Midlands Movies Feature - An alternative list of "2015" films
by guest writer John McCourt
See, here’s the problem with listing my top 10 films of 2015 - I haven’t actually seen 10 films released in 2015. But the ever lovely MM Mike cut me a little slack and agreed to let me review my 10 favourite films I watched this year.
So there’s a fair few oldies on the list, and the only film in there actually released this year is a cartoon. Because I like cartoons, that’s why.
10. Adult World
An excellent little film, this. What could have been typical indie flick landfill rises above its core conceit to become something a little bit special.
Millennial/Gen-Whateverthefuck Amy, an aspiring (i.e. shit) poet, takes a job in the eponymous sex shop after her parents cut her off. She moves in with a large Hispanic transvestite, there’s the obligatory love interest provided by her co-worker at Adult World, and John Cusack plays John Cusack being a poet/dick. So far, so hipster. Although there are definite moments where you can see the film trying a bit too hard, overall its quirky charm works. Unlike, say, Frances fucking Ha, an irredeemable pile of indy wankbait if ever there was one. Best watched while lying on the sofa on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with plenty of tea and KitKats to hand.
So I like cartoons; sue me. This isn’t on the list to irk the purists, I truly enjoyed this film and laughed pretty hard for most of it. I love the glee and the naughtiness of the Minions, I just find them to be brilliant, unapologetic fun. It’s also an excellent placeholder while we wait for Despicable Me 3. They need to hurry the eff up with that, by the way.
8. Three Days of the Condor
I watched this again a couple of months ago to see if it was as good as I remembered it being. And oh my word yes, it was. A political thriller from a time in cinematic history when they really knew how to do them, the film follows Robert Redford’s low-level CIA researcher as he tries to avoid being killed by the people who slaughtered his co-workers while he was out picking up lunch. With not very hilarious consequences. Redford is excellent as the everyman drone, albeit a drone who happens to work for the CIA. The tension is racked up throughout as he tries to figure out who’s trying to kill him, and why. A pretty ambiguous ending too. Kind of makes you think Edward Snowden got off easy.
I watched this with my good friend and erstwhile drummer Flash Haynes, and I’ve never been so happy to be a bass player in my life. J.K. Simmons rightly took the plaudits for his portrayal of the absolutely vicious music teacher Fletcher, with an inventive and bucolic line in swearing that would give Malcolm Tucker a run for his money. But that shouldn’t overshadow the performance of Miles Teller as the little drummer boy who ends up on the receiving end of most of Fletcher’s vitriol. Teller puts in a fantastic shift as what could have been a very stereotypical “kid from the wrong side of the tracks” role, giving the character a nice depth as a driven, talented youngster striving to grab his one big chance with both sticks. He’s still a dick to Melissa Benoist though, which is unforgivable.
(Odd that both actors went on to portray superheroes, Mr Fantastic and Supergirl respectively, with wildly varying degrees of success. Simmons of course had already played the greatest J. Jonah Jameson ever committed to celluloid.)
6. Withnail & I
Thanks to Alexzandra Jackson of this parish, I had the pleasure of seeing this with my friend and reluctant writing mentor Kenton Hall on the big screen this year, at a special screening at Phoenix Cinema in Leicester with a talk beforehand from its writer, Bruce Robinson. Mr Robinson seemed to have a drink taken and was trying to sell us a book about Jack the Ripper, and that’s all I have to say about that. If you’ve seen this film, you’ll know why it’s on this list. If you haven’t, you’ve made some very odd life choices and need to get back on track immediately. Start by watching this.
To describe this film as “funny” is a bit like describing the Pacific Ocean as “a bit moist”. It is an utterly ridiculous film, hilarious from the get-go, and not even several generations of students quoting its dialogue have dulled that. Richard E. Grant’s scenery-chewing Withnail is a horrifying joy to behold, but Paul McGann more than holds his own in what is essentially a good old-fashioned two-hander. My words can’t do this movie justice, you really need to go watch it to see what I’m getting at. Watch it with friends, preferably while drinking the finest wines available to humanity
An amazing film, breathtaking in both ambition and performance. Clearly only greenlit as Oscar-bait, this is the kind of film you wish Hollywood would make more of but are secretly glad they don’t, because how could they possibly keep up this quality? Michael Keaton is a washed-up Hollywood star, famous for his cinematic portrayal of a superhero, but who is now striving to get back to his acting roots and regain some credibility. Which also happens to be the plot of the movie (see what I did there?), but don’t let that put you off.
Pretty much the entire film is shot to look like one continuous take, which along with the almost continuous percussive score (which failed to win an Oscar on a technicality, which was very dick-ish of the Academy) gives the whole thing a breakneck pace for much of its running time. There are breathers built in - seemingly to give the audience a rest as much as the actors - but the overall impression is one of unstoppable forward momentum. You wouldn’t want every film to be constructed like this, but it really works here, driving the narrative along so that you can’t take your eyes off the screen for a second in case you miss anything.
An exhausting watch, but well worth it. And Emma Stone appears to be morphing into an anime character - seriously, are her eyes getting bigger with every film?
This is a love poem dedicated to the film’s main character, the New York borough of Manhattan. Shot in black and white, it’s a sumptuous piece of cinema which should have won at least as many awards as Allen’s earlier Annie Hall. It did pick up a slew of awards and nominations in various countries for Best Foreign Film, which Allen may have slyly alluded to at the end of his much later Hollywood Ending.
It’s also an idiot’s love story, with Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy being both more mature and more romantic than Allen’s Isaac. One is always tempted to read too much into the films he made with women he’d had or was in relationships with at the time (see Annie Hall and Another Woman, for example), so it’s hard not to see Manhattan as an apology to someone, an admission that he’d fucked up, and this movie is almost a mea culpa. Either way, for a number of reasons this movie always makes me cry at the end. It’s a beautiful, funny, sad story, and if you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to see it as soon as you humanly can.
3. Annie Hall
The second Woody Allen movie on my list, watched with someone who’d never seen it before. She was as impressed by it as she should have been, i.e. very. This was Allen’s breakout movie, very firmly drawing a line between his earlier, funny films and paving the way for Manhattan, Interiors, Hannah And Her Sisters et al. It’s still very much a comedy, packed with some of the most quotable lines in cinematic history, but it’s a different beast entirely from Bananas, Sleeper and Love And Death.
Ostensibly it’s about Allen’s disillusioned TV writer Alvy Singer’s relationship with a Midwestern woman, Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall, and how it fails to work out. There’s obviously no correlation to Allen’s real-life relationship with Diane Keaton, deary me no. But enough speculation about that has been committed to print and screen without me having to comment further on it. Also, it’s their business, not ours. Whatever truth there may be in the 40 years of analysis since the film’s release, one thing doesn’t need speculating on - it’s one of the finest romantic comedies ever made. No, scratch that: it’s one of the finest films ever made.
2. Synecdoche, New York
A film I’d put off watching for a while for reasons I need not trouble you with here, this is a stone masterpiece. I’d loved to have watched this with Orson Welles, just to have him turn to me at the end and go, “Fuuuck! How did he do that??” I’m a big fan of Charlie Kaufman’s work (okay, maybe not Human Nature so much), and this, his directorial debut, managed to kick my admiration for the man up another eleventy levels. Just… Wow.
IMDb baldly states the storyline thus: “A theatre director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he creates a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse as part of his new play.” Nope, not even close. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard essentially builds himself a parallel reality inside that warehouse, blurring fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, until it seems he can’t function in either version of his life any more. It’s a story of an artist’s struggle with his art, with his life, with everyone’s lives; it’s a story of hope and regret, of the pursuit of perfection where neither real life nor his constructed facsimile of that life will behave itself.
It can be viewed as a nihilist’s opera, but it’s not without its moments of purity and hope. And in the end, as a work of cinematic art, it stands head, shoulders and entire thorax above any other film made in the last twenty years or more.
1. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
The greatest film ever made. The writing, the cinematography and that wonderful Burt Bacharach score all conspire to make this perfect cinema. The Academy agreed, awarding it four Oscars (for Writing, Cinematography, Score and Song). Us Brits took it even more to our hearts, awarding it nine BAFTA’s.
I first saw this as part of a Newman/Redford double bill (remember those? Of course you don’t, you’re like 12 or something) with The Sting when I was 8 or 9, and it’s been my favourite movie ever since. It’s a film I try to watch at least once a year, but this year I saw it three times - once on my own at home, once as part of the same double bill I saw 40 years ago (this time at Phoenix Cinema in Leicester; the old ABC in Coatbridge is long gone), and once as part of a now-abandoned plot to educate my erstwhile partner-in-film on the best films ever made that, bizarrely, she’d never seen.
I’m a sucker for a buddy movie, and this is the definitive example. For me it defines the genre. If there hadn’t been a Butch & Sundance, there’d have been no Freebie and The Bean, no Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, no Thelma and Louise (especially that ending). Just let that sink in for a minute.
Newman and Redford are, as you would expect, excellent in their respective titular roles. Newman in particular as Butch is a career high, imbuing the character with the warmth, humour and (often self-defeating) intelligence the role demands. And Redford’s Sundance, although perhaps with less to do, comes across perfectly as his quieter, often frustrated and arguably smarter counterfoil. You get the impression that he’d follow Butch to Hell, not just Bolivia, for the shits and giggles alone.
I could write a ton more on this movie, but I think the most important thing to say is this: Go watch it. Now.