02 January 2016

My top 10 films of 2015

In 2015 I watched 174 films, a slightly more manageable total than the rather frenetic 199 in 2014. There was even time for basic hygiene and occasional glimpses of the sun! 2015 may not have been a vintage year for cinema, but the sample of films in this list shows that there was solid quality on offer in cinemas, ranging from animation to documentaries to sci-fi blockbusters and the odd drama.

10. Inside Out

The beauty of the animated world of Inside Out is not necessarily in its accomplished visual expertise, because high-quality animation is taken for granted now, particularly from Pixar. Nor does it lie in the talented voice acting, particularly from lead Amy Poehler (who is fast approaching national treasure status). Rather, it is because the film offers a pleasantly nuanced examination of a relatively humdrum premise - the upset caused to a young girl whose family moves from Minnesota to unfamiliar San Francisco, and how her emotional processes react to the challenge. That this is no sugar-coated cheer-sprinkled snow-job is a testament to courage in the filmmakers, and the ensuing lessons the film teaches about child development and emotional maturity are both welcome and deftly handled. If only they could have toned down the Jar-Jar-like annoyance of the imaginary friend character Bing-Bong all would have been perfect, but this is a small gripe when presented with a family film that is this solid, this mature.

9. Amy

For a recording artist who only produced two studio albums before her untimely death, Amy Winehouse left a larger-than-life mark on the music scene, stunning audiences with her peerless singing voice, emerging as a potential superstar and ultimately succumbing to the ravages of addiction and tabloid persecution. This biopic charts her rise and fall, making liberal use of personal video footage taken by friends and Winehouse herself. The portrayal of an addictive personality burdened with a talent that virtually guaranteed stardom is touching in that it provides equal time to the voices of the singer's loyal childhood girlfriends and confidants alongside those who through self-centredness, carelessness or inaction helped bring about Winehouse's early death, her young fragile body shattered by years of self-medication. In a clean patch near the end of her life, Winehouse is excited about plans for her next album and we are reminded of the enormous potential that has been lost - the natural songwriting talent that brought Back to Black to life would have travelled in many intriguing directions had she stayed in good health. There is a beautiful moment in the film around this time in 2008 when on stage in London at 2am to perform for the Grammy timeslot in Los Angeles the then 25-year-old Winehouse realises that her idol Tony Bennett is going to read out her name as the winner for Rehab. The utter captivation on her face is both riveting and heartbreaking, given what was to come later. Perhaps a little over-long at 128 minutes, and relying a little too often on swooping drone cityscapes as a link mechanism, Amy is solid documentary work with a fine heart, and brings a tragic figure to the screen in a sensitive and respectful fashion.

8. 13 Minutes (Elser)

The 13 minutes in the title is the time by which the ingenious bomb secreted by Georg Elser missed killing Hitler at a rally in 1939, in this true story of one of Germany's small number of rebels who defied Nazism. A small-town musician and carpenter, Elser was a Christian pacifist and apolitical as the Nazis seized power and conquered the German soul. As democracy and tolerance dissolve, Elser sees taking matters into his own hands as the only way to save Germany from itself. The facts of his failed attempt are on record, and the film opens with the bombing and Elser's almost immediate capture by the Nazis. Predictably horrible torture ensues, to extract both a confession and to implicate the non-existent Communist backers Hitler was certain were behind the elaborate plot. Fortunately for the squeamish, the film spends most of its time illustrating the transition from pre-war bystander to determined regicidal martyr, and it is these scenes of the grim descent into rampant Nazism that swept across Germany that are the most compelling. Throughout, Christian Friedel is unmissable as the charming, philandering Elser, an ordinary man driven by his innate humanity to extraordinary feats of bravery. And in one heart-stopping scene a massive close-up of Friedel's panicked eye is a shocking reminder of the power of the big screen that can never be replicated on television.

7. Sicario

I'm glad to have caught the US-Mexican crime thriller before it leaves the big screen, and can confirm Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin give the strong performances write-ups have highlighted. It was a wise choice to add Blunt to the mix, as an outsider both in terms of her character's profession (FBI officer) and as a woman embroiled in the predominantly male world of CIA south-of-the-border black ops. The film features a number of fine set-pieces, including the first scene's grim charnel-house discoveries, a Valkyrie-ride through the benighted streets of Juarez like an excerpt from Black Hawk Down, and desert crime scenes harking back to Brolin's No Country For Old Men role. There are moments of striking beauty too, such as the silhouettes of stalking special ops soldiers against a multi-hued dusk sky, that rival some of the best cinematography. And the brooding, thrumming semi-industrial soundtrack keeps the viewer on edge in a highly effective fashion.

These strong qualities, and the intriguing sense of moral ambiguity that Blunt's character Kate Macer encounters as she learns more about the way her government is choosing to fight the Mexican drug cartels, are somewhat offset by curious lulls in the plot that were presumably meant to ratchet up the tension even further - for example, a scene shot as if through night-vision goggles is surprisingly pedestrian. While Sicario lingers on the crime-ridden hellscape of the Mexican borderlands, there is only a single snippet of dialogue that reminds viewers that the entire cause of this bedlam is the US craving for illegal drugs and the mammoth failure of America's War on Drugs. All this crime, the film tells us, can only be dealt with by more crime. And without offering spoilers, the film's denouement is surprisingly far-fetched and even just a little bit silly - the final reel squanders some of the taut momentum developed to that point. Despite this, Sicario is a solid modern thriller, and definitely worth delving into.

6. The Ground We Won

So I still don't know exactly where Reporoa is, but after seeing this well-made New Zealand documentary following the town's rugby team through an entire season in the rural league, I learned that farming looks like bloody hard work, farmers swear like absolute tartars even in front of little children, and by Christ they don't half drink enormous amounts of piss. Seriously though, this is a marvelous glimpse inside the life of a group of amateurs who play, bond, drink, boast and crack wise without the camera ever seeming to be intrusive. The crisp black and white photography is sumptuously beautiful as it lingers on dawn fields wreathed in mist, the backs running their passing drills under floodlights, or a young buck dejected at a clubroom rejection. And by the end, jaded city folk might even come away thinking that farmers are almost human!

5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Young English actor Bel Powley lights up this compelling and brave feminist coming of age tale set in mid-1970s San Francisco, which is a welcome female-focused take on the traditional teenage male sexual journey. Testing all the boundaries by starting an affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), teenager Minnie flirts with adulthood but naturally encounters plenty of challenges as she discovers what she wants from sex, love, family and life. It's noticeable that despite the boyfriend acknowledging the problems of the ongoing relationship, those concerns revolve around the dishonesty to Minnie's mother (the wonderful Kristen Wiig) rather than, say, the moral and ethical quandary of having sexual relations with someone under the age of consent! Which is particularly alarming if you've read Nabokov's Lolita recently. But this is no victim tale: rather it offers hope, because whatever legendarily ill-advised mistakes and trials Minnie falls into, the film makes it clear that despite her youth, she is well and truly in charge of her own life and these experiments will only inform the rich adulthood that is just around the corner.

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Since I've written about this so recently, here's a link to the review instead. But suffice to say, this is super big-screen fun.

3. Inherent Vice

By rights a two-and-a-half hour film with an often baffling plot and a lead actor whose dialogue is frequently incomprehensible should be an experience of cinematic torture. Why then did I find Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice such a thrilling watch? All the way through this puzzling, hilarious, fascinating film I felt like Tim Robbins in The Player was chanting, "It's The Big Lebowski meets Chinatown!", and Inherent Vice has every bit as much charm and intrigue as those two memorable and influential classics.

Joaquin Phoenix's hippie stoner PI could easily have crashed an burned on screen, but he inhabits Pynchon's role with just the right balance of wry humour and chemical befuddlement to inspire a thousand undergraduate cult viewings. The early-70s setting was perfectly pitched, and I was reminded of the most dialled-down subtlety of Quentin Tarantino's under-rated Jackie Brown, in that the decade isn't used as a throwback gimmick to freight the goings-on with kitsch nostalgia, but rather as a valuable backdrop to an off-kilter, counter-culture take on the hoary old crime investigation flick.

Unsurprisingly, Anderson has assembled a great supporting cast around Phoenix, and Katherine Waterston in particular gives a stand-out performance, particularly in one powerful, drawn-out monologue delivered to Phoenix's serially recumbent detective Sportello. Critics might argue the film is uneven, lurching from comedy to drama to thriller across its running time, but for me Inherent Vice had all the hallmarks of a modern classic that will be rewatched for years to come, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but certainly for all the right ones.

2. The Martian

A winning example of populist film-making with a serious intellectual bent, The Martian is this year's Gravity - and isn't it noticeable what a renaissance the sci-fi blockbuster is going through at the moment? Apart from the gripping story, told straight with no flab and no frills, one of my favourite aspects of The Martian is that its focus is on the heroism of, wait for it, nerds. Nerds In Space! Just about everyone in this film is a complete nerd, and this is a completely great thing. No blasting space aliens with massive guns, no gratuitous space shagging, just solid bulkhead-to-bulkhead astrophysics, applied biology and on-the-fly engineering. Not since Apollo 13 has a DIY in space film conveyed the harshness of life far from Earth, where anything could and usually does try to kill you in a dozen ways.

It's one of those films that benefits from being seen on the best possible screen, with expertly-designed 3D effects and splashes of awe-inspiring sonic atmosphere. Mars itself is bleak and beautiful, perhaps quite a bit more 'red' than in the actual images, to liven up the colour palette, and when castaway astronaut Watney (Matt Damon) drives his rover across the vast uninhabited wadis and valles of Mars there is certainly a hint of the lavish widescreen treatment of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

One pleasing aspect of this centre of nerdly excellence is the Star Trek-like multicultural vibe, which also harks back to the Cold War era writing of Arthur C Clarke; it's great to see actual international cooperation and nerds of many colours, when 'space' on the big screen tends to be inhabited mainly by white, middle class American males. You do have to wonder how many films will include respectful (even kowtowing?) nods to China in future, with that burgeoning filmgoing market in mind.

And as in the pop hit Guardians of the Galaxy, nostalgic music cues are peppered without, as Watney delves into the 70s-heavy music collection left behind by his mission commander. It does eschew the obvious Bowie reference of Life on Mars? but I have to confess tearing up a little at the extended use of 1971's Starman. This motif could get old quickly, so other filmmakers take note - and perhaps Ridley Scott might have noted that despite the title, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive is about escaping an abusive relationship... perhaps not the vibe they were aiming for. But this is a very minor quibble, because The Martian is proper brainy cinematic fun.

1. Our Little Sister

Hirokazu Kore-eda's wonderful family drama is a typically gentle and compelling glimpse of three adult sisters who invite their newly-met 15-year-old half-sister to live with them. As with the other Hirokazu films I've seen, it feels like a privilege getting to know the utterly beguiling and believable characters portrayed on screen. He has perfected the delicate balance of film-making with complex but appealing characters that draw audiences in, wanting to know more about their lives and aspirations. Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood last year, this is a film I didn't want to end, and with three well-nigh perfect films in a row (see also I Wish, Like Father Like Son), Hirokazu's work is amongst the most impressive being made today. And with a cast of four main female actors and plenty of female associates, Our Little Sister certainly passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.

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