Friday, January 15, 2016

"I honestly think if Trump becomes President it's kind of like the end of America" - An Interview with Adam McKay

Adam McKay’s The Big Short might look like a departure for the man responsible for some of the funniest mainstream films of the past decade, but in many ways it feels like a natural progression from his 2010 comedy The Other Guys. That film finished with statistics breaking down the reasons behind the 2008 financial crash, and his new film goes deeper into that subject, telling the story of a small band of investors who saw the crash coming before anyone else did and profited by betting against the housing market. An adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling nonfiction account, The Big Short attempts to explain the economic crisis in an entertaining and energetic way, and I met with Adam McKay last month to discuss it.

The Big Short was published in 2010 and The Other Guys came out in 2010. Was there an overlap there?

Without a doubt, yeah. I was doing a lot of research on the economy because we were trying with The Other Guys to do a comedy parable of the collapse. We had this idea that we were going to do a big silly laugh-out-loud comedy that also sort of mirrored Madoff and the collapse. Unfortunately I think the laughs obscured that, so when we had those end credits a lot of people were like, “Where did that come from?” and we were like, “No, the whole movie was about this!” Whatever, I still love the movie, but the result of it was that I started reading a lot of books about finance and economics in general. I got very interested and had a lot of conversations with very interesting people, and when you start doing that you inevitably come across The Big Short, so that's how it crossed my path.

You say the laughs obscured the message there. Was that something you had been thinking about for a while, trying to get these more serious and pointed ideas into your broad comedies?

Yeah, definitely. With Anchorman 2 we obviously wanted to criticise the ratings-driven and profit-driven news media, and we did it pretty overtly in that one. We are talking about very different movies, obviously, with Anchorman, The Other Guys and The Big Short. With the big laugh-out-loud comedies it's very tricky to get a point of view in because the laughs dominate so much. What was so refreshing about this movie is that I didn't feel like I was operating in any one genre, I don't feel like it's a pure comedy and I don't feel like it's a pure drama, and that was incredible. I loved the fact that every scene I wrote could just be what it needed to be, and I could change tones whenever I needed to. I didn't expect that with this movie and I ended up loving that aspect of it. It was one of the most enjoyable scripts I've ever written, precisely for that reason.

Michael Lewis has said that he thought the book was unfilmable. When you read it, did you instantly see a movie in there?

I did, I actually had a very strange experience. When I started reading it, there were certain images in the book that I just saw immediately; the glass eye on the football field, I never forgot that, to me it's the central image of the entire movie. There were several images in the book that I kept seeing – Carell's hand doing the zero – and a bunch of them ended up in the movie. I just thought the characters were incredible, and also the question of why they could see what nobody else could see. What has our culture become that millions of people, and actually millions of brilliant experts, didn't see any of this and why they were able to see. That was so intriguing and it had such a great mystery to it and so many great images, I thought that could be a great movie. The only real question was the information. I made the decision that I was actually going to explain the collapse, that you're going to actually hear all the esoterica, and then I quite simply said, screw it, I'm going to break the fourth wall. The number one rule of film is 'show, don't tell' but too bad, I'm breaking the rules. I feel like you do what's necessary to tell each story as it comes along, and in this case I felt it had to be done.

Because in this case particularly, the whole movie is exposition. Every scene has so much information to impart to the viewer. I was thinking about comparable exposition-heavy films and the one that came to mind as I watched it last night was actually Oliver Stone's JFK.

That's really interesting. By the way, same editor.

Yeah, I only realised afterwards when looking him up that he was Stone's guy.

I mean, it's a little bit like All the President's Men, right?

I guess the Stone comparison felt apt because it also maintains this high energy style, it's very intense, very visual, constantly moving. I wondered if he was a reference point for you at all.

When I actually entered the movie, one of my first thoughts was that I didn't want it to look like the other Wall Street movies that we've seen, even though they're brilliant movies, like Margin Call and Wall Street. They always show Wall Street as very monolithic, the people all look perfect and very powerful, it's locked-down shots and occasionally a little dolly, but these guys are the guys who can't make eye contact in a meeting, they're nervous, they dress poorly, have bad haircuts. I wanted this to have the anxiety that these guys have, everything was intense and scary, the world was collapsing around them. So that sort of edgy style that you're talking about, where we edit in the middle of lines, information is flowing and constantly changing, that was very intentional and it felt like how these guys had experienced that story. The idea of JFK, though, is fascinating, I'd never have thought of that. I just hired Hank Corwin because I knew he was a ballsy, innovative editor and I wanted someone to really go for it on this movie, but it had never occurred to me, that's really interesting.

To push the comparison a bit, they're both stories about these vast, almost inconceivable conspiracies.

And both stories, actually are really simple. JFK assassination? Lee Harvey Oswald shot him. The financial collapse? They had mortgage-backed securities, ran out of good mortgages, and put in shitty mortgages. That's really it, and in both cases there are people trying to make it incredibly complicated. There is actually a name for it, a neuropsychological name for that, where you look at a simple event and make it incredibly complicated, and I can't remember what the name of it is, but they always cite the JFK assassination as one. Have you been to Dallas and seen the book depository?

I've only seen the images in books and films.

Here's the craziest thing. I go to Dallas because I'm doing some show there, and we stop by the book depository. I'd always heard that it's this incredibly difficult shot because it's so far away, but it's so close you can't believe it. I'm not kidding, it's right there. [points out of the window] the road is here, and the building is right there, I'm like, “He shot him through the window! What's everyone talking about?”

Your version of JFK would have been a hell of a lot shorter than Stone's.

No kidding. Twenty minutes! Anyway, I'm getting way off subject, I'm sorry, but that is an interesting correlation with JFK, I like that.

I guess Barry Ackroyd is a key collaborator in that sense too. He's a cinematographer with a very identifiable style.

He was my dream choice for the movie. My first thought, I absolutely wanted him. You know, there's a lot of people talking on phones, there's a lot of people in offices. If we stay in mediums or just clean singles on those, we're dying, whereas the way Barry shoots, I think he's one of the best living DPs at getting inside these moments. With each scene we would talk about how much we wanted to fracture them. I would say, “Are we going super-impressionistic on this one? Are we going half-impressionistic?” and then we would try to dial it appropriately for where we were at. Oh yeah, he was essential to this movie, and a true joy to watch at work. I also love what he does with the long lenses, that sort of Cassavetes style, where he's way off the scene so the actors have this freedom to really behave, and all of the actors love the way Barry shoots. It's completely like a documentary, and that was essential to this movie too, where you really needed to feel these people behave in these offices, it needed to feel loose and sloppy.

In terms of working with the actors, your previous films have always been very heavily developed through improvisation and we often see multiple different versions of a scene in the outtakes. Did that approach change here with the different type of material?

I always use improv, going back to my days in Chicago. I had done some directing of dramatic pieces and I actually directed a dramatic improv show at one time, and I just find improv helps in a lot of ways aside from comedy. It makes the acting much more naturalistic, it frees up the actors to take risks and fail, because the whole premise of improv is that you have to fail, and what I really got out of it in this movie were mistakes. It was so good when an actor would laugh in the middle of a take and we'd put it in the movie, or people talking over each other, or just Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong all shooting the shit in that office, we got so much improv out of that. Then there were other sections where I didn't improvise at all and I was just trying to get that emotional quality going, but it was nice for the actors. Everybody knew that it's not a Mamet script, you don't have to say 'and' exactly three times and 'the' twice, it's okay as long as we get the vibe. So if you're talking about proportions, when we do the comedies we do a lot of improv and in this case I probably did about 20% as much as I would do in a comedy.

I think it's fascinating the reaction that a film like this gets and the reaction that your previous films get. You might get great reviews for your comedies, but they never get talked about in terms of awards, etc. like this one instantly has been. Do you feel frustrated at all by that?

No, not at all. The interesting with comedy is that it takes like 30-40 years, and then they become more esteemed than a lot of the dramas. I remember saying to my grandmother one time, it must have been so cool when you were young, you got to see the Marx Brothers” and she said [disgusted tone] “We didn't watch the Marx Brothers! They were low comedy.” I said, what? They were the greatest comedy team in cinema. She just said, “No they're not, we hated the Marx brothers.” [laughs] It's amazing, the Marx brothers in their day and age were considered crappy.

A cheap vaudeville act.

Exactly, cheap vaudeville, and now they're just revered, so comedy 30-40 years later comes out of the wash quite nicely. WC Fields still holds up, Laurel and Hardy, all these great old comedies. But most of all, if anyone asks if we are ghettoised, I just say we don't care because we have so much fun making them, and they are so enjoyable, and I'm so happy when they're done. I remember three weeks after Step Brothers came out I was walking down the street and I heard three separate people quoting the movie in a six-block stretch in New York City, so just to feel those movies permeate the culture is so exciting. It's the coolest experience in the world. So I have no complaints about making the comedies, but it is funny how this one goes on all the lists, you're right.

I remember telling people that Steve Carrel should be nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Anchorman in 2004. It seemed so obvious to me.

I totally agree. 100% It's a funny thing, I remember Michael Moore calling me when Talladega Nights came out and saying, “You just made the most subversive movie of the year and nobody knows it. Don't tell anyone.” [laughs]

Your films have always had those subversive and satirical elements

Always with every single comedy Will and I do, we bury a point of view at the centre of it. We have a five-minute conversation, we go “Let's never tell anyone this, but this movie is actually about how consumerism turns grown men into children, now let's never speak of it again.” [laughs] We always do that game, and obviously Talladega Nights was about this crazy red state pride, and we were like, “What the fuck is going on? Bush has a 90% approval rating?” So we wanted to go into the belly of the beast with that one. We try to never hit it too overtly, although I think with Anchorman 2 we hit it pretty overtly, we just had a stretch where we thought, “Fuck it, let's just do it. Ron Burgundy invents trash TV.” I think this movie, The Big Short, has some elements of satire to it, but I also think there's a lot of stuff in there so it jumps around from genre to genre.

So thinking about audience reactions, what kind of impact are you hoping to have with The Big Short?

I don't know how it was here, but after 2008 the frustrating thing was that we sort of made a bunch of noise, the Occupy was great but faded away, they did Dodd-Frank, which kind of got watered down in the States, and then it just stopped. Nobody talked about it anymore. It didn't go away, we're still in the midst of dealing with that collapse right now, and I just thought that was crazy. Now they're talking about getting rid of some of the little reform that we did do in the States, and I just think, do people even know what that reform is? Quite simply, I would just love it if it kickstarted that conversation a little bit, that's all, if it even just did that I would be so happy. Even if it kickstarted it in a way that became an argument, just to remind us, especially with what's going on in the States right now with all of this anti-immigration and anti-poor people talk, just to remind us what caused this. This is what caused it, and we should remember that. It doesn't mean we have to vilify every single banker, banking is good when it's regulated properly, but we need to be smart about it and we need to have a discussion. If I saw a 10% or even a 6% uptick in the conversation, I would do backflips.

It is good to see a film like this coming out of a major studio.

It's kinda shocking too, yeah.

When you mentioned the way Anchorman 2 took on 24-hour news, I think that's something we get a sense of in this film too, that we have more news sources than ever before but paradoxically less information.

Without a doubt. I mean, I don't remember any major news outlet that made any attempt to explain the collapse. I just remember tonnes of misinformation, op-eds, “It was the poor people buying the stupid mortgages,” it was all that kind of crap. At no point did a news person say, look this isn't that complicated: it was the mortgage-backed securities, they were making billions, they ran out of good mortgages, they put crappy ones in. That's it. Like, I just said it in thirty seconds.

You must be pretty well practised at explaining that by now.

[laughs] Yeah, that's true in fairness. But the news is a major problem in the United States, I mean that's how you get a guy like Donald Trump. I keep saying about Donald Trump: does anyone know that the last census in the United States says that more immigrants are leaving the US than are coming in? Doesn't that end the entire Donald Trump candidacy? Why are we talking about building a wall when more Mexicans are leaving than coming in? I keep bringing this up and people ask me, “Is that true?” Yes! It's the census!

His soundbites carry so much more weight than any facts, though. In this media climate, how do we get past that sensationalism to get people to pay attention to facts and figures?

That's what we're trying to do with The Big Short. It didn't even occur to me until you said it like that, but that's exactly what the movie is trying to do. Actually for years we have been playing around with this idea, of how do you bring out the power and the excitement of the truth, of real facts? I find them far more exciting than misinformation and misunderstanding. Here's the good news, though; we screened this movie in far-off suburbs and cineplexes, and people responded to it, and people in the focus groups explained the crash back to the focus group leader. People were mad, and you could feel it when Steve Carell says, “I have a feeling we'll be blaming immigrants and poor people,” it got applause in several theatres, in pretty conservative suburbs outside Los Angeles.  I don't know, we'll see, but that's the game, I think you just described it perfectly.

What are your thoughts on where the political discourse in America goes from here? The country seems so polarised and entrenched politically. Do you have any optimism?

I go back to the news media, I really do. When they got rid of that fairness doctrine and allowed the news media to talk in opinions, that was a major law change in the 1980s and nobody noticed it when it happened. That's what birthed Fox News, and when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh came on the scene that's when that polarisation started, and you saw a segment of our country just drift away from facts. Really what's happened to political discourse in our country is when you're arguing with somebody on the other side, you're arguing with a religious person. Nobody wants to talk data, nobody wants to talk facts, nobody wants to talk history; I'll just say something to someone, and they'll say, “You're a liberal.” End of discussion. It's heartbreaking, it really is, and it's probably not going to end so well. We're probably going to end with some kind of political or social crash of some kind...actually, I don't know how it's going to end. The real crash would be if Donald Trump became President. I mean, that's unfathomable.

It's unfathomable in a sense but it's also not, because he's gone from being a joke figure to the leading Republican candidate and when you watch those rallies, the fervent support and the influence he exerts is terrifying.

I honestly think if Trump becomes President it's kind of like the end of America. I think we would become something closer to Russia. I was in Moscow and I thought, if America isn't careful we could become this. It's just totally corrupt, unregulated, and I think if Donald Trump becomes the President of the US you'd see us really slip, and I also think you'd see a million people leave the US. You could see a mass migration.

And you see what's happening in Canada with the optimism surrounding Justin Trudeau, and you couldn't have a sharper contrast just across the border.

I love that the right wing in the US still talks about how awful Canada is and then you go up to Canada and it's so clean, you don't see any homeless people in Toronto, everyone you talk to in any kind of little deli or something is making a living wage. I just had a friend and his wife move to Toronto, his wife is Canadian and my buddy said, that's it, I'm getting out of here. He sent me a letter saying he's got dental care for his kids, full healthcare, the school's amazing. I think if Trump becomes President you'll see a million people leave the US, I really do. It would be an amazing story.

So what do you have lined up next?

At this stage, going around talking about the movie and stuff, I'm half-thinking about ideas. I have two or three that I'm looking at. There's one I'm really interested in, it's almost hard to describe, but it would be a near-science fiction movie. You know how they talk about how CEOs of big corporations tend to be sociopaths? The idea would be that 30-40 years in the future, we openly celebrate sociopaths, and you'd want to be a sociopath to succeed. It's almost like our culture has become such that we celebrate sociopaths the way we celebrate great athletes. I guess it would be in the vein of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, but maybe more stylised and even a little darker, so I'm kind of kicking that around. Then I have another idea that's kind of a big epic...I hate to say it because it sounds boring, but it's actually really cool...a climate change movie. And then there's a comedy that I'm working on with Ferrell.

Speaking of Ferrell, there's one last thing I really want to tell you. I've long though that the "Aim for the bushes" gag in The Other Guys is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a cinema, and I can still remember how my stomach hurt from laughing so hard at that screening.

[laughs] I'll tell you this. Will and I routinely talk about how we think that's the funniest thing we've ever done. The two funniest things I think we've ever done, and this is just us saying it, are the family grace scene in Talladega Nights, which I love – all that Coke and KFC on the table and the house with the jetskis – that, and jumping off the building. When we finally got that song “There goes my hero...” I ran around the edit room going, “Oh my God, you've got to hear this song.” The second that song went in the whole thing came together. There's nothing more fun than watching an audience deal with that scene. When we'd screen it they'd think “No way, they'd never survive that, this is bullshit,” and then when they hit the ground there's this moment of stunned silence, and then it explodes.  That scene makes me laugh so hard, I love that you said that. I'll have to tell Will.

The Big Short is released in UK cinemas on January 22nd

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino”, we are informed by the opening credits, just in case anyone is struggling to keep count. Has any working director, in the prime of their career, ever been so fixated upon their own legacy? Tarantino has already informed us that he is aiming to retire after completing ten features, so with the clock on his career apparently ticking, every Tarantino film feels like an event, never more so than The Hateful Eight, which is being presented very deliberately as a rare cinema event. Harkening back to a bygone age of film presentation, Tarantino has used his clout with The Weinstein Company to produce a 'roadshow version' of his new film, projected in the 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision ratio on 70mm prints, complete with an overture and intermission.

The style of presentation might be a throwback, but the type of film that Tarantino has produced is not in keeping with previous uses of this format. Ultra Panavision 70 is associated with grand and overblown Hollywood epics like Khartoum, How the West Was Won and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but while The Hateful Eight opens with images of snowy mountain vistas, across which a small stagecoach is rapidly trying to outrun a blizzard, much of it takes place in the cramped confines of an isolated cabin known as Minnie’s Haberdashery.

This is where a disparate group of cannily chosen character actors will take shelter from the storm and size each other up. The cast list reads as follows: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, and John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), another man in the same line of work who is determined to bring his chained captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her date with the gallows. But will they make it out of here in one piece? Both Warren and Ruth start eyeing the strangers in the cabin with suspicion. There's an Englishman (Tim Roth) who claims to be Red Rock’s new hangman and racist rebel Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who says he is the town's new sheriff, but is anyone here who they say they are? There are less forthcoming characters too - notably a retired Confederate General (Bruce Dern) and a taciturn cowboy (Michael Madsen) - and there's the stagecoach driver O.B. (Michael Parks), who brought Warren and Ruth to Minnie's. This driver probably has as much screentime as the actors who adorn the poster, but I guess he isn't hateful enough to make the cut.

The rest of them are pretty hateful, however, and we can hardly be surprised when trigger fingers start to itch and the blood starts to flow, but aside from the punishment occasionally inflicted upon Daisy, much of the first half is a surprisingly quiet affair. The Hateful Eight is a distinct film of two halves, with the key inciting incident being placed just before the intermission, an act of verbal aggression in which Major Warren uses his facility as a storyteller to gain the upper hand over another character and provoke him into a response. “You’re seeing pictures, ain’t ya?” he says with a grin as his words permeate his victim’s brain.

Tarantino’s dialogue may not feel as fresh or exciting as it did when he exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, but the long conversations in his films can still exert a mesmerising pull. All of the characters in The Hateful Eight are conscious of the power of storytelling, they all have secrets or identities that they mean to keep concealed, and Tarantino takes great pleasure in letting his words flow while simultaneously charting the shifting power dynamics within the group and ratcheting up the tension. Tarantino and his cast famously performed an early version of this script as a live read and he has spoken of the potential for bringing The Hateful Eight to the stage, and there is something theatrical about the ornate, discursive, rhythmic language being used here, particularly in the compelling monologues.

But what you would lose on stage is the way Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson turn this potentially flat setup into something cinematic. They quickly establish Minnie’s Haberdashery as a fully realised space to be explored, and they keep the frame alive by placing characters strategically in the background or to the extreme edges of the extra-wide frame. It may seem a perverse move to use a 70mm format associated with sweeping epics for such an interior film, but like Paul Thomas Anderson – who adopted a similar approach with The Master – Tarantino understands and values the power of his actors. Close-ups of Jackson and Leigh in particular have a bracing immediacy, with the latter’s performance of a ballad providing one of the film’s most indelible and unexpectedly lyrical moments.

Such moments are scarce in the second half of The Hateful Eight. Blood is spewed forth, heads explode and limbs are hacked off as the tension developed and sustained throughout the first act gives way to outrageous acts of violence, although I confess I enjoyed the setup a lot more than the execution. The violence here feels oddly rote, particularly in Tarantino’s use of slow-motion, and most of it lacks the startling impact intended. Perhaps my apathy towards these elements of the film are rooted in my frustration that this kind of carnage seems to be the only way Tarantino can write himself out of a corner (although if the alternative is to interject with some arbitrary narration on the soundtrack, as he does a couple of times here, perhaps I shouldn’t gripe too much). I was also thrown by the positioning of a flashback four-fifths of the way into the film, which doesn’t serve much purpose aside from introducing the one performance in the film, from Channing Tatum, that doesn’t work, as well as a host of unconvincing characters whose sole purpose is to be slaughtered.

The more uneven and frustrating passages in the second half of The Hateful Eight gave me time to consider what exactly Tarantino is trying do with the film. It is set up as a parable of racism in America, set immediately after the Civil War but speaking to our times, but I’m not sure he does anything particularly interesting or conclusive in this area. The film opens with an image of a black and white horse pulling the stagecoach side-by-side and closes with two racially opposed characters working in tandem, while the script features lines like “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed” or “When niggers are scared, that's when white folks are safe”, but it feels like Tarantino’s ideas in this department have gotten away from him or have only been half-developed, and they more often appear as little more than slightly tired provocations.

A couple of nights after watching The Hateful Eight I attended a screening of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s 1997 film, which now feels like an odd and increasingly valuable outlier in his career. I was reminded of the nuance and compassion that he and his actors brought to that adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel. It was a film about real people, set in a recognisable world, that didn’t delight in carnage or thirst for revenge, and as my thoughts wandered during some of The Hateful Eight’s longueurs, I lamented the fact that we’ll probably never see another comparable film from him. The Hateful Eight is one of Tarantino’s most audacious pictures in many ways, and it’s often brilliant, but there’s also a deadening predictability about many of the choices he makes as the film nears its climax. Tarantino doesn’t seem to understand that the directors he reveres and constantly talks about spent their careers working in multiple genres and modes without worrying about how each feature fit into the narrative of their filmography. The Hateful Eight may be the kind of film that only Quentin Tarantino could make, but is it the only kind of film that he can make? Let’s hope for something new in number nine.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Little White Lies' Best Films of the Decade (so far...)

Just when we’ve got all of our Best of 2015 surveys out of the way, here’s another list of films for your viewing pleasure. As we’re now in the second half of the decade, Little White Lies magazine has put together a list of the 50 best films produced since 2010. It’s a diverse and impressive collection that you can browse in two parts – here and here – and you can also see the individual selections from each of the contributors here.

Here’s my own Top 10, which will hopefully encourage you to seek out a few unfamiliar titles.

10. Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)

9. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 2012)

8. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

6. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

5. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

4. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011)

1. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)

Monday, January 04, 2016

Spotlight in Sight & Sound

It’s hard to remember the last time a director made two films in the space of a single year that were as disparate in style and critical reception as The Cobbler and Spotlight. Tom McCarthy has quickly rebounded from his much-derided Adam Sandler comedy (a confounding creation that really needs to be seen to be believed) with an engrossing portrait of the Boston Globe reporters whose indefatigable pursuit of the truth resulted in their Pulitzer-winning story exposing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a sober, unflashy piece of filmmaking that sticks doggedly to the facts and celebrates the hard-won victories of old-fashioned journalism, and I was pleased to have the chance to sit down with Tom McCarthy last month to discuss both the film and the current state of the institution it pays tribute to. You can read my article on Spotlight in the current issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Films of 2015

My countdown has already started on Twitter

25 - Miss Julie (directed by Liv Ullmann)
Liv Ullmann's adaptation of Strindberg's play might initially seem a little too stagebound to work as cinema. With just three actors and working primarily in a handful of interior locations, she makes little attempt to open up the play for the different medium. Instead, she tightens her focus on these actors, she makes us feel a sense of confinement, that we are trapped in here with this bickering trio, watching as the simmering emotions reach boiling point. Ullmann worked with Ingmar Bergman enough times to know the power of actors is all you need to hold an audience spellbound, and she draws astonishing work from Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton and especially Jessica Chastain here, while the way she films these actors in relation to each other speaks volumes about the class concerns and the shifting power dynamics throughout the film.

24 - Queen of Earth (directed by Alex Ross Perry)
Elisabeth Moss gave one of the best performances of 2014 in Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, and she is on astonishing form again in his latest film, as a woman reeling from the breakup of a relationship and the death of her father, who is trying to cling onto her crumbling sanity. Perry's directorial approach prompts a sense of unease that lingers throughout the film, with almost every scene creating an unusual and interesting tension, as Sean Price Williams' camera finds intrusive close-ups and compelling compositions, and Keegan DeWitt's unnerving score lingers in the background. Moss is an entrancing presence and Katherine Waterston is excellent in the less showy but vital role of the woman watching her friend fall apart, while Patrick Fugit provides a nastily effective turn as a character with an uncanny ability to get under Moss's skin. Alex Ross Perry's films aren't easy to watch or like, but they are consistently fascinating and uncompromising, and they leave a mark.

23 - Ixcanul (directed by Jayro Bustamante)
The title means volcano and it is at the base of that volcano that we find the protagonists of Jayro Bustamante's superbly crafted film. Teenager María and her family live and work on a coffee plantation but María longs for a different life, away from the marriage with a prosperous man that her family has arranged for her; she wants to see what lies on the other side of the mountain. Ixcanul is a film that sneaks up on the viewer. Initially focusing on traditions and culture within the Guatemalan Kaqchikel community, the film soon starts to exert a grip and the second half unfolds with the urgency of a great thriller. It's a powerful portrait of the way a lack of language and a lack of understanding of the wider world allows people in communities like this to be controlled and exploited. Bustamante makes great cinematic use of the volcanic landscape, while finding a raw emotional force in the maternal bond between the two excellent stars, María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón.

22 - Song of the Sea (directed by Tomm Moore)
The best animated film of the year didn't emerge from the production line at Pixar, Ghibli, DreamWorks or any other of the powerhouses in this field, but from a small company based in Kilkenny. Cartoon Saloon's follow-up to their Oscar-nominated 2009 film The Secret of Kells is a more ambitious, polished and satisfying film on every level. Once again, Tomm Moore and his team have made a film that is rooted in the Celtic traditions of design and storytelling, and visually their work is like nothing else, with the flat but expressive style allowing Moore to create a fluid and beautiful spectacle, replete with imaginative touches. Song of the Sea takes a simple but effective approach to characterisation and storytelling too, skilfully creating a sibling rivalry between its two young lead characters that hardens into understanding and love by the end of the film, and successfully telling a story that is charming and accessible for audiences of all ages but doesn't lack for narrative tension. I can't wait to see what Moore and his team does next.

21 - Entertainment (directed by Rick Alverson)
Entertainment is a film about a comedian but you may not find yourself laughing very often as you watch. “Why does E.T. the Extraterrestrial love Reese’s Pieces so much? Well, because they have the same flavour that cum does on his home planet,” the awkward figure on the stage says, and the half-hearted chuckles, tuts of disapproval and uncomfortable silences that greet the comedian's gags may represent many viewers' responses to this movie. Entertainment is a film about a stand-up comic who hates what he does, hates the people he does it for, and hates himself, and following him on tour through the Mojave Desert, as his audiences dwindle, feels like being trapped in some sort of comedy purgatory, but the conviction and formal boldness with which Alverson attacks this material makes it a gripping journey, while the widescreen compositions and imaginative lighting by Lorenzo Hagerman contribute a great deal to the sometimes nightmarish atmosphere. As well as bringing his Neil Hamburger character successfully to the big screen, Gregg Turkington creates a haunting portrait of a man dying a little inside every day, and there are brief but very memorable supporting roles for Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly and Amy Seimetz.

20 - Aaaaaaaah! (directed by Steve Oram)
You've never seen anything like Aaaaaaaah! I suppose the closest antecedent would be the opening twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick's apes stopped short of dangling their testicles on each other's heads, ripping each other's arms off, or ejaculating over photographs of British royalty. Steve Oram's film has no dialogue, just an endless cacophony of ape-like grunting as he and his very game cast (including familiar faces such as Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding and Toyah Willcox) regress to a simian state and play out a story of love, betrayal and revenge while throwing food at each other and making incomprehensible noises. As a satire on the lack of human progression from our primal urges, Aaaaaaaah! is clever and imaginative, but the main reason it earns a place on this list is because it is hysterically funny and an entirely unexpected and unique oddity to emerge from a first-time British filmmaker.

19 - The Lobster (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
It's always a worry when a foreign filmmaker who has established a particularly distinctive style makes the movie into English-language filmmaking with a recognisable cast, but The Lobster is very much a Yorgos Lanthimos film, with the same deadpan approach, and the same exporation of human foibles through an enclosed society governed by strict rules. The first half of The Lobster is prime Lanthimos, as he achieves some surreal and very dark laughs (my favourite line: “There is blood and biscuits everywhere!”) with this Buñuelian tale of a society where single people must find a mate or risk being transformed into an animal. However, the film shifts into new territory in its second half with a love story that has moments of genuine tenderness and affection, and while this change of direction has alienated some viewers, I think it ultimately works. The Lobster might not have the impact or feel quite as fully realised as Dogtooth, but it's an interesting progression for Lanthimos and the questions the film raises about contemporary relationships and society continue to stick in my mind.

18 - The Pearl Button (directed by Patricio Guzmán)
An outstanding companion piece to his 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán's The Pearl Button is an extraordinary display of intelligent and poetic documentary filmmaking. What's remarkable about the film is the way Guzmán begins by focusing on one small detail – a drop of water, a button – and expands to give us a wide-ranging and incisive view of Chilean history, moving fluidly from one story to another and never feeling rushed or lectured to despite the film's slender running time. The fate of Chile's indigenous people, the atrocities commmitted under Pinochet, the length of the country's coastline and its place under the stars – in Guzmán's wonderfully fluid and moving film, everything is connected. At just 80 minutes long, this may be a slight film on first glance, but it is still a major work from one of the world's great documentarians.

17 - Chevalier (directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Athina Rachel Tsangari's feature debut Attenberg and her short film The Capsule were both works built upon performance, movements, rituals and women. For her latest film Chevalier, she is again exploring those same interests but this time her gaze is focused entirely on a group of men, and that gaze is withering. Chevalier is basically a feature-length dick-measuring contest – literally, at one point – as a group of men on a boating holiday become engaged in a contest to see who is “the best in general”, awarding and deducting points for various trivial activities and aspects of their behaviour. The absurd comedy of this situation is carried off with deadpan aplomb by the whole ensemble, although the film is comprehensively stolen by Makis Papadimitriou, while Tsangari takes a distanced but incisive view of male group behaviour, ego and competitiveness. Chevalier is basically Fragile Masculinity: The Movie, and it's bloody hilarious.

16 - Chi-Raq (directed by Spike Lee)
Chi-Raq is not a subtle film, but I guess if you're coming to a Spike Lee-directed satire based on an ancient Greek comedy looking for subtlety then you're looking in the wrong place. This raucous updating of Lysistrata to contemporary Chicago is Lee's attempt to confront America's destructive obsession with guns, which he does through a combination of sex, verse, music and farce. It doesn't all work, in fact some of the choices Lee makes almost stop the film in its tracks, but this unwieldy picture is frequently hilarious and constantly fascinating, and it develops an accumulative force. It is a film made from the gut and it feels alive and vital in a way that few films in recent years have felt. Bolstered by astounding performances from Teyonah Parris, John Cusack, Angela Bassett and – particularly moving given her family history – Jennifer Hudson, Chi-raq is a combination of overblown theatricality and raw emotion that could only have been made by Spike Lee, one of the few major American directors still determined to use his art to speak to the masses. This is Spike again telling the nation to “Wake Up!” and Chi-Raq is a film that deserves to be seen and grappled with.

15 - Taxi Tehran (directed by Jafar Panahi)
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Jafar Panahi's inventiveness since he was banned from making films in 2010 has been a marvel to behold. This is the third film he has made since the ban was enforced, and this time Panahi is out on the streets, masquerading as a taxi driver with cameras affixed to his dashboard. Taxi Tehran primarily works as a great human comedy, as Panahi picks up a number of eccentric passengers from a DVD pirate (“I can get you the rushes of a film that hasn't even finished shooting!” he boasts) to a pair of old ladies carrying a goldfish, and his very talkative niece Hana. But aside from the rich comedy in these encounters, Taxi Tehran also paints a sobering picture of Iranian society with a moving contribution from human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and pushes against the strictures faced by filmmakers in the country, with aspiring director Hana questioning the ban on “sordid realism”. Panahi's film is one of the year's best and funniest films, aside from the fact that its very existence is an act of defiance.
14 - Carol (directed by Todd Haynes)
Carol is a film of looks and gestures, of touches and silences. These are the things that stay with you after the film, gaining greater resonance in retrospect than they had in the moment. Todd Haynes' exquisitely crafted version of Patricia Highsmith's novel (expertly adapted by Phyllis Nagy) is a film that doesn't have a frame out of place. Every moment that these characters share develops our sense of them and their relationships, and the performances that Haynes gets from his actors couldn't be better, with Rooney Mara in particular delivering one of the great depictions of the act of falling in love. If I'm not ranking Carol quite as highly as some of my peers, that shouldn't be taken as a slight against the film. I simply never felt the emotional impact that I crave from a love story like this, and I always felt a little on the outside looking in. Still, that's no hardship when the film is such a lovely object to look at – Ed Lachman's cinematoraphy is impeccable, and it's a pleasure simply to spend time in this gorgeously created world.

13 - 45 Years (directed by Andrew Haigh)
45 Years encompasses a week in the life of a married couple as they prepare for the anniversary party suggested by the title, and in the space of that week a crevasse opens up in their relationship, releasing a multitude of complex thoughts, memories, regrets and disappointments. Most of these things go unspoken in Andrew Haigh's film, but we feel them hanging in the air, seeing them in Tom Courtenay's distracted and introspective performance or in Charlotte Rampling's ambiguous mask of a face, which has rarely been better used than it is here. Haigh made the terrific romance Weekend in 2011, but this is stunning step forward, establishing him as a filmmaker who has a keen sense of how relationships work and how people reveal themselves, or don't, to one another. His measured directorial approach and framing allows his two lead actors the time and space required to bring their characters to living, breathing, painful life, and the film's final shot hits the viewer like a punch to the gut. Smoke gets in your eyes, indeed.

12 - Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley)
Brooklyn is a very old-fashioned, straightforward and sincere piece of filmmaking, and it’s all the better for that. John Crowley and Nick Hornby’s elegant translation of Colm Tóibín’s novel to the screen gives us a tangible sense of what homesickness feels like, and the experience of finding oneself in a new city and stumbling before finding your feet. The whole film is played with great warmth and humour by what might be the best ensemble cast in any film this year, with every actor, even those in the smallest supporting roles, being perfectly chosen, but the film belongs to two young actors delivering career-best work. Saoirse Ronan’s casting as Eilis is the perfect marriage of actor and role, and it’s wonderful to witness her growth over the course of the film, while Emory Cohen radiates charm as the New Yorker who she falls in love with. Brooklyn is nostalgic and romantic, sure, but it’s also a film that’s keenly aware of what it takes to start a new life, and to leave one behind.

11 - Tangerine (directed by Sean Baker)
Shot on an iPhone, on the streets of LA, with two leads making their feature acting debut, Tangerine is a brilliant reminder of how exhilarating and vital independent filmmaking can be. Sean Baker lets his two stars dictate the rhythm of the film, with Kitana Rodriguez giving it an explosive, screwball energy that is tempered by the more restrained and pragmatic performance Mya Taylor. Sean Baker’s film invites us to experience this world on the terms of those who inhabit it; his filmmaking is open and free of judgement, and it feels reminiscent of directors such as Fassbinder, Waters or Almodóvar in its freewheeling style and inclusive spirit. It’s also a fantastic film to see on the big screen, with the oversaturated colours and effects introduced by the decision to shoot the film on an adapted iPhone giving Tangerine a singular vibrancy and impact that makes it feel like something genuinely fresh, exciting and satisfying.

10 - Son of Saul (directed by László Nemes)
László Nemes’ Son of Saul follows its protagonist, played by the excellent Géza Röhrig, as he moves through a concentration camp seeking the means to give a dead child a proper burial. This narrative may stretch credulity at times, but it is a means to an end, allowing Saul to be our guide, and while we only see glimpses of what Saul sees around the edges of the square frame, that fleeting sight and the magnificent sound design is enough to create an incredibly convincing and powerful vision of everyday life in the camps. It’s inevitable that Son of Saul’s distinctive approach to this subject will draw criticism – arguments about how to depict the Holocaust have raged since Rivette criticised Kapo’s tracking shot, and there is no right answer – but I think this is a film that has been made with a clear sense of moral purpose and integrity, and it is an astounding achievement by debut director Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély.

9 - The Look of Silence (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer)
The Look of Silence inevitably lacks the startling impact of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious The Act of Killing, but in many ways it’s a deeper, sadder and more complicated work. “You asked much deeper questions than Joshua ever did,” one of the elderly militia members says as he is probed about the anti-Communist purges that took place in Indonesia fifty years ago. The man asking the questions on this occasion is Adi, an optician whose older brother Ramli was one of the many victims of this genocide and who now meets the men responsible, and sometimes their families, seeking answers and understanding. It’s a riveting, enraging and deeply upsetting film that presents us with the smiling, complacent faces of evil men who are still comfortably living among the families of those they brutally murdered, while justice remains out of reach. Taken together, Oppenheimer’s two films complement each other brilliantly, and they constitute an incredible, essential achievement.

8 - Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
In 1909, a German scientist called Theodor Koch-Grunberg travelled through the Amazon in search of a sacred plant. Three decades later, another scientist made the same journey, and Ciro Guerra (director of the impressive 2009 film The Wind Journeys)  uses these two expeditions as the inspiration for his stunning Embrace of the Serpent. In the film, both scientists are escorted by the same guide, Karamakate, and as he tells these parallel stories, Guerra unfolds a portrait of the impact of colonialism and makes the film a lament for all of the tribes and cultures that have been lost. Embrace of the Serpent gets stranger and more engrossing the further downriver it travels, with hallucinogenic and disturbing sequences being blended with the immense beauty of the 35mm black-and-white images captured by cinematographer David Gallego. Embrace of the Serpent is a vivid and haunting odyssey.

7 - Blackhat (directed by Michael Mann)
We ask Hollywood to make adult and adventurous mainstream films, and when something like Blackhat comes along it is roundly dismissed and ignored. Perhaps we get the movies we deserve. With every viewing Blackhat feels like a more impressive film; a slick and hugely entertaining thriller that also allows Michael Mann to push his technical and narrative experimentation into fresh areas. Mann has evolved into a different filmmaker since adopting digital as his format of choice, pursuing the same themes and ideas that have been consistent throughout his career while seeking an entirely new aesthetic. Blackhat is full of dazzlingly original and impactful images – a skyscraper seen through the eyes of a dying person; the climactic movement of bodies as a prelude to violence; a romance built through physicality and gestures; and the moment that Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway takes to feel the wind on his skin as he is released from incarceration. Will Blackhat’s failure curb opportunities for this great filmmaker to work on the scale that his artistry merits? If so, it is a very sad loss for us all.

6 - The Mend (directed by John Magary)
Within its opening five minutes, The Mend grabs your attention and it remains never less than wholly absorbing as it pursues its own unusual narrative path. Josh Lucas – an underrated actor whose gifts have rarely been exploited fully – is tremendous here as Mat, the wayward brother of the more settled Alan (Stephen Plunkett). Making himself an uninvited guest at Alan house party, Mat subsequently extends his stay, but instead of taking the obvious odd couple route, The Mend keeps spinning off in unexpected directions, introducing surprise elements and finding a unique rhythm. The film is the debut from writer/director John Magary, who has directs with unabashed confidence, utilising irises and slow zooms, while displaying a keen ear for acerbic dialogue. The Mend is a film that takes the messy, complicated aspects of its characters at face value and draws us into intimately into their conflicts, giving us a film that is provocative, stimulating and hilarious, and immensely satisfying without ever feeling neatly resolved.

5 - Cemetery of Splendour (directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
A film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul looks like nobody else’s, but more importantly his films feel like nobody else’s. As I watched Cemetery of Splendour I felt transported, almost hypnotised, the film’s patient and calming rhythm gradually seducing me until I felt totally lost in its world. It seems incredible to me that this wasn’t considered worthy of being in competition in Cannes as I think it’s a superior film to his Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; it’s richer, more elegant and entrancing, and it gives a wonderful role to Joe’s favourite actress Jenjira Pongpas, whose performance here is courageous and moving. Cemetery of Splendour is a consideration of the past as something that is constantly lying just under the present, with the ghosts of the past sometimes visiting in the typically casual manner that they do in this director’s films. The use of light and sound in the sleeping sickness sequences in particular create some of his most mesmerising images. If this is, as he has suggested, the last film Apichatpong Weerasethakul will make in Thailand for the foreseeable future, then he has said goodbye with a masterpiece.

4 - The Assassin (directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
How good is Hou Hsiao-Hsien? In his new film The Assassin, even the wind seems to be under his command, every element adhering to his stunning overall vision. Unsurprisingly, Hou’s wuxia film is one defined by stillness and patience rather than action, with the violence exploding out of the narrative in brief, frenetic flurries (sometimes even occurring offscreen). The film’s story of love, revenge and political intrigue might prompt frustration at times with its expositional thinness and opacity, but Hou gives the viewer enough to hold onto and it’s the formal brilliance that really hooks us. The Assassin is a masterclass in cinematography, sound, editing, composition, colour and movement. Every frame feels like Hou is offering us things we haven’t seen or experienced before. I can understand why the film’s pacing might be off-putting for some, but I was actually surprised when the film ended so abruptly; I had completely lost all sense of time passing, so lost was I in the experience. The Assassin is the work of a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers.

3 - The Forbidden Room (directed by Guy Maddin)
“SQUID THEFT!” “ASWANG BANANA!” “FORCED TO WEAR A LEOTARD!” These intertitles are the kind you only find in Guy Maddin films, and they are merely the tip of The Forbidden Room’s insane iceberg. Maddin’s films have usually worked by packing a lot of eccentricity into a relatively brief running time, but this is his epic, with the remnants of 17 lost films into a feature that pulls through one crazy story into another until we reach the point where the film feels like it might never end. The Forbidden Room is designed to be overwhelming but every moment of the film is so inventive, so original and so surprising it’s the density of the film as much as the length that is astounding. Frankly, I find it hard to resist any film that combines life-giving flapjacks and sacrificial volcanoes, possessed bananas and moustaches, a whip-wielding Geraldine Chaplin and a buttock-obsessed Udo Kier, not to mention crucial advice on how to take a bath. The Forbidden Room is a visual feast, with Maddin pushing his decaying celluloid aesthetic further than ever before, and it has a thousand times more ideas than anything else made this year. Your mileage may vary, but I loved getting lost in here.

2 - Sunset Song (directed by Terence Davies)
Terence Davies had dreamed about adapting Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel for decades, and now he has finally achieved that feat, he seems liberated by it. While Davies has always been a very interior director, Sunset Song feels like something new, with the gorgeous use of exterior shots – filmed in 65mm – allowing his camera to roam further than ever before. It also feels like new territory in terms of Davies’ engagement with sex and violence, depicting Chris Guthrie’s emergence into womanhood and the tragic waste of life that occurred on the battlefields of the First World War, but what hasn’t changed is his deep empathy with his female heroine or his inimitable gift for telling a story and suggesting the passage of time through the movement of his camera. This is a beautiful film that succeeds as both a story of a young woman’s resilience in the face of hardship and as a lament for communities torn apart by war, with the emotional waves of the film building steadily until the devastating final moments. "He could fair play, that piper. He tore at our hearts."

1 - Mad Max: Fury Road (directed by George Miller)
The landscape of large-scale mainstream filmmaking has been a barren wasteland for so many years, the simple things that Mad Max: Fury Road achieves feel like revelations. Staging and editing that respects spatial awareness? A story that makes sense and is free of expositional clutter? Action that has genuine stakes? Characters you care about? These things are the basic building blocks of cinema, which is why I wasn’t surprised to hear George Miller constantly referencing Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By in interviews for the film. I saw the influence of Keaton, Murnau, Lang, Sjöström, Dreyer and others in Miller's direction, which gives us character and exposition through action and through the camera. We don’t need to know how Furiosa lost her arm; we just need to look into Charlize Theron’s eyes and we instantly know we are seeing the birth of an iconic heroine. It’s her story more than Max’s, and one of the surprising and delightful things about the film is how skilfully Miller shifts the focus from the title character to make this a story of women fighting men on equal terms. As well as creating a masterpiece of action filmmaking, Miller has reminded us how good auteur-driven cinema on this scale can be, and he has also exposed the usual blockbuster offerings for the incoherent, soulless, cynical corporate product that they are. Mad Max: Fury Road is a unique and brilliant creation, a relentlessly intense film, full of grotesque and surreal imagery, in which the expected protagonist is ultimately a sidekick, and It still seems incredible to me that Warner Brothers gave an ageing director $150 million to make it. They must have been mad.