In the wreckage left by any Best Of list there can always be seen the twinkling of gems that, for one reason or another, just didn't shine as brightly as those that made the ascent to Top 30 (etc.) Here are some of those minor or imperfect but notable films that hit UK cinemas in 2015, as well as my favourites from the last Oscar race, here referred to as the Awards Season Hangovers.
52 Tuesdays (Australia, dir. Sophie Hyde)
As an aspiring filmmaker with a taste for focussed timeframes (such as 45 Years' six-day period or Taxi Tehran's single afternoon) I must doff my hat to Sophie Hyde's first feature, which is not only set every Tuesday over the course of a year, was shot every Tuesday over the course of a year. Hyde's background in documentary filmmaking appears in her shrewd use of news clips to introduce each new day and in her gently observational style, charting the relationship between an Australian high school student and her mother as her mother undergoes hormone therapy and breast removal to reconfigure her body to her correct gender. The script's frank exploration of sex and sexuality through the school girl's own clandestine creative projects provides a fascinating contrast to the open, matter-of-fact transformation of her mother. It is also worth noting that in 16-year-old Tilda Cobham-Hervey there is captivating talent to behold - certainly one in need of greater exposure and a shot at becoming a bona fide star.
Aaaaaaaah! (UK, dir. Steve Oram)
The best-titled film of the year is a gruesome trip into the sludge of the alpha-male psyche from British comedian (and sinister ginger nut-job) Steve Oram. Set in a grim alternate universe, not dramatically different from our own modern-day British dystopia, the cast communicates entirely in guttural grunts and monkey noises and the males of society are clearly divided along the lines of Alpha and Beta. Despite the violent dysfunction in society there are still jobs to be had (such as a washing machine repairman) and family harmony to be enjoyed. Possibly by design, Aaaaaaaah! already feels like some rare, shit-smeared gem that might once have popped up on late night telly as a result of a surplus in Channel 4's budget. It's the kind of film we should ask for more often: one that proves how high-quality (dare I say, traditional) storytelling can engage us in spite of the most bizarre and outrageous subject matter (such as male genital mutilation and Toyah Wilcox shitting on her kitchen floor).
Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Diao Yinan)
In the frozen wastes of China's coal mining region, dismembered body parts start to appear at various locations along the freight train lines that carry the region's economic life-blood to its destination and Liao Fan's washed up copper reopens the investigation that he and his superiors had thought to be solved before he was quietly retired from the force. Diao Yinan's gritty gumshoe yarn is a procedural of simple pleasures that succeeds on the flair of its director and world-weary cast as all concerned kindly poke fun at the day-to-day humour and pathos of Chinese life. Liao Fan is a particularly lugubrious protagonist, like Chinese hybrid of Matt Scudder and Jeffrey Lebowski, and writer-director Yinan exemplifies the poise and restraint beloved of China's finest filmmakers in the gradual culmination of the film's romantic undercurrent (a skill which, no doubt, made the case for Black Coal, Thin Ice to win the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival).
Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Eden begins in the cool dawn of one morning in 1992 and ends in 2012. In that time we ride along with Paul, a feckless lad with a sweet smile, who finds himself seduced by garage music as a teenager and decides to become a DJ. By covering such an epic timescale without feeling any compulsion to visibly age the characters as years go by, director Mia Hansen-Løve (whose brother and co-screenwriter, Sven, lived through the salad days of garage music on much the same trajectory as Paul) conveys what some might call “misspent youth” with a casual elegance reminiscent of Richard Linklater and without the need to shoehorn-in any more plot than one might find in the haphazard tumbling of the dice in real life. Eden observes a similar struggle to decide on one's true calling as in Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, only with added teeth as it becomes abundantly clear that Eden’s latter half could easily be reappropriated and recut to make a Public Service video that might warn people against trying to earn a living in the music industry.
Faults (USA, dir. Riley Stearns)
Leland Orser is my favourite gibbering wreck. As a character actor he has repeatedly found himself cast in roles requiring a state of constant panic (often resulting in a gruesome death). How appropriate that he has finally been given an entire film in which to put the willies up himself! Written and directed by first-timer Riley Stearns, Faults played to great acclaim at a handful of film festivals in 2014 but was released directly to Video On Demand this year, meaning I couldn’t include it on my main list, but feel duty-bound to mention it here. Faults is a genuine treat for fans of compact, twisted, character-driven mysteries. Orser takes the lead as a shamed travelling expert on cults and how cult leaders manipulate their subjects’ minds. When a couple approach him to help them get back their daughter, he suggests reprogramming, whereby he has her kidnapped, brings her to a motel room and spends a week breaking down and re-configuring her personality. But on the strength of the tense, pathetic, hilarious opening scene alone, it is already obvious that the reprogramming is unlikely to run to plan. Deliciously twisty and tense from start-to-finish, Faults sings with the strength of its cast. Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserve showers of accolades for their work here and the supporting cast exude the same creepy homeliness and/or bizarre menace of the creeps and weirdos one might expect to find in a 90s-era Coen Brothers’ film.
Jauja (Argentina/Denmark/France/Netherlands/USA, dir. Lisandro Alonso)
Brutal and etherial in equal measure, this Danish-Argentinian traumnovella is the kind of hypnotic phantasm of a narrative that demands repeated viewings and a certain amount of personal introspection to divine its obscure, heavily conceptual ideas about masculinity and death. In the late 19th Century, a Danish army captian and his daughter are travelling through the surreal landscape of Patagonia, accompanied by some particularly rough Argentine conscripts. When the Captain’s daughter runs off with a handsome young soldier, he sets out alone on an odyssey to rescue her and her lover form the chaos that is engulfing the region, only to encounter dreams and spirits out of time that feel far more native and at home in this land than any notion of humanity. The choice of an arcane aspect ratio and cinematography that mixes natural and artificial light by day and by night gives the illusion of the film having been discovered in some time capsule found at the ends of the Earth. Jauja is an especially haunting film and boasts another first-rate performance from Viggo Mortensen (performing in Danish) and cements him as one of the most compelling screen actors of his generation.
Marshland (Spain, dir. Alberto Rodríguez)
In the 1980s, when two detectives from Madrid arrive to investigate the disappearance of two teenaged girls in Spain's Guadalquivir marshes, the brutal history of the Franco regime returns to haunt the police work of the present. Rising Spanish filmmaker Alberto Rodríguez keeps his tight narrative focussed and simmering with atmospheric tension that lays out each moment, each feeling, as if it were a piece of evidence in an investigation into who the two ideologically opposed detectives really are. The striking bird's-eye-view imagery of Guadalquivir makes for an appropriate companion piece to Denis Villenuve's equally bleak Sicario, another film in which high arial shots hammer home the daunting challenge our heroes face in fathoming their place in the plots and schemes they are trying to negotiate in order to prevent further violence.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (USA, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
As the Mission: Impossible series gained punctuation marks with - Ghost Protocol, so too did it rediscover its mojo, which bursts forth with an abundance of style in the best M:I film to date. What is astonishing, and likely the key to the film's success, is the way that the its female counterpart to Ethan Hunt, played by Brit Rebecca Ferguson, is allowed to kick ass on an equal footing with the top billed hero. To pair Cruise with a heroine that could just as easily take him in a fight as seduce him is exactly the breath of fresh air that the spy genre has been gasping for over the past two decades. The usual M:I gang are all present and correct and have by now settled into a far easier, more enjoyable groove than it seems the reborn MI6 crew of James Bond, Moneypenny, Q and M are ever likely to manage in the contemporary Bond series. Unlike Ghost Protocol, this entry also benefits from a menacing and memorable villain in Sean Harris, who was bound to pop up as a villain in an American blockbuster sooner or later - it was just a question of where and when.
The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
It’s rare that a film builds to and delivers a genuine shock - think about the last time you physically sat up with surprise of raised your eyebrows involuntarily because the storytelling skill on display in both the script and the cutting room. As a stylish provocateur and psychologically complex filmmaker François Ozon frequently inhabits Hitchcockian territory but nowhere more so than Une Nouvelle Amie, which is not, in fact, a twisty thriller but a luscious melodrama about the peculiar relationship that blooms between Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and her best friend’s husband Daniel (Romain Duris), who she sentimentally promises to look out for when her best friend, Daniel's wife, suddenly dies. To describe much more would not be to spoil the plot but rather to deny viewers the kinky pleasures of discovering the layers that lie beneath Ozon’s fascinating romance of ambiguous sexuality. Watching each new scene unfold is like tearing away another layer of wrapping paper in a queer game of pass-the-parcel and the result is a high-calorie delight, perfect as a first taste for viewers not yet initiated into the rich psychological world of Monsieur Ozon.
Que Horas Ela Volta? (Brazil, dir. Anna Muylaert)
Brazilian grande dame Regina Casé is Val, the housekeeper to a wealthy intellectual family in São Paolo. When her daughter arrives to the city to begin her studies, the girl's disregard for the boundaries of the master-servant relationship in the house shreds the veil cast over years of selfishness and neglect within the household. Muylaert and her cast use their universal wit and keen observational eyes to craft a genuinely heartwarming, non manipulative satire of Brazil's modern-day bourgeoisie. It's worth noting that the UK/US release was titled The Second Mother, a rather misleading title, far less descriptive of the story than a translation of the (admittedly clunky) original title, What time is she coming back? The Brazilian title emphasises the importance of the relationship between Val and her daughter and the impact of the headstrong girl's mischief on the family that is hosting her out of reluctant obligation to Val, a second class citizen that has served them faithfully in raising their son, when she could have been in her home town with her own child.
The Voices (USA/Germany, dir. Marjane Satrapi)
Continuing an eclectic filmmaking career, that began with 2007’s highly regarded animation Persepolis, Iranian-French filmmaker Marjane Satrapi here continues in the fine tradition of Eurasian filmmakers travelling West to poison the punch at the all-American family barbecue. In a glorious (completely left-field) throwback to the kind of violent, quirky black comedies that seemed to multiply like rabbits on the shelves of video stores in the 1990s, The Voices is the story of a handsome, obviously harmless (wink, wink) young man working in a town in the middle of Nowhere, West Virginia, after serving an undetermined period of time in jail. When a date with a beautiful English colleague takes a turn for the macabre, Ryan Reynolds’ troubled young man must fight to save his sanity, caught as he is between the unconditional love of his talking dog and the murderous suggestions of his evil cat. Bright, bouncy and really, really fucking nasty, Satrapi’s film manages to tango back and forth across the line of good taste and somehow endear us to its essential humanity, in spite of our better judgement. Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick are so perfectly cast that it’s difficult not to grin from ear to ear in every scene, even when Arterton's severed head is complaining that she’s getting lonely because there’s no one else to talk to in the refrigerator.
The Wonders (Italy/Switzerland/Germany, dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Charting one season on the ramshackle farm of a family of beekeepers in Tuscany, writer-director Alice Rohrwacher's poignant slice-of-life drama is captivating from its opening frame and elevated by putting the excellent performances of its child cast in the foreground. The imagery takes a turn for something magical and evocative when 14-year-old (going on 40) Gelsomina signs the family up for a spot on a TV show celebrating Etruscan tradition and crosses paths with Monica Bellucci's angelic TV personality. Add to this the textural cinematography of Hélène Louvart and a rough, commanding performance from outstanding Belgian thesp Sam Louwyck and the result is sweetness with a sting.
AWARDS SEASON HANGOVERS
My criteria for the films on my Top 30 list is simple enough: the film must be longer than 60 minutes and it must have had its first non-festival release (no matter how limited) in UK cinemas in 2015. But the changing of the calendar is an awkward time because of the qualifying runs that some films make for the Oscar ballots. In December each year a handful of Oscar hopefuls will run for a few days at one or two theatres in LA. If they're successful in their nominations, they'll immediately enter into the conversation and many critics in the US will take the opportunity to include the best of these on their own end-of-year Best Of list, though most of us won't have a chance to see them until the next calendar year.
To make my Top 30 picks for 2015 that much easier to choose and create some semblance of timeliness, I've relegated my favourite English language films from the 87th Oscar race to my Awards Season Hangovers pile. Each of these films was released in the UK in January 2015 and all were debated heavily in the conversation around the last Oscar race.
Inherent Vice (USA, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Well…. shit…. how the hell does one write about this film? The old “eat the elephant in little bites” approach was what got my brain so damn fuzzy in the first place and now it’s hard to know who to blame for the colossal bastard that’s kicking from behind my eyes in the miasmic haze left by so many burst blood vessels and fried brain cells spent on the wilfully impenetrable plot of this film. Joaquin Phoenix plays hippy gumshoe Doc Sportello in PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s notoriously non-sensical novel, set in the fictitious LA suburb of Gordita Beach. Anderson assembles an impressive cast, ranging from welcome dramatic performers with a talent for comedy (Josh Brolin) to peculiar choices that somehow manage to soar on their freak-appeal alone (Martin Short). Doc Sportello falls into a typical film noir missing persons case at the request of a carefree flower child, rather than an immaculate femme fatale, and immediately loses his footing in an LA land conspiracy that’s actually hiding a drug smuggling wotsit, wrapped up in CIA informants infiltrating hippie cults. Or something along those lines. PT Anderson attacks Pynchon’s source material with bravery and aplomb - setting out to create a film that embodies the hazy comedown of the 1970s, when the increasingly corporate environment of Los Angeles became as good a staging ground as any for idealistic right wingers to lay the foundations for Reaganism and wash away the long-haired bastards that had made the tail end of the last decade their own. Far from being elegiac, Anderson’s film throbs with a certain kind of sexy rhythm that bursts through to the surface in unexpected ways, like a stage performer swapping masks in the blink on an eye. Inherent Vice is only consistent in being a farce, but whether it is a light send-up of the crime genre or a brutal satire of masculine inadequacy during the sexual revolution depends on which scene you’re going with (and in all cases, the best option seems to be just go with it). Only nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards, Inherent Vice seemed to be the underdog that everyone claimed to have invited to the party but didn’t actually want to hang out with once they got there. Anderson has never been a particularly Hollywood-friendly filmmaker, despite his love of Los Angeles, melodrama and prior Oscar success, but I for one am happy to see him doing projects he clearly cares about, even if it’s impossible to tell whether or not the final result is only half-baked.
Selma (USA, dir. Ava DuVernay)
Ava DuVernay's steady-handed approach to the historical format is inevitably more effective than one could imagine a full-blown biopic of Martin Luther King being. By focussing on King's campaign to march from Selma to Mississippi's capital of Montgomery, thus drawing attention to the violent abuse of African Americans’ voting rights in the Southern states, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb permit an insight into the nuts and bolts of the civil rights movement that could easily be lost in the temptation to focus on King alone, and make a saint out of a leader who was content just to be a man. Paul Webb's script is particularly impressive for his ability to capture King's voice without the advantage of being able to use any of King's actual speeches. To translate that same public voice into an inspiring but genuine voice in private and tactical discussions is an impressive achievement of a different kind. That neither Paul Webb, nor David Oyelowo (as King) received nominations for the Academy Awards for best screenplay and best actor is mind-boggling.
Whiplash (USA, dir. Damien Chazelle)
The plucky upstart of the last Oscar race scored high on many American critics best-of lists in 2014 but British audiences had to wait a year to see what it was that audiences in the US had been banging on about since its debut at Sundance 2014. As a visceral five-star cinematic experience, Whiplash has endured and it will continue to endure as an outstanding example of the wit and vitality that makes first-time directors like Damien Chazelle such a pleasure to encounter. By bringing such classical visual craftsmanship to his sophomore feature, Chazelle creates a delicious frisson of sensations new and old in his examination of a tenacious young drummer’s determination to survive the manipulative emotional abuse that his teacher subjects the college band to - apparently to achieve greatness in his students. JK Simmons quite rightly took home the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his turn as the mythologically cruel band leader, Fletcher, but Miles Teller deserves ample praise, too, managing to hold his own in a role that is as physically punishing as it is emotionally draining. Profoundly cathartic, accessible and timeless, Whiplash sets a high bar for Chazelle to clear with his next film and I, for one, can't wait to see him take a run at it!