As we emerge from the depths of winter, as the snowdrops sink back into the earth, replaced by the heads of daffodils peeping at the spring light, there is a discernible enthusiasm in the air, excitement for what is to come – could it be the Great British Summer? – while North Shields – where I sit writing this piece looking out onto my sunlit street – appears rather pleasant for perhaps the first time in a few months. But while the air temperature is still barely into double figures, despite the Sun’s best efforts at heating up the North East (I am here referring to the large incandescent body which the Earth orbits rather than the inflammatory practices of a certain tabloid), I thought I would return to some of films I’ve watched in the past few months, sought out within dark cinemas in refuge from the elements.
I usually would contend that winter is never a great time for films – despite every exhibitor’s insistence on marketing it as ‘Awards Season’ – and would usually cite without fail the distribution practice of releasing every biopic stored up in the vaults over the course of the year at once (saturating the market with banal, formulaic, Oscar-baiting, middle-brow produce…yada yada yada) but while this may or may not have taken place this year, I would say that the winter of ‘15/16 was in fact a good period for films, mainstream and independent, biopic and non-biopic. (A side note: my hatred for biopics will become temporarily absent with the release of Don Cheadle’s forthcoming Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead on April 22nd, as any biographical film about any legend of modern jazz has my full attention, and I hope that the subject matter – the life-long musical experimentation of its subject – shines through any standardised narrative structures).
While the stand-out films of the season were Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa and Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Winter ‘15/16 also presented cinephiles with a whole host of great films. Here are those that made the cut:
Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa (10/10)* A film with so many layers to unpeel and explore. This masterpiece of existential cinema will be the subject of a future blog post on this site, so for now, I will say no more.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short (8/10) The film for every British person who believes that the Parliamentary Labour Party caused the global financial crisis.
Luca Gaudagnino’s A Bigger Splash (7.5/10) A return to the Italian-Bourgeois-European-Art-Films of the 1960s. Do we still care about such characters in this enlightened age? No and we never did but it is great fun watching their lives disintegrate in the luxury of the Italian countryside.
Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (8/10) A real surprise of a film, a well-paced, minimalist revision of the western (the genre which has thankfully returned in 15/16 from cinematic history) with a horrifying finale. You have been warned.
Veronkika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy (8/10) A nail-biting arthouse-horror film which asks more questions than it answers. (The ambiguity of this description is directly influenced by the machinations of its plot).
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail Caesar! (8/10) This film will certainly divide audiences, either as a silly quasi-comic farce (there is however some intelligence behind the silliness!) or as an endearing and slightly experimental love-letter to classical Hollywood. I side with the latter.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (8/10) With each film Tarantino makes he comes closer to directly parodying himself, but of course this should not be viewed completely negatively as this is clearly his aim. I loved the Morricone score and the opening spaghetti western pastiche sequence but was less endeared with the theatricality of the rest of the film. Tarantino has mentioned that he sees his future on the stage and this film certainly moves in that direction.
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (7/10) A film set in a future which has already passed. The politics of the film are laid on thick – it seemed to me to be about the failure of the Left in the 1970s, the defeat of Keynesian economics, the erroneous replacement of terraced housing for alienating tower-blocks etc. – and I also enjoyed its ‘70’sness and attempt at bringing Ballard to the screen.
Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut (8/10) I would never turn down the opportunity to watch a documentary about the history of film criticism, never mind an exploration of the psyches of the legendary François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Great fun from start to finish.
Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button (10/10). Guzmán weaves connections between seemingly distant phenomena, offering a poetic meditation, or perhaps cine-essay, on not only the geography and history of Chile and its indigenous population but also the cosmos and the elements. A poignant and beautiful cinematic experience.
Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (10/10) The season’s finest example of the joys of world cinema. I loved every moment, from its minimalist aesthetic, deadpan humour to its touching examination of the relationship between two estranged brothers who are forced to reconcile their 40-year-long squabble when their sheep fall ill.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (8/10) This film combines beautiful vistas and cinematography in the pursuit of cinematic art, while the grueling performance of its lead, who struggles to survive within the harshness of frozen North American terrain, pursues the Academy Awards like there is no tomorrow.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (6.5/10) I was not wowed by this one, despite the quality of the performances and Abrahamson’s understated aesthetic. I would, however, be interested in learning how Michael Haneke would tackle the subject matter (from behind the sofa with my hands over my eyes and ears).
Jay Roach’s Trumbo (6/10) A biopic (regrettably) where only Bryan Cranston really shines. I was, however, smitten with the film’s recreation of the 1950s and the history surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee’s pursuit of the communist Dalton Trumbo. Not a great film but an interesting one.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (8/10) A quiet film about the virtues of investigative journalism.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (8/10) J.J. Abrams here offers audiences exactly what they were craving: the recreation of the first Star Wars (1977) film. A resuscitation which diverges hardly from the original in terms of narrative and filmmaking but throws a good dose of identity politics in the mix to make the film appear contemporary to 21st century audiences.
* I usually try to refrain from offering a star rating or quantitative description of a film’s quality, be it a percentage or the type of thumbs-up-thumbs-down system pioneered by Siskel and Ebert, and I promise I won’t do it again.