The year in cinema releases, festival highlights, and moments from films that history might otherwise forget.
2015 wasn’t a great year for cinema; most likely, it won’t even be remembered as a good one. One could decry remakes, sequels, and comic book movies, but apart from the fact that those happen every year, it’s notable that two of Hollywood’s three best 2015 efforts, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, are built on long-established franchises. (The third, The Martian, is an adaptation of a novel.)
At this point in history, it’s accepted that we’ll be fed our own cinematic or literary past; is it too much to ask to do it well? Apparently. Whether it’s in the form of ill-conceived literary adaptation (Fifty Shades of Grey, Madame Bovary), unnecessary remakes of foreign films (Secret in Their Eyes), resurrections of mildly unbeloved television shows (Entourage), anodyne biopics (Trumbo), grudging franchise installments (Spectre) or ostensibly original films that feed on their genre forebears (Focus, Southpaw), far too many films were absent of surprise. Amongst a cavalcade of genre fare, Avengers: Age of Ultron singled itself out as especially dull and unnecessary. No wonder terrible films like Aloha and Blackhat were widely praised amongst a certain stripe of cinephile; their failures were those of men pursuing an individual vision, instead of making assembly line product. (Even if their vision was itself recognisable as a pale copy of their previous work.)
International cinema seemed, too, to have a creeping homogenization. Matteo Garrone, Joachim Trier, and Yorgos Lanthimos all debuted at Cannes with English-language films, and Paolo Sorrentino returned with his second, while international co-financing has reached such heights that France’s Academy Award submission is Mustang, an ostensibly Turkish film scored by ubiquitous Australian Warren Ellis. Ethiopia’s first Cannes entry, Lamb, arrived on the back of co-producers France, Germany, and Norway. It used to be that filmmakers would emerge from countries with new voices—now, it seems, they emerge first with business plans. The result will lead to tidier, shinier, and more populist films. Whether it will lead in the long term to durable auteurist voices seems an open question. (And I say that as one who loved The Lobster.)
These forms of gatekeeping are inevitable, of course. Just this month, it was revealed that 12,973 films applied to Sundance, over 4,000 of which were features. To put that in context, if you watched six feature films a day, one beyond my usual maximum for binge viewing, you’d get through 2,190 films. Film is in appalling oversupply, even if a pitiful fraction of that desired supply reaches these shores through conventional channels (thanks to our archaic rating system). Add to that the continued rise and increased accessibility of binge television, and a film without a marketing budget has an increasingly scant chance of being seen, despite the actual mechanics of watching being easier than ever.
I would like to report that my viewing this year dug past the surface to exclusively focus on these truffles in the undergrowth, but for various circumstances I wound up watching more mainstream cinema-released films than ever this year. Few of them were great, and many have drifted entirely from consciousness, but (film festival, as always, aside) 2015 will be a fever dream of moments from films that history might forget:
- Raffey Cassidy as an adorable, ass-kicking android, the breakout performer of the year in a movie nobody cared about, Tomorrowland. (Props also for pulling off the best cheat for fixing a movie in post, as she warns that her mouth is going to go out of synchronization due to damage.)
- Atticus Ross using soundscapes to take us deep into Brian Wilson’s head in Love & Mercy, giving the best technical contribution to any film and providing the rare sonic justification for seeing a film theatrically.
- The unfussy complexity of Christopher MacQuarrie’s direction in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reaching its apex in the third act, as Cruise and a baddy have a fight in a street that rolls into a house, then back out, without the camera following them inside.
- ‘Glory’, Selma.
- I didn’t groove on Tangerine’s shrill, chroma-heavy and musically abrasive surfaces as much as some, but it’s an undeniable achievement; my favourite performance, lingering at the edges, is Shih-Ching Tsou, the hilariously deadpan put-upon operator of a donut shop.
- The credit cookie in Inside Out that reveals how a cat’s head operates.
- The orange, roiling fires and silhouettes warring at the end of Macbeth.
- “Oamaru Air”, “Tuatara Air” and “Tussock Air”, three fictitious New Zealand airlines that you’ll miss if you blink at the start of Everest.
- “I’m everywhere, bitch”—time travel is executed for petty high school revenge in Project Almanac, because of course that’s what teenagers would do.
- LeBron James may not get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Trainwreck, but I won’t complain if he does; his persona-tweaking performance gave more laughs than many of the comedians on the credits. (Also stealing the show: John Cena.)
- For all its frustrations, Sorrentino’s Youth has no shortage of striking moments and images, peaking with Paul Dano having, shall we say, Godwin’s Meal.
- For those who like their films to take detours, Magic Mike XXL consists of almost nothing but; the best of them involves an African-American strip club for women and Donald Glover as a star performer.
- The interplay between the always-great and woefully underused Jane Adams and Jared Harris as spiritualists with a shared past was the highlight of the not-great, yet wildly underrated Poltergeist.
- Speaking of underrated, Jurassic World gets too little credit for embracing absurdity (the triceratops riding corral!) and making the most trenchant commentary on the society of the spectacle in any Hollywood picture before it loses control in its back half.
- Adam Scott has always been a joy to watch, but his performance in Sleeping With Other People is the first time I’ve felt his range, as he takes a visual punchline and imbues it with deep anger and real humanity, all at once.
- Despite being a fan of Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, I wasn’t taken with Jupiter Ascending, but the moment that the camera zoomed in on an otherwise-ignored elephant-nosed alien copilot making a noise of glee for no good reason was a king hit to my pleasure center.
- The Walk’s first two acts were insufferable and redundant in a post-Man on Wire universe, but the walk itself, while not for the vertiginous, was as stunning a use of 3-D as you could see this year, deserving of a giant canvas.
- The Dressmaker’s sorghum-related twist completely threw me for a loop, an act of audience aggression I deeply admired in an uneven film that feels like it escaped from 1994.
- Overhead shots of landscapes in Marshland infused this otherwise relatively standard procedural with a powerful scope and feel, making the beautiful ugly and vice-versa.
- The real star of Born to Dance was Parris Goebel; her mid-film female-positive dance number, serving no real narrative function whatsoever, was as joyful as anything in Magic Mike XXL, another cross-racial paean to the transporting power of movement.
- Bridge of Spies felt like a dutiful biopic light on excitement, but used cinematic transitions like no other film this year, page turns flipping from one character to another with a well-worn, effortless mastery.
- Spotlight is the kind of well-done worthy film that is hard to find fault in and harder still (for me, at least) to find excitement in, but Liev Schrieber’s performance as a Jewish newspaper editor in a Catholic town is a quiet marvel, wildly overlooked in “awards buzz”, the useless distraction that it is. Similarly tucked away in a movie of a very different register is a terrific performance by Michael Shannon; while his monstrous turn in 99 Homes took most of the recognition, his quietly intense drug dealer in The Night Before brought most of the laughs—and interest—to an otherwise slipshod film.
- Split-screen is my guilty pleasure, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. revels in it. This year’s highlight in exercises in empty style and hip soundtracks, it may not amount to much, and Ritchie’s too ADD to commit to genre pastiche in full, but the heights he reaches are giddy.
A top 20 general New Zealand releases for 2015:
- Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA)
- The Salt Of The Earth (Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Brazil/Italy, 2014)
- Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden, 2014)
- The Ground We Won (Christopher Pryor/Miriam Smith, NZ)
- It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, 2014)
- Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA)
- The Guest (Adam Wingard, USA, 2014)
- The Martian (Ridley Scott, USA)
- Creed (Ryan Coogler, USA)
- Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, USA)
- Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón, Argentine/Spain)
- Office (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong)
- Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, USA, 2014)
- Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths, USA, 2013)
- Furious 7 (James Wan, USA)
- Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, USA)
- Paddington (Paul King, UK/France, 2014)
- Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, USA/Germany/UK, 2014)
- Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK)
- Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, UK/USA)
Of those, some are already well known, while some escaped into (and promptly out of) theatres with the quietest of footfalls. Only a few attentive cinemagoers in Auckland would have noticed Johnnie To’s Office, which we sadly only received in its 2-D format. While I’m not always partial to 3-D, Office’s extraordinary proliferation of surging vertical lines, an improbable shotgun hybrid of Dogville, Jacques Tati, and Tron: Legacy (with echoes of Len Lye), was one of the most intoxicating aesthetic visions in narrative cinema this year, and an extra dimension could only have heightened its power. Lucky Them, by contrast, was almost aggressively naturalistic in its form, but it struck a profound chord in Toni Collette’s portrait of an aging rock writer navigating the baggage of the past in part to avoid the baggage of the present. Funny and rich, it was late in arriving and widely overlooked; it’s the sort of modest adult entertainment that used to be routine, but is now missing and presumed dead.
The Guest and Ex Machina were two genre delights that also arrived wildly late to New Zealand cinemas. The former, Adam Wingard’s follow up to the lively slasher comedy You’re Next, is a finely-honed genre exercise that manages to sneak in lovely subversion both in its perceived genre and its subject matter, while featuring an extraordinary performance from Dan Stevens (not to mention a range-defining turn from It Follows star Maika Monroe). After one viewing of Ex Machina, I’m on the fence as to whether it’s sophisticated and thoughtful or profoundly silly, but its surfaces are so intoxicating that I’m not deeply fussed. That it only arrived (bar its NZIFF screening) after its local Blu-ray release, with virtually no advance word, is more than a little absurd, and indicative of how second-tier titles are routinely shuffled around the board, only to have their box office failure upon eventual release held up as proof that such films lack an audience. Self-fulfilling prophecy, ahoy!
In Auckland, at least, one theatre, Academy Cinemas, is taking gambles other theatres won’t, using an innovative system to book films over long periods of time with fewer screenings each week, and $5 second-run movies that extend runs even longer. It’s also hosted return viewings for NZIFF films such as Dope, The Tribe, and Mustang. Whether it’s a sustainable strategy remains to be seen; at my recent screening of Mustang, I comprised 100% of the audience. In a world where blockbuster film tickets are sold months in advance like concert tickets, will there be enough casual filmgoers to support modest arthouse screenings?
Festival only releases have been excluded from this list, otherwise NZIFF film festival stand outs The Duke Of Burgundy, The Lobster, Arabian Nights Volume 2 (Really For “Tears Of The Judge”), Hill Of Freedom, Western, Partisan, Pervert Park, Finders Keepers, and Sydney Film Festival standout Breaking a Monster would have all found a place, roughly in that order. Two films I’ve been late in catching up with are Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s intoxicating post-celluloid fever dream, The Forbidden Room, probably my favourite film of the year; and, in an entirely different register, Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup to The Act of Killing, proving that a whisper can be just as gut-wrenching as a scream.
Special notice also should be given to two worthwhile films in which I’m credited, the provocative Out of the Mist and the delightfully batshit Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws. Both are available online, as are (at least on US iTunes, which Apple has locked me into somehow—sorry, NZ distributors) some other notable films that couldn’t be included above. Bone Tomahawk is intimidatingly well-written (by first-time director S. Craig Zahler) and an often hysterically funny western with a cruelly powerful third act turn and what may be a career high performance from Richard Jenkins. Another first time writer-director, John Magary, combined spare unsentimentality, beautifully controlled photography, and endless paroxysms of the unexpected in his micro-budget brother drama The Mend. Perhaps the cruelest big-screen deprivation of 2015 was Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. While it tested my patience at points, no film was as beautifully photographed, an opioid reverie that made a perfect counterpart to the fever dream of The Forbidden Room in showcasing the possibilities at the edges of narrative cinema today. For 2016, may more of this life find its way to the centre.