|“Trainwreck,” The Back Row’s film of 2015|
The year 2015 may be remembered in future decades as a hinge between previous years’ suppressed but rising unease throughout society, and the movements of turmoil and upheaval in local spheres as well as on a global scale. The importance of the UN Summit in
for our global environment has been stressed, and the crises that broke out in
the latter part of the year reminded us of how far our world is from where we’d
like it to be. There are reportedly more refugees now than there have ever been
since the end of World War II, and the threat of attacks from ISIL, or Daesh,
has stoked terror and reckless urgency in any number of the world’s
democracies. In America, a handful of presidential candidates (largely but not
solely Donald Trump) have succeeded in stirring up the most sickening strains
of racism and fascism in numerous enduringly racist pockets of the West; and in
South Africa, we face our own turmoil in a clear low point in satisfaction with
and confidence in a disappointing government controlled by what was once an
ardent liberation organisation – a discontent whose definitive moment of 2015
can probably be identified as the student protests in October and November,
shutting down universities and government systems nationwide in an outpouring of
frustration with the ruling political factions and a fervent desire for change.
This blog has not turned into my political column – my chief concern here is still the movies and their aesthetic considerations – but it’s important, I feel, to provide some historical context when reflecting on the year as it’s represented in its movies. The cinema, across all its disparate subject matters and radically diverse styles and treatments, is about life itself, and something of the world and the time often finds its way into the very best of art, whether by design or not. Here I give my selection of the best films of this year – noting that there’s a great deal I didn’t see – and hopefully, if you’ve seen them as well, you’ll recognise the intimations of life contained in them.
Of course, another way life finds itself reflected in the good movies of the year – usually far more obvious to viewers – is when directors include details and experiences of their own personal lives in their films. My selection of the best movies of 2015 are all made by directors who bravely and deftly created personal images in their work, often unconsciously finding expression of the deeper and more tender parts of their inner selves. What makes cinema into an awe-inspiring art form, and what makes a film great, is the discovery of inner lives, psychic murmurings, and emotional and intellectual stirrings in physical detail, visualised and captured with both perception and skill. The great movies are the ones that reveal the essence of a creator’s distinctive personality, the ones where style is not an art-conscious gimmick or ideological tactic, but the exterior protraction of an artistic identity.
The List (in no particular order)
Here is my summary of the peaks that came into my partial view in the course of this year at the movies, and these choices exist precisely to be disputed. I don’t think it’d be entirely inaccurate for me to say I am the only blogger/pundit in the world with these eight choices as the best movies of 2015, and hopefully your selection will be just as unique. I am interested to hear it, so leave a comment with the movies you liked and despised this year, and comment freely with your thoughts on my choices. The collection of my reviews of the year’s releases can be found here.
To take an obvious case first of world events and moods being represented cinematically, my choice of the best South African movie of 2015 is Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Necktie Youth, which found its way to the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals overseas before being released commercially here (read American critics’ reviews of the festival screenings here, here, and here). Set in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, following two black youths and their racially mixed group of friends (though all of them from conspicuously affluent backgrounds), the movie offers clear insight into the perspectives of its creator (Shongwe La-Mer also wrote, edited and stars in the film) and is marked with a distinctive and personal style, typically absent from many of the blandly eager-to-please South African releases this year. In it we find the turmoil bubbling up in young South Africans’ lives, not yet at a boil – as they weren’t at the time in real life; but with its slowly warming tensions and frustrations, it hints at the point they were heading to. The stifling, sweaty ennui of the characters’ lives may have seeped into the bleak black-and-white images at some points, but there were other scenes that quivered – through a haze of drugs, alcohol, crime, trauma, and sex – anxiously into life.
The Back Row’s Movie of the Year is Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, written by its magnificent star, comedienne Amy Schumer, who plays (one suspects) a version of herself in real life, named Amy Townsend. Amy sets her expectations pretty low, both romantically and professionally, stringing along a surprisingly invested John Cena and a host of clingy one-night stands, and writing derisive, lacklustre pieces for a men’s magazine, mocking those who take real risks in their life and work. Change is brought about by her working and, eventually, romantic relationship with an altruistic and talented doctor, and the result is an astonishingly beautiful, insightful, sharp-witted, and deeply personal vision of the self-destructive fuckup who nonetheless bears the potential for a life of rich fulfillment and profound love, and idea of a happy romantic union not as a simple resolution to drama, but as the beginning of a series of alternately trying and rewarding experiences, shared with someone equal to the challenge. Schumer provides exquisite and rapier-like humour and drama, while Apatow locates touching tenderness, sensibility, creativity, and splendour in what would ordinarily seem crass, vulgar, bitter, or artless. The filth we see in Trainwreck is not a barrier to artistry, but a gateway to finer perceptions and hidden dimensions in both story and character. And above all this, Apatow elicits the best and most deliciously thrilling performances of the year from skilled comic performers, experienced dramatic performers, and sportsmen alike (see my list of the year’s best performances below). Tilda Swinton and her mordant one-liners were the crown of pleasure in the cinema of 2015.
Not to be forgotten are the hot and fierce emotions exuded by Furious 7. The actors had grown as close as their characters by the time of shooting, and the close bonds of family are effortlessly evoked and guarded in this tribute to Paul Walker, who died during production. Here more than in nearly any other film this year, simple joy was exhibited in its heartfelt drama, and genuine wonder in its breathtaking action. Love is the core of the story, and the film gains its power not primarily from the skilled car chases and stunt photography, but from the flowing of pure and raw emotion across the screen throughout the joyride. As Richard Corliss wrote of Fast Five when including it on TIME’s Top Ten Movies list of 2011, the films of this franchise “are as much a tribute as The Artist to the cinema’s primal thrills”.
A salient example of a filmmaker’s life and career forming the substance of his work can be found in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Naomi Watts and frequent Baumbach collaborator Ben Stiller as a couple who work on documentary films (he directs, she produces, but never on the same projects) and, one bright and breezy day, meet a younger couple (played with charm and whimsy by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who are starting out on a similar path. Ben Stiller’s director is stuck between the aesthetic and sensibilities of the generation above him (reflected in the imposing figure of his father-in-law, a revered figure in documentary filmmaking) and the generation below him (represented by Adam Driver’s character). He fears failure, and he fears obscurity, and this fear prevents him from doing exactly what is required to overcome it. While We’re Young poses clear and pointed questions about representing truth in cinema, and about bringing oneself into the story, and, I think, mostly leaves the answers up to a discerning and tasteful audience.
Among the ever entertaining Marvel enterprises of the last few years, the best in my judgement is, rather decidedly, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man of 2015. His inflected images and performances, the refreshingly comic and bullet-speed moods, and the daring and original irony of Ant-Man. Paul Rudd is beautifully unheroic, and cast members manage to convey more in their short glances and quick line deliveries of this high-artifice than other actors did in hours of the faux-naturalist character dramas of the year.
In a movie scene pestered by sequels and remakes and reboots, one of the best of any of the titles of the year was Ryan Coogler’s Creed, something of both a sequel to and reboot of the Rocky franchise, reviewed recently on this blog (title links to review).
Francois Truffaut wrote that a film should contain its creator’s ideas of the outside world, as well as their ideas of the cinema (again I’m quoting from memory), and Todd Haynes’s Carol, set in the winter of 1952-53 and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, embodies both a breathtakingly touching love story, and Haynes’s ideas of the expressiveness of certain filmic forms (title links to review).
The earliest film that struck me in theatres in 2015 was actually released in
America in 2014, and was honoured in two categories in that year’s Academy Award nominations (Best Song, which it won, and Best Picture). , directed by Ava DuVernay, was a particularly salient artistic feature in Selma America among the #BlackLivesMatter protests, indicating how far racial equality movements have had to struggle and how far they still have to go, and dramatising the development of a political process through the generation of images – exactly what the film itself does. DuVernay finds expression of her own ideas about her art and her medium in the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., which, by her skilful direction, retains remarkable power: look only to the performance of David Oyelowo as King for confirmation.
Best Director: Judd Apatow (Trainwreck), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Todd Haynes (Carol)
Best Screenplay: Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Phyllis Nagy (Carol), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)
Best Actor: Bill Hader (Trainwreck), Michael B. Jordan (Creed), David Oyelowo (Selma), Ben Stiller (While We’re Young)
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Carol), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), Rooney Mara (Carol), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), Naomie Watts (While We’re Young),
Best Supporting Actor: John Cena (Trainwreck), Adam Driver (While We’re Young), LeBron James (Trainwreck), Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Ehle (Fifty Shades of Grey), Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), Tessa Thompson (Creed)
Best Cinematography: Maryse Alberti (Creed), Edward Lachmann (Carol)
The Negative List
Birdman: Deadly professional, drearily blunt, ostentatious technical skill coupled with banal drama, big questions are posed about life and art, deflating and conventional answers are given
The Imitation Game: The venerability of a film’s subject and its intentions does not make the film venerable. The incredibly narrow, incredibly superficial telling of Alan Turing’s life shows not only a lack of creativity in the filmmakers, but belies something of a prejudiced view of homosexuals.
Inside Out: Not a single emotion that wasn’t calculated to maximise effect, nor a single thought that wasn’t calibrated to fit with audience’s preconceived notions and comfortable verities, nor a single frame of an image invented to evoke or provide insight, nor a single moment reminiscent of the experiences of childhood
Whiplash: The worst film of the year, with a plot so tight it left out the story, and characters so neatly drawn they left out the people, Whiplash appeals to self-pitying ambition, with an underling who goes through masochistic hell and emerges as a triumphant noise-maker. In addition to completely misrepresenting jazz and musicianship throughout, it depicts success as self-lowering obedience followed by the triumphant fuck-you.
There were many movies of 2015 that I missed, and hope to add to this list in the future; if you’ve seen them, you’ll have your own convictions and ideas to rely on in placing them among the best. Some of those lauded and favoured titles include Nightcrawler, Love and Mercy, Inherent Vice, Fury, American Sniper, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ex Machina, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mr Holmes, Cinderella, Woman in Gold, Sicario, Black Mass, and Legend.
Because of distribution schedules and the dependence of release dates on marketability and markets themselves, you’ll find a number of films on the Top 10 lists by American and European critics which have not been played anywhere on our shores. Some of these are set to be released in South African theatres soon, including Concussion (on the 31st of December), The Good Dinosaur (31 December), Joy (8 January), Suffragette (15 January), The Revenant (22 January), The Hateful Eight (29 January), The Danish Girl (29 January), Spotlight (5 February), and Macbeth (19 February). Many others, however, are not yet scheduled for release here at all, and while one hopes they may yet be available to be seen on the big screen, we might also settle for their availability for streaming. The titles we hold out for down at the tip of the continent include By the Sea, Chi-Raq, Tangerine, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Suite Français, Irrational Man, Youth, Anomalisa, Stonewall, It Follows, Timbuktu, Clouds of Sils-Maria, Beasts of No Nation, Shaun the Sheep, and In Jackson Heights.