Ten personal bests in film, plus favourite television series and repertory screenings in 2015.
Alongside the usual slew of festival favourites my film viewing in 2015 included a good amount of catch up watching, filling in some of the gaping holes in my viewing history via the odd repertory screening and home video—Netflix NZ has proved an invaluable addition to our home viewing regimen for both adults and kids this year. As is my wont my top picks are a blend of surrealism, genre, and classic auteurist features dotted through with a good portion of compelling documentary. I have curated lists for tops films viewed in 2015 (11 films shoehorned into a ‘Top 10’), the best television and web series I’ve encountered this year, and the best of my catch-up viewing for 2015.
Top 10 films viewed in 2015
- The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/Ireland/UK)
Lanthimos nails his trademark brand of emotionally flattened, blackly comic allegory in his debut English language outing, drawing the most joyously surprising performance from Colin Farrell I’ve seen. I’m not sure how Lanthimos brought this cast together but everybody executes with a tonal precision belied by the outlandishness of the narrative. There are few directors whose points land as sharply whilst wielding seemingly blunt instruments, but The Lobster is as thematically incisive as it is patently ridiculous; funny, and disturbing, as hell.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, USA)
In her debut feature Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour strikes a surprisingly workable balance between tones of alienating ultra-cool and captivating patience. The film finds a structural rhythm around its soundtrack which moves smoothly between front and centre underground pop music, the meditative silence of diegetic sound, and the loud drone-like industrial sounds. Undulating like a serpent the film explores themes of gender politics, its spare narrative mesmerising.
- Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany/Switzerland)
A glorious marriage of writing, acting, and direction—about writing, acting, and direction in several senses, yet not—Assayas sees Kristen Stewart go toe-to-toe with on form Juliette Binoche in some of the smartest metatextual analysis of aging and selfhood I’ve seen in some time. And yet the film is not at all dry, it’s an exhilarating character drama that’s fantastically shot and edited with surprising energy. Excepting a couple of small sequences which came in under par—such as KStew’s un/overdramatic mountain drive—pretty much a win on all counts for my money, which I totally wasn’t expecting.
- = The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Brazil/Italy, 2014)
With shades of Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes in its opening—no mean comparison!—The Salt of the Earth quickly morphs into a far more up close and personal account of a highly empathetic artist coming to terms with the awful paradoxes in the world. With dual cinematography to do justice to the subject’s photo stills and strikingly edited, The Salt of the Earth presents a challenging, confronting, yet ultimately relatable portrait of an artist-activist whose work continues to change himself as much as the world he captures.
= Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina)
Filling out the screen with its stunning vistas of the dark depths of the Colombian Amazon Ciro Guerra’s history-cum-folktale Embrace of the Serpent finds its genesis in the actual travel diaries of two explorers (30 years apart). The film subverts colonising viewpoints by taking an indigenous perspective via the real life protagonist who straddled these two timelines. Far from being a dry polemic against the evils of cultural repression, Embrace of the Serpent tells a ripping tale, full of humour and fantastical happenings, of one man’s journey to rediscover himself and save his endangered tribe.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA)
Fury Road is at once over-the-top in terms of its action sequences and many lurid details—suspended, mascotesque, flame-spurting metal guitarist anyone?—and simultaneously spare in terms of its arid setting and the steadfastly linear journey of its narrative. I must admit the in-your-face trailer didn’t rev me up for the film like it did many others; I thought it was going to be totally overblown, but it seems they cut the greatest amount of CG they could into the tease whereas the film overall plays with a whole lot more visceral immediacy than the trailer produces. It keeps you amped and tightly wound the entire way so that the two-hour run-time files by (much of it literally). And for all the less evolved fanboys who were crying ‘PC gone mad’ at theatrical release due to the prominence of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character, the film actually has plenty of Max being a total badass. Only there are other equally tough (male and female) characters being just as badass. IMO, Max and Furiosa make a pretty decent team.
- The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his brutally necessary The Act of Killing is just as compelling and vital, smartly focusing its bite by channelling the voices of Indonesia’s Suharto era victims through the story of one man (now a middle-aged optometrist with a family of his own) utilising his job as a means of quietly interrogating those involved in the death of his brother. Not as theatrically surreal as the former but with a single-minded intensity that makes it difficult to keep watching at times. I suspect this pair of films will be remembered as important historical documents.
- ’71 (Yann Demange, UK, 2014)
Not so much about the troubled recent history of Northern Ireland as firmly situated in it, ’71—after its opening setup sequence—maintains a visceral, if non-flashy, kineticism. Disdaining audience comfort the filmmakers bounce us around an unfamiliar and justifiably hostile city alongside Jack O’Connell’s desperate Pt. Gary Hook; his laboured breathing loud in our ears and his mounting wounds thrust in our faces. O’Connell shows his chops once again as a young soldier in all ways out of his depth and Sean Harris proves a convincing heartless bastard: mean, hard, and lean. If the story begins to feel overly Machiavellian the believability of the characters keeps the film grounded. And though the thriller elements remain first and foremost, Gregory Burke’s screenplay paints the conflict, in broad strokes at least, as a complex mesh of political manoeuvring and mixed motivations.
- Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, USA)
Talk about a thrilling genre blend! First-time director (who took writing duties too) turns a smart, talky character piece which nails stereotypical western archetypes and dialogue with refreshing twist of Coenesque humour before morphing into the kind of hardgore spec-fic thriller that would make Raimi proud. Kurt Russell anchors the tone with his perfectly cast grizzled sheriff routine but the ensemble of players fits surprisingly well—even Matthew Fox as distastefully arrogant gunslinger John Brooder.
- Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, Ireland, 2014)
Tom Moore’s second animated feature Song of the Sea tells a gorgeously bittersweet tale of a family finding a way forward out of devastating loss. Moore’s smartly written story has dual natural and supernatural layers which mirror each other, allowing the mundane to take on an otherworldly aspect. Like Moore’s The Secret of Kells, the animation is a lush kinetic movement of Celtic swirl patterns, standing distinct from dominant anime and Pixar styles. Bruno Coulais’s soundtrack lends a haunting beauty to the film including several songs composed and sung by a favourite Irish pop-folk singer of mine, Lisa Hannigan (who also voices a character). Song of the Sea truly goes down a treat with both kids and parents alike.
- Tehran Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Continuing his exploitation of the bounds of Iran’s state mandated creative regulation, Jafar Panahi surfaces another fascinating ‘not-film’ which blends reality and fiction into a kind of mirthful polemic. As he (inexpertly!) drives the titular taxi through the streets of his hometown interactions with various passengers—including a man and woman having an argument about crime and punishment, a distributor of ‘illegal’ films on DVD, a man who’s been in an accident and his nervous wife, a lawyer-friend who specialises in helping government persecuted artists—spark conversations on a wide array of topics. Panahi turns what could easily have been be a ‘reality’ style dashboard-cam confessional into a fascinating study in present day Iranian life, unearthing dissatisfaction with the social controls the government exerts on the populace.
The Best of the Rest 2015 (listed alphabetically): 99 Homes, Actress, The Assassin, Birdman, Citizenfour, Far From the Madding Crowd, Finders Keepers, Heaven Knows What, Inherent Vice, Life Itself, The Nightmare, Out of the Mist, The Overnighters, The Postman’s White Nights, Results, Spy, Tale of Tales, Tangerine, Western.
Top 5 television and web series viewed in 2015
- Mad Men (Seasons 1-7)
Thanks again to Netflix NZ on a free evening we were presented with the option of Mad Men, a show I had previously heard much praise for but never had the slightest inclination to actually watch myself. How glad am I now that my wife persuaded me that we should give it a go? Very. Some of the best written and well shot television I have viewed. Over and above the great production values and an interesting long form narrative Mad Men presents some of the most beautifully layered socio-political critique I have seen on screen: large or small. The show simultaneously gives an excellent representation of its setting—the NYC advertising scene from 50s-70s—and, through moving through the social issues of the day such as changing gender roles, the civil rights movement, and the ascendance of the middle class indirectly challenges similar issues we continue to face today.
- Mr. Robot (Season 1)
Sam Esmail’s narrative play in the dystopian present may get a little tied up in its grandiose twistings—c.f. similar issues in his much less compelling love-spiral feature Comet—but his central characters are well drawn and superbly cast and he nails the tone of disillusioned paranoia as Elliot and co. attempt to break the bars of their societal cage. The tech aspects of this show far surpass almost any other effort attempted on TV so you can cut the secretive uber-hacker character subplot a little slack. Fresh, exciting, and more tense than any murder-of-the-week procedural.
- High Maintenance (Season 1-2)
Late to this but husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s web series about a NYC pot dealer interacting with his diverse range of customers is insightfully incisive comedy gold. Character types are so sharply observed in each 10-20 minute episode that HBO has picked up the show for an upcoming 2016 season. The show plays nicely with the intersecting myths of the ‘chill stoner’ and ‘neurotic New Yorkers’. You can see all current 19 webisodes free on Vimeo.
- Jessica Jones (Season 1)
Sporting a refreshing diversity of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, both in front of and behind the camera, Jessica Jones is probably the best Marvel drama on either big or small screen. What it lacks in capes and gadgets it more than makes up for in gritty characterisation and interesting plotting. Melissa Rosenberg and her writing team have sewn in a pleasing vein of dark edged humour lacking from its fairly decent Hell’s Kitchen-based Marvel stablemate Daredevil whilst presenting a show which is much less camp. I wouldn’t necessarily have picked it from her prior work on broader show Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23 but Krysten Ritter, in full Eliza Dushku mode, brings it hard. Also, David Tennant makes such great work of an excellently peevish villain.
- Younger (Season 1)
At the lighter end of the scale Darren Star’s enjoyable comedy of alternate personas actually manages to engage reasonably with issues of ageing and ageism, identity and representation of self. The show pairs an almost believable Sutton Foster (of Broadway and Bunheads fame) as 40-going-on-26 year old Liza with a slightly arch Debi Mazar as long-time friend Maggie—with whom she share an apartment, and all her guilty pleasures—and a smartly cast Hilary Duff as her ‘fellow’ mid-20s workmate and gal-pal Kelsey. Much of the humour mined from the same vein but it mostly lands and the writing stays up to scratch making Younger something pleasantly different.
Best Catch-up viewing of 2015
- Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)
Fuck, Melville has some exquisite style. Helped along by perfectly cast cool cat Alain Delon. The extended cat-and-mouse sequence reminds me of the balletic composition of Robert Bresson’s metro scene in Pickpocket. Melville’s economy of dialogue and emotion make effective punctuation of the various action sequences. Not hard to see why there continue to be so many nods to this film/character. And what about that single wipe transition? Top shelf.
- Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981)
Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski weaves some mad mercurial magic in Possession, his politically laced horror-cum-relationship drama made in the shadow of the (still standing) Berlin Wall. An arresting blend of stark rigour and dramatic excess he struck gold with the complete commitment of leads Isabelle Adjanii and Sam Neill—the former giving any number of exorcism film stars an SFX-free run for their money—but I’m not sure anything screamed louder than Heinrich’s opening outfit or was more cumulatively terrifying than his progressive wardrobe choices.
- Patu! (Merata Mita, NZ, 1983)
Merata Mita’s Patu! is as incisive as ever with its blunt and unashamedly partisan coverage of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests, following a broad swath of conscientious New Zealanders making a stand against apartheid. Mita showcases the power of a people united whilst not attempting to move the spotlight from the internal controversies of a movement in which Maori, in their own daily lives, feel shades of the disenfranchisement being protested against.
- Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954)
What a fantastic lock-in film. Forget about ‘for the time’, even now Hitchcock’s use of Jefferies’s perspective as a voyeuristic frame for the viewer is masterful, keeping the mystery as fresh as ever. Talk about doing a lot with a little! The camera and plot movement give the film a jigsaw puzzle feel as we and Jefferies try and fit the pieces of character information together. Characterisation and dialogue seem like they should feel more dated than they do with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly—aside from both looking ridiculously attractive—engaging in some enjoyable verbal sparring. Rear Window well earns its status as a classic.
- The Devils (Ken Russell, UK, 1971)
Ken Russell’s adaptation of Huxley’s history (by way of Whiting’s prior stage adaptation) of the Machiavellian machinations of church-state politics in 17th century France hits a perfect marriage of bizarre source material and flamboyant production aesthetic. Possibly due to the source material but the narrative in The Devils is much tighter than later Russell productions such as the excellently surreal Lisztomania. Oliver Reed oozes machismo sexuality as Father Urbain Grandier, administrator of walled town Loudon who becomes accused of sexual misadventure through devilry, which Cardinal Richelieu’s agents use as a means to usurp control of the city for their political ends. Russell makes socio-political hay in the most enjoyable way possible with extended scenes of mass-sexual-hysteria-meets-melodramatic-exorcism in a closed convent, coaxing memorable performances from Reed and also Vanessa Redgrave as the hunchbacked mother superior whose obsessive spite eventually brings Grandier to the stake. A fabulously twisted affair in true Ken Russell style.
Also notable (listed alphabetically): À ma soeur! (Catherine Breillat, 2001); Arrebato (Iván Zulueta, 1979); Kes (Ken Loach, 1969); La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995); Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990); Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007); Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981); Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950); Riff-Raff (Ken Loach, 1991); Soultangler (Pat Bishow, 1987); Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971); The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1974).