Friday, 4 March 2016

The Best of 2015 - at Borderlines 2016

Every year, around about Academy Awards time, Borderlines Film Festival offers film-goers across Herefordshire and Shropshire the opportunity to catch up with the best movies of the past six months. Personally, I am looking forward to The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015).

45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh, 2015) is, in my opinion, the best British film this century (middle class category). We join Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) one week before their 45th wedding anniversary. They’re planning a big celebration. An odd interval but Geoff was ill when their 40th came round. News regarding an episode from Geoff’s life, before he knew Kate, arrives in the post. We follow the couple, day by day, as its meaning seeps into their relationship. I couldn’t stop thinking about these characters and their story for days. They behave as they would. Everything that’s in the script or on the screen has a purpose. It is a very smart movie.

 There were two bitterly funny, and enjoyable, comedies about a-woman-with-cancer last year. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) was one; Miss You Already (Dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2015) was the other. [Fans of quirky closing credits should note that, like The Independent (2000) – an honest little comedy starring Jerry Stiller as a hack director who receives a retrospective from an over-earnest film festival – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl includes a lengthy and imaginary filmography. Jerry Stiller was George Costanza’s father in Seinfeld and is Ben Stiller’s father in real life.]

Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette) are life-long best friends. They ticked off their rites of passage together. Now, in middle age, the big moments are much less fun. Jess wants children; Milly has cancer. Morwenna Banks wrote the script with plenty of jokes. Banks has been part of the Absolutely team for 25 years. British films should feature more cameos by Frances de la Tour. Miss You Already is a far ballsier film than the one her husband, David Baddiel, wrote: “The Infidel” (2010), which starred Omid Djalili. In 2014, Djalili put on two gigs at The Courtyard, Hereford to raise money for Hereford United.

Films about cancer have a limited number of outcomes. They can’t all be The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (2015), Julien Temple’s documentary about the unexpected recovery of his friend. And, more than any other genre, they exist in the shadow of one, ground-breaking movie. After Miss You Already I watched Love Story (1970). How has the depiction of cancer in cinema changed over 45 years? Well, it isn’t necessary to leave the diagnosis until the final reel anymore. I enjoyed one hundred minutes in the company of Jenny (Ali MacGraw) and Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal): the visit to his folks – “Holy crap!”, the “verbal volleyball” he never wins, Ray Milland’s patriarch. MacGraw’s character was the exact contemporary of Robert de Niro’s character, Ben, in The Intern (2015): both born in 1945 and bred in The Bronx, New York, New York. So how did Ben get to be so boring? I digress.

After watching Miss Julie (Dir. Liv Ullman, 2015) I watched Miss Julie (1951). In Swedish. There were a few plot details I wanted to pin down. Ullman has taken August Strindberg’s much-adapted play and removed everything that may distract the viewer from the relationships between Kathryn, the cook (Samantha Morton), her fiancé, John, the valet (Colin Farrell) and Miss Julie, the count’s daughter (Jessica Chastain). So there are no flashbacks to the childhood crush John had on Julie and the humiliation it inflicted upon him and we are spared the insights of the other servants. All that remains are two women, of different classes and moral codes, in one building during one night, campaigning for their future with John. And John, who knows the consequences if he follows his heart, must decide. It is the most intense film mentioned here.

More intense than The Hateful Eight (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2015). “The Independent” (2000) spoofs The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971), if that’s possible. Bruce Dern was in that too. It took me a while to warm to The Hateful Eight but, at 168 minutes, there was plenty of time. There is always Ennio Morricone’s score to enjoy. Morricone composed the soundtrack, incorporating three unused pieces from The Thing (1982). It won him his first Academy Award (after one Honorary Award and six nominations). There have been a few Westerns lately: The Salvation (2014), Slow West (2015), even The Dressmaker (2015) has a little High Plains Drifter (1973) to it. Tarantino has made his epic Western with all his favourite things: motley strangers forced together – see John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939); the cartoon weirdness, crunching anachronisms and lens flare of spaghetti westerns – see YouTube; and, Tarantino dropping references to his own body of work. Good to see Tim Roth bleeding copiously from the gut again; Michael Madsen wrinkling his brow; one character telling a filthy story in order to rile another character. And he always includes something for the pedants: there aren’t eight for a start. There are a few things to dislike. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character endures many humiliations – but they’re closer to Tom and Jerry than ‘female lead in a Lars von Trier movie’. And the ‘n-word’ occurs as often as it would in a Blaxploitation all-nighter. However, let’s be fair, no-one else is making films like this. 

I watched The Hateful Eight alone – the hateful nine – at Vue, Worcester, 1:50am. I saw The Martian (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2015) with a full house. At one point I noticed two hundred strangers, in rapt silence, willing a fictitious character on, Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney, as he carried out his next small step to safety. It helps that the protagonist is physics rather than some bloke. Everyone is either thinking hard or easing the tension with wit: it’s like a propaganda movie for the human race. The Martian is 2 hours and 21 minutes of a good time.

Despite everything that Mark Watney went through, I worried more during Song of the Sea (Dir. Tomm Moore, 2014), an Irish legend animated for children. Saoirse is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper and a Selkie – a woman on land and a seal in the sea. Saoirse has a quest to complete. She meets magical beings that are affable and helpful and more recognisable creatures that are neither. The animation is top notch, like a sumptuously illustrated children’s book.

Suffragette (Dir. Sarah Gavron, 2015) has been a conspicuous absentee from the UK’s film awards season. There’s nothing wrong with this film: it is a solid primer. The struggle for women’s suffrage in Britain had a long history. It was first voted down in 1867. We join the story nearly 50 years later. Gavron focusses upon one young woman, the fictitious Maud (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker, wife and mother. Gradually Maud becomes involved in the campaign for Votes For Women and meets a few of the key figures. Her involvement does not go unpunished.

Brie Larson won Best Actress, deservedly, at the 88th Academy Awards for her role as ‘Ma’ in Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Room is also a front-runner in Borderlines’ favourite film of the festival contest. You would think it was impossible to make an uplifting film about kidnapping, incarceration and serial rape. Abrahamson’s previous movie was “Frank” (2014). Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was published in 2010. She was inspired by the story of Felix Fritzl, the five year old son of Josef and Elizabeth Fritzl. Josef’s treatment of his daughter came to light in Austria in 2008.

The first part of Room concerns the daily existence of Ma and Jack (a superb performance by 8 year old Jacob Tremblay) in their cell. The remainder covers their recovery which, in many ways, is tougher. I was reminded of survival film The Deep (2012), the remarkable true story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson. He survives a North Sea ship-wreck – and finds himself re-labelled and examined like The Elephant Man (1982). Room is an absorbing, thought-provoking movie about resilience, the power of parenthood and rebuilding lives. And it was good to see William H. Macy, as Ma’s father, again
Going back beyond 2015 – and The Courtyard, Hereford – you don’t need me to tell you that the work of Bill Douglas, Terence Davies or Roman Polanski is worthy of your time. David (Dir. Paul Dickson, 1951) is a 38-minute gem. A person, place and time preserved. David was screened as part of the Borderlines Film Festival a few years ago and stayed with me. I cannot think of another film like it: there are few film characters whose soul lives so close to their skin. David Rees Griffiths, who wrote as ‘Amanwy’, was a school caretaker and published poet: pryddestau [plural of pryddest, Welsh for ‘a long poem in free metre’], songs, sonnets and hymns. He had worked as a coal miner from the age of 12 to 45; he survived the explosion that killed his brother. Griffiths is Dafydd Rees, a school caretaker and father, leading a simple life in late middle age. A community makes room for culture because, without it, there would only be mining. The story can be summarised in three words but I will leave that to you. This film is a great study in dignity.

Robin Clarke

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