Darrell’s Top Ten of 2015
10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
There is something so pure and simple about how Roy Andersson captures humanity in his films. The people depicted in his movies are always otherworldly, always separated from how we view ourselves as humans, yet always awkwardly and strangely entertaining; and no, that’s not just because they’re Europeans (I’m British, so I’m allowed to say that… I think) Here, Andersson rounds-off his ‘Living’ trilogy in the most spectacular of ways. He captures a wide array of fascinatingly quirky characters in a way that Wes Anderson could only dream of (I just lost half the audience with that comment). Using single take, lingering static shots of individual human social situations, Andersson forces his audience to continuously look deeper into his frames; to keep looking at his characters, at how they feel, at what they’re thinking, and at who they really are. Experiencing the film, we are not so much placed in the position of a human observing these strange creatures on screen from a distance, but we are the aliens, watching to witness just how peculiar and unusual humanity really can be.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that didn’t at least enjoy George Miller’s latest venture into the mad world of Mad Max. In all honesty, this may be a film impossible not to enjoy; you would have to be asleep or even dead not to be rhythmically engaged or intellectually impressed with the sheer volume and scope of the film’s gigantic centerpiece action sequences. In the film, Miller solidifies cinematic action as an art form close to that of music, in combining smaller and larger elements of action beats to create an overarching song of thundering chaos; this is ‘chaos cinema’ at its most chaotic. What’s great about the film is that it feels handmade; it feels painstakingly crafted and designed by the hands of an artist. Mad Max: Fury Road feels like a small, independent film operating on the financial level of a Michael Bay feature; only, with a lot more to say, and with a sense of passion for its own filmmaking, as opposed to an empty-headed excitement for flashing, colorful images. The most exciting thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is the possibility of using its success to inspire greater big-budget action films of the future. Modern action cinema desperately needed a new benchmark; 2015 received this in the form of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Spotlight is a film full of great performances, interesting plot developments, and an overarching mood of inspiration through social justice, the freedom of information, and the ability to speak out. Yet, nothing in the film draws attention to itself; nothing feels preachy or overstated, but the film progresses organically within a strangely restful attitude. The stakes are often high in Spotlight, but the stakes are social ones, meaning that the film is not so much centered around a crime happening directly in the foreground, but is about one that is slowly and subtly looming in the background. Even if you know largely what Spotlight is about, even if you’re an expert on the true story it tells, the film’s developments are still shocking, as though you are only just uncovering the story as the film’s characters are. Spotlight highlights the dangers of sitting back and allowing smaller stories to drift by. It depicts the responsibility of connecting these smaller stories to create a wider picture, something that may have been hidden before. I guess you could say, on important issues, the film shines a … I don’t know … I can’t think of a word… some sort of light for spotting things.
I’ve never been to Hollywood, California; yet, after watching Sean Baker’s Tangerine, I kind of feel like I have. The film, from its opening, establishes a wonderful sense of place. I could feel the fluidity of an ever-moving, living, and breathing city throughout the entire duration of the film. Tangerine is gritty, real, and cinematically fearless, yet the film never loses heart for its characters. It’s an aptly funny film, yet we laugh with the joys and misfortunes of the people on screen, but never at them, however flawed they may sometimes come across. Famously shot on an iPhone, Tangerine avoids coming across as gimmicky, its innovations didn’t feel proudly rubbed in my face, but perfectly suited the realistic attributes of its story, time, and place. By far the best thing about the film is its vibrant energy, not just within its kinetic, handheld, tracking shots filled with the bright colors of its location, but also within its characterization of street movements, personalities and attitudes. Tangerine manages to be one of the most fun films of the year, while still maintaining a deeply rooted love for filmmaking.
6. Ex Machina
The thing I loved most about Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was its wonderful sense of pacing. The film opens with a 30 second introduction sequence of Domhnall Gleeson’s main character, only to then, from this point until the film’s end, persistently increase and heighten its dramatic tension through story. The film never slows down to take itself too seriously, nor does it ever longingly ponder into emotionally tender aspects of each individual character’s life, but just develops naturally within a wonderful construction of uneasiness and vulnerability through expertly crafted cinematic techniques. The film is often cold and analytical, its edges are straight and crisp, and its spaces are clear and bright. Yet, as with the films of Stanley Kubrick, this cleanness results in a film packed with isolation, with loneliness, and with the fear of other living beings. Ex Machina plays with the uncanny to its extreme, these robots look like humans; this space looks like a relaxing modern apartment, yet, within the film, there is always uncertainty lurking in the background, always a sense that something is not quite right. Ex Machina perfects what this year’s The Hateful Eight attempts to construct, in forming a cinematic space where nothing is as it seems, and everyone is suspicious, however trustworthy they may seem.
What struck me most about Brooklyn was how much it had to say about the concept of home. It beautifully depicts a young woman as she aspires more from life, while searching to find a new place of comfort, a new place to call her home… but yet, is constantly held back by the one she already has. The film is about temporarily being an outsider while attempting to find a place in the world; a greatly troubling concept, yet one that’s filled with an overarching sense of absolute gratification once overcome. The film takes apart the concept of the ‘immigrant’, expressing that, once adapted and transformed to fit the social structures of a place, the idea of an unknown or unknowable ‘immigrant’ vanishes, and a new identity is found within something new. But the film is much more complex than just this, it follows a young character (played extraordinarily well by Saoirse Ronan) as she fights between what feels familiar and safe, vs. what seems unfamiliar and dangerous. Each place has its advantages and disadvantages; yet, in the end, it’s up to her heart to seek out where ‘home’ truly is, however big, scary, and unsettling this home may seem at first. The film is touching and sweet, but complexly and emotionally so, with more heart and longing for human connection than most other films of the year.
4. Love & Mercy
I’m a huge Beach Boys fan, so this film had me at the sheer mention of Brian Wilson. Above all, allowing me to travel back in time to witness the creation of my favorite album, Pet Sounds, was enough to reach this list alone. The scenes taking place in the 60s recording studio were so wonderful to me; call it fan service, call it whatever, but once the film started working towards the creation of songs such as God Only Knows and You Still Believe in Me, I never stopped smiling. Not only this, but the film goes further, more than just a reenactment of important musical events, the film explores Wilson’s work, it explores his mind, it explores (cheesy phrase time) his soul. Love & Mercy shows us two spiritually difference people in depicting the two sides of Brian, yet indicates the ways in which they are deeply connected emotionally. The film explains that the person Brian was can inspire who he is, and that the person he is can teach who he was. The two Brians are profoundly joined by spirit in the film; they each find themselves in difficult situations, yet ones in which only each other can fully help to resolve. Only Brian Wilson could jump two time zones so seamlessly… he was right… he really does get around.
3. It Follows
More than any other film in 2015, It Follows made me want to make films. It made we want to pick up a camera and say, “yes, I love doing this”. It re-sparked my interest in the ways that films are shot, the people that lovingly make them, and the passion that goes into their creation. It Follows has a brilliant plot, one that lends itself perfectly to a cinematic form; this is the type of horror that cinema was made for. Because of this brilliant premise, the film can feel forever vulnerable, forever scared, and forever paranoid. The film feels somehow scared of itself, as though its monster has broken into the wrong movie, and is now terrorizing the film’s frames just for fun. It Follows makes great use of these frames by keeping them largely wide, this means that individual shots from the film are transformed into ‘Where’s Waldo’ puzzles; only this Waldo wants to be found… and is coming to kill you in the most brutal of ways… fun for all the family. As was Mad Max: Fury Road a great modern example of how action cinema should be made, It Follows should be noted as a new benchmark for horror cinema… Because so many of today’s modern horror films only feature young people, youth sex, and random teenagers being killed… hold on… wait a minute…
From all the films on this list, this is the one I have trouble with most when explaining why I enjoy it so much. I’m not even completely sure I know what Youth is about, yet I find myself thinking back to it more than any other film I saw in 2015. I found the film heartbreaking and extremely profound… perhaps the beauty of the cinematography got the most of me, maybe it was the fragile and extremely vulnerable performances of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. Whatever it was, Youth felt to me like a fundamentally ungrounded film, as though it could have drifted off into the distance until vanishing point, or as though I may have woken up by its end to find that the entire thing was just a dream. The film, yes, is beautiful… but this seems like an understatement, especially when viewing the final sequence of the film, which is so visually pleasing that I could watch it on loop all day. There is also a dream sequence in the film that starts as a dreamed music video, but ends as a horrifying nightmare. And, of course, a compelling temporary transformation by Paul Dano that left me both dazed and confused, yet strangely moved. In all, I might need a few more years to fully explain why I loved this film, but there is something so mystical, so otherworldly about Youth that I just can’t stop thinking about it; and isn’t that exactly how a great film should make you feel?
And so, we have reached my number one film of the year, the wonderful, the irresistible, and the beautiful, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 … wait … no … Carol … yes, sorry… it’s Carol. And I know what some of you are thinking, “how predictable”. It’s true, there’s part of me that wants to choose something less Oscar-worthy, and something more cinematically radical and challenging. But the thing is… I think this film is cinematically radical in a far more challenging way than even films such as Youth from this last year. This is because the film’s idea of love feels so universal. This film is, of course, billed as a lesbian love story… but while watching the film, I wasn’t thinking about this. I wasn’t thinking about how profoundly the film pushed through its agenda, I don’t even think this film has an agenda. This is because the female characters of the film are dumbfounded as to even know what to call their love; it has no name, it has no classification, and is as complex as any other love. So Carol doesn’t spend its entire duration explaining to us just how naughty and shamefully looked upon this love is, but allows it breathing space to slowly develop, change and grow over the course of the film. There is never an awfully terrible dialogue exchange of, “Hold on, we’re both women… how can this be? What shall we do?” But the film knows not to draw too much attention to its theme, which would extinguish its message. Overall, the film is obviously extremely well acted, extremely well shot, and extremely well ‘place any other technical term here’. It’s a film of both wide smiles and floods of tears, of both heart skips and heartaches, of both universal love, and the universal longing for love.