Top 10 of 2015
Carol is a movie that breathes. Within each richly textured shot, meaningful glance, swell of music and elegant delivery of dialogue, director Todd Haynes has us by the heart strings and doesn’t let go until the final, exultant scene. It is not difficult to become fully immersed in the journey of these lovers, in particular Therese (Rooney Mara), as her self-discovery unfolds in a very organic and effortless way. The characters are nuanced, the story well-refined, and the style and direction striking. I loved, in particular, the director’s frequent use of characters shot through glass, a simple technique which perfectly allegorizes the flourishing transparency of Carol and Therese’s relationship, at a time when this openness would be regarded as greatly taboo.
We are in the upsurge of a horror renaissance, after so many years of disappointing and formulaic output within this tricky genre. It Follows is a lovingly crafted piece of filmmaking, clearly influenced by the master John Carpenter in its score, style, originality and overall suffocating sense of dread and paranoia, which grows slowly throughout. Director David Robert Mitchell employs a myriad of skillful and often genuinely surprising techniques to scare, and a fairly straightforward but well-executed premise. Like a Carpenter movie it is rife with subtexts, aching to be unpicked, whilst still being a thrilling and unpredictably fun ride. And like 2014’s The Babadook, its strong performances from a cast of understated actors catapult us far away from the one-dimensional torture-fodder of horror movies past, and into daring new realms. It’s an exciting time to be a horror fan.
A bold and comically jet-black exercise in the most cutting-edge of satire, The Lobster is a wonderfully surreal exploration of modern romantic relationships and the lengths people will go to in order to formulate (or avoid) them. Although the film is set in a dystopian future, it is strangely and stiffly old-fashioned thanks to its Hotel setting and general ‘Britishness’, and its solid cast of mostly British actors sink with ease into their deadpan performances and the plot’s enveloping cynicism. Its somber integration of classical music is as unflinchingly jarring as its editing, juxtaposing shock and placidity in all the right places. It is warmer and more accomplished than director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous works, thanks to its self-aware sense of humour and energetic pacing. Easily one of the year’s most avant-garde pieces of cinema.
Tangerine is a movie with genuine heart. On the surface it appears a totally mad, John-Waters-esque dramedy about transgender prostitutes seeking revenge on a cheating lover/pimp in Hollywood, however beneath all its frank lewdness and crazed characters is an honest story about friendship, and staying true to yourself. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film winds dizzyingly in and out of donut shops, brothels, motels, bathrooms, laundromats and the back seat of a taxi, to give us a completely mesmerizing and immersive experience. Real-life trans actors Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor plummet themselves headfirst into the spectacle and although their performances are completely in-your-face, both manage to bring heart and warmth to the film in its subtler moments. It’s a wild and expectation-shattering ride, but once you’re accustomed to the film’s slightly deranged flow, you’ll be laughing all the way through.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a poignant, beautifully melancholic insight into one woman’s solitary existence, extending down a path of obsession and quiet madness. Kumiko escapes the bustling alienation of Tokyo life and plunges herself into a snowy adventure across seas; the story is strange and often very sad, but also punctuated with moments of childlike hope and humour. We see the world through Kumiko’s innocent eyes and introverted temperament as she interacts with those that try and help her along her quest. David Zellner’s direction and the film’s cinematography is stunning, with each frame composed in layers of dreamy minimalism and densely still atmosphere. The sound design and daring use of silence adds a deeper shade, and an atmospheric score encapsulates Kumiko’s personality, and loneliness. It’s a film that will no doubt stay with you.
Unbridled intensity permeates Whiplash from start to finish. Like a drum solo, every moment counts, every beat adding a layer, every aspect of each performance a part of the film’s boundless energy. J.K. Simmons’ award-winning portrayal of a militant music teacher has already been showered in praise by critics and audiences, and it’s difficult to picture any other actor bringing the same level of strength and ferocity to the role. The screenplay, pacing and editing all add to the film’s dynamism, as does the sound mixing, which balances all the intensity and drama in the film’s louder moments deftly with the more subdued intervals. All of this makes for an incredibly visceral and unique experience, utilizing all of the elements of great filmmaking.
Girlhood/Bande de filles
The bonds between teenage girls are some of the strongest and most life-altering, and director Céline Sciamma encapsulates this strength in its entirety with Girlhood, placing us right at the heart of a gang of no-hopes residing in a rough neighbourhood of suburban Paris. Our protagonist, Marieme, has to prove herself in order to place within an often vicious heirarchy, gaining in the process confidence, friends and battle scars. Her transition from innocent youth to swift adulthood is symbolized beautifully in the film’s lavish use of colour, with blues and turquoises through to reds and purples drenching every scene. The characters are fully realised, with performances that are grounded in effortless realism (the French, in my opinion, really do accomplish this best). Laughter and tears are likely upon viewing, as universal themes of love, maturity and friendship are stunningly depicted.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Here is a film which subverts expectations, proving that big-budget action blockbusters can be creative, unconventional and intelligent. Mad Max: Fury Road is just that: mad and furious. Veteran director George Miller takes great care in constructing every frame and crafting mind-popping chase sequences, using practical effects and rapid editing to take us on a breathtaking journey. Aesthetically, the film has a pleasingly grimy look, insane costume and prop design and a rich colour palette, making it stylistically exhilirating. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron both bring their A-game, completely shunning action-movie archetypes and gender portrayals. Everything that’s great about the film propels it to a level of originality and unpredictability that has been missing from the genre for a long, long time.
The story of Sicario is one that has been explored in many different forms already, in film and TV: the war against drugs, told from the POV of an idealistic FBI agent as her task force takes on the Mexican drug cartel. The reason Sicario feels fresh, though, is its decision to make this a very human story; every character is given a face, the violence and death in the film is used sparingly and conscientiously, and ‘bad’ and ‘good’ is never clear-cut. Everyone is corrupt in some way. Everyone has an alterior motive. The tension throughout the film is built slowly, in layers like its characters, and the pacing and sound feels like that of a Western. The cinematography, too, implements a great sense of depth in its delineation of the richly sandy-toned landscapes and watercolour sunsets of the setting. The film is extremely slick, all of the actors involved playing it cool, and it is never immediately apparent what is around the next corner.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Multi-faceted characters, hallucinogenic animation and a sharply written script make for a joyous dive into the realms of girlhood and growing up in 1970s San Francisco. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is open, frank in its revelations about the teenage girl’s troublesome mind, and is likely to make some viewers a little uncomfortable due to its unabridged honesty. It is, however, a fun and endearing trip, and thanks to its strong cast (Kristen Wiig, in particular is excellent as Minnie’s mother) we are gleefully along for the ride. The film has a refreshingly feminine tone but its gender portrayals are grounded in equality and each character is well-rounded. There is genuine passion at its core, love in every scene, and director Marielle Heller expertly casts insight into Minnie’s haywire life and sometimes cringe-inducing difficulties with complete ease.