A hotel full of colourful characters. A cast so packed with big names in zany roles that it c
eases to be a surprise when another beloved actor appears for a scene or two. A specific and finely drawn universe that slowly reveals itself and is so much larger than what we ever see onscreen. Offbeat humour, the kind that is so black that one almost ends up choking as one cackles. An idiosyncratic arthouse auteur making his transition into the mainstream without compromising his style or intent. You would be forgiven for thinking we’re checking into The Grand Budapest here, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ existentialist comedy of manners taps into something completely different to Wes Anderson’s Oscar winner.
With its delicious high concept (what if we had 40 days to find a life partner, and if we failed we would be turned into the animal of our choice?) The Lobster is bitingly cruel towards its characters, always in service of the joke, but through this it often gets at larger observations about the strange etiquette of modern romance, why we search for another to share a life with, and at what cost. While his intentions and the satire is somewhat clearer and less accusatory than in his previous work, almost making this feel like Lanthimos-lite at times, The Lobster still manages to exist in a murkily ambiguous territory, coming off as a sort of Discreet Charm of the Tinderati. The Lobster is the Art House Crowdpleaser of 2015.
Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water
Spongebob edures. That a 90s Nickelodeon character, way past the prime of his feverish hype (the sort enjoyed by Adventure Time today) can still warrant a theatrically released movie, its second, and that it can live up to the standard of its predecessor, is remarkable. Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys and Hey Arnold are resigned to the nostalgia pile. The Simpsons wasn’t this good for this long. And yet Spongebob endures.
Sponge Out of Water is the closest thing we got to Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain in 2015. It is the maniacal fever dream of writers and animators who understand their characters and their world so well that you believe they can go anywhere. And they do. Contrary to its title, Sponge Out of Water spends most of its running time at the bottom of Bikini Bottom, switching only in the third of the film from glorious hand drawn animation into a zany, Russo brothers-esque live action sequence in which our main characters enter our world to do battle with Antonio Banderas’ nefarious pirate. This final sequence is obviously the main draw for audiences and it surely does deliver, but throughout the film we get such wonderful blend of psychotic visuals and sitcom tropes that every minute felt like entirely new ground for Spondebob. A triumph.
Dennis Villeneuve is a curious filmmaker, and on who I have often struggled to connect with. A solid handler of actors who certainly has an eye for sharp visuals, Villeneuve can create the sort of mood that lingers long after the final frames, a trait that unfortunately is often undercut by obtuse screenplays, as we saw this year with his other, much better recieved Sicario. Praise be, then, that Enemy (which only hit UK shores in 2015, hence its eligibility for this list) doubles down on that atmosphere and uses the great Jose Scaramago’s novel The Double as the source for its elliptical screenplay.
Like last year’s identically named Dostoevsky adaptation The Double, Enemy is a tale of Dopplegangers, but where that earlier film was an ironic, Brazil-lite exploration of dystopian anxiety and identity, Enemy is glacial, almost humourless, and relentlessly opaque. Are we living in a dystopia? The world presented is familiar to our own, yet why does it seem so oppressive? Is this an extension of the pranoid mind of our protagionist – a professor played by the omni-presnt Jake Gyllenhaal? Answers prod at you, sort of, in a bizarrely abrupt and yet wholly thrilling final moment. Enemy was the most overlooked film in 2015, though its cult will grow in a way that enthusiasm for Sicario will diminish.
Queen of Earth
For many, the most thrilling thing about last year’s Listen Up, Philip was a sequence around midway through, in which following the dumping of his girlfriend Ashley and disappearing into the woods to ruminate upon himself by the titular character, a bratish writer played by Jason Schwartzman, the film takes a savage detour to follow his spurned lover as she tries to get over him. Elizabeth Moss as Ashley ended up the film’s MVP, her scenes escaping the intellectualised mumblecore trappings of the majority of the film, becoming a self-contained rumination on loss and identity. It was such a brilliant about-face for director Alex Ross Perry that it is little surprise that he returned to similar territory with Moss, now seemingly his Liv Ullman, for Queen of Earth, his most straight faced and terrifying film yet.
Perry, one of the most exciting young American directors, supposedly moulds each of his films in the style of a different author: Pynchon, Roth, and now Virginia Woolf, as Queen of Earth wrestles with identity, madness, and female relationships as a pair of old friends go to a cabin in the woods to spend a week together, realising that they aren’t quite as close as they once were. This sounds like a Duplass brothers film, and they do serve as producers, however Queen of Earth takes an entirely more abstract approach towards the material, playing with framing, editing, and sound to induce the audience into almost the same psychosis as its lead.
It certainly feels like a director still experimenting and finding his voice as a more serious director, but Moss anchors the film so well that its occasional lapses into Bergman pastiche actually result to serve the performance, perhaps the best of 2015.
It is foolish to claim an ability to remain objective with cinema but Amy is truly a film that is impossible to separate from one’s own experiences, for we all experienced it. Amy’s trick is to show the entire life of singer Amy Winehouse through documented footage of her, from home video, camera phone and television clips, implicating the audience in her downfall. We saw all this footage the first time through, a
narrative spun by the media over several years, condensed into a two hour film, our foreknowledge of events and clear signposting giving the story an almost Greek quality.
The major conflict that arises from the film however comes from its very cinematic nature. There is a fictional account of Winehouse’s life in the pipeline, set to star Noomi Rapace, and it’s hard to argue that the extreme highs and lows of the story lend themselves to the kind of major talent + debilitating problem x protagonist being exploited by businessmen/celebrity culture = box office gold formula that worked so well for Ray, La Vie En Rose and a dozen other musical biopics. The problem is that Amy condemns this sort of celebrity mythologising, while simultaneously being so compelling that it actually itself becomes the ultimate artifact in enhansing the legend of its subject. But though history may not be kind to Asif Kapadia’s documentary, for any Winehouse fan or anyone who was there at the time this is still gripping, effective filmmaking.
Beasts of No Nation
It is a shame that Beasts of No Nation, the latest from True Detective season 1 director Cary Joji Fukunaga, has been overshadowed somewhat by its release strategy, by which Netflix premiered it on their streaming service the same day that it made the theatrical appearance obligatory for awards consideration, as the film itself is quite something, and deserves more recognition than to simply be another title in a streaming library full of them. Set in a nameless West African country, Beasts follows young Agu (a first feature for Abraham Attah who is captivating and terrifying), systematically brainwashed and turned into a child soldier by the rebelling Native Defence Force after his family is murdered by an invading army.
Beasts is significant for being an African set, American film which doesn’t filter its events through a white perspective, as Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond did, for example. This helps the film to avoid the patronising aspects of those earlier efforts. By itself that would be reason enough to watch this film. It bodes well for future films of this sort that there is so much else to rave about.
Idris Elba gives every bit the towering performance that was expected of him as the Commandant who runs the NDF, a sociopath who’s very philosophy is that children make the best soldiers, and it is a delicious bit of irony on the part of Fukunaga that the only familiar face in the cast is the one which we always dread to see again. Elba reportedly almost fell from a cliff during the filming of Beasts of No Nation, which lends greater credence to how raw and earthy the whole thing feels. Fukunaga actually acts as director of photography himself for the first time here, his camerawork still has a slightly Malickian affectation in it’s gliding appreciation of nature, but his usual visual assuredness in the innocence of children is, as one might expect from the subject matter, subverted here to chilling effect. The colours are vibrant, nostalgic even. The blood congeals with the dusty roads, the jungle, and as the film further examines what it is to be a child, and what it is to have childhood snatched away,its hallucinatory elements grow and grow, even recalling Elem Klimov’s great 1985 war film Come and See. The madness is unceasing, there are few answers at the end of this powerful film.
There are two innovations which elevate The Tribe above other miserablist cinema efforts of late. The first, and in some ways the film’s selling point, is it’s lack of dialogue. Set in an institution for deaf youths in modern Ukraine, there is no dialogue or subtitles for the sign language through which the characters communicate. This doesn’t matter. The performances are visceral, ugly, and so necessarily physical as to be utterly clear.
Nor is there music, leaving a completely diegetic soundscape. What’s interesting is that this device actually draws the audience’s attention more effectively to the sounds which remain: the wind, snores, the beeping of a lorry as it reverses. It makes you grateful for sound in a way that the mere absence of it might not.
The other innovation, which contributes greatly to the bleak sparseness of the picture, is that each scene takes place in one unbroken shot, with nothing in the way of close ups or handheld camera movements. The camera often pans across a scene or tracks from one location to another as it follows the characters, but this very clear visual style keeps the audience at the sort of physical remove which enables one to remain analytical. It owes an obvious visual and political debt to the work of Michael Haneke, and in its grueling simplicity to Bella Tarr. We watch the brutal exploitation and hazing of children into becoming thugs and prostitutes, but are helpless as we see harrowing events but are not given the catharsis of the edit to let us off the hook. In the most difficult scene of the film, we watch a young girl have an illicit abortion. An elastic band holding her legs above her head, the cameras passive position, centred and almost like a cross section of the room, mocks the symmetrical style of Wes Anderson. A brutal coming of age story which suggests boundless possibilities for cinema.
Heaven Knows What
The spirit of Cassavettes lives on in this morally ambiguous slice of life from the Safdie Brothers, which follows street dwelling junkies in New York City. Of course this is territory which has been mined before, but the Brothers’ intimate and tender approach to the material keep the film feeling wholly original. The film is based on the experiences of Arielle Holmes, who stars as Harley: a woman in love with a violent, calculating man, and with heroin. The film often questions the balance of these desires, which seem entwined, yet though through its rush of dealers, hookers, panhandlers, sympathetic passers by and other characters on the streets, paints an underbelly of a city which swallows confused and well meaning but easily led people like Harley astray.
Films with drugs as their main theme often manage to in some way glamourise them. Even the deified Requiem For A Dream, for all its extreme content, was still stylish and operatic enough to make crack seem at least some way appealing. Heaven Knows What avoids this: there is not a single moment that makes any of this hardship worth it for the high. The colour palate is grey, the cinematography unfussed and perfunctory, and every moment of success or happiness is eradicated by a self-inflicted fall. The soundtrack is pulsing, acting like an opiate itself, and the original song which features on the closing credits, by Ariel Pink, which is sad and propulsive and swirls around your head for hours, is a brilliant evocation of the soul of the movie.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
I’m going to put it down to us nearing the 20th anniversary of Austin Powers that the culture seems to have adopted a trend for 60s spy parody in 2015. FX’s Archer continues to cackle as one of the most consistently funny and versatile shows on television, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. flopped but is already gaining a fanbase on DVD for director Guy Richie, and Bond’s latest outing in Spectre, was an overblown mess that did its best to reenact all of the Connery and Lazenby outings at once. But the funniest, smartest, and all out craziest of this crop of pastiche is Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which like Kick Ass before it, manages to overturn the conventions of its genre at every turn, while commenting on what we expect, want, and actually need from films of this nature. A spy superhero origin story, Eggsy the East London roadman is recruited by Colin Firth’s Harry Hart to join the Kingsmen, an elite group of English gentlemen who save the world in tailored suits. They come up against what should be a perfunctory nemisis in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, who is brilliantly against type as a lisping computer geek billionaire.
For a popcorn flick it has incredible depths, peeling back the layers of intent and irony at play takes many rewatches, resulting in the controversy surrounding that now infamous final line. It is a crude, jarring moment, to end the film on a gleefully sexist note, but that itself is a comment on the way in which Bond films would so often do the same thing themselves. It calls us out on getting offended for the very same things we crave, much like the pigheaded mobs within the movie. Kingsman is a warning for what happens when our base cravings are indulged so fully, but it still allows itself to be a hell of a good time along the way.
One of the most consistent American directors re-teams with one of our most exciting young actresses in the better of Noah Baumbach’s two 2015 releases. The other, While We’re Young, has some great things to say about the clash between Millennials and Generation X but wraps itself up in an unnecessary pastiche of 70s conspiracy thriller plotlines about halfway through. Coming in at a lean 86 minutes, Mistress America is a far better distillation of Baumbach’s voice, though of course he writes here with Greta Gerwig, who stars and with whom he has managed to craft some of the most accurately drawn portraits of female friendship in all of its wildly differing forms that have appeared in recent years. That Baumbach is able to interpolate this new direction with his own sensibilities to create some of the best characters of his career, is a truimph for both him and Gerwig, who also delivers an energetic performance outside of her usual toolbox as Brooke, who pulls future stepsister, a naive freshman played by Lola Kirke, into her social circle beginning an ill-fated bromance. Baumbach specialises in a certain fast talking post-graduate ennui, making films about people of a certain privilege trying to navigate the modern world. You could call him one of the more significant and refined Mumblecore filmmakers out there, and even if you balk at the use of that term his influence on filmmakers such as Lena Dunham and the Duplass Brothers is undeniable at this point.
Mistress America has been called a great new addition to the Screwball Comedy genre, but for my money it is first and foremost a modern Comedy of Manners, especially in the bravura Mimi-Claire sequence, a 40 minute chamber piece that sees Brooke and her friends visiting her ex-best friend for money that escalates itself to farcical levels of madness, recalling La Règle Du Jeu in its collection of characters and perfect balance of plotlines. Does it hit the heady romanticism of Frances Ha? No, but Gerwig and Baumbach are making it look easy at this point, and hopefully this fertile creative partnership will continue to provide us with further riches in the coming years.