These 21 choices (see Part One and Part Two) of Essential Movies from the first half of 2015, which should now be imprinted on your To-See list remember, were selected by myself and similarly-nutty-about-movies folk from around the entertainment arena I frequent as often as I can. There was no set order (though I did spread the writers out across the three posts), no one universal best film, the choices were plucked from those we rated highly. We might very well have missed some great movies, your favorite of the year so far might not be here, but these still form, for me, and I am sure my colleagues (to whom I am extremely grateful for their words) will agree with me, a selection of movies well-worth seeing. A composite for the defense should we or others get into that age old debate of how this has been a poor year for film. Indeed. What I would also like to add, and this too was not deliberate in the following choices in particular, is that women are cutting right through this year as – dare I say it – the dominant force in film. Which might be the most important element we have learnt from this. And that is a very, very good thing. Let’s look at those final 7 of the list then:
By origin this was a 2009 film, considered for Academy Awards (Iran) in 2010, got a UK release in 2012, and only now, 2015, does the Asghar Farhadi gem reach American shores for general release. A rather odd timescale, that should not in any way hinder your enthusiasm for it. Made before A Separation and The Past then (both also exceptional), you can squabble among yourselves whether About Elly warrants a place in a 2015 list while I revel publicly, proudly, in it’s sheer emotional power. A group of married friends and a couple of single friends head off for a few days away by the Caspian. Social ventures seem innocent and care-free enough at first, but Farhadi has an unapologetic and very real way of unraveling secrets and lies – no matter how big or small, they impact. But before that baggage rises to the surface and carries the movie, there is a alarming, tragic moment early in the story. The depth and swing of affection and empathy is extraordinary – this is not an uplifting experience, but there is a certain euphoria in watching this and realizing you are watching greatness (similarly with A Separation and The Past). In complete control, Farhadi invites you to feel, though you have little choice really, demonstrating once again why he is without doubt one of the master filmmakers around today.
Far from the Madding Crowd
In a glorious retelling of Victorian classic Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, set against the backdrop of fictional county Wessex, director Thomas Vinterberg flawlessly captures the dramatic legacy of feminist pioneer Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan). As she battles against the patriarchal society and attempts to prove her capabilities at managing the farm she inherits, she finds herself the prize for three male suitors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge) that attempt to win her heart throughout the film. Whilst romance is a centrepiece attraction of the story-line, this is not a romance, but a treacherous drama filled with betrayal, obsession, and characters whose motivations are as ever-changing as the nature of the tumultuous countryside backdrop. What is proclaimed as Hardy’s sunniest novel still encapsulates elements of tragedy, and the complicated changing nature of the novel is ultimately a personification of the dramatic changes within nature. Vinterberg’s version thoroughly explores this with expressive, emotive detail and lingering shots of the beauty and terror within Wessex. Finally, this film is a loyal, modern, and powerful retelling of a classic book, and whilst the 1967 adaptation starring Julie Christie is an untouchable classic, Vinterberg has created a truly magnificent film.
You can’t keep a masterful studio down for long, especially one that’s given us some of the finest animated films this side of Studio Ghibli. Pixar Animation Studios has returned to take back the title of “Best Animation Company in the World” and have done so with their best effort in years in the form of Inside Out, a story about the voices in our heads that guide us through the ups and downs of life, on in this case, childhood. Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). These five emotions guide 11 year-old Riley as she transitions moving to a new life in San Francisco that’s wrought with a living in a crappy attic, losing old friends & the feeling of home and broccoli on pizza. The voice acting, the writing, and the animation are all what you’ve come to expect from the studio, but the simplicity of the story and how they let the viewer experience happiness, despair, anger, etc through Riley’s eyes is at the heart of their latest masterwork.
Maps to the Stars
Opening for an awards-qualifying run last December, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars made its official theatrical bow in the States in February. Between the heavenly highs of David Cronenberg’s direction and the wretched lows of Bruce Wagner’s script lies Earth; this high may be the fame that is so sought after, this low the toll it takes on those without their feet on the ground. And if that ground is on Earth, then that Earth is Hollywood in Maps to the Stars. Cronenberg vacates heaven and ignores hell and situates his film in banality, seeping Los Angeles of its glamour and its tack. His nastily un-aestheticised film – his most unironically ugly to date – situates the characters in soulless close-ups in soulless spaces. That’s not a romanticised soullessness, that’s a dispiriting soullessness. Cronenberg seems to have resigned his own artistry; his signature indefinable insularity has been overridden by his characters’ collective narcissism, and he may never have produced a more potent thesis on the effects of individual psyches on family units yet. One can imagine Cronenberg descending from his high to join in this one select stinger, courtesy of Bruce Wagner’s wretched low taste.
There are moments in this film that are harsh and pack a brutal punch. There are also moments of pure unadulterated joy. Celine Sciamma’s wonderfully textured depiction of the transformation these particular black, French girls go through from girlhood to womanhood is something rarely depicted with this much authenticity and sensitivity. The journey is tough, lots of hurdles. Be it family, culture, finance, education, love or heartbreak. Society wants you one way and you just want to be yourself, to break free from the norms. Girlhood celebrates female friendship and journey with an empathetic, sweet & sour tone. Things gained and lost, mistakes made and lessons learned. Karidja Touré shines out as Marieme in a strong and effective performance. Here is hoping Sciamma continues to make such films on the complications of being a female and the struggle to be yourself when you are supposed to be anything but.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Depending on your scale of success with the handful of pictures that have been made in that mold recently of rebooting franchises that allow audiences to jump in without feeling lost on not seeing the previous films, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road might be the best of the lot for a number of reasons. It’s written and helmed by the same filmmakers that first brought the franchise to life in 1979, and even though it is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, the filmmakers were so far away from the system (filming in Namibia, originally to roll in Australia), that they were able to accomplish what they did. What they did accomplish was to bring forth an adventurous, captivating, engrossing action ride out of hell that allows the audience to enjoy the straight line the plot takes, but to also take in the vibrant colors, the subtle and upfront themes and simply just how awesome everything as a whole is. Starring Tom Hardy as the titular Max, but anchored and centered by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa (the movie is all about women in general), the film’s energy, incredible practical effects and immersive notions of what the end of the world could possibly be provides one of the best experiences and entries of not just the summer blockbuster season, but all of 2015 in general so far.
The artistry and story-telling of this remarkably subtle, paced motion picture is extraordinary. Truth is, you might not even realize exactly how much you like this movie from the outset. It feeds you, carefully, on a meticulously structured art direction, screenplay (by director Alex Garland), and the sound design – right down to the ever-so-subtle recurring heartbeat sound during the Ava sessions. Camera movements are lethargic, lingering, while the luscious open spaces invite you even closer, as the confined enclosure’s claustrophobia creeps up on you. Some of the dialogue is so dissecting and sharp, with not an inch of fat anywhere, it might be the most perfect, finely-tuned screenplay of 2015 thus far. Ex Machina, with the majestic and beautiful Ava (a voice to melt the heart) at the forefront, cuts right through your notions of women too – their rightful place, their growth, the power they have in society or our mental landscapes. That, and other thought processes, simply unravel as you watch. Not dull or distracting for one single moment, but expressive and impressive for the entire duration.