With winter firmly upon us it seems appropriate to begin a round-up of my favourite cinema of the past 12 months with a pair of films depicting apparently happy couples falling apart thanks to incidents that unfold amid ice and snow.
In Force Majeure, from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, a family skiing holiday goes very wrong after a snowstorm envelops a resort restaurant, causing a panicking family man to grab his precious smartphone and make a run for it rather than stay by the side of his wife and kids. Once the whiteout clears what follows is a black comedy that is by turns excruciating and hilarious, and flecked with Haneke-like moments of unsettling weirdness.
Another breakdown of a previously warm marital relationship comes in the shape of 45 Years, in which a couple approaching a special anniversary celebration are unbalanced by news of a dead body found frozen into a Swiss glacier. Andrew Haigh’s direction is meticulous, the steady pace is perfectly judged and the performances of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are surely up there with the best these two fine actors have ever produced.
Other films that I enjoyed include Pixar’s Inside Out, a wise and very funny animation exploring the notion that we are all shaped by both the good and bad things that happen in our lives; and PT Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s pot-addled shaggy dog story about a hippy private eye in 1960s LA. This was a masterclass in how to translate a novel’s spirit and sense (or, in this case, lack of it) to the big screen.
Sticking with the 1960s theme, Love & Mercy, about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, belied expectations in a good way, with the studio-based scenes that recreated the legendary Pet Sounds sessions providing one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences of the year.
There were turkeys too, of course. I’m only just getting over the post-traumatic stress disorder that set in as a result of watching the absolutely dire A Little Chaos, starring Kate Winslet as a sassy gardener at Versailles in the 17th century. In a similar vein, the cliché-ridden Southpaw turned out to be little more than an insult to all the great boxing movies that adorn cinema’s history. Manglehorn, featuring Al Pacino as a mopey locksmith, was another shocker.
Thankfully, the good more than out- weighed the bad and it was yet another strong year for documentaries. Asif Kapadia followed up the stunning Senna with Amy, which pieces together the rise and subsequent falling apart of Amy Winehouse. It’s one of the saddest films I can remember watching and worth catching up with whether you are a fan of her music or not.
If you didn’t manage to see them first time around, you should also watch National Gallery, by veteran documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman; Cartel Land, a gripping portrait of the vigilantes fighting back against Mexico’s drugs cartels; and Palio, about Italy’s famous horse race.
The best documentary I saw, though, was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a continuation of his investigation into the mass killings of so-called Communists in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, which he began with The Act of Killing. In that utterly bizarre and discomfiting 2013 film the regime’s thugs re-enacted their crimes as if they were scenes from famous gangster movies. The Look of Silence takes a more straightforward and far less showy approach, putting those at the sharp end of this recent history of violence very much at its centre. I found it an even more powerful experience because of it.
In a series of riveting interviews, a man called Adi, the brother of one of those killed in the communist purge, confronts ageing politicians, commanding officers and executioners, some of whom were directly involved in the murder of his sibling. Adi faces his demons with incredible courage, ignoring veiled threats to his life and constant warnings to leave the past undisturbed. Thankfully, neither he nor Oppenheimer listened and the results are incredible to watch.
Bravery is also in abundance in Taxi Tehran, which, along with The Look of Silence, is my film of the year. Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker who has been hounded by the Iranian authorities for years, plays himself as an amateurish taxi driver picking up an eccentric bunch of passengers during a day’s drive around Iran’s capital. In this latest of his retorts to Iran’s theocrats, Panahi packs proceedings with witty jokes and slapstick humour (there’s a wonderfully inevitable accident involving a couple of crazy old women and a goldfish bowl), but when the political critiques come they are sly and powerful.
Not just a vital riposte to religious fundamentalism, Taxi Tehran is also a defiant attack on censorship and a glorious testament to the enduring importance of movie-making.
This article first appeared in the Christmas double issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here