This year I continued the effort to acquaint myself with admired films and directors. I may have watched a relatively small number of new films, but I did see films by Hitchcock, Ozu, Allen, Bergman, Chaplin, and Kurosawa, to name a few. Unfortunately for me, as I survey the films I have assembled for discussion today, I see that my preferences still veer toward contemporary cinema.
Here’s a surprise: the best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I am beginning to sound like a broken record. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times now, I think, and it was just as good, or better, this time around. It’s the best film I know.
Of the films I saw for the first time this year, I think my favourite was a rather unconventional choice: Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). This is Miike’s re-make of Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri (which I also saw this year). I am not generally an enthusiast for martial arts films, and I am aware that re-makes are rarely superior to their originals, but nonetheless I found Miike’s film got under my skin in a way that Kobayashi’s did not. It is a slow film with only a few action sequences; the focus is on the tragic plight of the central characters. When violence does make its way onto the screen — and there are two principal places where it does — it is invested with so much pathos that it is nearly unbearable. This is my kind of samurai film.
Another very compelling, and verrrrry slow, film is Southwest (2012), an independent film from Brazil directed by first-time filmmaker Eduardo Nunes. (Hat-tip: Tim Brayson) It is almost unbelievable that this could be a debut, for the directorial hand is so patient and so elegant. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, it tells the story of a young girl, born under mysterious circumstances, who ages rapidly and lives her whole life over the course of just a few days. Best understood, I think, as a folk-tale or fairy tale, it is mysterious through and through. But I found it mesmerizing. I don’t think it received very wide distribution, and it may be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. (Actually, the whole film is available on YouTube, if you speak Portuguese.)
My favourites of the older films I saw this year were Swing Time (1936) and Rear Window (1954). The former was a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and they are dynamite together. The story is a sweet one, but one watches the movie for the dance sequences, which are unadulterated delights. Music by Jerome Kern too. When the credits rolled I threw my hat in the air. And I’d seen Rear Window a few times previously, but since I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever tire of seeing Grace Kelly on screen, I doubt I’ll ever tire of seeing Rear Window.
I caught up this year with the latest Dardenne brothers film, Two Days, One Night (2014). The premise is a novel one: a woman will lose her job unless she can convince her co-workers to give up their raises, and so, over the course of the film, she approaches each of them, one by one, to make her case. Given that setup, the film more or less writes itself, and in the hands of lesser filmmakers it could have easily become tedious and schematic. But the Dardennes, and Marion Cotillard in the leading role, invest each of those encounters with genuine feeling and fresh ideas. The film turns into a quite probing meditation on justice and charity, on power and humility, and on what it means to love one’s neighbour. Just thinking about it makes me want to see it again.
Cheating a bit, and before I get to some genre picks, let me say a quick word about the best television that I saw this year. Actually, I think this was the only television I saw this year, but it was still good enough to warrant inclusion in this post. It was a BBC mini-series called The Hollow Crown, a four-part, roughly 8-hour dramatization of Shakespeare’s Greater Henriad, beginning with Richard II, continuing with Henry IV, Parts I and II, and concluding with Henry V. Naturally, a project this ambitious is bound to have a few weak spots, but by and large I thought the adaptations were excellent. Richard II was a play that I didn’t know at all prior to watching it, and as far as I know this is the only screen adaptation available.
In these productions, no attempt has been made to update the historical setting, and the sets throughout are sumptuous. The acting is top notch too, with Ben Whishaw playing Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, and Simon Russell Beale a superb Falstaff.
A highlight of the series for me was the portrayal of Falstaff. Somehow Falstaff on the page has always been for me something less than the Falstaff of my imagination: the Falstaff of wit and outsized merriment. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff also differs from the Falstaff of my imagination, but in a fruitful way. His Falstaff is rather sad, his wit always with a touch of weariness. He is a coward, of course, and a cheat, and we know that, but I had thought that his irrepressible spirit was supposed somehow to outshine those faults. Here they do not. Here Falstaff seems to know his faults and feel them, and it makes him vulnerable, most especially to his dearest friend. This vulnerability lends a real poignancy to the acting scene in the tavern, when he pleads the case of “old Jack”. Beale’s performance isn’t the last word on Falstaff, but it has enlarged my conception of who Falstaff is, or could be, and for that I am grateful.
And now for a few of my favourite genre films from this year:
Literary adaptation: Apart from The Hollow Crown, my favourite adaptation of a literary classic was Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which I had seen many years ago but watched again. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are wonderful as Elinor and Marianne, and Hugh Grant, looking well and truly discomfited by his period costume, is a suitably comic Mr Ferrars. Any film that can crackle with excitement as all the actors sit silently in their chairs has my admiration, and this realization of Austen’s novel has a few such delicious encounters.
Family films: I was completely charmed by Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella (2015). Blessedly free of self-consciousness, irony, and grrrl power, it simply lets the story unfold according to its own internal logic, and what a wonderful story it is. The CGI “transformation” scenes are splendidly done — the kids love them — and that final scene in which the shoe slips onto the foot is luminous through and through. Delightful.
I also want to praise The Secret of Kells (2009), a wonderful animated film from Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore (another first-time director, I note). It tells the story of Brendan, a young boy living at Kells monastery while the famous Book of Kells is being made in the scriptorium. The film is set at a time when Christianity was still relatively new in the Celtic world, and it includes encounters not only with monks but with fairies and deities of the Celtic religions. (Steven Greydanus has written from a Catholic perspective about the portrayal of religion in the film.) The animation style is distinctive, with a strong preference for geometric designs and symmetries, and, as is fitting for this story, a proliferation of Celtic weaves and curling tendrils. It’s a unique film that most people have probably not seen, or even heard of, but which I expect most would appreciate. My only real complaint about it is that it never tells us what is in the Book of Kells! It’s a book of the Gospels, of course. Why so coy? It’s an unfortunate omission that mars an otherwise highly recommendable film.
I’ll also mention briefly that Tomm Moore followed The Secret of Kells with Song of the Sea in 2014. It’s also terrific — maybe even more visually stunning than its predecessor, but the story didn’t capture me in quite the same way. Nonetheless, both films are superior to most animated fare.
Horror: I usually steer clear of horror films, but this year I saw a few worth remarking on. At the top of the heap (of corpses?) is It Follows, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes festival and, following much critical acclaim, got a wide release in 2015. The premise is that a vicious entity pursues a target, slowly but relentlessly, until that person has sexual relations with someone, at which point the entity begins pursuing the sexual partner instead. It sounds silly, but it works wonderfully both on its own terms and on a metaphorical level. Much of the credit is owed to director David Robert Mitchell’s patient camera. When was the last time you saw a film in which a long, static, wide shot had you squirming in your seat and shouting urgently at the screen? It happens. The fact that the mortal danger is transmitted sexually, that the characters in the story are tempted to instrumentalize sexual partners, and that almost the entire film is populated by teenagers, without an adult in sight, has led more than one person to interpret It Follows as a commentary on the sexual revolution, and personally I think it works quiet well from that perspective. Naturally the analogies are imperfect, but this is one of the more thought-provoking films I saw this year.
A superior monster movie was Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006), in which a giant, mutated beast emerges from the river in a major urban center and terrorizes the city. It’s very well constructed, takes the time to invest in its principal characters, and has a few surprises up its sleeve. The monster is great, and Bong Joon-Ho, one of the leading Korean auteurs, elevates the material with his subtle stylistic touch. It’s awfully good.
Science fiction: I saw a few very good science fiction films this year, good enough to write about here, but also notably imperfect in interesting ways. The first was Coherence (2013), a low-budget independent film by first-time director James Ward Byrkit. It’s an ensemble film that takes place entirely at an evening dinner party among friends, during the course of which strange events begin to occur in the neighbourhood (the nature of which, for fear of giving too much away, I shall not reveal). The film works quite well on its own terms — the largely improvised dialogue is lively, the sense of atmosphere is warm and charming, and the bizarre phenomena that slowly unfold are fascinating — but unfortunately the film tries to connect these mysteries to real science, most notably to quantum mechanics. It can’t be done convincingly, and the script falters in consequence. But if you can overlook that bit of flummery, it’s a cracking good puzzle picture.
Ex Machina is also a directorial debut, this time from Alex Garland (previously known to me as the screenwriter of Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite sci-fi films of the decade). The film introduces us to the efforts of an eccentric genius (a superb Oscar Isaac) to build an android intelligent enough to pass the Turing Test. He invites a bright young student (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to help evaluate the robot’s performance, and the film follows the Test as it unfolds over a number of sessions. There are many things to like about Ex Machina: the android, played by Alicia Vikander, is a triumphant blend of strong acting and subtle special effects; the house in which the film takes place is used effectively to heighten tension; the screenplay has a lot on its mind and grows increasingly tense and troubled; and it has an ending that, although I didn’t particularly like it, is interesting enough to argue about. But like many popular accounts of AI the film is confused about the distinction between intelligence and consciousness, and about the meaning of the Turing Test. At least, it seems to be. There remains a tantalizing possibility that the filmmakers intend us to see that confusion as another element obscuring the characters’ view of their own situation. But that might be granting the filmmakers the benefit of too much doubt. Mixed feelings, then, but I liked it enough to consider seeing it again some day. Not recommended to those who dislike android nudity, of which there is an abundance.
War: I don’t know if it’s quite right to describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a war, but that is the setting for ’71, an excellent little film from 2014. It follows a British soldier through one harrowing night after he is accidentally abandoned by his unit in a volatile neighbourhood of Belfast. I particularly admire the film for a scene early on in which the soldier and his unit confront a crowd of angry protestors in the street. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that better conveys how frightening such a situation can be, how chaotic, and how quickly it can explode into violence. Once he is stranded, the film becomes a survival tale as he tries to make his way back to safety. It’s full of twists and turns, some of them harder to follow than others — the political alliances are convoluted, and the presence of undercover agents doesn’t help the clarity — but the film is tightly written and quite engaging.
Documentary: I’d like to heartily recommend the odd but fascinating Tim’s Vermeer (2013). Tim is Tim Jenison, a tech wizard with a bountiful fortune, time on his hands, and a love for the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer’s photorealistic paintings have dazzled viewers for centuries, and Jenison, an expert in lighting and optics, simply could not understand how he accomplished it. So he set out to paint one himself, and the film tells the story of how he did so. In the process, he uses an optical technique that he argues, quite convincingly in my opinion, was used by Vermeer in order to achieve the fine gradations of light and colour that characterize his work. If Jenison is correct, it casts Vermeer’s technical virtuosity in a rather new, less impressive, light, though of course it takes nothing away from his sense of composition and his craftsmanship. All in all, it’s a lovely little documentary, highly recommended.
Most worthy of a shoe thrown at the screen as the credits rolled: Les Diaboliques (1955).
Other films I would recommend if I hadn’t already gone on too long: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Cat People (1942), Late Spring (1949), Wild Strawberries (1957), Le Samouraï (1967), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Upstream Color (2013), Interstellar (2014).
Films I saw but don’t remember seeing: Trouble in Paradise (1932), L’Atalante (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), The Red Shoes (1948), Chungking Express (1994), Talk to Her (2002), A Most Violent Year (2014).