Friday, July 29, 2016

A Punter's View of MIFF 2016


MIFF is back for 2016, with many venues, many films, many events, and possibly their best ever poster. And, once again, I am ready to take a good chunk of it on, armed with a tattered program, a tattered hoodie, a tattered (or, at least, malfunctioning) phone, and a large supply of mints.

I don't like queues so I invariably arrive one minute before curtain, and end up down the front. So if you hear a rattling lolly tin from the cheap seats, we could be in the same session. Reviews to follow, ratings out of five.

Viva MIFF 2016!

LOVE SONG

LITTLE MEN

PATERSON

CERTAIN WOMEN

DEATH IN SARAJEVO



PERSONAL SHOPPER



Trailer

Rates: * * * *



SLACK BAY



Rates: * * *

Slack Bay is an odd place. At the head of an estuary in windswept, provincial France, the location serves as a meeting point for the different strata of society; there are the impoverished locals, the wealthy tourists, and the stolid middle class, represented by a couple of inept policemen. 

There are also cannibals, an androgynous cross dressing youth, a series of murders, and repeated strange incidents, where people are lifted into the air and hang in the sky, like balloons. 

The events and characters are a puzzle, most of which is never explained. The movie is a comedy, with some fairly heavy handed satire, but is only fitfully amusing. While it is hard to categorise, it most closely resembles an old fashioned farce, jazzed up with graphic violence.

But with a two hour plus running time, the leisurely pace counts against the frenzied atmosphere that the film strains for. The minimal plot develops slowly, and the longer this goes the less engaging the characters become. 



THINGS TO COME



Rates: * * * * 1/2

In late middle age Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) has reached a summit of sorts; she is an esteemed professor of philosophy, married to an equally distinguished academic, with two well adjusted kids and a successful second career editing a series of acclaimed reference books. Her life is busy but comfortable, prosperous and orderly. 

But change is on the way.

In short order her husband leaves her for a younger woman, her publisher cancels her contract, and her kids leave home for university. Even her elderly mother, with whom she has a fractious relationship, has a nasty fall and passes away. In a half hour of run time, all of the key planks of Nathalie's life have fallen away.

But instead of despair, or much angst, what Nathalie finds after these turbulent events is a kind of peace; a quiet time to reset and reconsider her assumptions. 

Isabelle Huppert is a masterful actor, and here she delivers a masterful performance, effortlessly commanding the screen and turning Nathalie into a three dimensional figure. She is backed by luminous locations in Paris and the French countryside, gorgeously shot and framed by cinematographer Denis Lenoir and director Mia Hansen-Love. This is not a complicated movie, its themes are simple and well worn, but it is so expertly made, and the acting so effortless, that it approaches a kind of perfection.



KEDI



Rates: * * * *

The people of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with cats. Or, is it that the cats of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with people?  

The cats roam the streets, and live independent, full lives; they explore, they sleep, they raise their kittens. As presented here, they belong to no one, but willingly share their lives with people, often several of them simultaneously. 

In many cases they simply appear in people's lives, almost by magic; 

'He walked up the street and just came in here one day,' says a cafe owner, who adopted the tubby arrival, and now feeds it smoked turkey and manchego cheese.

'I call her the pyschopath!' says another with glee, reveling in his cat's reputation as a toughie, who even bullies her 'husband.'

The cats come, they bestow their presence and, you assume, on another day, they move on again. This seems in keeping with the atmosphere of Istanbul itself, which is presented as a timeless place, where life has its own rhythm. Using cats to highlight this trait is a clever idea, which is executed with disarming grace. If you love cats, and even if you do not, you will most likely leave this with a massive grin, plastered across your face. Kedi!




TONI ERDMANN



Rates: * * * * *

Winfried Conradi is an elderly German music teacher who goes his own way. Overweight, rumpled, and highly eccentric, he navigates his modest life according to a tune only he can hear.

On a whim, he decides to visit his high flying corporate daughter, Ines, at her latest posting in Bucharest. The two are estranged, and share an awkward weekend together, with Ines largely distracted with work. But rather than simply return to Germany, Winfried hatches a bizarre scheme to get more of his daughter's attention. He dons a pair of novelty teeth, reinvents himself as life coach 'Toni Erdmann', and begins ingratiating himself with Ines' colleagues and clients.

Somewhat misleadingly billed as an uproarious comedy, while 'Toni Erdman' has some inspired comic moments (including a much talked about nude scene), this is a film that offers a lot more than just laughs. Punctuating the humour are some honest, sad, melancholy scenes as the characters size each other other up, and come to see themselves each reflected in the other. These ring true, and struck


NEWTOWN



Rates: * * * *

It's December 14, 2012, and the citizens of Newtown, Connecticut are going about their comfortable, middle class lives.

At around 9am Adam Lanza, an insular 20 year old with a history of mental health problems, shoots and kills his mother in her bedroom at the house they share. He then drives her car to one of Newtown's elementary schools, Sandy Hook, and proceeds to murder 20 students and six members of staff. When police arrive and surround the school, he shoots himself.

It is the worst mass shooting at a high school in US History.

This film focuses on the aftermath, as parents, policeman, students and witnesses try to comprehend what has happened. Many admit that this is a fruitless task, a hopeless objective. One grieving mother says her life is divided in two; 'Everything that came before 12.14, and everything that came after.' A father who lost a son says, 'I am resigned to the fact that I will never get over this. I will never put it behind me.' 

It's emotionally raw stuff, and the first part of the film (featuring cc footage of the attack, and 911 call recordings) is brutally intense. Later, the movie shifts to a rumination on grief and mourning, as the survivors find different ways to cope.



FIRE AT SEA



Rates: * * * *

Lampedusa is a small island situated about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. Its location makes it an accidental destination for tens of thousands of refugees each year; Africans who are fleeing poverty and strife in rickety boats. This clear eyed documentary juxtaposes the nightmarish experiences of several boatloads of arrivals, against the placid, everyday life of the island's permanent inhabitants. 

The comparison could hardly be more stark.

Director Gianfranco Rosi deftly catches the languid rhythms of island life, his camera unobtrusively following several locals as they work, talk and play. This is placed alongside frantic images of refugees being digested by the system, scenes which range from anarchic, to sad, to utterly horrifying (there are a few truly shocking moments, where you could hear the whole cinema go silent). The combination is potent, and serves to underline the tragedy at the heart of the European migrant crisis; where two groups of people inhabit the same geographic location, but only one set is treated as human. 



GIRLFRIENDS



Rates: * * * * 1/2

Susan and Anne are best friends, and wannabe artists (one a photographer, the other a writer) sharing an apartment in 70s New York. They lean on each other as they navigate the currents of daily life - boyfriends, university, service industry jobs - while they try and make it in the city's cut throat arts scene. But Anne disrupts this dynamic when she falls in love and gets married, moving out to the suburbs to start a family. The friends stay in touch, still feel close, but struggle as their new lives pull them in different directions,

If the above synopsis sounds familiar - think 'Girls', or 'Frances Ha', or countless others - it may be because this low budget indy from 1978 has been a key influence for many subsequent writers and directors. Claudia Weill's film crafts a lovely, low key portrait of young people grappling with life's slippery challenges, that is funny, an timeless. As the independent Susan, Melanie Mayron anchors the film with an entirely unaffected performance, and the supporting cast - featuring Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach and a very young Christopher Guest - strike all the right notes, as the other players in her life.

Warm and charming, with the occasional slice of everyday heartbreak, this film is an absolute winner, in every respect. Screening as part of the 'Gaining Ground' program, highlighting pioneering works from female film makers in what remains a very blokey industry. Highly recommended.



EVOLUTION




Rates: * * * *

In a remote seaside village, young Nicholas lives in quiet seclusion with his mother. But something, or many things, are not right here; there are no adult men, for one thing, and Nicholas' mother sustains him with a diet of green sludge and ink water, for another. She is also up to something kinky on the beach every night. Most ominous of all, there is an unidentified facility nearby, where all of the village mothers take their sons for regular... treatment.

Deliberately paced, this brooding film is equal parts horror, sci fi and mediation. Do the events depicted take place on an Earth of the future? An alien world? Or a parallel dimension? There are clues, but no answers, and part of the fun is trying to determine what all of the puzzle pieces actually mean (for me, the title is probably the most relevant clue). 

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic (wife of Gasper Noe) has invested loving care in the visual design; the shots are beautifully assembled, with particular attention paid to framing (there are also repeated, stunning, visual references to a starfish, another clue). And the ragged production design and stark location add further to the film's impact. Darkly cerebral and quietly wild.



OPERATION AVALANCHE


Trailer

Rates: * * *

In the late 60's, nerdy CIA agents Matt and Owen have the unlikeliest jobs in the agency; they run the AV department, and make films about completed cases. Bored with this marginal assignment. they talk their way onto 'Operation Zipper', the search for a Russian spy embedded at NASA. But rather than an enemy agent, their investigation uncovers shortcomings in the American space program. And so Operation Zipper becomes Operation Avalanche, as our goofy heroes help fake the Apollo moon landings. With a home made capsule, and a lot of imported sand ('a rich brown sand, like molasses'), the space fakery is delivered successfully... leaving the boys somewhat expendable.

Writer, director and star Matt Johnson delivered in a big way with his first film 'The Dirties', in 2014; a jet black comedy that took aim at America's culture of violence. This, his follow up, fails to hit those heights, although it still delivers some dorky laughs, and its ramshackle, DIY ethic is hard to dislike. But the boys are simply not believable as CIA agents, and the whole thing falls a bit flat.

With a wandering narrative, some odd musical interludes, and a jarringly serious finale, this is, ultimately, a bit of a mess. But an amiable mess, from a young film maker with a lot of talent.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Real Life Movie Locations: LA and San Fran

A recent trip to Los Angeles and San Fransisco gave me the chance to visit a few locations featured in some of my favourite movies.

I mean, of course I did. I didn't realise it before I left home, but I have always wanted to go; 'Holy shit... It's Doc Brown's House!!'


BACK TO THE FUTURE

Doc Brown's House




So we may as well start there: Doc Brown's house!

I thought I might venture out of the central part of LA, and was thinking about spending half a day in Pasadena, which I had heard was like Main Street USA from fifty years ago. And while I was reading about what to have a look at out there, I came across the historic Gamble House.

Built in 1908 for David Gamble, one of the founding partners of the pharmaceutical firm Proctor and Gamble, this place is best known as Doc Brown's 1950's residence in the 'Back to the Future' series. It stands on a busy road a few minutes walk from central Pasadena, and the surrounding neighbourhood is full of other houses built in this unusual style; dark timber, Japanese influence, large and rambling,

The house is open for tours, run by the local historic society, but of course the day I was there was the only day they didn't run them (and I was leaving LA the next day). A middle aged American woman, taking photos next to me on the sidewalk, was in the same boat; 'It's so disappointing! I mean, I still went and knocked on the door and asked the man in there if we could come in, but he said no. They were having a meeting, or something.'



SUNSET BOULEVARD

Joe Gillis' Apartment Building



Possibly the greatest, and probably the most depressing, film ever made about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's magnificent 'Sunset Boulevard' is a classic that has aged well. The cynical, world weary tone of the film is, if anything, better suited to contemporary times than it was to the 50's, when it was released.

And while Gloria Swanson memorably fills the screen as faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, sadly the mansion that was used as her house in the film was knocked down some decades ago. But, what you can see, looking almost identical to how it does in the film, is hack screenwriter Joe Gillis' apartment building. Standing at the top of a small hill on North Ivar Street, with a fairly dismal view of one of LA's many freeways, the apartment building is but a short stroll away from the Walk of Fame.

And so I stood in the rain for a few minutes (the one rainy day I had in LA), and looked up at the top floor window, hearing William Holden's bitter voice over: 'I hadn't worked for a studio for some time...'



CHINATOWN

Echo Park Lake



Chinatown. The ultimate LA film, Jack. Faye. Roman. One of the greatest films of the 70s, and probably my favourite movie of all time. 

In this early scene, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is on the trail of prominent public servant Hollis Mulwray, trying to catch him two timing at the behest of Mulwray's 'wife.' He hits pay dirt at a local lake, snapping a few pics of his quarry rowing around a young girl he takes to be his girlfriend. 

This scene was filmed at Echo Park Lake, a local leisure spot in the inner northern suburbs of the city. Echo Park Lake nowadays is ringed by busy roads, but the park itself is quiet, and still retains some of the pleasant charm as depicted in the movie. The wooden walk bridge in the background of the shot above is still there, and there are still rowboats for hire at the small boathouse on the east side.

Evelyn Mulwray's Safehouse



Later in the film, as Jack starts to unravel the serpentine plot, he find himself drawn to the real Mrs Mulwray, the enigmatic Evelyn. After they sleep together, Evelyn receives an urgent phone call, and rushes off into the night. Jack tails her to a house in the suburbs, where this femme fatale is keeping all of her secrets...

Theses scenes were shot at the well kept suburban residence above, part of a long stretch of lookalike houses on Canyon Drive, north of Hollywood. As a trivial footnote, the same house was used in the 1999 comedy 'Blast From the Past'; it's the house where Alicia Silverstone lives with her brother.



LA STORY

SanDeE*'s Apartment Building




Harris: What was your name again?

Sandee: It's Sandee.

Harris: It's nice. Everyone seems to have such weird names nowadays. You know, it's Tiffany but with a p-h-i. Or instead of Nancy it's Nanceen.

Sandee: So it's capital s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e.

Harris: What?

Sandee: Captial s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e. And there's a little star at the end!

Steve Martin's 'LA Story' is a favourite 90's comedy of mine, and the most distinctive location is probably his sortof girlfriend SanDeE's apartment building. Located half a block from the board walk in Venice Beach, on Windward Avenue, this unmissable visual feast is actually home to a small market; the door and steps you can see above were props, added for the flick.

The mural was created in 1989 by local artist Rip Cronk. It looks a little different to how it appears in the film as the artist retouched it in 2010, to paint over some graffiti. The building itself, known as the Venice Beach Cotel, was also featured in an even more famous movie; Orson Welles' classic 'Touch of Evil' from 1958.


In the movie, the Venice Beach Cotel (disguised as The Ritz) is the hotel where Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are staying. To commemorate this, artist Jonas Nevas created the above mural on the other side of the building to SanDeE's, in 2012.



BEVERLY HILLS COP

Beverly Hills Police Headquarters




'Hey, this place is nice!'

So says Axel Foley, Detroit Police Detective, when he first sees the Beverly Hills police headquarters. And in comparison to the dirty, noisy and chaotic environment he has left behind back east, you can see why. I mean, I felt the same way myself, wandering around the palm tree lined boulevards of LA's most famous ritzy suburb; everything is clean, and expensive, and you feel like you don't belong.

In trouble for getting thrown through a window ('Are you kidding me?! The guy threw me through a fucking window!!') Axel has been arrested, and is about to meet up with Taggart and the gang for the first time. And the station that the beat cops have taken him to probably qualifies as the most grandiose precinct in movie history.

In reality, this is the Beverly Hills City Hall, a handsome stone building one block off Sunset Boulevard.


ANNIE HALL

Alfalfa Sprouts and Mashed Yeast



Woody Allen in LA.

For fans of his movies, this almost seems unthinkable. But in Woody's hilarious and bittersweet romantic comedy of 1977, 'Annie Hall', he visits La La Land not once, but twice. And amidst all the zingers aimed at Hollywood, these LA trips serve as road signs as his relationship with Annie falls apart; young and carefree, she is drawn to the bright lights and breezy lifestyle on the west coast, while he prefers grim and gritty New York ('If I get too mellow, you know, I ripen and I rot').

In the above scene, Woody has trekked out to LA for the last time, where Annie has moved to pursue a career as a singer, part of a last ditch effort to win her back. They meet at a restaurant, which is when Woody famously orders alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast for lunch.

The restaurant itself has a remarkable backstory. 

The Source in the 1970s.
When 'Annie Hall' was filmed, this was the 'The Source', one of LA's first organic restaurants. Founded in 1969 by former movie stuntman James Edward Baker, AKA Father Yod, The Source was the commercial front of a hippie-ish healthy living commune that Baker had founded called The Source Family. Mixing Eastern philosophy, yoga and vegetarianism, Baker's cult attracted a small following, but his restaurant was a raging success. 

The Source menu.
With a distinctive menu and a prime location at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, The Source attracted the cream of the film industry (notables such as Marlon Brando and Julie Christie were said to be regulars). It was so successful that Father Yod was able to open up two further eateries in the surrounding neighbourhood,

But success was at odds with The Source Family's principals. In 1974, Father Yod sold his businesses, and the remainder of his collective family moved to a new commune in Hawaii. The following year, this most enigmatic of restaurateurs died in a hang gliding accident. 

The Source restaurant changed hands several times subsequently, and was badly damaged in a fire in the 1980s. But it has survived through to the present day, a little worse for wear. Currently it is a cheap Mexican joint, The Cabo Cantina.




VERTIGO

Fort Point



Fort Point, at the southern foot of the Golden Gate, where Madeline throws herself into the bay. Sadly the authorities have blocked off the walkway round to the front of the old fort - it looks a bit rickety so I guess it is a safety thing - but in every other respect this was totally spectacular. The burnt rust colour of the bridge towering overhead, the golden brown of Marin County directly opposite, the eerie drone of the fog horns. The best place to see the bridge from, and I am only moderately biased.


The Palace of The Legion of Honour - Entrance



Carlotta's Portrait



The bench is gone, and the room has been painted, but the Palace of the Legion of Honour (a stylish art gallery in the Presidio) marks the room where Hitchcock filmed this scene in their program.


The Elster's Apartment Building



Perched at the very top of the tallest hill in central San Fran, is the appropriately named mini suburb Nob Hill. A perfect place for a wealthy couple like Madeline and Gavin Elster to live. And their building looks absolutely identical to the movie, to the point where you almost feel like you are walking onto a set as you approach.


Mission Dolores





Built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1790s, Mission Dolores is the oldest building in San Fransisco. The original mission building is simple and beautifully crafted, with some wonderful 19th century art adorning the walls. And the adjoining cemetery is quiet, and quietly mysterious, with its shaded, narrowly winding baths and decaying statues. 

It is here that Jimmy Stewart's obsession starts to get the better of him, and it seemed the prime spot for it. There was a timeless quality behind the stucco brick walls of the building, you felt quite disconnected from the busy suburb outside, and I realised that these locations are not chosen by accident.

And that brought me to the end of my movie scene tourism. There were loads more that I didn;t get to; more Chinatown locations, the hotel where they shot that scene in Ghostbusters, the high school where the exteriors for Pretty in Pink were shot, the lobby of the hotel Barton Fink stays at, countless others.

But I know, with an absolute degree of certainty, that I will be back.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best Films of 2015

2015 was a great year for the movies... and an average one for Hollywood. 

It was also the year that Doc Brown and Marty arrived in their Delorean. And I well remember going to see 'Back to the Future' when it first came out in 1985. 

It screened at the local movie house in Papatoe, in Auckland, and while New Zealand was a great place to grow up, it was a quiet place, and it was hard not to think that you were a bit disconnected from the rest of the world there. It was rustic like, and a bit old fashioned, and most of the TV was from the BBC, and most of the white people living there were from the BBC (or England, at least) as well.

So 'Back to the Future' exploded like a thousand suns in my 8 year old imagination. There was something definitely un-rustic, and non-old fashioned about it; it was fast and loud and glib and it had rock music and a flashy car and a JVC video camera that it was my immediate 8 year old ambition to own. Even the poster was exciting.

So I saw 'Back to the Future' with my mum and my brother and I felt like I was walking on air when I came out of it. Although the real world, of stodgy old Auckland, seemed a bit diminished afterwards (we moved to the considerably more exciting Australia the following year... coincidence?). One 90 minute flick had forever changed my perceptions.

This experience is harder to capture nowadays. The cinema in Papatoe is long gone, New Zealand is a bit more modern than it used to be, and 'Back to the Future' is in seemingly endless re-run on Channel 10. But the power of the movies remains, and us excessive watchers of things are spoilt by the endless array of choices that we have, in what we can watch, and so experience.

And so, with the usual provisos (I missed a lot of movies that were probably very important, and didn't like a few that everyone seemed to love, and I don't know that much about that much), my ten favourite flicks of the year...



10. IT FOLLOWS 

 

Dreamy teenager Maika lives an unremarkable existence in suburban Detroit; she hangs with her friends, swims in her pool, and makes cute with her mildly rugged boyfriend, Jake. But beneath his bland facade, Jake has a secret; he is being pursued by an evil... thing (pretty much indescribable) which he picked up from his previous girlfriend. And when Jake sleeps with Maika, he passes 'it' along to her; 'It could look like someone you know, or a stranger in the crowd, but wherever you are, it's going to be walking, straight towards you.' And it doesn't wish her well. Relentlessly pursued, and not totally sure she hasn't gone barmy, Maika tries to dodge her supernatural pursuer long enough to figure out how to destroy it.

Odd considering their popularity, but good horror films have become a rare commodity. And 'It Follows' succeeds, in part, because it is daring enough to play outside the standard genre conventions. One early scene aside, it is not at all gory, and it resists the temptation to offer either a pat explanation for the plot, or a tidy conclusion (both letdowns in nearly every recent horror film I can think of). Instead of these well worn grooves, the movie trades on a kind of nightmarish uneasiness; neither you, nor the characters can ever really relax once the story is in motion. 'It' can also be read as a substitute for a number of  contemporary issues; from STD's, to the diminished status of parents, to the dangers lurking online, all of which are given a savvy treatment. Seemingly around for ages (this played the festival circuit last year), 'It Follows' finally had a limited release in 2015, and proved well worth the wait. A reminder of how exciting a good genre film can be.


9. TANGERINE



LA trans sex worker Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) hears from her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her, and, much more shockingly, cheating on her with an actual girl ('With a vagina and everything!'). While Sin Dee wants to confront them, Alexandra tries to keep her friend in check, and keep her from returning to prison, and also organise her cabaret debut at a local nightclub. On Sin Dee's tail is her admirer Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a married cabbie with a thing for trans sex ('What the hell is that?!' he asks, aghast, when a girl hooker he picks up by mistake takes her clothes off). And then there's the cops, the tricks, the pros, Razmik's mother in law, one recalcitrant fast food proprietor, and the galaxy of nutters who form the population of modern LA; a volatile mix all headed for a showdown at the local 'Donut Time.'

The whirlwind pace and manic energy that powers 'Tangerine' sits squarely on the slim shoulders of the principal character; once Sin Dee is set in motion, she unleashes like a human tornado, sweeping everything along in her melodramatic wake. Rodriguez's performance is phenomenal, and is well matched by the rest of the cast, who find the humanity in some fairly extreme personas. Indie director Sean S. Baker filmed this on three iPhones at real locations, and this innovative approach adds greatly to the films immediacy. There are also a few pauses for breath along the way, and this allows other, gentler aspects of the characters to shine through. There are no simple morals here, more a universal message about people; we are all fundamentally the same, and want the same things, regardless of our individual idiosyncrasies. It is hard to imagine a more topical theme, and it is communicated here with skill and style.



8. A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH AND REFLECTED ON EXISTENCE


A man dies of a heart attack and leaves an awkward situation for a cafeteria worker; what will she do with his lunch? A modern coffee shop is taken over by the advance cavalry of the Army of King Charles X, on their way into battle 300 years beforehand. Meanwhile, a pair of manically depressed toy salesmen trudge from one client to the next; angry, suicidal, but sustained by their blind faith in a new rubber fright mask.

Swedish director Roy Anderson's new film, the third of a trilogy, is nothing more than a series of sketches. And while individually they may appear to be about... nothing very much, in combination they provide a darkly comic view of the inhabitants of the modern world; obsessed with trivia, indifferent to suffering, cynically detached, cold and self absorbed. They are also, if you are tuned the right way, desperately funny. This is a film then, that works on several levels at once; the bizarre, unpredictable surface is both baffling and amusing, but also serves to unlock the deeper themes that Anderson is trying to get at. Why do we do the things that we do? And what is the point of any of it? An existential experience, that can also make you laugh.

 
7. TIMBUKTU



In remote Timbuktu, life continues much as it has for centuries; the men work on their farms while their wives tend to the houses and children. The town itself is small and primitive, with little by way of organised authority. People do much as they please, and settle disputes, sometimes violently, amongst themselves. This loose arrangement is dramatically shaken up with the arrival of a militant Islamic group (based on the real life Ansar Dine), that marches out of the desert one day and simply takes over. The inevitable clash between these two sides - people unused to authority and those wishing to impose a strict vesion of it - leads to escalating tension, and a shockingly violent outcome.

Part current events, part travelogue, and part commentary on human nature, this remarkable film from Mauritian director Abderrahmane Sissako connects an exotic location to the rest of the world. While the spread of Islamic fundamentalism has been much discussed everywhere, less has been said about the poor suckers who live in the territories that are being fought over, and how their lives change. This simple, observational film helps rectify this, and provides a sense of what it would be like to have armed strangers suddenly hold sway over your life. It's a sickening thought, made more so as the film reveals the hypocrisy that underpins these alleged fanatics. Powerful stuff.


6. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT


Harley is a tough New York kid whose life revolves around heroin, alcohol, and hustling up enough dough to keep her in both. Her horizons are limited and she rarely thinks beyond the next half day cycle; where she will sleep that night, and where she will get a 'wake up' fix in the morning. Complications arise in the shape of two young men she attaches herself to; Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a volatile hothead with a full range of issues, and manic Mike (Buddy Duress), a messed up raconteur with a surprisingly gentle soul. The boys butt heads over Harley, who walks a circular path between them, her romantic inclinations as uncertain as any other part of her life.

Directing duo Josh and Benny Safdie's remarkable new film takes us on a tour of the seedy side of modern New York and, behind the glitz of the Big Apple's tourist park fa├žade, things haven't changed much since 'Midnight Cowboy.' Newcomer Arielle Holmes provides a believable lead as Harley, and she certainly knows the territory; the film is based on her book 'Mad Love in New York City', a memoir of her years on the streets. But the whole cast is overflowing with vibrant performances, Jones and Duress chief among them, backed by countless others. The real life locations, and grungy, cluttered production design add to the ring of authenticity this movie carries, which then adds weight to its emotional heft. You simply feel like you are on the street alongside these chaotic kids, sharing their mixed up lives for a bit. It's a potent mix, and this is a brilliant film.




5. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD



Adrift in the barren wasteland of the future, Max Rockatanski has fallen into the clutches of the War Boys, a car worshipping militia lead by the hulking Immortan Joe. When Joe's daughter Furiosa rebels and flees in a fortified tanker trunk, with Joe's young concubines in tow, Max seizes his chance and joins the exodus. Reluctantly at first, Furiosa eventually accepts Max and the pair combine their skills and wits, as they dash down the Fury Road towards freedom, Joe and his gang in aggressive hot pursuit.

Short on plot but long on style, the kinetic new film from Australian director George Miller picks up the Mad Max story 30 years after he went Beyond Thunderdome. And, in some ways, not a lot has changed; Max is still a loner who has to be dragged to the good fight, and the post apocalyptic desert is still a warzone of desperate, highly weird crazies. But advances behind the camera now allows Miller and his crew to do things that were unthinkable in the 80s. The cinematography, stunts, and action sequences are nothing short of amazing, and have to rank amongst the best from all cinema history. Replacing the iconic (and fallen) Mel Gibson, British actor Tom Hardy offers a sturdy, muscular Max, but the film's real casting innovation is in the number of women it has placed in major roles, a rarity for an action film. Lead by Charlize Theron (terrific as Furiosa), the women of Fury Road show they can give every bit as good as they get, and so strike a bit of a blow for gender politics at the movies. Eye popping, adrenaline candy, with some unexpected substance beneath.


4. INSIDE OUT

 

11 year old Riley is facing her first major moment of uncertainty; her father's new job requires a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, meaning she will have to change schools and leave all of her friends behind. Compounding this, the moving van goes missing, her parents get narky with each other, and their new local pizza joint only serves weird toppings (broccoli!). This young life crisis is played out inside Riley's mind, as her five key emotions - Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger - monitor proceedings, shape Riley's responses, and look after her memories. They also bicker amongst themselves, and this leads to Joy and Sadness being accidentally flung out of 'Headquarters', and lost in the labyrinth of Riley's long term memory. As they try and make their way back, they encounter forgotten memories, dreams and nightmares, abstract thought and the subconscious, and also realise that they will have to change, as Riley changes, and grows up.

The first of two Pixar movies for 2015  takes a most unlikely subject - the internal functioning of the brain, essentially - and turns it into a wild, funny and imaginative treat, accessible to kids and oldies alike. The complexity of our neural processes is reflected on screen, but the level of detail on display never becomes confusing, and the internal logic of Riley's brain always makes sense. The film was in development for 6 years, and a number of psychologists consulted, and that research shows. Director Pete Docter adds another triumph to an impressive CV ('Monsters Inc', 'Up'), and he is aided by wonderful performances from his vocal cast, Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) chief amongst them. But all of Riley's emotions get a turn at the forefront, and we get to share these feelings with her, leading to an emotional roller coaster ride that is moving, hilarious and indelible. And stay tuned for the end credits! One of Pixar's best.


3. THE TRIBE


Teenager Sergei (Grigory Fesenko) has been sent to a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf. He is shown the ropes, and quickly comes to understand that a vicious gang of students (the Tribe of the title) calls the shots; trading in alcohol and drugs, pimping out the female students, dealing out violent retribution to any opposition. Quick witted and fearless, Sergei is shortly initiated into the gang, and starts helping run their operations, seemingly at home in this amoral environment. But conflict arrives when he falls for Anya, a troubled girl who warms to Sergei, but definitely does not want to shake up the status quo. When Sergei tries to force Anya to stop prostituting herself, it sets in motion a chain reaction; Sergei crosses the Tribe, is brutally dealt with, and then plots his revenge...

This tough, extraordinarily bleak drama is not an easy sale; there is little humour, and almost no hope, across the two hours, and there are a couple of scenes that are almost impossibly difficult to watch (someone fainted in the cinema, when I saw it). And what is on display are the worst excesses of human behaviour, largely untrammeled. But the message behind this is important; this is what happens in any closed system where there are no checks and balances, the sleep of reason that breeds monsters, a simple theme that can be applied to almost any situation. The first movie to be filmed entirely in sign language, the lack of subtitles forces the audience to concentrate very intently on the goings on, onscreen. This adds to the films impact, as you feel more fully drawn into the events depicted. It is a hard film to distance yourself from, and the key moments hit like a sledgehammer. An important film, on a very difficult subject.


2. BIRDMAN

   
 
Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up Hollywood actor taking a big chance on Broadway; he is self financing a play, based on his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, in which he is also to star. He is aided, and hindered, by his flaky daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Mike Skinner, a pretentious, Brando-esque leading man (Ed Norton), and the rest of his cast, his agent and his ex wife, and a vitriolic theatre critic. As each rehearsal turns into a fiasco, and Riggan has to mortgage his house to keep things running, the pressure steadily mounts towards the implacable deadline of opening night.

Released way back in January, immediately prior to The Oscars that it would dominate, director Alejandro Inarritu's black comedy gives new meaning to the term 'fast paced.' The director's foot is firmly on the accelerator here, as he sends his steady-cam charging up and down the corridors of the rickety theatre where the play is being staged, following Riggan as he storms towards his (apparent) doom. Cinematograhoper Emmanuel Lubezki, and the editing team, have worked some magic with this approach, cleverly staging and connecting the footage so it looks like one endless take. There are no obvious edits, no cuts, no breaks in the relentless pressure that ratchets up around Riggan as his life falls apart. Veteran actor Keaton delivers the performance of his career in the lead, but the entire cast explodes; there are no passengers among this talented group, and even the smaller roles are played with style (Galifinakis is particularly good, in a more serious role than usual). This is a film that stands astride eras, the very modern presentation mixed with classical ideas; the dialogue crackles like something from the golden age of Hollywood, and the melding of dreams and illusions, the theatre play with the characters real lives, recalls famous movies from Fellini and Malle (among others). Exhilarating.


1. SONG OF THE SEA
 
   

In rural Ireland, lighthouse keeper Conor lives on a remote speck with his pregnant wife Bronagh, and son Ben. But Bronagh has a secret, one which is revealed the night she gives birth; she is a Selkie, a mythical creature who turns into a seal when she enters the ocean. After Bronagh mysteriously vanishes, Conor is left to raise his children on his own, sinking into melancholic indifference. Time passes, and his daughter Saoirse begins to show that she has not only inherited her mother's unusual gifts, but also has domain over a unique magical song. When the nefarious Owl Witch gets wind of this, she tries to capture Saoirse, who then has to go on the run with her brother, an epic adventure that leads them to any number of eccentric, fairy tale creatures, living in hiding.

But a thumbnail sketch of the plot can hardly do justice to this film: it is, simply, stunning.

Irish director Tomm Moore has opted for a traditional approach to the animation here, and the loving craft behind this is on display in every scene. The visuals are spectacular; artistic and intimate, with the kind of rough around the edges presentation that marks each one as a unique, individual work. This incredible look and feel is connected to a moving story that works; along with the cute creatures and animals and the zippy plot are sophisticated statements about loss, and family, and finding your place in the world.

The vocal cast all do a terrific job, and the music score provides just the right level of folky charm. Every aspect, in fact, works quite brilliantly, and the sum of these expert individual parts is a film that is amazing on every level; visceral, emotional, funny and sad.

While the rest of my top ten list (with one exception) features monsters and misery, torture, brutality and suffering, or just a lot of emtional angst, it was a surprise to me to find that, at the end of the year, my favourite film had been one aimed squarely at kids. But really, this just highlights one of my favourite things about going to the movies; you simply never know where the next brilliant flick is going to come from. And 'Song of the Sea' summed that up, and summed up so much of what I love about the movies in general.



Roll on 2016!




Also very good:

- The Postman's White Night

- Zero Motivation

- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

- 99 Homes

- Mississippi Grind

- Slow West

- Star Wars: The Force Awakens

- Love and Mercy

- The Theory of Everything

- Sicarrio

- Montage of Heck

- Hill of Freedom

- Leviathan

- Clouds of Sils Maria