Monday, March 16, 2015

Dreaming Bigger, Screaming Louder: Xavier Dolan on Mommy

In May 2009, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. In May 2014, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. Just five years passed between the release of Dolan’s debut feature I Killed My Mother and his latest film, Mommy, but the difference we can see in the artist who made them is extraordinary. What looked like raw potential in 2009 has since been brilliantly realised.

Read the rest of my interview with Xavier Dolan at The Skinny

Friday, January 09, 2015

"For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level." - An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

In a career spanning six decades, Frederick Wiseman has established one of the most eclectic and vital bodies of work in cinema. Wiseman's interest in how institutions operate has led him to document an incredible array of subjects – from schools and hospitals to dance companies and meat-processing plants – and each of his documentaries is distinguished by his clear, unadorned filmmaking and his keen eye for revealing details and human drama. National Gallery is his latest film, and it's one of his very best, offering an illuminating, engrossing and stimulating tour of the iconic gallery's public and private spaces. Frederick Wiseman was in London this week for National Gallery's UK release, and I was I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet him to discuss it.

Before talking about National Gallery, I want to go back to the start of your career. I've recently discovered the films of Shirley Clarke, and you produced The Cool World with her.

Yeah, but that's really Shirley's movie, not mine.

But I believe that was the first thing you did in film. Did you already know you wanted to be a director at that point, or were you considering producing?

I had the idea for the movie but I didn't have any experience. I liked The Connection a lot, so I asked Shirley if she wanted to direct it. Working on that sort of demystified the process of filmmaking for me, and after that I never worked on a movie that I didn't direct and produce myself.

And when you did make your first movie Titicut Follies, it ended up getting banned. Did you ever have any second thoughts about what you were getting into when that happened to your debut film?

Oh no. I just thought the banning of Titicut Follies was a sick joke. It bothered me but if anything it was an incentive to continue. I thought the politicians of Massachusetts who opposed Titicut Follies were essentially crooked hacks who were only interested in protecting their own career. The legal problem about Titicut Follies was primarily a consequence of the betrayal of me by the people who had given me permission to make the movie, because the people who sought to ban the movie were the Commissioner of Correction, who had been my ally in getting permission, and the then-Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. The Lieutenant Governor had made the decision to let the movie be made, and he turned against it because he thought his political career was going to be damaged when word got out that he had gotten me permission. So the banning of the film was from my point of view an act of political cowardice, and not that I didn't take it seriously – I had to take it seriously – but I thought the people who did it were essentially weak, fearful people who didn't have the courage of their convictions.

A lot of your films have been funded by PBS.

Well, they're partially funded by them.

Public television in the US has strict guidelines. Has that ever impacted on your work?

I have never encountered any censorship problems – well, maybe once. In the movie I did Basic Training, that came out in 1971, there was one scene early on in the film where a recruit describes a visit to a whorehouse, and PBS was upset about that. Then in Law & Order, the film I did about the Kansas City Missouri police, there was one scene where somebody had been arrested and he told the police to "fuck off" and he used the word "fuck" about 19 times. They cut that on the day of the broadcast without my permission, but I made them go on air and apologise for doing it. But those are the only two incidents I've had. PBS has been very generous to me; they give me about 15-20% of the budget for each movie and they run the film at whatever length I give them, and the films have varied in length from 73 minutes to six hours.

Well even at three hours I was almost disappointed when National Gallery ended. I felt it could have been longer.

Good, that's the right reaction.

But when you start these projects, I guess you have no idea how long the finished film is going to be.

I have no idea what I'm going to get. The only assumption I started with in the case of the National Gallery was that it's a good subject for a movie, and if I hung around long enough I could collect enough sequences to cut a good movie, but that's the assumption I make on all the movies. I deliberately feel the shooting of the film is the research. I don't like to be around watching and not prepared to shoot, because there may something spectacular going on that you're watching, and you've missed it. At least if you're not there you don't know what you've missed.

And real drama can often be found in moments that might initially appear to be banal.

Sometimes it's great drama and sometimes it's drama that looks banal. The scene in Law & Order where a cop strangles a woman accused of prostitution is high drama. When a doctor is talking to a man and woman and telling them there's no hope and they have to withdraw life support, there's obvious drama in that, even though the conversation is very direct and straightforward. The implications are life and death.

On that subject, while shooting in the National Gallery must be a pleasure, you've also shot in very difficult circumstances, with people who are in great pain or distress and facing tragedy. Do you have to divorce yourself from the emotions of a situation like that as you film it?

You do, but the fact that you're working is the principle way you divorce yourself. You're not just sitting around watching. For instance, I did a movie about people dying in an Intensive Care unit of a hospital in Boston, and we were in a room with a woman who was dying and we saw very sick people every day. But the fact that you're working is a defence. I'm not suggesting that filmmakers are doctors, but in the same way doctors and nurses get used to it, it's amazing how quickly you get used to it because you have something to do, you want to get it on film.

You've said that your goal with these films is to reflect your own experience of being in each place.

The final film in each case is a report on what I've learned as a consequence of being in a place for a couple of months and spending a year studying the material. For example, at the National Gallery I was there for three months, I shot 170 hours of rushes, the film is a mere three hours, so I used approximately 1/60th of the material. In order to make the choices involved in reducing 170 hours to three hours, you have to try – whether successfully or not, it's not for me to judge – you have to try and think through the material and what it means, or what I think it means. For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level. By literal I mean it's about who says what to whom, but on an abstract level it's about what's suggested by who says what to whom, and what is further suggested by the placement of the sequence in relation to other sequences. Very often there are more general ideas suggested by the choice and placement of specific sequences, and the real film is in this parallel track of the abstract and the literal, and where they cross.

You made a number of films in row that seemed to be defined by movement – La danse, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym – but At Berkeley and National Gallery have a different rhythm. They feel more contemplative.

Well, that's just chance. It depends on what I want to do and what I get permission to do. Some people feel that because I've made films about cultural institutions I've abandoned my true calling, which is to show poor people. But people that feel that way don't really understand what I'm doing, because what I think I'm doing is trying to make films about as many different aspects of contemporary life as I can. The fact that I've made several films about cultural institutions doesn't mean I've lost interest in so-called social institutions, it just means I wanted to do cultural institutions. I may or may not go back, it depends on what I want to spend a year on when I decide to make a new film.

Do you feel your films have a long-standing educational value as well?

I hope so. Not educational in the sense that they're good for people, but educational in the sense that they show these institutions, many of which are important for a functioning society, or any society. All societies have armies, police, hospitals, museums, dance companies, etc. As I mentioned earlier on, what I think I'm trying to do is make movies about as many different aspects of human experience as I can.

One of the things I enjoy about visiting galleries is people-watching as well as looking at the art.

Yeah, it's great people-watching. You see that in the film. There are different levels of watching. You've got people in the national gallery looking at the paintings, the paintings are looking at the people, and people are looking at the movie.

What was your approach to shooting the paintings in National Gallery?

I work with a very good cameraman, John Davey, and I decided early on that I would shoot the paintings as much as possible without showing the frames. I felt the paintings would be much more alive and vibrant if you didn't see it as an object hanging on the wall, you didn't see a little plaque identifying the artist, or you didn't see it in relation to other paintings. You could also make a sequence out of the paintings by shooting parts of it and cutting them together into a mini-movie. Most paintings up to the end of the 19th century had stories, it was before abstraction, so one of the things that interested me in the movie was the different ways you can tell a story. You can tell a story differently in a painting, in a movie, in a poem, in a ballet, in a novel, etc. The issue of comparative forms became one of the themes of the film.

You mentioned John Davey there, and he's someone you've been working with for a long time.

Yeah, we started working together in'78.

You must have developed a real shorthand with him. How do you work together on location?

We have a very good collaboration. We're constantly looking at each other and we have little signals and looks that we give each other. I decide what we're going to shoot, and we look at rushes together every night and discuss different ways to shoot them or get different things. It's a very close collaboration.

There are a number of beautiful shots in the film. When you saw the dance performance, did you instantly know that you had your ending?

Yeah, I did in that case. I knew it would be close to the ending because from my point of view it summed up so much of what I thought the movie was about. I didn't think that at the time because at that point I didn't really know what the movie was about, but I knew it was a beautiful sequence linking two art forms.

When you're in the editing suite and you're about to start piecing the film together, do you have a mental inventory of standout sequences like that to begin with? What's your entry point into this huge amount of material?

The entry point is that I look at all the rushes. In the case of National Gallery it probably took me a couple of months to look at all the rushes and make notes. Then I put aside roughly 50% of the material and it takes me 6-8 months to edit the sequences that I think I might be using close to final form. It's only when I have those so-called candidate sequences close to final form that I begin to work on the structure. Some people can work on structure in the abstract, but I can't. I have to make some assessment of the consequences of starting a film this way, having a second scene that way, ending it this way, trying to figure out what the relationship is between the end and the beginning. Ultimately, no matter how I've arrived at a cut – whether I've dreamed it, thought of it in the shower or walking down the street – I have to be able to rationalise in words to myself why each cut is there and what its relationship is to what precedes it and what follows it. If I can't do that, I'm in trouble. I mean, I may be in trouble anyway, but I need to convince myself. Editing is talking to yourself, and I find it very interesting to talk to myself.

And you always do it alone. Don't you ever find yourself going a bit stir crazy?

If I do, I go for a walk. I like it.

You never feel that you need a fresh pair of eyes on the material?

No, I don't. When I started editing digitally I had an assistant, but when I was editing on film I was always alone. I find it difficult enough to make up my own mind, and I don't like to talk about it. It's the usual cliché of if you talk about it you dissipate it, and it just doesn't help me. I'm not saying that's the correct way to do it, but it's my way.

I've always been interested in your rejection of captions, music, voiceover and other tools that many documentaries use for contextualising their films.

It's not that I don't contextualise, I just contextualise in different ways than through narration or voiceover. I like to think that I provide enough information in the exchanges that I include in the sequence that it provides the context, so in that sense my approach is more novelistic than journalistic. My personal models were fiction rather than journalism.

And are books more of an inspiration to you than cinema?

Well, I don't go to the movies much. I used to but I don't have time anymore. I liked to read a lot, and at the risk of sounding pretentious the two best books I ever read about film editing are Flaubert's letters to George Sand and Ionesco's essays on playwriting, because while they are not specifically dealing with film, the issues they are writing about are applicable to film. There is no 1:1 relationship, but because they are dealing with abstract issues, they roll around in my head and are useful not so much for solving a specific problem but in thinking generally about things.

When you're trying to raise money for a film, how do you pitch it to potential backers? Do you have a process to secure funding?

Well, I have a favourite department store in Paris and every Saturday afternoon I sing and sell pencils.

Ah, the old-fashioned way.

I mean, while I like to think I've earned the right to make the money easily, the moment I really think that I should stop. I have to act as if it's my first film. The moment I think I should take it for granted, I'm done. It's hard to make money, and people think it's easy to make money because I make a lot of movies, but it isn't.

I suppose people think it's easier to make a film because of new cheaper technologies.

It's bullshit. There are just more people going after the same pot of money.

Do you have another film lined up?

I'm thinking about one. I'm doing an 80-minute radio programme for French radio on Emily Dickinson. I did a play based on the life of Emily Dickinson and now I'm doing this radio programme based on her letters and poems.

And I understand you're working on a ballet based on Titicut Follies. Is that in progress now?

We just started this fall and it's not going to be on until the fall of 2016. I'm working with a very good choreographer, James Sewell, who has his own dance company in Minneapolis. We're cooking along with it.

Well, I'm certainly intrigued by that.

Me too.

National Gallery is in UK cinemas now.

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Animation is amazing in all its forms, but nothing competes with the physical object and how magical that is." - An interview with Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

With their three features to date, Laika has established itself as one of the most interesting and adventurous studios in American filmmaking. Following their dark, witty and beautifully animated stop-motion films Coraline and ParaNorman, Laika has now produced The Boxtrolls, an adaptation of the fantasy novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. Boasting witty and detailed animation, an ambitious and thematically rich story, and tremendous vocal performances, The Boxtrolls is easily one of 2014’s best animations. I met co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable when they visited London before Christmas, and as the interview began they were busy assembling the puppets that travel with them everywhere.

Your backgrounds cover a wide variety of animation styles, including CGI movies and video games. Was the opportunity to have a more hands-on approach your motivation for joining Laika?

Anthony Stacchi Yes, definitely. I kept having these run-ins with stop-motion films, working on James and the Giant Peach a little bit and other studios that used stop-motion for TV commercials and stuff, but it never seemed to come together for a feature. So when I went to visit Laika and met Travis [Laika CEO Travis Knight] and had the opportunity to work on this, it was definitely something to jump at.

Graham Annable For me honestly, I was always aware of stop-motion but wasn't an obsessive fan of it or anything. I'd worked in hand-drawn and CG animation. I was excited because Henry [Coraline director Henry Selick] gave me the opportunity to get back into storyboarding, because I'd been an animator for a lot longer than I had anticipated. Earlier in my career I had done some storyboarding for Chuck Jones, in the early '90s when they were trying to revitalise theatre shorts. I got to board out a whole seven-minute theatre short, I got to work with Chuck Jones for a week, and I came out of it thinking 'Man, I really want to be a storyboarder, that's exactly what I'm going to do'. Then I spent 15 years animating in video games [laughs]. So I really wanted to get back to it and Henry had seen a bunch of independent comics I'd been doing on the side when he was gathering a story crew, and he asked me to come up and work on Coraline. When I went up there I was just excited to storyboard a feature film, and it wasn't until the first days when the sets and puppets were all up and I got a chance to sneak down and look at the stages. I was just like [makes an awestruck face], because I mean, animation is amazing in all its forms, but nothing competes with the physical object and how magical that is, to see everything built and minituarised in front of you.

All animation is time-consuming and labour-intensive, but that seems to be especially true of stop-motion. Do you need a particular kind of personality to work in this field?

AS The animators say it's not so much patience as focus. There's a lot of stuff going on around you on the sets and you're working with the lighting crew and the camera crew, so you really have to focus your mind on the puppet, remember what you just did and what you intend to do. So that's why animators talk about focus, but they love being out there posing the puppets with their headphones on, that's when they're really happy.

GA I think other forms of animation tend to feel more private. You can squirrel away in the corner and work on your drawings for a week and nobody will bother you, but with stop-motion, while you are alone on the stage a lot, you always have the camera crews and lighting crews coming in, and it's a very public spectacle animating in front of everyone. It does have to be a weird combination of personality to get into stop-motion, yeah.

And as directors, you really have to marshal a whole army of people to get something like this made.

AS I mean, they all exist in every form of animation, but it feels more like a live-action shoot. A slow-motion live-action shoot, anyway. The crew is there and the set is being built, and people are coming out to repair the puppets and their costumes. If you're working in CG animation you're in a dark room staring at a glowing screen, and if any problems happen another department downloads the problem somewhere else and takes care of it. It is true that the tactile quality of these things, the fact that these things are handmade and really exist, I think the audience – consciously or subconsciously – can feel that these are different to CG films. CG films have a look that we've gotten really used to now, but I can remember when Toy Story came out what was amazing was that they had this 3D dimensionality. You could put really complex textures on them, and they may look like a 2D drawn character but you could do things that you could never do in hand-drawn films because you couldn't track those shapes, and the audience could tell something was different. Maybe it's like Graham says, we're so old-fashioned we're kind of new again. People can look at it and say there's something different about it even if they have no comprehension of what stop-motion is.

It is an old-fashioned style and you mentioned working on James and the Giant Peach, which was almost 20 years ago. Has the technique changed a lot in that time or is it essentially the same approach at heart?

AS In a fundamental way it has changed for the people who do it. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I worked a little bit on, had replacement heads and that's not dissimilar to what we do with these printed faces. [Anthony removes the face from one of his puppets] These are printed by the thousands so we can replace them with minute changes to the expression and mouth shape, and then animate it. Nightmare had replacement heads for Jack Skellington and those characters, but James and the Giant Peach had mostly mechanical heads with some replacement faces, and they were silicone and rubber and underneath had little paddles that moved. So those were two pretty old-fashioned forms of animation. What Travis has done at Laika is pull in these high-tech elements. We have a state-of-the-art VFX department that could work at any animation studio, CGI or special effects, and we have this technology here that they started on Coraline. So that has really changed the quality of the performance and the level of expression that we can get is so much greater nowadays. The animation has a quality that it has never had before.

One thing that always fascinates me about animation, and particularly stop-motion, is the art of timing. So many of your sequences depend on perfect timing; for example missing a comic beat by just a tiny amount can be the difference between a gag working or not. How do you manage that when you're putting sequences together in this slow, incremental way?

AS One of the days when we were recording Sir Ben Kingsley in Oxford, he was listening to one of the sequences involving himself that we had animated. He couldn't understand how we could record Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and him months apart from each other and cut it together so we have him having a conversation with Richard Ayoade, and Nick Frost is making a small comment, and it's all about the timing. It was funny to get those questions from somebody who had been in films so much and understood editing and all those things, but in animation you make the film before you make the film. A lot of people think storyboarding is where you draw the scenes and figure out where you're going to place the camera, but in animation storyboarding is about the performance of the character. So you're drawing all these poses and figuring out that if Mr Pickles and Mr Trout are talking, they're posed like this and then they're posed like that, and then we cut. Then we do temp voices, so we had a guy from the lighting department playing Trout and a guy from the puppet fabrication department playing Pickles, and we cut their dialogue before we get Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost to record it. If we can record them together then you get the benefit of them doing the timing ourselves, or we just sit with Edie our editor to cut their dialogue to the story reel to get that timing. Both of us are in the editing room with Edie and then we play it for the whole crew a few times, so we get to hone that timing. All that stuff gets figured out first while we're still just dealing with drawings. When we launch the animation they have to preserve that timing.

GA We have an exposure sheet that delineates exactly what frame the punchline is going to hit so they can work to that.

AS The weird part of it is that you direct the performance three times. When you talk to the storyboard artist you direct them to draw it, then that defines how you're going to direct the voice artist when they're recording it, and the last part is the animator who actually does the performance. A live-action director would be on set and talk to his actor once and then get as many takes as he wants to get it, whereas we do it three times and months apart.

GA You get an incredible amount of time to overthink your jokes [laughs].

I guess that's the real challenge. Through all this preparation and thinking time, you still need to maintain a feeling of spontaneity. It can't feel too fussed-over.

GA That is one of the hardest things. This my first time I've been in this role directing, and man, you spend so many years planning these situations and putting everything in place, it's so hard to let go of it when three years down the road as you're at the moment of launching the shot, suddenly a better idea floats up. You've got to be open and flexible enough to say, that is a better idea, and I know three years in a row we've planned this but actually that would be a little bit better. It's so hard to stay open to that.

AS It's true. There are other times when you have to say, 'Look, you've heard this joke for two years. It's funny, it's still funny, the audience hasn't heard it so leave this one alone'. Sometimes the animators will do what they call a 'lab' where they will shoot themselves on a phone or camera setup acting out their bit, and then they'll bring that to us. There's one scene in the movie where Pickles and Trout are trying to figure out if they're the good guys or bad guys, and when Winnie says they are evil henchman Pickles turns and points and says 'I knew...I knew that's what people thought of us.' That little hesitation in his arm movement was never boarded and it wasn't in Richard Ayoade's performance, but the animator came up with that little bit, and while it doesn't seem like a lot, it's such a great Pickles moment, he's such a nice guy he can't even poke Trout without hesitating. That just came up at the last minute but he needed extra frames, we needed to add it into the animation and open it up, so that was one of those moments where you had to be ready and just trust the animator and add it. That's sometimes why animated movies can sometimes feel over-plotted and full of coincidences and too perfect.

GA They've had all the life wrung out of it.

AS They don't have those little expressive moments of inspiration.

So when you go out and record the actors, does their performance ever change your conception of the character that you have been working on for so long?

GA Yeah, it's just another component of getting along the road to the final result.

AS Pickles and Trout were always big roles, but they got much bigger when we recorded Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade because they were so much fun, they kept pushing themselves into the movie more. When we met Sir Ben Kingsley we had a lot of conversations and he'd read the script, but he definitely had his own concept of Snatcher when he came in.

GA He contributed a part of the character that added up to a new villain that none of us would have predicted, a combination of all these factors.

AS When you first go into record these guys you're totally over-prepared and you want to tell Nick Frost exactly how to play Trout and give him line readings, instead of allowing the recording session to be free-flowing and see what you come up with. We got Nick Frost because of his voice, but when he was looking at the character he said 'I've got a broken nose and I'm a big softie but I look like a thug', and he came up with that voice and of course we were shocked!

GA For six months we had imagined this voice! Why are you making a new voice? [laughs]

AS Also, when Richard Ayoade came in we had no idea if Richard Ayoade really talked like the characters he played. We were afraid he'd come in and say [very deep voice] 'Hello, how are you doing?' But that persona is very much him, and that was great because we didn't have to have the awkward thing of asking an actor to do something he's done before.

I did love those two characters. Just the idea of having a couple of characters in a kids' movie walking around discussing the duality of good and evil made me laugh.

AS We liked it and it was there in a nutshell, and the storyboard artists said we should play it up more. Then the writers – you know, it's a very writerly joke – they loved the idea of breaking the fourth wall and stuff. One of the writers we worked with Adam Pava loved it, and occasionally when we would do roundtables with storyboard artists and writers to get some new ideas we got tons of Pickles and Trout stuff. We'd tell them we need more Boxtrolls jokes, but everyone just gravitated to those characters. The thing about it is that you don't want to write two characters that the adults get but the kids don't, so there was always this balancing act with them having the discussion about good and evil but Pickles ending the discussion with 'We are the good guys', so you're not losing the kids. It was always a bit of a balancing act.

That balancing act is really interesting in terms of how much darkness you put into a family movie. There's a real element of the grotesque about the film and these are quite unappealing characters.

GA Oh thanks! [laughs]

I didn't mean to insult the characters you've spent years of your life on! But with the broken noses and teeth and later the swollen body parts, there is an ugliness and darkness that's quite notable in a film like this. Is there any hesitation about putting these elements into a film aimed at children?

AS There was no hesitation, certainly none coming from Travis. I think that he wouldn't articulate it as a company style or anything like that, but he has a desire to go places that no other studio would go. We're not part of a huge conglomerate, we're really independent filmmakers and that's kind of the brand of Laika, the willingness to go to these slightly darker places. But really, the kernel of everything is in Alan Snow's book. It's very Dickensian and when you read Dickens that's what you remember; you remember Bill Sykes and you remember Fagin. There's a lot of really good people in those stories too, he loves to show every strata of society, but it's the grotesques that you remember, and Alan loves that.

GA It tied into the tone too. We always pitched the project as very Monty Python-esque, Terry Gilliam, it had that kind of sensibility to it, Jeunet and Caro. They are totally willing to go to those places too.

AS We told Travis that Coraline was an art film for kids, ParaNorman was a horror film for kids, and this was a Dickensian period drama for kids.

Snatcher is a great Dickensian villain but he's also a tragic figure because the one thing he desires will ultimately destroy him.

AS Alan Snow's book is really complicated and has so many characters, so when we honed in on the idea of a surrogate family of Boxtrolls that all felt great, but what it was missing was these dynamic duos of Eggs and Snatcher and Eggs and Winnie. There's this little boy trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, and this adult man destroying himself to try and force himself into some place that doesn't want him. People always gravitate towards a great villain and I think a lot of us who worked on the film found we could relate to him.

GA Yeah, I much prefer when you can find empathy for the villain and understand his motivations rather than just have a one-dimensional bad guy.

AS Travis definitely didn't want that. Even if nothing else was working, we were happy with Snatcher, he was never just this moustache-twirling villain who wanted world domination.

You mentioned having to cut down Alan Snow's very complicated book, so what was your process for adapting it? Did it take a long time to discover the film in there?

[Both in unison] A long time!

Because there are so many creatures in it, and I guess on one level that must be such a tantalising prospect for a animators and you'd want to include them all.

AS That's why people love the book. When I first when to visit Laika they gave me the book and said 'Here, take a look and see what you think. We haven't been able to crack the story but we love the tone of it'. I was so glad when they said they loved the tone, because a lot of studios would just look at a book like that and say, 'Oh, what a great bunch of crazy characters! Cabbageheads, Trotting Badgers, Sea Cows and all these other characters – that makes it appropriate for animation'. First of all, you're not going to be able to afford to build all these characters, but secondly, that doesn't give you a story. It just makes it feel like Alice in Wonderland, which is notoriously difficult to adapt. So it took us a long time to whittle it down, and for so many people their favourite characters were the Cabbageheads or the Rat Pirates.

GA Yeah, there's so much packed into the book it felt like everybody at the studio had a different part of it that they loved. It was tricky to find the unanimous piece of it that worked for everybody and made sense as a film. One of the things that's so appealing about the book is that Alan creates new characters on every page to get the old characters out of their situation [laughs]. That really works as a book and it's really fun, but it's at a frenetic pace all the way through the book and we knew that we couldn't do that as a film. The problem we faced is that when you started to remove one or two groups or specific characters it really started to unravel because you needed to provide context for the remaining ones. Alan never needed to or bothered to do that in the book; he never needed to explain why the Rat Pirates spoke English and ran a Laundromat in the middle of the city, because the pace allowed him to keep introducing new things. We couldn't do that.

AS We tried. It's not like we knew that from day one, but when I pitched it to the story department I'd get to like page 35 and say '...and then we meet these Rat Pirates' and you'd see them just go 'Oh God!' [laughs] They were trying to wrap their heads around this world, but then the world starts to not have a clear set of laws and that's a disaster. You know, you've got about 10 or 15 minutes to loosely figure out the rules of this world, and if you keep breaking them deeper and deeper into the movie I think people get tired, no matter how gorgeous your world might be.

GA There's a disconnect that happens after a while, because nothing is working within parameters that they can figure out.

I just want to finish by asking a more general question about Laika and what it's like to be part of that company. You've both worked at other animation studios, and I wonder if you feel a major difference having a CEO who is also an animator himself?

AS Everybody who has worked at a big studio – and I've worked at a lot – you can feel like you're part of a big machine. A lot of the times the executives that you deal with are en route to somewhere else, you know, they're punching their card in animation but they have dreams of live-action, or they have dreams of three films coming out of this one book, and it's definitely not coming from a deep love or total understanding of animation. For me it was just like having one of your animation pals suddenly running the company, somebody who loves animation as much as you and goes to see every animated film, talks about them endlessly and has grown up with them. So having that as your CEO and the one executive you have to interact with, and no focus groups, I've just never been in a situation like that before. That and the culture that Travis has built at the company allows for the films to have the tone that they have, because ultimately it's the director's decision but it's inside Travis's vision for the whole company too.

And while the three films all have distinct personalities I feel that you can see them all emerging from the same philosophy of storytelling and the same passion.

AS He definitely has that passion, but it can be a double-edged sword because he's a really good animator. He really understands it and consequently he has really strong opinions on the style of animation too. I've had quite a few CEOs who have said 'They don't care about the style'.

GA In some ways that can be difficult for the animation department because the bar is set so high in terms of quality, and that's the one department that doesn't get any easy rides. Travis has a laser focus on what he wants out of a movie. Sometimes in the back of your head you're saying 'Well, if you're so smart why don't you do it?' but he literally could do it better than you! [laughs]

The Boxtrolls will be released on DVD + Blu-ray on January 26th

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Films of 2014

25 - Dear White People (directed by Justin Simien)
"Racism is over in America" the president of an exclusive university states confidently in Dear White People, "the only people thinking about it are...Mexicans, probably." Justin Simien's energetic satire is full of sharp dialogue aimed at puncturing the myth of a post-racial America and starting a real discussion about prejudice, class and racial identity, and if his rapid-fire approach means he occasionally misses the target, he also scores a considerable number of direct hits. The film invites comparison with punchy, provocative energy of Spike Lee's early work, and while Simien is a stronger writer than director – with some of his stylistic choices coming off as a little too cute – his script is clearly the work of an intelligent mind that has a lot to say. The characters are brought to life by a charismatic young cast and the film builds to an explosive finale, with a climactic montage of recent photographs showing white Americans who have worn blackface for parties acting as an instant riposte to anyone who might think it's over the top. Like all good satire, Dear White People is shocking and outrageous, but only because it so closely reflects reality.

24 - The Babadook (directed by Jennifer Kent)
The Babadook is a horror film about a monster who emerges from the pages of a children’s book, but that’s not the scariest thing about it. Jennifer Kent’s stunningly effective debut is about a single mother (Essie Davis, giving one of the year’s best performances) trying to cope with her difficult son while sinking deeper into depression and hopelessness, and Kent understands that this feeling of being lost and trapped in a cycle of despair is the true horror. The Babadook itself is simply a manifestation of these very relatable anxieties and this lends a powerful emotional core to this story of a mother trying to save herself and her son from the encroaching darkness. Even when the climactic section of the film adheres to more conventional horror tactics, Kent’s direction is always assured and her film lingers in the thoughts long after it has ended. You can’t get rid of The Babadook.

23 - Girlhood (directed by Céline Sciamma)
The inaccurate English translation of Céline Sciamma's Bande de filles as Girlhood led some people to make lazy comparisons with Richard Linklater's Boyhood, but they are very different films. While Linklater's picture is a more general portrait of growing up, Sciamma's third film is a specific exploration of growing up as a black teenage girl in an inner-city environment, and as such it's the kind of film that very few filmmakers are attempting to make. This is a less perfectly formed picture than Sciamma's marvellous Tomboy, but it is also a more ambitious work and it's a step forward in terms of the director's visual sense, with the use of colour and architecture being striking throughout. Sciamma's greatest asset, however, is the magical touch that she has when working with young, inexperienced actresses, and that touch is evident here again. Karidja Touré is a wonderful discovery as the teenager trying to work out who she is, and there's a great sense of camaraderie among her gang, with Assa Sylla being another standout performer. I hope we see more of these beautiful and talented young actors, and I can't wait to see how Sciamma develops further.

22 - The Homesman (directed by Tommy Lee Jones)
The Homesman looks for all the world like an old-fashioned Western, but Tommy Lee Jones' second feature as a director quickly takes itself off the beaten path and follows its own wayward trail. The result is an uneven and sometimes maddening but utterly engrossing picture that keeps springing surprises, including one narrative leap halfway through the alters the whole complexion of the film. Jones himself is on familiar gruff form but he reveals unexpected layers of empathy and emotion as the film progresses, while Hilary Swank's performance as the spinster determined to do a job that no man in the town will step forward for is one of her very best. This is a film about loneliness and madness and the film often seems to be on the verge of madness itself, with increasingly eccentric scenes and encounters occurring as the film rambles towards its memorably offbeat final shot. The Homesman was never a film that was likely to find a wide and appreciative audience, but I have a feeling that we will look back at this one in years to come as something of an overlooked classic.

21 - Suzanne (directed by Katell Quillévéré)
Boldly covering two decades in the lives of a family in a shade over 90 minutes, Katell Quillévéré doesn't make things easy for the viewer with her habit of leaping around in time and letting key moments in the story take place in the ellipses. This tactic can make the film an infuriating experience at times, particularly in the early stages, but if you connect with Quillévéré's filmmaking then Suzanne is a spellbinding and devastating portrait of a family torn apart by a series of bad choices and misfortunes. The director is confident enough in her storytelling to withhold key information from the viewer before revealing it later and timing these revelations for maximum emotional impact, and her judgement in this never wavers. Sara Forestier handles her demanding central role with great skill, Adèle Haenel is a welcome presence as her sister, while François Damiens delivers an enormously moving performance as their father, an ordinary man who simple wants to love and protect his daughters and whose despair when he fails to do so goes straight to the heart. Suzanne is a fearless and hugely exciting film from a young director with a very bright future.

20 - River of Fundament (directed by Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler)
One day after being introduced to the work of Mathew Barney in the most intense way possible – with an all-day screening of his Cremaster Cycle – I ventured to the London Coliseum for his latest magnum opus. River of Fundament is a loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s “unadaptable” novel Ancient Evenings and over the course of six hours I saw things that I will surely never forget, even if I might want to. Norman Mailer’s son (playing his own father) cuts open a dead cow and crawls inside; a naked pregnant woman removes her glass eyeball and pushes it into the anus of another; a man is tricked into eating semen-encrusted lettuce; a woman gives birth to a bird, and Maggie Gyllenhaal squeezes milk from her breasts. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the scatological depths that this film reaches, but there is a vivid sense of beauty here too and Barney’s filmmaking eye has come on leaps and bounds since his last Cremaster film (I’ve yet to see the Björk-starring Drawing Restraint 9). He stages a number of incredibly ambitious and commanding sequences and the sound design throughout the film is among the best I have ever experienced, fully involving us in Barney’s universe. River of Fundament is bewildering, overwhelming and exhausting but it’s also a sensational experience that leaves a deep mark.

19 - Li'l Quinquin (directed by Bruno Dumont)
Bruno Dumont’s latest offering was made for French television, but I saw it in one sitting on the big screen and it definitely stands out as one of the cinematic highlights of the year. This 197-minute tale of murder in a small French town looks like familiar territory for Dumont – a study of good and evil with a cast of untrained actors whose faces look like they have met the business end of a shovel – but there’s also a new sensation here, with Li’l Quinquin frequently prompting raucous laughter. Led by a unique, tic-laden performance by Bernard Pruvost as the detective trying to ascertain who exactly is murdering people and stuffing their bodies inside cows, the film blends hilarious, non-sequitous comedy, philosophical explorations of morality and burst of gruesome violence with a degree of success that I never could have imagined him pulling off. In truth, I never imagined Bruno Dumont having anything as wildly entertaining as this in his locker, and it is my favourite film of his by some distance. Li’l Quinquin would have been higher up this list, but it loses points for planting the world’s most irritatingly catchy song in my head.

18 - Listen Up Philip (directed by Alex Ross Perry)
A brilliant film about narcissistic writers and the women who see through them. Listen Up Philip expertly skewers the ego of the Great Male Novelist with Jason Schwartzman perfectly cast performance as an arrogant, caustic young writer with and Jonathan Pryce on grand form as a Roth/Mailer-ish veteran who takes him under his wing. Alex Ross Perry’s screenplay is alive with acerbic dialogue and he doesn’t hold back when pushing us into uncomfortable encounters with, the gorgeous 16mm cinematography from Sean Price Williams and Robert Greene’s skilful editing making every scene feel vivid, anxious and dynamic. Although this appears to be a study of men, Perry’s real masterstroke is to hand over a chunk of the narrative to the Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s long-suffering girlfriend, and to follow her as she tries to free herself from the shackles of this unedifying relationship. Her performance is a masterclass in expressing conflicting emotions with subtlety. The omniscient voiceover is a great touch too, helping the film flow beautifully from one awkward encounter to the next, with almost every scene locating some truth about artists and their relationships.

17 - Leviathan (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Andrey Zvyagintsev's fourth feature Leviathan takes a long, hard look at modern Russia and reveals it as a country rotten to its core – corrupt, hypocritical and godless. He uses the story of one man fighting the establishment to highlight the human cost of such a system, with Aleksey Serebryakov giving a tremendous performance as the humble mechanic trying to stop his family's land from falling into the hands of the crooked mayor (a superb Roman Madyanov). While we suspect this won't end well – the imposing use of a Philip Glass piece introduces an instant note of foreboding – Leviathan brilliantly conceals its hand and the full tragedy of the drama doesn't hit us until it has already swallowed its characters whole. The film possesses this capacity to catch us by surprise because Zvyagintsev keeps wrong-footing the audience with his storytelling choices, which shift according to his characters' often impulsive decisions. Much of the film is very funny, and the tonal balancing act the picture constantly strikes is summed by in a vodka-soaked shooting party, which serves up big laughs before veering suddenly into tragedy. It's little wonder Leviathan's screenplay earned Zvyagintsev a prize in Cannes, but his direction matches it every step of the way, creating numerous arresting images and establishing an unsettling mood that's hard to shake.

16 - The Duke of Burgundy (directed by Peter Strickland)
I admit I was wary of The Duke of Burgundy. Having been a little disappointed by Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, the opening titles of his latest picture prepared me for another skilfully mounted but unfulfilling pastiche. Fortunately, The Duke of Burgundy grows into something much more than that; in fact, it is one of the most interesting and perceptive films I've ever seen about what it means to be involved in a long-term relationship. Strickland creates a fascinating dynamic between his two lead characters Cynthia and Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna, both wonderful), whose S&M games are beginning to become much more fulfilling for one partner than the other. The interactions between these characters are often very funny, but the film is also sweet, sad and true in its examination of love. As with his previous film, it's hard to fault The Duke of Burgundy on a technical level. The camerawork, production and costume design, and sound and music are all utilised to create a hypnotic and evocative atmosphere. This is an imaginative and utterly beguiling love story and the best film yet from an extremely talented filmmaker.

15 - Hard to Be a God (directed by Aleksei German)
Great films immerse us in the world they depict, although sometimes it's a place you don't necessarily want to be. Hard to Be a God is set on a planet that resembles medieval earth, and I have never seen a film that depicts life in a pre-Renaissance age with such tactile immediacy. There is a narrative here somewhere but I pretty much gave up trying to grasp events less an hour into the film's 170 minutes. Instead, I simply tried to take in as much of this extraordinary spectacle as possible. The production is a staggering achievement – a 360-degree universe caked in mud, water and blood, and every single scene is alive with background activity and incident. It's a world so fully realised we can almost smell it, although thank God we can't, given how much of the film is rife with spitting, shitting, rotting food and corpses (both human and animal – it's hard to be a dog), madness, innards being spilled and the constant squelching of the soft ground underfoot. These actors don't seem to be performers at all, but people who have lived in this world and who have breathed the fetid air. Hard to Be a God is confounding but essential picture. Hard to Be a God was a long-held passion project for German. He shot the film between 2000 and 2006 and was in post-production for the next seven years, right up to his death at the start of 2013. That may seem excessive, but having seen the film it's easy to see how a man can spend almost a fifth of his life on a behemoth like this.

14 - Mr. Turner (directed by Mike Leigh)
Mr. Turner is probably my favourite Mike Leigh film since his last biopic, 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. What distinguishes these films is a sense of period detail that feels lived-in rather than studied, and performances from his regular ensemble that create characters we can imagine living on beyond the scope of the film. By approaching these subjects through his unique methods, Leigh avoids the clichés of the film biopic, and instead his portrait of JMW Turner has a bracing sense of humanity and authenticity. Led by a grand, finely detailed performance by Timothy Spall, the film gives us snapshots of Turner’s final two decades, when he produced some of his most daring works and suffered major upheavals in his personal life. As a character study, Mr. Turner is inquisitive while being respectful of its subject’s essential contradictions and mysteries, but Leigh is just as interested in the realities of life as a 19th century working artist as he is in this particular man, and every scene in the film has some telling detail that makes us feel like we are looking through a window on the past. The film is also features the most inspired work yet from Leigh's longtime collaborator Dick Pope, whose use of light recalls the painter's own. The sun is God, indeed.

13 - Selma (directed by Ava DuVernay)
As I walked away from a screening of Selma and turned on my phone, the first thing I saw on Twitter was a photograph of the huge crowds gathered in New York, marching in protest over the murders of unarmed black men by the American police. Sometimes it’s hard to divorce a film from the context in which we see it, and there’s no doubt that the current headlines give Selma an added emotional force, but even without that factor I would have no hesitation recommending Ava DuVernay’s film. This riveting drama focuses on the Civil Rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, and DuVernay shows excellent judgement throughout. Her depictions of shockingly violent acts are blistering, her study of the political machinations behind the march is clear and astute, and her portrait of King and his inner circle is revealing and intimate. As King, David Oyelowo gives a commanding and soulful performance that one can’t help but be inspired by, and as the film marches towards its rousing finale, it becomes clear that this picture about America in 1965 has much to teach us as we move into 2015.

12 - Two Days, One Night (directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The latest film from the Dardenne brothers is essentially one scene replayed multiple times. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) must visit her co-workers and ask them to give up their bonus so she can keep her job, and we follow her as she forces herself through this humiliating ritual sixteen times, all while trying to fight off the exhaustion and depression that has previously kept her from work. It's an extraordinary performance from Cotillard and yet another rich human drama from the Dardennes, as each of the encounters reveals characters who have different reasons for making the decisions that they make and we get such a vivid sense of lives going on beyond Sandra's story. The film is a portrait of a culture in which bosses pit workers against each other, and the sense of solidarity that emerges when Sandra finds somebody who will take up her cause carries immense power. All victories are hard-won in the Dardennes' world, but that makes them all the more satisfying, and this is yet another enthralling, compassionate and stunningly accomplished feature from a pair of filmmakers who seem incapable of taking a false step.

11 - The Grand Budapest Hotel (directed by Wes Anderson)
“To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But, I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.” Wes Anderson has always been a director out of step with contemporary fashion and his latest film is one of his most idiosyncratic, and his best. Like the Like the cakes made by Mendl's that become central to the plot, this fast-paced, farcical comedy is a multi-layered aesthetic treat, crafted with the skill and fastidious attention to detail of an artist in complete control and working at the apex of his powers. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film of contradictions; it feels simultaneously modern and embedded in the past; it is both polite and profane; frenetic but elegant; hilariously funny, but also deeply sad. The film is a lament for an age of innocence and civility that is about to be washed away by the arrival of a fascist regime, and for all of the sparkling comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel contains, it may actually be Anderson's saddest and most subtly humane work. At its centre is perhaps Anderson’s greatest creation, the inimitable Monsieur Gustave H., who is played by Ralph Fiennes with a sense of comic timing and élan that we have never seen in his work before. It’s a revelatory performance, rife with the year’s finest deliveries, of which “I've never seen her like that before. She was shaking like a shitting dog” may be my favourite.

10 - Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater)
If cinema is the closest thing we have to a time machine, then Richard Linklater has just pulled off one of its most astounding feats of time travel. Hearing about the way Linklater filmed his actors every year for 12 years doesn’t prepare you for the impact of watching the years melt away over the course of less than three hours, of seeing a boy become a man in front of our eyes. Given how many things could have happened in 12 years to send him off course, the fact that Linklater made such an ambitious project work at all is astonishing, but the fact that he did it with such humble, effortless grace is what makes the film feel really special. Ellar Coltrane was a lucky find as the boy we spend more than a decade observing, while Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give exceptional, nuanced performance as his parents, but it’s the overall experience that stays with you. Boyhood is perhaps the definitive example of a film in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a one-of-a-kind picture that gradually generates momentum and accumulates emotional weight through keen observations and the capturing of a moment.

9 - Timbuktu (directed by Abderrahmane Sissako)

Timbuktu is a film with images and moments that are seared into my memory. A long shot of a man walking away through water as his victim tries to stumble to his feet; a group of teenage boys playing with an imaginary football following a ban on ball games; a child running helplessly towards the camera with no idea what lies ahead in her future. Abderrahmane Sissako’s stunning film is a portrait of a village under the control of militant Islamists, and the director finds a beautiful balance between finding humour in the absurdities and contradictions of their actions and counting the tragic cost as innocent villagers fall victim to their rule. There’s a lovely musical interlude in which a group of musicians gather to sing and play together, but that scene is quickly followed by their shocking punishment; Sissako’s filmmaking is graced with moments of poetry but his view of the situation is always clear and unflinching. This is an eye-opening and unforgettable film of great humanity and profundity, and following the rise of ISIS Timbuktu feels ever more vital.

8 - The Tribe (directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytsky)
A notice appears on screen before The Tribe begins, warning us that the film we are about to watch is told entirely through sign language and there will be no subtitles or translation offered to assist us. That might seem like a daunting proposition but The Tribe quickly grabbed my attention and didn't let go of my nerves until the brutal ending. It is the story of an adolescent boy who falls in with a gang of criminals and prostitutes, and the cast of young deaf actors performs with a fearlessness and expressiveness that is essential to the film's success. I've rarely been part of such an attentive audience, as we all kept our eyes glued to the screen to follow every gesture, action and camera movement – our only means of understanding the narrative. The Tribe is a masterclass in non-verbal storytelling and a triumph for first-time director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who shoots the film in long, brilliantly orchestrated takes and possesses a potent ability to create and sustain tension. That level of tension can sometimes make The Tribe feel suffocating, and I certainly felt dazed and in need of some fresh air when it was over, but it is undeniably a very special achievement.

7 - Goodbye to Language (directed by Jean-Luc Godard)

I only saw one 3D film this year, but given that the film I saw was Goodbye to Language I feel that was enough. I think this is the only film I've ever seen that must be viewed in three dimensions, or else there is simply no point in watching it. Other filmmakers have used 3D as an additional effect for films that can just as easily be enjoyed in 2D, but Jean-Luc Godard uses it as a tool to let us look at cinema and the world in a whole new way. While 3D – with a handful of exceptions – has thus far been the toy of blockbuster filmmakers, Godard's low-fi approach liberates the technique, creating textures and images that are completely new and producing one shot in particular that drew gasps from the audience I watched the film with. How often does cinema show you something you've never seen before? Goodbye to Language is the work of a director who is still determined to push the medium into new territory, and the whole film is energised by his enthusiasm, curiosity and playful disregard for what we understand cinema to be. As ever with Godard, this is a work dense with ideas and allusions that I couldn't begin to parse on a single viewing, but it also feels like one of his most accessible and emotional films, and just the thrill of bearing witness to what feels like the first real 3D movie is an experience that can't be missed. Jean-Luc Godard turned 84 this year, but this old dog still has new tricks.

6 - Mommy (directed by Xavier Dolan)
This is Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature, and this absurdly gifted young filmmaker just keeps on getting better. Mommy is a dazzling melodrama about a single mother trying to cope with her increasingly violent teenage son, and no other picture hit me with as many euphoric highs and devastating lows. Dolan keeps unashamedly chases big moments throughout, and while that is likely to be a turn-off for many viewers, I found it to be an utterly exhilarating emotional ride. Dolan’s chosen visual style for the movie, a 1:1 aspect ratio with a lot of close-ups, can take some getting used to, but he uses it for a purpose, with the borders of the screen widening when the characters are on the verge of breaking out of their situation before compressing again when they find themselves back at square one. I fell in love with Anne Dorval’s lead performance – a beautifully detailed characterisation that is both extremely funny and heart-wrenchingly empathetic – and the dream sequence that Dolan comes up with towards the end of the film is a shattering masterstroke that elevates the picture to true greatness.

5 - National Gallery (directed by Fred Wiseman)
I love the films of Frederick Wiseman and I love The National Gallery, so my positive response to his latest film National Gallery is perhaps unsurprising. Nevertheless, I was still taken aback by just how great this documentary is, and my only regret is that Wiseman falls an hour short of last year's 244-minute At Berkeley. Like that film, National Gallery has a heavy focus on education, and as he tours the building Wiseman keeps landing on scenes of people sharing their knowledge of art and trying to inspire listeners with their infectious enthusiasm. We also gain a privileged look behind the scenes, sitting in on budget meetings (Wiseman has an uncanny knack for finding riveting discussions) and watching the gallery's restoration team carrying out painstaking work to touch up ageing masterpieces, with one of the most revelatory moments in the film being the admission that every cleaning removes all of those restorations, meaning they have to be done all over again. You couldn't do that if you didn't love what you do, and throughout National Gallery we meet people who really love art – people who love viewing it, love preserving it, and love sharing it with others. The other thing that Wiseman understands so well is that people-watching is one of the joys of visiting a gallery, and he creates a wonderful interplay between the images on the wall and the wide variety of people who look at them every day. National Gallery is illuminating, inspiring and entrancing, and in its final minutes it achieves a state of transcendence that elevates it into the top tier of Wiseman's peerless body of work.

4 - Inherent Vice (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Without a shadow of a doubt the funniest film of 2014, Inherent Vice is also sweet and strange and sad and mysterious. It’s such a rich feast of a film I can only imagine it revealing more textures and layers upon repeated viewings, but one experience has already left me with so much to savour. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel hooked me immediately, with the director displaying a peerless command of tone, generating a drug-fuelled atmosphere of confusion that draws us in and intoxicates us. There are blissfully funny moments scattered throughout, much of them involving Joaquin Phoenix’s wonderful range of baffled expressions or slapstick pratfalls, or Josh Brolin’s note-perfect portrayal of a frustrated right-wing cop, but this is also a love story, with one sequence following two lovers in the rain being one of the most beautiful and poignant moments that this great filmmaker has captured. I haven’t fallen so completely for a Paul Thomas Anderson film like this since Magnolia, and I can’t wait to dive back into Inherent Vice as soon as possible.

3 - Winter Sleep (directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Although it has its roots in short stories by Chekov, Winter Sleep feels novelistic in its scope and sense of detail. The film is a study of relationships, responsibilities, pride, good intentions and characters who are trapped together and forced into petty battles. Much of it consists of long, discursive conversations, and while the idea of a 196-minute picture driven by endless talk may sound off-putting, I found the dialogue written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his wife Ebru to be totally fascinating in the way it reveals character and motivations, and touches on a wide variety of themes. The centrepiece of the film is an argument between hotelier and self-styled intellectual Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), which is a stunning feat of needling passive-aggression and is performed with incredible skill and emotional dexterity by the two actors. Winter Sleep is as visually splendid as we have come to expect from Ceylan, with interiors bathed in golden light and the spectacular Anatolian landscape providing a naturally breathtaking space for him to work in, but what really stands out is how the director uses the vast canvas at his disposal to create such a finely tuned and intimate character study. Winter Sleep is a staggering achievement.

2 - The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (directed by Isao Takahata)
I must have burst into tears about half-a-dozen times during The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Sometimes it was the devastating Mizoguchi-like emotional impact of the film’s story that got to me, but often it was simply the sheer heart-stopping beauty of Isao Takahata’s film. Adapted from an ancient Japanese fable, the film has a suitably timeless feel thanks to the use of charcoal and watercolour animation, through which Takahata and his team of animators have produced one of the most visually ravishing films I have ever seen. The deftness of the brushstrokes and line drawings makes every frame of the film feel alive, and they conjure wondrous images that can make your heart swell or shatter into pieces, often simultaneously. The narrative is blessed with fantastic flights of the imagination but at it score it is a vivid and powerful cautionary tale about the importance of living a life that makes us happy rather than the life we feel we should live, because it's all over so fast. In the same year that Hayao Miyazaki directed his own swansong with the wonderful The Wind Rises, this picture truly does mark the end of an era as the final animated feature to emerge from Studio Ghibli. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a stunning way for these great artists to say goodbye, and a timely reminder of the magic that we risk losing if we let the craft of hand-drawn animation become only a memory.

1 - Under the Skin (directed by Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary and singular Under the Skin blends footage shot covertly on the streets of Glasgow with vivid, nightmarish sights and sounds to create a wholly original and deeply unsettling experience. It is a film about being an alien in a human world, or being a woman in a man's world, and Scarlett Johansson's work as the film's enigmatic protagonist constitutes the year's most imaginative use of an actor's star quality. She is an alien creature herself on these dark Glasgow streets, and her the image of men slowly walking towards this beguiling creature, literally led by their erections, is just one of its myriad potent and indelible images. Thinking about what happens to these men when they have become trapped in the alien’s web still give me chills, as does the horrible scene involving a baby on a windswept beach, but this is a film that also has moments of humour and tenderness to offset its terrifying implications. Watching a film like this and seeing a hugely talented filmmaker strive for something genuinely new is a totally exhilarating experience, and Under the Skin isn’t just a film that works upon first exposure. Re-watching the film, it only seems richer, stranger, scarier, more intriguing and more human. It’s an extraordinary work of art and Under the Skin is a most apt title for such a haunting picture. Once it has seduced you into its dark world, there is no escaping it.