MostlyFilm’s Best of 2015: Movies

Some of our favourite feature films of the year, and one short…

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Paul Duane on World of Tomorrow

Life is too sad to bear and there is no hope for anyone. So now, let us drink to happy endings.” (Aki Kaurismaki)

A four-year-old girl, Emily, is contacted by a clone of herself from the far future. “You will feel a deep longing for something you can no longer remember,” Future Emily tells Emily Prime. This thwarted memory is what Future Emily is looking for, it’s what she needs to protect her from the grim hopelessness of her life.

The innocent kid and the exhausted clone are the beginning and end point of a single, far too long life. The interaction between them will give birth to a moment which will echo down through the memories of all the increasingly debased & degenerated Emily clones. And Emily Prime brings four-year-old Emily into the distant future, a world inspired by the covers of paperback SF novels from the 50s & 60s, where people fall in love with rocks and the super-rich are firing themselves into space to escape the imminent death of the Earth. Oh, did I mention that it’s funny? It’s funny. But in a way that breaks your heart at the same time.

Hertzfeldt’s work is impossibly compressed, always doing three or four things at once, and able to evoke emotions that out of scale with the running time of his films. WOT is (to me) better than Solaris on how the immensity of spacetime distorts our emotions & memories, better than Blade Runner on human/non-human interaction, better than 2001 because it’s fifteen minutes long. His trademark, crude stick figure drawings have an  inexplicable ability to elicit audience identification. There’s a moment near the end of this film that made me literally jump out of my seat in horror, the first time I saw it, and it happened to a stick figure.

The best comparison I can make is with the work of the reclusive genius Chris Marker, whose La Jetée lies behind Hertzfeldt’s previous film, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, in the same way that Sans Soleil, with its heartbreaking nostalgia for the present day, underlies WOT. “Now is the envy of all of the dead” – the matching monotone of these films’ dispassionate female narrators will echo inside your head for years to come.

Most of all, Hertzfeldt knows how to convincingly represent life’s horrors without any self-serious wallowing. WOT leaves you in no doubt about the impending doom of the world and everyone in it, but the ending pivots on understanding that the naive happiness of a child for whom only the present moment exists is just as valid as the inevitable apocalypse.

Hertzfeldt, I have no doubt, could have pulverised his audience with sadness – his ability to manipulate emotion is staggering – but he knows that tragedy is an affectation for the well-off and the well-protected. Only a true believer in existential annihilation understands the importance of the happy ending.

Nothing I write can really evoke the beauty & sadness of this film. Here’s an interview with Hertzfeldt that throws up some interesting info (such as that he thinks he’s not smart enough to make the films he makes – he just catches the ideas, rather than coming up with them).

The internet is full of his work, it’s all out there to explore. Here’s his website, and you can rent WOT on Vimeo for a ridiculously small amount of money. I don’t think you’ll feel you’ve been cheated.

“There are so many terrible things in life that you have to laugh at them.” (Don Hertzfeldt)

Fiona Pleasance on Inside Out

It isn’t as if it’s a new concept.  Everyone from Woody Allen to The Beano has played with the idea that we contain multitudes; that inside every person a host of different characters (impulses, emotions; call them what you will) might actually be calling the shots.

But then again, the thought that your toys might come to life when you’re not around, or that superheroes might have problems living “normal” lives, aren’t particularly original either, and look what Pixar did with them.  Coming after a year when the studio didn’t release a single movie, with a run of slightly disappointing features before that, Inside Out had a lot riding on it.

Well, I say “disappointing”, but it’s all relative.  For anybody else,  Brave and Monsters University would count as unequivocal successes, though making such claims for Cars 2 would be going too far.  But if we expect more from Pixar, they only have themselves to blame: a level of technical skill, storytelling prowess and reputation virtually unmatched in contemporary animation.  The Pixar label stands for something in cinema in a manner only matched by its parent, Disney.

So it was a relief to find that Inside Out plays like a one-movie Pixar greatest hits.  Breathtaking quality?  Check; the hyper-real newborn baby at the start of the movie (so lifelike that I briefly thought it must be live-action) and the pupil-like feathering of the edge of the viewing screen in Headquarters are just two examples.  Outstanding vocal performances?  Present and correct.  Amy Poehler has been garnering plaudits for her Leslie-Knope-inflected Joy, but to my mind, it’s Phyllis Smith’s pefectly judged Sadness who steals the show.  Often sounding more resigned than sad, and invariably a little bit confused – presumably by being forced to the margins for so long – she proves to be at least as understanding and important as her happy counterpart.

High concept idea spun into narrative both funny and heartbreaking, for children and adults to enjoy equally?  But of course.  Director Pete Docter has form here, being responsible for Up (which, like Inside Out, was scored by Michael Giacchino)The famous married-life montage which begins Up is so powerful, the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it.  Inside Out is that montage, but focused on the parent-child relationship and spread over an entire movie.

Like the Toy Story films, Inside Out is equally affecting for children and adults, but for very different reasons.  The movie certainly inspired a number of philosophical discussions in this house – “how can Joy be sad?” – which is more than can be said for any other film we all watched this year (though perhaps I should point out that my kids are too young for Mad Max: Fury Road).

In a way, it’s quite reassuring that the folks at Pixar are not infallible, that from time to time their films don’t quite come together in the way that they should (as was the case again with The Good Dinosaur, also released this year).  Not only does it mean that perhaps they’re just a bunch of ordinary people after all, trying to push the right buttons and muddling through.  It also makes it all the sweeter when everything does fall into place, and another modern classic is born.

Danni Glover on Magic Mike XXL

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“You audibly gasped when he came onscreen.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In hindsight, seeing the year’s most enjoyable picture with my fiancé was a controversial choice, but neither of us were really up for seeing Ted 2 and we reasoned that as the first one was a Soderbergh, Magic Mike XXL could feasibly be considered “art”. Incidentally, it was the gasp-inducing beauty of Donald “It’s okay, you can touch” Glover that caused my cinema etiquette infraction, and as I’ve explained before it’s simply practical for me to fancy him because if he and I got married (hear me out) there would be no discussion about me changing my name and therefore it would be Feminist.

It turns out that it wasn’t “art”, like Michelangelo’s David. It was pornography, like Michelangelo’s David. Like all good pornographies, it has the flimsiest of plots (“Let’s get the band back together, do molly, and strip”), plenty of foreplay, and women making noises not usually known in the human register. Like all great works of cinema, it deals with diverse conflicts (“My penis is just too big”, “I can’t decide whether to be a topless carpenter or a fully nude dancer”, “Our stripper routines no longer accurately represent us as men,”). It’s a male stripper movie that’s also there for queer culture; a scene featuring a vogueing competition in a gay club with a cameo from drag queen Vicky Vox is refreshingly absent of “no homo” undertones, and has a bravado turn from Kevin Nash, which I’m sure wasn’t his first time at a ball. Jada Pinket-Smith, who is definitely neither a swinger nor a closeted bisexual, arguably gives the film’s sexiest and most revolutionary performance, flirting with Channing Tatum, Elizabeth Banks, and the viewer, and glorifying the female gaze with an explicitness and a confidence I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on screen before. I’m here for it! I’m here for every moment of Magic Mike XXL, because I am a queen who deserves to be worshipped. Frankly the only criticism I have is that I couldn’t see it in 3D or D-Box.

Matthew Turner on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

I saw A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night at the Glasgow Film Festival in February and knew immediately that it would be my favourite film of the year. A stunning debut from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, the film is a slow-burning, bittersweet romance between Persian James Dean-alike loner Arash (Arash Marandi) and a skate-boarding teenage female vampire (American actress Sheila Vand as The Girl) in the fictional Iranian mean streets of Bad City. Shot in stylish black and white, the film recalls the early work of Jim Jarmusch and is packed with cinematic references to everything from the French New Wave and spaghetti westerns to David Lynch and Murnau’s Nosferatu, yet it remains very much its own thing and never feels derivative.

Vand, for her part, is extraordinary in the film, exuding a sort of other-worldly physicality that is mesmerising to watch, while Amirpour gives her a number of instantly iconic scenes, whether it’s skate-boarding down the street with her chador billowing behind her like a cape, emerging silently from the shadows to stalk a victim or, in the film’s best moment, biting off a pimp’s finger and using the blood to paint lipstick on his lips. All the above elements would be enough on their own, but the film also boasts a) a strong feminist theme (it was billed as “the first Iranian feminist vampire western”), b) the coolest soundtrack of the year and c) a scene-stealing cat called Masuka, who features in the film’s purrrr-fect [RLY? – ed] final shot.

At the time of writing, my Top Ten for 2015 is as follows:

  1. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
  2. Carol
  3. Whiplash
  4. Mommy
  5. AAAAAAAAH!
  6. Ex-Machina
  7. Mad Max: Fury Road
  8. Inside Out
  9. Appropriate Behaviour
  10. Inherent Vice, tied with The Martian

Helen Archer on Diary of a Teenage Girl

There is a moment in Diary of a Teenage Girl when our heroine lollops up a typically steep San Franciscan hill, leaning forward, all loose-legs and awkward gait, her hands resting on the straps of her backpack, which for me utterly encapsulates the guilelessness of youth.

In a commercialised culture focused largely on a target audience of men and boys, where exploitative representations of women still proliferate, honest cinematic depictions of girlhood are hard to come by.  Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel by first time writer/director Marielle Heller, with animation by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, Diary is a full-on female affair, and all the better for it.

Bel Powley plays Minnie, a mid-70s fifteen year old with a fearless craving for experience, a nascent creativity, and an obsession with Iggy Pop and the cartoons of Aline Kominsky. Living in a flat with her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and sister Gretel, a femaleness permeates the film so completely that you can almost smell the menstruation blood – the hormones become a physical presence, as though the oestrogen is leaking straight from the cinema screen.

Entering that wholly female sphere, and upsetting the already fraught mother/daughter relationship, with its competitiveness and envy on each side, is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), Charlotte’s current squeeze. Here is a man who, despite being in his mid-30s, is so endearingly dumb, so sweetly stupid, that he is exactly as we would imagine our teen idols to be should they jump off the poster and into our bedroom. We can hardly blame Minnie for her burgeoning sexual obsession with him.

Yet, weirdly, we cannot either really blame Monroe for his affair with Minnie. He is a weak and childlike man, and the relationship, beneath the drug taking and the sex, is disconcerting in its very innocence: It almost feels as though she is taking advantage of him. There is a role reversal going on here, most apparent in the acid trip they take, him reverting to a wailing toddlerhood, she doing the comforting – the child takes care of the adult; the power balance is skewed.

Ultimately Monroe is a cipher, and Minnie’s dalliance with him is not about him at all, but about her relationship with her mother and with herself. Her coming of age is thereby wrestled firmly away from the male gaze and given its own autonomy.

The film belongs to Powley, and it is difficult to overstate how terrific her performance is. We see her world through her huge, wide-set eyes, as she emerges from her chrysalis without a generic makeover in sight. This is a rite of passage film in which the main character emerges not superficially changed, but with self knowledge and with an understanding of her own place in the world: and as such it is completely joyous and revelatory.

Scout Tafoya on 45 Years

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, while beautiful, good natured and sensitively composed, didn’t make me think I was watching one of the most intelligent young filmmakers in the world. 45 Years, his latest, is unprecedented, boffo cinema. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, doing their best work since the start of their careers, play a married couple who suddenly have a rail driven between them after decades of marriage. Haigh turns their relationship into a haunted house while an air of dread falls over Rampling that she can’t shake when alone or surrounded by friends. She can’t trust her memories any longer and feels betrayed by the comfort she once felt in her own home. It’s a beautiful ploy on Haigh’s part. We don’t need to know much about the specificities of their marriage because its foundations are eroded in front of us. The clues we get about what may have worked for them over the last 45 years are now cruel echoes of happiness that sound like the laughter of a vengeful ghost.

Haigh turns every sound, every closing of a door, into an evil omen, a warning that the past will catch up with her sooner than she imagines. 45 Years presents a horrific dichotomy for her to grapple with: leap the hurdle placed in front of her by a husband suddenly beset by personality crises or die alone. And yet Haigh doesn’t toy with her, doesn’t set her up as a lamb led all film long towards slaughter. He feels for her, supports her, treats each realisation with the right mix of fear and sadness. 45 Years, though only grammatically a horror film in a few perfect seconds (including one where a slide projector becomes Jack Torrance’s typewriter), flirts with the ideas of horror cinema. It knows that there could be nothing more frightening than sharing a home with a man who, after half a century, became a stranger, a pod person, a replacement, a phantom.

(to finish, a top 10 of new British films seen by Scout in 2015)

  • 45 Years
  • The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
  • Miss Julie
  • Catch Me Daddy
  • Ex Machina
  • The Woman In Black: The Angel of Death
  • The Duke of Burgundy
  • Black Sea
  • Paddington
  • Shaun The Sheep

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4 thoughts on “MostlyFilm’s Best of 2015: Movies

  1. “He is a weak and childlike man, and the relationship, beneath the drug taking and the sex, is disconcerting in its very innocence: It almost feels as though she is taking advantage of him. ”

    Really really really? And from you? It seems so impossible; I really should see the film.

  2. Yes, it’s what makes it so great and interesting. She’s no victim, he’s no predator (what he’s lacking is essentially a moral core, not just wrt this affair but in general) there aren’t any real moral judgements, she completely owns her experience. I loved it.

  3. I think it’s also why men don’t love this film as much as women (at least in the reviews I’ve seen) – men want sex to be something that happens to women, they want it to be all about them, and they thereby deny women and girls their own sexual agency. This reclaims it.

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