Every day feels like Summer with these films.
Welcome back to the countdown of My Top 20 Films of 2015. Yesterday, we raced through numbers 20 to 11 in order to get to the stuff that truly matters, the Top 10. If you missed the last piece or need a refresher, then head on over here. For everybody else, let me get some action from the back section.
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dir: Paul Feig
Star: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne
We really need to have a talk about how we market comedies. I know many people who, even in the face of overwhelming positive reviews and word-of-mouth, refused to give Spy a chance because the trailers pitched the film as “Melissa McCarthy be a funny fat woman who fall down go boom a lot and also fuck fuck ass shit dicklicker”. In reality, Spy is not that film, if anything it’s a satire of that kind of film, but the marketing pitched it as yet another one of those and regardless of whether that was the point – to get the viewer in the same headspace as the characters, where we wrongly underestimate Susan Cooper because of our own sexist, size-ist prejudices – all it ends up doing is turning away people who will incorrectly believe that they’ve seen it all before when, in reality, they haven’t.
Spy is actually a smart and fiercely feminist send-up of the spy movie genre, a quietly clever takedown of hyper-masculinity, and a hysterically dumb comedy. The film amps up the exclusionary masculinity often inherent in the spy genre to purposefully ridiculous levels to make the genre’s frequent sexism plain as day. Bradley Fine’s relationship with Susan calls attention to the patronising and quietly sniping manner that suave James Bond types treat their female acquaintances, Rick Ford’s pompous macho bravado is shown to be just that, bravado, with basically nothing to back it up besides constant self-destructive tendencies, and Aldo’s lecherous and near-constant sexual harassment could have been read as a satire of Bond romances if the new Bond films weren’t already doing just that but with a straight face.
Susan, meanwhile, is never belittled or mocked by the film itself. Sure, it does come up with a few setpieces that make her look silly, but Spy makes everyone look silly to varying degrees and her competency is never called into question by these moments. The main times when Susan screws up, it’s due to a lack of self-confidence in her own skills and once she acknowledges her raw talent and ability, once she recognises that she is a great spy capable of tackling whatever is thrown at her, she’s basically unstoppable. Melissa McCarthy puts in one of the year’s very best performances as Susan, investing her with this incredibly relatable self-doubt, anxiousness, and disappointment at being written off and typecast by her own Agency that makes her transformation into trying-too-hard masculinity so hilarious and purposefully ill-fitting, and her evolution into her own woman who can solve shit on her own terms so uplifting to witness.
There’s also the little fact that, gag-for-gag and minute-for-minute, Spy is easily the funniest movie of the year and one of the funniest comedies of this whole decade so far. Paul Feig has had trouble filling and pacing 2 hour comedies before – I love Bridesmaids and The Heat, but both films would be so much better if anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes were chopped off of them – but with Spy he keeps the pace up and the jokes flying from the beginning right through the very end. Even the film’s few action setpieces are loaded with gags, especially an outstanding kitchen brawl about two-thirds in. And let’s not forget Jason Statham who, even in a film with a brilliant female empowerment message and Miranda Hart pulling a McCarthy-in-Bridesmaids level supporting performance out from nowhere and Peter Serafinowicz doing the most ridiculous Italian accent imaginable, nearly steals the whole film out from everybody.
Spy is an absolute gem, firmly establishing Paul Feig as one of the best comedy filmmakers today and proving, even though none were needed, that is possible to make a female-fronted comedy that treats women with respect and still allows them to be incredibly funny. I cannot wait for Ghostbusters.
09] The Voices
Dir: Marjane Satrapi
Star: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick
There is no way that this should have worked. There is no way in hell that The Voices should have worked, let alone been one of the best films I saw all year. A black-comedy-drama-horror hybrid with elements of romance and jokes so pitch-black that I spent so much of my first viewing of the film wondering if I should be laughing at all, about a man suffering from mental illness whose pets talk back to him with the cat manifesting as the violently misogynistic impulses he desperately doesn’t want to believe are his own, that asks you to sympathise with him even as he digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole. No way should this have worked. No way. This should have been a hugely offensive trainwreck…
…and yet it does. It works spectacularly. See, the magic trick of The Voices is that it forces you into Jerry Hickfang’s headspace. It forces you to see the world as he sees it, a day-glo stylised 50’s-sitcom-reminiscent well of potential positivity, it forces you to understand Jerry’s desires to do what he feels is the right thing and how he comes to the decisions and actions that he does, why he refuses to take the pills his therapist is so adamant about and why he refuses to go to the police after killing Fiona despite feeling so majorly torn up about it, it forces you see Jerry as an incredibly complicated and frequently sympathetic individual instead of the kinds of one-dimensional monsters that horror movies often depict people like Jerry as.
So because the film forces you into that headspace, The Voices actually ends up as a somewhat nuanced look at mental illness instead of a stigmatising of it. Because Michael R. Perry’s script is constantly sympathetic to Jerry’s plight, because Marjane Satrapi commits wholeheartedly to constructing every aspect of the film in service of getting the viewer to see Jerry and the world the same way that Jerry sees them, and because Ryan Reynolds refuses to indulge in caricature or the obvious and instead brings subtlety and depth and humanity to his portrayal of Jerry, the film ends up as a surprisingly moving tragedy instead of an exercise in cruelty. Every moment of happiness being one that you want Jerry to be able to hold onto forever and every moment something goes horrifically wrong for him being painful to sit through.
Now, of course, if the film just got this aspect right and focussed none of its energies anywhere else, then we would have one deeply problematic film on our hands. But, and this is the sleight-of-hand that makes the magic trick, The Voices extends that kind of sympathy, empathy, and depth to all of its cast. Though we may primarily see the world from Jerry’s perspective, the film also lets us into the headspaces of the film’s other cast members, letting us understand why the others find Jerry so strange, showing that Fiona is not being intentionally callous in how she treats Jerry, and, in the film’s best scene, contrasting our knowledge of how Jerry thinks and acts with how somebody who does not have that knowledge would respond to that in an incredibly tense and heartbreaking manner.
Again, there is no way in hell that The Voices should have worked. For some people, it won’t, such is the sheer idiosyncratic and off-kilter nature of the final product. But, for me, it did and, as a result, was one of the year’s best hidden surprises.
08] Shaun the Sheep Movie
Dirs: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Star: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili (voices)
Aardman Animations are still the kings and queens of feature-length animation. Even with 2015 having been an embarrassingly good year for animated film – Inside Out, The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Minions, Home, Moomins on the Riviera – Aardman are still head and shoulders above everything else on the market today. They do this by remaining steadfast to the identity that they originally built all those years ago, small silly stories that are filled to bursting with heart and with their every facet, from their animation to their boarding to their characters, being lavished with love and a distinctly tangibly British twinge to themselves. It’s an identity that would feel like formula if it weren’t for the fact that Aardman are also committed to tinkering with that formula as much as possible out of a desire to challenge themselves.
Shaun the Sheep Movie, their first film since The Pirates! from 2012 and 3 years between Aardman features is way too long for my selfish desires, may be their second masterpiece. I have watched this film 3 times this year and I grow more convinced with each viewing that this may actually be on the level of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit which, as I have argued in the past, is as close to a perfect film as I have come across. And it manages to do so without having any grand ambitions. It doesn’t want to be some grand sweeping tale for the ages, it doesn’t want to be a giant exploration of deep themes, and it isn’t attempting to overthrow the modern way of doing things. All Shaun the Sheep wants to be is the best possible version of itself: a small-scale, family-focussed, silly yet heartfelt movie, the kind they just don’t make as much anymore.
Oh, and it wants to do it without dialogue. The brilliance about Shaun the Sheep is the way that such an apparent handicap is actually the film’s greatest strength, an encapsulation of everything that the film does right. Dialogue, as it turns out, is an excess and Shaun the Sheep Movie wants nothing to do with excess. It instead tells a simple yet incredibly compelling story entirely through actions, expressions, and barely intelligible grunts and eeps. Shaun, Bitzer, and Trump end up fascinating and entertaining characters with distinct personalities. Shaun and Bitzer’s dynamic is one that has been done to death – the freewheeling miscreant who just wants to have fun, the studiously faithful second-in-command authority who has to act as the buzzkill, with them both warming up properly to each other as the film goes on – yet still feels refreshing thanks to its simplicity.
If anything, Shaun the Sheep Movie ends up making starkly clear exactly how much needless bloat goes into most films nowadays. How animation doesn’t need long stretches of, or even any, dialogue to sell its scenes and develop its characters, how stories don’t need 100s of pointless subplots that clutter the landscape, how focussing your attention on a few key cast members leads to far greater resonance than trying to imbue every character with the same amount of depth and development, how family movies don’t need to be relentlessly grim and miserable, how every shot can and should matter because it makes the love put into your story even more evident, how, if you’ve done your job properly, you can make a flock of sheep singing acapella tear-inducing and heartwarming as well as ridiculously hysterical.
Shaun the Sheep Movie doesn’t reinvent any wheels, doesn’t try to revolutionise anything, and doesn’t aim to be anything other than the best possible version of its simple story. That is admirable. The fact that it succeeds in being the absolute best possible version of itself, which ends up acting as a testament to the power of modest ambitions and strong fundamentals, makes it a breath of fresh air. I feel like I could watch this film every day for a week and never get tired of it. Aardman did it again.
Dir: Christian Petzold
Star: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Whether we mean to or not, we idealise parts of those we love. When we are separated from them for long stretches of time, or if we don’t know them completely, we build up a picture in our heads of how that person is based on our personal memories. But memory is not a trustworthy thing, capable of being distorted and influenced by the passing of time. So we create an image of how something was based on memory but tend to airbrush away the faults and flaws to create something that we adore but was never real to begin with. How they walk, how they talk, how they dress, how they smell, how they react. Should enough time between seeing that person pass, they can appear unrecognisable in many respects because they don’t match the image of them that we have built in our head.
Johnny is a scumbag. There are no two ways about it. Even before we discover the truth regarding whether or not he sold out his wife Nelly to the Nazis to save his own skin, he is a scumbag. He is perfectly willing to use a woman who somewhat resembles and reminds him of his wife in an attempt to get a hold of the fortune he believes is rightly his. The fact that said woman actually is his wife, having undergone plastic surgery due to the horrific brutality she suffered in Auschwitz, and that he is completely unaware of it, even with her constant blatant attempts at informing him as to her true identity, makes it even worse. And that he spends most of the film’s runtime telling Nelly how little she’s acting like the wife he remembers – how she walks all wrong, he she dresses incorrectly – to her face, should push him to straight up villain territory.
Yet, there’s a certain pity to him. Although he’s still trying to defraud Nelly of her money, it starts to become ever more clear as Phoenix rolls on that Johnny is also using the woman who reminds him of Nelly to play out the fantasy he thought he’d never get. When he insists that she should be dolled up in gorgeous make-up and a fetching red dress that stands out in the crowd, he tells her that that’s how Nelly would return and that nobody would want to see a starved, scarred, haunted Holocaust survivor return. They would want Nelly, as she was. On the one hand, it’s a crushingly insensitive remark delivered straight to Nelly’s face. On the other, though, you start to understand Johnny’s way of thinking – how he’s pictured this sequence in his head, if Nelly were to ever somehow come back, if he could get a second chance, how his extended family members would react, the exact way that he and her would re-unite and embrace.
And, for most of the film’s runtime, Nelly is willing to give him this because even Nelly doesn’t identify as herself anymore. The reconstructive surgery, despite her desire to have it make her look exactly as she used to, has left her unrecognisable to herself which leads to her interactions with Johnny causing her to question her past self. She refers to herself when talking to Lene about Johnny in the third person. “He loves her,” like even she considers who she was before her time in Auschwitz to be a completely different person to who she is now, even though it’s evident that the person that Johnny remembers never existed in the first place. It’s an idealisation, one that could also absolve him of his unforgivable sin, and that’s what makes Nelly’s desire to please him, to go along with his scheme and mould herself into the woman he thinks he remembers out of a desperate desire to hang on to some remnant of her pre-Auschwitz life, so heartbreaking. And it’s what makes the film’s damn-near perfect ending so immensely satisfying.
Phoenix carries off this tension – of letting us understand what is going on with Johnny and why he makes the choices he does whilst still firmly keeping us on Nelly’s side – with aplomb, helped by Christian Petzold’s airtight pacing and focus, and the result is an absolutely gripping noir whose power remains long after viewing.
06] The Look of Silence
Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer
This honestly might be better than The Act of Killing. It’s certainly harder to watch. The Act of Killing is, of course, the more daring of the two, as is what happens when you focus a documentary about The Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 on the killers themselves. However, it does have a sort of distancing feel to it, with the wrap-around device of letting them make a movie of their own exploits often presenting images and sequences that are just plain weird or dreamlike, allowing you this slight breathing room from the brutality and monstrosity of this unthinkable extermination. The Look of Silence gives you no such distancing. It’s rather more traditional than The Act of Killing, as we follow Adi – a 40-ish optometrist born after the killings but whose elder brother was one of its victims – as he confronts those responsible for the Snake River massacre specifically, but that ends up making what’s featured all the more horrifying.
Like in The Act of Killing, those responsible relate in great and often proud detail the acts of barbarism that they performed, but there’s something extra here. Some extra force that even Killing lacked, and it comes from inserting Adi into the equation. It’s putting the consequences of what these people did directly in front of them and watching them still show absolutely no remorse, whether that be by deflecting responsibility, trying to shut down the conversation out of a desire to not talk about “politics”, or straight up threatening Adi to his face that if people like him were to keep bringing up this topic then those in power would apparently have no choice but to do it again. Those that don’t deflect or attempt to justify or threaten are senile and barely remember what they committed anyway. All Adi wants is an admission from those responsible that what they did was wrong, for them to understand and (in a way) for him to understand how this happened, and they still refuse to comply. Justice proves elusive for everyone.
There are multiple times where the film gives us a look at Adi’s family; his children who are either starting to question the world like their father or are too young and innocent deal with such harsh realities right now, his mother who vividly recalls the night her first son came home with his guts spilled out everywhere only to be taken away from her yet again (and this time for good) the next morning, his father who is in the region of 100, his body wasting away whilst he still struggles on every day to keep living. The film also confronts the families of those responsible for the Killings: one supposedly had no clue what their patriarch had done and refuse to grapple with that truth on camera, another proudly tells of the time her father threw a severed head into a Chinese restaurant just to freak those inside out and only seems to recognise exactly what she was proud of when Adi tells her of how her father (and men like her father) would drink the blood of his victims to keep from going insane.
And then there are the acts of killing themselves, too gruesome and horrifying for one to truly picture, although the gleeful descriptions provided by those responsible do a very good job at approximating them. What wasn’t making me physically retreat and curl up inside myself out of pure horror and repulsion was instead causing bits of sick to start forming in my throat. Whilst one could argue that The Look of Silence is somewhat hopeful – due to the fact that people like Adi are standing up and demanding that Indonesia actually question the narrative of what happened and the consequences they wrought – I instead find to be hopelessly bleak. Those interviewed express no remorse, many of which are still in some position of power, many of the relatives of those responsible seem determined to move on from it or straight up ignore it, the fact that the film specifically calls out how America’s attitudes during the Cold War were at the very least partly responsible for what happened yet the country refuses to acknowledge its role, and how at least a quarter of the names in the end credits are simply “Anonymous”, a quietly chilling reminder that the fear of retaliation is still real and that the threats expressed to Adi’s face in the film are not empty.
The Look of Silence is exceptionally difficult, bleak, painful viewing into the darkest, evilest abyss of Man. It is also one of the most important documentaries of the century and essential viewing for everybody, regardless of whether you think you’ll be able to make it to the end. Everybody needs to see this.
Tomorrow, we count down the Top 5.