1. Far from Men
Based on a short story by Albert Camus and set in the arid Atlas mountains of Algeria at the beginning of that nation’s war of independence, it is a movie that starkly examines the conflict between free will and fatalism. Viggo Mortensen, speaking French throughout, is Daru, a reclusive schoolteacher. Reda Karteb is Mohamed, the tribesman whom he must escort to a distant town where he will be tried and, in all likelihood, executed for murder. Its defiantly optimistic ending is as uplifting as any that you will have seen this year.
When it boils down to it, life’s journey for all of us is a solo trek, and sometimes we know we’ve got to do things without understanding why beforehand. Collaborating with the insightful Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby to bring Cheryl Strayed’s memoir to the screen, Reese Witherspoon walks the Pacific Crest Trail and along the way discovers who she is and realises that ‘you can never prepare for the unexpected’. To grasp that lesson can be as rewarding as any other that experience might teach us.
3. Love and Mercy
I saw this in, of all places, York (UK), but the radiance of Brian Wilson’s drug-addled California genius remained undiminished. Whether or not you agree with Paul McCartney that God Only Knows is ‘the most beautiful song ever written’, it’s hard to deny that the Beach Boys were one of the seminal groups of the sixties. Movies such as this stand or fall according to how successfully the nexus between the artist and his work is established – with an outstanding performance from Paul Dano as the young Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s brains it.
The Zeitgeist – it can give us wings just as easily as it can cripple us. An attempt by a faded Hollywood legend to re-invent himself on the Broadway stage results in a theatrical, wordy, at times claustrophobic movie that is ignited by a magic but brutal psychic realism and threaded with staggeringly complex and mesmeric tracking shots. A great comeback from Michael Keaton as Riggan, who is told bluntly by his daughter (Emma Stone) that “whatever you wanted they didn’t have”. Who has never felt that to be the case?
5. Miss You Already
Cancer – we’ve all been been touched in some way by the insidious disease. It’s not the cheeriest subject, but with two fine actresses at the top of their game, Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette, the universal pain of loss – and the anger that often accompanies it – is confronted with unblinking honesty. Among many critics it’s fashionable to deride sentiment, but when family or dear friends die the heart has no shield of cynicism to protect it. Fighting a losing battle is love’s sternest test and can ultimately results in its saddest triumph.
6. Far from the Madding Crowd
Of nineteenth-century novelists, few were as ‘cinematic’ as Thomas Hardy. Yet rarely has the bucolic light and shade of his ‘merely realistic dream county’ of Wessex been so pungently transferred to the screen as in Thomas Vinterberg’s movie. Melodrama was never totally absent from Hardy’s writing, but in the tangled story of the fiercely independent Bathsheba Everdene (who gave the heroine Catniss her surname) it is kept at bay by astonishing performances from Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen stepping out of his comfort zone as one of her suitors.
7. Inside Out
Not for the first time among recent releases, a feature-length cartoon displayed more intelligence and heart than countless films aimed at older audiences. Disney/Pixar Studios has led the way in the evolution of the new, CGI-enhanced animation, with both depth of characterisation and nuanced storytelling as constant components. Co-written and directed by Pete Docter, who was also at the helm of Up (2009), this is about a little girl coping with the emotional turmoil and uncertainty of moving to a new school and neighbourhood. Beautiful to look at and surprisingly moving.
8. Paper Planes
A kid and a dream – when that basic element is fleshed out with a soulful back-story involving characters that you care for, it’s all that’s needed to make a meaningful movie. Australian cinema is best when it doesn’t take its stylistic or thematic cues from others. Following that principle, director Robert Connolly came up with a little gem in telling of young Dylan’s ambition to compete in the world paper-plane flying championship in Japan. It’s an unlikely scenario, but Ed Oxenbould, Sam Worthington and Ena Imai create a romance of irresistible charm.
If you’ve ever doodled away countless hours in front a computer screen, you’ll be aware of how easy it is to be sucked into the parallel universe of links and likes and comments and shares. This is basically a whodunnit with dollops of schlock-horror, shot through the mirror of those computer screens. The viewer is led, like Pavlov’s dog, to follow the prompts and, as the eye flits rom one to the next, an unnerving narrative of the social network’s demonic power ensues. The medium is the message – and it’s got us by the balls.
10. What We Did on Our Holiday
Owning up to death, accepting it and properly acknowledging it is never easy – making a light-hearted movie about is even harder. Abi and Doug McLeod, as self-absorbed as any modern married couple, take the family to Scotland to celebrate grandad Gordy’s seventy-fifth birthday. It’s a last desperate fling before divorce proceedings begin, but Gordy – played with effortless warmth and nous by Billy Connolly – inspires their three wee children to perform a ceremony of heartbreaking beauty that will help mend the parents’ emotional wounds. I loved it to bits.
THE JOE COCKERS
The Dressmaker, Into the Woods, Unbroken, 50 Shades of Grey, Fast and Furious 7, Avengers 2, San Andreas, Ted 2, Pan, The Last Witch Hunter.