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...