FILMS I MOST ENJOYED IN 2015 by Richard Jones

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MOST film reviewers come up with a Top Ten list at the end of a busy year’s watching and writing. Maybe just a scant Top Five as Margaret and David used to compile on At The Movies.

For me, I go for a Top Twelve. Not a baker’s dozen, but an even figure.

Some of the movies I most enjoyed this year would certainly rate as ‘arthouse’ but there always seems to be a handful of films which most folk would classify as multiplex offerings.

So here goes for this year:

1/. Leviathan: what on earth you might ask?

Well, it’s a Russian film with English sub-titles but one which captures most efficiently (and poignantly) the almighty level of corruption which lurks everywhere in Putin’s nation.

Set in a smallish Baltic town where a fish canning works is the major employer, the town’s pudgy mayor Vadim runs everything.

And I mean everything: the town council, naturally, but also the local police where the senior officer is a woman, the planning department, the equivalent of an Aussie main roads department and naturally enough his own group of minders cum enforcers – the whole shebang.

Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has his sights set on acquiring townsman Kolya‘s lovely little hillside property overlooking the town’s harbour, and because he is who he is Vadim looks certain to send the bulldozers in anytime soon.

Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a hot-headed mechanic and it seems he’ll be no match for the crooked Vadim. This was riveting viewing.

2/. Woman In Gold: although she’s a trifle young to be playing the octogenarian German Jewish woman whose Gustav Klimt masterpiece was hoisted by the Gestapo from the walls of the lavish Berlin family apartment, Helen Mirren is otherwise excellent as the committed Maria Altman.

Also fine in his role as a US attorney is Ryan Reynolds whose courtroom role is crucial in trying to restore the famous portrait to the family.

Reluctant as they are to see their major artwork disappear from the walls of Vienna’s iconic Austrian State Gallery the Viennese bureaucrats fight tooth and nail to retain the Woman In Gold portrait. In real life the subject of Klimt’s early 1900s portrait was Maria’s aunty.

3/. Still Alice: a deserved 2015 Oscar to Julianne Moore for Best Actress in this corker. Dr Alice Howland is a university professor who lectures in linguistics.

She finds she’s becoming unable to recall the next line in her lectures as she tries to plod on in front of her student classes. Alice discovers she’s suffering from early-onset Alzheimers disease which, in her family, is hereditary.

Alice writes up words on her kitchen board and a few moments later comes back to try and re-say them, after setting a timer. It’s terribly sad.

Apart from Moore the best performance to my mind comes from Kristen Stewart, who plays the youngest of Alice’s three children: Lydia.

4/. Selma: David Oyelowo is outstanding as Martin Luther King in this biopic about the charismatic black American rights leader.

It’s 1965 and King is organizing his followers – many of them white Americans bussed in from the northern states – to march to Alabama state capital Montgomery and exercise their recently granted equal voting rights.

Carmen Ejogo plays King’s wife, the harried and betrayed Coretta Scott King. Betrayed, because Martin Luther King is a serial philanderer.

Also worth a mention in supporting roles are Tim Roth as Alabama state Governor, George C Wallace, and the ever-present Tom Wilkinson as US president Lyndon Baines Johnson.

5/. Bridge Of Spies: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are at it again, this time in the drama set in the early Sixties around swapping downed U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers for a Soviet agent.

Hanks plays Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan who had managed to save convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Roylance) from the gas chamber.

What the CIA wants is for Abel to be swapped for Powers on a bridge in East Berlin. But Donovan has an extra complication.

He’s been dealing with an East German legal counterpart and has every intention in making the deal a 2-for-1 swap. Donovan has been secretly negotiating to have jailed American student Frederic Pryor included in the deal.

Who’ll be there on the floodlit bridge when the swap eventually takes place? 

6/. The Audience: Helen Mirren, again.

She plays Queen Elizabeth II, right from the early Fifties, when she dealt with the ageing Winston Churchill, played by Edward Fox.

It’s a stage play captured on film in the theatre before a live audience as Mirren travels right through almost seven decades of dealing with the UK Prime Ministers of the day. And that’s right up to, and including, David Cameron.

Clearly she likes some: others, she probably detests, including Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne).

A surprise liking seems to be for the Labour Party’s Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe). Maybe it was his earthiness, but whatever the reason she doesn’t share the same feelings for Tory leader John Major (Paul Ritter).

He outlines not just his Government’s failings but also his own personal character flaws as an exasperated monarch just manages to hear him out.

My favourite lines are delivered down the years by a Palace flunkey who informs the PMs, nervously waiting in an ante-room: “Her Majesty will see you now.” 

7/. Testament Of Youth: based on the best-selling World War 1 memoir by Vera Brittain this looks at the idyllic 1914 summer just before the conflict envelops Europe and then Vera’s wartime work as a nurse.

She’s had to delay her degree studies at Oxford (she’s determined to become a writer) and heads off to a French battlefield medical station after watching her lover, brother and their childhood friends head off to fight.

Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington are delightful in the leading roles as the star-crossed lovers with Dominic West and Emily Watson fine as Vera’s prosperous, middle class parents.

Mr Brittain owned paper mills in England so the family never struggled for money or possessions yet the turbulence of the times in the early 20th century eventually overwhelmed everyone.

8/. Love & Mercy: the story of Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys.

I grew up with Surfin’ USA, Help Me Rhonda and I Get Around – and personal favourite, Good Vibrations – but apart from having a vague recollection that Brian struggled with his personal demons, that was it.

Paul Dano as the younger Brian and John Cusack, Brian in the 1980s, depict Wilson’s decline into daily medication and isolation.

It’s only after he meets Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that Wilson finally manages to shake off the hold his legal guardian and shonky psychologist Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) has over him.

Landy is the second older male who manipulated Brian. His tyrannical father Murry had caused deafness in one ear, the result of regular blows to the head.

9/. American Sniper: Bradley Cooper is the Hollywood flavour of the month, make that the year, and he’s pretty good as expert Navy SEAL marksman, Chris Kyle.

He logged a confirmed 150 kills during service on four tours of Iraq, undertaking the first not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001.
Kyle isn’t always perched high up on a vantage point in Fallujah, scoping the world below through rifle sights.

He is also engaged in door-to-door searches for hidden enemies and ends up with a personal rooftop duel from 1000 yards out with the top Arab sniper. Still, that doesn’t come until close to the end.

In the meantime, despite technological advances with instant call phones, Kyle’s wife Taya (Siena Miller) has to cope with all the stresses at home.    

Another excellent directorial effort from prolific octogenarian Clint Eastwood.

10/. Iris: a biopic, this time starring real-life Iris Apfel. She’s an amazing 93-year-old New York fashion maven who, with hubby Carl, helped in the re-design and refurbishing of the White House for no fewer than eight Presidents.

Right back to the Harry Truman years in the late 1940s. And she’s been a lifelong collector of jewellery, clothes, fabrics, artwork and even toys. So much so Iris has a Brooklyn warehouse full of her stuff as her townhouses in Manhattan and Miami are chockers.

In real life Iris outlived documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles. He passed away following the film’s release earlier this year at the comparatively young age of 88 and not long after a big unveiling of Iris’ work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

11/. Unbroken: directed by Angelina Jolie, this is the true story of 1936 Olympic middle distance athlete Louis Zamperini who was captured by the Japanese in 1943.

He and two fellow US airmen spent 45 days adrift in the Pacific on rafts after their aircraft failed. Louie and just one other survivor were eventually found by the Japanese Navy and transported back to Tokyo as prisoners of war.

Jolie knew Louie and felt it was her duty to bring his resilience, pluck and outright courage to wider view as he’d been tortured and brutalised during his entire period of captivity.

Finally Louie (Jack O’Connell) and fellow Allied prisoners saw the American Liberator bombers flying overhead. It was late July/early August 1945.

Zamperini lived until July 2014 and died aged (a remarkable) 97.

12/. The Homesman: Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank star in this recreation of 1850s frontier America.

Swank is a sizeable landholder in the Nebraska territory who decides it’s her Christian duty to escort three women from neighbouring farms to a church institution in Iowa. All three women suffer from mental instabilities.

To undertake this epic trek she needs a ‘homesman’ – someone who could survive in the bush with just the bare necessities.

And would be able to cope with potentially dangerous bands of marauding native Americans when the travelling party is all on their own out on the vast Midwest plains. Jones’ character fills the bill admirably.

Best family fare: Inside Out, Paddington and Two By Two.

Inside Out captured the emotions all of us feel, not just children: fear, sadness, jealousy, anger, joy and so on.

The computer-animated flick has these emotions leading Riley through life as she tries to adjust to new surroundings in San Francisco.

I just loved Amy Poehler voicing Joy and Bill Hader providing the voice for the skinny, feverish Fear who’s a completely purple character. 

Ben Whishaw (the latest Q in Bond movies) has the perfect voice for Paddington Bear, abandoned on the London station which gives him his name.

I thought Nicole Kidman as the taxidermist intent on capturing Paddington in order to stuff him might frighten our contingent but they coped magnificently – even the six-year-old who did cover her eyes with her hands from time to time.

And they all loved the computer-animated Two By Two as Noah’s Ark sets off sailing (where to, we’re not actually told) with a huge lion in control at the wheel and two of each species of animal safely aboard.

I especially loved the chimpanzee who played an oh-so-perfect English butler going from cabin to cabin with his tray and serviette balanced on one forearm.

He was a character also beloved by the 10-year-old and the 8-year-old.

 

Biggest disappointment: The Dressmaker.

Most of the characters in this film weren’t characters at all: they were caricatures.

Key in here the shire Mayor, played by Shane Bourne. Not to mention the town’s pharmacist, a hunch-backed Barry Otto.

And I know the Kate Winslet character came back to the little 1950s Wimmera wheatbelt town hell-bent on revenge, but the ending was just farcical. And completely over the top.

Could have been better: Paper Planes. An Aussie flick for primary school-aged children and early teens. About contenders for the longest flight known to man by a paper plane, crafted by contestants at the start line from a single sheet of paper.

Perhaps a tad too predictable when the Aussies get to the world championships in Japan. But the children seemed to be happy with it so that’s what counts. 

 

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