FILMS OF 2015, PT. 2

John Wick

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Eviscerating any bad memories of 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves returns to straight faced, trigger happy form as the ex-mobster who takes on just about everyone after his dog (‘A GIFT FROM MY DEAD WIFE’) is killed in a robbery. A first film from stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, early reports made this seem like mere schlock, but Wick leans into its B-movie conventions to provide propulsive story beats and balletic action that updates the cinema of 80s Hong Kong to the sort of neon soaked, film grammar defying palate that has gained popularity in the 2010s

Sequence after sequence impresses and continues to build, but the highlight comes with the club gunfight, which keeps inverting expectations and has the sort of hallicinatory imagery straight out of Enter The Void. This is cinema as visual and simplistic as Mad Max: Fury Road, and though it might not hit quite the same heights as George Miller’s film, it is a great promise from two new directors and a strong case for the continuing ability of the action movie to grow and innovate.

The Falling

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The most high profile British films always seem to be entrenched in a certain pertinence to our national identity. Films like Pride and Made in Dagenham explore how our recent history informs the current national mindset, while the work of Mike Leigh and Clio Bernard, which is just as political, mostly examines scenarios which help us to define what exactly it means to be British. This is what drives their success, it gives the art councils a concrete reason to fund such ventures, and it enables cinemagoers to feel almost mandated to support such films at the box office. BBC Films’ The Falling, despite being set at a very English high school in the 60s and with the green forests of England as a constant backdrop, deals with themes and characters of such universality that the film really could have been made anywhere.

Abbie, a precocious, promiscuous schoolgirl discovers she is pregnant and begins to suffer from fits of fainting. During one such spell she dies. Her best friend, played by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, is crushed. She loved Abbie. Her grief and growing pains manifest in the same symptoms as her friend, fainting which is seemingly contagious as dozens of other girls at the school to which she attends become stricken with the same affliction. From there a lilting mediation on loss and our personal histories develops.

The theme of burgeoning sexuality amongst schoolgirls unquestionably calls to mind Peter Wier’s masterpiece Picnic At Hanging Rock, but director Carol Morley in referring to this actually strengthens her own film. It gives the piece a greater sense that it is aware of its own lineage within this strange subgenre of the pedophobic drama. These are both movies about mass hysteria, about the struggle of turning from a girl to a woman, and about the power that nature holds over us.

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Picnic At Hanging Rock (Wier, 1975)

 

The Falling can’t quite live up to Picnic At Hanging Rock, it lacks the subtlety, the epic scope and the openendedness of the Australian film. Occasionally The Falling has the sort of visual style that one might expect from a TV drama, a slight flatness in the lighting which can mute the atmosphere, and one wonders if this is down to budgetary constraints or Morley playing to the small screen, where she knows a film of this nature will probably be most widely seen, but this is still British filmmaking at it’s most exciting. Beguiling and unsettling; it is a lucid dream of a movie.

Buzzard

buzz  This might be the most surprising film of the year. I’d heard about this mad little indie, Office Space for the post-recession generation. But nothing could prepare me for the violence, the sheer weirdness and the surprising resonance of Joel Potrykus’ second feature. Buzzard follows Marty, a temp at a mortgage company who goes into hiding when he fears that his one of his many small time scams has been discovered. This is a man who has been raised by his country to believe that he is owed a living, that hard work and ambition are for suckers. He is mean spirited, a slob, and bubbling with a terrifying rage. And yet as played by Joshua Burge he is still charismatic enough to watch lazily eat spaghetti for an unbroken two minute shot.

Like many low budget films by directors so early in their careers it is roughshod and gritty and kind of flawed, but this all adds to create the portrait of a man twisted by our times. Thrilling filmmaking; a great statement of intent from Potrykus and Burge.

 

Appropriate Behaviour

aprrorpeAppropriate Behaviour is the debut feature by Deisiree Akhavan, a writer/director/actress who some might recognize as the college friend cum-enemy of Lena Dunham in season 4 of HBO’s Girls. And Akhavan’s film operates within similar mumblecore territory to that sitcom, yet it happily satiates those who complain that Girls’ perspective is too blinkered by the wealthy WASP types who make up its main cast. Akhavan surrogate Shirin is a wealthy Brooklynite, sure, but she deals with her bisexuality as well as her place within America as the daughter of Persian immigrants following a rough breakup with her girlfriend. Following in the tradition of Dunham’s debut Tiny Furniture and Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, the humour oscillates between the broad and the culturally specific, hinting at growth of representation and tone for a subgenre which has threatened to disappear entirely. But more than just another sharp, deadpan comedian, Akhavan’s filmmaking, in the classroom scenes, displays a great ability to express an abiding love for cinema with economy. She teaches her class of 5 year olds to make a movie, which we watch in a charming sequence. The reaction shots of the children shows an excitement, a limitless possibility for the form. She might as well be filming herself.

Clouds of Sils Maria

sils mariaIn the age of Birdman and Steve Jobs, flashy behind the scenes dramas which pontificate on the notion of celebrity without really doing much more than concurring on their own importance, it is refreshing to see a much smaller (but still star driven) piece about the psychological toll of performance. In The Clouds of Sils Maria a star and her assistant, played with such effortless brilliance by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, prepare for a stage role by rehearsing the scenes with one another. The play is a revival of the text that made Binoche a star, about the conflict between a respected actress and her protoge (references to All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane abound), only this time Binoche portrays the older woman. Chloe Grace Moretz, playing a Lindsay Lohan caricature, has been cast as the younger actress, which, as Binoche and Stewart talk more and more about the passage of time and the nature of fame and success, cause the lines between reality and the play to blur to ever more disquieting levels.

It is often unclear whether a conversation is real or a scene rehearsal. This Kiarostami-like examination of the impossibility of truth is ceaselessly fascinating as this slow, beguiling movie unfurls itself. It is a testiment to what a great year this has been for film that The Clouds of Sils Maria, which in any other year would be a serious awards contender, has been somewhat forgotten amongst the end of the year lists. But it is essential viewing, and sure to last much longer than those other showbiz dramas.

 Mad Max: Fury Road

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What is left to be said? Could this be the watershed moment in 21st century blockbuster filmmaking? When the singular vision from George Miller, a man in his 70s, creates a film told with the formalism of an old master and the rebellious invention of a man at the start of his career. It is a rebirth, which thematically is completely fitting for Fury Road’s examination of societal change. Obvious visual metaphors like the contrast of dust and water never come across as trite because the clarity of the visual coding is key for a film which could for all intents and purposes play with the sound off. Although that would overlook the spacious sound design, the pulsating score, the way that sound and vision come together here in truly thrilling fashion.

So many blockbusters are lambasted for having an hour long action sequence at their climax (see Man of Steel and Transformers) but the incredible finale of Fury Road not only provides a crescendo of spectacle but delivers so many small payoffs on visual and character moments that one didn’t even realise were established earlier in the film. It helps that the performances are so energetic, with Tom Hardy more than living up to Mel Gibson’s deranged hero as the titular Max. But it is with Charlize Theron’s Impirator Furiosa, the determined, vengeful and so human woman at the heart of this film, we have been gifted an action character for the ages. She is the single most important female character in a blockbuster since Ellen Ripley.

Fury Road is a real step up for mainstream cinema, already being touted as one of the greatest action films ever made, a feminist manifesto, and a real spark for positive and constructive dialogue around both the themes and technique of the film. It is the most talked about film of the year, which is why none of the above is saying much new. But with a film this impeccably made and defiant, it will only gain more and more resonance with each passing year.

 

Inherent Vice

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Inherent Twice they called it. Unfathomable they called it. Well I saw Inherent Vice six times in 2015, more than any other film, and I’ve read the book, and I have to say: It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But it doesn’t need to. Inherent Vice is brilliant. Paul Thomas Anderson,  said something along the lines of ‘we don’t remember whole films as much as moments’ and that’s what’s important. That we enjoy the moment. That the hazed atmosphere of the film overtakes us.

This isn’t some Cheech and Chong roller coaster, although there are moments at which it almost feels like it is; Inherent Vice replicates the mundanity of being stoned day in, day out, allowing everything to pass one by, unable to keep ahold of the loose ends. Which is why the genre setting of a potboiler noir is perfect, because it makes everything seem important. It isn’t. Anderson packs each frame full of jokes on the off chance that you notice, but it really doesn’t matter either way. Just as it doesn’t matter that Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello is incomprehensible throughout the film, or that characters come and go seemingly at random, or that there’s a strange homoerotic subtext that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It doesn’t matter because when you’re stoned nothing matters, and it’s impossible to grasp at anything.

Inherent Vice succeeds seemingly without trying, and Paul Thomas Anderson (moving from the Kubrick to the Hal Ashby phase of his career) lets the camera sit in the corner of a room and observe. It’s simultaneously his least flashy and his most off the wall film to date, an paean for a lost era that wasn’t so much ruined by corporate greed or Pynchonian conspiracy as it was by the apathy of those who claimed to care.

 

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I can live without Star Wars, but I don’t think the world would have been right without Ex Machina. The intimately crafted tale of a man trying to be convinced by what is obviously a robot that it can feel human emotions has shades of Blade Runner and especially of classic Star Trek: The next Generation episode ‘The Measure of A Man’. But what makes this such a thrilling exercise from writer/director Alex Garland is its claustraphobic setting within the house of a billionaire, played with off the wall menace by Oscar Issac. There are shades of Bergman to the talky, confined scenes which try to figure out what makes us human, ponder the existence of God, and most importantly, who’s side the audience should be on. Breakthrough star of the year Alicia Vikander brings an appropriate Swedish ambiguity to the role of Ava the robot, while Domhall Gleeson plays the audience surrogate with enough intelligence and arrogance to become a real character himself.

‘But I’m on brown rice and mineral water,’ is perhaps the best line of the year (it makes sense if you’ve seen it) and there is certainly the greatest and most unexpected dance sequence for quite a few years within the confines of this mysterious, compelling new cult classic.

Wild Tales

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Argentina’s Oscar contender for best foreign language film was mired in some controversy when it was released earlier this year mere days before the crash of a Germanwings flight by a co-pilot who snapped. The opening sequence of Wild Tales, the intensely stylish anthology of revenge thrillers from Damián Szifron, has an eerie similarity to that crash, and yet it remains, as with the rest of the film, savagely gripping and very, very funny. This is the sort of film you show to people who decry foreign cinema as boring. It is a crowd pleaser, full of bizarre characters and scenarios, clever class commentary, and a short story structure that stops it from ever becoming boring.

This is a film that escalates, with each revenge fantasy a little more sick, a little more insidious than the last. It slowly paints a portrait of the corruption, misogyny and callous mistreatment of the poor that is rife in modern Argentina. And it builds to the final tale, set at what must be the most gloriously disastrous wedding since Melancholia. Wild Tales is deservedly one of the breakout films of the year, that is rapidly finding its way into the modern canon of cult cinema.

The Duke of Burgundyburgandy

A brilliantly timed release as counter-programming to Fifty Shades of Grey gave the necessary publicity boost to Peter Strickland’s latest mind-melter, admittedly not the easiest sell. Designed as a high art homage to Tinto Brass and other European soft-core thrillers of the late 70s, The Duke of Burgundy is set in a world occupied solely by women, in which a young couple practice an S&M relationship. Slowly we begin to to learn about the real balance of power here, and so begins a constantly evolving and elliptical character study.

The ingenuity of Strickland is to actually use these trashy reference points to disarm the viewer into really getting under the skin of the pair. Though we never see any sex acts outright, it is through their effects that we learn of the characters.

And what must not be understated about the work here is the poetry. From the fabulous moments of Chiara D’Anna’s tempestuous Evelyn staring into the bubbles of soap rising to the surface as she scrubs at Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s underwear daily, to the luscious use of deep colours and natural lighting to give the film an almost painterly look. The juxtaposition of this with the sexual elements gives a balance to the film, heightens the humour and brings out the beauty inherent in even the most scatalogical of life’s moments. Also this film introduced me to the phrase ‘The human toilet’, for which I am forever grateful.

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