At last! Only two months behind schedule, here is my tribute to the remarkable strengths of the 2015 movie year, which for all of its flimsiness in the home stretch (eight Best Picture Oscar nominees, and at most three of them aren’t broadly mediocre? Fun times) contained more “oh my god, this movie changes everything” movies for me than any other year I’ve been a critic. That such insta-masterpieces as Carol and Inside Out and 45 Years didn’t crack my top ten – that the last one wasn’t even seriously in contention for the list – says everything about how great the heavy hitters were.
The enormous changes in my personal life made it harder for me to stay caught up in 2015 (hence the lateness of this list), but I’m not done. While I made a point of seeing everything that I thought had a realistic chance at making my top 10 list, there’s still plenty of 2015 films I want to check in with, so you should expect to see reviews of those films continue to dribble in for the next couple of months. In the meantime, I’d like to present, at last, my affectionate praise for a collection of movies that kept knocking my socks off right up to the very end. This has been the kind of year that reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
The 10 Best Films of 2015
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The Look of Silence
3. World of Tomorrow
4. The Forbidden Room [not yet reviewed]
5. Boy and the World
6. The Assassin
8. Li’l Quinquin
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
(George Miller, Australia / USA)
At times one becomes aware of how steep a curve one has been using: then along comes a film that marshals each and every aspect of the filmmaking process so acutely and with such determination and confidence that you realise “this film is mostly great” won’t do it any more. As a crafted object, Fury Road is as perfect a mainstream movie as I’ve seen since in all the days of my blogging; each gesture in the sound mix, each frame, each cut serves a purpose, the mixture of practical and computer effects is exactingly choreographed to maximise the impact of both, the deliberately sparse script provides what we need at all times and richly implies all the rest. Its philosophy of collective action triumphing over the individual act of outrageous heroism is a miraculous shift in the landscape of current storytelling, even more than its utterly casual radical feminist underpinnings. The film mixes broad myth and unerringly specific incidental detail to create a world both present and completely abstract, and it keenly reminds us of the potency of the vivid, simple story as a tool for understanding ourselves as humans and making some sense of the unkempt world around us. Brilliant in every way, and that’s without even mentioning that it’s the best English-language action movie since the ’80s.
2. The Look of Silence
(Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark / Indonesia / Norway / Finland / UK)
Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing isn’t as astonishing as that film’s wallow in the broken minds of unrepentant murders, but how could it be? And The Look of Silence makes up for it in tight, unsparing focus: one man, hoping to find closure, endlessly probing and questioning even though finding the answers he wants is likely to be the most depressing possible outcome for his story. The documentary offers no kindly summary or limits to its tragedy: there will never be a reckoning for the Indonesian mass killings of the ’60s, and these films can’t begin to offer one. The subdued outrage at that injustice purrs beneath every frame of this film, which for all its forced imagery (mostly the metaphor of an eye doctor trying to fix the historical vision of his nation, huh, get it?) is easily the hardest-hitting, most actively upsetting study of human beings that came out in 2015 – or 2014, for that matter.
3. World of Tomorrow
(Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
Certainly the year’s densest film: at 16 minutes, it has more philosophical Stuff in it than even the most ambitious of features. Critiquing the human fascination with technology even as it boasts an aesthetic that could never have existed without computers, it’s a merciless, ironic, hilarious, and ultimate nerve-wracking fable of human beings in a time of endless interconnectivity, asking all the right questions about what it means to be human, and coming up with all the wrong answers. And it does it with the most perfect comic timing you could hope to see: Julia Pott’s deadpan delivery results in some painfully funny quips to slice across the general freaky seriousness of it all. The biggest challenge of the year, in a weirdly fun and entertaining box.
4. The Forbidden Room
(Guy Maddin; Evan Johnson, co-director; Canada)
Fragments of lost moviemaking, like Histoire(s) du cinéma made in alternate universe. The dream that movies have of the life they never lived. An affectionate throwback to forms and ideologies it eagerly and cruelly mocks. It is impossible to describe Maddin and Johnson’s collage of disparate pieces of genre, story, and movie stardom without lapsing into the language of a manifesto, because The Forbidden Room is itself a kind of manifesto, arguing for filmmaking as an explicit collage of moments and ideas that speak to each other in startling ways, sometimes opaque and somtimes revelatory. There’s a weirdly alarming sense that all of cinema is hidden in here somewhat, but also that all of cinema has been filtered through the raging id of a person who died 80 years ago. It’s the Guy Maddinest Guy Maddin film yet, a thought that’s as exhilarating to some as it is frightening to others.
5. Boy and the World
(Alê Abreu, Brazil)
Deeply primitive in its aesthetic, full of stick figures and brightly-colored, childish drawings. Deeply primitive in its storytelling, which is a wordless picaresque built as a bedtime story about a little boy looking for his dad in the city. Since the film as a whole is an attack on modernism, there’s little chance that its primitive flourishes are an accident, either. This is using naïve forms and purposefully unsophisticated structure in a most powerfully sophisticated way; it’s child’s movie for adults with the particular patience to tease out the undercurrents beneath the simple exterior. But that exterior is already the best animated feature to have come to America in at least a few years: triumphantly colorful, telling its story with great clarity and heartbreaking emotional force solely through pantomime, and graced with the most ebullient score of the year.
6. The Assassin
(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan / China / Hong Kong / France)
Almost unbearably beautiful in its settings, costumes, and cinematography, Hou’s take on a genre film (somewhere inside of this is a straight-up wuxia tale) is weird for him and weird for the genre, and those looking for a clear-cut tale of revenge and personal honor, as implied by the basic notion behind the story, need to keep looking. I’ve seen The Assassin three times now, and I’m still getting lost in its machinations. But the getting lost is part of the sensual fun of a movie that’s as much about the feeling and pace of life in the palaces and woods of 8th Century China, and the weirdest things about it feel unmistakably intentional: this is a film about the aesthetics of 1300 years ago as much as about people who lived then, and everything in its acting, its clipped action scenes, its notably unnatural soundscape, and the unusual choice to frame its epic affair in a boxy full-frame aspect ratio are devoted to establishing at something deeply other. This is cinema as an evocation of the past like we almost never get, above and beyond putting in a strong case as 2015’s most overall beautiful film.
(Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania / France)
Arguably Sissako’s most “conventional” film, but that doesn’t cost it any potency: this heavily politicized story of what happens when Islamic extremists take over the titular city (a real-life event that the filmmakers dramatised a few years after the fact) is clear-eyed and deeply angry, in the fashion of the neo-realists whose aesthetics somewhat inform the way the movie works. Somewhat. There’s also a completely other strand of wholly poetic filmmaking, centered around a family story in the desert outside of Timbuktu, slowly moving towards its intersection with the urban half of the film. The contrast between the two settings, the two moods, and the two stylistic traditions (African cinema vs. European art cinema) drive Timbuktu in fascinating ways to make it one of the year’s most intellectually stimulating films as well as one of its most beautiful and most intelligent.
8. Li’l Quinquin
(Bruno Dumont, France)
Deadpan comedy from the mind of a notoriously unsmiling director, set against the backdrop of a singularly weird series of murders. It’s a little bit Twin Peaks, a little bit of the bent humor of contemporary Scandinavian filmmakers, and a little bit of good ol’ Francophone social commentary, in which race, class, and gender divides skulk secretly through a tiny community where everybody seems vaguely repulsed and antagonised by everyone else. But it’s utterly generous, taking a collection of weirdoes and freaks and giving them their humanity back, using its languid running time (this was a TV miniseries in its first incarantion) to let the town and the people who live there emerge as a fully organic collection of souls, lost and otherwise. A perfect combination of the best strengths of farce and slow cinema, two impulses that should be at total odds; but there you have it.
(Jafar Panahi, Iran)
The most watchable film of Panahi’s late period, during which he’s been officially banned from making movies. And watchability is no little thing. But Taxi‘s greatness isn’t merely that the ever-resourceful Panahi has found yet another way to sneakily concoct a movie from the limited resources and freedom he has available to him. It is equally a study of creative frustration in a politically-repressive state, a domestic story about how families connect and fracture along lines of personal and political stresses, and, perhaps most pleasingly, a wide-ranging snapshot of Tehran life, capturing the people and streets of the city with admirably quirky, messy sprawl. The inside of the taxi, here, is a stand-in for the whole world, and a greatly satisfying stand-in, too.
(Camilla Nielsson, Denmark)
Calling it the most vital political movie of the year certainly gives the wrong impression of what it does and why. But the point remains: the act of politics has almost never been depicted onscreen with quite this much intelligence, insight, or focus on how it is ultimately an act of humans, who find themselves bound by systems and forced to continue supporting those systems simultaneously. This deep dive into the nuances of writing Zimbabwe’s constitution might sound unbearably dry or esoteric, but with Nielsson chosing to tell it as a character study, it pops off the screen as one of the most gripping procedurals of recent years. Tremendously important for anyone who thinks they live in a democracy.
I’m not sure where, exactly, I set the boundaries for how delayed a film’s first U.S. release can be before I declare it ineligible, but it’s certainly not more than five years. Which is why this 2009 gem, which has clung to my mind more tenaciously than many a film in the six years and change since I’ve seen it, was never in consideration for this list.
10. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt, USA / France)
Magnificent self-indulgence: Jolie is fearlessly attempting to depict how unbelievably awful people like her can be, by examing their posh life in minute, almost unmoving detail. Proof positive that just because you love the Euro-ennui art films of the 1960s, that does not mean that you or the culture you live in should try to produce a new one.
9. Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, USA)
There’s something inspiring about this, honestly: you’d think, in these days of corporate interference, that a comic book adaptation couldn’t be this broken and unpleasant. The story structure is an all-time disaster, the deep dark aesthetic is horrid and ugly, and not even the endlessly reliable Michael B. Jordan can do anything to make the characters appealing.
8. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Gregory Plotkin, USA)
Now you can see the ghosts! And oh my, how you will wish you could not. Also, the conceptual unacceptability of a found footage horror movie that’s also in 3-D is something that simply cannot be overcome no matter how ugly and fake your footage looks.
7. Pixels (Chris Columbus, USA / China)
The visual effects, to be fair, are gorgeous. Not just physically present, but actually beautiful. Everything surrounding them – including Adam Sandler’s second most depressing self-hating performance of the year, and a nonsense attempt to revise Independence Day as a comedy – is bottom-of-the-barrel tripe.
6. Mortdecai (David Koepp, UK / USA)
Mustache. Mustache? Mustache, mustache! Mustache, mustache mustache. …Mustache. And then throw in Gwyneth Paltrow barfing on Johnny Depp as he’s playing a particularly strained version of his usual cartoon character bullshit, and you’ve pretty much got it.
5. The Lazarus Effect (David Gelb, USA)
Fearlessly wasting the talents of a great cast on a sub-par Frankenstein riff, the incomprehensible story logic and trite visuals of this medical science horror movie leave as something even worse than the “worst” horror film of the year – it is the most boring.
4. Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton, France)
The returns, they have diminished all the way. Only Forest Whitaker stubbornly grabbing onto all kinds of side business to keep himself active and interesting threatens to redeem this mindless, pointless, and thoroughly un-exciting “action” “thriller”, in which Liam Neeson finally runs out of ways to growl at people threateningly.
3. The Cobbler (Tom McCarthy, USA)
Generations yet unborn will hear stories of this film, delivered with a horrified hush as the speaker recalls how Adam Sandler appeared in a film that insulted every group of humans imaginable and Adam Sandler more than any of them; a comedy in which everyone looks about ready to cry; and a story about human interactions that turns into a batshit superhero movie in its mind-blowing final ten minutes, surely the worst protracted sequence in any movie in the last few years.
2. Point Break (Ericson Core, USA / Germany / China)
There are tasty empty calories, like the original Point Break; then there are empty calories that make your teeth sore and your gut hurt, like this witless remake, populated by the least-charismatic figures imaginable, and a style-less focus on extreme sporting that makes Mountain Dew commercials look like carefully worked-out, wholly intentional cinema. No film with this many amazing natural landscapes should be able to look this ugly.
1. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Andy Fickman, USA)
I am stunned and mortified to report that it is apparently possible to make me feel bad on behalf of the awful 2009 comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop and the virtually non-existent dignity of Kevin James. All it takes is the world’s most mean-spirited “comedy” and a nonstop litany of punishing, inhumane “jokes” at the supposedly likable protagonist’s expense. Miserable, inhumane, horrifying.
I had every expectation of, at best, a so-terrible-it’s-funny exercise, and more likely a grating ThanksKilling-style exercise in overly self-aware humor and vulgarity. Instead, I got the most whip-smart horror-comedy in a long while, with the most deeply enjoyable low-budget movie monsters in a generation. This is, I am only a little ashamed to admit, the 2015 release that I have now watched the most times, going so far as to buy the blu-ray even though the film itself remains available for instant viewing on Netflix.
“Ian McKellen as old Sherlock Holmes”. And sure enough, Ian McKellen is old Sherlock Holmes without a problem, though his performance tells us nothing in particular about the character or about aging that we didn’t already know, nor does the film around him have terribly interesting thoughts on literary prestige or the senescence of old age. It also colossally wastes the opportunity of having Holmes alive in the Nuclear Age. A blandly acceptable movie for middle-aged arthouse patrons with no particular depth or insight at all.
Best Popcorn Movie
In the early rocket-shoe flight around downtown Chicago, the vastly-maligned Jupiter Ascending showed me something I almost never get in movies: an action scene that I had absolutely never seen before. The rest of the movie isn’t nearly so forward-looking, but everything that followed, however corny and frivolous, and however actively weak the lead performances, never flagged in providing the kind of self-consciously epic scope and mythic characterisations that mark the best pulp sci-fi. It’s a lovingly anachronistic treatment of junkfood storytelling with apparently endless financial and technical resources. On December 18th, the very first thing I had to say about The Force Awakens was that Jupiter Ascending was still the year’s best Star Wars film, and by God, I will stand behind that statement as long as I draw breath.
The Boy Next Door
Sweaty, grabby sex and ludicrous double-entendres that barely manage to disguise their smutty import, and a dramatic shift into some whole other movie for the last act. It’s nuts and objectively terrible, but there’s something so willfully straight-faced about the whole endeavor, from Jennifer Lopez’s impressively taciturn lead performance on down, that I cannot accept the reality that this isn’t destined for camp film greatness some day.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
Insidious: Chapter 3
“Callooh, callay! A film exists that’s better than Insidious: Chapter 2!” is of course no sort of basis for actively praising a movie. But given how bad Chapter 3 could easily have been, it was easy to go soft on it. Nobody is going to be looking on this as a horror classic in years to come.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
Clouds of Sils Maria
I mean, I guess? I still think it’s insultingly obvious in its application of subtext, and the last act murders its momentum, and this finds Juliette Binoche clearing no hurdles that we didn’t expect that she could clear. Still, lots of people adore it, and it’s bound for a slot in the Criterion Collection one of these days, and I’ll allow myself to be on the wrong side of history.
Film I’m Most Eager to Re-Visit
For the very specific reason that I was already one of the (surprisingly, I still think) few people who really dug this one, and now there exists in the world a director’s cut that is even better and even Michael Mann-er. Who knows when that cut will ever be made available to the world at large, but I’ll be first in line.
“Diamonds” in Girlhood
The moment where the whole momentum the film shifts, and our protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) fully dives into the seductive world of empowerment and self-reliance represented by her three new friends. Using strong, almost monochromatic colored lighting and probing close-ups and medium close-ups, director Céline Sciamma and cinematographer Crystel Fournier build a purely psychological moment out of purely stylistic ingredients, transforming the perfectly ordinary Rihanna song “Diamonds” into a roaring flow of crescendos, both visually and emotionally. This is the best-case scenario for what cinema can do and how it does it.
After being frequently obnoxious but generally stylish and high-energy, the spy satire Kingsman: The Secret Service ends with the friendly reminder that the appropriate repayment for a guy being heroic is butt sex.
Carrie Fisher, Maps to the Stars
A snappish, ruthlessly self-aware turn for the actress, who is much more expressive and tonally on-point than in her other big appearance in 2015, as well as a thematically perfect depiction of how ravenous and cannibalistic the film industry can be regarding its stars. It’s hard to say whether it’s funnier or more acidic, but it’s great either way.
Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For God’s sake, don’t show us the two stars of several of the best action sequences of the last five years, including a big “Hey everybody, it’s Mad Dog!” close-up, and then have a big squid monster kill them offscreen without even a fight scene.
“So that’s the deal. I won’t- I cannot negotiate any more. You take it or leave it. But if you leave it, we go to court. And if we got to court, it’ll get ugly. And we’re not ugly people, Harge.”
-Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), Carol. Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy.
“If a tree falls in the forest, and it’s not uploaded to YouTube, did it really happen?”
–Bodhi (Édgar Ramírezn), Point Break. Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer.
“There are witches that need killing. Fucking witches.”
–Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), Seventh Son. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight, but I have niggling suspicions that this might have been an ad-lib.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Admittedly, the campaign selling Crimson Peak as a horror film ended up being a terrible, misleading decision, but it resulted in one of the most perfectly beautiful, in the abstract, images used to sell a movie in recent memory. The dominating primary colors are enough to make this tremeously striking; what pushes this from “gorgeous” to “the most gorgeous” is the way that the red and blue shade into each other around the edges, creating a montage of Mia Wasikowska and the house behind her that suggests they’re inseparable, but with the colors firmly splitting them into separate layers. The octopus-like hair and the minimalist “Beware” tagline put just the right tinge of menace onto a terrifically otherworldly image.
Best Teaser Poster
Magic Mike XXL
…I mean, yep, pretty much. Fun contrasty color scheme, and gotta love the halo on the abs, too.
Aloha [not reviewed]
Okay, triangles… not my first choice, but that’s a kind of a strategy. Or I guess that one with Bradley Cooper isn’t really a triangle, huh. And so what’s up with that, just, random shot of the Hawai’ian coast? Also, the more I stare at this, the more the fact that the triangles don’t meet up at any given point, and there’s an “O” there to make it really apparent that they don’t, starts to make my eyes tear up a bit. And oof, that’s a hell of a key light on Emma Stone’s shiny, sweaty forehead. Oh my God, is that writing up in the upper-right corner? It totally is!
The good news is that this dismally primitive collage is busy enough to distract from how the “Sometimes you have to say goodbye before you can say hello” tagline – because “aloha” is both “hello” and “goodbye”, tee-hee – is the worst thing ever written by people in the history of literacy.
Victoria – German trailer
There is using onscreen text well; then there is using onscreen text to create some kind of entirely new art piece based on the principles of line and color and shape that come from blotting out large portions of the image beneath day-glo lettering. I haven’t seen the film yet, though it’s high on my to-do list; I cannot imagine it being as exciting and kinetic as this whirlwind summary of its momentum.
Hat tip to W____ B____ for putting me onto this way back when.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Trailer 3
Zack Snyder movies are reliable for two things: 1) they’re not good; 2) but their trailers are extraordinary pop-art, combining dramatic music and iconic images with a rare boldness and flair. So what to make of how aggressively unappealing the longest trailer for Batman v. Superman makes its long-awaited pairing appear? Whether it’s how transparently the trailer gives away 90% of the movie’s plot, its bland shots of action, or especially the pride of place given to cringe-inducing wordplay about Batman and Superman’s secret identities, courtesy of a wildly broad Jesse Eisenberg. God help us if the movie ends up being even worse.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2015
Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)
The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939)
Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
Du côté de la côte (Agnès Varda, 1958)
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (Werner Herzog, 1974)
In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima Nagisa, 1976)
Hello Cinema (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995)