A Hard-Knock Year: 2015 in cinema, for Tribune
As you may have already heard from other quarters, the finest and most remarkable wide-release film of 2015 was, perhaps surprisingly, a futuristic, action-packed science-fiction extravaganza, made with American money but largely shot in southern Africa—and with a bizarrely-coiffed South African blonde as female lead—running a few seconds over 120 minutes, hitting our multiplexes in the first half of the year. But while George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is popping up at or near the head of so many lists just now— in September it even won the Grand Prix awarded by international film-critics’ organisation Fipresci— future generations may well look back and wonder why Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie was so widely underappreciated.
Like Fury Road—a belated quasi-follow-up to 1986’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—Chappie has at least one foot in the mid-80s, wittily fusing Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) and John Badham’s Short Circuit (1986) with its story of a law-enforcement android developing consciousness while becoming entangled in the wilder fringes of the Johannesburg crime scene. It’s a spectacular return to form—and home turf—for Blomkamp, who scored a surprise international hit with his aliens-in-Joburg feature-debut District 9 (2009), surely the weirdest film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Blomkamp then endured the dreaded “sophomore slump” with the Los Angeles-set, Matt Damon-starring Elysium (2013), a messy affair which for all its faults can, with its universal-healthcare subtext, at least be hailed as Hollywood’s first genuinely socialist blockbuster. Elysium was also noteworthy for a spectacularly barnstorming performance of gloriously exaggerated villainy by Sharlto Copley, relishing every syllable of his Afrikaans-accented dialogue and confirming that the freakish achievement of his entirely improvised central turn on District 9—the first time he’d acted since his school days—was actually no fluke.
The Copley-Blomkamp collaboration, perhaps the closest present-day equivalent to Scorsese/De Niro and Carpenter/Russell, continued with Chappie, in which the actor “plays” Chappie by means of the motion-capture technology most closely associated with Andy Serkis, his vocal contributions winningly tracing the robot brain’s rapid development from infancy to delinquent post-adolescence. This unusual trajectory is a result of Chappie being kidnapped for nefarious purposes by an outlaw couple played—in a startlingly audacious casting-coup—by ‘Ninja’ and ‘Yo-Landi’ (born Watkin Tudor-Jones and Anri Du Toit) of real-life South African rap outfit Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for ‘the response’).
Putting Die Antwoord so very front and centre in (as well as all over the soundtrack of) a picture which otherwise adheres to “traditional” and international casting—Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver all feature prominently—is the wild-card element which, not least by means of the off-kilter comedy that results, propels Chappie into the very front rank of mainstream entertainments. Blomkamp finds himself occupying that elusive terrain where commercial cinema intersects with intelligent, even philosophical speculation—timely indeed, with Verhoeven and David Cronenberg now both well into their eighth decades. Knee-jerk rejected by many critics—bafflingly keen to knock Blomkamp down a further peg following the Elysium disappointment—Chappie has no shortage of passionate defenders, most notably William Gibson and Stephen King. And, while undeniably polarising, the picture continues to steadily amass new fans via DVD and TV exposure. It’s available for less than a tenner from your friendly local home-entertainment emporium and is an ideal stocking-filler for the oddball cinephile in your life.
Chappie, like many of 2015’s most notable UK releases and premieres—and like District 9 and Elysium—pungently and profitably explores urban and quasi-urban spaces of the hard-knock variety. Pick of the bunch in terms of brand-new work: Jonathan Perel’s Toponymy, a magesterial “structural” documentary surveying a quartet of villages built by the Argentine military in the 1970s to house, contain and quell rebellious folk from the mountains. But with the post-2008 ‘crisis’ continuing to ravage the lives of the less well-off all over the world and reactionary voices in the ascendant, film-makers need only venture a few hundred yards from their cosy middle-class apartments to find ample material.
Tsai Ming Liang chronicles a family eking out an existence amid the pseudo-affluence of modern-day Taiwan in the digital epic Stray Dogs—one of the few truly great films of the century so far—which finally obtained some measure of a UK release nearly two years after its Venice debut. Another better-late-than-never instance: the recently-deceased Russian master Alexey German’s monochrome sci-fi phantasmagoria Hard To Be A God, built around a towering central performance from the gloweringly ursine Leonid Yarmolnik.
With its quasi-medieval parade of everyday cruelties that might give even Daesh pause, Hard To Be A God (based on a novel by the brothers who wrote Roadside Picnic, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker) is a live contender for the title of the decade’s best horror film— alongside David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a relatively “orthodox” shocker that makes terrific use of run-down Detroit locales. Ah, those hard-knock urban spaces!
Not that social exclusion applies only to inner cities: the challenges facing semi-rural France—in the news just now thanks to the Front National’s alarming popularity in certain disadvantaged areas—provide the backdrop for a brace of pictures which received grudgingly limited exposure in UK arthouses. Bruno Dumont’s cockeyed comedy P’tit Quinquin, shot in the Nord-Pas de Calais region where Marine Le Pen is currently flourishing, was made for the small screen but proved sufficiently ‘cinematic’ to draw audiences on peripatetic release.
Jean-Charles Hue’s The Dorkels—an off-putting English-language title for the picture shown in France as Mange tes morts—got a much rawer deal, but the story of a crime-inclined Roma family on the far outskirts of Paris confirms (in the wake of 2011’s La BM du Seigneur aka The Lord’s Ride) Hue as perhaps the best French director you’ve never heard of. Looking even further to the margins, however, do remember the name Isabel Pagliai. Her 22-minute debut Isabella Morra, a clear-eyed, empathetic, aesthetically striking engagement with housing-estate kids in Boulogne, popped up with little fanfare at Amsterdam’s giant documentary festival in November but immediately barged its way into your correspondent’s personal pantheon for 2015. Vive la France!
December 9th, 2015
written for Tribune magazine