The cinema calendar is an odd, if predictable, one. It gets off to a slow start, bloats with blockbusters in the middle, and in the final months is overrun with prestige pictures vying for gold. Its climax comes not with fireworks at New Years, but with sequins and satin on the last weekend of February — with the Academy Awards.
The Oscars, as lampooned as any long-standing, self-important institution, are nonetheless the capstone to the year. Usually the ceremony is an inoffensive celebration of mediocrities and masterpieces in equal measure — an aspirational rather than critical event. Many film-lovers revile the Oscars for reducing art to a horse race (bets included), and they have a point. Yet we watch anyway, eager to see who walks away with the little gold man clutching an outsized sword.
Not this year. This was the year that the Oscars themselves, rather than the jockeying between films, rocketed to the heart of the cultural conversation. A second straight year of all-white acting nominees sparked the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, raising a clamour that could not be ignored even in the glitzy surrounds of the Dolby Theatre in the heart of Hollywood. The moment could not have had a more apt Master of Ceremonies than Chris Rock, a prescient hire months before the controversy erupted. Standing before industry royalty in all their finery, Rock did not quite burn the house down, but he had no compunction about calling his audience out:
Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”
Why was 2015 the year the wave broke? Perhaps because the year appears to mark a tipping point in the ongoing debate on diversity and representation. Not just for African Americans, but for women and all people of colour. Pay inequality for female movie stars came under the spotlight following the Sony leak. The inspired Every Word Spoken tumblr series drew attention to a century of invisibility of people of colour in popular film. Vocal campaigns against white-washing in Aloha, Gods of Egypt, Pan and Stonewall gained traction, and even drew apologies from the filmmakers and performers involved. The rage has not been limited to America either; in Australia actors and directors have led the charge against non-representative hiring in film, television and theatre. The paucity of female directors (one in sixteen) and female-led stories (none) in the selection of finalists for the Tropfest Short Film Festival (self-promoted as the world’s largest) was outrageous enough to draw ire even from the judges.
Whether this groundswell presages real change remains to be seen — but the filmmakers and performers who have raised their voices in protest are not going away. This week Jessica Chastain, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Hardwicke and Queen Latifah joined together to help launch a new production company, We Do It Together, designed to open more opportunities for women in filmmaking. The Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission in the United States has opened a probe into Hollywood’s sexist hiring practices. Crucially, 2015 saw diverse films such as Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Furious Seven, alongside female-led Inside Out, Hunger Games: Mockingjay, yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, hit big, exposing the supposed ‘demand’ for white male leads as a chimera. Even the Academy Awards have hastily rewritten their membership rules to make room for more women and people of colour amongst their voting ranks. Whether the result is genuine change, as opposed to a quick fix intended only to outlast the present tempest, is yet to be seen. But signs are promising.
And what of the films themselves? Good stories may bear no relation to industry controversies — great work is just as often the product of personal observations, passions and fears than deliberate social reflexivity. A film like Anomalisa, taking us within the head of a discontent rich white man, is no less successful for avoiding the cultural conversation entirely. Nonetheless, many of the year’s best films maintained a hard political edge, and were all the richer for taking in a wider array of global and personal experiences. 2015 was, in short, a good year for films that were about something.
As a counterpoint to the Oscars handed out in Hollywood on Sunday evening, here is my alternative array of awards for the year, highlighting what I felt was best, most entertaining, and most powerful work in cinema in 2015.
Best Use of End Titles in a Film ‘Based on a True Story’ — Spotlight
The end titles for films ‘based on a true story’ are often an embarrassment — codas that, if they were important, really should have been included in the film proper (See The Imitation Game, which relegates the natural climax of the film, Alan Turing’s suicide by cyanide apple, to a single line of text). Not Spotlight (Dir. Tom McCarthy). After two riveting and methodical hours following a team of intrepid journalists uncover a story of abuse and cover-up in Boston’s Catholic archdiocese, the text gives us the numbers in black and white. 249 Priests and Brothers in Boston alone. Over 1,000 victims. Another card follows: “Major abuse scandals have been uncovered in the following places:”
Then, it lists them.The names of hundreds of cities fill the screen. First in America, then globally. The sheer scope of the abuse delivers a gut-punch that magnifies every struggle we have seen on-screen. Everything we witnessed has happened hundreds of times, in hundreds of places. Instinctively, you search the names, listed alphabetically. Your city is almost certainly on it.
The trauma is real and ongoing. For Australians, one cannot ignore the name ‘Ballarat’ on the all-too-fleeting list. At the same moment that Spotlight‘s cast and crew walked on-stage to receive their Best Picture Oscar, half a world away Cardinal Pell, Australia’s former top-ranking Catholic (now a leading figure in the Vatican) was being grilled by the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse over the multitude of abuses that occurred under his watch. “It was a sad story and not of much interest to me,” the Cardinal confessed, and for once you could be certain he was telling the truth. Spotlight is a reminder of the importance of looking closer, and the culpability we bear for looking away.
Best (Morally Problematic) Dance Sequence — Ex Machina
Ex Machina (Dir. Alex Garland) has a lot going for it. It is beautifully written, small-scale and socially aware science fiction that is not afraid to make the objectification and subjugation of women not only its subtext, but outright text. It also has the benefit of boasting extraordinary performances by not one, not two, but three of the year’s most ubiquitous actors — Oscar Isaac (Star Wars, A Most Violent Year, TV’s Show Me a Hero), Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars again, Brooklyn, The Revenant) and newly-Oscar-approved Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl). But inevitably any conversation on Ex Machina will turn to ‘the dance scene’.
The classic disco moves and recklessness energy (not to mention Oscar Isaac’s plunging neckline) are a delight in a film that otherwise revels in coiled tension — but even this apparent burst of levity does not abrogate the ickiness or moral complexity of the situation. By launching into his dance routine, Isaac’s tech genius Nathan is taking full, entitled enjoyment of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a woman of his own creation. Gleeson’s Caleb watches in horror, but is he much better? His objections are impotent, just as his attempts to stop Kyoko undressing were. He does not act — he watches, even as ferments a new narrative with himself as saviour. His good intentions blind him to the desires that underpin his own actions. Nathan may be a monster, but he knows what he wants, and he knows how to have fun. A bitter taste from the scene lingers with us as the film goes on — we may have been repelled, but we know that we enjoyed the dance too.
Most Incendiary On-Screen Chemistry — Carol
Some people find Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes) slow, dull and passionless. I think those people are mad. Hayne’s 1950s-set same-sex romance may be quiet and subdued throughout, but the sparks between its leading ladies are not. The interactions between the ostentatious, assured Carol (Cate Blanchett) and demur, reserved Therese (Rooney Mara) pulse with tension from the very first glance, shared over the counter of a department store (Santa hat included). With every succeeding scene the energy mounts, through every lingering stare and glancing touch. I almost expected the film stock (16mm and gorgeous, courtesy of cinematographer Edward Lachman) to burn.
Even the relationship’s consummation at the mid-way point does nothing to abate the tension. It is not just sex, after all, that hangs in the air as Carol and Therese circle one another. It is a second question – is this relationship even possible? We know, surely, that it cannot last, but we wait for the hammer to fall; for one of the women to recant and retreat, to deny a part of herself (that’s how these period pieces go, isn’t it?). Yet the film refuses to follow that well-worn path. Even when circumstances force them apart, Carol refuses to deny herself to appease her bewildered ex-husband, and Therese flirts with another woman at a party. The two are brought together for that incendiary final shot, only the camera between them — Carol’s passion trapped in a single glance, looking right at us.
Best Ensemble Capable of Powering a Dozen-Film Franchise — Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dir. J.J. Abrams) has its problems, enumerated by filmgoers who nonetheless have not been able to resist watching it two, three, four (or many more) times. It holds together because, whatever Abrams’ deficiencies as a storyteller, he has an unfailing eye for cast and character. In a film that saw the return of beloved icons like Han Solo, Chewie, Leia and (all of five seconds of) Luke Skywalker, it was the new cast that stole the show. In fact, there were at least five new characters introduced who were amongst the most compelling figures on-screen this year: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.
The cast feel both at home in this galaxy of kooky religions and blasters, and very much modern. A universe once incapable of featuring more than one woman at a time now has a lightsaber-wielding female protagonist in the indomitable Rey (Daisy Ridley), alongside female Generals, stormtroopers, fighter-pilots and Yoda substitutes. Her co-lead is former Stormtrooper and forever charming Finn (John Boyega). Neither is a young white man — an observation that I wish was not so rare and impressive. That spot is instead filled by their nemesis, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver at his idiosyncratic best), whose evil stems from very human insecurities; those of a privileged and entitled fanboy cursed with too much power and seething with unearned resentment. BB8 meanwhile rolls away with ‘laugh of the year’ for his lighter thumbs-up. I want more adventures with these characters.
The doors seemingly open, fans are pushing for even more diversity. For a ‘Chemistry of the Year’ runner-up, I am loathe to forget Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac again) and the lip bite that spawned a thousand pieces of fan fiction, daring us to imagine LGBTQI characters in the galaxy far, far away.
Best ‘Swear you didn’t fake it?’ Single Take — Creed
Creed (Dir. Ryan Coogler) — or, as Chris Rock puts it, “Black Rocky” — was one of the year’s crowd-pleasing triumphs, and nowhere is the assured direction of Coogler and relentless performance of Michael B Jordan more evident than the celebrated ‘oner’ of Adonis Creed’s first fight. The staggering single take runs the length of the entire fight, from the glove touch through to KO. It is harrowing, awe-inspiring, triumphant: a pure shot of adrenaline that never loses a sense of its story, or the inexperienced but driven young man at its centre.
At no moment could it conceivably not be Michael B Jordan throwing and taking those hits, and this scene sells the physicality and athleticism of boxing better than any film before it. Better yet, it sells the psychology of a fighter, isolating Adonis in the ring with his terrifying opponent. His mentor and supporters are relegated to background noise until the brief moment of respite when the bell sounds, until they too are ushered off-stage for the main show. The adroit steadicam work (courtesy of cinematographer Maryse Alberti and operator Ben Semanoff) keeps us continually within the ring, within Adonis’ space, and the tension will not abate until someone goes down. Too often of late I have found impressive ‘oners’ seem to exist for their own sake, the virtuosity overshadowing the story (see: Victoria, Birdman). Not in Creed, a film that imbues an old story with character, wit and pathos.
Best Use of Widescreen Composition — It Follows
The horror in It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell) is unique. It springs from the things that our cinematic vocabulary has taught us to largely disregard — the extras and minutiae in the background. No film since Michael Haneke’s Cache has framed its shots so effectively to create lingering, hard-to-dispel unease. The monster can take the form of a human — any human — to get close to its prey. ‘It’ is always moving towards its target at a walking speed. Only its prey (passed the curse by unprotected sex, as though it were the world’s most malignant STD) can see ‘It’. And the audience.
It Follows features precious few jump scares or other genre stalwarts. Instead, the filmmakers set up long, wide shots, either stationary or drifting on steadicam, which tempt us to observe the vast backgrounds. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis shoots 2:35:1 on wide angle lenses, expanding our field of vision as our eyes seek out the lingering and relentless threat moving slowly, ever so slowly, toward us. Our helplessness as an audience has rarely been more acute. We cannot will the characters to see what we can see, as the threat moves closer and closer to frame. Nor can we even control where the camera looks — the shots stubbornly refuse to focus on or press in on the monster, and sometimes pan away with the characters, even as we know ‘It’ is still coming, just out of sight. After the film ends, the dread lingers.
Best Scene — Donut Time, Tangerine
Tangerine (Dir. Sean Baker), for most of its runtime, is constantly moving. None of the characters are ever in one place for long; dialogue is given on the run, camera in pursuit, as its cast of transgender prostitutes, taxi drivers, pimps and ‘fish’ stride and search through the sun-washed, run-down streets of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. That is, until all the disparate characters converge at Donut Time, under the weary eye of the unimpressed manager, perennially threatening to call the cops as things get well out of hand.
Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) arrives, with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and ‘fish’ prostitute Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) in tow, at last tracking down her unfaithful fiancé and pimp Chester (James Ransome), somewhat less fearsome than expected. Taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) blows off his family dinner to follow, hoping for a moment alone with Sin-Dee, and unaware that his suspicious mother-in-law is on his tail. And a film that until now has been all propulsion traps itself within four walls, and in a matter of minutes boils over.
The characters bound off one another at full speed, lobbing insults and accusations even as they remain blinded by misunderstandings and miscommunication. It gets louder and louder, and funnier and funnier, as more characters are added to the mix, and more revelations drop. Tangerine’s eclectic cast of outsiders may be inspired comic creations, but they are rich in pathos too; rich enough that a single line can plunge them from triumph to tragedy. The reveal of Razmik’s love for Sin-Dee and Chester’s dismissal of Dinah are devastating, but fleeting; for the others, it is merely more ammunition. A shame it ever has to end. Only one revelation is enough to bring everything to a grinding halt: the betrayal of a best friend. With that, Sin-Dee is propelled back into the streets, and we are on the move again.
Best Film Likely to Inspire Review of Your Psychological Make-up – Inside Out / Anomalisa (TIE)
Strange as it may be to put a Pixar film and an Charlie Kaufmann joint side-by-side, Inside Out (Dir. Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen) and Anomalisa (Dir. Kaufman and Duke Johnson) both take place largely within the mind of a single person, with the stakes being simply their happiness. Both films, at their cores, are a confrontation with that most difficult of emotions: sadness. In Anomalisa, the alienation felt by the outwardly-respectable Michael Stone is the more painful because it is entirely inexplicable — it is a wave that Michael cannot fight nor control, and even the brief joy he finds in the company of Lisa is soon snuffed out. Inside Out instead puts us square in the driver’s seat; the emotions guiding our actions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) each have purpose and worth, and the film implicitly asks us not to mask or shun our feelings, but acknowledge they are each essential to making us healthy and whole.
Inside Out is a hopeful film. Riley’s struggles are no less extraordinary for being ordinary. We change, and it is important that we change. Old friends, real and imagined, may be lost or forgotten (if you can hold in tears at Bing Bong’s sacrifice, you are made of sterner stuff and than I), but growth is inescapable, and essential. Anomalisa rather dwells on the fear that we cannot change — that we are trapped in our personal prisons, doomed to repeat the same patterns. Michael cannot shake the sense that he lives in a false world, a world in which he is the only human surrounded by automatons and zombies. We leave him trapped within his own head, just as we leave Riley liberated by her own.
Both films moved me to tears, and pushed me to question my experience of the world. There is little more you can ask of a work of art. Yet the two do not seem compatible, except as funhouse mirror versions of one another. Seeing the world solely through one set of eyes in Inside Out feels like an expansion of our universe: it encourages us to see every person in the world as emotionally rich and complex as Riley, increasing our points commonality and connection. Anomalisa instead strands us with a protagonist who is an island. Were we all to experience the world as he does, we would all be alone, groping for that connection in the darkness. I wish Michael Stone could watch Inside Out. I wonder if it would help him. Or, at least, I wonder what the emotions in his control room would say.
Revelation of the Year — Mad Max: Fury Road
No film in 2015 was as awe-inspiring or exhilarating as Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller). It is an all-time great action film, without question. It is a visual marvel too, almost without peer. There is a ‘Doof Warrior’ wielding a flame-throwing guitar, cars ramming and burning and crashing, pole fighters and explosions galore. But its triumph is in welding these aesthetic virtues to a simple story that is perfectly aimed at the world we live in, despite taking place a whole apocalypse away.
A single question lingers over Fury Road, painted in bold graffiti: “Who Killed the World?” It is never explicitly answered, because it does not need to be. Miller’s post-apocalyptic future is a nightmarish fever dream of our world: of capitalism and authoritarianism run amok, of an environment ravaged beyond repair, of a scramble for limited resources, of the masses enslavement to a ruling clique of old men who cling to life and power, of young men driven by promises of pleasure and paradise to fight against their own interests, of women reduced to chattel. It is as if a Margaret Atwood novel were cast in chrome. Even the eponymous Max (once the toxic Mel Gibson, now Tom Hardy), paragon of masculine cool, is reduced to fuel himself.
Into that breach drives Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, steering her stolen war-rig. Furiosa is in every way the classical hero: she is the general-turned-rebel, the rescuer of imprisoned princesses, the liberator of a people. She upstages Max in the film that bears his name. And Max, man of few words, does not begrudge her that. He gives up his rifle so she can take the shot in the darkness he cannot. When the adventure is over, he fades back into the Wasteland, leaving Furiosa to lead the people into a new era.
It sounds like a fable. Perhaps it is. The story’s simplicity is a blessing, forgoing plot machinations in favour of action, and character, and character-revealing-action. The Brides, colourfully named Toast the Knowing, Dag, Capable, Cheedo the Fragile and The Splendid Angharad are complete people, not only prizes (“We Are Not Things”). The same goes for Nux, an brainwashed war-boy converted by kindness into heroism. At their head is Furiosa: bald and one-armed, endlessly capable, nursing an improbably hope for the future (“the green space”) that our guts (and hers too) know is sure to be dashed. On discovering that there is nothing but wasteland left, they do not give up. They go back, to free those left behind. They are heroes, in a world sorely lacking in them.
There is not a film like it. If 2016 offers up anything half as good, it too will be a year to remember.