A brief summation to begin.
Another year, and another promise to blog more has been broken. Why do you all keep believing me?
(NB. Regarding the banner picture up there: Only two of those five films made my list. Care to wager which before you keep on reading? Meet you at the end.)
2015 has been a crazier year than most. Perhaps even the craziest of my life to date. Here's hoping the madness doesn't stop here.
The year opened with me in pre-production on my short film Cigarette, seeking freelance video work and creative inspiration, editing Cigarette, had me turning 40 bang in the middle, then really kicked off, with my partner in life, crime and creativity, Perri Cummings, and I writing a feature screenplay and shooting a "rough draft" version of the entire 83-minute thing in two days before showing it to a small audience, departing as co-host of the film review podcast Hell is For Hyphenates after five-and-a-half wonderful years, rewriting our movie script, re-shooting some scenes and screening it again, readying Cigarette for festival release and ended with us working on writing our third draft of said feature film -- by now called Trench -- and gearing up to shoot it -- yes, to make our very first feature-length movie -- in early 2016!
The prospect of 2016, with a short film going out to festivals, a feature film shoot (and likely going out to festivals itself by year's end!) and more semi-regular freelance video work -- as well as all the new stuff I'll learn and films I'll see (what with new works by Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Todd Haynes and Aaron Sorkin heading our way... and that's just January!!) -- thrills me with prospective delight.
And now... the films.
2015 has been an odd duck of a year, feature film-wise (at least, the ones I've seen): Films with massive reputations that underwhelmed, films that made full contact with greatness but didn't know when to quit, largely unheralded films that quietly stunned and -- most shockingly, for me -- a clutch of mega-budget blockbusters that were so great, they pushed the form forward.
But let's hop in the wayback machine, real quick:
My Favourite Unearthed Treasures of 2015.
One delight of being a movie fan in this day and age, with unparalleled access to films from bygone eras, is being able to explore film history at your own pace and temper. Being co-host of the fabulous* podcast (*I can say that now, as I'm no longer on it) Hell is For Hyphenates was one hell of a way to have this exploration curated, thanks to a different guest choosing the filmmaker whose career I'd spend the next month examining. While I don't regret my decision to leave Hyphenates after over a half-decade, I will miss being pushed toward some corners of film history I may not have thought to explore.
Case in point: my first big discoveries of 2015:
Most people are more likely to think of Kobayashi as a character in The Usual Suspects than a master of Japanese cinema, but this needs to change. Masaki Kobayashi was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa and Keisuke Kinoshita, which may explain why he got lost in the shuffle a little. (Great trivia note: this titanic quartet were all friends, and even formed a production company in the late 1960s known as Yonki no kai, which translates as "The Four Horsemen Club"!) While Kobayashi's filmography was perhaps slightly more uneven than at least Kurosawa's, I was stunned and delighted to find his peaks stood shoulder to shoulder with even Akira's best.
HARA-KIRI (known in Japan by its original title SEPPUKU -- both terms meaning ritual suicide; the latter, the more traditional Japanese term) is a searing critique of Samurai culture and the hypocrisy inherent within all systems believing themselves beyond reproach, whether political or patriotic (or, by inference, patriarchal). Kobayashi's film starts with a seemingly humble, broken-down ronin in feudal Japan offering his services to a wealthy family, which has apparently been happening a lot of late. The deal is, they offer employment or seppuku, and whichever one the house chooses, the ronin must obey. Your more greedy families, not wanting to potentially pay some layabout claiming to be samurai to loaf about their houses, tend to choose the latter... as they do with this ronin I introduced earlier. But, in preparing to kill himself for this proud and wealthy house's gratification, our ronin has a story to tell... I won't say any more, except to say it's both thrillingly exciting and crushingly sad, one of the greatest revenge yarns ever told and, despite revolving almost entirely upon obsolete social structures, is as relevant and excoriating now as ever. It's astonishingly good.
Also astonishingly good is THE HUMAN CONDITION, the trilogy -- yes, trilogy -- of films Kobayashi made right before HARA-KIRI. Kobayashi was an avowed pacifist who refused to enlist for World War II, was promptly drafted and thrown into the conflict, and, after refusing to take a rank above private, was captured and detained into a POW camp. So, when he discovered Junpei Gomikawa's epic novel about Kaji, a pacifist whose wartime experience weirdly mirrored his -- albeit with a few more horrific trials of mind, body and spirit thrown in -- it was small wonder Kobayashi took it upon himself to devote three years of his life to adapting Gomikawa's book to the screen. Both personal and sweeping, intimate and grand, THE HUMAN CONDITION, watched in its 10 hour entirety, is, quite simply, not only one of the greatest anti-war statements, but greatest achievements in cinema history. If Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune as his ever-malleable muse, Kobayashi found his own in Tatsuya Nakadai, who is simply phenomenal as Kaji. It's a masterpiece that will shatter you. I have screenwriter Mark Protosevich to thank for this discovery, and you can listen to our Hell is For Hyphenates chat here.
My other favourite discoveries of 2015 include:
- Don Herzfeldt's beautiful tryptich of animated shorts combined into one indelibly heartbreaking 62-minute feature, IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY. By following Bill, a man whose perception of reality and memory is becoming increasingly blurred and untethered, if there's a better, more deeply felt film about hopes, dreams, dealing with mental illness and just struggling through day-to-day life, I've yet to see it. Pretty incredible when you consider it's a film populated entirely by stick figures. One of the great works of the 2010s -- and would have been my favourite film of 2012 if I'd seen it that year.
- Not technically a discovery, but a film I'd seen some 25 years ago as a teen and (clearly) fundamentally didn't understand, seeing Spike Lee's definitive "joint" DO THE RIGHT THING on the big screen in bright, blazing, clarion call colour was an incredible experience. I now know why there was such a furore over its Oscar shutout in 1990, and why it appears on so many Best Films of the 1980s lists -- because it's a masterpiece. Angry, hilarious, blissful, bruised, beautiful and unstoppably exuberant, DO THE RIGHT THING is everything we love about Spike Lee as a filmmaker, all at once. But what's both wonderful and awful about this film, is how brand new it feels, even 26 years later -- for the best (Lee's vibrant, immediate cinema, the lived-in performances, the somewhat timeless Brooklyn/Bed-Stuy archetypes) and worst (America's seemingly endless struggle with racism and identity, police brutality and persecution of African-Americans) reasons.
- Sometimes, you're ridiculously late to the best parties... but the great thing about cinema is those parties never have to end. Case in point: me finally getting around to seeing the films of French New Wave titan Agnes Varda, again thanks to Philippa Hawker and Hell is For Hyphenates. A million miles away from the pretentious essayist provocations of Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda is such an irresistibly puckish, inquisitive filmmaker, her films so alive with humour, curiosity, creativity and humanity, they can't help but be instantly engrossing. The best of her considerable body of work is tough to choose, but for me, her career-defining second feature, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, is the one. Following a popular singer (played by the gorgeous Corinne Marchand) on a pivotal day in her life, as she waits for some potentially terrible news, struggles with creativity and ego and maybe even falls in love -- all in real time (the 90-minute film's title should actually be CLEO FROM 5 TO 6:30, but I understand that's not nearly as catchy). It's all those adjectives I assigned to Varda's work earlier, but also impossibly cool, raw, sensual and adorable. The only film Varda made that, I would say, equals CLEO would be her final feature documentary, the self-reflexive retrospective THE BEACHES OF AGNES... but that is best viewed after seeing everything she's done, which you should absolutely do, because there are no duds in this deck. She's amazing.
- Speaking of cinematic masters, the more Ingmar Bergman films I see, the more I'm gobsmacked. Like Varda, his films are always so heartbreakingly human, inquisitive about humanity and surprisingly funny -- or frightening. His 1960 masterpiece THE VIRGIN SPRING fits firmly into the latter category. Set in medieval Sweden, it's the story of a devoutly religious family whose beloved daughter is raped and killed by a roving band of thugs... who then, unbeknownst to all, are taken into the family's home to stay the night. The almost unbearable sadness of the situation, the even-nowadays-grueling attack scene and growing tension over who will discover what about whom and when, all adds up to a brilliantly claustrophobic fable of human nature, crime and punishment and who we all really are when pushed. It's an astonishing work in a career of them by the Swedish master. (I also saw FANNY AND ALEXANDER this year, which was also brilliant, and full of so many unexpected moments and flourishes.)
Now, let's jump back into the wayback machine and return to...
My Favourite Films of 2015.
As I do every year, I must preface my list with a few caveats:
1) Films eligible for this list include any feature-length fiction/narrative or documentary film given its first paid public release -- that includes cinema releases wide and exclusive, DVD/Blu-Ray, VoD, streaming and film festivals -- anything any member of the public can pay to go see -- in Australia in 2015.
2) Except for one film which was released on Boxing Day last year, but I only saw this year, which came oh-so-close to finishing in my Top 20 this year. You'll find him, his marmalade sandwiches and his hard stare in my Honourable Mentions.
3) The eligible field this year was bang on 100 films -- down from 115 last year, 145 in 2013 and a whopping 155 in 2012 -- hey, I told you up front it was a busy year for me!
As I said earlier, 2015 was an odd duck of a movie year: I liked the vast majority of what I saw, only loved but a few and pledged my unquestioned allegiance to fewer still. First, I give you my...
30) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (Dir: JC Chandor)
Low-key, 1970s-style study of struggle for integrity in the face of capitalist greed and gun violence slowly grips tight.
29) PUTUPARRI AND THE RAINMAKERS (documentary, Dir: Nicole Ma)
Hurt but hopeful record of a tribe -- and its troubled but inspiring, constantly evolving leader's -- long quest to regain their native land. Incredible access to our oldest culture.
28) THE WOLFPACK (documentary, Dir: Crystal Mozelle)
Fascinating documentary of an especially odd family makes its potentially very dark material relatable -- even adorable -- by choosing to focus on the resilience and enthusiasm of its loveable subjects.
27) MI ROMANTIC ROMANI (aka IO ROM ROMANTICA) (Dir: Laura Halilovic)
Lovely family comedy set amongst Romani culture in contemporary Italy, tackling topics of adaptation and prejudice with gorgeous subtlety and economy.
26) THAT SUGAR FILM (documentary, Dir: Damon Gameau)
Think you knew sugar? Actor-turned-filmmaker Gameau spoils your party with some genuine shocks and revelations in this rigorous, highly entertaining documentary.
25) CITY OF GOLD (documentary, Dir: Laura Gabbert)
Lovely, well-crafted portrait of famed Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold proves as much a love poem to L.A and multiculturalism as it is to its big-hearted subject.
24) ARABIAN NIGHTS, VOLUME 1: THE RESTLESS ONE (Dir: Miguel Gomes)
Opening chapter to Gomes' playful epic is digressive and elliptical -- even maddening -- to a fault, but also wildly creative, hilariously droll and touches troubling political chords.
23) 99 HOMES (Dir: Ramin Bahrani)
Bracing, unbearably tense drama set amongst global economic crisis shows human face of those crumbling and prospering, refusing to judge -- at least, until the climax.
22) PADDINGTON (Dir: Paul King)
Adorable adaptation of beloved bear is stacks of fun, yet gently, powerfully weaves in themes of refugee experience and prejudice.
21) JOY (Dir: David O. Russell)
Engrossing, moving study of a modern self-made woman starts in heavy exposition overload, but rouses -- even genuinely thrills -- once everything clicks into place.
The Top 20 (at last).
20) THE MARTIAN (Dir: Ridley Scott)
Who knew Ridley Scott could be this playful?? A hugely entertaining blockbuster that doesn't dial down the smarts, steering a brilliant, TOWERING INFERNO-level cast through a rollicking, riveting sci-fi tale of scientific can-do. And awesome disco tunes.
19) LISTEN UP PHILIP (Dir: Alex Ross Perry)
Misanthropic jerks are rarely so fun to watch, as Perry and his ace cast dig deep into character with wicked humour and withering insight.
18) AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Dir: Joss Whedon)
Unjustly maligned follow-up is by far the better Avengers movie, bringing the kind of character detail and dynamics that only Whedon can provide, along with kinetic, splash-page thrills in ways the first film didn't -- and channels comics like no film before.
17) THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Dirs: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
Cinema's mad genius Guy Maddin is unfiltered and unstoppable, delivering a cinematic fever dream that hurtles relentlessly through lost cinematic genres, in astonishing -- if kind of exhausting -- style.
16) BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir: Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg's most classical, humanist work in years unearths a most worthy biopic subject in insurance-turned-unwitting-human-rights lawyer John Donovan, and towering work from Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks.
15) CHRONIC (Dir: Michel Franco)
Crisp, confronting character study of living with illness -- both physical and emotional -- demands attention, with sparse dialogue, brilliant performances -- one of Tim Roth's very best, which is saying something -- and elegant storytelling.
14) A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Dir: Roy Andersson)
The best of Roy Andersson's savagely mordant "Living Being" trilogy swings from hilarity and tenderness to human cruelty, with fearless confidence.
13) ARABIAN NIGHTS, VOLUME 2: THE DESOLATE ONE (Dir: Miguel Gomes)
Obscure opening chapter segues to relentlessly engaging, melancholy tales of complicity and community in hard times, anchored by an astonishing trial scene, and the most heartbreaking little puppy you ever did see.
12) MY LOVE, DON'T CROSS THAT RIVER (documentary, Dir: Jin Mo-Young)
With astonishing access to their lives, Jin crafts a lovingly observed, emotionally gruelling record of nonagenarian couple facing mortality together. (Bring all the tissues.)
11) MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION (Dir: Christopher McQuarrie)
Expanding upon the excellent GHOST PROTOCOL, the latest in the Best Superspy franchise of all is a blissfully silly, twisty and ingenious blast -- and, in Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, packs a female match for Hunt in kickassery. The best MISSION since De Palma's original -- which is probably no accident, given they're the two most Hitchcock-influenced of the series.
The Top 10 of 2015.
10) NASTY BABY (Dir: Sebastian Silva)
Silva again proves himself to be a puckish master of rug-pulling tonal shifts, as his darkly funny, riveting descent into moral quagmire explores class tensions and shifting sands of generational fortune.
9) CITIZENFOUR (documentary, Dir: Laura Poitras)
Essential, stunning reportage of Edward Snowden's NSA leak (as it was happening!) and its implications terrifies as much as it enlightens... and HOW it was made astounds. The very act of making this film feels like a risky, heroic act.
8) WELCOME TO LEITH (documentary, Dirs: Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K Walker)
Terrifying account of a tiny town's struggle to quash an Aryan terrorist takeover manages to both inspire and sicken. This and CITIZENFOUR make for the best horror movie double feature of 2015 -- because it's all horrifyingly true.
7) EX MACHINA (Dir: Alex Garland)
This Thoroughly Modern Prometheus skilfully tackles big issues around technology and free will, with admirable rigour and visceral discomfort. There is no programming more human than self-interest. Best riff on Frankenstein in years.
6) WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (Dir: Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach's sharp, funny and sometimes confronting look on the gap between Generations X and Y may be the definitive take on it so far -- and could cut too close to bone for some, as gleefully, but honestly, critical as it is.
5) FOXCATCHER (Dir: Bennett Miller)
Sublime direction and brilliant performances drive this chilling true-life tragedy of lives destroyed by wealthy male privilege run amok. Less a tale told than observed, through fragments of behaviour.
4) BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Bracing, perfectly played and wildly entertaining theatrical headtrip through a thespian superego, hilariously tackling artistic relevance and fame's corrosiveness. Michael Keaton is sublime, and I could watch him and Edward Norton play acting tennis all day long.
3) BEASTS OF NO NATION (Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Fukunaga follows up his TRUE DETECTIVE triumph with a boldly cinematic, relentlessly confronting child's-eye-view of the West African conflict, as we follow a boy from happy kid to child soldier and beyond. An almost unbearably sad account of a broken cycle of despair, driven by political greed, overseas interests and power-mad ideologues. Abraham Attah and Idris Elba give incredible performances.
2) INSIDE OUT (Dirs: Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen)
Lovely, perceptive and remarkably complex examination of emotion and experience, through a supreme family entertainment. Key viewing for kids and adults, mining the most primal of human experiences to show us why all emotions, even sadness, are not only useful, but essential. Pixar's greatest magic trick to date and their best film in years hits raw nerves, earning its crushing, mass-sob-inducing finale. Beautifully designed with a retro flavour and perfectly voice-cast, too. (One last word: Bingbong.)
1) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Dir: George Miller)
Was there ever any doubt? From the second George Miller's exhilarating sequel/reboot/reinvention began to the moment it concluded, I was in the hot, hard grip of its pure, astonishing mania. Astoundingly visceral, FURY ROAD is the place where next-level practical stunts and choreographed action meets insanely detailed, almost surreal design (it felt to me like Jodorowsky on all the crack at times) and sinewy, locomotive scripting. How refreshing, in this backstory-obsessed age that spends forever (even entire trilogies) explaining how everyone got to where, to have this movie throw us mercilessly into a world we barely recognise, with characters we don't know, left to adapt to this world or die.
From Junkie XL's stirring, percussive blast of a score, to John Seale's kinetic, seemingly-positioned-everywhere cinematography, to Charlize Theron heisting the film in broad daylight from an already terrific Tom Hardy with her already-classic one-armed super-heroine Furiosa, to the wonderfully powerful feminist subtext laid throughout, George Miller has created the new millennium's second definitive action epic (Tarantino's KILL BILL -- another with feminist overtones -- being the first, for mine). I love that, in Miller and cinematographer Seale, two 70-year old Australians created such a powerfully immediate, modern work, one captured in bracingly vivid visual tones that seem to echo not what MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR were like, but what it felt like to watch them for the first time, three decades ago.
Fourth entries in film series are not meant to be any good. In fact, they're almost uniformly terrible. But, in echoing but not aping, linking but not continuing, honouring but not seeking to recapture the initial trilogy, George Miller has made The Exception That Proves The Rule: A fourth film that shows that sequels don't have to be repetitive, that blockbusters can be thematically interesting, that broad emotional strokes don't have to be reductive, that action can be physical and awe-inspiring, and that mega-budget cinematic entertainments, when entrusted to true artists equipped to paint on a grand canvas, don't have to suck. They can be inspiring. They can push the form forward. They can inspire the next generation of filmmakers.
Thank you for reading this year's countdown, hope you enjoyed it! To check out the 100 films I saw that were eligible for this countdown, click here: http://letterboxd.com/cinemaviscera/list/my-best-to-worst-new-releases-of-2015/
Please let us know your favourites of the year in the comments below, and we'll see you in 2016, for our most exciting year yet, where Cinema Viscera will dip our collective toe into the big screen universe!
Cheers -- and vive le cinema!
Paul Anthony Nelson
December 30th, 2015
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.