Alright, back to blogging after a long absence, which I will probably explain fairly soon in a separate post, but until then I can’t resist the urge to arbitrarily organise things in an ordered list. So, here we go, first of three this month, starting with films of 2015.
As people will know, last year I did a list of twenty for reasons I can’t fully recall. And, I’ll be honest, I was tempted to do the same again this year. But to be honest, whittling it down to a list of ten feels like a bigger challenge, and it has been. So, to that end, a quick moment for the films that didn’t quite make the top ten but that I would like to acknowledge nonetheless: Ant-Man, Big Hero Six, Birdman, Carol, Coherence, Fast & Furious 7, The Gift, Lost River, The Martian, The Visit.
And one other piece of housekeeping, I generally run this blog on UK releases. So if you see something on this list and wonder why I’m including a 2014 film, it’s because we don’t get a lot of the Oscar contended films until January. Which will also handily explain the absence of films such as Hateful Eight, Creed, The Revenant, Spotlight, Trumbo etc, that have yet to release on these shores.
10. Beasts of No Nation (Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Where HBO’s True Detective floundered in its second season, struggling to establish a sense of identity (or even a plot anyone could follow without consulting spreadsheets and pin boards and wikipedia episode summaries), the director responsible for much of the look and style of that incredible first season was off cooking up an entirely different kind of beast.
I’ll make no bones about it, at just over two hours, Beasts of No Nation is a difficult film to sit through. It tells the story of war orphan turned child soldier Agu, played note perfectly by newcomer Abraham Attah, and his various deeds and misdeeds as part of a Nigerian rebel militia led by a man the soldiers know only as Commandant. Commandant is played, of course, by Idris Elba, the only recognisable name cast in the whole thing. And he really does justify himself in an intense performance that might be the best I’ve ever seen from him.
It is to the film’s credit that it is very patient. Rather than rushing headlong into the bloodshed and killing, the first half hour is a slow burn, setting up Agu’s home life and his family and friends before the war comes. It’s rammed with tension, awaiting the inevitable, though the script manages to give every character time and make them all so likable, I was emotionally invested in the soldiers not turning up at all and for Agu and his family to live happily.
But they do turn up, of course, and the film barely stops to breathe after that moment, ratcheting up the tension and horror like a modern African Apocalypse Now as we watch a formerly innocent child attempt to maintain his morality in an increasingly violent world. One particular standout setpiece follows Agu on a long tracking shot (yes, Fukunaga brings that old chestnut back into play) through a house, culminating in him shooting an innocent woman dead to save her from being raped and tortured by his comrades. It’s stark, it’s unsettling, and the whole thing left me feeling slightly sick and depressed afterwards.
Netflix has made huge inroads into the TV market with shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Daredevil. And now looks as though they stand to do the same with film (their contract with Adam Sandler notwithstanding). If Beasts of No Nation is the sort of quality we can come to expect from their efforts, they could become a force to be reckoned with.
9. Straight Outta Compton (Dir. F. Gary Gray)
“Fuck the police coming straight from the underground, a young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown, and not the other colour so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority” are the opening lines of Fuck the Police famously rapped by Ice Cube on NWA’s seminal debut record.
And for the first ninety minutes or so of Straight Outta Compton this message is at the forefront. It starts by introducing us to Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright, in the midst of a drug transaction that starts to go wrong when one of the tenants of the crack house he’s entered points a shotgun at him, and only gets worse when the police turn up in force driving a tank with a battering ram to raid the place. It’s an extremely kinetic opening sequence, perhaps the most powerful of the whole year, and this undercurrent of police brutality continues as a narrative theme and touchstone throughout the first half of the film, carrying the audience through Eazy rapping Boys n the Hood and the formation of NWA, right up to an incendiary performance in Detroit where the group is arrested for playing Fuck the Police after explicitly being told they can’t.
This first half of the movie is easily the best thing F. Gary Gray has ever done, and I say that as a defender of the flawed but great Law Abiding Citizen. It’s actually a shame when in the second half, Straight Outta Compton switches over to a fairly standard biopic mode, showcasing a series of events in chronological order as the group inevitably break up and go on to their separate projects.
It’s not bad. In fact, it’s still a pretty great film, but it’s the much stronger first half that secures it a place on this list. The whole thing is buoyed by great performances. Jason Mitchell manages to make Eazy a sympathetic and tragic figure, even through his shady business dealings, Corey Hawkins is on solid form as Dre, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (son of the actual Ice Cube) resembles his father so much at points it left me reeling.
But the real showstopper here is R. Marcos Taylor playing Suge Knight, the controversial (to put it lightly) figure who is essentially hip hop Satan. It would have been easy to play this role off as purely villainous, but Taylor takes it and plays him almost as a Mephistopheles, whispering promises in Dre’s ear and only revealing his true colours in some terrifying sequences later on as he beats down Eazy to ensure Dre can get out of his contract with Ruthless Records.
Despite the uneven pacing Straight Outta Compton is still an excellent film and an example of what a powerful biopic should look like. And, if you’ll permit me to be serious for a moment, it’s a very important document in a time where police in America seem to be targeting and killing minorities every day. The film might be set in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but it is as important in 2015 as it was back then, and shows us just how far we have yet to go.
8. Sicario (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Much like the aforementioned Beasts of No Nation, Sicario is an uncomfortable, often unpleasant film to sit through. Helmed by Denis Villeneuve, director of the excellent thriller Prisoners it takes his seemingly innate ability to craft tension on the screen and sets it at the border between Mexico and Texas, where cartels are running drugs through tunnels into the States.
Emily Blunt is on top form here as Kate Macer, an FBI agent hired by Josh Brolin’s Graver, a CIA high up after Macer’s squad is nearly wiped out by a bomb while raiding a drug house. But the entire show is stolen by Benicio Del Toro who manages to come off both menacing and sympathetic as Alejandro, who seems to be working with Graver and the CIA, but could have ties to any number of organisations.
To say much more about the story of the thing would be to give too much away, but suffice to say Sicario explores similar themes to Beasts of No Nation of attempting to maintain one’s morality in a violent and increasingly grey world. Everybody’s motives are up in the air, and nobody is who they say they are, save for Blunt’s Macer, who is determined to do good, even in the face of overwhelming evil.
It’s an incredibly paced work, with tense setpieces that seem ready to explode at any moment, especially a scene at a border crossing with our heroes stuck exposed in a traffic jam, and a later scene in one of the cartel’s drug running tunnels, shot almost entirely in night vision with breaks to showcase some gorgeous shots against a sunset.
And special mention must be made of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings every shot to life. One particular shot of soldiers sinking down into a tunnel in the ground, silhouetted against a red/blue sky almost literally took my breath away, and I couldn’t help but whisper a quick “holy shit” to the friend sat next to me. Thanks to his work, Sicario is easily one of the best looking films of the whole year.
One final quick note, Villeneuve is going on to helm the sequel to one of my all time favourite films Blade Runner, with Deakins along for the ride as his DP. After watching Sicario I am just relieved it’s apparently in safe hands.
7. Ex Machina (Dir. Alex Garland)
Alex Garland struggles to end films well. This is something I learned through his collaborations with director Danny Boyle. 28 Days Later is a great zombie film right up until the third act where Cillian Murphy somehow manages to murder an entire house full of trained soldiers. Sunshine is a thoughtful sci-fi meditation, a claustrophobic look at people stuck on an impossible suicide mission, and how that affects them psychologically. Until it becomes a dumb slasher flick in the third act.
Thankfully in Ex Machina, his directorial debut, Garland has managed to overcome this inherent weakness, and pulls together a strong story based around just three performances. Caleb is a young coder played by Domhnall Gleeson who is selected via lottery by the boss of the company he works for Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test an AI programmed into a robot played by Alicia Vikander. Over the course of the tests, Caleb’s loyalties to both are put on trial until he is forced to make a decision about his future.
Let’s get this out of the way, this is a banner year for all three of these actors. Gleeson and Isaac both went on to be in a little indie sci-fi flick called The Force Awakens and it was near impossible to get away from Vikander who is suddenly everywhere. And all three of them knock it out of the park here. It’s a delicate story, and a misstep from any of the three leads would have sent it plummeting, but they all play off each other perfectly, with Isaac standing out as the scummy and untrustworthy alcoholic Nathan, especially in a surprise scene where he dances to some disco music.
Resting on their shoulders, the whole thing just manages to come together so well. Not a single scene is wasted, the pacing is tight and immaculate, and it’s all very thought provoking, exploring ideas like whether an AI can be considered human (in a more subtle and intelligent way than this year’s other robot movie, Neill Blomkamp’s disappointing Chappie).
Garland proves himself quite the director as well, his shots managing to capture a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, but with a surprising amount of scope during the movie’s few outdoor sequences. It’s stunning work, and an excellent intelligent sci-fi film.
6. Crimson Peak (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
There are two Guillermo Del Toros I think. There is the creator of Spanish language horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, very design driven films that are almost literary in their execution. And then there is the director of big budget nerd fests like Pacific Rim. Both versions have their various strengths and weaknesses, and I enjoy both outputs for different reasons. Crimson Peak is a sort of meshing of the two, and the result is something else.
I know a lot of people have expressed disappointment with this film. The only cause I can put this down to is the marketing. The trailers and advertising push made Crimson Peak look like it was going to be a fairly straight ahead horror movie about a haunted house, but that’s so far from the truth as to be laughable. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a gothic flavoured romance story, almost in the vein of Austen and her contemporaries, but of course with his particular devilish twist.
And it’s almost as if he knew all of this going in. “It’s not a ghost story,” says protagonist Edith Cushing early on of the novel she’s written, “more a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” And so it goes with Crimson Peak too.
All the actors here are on top form, though the true star of the show is the house itself, Allerdale Hall. An actually constructed three story set, the place has a feeling of being a living entity, with red clay dripping down the walls and creepy gothic architecture towering over everything. And special mention must be made to Del Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen for nailing the colour of the thing in every single scene. The whole picture is sublime to look at.
Thankfully, it has a story that can back it up too, which twists and turns and plays with various conventions of the genre while carving out its own path. And it’s not afraid to get violent, with at least two moments causing me to gasp out loud in the cinema. This is the Del Toro I want to see more of going forward, the one who allows all his influences in. And please, just let him make his Mountains of Madness adaptation already. Please!
5. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
I wasn’t surprised, after watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night when it released on blu-ray earlier this year, when I found out that director Ana Lily Amirpour used to be a DJ. The soundtrack, mostly made up of songs recorded by various bands, manages to match the tone and often even the story of each scene perfectly.
Case in point would be around the halfway mark of the film where the Girl, who for the sake of those unaware is a lonely vampire played by Sheila Vand, takes drug addled protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) to her home with the intention of feeding on his blood. During the course of the scene, she puts on a vinyl of the song Death by White Lies, and stands just staring at his neck for what feels like minutes. And it’s perfect. There is no dialogue, because there is no need for dialogue, the song’s lyrics match what’s happening on screen with startling effect.
And that’s the highest compliment I can pay A Girl… It’s hard to talk about the story, because there is such little story there, it’s a more reflective work focused on mood and character and setting. And the whole thing is just gorgeous. Even shooting in stark black and white, it’s one of the best looking films of the year.
I just don’t know how else to recommend it other than to say you should give it a go. And hell, if you’re only going to watch one Iranian American black and white skateboarding vampire western this year, you should probably make it A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
4. Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
This is the one I was worried about in terms of people telling me it’s a 2014 film. Because it technically is… Just not here. Here, after months of anticipation and hype and good reviews, we got it in January. And thankfully it lived up to that hype.
It must have, because when I was compiling the long list for this post using a highly scientific process (which films from 2015 do I actually remember watching) Whiplash was one of the first to spring to mind. And it came out a year ago. If it was bad, it would have been forgotten, and wouldn’t have made the list. Simple.
If Ex Machina centred around three performances, Whiplash goes even smaller by focusing itself around two: Miles Teller and J.K Simmons, telling a simple story about a music student who wants to be the best jazz drummer in the world, and his borderline sociopathic teacher who will seemingly stop at nothing to push him there.
To say Whiplash is difficult to watch at times is an understatement. I’m so used to J.K Simmons playing cantankerous but ultimately harmless characters, seeing him as Fletcher was a shock to my system. He shouts obscenities, berates people until they cry, and in general has an astounding physical presence for someone so thin and wiry. It’s an intense performance that Whiplash really builds itself around, and the casting was spot on. The film would have no doubt suffered without Simmons’ outstanding presence.
But people are too quick to dismiss or forget Miles Teller as Andrew Neimann. Because the key to the whole story is that he is just as psychotic as his teacher, pushing himself to practice beyond the point where his hands bleed, and proclaiming to his entire extended family that he would rather sacrifice friendships and relationships, and die young, if it meant someone in the future would recognise him as being the best at his craft. It’s a tragic performance with disturbing implications, and Teller carries it excellently.
3. It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell)
Maika Monroe seems to be making something of a career starring in films that are revivals of 80’s stuff I like. Last year it was The Guest an action flick with undertones of John Carpenter and The Terminator and this year it’s It Follows a horror flick with undertones of… John Carpenter and The Terminator. Huh.
To be fair, that’s about where comparisons end. It Follows is really only like The Terminator in terms of it being about an unstoppable force that cannot be reasoned or bargained with plaguing our protagonist. And the John Carpenter similarities mostly begin and end with the film’s score from Disasterpeace, mostly known for producing chiptune soundtracks for old school style video games like Fez, now forever to be remembered by me as the guy who came up with the catchiest six bars of any main theme in 2015. Dun duh duh duh dun duuun!
To say I loved this film is an understatement. I love that the writing and performances actually make the teenagers feel legitimately like teenagers without them becoming annoying. I love that the monster takes the form of whatever human being it sees fit. Because it removes the need for there to be a long tease leading up to the big reveal of the monster itself, and all the tension rushing out of the room as soon as that’s happened. It can be anyone at any time. And throughout the film, I could feel myself scanning the backgrounds looking for any characters just innocuously walking. It’s a terrifying concept, executed brilliantly.
And best of all, the subtlety with which the themes are handled. Themes of sexual abuse, virginity, the fear of STI’s, parental neglect, and so on. It’s all there, but most of it is left to simmer as subtext while the action plays out.
If there is one thing that has stuck with me more than anything, it’s the use of Detroit as a background. I have long been fascinated by Detroit (more on that later this month) and the city is presented in all its dilapidated glory here, with one specific scene that I’ve watched over and over again of our protagonists just walking to an abandoned swimming pool and having a conversation about “where the suburbs end and the city begins.”
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)
Mad Max: Fury Road is the best pure action movie since The Raid. And saying that feels like a big statement, so I’ll try another on for size. Mad Max: Fury Road has supplanted The Road Warrior as my favourite film in the franchise, and I firmly believe it’s the film George Miller has wanted to make since 1979, only the budget and the technology was never there before now for him to achieve his grand vision. This is it. The culmination of his entire career, him pouring his heart and soul into this one character, this ultimate post-apocalyptic chase flick all filmed on location with real vehicles, augmented by modern CGI where necessary… And it is fucking glorious.
The story, as always, is minimalist. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy inheriting the role that Mel Gibson once made his own) is a former cop with a murdered family, surviving in a world where people fight over scant resources as best he can, until he comes across a group of people he can help. In The Road Warrior, it was the people in a small settlement who happened to control a large amount of fuel. In Beyond Thunderdome, it was a group of children living on the outskirts of Bartertown. In Fury Road, it’s the wives of a warlord, looking to escape his clutches led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
And the whole thing just kicks ass from start to finish. The plot is essentially setup for nearly two hours of car chases and action, ratcheting up the carnage more and more until I didn’t think they could push it any further, then somehow managing to top themselves. Sitting in the cinema, the first chase scene proper of the film (culminating in a huge storm with tornadoes that suck up vehicles and set them on fire) was the best car chase I had ever seen in any film ever. And then the next chase was even better again. My jaw was constantly on the ground. In a time where an over-reliance on modern technology has caused directors to lose their touch (looking at you here George Lucas) Miller has managed to utilise its benefits to create his magnum opus.
But what’s truly astounding about the whole thing is the sheer amount of world building packed into so little dialogue. From just visual cues alone we can see how these warlords live, how they use their emaciated armies of warboys, twisting various different religions and car fetishisation into a means of ruling. We don’t need long expository dialogue explaining how Immortan Joe built his sanctuary, and what the bullet farmers do, and what life in Gastown is like. It’s all there in the frame. Proper visual storytelling.
In a time where Marvel films have made audiences obsessed with details and continuity and exposition, it’s impressive to see a movie so unconcerned with where it fits with regard to its own franchise. Miller wanted to create one last cool story with the character he created. And in the process, built his masterpiece.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dir. J.J. Abrams)
I mean, what else was it going to be, really? Disney, you basically get this one for free. Which isn’t to say I’m giving The Force Awakens a free pass for nostalgia reasons, I do legitimately love it. It’s just that the action doesn’t hit as hard as Mad Max and it’s not as tightly plotted as It Follows or Whiplash. But on opening night, we had a staff showing in the cinema I work at, and I sat next to my girlfriend in a room packed out with my closest friends and together we all laughed and cried and clapped and cheered our way through two and a quarter hours together. Is The Force Awakens the best film of 2015? Probably not. But I can say with some degree of confidence it was my favourite.
The plot, for those who don’t know, is that thirty years have passed since the end of Return of the Jedi. In that time, Luke Skywalker has vanished to parts unknown, a Nazi-like regime called the First Order has risen to fill the gap left by the destruction of the Empire, and with help from the newly formed Republic, General Leia Organa now leads a band called the Resistance in the fight against them.
In truth, The Force Awakens has been compared a lot to the original Star Wars. And the parallels exist, for sure. There’s a superweapon that destroys planets, a young character who has to follow her destiny (or the Force in this case), Han Solo is a smuggler again. But (and not to make excuses for it) they did have to pick up the pieces after thirty years of stuff happening and reintroduce a whole fanbase of jaded people to this universe, as well as bringing it to a whole new generation of people. To that end, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan kept the story simple for this instalment, and it’s a decision that works.
What doesn’t quite work is the pacing. Entire swaths of backstory are skipped over in favour of keeping the plot moving from one big action setpiece to the next. And when the First Order uses their new weapon to destroy the Republic around the film’s halfway mark, it’s a story beat that lacked some impact because the film hadn’t quite gotten around to setting up exactly what the Republic was or did. While the decision to not include any scenes of politics whatsoever is one I can respect after the prequels got so bogged down in them is one I can and do respect, it does mean the story’s stakes on the galactic scale don’t quite come together.
What does work is the smaller character stories. Rey is our Luke analogue, stuck on a backwater desert planet and unaware of the greater destiny awaiting her, she is dragged along on the adventure by Finn, a First Order deserter who wants nothing more than to get the hell away from anything that’s going on. Their evolving friendship is a joy to watch unfold, as Finn’s infatuation with Rey leads to an ongoing series of scenes where he tries to rescue her from whatever has befallen her, only for her to have her shit together enough to be getting out of it on her own. It’s fun to watch, and nice to see Star Wars continuing the throughline from Leia being such a thoroughly kickass character in the original trilogy.
Rounding out the trio is hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, who is fast becoming my favourite actor. The truth is, Poe is uncomplicated. Where Finn is essentially a coward who can’t help but do the noble thing, and Rey is almost determined to run away from her fate and hide back on her backwater world in waiting for her family to come rescue her, Poe is just a guy who wants to help the Resistance and do the right thing. He’s Wedge Antilles, or Captain America. And that’s perfectly fine. An early highlight is an action scene in which Poe and Finn escape the First Order in a stolen TIE Fighter. The writing and the natural chemistry between Isaac and John Boyega mean this five minute sequence managed to make me believe these guys were instant best buddies. Something George Lucas failed to manage with Anakin and Obi-Wan in seven hours of films.
The truth is, The Force Awakens isn’t perfect. It’s a J.J Abrams flick, for better and for worse. But it’s simultaneously big and fun, and small and heartbreaking. It gives us potentially the best, most interesting Star Wars villain of all time in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, a man who so desperately wants to continue the work started by Darth Vader, but constantly feels the pull back to the light side despite himself. And it brings back a beloved universe, and sets up characters and stories for many more films to come.
Ultimately, after all these years, it just feels good to be excited about Star Wars again.