December 30, 2015

Year in review




Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966). Hunted by the enemies of written language, and its production of individuality. Relationships to the (better) Blow-Up: a similar-looking male lead, a chic imported director, but this is stuck in a scrupulously modernist suburbia. 

December 23, 2015

More is more


Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015). The new Star Wars blurs the lines that would normally separate a reboot from a remake from a sequel, which makes it nearly as forward-looking as the George Lucas original was in 1977, despite its appearance of looking backwards. Lucas made the old new again; in a more narrow sense, so does Abrams in an ingeniously pitched film that is skilfully designed to disappoint no one. When it quotes the originals, it does so with a knowing wit, and when it coins fresh dialogue, it often joins us in commenting on the wonders we are seeing or the new chance we are getting (“It’s true. All of it.” “I can't believe we’re really doing this.” “Don’t stare ... at any of it.”) The story and visuals are clear and simple and the performances by the franchise’s newcomers – Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac – are powerful and compelling, which is pretty much the exact reverse of the prequels, where the images were cluttered and actors rarely seemed to be in the same galaxy as each other, let alone the same room (with the exception of Ian McDiarmid, who has never got enough credit). There is pastiche and then there is revising history: it’s hard not to imagine that Abrams and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are not only remaking the original, they are doing an even more audacious thing, which is to correct one of the prequels’ most notable flaws. What is Driver’s Kylo Ren but the petulant Anakin Skywalker done right? 

December 22, 2015

Watching Paul Dano




Paul Dano has been so superb at creeps that you sense come easily to him (12 Years a Slave, There Will Be Blood, Prisoners) that it was good this year to see him take that quality – hurt, which can manifest as something painful or dangerous or sullen – and do more with it, stretch it, in Sorrentino’s Youth and, especially, Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Dano is tremendous in the Wilson film, as the genius drowning in the sounds he hears in his head, but the movie is mostly a straight film about going crazy, with a certain truth to prove. I thought of a different way in: take all the Dano scenes and separate them from the burnt-out John Cusack scenes, and run Inherent Vice in the middle; lead in and out of the join with Love & Mercy’s hallucinatory three Brians in one bedroom (2001: A Brian Wilson Odyssey). That Dano and Cusack don’t really look or seem alike would matter less and the weirdness would increase, with Paul Giamatti seeming like a grotesque who escaped from Inherent Vice: California bad dreaming. 

December 10, 2015

The 15 films of 2015


1 Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). This is what a comeback looks like. Not a cash-in, not nostalgia, not a lazy retread but something bigger, louder, faster and wilder. Everything madder than everything else. It felt like it had to happen.
2 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In unexpected ways, this was almost a companion piece to Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth: it’s about performance, youth, glamour and the innate selfishness of artistic creation. It’s a nuanced, beautifully acted film.
3 Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). Sleep as escape, even as a political act. Deep and mesmerising.
4 Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014). Why are all the great actors in capes? Birdman was a technical feat, a stunt that felt lighter than air, an inside joke about acting and insecurity and Hollywood vs theatre, with almost too many self-aware layers to penetrate.
5 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call this psychedelic ethnography – there was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on screen. This Colombian revelation steered me towards Ciro Guerra’s earlier film The Wind Journeys, which is also highly recommended.
6 Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It was divisive and often unloved, but this ambitious Paolo Sorrentino statement (or is that “testament”?) floored me. Michael Caine, in his frailty, has seldom been better.
7 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). Factions and dark uprisings in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, told in sign language without subtitles – no, I didn’t understand a word but I got it.
8 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Brilliant, excessive, too much: Guy Maddin is good in small doses and this was a big, big dose.
9 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing Indonesian atrocity documentaries reveal a world in which evil has not just gone unpunished – no one has even called it evil. The effect is nauseating: you watch in disbelief as morality is turned upside down.
10 Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated and more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story as a success. 
11 Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A war film without a war, set on the porous drug-gang borders between Mexico and the United States. Denis Villeneuve generates ambient fear in the sky, on the ground, in tunnels and on dark, lonely roads that could be on either side.
12 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). In a perfect world, this Scientology expose, with David Miscavige as the tyrannical lord of time and space and Tom Cruise as his celebrity enabler and sidekick, will get the documentary Oscar next year. That would be like a bomb going off in Hollywood.
13 The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, 2014). Profundity came easily or flowed naturally in this sensational, moving documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado that tracked, over the course of one life, discovery, disillusionment and then that rare thing, hope.
14 Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Sleek, efficient and often funny science-fiction about female robots and male anxiety. It also contained the year’s least expected dance sequence.
15 Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). A portrait of the great artist as a grunting genius.

Worst film of 2015: Terminator Genisys. In a year of successful reboots (Mad Max, Star Wars, the disposable Jurassic World) this one was an absolute franchise-killer. It won’t be back, surely.

Disappointments: Blackhat, Inherent Vice, The Wolfpack

Acting: Michael Caine in Youth, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Films about writers: Should we have felt touched and even inspired by the mostly agreeable and cuddly version of David Foster Wallace that The End of the Tour gave us? Perhaps. But the less heralded, cynical Listen Up Philip was just as true in its portrait of a “notable” writer as a total fucking asshole. Not inspiring at all, but refreshing.

For kids: Inside Out.

Documentaries (recent New Zealand history edition): in The Price of Peace, The Art of Recovery and The Women of Pike River, three of the most traumatic events of the past decade were explained and contextualised in ways that even long-form journalism seldom allows.

Documentaries (the dark side of Hollywood edition): Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Listen to Me Marlon

December 7, 2015

Testament


Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It would be easy to say that Paolo Sorrentino doubles down on the Fellini-isms of The Great Beauty by moving from a variation on La Dolce Vita to a variation on 8 ½ and giving us not one but two ageing and self-absorbed men working through their issues about mortality, frailty, regret and beautiful young women, but where The Great Beauty seemed grandiose and self-pitying, Youth has a gentle humour, thanks largely to nuanced performances by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a retired composer and a still-working film director taking their regular holiday in a Swiss spa that feels more like a luxury prison for famous people. Despite their blind spots, both men are regularly made available for criticism from women: there is a blistering monologue from Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter and a matching take-down from Jane Fonda as Keitel’s muse. Sorrentino is aiming for high modernism and big statements, and if you think that “pretentiousness” is always a sin, then stay away, but it’s hard not to be impressed by this much ambition and feeling. 

December 6, 2015

1969


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969). There are so many things wrong with this – the constant innuendo, the oafish lead, the repetitive and badly composed action scenes and a general sense of carelessness – but the post-Bonnie and Clyde ending is such a great downer, almost worthy of the Craig era.