We continue onwards, with the next ten of my 2015 rankings. Note: this list and subsequent awards are based off Irish release dates.
Neil Berkeley’s documentary is a fascinating look at a man who has become a poster boy for both creative endeavour in the world of comedy, and how not to conduct yourself in the world of TV production, through a trail of public feuds, crass comments and sociopathic behaviour. All that you have to do is put a microphone in front of him, and watch the self-loathing come to the fore in an avalanche of verbal bile. Dan Harmon is that horrible two sided coin, a person who has been granted so many chances, and has conspired to ruin them repeatedly, to the immense frustration of those who see in him a cipher for their own hopes and dreams.
Covering Harmon’s tour of America with his titular podcast, Berkeley aims to both get under the skin of Harmon and try and reconcile his two halves, as well as trying to understand just why so many have flocked to Harmon’s banner. The documentary succeeds in both degrees: a portrait of Harmon that is in-depth and brutally honest is created, that just about avoids being a hero worship piece, and the “misfits” that follow him around get plenty of time to elaborate on their views, making us understand intimately just why Harmon is loved despite his litany of “incidents”. Delving into Harmon’s past as well as his present, we also get plenty of examples of some of his foibles and deeper catastrophes that have marked his career, to aid in the creation of a full and honest picture. Harmon is fascinatingly open about his faults, even as he continues to exhibit them at every opportunity, his poor fiancée (now ex-wife) Erin McGathy getting the worst of it in one horrifying sequence around the mid-point.
While you can’t help but feel that Berkeley was being a bit selective in both his ending point, that indicates a happier future for Harmon than might be the case, and in how Harmontown shies away from a full look at Harmon’s substance abuse problems, his documentary is still an evocative and powerful exploration of a modern day tortured artist, who continually succeeds in self destructing in new and inventive ways. Berkeley leaves off letting the audience think that there is still much hope for Harmon, but who knows if that is actually true? Dark, riveting and occasionally funny, Harmontown is one of the great personality documentaries of recent times.
I tend not to have comedies too high up my lists, but Spy does deserve some kudos. The combination of Mellissa McCarthy and Paul Feig, which already produced such wonderful stuff in Bridesmaids and then the more under-noticed and appreciated The Heat, came back again, this time for a more high-budget spy spoof, with Jason Statham and Jude Law along for the ride as different caricatures of secret agents. McCarthy’s rising star in Hollywood comedy circles, with the exception of one or two films, has been a pleasure to watch, and so was Spy.
That this was a surprise to me is probably my own fault. I thought that spy satire was an angle all played out, and was wearily considering some of the duds the leading lady was attached to in the not too recent past. But with Feig at the directorial helm, things are different: some genuinely funny, laugh out loud stuff can be created, from Law’s Brosnan-esque asshole accidentally assassinating someone because of misplaced allergy medication to the crazy happenings at a bat infested CIA headquarters. But it is McCarthy’s put upon analyst, sent into the field when all others have failed, that makes Spy as good as it is. The plot is boiler plate enough, but you could actually strip away the jokes and have a competent thriller, with some remarkably decent action sequences to boot. But people are coming for the jokes, and those come thick and fast, and in a variety of styles: slapstick, shock humour, witty wordplay, inadvertent insults, rants. One of the real great things of Spy is how it does all this, and achieves the perfect balance between all of them.
Of course, that’s to say nothing of the scene stealing Statham, whose Bourne-esque agent is an amazing pisstake on the grittier modern brand of spy, recounting endlessly terrible experiences while stumbling through the present day crisis like the clown he really is. And the women of the cast – Miranda Hart, Rose Byrne, and Allison Janney – are all doing stellar work as well. Beyond all other things, Spy is a film that makes you laugh, and laugh a minute at that, an American comedy that outdoes the usual low expectations. With a welcome female lead role, and a great supporting cast around her, Spy is both an excellent comedy, and a great example of a woman dominating a traditionally male-dominated genre.
Sam Mendes’ hotly anticipated follow-up to the wonderful Skyfall, with Daniel Craig returning, perhaps for the last time, as Ian Fleming’s iconic spy, was something I had been looking forward to a long time, not least because of the wonderful supporting cast. Suffice to say that if Christoph Waltz is in something, I will be paying money to see it. But while Spectre was good enough for me to place it this far up without many reservations, it was certainly a flawed beast, which gave me serious food for thought.
You can’t fault the film’s excellent pacing, despite its length, a holdover from Skyfall. You can’t fault its action scenes, which are varied, exciting and kinetic, though maybe too much is shown off too early. You could never fault Daniel Craig as James Bond, a role that he has now staked serious claim to being the very best at, ever. And you can’t find much fault in Waltz’ Franz Oberhauser, a chilling and effective Bond villain in the vein of past over the top antagonists, though some of the lines he’s given are a bit odd. Most of the supporting cast is doing fine work and are actually given stuff to do beyond the first act, a welcome change from past eras. Mendes’ visual direction is on the same level as his previous work, and Thomas Newman’s score is a delight, whatever one may think of Sam Smyth’s much maligned (unfairly I think) song.
But there is a certain shallowness in the film’s central plot, with the resolution of the licensing issues surrounding the titular organisation leading to an effort to bring all of Craig’s films under an umbrella, a constant referencing of the past that is a bit reaching, with an attempt to add depth through Bond’s past relationship to Oberhauser similarly neutered. A sub-plot involving Andrew Scott’s surveillance state advocate is written so poorly it becomes laughable. But worst of all is the treatment the films women get, from Naoime Harris’ Moneypenny to Lea Seydoux’s Madelaine Swann, who mostly stand around and let James do all the walking, talking and rescuing, with poor Monica Bellucci shamefully wasted in what amounts to an extended cameo. While none of these things are enough to drag Spectre down to the level of Quantum Of Solace, they still limit it, and I can imagine plenty being turned off. I personally wasn’t, thanks to the aforementioned positives, but Bond still needs some freshening up.
While I could talk for a long time on what Beasts Of No Nation represents, as a direct challenge by VOD providers to the traditional cinema dominance, it is important to get away from all that when actually judging the film itself. And Beasts Of No Nation, a harsh and grim look at the experience of child soldiers in the worst parts of west Africa, is a film that deserves some consideration on its own merits.
With a truly stunning central performance from Abraham Atta, which might be one of the best child acting roles in the history of cinema, Beasts Of No Nation is one to catch the eye, and that’s before you get to the likes of Idris Elb, and his “Commandant”, the quasi-religious military leader of the “NDF” and its child soldiers, who go around spouting half-baked political philosophy and ritualistic nonsense while consuming large amount of drugs and committing numerous atrocities. Director Cary Fukunaga lacks a larger political or cultural point really, and Beasts Of No Nation can do without one for the majority of its running time, grabbing the attention of the audience and engaging them with just the tale of Agu and how he is conscripted into the ranks, and begins to lose himself. Amid the luscious cinematography and a script that is full of authentic language and wordplay, we see simply Agu, going through the motions of the standard war story, but with a heady, and eventually horrific, blend of war crimes and brutality.
Unfortunately, the film loses itself in a painfully drawn out third act, where the lack of a higher point becomes more of a sore spot, especially in a frustratingly ambiguous ending, that offers only the illusion of closure to what must be an emotionally wrecked audience. But if any film can survive a poor third act, it is Beasts Of No Nation, an emotionally wrought and occasionally terrifying experience, that casts a well-deserved light on a truly despicable aspect of humanity. It is a film where it is clear that the director and his production team have been waiting a long time to put things on film: that care and preparation comes through throughout. While it may not be the prophet of doom for cinemas that some fear it is, Beasts Of No Nation is a wonderfully made film, that indicates that Netflix making its own original movies might not be such a terrible thing after all.
If we haven’t reached the point of saturation for the superhero genre by now, one wonders if we ever will. Things still need to be kept as fresh as possible, and in terms of “Phase Two”, the best chance was undoubtedly Ant-Man, whose inherent premise promised more unique action than the city-destroying standard stuff of Man Of Steel and the Avengers franchise. While the loss of Edgar Wright was regrettable, it was no death knell, and I eagerly anticipated Peyton Reed’s and Paul Rudd’s effort at bringing this most unlikely property to life.
The end result is a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride through some of the lower intensity crises that the “MCU” has put on screen. Indeed, with the reduced budget and focus on what is essentially a heist plot in superhero garb, Ant-Man feels like a back to basics exercise from Marvel Studios, an effort to put characters and story at the forefront over spectacle. That is accomplished through the endearing and engaging plight of Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, the first of the MCU’s title-holding heroes to be a father, who teams up with his own father figure in Michael Douglas’ surprisingly effective Hank Pym. The two share some great moments of back and forth, mixing seriousness with acerbic comedy in a way that Age Of Ultron largely failed to do. Throw in Evangeline Lilly’s well-presented accompaniment, and some oddball supporting characters like Michael Pena’s thief, and you have a good mix. The stunning visual work and unique action set-pieces at the conclusion do the rest, forming a really delightful experience.
Of course, nothing is without its flaws: Ant-Man’s come most seriously in the form of its underwhelming antagonist, played in a distractingly over the top manner by Corey Stoll, who can’t make good of some of the ridiculous lines he’s been given. Hope Pym should have had more of a role to play, but Ant-Man at least leaves open the very real potential that she could take centre stage in the future. And the script shows the wear and tear of repeated drafts, with numerous holes evident, like Lang’s apparent pacifism that is dropped as an issue halfway through. Still, it’s a refreshing moment for the superhero genre, and a reaffirming of what it still has to offer. Inventive and fun, Ant-Man really is the perfect in-between film to enjoy after the bombastic Age Of Ultron and before the upcoming Civil War.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s latest, after an up and down career post-Der Untergang was something I was eagerly looking forward to, a return to the world of Germany before and during the Second World War that might invoke some of the same feelings that his other, stunning, film set in that period did. And what a subject to take on: Georg Elser, the man who came within 13 minutes of assassinating Adolph Hitler, several years before the men who formed the basis of the more bombastic Valkyrie tried the same.
What results is an interestingly framed biopic. Hirschbiegel jumps around the timeline a bit, in an effort to portray the reasons why Elser did what he did on a personal level. It is further divided into explorations of social pressures, political division and moral disintegration in the Germany of the 1930’s, as the Nazi party sweeps to the power, the nominally uncaring Elser finding himself in a vortex with no way out. As much as he comes to hate the Nazi regime and the road that it leading Germany down, he is also a frustrated individual, unable to handle the way that his adulterous relationship with Elsa – an excellent Katharina Schuttler – is looked down upon by others and unable to blossom as he would like. All of these things lead Elser to his attempt on Hitler’s life, his nominal justification being a desire to avoid a conflagration in war, but which is really only one part of a deeper motivation. “Present day” scenes of Elser’s brutal interrogation, with Burghart Klaußner and Johann von Bulow as the Nazi version of good and bad cops offer some very potent visual metaphors for the acquiescence of the German population in Nazi crimes, as well as showcasing some cracks in the once cast-iron faith Hitler’s henchmen had in him, perhaps the most positive outcome of Elser’ failed bombing.
Always there is Christian Friedel giving a commanding and three dimensional performance as Elser, a man who is as much an utter slimeball of an individual in how he treats the women he claims to love, as some kind of heroic freedom fighter. 13 Minutes wants us to question his heroism, and achieves this without forgetting his uniqueness in what he tried to accomplish. The film is a mite too long and lacks the same emotional punch of Der Untergang, but with its strong central performance and intensely rewarding character portrait, it is certainly a return to form for the director.
It is probably impossible for the world to become in any way sick and tired of the famous detective, with modern day literature, film and TV all competing with each other to offer new spins on Holmes and Watson for an audience ravenous for new interpretations: Holmes as action hero, Holmes in modern day London, Holmes in New York. Into that competition, revisiting their brilliant collaboration in Gods And Monsters, came director Bill Condon and acting legend Sir Ian McKellen, with an adaptation of Mitch Cullen’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind, taking look at the final years of Sherlock Holmes, and some of his lingering troubles.
McKellen is as towering as he has always been here, cementing his astonishing run of the last 15 or so years with an impressive and emotional portrayal of a Holmes nearing the limits of his mental faculties, retaining that gruff demeanour while desperately holding on to a failing memory. Mr Holmes becomes a battle between Holmes the man and Holmes the legend, numerous sections trying to pinpoint the divide between reality and fiction, with an interesting discussion on the worth of fiction in general when reality is something you might want to avoid. But it is in the flashbacks to Holmes’ last case – classic Conan Doyle stuff, but tinged with an affecting air of melancholy – and his interactions with young Milo Parker’s Rodger and Laura Linney’s morose housekeeper, that make Mr Holmes what it is: a truly character driven experience. An acting powerhouse emerges from that central trio, with a clever double mystery wrapping everything up nicely. Condon’s luscious cinematography, switching from post-war English countryside to post-war Japanese destruction, is also a delight to behold, and Mr Holmes is backed up by a fine adapted script and some fine ambiance-setting score work.
If Mr Holmes does absolutely nothing else, it creates an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Holmes’s story that the original author never really got to bring into being. Some might well balk at the way an iconic Victorian/Edwardian figure like Holmes is juxtaposed next to the atomic age in a direct manner, the way that Holmes approaches one of his last quandaries in relation to a Japanese petitioner or how the detective’s existential crisis outweighs much of the films other drama, but I feel that Mr Holmes is a film that is bound to captivate fans full up on Cumberbatch and Downey Jr.
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville hit paydirt with the somewhat niche topic of 20 Feet From Stardom the other year, but their follow-up documentarian effort is a bit different, taking a look at the origins of modern day televised political debate, by telling the story of the William F. Buckley/Gore Vidal debates before the 1968 Democrat and Republican conventions. Beyond any discussion of what this series of discussions envisaged, Best Of Enemies takes a look at an intense and near-violent hatred between two intellectual heavyweights, whose dislike for one another is almost refreshing from a political standpoint.
Buckley and Vidal are first compared for their similarities – both failed politicians in their own right, both accomplished writers, both respected TV personalities – but it does not take too long for Best Of Enemies to really get into the nitty gritty of their utter loathing for one another, with Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow providing enjoyable narration for the respective participants. Buckley is a conservative who hob knobs with Nixon and Reagan, advocated nuclear weapon use in Vietnam and rails against the law and order offences tearing America apart at the time, while Vidal is a liberal in every sense of the term, whose moral, cultural and sexual outlook makes him seem like a potential subversive in Buckley’s eyes. The resulting exchanges are fascinating to behold, thanks to some skilfully curated archival footage, Best Of Enemies successfully blending the footage of four decades past with a series of great interviews from modern day figures. Vidal lands early blows on an unprepared Buckley; the conservative figurehead rallies back later, and soon the two are sniping back and forth with abandon, much to the delight of perennial runner up network ABC, the hosts of the debates, so desperate to get a leg-up in the ratings.
Best Of Enemies winds down following the famous exchange in one of the later debates – Vidal left looking like a goading bully, and Buckley like a lout – into a look at how Buckley and Vidal would remain enemies to their deaths and how the modern day talking head-style of political discourse – “theatre, not debate” as Jon Stewart put it once – takes some of its inspiration from those exchanges. A double edged sword then: Best Of Enemies is a really interesting and provocative glimpse at how it all came about, which soars despite some needless aggrandisement and an unfortunate ignoring of some of the specific debates.
In the current era of oft-mediocre 3D animation, that seems to be King of the box office regardless of quality – damn Minions – it is positively refreshing when something 2D manages to make enough of an impression to be truly acclaimed. Tomm Moore, having won serious kudos with The Book Of Kells, is back again with another animated tale heavy with Irish inspiration and symbolism, with a fairly standout cast along for the ride. Selkies, giant owls, fairies, witches and giants abound, in this extraordinary dive into Celtic artistry and fable, centred on a Donegal family.
Before anything else, Song Of The Sea is simply a delight to behold. Radiating various shades of blue and green, Tomm Moore’s film takes us on a journey through the sea, through the wilds of Ireland, through the dinginess of its city centres, with an obvious care and attention to detail in every frame. In combination with Irish myth and legend, the work of Studio Ghibli is obviously something that was in Moore’s mind, and Song Of The Sea manages to achieve the same kind of animation/cultural merging as the Japanese giant frequently does. With David Rawle’s fine audio performance – a bit better than Brendan Gleeson’s, if I’m being honest – driving the plot along, a very Irish story of magic, heroes and promised lands, and a score and soundtrack that is among the year’s best in terms of creating the right ambiance, Song Of The Sea is overflowing with great aspects. There is a real heart in this tale, which is miles above some of the other, more soulless, offerings from the world of animation this year, not to go on and on about it.
Its length is a serious problem by the time it finally starts winding down, the third act drawn out to a degree that will leave a large part of the audience squirming. That, and the sections of melodrama can grate, as the family drama occasionally goes just a bit too far, lacking subtlety. But, overall, Song Of The Sea manages to tell a really great story of sibling adventure and love, while also saying something on middle aged male emotional silence, parental bereavement and the rural/urban divide in Ireland. Animation will always struggle to be taken seriously in the larger world of film, but Song Of The Sea is the kind of film that shows exactly why it should be.
I don’t know which Shakespeare play is the most filmed – I’d hazard a guess at the star-crossed lovers – but Macbeth has to be pretty high up there as well, with the story of the titular noble’s fall from grace into revenge obsession and prophecy reliance the kind of thing that has repeatedly resonated on the big screen. Up stepped Justin Kurzel to give it a go, with a setting closer to the original intent of the Bard, but certainly not lacking for any modern techniques or interpretations. And what a pair to headline the whole thing.
The changes come up right from the start, when the brutal reality of war is flung in the audiences face, not long after a deceased child is proffered as an additional motivation for the actions of Lady Macbeth. The changes come in varying sizes from there, but are mostly well placed and well designed. In the leads, Michael Fassbender is thoroughly enjoying himself in the Shakespearian role he was destined to play, giving Macbeth all of the right measures of initial loyalty, twistedness and eventual mania-induced regret, while Marion Cotillard cements her reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation with her sometimes manic, sometimes sympathetic portrayal as Lady Macbeth. With the likes of David Thewlis, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris fulling the supporting roles ably, there are little complaints to be had on the acting front. Visually too, Kurzel’s Macbeth is stand-out, between the hyper-realistic dirt and grime evident everywhere, the interplay of light and shadow, or the set-piece sequences involving hellish vistas of smoke and flame nearer the conclusion.
With an ending that is equal parts fascinating and pessimistic, predicting endless rounds of bloodshed over the trappings of power, one could never accuse Kurzel of holding things back. While there are one or two aspects that grate for me – the Banquo’s Ghost scene is one that didn’t quite work for me here, and the Witches were a bit too understated as entities – overall I think this is one of the better screen efforts of Shakespearian adaptation that there have been recently. There is something to be said for the placing of such narratives in the setting they were intended for, at least in this case. Kurzel paints a picture of dread with these characters that really opens up the play for a modern audience, and for that he is to be commended.
Tomorrow, we finish things up and hand out the awards.
(All images are copyright of The Orchard, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Netflix, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, NFP Distribution, Miramax, Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, StudioCanal and The Weinstein Company).