By Jacqueline Howell
2015 was a remarkable year in film for its expanding narrative POVs, despite the January grumpiness that begins to colour everything.
Critics and entertainment publications at this time of the year attempt the impossible and unsatisfying trick of looking at the year through the reverse end of the telescope (where a few that are the newest and the loudest are all that can be seen; when we’re all tired of hype; where valid criticisms about systemic problems- yes, most certainly, the Oscar short list is far too lily-white this year) come too late and only frustrate; and winter blahs are just securing a hold. But the media culture of “bad news is the only news” is a real bore, isn’t it?
What if we told you that just before you get sick of it all, and chuck it to the curb like those poor Christmas trees that still await the garbage truck up and down suburban streets in mid-January, there were some encouraging, remarkable, dazzling and important strides made in film this year that are good for culture as a whole- as all equality must be- and even more than that, hopeful signs that ideas, the written word, and the thousands of artists and craftspeople working in near-anonymity can applaud for? As Netflix, indie, and international film industries quite rightly threaten the choke-hold that Hollywood has held on the global world of film, diversity HAS snuck through the back door in the last decade. Even if it frustratingly drifts at times from spotlights on women, to true global perspectives, or a necessary sharp glance on the ever-present issues in America on deep racial discord, the last few years was better for actors of colour than the years before. And this year belongs to the narratives of women, who still fight for equal representation from the ground up in the industry; who are still too often forgotten at 30 and whose talents are buried for a lifetime in roles as the wacky sidekick, the sister, the girlfriend and then, the mom.
Composing my list of this years’ best ofs, a trend emerged before me. It was a very good year for women to be centered: as characters, as writers, as human beings whose stories were compelling and worthy of all viewers and critics’ time and dollars. Next year might swing back to focus on the narratives of Middle Eastern people, or historically oppressed, or the yet underrepresented diaspora, or those Americans whose legacy is equal parts pride and pain. But the dissenting voices will continue to sing.
My best of list includes the following: Room, Mad Max Thunder Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Amy, Ex Machina, Clouds of Sils Maria.
(I also second the choices of Tony Hinds in this piece.)
If we’re being political, Room, the highly original and readable bestseller by Canadian-Irish writer Emma Donaghue and Irish director Lenny Abrahamson contains a good helping of marginalized beauty: Irish/Canadian/Female energy colours this labour of love. But beyond that, Room is one of the rarest of true marvels, one that has jaded critics snapping out of their usual (decades long?) funks. Avoid the trailer if you have not read the book. If you’ve read the book, see the trailer to confirm that the film is indeed, up to par of this rare novel and that this difficult yet beautiful story is worth a second visit. Room does no less than turn on its head the entire history of the woman in peril thriller, the women victim as plot point trope, and looks unflinchingly at the woman herself, and a dear child that can come unbidden from the darkest situations.
All the real-life horror stories on the news fail to look at the nuances and the alchemy of survival and the great gifts at the core of humanity and the will to live (and to love). Fiction and non-fiction stories typically end with a rescue shot and cut before the “what happens after?” that Room explores fully and with unusual empathy and true musicality, voiced through an unusual, interesting kid. You will never, ever look at eggshell craft or sunbeams the same way. Both leads (Brie Larson and Jacob Trembley) are getting well deserved accolades for their performances- Larson has been quietly carving a place for herself as an actor for years in TV’s United States of Tara and the excellent indie film Short Term 12, and Trembley is a young actor whose sensitivity and natural openness makes the film, and makes one wish that he has equal parts real childhood and a slow burning, long career at the side-and the supporting actors including pros such as Joan Allen and William H. Macy ground the piece in their own iconic ways in small but important roles.
MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD
A lot of ink has been spilled over the Mad Max sequel/reboot. A lot of voices have come out in favour, and in protest about various aspects of this film. Like a lot of great films throughout history, the issues that ground complaints are the same issues that are at the root of accolades- the sort of polarization that marks groundbreaking film that will, in fact, be debated and talked about and watched and studied, even, for decades to come. I’m a woman writer-one who came of age in the delightful and (matter of factly) earth shattering time of Ripley in Alien. It’s shrug-worthy to me to think of a woman bad ass. Some women are that, and some men are that. Not all. But some. The men I know and respect all love Ripley without reservation. Any who don’t are immediately suspect. Charlize Theron’s credible turn as Furiosa is right out of the Ripley mold, and her haters are barely worth a line of scorn, truly. But this aside, Tom Hardy’s almost entirely silent (and horrifically muzzled first hour) in his turn as Max, with its implied Alien era attitude that the comic book film world needs to be blow torched with- yeah, of course women can kick ass, the right woman, is an inspiration.
Hardy’s quiet physicality, his ego-less performance, his flexibility and his rare gratitude to be part of the magic of a film like this – one of legacy and originality- is a revelation that ought to now firmly set him in the ultimate A of the A list- that is, if the A-list can still handle a sensitive Alpha Male. The craft, art, design, and effects of the film are worth coffee table book volumes and special edition discs worth of revisiting, and…you know what? Ignore everything and just see it for yourself. Decide if you are dazzled in a way that defies not only the rest of the year, but years or decades before. I maintain, these months later, that this is a film of the year and many years, the one we wait for. Spectacle, childlike wonder, and something gritty and real in its heart. But word to the wise, don’t watch it on an airplane and expect that to count.
Coming in just at Christmas time, the film that actually returned Christmas nostalgia to some of us who needed it badly was a big hit on emotional and sheer entertainment grounds, with all the added Wookie the dismal prequels were missing. Spoiler: Chewie all but steals the film. This film is a sequel but also a light reboot that feels acceptable to fans of the original who grew up (or were grown up) in 1977- and delightfully, recreates the look and feel of those films with all the attendant craft and in-camera affects that are critical to the same. Ear to ear smiles were broadcast by fans who saw this in the first 10 days- before the inevitable backlash. The new characters are likable enough to follow forward, and the surprise joy of seeing old friends is well worth the price of admission. Avoid IMDB comment threads at all costs to preserve this well-earned moment of joy.
Amy Winehouse fans who do not like tributes to the dead (that may have dubious objectives) approached this film with reservations that quickly dissipate. The film has been roundly praised (despite coming out earlier in the year and being somewhat forgotten by awards time) and deservedly so: this star of the end of 2000’s first, checkered decade’s digital and video era who became probably its most harrassed public celebrity. Through this film, made by parties whose agenda is only to restore an artist’s voice from this mess, Amy herself is given prominence as the clips used are almost exclusively in Amy’s first person voice, with minimal editorialization. Winehouse, a young woman at the time of her global success and fame- only 21-foreshadowed Adele, an artist who picked up the fanbase and corner of retro British soul. Here is Winehouse’s bio: her quick and true ascent, her addiction, the tabloid persona and death (at just 27). She was hunted and exploited, and was also self-destructive and pinned her heart on the wrong people from a young age. In a restorative right sizing act of love, one that also casts an unflinching eye on those who should have been in her corner and failed her, Amy’s first-person interviews and original recordings are finally foregrounded again, a choice that importantly restores point of view to the artist herself. Real tears abound, and Amy’s artistic work emerges from the ashes of the tabloid world. This movie can also be seen as the anti-Montage of Heck, a film that is a poisoned pill to Kurt Cobain’s memory disguised as a love letter from those who own his legacy of music, art, and writings.
Ex Machina is a film that will hold up under repeated viewing: but one that you’ll never watch the same way as you did the first time, once you’ve seen the third act. Emerging from, but quickly breaking out, of the men-messing with technology (and women as object) trope that is as old as the century-plus of film itself, Ex Machina has a lot going for it: an established, left of center writer (turned director) Alex Garland, three top notch leads who each support the sparely designed film on their shoulders, and a fresh turn on the ever present question of man vs. machine (and woman) man vs. man and man vs. himself (etc.) that we learned of way back when in school. Since we left school, we’ve watched years of man vs. fucked up biology/end of days/computers/aliens/corrupt world leaders/billionaires that is not always so fresh, but Ex Machina, in the face of this, takes a focused, steady gaze on all of these questions that make me wonder if my grade 9 teacher, Mr. Hamlyn, was more of an oracle than I thought. At first glance, Alicia Vikander disappears into her part as she ought to do, but upon reflection, she delivers a sneak attack of acting that may bypass many but is of the realm of a Streep or a Blanchett. (On Netflix)
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
This is a compact, almost theoretical physics puzzle of a film that offers a fascinating meta- narrative for fans of David Lynch (who miss him) and German or Italian masters: very underrated but must be seen more than once to be absorbed. Lately, this film has been advertised as the rebirth of Kristen Stewart, and to be sure, she is very good here, in a difficult part which does not leave an actor a lot of room to maneuver (which she takes on gamely). Surprisingly, the ever-stunning Juliette Binoche has been less applauded in the U.S. than she ought to be, even though she truly carries the narrative and performs feats of dramatic acrobatics that will no doubt restore faith to those of us also-rans watching at home who wanted to be up there and have always believed in ACTING. The interpretation of this film has weirdly mirrored the story within, which adds even more richness and weirdness to the work. An aging actress has to grapple with the sudden death of her greatest mentor and director while facing the idea of playing the older character opposite the young one she originated to acclaim (that launched her, once). This is just the barest surface, and the trail of those clouds that are very real and absolutely must be seen, on the big screen if ever you can. (On Netflix)