FILMS OF 2015, PT. 3

Bridge of Spies 

It is thrilling to see that 40 years after Jaws Steven Spielberg is still making films that can legitimately be placed up there with his best. Bridge of Spies continues his recent run of more talky, classically minded pictures, but is incredibly tense in a way that his previous Lincoln seemed quite detached. In this cold war story of a lawyer played by Tom Hanks, sent to Berlin to negotiate the trade of an American POW for a Russian spy, there is of course an imbalance to make the Americans look like saints fighting for the good of mankind against a cruel and oppressive Russia, but this is Spielberg’s method to pull the audience along so willfully.

What gives Bridge of Spies the edge is its script by the Coen brothers. They keep the pace zipping along nicely with gags a plenty, but it’s also the strange little touches, like Hanks getting a cold when he’s stuck in Berlin, that give the film a humanity that makes it another Spielberg masterpiece.   

Hanks plays the all-American everyman, fighting for good and justice. A consummate professional who never misses a trick, it is a pleasure watching him. Between Hanks here and Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian, we have a real throwback to the Jimmy Stewart leading man style, a mode which suits both men perfectly. I wish all prestige pictures were more like this. 

It Follows

tit follows.pngSomehow this little masterpiece found itself being one of the most divisive films of the year. After establishing some very strict rules in an early sequence (now that you’ve had sex with an infected person, you will be hunted by this shape-shifting creature until you can pass it on by, you guessed it, having sex with somebody else) It Follows toys with its audience through sequence after sequence of slow burning tension, culminating in a set piece which many accused of disregarding these rules. To me, it didn’t matter.  If all horror films are about sex then this was a brilliantly simple take on the entire purpose of the genre. The old trope that if ‘you have sex, you die’ is inverted, and yet this is still a film of great restraint, it forces an audience to examine the entire frame for clues. We are forced to take apart the framing, the music, the entire mise en scène of the film because if we don’t, we are likely to be caught next.

There is a richness of detail that was lacking in any other 2015 horror release, somewhere between the precision of Kubrick and the lurking askew suburbia of Carpenter sits David Robert Mitchell’s follow up to The Myth of The American Sleepover, a film which this closely resembles were it not for the genre elements.

It is wholly chilling too, and I can’t fault it for that.

Tangerine

Much loved, much discussed: Sean Baker’s Tangerine was the breakout hit of 2015, a film shot on a souped up iPhone 5 that follows Alexandra and Sin-Dee, two transgender prostitutes on an odyssey through their LA hood to find Sin-Dee’s pimp boyfriend after she discovers he has been cheating on her. The low budget makes for a more gritty, real experience, of course, but what surprises is the unique versatility of camerawork that shooting in this way affords. The lens is wide, the colours burst, the camera spins and swoops, going from distant and passive to oppressively close. Baker, who also acts as cinematographer, achieves complex shots over and over again. It’s the Spring Breakers aesthetic made real, with the bright skittishness but also the blurry reality that replicates the experience of crack.

The Christmas eve setting isn’t a fatuous one either, as Tangerine displays the sort of bittersweet morality that could turn it into a future Alternative Christmas Classic. Think A Charlie Brown Christmas with a Trap soundtrack. Compared to higher profile fare like The Danish Girl which martyrs the trans plight, this feels refreshing because Tangerine isn’t an issue movie. What it is is propulsive, silly, an Almovodarian melodrama that is wholly truthful about the day-to-day life of these characters.

Inside Out

We may now be in a world where animated films aren’t immediately judged as children’s fare, which can largely be put down to the unparalleled creative success of Pixar. Their brand of emotionally complex family films has revolutionised the way we approach the animation, and removed the stigma of adults going to see kids films. But they have had some wilderness years, with a few misfires and unexciting sequels. A pleasure then, to see Pixar bounce back with their most inventive film since Wall-E.

Set in the mind of Riley, a pre-teen who struggles to fit into her new home in San Francisco, the main characters of Inside Out are embodiments of her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. At first this concept brings to mind the classic Beano strip The Numbskulls, or the dire Eddie Murphy vehicle Meet Dave, however these preconceptions are soon overturned as we are treated to an elegant deconstruction of the way the human mind works. It is simple and colourful enough for children to understand, but the crushing message that we need a balance of emotions to survive, that Sadness is just as vital as Joy, can be tough to take but is as extraordinary as any morality tale I have seen.  

It also may be the film that begins a critical turnaround on Francis Ford Coppola’s overlooked masterpiece One From The Heart, which bursts with colour and sound and manages to bring the power of the theatre into a cinematic setting, and seems to have been a primary influence on Pete Docter and his team.

 But the single most striking moment, possibly of Pixar’s entire oeuvre thus far, is when a distraught Riley goes to sleep and Joy plays a memory of Riley ice skating at a lake back in the mid-west to comfort her. She watches on the large screen that shows what Riley sees. Joy is entranced by the happiness that Riley felt, by the warmth of that memory, and she begins to copy Riley’s movements, gliding from left to right across the control room. Visually, it recalls The Red Shoes, but psychologically it appears to be drawing from Lacan’s theory of a Mirror Phase in humans. Joy watches these memories and cannot separate them from herself, they are in fact her, they are joy. By watching these moments over and over she promotes a narcissism in herself, the character flaw which she attempts to overcome by the end of the film. The fact that she watches this unfold on a giant screen is about as perfect a metaphor for cinema as one can find. It is a crushingly emotional moment in an animated film of great power, and from the day of it’s release Inside Out was my film of 2015.

Until. 

Mommy

I watched Xavier Dolan’s Mommy on the last day of the year and it threw everything into perspective. This film encapsulates everything which I had been struck by in my favourite films of 2015. The story of Steve, a troubled teen who leaves juvie and moves back in with his highly strung mother Diane, and their struggles to integrate into society and to each other. It’s the sort of set up which recalls Tennessee Williams, and it features the same gloriously loquacious histrionics.

Yet what immediately defines Mommy in opposition to just about any mainstream cinema is Dolan’s aesthetic choice to shoot in a 1.1 aspect ratio, meaning that the screen is a perfect square. This confines the characters, cramps them together in this house, but also suggests so much more lurking beyond the immaculately composed frame. It truly is a film of suggestion, that examines what isn’t there as much as what is. This is evident in the recurring theme of broken families, whether it is the absence of a paternal figure for Steve, or the slow dissolution of the marriage between stammering Kyla (a neighbour who helps to tutor Steve and befriends Diane) and her husband.   

Mommy has some of the best characters in a year full of great women. And yet it never seems to be doing this to score points, this is just the story that needed to be told and the characters that needed to occupy it. It is far more powerful to simply have great characters than to point out your Bechdel-passing capabilities. One of the best ways to inspire change is to implement it without drawing attention to yourself, so that the new status-quo becomes so almost without anyone noticing. The film has these extraordinary characters and watches them live, playing out a classic Freudian Mother/Son relationship with the heightened verve to make it feel utterly unlike anything shown before on screen. We are treated to breathtaking sequence after breathtaking sequence: a gorgeous montage is followed terrifying scene of domestic violence which is followed by a bizarre and hilarious dinner sequence, is followed by a tense tutoring sequence in which we learn the internal side of two characters. And that’s just one half hour section of this 138 minute epic.

Though easily defined as a gritty social realist drama, the film is set in the near future, the differences of which comes into play only in the last act. There is a magical realist quality hovering about the film, not just in the flash-forward/dream sequence which offers an incredible catharsis for the audience that is then snatched away, but in a moment of exquisite bliss when the characters seem to find peace and break out of their societal confines and the aspect ratio spreads into traditional 1.85 widescreen. They are free, if only for a moment until we return to 1.1 It is a triumphant, heart bursting moment, that even makes one buy into the sentimentality of ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, playing on the soundtrack during this montage.

In fact it is throughout that we are treated to a soundtrack that nothing if not filled with the cheesiest songs in modern memory. Dido, Eiffel 65 Oasis, Celine Dion, Lana Del Rey. But Dolan allows us to enjoy the beauty in these songs, to see them as they are meant to be rather than applied with some ironic distance as is so common for young directors in order to gain cred. He sees the positivity in these cultural artifacts. He sees the hope. And it is this unabashed love for life in all of its extremes that makes this 26 year old director one of the most exciting working today. He understands the possibilities not just of cinema, but of life itself.

 

With the year end roundups there was much debate over the last month as to the quality of modern cinema in the world of ‘peak TV’, the argument being that television has reached a point of such sophistication and quality that it has overtaken the cinema in terms of relevance and artistic achievement. But this is simply not true. There is as much richness in any of the films I’ve touched on over the past month as in any prestige drama or Netflix Original.

With young directors including Xavier Dolan, Sean Baker, David Robert Mitchell, Andrew Haigh, Alex Ross Perry, Ava DuVernay, The Safdie Brothers, Desiree Akhavan and Joel Potrykus reinventing our expectations and the very confines of cinema, and masters from Spielberg to Todd Haynes to Noah Baumbach continuing to put out work that is every bit as essential as their earlier efforts; expanding ways for films to be seen at home and in the cinema, I would love to see more stories being told by female and minority filmmakers in mainstream cinema, and I believe that new methods of distribution are slowly helping us to access this, but on the whole our global film culture is in great shape.

 

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