HMZ Film’s Top Picks of 2015
As 2015 draws to a close, here is a round up of all the films that struck a chord and continue to linger on the mind. There’s an eclectic blend of genres from around the world that have moved, terrified, made me laugh and left their mark. It’s been quite a year. Yes there are 26 entries in this list! As you can see it was quite a task to select the front runners from the 131 movies i’ve seen this year.
Honourable mentions that just missed out: Straight Outta Compton, Enemy, Inside Out, Force Majeure, Theory of Everything, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Slow West and While We’re Young.
26. Cemetery of Splendour
This mystical fever dream entrances, confounds and provokes more questions than it answers. Soldiers with a mysterious sleeping sickness are transferred to a temporary clinic in a local school where they are tended to by doctors and a volunteer, Jenjira. Light therapy and other hypnotic techniques are used to ease the nightmares of the soldiers but it soon becomes apparent that the illness maybe linked to the mythic ancient site that lies beneath the clinic. A world of magic, healing and dreams are explored to deliver a fundamentally political message on the state of Thailand. A visually arresting work that doesn’t quite compare to the majesty of Palme D’or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives’ but nonetheless leaves a haunting legacy.
A lucid character study elevated by razor sharp wit, grand theatricality and top performances from a stellar cast. The sheer irony of casting Michael Keaton as the washed up actor in a bird suit attempting to resurrect his career is a work of sublime genius.
“And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you.”
24. Wild Tales
An outrageous dark comedy anthology from Argentina comprises six short stories that follow different people in the most unwilling of circumstances. There’s a remarkable opening when a plane full of people seems to be united by their condemnation of one man, a disheveled engineer who has his car repeatedly clamped and takes matters into his own hands, road rage gone too far and a ridiculously over the top wedding sequence. The 7th film from Argentina to be nominated for an Academy award and rightly so. A genius exercise of subversive satire. Damián Szifrón is one to watch.
A startling and unexpectedly somber story of a man’s journey of self-discovery. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a bruising and vulnerable turn as a boxer who’s life has been turned upside down in an instant. A work of immense heart and a testament to the power of courage, the role of a parent and the unexpected nature of life. There’s a gritty edge to Southpaw that took me entirely by surprise. Credible fight scenes and Forest Whitaker’s role of a beaten down coach provide a welcome relief from the tried and tested Rocky formula.
“God must have some kind of plan to teach me some kind of lesson. I just can’t figure out what it is.”
Shakespearean musings have never dazzled quite like this. Adam Arkapaw’s stunning cinematography is a joy to behold in Kurzel’s ravishing adaptation of a well-trodden classic. Taking inspiration from the likes of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England; Macbeth is driven by the lust for power. The haunting spectre of the three witches and dazzling battle sequences are iconic. Fassbender and Cottilard are both tremendous in the lead roles. Whilst the Elizabethan dialogue can often be difficult to fully understand, Kurzel makes use of the visual medium with great aplomb.
“O full of scorpions, is my mind.”
21. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
JJ Abraham’s rekindled the spirit of a bygone era and has introduced the cultural juggernaut to a new audience with one flash of Kylo Ren’s light sabre. The Millennium Falcon soars again in a giddy blaze of action storytelling that is relentlessly enjoyable and evokes a childlike glee. Judging a film by its villain is the true litmus test and the mysterious Ren is hugely iconic: Fantastic costume design, voice and weapon along with a backstory to match. Much has been made of the political parallels with modern day society but I feel this is pushing the ship out too far. The Force Awakens has created a new wave of stars (Driver, Ridley, Boyega and Gleeson) and celebrated the greats of the franchise.
Kylo Ren: “Forgive me. I feel it again… the call from light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started”
I’ll start by saying that I was expecting to find Carol pretentious and highly detached from reality. I was wrong. It’s a wondrous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Price of Salt; Carol is spellbinding. Haynes has crafted a wondrous drama on the power of love and the enticing nature of the forbidden fruit. A clash of lifestyles and outlooks are seen through the break up of a failed marriage and the blossoming of a kindred romance. Blanchett and Mara’s performances are superb and their on screen chemistry is picture perfect. Carter Burwell’s score is the year’s finest work. Expect the awards to come tumbling in.
“I don’t know what I want. How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?”
19. The Voices
Satrapi has honed in on tough subject matter with a whacky blend of comic satire, unruly horror and a deep sense of melancholia. It’s a unique brand of cinema that is able to marry a frightening character study with jet black comedy. The Voices is offbeat and unclassifiable. There’s an unpredictable quality to the plot that makes it eminently watchable and thoroughly entertaining. There’s a dizzying blend of influences from the mystery of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the brooding menace of Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) but all underpinned by a dark humour seen in the likes of McDonagh’s In Bruges (Click here for the full review)
“You remember last week when you said that there was an invisible line that separates good from evil and you’d thought you crossed it and I said no no no you’re a good boy? Yeah I remember, so what? I’ve changed my opinion”
18. Crimson Peak
‘Ghosts are real, that much I know. I’ve seen them all my life…’ The cryptic opening line of Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a tantalisingly macabre confession that claws open the jaw of a beast before spiralling into a chain of wicked deception and intolerable cruelty. It’s a luxuriant Gothic romance that is burdened with unresolved horrors of the past. Despite its vulgar and predictable outcome, Del Toro’s film is a visual marvel that hypnotises with its spectacular and authentic production design (click here for the full review)
“A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing. It starts holding onto things… keeping them alive when they shouldn’t be. Some of them are good; some of them bad… Some should never be spoken about again”
17. Beasts of No Nation
Cary Joji Fukunaga tells a blistering story that follows a child through the terrors of civil war in an unnamed African country. Agu is separated from his family and forced into a harrowing journey into depths of war. Forced to become a child soldier and kill on command by the merciless Commandent (impressively transformed Idris Elba), Agu’s quest for freedom is tainted by horrors that no child should have to endure. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, Beasts of No Nation can be tough to watch but for all its devastation- there is hope and a hardened spirit that is rapturously uplifting. Abraham Attah and a towering Idris Elba deliver powerhouse performances while Dan Romer’s moving score is simply sensational.
“We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”
16. The Gift
The past is often buried and forgotten to meet the whims of our convenience. But what happens when a long forgotten act of cruelty resurfaces to confront our present? Joel Edgerton’s creepy suburban revenge thriller is a stark realisation of the mantra: ‘what goes around, come around.’ The quaint life of a couple is interrupted by Gordo (Edgerton) when they move into their plush new home. What starts out as a friendly reunion soon descends into a game of deception and voyeurism. Each act bringing with it a new revelation, a gift that keeps on giving.
“See, you’re done with the past, but the past is not done with you”
15. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
A laugh out loud indie comedy with real warmth beneath the witty banter. Greg befriends his teenage classmate who’s just been diagnosed with cancer in what sparks the unlikeliest of friendships. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon effortlessly crafts an insightful coming of age story and explores the rigours of the teenage years; although it’s tinged with an inevitable sadness, there is much to enjoy and ponder over on the merits of positive thinking, selflessness and companionship. Greg and Earl’s amateur film sketches are brilliantly interwoven into the narrative, a real gem that can’t hide it’s love for cinema.
Rachel: Look, “I don’t want you hanging out with me. I don’t need your stupid pity. It’s fine. You can just go.” Greg: “No, hey, hey, you got it all wrong. I’m not here cause I pity you. I’m actually here cause my mom is making me”
14. The Martian
The Martian is a swashbuckling cosmic adventure that journeys through a spectrum of emotion with a beaming smile on its face. The uber-talented Drew Goddard’s witty script ensures The Martian effortlessly strolls around the red planet with gusto and a sense of humour even when things turn sour. Ridley Scott pushes human endeavor to the extreme. It’s a remarkable meditation on the power of the human spirit, deep rooted courage and resourcefulness (Click here for the full review)
“Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception”
13. Bridge of Spies
Spielberg builds a bridge over the murky waters of the Cold War in this riveting thriller. Based on a scarcely read chapter of America’s history of war; Spielberg shines a light on an unsung hero and the courageous virtues that form the glittering halo of the American dream. The Bridge of Spies exhales the toxic political charade and nuanced negotiations that unfold behind closed doors of a major conflict. The real cards are dealt by the honcho’s in darkened rooms to determine the fate of the dispensable foot soldiers on the ground. Amidst all the shadowy motives, a figure of righteousness emerges as the decisive factor to settle a stalemate between the Soviet Union and America. It’s a remarkable film that steers clear of propagandist nonsense as it ratchets up the tension. (Click here for the full review)
“This one time, I was at the age of your son, our house is overrun by partisan boarder guards. Dozen of them. My father was beaten, my mother was beaten, and this man, my father’s friend, he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. Soldier hit him harder, still he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating and let him live… “Stoikiy muzhik”. Which sort of means like a “standing man”… Standing man…”
12. The Salt of the Earth
Over the past four decades, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado has travelled to over 120 countries capturing the ever changing face of humanity. Having witnessed international conflict and mass exodus in the far reaches of the globe; this moving documentary explores tragedy and beauty experienced by Salgado throughout his remarkable career. The Salt of the Earth contains striking imagery that will linger on the mind for days after. A voyage of discovery has left its mark, it’s a remarkable account and tribute to the man behind the camera.
“We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.”
11. Winter Sleep
Set in the mountains of Anatolia; a former actor turned writer, Aydan, runs a hotel with his estranged younger wife and recently divorced sister. As winter sets in and the snow begins to fall, cracks are opened up in their relationships and a bout of arguments take over. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s poetic film is brimming with irony, philosophical debate, hypocritical musings and supreme performances from a stellar cast. It’s fascinating and suffocating, a thoroughly immersive and authentic slice of real life. The morality of self-fulfilling philanthropy and the egotistical nature of the class system are the more alluring subjects for debate. A thought provoking piece of Turkish cinema.
“Philanthropy isn’t tossing a bone to a hungry dog, it’s sharing when you are just as hungry”
Selma feels like an important document that should be filed away and shown to future generations who take equality for granted. David Oyelowo delivers a towering performance as Martin Luther King Jr.’s in a campaign to secure equal voting rights for the black community in the face of prejudice and unequivocal racism. The march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 famously forced President Johnson’s hand to pass the voting acts right. Ava Du Verney’s powerful and rapturous account zones into the visionary ideals of King and surrounding brethren. A game of high stakes and morality, King’s spirit is rekindled to inspire a new generation.
“Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe”
9. Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s directorial debut dances with classic sci-fi elements as it blows a kiss to Spielberg’s AI. Talented coder Caleb is selected by Nathan (his CEO) to spend a week in his luxurious mountain retreat to become part of an experiment in developing the first genuine artificial intelligence known to mankind. It just so happens that the AI takes shape of a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is put to the ultimate test to decipher the meaning of his assignment. Garland’s film is a mysterious thriller that morphs into various guises as it becomes clear Nathan has ulterior motives. A suave piece of cinema featuring outstanding production and costume design.
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa… an upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction”
8. Irrational Man
Irrational Man is a sumptuously gloomy comic thriller that rides an existential wave of self-reflection. Allen takes us on the ardent journey of re-discovering the vitality for life, the flimsy nature of love and the morality of murder. Building on familiar ethical themes from the likes of Hamlet and his own eclectic past in Match Point (2005), Irrational Man’s fundamental strength is its exquisitely witty tonality in the face of darkness and Joaquin Phoenix’s vulnerable performance as tormented philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Click here for the full review )
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”
A brooding biopic on the twisted relationship between eccentric millionaire John Du Pont and Olympic gold medallist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. This shocking story is inspired by true events charting the turbulent history of the creation and demise of the ‘Foxcatcher’ wrestling team in their preparations for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. An unrecognisable Steve Carrell is phenomenal as the egotistical coach who uses Mark (Channing Tatum) as a vehicle to achieve glory and prove a point to his disapproving mother.
“Coach is the father. Coach is a mentor. Coach has great power on athlete’s life”
6. It Follows
A malevolent force is sexually transmitted from one person to another in this breathtakingly original horror. David Robert Mitchell has crafted a fiercely inventive tale and tapped into reaches of fear. The terror takes anonymous form; it can be the man sitting opposite you on the train, an elderly woman walking after you in the street. It can be anyone and it has no motive nor reason to follow. The anonymity and lack of rationale is suspenseful and downright creepy. A brilliantly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, the terrific opening and beach scenes are hugely memorable. A must see.
“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you”
5. The Lobster
In a dystopian future, it is a mandatory requirement for all to be married. Single people are taken to a hotel where they have forty-five days to find a match or else be turned into an animal of their choice and be sent into the wild. Yorgos Lanthimos’s original story is surreal, magnificent and overflowing with comic genius. David (Colin Farrell) is recently divorced and is sent to the hotel to find a perfect match. The singles have created their own community and are hiding out in the woods with their own unique set of laws. It’s a rapturous satire on the nature of modern day relationships that crosses a spectrum of genres. Unlike anything you’ll have seen before.
“My mother was left on her own when my father fell in love with a woman who was better at math than she was. She had a post graduate degree I think, where as my mother was only a graduate. I was nineteen at the time. My mother entered the hotel, but didn’t make it and was turned into a wolf. I really missed her. I found out she had been moved to a zoo. I often went there to see her. I’d give her raw meat. I knew that wolves liked raw meat, but I couldn’t figure out which of the wolves was my mother so I used to give a little bit to each of them”
4. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire western is in a world of its own. It resides in a shadowy, monochrome realm of intoxicating horror that is often aspired to but seldom breached. It’s set in the ghostly town of Bad City where residents are slaves of addiction, fear and bad circumstance. As daily life trudges by, the haunting spectre of the veiled girl (Sheila Vand) stalks the dimly lit streets. A silent predator hunting her prey. It’s an ultra-stylish exercise in modern terror that oozes class and creates an atmosphere of nameless dread as it sinks its razor sharp fangs into a ripe chunk of brilliance (Click here for the full review at Horrortalk.com)
Damien Chazelle’s pulsating drummer drama is a riveting beat of musical adrenaline. JK Simmon’s iconic and imposing draconian turn thrills and stirs. Whiplash is dramatic, edge of the seat cinema that doesn’t miss a beat. It pays testament to the nature of greatness; life doesn’t hand out a free pass, you have to break the mould and push beyond self-imposed limitations to be remembered. As Aristotle once said ‘there is no great genius without some touch of madness’. A killer soundtrack and breakthrough performance from Miles Teller hit that elusive magic note.
“Are you a rusher or a dragger?”, ‘Not my tempo!’ , ‘I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity
2. The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing (my film of the year in 2013) is a chilling companion piece on the tragic Indonesian genocide in 1965. The documentary follows Adi, whose brother was brutally murdered in the killing. The perpetrators occupy positions of power in modern day Indonesia and are seen as war heroes who cleansed the land of ‘communists’ opposing the state. In a remarkable feat of unimaginable courage, Adi confronts the killers and breaks a fifty year silence. The result is terrifying and can only be likened to staring into the face of evil. The cold awkward silences, the grotesque gloating of murder and the remarkable bravery of Adi’s family has fundamentally transformed my outlook on human nature.
“Some killed so many people they went crazy. One man climbed a palm tree each morning to do a call to prayer. He killed too many people. There’s only one way to avoid it: drink your victim’s blood”
1. Still Life
Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life struck me like a blazing arrow to the heart. It’s the only film in this list that moved me to tears with such unexpected and sudden urgency. It’s a rare piece of cinema that reaches deep into the cold soul of man, grasps its deepest fear and paints an eloquent ode to its tribute. Respect for the dead and the fear of loneliness drive Pasolini’s meditation on the inanimate nature of life. Marsan is tremendous as the dedicated council worker, John May, tasked with locating the relatives of the unclaimed deceased. It’s a heart-breaking look at those who have left this world alone. May takes pride in his work that overcomes his ironic isolation: he writes eulogies, attends funerals on his own and meticulously preserves a collection of photos of the deceased. For his one final case, he embarks on a quest to track down a long, lost family member who might care enough to be present for the funeral. A tear-jerking finale and Rachel Portman’s stirring score draw strong parallels to Yôjirô Takita’s masterpiece, Departures (2008).
Disclaimer: I do not own any copyright to any of the cinematic posters/images in this blog post.
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