic editing follows the beat.

I particularly like the ambiguity of the ending, which could equally be seen as Andrew’s victory or his defeat.

 

2. It Follows

Director: David Robert Mitchell

UK Release: 27 February 2015

“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is one of the best horror movies of recent years. It’s not often that a genre movie, especially horror, can be seen as art, but this smart and stylish film is spectacular. Beautifully shot, it is like a spiritual sibling to The Virgin Suicides, existing in a hazy teenage world where adults are rarely seen.

The concept is modern and edgy, so perfect for the genre and its adolescent perspective that it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before. The threat is a supernatural entity that pursues its victims endlessly until it kills them. The only way to save yourself is to pass it on by sleeping with someone. It is open to all manner of potential interpretations such sexually transmitted infections, the loss of innocence and issues of consent. For these young people, sex is a scary concept, one with messy and life-altering implications and the need to pass ‘it’ on is an added pressure to act.

Our unfortunate heroine falls prey to ‘it’ after a date with a charming man that takes a horrible turn. Rising scream queen Maika Monroe brings a balance of vulnerability and resilience to the role of Jay.

The pervading sense of dread is hair-raising and the ever-approaching force leaves the audience on constant lookout during every wide shot as any approaching figure could spell death for our characters. You’ll be looking over your shoulder for a long time after this one.

 

1. The Look of Silence

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

UK Release: 11 June 2015

Joshua Oppenheimer returns to Indonesia in this follow-up to his documentary The Act of Killing.

The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013, but it is also a difficult film for a number of reasons. The documentary took an uncomfortable look back at the Indonesian massacre of 1965-68 in which over 500,000 alleged Communists were murdered by Government-sanctioned death squads. Even more disturbing is the fact that the killers are still in power in local and national government, with the families of the victims continuing to live in silence as their oppressors were celebrated for their ‘heroic’ acts of killing. What has evolved since these events is a society that is deeply held in a complex system of denial through which both victims and perpetrators filter their memories of the past and their present day interactions, unable to accept or acknowledge the tragedy of what happened.

With The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer took an unconventional approach in his exploration of the massacre by asking the leaders of the death squads to recreate the killings as movie scenes in the style of their favourite gangster films. This proved to be a powerful way to demonstrate the galling lack of remorse and empathy of these men. What is tricky for the audience, beyond the shocking content, is that little blame or scrutiny is placed on the killing squad leaders. In order to shine a light on their blasé attitudes to murder, it was necessary for Oppenheimer to collude with these men and to play devil’s advocate. When he began the project, Oppenheimer’s intention was to make a film with the survivors of the genocide, but they were bullied into silence. The Act of Killing was the film that Oppenheimer had to make in order for The Look of Silence to be possible.

All of this background is necessary to begin discussing The Look of Killing because this second film helps to bring the first into perspective. Oppenheimer redresses the balance, giving voice to the victims by bringing us a much more personal viewpoint, that of Optometrist Adi, whose brother Ramli was brutally murdered in the genocide. Adi introduces us to his parents, still traumatised by Ramli’s death and courageously confronts the killers in a series of astonishing and tense interviews. Throughout the film, Adi comes up against the dismissal that “the past is the past,” meeting a resistance to remember on both sides of the atrocity. This denial of the past is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it’s as if everyone has been brainwashed. It is an irreparable wound, cutting deep into the heart of Indonesian culture and being perpetuated through generations.

The Look of Killing is an astonishing and extraordinarily powerful film. It’s more accessible than its forerunner, but no less striking. This is essential viewing.

 

What were your favourite films of 2015? Tell me in the comments below or let me know on twitter.

 

 

 

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The Best Films of 2013

Every year the week between Christmas and New Year becomes a scramble to catch up with as many of the year’s films as possible as I never get to the cinema as much as I’d like. Obviously I’ve not seen them all, and there are a lot that I’m still very much looking forward to seeing – Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Nebraska, The Selfish Giant, and The Great Beauty to name a few of the big hitters. Of what I’ve seen, here are the best:

1.  The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s jaw-dropping documentary is without a doubt the most powerful film I’ve seen this year and a triumph of documentary filmmaking.

In 1965 the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military. Anwar Congo was promoted from movie-theatre gangster to head of one of Indonesia’s most notorious death squads. These death squads helped the military to murder more than a million people in Indonesia as they targeted Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, eradicating all opposition to the new regime. The killings are described as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century and yet the murderers have gone unpunished and Anwar is celebrated as a national hero.

The Act of Killing invites Anwar to share his memories of the killings and to recreate them as film scenes inspired by some of his favourite genres. It is an innovative approach to the documentary form and one that creates a safe space for the killers to open up in unexpected ways. Watching Anwar and his friends joke and boast about murders as they joyfully re-enact them is shocking and surreal. Their detachment from reality and their desensitization to the violence they perpetrated is cold and unrepentant but it also betrays an underlying inability to deal with the guilt and trauma of their experiences directly. Through the process of recreating and celebrating his acts, Anwar appears to have flashes of remorse, brief moments when the reality of his actions seems to become clear to him. Watching this conflict play out within him is enthralling.

2. Gravity

One of the most talked about films of the year and rightly so. Say what you like about the dialogue and the plot, from a technical standpoint this film is the bomb. This is the first film that I have seen in 3D that is truly enhanced by the medium. Gravity is a fully immersive experience that had me holding my breath throughout. I can’t think of another recent film that has managed to align the audience so thoroughly with its protagonist, putting you in their shoes to the point where you feel everything alongside them. The camerawork (if you can call it that in a film so full of digital effects) spins and floats to recreate the dizzying experience of weightlessness to terrifying effect and beautifully depicts the isolation of being lost in space. Ryan Stone’s helplessness shows the insignificance of human life adrift in the cosmos and her resilience in spite of this demonstrates the primal survival instinct within us all.

3. Upstream Colour

Upstream Colour plays out like a dream – enigmatic, sensuous, tactile and haunting. The narrative is there if you care to tease it out, but it is best to let the stream of images and emotions wash over you. Amy Seimetz gives a beautiful performance as Kris, a woman trying to rebuild her life after a stranger drugs and exploits her using a parasitic organism. Kris later meets Jeff, played by the film’s writer and director Shane Carruth and the pair find themselves inexplicably drawn together, their lives somehow linked intuitively to the parasite and its life cycle. Shane Carruth’s poetic non-linear style is heady and evocative, sweeping along as if floating, layering romance, science fiction, body horror and existentialism to a hypnotic effect. The film’s ethereal score (also by Shane Carruth) is also delightful.

4. Frances Ha

I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s work (The Squid and the Whale is fantastic) and I first saw Greta Gerwig last year in Whit Stilman’s hilarious Damsels in Distress. Frances Ha is lovely. For me it captures that moment in your life when you realise you’re still waiting to grow up but you’re actually an adult already (I’m still living it in fact.) I especially related to Frances’ struggle to be the professional creative that she wants to be and the awkwardness of trying to make that transition happen after graduation when it seems like everyone around you knows what they’re doing. Greta Gerwig’s performance is charming, awkward and relatable making Frances a fully realised character with quirks that are both loveable and irritating.

5. Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra follows the generic rise and fall structure of the biopic a little too neatly, (the consequences of a life of excess are a bit old hat at this stage) but the film’s strength comes from an astounding performance by Michael Douglas who transforms in the role, managing to be all at once charming, sweet, commanding, camp, predatory and pathetic. Douglas’s performance brings out the humanity in what could have been an easily stereotyped and broad role. The film captures the ridiculous opulence and glamour that Liberace is known for before slowly revealing the insecurity and fragility that lies beneath his facade. While the film deals with the obvious damage of a life in the closet, its examination of the power struggles within relationships is relevant to all persuasions. Also, no discussion of the film can be had without a mention of Rob Lowe’s hilarious turn as Lee’s Plastic Surgeon.

Worth Mentioning – 

I don’t have a top ten and these next three films aren’t perfect. They’re not my best of the year, but they’re worth a look.

Blackfish

Blackfish is a powerful film about keeping killer whales in captivity and SeaWorld’s denial of the dangers trainers face in interacting with them. It’s a gripping watch, although I wondered if the argument could, at least in conclusion, have been extended to keeping any animals in activity and I feel that the filmmakers could have focused a little more imaginatively on the form of the documentary to make it more cinematic.

Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful sun drenched thriller about desire and human interaction. This film really impressed me with its frank and unsensational depiction of gay sex and cruising. It struck me as being rare as a gay film that wasn’t made for a straight audience – nothing is watered down, hidden, explained or translated for the uninitiated.  The suspense is wonderfully built but for me the film falls flat in its final moments with an ending that didn’t do justice to the story or the rising tension.

Stoker

Park Chan-wook’s first English language film was inspired by Shadow of a Doubt, one of my favourite Hitchcock films. I was so excited to see what this would be like but I just felt that it lacked the bite of Chan-wook’s previous films. It is stylish and put together well but it all seems very familiar and failed to shock or thrill. Good but not great as the plot doesn’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before. Worth watching for the brilliant sound design and cinematography that combine to create some breathtaking moments.

So there you have it. The best of 2013 – of what I saw at least. What were your favourite films this year? Are there any shocking omissions that I need to watch immediately?