By Roderick Heath
Last year, I vowed I was going to spend much less time and energy keeping up with the films of 2015. So, of course, this year I saw over 100. Was it worth the time and effort? In the sense that I have an even broader perspective over the year than usual, yes. But I’ve still spent most of the last 12 months in a state of intense frustration, amidst a litany of films unable to sustain their best ideas and works whose worthiness seemed to be established entirely by the rhetorical force of the internet. This may, after a fashion, presage a vintage crop for next year, considering so many well-rated films from the major international film festivals are still limping their way towards distribution, like Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s Cannes champion. But this year I’ve seen 50 different styles in old hat passed off as genius novelty, and had the feeling many films have been snatched hold of by cinephiles and critics like lifebuoys, talked up in a state of mild desperation. I just haven’t been able to get with the program at all.
2015 has been a year for colossal hits and equally big misses at the box office, as the Hollywood worm has been munching on its own tail even more voraciously than usual. Deep into the 21st century, ’60s spy tales and their disreputable heroes, including James Bond, the Mission: Impossible team, the Men (and girl) from U.N.C.L.E., and their ethically dubious descendants the Kingsmen, joined superheroes who go back even further, along with a clutch of franchises that date back variously to the Carter, Reagan, and Bill Clinton eras. By comparison, the compulsory well-reviewed Pixar movie of the year, Ronnie Del Carmen and Pete Docter’s Inside Out, seemed like a fount of originality, even if you swore you saw the same idea used in an old episode of Muppet Babies or Punky Brewster. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey flew the flag for something resembling cinema intended for adults, but, of course, that film’s brand of S&M erotica was actually turgidly adolescent in its underpinnings. It’s not surprising that in a time of fervent, reawakening social protest and anger over proofs of the retarded and monstrous things still at loose in our time, a lot of films took on an edge, whether vaguely metaphorical or concretely activist, of revisionist and redefining intent, from recasting the Rocky franchise as a tale of African-American resurgence where once, however unintentionally, the franchise expressed working class white anger at black success, to casting an all-female version of Ghostbusters.
Part of me digs this sort of thing, but another part recoils at the self-congratulation some of these tweaks stoke, distracting us from the fact that instead of coming up with new myths for a new time, we’re just redrafting old, tired models with thin veneers of fashionability. Of course, any good postmodernist might say that’s all art does anyway. I also wonder if our attachment to such familiar templates, as well as being enforced by risk-averse corporations, is as much to do with the fact that, well, for whatever reason, we can’t come up with anything better. Some great new shock might have to come to the culture. In any event, these are all “official” themes. In the past I’ve had more fun trying to pick the connecting threads of interest in the year’s films that seem more happenstance or coincidental, revealing of the zeitgeist’s subterranean structures. Those sorts of connecting motifs have felt rather diffuse this year, though. Certainly survivalism seems an ever-popular preoccupation. The hugely ambitious The Revenant, the tensile chamber drama Backcountry, and the good old monster movie Into the Grizzly Maze all depicted gruesome bear attacks on heroes lost in and assailed by nature, perhaps giving symbolic teeth to the anxiety surrounding climate change. Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest had no bears, but it had the might of the world’s biggest mountain, conquerable most of the time but able to swat away pesky humans when a foul mood descends, Mad Max: Fury Road posited a futuristic wasteland beset by mechanical monstrosities and humanoid tyrannies, whilst The Martian looked both forward and right back to the founding survival tale—Robinson Crusoe—in contending with an alien world.
This “here there be dragons” motif stalked the cinema screen more consistently than any other. Films as diverse as Fury Road, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Tribe, Testament of Youth, Sicario, Suffragette, Faults, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jurassic World, Cymbeline, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Water Diviner, and The Assassin all depicted supposedly unshakeable institutions with all their safeguards and systems of security failing, releasing devils into the world, and described hapless protagonists amidst the furore, trying to keep hope in the box. Those lost characters, wandering through deserts, sometimes of their own making or imposed on them by fate or the machinations of others, also beg attention, a manifestation perhaps of the many talented and resolute people adrift in our time. This motif connects such apparently diametric figures as the loser antiheroes of Faults and The Mend and the scum-bucket tycoon of Welcome to New York, the battered frontiersmen of The Revenant, the blindsided FBI agent of Sicario, the increasingly politicised heroines of Suffragette and Testament of Youth. The titular killer of The Assassin and the renegade heroes of Blackhat and the wasteland riders of Fury Road, the bereft survivor of Backcountry, the outmatched individuals trying to become a lesbian couple of Carol. The junkies of Heaven Knows What and the hooker transsexuals of Tangerine, the stormtrooper-turned-righteous outcast in The Force Awakens, the banker who bets on the collapse of his nation’s economy and beholds his terrible success in The Big Short. The various actors in the tales of the Tale of Tales. The schoolgirl digging into her own collapsing identity in The Falling. Just about everyone in the versions of Detroit depicted in It Follows and Lost River.
Over in the more respectable climes of cinema, some of this year’s more ambitious works following the lead of last year’s Selma, including Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, Richard Laxton’s Effie Grey, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, Todd Haynes’ Carol, and James Kent’s Testament of Youth, in harking back to social and personal struggles with perplexed avatars of zeitgeists past, a good way of measuring achievement and failure in the current day, if also one that carries a certain cosy distance like a shield. Of these, Testament of Youth stuck with me most pleasurably, a temperate, fine-palette but quietly remorseless study in loss and positive political radicalisation. Apart from Velvet Goldmine, I’ve never warmed to Todd Haynes’ preciously arty style, and though I at least watched the whole of Carol, something I couldn’t manage with I’m Not There, nonetheless I found it a stiff, ponderous, stillborn approximation of Patricia Highsmith’s beloved lesbian romance: if you want to study repressed passion, it helps to actually have a sense of passion. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tried, with some verve and a good cast, to create an authentic contemporary hero myth via the career of rappers NWA who shook up the complacent pop culture of the mid-’80s. But the film, far from being as radical as the art it paid tribute to, soon fell victim to the castrating bent of both standard movie narrative and authorised biographical nicety. Adam McKay’s The Big Short took on the global financial crisis in an attempt to blend real-life drama with a waggish, Michael Moore-esque sense of panoramic satire, but finished up a mass of divergent impulses, with McKay’s annoying direction playing here to the rafters and there to the Oscar-bestowing tribunes, one part Funny or Die skit and one part Stanley Kramer aren’t-you-ashamed mallet. Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight took on a rather different subject, newspaper investigation into rape, cover-ups, and the abuse of power, with a similarly compulsive, procedural pursuit of a lurking menace. Whilst it overtly courted comparison to All the President’s Men (1976), Spotlight failed to bring anything like Alan Pakula’s cinematic power to the table or much nimbleness to its outlay of facts: sometimes the dialogue was more like reading a journalist’s notes than experiencing the journey of enquiry.
The old-is-new-again spirit of blockbusters was also powerfully apparent in the artier, capital-D dramas. Would-be serious filmmakers offered a parade of films harking back to the recent past and fondly fetishized model artworks, mostly from the heights of ’60s and ’70s moviemaking, including Spotlight, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, Yann Demange’s ’71, and Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection. Such films were all engrossing, well worth watching, solid and intelligent, but also couldn’t shake the feeling of careful ventriloquism and a certain dramatic inevitability. One thing that made the various cinematic New Waves so great lay in the determination of artists not to heed the past or be nailed down by safe aesthetics or received ideas. Such work did give way to genuinely strong and imaginative movies that drew on certain classic traditions but also offered real evolution. Films like the shaggy, Cassavetes-gone-hipster mood of John Magary’s The Mend, the disorienting power tussles of Riley Stearns’s Faults, the neo-beatnik brutalism of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, the screwball-goes-digicam mood of Andrew Bujalski’s Results, and the wobbly but ultimately enriching street-level tragicomedy of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, which was filmed on an iPhone, and managed to look better than many far, far more expensive films. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York was like seeing the ancestor of these films rearing up like one of Jurassic World’s genetically revived dinosaurs, roaring with anger and pain; if the film was too distended to count as one of Ferrara’s classics, it was still a blast of unremitting purpose and unflinching artistry.
By contrast, some humbly likeable movies about humbly likeable people flitted about the edges of the cinematic consciousness, offering some spells of relief from all the Op-Ed themes and epic posturings, like Chris Messina’s gentle, balladlike Alex of Venice, Helen Hunt’s likeably ditzy surfer time-out Ride, and Results, which followed Bujalski’s Computer Chess in looking into a niche world of people no one takes seriously with a wry, but definite sense of empathy. Noah Baumbach offered both one of the year’s most trying films, While We’re Young, and one of its slyer successes, Mistress America, both studies in the manners and morals of contemporary New York as an Eden of smug, filled with people coasting on the triumphs of other, braver generations and dens of culturati. The Mend, set in much the same pocket of humanity, was such an inspired mix of the fuzzily indulgent and the ruthlessly well observed that it almost obscured how its statement about modern day masculinity essentially came down to a choice between being a shiftless, recherché outcast or submitting to concealment in coupledom. Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno was an original take on classic varieties of mystery thriller and fish-out-of-water adventure tales, its only major flaw, like too many films this year, its inability to come up with an ending.
Rude critical and box office treatment doled out to some of this year’s films compelled me to take note, for instance, how the first half of Josh Trank’s infamous bomb Fantastic Four was actually well done and more ambitious than most superhero films will ever be, and how David Koepp’s Mortdecai, crucified well before it was even released, was terribly overdirected, but sported some entertaining shtick nonetheless, including a fun Terry-Thomas tribute from star Johnny Depp. Depp was partly saved from career doldrums subsequently by his role as the glum, hollow bad guy in the glum, hollow Black Mass. On the other hand, there was some real shit out there. Where once upon a time Luc Besson’s imprimatur was a reliable source of good, dumb action, this year his protégés offered up the excruciatingly bad Taken 3 and The Gunman. Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland seemed primed to be another successful flight of fancy for one of Disney’s golden boys, but proved instead a fragmented, preachy, rather witless amble through one of the least interesting fantasy worlds ever concocted. Susanne Bier’s Serena, a film that wanted to be a laudable throwback to muscular melodramas from the days of classic Hollywood, was instead one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen, sporting a miscast Jennifer Lawrence playing a nature child femme fatale (!) and such dialogue as, “I love you. I have your child inside of me,” and, “They have to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle!” Come back, Pia Zadora, all is forgiven.
Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, awkwardly dumped into release, was certainly an affected piece of Lynchian artiness, but it also offered up some of the most compelling images and textures in any movie released in 2015. By comparison, I found some of the more praised left-field items of the year, like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Carol Morley’s The Falling, to be films that could have embraced the strangeness and wildness their best moments teased, but which instead took refuge in obvious concepts and arch metaphors. I’d still watch these any time over anodyne quality flicks like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a pretty comedy-drama which also starred Lost River’s Saoirse Ronan, and The Danish Girl, which saw Eddie Redmayne misinterpreting his task in playing a pioneering transsexual as a quest to recreate the performances of divas past and win the Best Actress Oscar for 1932. Or something as bogus-gritty as Denis Villeneuve’s showy but empty drug war flick Sicario, and Justin Kurzel’s awful attempt to turn Macbeth into Games of Thrones. Macbeth was a particularly galling disaster, offering fine actors and some beautiful visual elements, but fumbling Shakespeare’s text embarrassingly and reducing its theme to a turgid parade of grandstanding violence.
Yann Demange’s ’71, set in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, was rather similar in focusing on a solitary man trying to survive in a cruel landscape: Demange’s you-are-there aesthetics were strong, but the storyline descended into a mere potboiler thriller. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, although vigorous, failed to truly explore a closed-off world, in this case, a school filled with deaf-mute students somewhere in the grimiest centres of Ukraine, with authentic interest in the specifics of its environment and the pains of its characters. Instead, it offered up a technically daring but gimmicky, X-rated St. Trinian’s film with a ham-fisted metaphor for the shambles of contemporary Eastern Europe. Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline was like a recipe the filmmaker hadn’t entirely perfected, and so, though far more interesting as screen Shakespeare than Macbeth, it also wasn’t half as successful as the same director’s Hamlet. Still, it was anchored by a fascinating high-wire performance by the year’s breakout star Dakota Johnson, who also gave Fifty Shades of Grey a flicker of charm and provided the one spark contradicting the dude-drama heaviosity of Black Mass. Almereyda quickly followed Cymbeline with Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, one of the best releases of the year. Everybody’s been raving about Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (I haven’t seen yet, and I certainly hope is a roaring comeback for Lee), but his immediate predecessor, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was a stilted remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess. Where Gunn recorded the intricacies of his intellectual moment in a way that seemed as much reportage as surrealism, Lee suggested how square and alienated his academic characters were by dressing them in Poindexter suits.
Michael Winterbottom, who like Lee has eased back from the previously frantic pace and protean urgency of his earlier work, offered The Face of an Angel, an experiment in narrative forms and postmodern flimflam based on the infamous Meredith Kercher murder case. The film was a mess, a pile of impulses and half-baked ideas, but it was just about the only film I saw this year actually about the zeitgeist rather than a symptom of it, describing the confused and tumultuous spiritual tenor of the moment manifest in its images of mass furore and private anguish, the simultaneously exciting and exhausting nature of it all. Winterbottom followed his protagonist in contemplating a criminal proceeding charged with intersectional issues and buzzwords, noting how the public event, which seems, thanks to media coverage, wide open to understanding, is in fact constantly redefined in terms of the baggage each of us brings to the table, a jumble which the creative mind meets with dizzy bemusement as it tries to organise an honest, organic response.
Similarly occupied with a wayfaring antihero in Italy, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring toyed amusingly with the canard of a young man who encounters a beautiful, possibly dangerous young woman in an exotic clime, quoting ’80s body horror films through the prism of sunny, ’50s-style romantic comedy. It was a fresher and more original genre twist than the year’s wildly praised horror film, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, though Mitchell attempted with real purpose and some art to mate John Carpenter-esque menace with his own dreamy surveys of coming-of-age troubles. Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended took on a similar idea—a group of teens tormented by a supernatural entity—with much less refinement, but perhaps with more punch and relevance. Meanwhile David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect stood up for good old fashioned dumb-dumb schlock, and Jack Heller’s Dark Was the Night was a gripping, if slightly verbose, monster-on-the-loose thriller. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a curious byproduct of its creator’s imagination, alternately original and referential, gorgeously moody and excessively declarative: if the whole work had been as good as its first and last half-hours, it would have been a major classic. John McNaughton’s The Harvest, rescued from a distributor’s shelf, proved a throwback to a brand of modest, low-budget, high-tension thriller that used to bob up a lot in the ’80s, plus Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon playing memorably batty parents—imagine being their child! Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 had incredible plusses going for it, including a terrific cast, meaty story based in fact, hefty production values. But it finished up choking on its own cornucopia, transposing the Chikatilo murder case to the Stalinist era for the sake of more self-important irony and drama, and then failing to decide just what kind of cliché thriller it wanted to be. Joe Lynch’s Everly knew exactly what it wanted to be—a nasty, gleefully disgraceful entertainment—and it delivered even as it went too far over the top. Everly did, at least, give Salma Hayek the rampaging revenger role I never knew I wanted, and it made Mad Max: Fury Road’s stilted action feminism look like so much hot air.
History may remember, or choose to forget, 2015 as the year of titanic reboots. It’s like when I was a kid again, and finally, that’s lost its charm. The biggest hit of the year, Jurassic World, was heir to one of the more comparatively youthful franchises, only harking back to 1992. Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens comprised the year’s big three in this field, with the surprising Creed giving chase and poor old Terminator: Genisys limping somewhere in there, too. Genisys actually had a certain charm, with its ramshackle plot and cheeky structure that turned the logarithmic variances of rebootology into its very own structure, and felt like the biggest budget Cannon Films production ever. Everyone but I liked Fury Road, so we’ll move on past that (but get real, folks, it was a two-hour dodge ’em car ride shot like a ’90s music video you all would’ve whizzed on if a less storied director had made it). The Force Awakens bravely told a story already told long ago in a franchise far, far away. Although in many ways an honourable attempt to reconstitute the hallowed epic series created by George Lucas with some excellent newcomer heroes and technical qualities, it was finally a flatly professional exercise, an overt tribute to beloved superficialities determined to give fans of a certain age a long, slow hand job. Frankly, Jurassic World was my favourite of these, cheesy as its bioweapon subplot was, because it was the only one that made anything like proper use of the movie stars at its disposal, and it was properly constructed, building up to its monster bash finale with a sense of showmanship and gleeful crescendo. Also, in spite of the often excruciating “debate” over its leading lady’s footwear, Jurassic World actually offered in Claire Dearing one of the year’s most endearing heroines, a gender-flipped version of Spielberg’s classic hapless Everyman who rose to the challenge of erupting chaos. Her release of the T-Rex upon the evil genetic chimera is still the most properly thrilling big movie moment of 2015.
James Bond poked his head up again for another dance with the devil in Spectre, a film that disappointed many and was undoubtedly riddled with problems. But I still liked it more than the last two entries in Daniel Craig’s tenure as the superspy, as it sought to combine several rather antagonistic stylistic impulses that have defined the series over its half-century of life. Creed was good fun, but it had a tendency to presume too quickly that its new characters had earned a place in the heart, dutifully sending Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky through a lazily handled bout with cancer for the sake of pathos and to distract us from the fact that young tyro Adonis “Donnie” Creed was a bland, unconvincing inheritor whose daddy issues remained entirely abstract. Also, Coogler, whose filmmaking was so impressive throughout much of the film, fumbled the final fight by turning it into a long montage. By comparison, Antoine Fuqua’s much lumpier, less cool Southpaw remembered to bring the blaring baseline melodrama a boxing flick needs and paid off with much more kick. Marvel continued sucking in money like a black hole at the centre of the movie galaxy, but with decreased gravitational force. Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to bundle together the increasingly unwieldy sprawl of the superhero genre, and even nerd overlord Joss Whedon couldn’t cope with trying to meet the conflicting demands placed upon him: the result was both a gaudy good time but also somehow a quiet disappointment, overstuffed and lacking a focal point. The potential of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man to form an islet of true cleverness and conceptual élan in this genre was undoubtedly foiled by losing Edgar Wright as helmsman, but it proved far fleeter and less exhausting than Age of Ultron, a throwback to the uncomplicated days of the first Iron Man.
Meanwhile, some more contemporary franchises did fly their flags. Furious 7 proved a perfectly fine and fun action flick even if it wasn’t quite as rockin’ as everyone hoped, running out of steam barely halfway through. Plenty of noble man tears were nonetheless shed as it waved Paul Walker away into digital heaven, and that’s what mattered. Dwayne Johnson sometimes seemed like the epicentre of pop movies this year, also appearing in San Andreas, a big, clanging disaster movie, but his presence there felt like a cheat; as warm and welcome a screen presence as he usually is, the genre demands ordinary people as its heroes, not giant musclemen. The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2 brought a once-promising series to an end so flat and dutiful that even when lots of people paid to see it, barely anyone could remember it a week later. Donald Sutherland’s invaluably virulent President Snow did manage just briefly to jolt the whole tepid affair to life, at least. Meanwhile, Insurgent, the continuation of the second-string YA dystopia Divergent series, was considerably more fun, better paced and visualised. Kingsman: The Secret Service saw Matthew Vaughn revisiting Mark Millar’s rabble-rousing fare, presenting a bratty send-up cum tribute to old-school James Bond blended with deliberately outré humour: the result was slicker and more consistent than Vaughn and Millar’s Kick Ass, but didn’t match that film as a truly pungent, lawless-feeling take on its chosen genre lampoon as it laboured through a midsection taken up by a surprisingly straitlaced take on the usual learn-to-be-a-super-warrior story. Christopher McQuarrie, who proved his action-thriller chops with Jack Reacher, reteamed with Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and many were eager to hail the resurgence of Cruise as the Last Movie Star. But McQuarrie didn’t bring anything new to this most dispensable of movie series, making the fatal mistake of opening with the best stunt before proceeding through a parade of flashy, competent action scenes. Kenneth Branagh brought customary epic lustre and a sense of cavalier flash to Disney’s agreeable, if deliberately unimaginative Cinderella. Some people even tried to come up with something vaguely original, but sadly, the Wachowskis failed badly with their second attempt to match Star Wars, the well-made but weirdly listless and jumbling Jupiter Ascending.
The best entries in fantastical cinema I saw this year weren’t from Hollywood. Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast was, in spite of its obvious intention of beating a lot of Hollywood CGI wonders at their own game in a manner likely to turn off Gallic fetishists, the year’s single most delicious piece of eye candy, and a smart mythopoeic amplification of the familiar story. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales was a deeply strange and original take on classic Italian fairy tales, one that located real beauty and ugliness, pathos and terror in them in a way that evoked an imagined past’s alien textures. Tales of Tales, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria were all major Euro-auteurs who made films in English for the sake of convenience. Youth was one of the most wounding disappointments of the year, wasting a marvellous cast and Sorrentino’s talents on a slight and hackneyed exploration of artistic life. Assayas succeeded in every regard Sorrentino failed in, even if his method was passing arch, and with the irony that a French film found more power in the English language being used than just about any other movie lately. Peter Strickland, an English director at home amidst the rarefied textures of the continental film, offered The Duke of Burgundy, a darkly funny, mockingly sensuous trip through the intricacies of adult relationships via tropes harvested from a certain brand of disreputable cinema. I found some of it entrancing and some of it a mere repetition of Berberian Sound Studio’s wilful obscurantism, as if Strickland was marking time instead of looking for new, genuinely inventive games to play.
Poor distribution has really been a hindrance for non-English-language cinema lately. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix broke through this laggard scene to provide a real art house hit, providing an odd, occasionally wicked blend of Holocaust survivor drama and Hitchcockian identity thriller, though I found it didn’t add up to all that much in the long run, at least until that marvellous final scene. La French, aka The Connection, borrowed the finery of a certain brand of ballsy thriller from the glory days of such films, and it was a concoction that went down like a shot of a cheap whiskey blend—not refined or exceptional, but it hit the spot. At the opposite end of the filmmaking world, action master Tsui Hark tackled a story based in Maoist propaganda and Chinese opera and turned it into a high-flying action yarn for The Taking of Tiger Mountain: the result was gorgeous-looking but, by Tsui’s standards, curiously lacking depth and real inspiration, with the misjudged, gimmicky double finale only highlighting this. Meanwhile, in South Korea, Han-min Kim’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the biggest hit in the country’s history, was a blustery but full-blooded account of great national moment of trial, with a truly terrific battle finale. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin took on the same brand of historical swashbuckling and emerged as one of the year’s singular achievements, but also one of the most eccentric, an anti-action film that disassembled the familiar figure of the avenging angel. Australian cinema this year was dominated by Mad Max’s return, but there were some movies that crawled out of the rubble, including the young audience-oriented Paper Planes. The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s debut film, released at the end of 2014 here but exported this year, proved a lumbering mixture of disparate genre formulas mated to moral and patriotic soul-searching. Kim Farrant’s Strangerland was a good-looking mystery film that sadly seemed like a greatest hits record compiled with ideas from better Aussie films.
And what of comedy? Paul Feig’s Spy was well reviewed and a hit, but I found it as funny as a mouthful of turds, a mass of incompetently shot pseudo-lampooning that offered only the spectacle of “edgy” modern comedy grazing rock bottom. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was like watching the indie film tradition slowly bleed out with its too-cute claymation interludes and desperate desire to be the next Juno/Napoleon Dynamite/Perks of Being a Wallflower/whatever. All the hipsters went nuts for the Kiwi vampire housemate comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but lines of dialogue like “Werewolves, not swear-wolves” left me unmoved as the film kept contradicting its own basic tenets. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, on the other hand, was such an old-fashioned brand of star vehicle and low-key character comedy that its bewildered audience reception wasn’t so surprising. Crowe, not normally a filmmaker I like much, offered a new-age variant on John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef complete with Ford’s gift for coaxing fine details from his actors: even if the nominal plot was excessively silly and the resolution far less engaging than the set-up, it still felt like an oasis of genuine cheer. Results similarly channelled the mood of a bygone brand of romantic comedy but with the antsy insecurity of modernity stitched into the seams, diagnosing in fitness fanatic types what Evelyn Waugh called the kind of neurosis that gets mistaken for energy. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck was an admirably filthy take on the romantic comedy that showcased Amy Schumer well. Although the film was ridiculously overlong, the dance finale managed to slot Schumer into the most gallant tradition of screwball comediennes.
Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk was another of the year’s heavy bombs in spite of its urgent desire to please. This was a real pity, as it was Zemeckis’ most digestible film in a while, somewhat arduous in the set-up but transfixing when the moment of truth came, and harking back to his earlier work in its gallivanting, slightly asocial protagonist who wants to tread the finest line of the sublime and thumb his nose at the earth and its more stolid inhabitants. Magic Mike XXL and Pitch Perfect 2 became interchangeable in my mind in spite of their asymmetric demographics, both being ramshackle, knowingly superfluous sequels about putting on a good show for its own sake. Focus, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s lush tribute to a bygone brand of elegant romantic drama built around criminal activities, had a script that sadly played its best hands far too early, but it looked good all the way down and got the best out of stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. That perennial Oscar cash crop, the biopic, hasn’t had nearly as much traction this year as usual, perhaps because of the domination by ensemble dramas about headline events. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was reminiscent of the eponymous antihero’s Macintosh, a bright, shiny, efficient object of technical art the mass market had no interest in. But it came armed with a terrific cast working at fever pitch, Boyle’s direction effectively restrained for once, and Aaron Sorkin’s script, although no less inclined to remake everyone in sight in his own image, was punchy and found theatrical integrity in its overtly artificial structure. Bill Petzold’s Love & Mercy was an entirely acceptable, good-natured biopic recounting Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life, sometimes wielding a genuinely clever sense of how to use sound and image independently, albeit whilst reducing its tall and tortured subject into a damaged pixie genius for easy consumption.
Of course, even in the midst of movies that don’t hold up, there can be scenes and images that linger in the mind, and in a year filled with so many not-quites, there’s a lot of such moments. The ebullient hip-hop variation on the compulsory training scene in Creed, where our young hero rants like a bard as motorcycle knights form his honour guard. The extended accidental house-party-cum-group hate-in in Mistress America and the Greenwich Village poseur gathering in The Mend. The attack of crippling, but also transformative dysmorphia that sweeps upon the protagonist of The Danish Girl, giving a flicker of momentary intensity to the hero’s need for transformation. James Bond beholding his new lady love swathed in silk in elegant surrounds in Spectre, and his opening adventure that transmutes 50 years of series lore into a perfect 10 minutes. The kinetic waltz that tears the heroine of Crimson Peak out of her solicitous solitude and the final chase, also dancelike, that sees her fighting for her life, painted in tones of snow white and blood red. The disquieting dream sequences that signal monstrous and bizarre things claiming the soul of the wretched antihero of Faults. The beach sequence in It Follows, gaining eruptive tension not from hiding the menace, but watching it with dispassion. The spectacles of action and detachment dotted through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The awe-tinged climax of The Walk. The too self-consciously weird, but effectively creepy dance at the heart of Ex Machina.
Will Smith’s conman starting into a seemingly mad game of ante-up with B.D. Wong’s grinning gambling tycoon in Focus, essayed in a sprawl of fragmented and diffused images and jolting music cues that obscure the mechanics of deception at work. The brilliantly shot accident sequences with their ridiculous, but intricately observed processes of cause and effect bookending Age of Adaline. The gruellingly realistic bear attack sequence that gave Backcountry its moment of awful reckoning. The wittily staged microcosmic action finale of Ant-Man, complete with miniature tribute to 2001 that outdid the whole of Interstellar. The rip-roaring, one-shot, church massacre sequence in Kingsmen and the balletic aerial battle of hero and villainess. Tom Cruise dangling off the side of a plane at the very start of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The pummelling storm sequence in Everest and the astonishingly casual fate of John Hawkes’ gutsy, but outmatched ordinary man. The outbreaks of order-cracking deliria that punctuate The Falling. The hilarious interview with the industrious designer of S&M furnishings in The Duke of Burgundy. The nonverbal communication espoused by the two alpha males in Aloha. The depictions of recording Pet Sounds in Love & Mercy.
The song recital that gave Phoenix its climax and moment of ultimate revelation. President Snow laughing his guts out at the aptly nasty final spectacle of death that capped The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2. The ride of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, heroic flying knights skimming across the waters bringing retribution for the blitzed. Ultron singing his weird, mad song likening himself to a puppet freed from strings as titans and gods fight to undo his unleashed chaos. In Welcome to New York, Gerard Depardieu’s monstrous banker roaming like some soon-to-be-extinct Apatosaurus in New York’s dawn light, flanked by temples of glass and steel whilst meditating on the tragedy of his own lost hope. Shu Qi’s eponymous gentle killer in The Assassin, hovering amidst the shadows and gauzy drapes of the palace like some hazily remembered ghost of reckoning, listening in to the tragedy of her own life. The unblinking abortion sequence and silent final murder rampage in The Tribe. Alicia Vikander’s boozy, liberated heroine dancing behind Armie Hammer’s smouldering, gelded Soviet superman in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The assailed squaddie protagonist of ’71 carrying the young victim of a terrorist bombing out of the inferno. Saoirse Ronan enthroned as queen of the underworld by Matt Smith’s feudal lord of the wasteland, and Christina Hendricks slicing off her own “face” in the Grand Guignol theatre, in Lost River…
Performances of Note
Jacqueline Bisset, Welcome to New York
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak; The Martian
Viola Davis, Blackhat
Gerard Depardieu, Welcome to New York
Harrison Ford, Age of Adaline; Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Donald Glover, Magic Mike XXL; The Martian
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies
Christina Hendricks, Lost River
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World
Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Dakota Johnson, Black Mass; Cymbeline; Fifty Shades of Grey
Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Rachel MacAdams, Aloha; Spotlight
Ben Mendelsohn, Lost River; Mississippi Grind
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Leland Orser, Faults
Shu Qi, The Assassin
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Testament of Youth
Maisie Williams, The Falling
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alex From Venice; Faults
B.D. Wong, Focus
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Ensemble: The Mend
Ensemble: Steve Jobs
Best of 2015
The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
A dense, elusive, bewitching work from a real master, The Assassin, along with Michael Mann’s Blackhat, took on the well-worn idea of the rogue deliverer of justice in a corrupt world. Where Mann’s film was a myth of the hypermodern, Hou’s is a dream of the past, a whispery, folkloric exploration of a usually high-powered genre, turning the familiar marital arts drama inside out whilst staying true to some of its deeper cultural and spiritual underpinnings, every shot reverberating with implicit mystery, longing, and melancholy as well as impossible beauty. Shu Qi provided a near-silent centre of gravity with unerring poise.
Blackhat (Michael Mann)
One of the year’s heaviest flops and a divisive experience for those who did see it, Michael Mann’s Blackhat was perhaps the surest litmus test to differentiate between auteurists and everyone else since De Palma’s Mission to Mars, encompassing as it did the full pantheon of Mann’s ideas, obsessions, and stylistic quirks. At once a dashing piece of genre storytelling and a genuinely original, boundary-pushing piece of cinema, Mann’s first film in six years took on technological concepts that are notoriously tricky to film and turned them into raw cinema, whilst diagnosing the present day’s insidious psychic dichotomy, split between technological wonder and a reversion to almost primal causes and concomitant violence, with the kind of cool that burns.
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Nobody would have minded much if Steven Spielberg had relaxed a little with the follow-up to his magnum opus Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies might have been just a grace note, another civics class account of righteous causes and plucky dealmakers with macro-historical interest. But Bridge of Spies built to its finale with admirable narrative cool that concealed a sneaky emotional punch, and provided, like Blackhat, a summary for its director’s career that also clears the way for new material. The familiar ordinary man at the heart of Spielberg’s early work strove through a narrative that moved in stages through his ’80s retro adventures, ’90s conscience dramas, and ’00s moral quagmire studies. Uniformly excellent performances helped.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas’ antidrama took on the familiar conceit of art vs. life, applied a stringent cinematic and conceptual rigour to it, and came up with a work that was at once deliberately frustrating, even alienating, and yet somehow profoundly enjoyable to experience. Not all of Assayas’ twists and trials felt necessary, but as long as he was arming leading ladies Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz with words to wrap wicked tongues about, it was riveting. It was also, in spite of its emphasis on the verbal and theatrical, a work of exquisite visual poise and economy.
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)
In a year filled with rickety prestige films trying at once to be strong-arming dramas and meaningful statements on Big Issues, Experimenter proceeded with the same analytical, essayistic dispassion, mixed with a misdirecting technique, of its central character. Director Michael Almereyda stripped out everything that smacked of melodrama, whilst retaining a spry sense of humour and an absurdist visual style that might have been offering symbolism or just trolling us. Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Experimenter was a work that prods the audience to think rather than smother them in screenwriting contrivances.
The Martian (Ridley Scott)
In some ways a comedown in ambition from Ridley Scott’s recent films but all the more fluent for it, The Martian was an almost defiantly relaxed, sublimely confident exercise in crowd-pleasing, with a dose of big-heartedness and respect for intelligence that made it feel distinct amongst recent big-budget films. But under the new-agey take on heroic themes and pseudo-satiric waggishness was an old-fashioned sense of cinematic virtue, eyeing both grand vistas and the quirky nobility of its humans in both solitude and solidarity with a clear sense of their entwining: truly, a grain of sand doesn’t stir on Mars without eyes to see it.
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)
A movie I can imagine delighting or disturbing viewers in roughly equal numbers with its triptych of perverse, funny, often bloody, occasionally harrowing mythical stories harvested from a collection published in the 1500s, Tales of Tales was a fervently weird and original work that had much in common with a near-forgotten strand of European fantasy cinema that sometimes poked its head up during the ’60s and ’70s. Although made in English with an international cast, Tale of Tales retained an atmosphere rooted in the arcane, ornate Italianism at the heart of Garrone’s source material. But it also realised the essential timelessness and symbolic force at the heart of such stories, with their acerbic metaphorical attacks on power, class, family, desire, the hunger for beauty, youth, and riches, as well as other ills that still define our collective neurosis.
Would Have Been On Best-Of List If I Had Seen It In Time
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans)
Faults (Riley Stearns)
Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie)
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
The Mend (John Magary)
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Testament of Youth (James Kent)
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifron)
The Worthy & The Underrated
The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Han-min Kim)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Joy (David O. Russell)
Man From Reno (Dave Boyle)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Pan (Joe Wright)
Spectre (Sam Mendes)
Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)
The Underwhelming & The Overrated
Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
Concussion (Peter Landesman)
The Gunman (Pierre Morel)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
Spy (Paul Feig)
Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton)
45 Years / Beasts of No Nation / Chi-Raq / Diary of a Teenage Girl / The Dressmaker / Eden / The End of the Tour / Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem / Mustang / Room / Son of Saul / Tu Dors Nicole
Vintage: Best First-Time Movie Classic Viewings of 2015
Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
The Big Boss / Fist of Fury (Lo Wei)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)
Caravaggio (Derek Jarman)
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Sergio Martino)
The Creation of the Humanoids (Wesley Barry)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
Deadline USA (Richard Brooks)
Dillinger (John Milius)
The Driver (Walter Hill)
Eugenia (Jesus Franco)
Eyes of Fire (Avery Crounse)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger)
Fear City (Abel Ferrara)
Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn)
Gold (Peter Hunt)
Green Snake / The Blade (Tsui Hark)
Hangover Square (John Brahm)
Krylya (Larisa Shepitko)
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg)
Les Amants / Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle)
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci)
Mamma Roma / The Gospel According to St. Matthew / Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
The Man on the Roof (Bo Widerberg)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Psych-Out (Richard Rush)
Riot in Cell Block 11 / Charley Varrick (Don Siegel)
The Samurai Trilogy / The Birth of Japan (Hiroshi Inagaki)
San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend)
Scandal (Akira Kurosawa)
Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu)
Shack Out on 101 (Edward Dein)
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Story of G.I. Joe (William A. Wellman)
The Wild Angels (Roger Corman)
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber)