Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 – My Top 10 Films of the Year

So, here we are, the end of 2015. I saw a total of ninety-eight 2015 UK releases, which must stand as a record for me, reviewing forty-one of them (another record). Some have called this a weak year for cinema but, while every year has its ups and downs, I don’t buy that there’s such thing as a bad year for movies, and I think my top 10 reflects that. All the movies below are really cracking pieces of cinema, and my #1 has already made it onto my list of all-time greats.

So, without further ado, my top 10 of 2015 . . .

10) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman is at his deeply apathetic best in director Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. Add to that the gorgeous Super 16 cinematography, a pitch-perfect meandering jazz score and razor-sharp dialogue, and Perry’s film stands out as one of the most unconventional, yet fabulous, star vehicles of the past twelve months.

My sole horror entry comes from genre favourite director Adam Green, and this faux-documentary monster movie is his pièce de résistance. Green plays himself as he is contacted by the mysterious William Dekker (Ray Wise), who claims to have uncovered a subterranean network of deformed beasties. On a first watch, Digging Up The Marrow went so far as to leave me with the uneasy sense that Dekker might have actually been onto something. It loses some of that potency on a second viewing, but that does little to dull the film’s playfulness.

Marshland takes a page out of Truman Capote’s book and creates a magnificent sense of place upon which to formulate a crime thriller. Couple that with Alex Catalán’s stunning cinematography, a sharp political underpinning and a great pair of lead performances from Javier Gutiérrez and Raúl Arévalo, and Alberto Rodríguez’s deeply ambivalent Spanish crime thriller is one of this years standout works of world cinema.

7) Tangerines

The less talked about easy peeler-based arthouse hit. Tangerines tells the story of Ivo, an Estonian caught in the middle of the Georgian War in Abkhazia. Ivo’s fight to maintain a peaceful home in the middle of a brutish warzone makes for enthralling viewing and provides a scathing commentary on conflict of any scale.

In any normal year, John Wick would’ve been the action movie to beat, but Mad Max: Fury Road – and Whiplash, to some extent – put something of a dampener on that. But, John Wick’s successes aren’t to be taken lightly. A steely Keanu Reeves, killer action and an intriguing mythological under-pinning cement John Wick’s place in the modern action hall of fame.

This searing crime epic from director J.C. Chandor was one of the Oscar hopefuls in the lead up to last year’s ceremony. The fact it didn’t receive a single nomination was one of the Academy’s most unfortunate oversights last time out. But, what do they know, eh? A Most Violent Year is a meticulously crafted nation crushing crime drama, the likes of which make it to our screens just once in a blue moon.

4) The Duke of Burgundy

Probably 2015’s biggest surprise was The Duke of Burgundy. Now, it wasn’t that Peter Strickland’s psychosexual tug of war had received bad reviews (quite the opposite, in fact), but I was trepidatious that I hadn’t yet made the leap into Strickland’s challenging oeuvre. So, what a glorious surprise to find myself transfixed by this intimate exploration into a fragile dom/sub relationship.

3) Jodorowsky’s Dune

This movie has been bobbing around for a few years now, but it only received its official UK release (straight-to-VOD, no less) earlier this year. Jodorowsky’s Dune is 2015’s standout documentary. It chronicles the glorious failure that was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, Dune, to the big screen. The world will never see what Jodorowsky’s Dune would have looked like, but it would’ve been a tall order to better this.

2) Whiplash

The little drumming movie that could. Whiplash is one of the great indie success stories of recent years, having stemmed from a Sundance favourite short film and going on to gross 15x its production budget. The film’s beautiful brutality (‘beautality’, if you will) may be off-putting for some, but the rewards are richer than you could ever imagine. I came out of the cinema fist pumping.

One of my purest cinematic joys is transcendent action cinema. It’s the ace in the hole that makes Aliens my favourite film of all time, and it’s a feeling I felt murmurs of during Mad Max: Fury Road. I know there’s little left to add to the discussion, but this is the kind of cinema that’ll take your breath away.

And now for my honourable mentions. I would regard all of these as 5 star films, but they just didn’t quite make the top 10 cut. First up is the brilliantly performed Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, then we have Ramin Bahrani’s politically charged real estate crisis drama 99 Homes and the radically subversive The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Two Cannes hits are also worth a mention – Macbeth and Dope – alongside Foxcatcher and the fantastic series finale that was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Then, I’ll finish with a quintet of excellent horror films: The Hallow, Some Kind of Hate, Unfriended, Creep and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

So, there we have it . . .

Do you agree with my choices? Are there any belters I’ve missed? Are there any shockers I’ve included? Let me know in the comments below.

Here’s to another year of cinematic excellence!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review – Humanist Loveliness

Jay and Mark Duplass, otherwise known as the Duplass Brothers, have long skirted around the periphery of my cinematic awareness. I’ve known their names and had a basic grasp on their approach to filmmaking, without ever delving into their output.

That was until I read Jason Tanz’s fantastic Wired article about the pair. It’s a terrific read and left me inspired to finally give the pair their dues. A quick VOD search found that I had easy access to three Duplass Brothers movies; Jeff, Who Lives at Home (which they wrote and directed), The One I Love (produced by their shared production company, Duplass Brothers Productions, and starring Mark), and Creep (co-written by, produced by, and starring Mark).

So, why not start at the beginning . . .

2011’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home was the brothers second studio feature. It upped their budget considerably from their early independent projects. But, with great power comes great responsibility, and the film consequently bombed at the box office with $4.3m domestic. However, while the film failed commercially, it hits the mark in pretty much every other way.

Following an overtly indie set-up, the movie follows the three remaining members of the Thompkins family; mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), and her two adult sons, still-living-at-home, Jeff (Jason Segel), and moderately more ‘successful’, Pat (Ed Helms). Jeff sees a bewildering phone call as a sign of his ultimate destiny, Pat’s marriage (to the always excellent Judy Greer) starts to crumble after he indulges himself with a Porsche, and Sharon finds herself the target of a secret admirer. All three strands are given their screen time, but the real magic happens between the narrative lines.

What the Duplass Brothers offer here is an antidote to the mean-spirited ‘midlife’ crisis drama of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. It’s a movie made by optimists, by a pair of filmmakers who believe in people. Even Pat’s douchey Porshce-love is atoned for. It helps, of course, that his materialism is silenced by the reveal that the object of his desire is far from infallible. The human relationships, on the other hand, are seen to be far more resistant.

The lead players are also all on great form. Segel delivers yet another deeply sympathetic ‘waster’ lead, but it’s Helms who’s the real revelation. Known primarily for infantile comedy performances, Helms is given arguably the most dramatically charged role and he stands his ground brilliantly. He’s aided by the Duplass’ tonally astute writing. Never veering too far into overly manufactured drama or comedy, and handling any moments of magical-realism with ease, the film comes across as disarmingly true.

On this evidence, I have to say the Duplass Brothers are shaping up – or have shaped up, if their other films continue on this trajectory – to be two of the 21st century’s great cinematic humanists. I’ve got The One I Love queued up already . . .


Monday, 28 December 2015

Beasts of No Nation Review – Netflix Knockout

First time’s the charm for Netflix’s burgeoning feature film division. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s tough Beasts of No Nation follows Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy who loses his family as civil war breaks out in his unnamed nation. He is then captured by a rebel militia and taken under the arm of Idris Elba’s charismatic Commandant.

Elba convinces as the bloodthirsty leader and his coercion of Agu is suitably inescapable. However, it’s Attah who steals the show. He delivers a mighty performance as the innocent charmer turned ruthless killing machine. Much of the film’s dramatic weight rests on his shoulders, and he rises to the challenge magnificently. Especially impressive for an actor of his age is his ability to convey such complex emotions so purely using simply his eyes.

Fukunaga seems in tune with this rare talent and lenses Attah in a number of chilling close-ups. Fukunaga, acting as the director of photography alongside his writer-director credits, establishes a harrowing frame, which is made even more shocking by the sheer beauty of his visuals. The colours sing, as forests green and trenches ferric are trampled by a pair of marching size 4s.

Fukunaga displays the same visual flare he has become known for since his work on the first season of True Detective. Particularly in a handful of unflashy, but undeniably impressive, long takes as he sends his camera gliding through trenches with Kubrickian confidence.

The film packs it’s heftiest punch before the 90-minute mark, before fading somewhat as the Commandant leads his troops away from the rebel movement. This aimlessness comments on the fact that the Commandant is a man of war – and what exactly is a man of war to do during peacetime? – but offers little depth beyond that.

That being said, Beasts of No Nation is a powerful piece of cinema. The messages are clear, but Fukunaga’s visual excellence and Attah’s immense performance ensure they are delivered like never before.


Beasts of No Nation is available to stream via Netflix.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Marshland Review – Don’t Get Bogged Down

There are echoes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist in Marshland, the latest crime thriller from Spanish director, and co-writer (with Rafael Cobos), Alberto Rodríguez. Not in the narrative, the cinematography or the locations, but in the political setting. Both films take place during periods of monumental political upheaval (post-Mussolini Italy, in the case of the former, and post-Franco Spain, in the latter) and both filmmakers ensure these unstable social environments are deeply seeded within their pictures.

The film follows Juan and Pedro, two out-of-town detectives called to the Spanish south coast wetlands to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters. Their search leads them further and further into the snare of the titular marshland, as they begin to discover just how wide this web is spun.

There’s a suffocating sense of ambivalence and uncertainty to every frame of Marshland. The politics weigh heavily on the characters’ every action and the sense of burden for these central players is palpable. In the same breath, they denounce the previous era’s fascist dictatorship whilst also finding themselves resorting to off-the-book policing methods. It’s a fascinating contradiction and one made even more powerful by the two character’s seeming blindness to it.

The significance of the locale is not to be underestimated and our two detectives journey from down-and-out rural villages to dust-ridden dilapidated farmhouses and then onto the boggy marsh. And just to make the whole thing that tad more oppressive, the heavens have a tendency to open with a biblical fury whenever they start to make progress. Pathetic fallacy (in this case, the weather reflecting the characters’ situations and emotions) can come across as a bit GCSE English Literature, but here it’s seen to be ferocious and deeply troubling.

This brilliant combination of striking locations and symbolic weather patterns is elevated by Alex Catalán’s intense cinematography. You’ll feel the heat as he scorches his frame to match the torrid Mediterranean sun, which Rodríguez will suddenly interrupt with vast bird’s-eye view shots of the surrounding land. Created by digitising the photographs of Hector Garrido, these shots are used sparingly, and have the power to take your breath away at every appearance.

In fact, the film opens with a montage of such shots, tracking across the beaten marshes. The striking brain-like undulations seem totally alien and stand jarringly at odds with the fiercely realist approach taken elsewhere. The characters we were previously so close to, both physically and emotionally – we remain in their company for the entirety of the running time, thus finding ourselves just as lost as they are – are abruptly reduced to mere pinpricks on an endless canvas. The enormity of their task is confirmed.

Marshland is a really terrific piece of world cinema. The film’s demanding political foundations make for challenging viewing for those out of the know (myself very much included; even a second watch left me wrestling with the social intricacies), but the rewards are numerable and deeply unsettling.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Girlhood Review – Girl ‘Hood

Cinema is arguably at it’s most satisfying when it is introducing audiences to worlds they have hitherto unexplored. So, when I say that Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood centres on a working class, sixteen year-old, African-French girl, suffice to say I’m not all that clued up on life in the suburban Parisian estates. And it’s that unique spin on a more familiar life of crime narrative that really gives Girlhood its bite.

In an attempt to escape from the oppressive and abusive clutches of her older brother, Marieme (Karidja Touré) finds herself seduced by the freedom of a small all-girl gang after she is kicked out of school. But, as she finds herself journeying deeper and deeper down this path, she starts to see shades of her older sibling shining through.

To see this narrative from a female point of view is an eye-opening alternative to the male dominated crime dramas that dominate our screens. Marieme’s journey is similar to that of her male counterparts, in many ways, but there a select few beats that cement the importance of this alternative perspective.

The film’s wild card, however, is Sciamma’s transcendent use of music. French electronic artist Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, known artistically as Para One, creates a sonic soundscape that pulses with life. And, Sciamma makes full use of Laubier’s talent, orchestrating a series of dialogue-free music video-esque sequences that pair Laubier’s compositions with arrestingly beautiful imagery. It makes for mesmerising cinema. One almost gets the feeling that a re-edit featuring just the musical sequences would have maintained the narrative drive, whilst delivering a more potent and transportive experience. There’s little to compare work this good to, but I was reminded of Nicholas Winding Refn’s masterful use of synthy europop in his 2011 masterpiece Drive.

Girlhood is an important insight into a lifestyle little explored on film. But it’s Para One’s score that really stays with you . . .