The seasonal furore around list-making is almost upon us again, as polls and rankings seek to quantify how the year shaped up cinematically, but all-too-often, the realm of smaller, arthouse fare can get drowned out in all the noise. To counteract the volume of the mainstream, we present our pick of under-the-radar films that made a big impressions on the global festival circuit in 2015, and which are yet to hit UK screens in the coming months.
My Golden Days
Proving that there is still no-one who can nail the ache of faltering love like the French is Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes. Paul Dedalus (Quentin Dolmaire) is an anthropologist who recounts the student years of his life in ‘80s Paris in extended nostalgic flashback, from his first naive foray into political activism to his tumultuous romance with attention-hungry, fragile Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The subtle complexity of their shifting dynamic is the real backbone of this coming-of-ager, with an emotional resonance that has no use for any aggressive stylistic showboating.
Blood of My Blood
Inventive flair and idiosyncratic humour worked a charm for Venice highlight Blood of My Blood, by veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio. In the 17th Century, a nun is walled up alive after seducing a priest and his army officer brother. The film flips from stately gloom to irreverent vampire comedy as, in the garish modern world, a nouveau riche ferrari-driving Russian tries to buy the decrepit convent, disturbing the vampire hiding out there. The end sequence, featuring a choral version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and one of the year’s most interesting manifestations of the dignified, defiant power of female sexuality, is worth the film alone.
The Childhood of a Leader
One of Venice’s biggest surprises was the first foray into directing of indie actor Brady Corbet. The winner of the Debut Film award, The Childhood of a Leader is an ambitious adaptation of a Sartre story that combines elegant gloom with wicked humour and an over-the-top plot. In the painterly shadows of a French country chateau, a future fascist dictator (an unnervingly intense Tom Sweet) develops from malicious brat to full-fledged monster, terrorising his mother (Bérénice Bejo) and French tutor (Stacy Martin). Robert Pattinson pops up as a politico, but the most revelatory thing is Scott Walker’s ominous and inspired, thundering score.
A visually ravishing, stately wuxia epic set in ninth-century China, The Assassin won Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien the best director award at Cannes this year. Shu Qi plays a lethal, black-clad assassin taken from her family at the age of ten and trained to take out corrupt officials. Still susceptible to her own human pangs of mercy, she is sent on a mission designed to rid her of all pity and hesitation in going in for the kill. The elegantly restrained and opaque take on the martial-arts movie unfurls its precise choreography in an aesthetically rigorous world of brilliant green forests and sumptuous interiors.
The Assassin is out in the UK on 22 January 2016.
Armrest-clenching adrenaline and the impulsivity of Berlin’s “anything goes” hedonism combine with technical virtuosity in Sebastian Schipper’s impressive arthouse twist on the heist movie. In one long, exhilarating take in real time through 22 locations and with a pounding electronic soundtrack by Nils Frahm Victoria reels us along with a Spanish ex-pat (Laia Costa) from a night out clubbing into a bank robbery with sensitive tough Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his friends. As Victoria vicariously clutches at a sense of belonging, she taps a whole new side of her nature set to surprise everyone, in this Berlinale-premiered hit.
Victoria is out in the UK on 29 April 2016.
Russian master Alexander Sokurov’s lyrical, multi-layered meditation on the way in which we have imagined Europe is like a companion piece to his technically astonishing 2002 Russian Ark, which in a single, unedited shot followed a narrator ghost through St Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Francofonia roams through another of the world’s most revered museums, the Paris Louvre, to explore its preservation activities under Nazi occupation and the the cultural legacy of wartime hoards of artworks. Resonances with Europe’s current situation are rich in this docu-fantasia or cinema-poem, one of the highlights of Venice.
Heaven Knows What
Tapping into a tradition of raw New York street films from the ‘70s such as Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer and Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park is the latest from brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie. A gritty tale of love between two struggling young junkies living a moment-to-moment existence, Heaven Knows What is based on the experience of star and former homeless addict Arielle Holmes, and also stars Caleb Landry Jones. Its episodic, visceral style embodies a fierce, gut-driven authenticity and flair increasingly hard to find in US indies.
Heaven Knows What has been picked up for 2016 UK release, with no set date.
Gabriel Mascaro’s surrealism-tinged Neon Bull is set in a vaquejada, a flamboyant and male-dominated kind of rodeo in the north-east of Brazil. Subverting gender expectations in fresh and challenging ways, it was another of Venice’s highlights. From a cowboy with fashion-design ambitions to an exotic dancer who performs in an equine mask and horse-hoof boots and her precocious, wilful daughter, its cast of characters dream away their dead-end existences, as the muscular bulls themselves add to the director’s fascination with physical bodies, and sexual encounters offer temporary escape.
Son of Saul
Awarded at Cannes and now mooted as an Oscar contender, Son of Saul is the riskily innovative feature debut of Hungary’s László Nemes, a former assistant director to master of formal rigour and philosophical weight Bela Tarr. A hellish assault of sense impressions that strives for a new language in depicting the Holocaust, it immerses us in the traumatised disconnect of a prisoner working the crematoriums at Auschwitz as he goes about his tasks as a cog in the industrialised killing machine. In the blur and din of its shallow-focus nightmarescape flares a light of spiritual hope, as he seeks to bury the body of a child he believes to be his son.
Son of Saul is released in the UK on 1 April 2016.
The less you know about the plot of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room before seeing it, the more its twists will hit. Suffice it to say that the film is one of the year’s revelations, ramping up suspense to hard-to-bear levels but finding its core in an emotionally hammering depiction of the possibility of hope surviving in the most arid of circumstances, even as it sets out the isolation of healing trauma amid those unable to fathom its dark places. An 11-by-11-foot cramped shed is the terrain in which a mother’s imagination must create inner survival in this adaptation from an Emma Donaghue novel, carried by an astonishing performance from Brie Larson.
Room is released in the UK on 15 January 2016.