The New Year at the Movies

If the disturbing and deplorable hacking of Sony’s computers is intended to cripple the film industry and limit freedom of expression, the quality and variety of films released this month, made by and starring talent over 50, should have the opposite effect.

One of the top films of 2015 is 51-year-old Mexican Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman – a film as technically innovative as it is brilliantly written and acted.  Michael Keaton plays 60-something Riggan Thomson, the former Hollywood star of the blockbuster ‘Birdman’ franchise – cue in Keaton’s own 1989 success as Batman – whose career has dried up.

Despite innumerable set-backs and risk, Riggan is determined to reinvent himself as a serious Broadway writer/director/actor with his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Riggan’s biggest obstacle is his die-hard alter-ego: the voice (and sometimes body) of Birdman himself, who refuses to relinquish his celebrity and youth.  Iñárritu’s best film since Amores Perros, Birdman is also his first in which hilarious comic touches enhance a tragic downward spiral.

Also on January 1 is The Theory of Everything, James March’s biopic of cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde Hawking, based on her book.

The reason to see the film (which is not nearly as informative as the 2013 documentary Hawking) is Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-tipped portrayal of Hawking and Felicity Jones as the self-effacing, physically and emotionally exhausted wife and mother behind the celebrity husband.

January 9th offers an impossible choice.  Writer/Director Bennett Miller imbues true American stories (Capote, Moneyball) with a haunting metaphorical undercurrent.  Foxcatcher, with Oscar-worthy performances from Steve Carell as billionaire industrialist John du Pont, and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic boxing champions and brothers, is a tension-packed drama about power, control and how childhood shapes our adult personalities and decisions.

Rob Marshall’s (Chicago, Nine) film adaptation of 84-year-old Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is also about impressionable children.  Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s wonderful songs are showcased by a host of film stars who really can sing.

Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and James Corden are less surprising, perhaps, than the comic duet between the two princes: romcom and action heroes Chris Pine (Star Trek, ) and Billy Magnussen. This amalgam of intertwining Grimm fairy tales cleverly transforms into a reflection on parental responsibility.

Frederick Wiseman may be 84, but his 39th documentary, National Gallery, clocking in at 3 hours, breezes by as one of his best yet.  London’s own National Gallery is documented by Wiseman’s unique lens, without narration or music.

Art lovers are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at museum management and restoration, along with absorbing talks before selected masterpieces. Older than Wiseman at 89, Director Claude Lanzmann’s enduring talent and stamina is no less impressive.

If Shoah was a tragedy about death, The Last of the Unjust is about life and survival: the miraculous survival of Judaism and of Benjamin Murmelstein.

Murmelstein was the former President of the Nazi-engineered Jewish Council of Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia), a horrific ‘model ghetto’ for elderly and infirm Jews.

Lanzmann, who originally interviewed Murmelstein in 1975 for Shoah, combines this unused interview footage with new footage to restore Murmelstein’s reputation as a courageous saviour of Jews. He debunks the myths that have made Murmelstein a pariah in Europe and Israel and provides new insights into the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution.’

On January 16th, James Kent’s engrossing adaptation of Vera Brittain’s sprawling, feminist take on WWII, Testament of Youth, makes a nice contrast to the claustrophobic, contemporary two-hander Whiplash.

American Writer/Director Damien Chazelle’s battle of wills between a Jewish jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistically abusive teacher (59-year-old J.K. Simmons) is an engrossing drama, but leaves you imagining what an Ofsted Report would have made of it.

The film might annoy jazz purists, but composer Hank Levy’s Whiplash will be hard to shake off.

Liam Neeson, 62, is back in Taken 3, while two great French films from the late 1980s get a re-issue: Louis Malle’s autobiographical Au Revoir Les Enfants and Eric Rohmer’s magical romance, The Green Ray.

The film, which will be shown at selected cinemas, kick starts a welcome two-month BFI Rohmer retrospective.

Joyce Glasser, MT film reviewer