After getting a head-start on movies that may well be on my 2016 best of list at this year’s Sundance, and much thought and contemplation putting a closing all-encompassing closing thought on the recently departed year of films of 2015 is as it turns out not an easy job. Many of the movies listed below are about two people coming together, leading to everything from romantic bonding to intense bickering to self-discovery. The key through-line seemingly was relationships, from the intimate to abrasive, acting as touchstones for many of the best films from last year.
Many film-goers have declared it is one of the finest years in cinematic history (the box office numbers would support that notion), others say it was simply a ‘good’ not ‘great’ year and others still are more ‘meh’ to it. My own take is that this past year had far more ‘Quality’ films to enjoy than in previous years, but very few ‘Wow’ movies for myself that completely blew me away, i.e. Ida, Boyhood, Whiplash. However, even though I believe that only the two top in this list could hold a candle to any of the top five or six from 2014, I also think this might have the strongest top 10 of any previous years I’ve done this. Make of that what you may. So I wanted to exemplify this notion by listing more films than usual as there were quite a many films that I thoroughly enjoyed this year and that people should definitely seek out.
Creed (Sly Has Gotten His Awards Consideration Due, But It’s Michael B. Jordan That Carries The Best Boxing of The Entire Franchise)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (The Nostalgia, “Just Let It In”)
The Martian (“Sciencing the shit out of this” Has Never Been More Fun)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Best Action Movie In At Least A Decade, Best Car Chase(s) Ever?)
It Follows (A Homage To 80’s Horror That’s Actually Scarier Than Any One Of Them)
Kicking off this list is this wonder of filmmaking from Germany, which has its breakneck pace established by the single unbroken take comprising of the entire over two-hour run-time. Victoria, played fantastically by Laia Costa, is a Spanish immigrant living in Berlin adjusting to the culture-shock and new lifestyle when she becomes friendly with a group of well-meaning troublemakers, led by Sonne, who are about to take part in a robbery for a former boss. As much an emotional revelation as a technical one, Victoria succeeds as a crime drama rendered like no other.
This quasi Lawrence of Arabia from the native Bedouin’s perspective provides great insight and understanding into a fascinating and dying culture. Theeb is a young child living in the Arabian Desert circa 1916 when an Englishman wanders into his camp one night and asks for a guide across the terrain. Bedouin culture clearly states that a guest’s request must be honored no matter what, so a guide and his brother are tasked to help the Englishman on his journey. The boy secretly tags along suspicious of the man who out of the blue wanders into his life. In his journey across the desert, he faces hardship and choices that shape him into a self-reliant man. A coming-of-age tale only life in a hostile and unforgiving land could produce.
23). The End of the Tour
Chronicling the 1996 meeting between the reclusive Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), director James Ponsoldt gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the road trip interview that ensued. The two of them discuss everything from the rise of internet culture to what kinds of women are attractive to them to how great Die Hard is. Lipsky goes into the interview wanting to find what makes this enigmatic author tick, over the course of events Wallace returns the favor. A wonderful documentation of the surprisingly personal bond two people can form over only a few short days.
It would be easy to draw comparisons between Linklater’s Boyhood from 2014 and this Celine Sciamma work as they both document the rigors of coming-of-age in their own honest ways. Karidja Touré shines as Marieme, a high schooler living in the suburbs of Paris who joins a group of girls hell-bent on having fun. Marieme changes everything about her to fit in: cloths, school attendance and even her name to Vic. Trying to find your identity during the trials of youth has been well-worn territory in film, but Sciamma’s direction and Touré’s naturalism are able to convey an original take on the genre.
Glances, inflections and body language accentuate this 50’s tale of forbidden romance between mysterious socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett) and a young store clerk Terese (Rooney Mara). The moment the two lock eyes with one another the connection is absolutely evident. Blanchett and Mara both dazzle as the two women waltz around the obvious attraction between their characters. Trying to keep a low profile as they forge a passionate relationship together, Carol’s former husband, played by Kyle Chandler, begins to try and force her back into their marriage. The push-pull of 1950’s societal expectations all meaning to tear the two women apart makes the couple’s feelings all the more poignant in this reserved drama.
20). The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s version of a chamber play is a who-done-it that ratchets the tension inch by inch, pitting his usual brand of colorful characters against one another in a locked room in the middle of a snow storm. As usual all of his characters are deeply flawed, morally ambiguous and engaging, and seeing the tension boil over between them is a bloody delight. Shot magnificently in 70mm by Tarantino’s long-time D.P Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight examines many intriguing character studies into the aftermath of a conflict as brutal, polarizing and hard-fought as the Civil War.
This quasi ‘Vertigo‘ from Kim Novak’s perspective has the ridiculously expressive Nina Hoss as Nelly, a Jewish woman returning from a concentration camp to reforge her life in post-WWII Berlin. Her face scared and beaten she undergoes facial reconstruction, then tries to put her life back together by finding her husband. When she finds him still alive he doesn’t recognize her thinking she died in the camps, but tries to pass her off as his wife to receive money from the remaining family. In the process Nelly believes that in doing so he will eventually come to his senses, but revelations about the past come to the surface and threaten their plan. A wonderful and harrowing story about reclaiming yourself after everything had been taken away, with an unforgettable and thoroughly moving ending sequence.
18). 45 Years
After living together for over 40 years, Kate and Jeff, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney, must feel like they know each other better than the backs of their hands. Their lives now relegated to daily routines and errands, inertia has seemingly set in. Until one day a letter arrives signaling that something may have been amiss all this time. Knowing someone for many decades can put one into the thinking that there was never a life before they met, but that would be a fallacy. Partners did have wildly different lives before they met one another. It is a reality that when realized can lead to unpleasant and unwanted truths about the world we have built for ourselves.
17). The New Girlfriend
French auteur François Ozone made a splash in my top ten last year with his teenager turned high-end prostitute drama Young and Beautiful, and he makes an appearance here with his cross-dressing gender-politics satire The New Girlfriend. Never a filmmaker to shy away from taboo subject material, Ozone carefully puts us in the mindset of David, played by Romain Duris, grieving over the death of his wife Laura while coming to terms with his true cross-dressing self. Claire, played marvelously by Anaïs Demoustier, having been best friends of Laura’s tries to heal David’s grief by helping him embrace Virginia, his feminine persona. As unique a film about, grief, identity and bonding as you’ll ever see.
16). World of Tomorrow
Don Hertzfeldt came onto the scene with his absorbing and startling poignant stick-figure animated film It’s Such a Beautiful Day a few years ago, and jumps onto the scene again with a 16 minute short musing on the possibilities and fears of the future. When young girl Emily receives a call from her clone from far into the future, she is transported to a world technologically superior but emotionally stunted. As the clone of Emily recounts passages from her existence we are shown a society both foreign and unmistakable human. An imaginative, darkly-humorous and thought-provoking glimpse into a possible destination for mankind.
15). Beasts of No Nation
Idris Elba and Abraham Attah shine as the brutal and terrifyingly manipulative Commander and his newest recruit in Cary Fukunaga’s African child-soldier-war epic, not for the faint of heart to say the least. After Agu’s, Attah, town is overtaken by fighting African paramilitary forces he wanders right into the hands of a charismatic commander known only as ‘Commandant’ (Elba). Trained to fight militarily and show no mercy towards targets that the Commandant orders him to attack. Can even a child’s innocent soul possible survive in these conditions? Fukunaga expertly examines this with equal parts unhinged terror and glimmers of hope.
14). Steve Jobs
Trying to make audiences understand the enigmatic, controversial, calculating and closed-off man that was Steve Jobs was a monumental task, but thankfully Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin and especially Michael Fassbender were all up to the task. Following three distinct time periods in the Tech-mogol’s career, shot in 16mm, 35mm and video, Boyle guides us along the product launches that helped to define the man. Channeling Sorkin’s words masterfully, Fassbender completely owns the screen as only he can. He conveys Jobs as a defensive, stubborn, intelligent, and business savant, but through it all there is a keen sense of vulnerability in the man that very few people in Job’s real-life were ever able to see.
Another out-of-left-field existentialist comedy (this time in Stop-motion puppet animation) comes from the unhinged and ever-imaginative mind of Charlie Kaufman.Bored family-man Michael Stone (Voiced by David Thewlis) is in Cincinnati to give a talk on his book on customer service when by chance he runs into Lisa (Voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), he finds her uniquely attractive and decides to invite her back to his room. What follows is the very common theme on this list, that of two people bonding and finding each other. The joys and sorrows portrayed on-screen are as real as if preformed by real actors on set. Key phrase here: Unmistakably Human.
12). The Tribe
Well, you knew this list had to get heavy at some point. This entry from Ukraine packs in so much without a single line of dialog or title cards that is pretty much an overwhelming experience for the visual perspective. As a new student begins his enrollment at a school for the deaf he finds out that some fellow students are apart of a gang that steals and hosts a prostitution ring made up of female classmates. The manipulative and twisting nature of group conditioning fully-realized on-screen in such a visual manner gives the viewer all the information needed to follow, step by tragic step.
Having just moved to the Boston-area when the Catholic Priest sex-abuse story broke, I was aware of what was happening but too young to fully comprehend the scope of the scandal. Enter Tom McCarthy’s expertly plotted docudrama of the investigation that led to breaking open a crime of shocking and horrific scope. The excellent ensemble including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber turn in fine grounded performances helping to keep the film non-sensationalized and rooted in the facts as the case staggeringly reveals itself. Put this intense journalistic investigative drama up there with the likes of All The President’s Men and The Insider.
10). Son of Saul
When tackling a subject as massive, bleak and monstrous as the Holocaust a filmmaker must have a clear sense of which aspect(s) of the unimaginable event they want to convey to viewers. Legendary Hungarian Filmmaker Béla Tarr’s protégé László Nemes gives us a startling first-hand look at the sheer extent of the atrocity at the notorious Auschwitz extermination camp. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, a Jewish worker forced into doing the unspeakable: help to herd his own people to the gas chambers, without letting them know their fate and then clean the chambers for the next victims, all to buy him more just a little more time before his own murder at the hands of the Nazis. Detached and unresponsive after many months of doing this he develops a sort of horrific tunnel vision in keeping the barbarism outside his direct line of sight, until he comes across the body of a boy whom he takes as his son and wishes to bury properly using a Rabbi. Nemes never leaves Saul from frame one, we are with the poor soul through his redemptive quest. In doing so, the filmmakers render an unflinching, unforgettable and necessary perspective on an event we know all too well from textbooks and archival footage.
9). The Duke of Burgundy
This kinky relationship drama is like the mash-up version of a 70’s sex-ploitation flick with a David Lynch film, if that doesn’t peak your curiosity I don’t know what will. Evelyn and Cynthia (Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen) are in a, shall we say, different kind of relationship, that of playing varying roles of master and servant as a daily routine. When Cynthia decides to test her young lover in the limits of their relationship is when things turn to the surreal and maddening. One could call it a mature and sublime look into the culture of BDSM, or take it as a metaphor for any sort of relationship. Better yet just get lost in the imagery and performances, and take from it what you will.
The most unrelentingly heart-pounding experience of the year goes to Denis Villeneuve’s unflinching examination of the War on Drugs, focusing in on its impact on both sides of the much maligned Southern border. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer is our guide into this sordid world and the terrifying machinery behind it. A fantastic Benicio Del Toro comes in as a shady associate who may or may not be a Colombian sleeper agent, CIA spook or mercenary. The two help to uncover a large Drug ring sometimes using questionable steps to gather information that makes Kate begin to question the ethics of the methods. As a timely follow-up to Traffic, it is a sobering look at the world that has been created from the front-lines of War on Drugs.
7). Breathe (Respire)
Actress Melanie Laurent’s (Inglorious Basterds, Beginners) sophomore feature stunningly proves she is multi-talented threat, and a truly gifted one at that. Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge play high school students Charlie and Sarah in a quiet French Suburb, Charlie is a closed-off socially-awkward teen until the charming Sarah comes into her life and welcomes her as a friend. The two go together to classes, trips and parties, and all seems well and good. However, this being their teenage years of self-discovery with emotions and social statuses changing from hour-to-hour, the situation is always in flux. Over the course of the evolving narrative it all empirically shows that we all want a distinct measure of control over our own lives, and it usually takes someone else to guide us along, for better and for worse.
6). The Forbidden Room
And the best trippy “WTF” film of the year goes to Guy Maddin’s ode to cinema of the past and stories in dreams within thoughts. It would be useless to relate the plot, it would take up the rest of this article just to get it across and it is not the point at all. An entertaining and glorious look at cinema’s past, stitched and weaved together to enlighten viewers on the fragile and strange nature of memory and the importance of storytelling. A sublime journey into the abstract and subconscious.
One of the more controversial choices this year is from the polarizing director Gaspar Noe’s Non-simulated intercourse with Non-professional actors romantic drama. Murphy (Karl Glusman) is living with his wife and child when a blast from his past comes back into his life. As he remembers the time with a former flame Electra (Aomi Muyock) we are privy to an intense, NC-17 rated (technically released unrated) and unfiltered look at the very title, Love. Through the ups and downs of their relationship we are shown the impact a person can have on another on a long term basis. Culminating in the single best final shot of the year.
4). When Marnie Was There
With surprisingly three animated films on this list the creme-of-the-crop could in fact be Studio Ghibli’s swan-song in their beautifully realized and deeply affecting When Marnie Was There. One of my favorite types of stories are the ones that put us right into the mindset of a child; however, the ones that do this perspective well are few and very far between. Studio Ghibli manages once again to do this in a wonderfully imaginative and inspiring ways. Once again the story here concerns two people, Anna and the mysterious Marnie, finding each other at the right times in each other’s lives. Even if there never was a right time for them. What I mean is best left for the film to reveal, one of the many mysteries in this film that methodically reveals itself in the most heartwarming ways.
I never faltered, I thought when I saw this early in the year that I have seen the best romance and the best on-screen couple I would see this year and as it turns out I was proven right. Director’s Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s mash-up of sci-fi/romance/horror is a wonderful look into the pleasures and rigors of failing in love with someone new. As Evan and Louise, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker, meet by chance in Italy they show an instant spark, and start to form a intimate relationship, but is that enough to overcome some personal revelations about the two? The narrative may shift into the niche genres of the macabre and strange, but the central theme of forming a willingness to open up to someone is universal.
2). The Revenant
Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s 19th century period-piece centering on the real-life tale of Frontiersman Hugh Glass, played with rarified dedication by Leonardo Dicaprio, being left for dead by his fur-trapping partner John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and having to literally crawl his way back to salvation. Iñárritu’s style pulls a 180° from his Birdman a year ago to render a tale of survival and revenge like no other. Shot using only natural lighting and in freezing conditions, the making of probably nearly resembles the film on-screen. Much has been made of Dicaprio’s performance, what shouldn’t be overlooked is the equally dedicated work that Hardy turns in as the practical and hateful Fitzgerald. A dark foil for Glass helping to render two sides of a frontiersman. A gloriously brutal and graphic depiction of life on the edge of civilization, and humanity on the edge of redemption.
1). The Assassin
The more lists like this I write the more I find that the movies I am most drawn to and will gravitate towards are the ones that take risks, calculated risks to be sure but things no other studio or filmmaker would even try. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s masterfully crafted Wuxia (Spiritual Martial Arts) drama is that film from 2015. A deliberately-paced historical drama centering on the crisis of conscious vs. sworn duty. Shu Qi is the titular Assassin, tasked with killing the Lord of a powerful province who happens to be her cousin. Weighing the ethical scales constantly she also begins to unravel the political and personal vendettas behind the scenes. Lushly photographed by Ping Bin Lee with immaculate production design by Wen-Ying Huang, this piece soars as a masterclass in audience participation. As it requires a viewer’s full attention and concentration in deciphering the exact character mechanisms, interactions and motivations. Matching The Revenant in visual storytelling and detail oriented compositions, Spring with its character revelations and The Forbidden Room in mixing mysticism and reality, The Assassin stands on its own as the most unique filmic experience of 2015. One that I’m willing to go to time and again.
Having gotten a head start on 2016, I can tell its shaping up to be another great year. Join me again around this next year to hold me to it, and as always, “to the movies…”.