Monday, 28 December 2015

Spectrum's Best Films of 2015 (10-1)

10. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Östlund)

This icicle-sharp drama from Sweden combines the discomfort and familial dysfunction of Michael Haneke or Ingmar Bergman with the deadpan, cruel comedy of the Coen brothers. An affluent upper-middle-class family on holiday at an exclusive ski resort is thrown into disarray when the work-obsessed father places self-preservation ahead of protecting his wife and children when an unexpected avalanche crashes towards the rooftop restaurant where they're eating breakfast. In the aftermath, the wife begins to reassess her estimation of her husband and their relationship; soon, unpalatable truths are being aired and the air is pregnant with barbed reproaches.

Far from creating a dour viewing experience, director Ruben Östlund emphasises the latent, social comedy of the situation. Much as with The Lobster, this makes its insights about the gulf between the ideals and realities of domestic bliss land all the more effectively. Well worth a watch, even if it is from in-between your fingers.

9. Sicario (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Emily Blunt gives a gutsy and vanity-free performance in this brutal borderlands thriller about ruthless Mexican drug cartels, CIA task forces, and the shady, blurred No Man's Land between the two embodied by Benicio del Toro's enigmatic assassin. As FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt finds herself recruited into a top secret government operation across the Mexican border aimed at seizing control of the narcotics trade; although she initially believes she has been invited to participate on an equal footing with her arrogant male superiors, led by a superbly smarmy Josh Brolin, she quickly discovers that she is only a pawn in their power-hungry machinations.

This is the most disillusioned and cynical American thriller since Zero Dark Thirty, and although less explicit the post-9/11, Iraq resonances are readily apparent, with the contemporary US depicted as a place where grand statements of purpose and governmental crusades are used to conceal altogether more self-interested motives. The action sequences are wince-inducingly tense and bloody, the droning soundtrack is soaked in dread, and Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography - from cloud-streaked desert skies to labyrinthine Mexican slums - has Oscar written all over it.

8. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

Social class is a subject typically shied away from in American popular culture. One of the founding myths of America is that anyone can make it and become wealthy, respected and important, so the realities of economic disadvantage, determination and stricture are most often omitted. Not so in Foxcatcher, a sports drama that treats its sordid and sad real-life inspiration as a microcosm of the ills of an entire society.

John du Pont (Steve Carell, eerily brilliant) is the aimless scion of a super-wealthy American family, determined to build a legacy for himself as one of the nation's great patrons of athletics, who enlists the help of Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) to build a world-class wrestling academy on the grounds of his chilly, forbidding ancestral estate. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. Foxcatcher is a cautionary tale about our modern veneration of the wealthy and the elite, sombre yet shot through with pitch-black comedy, difficult to watch but impossible to look away from.

7. Mommy (Dir. Xavier Dolan)

Continuing the stretch of movies that put one through the emotional wringer, French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's Mommy is a bittersweet exploration of the fraught relationship between a free-spirited single mother and her wayward, violent-tempered teenage son. There's something of the young PT Anderson about the similarly precocious Dolan's work here: the pacing is impetuous and passionate, the performances and story pitched at an operatic intensity that sweep you along with them.

What's more, there's a playful quality to it: Dolan frames the movie in a 1:1 aspect ratio that emulates the camera on a smart phone - an inspired move that emphasises the family intimacy of the piece, as if we're watching somebody's Instagram feed, and allows moments of bravura filmmaking when the frame suddenly widens out to represent the euphoria of the characters.

6. P'tit Quinquin (Dir. Bruno Dumont)

Twin Peaks goes continental in maverick French filmmaker Bruno Dumont's 4-part miniseries/movie. A surprise hit in its native France, Quinquin is the strange tale of a series of brutal murders in a deprived rural community in northern France as seen from the perspective of a group of bored children whiling away their summer holidays and the hapless police detective tasked with solving the macabre crimes.

Dumont's distinctive style is fully in evidence: the cast of unprofessionals deliver memorably grimacing, quivering non-performances, and the plot deals with questions of provincial racism and spiritual need in a world where God is absent. Unlike Dumont's past work, however, Quinquin is frequently hilarious, and the sub-plot concerning burgeoning Islamophobia within the village wisely and eerily predicts the fortunes of France in 2015. Lovers of the weird and wonderful, jump in. More conservative viewers beware: Broadchurch this ain't.

5. Timbuktu (Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Abderrahmane Sissako's sensuous, heartfelt and tragic rumination on Islamism's creeping encroachment across North Africa has elements reminiscent of cinema past and present: the sweeping vistas - where men are dwarfed by their unforgiving environments - of David Lean; the mockery of empty-headed religious fundamentalism and gormless young jihadists from Chris Morris' Four Lions. But the musicality and emphasis on mood gives Sissako's perfectly-formed jewel an atmosphere and import all of its own; like a song oft-repeated, where the figures come and go, but the sad reality of love and joy extinguished by intolerance and hatred remains.

4. Girlhood (Dir. Céline Sciamma)

As the English-language title would suggest, this gritty and thrilling French drama is on some level pitched as a riposte to Boyhood's depiction of the early life and times of an upwardly mobile white male. No such opportunities are waiting for Marieme, the black female working-class protagonist of Girlhood, struggling to avoid the snares of romantic and family entanglement that might keep her from escaping from the poor Parisian banlieue she lives in, and finding solace, for a time at least, with a trio of independently-minded girls who share her background.

The soundtrack - of New Wave and Rihanna tracks - coupled with the luminescent imagery and expressionist editing gives the whole thing a propulsive momentum and danger that overcomes the more predictable notes of social realism that are touched upon. This is small-key filmmaking made in an epic register.

3. Bitter Lake (Dir. Adam Curtis)

Somewhere, buried deep within the vaults of the BBC, Adam Curtis has been firing out missives about the new global (dis)order for nigh-on twenty years, cobbled together from archival footage and mind-bending grand narratives delivered via stentorian voiceover. Bitter Lake, about the West's long, complex and ugly interventions in the Middle East, and the ways in which these dealings have a habit of biting scheming governments on the backside, is his most artistically accomplished work to date.

Curtis has trawled through cast-offs from the footage shot by news crews sent to cover the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and retrieved some pretty extraordinary footage, ranging from awkward teenage jihadists trying, and failing, to pose menacingly for the camera, to army personnel delivering lectures on conceptual art (specifically Duchamp's urinal piece Fountain) to a bemused audience drawn from the occupied population. Curtis's strategy is seemingly to undermine the too-tidy narratives of the mass media, be it the depiction of Islamists as a monolithic power or Western governments as either would-be saviours or oppressors. In the place of these stale stories, Curtis creates a disturbing reflection of our world that feels much closer to reality: a hall of mirrors where nobody can predict the consequences of their actions and all is chaos. Bitter Lake is beautiful and mesmerising to watch. It is important because it challenges us to look at the situation with fresh eyes and stop relying on the tired commonplaces that have accrued over the past decade.

Bitter Lake was released without fanfare onto iPlayer. Although it's criminal that Curtis' masterpiece didn't receive greater promotion, at least it means you can watch it for free online right here and not feel guilty about it:

2. Stray Dogs (Dir. Tsai Ming-liang)

Tsai Ming-Liang, one of the principal luminaries of New Taiwan Cinema, announced that Stray Dogs would be his last feature-length film. Although it's sad that such a masterful and distinctive talent has called it quits, this meditatively-paced and elliptical swansong is one hell of a final statement. It follows the hand-to-mouth existence of a homeless man and his two young children living in Taipei: victims of an economic boom that has left them, as so many working-class citizens, behind, the bleakness of their situation eventually begins to threaten the father's sanity. At least, this is what it seems to be about: the non-linear structure means that it's impossible to get a firm grasp on the characters' situation, and heavily-stylised dream sequences keep swelling up beneath the more realist framework to untether things further.

There's no point in pretending otherwise: Stray Dogs is a desperately sad experience, possessed of an indelible emotional rawness that is incredibly rare and powerful. But neither is this structurally-radical work merely a wallow in misery-porn: Ming-Liang's technique of allowing scenes to unfold in real-time within single, fixed-camera takes has the same magic effect witnessed in Tarkovsky - that ineffable quality that the time lived by the characters has seeped out of the screen and inhabited the theatre auditorium/your living room. I think all the greatest filmmakers can create a feeling only accessed via their work, and, for all its sorrow and heartbreak, Ming-Liang's spellbinding cinema attains that level here.

1. Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

As with PT Anderson's previous feature, The Master (my personal pick for film of the decade so far), his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's shaggy-dog story about a stoner private-eye requires more than one viewing to fully appreciate. What on first impression can seem like a series of (highly entertaining) unrelated incidents and aimless meanderings, reveals the dazzling intricacy of its structure. It is bursting with internal rhymes and recurring motifs. Where most Hollywood studio pictures struggle to dream up one idea, Anderson demonstrates an excess of them.

What is Inherent Vice 'about'? Personally, I see it as a commentary on how the counter-cultural ethos and spirit of the 60s have been co-opted and commodified by the establishment to the point where the original meaning is permanently lost. As evinced by The Rolling Stones charging extortionate fees for their retrospective concerts, the 60s is now just another facet of the prevailing capitalist status quo. Notice the incestuous dealings between the hippies and straight-world squares; how the representatives of power, chiefly Josh Brolin's police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, seem to be more in love with the New Age lingo and lifestyle than the unwashed beach-dwellers themselves. There is no romanticising in Anderson's movie: the counter-culture is doomed from the get-go, probably - it suggests - because it never truly existed in the first place.

But what Inherent Vice is about is actually secondary to how it feels: the languorous pace, light-dappled 65mm cinematography and far-out performances all contribute to what emerges as an alternately woozy and paranoid Californian phantasia. Pure cinema.

Year in disappointments: Spectre, Macbeth, Birdman, It Follows, White God, Wild Tales, A girl walks home alone at night, Jurassic World, Eden, Hard to be a god, A Most Violent Year, The Forbidden Room

Worth seeing: Whiplash, The Duke of Burgundy, The Look of Silence, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Amy, Love is Strange, Jauja, A pigeon sits on a branch reflecting on existence, Going Clear, Maidan, Selma, London Road, Junun, Pasolini, Bridge of Spies

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Spectrum's Best Films of 2015 (20-11)

2015 has been a noisy, occasionally anti-climactic year for cinema. Those who say that the movies don't have the cultural heft they used to will have to contend with the media saturation achieved by Spectre and latterly Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some of these event-pictures disappointed and others met our expectations, but away from the circus there were plenty of low-key innovations, most strikingly the films shot on smart phones and films made to look like they were shot on smart-phones. What does this micro-trend tell us? Maybe it's that cinema has proven more resilient than many predicted upon the advent of the digital and online revolution. Whether we're talking iPhones and Steve Jobs' legacy or Fifty Shades of Grey, it's still the case that people don't think something has fully 'arrived' until somebody makes a movie out of it...

20. Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch)

Tarantino take note: celluloid is certainly worth preserving, but Tangerine proves that it's possible to create dazzling cinema employing even the most unpromising of tools. Shot on a converted iPhone, this frank, compassionate and frequently hilarious day-in-the-life of two transgender women working as prostitutes in scuzzy downtown Los Angeles has an off-kilter, scrappy beauty to its imagery dependent in large part on its innovative use of technology.

The biggest triumph, however, is its irrepressible charm: the humour remains smart even at its most scatological, the relationships are well-observed, the performances winning, and the whole thing has a freewheeling energy that repurposes Godard's Breathless or Agnès Varda's Cleo From 5 To 7 for the Vice generation. 'New New Wave', perhaps?

19. Ex Machina (Dir. Alex Garland)

Despite Alex Garland's experience as a screenwriter on such contemporary science-fiction as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, his directorial debut is an altogether more subdued and talky foray into the genre. Plot-wise, Ex Machina tells of a lowly programmer, Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson), who wins a competition to visit his Steve Jobs-esque genius employer, Nathan Bateman, on the vast private estate from which he revolutionises the world with his innovations in technology. When he arrives, Caleb discovers that he is to help Bateman perform the Turing test on a female android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), built by Bateman, in order to determine whether or not she actually possesses intelligence. As things progress, and Caleb forms a tentative romance with Ava, we start to suspect that everyone's motivations might be murkier than first assumed.

As it turns out, Ex Machina's talkiness and restraint are its greatest strengths: this film deals more explicitly and thoroughly with the ethics and ramifications of artificial intelligence than perhaps any movie ever made, and the long, wary conversations between Caleb, Bateman and Ava ramp up the tension without resort to some of the cheesier B-movie tropes that have sometimes spoiled Garland's work in the past. In actual fact, though, the AI theme is a bit of a red herring: this is really a revisionist take on the myth of Pygmalion which takes revenge on geeky boys and their hi-tech (female) toys.

18. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

In the year that Star Wars returned and Hunger Games ended, who knew that the belated and almost completely unanticipated sequel to a series of Aussie B-movies from the 1970s would be the blockbuster that people couldn't stop waxing lyrical about? It's arguably half an hour too long to sustain its bare-bones plot, but within seconds of its opening you're overwhelmed and won over by its sheer force of personality. This is no action-movie-by-committee; instead it's a work of gonzo pop-surrealism, amping up the outlandish and campy performances, ravishingly hyperreal cinematography, and implausibly elaborate car crashes to the point where it starts to resemble a hallucination brought on by sun-stroke.

If there's another genetic influence besides the stylised insanity of the original pictures, it's probably silent comedy classic The General: Tom Hardy's nearly wordless performance as the nomadic anti-hero Max Rockatansky recalls the poker-faced Buster Keaton, risking life and limb to keep his faithful steam engine rolling. It's way more fun and praiseworthy than the fourth entry in a long-defunct franchise has any right to be.

17. The Falling (Dir. Carol Morley)

Carol Morley's mellifluous portrait of female adolescence and young adulthood is an esoteric puzzle-box of a film. At first, its story of a group of students at an all-girls' school in 60s England suddenly stricken with an inexplicable 'falling sickness' that causes mass fainting and convulsions looks as if it might cleave to the format of the supernatural mystery. But Morley is more interested in the vagaries of emotion and desire than genre tropes, and, despite a contrived and unnecessary third-act drift into incest, the film primarily succeeds as an evocation of the intense pangs teenagers feel on the cusp of experience, as sex and the body suddenly go from being something funny to a spectre both frightening and serious.

Along with the work of other contemporary British filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland, Morley's debut fiction feature indicates a resurgence of interest in the great Nicolas Roeg's convention-shattering approach to homegrown cinema. It's not just the gestures towards his trademarked, flickering-on-the-edge-of-consciousness editing style, but his method of imploding regular three-act stories to get at the throbbing, primal, Freudian monsters lurking beneath. 

16. Citizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras)

Laura Poitras' Academy Award-winning documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden is electric not just because of its sober, steady-eyed look at the corruption, unchecked power and threat to democracy of state surveillance in Western nations, but because it has that rare quality of feeling like a document of history as it is unfolding. As Citizenfour grippingly recounts, Poitras and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald were contacted covertly by Snowden back when the world was blissfully ignorant of what its government agencies had been up to; in real-time, we witness the three parties meet up in a Hong Kong hotel room Snowden has fled to in order to escape extradition and prosecution by his own country, where he proceeds to provide details of the extensive snooping carried out by the NSA and GCHQ garnered during his time working for them.

Brilliantly, and without sensationalism, Poitras imbues the documentary with all of the sweaty paranoia and dread of a classic 70s conspiracy thriller, remaining within the claustrophobic confines of Snowden's room as the fallout and scandal of his revelations filter in via television and laptop from the outside world. Snowden himself emerges as fascinating and slightly unknowable: at moments he seems like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as the weight of what he has committed himself to starts to sink in, but at others his David-and-Goliath, principled resolve in the face of a very pissed-off super-state is almost otherworldly. 

15. Listen Up Philip (Dir. Alex Ross Perry)

The shadow of John Cassavetes looms large in this low-key yet sprawling examination of the bitter life of successful young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman, played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman in what might well be a career-best performance, as he braces for the reception of his much-anticipated second book. Friedman and his mentor, Ike Zimmerman, an elder man of letters looking back over a prestigious literary career, are on one level thinly-veiled caricatures of Philip Roth, author celebrities funnelling their neuroses into acclaimed fiction. It's probably the case that one will find Listen Up Philip funnier if one is at least somewhat familiar with the biography and work of Roth, as this parody nails many of the distinctive traits of its real-life counterpart, from his often acrimonious personal life to his penchant for terse titles and book designs.

But even Roth neophytes will find plenty to enjoy: the digressive nature of the storytelling is consistently surprising and engrossing, director Alex Ross Perry repeatedly veering away from the chronic solipsism of Friedman to flesh out the wounded lives of Zimmerman, his neglected adult daughter, and Friedman's long-suffering photographer girlfriend. Perry slowly, confidently and amusingly racks up stinging, painful insights on the realities and sacrifices of a creative life in the contemporary landscape.

14. The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

This is our world, but not quite as we know it. Colin Farrell plays an unprepossessing man suddenly plunged unwillingly into singledom and forced by the powers that be to attend a retreat for similarly unattached people. If he finds a mate, he is allowed to leave. If not, he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing and cast into the wilderness.

It's probably fair to say that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's first foray into English-language film, The Lobster, doesn't represent much of a progression from the deadpan delights of his minor classic, Dogtooth, made in his home country: it shares the same unaffected acting style, detached framing and merciless satirical impulses. As in Dogtooth, Lanthimos uses a highly improbable yet meticulously detailed scenario to knock a few chunks out of some of the shibboleths society erects around human relationships.

There are flaws: one could argue that the plotting is too schematic, the characters functioning more as rhetorical components in the director's own argument than people with their own motivations. But this criticism presupposes a narrow definition of what filmmaking can be about: refreshingly, Lanthimos is more interested in reviving the all but dead aesthetic of trailblazers like Luis Buñuel and making a movie that is foremost political without ever becoming sanctimonious or desiccated. Encouragingly, audiences seem to have gone for it, although I wouldn't mind betting that there were a fair few awkward conversations during the journey home afterwards.

13. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)

This deeply-affecting depiction of a marriage imploding under the weight of unexpected revelations and nursed resentments is one of the most exquisitely-wrought British dramas in recent memory. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is plunged unceremoniously into a living nightmare on the eve of her wedding anniversary to long-term partner, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), when the body of Geoff's one-time fiancé is rediscovered and he becomes obsessed with his life pre-Kate. Unable to cope with the fact that her seemingly-stable life has been founded on chance quirks of fate, Kate struggles to hold it together.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh never puts a foot wrong: the performances are perfectly-pitched, the structure impeccably condensed, and the central theme devastatingly conceived: Kate's predicament, we come to understand, is that of all of us - at the mercy of circumstance and ultimately unaware of who we or our loved ones truly are. Just as in life, Haigh resists glib answers or consolations, and the results are moving and chilling in equal measure.

12. Horse Money (Dir. Pedro Costa)

One of the most aesthetically-radical entries on this list, Pedro Costa's Horse Money is the Portuguese auteur's first fiction feature in eight years. Thematically, the story cleaves to Costa's preoccupation with the stark, impoverished lives of Lisbon's largely black underclass, but Horse Money takes these concerns into ever-more abstract and dreamlike territory. Giving a straight synopsis of the movie is almost impossible, but suffice it to say that we follow the daily life of 60-year-old Ventura, convalescing in a nursing home and embarking on frequent nocturnal wanderings into the strange subterranean slum beneath the institute, where he encounters figures from his and his nation's turbulent past.

Ventura might already be dead, caught in a limbo of lost souls, or the nursing home and its basement could be a projection of the conscious and unconscious levels of his traumatised mind. It remains unclear, and those struggling to comprehend everything that's going on are likely to have a disagreeable experience. Better to surrender to the unique, humid atmosphere Costa conjures via the zombie-like, incantatory performances he coaxes from the unprofessional cast and the shadow-swamped images he paints. For those with an open mind, Horse Money has the allure of a half-remembered and teasingly resonant dream.

11. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)

In the course of his always-interesting career, Todd Haynes has made a lot of very different types of movies, from existential horror (Safe, his masterpiece to date) to brainy dissections of Bob Dylan and 70s glam-rock (I'm Not Here and Velvet Goldmine), but he frequently returns to the dramatic terrain and possibilities of 1950s Hollywood melodrama à la Douglas Sirk. Carol, a faithful adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel about a burgeoning love affair between two women in mid-century New York, is probably his most accomplished work in the genre.

It's really a master-class in filmmaking, all the way up from the deployment of costume and sound design to show rather than tell the story, to Haynes' success at evoking the society of the period whilst imbuing it with a subversive energy that is entirely modern.

Tune in tomorrow for the top 10 movies of the year...