Monday, 21 December 2015

Review of 2015: Cinema - 15 Favourite Films

While only a handful of theatre productions (Everyman, Play Mas, Pig Girl, French Without Tears, Now This is Not the End) made an impression on me this year, 2015 turned out to be a fairly strong year for cinema, overall. Sure, UK distribution remains in a pretty sorry state, Hollywood gets lazier and more risk-averse … yet, against all odds, filmmakers keep producing gems: mostly, it must be said, in languages other than English.

I was very happy to attend  Cannes for the first time this year, even if the Festival offered a solid rather than a truly spectacular line-up on this occasion. (You can read my full coverage here). Quality control was considerably  more sustained at the emotional roller-coaster that was this year's unforgettable Gdynia Film Festival, where much of the most creative and rewarding work I saw all year was screened.  

That being said, this year's Kinoteka was stronger on classics than new films, but the modest Cinema Made in Italy season at least gave Londoners their only chance to catch Ermanno Olmi’s haunting WWI miniature, Greenery Will Bloom Again (Torneranno i prati). London Film Festival itself boasted a pretty strong line-up that cherry-picked the best offerings of other major fests and included some premieres of its own. Having heralded 2015 as “the year of the strong woman” (a categorisation I address a little bit in my piece on the Opening Night film Suffragette), the LFF made sure to award its top prize to a female director on this occasion. Yet the choice - Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a fitfully amusing yet ultimately rather thin satire on male competitiveness featuring no women in the cast - seemed to tell its own story: namely that, as in the literary sphere, awards these days are more likely to go to female artists who make men the protagonists of their work.

A few films that coulda been contenders in my own 'Top 15' missed out for one reason or another. Inside Out was undoubtedly the screening with the best bonhomie at Cannes, and it’s one I look back on fondly. But the more problematic aspects of the movie – most cogently outlined by Sophie Mayer in her characteristically incisive piece on the film – weren’t quite mitigated for me by its surface cleverness. John Crowley’s hugely likeable Brooklyn stayed sensitive and strong for most of its duration but was marred by a finale that I seem to be alone in finding rushed, contrived and fake. By contrast, Todd Haynes’s fawned-over Carol worked its way to a great ending, had the year’s best score, and moments of exquisite beauty, yet the softening and simplifying of the central relationship made the film emotionally unsatisfying and rather frustrating in the last analysis. On the other hand, I was very pleased to see Tom Browne’s brilliant debut film Radiator (which came out in the UK in the same week as Carol) finally getting a much-deserved cinema release. Browne’s film made my list last year. Without further ado, here’s this year’s set.

Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies)
Following his rather botched adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea, it was especially pleasing to find Terence Davies back on peak form once again here, with a spell-binding take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic that entered deeply into the soul of the novel and emerged as pure cinema. Hypnotic, deeply affecting and crowned by a superb performance by Agyness Deyn,  Sunset Song places the responsive viewer in what Roger Ebert once described as a “film reverie”, captivating with the rhythm of its images and the music of its voices, which prove pretty much impossible to shake off. 

11 Minutes (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski) 
Setting a diverse group of characters in motion in contemporary Warsaw, and charting their progress over the same 11 minutes of the day, Skolimowski‘s latest is a sensational city symphony that's equally alert to the quotidian and the ineffable. A jittery, poetic mosaic of urban experience, it's at once a warning, a wake-up call, and one helluva wild ride. Full review here.

Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhangke)
Brilliantly book-ended by Pet Shop Boys' version of “Go West,” Jia’s decades-spanning drama about Chinese diasporic experience opens on the cusp of the millennium and proceeds to unfold with the grace and subtle, cumulative power of a great novel, spinning out of a Fenyang love triangle an absorbing exploration of continuity and change, what’s recuperable  and what’s forever lost. Also recommended: Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang, an insightful and affectionate portrait of the filmmaker directed by Walter Salles. Full review here.

James White (dir. Josh Mond)
The latest film from the Borderline collective (the group comprising NYU alums Josh Mond, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin) again gives us hope for serious-minded American independent cinema, after all. As tightly coiled as Mountains May Depart is beautifully open and expansive, James White also places a mother/son relationship at its centre. But here that relationship is defined by proximity rather than distance, the film focusing on an NYC slacker (Christopher Abbott) caring for his dying mom (Cynthia Nixon).  A tenderer, kinder cousin to Campos’s great Simon Killer, James White finally narrows down to an intense duet for Abbott and Nixon that’s performed with absolute bravery, and features some of the year’s finest screen-writing, to boot. Bravo (again) Borderline Boys. Full review here.

Mediterranea (dir. Jonas Carpignano) 
Suggesting De Sica combined with Claire Denis, Carpignano made his  portrait of two African migrants attempting to adjust to their new life in Italy an atmospheric and deeply moving humanist drama. The subject matter could scarcely have been more timely yet, in its specificity, its depth and its bracing compassion, Mediterranea goes way beyond what a newspaper report might give us. Full review here.

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Altman attitudes. 70s spirit. Stoner poetry. The twistiest, most baffling of plots. Paul and Pynchon made a great, gonzo pairing, even if Owen Jones and quite a lot of other people didn't think so, the fools. Best P.T.A since Magnolia.

A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Also reflecting in a surprising way upon the migrant crisis, Luca Guadagnino turned his Pantelleria-set reworking of Jacques Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière’s 1969 La Piscine into a stylish and rather delicious take on the moral dubiousness of glamorous idling foreigners, with Tilda Swinton as a recuperating rock star, Matthias Schoenaerts as her lover, and Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson as the disruptive interlopers to their idyll. Blissfully entertaining, not without some political bite, and sexy as hell, the film boasts an unmissably outrageous, hilarious (and revealing...) performance from Fiennes as both the tale’s supreme hedonist and its moral conscience. Full review here.

Moje córki krowy (These Daughters of Mine) (dir. Kinga Dębska)
The overwhelming response at the end of the Musical Theatre screening of this was one of my favourite "audience moments" in 2015. Moje córki krowy won over a whole lot of us at Gdynia with its perceptive, tart yet generous and often laugh-out-loud funny take on family relations, and its brilliant performances. Everything that Mia Madre wasn't, basically. Full review here

Regarding Susan Sontag (dir. Nancy D Kates)
Avoiding the traps of either hagiography or hatchet job, Kates produced a rich, absorbing (and surprisingly funny) portrait of one of the greatest of American intellectuals that did justice both to the complexity of its subject’s personality, and to her epoch-defining work. The inclusion of Sontag-referencing clips from Bull Durham and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (yeah!) are but one indication that Kates knows exactly what she’s doing here. Best bit: a clip from this spectacularly awkward interview that captures Sontag at her sharpest, most contrarian and uningratiating best. 

Córki Dancingu (The Lure) (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska)

“Two mermaids walk into a Warsaw nightclub…” A deserved winner of the Best Debut prize at this year’s Gdynia, Agnieszka Smoczyńska's ingenious genre-hopper combines dreamy beauty, gory body horror, broad humour  and some great musical sequences to create a highly distinctive variant on the Hans Christian Andersen story  that ends up pretty far from Disney territory. Deserves to be widely seen in 2016. Full review here.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile (dir. Johanna Schwartz)
As direct as Timbuktu was fragmentary and impressionistic, Schwartz’s superb documentary  about the 2012 Islamic Jihadist takeover in Northern Mali conveyed righteous anger at  the oppressions inflicted, as it celebrated  the resilience of the artists affected.   

An (dir. Naomi Kawase)
So unfashionably earnest that it ends up feeling rather radical, Kawase’s latest is the oh so lovely account of the bonds  forged between three lonely souls; a  dorayaki seller, a teenage customer  and the elderly woman who comes to his stall in search of work. A restorative delight, An also boasts a darker thematic undercurrent involving state-sanctioned  prejudice that got carelessly overlooked by those who jumped to dismiss the film as way too sweet. Full review here


Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)
Like An, Love is Strange was also notable for its tenderness, Sachs delivering a wry and infinitely  touching portrait of a temporary separation enforced upon a couple (excellent Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) that was every bit as delicate as the Chopin featured on the soundtrack. Full review here.    

Body/Ciało (dir. Małgorzata Szumowska)
Szumowska’s most accomplished and best sustained work to date combines elements of detective drama, supernatural enquiry and deadpan black comedy, as it focuses on a widowed prosecutor, his anorexic teenage daughter, and the latter’s therapist, a spiritualist who believes that the family's matriarch is trying to make contact from beyond the grave. Terrific performances from veteran Janusz Gajos, newcomer Justyna Suwała and the ever-brilliant Maja Ostaszewska, and Szumowska’s quirky touches (“Śmierć w bikini”!) make this reason/faith face-off an idiosyncratic and appropriately haunting experience. Full review here and read my interview with Szumowska about the movie here

The Pearl Button (dir. Patricio Guzmán)
From oceanic mysteries to the brutality of the Pinochet regime via the fate of Patagonia’s indigenous tribes: no one does docs like Guzmán does docs. In his brilliant latest, the director once more transforms our ideas of nature, of politics, of history, of existence itself. (And all in 80 minutes.)  

Honourable Mentions: Greenery Will Bloom Again, Brooklyn,  Louder Than Bombs, Force Majeure, Something Better to Come, Son of Saul,  Evolution, My Nazi Legacy, Youth, Baby Bump, Carol, Cemetery of Splendour, Panie Dulskie, My Love Don’t Cross That River, The Lobster (first half only).   

Disappointments, duds: Desierto, The Daughter, The Falling, Manglehorn  

Still Unseen: 45 Years, It Follows, Arabian Nights, The Forbidden Room, Phoenix 


  1. Love is strange is the only one I saw ( and loved) must do better next time eh

    1. You must! LOVE IS STRANGE was great, though, wasn't it? I have a feeling you'll love A BIGGER SPLASH...

  2. Alex, no doubt knowing your excellent taste in movies the majority of the films chosen should all be in my 'must-see' list for 2016. This, of course, means I saw very few in 2015. I would just say of those mentioned that I have seen SUNSET SONG is the major disappointment of the year for me and is Davis' least interesting film to date. FORCE MAJEURE is one of a small handful of masterpieces I saw this year and would poll much higher with me and 45 YEARS is still probably the best film I have seen.

    1. MARTIN - Yes, it seems that a lot of people feel that way about SUNSET SONG, especially here in the UK. For me, it was totally hypnotic and very moving, and after being disappointed by THE DEEP BLUE SEA, I found it to be a real return to form for him. I can't believe I missed 45 YEARS - looking forward to catching it soon. Hope you can make it to Gdynia 2016! Saw so many wonderful films there this year.

  3. From your top 15, I've only seen Inherent Vice, which I didn't connect with except the enjoyable soundtrack. From your HMs, I really liked Force Majeure-very original.

    Your Still Unseen list, 45 Years is worth seeing. Phoenix on the other hand I disliked, a husband not able to recognize his wife's voice was implausible. Nowhere near as good as Barbara (2012)

    1. Thanks, Chris. Yes, a lot of people disliked INHERENT VICE but I found it to be such a strange and atmospheric '70s throwback, and about as perfect an adaptation of Pynchon as you could get. I just got a copy of 45 YEARS so look forward to watching it finally. I've heard mixed views on PHOENIX, from raves to pans. I liked BARBARA alot, too, and YELLA.