The Menagerie Films Of The Year 2015
Rather stupidly when I started writing this annual round-up I assumed that the big story of the year would be exodus, of innocent civilians shrouded in war and suffering fleeing to safety on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War. This was in September, before Paris, (just writing the phrase ‘before capital city tragedy X’ in a portentous way makes me feel like we’re in a dystopian SF novel), before San Bernardino, before the staggering idiocy, misogyny and racism of Trump, and before my country deciding again to bomb and murder innocent civilians and spend millions to do so despite our so called age of austerity – I join the choir in opining that this is not a year I’ll be sorry to see fade away. The inevitable, reminiscent of 2002 lurch to the right across the so-called First World is depressingly predictable and familiar, the demonization of entire swathes of peaceful people and intensified ordinance to kill and maim more innocent bystanders unstoppable, which of course is exactly what these medieval fucks want to foster further hatred and support for their twisted ideology. Still, at least we got our act together as a species and incurred a historic agreement while the planet chokes, except, alas we didn’t. Oh well, while the bleak and oppressive coalesces into a new waterlogged year at least we can retire to the fantasy of the movies, if only for a couple of hours escapism from the anxious ambiance of modern life. Movie-wise I’m afraid that I must concur that at best it’s been an average year, as always there are some great movies but the median of what I saw was average at best, and many of my top ten are more four star winners than five-star masterpieces. What is interesting is casting my eyes over the list I’m intrigued to see that six of my top ten are fronted by female characters, an anomaly I’m sure is pretty unusual in the leadership of so many y chromosome protagonists, so maybe that is some small glimmer of a molecule of a shift in some sort of progressive equality. For the record you might be surprised to not see The Force Awakens in my top ten which would push that tally to seven, but that’s because that experience kinda stands alone when it comes to such an arbitrary notion of ‘top-tens’. Yes it was certainly one of my most purely enjoyable and memorable cinema experiences of the year, and yes I have devoted thousands of words of coverage to what is one of the biggest movies in history, but it’s unfair in my mind to compare it to the other candidates, given the intergalactic nostalgic weight that such a movie carries. So let’s move on shall we? Ok…cool.
The so-called golden age of TV continues, or rather more specifically it doesn’t, with something of a fluctuating year on the silver screens symmetrical sibling. I caught up with The Blacklist (solid concept, Spader was good but the writing got increasingly absurd), Ray Donovan (an impressive cast, loved the whole Hollywood ‘fixer’ concept, the sleazy scuzzball moguls and Liev Schreiber’s central character but got a little tired of the Boston crime family machinations), The Leftovers which for Damon Lindelhof was actually fairly unwatchable unlike Wayward Pines which was ridiculous like a mediocre Twilight Zone episode strung out to ten episodes, and I mostly enjoyed riding tall with The Sons Of Anarchy, at least for the first couple of seasons before the plot contortions started getting a little stale. Much more successful was The Americans which is really getting into its stride now (how about that episode huh? You know the one I mean, early on in Season 2?), with a great attention to period detail, era specific clandestine technology and techniques, all wrapped up in the riddle of the enigma of the pulverising moral cost of espionage and murder. I’ve also thundered through a re-watch of The Wire (still amazing, but already looking like a relic of another time) and no less than eight seasons of Supernatural, a sub-par Buffy monster of the week series which was vaguely watchable. Its strengths lie with a few excellent genre themed episodes, but the series mythos episodes just couldn’t construct a coherent or attractive multiverse – think a rather homogenised re-tread of the Preacher comic book series with angels and demons taking their combat with the mortal plane, with we puny humans caught in the crossfire.
Mad Men finished its seven season run by maintaining it’s high quality threshold, I think I’m going to miss Don, Peggy and most of all the continually odious Roger, but not the rest of the agency. Best of all through has been The Knick and Louie season 2 and 3, the latter might be one of the most quietly revolutionary series of recent years, just for that Doug Stanhope episode alone and that completely unexpected, hilarious portrayal of Mr. Dahl. The Knick was just fantastic, essentially a ten hour movie considering the sculpture lavished on production design, sound and Soderbergh’s brilliant emotional temperature themed cinematography, I can’t wait for season 2 to see what happens to those lost and vagabond 19th century souls. I also loved American Horror Story: Freak Show (Life on Mars anyone?) Penny Dreadful Season 2 (the best on screen Call Of Cthuhu campaign thus far) and Hannibal Season 3, and am eagerly awaiting the initial seasons of Daredevil, Narcos, Mr. Robot, Vinyl the new David Simon and most importantly Ash Vs Evil Dead as the small screen priorities for 2016. Maybe one of those shows will prompt to write my long gestating thoughts on my antipathy to streaming services and the general infrastructure of 21st century media digestion, and why I still maintain two physical media rental accounts – one for TV, one for movies. I guess I’m like some luddite Dutch boy poking his finger in the dyke to stem the inevitable tide, but I refuse to be dictated to by Netflix and associated exectuives as to how and when I will consume and enjoy my media.
In terms of small screen movie seasons I went all international, which hopefully should balance with my rather American-centric choice of top ten theatre screenings . First up was the Argentinean Ken Loach without the hectoring political finger wagging Pablo Trapero, a social relist attuned auteur who is a master in bringing occasionally loveable, occasional hateful yet always vivid characters to life – check out Carancho, White Elephant and my personal favourite Leonera starring the terrific Martina Gusmán. Further afield I turned to Taiwan’s auteur par excellence Hou Hsiao-hsien whose films remain pathetically undistributed on home media in the West, despite his movies regularly getting previewed at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. I thoroughly enjoyed Three Times, Flowers Of Shanghai and Millennium Mambo, and of course he has eviscerated international audiences with this years wuxa wonder The Assassin. We’ve already discussed the work of German metaphysical thriller technician Christian Petzold with Phoenix and Barbara, another European talent whose films seem to go from strength to strength. Historically speaking I finished my Fritz Lang season and was very proud of myself for thundering through the Herzog box-set, I’ve made less progress on the Melville season but we’ll get there in the end, leaving 2016 open for sensai Kurosawa which should be quite the challenge. Now whilst like any soul with celluloid chugging through his veins I’ve seen all the key films of the French New Wave, but my full mastery of Francois Truffaut has always been lacking. Yeah, although I’ve seen The 400 Blows, Shoot The Pianist, Jules Et Jim, Day For Night, Fahrenheit 451 and the Story of Adele H my mastery of his later period has always been flagging, so inspired by this I powered through The Woman Next Door, The Man Who Loved Women, Finally, Sunday and the sublime La Mariee Etait En Noir which is a delicious vengeance noir which has proved influential on the likes of Lady Snowblood and the Kill Bill movies, in purpose and propulsion if not in style. Finally, we even managed a nuclear cluster of classics – Bicycle Thieves, Freaks, Two Lane Blacktop, Touch Of Evil, Night Moves, Double Indemnity, Come & See and of course Trog, courtesy of the beloved BFI. One of my priorities is to finally visit my local Everyman cinema at Canary Wharf which I still haven’t frequented, I might even give the new Malick a test drive there – more on that later. So onward and upward with no further delay, let us dispense with the foreplay and get liberated;
The 2015 Films Of The Year
Mad Max – Fury Road (George Miller, USA/Australia, 2015) – One of the markers of a successful film could be measured by the quality and breadth of the debate and discussion it engenders. This methodology shouldn’t just be based on the column inchs, but also the quality of the introspection and investigation, and on that front Fury Road is probably the film of the year. There is a feast of ideological and political gristle to munch upon, and its place in the position of genre canon is immediately unassailable, and just consider what an achievement this is when you consider the results of these other 1980’s resurrections – Predators or Prometheus, that Total Recall or Robocop remake, or the stagnant materialisation of Poltergeist? Ah yes, that’s right – they all fucking suck, which makes Miller’s turbo charged triumph almost unique. Then there is the pure craftsmanship angle which leads me to this, a spoiler ridden & absolutely stunning article on the films techniques which might be the technical article of the year. By association here is why the film doesn’t resort to the traditional male gaze paradigm, and as for the lamented loss of the B&W version on the Blu-Ray don’t your TV’s have a contrast and colour setting? Now don’t go huffing your way to the chrome speckled glory of Valhalla just yet as there are two sequels en route, I just pray that Miller can maintain the momentum…..
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, 2015) – Since Tarantino weighted in with his motor-mouth opinion on the years best horror film the ghoul community has been somewhat divided, citing another sorcerous contender as the superior picture – we will exorcise that beast shortly. While I agree that it does suffer a little from a lack of coherence in the world building (why do the apparitions take the form that they do? why the tall man, or the vacant grandmother?) what it does muster to macabre effect is tone and atmosphere, and given the preponderance of cattle-prod found footage clones I’ll take any film with a sense of genuine anxiety and sub-textual strength. Inevitably this suffers somewhat from a small screen revisit but it’s still my champion as the horror film of the year, with that lurking sense of honeysuckle dread, of something purifying behind the sickly sweet aroma of a fading summer. I found it quite difficult to source David Robert Mitchell’s debut film which I had to order from the USA, but it’s nice to have another post Sundance independent director to cluster in with Sean Durkin, Jeff Nichols and Cary Fukunaga as careers to closely watch – there is a strange affinity among them that simultaneously embraces a nihilistic defeat and a nostalgic yearning for tangible and physical matters. Ultimately, as the title suggests, It Follows is a fond gloaming adolescence fading in the slow lurch to adulthood, signalling that inevitable and cruel stumble to mortal extinction.
Carol (Todd Haynes, USA, 2015) – It’s always difficult to divine something new to say about a film you reviwed only a few weeks ago, so rather than preaching to the choir again let me offer you some rare criticism whom have slurred the film as ‘Todd Haynes playing with his dolls in his insular Wendy house again, fetishizing the period detail and re-treading already furrowed ground’. I’m paraphrasing Brett Easton Ellis from his entertaining podcast, although he does go on to say he liked the film, but he’s never been adverse to a little provocative posturing now has he? He has a point and it’s a similar criticism levelled at Wes Anderson and his carefully contrived whimsy, but unlike his work I found this to have a genuine emotional heart pulsing with the forlorn glances and furtive fondling. It’s a near perfect Christmas film, as frostily romantic as a snog under the mistletoe.
Son Of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary, 2015) – It’s a rare achievement, when every aspect of film technique and technology is perfectly calibrated and attuned, all pistons working in perfect alignment to generate incendiary art. That’s the case with this harrowing, haunting film from Bela Tarr protégé László Nemes who blazes a trail across the international landscape with this incredible debut. The subject matter of the holocaust speaks for itself but it’s Nemes synthesised approach which is staggering, the thundering sound design, the claustrophobic, choking aspect ratio, the visual techniques and formulated focus decisions. Somehow though, and this is from one devastating screening, it is that absolute hopelessness of the story which still treasures some minor molecule of decent humanity in the face of such an obliterating and unyielding void.
Ex Machina (Alex Gibney, UK/USA, 2015) – It’s a rare treat these days, a genuine SF film brimming with contemporary ideas which spills into the current technological fulcrum, but Ex Machina sips at this chrome laced chalice without resorting to the cloaking devices of space opera nor free-basing the latest franchise. I loved the economic storytelling, no doubt restricted by a restrained budget, so Caleb (Gleeson) winning the competition to spend a week at the remote Alpine (R&D lab of futurist seer Nathan (Isaac) has them interacting within six minutes of the opening titles, and intellectually grappling with the prototype A.I. Ava (Vikander) in twelve. Gibney has evidently assimilated all the recent speculation and debates around artificial intelligence and its vast implications, capturing some of the complexities of the debate in intellectually digestible morsels, effortlessly able to regurgitate them in characters oral delivery systems that even a primitive like me could understand real good. A second viewing revealed some quite clever gradients in how Ava and Caleb’s relationship becomes incrementally closer and is communicated through framing and planar positions, all framed within that stone bleached Nordic Ragnarök. Given the specific plot contortions I don’t accept the critiques that the film is guilty of simultaneously participating in the male gaze and exploiting the actresses forms for mere gratification, given that the character of Ava is a direct corollary of the subconscious of both the privileged male characters in the Eden alike enclave – that’s not indulging in the patriarchy, it is reflecting it, a central theme of identity politics in the film which is also embedded in the visual aesthetics of ergonomically symmetrical surfaces and porous architecture. I really admire this film, the writing is terrific, technically astute while mustering a sense of menace and danger, all the way through to the ambiguous endgame of those cerebral cat & mouse computations that scuttle along the algorithm of characters. In ancient myth a deux ex machina was an all-powerful deity introduced to close the story and begat a new chapter, as Nathan’s foolish tampering with the pixellated flame of creation seems to ignite the end of meatkind and harness the spark of the singularity – welcome to the adolescent shrugs of the 21st century. Major spoilers abound here in this astute essay on the film.
BlackHat (Michael Mann, USA, 2014) – When I acquired the Blu of this film I also nabbed the Blu of Thief, Mann’s first theatrical feature and in broad strokes they are very much alike, perhaps supporting that old adage that directors only really make one film, which they repeat again and again throughout their career. Blackhat was completely misjudged by the majority of critics and audiences if the box office is any judgement, but with cyber-crime now a very real destructive entity that nation states wage wars by proxy I predict this will be seen as a harbinger in years and conflicts to come. Career wise Mann has hacked the system, as his last three films have broadly failed financially and critically, yet he still levers $150 million budgets out of the studios including his recently announced long gestating Ferrari bio-pic. Hemsworth may be miscast but this still remains a impeccably researched, authentic cyber-thriller which treats its material seriously, with gorgeous digital vistas mirroring the travelogue narrative, and some of the most kinetic action sequences from one of the all-time masters of the form. The sense of a interconnected, globalised world that started with Miami Vice is evolved here, a film which organically feels like a 21st century artefact through its sublimations of tensile and ubiquitous technology, of border breaching finance and the growing dominance of the Asian sphere against the EU and the US – something we’ll come back to at the end of this post. Most of all though its about people clinging to each other in a cruel and inhospitable world, a perennial theme of Mann, with a rather more optimistic conclusion that most filmmakers of his generation.
Inside Out (Peter Docter, USA, 2015) – Yes, you can stop emitting that comedic gasp and rubbing your eyes in mock exaggerated disbelief, yes there is a Disney, or rather more specifically a Pixar film appearing on my top ten list of 2015. Clearly I am going soft and mellowing in my old age, but truth be told when it comes to the animated realm this is just about the only studio I have even the remotest interest in, and even after a half-decade of relative duds my interest has significantly waned since the triumphs of Wall-E and Up!. When it comes to their spectacular return to form I am simply in awe, not only of the character designs, of the breadth of catering to audience segments without pandering and of course the exquisite state of the art animation, no, it is the writing and meld of narrative, plot and form which is verging on the genius. It’s difficult to articulate without specific spoilers but the way that Riley’s emotions are driven in certain directions and how this plays out along her emotional cartography is just breath-taking in scope, control and inspiration, not to mention the intelligent asides and hilarious adjuncts such as that listed above. I’m man enough to admit that I was weeping like a virulent strain of trench-foot at numerous moments in the final act, an emotional reaction which is a distinct rarity in any form of media consumption of any ilk these days, those Pixar prestidigitators somehow tapping into that awkward and long suppressed childish core in all of us. It’s difficult to conjure up an adult orientated movie which similarly charts the psychic labyrinth of the mind that yields such universal insights, now….now if you’ll excuse me (sniffs)…I think I’ve got something in my eye….it’s….it’s a bit dusty around here isn’t it?…..
Cop Car (Jon Watts, USA, 2015) – The first thing to remark about this impressive debut thriller from writer director Jon Watts is how much a review by-line made me laugh with the punning title ‘Sneaky Bacon’. If I was lazy – and I am – I’d cite this as 2015’s Blue Ruin, an inventive, refreshingly original low budget potboiler, where two mischievous rural reared kids steal the titular police car of corrupt lawman Kevin Bacon. The boys irascible behaviour becomes deadly serious when we learn of the contraband that Bacon has secreted in his vehicle, meaning he will stop at nothing, not even infanticide, to retrieve his property. Great evocative landscapes, the kids aren’t flown in from central casting and seem like normal, inquisitive and clumsy adolescents, and Bacon really seems to be carving himself a genuinely eclectic career in his advancing years – hell, it beats those awful broadband adverts. I like a film when you’re constantly questioning how on earth are they going to stretch the premise out and they manage to outfox you, while never being predictable or cliché. There’s a little of the dangerous naivety of Badlands in the setting and feel of some scenes, and a gentle sprinkling of gallows humour to relieve the cruel intentions of the adult world.
Phoenix (Christian Petzler, Germany, 2015) – From the ashes of our most staggering and genocidal conflicts arises Phoenix, embedded with a narcotic fugue of shifting allegiances, stolen identities, guilt and resurrection imprinted against a World War II psychological mystery story. With echoes and rhythms of The Third Man, Eyes Without A Face and of course Vertigo it is operating in some long shadows, and although some of the plot contrivances are a little difficult to accept, well, c’mon, it is only a movie. The final scene is one of those moments, those crescendos that only cinema does so well, the years of suffering, struggling and shooting, of pre and post production blood, sweat and tears marshalling one final transcendental moment. Sublime.
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2015) – If I’m honest, I didn’t stumble out of the theatre utterly shell-shocked which was my initial expectation given the praise the film has raised, and citing this as ‘the best Michael Mann he never made’ was bound to get me over excited. Sicario is much more of a slow and tempered burn, one of those films which has continued to resurface with a shrapnel of images and half remembered scenes and moments, with an unexpected emphasis shift in the final act which truly frogmarches the audience into troubled and troubling waters. The drug war, four decades in the making is illuminated in all its incompetent and failed procedures, with no end in reasonable sight – the horror continues, day after day. The two fantastic set-pieces are immortalised with Deakins genius cinematography, and this all bodes well for the Blade Runner sequel which I’m still convinced the world doesn’t need, but if we must have it then these guys have a shot at making something interesting at the very least.
As usual there is further marrow in the bones to be gnawed, so I can also heartily recommend Mission Impossible V, Macbeth, Wild Tales for the wedding scene alone, The Lobster, The Force Awakens, Bone Tomahawk and at a patriotic push High-Rise. Then there’s The Guest and Stations Of The Cross which crossed over from 2014 releases to 2015 viewings for me, A Most Violent Year stands up on a revisit, although alas a Blu-Ray smoke of Inherent Vice diminished even further for me from the cinema visit. I know this will appear on a number of year end lists under the aegis of ‘why I got Inherent Vice and you didn’t you philistine’ but no, I got it alright, but ole PTA just didn’t muster an arresting tale with that cast and that material, and the atmosphere of indiscriminate anxiety dissipates away like a zephyr bong hit of Doc’s primo sensai. Documentary wise Hitchcock/Truffaut was essential for any cinephile, Precinct Seven-Five was a James Ellroy novel brought to real world, The Look Of Silence was a brilliant companion to Joshua Oppenhiemer’s The Act Of Killing while Going Clear was quite the damning revelation of Scientology’s sick soul.
Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1973) – It’s rare but it happens, that the Mint has some gap in his viewing portfolio which requires immediate rectification. I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve seen this, one of the lesser known 1970’s New Hollywood films, it’s not exactly uttered in the same breath as Taxi Driver or The Godfather but it did have quite an impact back in 1973. In my defence for some reason I had this tangled up with What’s Up Doc?, Bogdanovich’s warm tribute to early Hollywood, also starring Ryan O’Neil and the sadly missed Madeline Khan. It’s a depression era road movie, something of a curious counterpart to 1973’s Oscar winner The Sting, with O’Neil’s grifter partnering up with the similarly criminal Tatum O’Neil as they fleece the gullible across the Midwest, and maybe learning a few lessons about themselves along the way. That probably sounds hideous but this is essential viewing for Laslzo Kovacs breath-taking monochrome photography alone, in with stylish flourishes which nod specifically to Welles, particularly with some deep focus arrangements and considered camera moves that energize character scenes. It’s not up there with The Last Picture Show, it lacks that masterpieces melancholy timelessness, but it’s a fine evocation of a period, and a warm emphasis on co-operation and growth which might be saccharine to some yet found me receptive at exactly the right time. The new Blu-Ray looks fantastic, and has a solid 45 minutes of coverage on the preparation, shooting and movies subsequent reaction, including decent explanation of Bogdanovich’s specific style, the use of long takes and clever transitions between acts and movements. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore…..
Yella (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2007) – Haneke meets Herk Harvey in this curiously affecting mystery film, beginning with a young women’s efforts to evade the lethal attention of her obsessive disgruntled boyfriend. You’ll note that this is an earlier film from Phoenix director Christian Petzold whom discovered this year, just prior to the spike in media attention launched from his new film, and the rising profile of his frequent muse Nina Hoss. As we know I’m big on atmosphere and can forgive a film numerous failures if it at least manifests some tangible, tensile tractor beam of intensity, a factor which this film inspired by the cult movie classic Carnival Of Souls manages with the ruthless efficiency of a Goldman Sachs corporate takeover. Awakening from a near fatal accident as seen above our heroine becomes involved in the corporate world, an environment of identikt office spaces and the same blank eyed corporate drones, while underneath a strange current of unease and anxiety lurks at the corners of the frame. I’ll say no more as to avoid spoilers, but this is one of those ambiguous yet quietly beguiling modern thrillers, and a hauntingly prescient prologue to the financial earthquake of 2008 whose tremors seem to coalescing for another explosion…..
Contamination (Luigi Cozzi, Italy, 1980) – You’ve got to hand it to the Italians, they were absolutely shameless in their synthesis of successful movies of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, churning out B movie clones of popular pictures with just a drizzle of exploitation gunge to satisfy the greasy palmed exhibitors. Contamination was awarded a Blu-Ray Arrow release this year and this was the first time I’d seen this blatant Alien rip-off, except instead of having a chestburster sequences we have full bodybursting balletics, showering the screen with enough gloopy entrails to satisfy a feral pack of immature and ravenous gorehounds. It’s wildly uneven and frankly incompetent in many ways, with some horrible performances and dialogue which would make Michael Bay redden with shame. But, it has guts in all sorts of ways, and as some bizzarro world hybrid of H.R. Giger, The Thing, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and the two Martians from The Simpsons it is hilariously entertaining – I particularly loved the pulsing Overmind showdown with the strangely unsettling alpha centurai prime intellect as seen above.
The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, USA, 1973) – We’re talking a potential candidate for the all-time best here, a possible contender for assaulting the impregnable barricades of my all-time favourite top twenty movies, as every time I watch this it gets better, more genuine and honest. I’ve seen this a dozen times or more over the years on numerous late night screenings, and yet another re-watch on a 2am Film4 schedule did nothing to diminish Hal Ashby’s brilliant, authoritarian ensemble. It is the very ethos of 1970’s New Hollywood, focusing on a duo of working class grunt MP’s taking a young private to the stockade for a minor infraction, one part social document to two parts political metaphor for the system crushing hopes and dreams with its implacable and inhospitable cruelty. When Jack leaves us I’ve no doubt that the show-reel they play will be all his big moments from Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, his Oscar-winning turn in As Good As It Gets, Burton’s Batman and maybe his breakthrough role in Easy Rider. These are all great facets to an extraordinary career but for me this is the primary source of his archetypical grizzled charisma in all its full cigar stained plumage, an unsophisticated rogue with a hidden heart of gold. The film is gloriously devoid of sentimentality as the final scenes spool, and you really feel that this slice of life, this 48 hours spent with these three men meant something, even if you can’t quite articulate what or why.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, USA, 1970) – I could easily write a full 1,500 review on this but we’ll keep this brief. You could, if you liked, consider Colossus as a brother to the warnings of HAL’s soulless paranoia only two years earlier, not to mention both films umbilical links to the arrogant Strangelove lunacy of the military industrial complex. The Pentagon’s ultimate supercomputer has been tasked with removing human error from the crisis laden cold war culture, and been handed the reigns of the US nuclear arsenal. A small complication – the Soviets have secretly developed an identical system which quickly comes to the same logical conclusion of the American mainframe, that humans are too stupid to run the world so they both hold the planet to nuclear ransom as our new binary overlords. I remember seeing this on the old schedule of BBC2 6pm movies when the thought of a speaking computer was still the stuff of impossible futurism, with that sermon on the mount echo modulated voice a Skynet fragment of troubled cyberpunk dreams. Colossus is intellectual, sociology programmed SF, cleaving closer to Tron, Demon Seed, Wargames and in some senses The Matrix rather than certain returning space operas or Buck Rogers warped imperialism. Technology run amok and evolving beyond our control is a staple of the 1970’s SF genre, and what they got wrong is as amusing as what the film got right. The mainframe hulk is the size of a mountain which is hilarious given what we know about miniaturisation, while the characters debate the oppositions of meat-space and cyberspace in a specifically late 1960’s idiom – there’s plenty of Martini fuelled lunches, pipe smoking boffins imperceptibly concerned with their unruly creations, all garbed in Edith Head’s period classical costumes. Some may say our electronic tools are out of control – think Gamergate, ISIS recruitment models, the inevitable entire corporatisation of the web, so maybe as the film amusingly suggests our nuclear brinksmanship balance of civilisation wouldn’t suffer from a little godlike guidance.
Films To See In 2016
February (Oz Perkins, USA, 2016) – Presumably this will be released in the hyperborean habitat of two months hence? Very strong word of mouth precedes this from both TiFF and Fantastic Fest, I really like the portentous tone struck by that well-engineered trailer, the location of an isolated boarding school is rich in metaphor, and some glimpses of imagery have got my ghoulish goose-bumps groaning in glee. The casting of Sally Draper from Mad Men also seems inspired, and we haven’t had a decent Satan worship movie since The House Of The Devil some years back unless it’s all in someone’s head? As for its horror movie pedigree can you guess who debut director Oz Perkins is related to? Well, I’d ask mother but she’s not feeling herself today….
Knight Of Cups (Terence Malick, USA, 2016) – After the vague unease I felt around To The Wonder I’m similarly hesitant about Malick’s latest during this hot streak of three films in five years, but this second trailer has certainly got the celebrity blood pumping – is this his modern age Sunset Boulevard or his millennium graced The Bad & The Beautiful?. Initial festival word has been mixed hence my continual apprehension, with particular emphasis on his usual shtick wearing a little thin – ethereal, disconnected mood montages dominating all form, the continual and suspicious placing of female characters on pedestals, a disjoined and alientating disregard of narrative. As of November 2015 it is quite telling that this new hymn hasn’t picked up a European distributor, a mystery which I think speaks volumes of the current, franchise dominated market. All well and good but at the end of the day it is ‘Terence Malick’ so c’mon, and at the very least Emmanuel Lubezski’s photography will be enough to make a cinema visit an absolute essential act of piety.
Hail Caesar! (Joel Coen, USA, 2016) – The Coens are always essential cinema fare whose work I will go and see sight unseen, but a return to Capitol Pictures of Barton Fink fame is truly a grin inducing prospect. Talk about building their own cinematic universe, with returning turns from previous collaborators Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johannson, George Clooney and Frances McDormand, one wonders why they left the two John’s – Goodman and Turturro – out of the roll call. Now they aren’t always successful when it comes to the comedies – Burn After Reading is fine, Intolerable Cruelty just about watchable but The Ladykillers is the only bona-fide dud of their entire career, but then you throw Raising Arizona into the mix as one of their best films who knows how this might develop. Any take on golden age Hollywood will be fascinating in any sense, so I’m confident this will be bright and breezy fare.
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2016) – Originally due a November 20release but pushed back four months following some test screening generated pick-ups, lets hope that these slightly worrying early indications do not reflect the final quality. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, emo-icon Adam Driver, the always dependable Michael Shannon and Sam Shepherd this has a distinct Stephen King vibe, of a gifted person on the run from the authorities with aliens and weird stuff lurking in the background. Nichols is exceptionally strong in building suspense and atmosphere, and seeing him back with his frequent muse Michael Shannon is enough for me.
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, USA, 2015) – If the already legendary stories about the films tortured production weren’t enough, then the prospect of Emmanuel Lubezki – yes him again – golden hour cinematography would be enough to lure me into theatres. This looks magnificently intense, brooding and dangerous in the best possible way, taking some of the fluidic lessons learnt from Birdman out from one restrained Broadway location into the vast and cruel wilderness. What is it with the Mexicans and their long-takes eh? Iñárritu and Cuaron seem to be locked in some cinematic duel when you factor in the designs of Gravity and Children Of Men, I wonder when Del Toro will through his hat into the ring and take all of his countrymen on at their own game.
I initially was under the impression is was going to be slim pickings beyond these five, but a detailed survey of 2016’s offering has yielded potential treasures. Tarantino should get the blood pumping with The Hateful Eight in just a few weeks, also genre wise I can’t say The 5th Wave looks particularly promising, and it looks to have another alien invasion contender to battle with due to the long mooted Independence Day remake finally warping into orbit. The Pride & Prejudice & Zombies flick could be fun it they take the appropriate comedic tone, The Purge 3 could round off a reasonable B-movie inspired trilogy, and not being a pathetic internet MRA troll I’m vaguely amused to see the all female Ghostbusters re-imagining. I’m somewhat non-plussed by Bats versus Supes but of course I will go and see it, which probably goes double for the Suicide Squad project and the slightly nauseating Deadpool, instead I’m going all patriotic with Captain America – Civil War which if its anything like the last Cap movie should be much more entertaining. Speaking of blockbusters there’s the next X-Men movie, Dr. Strange is scheduled for November which has been summoned much quicker than I thought, Warcraft holds interest to see if Duncan Jones can level cap with the full resources of a studio at his disposal, then there’s the insignificant, trifling matters of Star Trek 3 and Bourne 5.
I always like to find one development of film culture as a whole to close on and I think I’ve found a subject whose name is China. There have been a number of editorial pieces urging caution as to the influence the country is having on the film industry, citing a number of high-profile deals and alliances which have fallen apart. Maybe so, but I don’t think we can ignore the fact that the country is effectively saving entire blockbusters and franchises from extinction, not only the Terminator atrocity but a vast majority of Jurassic World take was due to the foreign markets. Increasingly co-productions are being set-up with Chinese developers such as the last Mission Impossible movie, and like product placement you can sense certain products being specifically tailored for the whims and interests of the oriental market. That wasn’t the case for The Martian with the Chinese state coming to the aid of Mr. Damon as apparently that plot point was in the book, but when I was conducting my research on that I came across for me was an instructive and fascinating fact. In 1979, Alien opened on a mere 90 screens across the entire US market. Flash forward to today, and an average studio blockbuster like The Martian will open across 3,500 screens in a blitzkrieg of marketing and pyrotechnic persuasion, such is the expansion of the industry, which is also rife with IMAX, 3D, and other screening options and formats.The Force Awakens, the biggest film in history, opened on 4,134 theatres in the US. In China alone there is already 23,500 screens which is just staggering, already over half the total screens in the US, and in another three years it is predicted to have ten times the capacity of the North American market. One things for certain, the future is red, as old superpowers are eclipsed and new colonies arise;