Matthew Lee on the overlooked summer gems of 2015…
As the summer season officially draws to a close, which, for most studios, means an end to the blockbuster bonanza (though, once again, Warner Bros. are going against the grain as they release Pan in October. Didn’t Jupiter Ascending’s reception teach them anything?). During this cluster of huge box office draws, there were a few little gems that may have slipped by some people. As such, this list, in no chronology of pertinence, will readdress these great movies, and highlight what many may have missed out as they instead opted for the spectacle.
Note: These films were released in the UK between 1st June – 31st August.
10. The Look of Silence
Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing has an optometrist named Adi confront the men responsible for the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s. His brother, whom he had only heard of by his mother, was an accused communist during this military dictatorship, and was consequently tortured and killed. The perpetrators went unpunished, and the anti-communist rhetoric/propaganda is still being taught in the optician’s local school.
Oppenheimer’s predecessor focused on the perpetrators who lived a life of luxury, were exonerated of all their crimes, and spoke flippantly, even gleefully, of their violent actions. It’s a harrowing insight into one’s own morality when given such unabashed State control. The Look of Silence, conversely, flips this gaze through the perspective of a victim via proxy. Furthermore, witnessing the leftover propaganda from that era in a contemporary setting strongly highlights this issue is far from over.
The true intimate moments, and conflicting emotional responses, reside in the interviews conducted by Adi whom speaks frankly to them about of the era. As Adi’s given archival footage of Oppenheimer’s prior conducted interviews, circa 2003-2005, the victim’s gaze is given greater context of contemporary Indonesia, whereas the aforementioned mercenaries live with such freedom, they are unable to live beyond their limited reality.
The series of uncomfortable interviews and the fear on both sides makes this for compelling viewing.
9. Hard to be a God
Russian sci-fi is notorious for its dense plot, indecipherable musings, and grand ideas; and this film is no exception. A band of scientists are sent to another planet identical to that of Earth, and encounter its inhabitants. Its society and culture is 800 years behind, for they have suppressed the Renaissance, and have murdered anyone considered an intellectual. Therefore, the scientists are there to simultaneously observe this stagnant culture and to help progress it beyond its own middle/dark ages. One of the scientists, under the pseudonym Rumata, has taken the role as a nobleman and infiltrates the kingdom of Arkanar; here, popular opinion is divided, for some view him as a God, whereas others view his as a demon.
The synopsis is all present in the opening narration, and our introduction to Rumata who is seen playing a clarinet as he awakes in his chambers surrounded by poverty, mud, piss, shit, vomit, snot, et al. allows the audience to be transcended to an entirely different planet. This is something that very few filmmakers managed to achieve.
For the following three hours, it follows Rumata as he desperately tries to salvage and protect any intellectuals remaining, whilst never directly interfering with their natural order. This balancing act lends itself to the title, but it offers much more that an intellectual discourse on the importance of societal evolution. It’s more of a visceral experience as one attempt’s to piece together the lingo, the cultural signifiers, and the civil order of an alien planet that only partially adheres to ours.
The degradation, the disgust, and the pungent visuals are more than simply shock value, but to emphasize a culture that’s cannibalizing itself. For those yearning for an alternative sci-fi film, this is a noteworthy and grand undertaking.
8. Song of the Sea
This Oscar nominated animated feature was finally released to UK cinemas this summer, and it has been worthwhile wait. This fantasy film follows a young Irish boy named Ben who, along with his mute sister Saoirse, is sent away to their grandmothers. Ben wishes to reunite with his sheepdog Cu, and to be home with his father Bronagh (Brendan Gleeson), who’s a broken man following the abrupt disappearance of his wife/their mother. It is soon discovered Saoirse is a Selkie – a mythological creature that is a seal in the ocean, but sheds it exteriors to be human on land. It is up to her and Ben to save the Faerie’s from a band of owls, which are under the command of a Macha – an all-powerful mythological goddess – to cease their emotions and to turn them into stone.
Its execution in conveying these Celtic/Gaelic folklores in a contemporary setting is magically po-faced. The film never attempts to give lengthy expository back story to these folklores – only to contextualize them within the narrative – and instead allows the warm majesty to carry the story. As one that is wholly unfamiliar with the signifiers of these characters and motifs within the folklore, never was I lost in following the plot.
The hand drawn animation embeds in the film’s era of 1981 as well its Celtic roots. Its primary objective is to mimic Ben’s animated diary, and to fixate the narrative in its fantastical setting.
Song of the Sea’s greatest charm resides in the character portrayals of Ben and Saoirse, and their on-screen relationship, for they convey the conflicting emotions most sibling rivalries experience. Ben is cruel like a jealous and embittered older sibling, but whenever Saoirse expresses genuine hurt or fear he is sorrowful. Saoirse, conversely, with her limited dialogue, conveys an array of emotions from explorative curiosity to unconditional respect for Ben – though, she does at times rebel. These nuances, which were supported by preteen test audiences rather than their adult counterparts, make this a wholesome family picture.
It’s a visually stunning and imaginative warm picture that could easily rival the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks.
7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The titular teenage girl Minnie (Bel Powley) begins in voice of narration, ‘Today I had sex. Holy shit!’ This catapults the audience into a space of frank openness about sexual awakening, losing one’s virginity, and all the complex emotions that begin to rise during this early period; it is also noteworthy that she is 15. This edge isn’t there for shock value, or for the film to judge harshly against its protagonist, but to explore honestly, under the coming-of-age genre, the complexity of both the aforementioned themes, as well as its period. The 1970s were terribly naïve when it came to pedophilia, and this film shines a light onto it without contemporary attitudes. Instead, the film’s gaze is through Minnie as she attempts to make sense of the world, and her emotions. It’s all done with part cringe-comedy, and part frank drama.
Minnie manages to seduce her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Once this has been established, Minnie and Monroe continue the affair unbeknownst her mother Charlotte. Monroe absolves all guilt, proclaiming Minnie is a nymph, and Charlotte actually encourages her own teenage daughter to flaunt her physique a little. Throughout the film, Minnie, an aspiring animator, attempts to make sense of all this through her drawings and her diary via a Dictaphone. These give the audience plenty of insight into her position in this liberal 70s bohemian culture, and her process from naiveté to a mature understanding. It’s funny, it’s honest, and it’s non-judgmental, which makes this a refreshing coming-of-age film in an otherwise formulaic and tired genre.
6. Dear White People
This satire about black students at the prestigious Ivy League Winchester University that is predominantly white, tackles the elephant(s) in room of race, class, and interracial relationships. Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a radio show Dear White People highlighting race issues, and is the leader of the university’s Black Movement. After she wins an election for head of house Armstrong/Parker, beating her ex-boyfriend Troy (Brandon Bell), tensions rise. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a gay black student writing for the student paper, and is hired to write a piece on Sam and the experiences of being black at Winchester University.
The ensemble ensures the black gaze is given a variety of positions, which makes the core issue of identity in the falsified post-racial America – the words of filmmaker Justin Simien – more complex and dynamic. It ranges from the political to the personal, and how these are in constant conflict when one is discovering one’s identity in a particular environment. Furthermore, it ensures the discussion is pushed further, and to not be content with the current standards of racial portrayal in popular culture.
Its humor is scathing, enlightening, and, at times, very warm. This gently glides the audience into a space where such discussions can be done with frankness and wit. The lengthy diatribes by Sam are some of the key highlights where the themes are presented to the audience for further discussion.
The climactic black-face party by a number of white students greatly highlights the issues of “irony” when portraying overt stereotyping. This reception by the black students has two-sides, which best summarizes the issues of race in contemporary America – and, arguably, for many other Western cultures. For those wanting a humorous and intelligent discussion of race and class, one needn’t look further this summer.