Jan 10, 2016

Favourite Films Of 2015

2015 began with a bang. A true original. The wonderful Birdman. Directed by Alejandro Innaritu. It was a dazzling triumph. I actually thought it was too original and different to win Best Picture. But it did and deservedly so. 2015 also gave us a new Paul Thomas Anderson. Naturally I was very excited by this and despite some mixed reviews I fell in love. Again it was a true original. A wild ride that totally succeeded. Like recent years the box office was dominated by 'big' films, mostly comic book adaptations and the like. These do nothing for me but I will admit I did enjoy the new Star Wars film. The hype was over the top to say the least but I thought it was a smart and funny film that mostly satisfied. As we speak it has just become the highest grossest film of all time. On the smaller scale the most enjoyable film I saw all year was Mistress America. What a wonderful film that was. And I think the best film I saw in 2015 that flew under the radar a bit was definitely A Most Violent Year.

1. Birdman, directed by Alejandro Innaritu.
Birdman is astounding, brave and bold film making. But when the director is the masterful Inarritu you should expect nothing less. A dazzling film on many levels this is a story about lost souls, identity, celebrity and meaning in the world. Michael Keaton is superb as Riggan Thomson, a man searching for answers many years after reaching fame as 'Birdman'. His soul searching takes him to Broadway to star in and adapt Raymond Carver. All the while his inner voice of 'Birdman' is questioning his every move. He seeks answers but can't find them. Throw in a troubled relationship with his daughter and his battles with the ego of his star actor, the great Edward Norton, and you have a potent mix of regret and ambition. This is a sad, dark and funny film. It pokes holes in the modern film world obsessed with comic book adaptations and the world at large concerned with celebrity. To add to the mastery of the film is the sublime cinematography of Lubezki. He has combined with the director to construct the film as if it shot in one take. The effect is to thrillingly lead you on a non stop journey through the theatre, a theatre of dreams. Of fantasy. This wonderful films plays with big ideas. The fact that it totally succeeds is even more astounding.

2. Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Inherent Vice is a drug hazed, complex, at times confusing but ultimately richly textured look at early 70s California. The master director Paul Thomas Anderson has created a film that will confound audiences, perhaps astound them, most assuredly anger them. But if you let this film sink in and get under your skin you will find something quite remarkable. A film destined to be more loved over time but right now I love it. Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, and I believe it is very faithful to it, we follow private eye Doc Sportello. A man who exists in a drug haze, but somehow manages to get the job done. His old girlfriend visits him with a urgent request. Soon we are plunged into a strange world of Nazis. FBI agents, musicians, shady deals and a whole lot more. A lot of it doesn't make sense. But I don't think that matters. It's more about characters and sense of place rather than conventional plot. It has a languid pace but never feels long. It is infused with sadness and loss. It is darkly funny and weirdly beautiful. The acting is first class, with Phoenix and Waterston especially great. Robert Elswit's photography creates the tone beautifully and the music, as would be expected, is timely and beautifully used. This film probably deserves multiple viewings. Not especially to understand the plot but to take note and appreciate all of the subtleties that a Paul Thomas Anderson film gives you. This probably isn't his greatest work, with his catalogue that would be awfully hard, but it is definitely his strangest and maybe his most mature work.

3. Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Leviathan is aptly named as it is a huge film concerned with big ideas. This slow burning film is a parable for modern day Russia. It is concerned with fate, corruption, deceit and human frailty. It is dark and ultimately very sad. Set in remote northern Russia we meet Kolya a man trying to hold onto his life and land against a corrupt mayor and an uncaring town. Each turn in his life leads to more tragedy and bad luck. With superb performances, stunning photography and a stellar score this essential film shows a corrupt and desperate system that makes for forlorn and sad viewing.

4. Mistress America, directed by Noah Baumbach.
Noah Baumbach is a master film maker. He rarely fails to connect, His latest is close to his best yet and that is saying something. Greta Gerwig is luminescent as Brooke, 'Mistress America' a thirty something trying to find her place in the world. At times her character is self absorbed and even slightly obnoxious but Gerwig's shining personality and superb comic timing is such that you root for her and also fall for her. Her co-star, Lola Kirke, is equally great as Tracy who admires her and experiences her. This nuanced and delightful film has writing of the highest quality. It is wry, poignant, sharply observed. Scenes flow with such great timing it is quite astounding. It's a funny film but there are layers of meaning here. The music is great and New York shines as well as the important setting.

5. A Most Violent Year, directed by J.C. Chandor.
A Most Violent Year is probably the best film that most people didn't see this year. Set in New York in 1981 this is a slow burning, tense, dark and complex tale of ambition and consequences. It's a crime drama but it evokes classic films of the 70s. The most recent film that I could compare it to in tone would be The Yards. Abel and Anna are husband and wife who run an oil heating business. They skate pretty close to the edge of the law, but when their business is threatened by rivals they need to delve deeper into the darker side. So this superbly acted film becomes much more than a crime thriller, it's a morality tale and character study. Chastain and Isaac are superb in the lead roles, making for a richly crafted film.

6. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller.
Anchored by great performances Foxcatcher is an intense, dark, chilling and truly suffocating experience. This slow burning film is quietly paced and doom breathes in almost every scene. The true story of Foxcatcher wrestling is set in the 80s as we follow Mark Schultz (an Olympic wrestling champion) taken under the wing of the extremely wealthy John Du Pont. Du Pont is a sociopath to be sure, a man of extreme awkwardness and chilling uncomfortableness. His issues are many and the centre of this film is the relationship between him and the boy-man Schultz. Wrestling is almost secondary in this probing examination of the male psyche. Steve Carell is just incredible in the lead role whilst Mark Ruffalo shows his skills again. Channing Tatum is serviceable I guess, but is carried by a superb script and skilled direction. This isn't easy viewing but it is close to essential.

7. Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Sicario is a doom laden, confronting beast of a film. Extremely impressive in all regards it is a powerful look at the drug wars along the Mexico/US border. Emily Blunt is superb as the FBI agent co opted into a task force run by Josh Brolin that is targeting a Mexican drug cartel. Denis Villeneuve expertly directs, creating an atmosphere that swings from dark and disturbing to epic beauty. The soundtrack just adds to the dark tones as we are taken on a pulsating ride of deceit, death and strange bedfellows. The only slight fault is that there is not much character development but this is mainly because they are conduits to the drama unfolding and the futility of the situation.

8. 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani.
99 Homes is a gripping and intense film about the housing crisis in the USA. Set in Orlando, Florida we meet Rick, an ambitious and amoral real estate agent who makes profits off foreclosed homes. He evicts Dennis, an honest man struggling to find work and in the process loses his family home. Desperate for money he ends up working for Rick and his moral dilemma hits him squarely in the face. This powerful film is a searing indictment on the US capitalist system, how there is a huge gap between the haves and the have nots. It is tense and emotionally charged, with a fine script and superb performances from the two leads. Especially from Michael Shannon who burns a hole in the screen.

9. The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum.
The Imitation Game is a fine film on many levels. It's part war time thriller, part spy movie and partly an emotional journey. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Alan Turing, a war hero today but in his time not so much. Turing, the father of the computer, was a genius who was entrusted in World War II with breaking the German Enigma code. Which is filmed in thrilling fashion. Who knew Maths could be so exciting? But this film offers more. It peaks as look into the man, his demons and the unjust way he was treated by society.

10. Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
Watching someone disintegrate on screen will never be 'fun' viewing, but it can be extremely moving and richly rewarding. Still Alice is such a film thanks to the incredible performance of the singular actor Julianne Moore. Moore plays Alice, an extremely gifted Columbia professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The film follows her path as her life falls apart, supported by her dedicated family. Moore tackles the role with nuance where needed and rage where required, giving us a great insight into her condition and also giving us a travel guide through human emotions and failings. It's inevitably sad but also strongly emotionally connected.

Films to see in 2016-

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