It's the least magical time of the year. For me. I know too many film people. Critics, academics, writers, programmers, film-makers, cinephiles. For the whole rest of the year, this is a joy but the month of December becomes hellish. Why? Because every last one of them feels the need to publish a 'Best Films of the Year' piece. I take issue with this. They're all identical. I mean, all of them are going to wax lyrical about Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Assassin. Carol is probably a great film but it's a shame our great film is essentially an homage to Douglas Sirk. Mad Max was a huge amount of fun, but it's only considered great because the vast majority of our action films are terrible. And it's a sequel/remake/reboot/whatever of a franchise four decades old. I also can't deal with reading yet another opinion piece on the new Star Wars film.
I just think it's a bad time for cinema. So I will not celebrate the films of 2015 in the traditional manner.
Instead, I will celebrate the films I have seen in 2015. 'New' is not reason enough to watch a film. I prefer to mine history and hunt out great films that have been overlooked. If not by society, by me. So, here's my list of the 10 best films I saw in 2015. And not one of them released this year...
KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914)
This was the year I fully embraced Charlie Chaplin. I've seen and admired his films before but I really feel like I engaged this year, firstly reading his beautifully (and, as it's often pointed out, a little pretentiously) written autobiography, then moving on to the recently released Taschen Archive book and working through a lot of his films. This is technically Chaplin's first ever screen appearance as The Tramp but it's an anomaly. It was actually the second film The Tramp appeared in, although it was released first, but beside that it's actually not a scripted, staged piece. It's rather like a Candid Camera sketch. Chaplin turned up at a real event and mugged about in front of the public. He goons about, almost getting hit by go-karts and stages a mock fight with a camera team trying to capture the action. Not only do you get to witness firsthand his incredible skills of improvisation and timing but it's that incredibly rare crossover of an iconic fictional character placed into documentary footage. The crowd clearly love him, despite not knowing entirely not to make of him. It's a real gem of a film and to see the character so recognizably formed so early on is a treat.
FLY AWAY HOME (1996)
I remember when this film was released. I was working in a video shop and it looked like a masterpiece of mawk. The story of a young girl who trains some birds to fly using a microlight. I was not interested. In recent years, I've developed a minor obsession with the live-action Disney films which spanned between their golden ages of animation. From the early sixties until the mid-eighties, they churned out a seemingly endless run of quite eccentric films from very idiosyncratic filmmakers. It was this that led me to the fantastic, sparse film Never Cry Wolf, in which a government researcher is sent north to investigate wolves and discovers the beauty of the creatures. It's quite unlike any other film. I looked up the director, Caroll Ballard and discovered a body of work which is entirely on the theme of humans interactions with the animal world. He had directed the legendary film The Black Stallion and, for decades, has been making hugely varied films united by theme, heart and gorgeous cinematography. I found Fly Away Home interesting precisely because I had previously so vehemently rejected the notion of watching it. It's a darker film than I expected. Anna Paquin, fresh from her incredibly dark turn in The Piano, is involved in a brutal car crash which her mother does not survive. She awakes in a hospital bed to find her estranged father ready to take her back from Australia to his home in Ontario. Played with warm, anxious intensity, her father is a flitty inventor. Clearly a genius but awkward. Having built his own lunar module and reinvented the refrigerator, he finds himself besotted with aviation. The daughter finds some goose eggs and incubates them in a drawer. The geese hatch and consider her their mother. They follow her wherever she goes, but things take a worrying turn when it becomes obvious that not only is it illegal for her to have these birds but they are now domesticated and unable to migrate. So, her crazy father hatches a plan, training the birds to follow his daughter in a microlight aircraft and having her lead the flock's cross-country migration to North Carolina. About grief, relationships, family, responsibility and the rejection of the norm, this film is warm-hearted without ever being tedious or mawkish. The fact that it's based on a true story is fascinating rather than lazy. What you have with this film is a thoughtful, effective story, wonderful acting all round and gorgeous cinematography. But marketed as a kids film.
THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973)
I have no idea why it has taken me the best part of 40 years to get to this film. No excuse, really. I had expected it to be more of a Hammer-style thing, I think and, to be honest, with a few exceptions, Hammer has never really done it for me. I'm not a fan of hammy acting or silly monsters. Theatre of Blood is quite something else, though. It falls into the American Werewolf in London category of veering between the truly horrific, the hilariously silly and the affectingly emotional. Vincent Price plays a Shakespearean actor, considered some years dead, who decides to take revenge upon the circle of critics who ruined his career. The murders he plots, all Shakespearean in nature, are truly grisly, nasty set pieces conducted essentially for laughs. It's hard to know where your empathy should lie - he has clearly been unfairly maligned, they are truly odious characters, but the tortures he employs are jaw-dropping in their hideousness. Ultimately, however, your empathy lies with Price. A tortured soul, denied his passion and undermined by cruelty. In some ways it's that rare thing of the artist (in this case the filmmakers) shining a light back on to the parasitical world which can destroy them. In others, it's just a rollicking, campy cracker of a tale. For me, it's Price's career high and worth watching for that reason alone. Unlike his character, he displays his full range from loud pantomime to truly subtle film acting. It's a unique film.
LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)
Here's a phrase I find myself saying a lot, way too much, "They just don't make films like this anymore" - and when I say that I refer to intelligent dramas by journeyman directors starring character actors about human stories. These kinds of films do still crop up in the indie sphere but they often have large all-star casts and replace depth with a kind of quirkiness. Love is Strange is a film made with thought which makes you think. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play an aging homosexual couple. When gay marriage is legalized, they finally tie the knot. Soon after, the school Molina teaches at ask him to leave as they feel his lifestyle reflects poorly on them. Lithgow, considerably older than Molina is a retired painter. They have no money. They find themselves having to leave their home and sleep in the spare rooms and on the sofas, separately, of family and friends. Despite being a really well-observed character piece in which their relationship is explored layer-by-layer, this film works as a story of our time. When talented, hard-working people live in a precarious financial structure meaning many of us are just a paycheque or rent payment away from homelessness. Social commentary through meaningful story.
A GUY NAMED JOE (1943)
One film I was excited to see this year was Trumbo. Bryan Cranston in a biopic of the legendarily eccentric screenwriter who was blacklisted as a communist sympathiser in the McCarthy trials. When reading more about Trumbo, I discovered he'd written this film that I had always meant to see. In 1989, Spielberg remade it as Always, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. I've retained a massive soft spot for Always, one of Spielberg's most overlooked films but a worthy piece of fluffy philosophy. A Guy named Joe stars Spencer Tracy as an ace pilot, killed in the line of duty, who is posthumously charged with using his ghostly presence in subtly guiding a new pilot through training. Things get complicated when the new pilot takes up with Tracy's old flame. Whereas Spielberg's version, which does stay pretty true to the original in many ways, revels in the sentimentality, Tracy plays it cool here and is hugely likable. The film was made in 1943 and is rife with inspirational and lifting messages about responsibility and faith in the future for a country engaged with war. It's elevated by its vision of the afterlife as an office in the clouds and little creative touches which made it a real joy to lose a couple of hours to.
I think this is one of the best all-round films I've ever seen. I can't remember having enjoyed a film this much in a very long time. It tells the story of Thor Heyerdahl who, in 1947 decided to prove his theory that Polynesia could have been populated by South Americans. To do this, he builds a balsa wood raft and, with a rag-tag team of five, sets out on the journey himself. I think one of the things that sold it to me was the lack of any recognisable stars or actors. Every performance was pitch perfect but their anonymity provided an experience rare in cinema today in which it doesn't feel like a millionaire star or respected actor simply showing you their range. You're along for the ride here and it would feel like documentary were it not so gorgeously cinematic. Part parlour drama, part National Geographic IMAX-wonders-of-the-world doc, this reminds me of the true magic of cinema. The combination of performance, gorgeous cinematography, story and tone.
THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY? (1969)
Bleak. Could any film be this bleak? That sounds like a reason not to watch it but bleakness done this well deserves an audience. We're in America, in the midst of the Great Depression. Nobody has money, nobody has food. A promoter stages a dancing contest. The price is $1500 - an unthinkably large amount in a time of such poverty - and all dancers receive meals throughout the day. Throughout the days. Because this dance contest is unlike others in that the format is 'last couple standing'. Offering only short breaks through the day, the contest is punishing. Lasting weeks. It forces its contestants way past the boundaries of physical exhaustion, into madness and death. But on they dance. Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin play the leads with support from the likes of Susannah York, Red Buttons and Bruce Dern - always at his best playing desperate. It's a hard watch but a rewarding one. Like many great films, its strength is in its continued and renewed relevance. In an age where the poorest sectors of society are encouraged to prostrate themselves in heavily-marketed competitions which promise either financial glory or utter public humiliation, this film still has so much to say.
THE BRIDGE (2005)
I had purposefully avoided watching The Bridge as a documentary about suicide, which shows actual suicides was not something I ever wanted to put myself through. But then I saw Eric Steel's next film - the gorgeous, meditative Kiss The Water. A film which told a small story, that of a woman in rural Scotland who made the world's best fishing flies. It was so carefully made and well constructed. It took a subject that would be incredibly boring in most hands and found the humanity. I immediately resolved to watch his other films and was faced with the prospect of The Bridge. For a year, Steel trained cameras on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's suicide hotspots. He filmed the suicides that occurred (he always alerted authorities if he saw someone who liked like they might jump and actually saved more lives than he filmed ending) and then traced their stories back with interviews with family and friends. This leads to a tender documentary which refuses to condemn or judge the act. It just explores. A familiar story comes through which exposes a side to the act which we choose to generally ignore. The notion that for some people, tortured, mentally ill, desperate people, it might be the release they need from their suffering. I would argue that the film doesn't advocate this, it just lifts the curtain and allows the audience the chance to reassess their own attitudes. Masterful documentary filmmaking.
THE SHADOW BOX (1980)
Since we're on the subject of death, this is a strange but really moving TV Movie from 1980. It was directed by Paul Newman and is truly an actors' film with an impressive cast including Christopher Plummer, Joanne Woodward, Sylvia Sidney and the forever underrated Melinda Dillon. The concept is that, as an experimental program, a hospital offers three dying people the chance to live out the rest of their lives in comfortable cabins in beautiful woodland on the condition that they consent to regular interviews with the overseeing psychiatrist. So we get to see the stories of these people, their situations and relationships but the characters are frequently allowed to step out of their lives and talk candidly, often with devastating rawness, about what they are going through. Cinema has always been rife with death but there are very few films about the actual process of dying, something we will all experience and often have experience of being around. The film is rich with strong characters, all of whom we meet at a time that they find themselves questioning and clinging desperately on to their concept of self. Surprisingly little happens in it, this is character study rather than story, but it demands close attention and provokes deep contemplation.
THE 14 (1973)
This is, by far, my favourite film of the year and I think a significant film that deserves attention and reassessment. The label that released it, Network, does great work every year in surfacing curiosities of British cinema history but do so with such volume that sometimes true gems go unnoticed. The 14 was directed by David Hemmings, famous as an actor but who went on after this to a solid career as a TV director, but this is something truly special. The film opens in the slums of London. Most of these buildings have been pulled down through the 60s and this area is finally getting that treatment. In a condemned house on a half-destroyed street, a single mother raises 14 children. The mother is played by June Brown, an actress who has spent the vast majority of her career under hair rollers as Dot Cotten in Eastenders, but here we see that she is capable of more. When we first see her, we find her haunted. Coping but hollow, we quickly realise this is illness. When she dies suddenly, it is for the oldest child - Jack Wild, a few years on from his turn as the Artful Dodger in Oliver to keep his family together and do the best for them. There is no time for sentiment or schmaltz, these are people so far below the poverty line that life is a fight. A fight against the authorities, the institutions and the do-gooders. The film resists over-egging the darkness and concentrates on spirit, resolve and throwing two fingers up to everyone. It's beautifully shot and captures London at a time of intense change and social disparity. Pre-dating punk by just a few years, it shows a brewing anger in the young as to the world they have been dragged into. The 14 kids are a rabble, a gang, few of them had acted before, few ever acted again and to have so many inexperienced performers tell a story of such injustice, it's a testament to Hemming's talent but also leads to a great frustration that he never significantly built on this early promise.
So, that's my year of film-watching. I hope this was of more use to you than another person spraffing on about Kylo Ren.