Who said unusual, creative movies can’t still garner major awards attention, including the Best Picture Oscar no less? This Charlie Kaufman-esque satire blends life, art, fiction, reality, fame, the layers of the human psyche and a lot more while attacking just about anyone its splatter-gun approach can target, from Hollywood juggernauts to bitter theatre critics. Granted, it’s often got too many ideas for its own good, and with its attempt to compare Raymond Carver naturalism against blockbuster superhero franchises, or its casual intellectual namedrops (Roland Barthes anyone?), it’s never exactly sure this film is as profound and meaningful as it perhaps thinks it is. But that’s not the point, because momentum is the keyword here, and from Lubezki’s handheld takes (cleverly post-edited to seem like one long loop), the percussion jazz score, and the intensely committed performances, everything is there to entice us to keep ticking along to the film’s brio and panache. Sit back, enjoy being propelled into the ride, and witness what might very well be the film to bring about a Keaton-aissance (inspired casting) to rival McConaughey’s.
Due to the challenges of making films in Africa, Abderrahmane Sissako has made just three feature films in 13 years, but all have been deeply impressive in different ways. When watching Timbuktu it is clear that no other filmmaker could make such a graceful film about a topic as increasingly terrifying and anger-inducing as the barbaric rule of draconian Islamic fundamentalists. Here the focus is, rather than on the Middle East, on Mali where the titular town was occupied by militant Islamists, reminding us that West Africa too is victim to these deluded radicals.
Kidane is a young cowherder, who lives on the margins of the town with daughter and wife, but is drawn into the fundamentalists’ grasp due to a clash with another farmer that goes badly wrong (the raw primality of this scene in a widescreen long shot is one stunning defining-point of the film). Around this central tale, Sissako takes in the injustices perpetrated by these soulless men hungry for power but deprived of any sense of inner peace, especially towards women. But they are not mere sadistic villains, otherwise there would be no hope of understanding them as a phenomenon, so Sissako also paints their human side, their doubts, their weaknesses, their secret conversations about football even though they impose a ban on the game, or their baffled silence when a defiant fishmonger refuses to take her gloves off. The net result is a cry of anguish and injustice at what is happening, yet still somehow lucid and compassionate rather than angry or bitter.
8. Wild Tales
Backed by the Almodóvar brand-name as exec-producer, this Argentine omnibus of six independent stories of espresso-black humour managed to be funnier, and yes wilder, than anything the estimable Spaniard has directed himself for a long time. The segments vary in genre register and in quality (everyone will have their own favourites), but a twisted, absurdist tone is a constant factor across all six. Each follows characters who have been wronged, and who all explode – be it due to personal breakdowns, a need for revenge, or exasperation at hitting a bureaucratic brick wall – in various, but equally spectacular, fashion. Sometimes, we all need to lose control and stage an affront against the social and moral barriers which otherwise keep us in check, so for the most part our sympathies and laughs coincide with these rampaging crusaders… Be it the viciously and unexpectedly funny opening prologue story set on a plane; the showdown of machismo and male one-upmanship between two stubborn, irate drivers in the middle of a desert; or the story of a demolitions expert (the wonderful Ricardo Darín) who’s had it up to here with officious, patronising jobsmiths. The tales inevitably descend into chaos (in unpredictably and wickedly enjoyable ways), but somehow Szifron’s anthology manages to end on a note of hope, a note blood-soaked and soggy with wedding cake perhaps, but hopeful nonetheless.
7. The Look of Silence
This companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s earlier doc The Act of Killing (which I wrote about here) shows the other side of the story, but this time focusing on the victims (Adi, who lost a brother during the Indonesian genocide of the late 1960s). The first film left us with an almost perverse shock at these killers unspooling their damaged psyches in full candour (they are after all still in power and have nothing to fear for their gruesome murders, rapes and torture). But The Look of Silence leaves a more human, poignant note thanks to the dignity and strength of Adi. and numerous tender scenes of his elderly parents (how they deal with these memories is interesting too) and his own young children. In six meetings organised by Oppenheimer, he faces several of the men, now in old age, responsible for the killing of his brother, among thousands of others, and gently prods them with questions that illicit various reactions, although never explicit regret or shame. Facing these men must be for Adi an act of tremendous courage, but for us the look Oppenheimer’s doc affords us is a lesson in the inhumanity man is and always has been capable of against his fellow man throughout history. All this in a film as empathetic as it possibly can be… like its preceding film it is a must-see.
6. 45 Years
This two-hander charts the possibly life-changing six days before the 45-year anniversary of Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay), when news from the Swiss Alps bring back unwanted memories. On the surface, it appears quite different from Andrew Haigh’s previous effort, the terrific modern romance Weekend, but his masterly directorial control and writing are every bit as much in evidence. The emotion, the drama, the skilful revelation of characters’ backstories to make their lives feel ‘lived-in’ – all these are beautifully and organically evoked.
In one scene, Courtenay poignantly but tenderly recounts previously untold memories reaching back 50 years to Rampling, who just through reaction shots reveals a wife hurt at not being sure she knows her husband anymore. No flashbacks needed, just close-ups, acting, and the strength of Haigh’s writing. The metaphors he comes up with are what makes this so affecting long after it’s over. Ghosts of the past literally frozen in time; a ticking bomb ready to resurface and haunt the present as soon as the ice melts; the loft as a space of stored-up memories, many of them suppressed. Even the expressionistic sound design of icy winds blowing veer the film almost into ghost story atmosphere. Elsewhere the motif of time, of clocks, of ironically a Swiss watch Kate ponders about buying as Geoff’s anniversary present, also encapsulates the pain of what she is going through (were all these years really what she thought they were or must she now rethink everything?). And, in a subtly knock-out ending, Haigh even gives us the best cinematic use of the Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ since Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien!
5. Son of Saul
László Nemes’ first feature is wildly ambitious, attempting to tackle a subject (the Shoah) that for all its cinematic portrayals is understandably hard to do justice to. Impressively he pulls it off, accomplishing a drama of intense momentum, comparable to other WW2 tales about survivor’s guilt like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog. The equal of those films, Son of Saul is a masterful tour-de-force of technique, both visual and aural.
A complex multi-layered sound-design infiltrates our ears with noises suggesting terrible things going on beyond our field of sight; screams, beatings, shootings, bodies falling, all heard but never seen. We never look death in the eye, hence Nemes adroitly sidesteps one of the fundamental problems in visual representation of the Holocaust. Its unimaginable horror will retain its necessary impact by not being shown, but only hinted at by sounds or in the out-of-focus margins of the frame. In carefully choreographed long-takes, the roving camera almost constantly follows, Dardennes-style, our protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig, whose forceful performance helps propel the film) and just about all else beyond the frame is implied but unseen.
Saul is part of the Sonderkommando, those pitiful concentration camp inmates who just about survive by being tasked with cleaning the gas chambers for the Nazis, so their extermination machine can keep clocking. The tension between what can be seen and heard, and what cannot, also applies to what it must be like in Saul’s shoes, desperately human (and hence wanting to live) in a world and conditions thoroughly inhuman. He too needs to relegate the horrors to his periphery in order to live with himself and wrestle with his own conscience, possible redemption, and, finally, his sanity.
Phoenix is, much like Carol, an elegant, masterfully directed, piece of neo-classical cinema. Christian Petzold, who has been going from strength to strength for many years now, reunites with his acting leads from 2012’s Barbara. Nina Hoss is the fragile Nelly, a concentration camp survivor left unrecognisable after facial rehabilitation surgery. Despite ostensibly being a new person with a new face, she roams post-war Berlin, a place itself in need of regeneration and a new start, in search of the husband she still unrelentingly loves, Johnny (Ronald Zehrefld, who like in Barbara shares great alchemy with Hoss). The twist is Johnny thinks her dead and does not recognise his restored wife, instead proposing a rather bewildering plan to her…
Like in the best classic film noirs or melodrama, the narrative conceit is often preposterous but we go with it and it becomes a strength, especially for the conceptual richness of the metaphor of (re)creating one’s identity and memory (The Face of Another, Abe-Teshigahara’s exploration of identity in post-war Japan, could be another interesting point of comparison besides the obvious one of Vertigo). Two immaculate central performances, and meticulously precise filmmaking throughout makes this exquisitely smooth sailing up to and including the pitch-perfect ending (probably the best of the year) where Nelly regains her identity and independence in quietly show-stopping fashion.
In 2010 after many years of ruffling the Iranian regime’s feathers, Jafar Panahi was handed a 20-year ban on filmmaking and house arrest (since reduced to an embargo on leaving Iran). Yet here is his third film since, once again smuggled out of the country in precarious circumstances and with a cast and crew (other than the obviously recognisable Panahi) that remains unnamed for safety reasons. Taxi is to me the best of those three post-ban films, funnier and more accessible than the slightly self-indulgent ruminations that were Closed Curtain and This is Not A Film.
The premise (a car-bound film with a jolly but directions-dyslexic Panahi himself driving a taxi around Tehran) and the quasi-documentary form (non-actors get into his cab and ‘act’ as real passengers, the whole thing seemingly unscripted) recall the best of Iranian cinema’s riches of the last 25 years, notably Kiarostami’s car-set movies. Some of that cinema naturally includes Panahi’s own work, and those familiar with it will have fun picking up all the references to his films. This is not mere cinephile playfulness though; Taxi deliberately orientates us around a world where film and real life are inextricable. Everyone is making some sort of film of their own, be it Panahi’s niece for a homework piece, a star-struck passenger filming the director/cabbie with his phone, a young film student who asks Panahi for advice, or two newly-weds making a commemorative home video. Taxi is a warm, witty love-letter to the medium, defiantly affirming that the connection between art and life is irrepressible and no ban can change that, while also slyly slipping in social commentary through simple conversations (not unlike his underrated 1997 film The Mirror).
2. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
True enough, Roy Andersson’s multi-character comic vignettes, inflected with a Nordic existentialism, are often likened to some kind of hybrid between Tati and Bergman. But nobody makes films quite like him, and his third release in 15 years doesn’t veer too far off the tried-and-tested formula of Songs from the Second Floor and You the Living, which can only be deemed brilliant news. Again, we get a series of mostly unrelated sketches, all static-shot tableaux perfectly exploiting the geometry of his compositions for a deadpan encounter between hilarious and unsettling. Two novelty item salesmen, with the morose pale faces of all Andersson’s characters, recur across several of the scenes and show off their masks and comic fangs while po-facedly affirming, without a hint of irony, that their purpose in life is “to help people have a good time” (are they Roy’s auto-portraits we wonder?).
New ingredients are added too. There’s, uncharacteristically, a few brief flashes of happy moments (a mother in a park, a couple on a beach), there’s the darkest scene Andersson has ever shot (towards the end), and there’s also touches of absurdist surrealism – like 18th century Swedish king Charles XII popping up with his army at a bar in contemporary Gothenburg. I say contemporary Gothenburg, but the setting of this film, as in his previous two, looks and feels like a world of Andersson’s own creation. Only the ubiquitous mobile phones serve as a signpost of the modern age, as well as of technology’s pervasiveness, and, paradoxically, its erosion of human interaction and communication. Every telephone conversation in the film is a rehash of the same lines (“I’m glad to hear you’re doing fine”). Yes, Andersson’s worldview is bleak, and the message we probably knew already – humans are selfish, weak, and cruel, with only momentary glimpses of joy or warmth to counteract this – but who else could tell it in a delivery so hilarious, original, geometrically satisfying, and, by now we can simply say, Roy Andersson-esque? It’s another masterpiece, and gives You the Living a challenger for best of the trilogy.
1. The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-touted and curiosity-whetting plan to make a wuxia picture showed us he is not beyond the pleasures of a well-known genre and its traditions, transporting us to one of Chinese culture’s golden ages, 8th Century Tang-dynasty. He offers up action scenes with the briskest editing of his career, and a revenge story involving a female assassin sent to eliminate a regional warlord, whose ambitions are causing friction with the central Imperial powers. But whereas the average genre flick is a minor mutation of a well-trodden formula, Hou rarefies the wuxia rules and stamps his imprint upon them. The fights remain few and far between and mostly unresolved, the takes still long, the shots still from mostly afar, no spoon-fed plot explanations, and Hou’s primary concerns seem philosophical (Shu Qi’s assassin faces a moral dilemma, conflicted between duty and desire, which sees her story arc take spiritual overtones) and historical (Hou is fascinated by the idea of recreating a vision of the distant past).
This past however is, as Hou well knows, unknowable and ungraspable, and this mystery is reflected throughout the film’s aesthetic. Mark Lee Ping-bin, Hou’s regular DP for 30 years now, dazzles with one of the most beautiful looking films you’re ever likely to behold, with an exquisite colour palette, but he also shoots through a hazy, ephemeral combination of smoke, flickering flames, and silk curtains, maintaining an air of veiled opacity. Also reinforcing this atmosphere are Shu Qi’s hitwoman herself, often appearing out of nowhere, or observing her potential victims perched in total stealth (a sly metaphor for Hou’s own proclivity for observing from a distance in his films?), and the work of Lim Giong (himself formerly a regular actor for Hou in the ’90s) on the score and sound design, be it in his subtle birdsong-infused soundscapes or the pulsating percussion of the music. This is a film to beguile your eyes and ears, and then watch again to better take in and enjoy its generic and narrative subtleties.
Honourable mentions: Carol; Whiplash; El Club; Love is Strange; Blackhat; Mommy; Inside Out; The Chinese Mayor; The Duke of Burgundy. All very good films in their own right which I didn’t find space for. 2015 was a pretty good year all things said and done.