Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With a few feature films already snug tightly under his belt, Denis Villeneuve continues to be one of the most interesting directors working at the moment. Making films which could easily have become mild popcorn fare in a lesser-director’s hands, Villeneuve demands absolute control, with a tight focus on tension and drama, whilst bringing out the best of his actors. Bathed in darkness, the film – exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins – plays less like a procedural action thriller, and more like a slow-burning revenge western. The anti-hero in this case, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), absolutely chews up the screen in every scene he has – a modern-day Lee Van Cleef. Those perhaps looking for a more detailed examination into the cartels and the drug war should probably look elsewhere, because Sicario is more intent on being a work of art: an examination of fear, desperation, revenge and power. Sicario sets itself apart from other stories on the drug cartels with it’s amazing use of silence: there’s nothing more terrifying. Denis Villeneuve is currently set to direct Blade Runner 2, with Roger Deakins as director of photography. A cinephile’s wet dream.
Directed by Marielle Heller
Self-absorbed, stubborn and terribly insecure: weren’t we all like this as teenagers? Minnie, Diary‘s protagonist, is all of these things to an almost excruciating level, and for almost two hours, I saw a part of myself that I’m so terrifyingly glad to have now grown out of. Diary, first and foremost, doesn’t hold back any punches. It doesn’t try to make you love the characters with forced sentimentality or catharsis, or sugarcoat any of the situations Minnie experiences: she makes mistakes, she hurts people and she faces the consequences. The performances in the film are outstanding, with each actor superbly channeling their own methods of self-destruction (seriously though, Kristen Wiig is on a roll right now). Ultimately, it’s a relatively breezy film with quite a thin plot, but it’s made with a raw, truthful honesty, as painful as that truth sometimes may be to watch.
Directed by Crystal Moselle
Almost certain to find a residual place in film culture history, The Wolfpack examines the result of a life lived indoors, with the only window out being that of a movie screen. A twisted Plato’s cave of sorts, we see the unsettling effects of a sheltered world, with the escapism of cinema taken quite literally. As a directorial effort, the sound design works well to emphasise the discordant nature of the subjects’ situation, but to a degree, I feel as though we’re always kept distanced from the family of subjects, as opposed to understanding them a bit more by the end, thus our characters still remain portrayed as not much more than “subjects”, like a special feature on The Discovery Channel. The Wolfpack ultimately has a devastatingly interesting story to tell, but to maintain an air of mystery and voyeurism, we’re forced to stay stagnant, trapped inside the first act.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Clouds of Sils Maria feels like a film that rewards multiple viewings. It constantly feels like it’s a few steps ahead of you, which may irritate depending on who you are, but for those who enjoy a bit of mental gymnastics, Clouds should prove a satisfying, Bergman-esque experience, if not becoming a bit too self-reflexive and insular on occasion. A voyeuristic look into the process of fading stardom within the film industry and the struggle to stay relevant within a system that thrives less on artistic skill as a commodity, but rather current trends and the celebrity zeitgeist. The lead performances are mesmerising, and rightfully so, as the pain their characters feel becomes more and more apparent as they slowly come to terms with how little control they ultimately have in deciding their fate.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
The much-loved Sundance smash of the year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is the bittersweet coming-of-age film full of pop-culture references and witty, insecure teenagers that everybody’s talking about. Adapted from the novel of the same name, Earl features a few minor differences in narrative from it’s written counterpart, that might – depending on who you are – alter your perspective about the lead character, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann). The film version is perhaps more emotionally solipsistic than the book, as we dive into the subjective imagination of “Greg-the-filmmaker”, replacing verbal and internal reflection with pastiche-heavy scenes, Sergio Leone soundtracks and Wes Anderson camera movements aplomb. I encountered moments in the film where I would find myself both enjoying and disliking it at equal measures – part of me enjoyed the playfulness of it’s style, but other times I found it on the level of “irritatingly quirky”. Part of me was hugely turned off by how narcissistic and lazy the protagonist character was, but the other part of me saw a validated truth in the character: people like Greg Gaines really do exist, and to my very real frustration, they might never have their third-act change-of-heart, like we hope Greg has by the film’s conclusion. I’m probably getting off-track here – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is still an intriguing, melancholy experience, which is still grounded in real emotions, by a great cast and a beautiful soundtrack by Brian Eno. Who knows, it’s the kind of film that could help people.
Directed by F. Gary Gray
I feel like no other film this year surprised me more than Straight Outta Compton. The film manages to transcend the standard cliches of musical biopics to deliver a standalone cinematic experience. Straight Outta Compton manages to be more than just a retelling of NWA’s story, but also a compelling narrative on police brutality and racial politics in the US, which is sadly just as relevant as ever. Every scene felt dramatically authentic, and was shot to perfection by Matthew Libatique. The film carries a constant energy throughout, capturing the intensity of actually seeing them perform live. If this is the new standard for music biopics, I couldn’t be more excited.
Directed by Judd Apatow
In Trainwreck, Judd Apatow once again lets his actors do what they do best, and Amy Schumer proves just how ready she is to lead a film. The supporting cast is chock-full of comedy heavy-hitters: Mike Birbiglia, Bill Hader, and Colin Quinn to name a few, and from the opening scene, the jokes come in hard, and they come in fast. The film isn’t without it’s dramatic merits though: you could probably take the B-story with the fantastic Brie Larson and her son and see it working as it’s own little independent drama. Sometimes these two opposite extremes creates a conflict in tone, but nevertheless, the film is hugely entertaining, and it’s always exciting to see what Apatow and co. are doing with comedy in cinema, something they do so damn well.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favourite filmmakers. Somehow, he manages to consistently craft films that portray both life and death in such a gentle, humanist way. His films tend to feel more like dreams – never rushing the viewer through scenes, but letting small, intangible moments wash over you, quietly and patiently. His newest film, Our Little Sister, is his first adaptation, based on the manga series, “Umimachi Diary”, which is perfect source material for Koreeda’s meditative style and penchant towards family relationships. While the narrative isn’t quite as strong as his other films, it still has wonderful, heartbreaking performances and exudes that same grace and lullaby-like pacing that permeates through his filmography. It makes me miss Japan.
Directed by James Ponsoldt
It’s difficult for me to talk about this film without being overly sentimental. I’m not even totally sure why I feel so sentimental about it and how it moved me. Was I already predisposed to loving this film due to the people who were involved? Probably. Because of it’s unconventional structure, themes and subject matter? Most likely. But I guess it’s maybe because it met all of my expectations and delivered above and beyond that I can’t help but gush. The film was utterly refreshing on all levels, with tour-de-force performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, beautiful dialogue and wonderfully subtle direction. The last scene in David Foster Wallace’s house is my favourite scene of the year so far. It makes me overjoyed to see a film released in 2015 to be so simple, yet explore pain, loneliness and ego on such a complex level. I’m glad these kinds of films are still being made. I wish I made it.
Directed by Jafar Panahi
So for those who don’t know, five years ago Iranian director Jafar Panahi was banned by the Iranian government from making films for the next 20 years, also prohibiting him from leaving the country. That’s a disturbing reality, which makes this third “not-a-film” Panahi has made since the ban both a compelling experience, and also a massive success in the case for freedom of expression. Under these rules placed down on Panahi by law, he’s exerted extreme creativity in circumventing around these restrictions, blending fiction and reality together to provide a humanist and soulful ride around present-day Tehran, examining the living conditions, social politics and difficulties the Iranian people are experiencing during the day-to-day. To make a film is difficult enough already, but to make a film this good and still being able to legally call it not a film is something else entirely.