Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Review of 2015: Part 1 - Movies

I may have curbed the obsessive movie-watching a little this year and last, but I still managed to catch 167 movies, 134 of them for the first time, and 31 of them at the cinema. In this, part one of my review of the year (live performances and books are coming up later in separate instalments), I'll talk you through the best of them, imagining myself to be some sort of gold/flax filter, rather than just a 31-year-old man who sits in the dark watching telly. First up are my top 10 movies of the year, then the 15 best new discoveries, followed by a brief round-up and a few old favourites.

Top 10 of 2015:

10. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Director: Jeanie Finlay
What we said: "A fantastic story, told almost as well as it could be, about a masked Elvis soundalike who was marketed to a public that didn’t want to believe the King was dead. Working with a limited amount of archive film, director Jeanie Finlay weaves this stranger-than-fiction tale with the use of talking heads, intelligent reconstructions, melancholic bucolic footage and audio interviews, and while a few interesting eyewitnesses are absent – including Ellis’s various wives – and it doesn't always delve as deeply as it might, the result is a compelling, fascinating film with a couple of devastating late twists."

9. Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes
I, erm, went to the premiere of this movie, as it was at my office. What we said: "Since when did Bond movies get good? Spectre isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great: riotously enjoyable, genuinely affecting and with a handling of Bond mythology that’s fresh yet respectful, the film pervaded by a swaggering self-confidence (and featuring additional dialogue by West End superstar Jez Butterworth!). If it is Mendes and Craig’s final Bond, it’s a good one to bow out with, but I really hope it’s not, since its balance of artistry, intelligence and blockbuster smarts lifts it way, way out of the ordinary. Not only did Bond films get good, but they’ve stayed good."

8. Mistress America

Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Seth Barrish and Juliet Brett
What we said: "Noah Baumbach is reunited with Greta Gerwig, the stunningly gifted comedian who is to screen humour what Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence are to drama – i.e. better at playing it than anyone else on the planet. And for Mistress America, the director has reinvented himself as Howard Hawks for a fast-talking, ultimately old-fashioned screwball comedy of absurdism and interruption in which Gerwig is essentially his Ros Russell. It’s a film of moral and narrative daring. That, a vivid NY atmosphere and a pair of exceptional performances: Kirke’s pretty, pretty lost freshman holding her own against Brooke, another superb entry in Gerwig’s gallery of appealing, aimless young women, drifting attractively towards oblivion."

7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

J. J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Harrison Ford
What we said: "Well, J. J. Abrams certainly seems to understand what Star Wars fans want more than George Lucas does, because The Force Awakens is fun - and there's not a discussion of international trade tariffs in sight. For great portions of the movie, I just had a big grin plastered across my face. It gets Star Wars, it really does. It knows how much we love the original trilogy, and it loves it too. That affection, evidenced by a million tiny touches, doesn't always blend seamlessly with the new narrative, but it does underpin and underscore everything that happens."

6. Birdman

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts
What we said: Like last year's best film, Boyhood, this gave me the feeling of euphoria that comes from seeing something utterly new and startlingly ambitious. Whereas Linklater's movie was wise, universal and steeped in contemporary Americana, this one is pin-sharp, blackly comic and streaked with greasepaint, with at least two scenes of fantastical wonder, one of underpants-based humiliation, and a dozen comprising stylised human drama between vivid, unforgettable characters.

5. Inside Out

Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Kaitlyn Dias
What we said: This is a major return to form for Pixar: an extremely creative, wilfully different movie that draws on inspirations as diverse as The Beano’s Numskulls, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, but has an existential imagination and emotional sensibility more akin to an arthouse movie.

4. Whiplash

Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons and Melissa Benoit
What we said: For once, the hype barely goes far enough. Whiplash knows what its strong suit is: the dynamic between the combustible conductor and his potential protégé, whose development from a taciturn up-and-comer to a bleeding-handed, budding Buddy Rich not afraid to stand his ground, is invigorating to watch. As an antidote to innumerable 'inspirational teacher' of insurmountable treacliness, it's undeniably welcome. But more than that: it's not just great... it's one of the greats.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult
What we said: "An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height." Its hold on me has only grown throughout the year, while the initial impact of Birdman and Whiplash has lessened a little.

2. Carol

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler
What we said: A small miracle of a film, about a quiet, emotionally straightforward shopgirl (Rooney Mara) - on the cusp of self-revelation - who falls in love with a middle-aged housewife (Cate Blanchett), herself careening towards divorce; a blissfully textured, stunningly authentic and seductively realistic portrait of love busting up through the floorboards of stifling conformity.

1. Amy

Director: Asif Kapadia
What we said: "A haunting, heartbreaking and stunningly brilliant film from Senna director Asif Kapadia, which takes us into the confidence of Amy Winehouse, as the bolshy, big-voiced, jazzy Jewish girl from North London becomes a megastar, while her personal demons, her relationship with a drug addict, and a ravenous, amoral press proceed to rip her to shreds. It's a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss."


Top 15 discoveries of 2015:

... being the older movies that I happened upon for the first time this year.

15. Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A sensational little Western about the coming of law and order, with gun-toting circuit judge Joel McCrea trying to bring the son of a powerful pioneer to justice. Made by McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur the same year as Wichita, it's a vastly superior outing in every way: a tight, slim oater that does wonders with a tiny budget, boasting a riveting story, a crackling script that includes a superb monologue for villain John McIntire and a stunning climax making full use of whip-cracking desert dominatrix Miroslava.

14. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) - Gloriously, this blasts the shit out of those laboriously tagged 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' films, and feels like everything Avengers should have been but wasn't. It's irreverent where Avengers was smug, deft where that film was portentous, and unpredictable where its rival was ponderous and pompous.

13. Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973) - Examining and celebrating the artifice, the potential for perfection and yet the compromise of cinema (a collaborative medium in which logistical improvisation is king), the film starts with a scene that needs to be retaken and goes on from there, tipping us a wink as it wheels out a gentle set-piece about a misbehaving cat or a hairy stuntman doubling for Bisset, tightening the knot in your stomach as a cast or crew member begins to go to pieces, and then slowly but surely revealing its subtle depths: an ability to move, enchant and beguile, as all truly great movies do.

12. Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) - A simply wonderful movie about journo Steve Coogan trying to trace the adopted son of Irish pensioner Judi Dench, a victim of the notorious Magdalene laundries. It’s often desperately bleak, but also unstintingly warm-hearted, full of the most brilliant jokes, and as emotionally and intellectually rewarding as anything I’ve seen this year.

11. True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919) (Cinema) - Maybe my favourite ever Lillian Gish performance, with everyone's favourite tiny-mouthed acting titan playing the "simple, plain" Susie, an angelic, motherless farmer who sells her cow to fund sweetheart Robert Harron's college career, then watches, powerless as he falls for a tight-skirted, powder-faced party animal (Clarine Seymour). Yes, that is the best premise for a movie ever, thank you for asking.

10. Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill, 1963) - Toys in the attic and skeletons in the closet: a very entertaining slice of Southern Gothic from commie playwright Lillian Hellman: a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done. It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations. Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions.

9. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) - A short, sharp shock that still reverberates down the decades.

8. East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) - A glossy, unbelievably entertaining Hollywood meller set in New York, with Stanwyck as a wronged wife, Charisse the girl-next-door, Heflin's effortlessly modern performance, Gardner's feline sensuality, Mason's voice, colourful bits for William Conrad, Beverly Michaels and Gale Sondergaard - her last film before being blacklisted. For what it is, close to perfect.

7. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, 2002) - Err, yes, a second documentary about Hitler on this year's list, meaning that over 13% of favourite discoveries this year are about him. This film is just 87 minutes of a single talking head. Thankfully that talking head is Traudl Junge, an 82-year-old German woman who worked as Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until he shot himself. Her reminiscences of the “kindly old gentleman” she worked for – contrasted with the “monster” she regards him as in retrospect – make for utterly gripping viewing, as she talks in circles about her guilt, sorrow and confusion. Her memories are moving, maddening, sometimes baffling, and the film is quite brilliantly structured, with a stunning final sequence.

6. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) - A late, great British silent: a dizzying tale of romantic and sexual obsession, its slight story dazzlingly directed by Anthony Asquith. It's a little masterpiece, and it'll keep you guessing right up to the finish, while exalting you through its refusal to recognise the limits of late silent cinema.

5. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Müller, 1993) - If you find yourself saying things like: “The reason I sent that telegram to Hitler was...” or “... Hitler hated it, ask anyone who was there”, it may be time to take a long, hard look at your life. The greatest female film director of all time – and the only one to have filmed a Nuremberg Rally – had been shopping this project around for a while, and finding that more than 200 respected documentarians wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole. Enter Ray Müller, who somehow manages to walk the trickiest, most perilous of tightropes: making a credible, even-handed and deeply insightful film about Leni Riefenstahl in which she is the only interviewee.

4. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) - The wife and the mistress of the world’s most unpleasant man plot his death in this stunning genre-hopper from Wages of Fear director Clouzot. It’s cynical and gripping, with flashes of humour and humanity, and Simone Signoret exuding malignant cool as a peroxide, jump-suited murderess with killer shades. There's twist after twist after twist - and the final two are just dynamite.

3. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) - Magical, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff: a flavourful, nostalgic and sentimental movie - somehow made by George Lucas - with a cast of future stars as high school kids whose stories interweave on the last night before college in 1962. And it has Harrison Ford as a grumpy drag racer in a cowboy hat.

2. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) - A caustic, troubling, profound examination of a Southern family brought low – or high and to prominence, depending on how you view it – by a sea of moral dissolution. You could argue that the film’s delineation between good and evil is rather simplistic for a work aspiring to high art, but it’s that heightened sensibility that gives it much of its haunting power, particularly as the vultures gather and you realise that Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath.

1. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996) - A middle-class black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) goes in search of her birth mother and finds a coarse, tearful, loving, unhappy, chain-smoking working-class white woman (Blenda Blethyn), whose family is a powder keg just waiting for a match. There aren’t many films that change the way you see the world. Or many pieces of art, for that matter. Secrets & Lies does just that. It's brilliantly conceived, bracingly authentic and emotionally overpowering, opting at its climax not for soap or sentiment, but something truly remarkable: the truth. It's simply a masterpiece.


Miss Gish. Now and always.

Crazes: Bette Davis
Continuing preoccupations: Lillian Gish, Star Wars, Joel McCrea Westerns
Stuff I caught up on: Books, to be honest.
Revelations: Oft-derided silent star John Gilbert. He was weak in La Boheme, but superb in The Big Parade and his early talkie triumph, Downstairs. One to watch.
Happiest surprises: The barely-known, never-before-released Stranger on Horseback being a killer little movie, rather than a generic B Western. The 1949 version of Little Women still casting its strange and enduring spell, after a slightly rocky beginning.
Biggest disappointment: Quite a few. Cobain: Montage of Heck fucked it up badly: it was incoherent, embarrassing and portentous. The original Mad Max films were nothing. The Yearling wasn't awful, but I was expecting more poetry and also more realism from a movie often classed among the greats.
Oddest film: Batman Returns seems to misjudge its audience at every turn. Séance on a Wet Afternoon amorality might give you nightmares.
Worst films: Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, was absolutely woeful. That I managed to see several worse films - a couple of B Westerns, the Stanwyck rom-com The Bride Wore Boots, the execrable Adventure in Sahara and particularly the WWII propaganda film, The Power of the Press - was in some ways an accomplishment. In some ways.
Some favourite moments: The dance at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy, the meeting in the cafe in Secrets & Lies, All That Jazz's living room number, which boots Meet Me in St Louis's cakewalk into the modern era and fuses sex, sentiment and sheer, unadulterated genius.
2015 was... A good year at work, a fair one at the cinema.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Winter's Bone at the Barbican
I was bored by: Too many films. Sometimes I fear I'm running out of good ones, especially in my beloved '20s-'40s Hollywood bracket.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute: My series on the original Star Wars movies wasn't bad.


15 I revisited in 2015:

The top 10 are actually the best 10 films I've seen all year.

15. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) (Cinema)
14. A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945) (and Spare Time, for that matter, on the same link)
13. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
12. A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965)
11. Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920)
10. Kiss Me Kate 3D (George Sidney, 1953) (Cinema)
9. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) (Cinema, film with live orchestra)
8. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
7. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
6. The Wind (Victor Sjӧstrӧm, 1928) (Cinema)
5. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
4. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
3. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) (Cinema)
2. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
1. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)


Thanks for reading. Why not come back for the other instalments, if you can be bothered?

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