Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015, Favourites at the cinema

  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Dear White People
  • Ex Machina
  • It Follows
  • Turbo Kid
  • Scherzo Diabolico
  • Sicario
  • Carol
  • Brooklyn
  • Sunset Song
Honourable mentions..
  • We Are Still Here
  • 99 Homes
  • What We Do In The Shadows

It was surely a great year for performances.

There was Kate Blanchett in Todd Haynes' ‘Carol’, and Saoirse Ronan in John Crowley's  ‘Brooklyn’, and Agyness Dean in Terence Davies' ‘Sunset Song’ was no slouch. There was Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland's ‘Ex Machina, convincingly using careful mannerism to convey something inhuman faking humanity. And then there was Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, meeting the action guys on their own terms without compromising vulnerability. You could almost feel these women swaying between confidence, assertion and insecurities, bristling against the restrictions of their lives. There was ‘Suffragette’ to bring women’s issue to the centre (which I didn’t see), but these other films surely brought attention to those issues, to how women are portrayed in cinema, proving themselves with great performances and characters.

Kevin Guthrie in ‘Sunset Song’ and Emory Cohen in ‘Brooklyn’ both offered refreshing and affecting takes on maleness. Guthrie gave a portrait of a soft-natured man not suited to fighting whilst Cohen gave an open-hearted portrait, full of generous smiles and a desire to do things the girl’s way to win her over. It was as far from the violent machismo of  ‘Black Mass’ as you can get, and all the more refreshing for that. Actually, Steve Carrel’s prosthetically enhanced performance in ‘Foxcatcher’ had previously proved far more successful than that of Johnny Depp in Scott Copper's Black Mass’.

And then there was Oscar Isaac in JC Chandor's ‘A Most Violent Year’, struggling not be the Italian gangster cliché that everyone expected him to be. Issac was also impressive in ‘Ex Machina’, dancing with android he had made, but alongside Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander he was only one in a trio of impressive performances.

And so on.

It was a bumper year. These were performances that weren’t just acting, but also colouring in character with nuances that rung true.

‘Brooklyn’, ‘Sunset Song’ and ‘Carol’ all possessed a quality that can only be described as literary. This had as much with letting the imagery tell the story as the scripts.

Justin Simien's direction and script for ‘Dear White People’ was full of tasty morsels to satisfy.  An excellent ensemble cast, cutting observations and a deceptively easy-going surface that perhaps hasn’t been this truly felt since early Spike Lee. Funny, political and warm-natured.

I kept waiting for ‘Ex Machina’ not to follow through on its premise, but it did. It reminded me of the thoughtful, existential science fiction films of the Sixties and Seventies – a chamber piece with significant ramifications on humanity. It also showed the genre its cinematic form fully aware of the digital age.

‘Sicario, on the other hand, overcame any tropes and narrative over-familiarity by great set-pieces and direction by Denis Villeneuve and a consistent tension that never let up.

Carol’ had gorgeous costumes and set design but proved not only to be winning as a purely visual piece, which was perhaps Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak’s failing – trying too hard visually and feeling rather artificial for it. ‘Carol’ proved assured in its visual sense from the opening shot where a pretty pattern proves to be street grating. Glances that spoke volumes beneath a pretty veneer proved its language.

But subtlety proved to not be the only lingo going. I read from some casual commentators that Mad Max: Fury Roadwas just a great action ride, but it’s the details that I found a layers and layers to dig in to. Details such as the tattoos, the smiley faces drawn onto Nux’s tumours,  the casual way it deals with Imperator Furiosa’s disability – the metal arm – which didn’t make it a hinderance at all for her role as action queen – and so on. It’s far from subtle but rarely is in-your-face action this well orchestrated, thought-out and dense.

Aside from ‘Mad Max’, ‘Turbo Kid’ offered acres of genre fun. Starting out as a homage to the cash-in VHS fodder of the 80s, just as ‘It Follows’ harked back to the John Carpenter influence, but it soon cycles past its influences to become its own thing whilst never dropping the humorous pastiche (“Hey, we can’t afford ‘Mad Max’ cars, but what if we use… BMX bikes??!!?”).

Speaking of ‘It Follows’: so this is what grunge horror looks like? As if suffering from the same teenage awkwardness it depicts by perhaps having an element of trying too hard, David Robert Mitchell’s film offers up angst and dread as the genre’s meat instead of jump scares (although it’s not adverse to those either). Despite an overreliance on homage (which is a key affliction of the genre right now) and an unlikely premise (“So, wait, what, the monster just walks to the victim?”), ‘It Follows’ rewards thinking about and repeat viewings and succeeds as a meta-commentary on the genre’s worrying about growing up.

And speaking of homage’s that succeed, whereas ‘Turbo Kid’ is hilarious with it and ‘It Follows’ is a little self-conscious, ‘We Are Still Here’ shows how to make a modern film look like it’s from decades past. It’s not trying to be genre-clever, but it’s a fine, straightforward horror with memorable acting and ghosts.

And speaking of which, ‘Some Kind of Hate´ offered up an unforgettable spook in Moira, the ghost that dispatches her victim with self-mutilation. This was the flip-side of the kind of heavy-metal horror offered up by the outrageous and funny ‘Deathgasm’.

Both ‘Deathgasm’ and ‘What We Do In the Shadows’ proved exceptionally genre-savvy comedies. The former fondly sent up the Heavy Metal end of Horror whilst the latter found endless parody at the expenses of vampires.

Adrián García Bogliano’s ‘Scherzo Diabolico’ wasn’t quite what was expected, but that’s par for the course with this director. Twisting and turning, a tale of grudges and getting ahead and taking things further than usual to see where they go. With an unforgettable final shot, as it were.

Rahmin Barami’s ’99 Homes’, which felt like it roamed the same streets as ‘Killing Them Softly’ and ‘Nightcrawler’ and possessed of reliably fine performances from Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Like many others in my selection, it was about how work shapes us as people.

And I also want to mention Nightcrawler’, ‘Foxcatcher’ and ‘Whiplash’, each of which I love but wouldn’t quite be appropriate on this list, even though I saw them in January. Oh, and ‘Birdman’ is great too.

And of course I am neglectful for not seeing ‘Inside Out’, ‘Tangerine’ (not to mention that 'Star Wars' film) and a host of others that were essential watching. I'll spend this year catching up.

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