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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Kane gang

You’ll be aware that Sight & Sound magazine, a journal I do not hesitate to call “august”, polls critics, curators, academics and filmmakers every ten years to reach a learned consensus on the Greatest Films of All Time. And if you’re aware of that, you’ll also know that Citizen Kane was finally unseated in this year’s survey – the biggest ever, with 846 critics etc. polled – by Vertigo. The poll is designed to elicit debate and dialogue, so do not think it prescriptive. I personally like Kane, and appreciate its importance in the canon, but I rate Vertigo as my favourite Hitchcock, which is why I put it into my own Top 10.

I remain, I must admit, flattered and delighted to have been able to add my own voice to the 846 this decade, to have attained a foothold on the cliff face of critical consensus. I have been a Sight & Sound subscriber since the 90s who, up to now, has had his nose pressed up against the glass. So how did I manage to break through? What changed since 2002? Did the Film Editor of Radio Times suddenly become more critically legitimate? Nah. I’m candid enough to admit that I emailed the editor of the magazine and asked if I could contribute.

Hey, I’m not too proud to beg. Indeed, it is one of the basic home truths I always try to get across to students and anyone else who asks me for career advice: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. We’ll call it pester power. (It’s been established elsewhere that I asked if I could “have a go” at being a proper radio DJ when 6 Music was in its embryonic development stage, and this audacious request eventually landed me a day job at the launch of the network.) I’ve only ever written one piece for S&S, a labour of love feature about Gene Hackman, in 2005, and can you guess how I came to be commissioned to do that? Yes, by asking. Naturally, Nick, the editor, could have politely declined, and I would never have held it against him or the magazine, but I caught him at the right moment, and I achieved a long-held ambition.

So, yes, I asked if I could be asked what my Top 10 films were, and I just squeezed in as the portcullis was coming down, at the last moment. As a result of the rush, I had little time to pore over my choices, but for the record, these are they. (In the rules of the game, each choice gets the same point, so in a way, the qualitative order is for vanity only.)

APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola, 1979)
THE GODFATHER PART II (Coppola, 1979)
RED RIVER (Hawks, Rossen, 1948)
ORDET (Dreyer, 1955)
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Eisenstein, 1925)
VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958)
WINTER LIGHT (Bergman, 1972)
STARDUST MEMORIES (Allen, 1980)
RASHOMON (Kurosawa, 1950)
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Lean, 1962)

You can peruse and search and cross-reference the final results of the final poll here. You can also compare the 2012 Top 10 with those of previous years: 1952, 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 (the first year a Directors’ Poll was included), and 2002. You can even search for every critic and point at their choices. Imagine if actual democracy was this transparent!

I am excited to know that I am “Voter 811“.

The reason I bring all this up again is partly because I was too busy, it seems, to blog about it when the results came out, and when the full thing went online. But it’s also because the BFI in London are showing the top ten films right through September. It’s a great season, and tickets are only a fiver, so if you’re in what I call “town”, have a look at the season and the dates. I’m certainly tempted to get down to the South Bank, as – tell nobody! – there are a couple of silents on there that I’ve never actually seen.

Don’t feel that the S&S poll is all about intellectual oneupmanship. It isn’t. And nor is it only about silent films or Russian films or obscure films. There are plenty more recent films further down the list. Plus, it takes time for a new film to settle into “classic” status. And critics are obviously wary of anointing a picture too early in its life. Hey, 80 years down the line, it’s far easier to say that The Passion of Joan Of Arc is one of the greatest films ever made.

I’m all for extending the debate here, of course.

Soulless asylum

So, belatedly, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island … Now, I love Sight & Sound, the august film journal, and devour it every month, constantly inspired and informed by the words contained therein; I admire the seriousness and analysis it affords not just foreign and arthouse cinema, but often mainstream and genre pictures too. When, in the April issue, S&S went big on Shutter Island (“The Mind Games of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island,” ran the coverline), I allowed myself to be sucked in. Graham Fuller, who wrote the substantial cover story, is a fantastic writer, and the gravity with which he and reviewer Jonathan Romney, a committed deconstructivist, greeted the film was compelling. I expected a return to form. I needed one, as I’d had my problems with Gangs Of New York despite its operatic scope, and was truly underwhelmed by his belated Oscar-winner The Departed (and I’m not just talking about Ray Winstone’s accent), so I needed to see some juice from the great man. (I didn’t mind The Aviator, actually, since you ask.) The prospect of Scorsese using a neo-pulp novel by Dennis Lehane to try his hand at a 1950s B-movie about a fogbound insane asylum and a couple of investigating US Marshals seemed inviting. And both Fuller and Romney found all sorts of allusions and metaphors in the film: “Shutter Island is a concerted speculation on cinema itself,” announced Romney, while Fuller concluded, “Scorsese’s serious creepshow shocker, then, is both his most self-conscious movie in terms of its deceptive text, and his most rigorously psychoanalytical, analogous to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).” Let me at it.

What a disappointment it turned out to be. (It’s out on DVD on August 2, by the way.) It opens well, with Leonardo DiCaprio and the always-good Mark Ruffalo approaching the psychotheraputic equivalent of Skull Island on a crappy ferry from the Massachusetts mainland; year: 1954. In their wide-brimmed hats and beige raincoats, with pistols packed and badges at the ready, they are the US Marshals sent to investigate a mysterious disappearance/escape at the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane. Ruffalo, in particular, just carries himself in such a way as to seem like he’s been lifted from a 1940s/1950s noir thriller and transplanted into a 2010 movie – a very clever performance. DiCaprio still, for me, looks like a boy dressed up in his dad’s clothes. This is not a comment on his acting, which is fine. It’s just the face that God gave him. Even with stubble and a few lines, he’s a baby, he’s a baby.

But the acting is not the problem with Shutter Island. It sort of suits it. As the yarn unfolds, DiCaprio and Ruffalo’s slightly stagey style is matched for unashamed melodrama by Ben Kingsley’s too-calm, too-reasonable psychiatrist and Max Von Sydow’s creepy German doctor, and that’s before we’ve met the inmates: Emily Mortimer’s unhinged child-killer, Jackie Earle Haley’s disfigured nut, even Patricia Clarkson’s cave-bound rogue doctor turned patient. The style is hyperreal, or hyperunreal. Scorsese’s love of films like Out Of The Past and Cat People and Bedlam is there for all to see – in fact, why didn’t he shoot Shutter Island in black and white, like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and really go for the pastiche, if that was his intention? (There’s what looks a bit like deliberate back-projection but it’s too slick to convince as unconvincing, if you see what I mean. A version of Shutter Island made in 1954 would not have looked as good as this – but then, the source novel came out in 2003, so the whole thing’s a modern day construct based on a nostalgia for a fictional past.)

Now, I don’t wish to stray into SPOILER ALERT territory. This is a film with a twist. The twist is Dennis Lehane’s. It does not come at the very end. In fact, it’s a twist that starts becoming apparent about half an hour before the end, to the point that it becomes a kind of narrative ping pong ball for an extended stretch, as we are forced to decide who’s telling the truth and who’s not. That’s all I’ll say on specifics. But in general, it’s a twist that makes your heart sink, rather than your head spin. I’m sure it worked on the page. I can imagine a lot of the guff in this film working on the page. But when it’s right there, in front of you, be it seemingly reliable flashback or clearly unreliable fantasy, the sense of anything being inside a character’s mind is lost. All it does it makes you distrustful of what you are seeing, which isn’t a good thing. Michelle Williams, perhaps one of the most underused actresses working in Hollywood today (she’s in everything, but rarely gets anything meaningful to do), keeps turning up as the wet, dead wife of DiCaprio; clearly, she is not really there, as she is dead, but she’s handy as a clue that we don’t yet know all the answers.

Also – a contentious device for some people, this – DiCaprio’s character was among the US troops who liberated Dachau, so we get plenty of dramatic flashbacks to concentration camp bodies. This, plus mention of the Russians’ A-bomb test, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Nazi experiments really overloads the story with – woo – historical portent. Again, I’m sure it worked on the page, but on the screen it feels like significance for the sake of significance.

I’m not trashing the film. It looks good. Ruffalo, as I’ve said, is superb. And there is a thrilling sense of the director loving the work he’s paying tribute to. But as a stand-alone story, it struts around self-indulgently, jumping out of dark corners trying to make you jump, and then not just having its narrative cake and eating it, but regurgitating it and trying to form it back into a cake again, in order to eat it again.

I look forward to Martin Scorsese rediscovering his mojo. And although my expectations were unrealistically raised by the Sight & Sound coverage, at least Fuller and Romney were more entertaining and stimulating than the film they described.

This has been a blog entry not about the World Cup.