A Bigger Splash*** (Italy/France, dir Luca Guadagnino)
Ralph Fiennes’ over-the-top performance steals scene after scene as an ageing record producer gatecrashing the Italian holiday home of his ex-lover, rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her new partner, a “boring” film maker (Matthias Schoenaerts). He brings with him his young American daughter (Dakota Johnson). Marianne has lost her voice following an operation which serves the film well, because it is at its best when nothing is said and rippling sexual undercurrents are brought to the surface by finely nuanced performances and direction. Laboured at times, but, being set in Lampedusa just as boatloads of refugees are coming ashore, the film is a sad and funny reflection on a crazy world.
Black Mass*** (USA, dir Scott Cooper)
Casting against type works well in this true life tale of Boston’s gangland, chronicling how the Mafia was wiped out by its Irish equivalent and how mobsters, law enforcement officers and politicians formed a tangled web of corruption. A balding Johnny Depp makes a menacing, psychotic gang leader, Benedict Cumberbatch is his younger brother, a Senator and Joel Egerton is their childhood friend, now an FBI agent. Engrossing and violent, but haven’t we seen the like of this many times before?
Bone Tomahawk*** (USA, dir Craig Zahler)
A real curiosity – a western crossed with a supernatural horror flick. Often, Zahler’s film looks like a re-make of John Ford’s The Searchers, except that the Indians of the earlier film are replaced by sub-human troglodyte savages. Graphic violence and gore abound, but it is the traditional values of strong characterisations that make the film gripping. Underlying it is an ironic comment on Hollywood’s shameful portrayals of Native Americans in the classic westerns.
Brooklyn**** (UK/Canada/Ireland, dir John Crowley)
An adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel in which a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from a small Irish town to New York in the post-War years to make a new life, but then finds her loyalties split. Both Ronan and Emory Cohen as her American sweetheart give wonderfully warm performances, supported in cameo roles by Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. The film is unashamedly old fashioned and sentimental, but it is so lovingly crafted and beautifully acted that it sweeps all reservations away.
Carol**** (USA/UK, dir Todd Haynes)
The marriage between Todd Haynes and novelist Patricia Highsmith is made in Heaven and its issue is one of the great films of 2015. Filming in soft focus and framing shots like Edward Hopper paintings, Haynes captures the mood and feel of America in the early 1950s. Rooney Mara is terrific as the shopgirl swept off her feet by the divorcing older woman, Carol and into a smouldering, reckless affair. However, it is Cate Blanchett as Carol who gives the film its iconic moments, confirming her status as the screen goddess of her generation, the true heir to the legacy of Hepburn and Streep.
Cemetery of Splendour** (Thailand/UK/France, dir Apchatpong Weerasethakul)
When the director introduces his film and tells the audience that “it’s ok to go to sleep”, it can be very difficult to resist his suggestion. Many of the characters in the film are already comatose, soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness and being cared for in a makeshift hospital in a small Thai town. There is very little plot, just people talking to each other or sitting silently by bedsides. Some scenes are very touching., but, frankly, paint dries quicker.
Chevalier*** (Greece, dir Attika Rachel Tsangari)
Six men in a boat and a woman director. This frequently hilarious Greek comedy on the theme of masculinity takes place when the men are confined together as they return to Athens from a fishing trip. They pass the time by playing the game of the film’s title in which they all judge each other in various randomly selected categories. Quirky and unpredictable, the film’s humour is derived from wry observations of human behaviour.
Departure**** (UK/France, dir Andrew Steggall)
Slow moving, lyrical drama in which wrought and sorrowful mother (Juliet Stephenson) packs up to depart from her family’s holiday home in France and her adolescent son (Alex Lawther, who impresses more with every appearance on stage or screen) departs from childhood innocence. Beautifully acted by the two leads and Phénix Brossaird as the son’s friend, this is a small gem that, hopefully, will not pass by unnoticed.
Desierto**** (Mexico/France, dir Jonás Guarón)
First and foremost, this is a superb chase thriller, reminiscent of an old-style Western, except that illegal Mexican immigrants to the US replace the Indians and we are put firmly on the side of the hunted. Gael Garcia Bernal gives the film a marque of quality with Turmp’s rhetoric and the influx of migrants to Europe providing it with plentiful topical relevance.
Grandma*** (USA, dir Paul Weitz)
Punchy and warm comedy in which Lily Tomlin excels as an ageing lesbian poet trying to help her granddaughter to get an abortion. Great cameo performances in support of Tomlin and a sparkling script make the film an unexpected pleasure. It runs for only 80 minutes and not a second is wasted.
High Rise** (UK, dir Ben Wheatley)
Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the upper middle level of a high rise apartment block occupied by a regal Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) in the opulent penthouse and a wild Mr Wilder (Luke Evans) at ground level. Get it? The biggest problems with this film are that the allegory is far too obvious and the narrative, showing the disintegration of a model society, is far too vague. Hiddleston plays it wooden, Irons and the rest ham it up and the only discernible moral seems to be that, when the apocalypse comes, we’ll all be listening to Abba. Wheatley produces some visual flourishes and there are neat touches of humour to hold off the tedium, but, too often, the film resorts to gratuitous sex and violence to gain our attention. An expensive, overblown mess.
Office ** (China/Hong Kong, dir Johnnie To)
A musical set in the Hong Kong business world by an action flick director and screened in 3D – it takes a while getting the mind around the concept and a dazzling opening, in which armies of workers enter high rise blocks that resemble modern palaces, raises hopes for a Busby Berkeley-style spectacle. Sadly, what follows is just a routine tale of ambition, greed, workplace politics and romance, with a few rather pleasant songs thrown in.
Suffragette**** (UK, dir Sarah Gavron)
Impressively mounted account of the fight for women’s suffrage in early 20th Century London, made all the more so because it looks at events from the perspective of a working class laundry worker and mother (Carey Mulligan) rather than from that of the regal and aloof Mrs Pankhurst (Meryl Streep obviously). Mulligan gives possibly her best ever performance, heading a stunning cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleason. Don’t say it too loud, but the moral of the film could be that terrorism is sometimes justified. That aside, who’s taking bets on the number of Oscar nominations?
Tangerine*** (USA, dir Sean Baker)
Following two transexual hookers and an Armenian cab driver on their intersecting paths around the seedier areas of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, Sean Baker’s film does not completely avoid feeling like a comic freak show, but its most memorable moments come when the underlying humanity rises to the surface.
The Club*** (Chile, dir Pablo Larrain)
Chilling Chilean film, set in a remote coastal town that becomes a sort of living purgatory for errant priests – homosexuals and child abusers. Murky cinematography creates hauntingly bleak images for a drama that is relentlessly cruel and often savage in questioning the teachings of the Catholic church.
The Lady in the Van*** (UK, dir Nicholas Hytner)
No doubt the presence of the Dowager Countess of Grantham slumming it as yellow van woman will gain most of the awards attention, but Alex Jennings is equally impressive, repeating his Alan Bennett turn, seen previously on the London stage. Otherwise Hytner’s film is amusing, but has little new to offer for those of us who saw Bennett’s play in the theatre.
Trumbo**** (USA, dir Jay Roach)
Worthy bio-pic of Dalton Trumbo, the American screenwriter blacklisted for communist sympathies in the 50s and 60s, who won two Oscars writing under pseudonyms. Bryan Cranston breaks good as the abrasive title character and Helen Mirren bites as the Queen of Mean, columnist Hedda Hopper. There is plenty for film buffs to chew over, with big names such as John Wayne, Edward G Robinson and Kirk Douglas passing through, although the inimitable Ronald Reagan is seen only as himself in newsreels. The film is slightly too long and meanders a little in its final third but it is still a searing indictment of American fascism in the McCarthy era and it will be interesting to see whether Hollywood has purged itself enough of its sins to feel able to include it in this year’s Oscar nominations.