Monday, 28 December 2015

Top 10 Films of 2015

My Top 10 Films of 2015

1. Blackhat (Michael Mann)

2. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)  

3. The Case of Hana & Alice (Shunji Iwai)

4. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda)

5. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)

6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) 

7. Carol (Todd Haynes)

8. Irrational Man (Woody Allen)

9. Miss Hokusai (Keiichi Hara)

10. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)

Honourable Mention:
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (Brad Bird), Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley), No No Sleep (Tsai Ming-liang), Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie), Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones), The Club (Pablo Larrain), Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh), Wild Card (Simon West), Maggie (Henry Hobson), SPECTRE (Sam Mendes), Taxi Tehran (Jafar Panahi), Pound of Flesh (Ernie Barbarash)

Standout performances:
Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho & Suzu Hirose in Our Little Sister
Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara in Carol 
Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Margherita Buy in Mia Madre
Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland: A World Beyond
Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ariane Labed & Angelilki Papoulia in The Lobster
Alfredo Castro in The Club

Abysmal performances:
Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth & Tuppence Middleton in Jupiter Ascending
Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch & Joel Edgerton in Black Mass
Ben Mendelsohn in Slow West
John Boyega, Domnhall Gleeson, Adam Driver & Emun Elliot in The Force Awakens
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen & Andy Serkis in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Notable Films from 2014 that I saw for the first time this year:
Phoenix, Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2, Pasolini, From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, John Wick, Queen and Country, Listen Up Philip, She's Funny That Way

Films from 2015 I'm very eager to watch:
Knight of Cups, Evolution, Chevalier, Journey to the Shore, Mountains May Depart, Office, Cemetery of Splendour, Murmur of the Hearts, No Home Movie, Experimenter, The Forbidden Room, Cosmos, My Golden Days, Creed, Call Me Lucky, Fassbinder: To Love without Demands, De Palma, The Measure of a Man, The Boy and the BeastMomentum, 88:88, In the Shadow of Women, Following Nazarin, Wild City, Right Now, Wrong Then, Youth, Addicted to Fresno, Love & Peace, Forget Me Not, Magic Mike XXL, Brooklyn etc.etc.etc.

Films I'm looking forward to or just curious about in 2016:
Weightless, Voyage of Time, Elle, Zama, 2 untitled Woody Allen projects, Pakolainen, Mascots, Love and Friendship, Assassin's Creed, Sully, The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea, The Unknown Girl, A Quiet Passion, Certain Women, Wiener-Dog, The Commune, John Wick 2, Mechanic: Resurrection, Silence, Second Born, Terra Formars, The BFG, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Polybius, Story of Your Life etc., etc., etc...

Chantal Akerman, James Best, Richard Corliss, Catherine E. Coulson, Wes Craven, George Dickerson, Rick Ducommun, Richard Dysart, Anita Ekberg, Philip French, Edgar Froese, Coleen Gray, Gunnar Hansen, Setsuko Hara, Bill Hart, James Horner, Penelope Houston, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Johnson, Louis Jourdan, Tadeusz Konwicki, Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Lewis, Robert Loggia, Melissa Mathison, Albert Maysles, Leonard Nimoy, Patricia Norris, Maureen O'Hara, Roddy Piper, Alex Rocco, Virgil Runnels (aka Dusty Rhodes), Takao Saito, Lizabeth Scott, Omar Sharif, Sam Simon, Mike Sutton, Rod Taylor, Nigel Terry, Tom Towles, Daniel von Bargen, Alberta Watson, Haskell Wexler, Elizabeth Wilson, Robert Z'Dar

Further Thoughts:

I’ve come to the realisation that each year I’m relying too much on November’s Leeds film festival to provide the major talking points in these roundups. This year did provide advanced showings of such excellent films as The Case of Hana & Alice, Miss Hokusai, Our Little Sister, Taxi Tehran and The Club but it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect a fortnight of films to make up for what I’ve failed to seek out over the rest of the year.

There were disappointments at the festival, most notably Sunset Song. It suffered from an overstretched framework and got a bit too caught up in its wonderful scenery and period detail. I can forgive Terence Davies for slight over length when his big screen ventures are so rare. I'm just glad to see him working and I hope that his next feature (A Quiet Passion) learns from the mistakes of this slightly botched passion project and can build on its undeniable virtues – notably the striking cinematography and one of the best uses of narration I've encountered in a film for a while. Tangerine and Victoria came with a great deal of fanfare but I thought this had more to do with the novelty value of their filming techniques (filmed on an iPhone and in a single sustained take respectively) than their overall quality. Likewise the general presentation of Son of Saul became distracting after a while. While it was an admirable attempt to depict the grim reality of its subject, where the day to day horrors are in the background or on the edges of the frame, the momentum of the narrative seemed to suffer as a result.

With those gripes out of the way it’s pleasing to note that my most anxiously awaited release of 2015 is probably my favourite thing I saw all year. Most of my fears surrounding The Lobster went unfounded and Yorgos Lanthimos's dark humour and satire seem to have survived the transition extremely well in his English language debut. His dry, sobering, deadpan looks at the wants, needs and cruelties of human society are as funny and provocative as anything in modern cinema.

Other high achievers that fully lived up to expectations in 2015 included Todd Haynes, whose Carol more than justified the awards and rave reviews it has amassed since the premiere at Cannes in May, and Don Hertzfeldt once again proved that he is in a class of his own with World of Tomorrow.

After a string of duds (Brave, Cars 2 and Monsters University) had caused some to question if the studio's creative powers were in decline, Pixar regained some of its prestige with Inside Out, an endlessly inventive delight that can easily rank alongside their best work. It was perhaps too much to expect 2 classics from the studio in one year and the troubled production history of The Good Dinosaur (including schedule delays, rewrites, changes of director and voice cast) was very much evident onscreen in the finished work, which suffers from an uncertain style and uneven tone.  
News of Toy Story 4, Cars 3 (yikes) and The Incredibles 2 being in development, in addition to next year's Finding Dory are worrying signs of this once pioneering outfit becoming a nostalgia act. Let's hope that's not the case.

A general lack of purpose was noticeable in the underachieving Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie.
Its underwhelming content was compounded by its overreliance on dialogue and its failure to offer much that was new. It felt like an unimaginative reboot, which was a little puzzling given its lineage from two groundbreaking features and the superb TV series. Making matters worse, news surfaced that Hollywood is attempting a live action version of the original film with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.

On the subject of unrealised potential, the year's most depressing (i.e. undeserving) success story for me was Jurassic World. While Terminator Genisys fooled no one with its clumsy and leaden attempt to revive the spirit of the first two Terminator films, audiences revelled in Jurassic World's cynical rehash. Even within the confines of a summer tentpole release its general unwillingness to surprise or do anything remotely interesting with its scenario made it one of the most disappointing films of recent memory. It was partly this frustrated response that helped form the basis for the slightly defensive piece I wrote on M. Night Shyamalan's found footage Horror flick The Visit in October. Although the film was derivative in many ways it at least tried to find originality and substance in a relatively unpromising scenario and my response to the film, while far from ecstatic, was certainly more positive than the bored emptiness I felt coming out of Jurassic WorldAge of Ultron and Minions. Also out in October was Crimson Peak; a laudable effort that almost seems imprisoned by its sets, props and costumes and sadly never really hits its stride. For all the extraordinary detail on display the story was too slight and the characters felt underdeveloped. Perhaps the year’s most unfortunate commercial failure though was Tomorrowland. A film brimming with imagination, wit, thoughtfulness and a hopeful message - sadly the public stayed away in droves.

I was quite lucky to see Blackhat in the cinema given the extremely brief release it received in February. It feels like the culmination of Michael Mann's increasingly abstract and daring 21st century work to date. Using high-definition digital cinematography Mann's recent work has an immediacy and texture that is truly startling. I hope he doesn't pull any punches on his forthcoming Ferrari biopic after the derisory response that unfairly greeted his latest work.

By contrast Black Mass, a lumbering, awkward joke of a crime flick somehow got touted as Johnny Depp's "comeback" movie, presumably by the same people who failed to notice such fine films as Public Enemies and The Rum Diary. I sometimes wonder if Mystic River is to blame but it seems every year of the past decade or so has produced at least one hideously over praised studio crime picture with A-listers competing for gurning space onscreen. From The Departed to American Gangster to The Town to American Hustle viewers who hope that American cinema will return to the hollow cynicism and macho posturing of the 1970s have long championed these regressive, almost farcical works. My advice: you'll get much better no-nonsense thrills from Run All Night, a nifty thriller with Liam Neeson and Ed Harris bringing great tenacity and depth to their roles of old friends thrown in to a blood rivalry by a cruel act of fate.

In the overrated category I also found myself unable to join the chorus of approval that greeted such titles as Diary of a Teenage Girl, Sicario, Ex Machina and Mistress America. The flat and dull drama 45 Years caused a stir that was almost alarming. Is this really the best that British cinema has to offer? It's the sort of thing that works better on television. In the case of The Martian however I was forewarned. I read the book by Andy Weir in January and found it to be a terrible, corny, cliché ridden movie pitch disguised as a novel. Unfortunately the film adaptation that came out in September is very faithful to the book. Heavy on scientific data and explanations but devoid of characterisation, urgency or drama, the whole thing seems to have been made on autopilot. Matt Damon does what little he can with the material but his character is a crashing bore and it seems to be consciously striving to imitate inane, predictable award laden dramas such as Argo and Gravity. Do yourself a favour and watch Apollo 13 or Mission to Mars again instead.

On the adaptation front there were decent new versions of classic works – Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd, a moody and energetic version of Macbeth and, even though it wasn’t from one of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales, Mr. Holmes was a very worthwhile screen outing for the legendary sleuth. I’m curious to see what Bernard Rose has done with his new version of Frankenstein. In Disney's live action take on Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Paul Weitz wisely let the classic story be retold in a more or less familiar and straightforward fashion and, lo and behold, it still works all these centuries later.

Following on from last year's John Wick there were a few encouraging signs that mainstream action cinema is both entering new territory and regaining some of its former vitality. Mad Max: Fury Road added an astonishing new and exciting chapter to a franchise that had lain dormant for 30 years. It took a couple of viewings for me to appreciate the grand design and audacity of Fury Road but what a magnificent achievement it is. The verve and energy of the film are a marvel to behold and it triggered some much needed discussion about the current state of action cinema in the process.

Just missing out on a place in my top 10 was Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. For me it’s the best in the series since Brian De Palma’s first entry in the series in 1996. The fantastic stunts are there of course but what really stands out are a show stopping sequence in the Vienna Opera House that was perhaps my favourite scene in any film of the past year and the phenomenal Rebecca Ferguson, who gives Tom Cruise a truly compelling and scene stealing co-star - something the series has sorely lacked up until now.
The strength of the series has been its ability to test its own boundaries and rewrite the rules. There is room for improvement of course: much of the second half feels disjointed, a loss of momentum in the final half hour or so is felt due to the increasingly ludicrous twists and I’m not sure what Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner are bringing to the series besides irritating side characters and excess baggage. With Cruise bringing Jack Reacher and Top Gun back to our screens in the near future it seems sequels are his comfort zone at present and on this evidence there’s still plenty of life in the resilient M: I franchise.

Rogue Nation would make for a decent double bill with SPECTRE, a crowdpleasing spy flick with similar merits (and flaws). By allowing room for more ambitious and better staged set pieces, great locations (James Bond definitely enjoys a break, most of the London scenes are the film's weakest moments), some well judged humour and sharper characters (notably some eye catching turns from Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Jesper Christensen and Dave Bautista) it was a considerable improvement on the dour Skyfall. It’s a shame about the appalling Sam Smith theme tune which threatens to derail the film in its early stages. If the rumours are true and this is to be Daniel Craig's last outing in the role I'd say he's definitely gone out on a high note. Where the series goes from here is anyone's guess but I'd advise the producers and writers not to delve too much in to 007's backstory in future outings.

Even by the farfetched standards of a franchise that has grown dependent on excessive action and OTT stunts, Furious 7 felt like an anthology of "jump the shark" moments. It has elevated the series to new commercial heights at a time when it could do with a wakeup call. It's a sign of how overstuffed the series has become that it somehow manages to waste Jason Statham (by far the best villain of the series to date), Kurt Russell and Dwayne Johnson, who is confined to a hospital bed for much of the running time. It did at least provide a nice tribute to Paul Walker at the end. He's impossible to replace by this stage of course and will be a much missed anchor for a series of films that increasingly resembles the large scale destructive antics of Transformers and Marvel superheroes. Statham fans were much better served by Wild Card, which deftly employs his unbeatable screen presence and ability to single-handedly carry a film. Fellow action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme had a decent outing in Pound of Flesh, another example of DTV action outdoing many of its larger budget big screen cousins.

When it comes to naming my favourite films at the end of each year I’m starting to think a top 5 (as is done in Sight and Sound’s end of year critics’ poll) would be more appropriate than a top 10. If it’s sufficient for film journalists who get to sample the offerings of various international festivals throughout the year and attend numerous advanced screenings then it should be okay for me as well. In 2015 I’ve noticed a clear split from the top and lower halves of my list. The first 5 are as good as anything I’ve seen in the current decade, followed by another 5 which I liked a great deal but could easily be pushed out at a later date when I’ve seen more...
And there lies the problem. 2015 seems to be as much of a tale of what I didn’t get to see (new films from the likes of Chantal Akerman, Jia Zhangke, Arnaud Desplechin, Johnnie To, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Michael Almereyda, Hong Sang-soo, Philippe Garrel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul & Bobcat Goldthwait amongst others) that could have made a world of difference to this overview. For me, like many other non-London based UK residents, it’s frustrating to hear about some of these titles online or in journals often months in advance with very little indication as to when it will be possible to see them on these shores. This is true every year of course but in 2015 the gulf between anticipation and eventual viewing seemed to be ever widening.

Perhaps the most conspicuous absentee from this piece is Knight of Cups. While it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February things still look uncertain regarding a UK release. Fans of Terrence Malick certainly know a thing or two about patience being rewarded though and with two other projects (Voyage of Time and Weightless) supposedly in post-production I hope I'll have more to report about on the Malick front next year.

For all the frustrations of the past 12 months I should acknowledge that one of my cinephile wishes was granted in 2015 when, much to my joy, Parker Posey finally made an appearance in a Woody Allen film. A New York based actress with a flair for both comedy and drama, it's hard to believe she hadn't appeared in any of Woody's work until now but the Gods of movie casting can be pretty cruel sometimes. It seems to have worked out okay as she’s also been cast in his next film. Although returning to one of his favourite Dostoyevskian themes Irrational Man fascinates in a way that is unusual in Allen's work, with its piercing, misanthropic mood that stayed with me long after the film ended.

On a parting note, one title I have to at least mention here is Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, a Martial Arts film of a highly unusual ilk that is regarded in some circles as the best film of the year. I don't yet have a properly formed opinion of this much heralded work as I saw it at a late night screening in November after a trying day at work and I have to admit I dozed off a few times. I did notice there were several walkouts at that screening, no doubt from audience members who found the early hype and advertising of a saga in the Crouching Tiger/Hero vein somewhat misleading. It was the last film I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and what I had hoped would be the highlight of the festival sadly became an awkward footnote. The film does look incredible in parts but the slow pace was very trying at times. I'll give it another look when it gets a proper UK release in early 2016.

Recommended 'Films of 2015' links:

Pinnland Empire, Sight & Sound, AFI, Cahiers Du Cinema, John Waters, Todd McCarthy, Mark Kermode

Film Highlights of 2015

Film Highlights of 2015

- 29th Leeds International Film Festival (5th-19th November) - see previous blog post

- I finally bought my first Blu-Ray this year. My Darling Clementine got a special limited edition release from Arrow that included both theatrical and pre-release versions. It also features Allan Dwan's 1939 film Frontier Marshall which is based on the same Stuart Lake book that was the basis for John Ford's 1946 film. I've resisted getting a Blu-Ray player up to now. I think the format serves new releases well but I'm not at all convinced about older titles which look just a bit too pristine to my eyes. However if any Blu-Ray-only release could win me over then this is it, a film that lies above any sort of hierarchy. Last year Clementine got a Criterion release and this year it got a UK release worthy of the film's brilliance. I was reluctant to view the pre-release version for a long time as I'd always considered the theatrical cut to be more or less perfect but having finally watched it I was surprised to find the preview cut to be the superior version.

- Best filmgoing experience: Blade Runner on two separate occasions at Leeds Town Hall (3/4/2015 & 12/11/2015).

- Cinematic Revelation/Film Discovery of the Year: The Reflecting Skin (1990, Philip Ridley) at Hyde Park Picturehouse 10/11/2015. An overdue re-release and director approved restoration of the cult classic.

- 3 of the finest Westerns of the 1950s (ShaneMan of the West and Day of the Outlaw) got some excellent DVD releases courtesy of Eureka.

Other notable DVD releases:
The Tales of Hoffmann (Studio Canal), Thief (Arrow), Circle of Danger (Network), Grace of My Heart (Odyssey), The Jacques Rivette Collection (Arrow), King of the Hill (Fabulous Films), Seconds (Eureka), The Raging Moon (Studio Canal), Murder in the Cathedral (BFI), 3 Women (Arrow), Pickup on South Street (Eureka), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Eureka), 80,000 Suspects (Network), Quatermass (Euston Films/Network), Society (Arrow), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Eureka), Vivre Sa Vie (BFI), Cruel Story of Youth (Eureka), Dragon's Return (Second Run), Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman Collection (BFI), La Grande Bouffe (Arrow), Fruit of Paradise & Traps (Second Run), Wild River (Eureka), Jigsaw (Renown), Ganja & Hess (Eureka)
Region 1 releases: Abuse of Weakness (Strand), A Day in the Country (Criterion), 52 Pick-Up (Kino Lorber), Safe (Criterion), Cat People - 1982 (Medium Rare), Portrait of Shirley Vol. 1-3 (Milestone), La Cienaga (Criterion), Woman They Almost Lynched (Olive), Every Man for Himself (Criterion), Miami Blues (Shout! Factory), The Adventures of Gerard (MGM), Here is Your Life (Criterion), Variete (NFP), Some Call it Loving (Etiquette), Angst (Cult Epics), fat City (Twilight Time), Blind Chnace (Criterion), Wind Across the Evereglades (Warner Archive), Les Blank: Always for Pleasure (Criterion)

- The October issue of Sight and Sound had a marvellous feature on 100 overlooked films by female directors which gave me dozens of recommendations for films to check out.

- News that Jerry Lewis's notorious unreleased feature The Day the Clown Cried will eventually see the light of day.

- Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema - a fantastic season of films that in addition to titles I was already familiar with (Ashes and Diamonds, Knife in the Water, A Short Film About Killing) gave me a chance to see Eroica, The Promised Land, The Last Day of Summer, Provincial Actors and Illumination on the big screen.

- Lost Disney film found in the BFI archives

- 'David Lynch: The Man from Another Place' by Dennis Lim, a worthwhile study of its subject that arrives well in time for the return of Twin Peaks. Lynch fans also were blessed with a Criterion release of Mulholland Drive in October.

- The centenary of Orson Welles was marked with some great DVD releases: Too Much Johnson, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story came courtesy of the Mr. Bongo label while the TV series 'Around the World with Orson Welles' got the BFI treatment. The BFI also released Chuck Workman's recent documentary 'Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles'. There was Simon Callow's 'One Man Band' published, a third volume of his extensive biography of Welles, and Welles's own unfinished memoirs were discovered this year. The Other Side of the Wind sadly remains another unfinished piece of the puzzle. With legal obstacles now removed, one hopes that a finished version of the film will one day be shown.

- Criterion announced it is releasing Edward Yang's 1991 feature A Brighter Summer Day in March 2016. I expect I'll mention this again among next year's highlights.