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.