Ten films to write home about in 2015, plus ten discoveries and revelations.
- Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France, 2014)
- Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, USA)
- The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014)
- Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
- The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)
- Max Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA)
- La Sapienza (Eugène Green, France/Italy, 2014)
- It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, 2014)
- Respire (Mélanie Laurent, France, 2014)
- I, Dalio (Mark Rappaport, USA)
Festival Highlights: Embrace of the Serpent, The Forbidden Room, The Lobster, The Measure of a Man, Mustang, Phoenix, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Tehran Taxi.
Elsewhere: Eden, Foxcatcher, The Gift, The Guest, Inherent Vice, Kabukichô Love Hotel, Wild.
No film took—and asked its audience to make—a leap of faith quite like Bird People in 2015. Widely praised when it premiered at Cannes last year, Pascale Ferran’s long overdue follow-up to Lady Chatterley has slipped off the radar since. That’s partly due to its generic logline—two lonely individuals cross paths in a hotel, the premise for any number of movies about urban alienation—but also because what’s unique about the film is best left unsaid. What I can say without spoiling it is that it is singular, adventurous, and thrilling in its imperfections—a risky yet never reckless play between realism and awe. Ferran’s skill is finding that balance within ordinary scenery (such as in the film’s terrific opening sequence, a commute to/from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport) as well as mastering CGI in a way that hasn’t been seen since The Social Network. If not the most ‘complete’ film to make my top ten, absolutely the most memorable.
Experimenter is similarly flawed yet too impressive to ignore. Like The Look of Silence, form transcends subject matter—and crucially, the spurious trappings of the biopic genre. Both films are incredible studies in observation: the humanism of eye contact in Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing; and the complexities of human conscience in Michael Almereyda’s retelling of the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which he extrapolates not merely what was celebrated about Milgram’s seminal “obedience to authority” research, but what was deemed dishonest and problematic, into the aesthetic and spatial design of the film. Quite apart from “The Stanley Milgram Story,” which Experimenter fulfils in a low-level way, is its uncanny engagement with the pretence of biopics and the role cinema plays in the relationship between performer and spectator. Even when faced with the film’s more conventional backend—a letdown compared to its sophisticated first half—I couldn’t help but find its plateau, paralleled by Milgram’s own slide into domestic obscurity, a fitting anticlimax, one wrapped up in Milgram’s struggle to assert the validity of his work and reconcile art with science. In its own understated way, the smartest film of the year.
Bubbling under, Cemetery of Splendour and The Assassin were prime examples of auteurs at the top of their game. No comment required for Mad Max: Fury Road—its action spoke louder than words. La Sapienza, the latest from the director of The Portuguese Nun, is a magical meditation on life and art. Its strange geometric form, complemented by rich philosophical themes, is satisfying in a way that’s intrinsically European and made me long for the cinema of the late Manoel de Oliveira. Surprise package of the year: Mélanie Laurent’s Respire (Breathe). Though better known as an actress, Laurent is a confident filmmaker in her own right, and this film exhibits such control and awareness, of both the dramatic and formal variety, that even its most overassertive moments feel like shrewd directional decisions. Only David Robert Mitchell with It Follows made a better sophomore feature in 2015.
Rounding out the top ten, a nod to my favourite film essay, I, Dalio. In a year in which I spent much of it crafting my own film essay and drawing inspiration from more experienced practitioners of the form, Mark Rappaport’s short documentary on the many roles of French-Jewish actor Marcel Dalio stood out in a sea of video essays preoccupied with image fetishisation and hero worship. What I appreciate about I, Dalio—and this goes for Rappaport’s other actor-centric film histories, too—is its exhaustive research revealed through an economy of narration and clip selection, and its human and thematic interest in stories that go beyond—and are often suppressed by—the screen. Rappaport isn’t trying to dazzle us like some video essayists; his game is shifting the sight lines through which we see and think about movies. This heightened perception is evident in three other shorts he released in 2015: Our Stars, Becoming Anita Ekberg, and The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk (the latter two screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival).
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Not dissimilar to Respire’s toxic relationship drama (or “when actors direct” categorisation), Joel Edgerton’s The Gift doesn’t probe the edges of its standard domestic thriller casing yet benefits from excellent screen craft. As a “yuppies in peril” throwback, it’s further evidence of a trend towards genre cinema couched in the past. In horror, this fondness for approximating the mood and tone of a filmmaking era or house style has been present for a while now, at least noticeably since Ti West’s House of the Devil and the old-school scary movies of James Wan. What’s going on in It Follows and The Guest, for instance, is less of a postmodern gesture, I think, and more of an authentic form of revival, one grounded in cinematic intelligence as opposed to intellectual property. The Gift may look like a derivative thriller on the box, just don’t call it lazy: there’s a greater degree of difficulty in its execution compared to your average reboot or remake because it returns us to the kind of film that people have either forgotten how to make or no longer want to distribute (no surprises it went straight to VOD and home video in New Zealand).
Actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden co-starred in Ted Geoghegan’s above-average horror movie We Are Still Here this year, and he also co-wrote and cameoed in a horror video game, Until Dawn. An entertaining grab bag of popular horror tropes, what’s notable about this movie/game hybrid isn’t the extent to which it cannibalizes the genre, but rather how it allows the audience/player to react to its familiar patterns and resist them if they dare. Until Dawn is a story-based game (as opposed to the kind where you blow shit up) which progresses—and changes, like a choose-your-own adventure—according to the decisions you make at key moments. If you’ve ever watched a slasher movie and yelled at the screen because a character hid under a bed instead of running for their life, or debated over what you’d do in the same diabolical do-or-die torture scenario, there’s perverse pleasure to be had in trying to break the conventional narrative. (Ironically, the game also shows us that when faced with split second decisions, we are as just as likely to panic and make the same stupid choices as any stereotypical horror character.)
Gone but not forgotten, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River received some of the worst notices of the year. Say what you will about what it lacks (a certainty of vision) or who it shamelessly imitates (David Lynch), but as an exercise in cinematography (courtesy of Benoît Debie), only The Assassin (by the great Mark Lee Ping Bin) and It Follows (by newcomer Mike Gioulakis) gave us more striking colour images in 2015.
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Ten film discoveries and revelations in 2015 follow, illustrated and with brief annotations:
Curse of the Cat People (Gunther V. Fritsch/Robert Wise, USA, 1944)
Of all the Val Lewton low-budget horror classics, Curse of the Cat People—a sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People only by name and erroneous marketing—is the most revelatory, precisely because it’s not a horror movie. With imagery to rival the dark expressionism of The Night of the Hunter and an empathy for the rarely-told experience of introversion and solitude, it’s one of the most poetic films ever made about the interior landscape of childhood.
Ride the Pink Horse (Robert Montgomery, USA, 1947)
One of the great, unsung noirs, brought back from the dead by the Criterion Collection in 2015. Robert Montgomery, a hard-bitten leading man who also occasionally directed, was nothing if not an innovator: before this film, he made the experimental Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947), shot entirely from the first person perspective of Philip Marlowe. Ride the Pink Horse is a film noir cast in unusual shades: ambitious long takes, lived in spaces, minority characters in the foreground, and Wanda Hendrix’s scene-stealing turn as Montgomery’s Mexican sidekick.
Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1976)
There’s something about the carefree tone of Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot—a relaxed, loose-fitting swan song made against the grain of the New Hollywood of the time and his own previous film, the ultra-violent Frenzy—that tuned into my wavelength. Starring the criminally underrated Barbara Harris, this oft-maligned goofball of a movie holds up when viewed through the same Californian groove practiced by Robert Altman in the seventies (or Paul Thomas Anderson with Inherent Vice, for that matter).
Night on the Galactic Railroad (Kenji Miyazawa, Japan, 1985)
A surreal, oneiric anime about two cats who board a locomotive bound for the cosmos. Just don’t show it to kids, unless you want to blindside them with deep existential themes and an ending as devastating as any put forth in children’s cinema or otherwise.
Better Off Dead (Savage Steve Holland, USA, 1985)
First Louis C.K., then Paul Thomas Anderson cited the influence of Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope on their work. Before it becomes fashionable, I’ll go one step further and call Savage Steve Holland’s hilarious Better Off Dead the Putney Swope of teen movies.
Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Eric Rohmer, France, 1987)
This tale of a friendship of convenience, made at the tail end of the fruitful “Comedies and Proverbs” period, contains everything I love about Eric Rohmer’s films: their deceptive simplicity, their interest in human wants and fallibility, and their sense of theatre in the everyday. Rohmer’s films are also regularly about women—something you can’t say of Hong Sang-soo’s oeuvre when comparing it to the French master.
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (Clive Barker, USA, 1990/2014)
The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, USA, 1991)
While there’s always a danger of overestimating political subtext in the horror genre, it made scary sense watching Nightbreed and The People Under the Stairs for the first time in 2015. Clive Barker’s sympathetic horror fantasy is a simple but effective tale of persecution, xenophobia, and our own capacity for evil; Donald Trump might as well be one of its ‘monsters’ hiding in plain sight. Wes Craven’s 1991 film is an over-the-top satire of class warfare that has been aptly described as “Home Alone in reverse”; I particularly enjoyed its underappreciated rollercoaster of tonal shifts and outlandish set pieces. It’s the kind of filmmaking you can’t write a manual for.
My Crasy Life (Jean-Pierre Gorin, USA, 1992)
I can’t get enough of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s smart documentary-essays, and My Crasy Life, about an American-Samoan street gang with both musical and criminal aspirations, is a must-see, especially in a year that gave us Straight Outta Compton. (See Criterion’s “Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin” Eclipse boxset for more.)
Copland (James Mangold, USA, 1997)
For all the hyperbole surrounding Sylvester Stallone’s performance in Creed, no one seems to remember how good he was in Copland playing a patsy at the centre of a police corruption scandal. Similar to Ride the Pink Horse, Copland takes the essence of a genre—the western—and relocates it to an unfamiliar environment. Here, Manhattan, the most cinematic of film locations, is consigned to the background; like the unromantic setting of Yonkers in Show Me a Hero, suburban New Jersey is an integral character in this refreshing counter-narrative to a particular kind of New York story full of class and cultural biases.
‘Bird People’ is on Netflix (USA) and DVD. ‘La Sapienza’ is on VOD and DVD. ‘Respire’ screened at the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2015. ‘I, Dalio’ is on Fandor.