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