The familiar ritual, at this point of the year in the hinterland between Christmas and New year when I always feel more sofa than human I reach back over the year for the ten films that have stayed with me or made an impact for Directors Notes. I have spent 2015 either editing or filming – Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Indietracks and a new (for now) secret project. I also spent many months on the road showing Orion to audiences all over the world. It’s been a heady time and taking Orion home to Selma, Alabama was a stand out. I will never forget standing outside the theater that Oprah had hired to premiere Selma, talking to the Pastor and Jim Ellis JR pulling up in a white stretch hummer. The screening was filled with people who had known Jimmy “Orion” Ellis all his life and the tears started before the film did. It was an incredible, emotional evening and I will remember it for the rest of my life. Just two days after returned to the UK the film played on BBC Storyville and a few weeks later won a BIFA. After six years on and off making the film it has been incredibly heartening that the film has gone into the world and has found an audience.
My top ten this year is even more documentary dominated than usual, possibly as I’ve been to so many doc festivals but also because there are just so many good docs being made and getting out there. I’ve watched some brilliant television but I know what as stickler MarBelle is for the rules [Yes indeed!] so I’ve not even tried to sneak any of the following into my top ten – Unreal (my favourite TV of the year), Hannibal, The Knick, The Bridge (Oh Saga!) or the musical drama and glamour of Empire and Nashville. But if I could, you know I would.
Ten also feels too few to fit in the films that lie outside of the rules because they weren’t released this year but their impact lingers. Films like seeing the 35mm print of The Philadelphia Story on Valentine’s day, being at the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club at SXSW with Molly Ringwald and Allie Sheedy, the chilling and atmospheric live reading of an previously unfilmed Hammer Horror script – The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula at Mayhem Film Festival, Nottingham, the chaotic and poetic Approaching the Elephant by Amanda Rose Wilder and watching Tchoupitoulas by the Ross Brothers as I stayed on that very street in New Orleans, LA.
And so to my official top ten:
10. THE CLOSER WE GET – Karen Guthrie
Artist and filmmaker Karen Guthrie has taken her ordinary yet extraordinary family and woven a portrait of love, hope, betrayal and heartbreak in this searingly intimate documentary. Every family has its secrets and lies and Guthrie holds a mirror to our personal maelstroms through her own and it digs deep. Watch and then hold your family close.
9. LOVE AND MERCY – Bill Pohlad
Not one but two Brian Wilsons in this film depicting the making of Pet Sounds and subsequent breakdown. It could have all been terrible but the gamble pays off brilliantly with Paul Dano and John Cusack shuffling Wilson and his idiosyncrasies to the screen. Like Cobain: Montage of Heck, it vividly brings the moment of musical creation to life without cliché. Don good headphones or sit right in the centre of the cinema to make the most of the best sound design I heard all year.
8. THE LOBSTER – Yorgos Lanthimos
You have 45 days to find a partner or you are changed to the animal of your choosing forever. Yorgos Lanthimos follows up 2009’s Dogtooth (and 2011’s Alps) with another bonkers but believable alternative universe. I loved losing myself in it.
7. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL – Marielle Heller
Minnie is feisty, funny, makes pioneering moves and mistakes aplenty as she figures out who she is in this entertaining coming of age film. At its heart atmospheric animation and a brilliant central performance from Bel Powley. Baffling that the BBFC gave it an 18 certificate, this is exactly the sort of film I wish I could have seen when I was a teenager and plan to show to my own daughter when she hits her teens.
6. MAGIC MIKE XXL – Gregory Jacobs
The most fun I’ve had in a cinema all year – who doesn’t want to see Channing Tatum as a ripped, dancing pied piper of older male strippers on one last road trip? You’re welcome.
5. HEART OF A DOG – Laurie Anderson
Grief, love and childhood truths wrapped up in a Laurie Anderson riddle. A beautiful dream.
4. COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK – Brett Morgen
I’m old enough to have seen Nirvana live twice, to have sung to Frances Bean when she was born while Kurt flounced in a gown at Reading Festival and to have fallen in love with, then had my heart broken by Teesside’s answer to Kurt Cobain long ago. I put my love for the band and that time in my life away in a box. Montage of Heck unlocked those lost memories in an utterly atmospheric ride and I fell down the rabbit hole into one man’s flawed and amazing life.
3. CAROL – Todd Haynes
Carol is a heaving bosom of a film – a Douglas Sirk-esque melodrama helmed expertly by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, revived (thankfully) without irony for 2015. All in the shared looks and small moments, exquisitely realised, quietly and passionately explosive.
2. DREAMCATCHER – Kim Longinotto
Kim Longinotto shows why she is the master of British documentary as we follow Brenda, a Dolly Parton-esque figure, all wigs, nails and positivity as she reaches out to vulnerable young women in Chicago at risk through her Dreamcatcher foundation and in parallel unflinchingly tells us her own story (as a former prostitute). The film is brutal, heartbreaking and tender. Longinotto told me her films are always about “underdogs becoming heroes” and Dreamcatcher is vividly so, and is in my opinion her finest film to date. Seek it out.
1. IN TRANSIT – Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles’ last film is a journey fuelled by love and intimacy, in my view the best kind of documentary filmmaking. Maysles, along with four co-directors travel on Amtrak’s’ Empire Builder, the busiest long distance train route in America. As the train moves onwards we meet and spend time with a ramshackle cast of “real people” sharing a moment of intimacy with them on their journey in the space between destinations. The revelations range from the mundane to the life changing as we meet people we would never meet in our life but feel at once familiar. It’s everything I want from a documentary and a fitting final chapter for a man who loved strangers passionately.