I’m not sure how I did it, but I was able to outdo myself. In 2014, I watched 101 releases (U.S. releases, mind you) and in 2015 found a way to see 104 films (and even a couple from 2016). It’s funny to see by the end of this long journey what films fade and what films stay. But first I want to list the films I didn’t see. I am only human and couldn’t see every last thing under the sun, and the most glaring omissions are:
The Princess of France
Welcome to New York
In Jackson Heights
By The Sea
For the films I didn’t care for but others like, all I can say is everyone likes and dislikes something out there. These are films I can easily add to my dislike pile:
Hard to Be A God
The Hateful Eight
Straight Outta Compton
And now here are the runners-up:
- Taxi– For a film about Iran’s restrictive nature toward art, this was an absolute joy. Jafar Panahi’s films have felt heavy-handed in the past; with his newest, however, he sidesteps the pitfalls and reaches new heights in his search for artistic freedom. (Original review here.)
- Joy– Coming from someone who hated American Hustle, this film almost seems like a tiny miracle. Russell’s wacky antics actually have weight here, with Lawrence giving the most realized performance of her career. After all, she’s not a businesswoman — she’s a business, woman. (Totally got that one from Graham L. Carter.)
- Aloha– Don’t listen to the critics unless you want to miss out on one of the most enjoyable motion pictures of the year. Cameron Crowe understands how to use faces better than most, and here he practically constructs a whole movie with people staring at each other. There’s a plot in there somewhere, but with an emotional journey like this, you just have to trust where it’s going. Aloha indeed.
- The Duke of Burgundy– The 50 Shades of Grey art-house remake, with fluttering hearts and human toilets aside, crafting one of the finest love stories that explicitly tackles what loving someone truly means, and the lengths one goes for that love.
- Queen of Earth– Alex Ross Perry stopped the millennial whining and made a richly complex film about being a failure to everyone you love. Color me shocked and pleasantly surprised.
And without further ado, my favorite films of the year:
- The Mend
A vicious little film, The Mend grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. Unconventional characterizations and oddly rhythmic disruptions add to the mystery of John Magary’s first feature, one where agony and despair are commonplace. From moment to moment, there’s a forewarned riff between characters, a dividing line that serves to define these relations, while also blurring the line between them. Josh Lucas’ sneering facial expressions and annoying vocal tics only add to the winding nature of the film, acting like a bomb ready to go off at any minute. There’s nothing else this uncompromisingly aggravating and cynical. Yet it has stayed with me longer than most other films I loved. That’s its real potency right there, not to mention some Kafkaesque moments that I won’t forget soon.
(At the time of writing this list, The Mend is on Netflix Instant)
- Magic Mike XXL
Moving from a film about how toxic masculinity can become, we have men using their sexual charms only for good. While not the feminist manifesto some other critics believe it to be, XXL gets by on simply being a complete joy, start to finish. You won’t find a movie this breezy, this unconcerned with plot, released in 2015, with this level of quality. Soderbergh moves from the director’s chair to cinematographer, adding a more layered depth to each performance, utilizing light and shadows to construct a more adventurous level of space in each scene. Characterizations are built on simple dynamics, with nothing getting too bogged down to stop any of the high energy illuminating from the film. Finally, can you point out to me another movie where the climax involves a beautifully choreographed striptease to an R. Kelly song? Yea, that’s what I thought.
(Magic Mike XXL is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)
- Li’l Quinquin
The French Twin Peaks, Quinquin’s just so unbelievably odd from the opening scene, and continues the tone through its three-plus hours. The surreal nature of Bruno Dumont’s project takes on many forms from the zany escapades of the bumbling police to a racial commentary on France, with casual racism serving as a backdrop in theme. What starts as a police procedural turns into a study of France’s social engineering, with everyone guilty of some form of prejudice. The length may turn some people off, and its humor doesn’t exactly stand out with a first watch. The subtle nature of the project may seem hidden beneath crass comedy, so for those who actually want to take the plunge, be prepared. All looks are deceiving, with evil lurking around the corner.
(Li’l Quinquin is available on Blu-Ray/DVD, and streaming on Netflix and Fandor)
Johnnie To’s gangster films are known around the world, with his movies’ constant (and signature) use of human bodies to display action in unique ways. So it’s only natural that in his first musical, about corporate corruption and the ’08 financial crash, he uses bodies to convey most of the conflict in a collective manner. No walls surround the massive set, with all activity being displayed. To has enough trust in his direction to allow this, swooping effortlessly from floor to floor, to capture the chaotic nature of the environment. Everything is fully defined here, with interactions bouncing off each other to play harmoniously into the film’s excellently staged musical numbers. While the music itself may not be the finest to grace the screen, the presentation of the music comes off so expertly that you’d expect the director to be a veteran of the trade. And you’d be right: To’s skills are highlighted beautifully here, to the point that I would be heavily disappointed if he never journeyed back to the genre.
(Office is available on Blu-Ray/DVD in regions outside the U.S.)
- The Look of Silence
What we can’t see in front of us, we tend to ignore. What we have seen, we tend to forget. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful follow-up to The Act of Killing, we’re not given those options. With most documentaries becoming by-the-book HBO films at best (Amy, Best of Enemies), what is so powerful about Oppenheimer’s films is how to question the truth, or what we have defined to be the truth. What the killers believe can be seen as a sort of truth, but the genius of both these documentaries is their commitment to being non-judgmental. There’s no hand-holding — only what’s given and what can be interpreted. There’s a lot to be commended about this project, from its existence to the actual content. To openly go against a government’s teachings is bravery most other documentaries would never touch. To open the personal wounds of the past this exquisitely takes craftsmanship few posses.
(The Look of Silence is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)
Coming from a film obsessed with questioning the truth, here we have a film that’s preoccupied with everything that we don’t know. Characters constantly look off-screen toward spaces we, as an audience, cannot see. The restricting aspect ratio of 4:3 cuts corners, creating a picturesque view of the freshly conquered region. The world that Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) explores never conforms to his ways, and as he becomes savaged by the unknown, we slowly start to understand one thing: the unobtainable always haunts us. From it’s gorgeous cinematography to its baffling ending, Jauja is an enigma from slow cinema master Lisandro Alonso, one that crafts a vision of blinding uncertainty. A damnation of colonialism, what we get is an uncontrollable piece of art that challenges the notion of comprehension.
(Juaja is available on Blu-Ray/DVD and streaming on Netflix)
- The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin’s magnum opus, The Forbidden Room, may be as impenetrable as Jauja, but not from lack of insight. For here, most incomprehension comes from not being able to keep up with the film. Stills morph together mid-scene, with edits seemingly taking place at random intervals to recreate Soviet style filmmaking to the ultimate extreme. Stories spring up within stories, each one becoming more absurd than the next. It’s a fever dream of a film that seems ready to tear at any moment. The sheer tenacity of Maddin’s vision can be commended, with the result being beyond impressive. Everything Maddin has made in his impressive career has built to this: an all-encompassing epic that redefines what cinema can accomplish. Not one other film I saw in 2015 could keep up with this one.
(The Forbidden Room will be available on Blu-Ray/DVD in March, and is streaming on Fandor)
- Horse Money
The haunting imagery that lingers throughout Pedro Costa’s masterpiece should qualify it as the most horrifying movie of 2015. Ventura, our film’s protagonist, ventures through the dark recesses of his mind, trying to find some ray of hope in the country that destroyed it. Stark images of war-torn Portugal haunt Ventura, with the Carnation Revolution as a backdrop for this self-searching. While many call this Costa’s first narrative feature in years, the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred, especially in terms of the actors’ history to the events portrayed. As a man who celebrated the revolution, Costa made this film to help his friend find the light, to figure out for himself and for us the mental trauma that stems from societal problems. The most memorable scene follows a 20-minute exchange between Ventura and a soldier statue in an elevator, an absolute feat of filmmaking prowess. Absolutely essential, in every sense of the word.
(Horse Money is soon to be available on Blu-Ray/DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix)
- The Assassin
Quiet lingers over every scene in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. It’s a silence that complements the framing of every scene, one where every shot’s beauty can seem exhausting to decipher. Inhabiting this landscape are people whose view of home, like Hou’s, is constantly changing. Their morals and motivations are in constant question as they search for meaning in this radical new era. The feeling of uncertainty comes easily to Hou, who captured it so well in Millennium Mambo, and here uses it to heighten the action. Most of the fight sequences are short, to the point, and brief, never putting character drama on the sideline. What Hou’s protagonists find in themselves serve as more interesting action anyway, with constantly shifting points of view to reflect the times. It’s a balancing act of internal and external struggles, one pulled off beautifully and effortlessly.
(The Assassin is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)
- Mad Max: Fury Road
Wow, shocking, right? Another Top 10 list with Fury Road in the No. 1 spot. Well, there’s a reason for all the love. After seeing it four times in the theaters and twice on the small screen, I almost don’t want to talk about the expertise displayed. It’s such an unbelievable film achievement that trying to describe any aspect of the movie seems a bit frivolous, but I’ll try to sum up why I adore it so much.
In its most basic elements, it’s about movement. The constant movement of time, bodies, bullets, desires and home. Its most keen instincts rely on the visual components the film provides. The premise is more minimalist than anything, only George Miller provides us with what can only be described as maximalist entertainment. Nothing small is on display here, with incredible detail given to render the world surrounding Max and Furiosa. Miller takes these pieces to craft some of the finest action ever put on celluloid (shot on digital, but whatever) by constructing distinctive, yet gratifying, set pieces reliant on the merging of outside forces into one. And that’s really what makes the movie: the merging of two entities. Whether it be Max and Furiosa, or its commitment to excite audiences and subvert traditional gender roles.
Most importantly, it merges story with action in a way that seems simple yet feels revolutionary. Every shot fired and every accelerator floored is in service of moving the plot forward. The notion of having action scenes to “turn your brain off” are nowhere to be found here. On the craftsman level, they’re gorgeous to look at, and there’s always a sense of furtherance that keeps you engaged. There’s a singular vision here, one that has such faith in itself that it appears natural.
While people were looking forward to the film, no one was expecting the sheer impact of what was released. For how chaotic and nonconforming it is, I’m shocked a studio gave Miller the funds to make the movie. I’m even more shocked that the fourth film in a long-dead franchise has blown me away this easily. Zach Ralston said it best by calling the film an atom bomb, one who’s side effects I’m still suffering from.
(Mad Max: Fury Road is available on Blu-Ray/DVD)
And that’s a wrap! Coming soon (I hope) will be lists for my favorite songs and albums of the year. Below are the Paulies, my personal award given to films of excellence. All the winners should be proud.
BEST FILM: Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST DIRECTOR: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Actor: Josh Lucas, The Mend
Best Actress: Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Earth
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Manganiello, Magic Mike XXL
Best Supporting Actress: Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL
Best Screenplay: The Duke of Burgundy
Film I Hated To Admit I Liked: Southpaw