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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gyz6b/adam-curtis-bitter-lake


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