Upstream Color – 2013
2013 was, in many respects, a wildly ambitious year for cinema. Figuratively and literally, filmmakers’ lenses were shooting for the stars. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, of course, dominated the awards-season landscape and was highly-commended at the time for its immersive special effects and tense, engaging high-concept. Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor The Dark World, and perhaps most notably, the first DC universe film, Man of Steel, all shot for the stars – with, to put it mildly, mixed results.
It’s intriguing, then, that one of the year’s best films was one that brought us all back down to earth. Sensually rich and viscerally evocative, writer/director Shane Carruth’s feature-length follow-up to his breakthrough 2004 movie Primer is an enigmatic, almost literal stream-of-consciousness chronicle of the natural world, the circle of life, and the ways in which both can be disrupted. The plot is difficult to describe, but easily absorbed, almost as if the audience, too, has been hypnotised under the influence of toxins procured from the parasites, pig farmers, and samplers of the film’s world (…see what I mean?). Carruth’s sound design and near-lyrical editing style complements Upstream Color‘s themes of communion with our environment and interconnectivity to make for an unlikely, glorious romance. (SG)
Boyhood – 2014
From Slackers, through Waking Life and taking in his Before trilogy, Linklater is a filmmaker who has always seemed to enjoy having his characters talk about the big topics. Taken in hindsight, the desire to film a coming of age story over twelve years, with the same actor almost seems like a natural progression, something we probably should have seen coming. Crucially though, the film is good enough to dismiss any accusations of being reliant on a gimmick. Grounded with two great performances from Linklater regulars, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke; Ellar Coltrane is allowed to grow as an actor on screen as much as his character, Mason, is within the film. As time progresses, Linklater opts not to have title cards signalling to us, instead the passage of time is marked in haircuts and through the soundtrack. This is more important and more affecting than it might initially seem – after all what are our childhood memories if not the recollection of some bad haircuts and questionable music choices?
Despite the title, the film isn’t just about Mason, it’s as much about the role of and the efforts of our parents. Boyhood achieves better than any film before it the message that parents are, much like teenagers entering adulthood, improvising. Caught on the hoof and prone to mistakes, we see here that life as a family, truly is a collaborative process. It may clock in with a running time of nearly three hours, but you only notice the passage of time as your bum cheeks begin to numb. (It’s also worth making it a double bill with Linklater’s next film, Everybody Wants Some!! and pretending that Mason was really good at baseball.) (DC)
Mad Max: Fury Road – 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road was a stand-out release in 2015 and justifiably deserves the title of film of the year. Fury Road details the flight of Imperator Furiosa and the Five Wives – women kept by cult leader Immortan Joe for breeding purposes – across an apocalyptic desert. Initially presented as an antagonist, she forms a reluctant alliance with the titular franchise hero, who is haunted by memories of his past. Emotive, atmospheric and powerful, it combines heart-racing action with moments of sheer artistry. I have had the pleasure of seeing it both in its original colour release and in black and white, and the cinematography in either edition is breathtakingly stunning.
Fast paced and fiercely feminist, the story is told more through looks and sound – and silence – than it is with dialogue. Tom Hardy displays his impressive ability to emote with half of his face covered in an incredibly physical performance as Max. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is immense, an iconic character and feminist action hero. The film may be called Mad Max, but it is Furiosa and the Five Wives’ story. It is a tale of oppressed and sexually exploited women fighting back, a narrative that resonates even more in today’s political climate. Fury Road is a chase film, an action-packed escape tale that makes your heart pound and break in equal measures. Moving, exhilarating and empowering, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that resonates, a story of survival, resilience and redemption, and sure to become a classic. (AC)
Spotlight – 2016
The past decade has not been short on films focused on journalists, institutional abuse scandals, the freedom of the press, and the general status of print media. Curiously, those that break through are almost always grounded in reality, whether it’s the documentary work of Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets; Mea Maxima Culpa) and Laura Poitras (citizenfour); or fictionalised accounts of noteworthy journalistic endeavours, like Frost/Nixon, Truth, The Post, or Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight.
State’s #1 film of 2016 follows a dedicated team of reporters at the Boston Globe investigating a widespread cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. Handling its sensitive subject matter with tense restraint, the film undermines the guilty and complicit alike in its form and content, with quiet yet powerful performances from its strong ensemble cast keeping the focus of the film on the story at hand. Well-paced and absorbing, McCarthy sprinkles the film with small but telling details pointing towards the magnitude of the team’s task and emphasising the consequences of speaking truth to power. Its bittersweet epitaph – that the Spotlight investigation led to similar revelations on a global scale – is testament to the power of the media to challenge the status quo and effect cultural change, an idea that has endured in newspaper films since, though it has rarely landed as effectively. (SG)
And now for the number one…