Fifteen of Fifteen
So there I was at work the other day when I suddenly remembered that I haven’t updated this blog… …for months!
That’s what happens when I’m busy making a film of my own. It’s as time consuming as it is utterly exhausting, but now I’ve finished showing my underbelly and can return to my true love…pointing at everyone else’s.
“When we last left you…” I was in the middle of bending over backwards to recommend Australian films, and we still have one left to go. I haven’t lost sight of this, but I have something else to take care of first.
Remember this? Of all the posts in all the years in all the world, I had to almost miss 2015.
Fret not! I know it’s July, but I’m not going to miss my chance to unveil the perfectly titled ‘Fifteen of Fifteen’! It’s unconscionable!
I know that 2015 is well and truly in the rearview mirror at this point, but can we please just step into the DeLorean for a minute and take a trip back to when Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World were dominating the box office while Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Spotlight were emptying the Oscar shelves. Remember it now? Ok, good.
Let’s go over the rules again:
This is not strictly a list of my favourite films in 2015. What I’ve done here is try to cobble together a set of the best movies that the average film-goer, or even netflix buff, probably overlooked in a year full of anticipated blockbusters. If you happen to find yourself with “nothing to watch” one night and you feel a little adventurous, by all means pick one out and give it a try, or perhaps even make a selection from 2014 or 2013. I can’t guarantee that they’ll all be to your taste, but I will say that this is probably the best year I can remember for overlooked independents. There was so much great stuff that I almost wanted to increase the number.
BUT THAT WOULD RUIN THE “FIFTEEN OF FIFTEEN” title! …and we can’t do that.
So we begin, as always, at the bottom…
A fair few of you may actually have seen Crimson Peak. It had a decent run at the cinemas, but never really became the big hit that Guillermo Del Toro probably hoped it would be.
“In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds – and remembers.”
It’s not hard to see why people didn’t recommend this to their friends. The premise alone is labyrinthine and dense. The poster screams “horror”, but the summary reads like Russian literature. Then, to top it off, the reviews all had a sense of “meh” about them. The consensus seemed to be that the film was not scary. I agree. There’s a lot of eeriness, but never any paranormal toe-curling tension or even a single cheap jump-scare payoff.
All of this is ok, however, because the film is not meant to be scary. It’s pitched as a gothic romance, the keywords being “gothic” and “romance”. Balancing morbidity and love is tricky as hell, because you tend to alienate both halves of your audience. The women find it too frightening, gross, or unsettling while the men are bored out of their minds with the slow sappiness.
I found it enjoyable on both counts and, as far as demographics go, there’s one group that will adore every lavish second of it: Production Designers.
If you’re someone with a soft spot for fantastical costumes and architecture, eat your walking corpse’s heart out! Del Toro has brought you the ultimate in horror mansions, a house that oozes character, literally. Everything from the tap handles to the door latches has been designed to tell a story or evoke an emotion. The film is also gorgeously lit, with a bright and consistent contrasting colour palette of yellow, red, and green; representing life, love, and death.
The whole experience is a trip back to the classic ghost films of the 60’s, with candlesticks constantly illuminating dark hallways. The aim of the game here is not to let your imagination fill in the blanks, but rather to exhibit the imagination of the filmmaker. Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most brilliant visual minds working in cinema today, and he has some unbelievable things to show you if you’ll just open yourself up to it.
Like I said, a fair few of you may have seen Crimson Peak, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of you skipped it. Just remember to manage your expectations. It will intrigue you, maybe even stun you, but not scare you. Relax and and soak in the exuberance.
Perhaps partially redundant, but here you go:
“Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution, to paint a portrait of the man at its epicentre. The story unfolds backstage at three iconic product launches, ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac.”
Just like Crimson Peak, Steve Jobs was a film with a decent profile. It was written by wordsmith prodigy Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing, and directed by Danny Boyle. Must have been a giant hit, right?
Made on a budget of $30 million, the film ultimately only scraped together $34 million from its entire theatrical run. While technically going into profit, it became known as one of the biggest flops of the year. With this much talent involved expectations were raised, but in hindsight it was always going to be a struggle to drag audiences back into the cinema for a Steve Jobs biopic…thanks to this little spoiler:
Out of the two competing exposes about the same man, the better one arrived late to the party and missed out as a result. Not only was Jobs the first to be released, but it made the same amount of money as Steve Jobs. Yet on account of having half the budget, it was a greater success. Are you confused yet?
Exactly! All you need to remember is to avoid Ashton Kutcher and you’ll be fine. In fact, this is a good general rule anyway!
The great advantage that the Sorkin script has is that it showcases Steve Jobs as a darker and more complex character. Steve was to loyalty what computer hardware…is to loyalty.
It’s clear that in his “post 90’s” stretch Aaron Sorkin has become more interested in flawed central characters that blur the line between hero and villain. If you’re someone who enjoyed the tone of Moneyball and The Social Network, in particular, then you you really shouldn’t miss this one.
The setup is also way more interesting. It presents the summation of Jobs’ life through three real-time product launches, each one an act in a three-part play. Through this prism we see the chasm between his relationship to the public and to the individual. We slalom through a landscape of broken friendships and partnerships, all within the confines of what is clearly a synthetically constructed narrative, and yet it never feels inorganic. Behold the gospel that is the Sorkin script.
Here’s one that I’m almost certain you haven’t seen. Lucky you!
“A documentary about the proposed 1998 Superman Lives feature film that would have starred Nicolas Cage.”
No, you’re not having a sudden onslaught of dyslexia. You read that correctly.
For almost two decades there’s been a rumour that Tim Burton was planning a Superman sequel that would star Nicolas Cage. No one was really sure how deep into development the project had gotten before fizzling out, but most assumed that it never escaped the scripting stage. Then this picture began circulating.
Clearly Superman Lives had made it all the way to casting and costume fitting, something which only raised more questions.
Documentary filmmaker and self proclaimed geek John Shnepp has decided to make the effort of investigating just how many relics and unrealised plans actually exist. The truth is so much more fleshed out than anyone ever thought. The Death of Superman Lives piles together every available scrap of information about what could have potentially been the most insane superhero movie ever made. Interviews, story plans, concept art, and even VFX test footage helps gather a complete picture of the train wreck cinema fiasco we all secretly wish would have happened.
To my surprise, 2015 turned out to be a great year for horror films. There are a total of five on this list, far more than most years. Not only are they fundamentally effective, they’re all wildly at odds with contemporary genre expectations.
Case in point: We Are Still Here.
“In the cold, wintery fields of New England, a lonely old house wakes up every thirty years – and demands a sacrifice.”
I’ve found it hard to pinpoint why I…kinda…like this film. I fully admit that it’s far from 100% successful, but there were key moments that stayed with me.
With a shockingly low budget, but fuelled by substantive inspiration, We Are Still Here is the kind of rough (and I do mean rough) diamond that many horror film fans will find themselves oddly charmed by. Every element of this film is underdeveloped, but it has a core vision. The creators have stated that they didn’t want to choose between ghouls or ghosts, and instead combined them. When faced with a cliche, their go-to strategy was to take the road less travelled. It may not have lead them to a home-run, but it certainly kept me watching.
Oh, you like horror films? In the inappropriate words of Bernie Goetz, “here’s another!”
“A family in 1630’s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.”
The Witch is a cerebral horror film in the vain of The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not a film you can ever relax into, and nor should you. It raises several questions and provides very few answers. This is not a date movie or a gorefest, and at times it will make you uncomfortable with its ongoing references to deviant themes and uncomfortable human behaviour. The very first sequence in the movie is intended to put you off and then dare you to sit through the rest. It’s no spoiler to say that the story isn’t headed to a good place.
I might struggle to recommend Australian films, but how about an American one with a New Zealander in it?
I’ve never seen Flight of the Conchords, but I have it on good authority that it’s very funny. One of its stars, Jemaine Clement, now comes to you as the oddly out of place lead in the indie comedy film People, Places, Things.
“Will Henry is a newly single graphic novelist balancing parenting his young twin daughters and a classroom full of students while exploring and navigating the rich complexities of new love and letting go of the woman who left him.”
This movie is essentially a deadpan juggling act. It’s always funny, but in a subtle way that consists of equal parts punch-lines and cringe moments. What’s endearing about it is how adoringly it treats its central character. Although Will is a buffoon in many ways and a hapless victim in others, he remains a consistently great father. He struggles to provide for his children financially, and so substitutes it by enriching their lives with immaterial happiness.
Will’s struggle is to endure a torrent of emotional hardships until something can give him a a slight hope of control. Even if that never happens, though, it’s fun to watch him grasping at straws.
Alright, you’re not happy with just a lead actor from New Zealand? Let’s step it up a notch.
“A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as a guide.”
If this film proves anything, it’s that film is all about fakery. Here we have Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is Australian, playing a Scottish traveller. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender, who is Irish, plays an American outlaw. One is helping the other traverse the American West, as represented by the New Zealand countryside.
Just about everything in Slow West is disingenuous, and yet if you didn’t know…you wouldn’t know. Best of all, it gives us a fresh take on westerns. You’ve never quite seen one like this. It’s uniquely bright, colourful, and stands in contrast to almost all of modern cinema by filming its subjects matter with entirely steady shots. At times it reminded me of the craft in a Cohen Brother film, particularly one like Fargo. There is very little movements in either the camerawork, action, or dialogue. The director, John Maclean, compensates for this with what I like to call “precision filmmaking”.
There is a golden rule in scriptwriting, which is to go from A to B as directly as possible without being boring and predictable. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, but the thing to avoid is unnecessary deviation from the story. Don’t let your main character go on a rant about something that isn’t germane to either a plot-strand or an underlying theme. It’s messy and distracting, so cut it out if you can’t justify it.
Of course, some filmmakers manage to break this rule and get away with it, to the frustration of others.
Slow West, in a very classically disciplined way, chains itself to minimalism at all times. Dialogue that would otherwise stretch on for paragraphs is condensed into a handful of words. Sometimes even one word, or a simple gesture, is enough.
None of that is to say, however, that Slow West doesn’t have several moments of fun. There are jokes, chases, shootouts, and subsequently a lot of both dark and funny deaths.
It feels very strange to be recommending a teen comedy. It’s not usually something I do, but The Duff left me feeling like is deserved some recognition.
“A high school senior instigates a social pecking order revolution after finding out that she has been labeled the DUFF – Designated Ugly Fat Friend – by her prettier, more popular counterparts.”
The whole conceit of this movie seems like a hard sell. You would be forgiven for suspecting it to be a mixture of Mean Girls clique-humour, rags-to-popular-riches Cinderella fantasy, and…every other cliche you can think of. Its setup also reeks of potential body shaming for young women. Something that I’m totally against, mind you! I value women for their personalities and don’t judge them by their looks or leer over them like some large drooling predator. Amirite, sistahs?
But if you ignore the premise, the characters, the poster, and the trailer…and just watch the movie…you’ll find that The Duff is actually a very sweet film. It’s easily as strong as Emma Stone’s compelling Easy A when it comes to issues of teenage female empowerment, and it’s just as funny, if not more.
I’ve always been a fan of Mae Whitman from when I first saw her in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She’s a perfect fit for this role. The chemistry between her and Robbie Amell is dynamite, and that’s the key to why it works. A romance comedy only succeeds if you can sense genuine harmony between two personalities, and in this case you’ll find yourself biting your nails in anticipation of the miss-matched couples hooking up correctly.
Yes! Now we’re getting into the really really good stuff. These next several movies are truly exquisite films whose tepid response is so unjustified that it’s criminal.
“A middle-aged couple’s career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives.”
If you know my cinematic taste intimately (Ew! There’s got to be a better way to phrase that.), you’ll know that I’m an evolving fan of Noah Baumbach. He’s been an independent filmmaker since the 90’s, but only recently caught my attention with the lovely Frances Ha. His follow up is While We’re Young, a comical look at age-denial.
I’m particularly fond of this topic, as I’m already feeling old and I’m not even thirty yet. On the other hand…I’m almost thirty!
I don’t think it’s unusual to freak out a little every time you’re about to cross a decade threshold. It serves as a reminder of the clocks irreversible momentum. It’s not all about mortality, either. Eventually age has a way of pressuring you into abandoning a young persons lifestyle and “settling down”, whatever you perceive that to mean. Anyone with a burning, or even lukewarm, passion for reaching unfinished goals will find this a hard pill to swallow.
While We’re Young sees Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts come face to face with more impressive versions of their younger selves. It leads to an experimental maturity reboot that is utterly unpredictable in its outcome. A genuine crisis of the soul occurs, where the main characters have to decide whether they want to slip into the second half of their lives like it’s a soothing bath, or reject it as a constricting social construct.
This moment either has happened or will happen to all of us. Baumbach seems to be one of the only current artists willing to address it from every angle and with all the satire it deserves.
Is age really just a number? We’ll find out…
Is your Argentinian anthology film collection a little slim these days? Say no more!
“Six short stories about revenge.”
That’s about as concise of a setup as you could ask for. I have a special place in my heart for anthology films, and a special place within that special place for Wild Tales.
Anthology films succeed because of their internal diversity. With six stories available, you’re bound to like at least one or two of them. They vary in size and scope, but all centre around the bizarre outcomes of revenge.
What impressed me most was the high quality of this movie. I know that might sound damning with faint praise, as if I automatically assume that a film from Argentina should look like an outtake from The Blair Witch Project, but that’s not what I’m saying. There’s some serious money and talent involved here, with large scale VFX and crisp cinematography. Every smooth square inch of it gleams with wear-and-tear virginity, like a recently unboxed piece of expensive technology. Frankly, it impresses me to see this much attention being paid to such an indulgent entertainment piece. On top of that, the film made it into the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category. Not too shabby.
Those of you out there who struggle to draw pleasure from screen violence or don’t fancy revenge as sufficient character motivation might be tempted to skip this one. I suggest that you don’t. It’s very funny amidst its depravity. If you give it a chance, it will whisper sweet nothings to the lizard portion of your brain. You’ll find yourself coaxed into relating to these characters and their vitriolic decisions. It’s a scary thought, I know, but maybe…just maybe…there’s part of you that sympathises.
Ok fine, I will watch Flight of the Conchords, I promise. It’s hard not to when the people behind it made one of the funniest films of last year.
“A documentary team films the lives of a group of vampires for a few months. The vampires share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. Turns out vampires have their own domestic problems too.”
I want to immediately address the elephant in the room: Mockumentaries are all too common! Ever since This is Spinal Tap and The Office set the bar for hilarity and cringe by utilising a fake documentary format, we’ve seen dozens of these copycats. Borat, Bruno, Summer Heights High, Come Fly with Me, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Reno 911!, Trailer Park Boys, Kenny…the list goes on.
The only other category that could possibly compete with this level of abundance is that of vampire films. How many versions of Dracula have we had at this point? Twilight came, did its thing, and went. Then we even got Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Gee, thank you 20th Century Fox. I really needed to know what the emancipator of American slavery could do to the undead with an axe and a good swing.
All of this now leads up to the announcement that Jemaine Clement and Taika Watiti are making a mockumentary about vampires. You can imagine my reaction….
…and yet, it’s so good!
Right off the bat (pun inadvertently stumbled upon) we get references to everything from Nosferatu to Gary Oldman. The legends and myths around vampires are brought into the real world and played out like a reality show. It explores all the funny inconveniences and quirks that would inevitably follow a vampire lifestyle.
It’s great to finally see the vampire genre spoof itself. I’ve always been turned off by how seriously these creatures take themselves. ‘Oh, woe is me! I live forever but I have to drink blood and live at night.’ Yes, I get it. It’s a tortured existence. What I don’t understand is how you manage to style your hair so perfectly without a reflection.
Don’t you hate it when there’s hardly any size or font difference between the main star’s name and the film title? “Kevin Bacon Cop Car?” What the hell is that? Anyway…
“A small-town sheriff sets out to find the two kids who have taken his car on a joy ride.”
I really enjoyed this one. Like really enjoyed it! It’s very simple. The motivations are straight forward, the characters aren’t too complex, and the dialogue is straight to the point. Unlike most modern films, it has no problem putting children in mortal danger. It’s like a modern gritty reinvention of The Goonies, you could say.
Two children make the poor mistake of stealing a cop car, assuming that the worst they’ll get is a talking to from the police or their parents. Of course, it’s so much worse. The car belongs to Sherriff Kretzen, an upstanding policeman and part time drug dealing murderer. Kretzen’s entire double-life hangs in the balance and depends upon him retrieving the car before the children discover what’s really going on. And away we go…
Yay! Noah Baumbach returns again. I’m such a fan!
I know, you’re bored with all my adoration. If only I gave half a fuck. I don’t. He’s amazing!
“A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside-down by her impetuous, adventurous stepsister-to-be.”
You might think that this film is similar to While We’re Young, but you’d be wrong. It starts off as a drama about a young girl trying to fit in at college, but takes a turn when Greta Gerwig’s character, Brooke, enters her life. Suddenly it becomes an increasingly frenetic screwball comedy, and here’s where I start my rant:
What ever happened to screwball comedies? There used to be a whole industry of writers being paid to pen high quality script about hilariously ever-escalating situations. Dramatic irony was the name of the game, where each character was misunderstanding each other and only the audience had a complete view of what was going on. This style of comedy was all the rage in the 30’s and 40’s, then made a bit of a comeback in the 70’s and 90’s. As I’m a child of the 90’s, these are some of my personally favourite examples:
Nowadays, though, comedies have been hijacked by the likes of Will Ferrel and Adam McKay. While some of their films (like Anchorman and Step Brothers) are very funny, they’re all about improvisation. It’s far less impressive when there’s no real script in place, and the director just lets funny people sputter in front of a camera until they have enough to edit together. That’s a pretty lazy way to make a comedy. Just make an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway, it’s cheaper.
What I want to see is a script that plays out like intricate mathematics. The setups and the payoffs are perfectly timed. The build up of complexities is externally chaotic, and yet there’s clearly always a captain at the helm.
Mistress America is one of these. The dialogue is smart, complicated, funny, and delivered at a crazy pace, similar to Gilmore Girls. As the plot progresses, it literally accumulates a motley crew of characters that don’t seem to know why they’re here or where they’re going. They just follow one another blindly, and I was happy to tag along as well.
Final two, and we’re back to warm nutritious horror!
“A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter.”
Upon first glance, the setup for It Follows seems very typical. In reality, this is one of the most perfectly conceived horror films I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s such a great idea!
The film posits an entity that follows you. Only you can see it. It never stops and never runs. It only ever walks at a slow constant pace. It always knows where you are, and is always walking in a straight line towards you. It will appear to you as a random person, sometimes as someone you know. When it reaches you…you die!
Now that is genius! The entire film becomes an excruciating exercise in paranoia. You’ll find yourself picking people out of a crowd and wondering “is that it?”. There are also additional rules which further complicate the main character’s dilemma. The only way to pass the follower to another person is to have sex. You will still be able to see the follower, but they will now be following your partner. However, if the follower kills that person, it immediately turns around and begins following you again. As you can imagine, this gives our central hero some mythological room within which she can strategize. Can she devise a plan to escape the inescapable? Oh the fun we’ll have!
No you don’t! Come back here!
I’ve run into a couple people recently who refuse to watch horror movies. Their excuse is “I get too scared”. That’s like avoiding roller coasters because they’re too exciting. That’s the whole point! A good horror film is an unbelievably refreshing experience. The best ones are all about editing and camera placement, rather than gore and creepy lighting.
If you’re more or less a horror virgin, then It Follows is a great first experience to have. It’s not too scary, merely confronting you with a terrifying notion that’s well explored. It will provide you with a prime example of what great horror cinema is all about: tension.
There are interesting additional flavours to this film. The director, David Robert Mitchell, decided to set it in no one consistent time period. The cars and sets look like something out of the 80’s, but the technology and clothing is far more modern. The soundtrack is created by Disasterpeace, who used a retro John Carpenter synth score that sounds like it belongs in a classic slasher.
I just absolutely loved the experience of watching this movie. I saw it at Cinema Nova, in an uncomfortable basement with a low ceiling and an annoying cement pillar protruding into my line of sight. Still, it didn’t matter. I was transfixed with what was on the screen, loving every second of it. The use of long takes and zoom lenses brought me right back to the films I saw on VHS as a kid.
Please watch this movie! It deserves you!
I thought It Follows was going to end up being my favourite film of 2015, but in the final days of December, Krampus arrived.
“A boy who has a bad Christmas ends up accidentally summoning a Christmas demon to his family home.”
Do you like Gremlins? How about Poltergeist? A Nightmare Before Christmas? Combine them all and you get Krampus. It’s written and directed by Michael Dogherty, who made one of my favourite films of the last decade: Trick r’ Treat.
If you liked Trick r’ Treat, then you’re in luck. Krampus is effectively an unrelated sequel. It features many of the same practical effects and clear nods to 80’s creature features like Pumpkinhead.
I wasn’t out of order when I mentioned A Nightmas Before Christmas, either. There is an entire section where the film turns into a stop-motion rendered animation. Like something right of of Tim Burton’s mind, it’s a beautiful piece of German expressionism and so appropriate to the spirit of the film!
Dogherty loves combining genres that aren’t normally combined. Here, he intentionally aims to mutate everything you’re told to love about Christmas into an unrelenting abomination. The spirit, people, decorations, traditions, and gifts are all perverted with no remorse.
It might just be one of my favourite Christmas films ever. I like it when filmmakers reveal the dark side of the holidays. Something about the absurd recipe of blood and eggnog makes for an interesting result. Lest we forget that Die Hard, Eyes Wide Shut, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are all technically Christmas films. They’re just not interested in pandering to holiday cheer.
For someone like myself, who hates this time of year profusely, it’s music to my ears. If Krampus is about anything, it’s about the falseness of Christmas. People spend time together, not because they want to, but because they feel they have to. It’s what you do! Well, bah humbug!
Tear it all down, with cannibal puppets and murdering gingerbread men!