DANIEL STILLINGS TOP TEN FILMS OF 2015
Not a definitive list as I didn’t see everything that I really should have this year, but there was some great stuff nonetheless. As last year, no documentaries, but if you haven’t seen Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story Of Cannon Films, you really need to…it’s essential viewing. Now I’m thinking that Crimson Peak should have been in there somewhere.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Dir: Peter Strickland
If Berbarian Sound Studio (2011) was director Peter Strickland’s homage to seventies Giallo movies, this is his take on the lesbian themed European horror films of Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin, a connection made clear by the casting of frequent Franco collaborator Monica Swinn. Chiara D’Anna (star of Berbarian Sound Studio) plays a young woman who every day cycles over to the house of an older woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who she cleans for. She makes frequent mistakes and is punished in a series of bizarre scenarios which she seems to accept willingly, but as time passes we begin to realise the the relationship is not what it at first appears to be. Strickland’s film gets at the subtle undertones and power plays in a BDSM relationship that E.L. James didn’t even get close to. There are no men in the film at all, the tone is almost hypnotic and on top of all that it’s funny. The scene near the end where Knudsen finally finally crumbles and makes clear her feelings on the couple’s relationship is the finest acting of the year. Knuden, still best known for her role in the acclaimed Danish political drama Borgen is deserving of an Oscar nomination for this, though I’m guessing the chances of that are extremely thin. It’s a brilliant film, and the score by Cat’s Eyes is terrific too.
Dir:David Robert Mitchell
Girl meets boy, girl gets it on with boy in the back of a car, and then girl gets chloroformed and wakes up to be told that boy has passed a curse onto her, and that from now on something or someone will follow her intent on killing her, she won’t know who, where it will be or when…but it is coming, and the only way to avoid being killed is to pass the curse on by having sex with somebody else. This is really an extension of Mitchell’s fantastic début feature The Myth Of The American Sleepover (2010) into the horror genre. The idea of a transferable curse reminds you of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night Of The Demon (1957), but many people missed the point with this one. Passing the curse onto someone is no guarantee of safety because It – whatever It is – will still come for you if It kills the person you passed it on to. It’s an entity that is constantly working its way back down the list of people that have over time been cursed. Encouraging promiscuity in everyone in order to move the curse further away from you seems to be the best solution, meaning that this could be the most subversive teen horror film since Cherry Falls (1999).
Dir: Dennis Villeneuve
Villeneuve released two films this year. The first was the underrated doppelgänger drama Enemy (2013) with Jake Gyllenhaal, something that was more identifiable as a horror piece, but it was Sicario that was scarier…maybe the most terrifying film of the year. Emily Blunt is the FBI agent recruited / talked into volunteering for a CIA special forces operation against the drug cartels along the Mexican border, but the deeper into the situation she gets, the less clear the motivations of those around her become. While there are sudden bursts of violent action and several horrific set pieces, it’s the grinding menace that seeps into every frame of the film that makes this so powerful, and it doesn’t wimp out at the end. Villeneuve has since been announced as the director of the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel.
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of the best director currently working, and though not a horror film maker, the horror is never far away in his films. Boogie Nights (1997), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and especially There Will Be Blood (2007) all intersect with the genre in some way and this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is no different. Set at a time in the early seventies when the sixties dream of peace and love had clearly and irreversibly soured, Joaquin Phoenix’s plays a private investigator at the mercy of forces neither he nor we really understand, and a plot which is almost incomprehensible, all the while trying to figure out how his ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is involved. There are references to great seventies LA movies such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) & Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), and the fact that this film can stand those comparisons is an indication as to how good it is.
Dir: Alex garland
Having already scripted several strong genre films including 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012), Alex Garland made his directorial début with this visually stunning film about the nature of artificial intelligence. Domhnall Gleeson is the computer programmer charged with administering the Turing test to a human looking robot called Ava (Alicia Vikanda). Oscar Isaac who plays the Machiavellian genius who created Ava gives strong support, but it’s Vikanda who dominates pretty much everything, and with just her face. You’ve got to go back thirty years to Android (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) to find a film that makes you think as hard about what it means to be human as this film does.
ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS
Dir: Graham Kelly Greene
This is a bit of a rescue from obscurity. Attack Of The Bat Monsters was first screened at the Austin Film Festival in 1999 and then went on to win Grand Jury award at the 2000 Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. Despite further screenings in the years since and almost universally positive word of mouth, the film never really gained the audience it deserved, but that looks set to change as the film is finally made available for streaming. It has been compared to movies like Larry Blamire’s The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra (2001), but Greene’s film – about a group of low budget film-makers in the fifties trying to get a creature feature finished in three days before a bullying crew from a major studio comes in and takes over the location – actually has more in common with Wim Wenders’s The State Of Things (1982) and especially Joe Dante & Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976). It’s a cult movie in the best sense: it’s well made with strong acting and a witty script full of references and in jokes to films past. If you grew up watching fifties monster movies on TV, you’re going to love this.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Dir: George Miller
After thirty years – and several dancing penguin movies – Australian director George Miller finally returned to the franchise that he made his name with. It could have gone so wrong, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for a level of bonkers vehicular mayhem that made Mad Max 2 (1981) seem restrained, action that at times threatens to burst off the screen. The only flaw was the fact the film seems confused as to who the real Mad Max is. Though Tom Hardy ostensibly plays Max Rockatansky, it was Charlize Theron who actually seemed to be the embodiment of the famous lead character. It’s really her film.
LANDMINE GOES CLICK
Dir: Levan Bakhia
The plot is simple: Three friends are on a camping trip in the Georgian countryside and one of them accidentally steps on an old landmine which will explode if he steps off it. Anyone who saw Levan Bakhia’s previous film, the underrated 247°F (2011) knows that he’s pretty skilled at milking a minimal scenario for maximum effect, and that’s what he does here, using the victim’s helplessness to torture the viewer as bad things happen. It’s a strong, efficient thriller, but it’s the last half hour that pushes the story beyond what we have been led to expect, and takes the audience near to the limit of that they can take.
Dir: Damián Szifron
This Argentinian anthology begins with a brilliant pre-credits sequence in which the passenger on a plane begin to realise that they are all in some way connected, and that pretty much sets the tone for series of blackly comic tales of revenge that follow. These include a road-rage incident that turns deadly, a man’s attempts to get even with the city after his car is towed and a wedding party that descends into into mayhem. The only familiar face is Ricardo Darín, star of the Oscar winning The Secret In Their Eyes (2009) which you really need to see before the American remake comes out next year.
Dir: Jordan Rubin
This was really more fun than it had any right to be. Some college kids decide to go and stay in a cabin by the lake, a lake full of beavers that have been exposed to toxic chemicals that have turned them into unkillable flesh-eating monsters with glowing eyes. After Sharknado (2013), its equally witless sequels and the assorted films in a similar vein that followed, films that treated their target audience with the level of sneering disdain the film-makers thought they deserve, Zombeavers was a relief. More in the tradition of older films like Critters (1986) and more obviously Piranha (1978), it’s gruesome and funny, and it had characters you cared about.
BEST OLD DISCOVERY
Dir: David Michael Hillman*
A group of people go down into an old goldmine which was abandoned years earlier after several unexplained deaths. As they go deeper, their guide tells them of the bizarre fate that befell the miners who worked on the lowest levels of the mine, and eventually they come face to face with the tentacled creature responsible. This low budget creature feature was made for practically nothing back in the late seventies. It’s has a great stop-motion monster (it reminded me of the one filmed for but eventually cut from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)) and makes good use of the real abandoned mine it was filmed in…except that it wasn’t filmed on an actual location. Almost all the scenes in the mine were filmed in a garage owned by the director’s grandparents, and dressed to look like a series of caves. It was this revelation in Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare USA that really increases your admiration for what Hillman and his two colleagues – Mark Sawicki & Chris Huntley – achieved will almost no resources. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a great deal of fun, and considerably better than Ciro Ippolito’s Alien Terror (1980) made at around the same time, and which I also saw for the first time this year.
* Since making the film, Hillman transitioned into a woman, Melanie Anne Philips, founder of the world’s first transgender support site, and it’s under this name that she provides the audio commentary for Code Red’s limited release of The Strangeness a few years ago.
Arrow’s special edition Blu-ray of Videodrome was the release of the year. Not only did you get a brilliant array of extras including Cronenberg’s early short films and features, but it was also the first proper release of the original director’s cut which – apart from a rare laserdisc release in 1999 – has been unavailable in the UK for three decades. Arrow also scored with the Black Cat double bill of which Sergio Martino’s You’re Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key with Edwige Fenech was the reason for buying it. Also the restored Blood And Black Lace, Coffy, Society and many more. It was pretty Arrows year, but Eureka’s new edition of Seconds was certainly up there as well.