2015: the year in film

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Once again, I’ve tried to see as many films as humanly possible, in order to be able to take a fair-minded assessment of the year. But a glance at the Sight & Sound end-of-year lists – which blatantly reflect the year’s international festival programmes, with not a care for the straitjacket of UK theatrical release (their number one film, The Assassin, is not out here until the New Year) – instantly renders mine a little more parochial. That said, if foreign-language pictures do not dominate my Top 42 (it seemed silly to stop at 40), they enhance and enrich the list. One of my jobs is to keep up with new releases so that when the films arrive on television, I can have an opinion on them in Radio Times. But I don’t have the pressure of a national newspaper critic, or blogger, who seeks to keep up with the big new films in the week of release. I saw most of the less mainstream titles on steam-powered DVD, or via Curzon Home Cinema, which continues to be a lifeline.

Here is my Top 12 (I intended this to be a Top 10, but a couple of late entries have expanded it – at the end of the day, or the year, you can’t realistically measure a Star Wars film against a Roy Andersson, but you can celebrate the appreciation of both):

1. 45 Years | Andrew Haigh | UK
2. Carol | Todd Haynes | US
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens | JJ Abrams | US
4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence| Roy Andersson | Sweden/Norway/France/Germany
5. The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine/Netherlands
6. Brooklyn | John Crowley | UK/Ireland/Canada
7. The Falling | Carol Morley | UK
8. Black Souls | Francesco Munzi | Italy/France
9. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson | Julien Temple | UK
10. Force Majeure | Ruben Östlund | Sweden/France/Norway
11. Amy | Asif Kapadia | UK
12. Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France/Mauritania

I like the way that five our of the Top 12 turn out to be UK productions or co-productions. This tells us something good about our national cinema, which can just as easily be scenes from a marriage or an impressionistically elemental work of art. As for the two UK documentaries, interestingly both are about musicians, one who dies, the other who cheats death. Of the three US films, one is the biggest film of the year, and possibly of all time come the final tot-up, financially speaking, so deal with that. (It’s the same as putting an Adele album in my Top 10 LPs, which I have done again this year. I’m used to it.) Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are so different from the pack, and from each other, they may as well have their own chart. I watched the former – far from ideally – in two hotel rooms, one in Liverpool, the second in Durham. It transfixed me, even so (in fact, maybe because of the circumstances). I caught up with The Tribe on Boxing Day, via Curzon, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in Ukrainian sign language ever.

Whiplash

I won’t order the remaining 30 films. It goes without saying that all did more than just divert me, or fill the time, or meet a professional quota.

Slow West | John Maclean | UK, New Zealand
Big Hero 6 | Don Hall, Chris Williams | US
A Most Violent Year | JC Chandor | US
Whiplash | Damien Chazelle | US
White God | Kornél Mundruczó | Hungary
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey | Lucie Borleteau | France
Selma | Ava DuVernay | US
Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
The Lesson | Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov | Bulgaria, Greece
Birdman | Alejandro G. Iñárritu | US
Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller | US
Still Alice | Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland | US
Altman | Ron Mann | Canada
Eden | Mia Hansen-Love | France
San Andreas | Brad Peyton | US
Wild Tales | Damián Szifron | Argentina/Spain
When You’re Young | Noah Baumbach | US
Love and Mercy | Bill Pohlad | US
Clouds Of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France/Germany/Switzerland
The Salt Of The Earth | Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | France/Brazil
Far From The Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | UK
Everest | Baltasar Kormákur | UK/US
The Martian | Ridley Scott | US
Ex Machina | Alex Garland | UK
Trainwreck | Judd Apatow | US
Steve Jobs | Danny Boyle | UK
Red Army | Gabe Polsky | US/Russia
Mia Madre | Nanni Moretti | Italy/France
The Wolfpack | Crystal Moselle | US
Straight Outta Compton | F Gary Gray | US

Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included San Andreas, which is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.)

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More TV, Vicar?

TA147

A piece of Telly Addict that will be forever England this week, from the thoroughly English (certainly Anglican) Rev on BBC2; the thoroughly American-English Martin Amis’ England on BBC4; the thoroughly British, although surprisingly European A Very British Renaissance with the fantastic Dr James Fox on BBC2 (promoted, one might say, from BBC4); the thoroughly English Louis Theroux, who’s moved to LA and made LA Stories for … BBC2; and, not at all English, but still British, and with English subtitled, 35 Diwrnod, the latest in Welsh-language noir from S4C, which is available, subtitled, on their website, if you can’t access it via Sky or other satellites.

The Right Horrible Lady

The producers of The Iron Lady need not have spent a penny on publicity for their biopic of Margaret Thatcher. I’m actually sick of reading about it, and her, in the newspapers, and seeing it, and her, on the TV. Whether it’s right-wing commentators wailing about the impropriety of showing Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, in her amnesiac dotage (“They should have waited until she’s dead!” they cry, which is surely just as disrespectful to the old dear), or left-wing commentators complaining that the film in some way deifies Thatcher (Michael White was on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying, “It’s not a political film at all,” by which he meant it wasn’t left-wing.) I saw a preview of The Iron Lady a few weeks ago, and I’ve had time to ruminate. (The screening was delayed while we film critics waited for the BBC’s Nick Robinson to turn up – it was clearly a must-see for political journalists who don’t usually go and see films.)

I’m afraid think it’s a deeply underwhelming film, saved by the central performances. As I near the end of The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second memoir, I fancy myself as something of a Thatcher scholar – I’ve certainly been immersed in the fine detail of her, yes, path to power, and know something of the way her mind worked.

That we’re looking here at the work of talented writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame, Sex Traffic) makes it all the more disappointing. But she and director Phyllida Lloyd set themselves an impossible task: to tell a major political figure’s life story in 105 minutes. It simply cannot be done in any meaningful way. Dramatically, I applaud the conceit of presenting the story in flashback from the dementia-encroached dotage of the octogenarian Lady Thatcher, where she conducts conversations with her long-dead husband Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. I could have watched 105 minutes of these two fine actors bouncing off each other as a devoted old couple, one of whom just happened to once run, and ruin, the country. But alas, the dotage is merely a device to frame endless reconstructions of the dramatic bullet-points of Thatcher’s career, from Grantham schoolgirl to ousted PM.

So, we get the Miners’ Strike, and the Falklands, and the “Special Relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and the Poll Tax riots, and so on, and so on, each one neatly condensed into one or two scenes – although Reagan only appears, dancing with her, in a montage, and we get nine years condensed into about a minute of newspaper headlines and newsreel. The bullet points are mostly ably enough presented, and the all-star cast means you never get bored (“Look, it’s Richard E Grant/Anthony Head/Roger Allam/Iain Glen/John Sessions!” “He must be playing Jim Prior/Michael Hesletine/Gordon Reece/John Nott/Francis Pym!”), but it’s all a bit history-by-numbers. BBC4 has made this kind of biopic its stock in trade, and yet, its own stab at Thatcher, The Long Walk To Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough, wisely concentrated on just one period of her life and stayed focussed. This, though, is essentially a film aimed at the international market – after all, Thatcher is a global icon, like it or not – and it leaves nothing to chance or subtlety. Because it has Meryl Streep in the central role, it has instant Hollywood appeal, and may yet win her a handbagful of awards. She’s hugely entertaining, although as Peter Bradshaw notes in the Guardian, it is not much more than a brilliant impersonation. She’s worked hard to get the voice and the mannerisms right, but Thatcher was an impenetrably poised and self-made public figure, so when you do a good impression, it’s of a kind of media construct anyway.

What The Iron Lady doesn’t do is explain why Thatcher was Thatcher. It makes a lot of capital out of the glass ceiling, which she comprehensively smashed, and has fun with shots of her as the only woman in the Commons, the only pair of high heels, the only blue hat etc. There’s no doubting the self-belief it took to put up with all that shit, and Thatcher can be objectively admired for becoming the first Western leader who wasn’t a man. But if the rather simplistic film is to be believed, she turned the bullying she experienced as a young, female MP on its head and simply bullied the men around her once in power. The more of her book I read, the more convinced I become that she was a megalomaniac, but one driven not by vanity, or revenge, but by pure dogma. Her hatred of socialism – or “statism”, “collectivism”, “federalism”, any  number of “ism”s – is in her bone marrow, and if she despises the men around her, it’s because they do not share her extremism, or are not prepared to see it through to fruition. She has no time for moderates, whatever their gender. She adored Denis, after all, and he was a man.

But hey, as Michael White said, it’s not a film about politics. It’s about an old lady looking back over her life – a life that just happened to involve selling off council houses and going to war in the South Atlantic and destroying the unions. I was deeply offended by the bit where her close friend and ally Airey Neave is killed by an INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) car bomb in 1979. Thatcher was, if I remember rightly from the book, in her Finchley constituency when she heard the news. In The Iron Lady, she is in the same underground car park at the Commons, the last person to speak to him before he drives off, and she is seen running up the ramp to where his car sits in flames, Hollywood style, not quite in slo-mo, but it may as well have been. It’s a disgrace to play with real events in this way; far more offensive than making a film about an old, demented lady before she’s dead, it uses the actual death of a man to make her life seem just that little bit more dramatic than it was. I’m surprised Morgan and Lloyd didn’t have Thatcher personally pulling Norman Tebbit’s wife from the wreckage in Brighton.

I think I understand Margaret Thatcher much better now than I did at the time, thanks to her book. (I was certainly too naive and ill-educated to understand her in 1979, when The Path To Power ends and The Downing Street Years begins.) This film, if anything, subtracts from that understanding. It recasts her as a fearful battleaxe and a quasi-feminist warrior, neither of which helps to explain why, under her Premiership, this country was transformed over 11 years into the I’m-all-right-Jack, shop-your-neighbour, free-market, property-obsessed, credit-addicted, money-motivated, privatised, sold-off-to-the-highest-bidder, de-unionised nation of on-our-bikes, aspirational, apparently middle class “entrepreneurs” in a society that we were told doesn’t exist, and where if you use still the bus after the age of 26 you should consider yourself a failure (a sentiment that she shared, even if it’s from a quote she never said). Every Prime Minister who’s succeeded her has been in thrall to her in some way. (Good lord, it was Gordon Brown who put forward the idea of a state funeral for her.) That kind of impact goes beyond party politics.

There is a film to be made about Margaret Thatcher, but it would have to be longer than 105 minutes. It took Thatcher two big books to complete her life story up to the mid-90s. These can no more be distilled into a single film than Hubris and Nemeis by Ian Kershaw, which only cover the life of a man who died aged 56. (This is why Downfall was so successful: it took place over ten days.)  Not that I’m comparing her to Hitler.

For a concise review of the film, here’s my Radio Times review.