It’s that time of the year again, when ten billion bloggers tell you their favourite films of the past twelve months. As if you care. I don’t always bother with this, but this year I’m doing it purely as a public service, in case you may have overlooked some of these movies, or passed over because they sounded naff, plus there’s at least one that you won’t have seen unless you live in Francophone territory – I’m posting notice of it here, to give you something to watch out for, and also as part of a desperate attempt to make this selection slightly different from everyone else’s.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy these as much as I did, but I get the impression some critics think it has been a poor year for cinema. Me, I think it was a bloody good year. I suspect it’s not unrelated that of the fifteen films listed here, eight had female protagonists and four had unusually strong female supporting characters. Only one had no female roles worth speaking of.
I didn’t choose any of these films for that reason, specifically, but you’d have to be an empathy-free MRA hardliner to let the gender of the leading players put you off. Some of my favourite films – The Thing, King of New York, The Wild Bunch, Master and Commander spring to mind – aren’t exactly brimming with Great Roles for Women, and I’ve never held that against them.
Avril et le monde truqué
Or: April and the Extraordinary World. The official English title of this French animation loses something in the translation; I’m not sure I can think of a better one, but something like Avril and the Alternative World or World Turned Upside-Down might be slightly more descriptive. Any other ideas, French speakers?
Spunky scientist heroine (with Marion Cotillard’s voice) searches for her grandpa (Jean Rochefort) in an alternative steampunk Paris (two Eiffel Towers!) in a 1941 France ruled by Napoleon V. Written by the creators of the original Snowpiercer BD and designed by BD maestro Tardi (creator of Adèle Blanc-Sec), science meets science fiction in an agreeably twisty plot featuring a talking cat, more than a dash of Jules Verne, and action that veers off into some truly surreal territory I can’t even begin to describe because spoilers. It’s a lot of fun.
My favourite Michael Mann film since Heat and The Insider is a cyberthriller, love story and caper movie rolled into one, with a loathsome villain, terrific shootouts, and some hi-tech/abstract Moments of Wonder worthy of Philomena Cunk. I love how Mann pushes the boundaries of video into unexpectedly beautiful areas.
And Chris Hemsworth gets great backing from Wei Tang and Viola Davis. Mann has never operated in girly genres, but he has always gone out of his way to try and make his female characters more than just generic wives, girlfriends and kidnap victims; his efforts haven’t always come off, but they work splendidly here.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The title promises something fluffy and cute, but Marielle Heller’s assured writing-directing debut is an honest female coming-of-age yarn set in 1975 San Francisco, and features drugs, nudity and underage sex – without being in any way judgemental. The 15-year-old protagonist (an ace performance from Bel Powley) explores her sexuality by embarking on an affair with her mom’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), but it soon becomes clear she’s the more adult half of this relationship. The past is a foreign country – not for prudes.
Anachronisms in films set in my own lifetime make me bristle, but language, props and period design never put a foot wrong here; there’s a groovy soundtrack featuring Television, The Stooges and Nico; and also a nice cat (white with black spots) called Domino. Played by Willie. Doesn’t do much, but is adorable.
The Duke of Burgundy
All those would-be sophisticates who whinged about the awfulness of 50 Shades of Grey should have gone instead to see Peter Strickland’s beguiling all-female erotic fantasy, in which the fetishistic relationship between a dominant mistress and her submissive slave takes some unexpected and intriguing turns, some of them involving lepidoptery.
Its mysterious closed-off world reminded me of early live-action Borowzyck (particularly Goto, Isle of Love), it echoes the slightly sinister imagery of José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres, Symptoms) and the soft shimmer of 1970s European eroticism such as Le rempart des Béguines, Nelly Kaplan’s Néa, or Catherine Breillat’s early work (Bilitis – which she scripted – and Une vraie jeune fille). But as you can see, I’m flailing around, because Strickland’s film is a long way from pastiche – it’s sui generis, a glorious one-off which is sexy, sly and very funny.
Lovely soundtrack too.
Andrew Haigh’s relationship drama is essentially a showcase for Charlotte Rampling, who knocks it out of the park as one half of a middle-class couple who suddenly has to face that everything she thought about her forty-five year marriage to Tom Courtenay might have been a sham.
The scenario may be specific, but the emotions here are universal, and quietly devastating.
This woozy, intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is the first Paul Thomas Anderson film that has inspired anything in me other than detached admiration. Inherent Vice is a time machine; watching it in 70mm is like smoking a big fat joint and being transported into a world when sex was actually sexy, and also kind of dirty, not at all like the sterile publicity stunt to which it seems to have been reduced by modern practitioners of “Reality TV” and insta-celebs.
It’s also an example of one of my very favourite things – the melancholy private eye, up to his neck in a case that’s not so much a whodunnit as a ritual that reveals as much about him (and by extension, us) as it does about the society or the city in which he dwells (see also The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown).
And, in a year of glorious soundtracks, Jonny Greenwood’s bittersweet Hanson-esque score is probably the most beautiful.
A haunting slasher movie in which the “slasher” takes many forms and might represent (take your pick) sex, adulthood, disease, death, life itself. What will happen to you is inevitable; it may take time, but it will happen, sooner or later, and your only compensation is that you don’t have to face it alone.
David Robert Mitchell’s no-budget, back-to-basics teen horror movie reminds us that long takes, deliberate pacing, unflinching widescreen and careful framing will scare the bejeesus out of you far more than amount of flashy editing, wobblicam and sudden loud blasts of soundtrack. It’s like a Gregory Crewdson photograph of ghostly suburbs come to life.
Dilapidated downtown Detroit, to which the story eventually decamps, is becoming quite the modish movie location; it also features in Only Lovers Left Alive and Lost River.
And the soundtrack is another corker.
In our society, to be half of a couple is seen as an eminently desirable goal, one leading to marriage and children – the traditional family unit which is perceived as the rock on which society is based, hence the flourishing industry of dating services and the social rituals (parties, nightclubs, dating and so on) around which a large part of teenage and young adult life is based. Popular culture (music, films, novels, TV shows, fashion) preaches the desirability of the two-person unit so relentlessly one might almost suspect an organised conspiracy, but the picture it holds up only reflects what people want to believe – that no-one is truly alone in the world, that there is a perfect match for everyone, that they themselves are a desirable human being, attractive and important enough to occupy someone’s thoughts. In short, that they have worth, and their lives have meaning. The romantic couple is often seen as two halves of a whole, linked by love, while the single man or woman is to be pitied as unloved, barren, eccentric, an outsider. (Let the Right One In: Devil’s Advocates by Anne Billson – Auteur Publishing, 2011)
As someone who has spent more of their adulthood unattached than as half of a couple, the very premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’s strange, surreal drama appealed to me before I’d even seen the film. Society according to Lanthimos obliges single people to check into a hotel to find a mate; if they fail within the allotted period, they are transformed into the animal of their choice.
The deliberately stilted faux-naif acting style of (which this film has in common with Lanthimos’s other films) only makes it even more bizarre, an absurdist allegory for our times. I’ve read complaints that the film goes downhill when it quits the hotel to depict life in the forest with the rebellious singles, but I found this a necessary part of the picture, one that throws the more amusing first half into relief.
It digs deep into dark parts of the human psyche, maybe even deeper than we realise; it’s thought-provoking, often very funny, and Colin Farrell is outstanding as the protagonist.
Mad Max: Fury Road
I overheard two Belgian adolescents discussing Mad Max: Fury Road on the tram.
Ado A: C’est le mec qui a joué Bane.
Ado B: Pain?
Ado A: Non, BANE. “Pain” c’est la douleur.
My Top Three Charlize Theron Performances: 3) Arrested Development 2) Mad Max: Fury Road 1) Young Adult.
The transcript of my 1986 interview with George Miller, in which he talks about Mad Max, Tina Turner and heroines.
Two cops hunt for missing girls in and around the spectacularly photogenic wetlands of Andalucía in post-Franco Spain. Alberto Rodríguez’s terrific noir thriller is everything the first season of True Detective promised to be but didn’t quite pull off. In other words – a thriller that mixes its thrills and spectacular landscapes with an implicit state-of-the-nation address and superbly realised characters who turn out to have more layers than an onion.
Not a lot of Great Roles for Women – they’re mostly victims here – but at least the film treats them with respect and extends fierce sympathy to their quest for a better life.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
If you were bothered by Bryce Dallas Howard’s high heels in Jurassic World, watch Rebecca Ferguson slipping hers off in M:I – RN – all the better to participate in the action. I enjoyed this Mission: Impossible movie more than any other Mission: Impossible movie since the first one; it’s exciting, fleet-footed and intriguing – everything Spectre was not. It’s also less of a Tom Cruise One-Man Show than earlier films in the franchise – there’s some nice teamwork here, and Cruise (one of the film’s producers as well as its star) gallantly allows his leading lady to grab at least half of the spotlight.
Other highlights: it’s not the woman who gets kidnapped! There are gratifying large chunks of a production of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera (not chopped into edited highlights, like Tosca in Quantum of Solace)! It’s heavily implied during a harum-scarum car chase that at least some of Tom Cruise’s reckless driving is due to his having sustained brain damage by oxygen deprivation!
Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig talk about men – but they talk even more about art, dreams, ambition, pretentiousness, all the things male characters regularly talk about but female ones do all too rarely. This evokes my years as a pretentious art student more accurately than anything I’ve seen since Art School Confidential.
Noah Baumbach’s comedy of Manhattan manners (co-written by him and Gerwig) is funny, girly, madcap, annoying and delightful. Also features some nice cats. (“Are those my fucking cats?”)
Our Little Sister (Unimachi Diary)
After the death of their father, three sisters invite their 13-year-old half-sister to come and live with them in their old house in Kamakura. This adaptation of Akima Yoshida’s manga doesn’t have the commercial story hook of Hirokazu Koreeda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son or I Wish, and those with ADD or not attuned to the rhythms of everyday life in Japan will very likely be bored out of their skulls.
But Koreeda, surely the nearest thing Japanese cinema has to an heir to Ozu, has perfected the art of nothing much (apparently) happening, and the rest of us welcome the chance to spend a couple of hours in a gentler, kinder world. I wept. I also counted at least fourteen scenes of food preparation and/or eating (Koreeda’s films are full of this), which made me very, very hungry.
This Spierig brothers’ adaptation of a Robert Heinlein short story (All You Zombies – don’t read it till you’ve seen the movie) is like a low-budget Australian Looper with a dash of Gattaca. Ethan Hawke tends bar, Sarah Snook delivers a career-making performance. This is a real mind-fuck, and the less you know about it going in, the better.
For every gag that falls flat that are several that don’t, and Paul Feig (The Heat, Bridesmaids) once again proves himself a Champion of Funny Women with this espionage thriller in which the McGuffin is stolen nukes. It’s sub-Bond, but Spy is a better action movie than Spectre, and there are times in your life when you’re just happy to watch Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne and Jason Statham goofing around and trading obscenities.
My favourite bit: the corridor of the Paris hotel – a riotous assembly of sleazy hotel corridor clichés.
When Marnie Was There should have been on this list, but by the time I remembered it, I’d run out of puff.
I also enjoyed: Bridge of Spies, El Club, Foxcatcher, Hard to be a God, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Shaun the Sheep, Suburra and Wild Tales.
Coming up soon: Hell Multiplex: My Least Favourite Films of 2015.