A dozen of this year's finest cinematic obscurities, oddities and outliers
With more and more films vying for space on our cinema screens and Netflix lists, there are more and more inevitably slipping under the radar. Some perhaps enjoyed a limited theatrical release, but others didn’t even get that luxury.
Below is a list of a dozen films that deserved a bigger audience in 2015 - frankly, we could fill out the list with another dozen or two choices. Thankfully, the prevalence of online shopping and video on demand means most of these are now relatively easily accessible - or are soon to be easily accessible. Not every film on this list will appeal to everybody, but hey isn’t that part of the joy of an artform as diverse as cinema? Still: give some of these a go, and they might just surprise you...
Don Hertzfeldt is easily American animation’s MVP at the moment, producing works overflowing with formal ingenuity, inspired ideas and deep emotional resonances. World of Tomorrow - bridging the gap between the astonishing It’s Such a Beautiful Day and Hertzfeldt’s next feature - isn’t even 20 minutes long. However it’s little exaggeration to say it packs more creativity into its short running time than an entire year’s worth of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters. Hilarious, strange, dark, poignant, profound, imaginative and philosophically complex, it is above all a genuine pleasure to watch. Not bad for a film considerably shorter than an episode of The Simpsons.
Noah Baumbach’s second film of the year made up for the wildly uneven While We’re Young. Mistress America is a spiritual successor to Baumbach’s superb Frances Ha, and while they’re both very different films, they make for a great pair that play off each other in a few curious ways. The director’s co-writer, muse and partner Greta Gerwig is back on board, playing Brooke - a kind of world wearier variation on Frances from the earlier film. Gerwig’s capably backed by relative newcomer Lola Kirke, who plays a young college student fascinated by the ‘high life’ being lived by her soon-to-be sister-in-law Brooke. But Brooke’s ‘perfect life’ does not always match up to her seemingly endless supplies of enthusiasm. The frantic pacing is at times reminiscent of a classic screwball comedy - especially during an extended trip to a friend’s country home. But it’s a smart film too, understated and nuanced where While We’re Young came across as broad and confused.
Mistress America is available to buy/rent on VOD platforms, and will be available on DVD next year
Loud, aggressive, relentless: just some of the words one could use to describe Sean Baker’s electrifying Tangerine. It’d be hard to find a film quite so ‘in-your-face’ - perhaps the Crank films? - but don’t take that as a negative. The film’s incredible energy - enhanced by the fact it was shot entirely on an iPhone, giving everything a jittery urgency - makes this stand out from the crowd, and then some. But as the film and characters move through the streets of downtown LA, it becomes clear Tangerine is also a strikingly human film. It’s an important step forward for the portrayal of transgender characters in American independent cinema, but also noteworthy for treating all its characters - prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts, sex buyers - as human beings with their own flaws, passions, motivations and frustrations. Where other films are alarmist or simplistic, Tangerine feels refreshingly honest and affectionate.
Tangerine will be available on DVD and VOD in March.
Andrew Bujalski - primarily known for his low-to-no budget, ‘realistic’ character studies (part of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ genre) - surprised his fans with the bizarre, experimental and riotously funny Computer Chess a few years ago. Here his career takes another unexpected turn with what could best be described as a fairly traditional ‘rom-com’. Don’t fear: Bujalski has quite elegantly made the transition to the more mainstream arena. This is still a weird, left-of-centre piece of work that does impressive things within the confines of a bigger budget, a more commercial genre and a better known cast (the lead trio - Guy Pearse, Cobie Smulders and Kevin Corrigan - are excellent). Consistently witty and thoughtfully observed, this is not Bujalski’s best work to date - but it’s a perfect introduction to one of American independent cinema’s more underappreciated directors.
Results is available on Netflix, DVD and VOD
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was a truly rattling cinema experience - a shocking, surreal and disquieting documentary focusing on the men responsible for mass killings in Indonesia, and who have enjoyed positions of power ever since. His follow up, The Look of Silence, is an immensely powerful follow-up. It turns the tables, this time approaching the perpetrators from a victim’s perspective. Less showy than its predecessor, TLS is however the more artfully crafted film, making use of visuals and sound in a way documentary cinema rarely does. While there are fewer explicitly ‘outrageous’ moments here, it remains an emotionally taxing piece of work. Few viewers will be left unshaken by some of the revelations here. Most importantly, Oppenheimer’s film is a call for action - a vital exploration of atrocities that appear to have gone almost entirely unpunished.
The Look of Silence is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD
The filmmaking ban imposed upon acclaimed director Jafar Panahi by authorities in his native Iran has rightly provoked an international outcry. Panahi, however, has used the opportunity to challenge, provoke and experiment with a series of brilliant, formally subversive “non” films (the first of which was helpfully called This is Not a Film). Two of them reached Irish shores this year: Closed Curtain - co-directed by Kambuzia Partovi - and Taxi Tehran. They’re both essential viewing, but the latter is especially recommended. It’s shot entirely inside a taxi, with Panahi posing as a cab driver. Cheekily distorting the lines between documentary, surveillance and fiction, there’s obviously pent up frustration and anger in a (non) film that subtly but powerfully critiques many aspects of Iranian society. But it’s also warm, affectionate and very funny - it’s significantly enlivened by the larger-than-life characters that hitch a ride in Panahi’s cab over the course of a long, busy afternoon.
Closed Curtain is available on DVD and VOD
Taxi Tehran will be available on DVD and VOD in February
Cult Swedish director Roy Andersson turned in perhaps his best work yet this year, accompanied by one of the most brilliantly unwieldy titles of recent times. A Pigeon… takes Andersson’s idiosyncratic sense of humour, surreal visual eye and absurd social satire to another level. It’s the sort of film that can be crushingly melancholic and riotously hilarious in the space of a single shot, and it’s never less than hypnotically other-worldly and beautiful. The only thing like it is Roy Andersson’s other work - this wraps up a loose trilogy of the finest deadpan cinema around.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD
On the surface, Phoenix looks like a relatively middle-of-the-road historical drama, but don’t let that fool you: it’s something very special indeed. Holocaust survivor Nelly (played brilliantly by Nina Hoss, recently seen in the latest season of Homeland) returns to postwar Berlin after undergoing radical reconstructive surgery on her face. She tracks down her estranged husband, who believed his wife died in a concentration camp. What plays out is a strange but thrilling psychological drama. The comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo are not unwarranted, with some thought provoking ruminations on identity, loss and memory. It’s the ending though that elevates Phoenix to the stratosphere, boasting the most emotionally devastating final scene of the year (OK: maybe tied with Carol).
Phoenix is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD
The rapping is awful, the story a complete mess, and the whole thing overdosed on testosterone - but Tokyo Tribe is still one hell of a ride. Cult Japanese director Sion Sono churns out movies at an alarming rate, often to the films’ detriment, but when they’re as endearingly off-the-wall as this is it’s hard to complain. Silly, gaudy, violent and thoroughly entertaining, imagining a gangster rap musical version of The Warriors dialled up past eleven will give you a rough idea of what to expect here. It’s also a harsh critique and/or affectionate celebration of hyper-masculinity run wild. And unlike last Sono’s last film - the equally loony Why Don’t You Play in Hell? - this one actually got an Irish release.
Tokyo Tribe is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD
It was a superb year for Irish cinema - from the absolutely delightful Song of the Sea, to the international success of Brooklyn, and even some arthouse gems like The Great Wall. But special mention should be given to Patrick’s Day - Terry McMahon’s moving, intelligent but admirably unsentimental drama. It’s particularly worthwhile highlighting the stellar performances from all three leads (Moe Dunford, Kerry Fox and Catherine Walker). McMahon’s previous film Charlie Casanova was divisive to say the least, but Patrick’s Day is highly recommended even for those left cold by that earlier film.
Patrick’s Day is available on DVD and VOD
Bear with me for a moment - a bit of context is required. In 2001, it was reported by several media outlets that a Japanese woman had died in Minnesota while searching for the money buried in the (fictional, obviously) film Fargo. While a young woman did die in Minnesota in tragic circumstances - the actual story is recounted in a short documentary helpfully entitled This is a True Story - it was not, however, a result of the Coen Brothers film. Nonetheless the distorted version of the story ended up becoming an urban legend, and it’s that urban legend that inspires Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.
A knowledge of the background story helps here, because Kumiko is a beguiling, tricky piece of work. It is in essence a reflection on the infamously cheeky false disclaimer at the start of Fargo that ‘this is a true story’, and offers plenty of thought-provoking themes and ideas on the subject. It’s held together by a truly impressive performance from Rinko Kikuchi - often the go-to choice when a Japanese actress is required for an international production, but here showing what she’s capable of when working with a strong script and a talented director (David Zellner, who co-wrote the script with his brother Nathan). As a bonus layer of metaness (there’s quite a few already), Kumiko was coyly referenced in the latest - and superb - season of the Fargo television show. The increasingly extended universe being built around Fargo is a surprisingly complex but fascinating one…
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD