And now the top 10 for 2015. Past years have had very clear leaders when making these lists (Upstream Color in 2013; Under The Skin last year), but 2015 has had me torn. Not because the output hasn’t been of exceptional quality, rather the opposite; this year’s best shone as brightly as one another. The ordering of the top 5 here is almost arbitrary. It might sound foolish, but I wrestled with the final order. I was sorely tempted to make them all joint 1st.
As stated previously, for inclusion on this list the films in question had to have their UK release within 2015.
In A Sentence: Joshua Oppenheimer follows his extraordinary exposé of Indonesia’s smothered history of genocide The Act Of Killing with this companion piece, which follows an optician confronting the men who were responsible for the brutal atrocities.
At The Time: There is still a level of artifice here – some shots are very purposefully constructed, while the sound design for one interview heightens the chirping of the background insects to a claustrophobic degree – yet the intent is to secure an emotional truth, and the intellectual integrity remains firm. Rarely if ever does anything feel contrived or designed to overtly prejudice the viewer. Here the guilty hang themselves. (June 19th)
And Now?: Where The Act Of Killing felt surreal and appalling in equal measure, The Look Of Silence is more quietly devastating. But don’t let that put you off; this is important, incendiary documentary filmmaking and deserves inclusion on your must-see list whether you’ve encountered Oppenheimer’s work before or not.
In A Sentence: Returning home after WW2, a German woman disfigured in the concentration camps proves unrecognisable to her devious husband, who entangles her in a plot to obtain her own inheritance by impersonating… herself.
At The Time: The richness of Phoenix makes such suspension of belief readily welcome – the central relationship is too ripe with fascinating interplay, both intellectual and emotional. Loose those high-concept strings, allow this phoenix to soar, and hopefully you’ll be amply rewarded. I certainly was. (May 13th)
And Now?: It’s a film that sneaks up on you, powered by its melodramatic Hitchcockian central conceit toward the year’s most breathtaking mic-drop finale. Holding it all together is a great performance from Nina Hoss as Nelly; one that earns the overused description “transformative”.
(Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
In A Sentence: A young American man travels to Italy to get over some personal traumas only to fall for a mysterious local woman, yet she hides a monstrous secret.
At The Time: Spring is a superbly acted and often genuinely romantic (and heartbreaking) metamorphosis of modern horror. Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker should feel incredibly proud of their work here. As should everybody involved. (March 22nd)
And Now?: Benson and Moorhead continue to tweak, even defy, the expectations of the modern horror movie to superb effect. If Spring is considered a genre flip on Before Sunrise then so be it. This is a film that thoroughly deserved much wider distribution and attention. A great step for its creators, who now have a tough task ahead of them to raise the bar further. Keep your mind open and catch up as soon as you can.
(David Zellner, Nathan Zellner)
In A Sentence: An insular Japanese woman with a degraded VHS copy of Fargo believes that the briefcase buried by Steve Buscemi in the movie is real, and crosses the Pacific on a quest to unearth it.
At The Time: Kumiko works in tandem with Fargo in a strange way. It invites the viewer to invest in something that is knowingly false, and at the end plays a trump card – one akin to the clever self-referential finale of Adaptation – asking the audience to accept and believe in the lie, just as Kumiko does. It’s a great addition to an already supremely charming movie. (April 14th)
And Now?: With the TV spin-off of the Coens’ film going from strength-to-strength, don’t skip this intriguing sideways glance at a mini cultural whirlpool. Anchored by a thoroughly bewitching central performance from Rinko Kikuchi (which has drawn justified comparisons to the work of Chaplin), Kumiko is a quiet slow-burn, sure, but one that is ready for you to unearth if you’re prepared to seek it out. Alexander Payne produces, and his presence is deeply felt.
In A Sentence: A biopic focusing on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s attempts to secure black voters fair process by organising a protest march from Selma, Alabama in 1965.
At The Time: A fierce and important reminder that reform and equality are not finalised issues to be boxed up as history, but ongoing causes that demand raised voices. Selma succeeds because it’s key concern isn’t to memorialise King – this is not his sweeping birth-to-death biography – he is simply a frustrated, struggling figure trying to make a difference. The cause is the thing. (February 3rd)
And Now?: Selma has weathered a busy year for cinema and still stands strong as one of the most indelible pictures to have appeared. David Oyelowo’s central turn is totally convincing, sidestepping the usual biopic trap in which impersonation becomes imitation. Prestige pictures are easy to roll the eyes at, but DuVernay’s film succeeds because it doesn’t care if it’s adored or not. The irony is that this probably should’ve been the picture to take home Oscar glory this year.
In A Sentence: In a blighted future, a female warrior absconds from the lair of a maniacal ruler with his finest ‘breeding stock’, entering into a bitter chase in which she receives the assistance of a half-crazed drifter.
At The Time: The details in this movie are mind-boggling, as meticulous and intricate as the choreography of the perfectly times chaos and destruction that propels the film along and keeps it mutating with energy that ricochets down through cinema history, from the itchy vigor of early Sam Raimi right back to the glorious visual playfulness of Buster Keaton. Miller’s film is pure cinema in a literal sense. There is no other medium in which Fury Road could exist. (May 15th)
And Now?: Since it’s physical and digital release there’s been a minor backlash against Fury Road that I don’t fully understand. To complain that the story is simplistic, for instance, is to miss the point. It’s the journey (both ways) that electrifies. Miller’s film is both svelte and crammed-to-the-rafters. The latter comes from the seemingly inexhaustible creativity on screen. Simply, it’s the most imaginative action film to have appeared in years.
4. It Follows
(David Robert Mitchell)
In A Sentence: A young woman contracts a sort of curse when she sleeps with her boyfriend; a shape-shifting ghostly entity will relentlessly follow her wherever she goes, and if it catches her, it’ll kill her.
At The Time: Mitchell’s confidence behind the camera on this, his second feature, is disarming. Together with his director of photography Mike Gioulakis, he presents us a rich, dreamy vision of suburban America pitched in cool blues, warm golds and deep blacks. A world of vast lawns, quiet roads and subtly persuasive menace. Imagine the affluent streets of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides recast with the twilight threat of Haddonfield from the Halloween movies, and you’re somewhere close to capturing the mood here. And the timelessness. (March 8th)
And Now: An idea so insidious, so simple, yet so frightening that it’s a small wonder it’s taken so long for someone to do it. Like a walking, stalking Gregory Crewdson photograph, Mitchell’s film oozes menace just as well as it brings back pangs of nostalgia for adolescence. The central conceit is ripe for deconstruction (metaphors for STDs, death, life etc), but the film is much more than an intellectual exercise. There’s tremendous heart to the characters. Finally a word-of-mouth horror success that doesn’t disappoint.
In A Sentence: A lepidopterist living in a town populated only by women has a strict relationship with the woman who appears to be her maid, but as things progress it becomes clear that the two are lovers caught up in an elaborate role-playing routine that tests the limits of their love.
At The Time: Strickland understands and exploits the eroticism in nuance and suggestion. The taut hammering of keys on a typewriter. The strict definitions of a tape measure. Cynthia’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for water. In these and other gestures and motifs, Strickland builds the aura of anticipation. So effective are his methods that the BBFC have placed upon The Duke Of Burgundy an 18 certificate, though for quite what I’m at a loss to pinpoint. This is a film that seems more explicit than it is, even if at one stage a Lynchian dream sequence unfurls through the gateway of a vagina. The BBFC’s reaction is a credit to the film’s success. It recalls the precise audio/visual slicing and dicing of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears), but with the benefit of patience and depth of character to bolster the aesthetic pleasures. (February 20th)
And Now?: It’s a luxurious film. An opulent one. Part of that comes from how all elements seem to be working together. From cinematography to acting to production design and costuming; everything interlocks. The film rewards on multiple levels also. There are the surface pleasures, sure, but it’s also quite emotionally affecting (kudos to the two leads Chiara D’anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen), not to mention thoughtful (I found myself musing on its suggestions about the balancing acts of relationships for days after). Strickland has taken the building blocks of 70s Euro-sleaze and constructed something of actual beauty and depth. Cat’s Eyes’ willowy score, too, has been a frequent fixture on both my turntable and mp3 player.
(Paul Thomas Anderson)
In A Sentence: 1970; a permanently stoned private eye searches for a missing real estate magnate and his missing ex-girlfriend, in the process discovering a web of intrigue surrounding a consortium known as ‘the Golden Fang’.
At The Time: I haven’t felt so consistently entertained at the cinema in a long time. You can understand, on viewing Inherent Vice, why it hasn’t quite captured the confidence of awards season the way other more conservative pictures have. Anderson’s film is too wacky, too itchy and far too goddamn randy. In much the same way that Kubrick never seemed to tire of his more adolescent preoccupations, Anderson still has a hot-streak for the sexy, and Inherent Vice sates this appetite arguably more than any of his previous films. (January 31st)
And Now?: This was my #1 for the year for so long and will probably be the outlier in Anderson’s catalogue as time goes on. A big-hearted gumshoe comedy film, if Anderson films can be equated to Kubrick films then Inherent Vice feels like his Dr. Strangelove, wherein an entire society seems to be teetering on the brink of madcap hysteria. Don’t worry too much about the convoluted story, embrace the feel of the thing. Joacquin Phoenix ties together a sprawling cast in what warmly goes on record as Anderson’s most romantic film to date.
1. Inside Out
(Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen)
In A Sentence: We meet the five core emotions that help a young girl named Riley to measure her responses to the world, and watch how they deal with the crisis of Riley moving house.
At The Time: There is a lot to applaud here. Docter and del Carmen’s film manages, with almost inexplicable ease, to condense complex emotional themes into an easily digestible metaphorical package, making difficult topics easy for children to understand or appreciate. Inside Out runs headlong into talking about the consequences and reasons behind early-onset depression, yet wraps this conversation up in the dressing of an adventure story… There’s a wonderful lesson here about self-acceptance which raises the bar for the genre in many ways, and is done so without seeming overbearing. (July 21st)
And Now?: Well, it just keeps giving. I went back to the cinema repeatedly for this one (and it’s not as if I’m not there enough already) and found myself itching for the home release. The funny thing is that, prior to this, I had always been something of a Pixar skeptic, not really gelling with their output in the way so many people do. Consider me a convert. I’ve caught up with most of the titles I’d dismissed (almost all of them, guiltily), yet still Inside Out remains the pinnacle of their output to date for me, personally.
After three years of giving the Film Of The Year to niche, awkward, audience testing films (all of which I still stand beside), it’s kind of refreshing to celebrate something that is for absolutely everyone. More than that, as Amy Poehler herself expresses on the bonus features available on the bluray (yeah, I’m a nerd, so what), Inside Out feels like a humane film. Something that makes the world better. Something that contributes. A joy, fittingly.