Tag Archives: Film Reviews

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.

 

 

 

The Best Films of 2014

So here we are again!

2014 has been a great year for film. As usual I’ve yet to see a fair few of this year’s ‘Best Of’ contenders (Nightcrawler, Maps to the Stars, The Babadook) and some of the others have been omitted by choice (I belong to the minority who didn’t love Boyhood). Having scanned through some of the main Best of 2014 lists it occurs to me that a lot of the films critics are raving about aren’t films I’ve missed at all. I haven’t had the chance to miss them yet. For instance, eight films on the BFI’s list of the Best of 2014 are yet to have a general release in UK cinemas, and another is only just out this week. That means that of a list of 20 films, nearly half of them won’t have been seen by the general public unless you made it to a handful of screenings at festivals across the country. That’s great for getting a heads up on what films to look out for in 2015, but I’ve compiled a list of the best films you may have actually seen this year. So, here are my top ten picks:

10. The Double

Director: Richard Ayoade

Screenplay: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine

Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double

UK Release Date: 4th April 2014

 

A Gilliam-esque dystopian nightmare (my favourite kind) set within a labyrinth of beaurocratic offices and dull apartment blocks where outside light doesn’t even seem to be found outside. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the pallid non-person Simon, whose life is shaken up by the arrival of James (also Jesse), a man who is identical to him and yet more successful in every way. Their initial friendship soon becomes a rivalry as Simon struggles to prevent James from stepping into the life that Simon had previously been too meek to live. The subterranean production design is strikingly effective in creating the claustrophobia of a world that is systematically and stringently ordered and where every man should know his place. Mia Wasikowska provides a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stifling environment and the film operates with a surrealist dream logic that injects energy into the proceedings.

9. Pride

Director: Matthew Warchus

Screenplay: Stephen Beresford

UK Release Date: 12th September 2014

Pride tells the true story of gay activists in London who in 1984, during the miner’s strike, formed a fundraising group to support Welsh miners, forging an unlikely alliance with the residents of a small Welsh town in the process. It’s an interesting story and although the film is formulaic and resorts to some well-worn tropes, it’s still great to see queer history in the mainstream. I admit that it’s not a perfect film – for instance, Dominic West is completely unconvincing as an eccentric femme and I would especially have liked to see the film’s secondary lesbian characters get a less stereotypical representation. On the positive side – Faye Marsay gives a great performance as Steph, Imelda Staunton is her usual fantastic self and a touching scene where an elderly character comes out to a completely nonplussed response is nicely handled. The film for the most part, is rousing and triumphant. There are some bittersweet moments and not all of the events of the period are easy for the gay community to relive and reflect upon, however, the film manages to end on a moment that we can all be proud to have in our cultural history.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis

Writers/Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

UK Release Date: 24th January 2014

I think that the Coen brothers are just going from strength to strength at the moment. I love that their range of work spans all kinds of genres and styles, yet each one is also recognisably theirs. Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy film with a beautiful soundtrack of mellow folk music. A colour palette of greys, browns and muted blues really makes you feel the cold winter of the film’s New York setting and long for the warmth and comfort that homeless Llewyn seeks on doorstep after doorstep. Whether your sympathy for Llewyn extends beyond that is another matter. My partner and I saw the film in opposite ways – he saw Llewyn as a struggling artist who just can’t get a break, whereas I saw Llewyn as very much the cause of his own problems with an attitude that slowly erodes the goodwill of his friends. The film starts, and ends with Llewyn being punched in the face outside of the Gaslight just as an artist with a much bigger destiny is taking the stage. In life, love and his career, Llewyn repeatedly bears the frustration of being the other guy, destined to remain out in the cold.

7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

UK Release Date: 26th March 2014

 

Chris Evans is easy on the eyes, but even I found the First Avenger an extremely dull affair. Burdened with a lot of set-up, not just in providing Cap’s origin story but also laying the groundwork for the Avengers, there wasn’t much room for plot and there wasn’t much fun to be had. Free of all of that, Captain America 2 is a much more confident offering and one that began to show the wider scope of the Marvel Universe, along with Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio’s second release this year. The Winter Soldier is an accomplished action movie with a grittier, more current feel than any of the Marvel movies to come before it, taking inspiration from 70s conspiracy thrillers. The film also provided an opportunity for more adventures with Scarlett Johansson’s arse-kicking Black Widow who continues to steal the show. The AV Club has an interesting discussion of Black Widow’s agency as a female character here. Can she get her own movie already?

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman

UK Release Date: 31st July 2014

I had very low expectations for Marvel’s second release of the year. The first trailer seemed to be trying hard for laughs and the tone seemed off. I assumed that this one would be just for the kids. I wasn’t even planning to see it at the cinema until I started hearing about it from friends who’d loved it. As it turns out, I loved it too. Guardians of the Galaxy is really fun. I can’t remember the last time science fiction has been this funny. It’s a change in tone for the Marvel Universe and it’s interesting to be seeing some of the more fantastical worlds and characters that six decades of comics have to offer. This film has a few nods to space operas of the 70s and 80s in its design – particularly Starlord’s ship – and watching it reminded me of the excitement and thrill of seeing big event blockbusters as a kid. There are also some beautiful visual effects on display, particularly the planets and spacescapes that deserve a second viewing to really appreciate the background detail.

5. The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Screenplay: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

UK Release Date: 14th February 2014

 

I was so incredibly skeptical about this movie that it took a lot of convincing by my friends to actually get me to watch it. It’s a really fun film. The Lego Movie has a great script that’s extremely funny. The animation is really impressive, combining predominantly CG 3D animation with some stop motion and actual Lego sets composited in. The attention to detail is astounding. (Screencrush has an interesting look at the making of the film here. ) The filmmakers digitally created thumbprints, dust, dandruff and scratches on the Lego pieces and characters to give them a worn, played-with look. The overall effect is a film that looks as if it has been painstakingly created brick by brick from a child’s Lego playset with pieces that we all recognize from our childhoods and yet is brought to life in ways that extend beyond the limitations of the real world. The film also operates with a child’s logic that gives it an anarchic and eccentric feel that pays off as the greater plot is unveiled towards the end. This time last year I would not have believed that I’d be giving The Lego Movie my recommendation, but here it is, quite possibly the best animated film of 2014 and a hot contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

4. 20 Feet From Stardom

Writer/Director: Morgan Neville

UK Release Date: 28th March 2014

 

This documentary beat out my favourite film of 2013 to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. While I personally feel that The Act of Killing was the better film, or at least the most impactful, 20 Feet From Stardom is a vibrant and uplifting documentary and a hugely enjoyable experience. The film shines the spotlight on some of music history’s unsung heroes – the amazing backing vocalists who contributed to some of the biggest hits of the last 50 years. Powerhouse talents such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer discuss their careers, their hits, their highs and lows, as well as returning to the studio to lend their wonderful voices to the film’s soundtrack. An absolute pleasure to watch.

3. Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Gillian Flynn

UK Release 2nd October 2014

 

A dark thriller reminiscent of 90s domestic thrillers like Single White Female and Sleeping With The Enemy. Gone Girl weaves a twisted tale of suburban marriage and the roles that partners play for each other and the outside world. Having no prior knowledge of the book, I found this film gripping, surprising and darkly fun. Gone Girl’s ever shifting trial by media is a fantastic dissection of image consciousness and lives lived and performed in public that feels very current. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the plot as I think a lot of the film’s entertainment value comes from sitting back and letting it take you for a ride.

2. Under The Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber)

UK Release Date: 14th March 2014

Under the Skin is a film that stayed with me for days after I watched it. The film has very little dialogue and what little plot there is is mysterious and meandering. Ordinarily I’d expect this to make it a difficult film to watch, and while I’ll openly admit that there were often moments when I wouldn’t have been able to explain what was going on, the sense of tension and overwhelming dread made me feel that on some instinctual level, I understood it acutely. It is utterly gripping from start to finish.

Scarlett Johansson gives a career best performance as an alien that stalks men in Scotland. She is all at once enticing, enigmatic, cold, predatorial and entirely alien. There’s no better word to describe it. Her performance and Jonathon Glazer’s direction capture the essence of being a stranger in a strange land so thoroughly that it needs no explanation or set-up. Johansson studies humanity as a curious and lonely outsider. We are often presented with individuals whose speech is difficult to understand clearly, whether it be their thick regional accents, the rage with which they are shouting or the crowd that they dissolve into. Humanity is seen at times as pathetic, humble, caring, aggressive, violent, an indecipherable mob. With these touches, Glazer enables us to feel alien from our own kind and sympathetic to Johansson’s character despite the veiled threat she poses. Perhaps this is the most disturbing element.

I also want to mention the technical brilliance of the film – the beautiful cinematography, particularly in showing the remote natural landscapes, the use of diegetic light to give a raw, documentary realism to the visuals and sound design that isolates and distorts minor details to skin tingling effect when paired with the film’s uneasy score. It’s science fiction but in a world that is very recognizably our own. I don’t want to spoil the ending but I will say this – it doesn’t provide a satisfying release of tension in the traditional sense. It satisfies the expectations of the genre but in a way that makes the viewer feel dirty, complicit, like the instant guilt you feel after the blind panic that makes you crush a spider. This film taps into something primal and disorienting, leaving you with a lingering unease.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

Screenplay: Wes Anderson (Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig)

UK Release Date: 7th March 2014

An absolute masterpiece of a film and Wes Anderson’s best work to date. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson so many won’t be surprised to see this on the list. That said, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by Moonrise Kingdom, which I felt unable to truly connect with, and so I was all the more pleased by this return to form. The film is dripping with sumptuous detail – stylish period features, Anderson’s trademark pastel colours, an aspect ratio that changes to suit each time period of the film’s timelines, gorgeous miniatures and stop-motion animation flourishes. Ralph Fiennes is a delight as M. Gustave, the Grand Budapest Hotel’s famed concierge and the script sparkles with humour and invention. This is hands down my favourite film of the year – madcap, fun, charming and entertaining, it’s perfect cinema.

The film’s stop-motion animated ski chase is my favourite scene. If you’re interested in how it was put together there’s an interesting interview with the animator and puppet fabricator here at Dragonframe’s blog.  Anderson is quoted as saying “The particular brand of artificiality that I like to use is an old-fashioned one.” You’ll find that interview and also get a look at the film’s miniatures in this New York Times Article.

 

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts – what were your favourite films this year and what are you looking forward to seeing in 2015?

I’m planning to be a bit more active in my blogging this year so be sure to follow me for more film reviews, lists and updates on my own filmmaking projects. Happy New Year everyone.