Wednesday, January 27, 2016

OVER YOUR DEAD BODY


Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is a master of many genres but it has been a long while since he has tackled a horror film. This is all the more surprising for the fact that his most famous film is arguably his 1999 horror classic "Audition". Although he has skirted the edges of horror with a number of his features since, it would be fair to state that "Over Your Dead Body" is his first pure feature length horror film since "Audition". You would think such a return would be greeted with great expectation from both the public and critics worldwide, but the film has come and gone with barely a whisper. So does this lack of recognition have anything to do with the quality of the film or is this just a film that has fallen through the cracks and has yet to find its audience?

The story of "Over Your Dead Body" is about two actors, Miyuki and Kosuke, who are romantically involved, and who are in the middle of rehearsals for their latest play, an adaptation of “Yotsuya Kaidan”. The play is a famous Japanese ghost story about a samurai who is haunted by the ghost of his wife after he chooses to betray her for a younger woman. Miyuki and Kosuke both play the leads in "Yotsuya Kaidan" and as they get deeper into rehearsals they find life imitating art, as Kosuke starts an affair with a younger co-star. As reality and fantasy begin to merge in Miyuki's mind, she starts to have a break down where she attempts to go out for revenge against her boyfriend in a similar manner to that of her character in the play.
With every review I write for a Takashi Miike film, I seem to mention the fact that he is very hit or miss with me. The man is very technically gifted and understands how to put together a great looking film always, but my problems with him are a result of his massive imagination and the fact that I feel he over stuffs his films with so many ideas that they become bloated, and exhausting to watch, not to mention that they start to become a little messy, narratively speaking. There are times when this "balls to the wall" approach pays off in spades ("For Love's Sake" being a perfect example),but more often than not I usually come away from Miike's films wishing he restrained himself just a little more. "Over Your Dead Body" is the most restrained effort I have seen from Miike for quite some time and the film benefits immensely from this. This is a very deliberately paced film, with the story taking its time to unfurl. The biggest surprise of the film is that the majority of its running time is devoted to the rehearsals of the play so we essentially get to see its story play out from beginning to end, with the actual story of infidelity between the two actors being close to a footnote. This is perfect for a western audience who may not be familiar with the famous story that the play in the film is based on, but I'm not sure how it would play to a Japanese audience, as this may come across as unnecessary padding.

Whilst I mentioned that "Over Your Dead Body" is a very restrained film for Miike, it is also a very low key effort too. There aren't really any big moments in the film, rather it is a film that relies on atmosphere rather than sudden bursts of violence. That said this is still a Miike film and fans of the director will likely be impressed by this film's final twenty minutes, which is when it takes a turn towards the bizarre and bloody. The main problem with the film is that because the majority of the film is actually a play, there is no suspense or danger associated with it because we know that none of what we are watching is real. Again, for Western audiences this would be less of a problem because we are learning the story that is going to end up relating to the "real life" story later in the film, so we are still invested in the play.

Again, because the majority of the film is a play, Miike is able to use this to his advantage in regards to the lighting styles he employs. He is able to get away with using quite artificial and theatrical (not to mention dramatic) lighting to create a bold and unique look to the film. Nothing comes across as looking real or natural and yet due to the nature of the story, it works perfectly. Likewise the set designs, are all stage bound and thus look artificial but stylized in a way that gives the film an extra kick to it. The scenes set in the real world have a pared back and slick look to it, to the point of it looking sterile. The lighting is either very straight forward and flat looking, or extremely dark. Unfortunately this causes the audience to respond more to the play rather than the narrative behind the scenes which I'm sure was meant to be the point of the film.

In terms of acting, like the film itself, most of the performances are of a low key nature, with most of the roles being underplayed. I thought Ko Shibasaki, who plays Miyuki, fared a lot better than her co-stars at portraying two distinct characters and making them both easily identifiable. She also does a great job convincing us of her character's extreme mental breakdown. Ebizo Ichikawa, on the other hand, really gives a flat performance throughout when playing Kosuke, and the samurai character he portrays in the play. He barely emotes through the whole film and looks bored the entire time. He walks through each scene with nary a presence and unfortunately I thought he was the weak link to the film. I say unfortunately because his character has the longest amount of screen time. It's true that “Over Your Dead Body” is a quiet horror film, but you can still bring an intensity or an intent to a performance without needing to go over the top.

I mentioned earlier that the film's final twenty minutes are quite bizarre and bloody in nature, and I am sure that long time fans of the director will really get the most out of these scenes, however from my perspective, the whole finale seemed rushed to the point that at times it is a little incoherent. To be honest, there is one part of the finale that I am thoroughly confused about (I have my theory as to what is happening, but have no idea if this is actually correct). Whilst there are no moments like the infamous scene from “Audition”, there is one scene towards the end that involves household utensils that will get everyone talking. It is a scene that comes out of nowhere, (in terms of the intensity behind it) and is the film's bloodiest. It is also a scene that will make you feel sick to your stomach when watching it. The reason why I think the finale is rushed, and thus doesn't have the necessary impact I expect was intended, is because of the majority of the film is about the play and as such we are invested more in the characters of “Yotsuya Kaidan”, as opposed to the characters of “Over Your Dead Body”. The final twenty minutes is about them though, and since we have spent little time with them until now, it is hard to care (or understand) about what is happening between them. Just as you start to invest in them though, it is over, which is a little frustrating.

The above review is actually for the 95 minute version of “Over Your Dead Body” that is found on the U.S blu-ray.  After watching the film, I was horrified to learn that there was a director's cut, available in Japan, that is an extra sixteen minutes longer. Unfortunately I have no idea what this extra footage entails, but you would think that the finale may be lengthened to make more sense or the more “meta” qualities of the film may be explained more or better layered into the story. It frustrates me no end knowing that there is another version out there (and one that is called a “director's cut” no less), and if I ever get around to seeing it I will amend this review to include some details of it.

Overall, I found Takashi Miike's latest horror film “Over Your Dead Body” to be a bit of a mixed bag. From a directing point of view, I was highly impressed. I loved Miike at his most restrained (it reminded me of his part in the omnibus feature “Three....Extremes”, which was entitled “The Box”), but unfortunately this low key approach seems to have affected some of the performances within the film. I also felt that he got the balance wrong between the narrative of the play and the narrative of his movie, focusing too much on the play even though these scenes were better and more artistic in nature. Fans of Miike may also be disappointed because the madness of his previous films is toned down here, although that is not to say they are totally absent. At the end of the day, I would call “Over Your Dead Body” a near miss, but I would really like to check out that director's cut before declaring that conclusively. Until then though, I can only give this version of the film.....


3 Stars.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

REGRESSION


 Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar finally returns to his genre roots with his latest film, the thriller "Regression". His previous entries in the horror/thriller genre, "Thesis", "Open Your Eyes" and "The Others", had all been fantastic and as much as I enjoyed the dramas he made after these films, I really wanted Amenabar to go back and make another thriller. When I heard that his latest film was going to be just that, I was very excited, and it immediately become one of my six most anticipated films of 2015. As luck would have it though, the film was dumped from its original August release date, and as of yet still does not have a release date for both the US and Australian territories. Thank god for the UK though, as they have just released the film on blu-ray, finally giving me the chance to catch up with it. So did it meet my lofty expectations or did Alejandro Amenabar deliver his first dud?

"Regression" begins with a father being accused of an inexcusable crime against his daughter, with the man confessing to the crime even though he has no knowledge of committing the said crime. The police enlist the help of a psychologist who believes performing a technique called regression therapy on the man would be beneficial. By plumbing through the man's repressed memories, the truth could be revealed. However once the therapy begins, it becomes clear that there is a lot more to the whole story, including the cover-up of a group of alleged Satanists with a large number of the town's residents being members of it. Soon, our lead detective on the case, is fighting for his life against a secret group who will do anything to keep their secret quiet.

I think it would be remiss of me to not mention that reviews from the festival screenings were not kind to "Regression" and I assume that these are the main reason the film was bumped from its original release date. The film was accused of being boring, with a premise that felt very tired, and that coming from a director the caliber of Amenabar, it could only be thought of as a disappointment. So whilst this was a highly anticipated film for me, I went into it with tapered expectations. After viewing it now, I think "Regression" has been unfairly maligned. As you would expect from a film made by this director, "Regression" has been expertly made. It has been very well shot and edited, and Carol Spier's production design creates a lived in world full of little details that never draw attention to themselves but help contribute to the dark atmosphere of the film. However in saying all that, "Regression" is an ugly film to look at, which is due to the colour palette used. The world created is a very hazy dreary world, full of dark blues, greys and browns. Bright colours are never used and as such the whole look of the film is never pleasant to the eye. I suppose Amenabar chose to use these colours to represent the increasing tension and darkness associated with the town, but I personally found it a bit of an eye sore.

The main problem with the film, at least for me, is the actual premise of the story which is about the "satanic panic" that apparently was quite widespread in the U.S during the 80's (so the opening scroll of the film tells us). This film is set in 1990, at the tail end of the panic, and although it has been documented to be a real fear back then, it is something I find very silly and am unable to take too seriously. In this regard, "Regression" already is at a disadvantage in that as well as telling its story, it also has to convince me that such a panic exists. Unfortunately, I still couldn't buy into this idea, and as such my enjoyment of the film was tainted right from the beginning. I will say that I appreciated the fact that Alejandro Amenabar attacks the panic with the utmost seriousness and never makes fun of it. In fact whilst watching it, it hit me that his approach was similar to William Friedkin's with "The Exorcist", in that he gives a potentially silly subject all of his respect. However, I still could not buy into it, but this is my baggage I bring into the film and is no fault of the director at all. I will say that Amenabar does a great job of increasing the tension and suspense of the film as it continues along, but sadly the images of the satanic cult performing their rituals came across as far too unbelievable in my mind; again, that's my baggage.

What is great about the film is the lead performance from Ethan Hawke, who I really think is an underrated actor these days. He plays the head detective investigating the case and he does a great job of portraying a man whose paranoia is increasing as he gets more involved in the case. You can feel him slowly losing touch with reality the deeper he gets. This is a man whose dedication to his job cost him his family, and you can see how he lives and breathes through the cases he is involved with. He never shuts down, he is constantly on in regards to the case which makes him a good detective, but not necessarily a good person in that he finds it hard to relate to other people. Ethan Hawke portrays this man with quite an intensity and a hardness that his co-workers on the force bristle against. The big shock of the film is just how little Emma Watson is actually in the film for, considering she is all over the marketing of "Regression". I doubt she would be in the film for any longer than fifteen minutes in total. She plays Angela, the daughter who accuses her father, and it pains me to say that she is not very good in the role at all. She just never comes across as believable for one second, and does not give her role the necessary gravitas needed to make it work. The things she accuses her father of are of a very serious nature, but the way Watson portrays her character you never feel the girls pain. In fact,, I believe Watson has been totally miscast here. I've actually liked her in other roles before but she just seems off here. David Thewlis is fine as the psychologist, but no standout.

I think the reason why "Regression" has so many negative reviews all has to do with the ending of the film. Whilst I will refrain from going into detail about the ending, I will say that the film ends on a whimper rather than a bang and as such Amenabar leaves the audience with a feeling of indifference towards the film. You have to give Amenabar credit for having the balls to end the film on the note he does, because it is not going to please the majority of the audience watching the film who will most likely want a sense of closure to the story, but I guess this is where he sees the story ending in regards to the themes of the film that he is exploring. Personally I found it ended "Regression" on a very flat note, and as such I felt a lot of frustration towards the time I had spent watching the film which could be perceived to be wasted.

Overall, "Regression" is something of a disappointment, especially coming from someone as great as Alejandro Amenabar but it is nowhere near as bad as early reviews suggested. It is a film that never soars, and whilst I appreciate the seriousness Amenabar takes towards the satanic panic, I still couldn't buy into it. Technically though, the film is very well made, and from that point I respected the film but in the end, "Regression" became a kind of nothing film for me. By the time the finale comes around, it felt pointless and I was left feeling frustrated by the whole thing, despite a strong leading performance from Ethan Hawke.

3 Stars.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 - IN REVIEW: MOST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF 2016

Just like every year that has come before it, there are a plethora of new releases that are slated for release in 2016 that I am eagerly anticipating. From last years list, I'm still waiting for Jeff Nicols's “Midnight Special” to be released (it was pushed back to March of this year), but Nicols has another film due in 2016 called “Loving” that I am also eagerly anticipating. Also on the cards for 2016 are new films from talented directors, the likes of Steven Spielberg (“The BFG”), Denis Villeneuve (“The Story of Your Life”), The Coen Brothers (“Hail, Caesar!”), David Michod (“War Machine”), Tran Anh Hung (“Eternity”), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Creepy”), Derek Cianfrance (“The Light Between Oceans”), Tom Tykwer (“A Hologram From the King”), to name but a few. All of the above I am looking forward to greatly, but the next seven titles below are my most anticipated films of 2016.




This is the brand new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and next to nothing is known about the film at the moment. In fact, this wasn't going to be a part of this list, until right at the last second I found out that Farhadi had secretly shot this film back in November, but that he had also submitted it to a film festival. Farhadi is such a talent (his “A Separation” is the last film that I gave a perfect five stars to) that any film he makes from now on is almost guaranteed to make these lists. I'm sure if I had more details on the film, it may have been my “most” anticipated film of the year, but for know lets just say I am extremely excited for it and am hoping for it now to screen at MIFF later in the year.




After his previous film, “Only God Forgives”, turned out to be something of a disappointment, my anticipation for the latest Nicolas Winding Refn film has tempered just slightly. Although knowing that this new film is a female centric horror film set in the L.A fashion scene, just gets me all excited again. The last time Refn shot a film in L.A it was his brilliant “Drive” so lets hope history repeats itself here, but most of all I hope the film turns out to be dark, disturbing and scary. “The Neon Demon” stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Christina Hendricks which sounds like a great cast, although the fact that Keanu Reeves has a small role in the film does have me a little worried.




I must admit that I hate having to justify my love for Rob Zombie's films time and again. Sure he is not as “arty” as some and must people react against the white trash look of his films and characters, but personally I love the dark grittiness to all of his films. He has a keen visual eye too and is able to always create disturbing visuals to accompany his horror films; they never feel like the clean, sanitized horror that dominates cinema screens these days. I also love the fact that he casts adults in his films, rather than teenagers. He has a great knack of finding old forgotten stars and giving them a chance to shine again. Anyway, “31” is Rob Zombie's latest horror film and he calls the film his darkest and most bleak to date (which is saying something). It is about five carnies who are kidnapped on Halloween 1976 and forced to take part in a game called “31” which involves trying to stay alive for twelve hours against an endless gang of maniacs intent on killing them all. When reading the synopsis, I must admit, it does sound a little silly but from the small number of stills that have been released so far, it certainly looks like a Rob Zombie film which makes me very happy indeed. The film has been in the news recently because it was rated the dreaded NC-17, twice no less, however after further cutting, Zombie was able to achieve the R rating he wanted, although he stresses that the director's cut will be released on blu ray and dvd. From this, we can gather that it certainly sounds extreme.




This is the latest film from South Korean filmmaking superstar, Park Chan-Wook. This guy is a genius and any of his films would make it onto these lists. After making his English language debut with his previous film, “Stoker”, Park Chan-Wook has returned to Korea for his latest which is a crime drama about a young heiress who falls in love with a petty thief. Apparently there is also a lesbian love angle in this film as well, and although the original novel that the film is based on was set in Victorian London, Park has transposed the story to take place in both Korea and Japan for his film version. Thankfully, Park has continued his working relationship with his regular cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon because the two of them just work beautifully together.




Normally any film directed by Martin Scorsese would make the top of my anticipated list and yes, I am greatly looking forward to “Silence” for that reason, but the topic of the film does leave me a little cold. The synopsis on imdb states that the film is set in the 17th century and is about “two Jesuit priests who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and propagate Christianity.” Being someone who cares little for religion, I find religious films to sometimes be a hard slog to get through because I find it hard to relate. That said, I thought I was going to have similar issues with Scorsese's previous film “The Wolf of Wall Street” and ended up loving every minute of it, so I will definitely be entering the film with an open mind. This film is something of a passion project for Scorsese though, in that he has been trying to get it made for decades, so you would think that he would bring his best to it.




A director who I think gets little respect for just how great a technical director he is, is Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. It seems that due to both “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”, two films he made in quick succession, that he has a reputation of only being interested in smut and what is never taken into account is just how well his films are put together. Not just those two films but all of his films throughout his career. He has crafted great entertainment that are often filled with subtext and meaning. His most recent film “The Black Book” came out ridiculously ten years ago now and for mine, it was his best film to date. Thus the reason I am so looking forward to his latest film, “Elle”, which also marks the return of Verhoeven to the erotic thriller, although if the reports on “Elle” are true, this is more of a rape/revenge film than anything “erotic”. Interestingly though is the fact that this is the first film that Verhoeven has shot in the French language. “Elle” stars Isabelle Huppert. I am so looking forward to another Paul Verhoeven thriller!




My most anticipated film of 2016 is none other than Pedro Almodovar's latest film, “Julieta”. Now that he has gotten rid of the urge to revisit his comedic past with “I'm So Excited”, Almodovar returns to the melodramas that he excels at and is so famous for. Like most of the films on this list, not too much is known about the film except that it is about a woman named Julieta who, in present time, seems in the edge of madness but thirty years prior, we are witness to the events that lead to Julieta becoming this way in the present. The result of some sort of silence apparently. In fact, until recently “Silencio” was the title of the film, but Almodovar agreed to change his title so as not to cause confusion between Martin Scorsese's film. Personally I prefer the older title and think it would have been fine because they were using the Spanish variation of the word. It also appears that Almodovar is working with a predominantly new cast, because the majority of his regulars seem to be absent in this new film. Although one actress who used to be a regular in the earlier films from this director is Rossy DePalma who shows up in “Julieta”. Thankfully, the film is meant to be released in Spain in March which pretty much guarantees that I will end up seeing the film in 2016; in fact about an hour prior to writing this I got to watch the first teaser trailer for “Julieta” (without English subtitles though) and it looks very promising. 


 Well, that is it. My enormous round up of the year that was 2015 is finally over. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it and got something out of it, but how about we go back to watching some new films now?
 

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 - IN REVIEW: TOP TWENTY BEST FILMS: #10 - 1

 
10. SLOW WEST

Having just looked at the remainder of this list I have noticed that this is the first of three non-traditional westerns to make my top ten; a genre I normally do not gravitate towards. However I seem to be a fan of the oddball ones, which “Slow West” certainly is. It is about a late-teenage boy named Jay (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who leaves Scotland and heads to the American west to search for the girl that he loves. However he is unprepared for the brutality of the west, both in landscape or the bandits that reside there, and it is a miracle that he is still alive when he comes across Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter. Silas and Jay strike up a friendship and the two come up with an agreement that they will travel together until Jay finds the girl of his dreams. There is a lot more to the story than that, but to give more of it away would be unfair. I honestly had no expectations going into watching “Slow West”, I pretty much was watching it due to Fassbender's involvement, and I ended up loving every second of it. It is actually very true to its title, as this is a very slow moving film, but it is never boring. Two things really stand out while watching the film; the first is Robbie Ryan's fantastic cinematography. The way he photographs the landscape, he gives the west a completely different feel than any western that has come before it. It is not a west that is dominated by browns and oranges, and dust, but instead it is more of a lush, colourful western full of green and trees. However, there is no doubt that the environment is harsh, and harsher still to a na├»ve foreigner. The other thing that makes “Slow West” stand out is its great sense of humour. Now this is not even close to being a comedy, in fact it is far closer to a tragedy, but right throughout the film there is humour constantly present, but humour of the darkest and driest quality. Its the type of humour that if you do not regularly respond to it, I highly doubt that you would even notice it. It goes without saying that I noticed and I found myself laughing hysterically at points in the film. One example comes late in the film, when one character is having a particularly bad day; he has just been wounded in a shoot-out and is taking refuge under a shelf in the kitchen of a house. The battle continues and a stray bullet strikes a container holding salt, causing it to fall all over the poor guy underneath, where he literally has salt grounded into his wounds. It is a hilarious moment, that is played so straight which makes it all the more funnier. Anything that stars Michael Fassbender, you automatically assume is going to have great acting in it and that is true of “Slow West”. Everyone is all on the same page and understands exactly the type of film they are making and particularly of the film's tone. Besides the two leads, I must mention Ben Mendelsohn who plays a rival bounty hunter, who is both hilarious and dangerous at the same time. It is really great that the rest of the world is finally seeing just how brilliant this talented Australian is. Hopefully the inclusion of “Slow West” on this list would encourage others to try out this small, but very stylish and odd film; a great surprise.


9. EX MACHINA

It is hard to believe that this sci-fi thriller is actually Alex Garland's directorial debut. He seems in total control of the film for its entire running time. The plot of “Ex Machina” is about Caleb, a young programmer, who wins a competition to spend a week on Nathan's (the CEO of the company he works for) island and house to take part in “the greatest scientific discovery of mankind”. That discovery comes in the form of Ava, a highly advanced A.I robot that Nathan has created. Caleb's job is to be shown that she is definitely a robot, but then be convinced that Ava has a consciousness. Whilst Caleb is performing his tests, Ava becomes aware that if she fails these subjective tests, there is a chance that she will be destroyed. Almost as proof of her consciousness she is determined to escape her confines and attempts to enlist Caleb to help her escape. Like the western, science fiction films are not ones that I gravitate towards, however whenever a smart one comes along with something to say, I seem to find it. “Ex Machina” is definitely one of these as it is a film that is not only a great thriller but one that asks a lot of questions. What does it mean to be human? What responsibility does a creator have if they create something with a conscious, and if they do, do they then have the right to dictate what sort of life they then lead? These are but a few of the many fascinating topics brought up to be discussed, but thankfully these elements have been weaved into the narrative in an organic, natural fashion and are not ham-fisted to the point that you know this is a film with an agenda. The highlight of the film has to be Alicia Vikander who plays Ava in what has to be a star making performance. This is the first thing I have noticed her in, but since then she seems to be in everything. She is gorgeous in this and makes you feel for this robot, a sentient being who is meant to exist without real feelings. The other aspect I loved was the design of it all, especially the robots themselves which parts of them are see through, so you can see that they are in fact artificial. Thankfully this is a film that has seemed to have found its audience as it has been heaped with praise which is well deserved because it is one of the films of the year.


8. THE REVENANT

Alejandro G. Inarittu's powerful tale of survival and revenge was an easy choice for the list, and probably could have made it just from the power of its most infamous scene, which was arguably the single best and most vicious scene that I saw in all of 2015. “The Revenant” is about a group of hunters who work in the fur trade, who have to make the sudden decision to abandon their pelts and run for their lives when they are made aware that the native Indians are none to happy about their presence and plan to make them leave in the bloodiest fashion possible. Whilst making their escape through the woods, one member of the group named Hugh is attacked and viciously mauled almost to death by a bear protecting her cubs. Thinking that he will likely die, the group leave Hugh behind to do so, so the rest of them can continue their escape. However Hugh does not die. Instead he uses all the will known to man to travel cross country to find the men who abandoned him (in particular one man, John, who took something valuable from him) and to kill them in the name of revenge. At the end of the day, “The Revenant” is just another revenge film, but can the quality of the filmmaking associated with it raise it to be something much more than its base elements? You betcha, it can! This is a stunningly put together film and apparently was extraordinarily hard to make. Much has been made by the fact that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki only shot with natural available light, meaning that there were only a few hours each day that they could shoot what they needed, but again Lubezki has done wonders here, highlighting the harsh, brutal environment in such a way that makes us appreciate Hugh's journey even more. For those that loved Lubezki's and Inarritu's previous collaboration, “Birdman”, will be happy to know that the two of them have continued to use techniques that they experimented with during the making of that earlier film, such as the use of incredibly long takes. Leonardo DiCaprio is the star of the film and plays Hugh, and what is quite surprising is just how little he speaks in the film (in fairness, for the majority of the film, he does have his throat ripped out). Because of this, DiCaprio must build his performance around his physicality and body language and he does a fantastic job of presenting a man who has regressed to the basest of human emotions and that is simply to fight to survive at any cost. As I mentioned before, the key scene of the bear attack would be without question the single greatest scene I saw all year. The absolute ferocity and power that comes from the bear attack is nothing that I have felt in a movie before. It is terrifying beyond belief, particularly because the bear comes at him three different times and at such speed. The first time the bear attacks, it is such a shock because just as quickly as Hugh notices the bear, than he is on top of him, slashing him with his claws. I cannot do the scene justice in regards to its brutality, it is something you need to witness and feel yourself, but in fact, the whole film is incredibly brutal and bloody, which sometimes makes the film hard to watch (particularly during the opening extended battle scene). So whilst the film may be just another revenge film, I defy anyone to see “The Revenant” and not be affected by it; it is a powerful film.


7. LEVIATHAN

Leviathan” is the fourth film from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev and it is yet another stellar piece of work. As usual for a film from this director, it comes across as an angry work of art; it is a daring attack on the corruption embedded within Russian politics and although at its heart this is a tale that is small, its ideas are grand. In fact Zvyagintsev looks at all forms of corruption in his superior film, not just those of a political nature. He also examines the corruption of friendship, the corruption of a marriage, the corruption of one's self and morals, and finally the corruption of their soul. He also overtly takes a swipe at the church as an institution, and people that are willing to commit atrocities in God's name. Whilst these themes and ideas may come across as very strong and heady, thankfully they have been beautifully woven into this tale which is about an “every man” just trying to keep his land. This is a film that works because of the astonishing performances from its entire cast. No one puts a foot out of place here but at the end of the day, “Leviathan” is Aleksey Serebryakov's film. He plays Nikolay, our “every man”, and throughout the entirety of this devastating story he gets the chance to portray every emotion possible and is painfully believable the whole time. In Zvyagintsev's previous film “Elena” I was very impressed by Elena Lyadova even though she was only in the film for a few scenes, and I hoped that he would work with her again soon. Thankfully he cast her straight away in “Leviathan”, this time in the key role of Lilya, Nikolay's wife. She is just as mesmerising as she was in the previous film, and yet her performance is completely different this time around. This is a much more internal performance with most of her work being told through the emotions on her face. Once again for a Zvyagintsev film, it has been impeccably shot by his long time cinematographer Mikhail Krichman. Even though the story is unbelievably sad and tragic, from a visual point of view, it is stunningly beautiful. A great indicator of how great this film is, is the fact that “Leviathan” was one of the first film's I saw in 2015 and it has never left me. Click here to read my original review.


6. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

When this film was actually being made, I totally disregarded it. I didn't think the world needed another “Mad Max” film, particularly one without Mel Gibson. Maybe this had to do with the disappointment that was “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”, I'm not really sure, but I had no excitement for it what so ever. Then the original trailer came out and it still took me ages to bother to check it out. Once I did, it piqued my interest a little but not too much. When the final trailer came out though, I was with this film in a big way and for mine, the final trailer for “Mad Max: Fury Road” was my favourite trailer of 2015 and the perfect representation of the film itself. By the time it was released, I was hanging for the film and once I saw it, it blew me away. I loved every second of this brilliant action film. Thankfully the film has received worldwide acclaim and it is well deserved. There is just so much to like in this film but my favourite thing had to be the ridiculous car stunts performed throughout the film. God bless George Miller and company for bringing back practical stunt work in a big way. I understand that the majority of the stunts have CGI extensions but for the most part these are real stunts done with real cars and you can just feel the difference. A week prior to seeing “Fury Road” I had seen “Fast and the Furious 7” and felt absolutely nothing from all of the “fake”car stunts in that film, whereas here, I was exhilarated and pumped full of adrenaline. From a human perspective, everyone knows by now that even though the film is called “Mad Max” this is really Furiosa's film, and she is played by the bald headed Charlize Theron, who absolutely steals this film. She is beyond amazing! This is an incredibly physical role and yet she is so believable in it. Never once did I think that she couldn't go toe to toe with any of the men on-screen. When she threw a punch, it felt brutal and real, and importantly powerful. I could go on talking about this film forever, but by now everyone knows how great it is. From the stunts, to the performances, to the look (I loved that John Seale came out of retirement because he didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to do the cinematography on a “Mad Max” film), to the adrenaline fueling pace of the whole thing; this is kinetic filmmaking at its finest and I think it will be a long time before someone matches the insanity of this film. Another positive, is that it is endlessly re-watchable.


5. YOUTH

Whilst not as critically acclaimed as his previous film, “The Great Beauty”, once again I find myself on the other side of the fence as I enjoyed Paolo Sorrentino's latest, “Youth”, a whole lot more than that earlier film. There is no doubt that “The Great Beauty” is a very good film but I found it hard to relate to or find an entry point into. However I seemed to be on the same wavelength as “Youth” right from the opening frame. Lately I have noticed a change in my movie watching habits and the kind of movies that I watch. This is no doubt due to the fact that I turned forty last year, and watching superheroes running around in tights just doesn't have the same effect on me that it once did. Strangely though, films starring older actors and dealing with the theme of aging are films I seem to be enjoying more and more, and this is exactly what “Youth” is about. Two old friends are holidaying together at an expensive and exclusive spa resort situated at the bottom of the Alps. Fred (Michael Caine) is a retired orchestra conductor without any plans to return to work, while his best friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel) is a well known director currently in pre-production on his latest film; a movie that he thinks will be his final great epic and a summation of his entire career. When Mick isn't working, the two get together and reminisce about the past; lost loves, their children, and the importance of their work, then and now. Out of the blue though, Fred gets a royal invitation from Queen Elizabeth to conduct at a gala event, and when he refuses to do so, it brings to light just what is most important to him. Meanwhile Mick's movie prospect takes a turn for the worst when his regular star and muse turns down the opportunity to star in it. This is an impeccably acted film. Everyone gives really solid performances and this is the best I've seen Harvey Keitel in ages. I also need to mention that both Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz play significant roles (and are both wonderful), as does Paul Dano, an actor who can really get on my nerves at times, but I really liked him in “Youth”. It seems a strange mix, this film's quiet and emotional story with Sorrentino's big operatic way of directing, and yet it just works. Visually the film is a sight to behold with each shot precisely framed to perfection, and the way music is combined to these images just heightens the film's emotionally content brilliantly. And as the film goes along and its themes become more and more obvious, “Youth” really does become quite the emotionally experience indeed. I have heard a lot of people complain that the film is pretentious and I think that if you have not connected with it, that could indeed seem true but to me, I found “Youth” had plenty to say and it moved me incredibly and I look forward to watching it again soon.


4. BIRDMAN

I cant believe that this film came out in 2015, but sure enough it was released in the second week of January, here in Australia. It is also the second film directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu to make my top ten list this year. With “Birdman”, it was the first time that Inarittu really tried something different compared to the dark and depressing dramas he had made with his previous four films. “Birdman” is actually a comedy, sure a dark comedy, but when announced as such, was quite the surprise coming from this usually heavy director. What is even greater is the fact that Inarritu comes out successfully achieving what he set out to do. The story is about a washed up older actor named Riggan, who was once famous for playing the superhero Birdman in the three film series. Fearing that he is no longer relevant, he sets out to write, direct and star in a play; something that has prestige and meaning and we are along for the ride as he prepares the final details before presenting the show to a preview audience. The genius of this movie is all in the casting of Michael Keaton in the role of Riggan/Birdman. Simply because of his history with the “Batman” franchise, his casting adds a whole other layer and dimension to the film, and Keaton is a great sport to play along. In fact he is quite outstanding in the role, and its easily his best performance since “Jackie Brown” almost twenty years ago. The craziest aspect of the film though, and thus its brilliance since it is pulled off to perfection, is the fact that Inarritu devised the film to be told all in “one” shot. Whilst not a true single take (which would be impossible because the film takes place over a couple of days), the whole movie is conceived as a single shot which means that all of the cuts and edits are hidden. To help achieve this, Inarritu enlisted master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and between the two of them, they pull off this near impossible task. Something that did not occur to me at the time of watching it is the fact that the film had to be edited during the writing stage, with any superfluous scenes being taken out then, because with the film meant to look like a single shot, no scene could be dropped in the edit once it was shot otherwise the whole look of the film would fall apart. This is just insane that they even tried this but that it actually works is mind boggling. Just for this aspect alone, “Birdman” could make this list, but thankfully this is not a film that is just all style and no substance, because it also happens to be a great film too.


3. BRIDGE OF SPIES

The latest film from master storyteller, Steven Spielberg, was arguably the classiest film I saw in 2015. It is made with an old school sensibility rarely seen these days and is just riveting from start to finish. Perfect shot selection and compositions, superbly acted particularly by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (as the captured Russian spy), a smart, dense and adult script from the Coen Brothers and of course, Spielberg is at the top of his game here with his direction. In fact, in my opinion, this is his best film since 2005's “Munich”, which was just a masterful film. It is also incredibly suspenseful too. What I really liked about the film was the fact that there were no “good guys” and “bad guys”. Both countries (Russia and the US) had spies, and both were acting in a professional manner in gaining information for their country like they had been instructed. In fact the relationship created between lawyer and client is handled very well, as it is bounded by a deep respect and trust for one another, even though their countries in this cold war are enemies. The other aspect of the film that I loved so much was the look of it all. Personally I am a fan of this post-war era anyway, but I was very impressed particularly of the scenes that took place in the snow covered locations of East Germany, as the Berlin wall is in the process of being built. The colour pallet of blues and greys looked fantastic and gave the location a gloomy feel to it all which worked enormously well for the tone of the story. As much as I always love Spielberg's visuals, I am actually not a huge fan of his regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. I find he blows out windows too much with light, giving his photography an overly contrasted look that I am not a fan of. Whilst he is still guilty of doing that here, I felt it was more restrained than usual and as such I really liked his work on “Bridge of Spies”. As of now, I have only seen the film one time, but I really look forward to seeing it again soon.


2. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

I am something of a Tarantino nut. I believe that the man has yet to make a bad film and all of them have appeared on my top twenty lists of the year they were released, usually very near the top. However, whilst I would never call it a bad film, I did not respond to “Django Unchained” as positively as previous Tarantino films and it only just scrapped onto my list at number 20. When I heard that his next film would be yet another western, my heart sank a little (just a little though). After now seeing “The Hateful Eight” I can safely say my worries were unfounded because it is a gem of a film. It is three hours long but it is entertaining for its entire length. The story is about a bounty hunter John Ruth, nicknamed “The Hangman”, who along with his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, are heading to Red Rock to collect his bounty of $10,000. However mother nature has other ideas and soon a massive blizzard heads their way forcing them to stop before their destination and to take refuge at “Minnie's Haberdashery”. Once entering the small cabin John establishes that he is not alone and will be spending the next couple of days in the company of six strangers, one of whom he is sure is not who he says he is and is working alongside and to free Daisy. The only problem is he is not sure which. This is truly a fantastic film and I loved every minute of it. It is definitely a film of two halves though, not least because there actually is an intermission breaking up the film between its third and fourth chapters. This break though is perfectly placed because either side of the break, the film feels completely different. The first half is basically all set up and is filled with the trademark Tarantino dialogue and conversations. Here we get to meet our characters and find out who they all are......or who they say they are. Whereas the second half of the film is all pay-off and action, as true identities are finally revealed and the blood and violence begins in earnest. And boy is this thing bloody! One aspect that I really loved about “The Hateful Eight” was the mystery angle to it all, knowing that we weren't being told the whole truth and trying to discover it for ourselves. Once again, Tarantino has cast his film to perfection (almost....but more on that later) and the entire cast give some of the best performances of their careers. My favourite character was Tim Roth's character, who I thought was just magnificent (and hilarious) here; it was so good to finally see him in another Tarantino film. Even though Samuel L Jackson has been in almost everything Tarantino has done (since Pulp Fiction), he finally gives Sam another role to rival his star making performance as Jules from “Pulp Fiction”. I must admit over the years I have tired of the Samuel L. Jackson shtick but he is so good here as Major Marquis Warren that it reminded me once again why I loved him so much in the past. As I said though, everyone is great here from Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, all the way up to Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, the only blemish I found in “The Hateful Eight” was a casting choice and that was the decision to cast Zoe Bell in a small role late in the film. It is not that she is bad per se, but rather she comes across very modern and doesn't fit the period setting of the film at all, and for me at least, she took me out of the film for a moment. And for all you people who think I am a Channing Tatum hater, well this is it folks, this is the film in my top twenty that Channing appears in. Granted its not a starring role and he is not on screen for long, but his role is very important to the plot of the film. Briefly I have to mention just how great Ennio Morricone's score is for the film. It is not a surprise that the master has come up with such a great score again, but what was a surprise is that the score he created is closer to those he wrote for the Italian giallo films of the 70's and 80's rather than the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns he is most noted for. I must also make mention of Tarantino's choice to shoot the film on 70mm film stock and in the super wide 2.76 ratio. The film looks stunning and has been carefully composed to take advantage of this big screen format and as such, I recommend seeing the film on the largest screen possible in 70mm (if available in your area). “The Hateful Eight” is a stunning picture, but beware it will not be for all tastes and I can see it being very controversial for a number of reasons. The first being the regular violent treatment that Daisy cops from these men, whilst the second reason being the constant use of the “N” word by a lot of the characters. In fairness, this is Quentin Tarantino's most political film to date and the use of this vile word isn't just thrown in there for shock value, but at times its still hard to take. There is also a particularly nasty story that Jackson's character tells that could upset a lot of people, but for those not easily offended, this is a picture that they should love. It is further proof of just how great a filmmaker Quentin Tarantino actually is.


1. PHOENIX

Here we are folks, this is finally it! My favourite film of 2015 is Christian Petzold's “Phoenix”; a stunning film that I have already seen three times. This beautifully constructed film does have quite a pulpy storyline, but the emotional content within it all just makes it so much greater than the sum of its parts. The film is set in post war Germany and is about a woman named Nelly, who is a survivor of the Nazi death camps, although not without significant cost. Her face has been brutally and horribly disfigured that she needs re-constructive surgery to get it fixed. She asks the doctor for her new face to be exactly the same as her old, but she is explained that the likelihood of that being possible would be slim. After the surgery, Nelly heads out into the city searching for her husband, Johnny (who may or may not have actually betrayed her), and her search leads her to a nightclub named Phoenix. It is there that she finds the man she loves, but heartbreakingly, he does not recognise her. Further heartbreak would follow Nelly when she returns to the nightclub in the light of day and this time Johnny recognises a similarity to his wife that he long thinks dead, and comes up with a plan for Nelly to pose as his wife so he can claim her significant inheritance that she is owed after her family members were destroyed during the war. This is not what Nelly wants but if it will give her time with Johnny she is willing to do it until she can bring up the courage to confess who she really is. So Johnny then goes about training Nelly to be....well, Nelly. Yes, we are talking an allusion to “Vertigo” here, but it has been handled so delicately and brilliantly that I dare anyone not be affected by this film. Despite the thriller aspect to it all (did Johnny really betray her? Will he ever recognise Nelly as his wife? Will Nelly ever come forward with this information?), it is the emotional core of this film that makes it so great, with a pitch perfect ending to die for. It is simply sublime and devastating, as well as exhilarating, all in one single moment. Nina Hoss, the director's regular muse, is always great in whatever she does, but for me, her performance as Nelly is the best thing she has ever done. It is a very internal performance, as it is more about how she feels rather than what she says, and again the way she plays that final scene is heart wrenchingly perfect. As much as I love this film, I really do not want to talk about it too much in case I do not do it justice, or out of fear that I may ruin elements for those that have yet to see it. I will say though just how much I love the film's simple title, “Phoenix”, because it just sums up so much of what this film is about. Sure, it is the rather trite name of the nightclub where Nelly finds Johnny again, but what this film is really about is a woman and a country, both thought dead, rising again to find themselves and to learn how to live again without the scars from its past. Seriously, if you get the chance to see “Phoenix” please do, it is a simple, and quiet film that has been expertly made, and packs an emotional gut punch in its finale. It is simply sublime and is favourite film of 2015.


Well there you have it, that was my  round-up of the year that was 2015.  Hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it, but before I finish, lets have a brief look at the upcoming year and my most anticipated films of 2016.