I always have a hard time determining which films make the cut and which don’t. But in 2015 there were so many quality films that I found this especially challenging. A lot of very good stuff simply didn’t make it.
A quick word about qualifying for this list – something has to have received a non-festival U.S. release. This means some stuff that people consider 2015 favorites like ‘The Lobster’ or ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ are not eligible, as there was no way for Americans to have seen them from a limited release etc.
Sadly, there are also cases where I simply did not have time to watch everything. I try to make the best effort I can, but some movies like ‘Arabian Nights’ I just didn’t get to in time. If you have a question about something I may or may not have seen, I’d be happy to discuss.
Top Honorable Mention: Hard to Be a God
Of all the films I saw this past year, Aleksey German’s sci-fi epic is easily the hardest to rate. For starters, it’s a nearly impossible movie to recommend to someone. It is nearly three hours long, it’s shot in black and white, and it’s a subtitled Russian language film. None of those three things, many of which would be red flags for casual movie-goers, get anywhere near what makes this such a challenging film.
The story takes place on an alien planet that is similar to Earth, but with a culture that is vastly different. The society on this planet appear stuck in the medieval dark ages, as though awaiting a renaissance that will never happen. In fact, not only was there no artistic or philosophical revolution, but the society is committed to exterminating its intelligentsia in a genocidal fashion. This ensures that our protagonist, an Earth scientist named Don Rumata, is hopelessly adrift in a sea of filth and ignorance. He and his fellow scientists are under strict guidelines to observe but not intervene with the alien population. Yet, even if they wanted to, how could they usher in a new era of prosperity without giving themselves away as intellectuals? By the time we meet our leading man, he appears to be completely apathetic and nearly mad.
The feeling of frustration and madness seeps into everything in this film. There is no conventional narrative structure, and what little plot there is must be deciphered from cryptic encounters and random images. It’s difficult to put into words just how scattershot and meandering this movie can feel at times. One friend of mine who watched an advanced screening of it claimed that over half of the audience walked out, which does not surprise me at all. Watching it on my home theater, I will admit that I had to pause this film many times before finally reaching the end. It is a viewing experience that many will find exhausting.
So why is it here at all? Because it’s one of the most ambitious and unforgettable movies I’ve ever seen. The world that’s created here feels so visceral and fully realized. Everywhere you turn there are haunting images of muck and depravity, yet somehow it’s an incredibly beautiful film. The cinematography and world building are excellent, but it’s also a fascinating premise that leaves lingering questions about society and religion. As the days passed after seeing this film, I found myself thinking about it quite often. It’s a terrifying vision of what a failed society can look like, and it’s one that doesn’t seem so far fetched despite its science fiction plot.
Anomalisa is co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, who is deservedly famous for his work on such films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here he has made a stop-motion animation film, teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson who has past experience working on this type of animation with things like Moral Orel. If this seems like an unexpected artistic direction, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking so. I’ve actually listened to a number of critics who still have a hard time figuring out why this story needed to be animated rather than live action.
The style of animation is not without purpose, though. It works in conjunction with other stylistic choices that tie into the film’s themes. The stop-motion animation puppets have a robotic aesthetic to them, even going so far as to show plainly how their heads are fake. The voices of the ancillary characters are dubbed identically, as well. For quite some time, the only character who appears to be genuine is the main character, Michael Stone. He is a man who appears emotionally lost in a world where everything feels disconnected and dehumanized (ironic when you consider his expertise is customer service) until he accidentally chances upon the character of Lisa. Despite her awkward and quirky demeanor, Michael immediately becomes infatuated with this young woman who he sees as the only other real soul apart from himself.
The plot of the film is surprisingly straightforward when pitted against Kaufman’s other screenplays. One could even argue that it’s more similar to something like ‘Up in the Air’ than ‘Synecdoche, New York’, for example. But while this may not be Kaufman’s most challenging narrative, there is something about this film that lingers in the mind of the viewer. There’s a deceptive amount of psychological depth to the characters and the story is tinged with melancholy. There’s a moment in the film where Michael tells Lisa that there’s something exceptional about her, even if he can’t say what it is. Whether this is a genuine statement on his part could be debated, but it sums up how I felt about the film when I left the theater. It’s a movie that rewards post-viewing reflection, as we consider who these characters are and how their experience changes them – or not, as the case may be.
49. Mistress America
As some who know me can attest, I haven’t been a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s work. While others celebrated Frances Ha, I wasn’t nearly as taken with it. I personally wondered if a credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox as co-writer was my favorite thing about him. So it was one of the biggest surprises of 2015 when Mistress America (a film I watched mostly out of obligation) ended up being this funny and endearing.
Mistress America plays out like a screwball New York comedy in the style of Woody Allen. If that sounds like something up your alley, then you’re likely to enjoy this. The jokes are fast paced and layered, giving the film a freshness and vitality that I find very endearing. As the plot moves along there’s quite a bit of situational comedy as well, which makes it increasingly engaging. This culminates in a chaotic episode at the posh house of Mamie-Claire, Brooke’s longtime rival who she contends stole her t-shirt idea and her cats. The craziness that ensues is genuinely delightful.
The chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke is funny and works dramatically as well. Both actresses do an impressive job here, but it’s Gerwig who is the standout in this film, establishing herself as both a talented comedic actress as well as a savvy co-writer. Part of what I like about the script is that it’s not overly ambitious or be the voice of a generation like other indie films often try to do. Admittedly, Brooke’s character represents fading youth and is professionally adrift like a lot of her contemporaries. However, this is a movie that mainly thrives on its wit and the compelling relationship between these two young women. It’s a light film, but it’s a lot of fun.
48. The Forbidden Room
There were some very weird movies from 2015, but ‘The Forbidden Room’ might just take the cake. Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, this is almost the dream-logic equivalent of Nolan’s ‘Inception’ if it was playing out in your unconscious mind. There are layers within layers, the “plot” moving back and forth between absurd scenarios in ways that defy logic.
Just how crazy is this movie? For starters, there is a submarine with explosive jelly which is mysteriously boarded by a lost woodsman. There is a dream volcano that dreams the fiery dream of molten justice, presiding over cases like squid theft. There is an amnesiac woman who moves between different plots with no recollection of how she got there. There is a man who is so sexually obsessed with derrieres that he hires a doctor to carve out part of his brain… I could keep going. If this sounds like something that you’d be interested in, then this film is for you. Conversely, if this sounds like a taxing experience that you wouldn’t enjoy, you’re probably right. It takes a certain kind of viewer to appreciate the madness.
Personally, I found it to be a fascinating and at times hilarious experiment. It lets you know right away that while it may be unconventional, this is far from highbrow art cinema. It opens with instructions on how to take a bath, chronicling how the practice dates back to Roman times and instructing bathers on how to set the water and scrub themselves clean. This is paired with archaic film techniques, many of which hearken back to the era of silent films. Indeed, the whole movie looks like it was dug up from an ancient vault and randomly edited together. There’s an adventurous vibe to this dream logic production, as well as a playfulness that’s very welcome. If you’re a fan of absurd humor or just absurdity in general, I’d suggest taking the plunge.
Creed continues the story of the legendary Rocky Balboa, who returns this time as a trainer for Adonis Johnson, son of former rival/friend Apollo Creed. It’s a reboot of a franchise that I imagine a lot of moviegoers didn’t ask for and were not expecting, but the good news is that this is the best film in the franchise since the 1976 original.
Some may contend that this film follows too closely to the Rocky formula which has already spawned six films. It is true that there’s only so much you can do with the format, and this does stay true to a lot of the tried and tested scenes that have worked in the past. However, this expands and improves on this elements in a way that makes the film feel fresh. Part of this is due to it being a reboot, but much of the credit has to go to the strength of the cast and the impressive direction of Ryan Coogler. The production quality of Creed vastly exceeds a lot of the previous entries in the franchise. The most obvious improvement being the fight scenes themselves, which are sometimes glossed over in a montage fashion. In Creed, there is a round of fighting that is done in one continuous take. It’s far from a gimmick, as it really captures the essence of the brawl in a way I’ve never seen from a boxing film before. The fight choreography in general is head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen in the genre thus far.
Stallone (who I have never considered a great actor) probably turns in a career best performance here, working for the first time with an acting coach. Michael B Jordan is likely a star on the rise, but it’s Tessa Thompson who was, for me, the real standout performance in the film despite limited screen time. As one might expect, these dramatic characters and their story arcs are heavily featured. Rocky movies have long been about the life struggle that exists outside of the ring, and this film is no exception to that.
A bit of an aside, but I also enjoyed how this film was so distinctly Philadelphia. As a longtime resident of the city, it was nice to see shots of places I’ve been to. Even those who have never been to Philadelphia have praised the film’s use of environment. If nothing else, Creed finally got to explain to the rest of the world what a jawn is.
You may remember writer-director Christian Petzold’s previous film Barbara, which made my 2012 list. Like his previous work, Phoenix is a character drama that shows how major historical movements impact peoples’ lives in profound ways. The focus in this film is on a Jewish-German holocaust survivor named Nelly, who returns home after the war physically and mentally damaged. Having suffered disfiguring injuries, Nelly hopes to remake herself and seeks the help of doctors to perform facial reconstruction surgery.
The story becomes more complicated when Nelly encounters her husband Johnny, a man who may have been involved in her capture. Believing his wife to be dead, this case of mistaken identity leads to his plot to collect on her inheritance. What follows is a dramatic thriller in which Nelly’s husband coaches her to be… well, herself. The premise really locks you in because every scene is fraught with tension. When will Nelly call of the charade and reveal her true identity? Will she ever reveal herself to him, or does she seek retribution instead? Unveiling the basic plot points of the film is as far as I’ll go there. This is a film that relies heavily on anticipation, so I wouldn’t want to spoil anything significant.
I will say that the story is compelling both in terms of plot and metaphor. It plays out with tension, but there’s also an undercurrent of missing the obvious truth that’s sometimes right in front of us. This is bolstered by Petzold’s confident storytelling, but also by Nina Hoss’ strong performance in the leading role. Yet, in spite of everything I’ve said, it’s the finale of the film that really steals the show. It’s a compelling buildup, but the ending scene is honestly one of the best of 2015. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the last sequence before the credits roll.
Theeb is director and co-writer Naji Abu Nowar’s debut film. It takes place during World War I in the wake of the Great Arab Revolt. The story centers around a boy named Theeb (meaning wolf), who must find a way to assist his brother and a companion guide as they take an Englishman across the hostile trek of the Wadi Rum desert.
One of the interesting things about this film is that the director chose to use non-professional actors. The pilgrim guides in the film are portrayed by last-generation Bedouins, who retired to a village sometime in the late 1990s. The young boy playing Theeb, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, was raised in that village. I’ve long been ambivalent about child actors because I feel it’s extremely difficult to evaluate their talent. Children are either naturally gifted at make-believe or they’re not, but this tells us little about whether they’ll go on to hone their craft and become competent adult actors. That being said, Al-Hwietat clearly has the natural ability to play this role. While most of the awards consideration is being directed at Jacob Tremblay from Room, I feel that it’s Al-Hwietat that has the more compelling child performance of the year.
There are historical and metaphorical aspects of the story that I’d rather not delve into for fear of spoilers. Aspects are eventually revealed as the story moves along, but this is a production that should be accessible to almost anyone. It’s an adventure thriller about survival. It’s a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a beautiful and unforgiving desert. The film effortlessly generates suspense while maintaining a feeling of authenticity throughout. The logistics of the journey are so apparent that even when you have long stretches without dialogue, there is no mistaking what’s going on or what’s at stake.
Thankfully, this film got a nod from the 2016 Academy Awards and was nominated for best foreign film. While it is not my favorite film among that group of five, it’s very nice to see such a beautiful and overlooked film getting the recognition it deserves.
Asif Kapadia, who directed the highly regarded biographical doc Senna, returns with a new biographical documentary about Amy Winehouse. As is the case with Ayrton Senna’s story, we already know that this tale won’t end well. Yet, like Senna, this is a meticulously constructed work that does a great job showing the human element hiding behind the celebrity name.
Pieced together using mostly archival footage, Amy starts out with a clip of her at a birthday party when she was fourteen years old. Her friends start to sing Happy Birthday, but they quickly stop and stare in silence as the young Amy bellows out the tune with the talent of a classic jazz vocalist. It’s a small moment, but it’s an unforgettable one all the same. It’s so obvious that she’s gifted with amazing talent, but watching this young girl shine in that small moment and knowing the eventual outcome of her life story almost made me tear up a few minutes in. How did this young girl with her whole life ahead of her and so much potential go down a path in which it was all wasted?
The answer to that question remains a topic of debate among those who knew her. Kapadia has also said that he doesn’t want the film to be the final word in Amy Winehouse’s story, acknowledging that there is room for interpretation and that others may have different vantage points. Despite that, the documentary certainly seems to shine a light on some very troubling relationships in her life – particularly with her ex-lover and her father. There are also moments where the paparazzi attention is so overbearing that it’s hard not be impacted by it, even watching it from afar. I recall one scene where Amy walks out of her apartment and we can see the flashing lights of the cameras envelope her so completely that the screen becomes a torrent of white light. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s a terrifying scene. One wonders if they would want to walk into something like that, or if they would be like Amy, content to avoid it all and sink into a spiral of drugs and isolation.
I must admit I didn’t go into this as a huge Amy Winehouse fan. I thought she had a great voice and I knew some of the lyrics to her songs, but I only had a passing knowledge of her work. That being said, one of the most striking things about the documentary is its use of the song’s lyrics and how it juxtaposes them with the story of her life. The audience is given subtitles transcribed over archival footage, so that there’s no mistaking the words from Winehouse’s vocal inflections. As we learn more about the context of the lyrics, they start to become overbearing and almost tragic. One could argue that it’s inherently tricky to ascribe meaning to a genre that’s inherently poetic, but it certainly seems as though they’re a reflection of the darkest chapters in her life. Just when she appears to be turning a corner in her life and moving on from drugs and a destructive relationship, the financial drivers around her conspire to get her back on stage to sing the very ‘Back to Black’ anthems that celebrated her self destruction. Had it been up to her, she might have avoided the touring altogether. But with all those around her standing to benefit so much, it appears that she was forced back into a world she very much wanted to escape from. I’ll personally never be able to listen to those lyrics the same way I did before the film.
43. The Tribe
One of the more ambitious films of last year, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is a Ukrainian drama done entirely in sign language and features no subtitles. Even if you’re familiar with ASL, you won’t be able to understand this particular type. This means that almost nobody is going to be able to decipher the dialogue in the film. Yet, because of the shared humanity and common themes in the story, it’s not a difficult film to understand.
The film depicts a boarding school for the deaf that doubles as an organized crime outfit. New students like Sergey are brought in and quickly indoctrinated into the group, a proposition that’s hard to refuse given the circumstances. We see one character who appears completely ostracized, choosing to spend a lot of his free time sitting by himself and nervously eating. You get the impression that at such a school you’d either have to fall in line or become a recluse, since the only other people you can communicate with are in this closed environment. I imagine most people would simply follow along, even if it means engaging in acts they’d never do otherwise. We often think about crime as a conscious moral choice, but a lot of criminality comes from circumstances beyond a person’s control.
The subtext in the film is fascinating, but the most important thing is that The Tribe manages to tell a compelling story. Though we know almost nothing about him, we empathize with Sergey’s situation as we watch him try to navigate the school’s hierarchy. He undergoes a stunning hazing scene, captured in a wide long take with dozens of classmates looking on. He is made to work his way up the ranks by brutalizing innocent victims and doing what’s asked of him. However, Sergey’s rise to acceptance in this organization becomes fraught after he falls into a forbidden love affair, forcing him to choose where his true allegiances lie. I won’t say anything else about the plot to avoid spoiling it, but watching this intimate struggle play out against the backdrop of the school makes for a tense and interesting watch.
This is clearly not a film for everyone. Most people I know probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the premise of a silent film without music or dialogue. Yet even if you’re fine with that, there are also some intensely graphic scenes of violence and sexuality that may be a bit much for some viewers. I personally don’t mind either of these issues, but if you’re selecting something to watch with a friend or a spouse etc. it’s probably worth considering. I would recommend this one to more adventurous viewers. It’s a unique and fascinating film, filled with impressive camera work and some unforgettable scenes.
42. About Elly
Originally released in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly did not get a proper U.S. theatrical and DVD release until 2015. Had it not been for the Oscar success of A Separation, I doubt that I would be writing this or much less have seen the film. That would be a shame, because while this may not be quite as impressive as A Separation, it’s a gripping story and one of the better films from last year.
The story follows a group of former college friends who are vacationing by the Caspian Sea. Sepideh decides to bring along an outside friend named Elly, a kindergarten teacher that she hopes to set up with the recently divorced Ahmad. Everything starts out great, as the group enjoys picnicking and games against the beautiful backdrop of the water. However, when Elly suddenly goes missing the group is thrown into a state of panic and confusion. They coordinate a search and seek the help of the authorities to track her down. It’s unclear whether Elly has drowned, but as time keeps passing the group begins to fear the worst.
Yet while everyone is concerned with Elly’s safety, hidden tensions begin to surface in the wake of her disappearance. Secrets are revealed that begin to unnerve the group, some of whom begin resenting Sepideh for bringing this mysterious woman along for the trip. I can’t say exactly what occurs or reveal the nature of these secrets, as this is a movie that plays out much better if you know nothing beyond the premise. What I can say is that this is the kind of tension filled human drama that you might expect from Farhadi considering his filmography. This is a director who is very interested in exploring the intricacies of human nature and how they play out in the most difficult of circumstances. This is riveting stuff and it proves that Farhadi was a great talent long before American audiences became familiar with him.
41. When Marnie Was There
As the American author Mark Twain once said, “rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated”. Around this time last year I was writing about my number one film of 2014, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, as potentially being Studio Ghibli’s last film. I’m happy to say that they at least had one more ace up their sleeve with Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s ‘When Marnie Was There’. The fate of the studio still remains an open question, but I’m happy to report that Ghibli is currently hard at work at a new feature film, The Red Turtle. I’m also happy to say that their 2015 entry of Marnie is another strong entry in their rich film history.
Apparently, the story for this film is based on a book that Hiyao Miyazaki loves. There are even accounts that he required newcomers to the studio to read the story, as he felt it would give them an impression of what Ghibli was all about. It’s hard not to see why, when you consider how many of the elements in this film are seen in their filmography. It’s a deeply personal story that blends in elements which seem supernatural or otherworldly. The story follows an introverted young girl named Ana who is sent away to stay with her relatives in the country. During her time there, she chances upon a mysterious abandoned mansion and quickly becomes fascinated by it. As she begins spending more time around the house, she meets a charismatic extrovert named Marnie, a mysterious child who may or may not be real.
Since a lot of the film takes place in this middle ground between established reality and potential fantasy, I don’t want to go to deep into what this implies. I suppose if you watch a lot of movies you might be able to guess where the story is going, but to me that’s not a real knock on the film. The journey here is so emotionally captivating that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. The story can feel ethereal and light, but it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the darker or more unpleasant aspects of life. Like a lot of the best animation, this is a film that will resonate more with adults, but it’s also just the kind of animated film you’d want to show to your kid.
It should go without saying, but the animation of the Japanese countryside is classically beautiful in Ghibli fashion. Despite the studio’s financial woes, there is no shortage of production values to be seen here. Even the sound design is spot on. If you like Studio Ghibli or just good movies in general, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
Riley Stearns’ writer-director debut is about a desperate couple who believe their daughter Claire has been stolen from them by a nefarious cult. With nowhere else to turn, they enlist the help of an author named Ansel Roth who specializes in cult de-programming. Despite his questionable credentials, Ansel is so down on his luck that he’s desperate to accept any paying work. He agrees to kidnap the daughter and hold her in a hotel room until he can convince her to stray from the cult’s path and return into the loving arms of her family.
While I can’t reveal much, this is a film that unfolds like a stage play with the two main characters vying for psychological control. The script loves to play mind games and keep you guessing where it will go next. From the unconventional opening in the hotel dining area to the finale, I was fully locked in and at times on the edge of my seat. It’s a film with a high stakes premise and dramatic subtext, yet it also manages to have a dark sense of humor. Ansel’s predicament is so absurd that it’s hard not to laugh at the situation or (in some cases) at him.
I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about this film this year. Everyone who saw it at my local video store was a fan, but I haven’t heard a single person on a movie forum or social media group mention it once. There are some great cult films like The Master and some not as great ones like The Sound of My Voice. I feel that while Faults may not be a masterpiece, it’s an underrated gem in this rather limited genre. Riley Stearns shines in the leading role and Mary Elizabeth Winstead once again proves that she’s a seriously impressive talent. This is a fun and twisted movie that more people need to see.
39. Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is sure to rub some people the wrong way, even those who are fans of his work. Queen of Earth is a character drama, but it might be better described as a psychological horror film. From the opening shot of Elisabeth Moss’s disheveled face, makeup streaming down her cheeks as she sobs and screams, we can plainly see that this is a mentally disturbed person. The setup for the plot seems simple enough, as Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) joins her friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) for a lake house retreat in order to unwind and regroup. As we can see through a series of flashbacks, this is not the first time the two girls have been to the vacation home. The last time they were there, it was Ginny who was in emotional turmoil and used the home, as well as the company of her friend, to recover. This time, the shoe is on the other foot with Catherine struggling to regain her composure after being dumped by her boyfriend.
The plot seems simple enough, but it’s probably misleading to call this a character drama. In many ways, this is a psychological horror film. Instead of using the environment to recover, Catherine only appears to slip further into madness as time goes on. Ginny tries her best to help her friend, but quickly becomes frustrated by the extent of her insanity. It’s an often cringe-inducing dynamic as we watch this downward spiral continue unabated. Was Catherine always this mentally ill and it’s only now coming to light? Can the two girls possibly remain friends after something like this? Will Catherine have an epiphany which saves her in the end?
Both young actresses do a good job here, but it’s Elisabeth Moss who really carries this film. When trying to pull off a script like this, you really need a talented and committed actress in the leading role. I’ve long been a big fan of Moss and it’s refreshing to see her take command of a leading role, especially one this challenging. I honestly think she deserves awards considerations for this film, as she gives one of the best performances by an actress I saw all year. The claustrophobia of the screenplay is also enhanced by Perry’s direction and some clever cinematography by Sean Price Williams. There’s an old-school aesthetic to the film, shot on a short millimeter lens which catches some intimate perspectives of the characters and environment.
Eden is directed and co-written by Mia Hansen-Løve. The film starts off during the 1990s, when the French electronic scene was hitting full stride. It opens with a gorgeous underground party scene, bright lights and pulsing rhythms emanating from the end of a tunnel. The event, as is typical of electronic music parties, re-purposes an environment that is a long way from your typical nightclub. The patrons of this party are off in the woods, some of them huddling around an outdoor fire for warmth while others dance the night away. As someone who was involved in the U.S. electronic movement in the early 2000s, the opening setting made me miss those types of parties. It’s easy to see how our protagonist, Paul, becomes infatuated with the lifestyle. As the night is dying down, he walks over to the DJ and asks him about a record he’d spun earlier. The DJ recognizes the description and puts the vinyl back on for Paul, who smiles knowingly as the melody spins. It’s clear in this moment that he has found his life’s dream – to become a garage disc jockey.
The movie chooses to make frequent jumps through time, sometimes fast-forwarding years ahead from one scene to the next. This makes the story feel like a collection of memories from the past, a sort of mashup of the greatest hits of Paul’s life. While this does make some of the relationships and characters feel underdeveloped, there is a real intimacy with the leading character throughout. The vast span of time helps us to contextualize each event within the scope of his life and career. We also get to see the changing culture of electronic music at a macro level, both in France and the United States. But this is more than just a narrative device. Eden is only using the electronic music scene as backdrop, as it’s really about time itself.
This movie reminded me a lot of Linklater’s Boyhood, a story that also centered around one person as time inexorably moves forward. Like Boyhood, you don’t really gain an appreciation for the weight of what you’ve seen until the end. I won’t say where the story leads or how it happens, but there is a piece of poetry at the end of this film that I found very moving. Along the way we see the beauty of life and this artistic movement, yet so many of things inevitably fade with the passing of time. It’s a celebratory film, but it’s also a melancholic one. When the film ended, I re-winded to that opening sequence at the party and felt an immediate rush of nostalgia.
37. Best of Enemies
In the 1960s, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the political conventions in the form of debate. At the time, ABC News was in dead last among the big three news networks. There was even a joke going around that if you wanted to end the Vietnam war, all you had to do was put it on ABC and it would be cancelled in a few weeks. Things were so bad that the set on which Vidal and Buckley were to debate collapsed before the first verbal sparring, requiring the crew to set up an impromptu curtain and a few seats. The whole thing was a last ditch effort to gain some advantage in the ratings and nobody knew if it was going to work.
What ended up happening was some of the most memorable debate in the history of television. These two men truly despised one another and felt they were fighting a cultural battle that had to be won. Yet while these men were ideologically polarized (Vidal on the left and Buckley on the right) these were not blowhards like we’re used to seeing on cable news today. These were, in fact, two of the foremost intellectuals of their day. Buckley and Vidal were wordsmiths and very skilled debaters, so that watching them spar was riveting and essential. The way each man could weave a sentence or react with a cold glance was excellent, and they touched on many of the biggest political issues of their day – topics that are very much still with us in modern America.
Yet while they gave the nation something revolutionary, they also sowed the seeds for the erosion of quality TV journalism. As much as these men heightened the value of nightly programming during their era, they have done far more harm (unintentionally, of course) to our political discourse. The late night comedian Jon Stewart touched on this problem over a decade ago when he went on the CNN show ‘Crossfire’, a program inspired by the Left vs Right contest that began on ABC all those years ago. But what comedian Jon Stewart rightly pointed out was that the format had devolved into partisan hackery. No longer were there intelligent men of letters having a legitimate debate. Instead, Americans now tuned in to watch personalities take sides along party lines and fight for our collective amusement. Somewhere along the way, TV news networks decided that they were in the entertainment business. The model worked, so it was emulated… even if what made it worthwhile got lost along the way.
36. The Martian
It’s pretty exciting to see Ridley Scott, the man who brought us Alien, back at the helm for a new science fiction film. This is a very different kind of film than Alien or the recent prequel Prometheus, opting for a tone that’s much lighter and more friendly than those sci-fi/horror stories. While it may not be what people would expect, I think this is the best thing the director has given us in a very long time.
Based on a best-selling novel which takes place in a hypothetical future in which NASA’s budget remains intact, manned missions to the red planet are now a reality. But on one scientific expedition, a storm hits with unexpected force and causes the research team to evacuate on short notice. During the escape sequence, however, one of their astronauts is lost and presumed dead. But astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, miraculously survives the ordeal. The problem is that his crew has already charted an unalterable path back to Earth, while he is left to survive with resources designed to last only a month. It will be at least four years before another expedition can reach him, meaning Mark is going to have to have to find out how to contact NASA and grow enough food to survive in the interim. Or, as he so eloquently puts it – “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!”
This is a movie that feels like it was made for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but anyone fascinated with space travel will probably love this film. There are gorgeous shots of space travel and the martian landscape that fuel the imagination. Not only is it grounded in real science, but scientific knowledge and innovation are the means by which our character will either live or die. The film presents the story as a series of problems that need to be solved, yet at no point in this film is it dull or uninteresting. It’s refreshing to have a movie that celebrates the importance of science and what the best minds can accomplish if they work together.
There was some controversy when the Golden Globe awards nominated The Martian for the best musical and/or comedy award. And while it’s certainly no musical, I actually do think that this film could pass as a comedy. It certainly had a lot more laughs than many so-called comedies of 2015. I’m of two minds about this, because on the one hand it makes an otherwise hard-sell more palatable for a wide audience and it really does infuse some fresh life into the film. On the other hand, those who watch a lot of movies can probably pick up on the vibe and realize that this is not Game of Thrones. You probably will have some sense of where this all headed, but that’s OK when the rest of the film is so compelling and fun to watch.
35. Goodnight Mommy
An Austrian psychological horror/thriller film from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy is a bit tricky to say anything more about. I would actually recommend going into it cold and not even reading the synopsis, but if you must know what it’s about I’ll spell it out here and try not give anything away.
The film largely takes place in the Austrian countryside at a posh and stylish home. The house has quite a bit of acreage around it, giving the place a feeling of isolation against a peaceful backdrop of fields and trees. Though, as you may imagine, this is far from a subdued film. The trouble begins when two twin boys see their mother return home from a disfiguring accident. She is wrapped in bandages so they cannot see her face, and they start to notice that her behavior is erratic and suspicious. As time passes, the boys become increasingly convinced that this mysterious woman is not their mother after all. As they start to unravel clues as to her true identity, things become increasingly tense and frightening. The tone of the film becomes very dark as we see disturbing sequences begin to play out before us.
As I was watching this I couldn’t help but buy in to this dark and foreboding vibe. Everything about this movie and its setting were so transfixing that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The mood is so precise and it uses very little dialogue to tell its story. As is the case with a lot of horror films, I watched this one alone in the dark with the volume cranked up. Yet, even sitting there by myself, I couldn’t help but break my suspension of belief a few times and whisper things like “this movie is cool as hell”. It may not be classically scary in the way films like Babadook or Sinister are, but this is a creepy little messed up film with tons of intrigue.
The only thing that prevents this from ranking higher on my list is something I often complain about with horror films. It simply doesn’t have a strong ending, at least not in my view. For some people this can sully the whole experience, but I honestly don’t think that most horror films have good conclusions. It’s not an outright awful finale like 2014’s The Conjuring, but I really wish more genre films like this would have the courage to give us darker and/or more ambiguous endings. Despite all of this, I found the journey to be so enjoyable that I still consider this a very good film. For me, it’s one of the best horror movies in modern memory.
34. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary takes place during the demonstrations in Maidan square. A student protest movement gradually grew into a revolution, as Ukrainians flocked to the square to call for the resignation of Viktor Yanukovich and to demand the country honor the proposed alliance with the European Union. What started out looking like a traditional protest quickly turned into something much more, as riot police forcibly pushed back against the demonstrators. Stakes and tensions began to reach a boiling point, with the demonstrators refusing to back down they began to turn Maidan into a central hub of operations, choosing to dig in deep for a battle that would last months.
This documentary is one of the most harrowing and exciting I’ve seen in a long time. The footage that’s used here is absolutely breathtaking, and though I’ve watched other similar documentaries like Netflix’s The Square, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. As the protests go on, the images start to take on the look of a post-apocalyptic failed state. It’s truly amazing to see this area transform from a scenic town square into what looks like a war zone. There are sequences where cameras are filming against a barrage of beatings, amidst Molotov cocktails, burning tires and live ammunition. This stunning array of sight and sound is wonderfully edited and bolstered by a moving soundtrack. Some of the sequences in here are as gut-wrenching and emotional as almost anything I saw from 2015.
So why isn’t this film ranked much higher? I loved it and I do think it’s a great introduction to those uninitiated with this movement. However, there have been some complaints about how this film functions more as a propaganda piece than a work of historical journalism. Those attacks are not without merit, as the film does seem to portray the entire country as being unified in their desire to join the E.U., oppose Yanukovich and Russian interference. In truth, there are many segments of the population that disagreed with the protesters’ political goals or have very different ideas about what’s best for Ukraine. To use one anecdotal example, I was speaking with a young Ukrainian immigrant just a few days ago who felt the protesters were wrong and that the riot police should have used more force at the outset to quell the uprising. He feels that the revolution did nothing but cause further economic hardship and casualties in Ukraine since, and that Petro Poroshenko is no better a leader than Viktor Yanukovich was. Certainly the documentary could have shed some light on the complexities of the political situation, but much of this is simply omitted or glossed over. There is a note at the end about how many people have died since the Maidan protests, but this footnote is not sufficient by itself.
It’s still a very well made and impressive documentary, all the same. Anyone who has any interest in the subject should seek it out.
33. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of these people called Scientologists. But did you also know that the Church of Scientology is crazy? It’s true! HBO even made a documentary about it that aired last year.
Some of the stuff in this film is absolutely stunning. For instance, the story of how Scientology became a religion all stems from how they owed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. In order to get their back taxes expunged, they blackmailed the IRS by having as many people from their church file lawsuits against the IRS and its employees. While they were buried in litigation, someone told them that every single one of these suits would go away if only they’d declare Scientology a religion, and therefore tax exempt. As you may guess, the IRS caved to their demands. That’s just *one* example among many in this documentary, which features some truly shocking and disturbing accounts from ex-members of the cult. There are stories of what amounts to voluntary torture/abuse, a class hierarchy as wide as feudalism and people forced to “disconnect” from their loved ones that would dare leave to leave the faith. For me, it’s the disconnecting part that hit me the hardest. The idea that you’d be forced to forever break off all communication with a friend, a spouse, or a family member. In one especially devastating scene, a mother recalls her daughter saying goodbye to her for the last time.
Yet, despite how much that’s in here, there’s a ton of stuff that was left out by calculation. Because of the aggressive and sometimes vindictive nature of Scientology, the filmmakers had to be very careful about whether showing something could get them into trouble. The documentary was actually vetted by over a hundred lawyers, who what ended up making the final cut might have had nothing to do with what makes for compelling footage. There are a couple pieces online about everything that’s not in the film, but this HBO production is such a treasure trove of stuff that you’ll walk away getting the gist of it.
32. Beasts of No Nation
Cary J Fukunaga’s latest film is streaming on Netflix, but the subject matter is so challenging and the cinematography is so beautiful that it’s made for the theater. I was lucky enough to have one of the Philadelphia theaters near me play this for about a week or so, but I imagine many people will be watching this on their tablets or smart phones. I would suggest watching this on the best possible display you have, so if you’ve got to hook up your HDMI cable from your laptop to your TV it will be worth the effort.
As one might expect from a film about child soldiers, this is a very troublesome film that doesn’t pull a lot of punches. We see the innocence of childhood being lost at the outset, as the young Agu finds himself with nowhere left to turn but the Commandant’s army. While there are numerous battles and raids going on, the central narrative of the film is Agu himself and how the carefree boy we see in the beginning can become slowly indoctrinated into this death squad. Agu himself laments the loss of his humanity as the film goes on, yet he finds himself giving in to the comforts of obedience or even the bloodthirsty drive for revenge. Yet, despite this, I don’t feel that Beasts of No Nation is a hopeless film or too much to take in. I never got the sense that Agu was beyond saving, even as this becomes an increasingly distant possibility. Obviously, I don’t want to give away where it’s going, so you’ll have to see for yourself.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the production values here are excellent. The cinematography is gorgeous and shot by Fukunaga himself. He draws on inspiration from war photographers, including the technicolor war photos of Richard Mosse. The music by Dan Romer accompanies the film very well, eliciting emotion at just the right times and making other sequences feel epic in scope. Abraham Atta does a very good job in the role of Agu, while Idris Elba gives one of the most impressive supporting actor performances of the year in the role of the Commandant. I really do feel that Idris Elba deserved more awards recognition than what he got this year, though I think that may have more to do with this being a Netflix production than any type of racial bias.
This movie is probably not for everyone, as it goes to places that many studio films would find too troubling to depict. But if you’re interested in a very well made film about a difficult subject, then I would suggest checking this out.
John Crowley’s film is adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel. It stars Saoirse Ronan as a girl who immigrates from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Unlike a lot of films these days, this one doesn’t really lend itself to trailers. It’s not based on a historical event, the romance element is complicated and its central conflict is a personal one. I saw it at a matinee showing and was the only person in the audience of a United Artists multiplex. Yet, despite not being the most marketable film, Brooklyn won over critics and audiences alike, and even got notable awards show considerations. All of this went on to help the film recoup its modest budget of $10m five times over.
The immigrant story is not a new one, and this is a movie where you can see the strings if you look hard enough. It’s tugging at your heart in ways that may seem obvious or even manipulative, but none of that seems to matter when we’re watching. From the early scene where Eilis waves goodbye to her family from a boat, I found myself getting emotionally invested in this character and her story. The film looks and feels like an old fashioned character drama, which is not a criticism. It doesn’t overplay its hand with a big Hollywood score or overly dramatized bits. Yet when it wants to illicit a response from you, it does.
We see Eilis trying to make a new life herself, adjusting to her new environment and her place of work. Yet Eilis is profoundly homesick and wonders if she and her sister, who helped facilitate this plan, actually made the right choice. It isn’t until she begins a romantic relationship with an Italian-American lad named Tony that she starts to finally ease into her surroundings. This all seems as though it’s setting itself up for a fairly basic story, one in which we see this Irish girl transition to her new life while immigration themes subtly play out. However, events from back home call her back to Ireland suddenly, and this is where the film really hits its stride. I don’t want to give too much away, but she begins to linger there, realizing that her life may actually be better here than it would be in the United States. The forces of career, romance and family seem to be conspiring to keep her there. Eilis finds herself confronted with a very difficult choice, one that I found myself getting very anxious about.
One of the biggest reasons this film works so well is the quality of the acting. Every role is well executed and believable, but it’s Saoirse Ronan who steals the show as the leading woman. She’s so good that I honestly think she may have given the best performance by an actress this year. Her eyes are so commanding that you can almost feel the emotion in every scene just by the subtleties in her face. Every little detail about how she holds herself feels natural and appropriate. For a film that is really built around its central character and their internal struggle, this is very important. She’s the engine that makes the movie go.
Mommy is written and directed by Xavier Dolan and earned considerable buzz at 2014 U.S. film festivals. I’m happy to say that the hype is deserved, and the film further establishes the young Canadian as a great talent.
Right away, we can see that several aspects of this film are unconventional. The story mentions that it takes place in a future Canada where a hypothetical new law has just passed regarding parental custody of troubled youth. From there, the film opens to a 1:1 aspect ratio. Most modern films are shot in 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1, so this decision is incredibly unorthodox but not without purpose. The ratio is used to accentuate the mood of the film, along with the constrained mental state of Steve and his mother Diane.
Steve is a violent and mentally troubled young boy, one who frequently acts out with uncontrollable or irrational behavior. He has been in and out of government run youth centers, but now he and his mother must attempt to make life work on their own, at least for the foreseeable future. As you might imagine, it’s a tough road for Diane to attempt to raise him as a single mother. Fortunately, she establishes a timely friendship with a neighbor named Kyla, a woman who quickly becomes an integral part of their lives. Together, the three of them are able to navigate Steve’s behavior a bit better than before. It’s not an altogether difficult journey, and there are even moments of joy and tranquility sprinkled in throughout. In a few of these moments we see the camera expand from 1:1 to a standard ratio and, coupled with the use of music, the effect is almost magical. There’s one montage that does this in particular, paired with Ludovico Einaudi’s song ‘Experience’, that is one of the most brilliantly cinematic things I’ve ever seen. In fact, Dolan talked about the idea for that sequence set to that music being the catalyst for the whole film.
This is an emotionally powerful experience that takes you through some highs and lows. It’s bolstered by three great leading performances and great artistic care by the director. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.
29. Tokyo Tribe
I’m a huge fan of Sion Sono, so when I heard that his latest film could be described as a Rap Opera set in a future Tokyo with warring tribes… well, let’s just say I was excited to see it. I’ve talked before about how Sono has all the command of a great director, yet he utilizes those talents to make truly bizarre and/or silly films. That sort of juxtaposition of craft and concept is part of what makes his work so compelling. I could easily see this film being a disaster in less competent hands, yet he somehow makes this hodgepodge of genres come together in a way that’s very entertaining to watch.
Trying to actually describe a Sono film is quite difficult and this latest is no exception. Mere words can’t really convey how utterly insane Tokyo Tribe is. There is a DJ grandmother who helps cut between scenes, a holographic overlord with an ensemble of dancing girls, a crime boss who sits at a lavish table with a giant ‘Fuck Da World’ engraved globe behind him, and a beat-boxing waitress… oh, my goodness, the beat-boxing waitress is so great. Most of the dialogue is sung as part of a rap verse, which gives the film this unrelentingly bizarre hip hop vibe. Yet all of this doesn’t really explain what makes the film so indelible.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, critics weren’t really sure what to make of this film. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 50%, meaning that it’s the only movie on this list with a rotten rating from the critic aggregate site. Some have complained that the film is simply too weird, too much, or that it overstays its welcome. While I can see how some would feel that way, I obviously disagree with a lot of the negative feedback. I’ll concede that it may not be one of Sono’s best films, but this is still a ridiculously entertaining production that I have no problem watching again or recommending to people. There are moments in here that stand out as some of the most hilarious or ambitious stuff I saw all year. Never change, Mr. Sono!
Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based on a novel about a woman and her son held in captivity. Despite the connection to horrifying cases like this which do take place, this is not a film that basks in exploitation or horror. It’s a movie that is more interested with the relationship between a mother and child. Even the room itself is fantasized and re-imagined for her son in a way to make the situation bearable. She is continually forced to make decisions about what’s best for her five-year-old son, all the while having to deal with the intermittent presence of her kidnapper and overwhelming logistical hurdles. You get the sense that the two of them, Ma and Jack, sustain each other in a very meaningful way.
I imagine people will be split on the film based on how emotionally resonant it felt. I tend not to be a very cynical viewer while I’m watching things, as my willing suspension of disbelief tends to take over. But I have spoken to a number of people that could never get past their initial misgivings about what the film represents, so they didn’t quite feel that emotional connection at key moments. One person said they couldn’t see it as anything other than using a miserable premise for Oscar bait. I personally feel this is an unfair view, but I can understand how some people might not be able to get those notions out of their head. I also feel that this is a movie that handles its subject matter with great care, and I appreciated how grounded the film felt from beginning to end.
Jacob Tremblay does a very good for a child actor and Brie Larson is very deserving of the praise she’s received for this role. This is her breakthrough performance for wider audiences, but what little she’s been in before like Short Term 12 already showcase her as a brilliant talent. I don’t think she’ll ever be marketable in a way that Jennifer Lawrence is, but she has an amazing commitment to her craft. For Room, she did some really crazy things to prepare herself for the role, since she viewed it as an almost insurmountable challenge to do justice to women with these experiences. In one NPR interview, she talked about locking herself away in isolation for months on end. She cut off communication with the outside world, including phone, TV, internet etc. and even reduced her diet to a very bland regiment. At first, she thought it wasn’t going to be too much of a challenge. But as the days turned into weeks, she says she found the task extremely difficult and that by the end it nearly broke her.
Sean Baker is quickly becoming a favorite director of mine. I adored Starlet from a few years back, which was a very intimate and emotional film. With Tangerine, Baker is still playing on themes of human empathy, but that’s not this movie’s key focus. In fact, Tangerine is a slice of life movie that is best categorized as a comedy, and it’s a damn good one at that.
Shot entirely on iPhones with a anamorphic adapters, Tangerine starts off with a lot of fast paced shots and edits. The aesthetic choice is an interesting one, and the lack of traditional camera tools heightens the frenetic pace of the script. The movie wastes no time getting right into its central conflict and from there it’s an unrelenting sit-com, as these two women tear through Los Angeles in pursuit of Sin-Dee’s cheating pimp and the woman he slept with. The film not only has this undeniable vibrancy, but both the characters and the setting feel very authentic. While I’ve never been to LA, some critics have noted that it gets the geography and locations just right. There was obviously a lot of effort by everyone involved in the film to make it feel as believable as possible. Every character in the film feels genuine, and the script empathizes with every character’s circumstances without resorting to melodrama.
But the real selling point here is the humor. Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s journey is filled with bizarre comedic situations, and the laughter doesn’t always hit you in ways you might expect. There is one scene in particular that takes place at a doughnut shop, which I consider the funniest of 2015. I won’t say how or why the scene is so great, but it plays out with all the brilliance and absurdity of a great stage comedy. I was honestly laughing so hard that I had to catch my breath.
I know some people have been apprehensive about watching this film. There’s a presumption that a movie starring transgender sex workers is likely going to dot certain ‘I’s and cross ‘T’s. I don’t think this mindset comes from any inherent bias against transgender characters, but it’s fostered by their under-representation in film and when there is one it tends to be handled in a predictable way like The Danish Girl. But thankfully, those people I spoke to ended up loving Tangerine when they finally got around to seeing it. This is because Tangerine is a really good and funny film, but it’s also because it handles its subject matter in such a matter-of-fact way. It’s refreshing to see a movie where the two leads are transgender actresses, but where that designation is not the focal point. Instead, this is a character driven comedy where the two leading women are un-apologetically flawed, much like every other person we meet. In other words, much like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a World War 2 movie that’s not really about WW2, Tangerine is a trans comedy that’s not really about the trans issue.
Spotlight is a film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic children abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It’s been mentioned in the same breath as All the President’s Men, received nearly unanimous positive reviews, and it’s even been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. So is all the hype warranted? The short answer is ‘yes’, because even if it’s not in my top 10 of 2015, I can’t deny that this is great cinema.
There are a lot of things that make this movie work so well. For starters, it has a terrific ensemble cast. There is no leading man or woman to be found here, yet each of the characters is integral to the story and they’re so well realized that each feels genuine. Another thing I like is that it draws on journalistic practices that are a bit inside baseball, yet the script manages to tell its story in a very clear and compelling way. It depicts the drudgery and grunt work of searching through folder archives and knocking on doors, yet at no point does the film feel dull or bogged down. In fact, by embracing the gumshoe reporting methods rather than shy away from them, each new revelation feels earned. Dramatic points in the story are that much more interesting as a result.
I also enjoyed how the film didn’t lionize these reporters or give in to big Hollywood moments. With the exception of one heated monologue, delivered by Mark Rufallo’s character, this is a film that’s approaching its subject in a dispassionate and objective manner that should make journalists proud. There’s talk early in the film about how Boston may be a big city, but it still has the feel of a small town. You get the impression that there is a tacit complicity working at many different levels of this society. In fact, the story isn’t really given the attention it deserves until Liev Schreiber’s character Marty Baron takes over the paper. You get the sense that you almost need someone not from the Boston area to approach this with fresh eyes. Because for all of the finger waving that goes on in the film, it’s also addressed that the Globe received pertinent information about this case years earlier and did nothing. This leads to some soul searching on the part of the reporters, and it injects some nuance into what might otherwise be a good vs evil narrative.
One of the things I really like about Spotlight is that it’s a cry for investigative journalism. The rise of the web has really hurt this type of reporting, as the decline of the traditional business model has led to budgetary constraints, forcing many local papers to fold or scale back, with fewer local reporters who are told to make more with less. The Spotlight team seems antiquated in today’s world of RSS feeds, opinion pieces and catchy web headlines that are re-purposed from AP articles. The idea that so many journalists would invest so much time into a single story is bizarre by modern standards, yet it’s the sort of thing that’s desperately needed.
25. Red Army
Gabe Polsky’s documentary is about what’s arguably the greatest sports dynasty in history, the Soviet Union hockey team of the 1970s and 1980s.
Even if you’re someone who doesn’t have an interest in hockey or even sports, this movie should still be compelling. Yes, it’s a movie about sports, but it’s also about the intersection of sports, culture, politics and personal life. The Soviet Union understood that hockey was another means of propaganda. The USSR recognized that sport was universal across language and culture, so that if one team was utterly dominant the rest of the world would be forced to take notice. Hockey was the most popular sport in Russia, so tremendous effort was put into grooming star players from a young age. Having the best team implied that, by extension, the Soviet system was also the best.
As Vyacheslav Fetisov says, the team might have been called a “Red Machine” or “Red Army”, but it was made up of individuals, not robots. While they may have been playing for a coach and a political system that viewed them as cogs in a wheel, their personal dreams and goals ultimately clashed with that of the institution. As the system began to decline and the NHL contracts offered players big salaries, the notion of playing for country started to seem less appealing. This is especially true when you’re being kept in a camp 11 months out of the year and being forced to train so hard that some players pissed blood or were not allowed to see a father who was dying in the hospital. The decline of the national team was a microcosm for the decline of the Soviet empire. The very thing that made these teams great, the total authoritarian control over a team that functioned as a machine, was ultimately its undoing.
This may sound like a very serious and political film, which it is at times, but it’s also a very compelling story about these players lives. There are humorous stories and the film often takes a lighter tone than you might expect. We also get to see some very intimate glimpses into the emotions of these men, at least for those brief instances where they shed their armor of masculinity. It’s one of the best sports films in modern memory and it should appeal to almost everyone.
24. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
By now, there’s very little I can say about JJ Abrams film that hasn’t already been said. In fact, I’m not even going to worry about spoiling things here, so if you’re one of the few people left who still hasn’t seen the film you may want to skip this entry.
I’ll start by conceding that I grew up as a Star Wars nerd. The original trilogy as an integral part of my childhood. I even read six books in the Star Wars universe that take place after the events of Return Of the Jedi. I played the Super Nintendo and PC video games, I read Star Wars comic books… you get the idea. You can imagine how excited I was when I heard that George Lucas was going to direct a new trilogy which would take place prior to A New Hope, but despite the immense hype those films fell flat for me as they did with most people. Following the disappointment that was Phantom Menace and the next two installments, it would be another sixteen years before we got a Star Wars film that might actually be any good. So when The Force Awakens was released, I shuffled my work schedule to take the day off and see it in an RPX theater at 9am. When the classic John Williams score came on and the words “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” came on the screen, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t one of my favorite movie moments of the year.
I say all of this to let you know I may not be the most objective when it comes to ranking this film, even though no work of art can be judged without the inherent subjectivity of the viewer. But while I obviously loved The Force Awakens, this isn’t to say it’s a perfect film or one that I wouldn’t have changed a few things about. The Starkiller base, for example, felt clumsily handled and rushed on many levels. At one point it seems as though the New Order decides “well, we can’t find the droid, so maybe just blow up the Republic now?”. Later in the film, the rebellion holds a strategy meeting for all of one minute, in which they determine “it’s another death star but there’s a way to blow it up probably so OK let’s go”. This all felt pretty jarring to me, and I can’t help but think that the film would have benefited from a slightly longer running time.
Yet at no point in the film was I bored or disinterested. It is, for the most part, brilliantly edited and executed. Many of the complaints about the film regarding Kylo Ren’s emotional vulnerability and unmasking, Rey discovering her powers without training, the striking comparisons to Episode IV A New Hope etc. are actually things that I either enjoyed or didn’t have a problem with at all. In fact, the more I re-watched the film the more I became convinced that it holds up under scrutiny. It’s tremendously fun to watch, it taps the well of nostalgia without overdoing it, and it introduces some juicy mysteries that are fun to consider. Daisy Ridley is brilliant in the leading role and the character of Rey instantly became one of my favorites in the entire canon.
Some may argue that it’s too similar or loyal to the original trilogy, but I think that’s a good thing. For example, when Lucas tried to re-invent the wheel he had Yoda doing triple back-flips in hyper-choreographed CGI lightsaber duels. But when I look at the relatively minimalist choreography in The Force Awakens, I find it incredibly refreshing and much more enjoyable to watch. That’s not to say there’s only one way to make a Star Wars movie, as I’m sure there are plenty of other interesting interpretations that can be done successfully. But this is a movie that reminded me why I loved the franchise in the first place. It was fun, it was funny and it was even surprisingly moving at times. When Rey steals the lightsaber out of Ren’s grasp and stands to face him, I legitimately got chills. When the film ended I wanted to see Episode VIII immediately.
23. Bone Tomahawk
S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk has been described by many as a horror/western, which is not a genre mashup that most people would be familiar with. It’s also a movie that slipped by a lot of people’s radars from 2015, as it didn’t get much of a theatrical release or promotion. I hadn’t even heard of it until a friend mentioned it to me last November, but boy am I glad that I found out about it.
This is a film that I’m going to have to be a bit vague about, since giving away more than the initial synopsis would spoil the adventure. The basic premise involves mysterious savages that attack the small town of Bright Hope, apparently abducting several townsfolk and one shady prisoner in the process. The town’s Sheriff assembles a small search and rescue team, but he does so against the advice of an American Indian man who claims these or no ordinary ‘savages’, arguing that the Sheriff and his crew would be better off presuming the captives dead. Not knowing what they’ll find when they get there, this posse of four heads off on a long journey to the hideout of their enemy.
The pace of the film may not be what you’d expect, given the badass title. This is not a Western with wall-to-wall gunfights or action, and much of the time is spent conversing around camp fires or riding on horseback. The film really takes its time setting up the plot and helping you get to know these characters. Yet, I don’t think most people will find this film boring, since the writing and acting are so good that it’s always compelling to watch. I watched it with a friend of mine who sometimes struggles to make it through slower-paced films, but he had no trouble at all focusing on this one. Like a lot of good storytelling, there’s a sense that everything in this film has a purpose, even if it’s not obvious at first. Bone Tomahawk is taking its time for a reason, trust me on that.
I really enjoyed the production aspects of the film, as well. I often don’t even notice things like sound design, but this film did some very interesting things like recording the horse riders while the camera shoots from far away. There were subtle things when it came to practical visual effects, makeup, costume design etc. that went a long way with what I presume was a fairly minimal budget. You can tell that a lot of care went into every aspect of this film. It may not be that well known, but I have a feeling that strong word of mouth might make this into a cult classic.
22. The Stanford Prison Experiment
In August of 1971, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researchers conducted one of the most famous psychological experiments of the 20th century. The plan was to get a group of students looking to make some extra cash and put them in a fake prison. Half of the students would play the role of the prisoners, while the other half would be the prison guards. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but they never made it close to that goal. Long before then, the guards had taken things to such an extreme that the student prisoners were routinely subjected to psychological torture and abuse. This film is a dramatic reenactment of those events from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
I had thought that more people knew about this experiment, since it’s discussed in a lot of introductory psychology courses and is often relevant to current events (Abu Ghraib comes to mind). Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve found that most people are unaware of its existence. Also surprising is that this story wasn’t done a long time ago, since such a compelling true story seems an obvious choice for a movie. I’m hoping that more people can pick up on this independent gem and learn about it for the first time. But even if you’re already well versed on the topic, there’s something very different about watching it play out before your eyes like this. I knew how most of it was going to play out beforehand, but I was still on the edge of my seat.
It’s actually hard for me to imagine a better reenactment of this experiment. This movie has a remarkable ensemble cast, which is almost a who’s-who of great young talent like Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano and Tye Sheridan. It’s confidently constructed and executed, taking proper time to deal with each aspect of the experiment. It touches on a lot of the key questions that it ought to, but it trusts the viewers to interpret these concerns and draw their own conclusions. It’s appropriately disturbing when it needs to be, all while staying mostly true to the historical events.
This is a great film to watch and think/talk about afterwards. It makes for some excellent discussion and analysis, which is always a plus in my book. Why didn’t the researchers intervene sooner? Was the experiment even scientific? Is the only thing separating the authoritarian abuse of the guards and the prisoners really a coin toss? What does it say about human nature? Whatever conclusions you draw, the film probably won’t be easily forgotten.
21. Bridge of Spies
The latest Steven Spielberg film is a Cold War thriller with a script co-written by the Coen brothers. This may seem a bit of an odd recipe, since Spielberg’s style tends to be quite different from the Coens, but I thought the combination worked very well.
The film is about an American attorney who is asked to defend an alleged Soviet spy. Cold War tensions are running very hot, so James Donovan’s firm is asking him to do this in order to create the illusion of a fair trial. But as we’ve already seen earlier in the film, Donovan is a man who believes in following the rules. So to the chagrin of those around him, he decides to give the alleged spy, Rudolf Abel, the best representation he can. This leads to a chain of events in the second half of the film, where Donovan must act as a representative of the American government as he tries to negotiate a hostage swap.
I especially love the first half of this film, which focuses on the ideological struggle between liberty and security. Despite the film’s historic setting, this is a topic that is very relevant today with the U.S. War on Terror. There’s a great scene in a bar where Tom Hanks’ character is confronted by an FBI agent urging him to rat on his client. But rather than violate client attorney privilege, he makes a great argument about the Constitution being a rule book that defines us as Americans. These are the kinds of verbal exchanges and moral conflicts that make Bridge of Spies so good. This isn’t a Spielberg movie with big explosions or aliens, but it feels just as cinematic because the story plays out with these wonderful scenes of dialogue.
The talent of the lead actors is obvious, with Tom Hanks delivering another great performance and Mark Rylance giving arguably the best supporting actor role of the year. But everything else about this film is also meticulously crafted, from the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, the script of the Coens and Spielberg’s direction. Much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms with people talking to each other, but somehow the film is gripping. Everything just flows from one scene to the next, since everyone involved in the project is a true pro. If you’re looking for a well made film of ideas, or just an engaging cold war thriller, this sure wouldn’t be a bad choice.
20. Son of Saul
I often purchase a hot tea before my movie’s showtime. Since it’s too hot for my palate at first, I’ll let it cool down during the trailers and into the opening of the film. But when Son of Saul ended, I looked down and noticed I hadn’t taken one sip of my tea. It had been beside me for the full two hours and it was bitter cold. That’s never happened to me before. Son of Saul may not be my favorite film of 2015, but I can’t deny that it made a strong impression on me. Even half an hour later, I was walking around a convenience store in a bit of a daze, not knowing what to buy.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since much of the film is filled with tension and uncertainty. The basic plot point is that our protagonist, Saul, a Hungarian Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. As a Sonderkommando, his duties involve helping the Nazis exterminate incoming victims, procure their valuables and eventually dispose of the bodies. Since the Nazis didn’t want to do this sort of grunt work themselves, they force these men to do their bidding for them. We meet Saul at a point where he’s been doing this for quite some time, and he appears to be at his mental breaking point. After witnessing the death of a young boy he claims is his son, he makes it his mission to give his body a proper Jewish burial. How that unfolds and in what way is better left for you to find out.
One of the first things you notice about Son of Saul is that it has unique cinematography. The focal point and framing are very close to our main character, this looming third person perspective stays pretty constant throughout the film’s running time. That, combined with the aspect ratio, gives the film a claustrophobic feel. We’re meant to see everything through this character, so even when it’s apparent that there’s death and mayhem going on all around, we only see it happening from the edges. All of this makes it easy to forget that you’re watching a movie.
However, just because we don’t see a lot of the atrocities in wide sweeping shots doesn’t mean that we’re being shielded from the horror. We’re shown just enough that there’s never any doubt about what’s happening. If you have a weak constitution or just don’t feel like exposing yourself to this nightmare scenario, then maybe Son of Saul isn’t for you. As I said earlier, I watch a lot of films and it’s not often something shakes me up as much as this did. No other film about the holocaust has ever haunted me like this one has. The only other film with comparable subject matter that had a similar impact was Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death. It’s impressive that this is László Nemes’ first film, since it feels like the work of seasoned professional.
19. The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant is based on the Michael Punke novel by the same name. It tells the (mostly) true story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in 1823 South Dakota. If you’re not already familiar with Hugh Glass or the novel, then I’d suggest keeping it that way. I personally went into the film not knowing it was based on history or a novel and I felt this added a lot to my enjoyment of the film. The only thing I will say about the plot is that it is a brutal story of man’s struggle to survive in an unforgiving wilderness.
When I say brutal, by the way, I’m not kidding around. This is one of the most intensely violent and uncompromisingly harsh films I’ve seen in recent memory. The film never shies away from showing us graphic images of violence to people, violence to animals, or the lasting effects injuries can have if left untreated. One theater in my area even had a large sign at the ticket window, warning patrons of just how intense it gets. I just say this to let you know that if you’re deciding on a film with a friend or a spouse who can’t stomach violence, then this is probably one you’re going to want to skip or watch on your own. For me, I really appreciated how the film embraced the hardships of the natural world. It gives you a sense of just how dangerous nature can be, while simultaneously showing how beautiful and awe-inspiring the open wilderness is.
Despite strong performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, the real star of this film is Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki. If you’re a movie person then you’ve probably heard of Lubezki, as he’s one of the world’s greatest living cinematographers and it should be obvious to anyone that watches The Revenant. I can’t stress enough how breathtaking the cinematography is in this film. If you were lucky enough to see it on an RPX or IMAX screen, then congratulations, because it was truly epic. Making it all the more impressive is that there was no studio lighting used here. Chivo chose to use the light of the sun and the occasional use of fire, instead. This is insanely difficult to do and it created all sorts of complications for the production, because the actors would have to rehearse a scene throughout the day, knowing that they’d only have a very limited window of time to shoot it for real. All of this pays off, however, because The Revenant is one of the most beautiful looking films in modern memory.
Despite its dreamlike sequences and highly artistic production values, The Revenant is telling a fairly simple story. I’m not saying this as a criticism, since a lot of great films and even great storytelling comes from taking a simple premise and doing it well. There are very long stretches in the film where there are no words, but the audience can follow everything that’s going on without any difficulty. It’s an emotionally investing journey and one that is vicariously exhilarating and even exhausting at times. This is incredibly ambitious film making used to tell a gripping, minimalist plot.
18. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
When I first heard about the synopsis for Kumiko, I became incredibly intrigued. The story is about a Japanese woman who becomes convinced that Steve Buscemi’s buried treasure from Fargo is real. A quiet introvert stuck in an unsatisfying job, Kumiko (brilliantly acted by Rinko Kinkuchi) begins to spend all of her free time studying clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts. Eventually, she begins to plan her trip to North Dakota. Director David Zellner mentioned that part of the appeal of this was the notion of a 21st century treasure hunter. It seems like an antiquated idea, putting together a collection of clues and maps in the hopes of finding buried treasure. The film really plays on this idea, and much of it feels mythical or fantastic.
One of the first things I noticed about this movie is that it has a great eye. What could have easily been a by-the-numbers film opens with a gorgeous shot of Kumiko walking along a beach and another as she enters a mysterious cave. The cinematographer, Sean Porter, is able to consistently get great shots in a variety of environments (perhaps why this was why they chose not to release a DVD, making it a Blu Ray exclusive). This is paired with a very good score by the Octopus Project, adding in music that feels appropriately weird. Another thing you notice early on is that the film has a clever sense of humor. The comedy isn’t aggressive, but it’s consistently effective. All of these stylistic aspects help add to the experience, making an already interesting concept feel even more original and daring.
At its core, I feel that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a movie about belief. Our heroine is a recluse and introvert by choice, yet she increasingly finds herself unhappy with her life. By finding the old Fargo VHS tape in the cave, the idea of this treasure begins to give her a sense of purpose that had been missing. By pouring all her time and energy into finding the treasure, she desperately needs it to be real. But even if the treasure doesn’t exist, is Kumiko better off pursuing the fiction than wallowing in her misery? The story is able to show both sides of this without ever explicitly commenting on it, something I really appreciated. It’s the sort of film that lingers in your memory long after you’ve seen it. If nothing else, it should provide for some worthwhile post-viewing discussion and analysis. I’m very excited for whatever the Zellner brothers do next.
17. The Gift
Easily one of the biggest surprises of 2015, The Gift seemed to be destined for failure after its disappointing and misleading trailer. Thankfully, I don’t watch trailers, so I immediately became intrigued by this movie that kept getting stellar review scores and internet buzz. All of the hype is warranted in this case, as The Gift is one of the best mystery/thrillers in a long time.
Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and starred in this film. It’s unusual for an artist to be involved in this many layers of a production, and it’s often an indication that the work is going to be very bad (The Room) or very good (Citizen Kane). In this case, Edgerton has done a great job with all three aspects. Edgerton’s character of Gordo is creepy but mysterious, at first appearing not to understand because social decorum, but as time goes in he starts to feel menacing. For instance, there are genuinely frightening moments where Rebecca Hall’s character, Robyn, is alone in the house and you can’t tell if she’s being stalked or not. As the movie goes on, the stakes and tension get ratcheted up. I don’t want to reveal specifics, but as I uncovered more information I began to reconsider my initial assumptions. I genuinely couldn’t see where the story was going at times and I loved that. This is a wickedly smart film that draws you in with intrigue and misdirection.
Those expecting a conventional horror film are going to be disappointed, since that’s not what The Gift is. Instead, this is a low-octane and pulse-pounding thriller. It takes its time setting things up, but once the tension and mystery kick in you won’t want to take an intermission. Just as its setting up the suspense, the film is also introducing its themes at a slow but steady pace. The story asks us to consider how well we can really know somebody, as well as the lasting impact of words and ideas on a person’s life. It may even cause you to look back and scrutinize your own past.
The three leading performances in this movie are each impressive. I loved Joel Edgerton and Rebecca Hall, though the most noteworthy performance is that of Jason Bateman’s Simon. Bateman is someone who has been consistently type-cast as the straight, deadpan guy in comedies. As a result, he’s the kind of actor that audiences may have a hard time seeing in a different role. Yet very early on in the film, I stopped seeing the guy from Arrested Development and only saw the character he was portraying. This is a potentially game-changing performance for him, as it shows he has tremendous range.
16. Inside Out
A lot of Pixar’s top talent has been getting plucked away by Disney, lately. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2013 hit Frozen was worked on by a lot of key ex-Pixar minds. Meanwhile, the studio has been stuck in a bit of a rut since Toy Story 3. The only original concept they’ve introduced since then was Brave, a film that was met with mixed reactions from critics and audiences alike. The rest of their works have been sequels to franchises like Monsters Inc. or Cars, movies that may seem like perfectly adequate animated fare if not for the studio’s stalwart reputation. Yet somehow, Pixar managed to produce another incredible film in 2015.
Directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, Inside Out is about the emotions that govern our consciousness. If a movie about psychology seems a bit much for younger audiences, you’re not wrong. Like many of Pixar’s best films, this is one that is primarily for older audiences, yet it’s disguised as a colorful animated roller coaster that parents can take their kids to. But also like Pixar’s best works, this is one that kids will love. Some children may not be able to comprehend the film’s mature themes of psychology and fading youth, but I imagine they’ll be too wrapped up in the excitement to care. By the end of the film, I’d also wager that many of theme will have picked up on some of the basic themes, like how you can’t just be happy all the time and that each of these emotions has a role to play in our lives.
While some have expressed dismay at how the film works outside of the control station, it’s pretty hard to come up with strong criticisms of this one. Just about everything in this is done with skill and invention. It’s brilliantly cast, the animation is meticulous, the script is intelligent and surprisingly emotional at times. There are a few moments in this film where it’s difficult to fight back tears. This is destined to become a Pixar classic that can hold its own against heavy hitters like Wall-E or Up. If you’re a fan of the studio, then I imagine you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?
Directed and co-written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang tells the story of five sisters living in Northern Turkey. One day, the girls are playing innocently on the beach with some boys from school. But when they get home, their neighbor has informed their grandmother and uncle of what happened, which is misinterpreted as sexually deviant. In the blink of an eye, their lives change forever. They are increasingly isolated from the outside world and trained to become proper wives in arranged marriages. The house slowly becomes a prison for the five sisters, whose electronic communications are cut off and their windows are fortified with steel bars.
One of the things I loved about this film was how genuine these girls felt as characters and siblings. You really get a sense of who these young women are, especially since they live in a bubble where their sisterhood means so much to them. It’s also an aspect that makes the film very re-watchable, as it’s interesting to go back and examine each of the girls different personalities and how they fit in to the group. The most memorable of the sisters is the youngest, Lale. There’s a palpable sense of resiliency that the group has in spite of their circumstances, but it’s Lale who embodies this the most. She’s the most free spirited of the bunch, and as the story moves inevitably towards the arranged marriages of her older sisters, she is determined not to follow them down that same path.
I got the sense that Ergüven was trying to educate viewers about the societal hardships that go on in this Muslim communities. But, more than that, I got the feeling that it was a story that was intended to anger and emotionally frustrate viewers like myself. Even now as I’m writing this blurb, I find myself getting emotional thinking back on the film. It’s a melancholic and quietly devastating story, though it’s not without optimism or even humor. We’re shown the broad range of these girls’ experiences, which can come in the form of adventure or kinship, but also in scenes which are heartbreaking to watch. Like the film’s title would imply, this is ultimately a story of perseverance through difficult circumstances. Mustang seems to be arguing that freedom is not a given for young women in these environments, but that it can and should be fought for.
14. Boy and the World
A story without any dialogue, Boy and the World is a beautiful tapestry of animation and ideas. It’s immediately apparent how imaginative the film is, as we see Cuca frolicking in a wildly colorful backdrop of nature. Despite the simplicity of the hand drawn characters, the aesthetic blends will with the geometry and creativity of the world around them. As we journey from the natural landscape to the industrial world, there is never a shortage of memorable images and places. A pond transitions to a plethora of plant life, a train winds its way through a pure white backdrop, and fireworks light up the night sky over a stadium. All of this is paired with a memorable soundtrack of recurring samba music and Brazilian hip hop.
Alê Abreu’s film unfolds like visual poetry. Since what little dialogue there is here is spoken in Portuguese and played backwards, it intentionally comes off as gibberish. It’s up to the audience to make sense of Cuca’s journey. His life upended when his family moves from the country to the city, we see him embark on this quest to reunite his family. Yet as he continues on this path, the story starts to sink deeper into the rabbit hole. It becomes less clear what his goals are as the world becomes more daunting and complex. We see the vastness of the city lights and the enormity of the industrial operations. As time goes on, Cuca befriends a mysterious stranger who becomes his companion through this whirlwind of sight of sound.
Some of the movie’s intentions are obvious, like its love of nature and aversion to environmental destruction. These are played out explicitly, even using real world footage to highlight these themes. But other aspects of the film are more poetic and mysterious. It’s not always readily apparent what’s happening in terms of the literal plot, so when aspects of the story are finally revealed they can be emotionally gratifying or even devastating. I was always engrossed by the world building and vibe of the film. Yet it wasn’t until I started to contextualize everything that the film elevated itself into something great. I genuinely loved this movie, and as the credits came on the screen with the closing music, I simply sat there in quiet appreciation until the screen went dark.
13. Man From Reno
Directed and co-written by David Boyle, Man From Reno is a stellar mystery/thriller that flew under the radar last year. Man From Reno was made on a Kickstarter budget of less than $55,000 and despite getting little in the way of distribution, the film has been a hit in terms of critical response. It just goes to show that a solid script and a talented group of people can do a lot with a little.
The story involves a Japanese crime writer who finds herself in the midst of a real life crime mystery. Along the way, she’s assisted by an American detective as they hope to untangle this yarn. It’s hard to say more, since spoiling a mystery plot would be a bad idea. But if you’re a fan of noir detective stories, this is one that you’ll likely love. It’s an interesting blend of classic styles in a modern film, feeling rooted in its genre’s aesthetic and tone. For example, its San Francisco setting is shot in present day, but it feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Despite the retro feel, this is also not your run-of-the-mill genre screenplay. For reasons that I obviously can’t get into, the mystery felt fresh and even daring at times.
Despite its numerous twists and turns, the film is definitely a slow burn. Unless you’re a professional detective, you probably won’t have enough clues to piece everything together until the film’s last act. I personally enjoy stumbling around in darkness and trying to make sense of the story, but the movie is asking the audience to be attentive and patient. When everything is more or less concluded, I imagine a lot of people are going to walk away feeling it was very much worth the wait. This is a film that has a terrific ending, one that floored me and lingered in my mind long after seeing it. It also makes for an interesting re-watch, because once you’ve mastered the plot you can go back and see the story play out in a new light. It’s a shame they don’t make more films like this nowadays.
12. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem
Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz’s Gett plays out as a lengthy legal proceeding in a rabbinical court, one that is tied up in years of litigation and legal bureaucracy. This may sound like a hard sell for a movie, as audiences can be assured there is no romantic intrigue or action sequences here. Much of the film plays out through dialogue in the same small, bland looking courtroom. Despite all of this, Gett is absolutely riveting to watch.
Part of what makes the film work so well is its script. There are brilliant verbal exchanges between these characters, but the dialogue also takes a backseat to quite a few dramatic pauses where a person’s expression (or lack thereof) can speak volumes. Considering the vast amount of time the story covers, it’s surprising that everything feels fast paced. This is because the script has no fat on it, deciding to ignore the slice of life moments that take place outside the courtroom. Instead, the film will simply cut to the next scheduled court appearance months into the future. This doesn’t highlight the amount of time passing quite as much as Chaitanya Tamhane’s movie Court, but the edits have the advantage of keeping things fast paced and interesting.
Because it plays out in the style of a stage play, this is a movie that demands strong performances from its actors/actresses. Thankfully, everyone in this film does a great job with their respective character. It’s actually the lawyers themselves who do much of the talking. Menashe Noy is excellent as Viviane’s fiery attorney. Sasson Gabai is fascinating as Elisha’s lawyer, a man who takes a more dispassionate view of the proceedings. Though as you may expect, it’s Ronit Elkabetz’s performance that is the real emotional center of the film. She has complete command of this character and even when she’s not saying anything you can’t help but key in on her body language and expressions. I personally thought it was some of the best acting I saw all year.
Honestly, this movie is a lot to take in. It’s not without its more tranquil or even comedic moments, but the vast majority of its running time is packed with nerve-wracking drama. There were moments where I found myself standing up and pacing the room, just to help process with what was unfolding. I love it when a movie can make me feel this way.
11. The Hateful Eight
Older films tend to be more revered, whether it’s deserved or not. A film made by a director from twenty years ago has an automatic leg up on a film that came out a few months ago. I’ve been a part of post viewing Q&As or film discussions where people have said you can’t compare established classic film A to movie we just watched B. But at some point, classic film A was just another movie playing on a Thursday evening. It takes time for works of art to gain academic approval, and some deserving works simply aren’t seen by enough people to merit that consideration. In the end, however, literary professors will eventually concede Jane Austen wrote some good books. The reason I mention all of this is because I believe Tarantino’s last three films may be his best, so I’ll be very interested to see how people are ranking and talking about his filmography decades from now.
Part of what I love about this and Django Unchained, is that it feels like Tarantino is letting himself go and just having fun with everything at this stage in his career. He’s obviously been known to do unconventional things when it comes to genre-blending, but these last two feel especially humorous and playful. At my Christmas day screening in 70mm, there were by far more laughs than at any other movie I attended this year. At nearly every turn there’s a clever bit of dialogue or a ridiculous development that had me chuckling. Nearly everything out of Walter Goggins and Tim Roth’s mouth had me smiling, but every character in the script gets a chance to shine. Especially when it comes to Samuel Jackson, who delivers a monologue for the ages. Even a small recurring gag about closing a door works brilliantly.
The film breaks out the Panavision 70 with 65mm lenses, opening with a sweeping shot of a snowy landscape. You might imagine that this special camera would be used to shoot epic, sprawling scenes of nature. But this is nothing like The Revenant. Instead, most of the film takes place in closed environments like a stagecoach or a cabin. The ultra-wide 2.75:1 lens is used to get a lot in the shot, so that if you’re paying close enough attention you can identify things in the background of the cabin. The wideness of the shots also are meant to enhance the sense of claustrophobia. Tarantino had said that he made the actors come to his house and watch The Thing, just to give everyone a sense of what he was going for in terms of being trapped in a small space with a foreboding sense of danger.
Whether you like this movie will probably come down to how much you like Tarantino’s flare for violence and especially his dialogue scenes. If you’re someone who feels his scripts can get a bit too chatty, then this probably isn’t for you. There are very long stretches of talking without action in this film. I’m someone who loves the way Tarantino’s dialogue flows in his movies, so I enjoyed every moment of this nearly three hour script.
10. The Look of Silence
By now, you’ve probably heard of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing. This newest documentary, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to it. Both films are focused on the genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. But while The Act of Killing takes a surreal and imaginative re-enactment approach, this latest work by Oppenheimer is structured much more like a conventional documentary. That’s not to diminish The Look of Silence or even imply that it’s an inferior film in some way, as it’s every bit as distressing and mesmerizing, albeit in a different way. It’s a stark and uncompromising look at what human beings are capable of in terms of thoughts and actions.
Due to Joshua Oppenheimer’s work on these projects, a family came to learn the way in which their son was brutally murdered. They also learned the identities of the men responsible, who are living their lives as though they did nothing wrong, like many who partook in the slaughter. The family’s youngest son Adi, who was born just after the genocide, finds himself struggling with this scenario. He wonders how it can be that the society simply accepts this dynamic, and he worries about raising his children in such a morally imbalanced world. Undeterred by the danger and profound awkwardness, he decides to confront each of his brother’s killers.
It can be extremely frustrating to watch a lot of these interviews play out, since those who were complicit in these crimes have no incentive or desire to repent. Even when you get the sense that some may be harboring private doubts, there is often little in terms of their demeanor to suggest a moral crisis is taking place. I suppose this is why the film is called “The Look of Silence”, because for much of the documentary it’s alarming to watch the indifference or double-talk surrounding these crimes. Some of these men say that they drank the blood of their victims in order to prevent going crazy, claiming that those who didn’t drink blood had since gone mad. Obviously, human blood can’t cure insanity, but perhaps this placebo effect really did work for some of them. It’s difficult to say when the human mind is capable of incredible fictions.
However, there are a few encounters where you get a sense that a perpetrator or their family are struggling with these horrors in their own way. One ex-leader gets so defensive that he demands to know the whereabouts of Adi’s family, retreating back into his shell of anti-communist rhetoric and intimidation. In another scene, a family is so distraught at what Joshua and Adi are showing them that they become loud and defiant, claiming that their mother has a heart condition and can’t be subjected to this. But, for me, the one moment that really stands out is when an older man and his daughter are confronted by Adi. The father is incredibly dismissive, while the daughter is horrified to learn of what her father once did. As the conversation goes on, we see a rare glimpse of someone actually empathizing with Adi and the loss of his brother. In the midst of so much indifference and hopelessness, it’s a sign that there is perhaps hope for the future generations of Indonesia. Perhaps this country will one day alter its narrative and learn from its past, even if that day seems far off.
9. The Assassin
From the moment Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin came on the theater screen until the time it ended, I felt like I was in another world. The visual aesthetic combined with the pacing transports the viewer to eighth century China, provided they’re able to give the film their full attention. I often find myself getting lost in movies, but it’s rare that it happens to this extent.
This will sound hyperbolic, but The Assassin may be the most beautiful looking film I’ve ever seen. Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography is so gorgeous that I occasionally found myself mouthing the word “wow” or looking on in stunned admiration. Every frame of this film is so good that you could pause it at any time, snap the screenshot and hang it on your wall. Interestingly, the film uses a near 4:3 aspect ratio for most of its running time, though we see it break into a more standard ratio for a musical scene involving a zither, for instance, which makes the instrument look full and majestic by contrast. There’s also the use of black and white to show scenes from the past, prior to Yinnian’s assignment in Weibo. The Assassin won the Golden Horse award and the Asian Film award for best cinematography, though it was sadly ignored at many other awards ceremonies. If you watch this film on a DVD you are doing yourself a great disservice, as Blu Ray technology exists for a movie like this one.
Despite its obvious strengths, this is a film that I’ve seen get a lot of criticism on social media and film forums. Some declare it a masterpiece, while others simply didn’t connect with it and found it plodding or dull. Admittedly, the story is not expository at all. Character motivations and plot points are very slowly revealed, and there were times during my first viewing where I was having trouble piecing it together. However, this seems like a deliberate approach on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s part. The film asks a lot of its audience, but it rewards attention to detail. As the script goes on, I think everyone will recognize the character motivations and political circumstances. This slow reveal makes things feel that much more exciting once we recognize what’s at stake, anticipating what decisions Yinnian will make before the story comes to a close. While I obviously can’t reveal the ending of the film, the closing shot is one that stayed with me for a long time. Like the film itself, it’s not the sort of thing you see every day.
Allow yourself the opportunity to get lost in this film. Honestly, there aren’t too many films that are as artistically ambitious as this, and even fewer that can pull it off with such grace. This is a beautiful and haunting work of art.
8. World of Tomorrow
World of Tomorrow is only sixteen minutes long. It’s also drawn with stick figure animation and what seems like an almost non-existent budget. Despite all of this, the film is packed with some of the most original and provocative science fiction I’ve ever seen. The story involves a young girl named Emily who is contacted by a mysterious woman. The stranger reveals that she is this young girl’s future self, a third generation Emily whose consciousness has been passed along through hundreds of years in a transfer and cloning process. With an apocalyptic event imminent in Emily’s distant future, she has decided to reach back through time and speak to her young self about the life she lived.
Using experimental time travel and memory transfer, the third generation Emily is able to show Emily Prime her future world in all its complexity and wonder. The two wander through seemingly random memories, though there are obvious thematic parallels in these shared visions. As we progress through them, we’re treated to a plethora of bold sci-fi ideas. Many of these individual concepts could make for a feature length film, yet they’re presented to us at a relentless pace. All of this makes World of Tomorrow eminently re-watchable and it provides excellent fodder for philosophical discussion.
The film is emotionally heavy, but it’s also able to utilize the audience’s sense of adventure and humor. Above all, this is an intellectually profound film that will challenge audiences in all the best ways. I’m sure that I’ll still be thinking about it years later. There’s really not much to say about this short film other than “Bravo, Mr. Hertzfeldt”. If you haven’t already, you should go watch it right now.
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film opens with several minutes of music. We see a a musical performance of The Retrosettes ‘You’ve Got The Love’ at an alpine resort, the camera intimately close to the singer’s face as the circular stage rotates continuously. The luxurious Swiss backdrop is blurred, though we can see people dancing beneath the night sky. Several hours later, the film ends with another musical performance.
Michael Caine’s character, the composer Fred Ballinger, has a line in the movie about how he was never skilled with words. He claims that music is the only thing he was ever any good at, because you don’t need thoughts and experience to understand music – it just is. There may not be a better summary of Youth than this. It’s easy to get lost in the film’s complexity, as it’s loaded with themes and ideas that may seem all over the map. Yet the film is always captivating. There was never a dull moment where it wasn’t eliciting some type of response from me. It’s filled to the brim with comedy and absurdity, but there are moments of sheer wonder and even sadness. The film moves its audience like a beautiful piece of music, eliciting these emotional reactions in us even if we can’t say why.
On the surface, the film appears to be about two elderly friends played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. The two men are living out their final years at an upscale Swiss resort, reminiscing on their past experiences and feeling melancholic about their loss of memory. Caine’s character is a retired composer who is refusing to do his conduct his simple songs for the Queen of England, while Keitel’s character is a director working on his final film entitled Life’s Last Day. We’re joined by other notable characters like Ballinger’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, a woman looking after her father and undergoing a rough breakup. Paul Dano’s character is a Hollywood leading man, yet he laments the fact that he’s only remembered for playing the part of a robot in a blockbuster film, rather than his work on independent films. This hodgepodge of plot and character develops in interesting ways, yet it’s all secondary to the experience of watching the film. It’s not the sort of movie that has a conventional plot, as it’s more interested in the overall experience than any individual character. There’s another line in the film spoken by Keitel’s character where he says “You say emotions are overrated. Emotions are all we’ve got.” Again echoing this theme of emotional resonance trumping narrative.
As you might expect, the film is brilliantly realized in terms of direction and acting. Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz are particularly excellent here, giving the caliber of performances that we’ve come to expect from them. I’m very interested to see what Paolo Sorrentino does next, as his last two films have been stellar. If you enjoyed The Great Beauty as I did, then you owe it to yourself to watch Youth. Likewise, if you didn’t enjoy The Great Beauty, then you probably won’t be won over here, as Youth covers a lot of the same thematic territory.
I’ve always been a fan of the saying ‘better a pebble with flaws than a diamond without’. It’s difficult enough to find examples of movies without flaws, and even when you do it’s often a mediocre product without any obvious problems. Not only am I unable to find any blemishes on Carol, but nearly every aspect of the film is exceptional. That’s an unusual thing, and Carol is a rare treat.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ adaptation centers on a female relationship in 1950s Manhattan. It’s about the relationship between a young store clerk named Therese and an older married woman named Carol. The marriage is one of convenience, however, and it doesn’t initially stand in the way of their bond and eventual romance. As Carol’s marriage begins to unravel she decides to divorce her husband Harge, but by then it has become increasingly apparent to him that Carol’s friend Abby is really an ex-lover, and that her current interest in Therese is romantic. With the law on his side, he threatens to revoke custody of their daughter if their marriage ends. Carol then finds herself faced with an impossible choice between the woman she loves and her own daughter.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have such a rich chemistry in this film. I’ve long been a fan of both actresses, so seeing them be able to play off one another is exciting. Some have argued that Blanchett gives the performance of her career in this film, which is a tall order when you consider her work on films like Blue Jasmine, but a case can certainly be made. Rooney Mara may actually be even better, which doesn’t shock me given her work on films like Dragon Tattoo. It’s often said that acting is reacting, and the subtle mannerisms and inflections feel completely real. So much of the communication between these two actresses is nonverbal, as a slight glance or the placement of a hand says so much without dialogue. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so emotionally invested in an on-screen romance.
I could keep going about all the positive aspects in the film. The gorgeous cinematography, impeccable set & costume design, the lovely score which boasts the best theme music of the year etc. all of it comes together in harmony. The social and political implications are obvious, exploring themes that still resonate strongly today. But at its core, this is a film about the anguish of forbidden love. For as long as there’s been romance, the heart has often wanted what it can’t have. The pain of unrequited love is powerful and knows no time period or gender. This is destined to become one of the all-time great romance films. It should be as resonant fifty years from now as it is today.
5. Wild Tales
It’s kind of odd that there aren’t more movies like this. Wild Tales is basically an anthology film, telling six different stories in roughly two hours. The characters have nothing to do with each other, thankfully avoiding the gimmick of having the plots intersect. But the tales all have something in common thematically, as they each deal with people at their worst moments. There’s a common thread of revenge through these stories, and if you take the six plots as a whole it’s not hard to see writer/director Damián Szifron’s intention.
The most important thing to mention about Wild Tales is that it’s fun. It’s a blast, actually. Movies this outright entertaining don’t come out very often but I sure wish they did. As you might expect from an Argentinian film, the only theater that played it in my area was a more independent art house place. But even among a more highbrow audience, there were laughs and gasps the likes of which you’d expect at a raunchy comedy playing at a United Artists. For a movie that’s often quite dark, it’s filled to the brim with jokes. Even the most violent or twisted segments are captivating, like a beautiful disaster that we can’t help but look away from. The film is a roller-coaster of voyeuristic carnage and excitement from beginning to end.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into each plot, as each of these plays out better if you know next to nothing going in. I will say that some of my favorite segments were the road rage bit and the car towing fiasco. But, for me, the one that elevates the film to greatness is the final segment of the wedding. It’s probably at or near the very top if you’re talking about the craziest movie weddings of all time. Not only is it the most memorable of the six segments, but it’s the perfect thematic note to end the film on. When the music began playing and the credits came up on the screen, I knew I’d just seen something special.
A few of the segments aren’t as strong as the others, but even then they’re still very much worth watching. This is a sharply edited and energetic film with a really cool soundtrack as well. If you’re fan of short films or simply like being entertained, then you really need to see this one.
4. Ex Machina
The author Sam Harris attended a private conference on artificial intelligence about a year ago. Although he was legally prohibited from mentioning who else was at the conference, as the event was shrouded in secrecy. He was a bit alarmed at the timescale that people were viewing the inevitable rise of A.I., which he had thought was nearly a half century away. But everyone at the event seemed to think this was something imminent in the next twenty years, or even sooner. An anonymous friend of his, who he has always thought of as a fairly reasonable guy and not prone to hyperbole, even claimed that the rapid rise of advanced A.I. was a greater threat to the long term survival of mankind than nuclear weapons or climate change. Harris’ friend isn’t alone either, as Elon Musk has also talked about the unchecked advance of A.I. as “summoning the demon”.
All the implications and perils of an advanced artificial intelligence are explored in writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film, Ex Machina. The story deals with a young software engineer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a lottery contest to spend a weekend at the estate of Bluebook’s creator and CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But as Caleb arrives at the gorgeous and secluded estate, Nathan reveals his true intentions. He has created an A.I. and wants to run a Turing test between his robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb. As the test progresses, we’re introduced to a bevy of ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. For instance, if you create a computer that is unbeatable at chess, would it even know what chess is or that it’s playing a game?
While Ex Machina is primarily a movie of ideas, it’s also a suspenseful mystery. Caleb increasingly wonders whether he can trust Nathan, as much of what he was told at the outset was false or misleading. But at the same time, we’re also left to wonder about Ava’s intentions. After all, what will happen to her if she doesn’t pass the Turing test? Even if she does, how does she know that her memory won’t be wiped for a more advanced model? It’s a life-changing experience for both Caleb and Ava, as each of them is encountering something new for the first time. As their understanding of one another deepens, how will their relationship impact the results of the study and where is it all headed?
Domhnall Gleeson is good, but as you might expect, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander are the ones that really shine. The film also has a visual flare to it, with the cinematography making good use of the house and surrounding environment. The visual effects team did a great job on such a small budget as well, even taking home the Oscar in their category. But, in my opinion, the real star here is the intelligent script that addresses fundamental questions about A.I. in ways that are rarely handled in movies. It’s the kind of story you’ll want to go back and look at a second or third time, as Ex Machina really benefits from repeat viewings.
I didn’t hear about Breathe (aka Respire) until very late last year. The film got almost no distribution and nobody I knew was talking about it. But I was intrigued when I heard that Mélanie Laurent, the actress from Inglourious Basterds and Beginners, had directed a film. I’ve always liked her acting, but I wasn’t aware of her as a director until now. After seeing this masterpiece, I will always think of her as a director first and an actress second.
The film reveals its thematic focus early on. Our young protagonist, Charlene, is listening to her high school teacher ask the class whether passion diminishes our liberty. Do our emotions make us more free or less free? After all, we can’t control what we feel. Passion is harmful when it becomes excessive, he warns, which is most of the time. The film explores this idea through a high school friendship between Charlene and a new arrival named Sarah. Sarah is, in many ways, everything the diminutive Charlene isn’t – confident, spontaneous, and outgoing. Almost immediately, Charlene finds herself under Sarah’s spell. The two girls form an instant connection, spending nearly all of their time together and becoming emotionally intimate.
Somewhere along the way, however, the friendship starts to sour. As Charlene obsesses over the schism, the problem only worsens. In one particularly memorable scene, Charlene and Sarah reach their lowest point. From this moment on, it’s hard to see the two ever getting back together. The girl who was once Charlene’s best friend quickly transforms into her tormentor. The personal secrets she had shared with Sarah are now weaponized against her in the form of malicious gossip. Charlene could fight back, but she chooses not to. Instead, she recoils into her private world of misery and abuse. She does this because, despite everything she’s going through, she still loves Sarah and clings to the hope that they can be reunited.
Charlene isn’t alone in feeling this way, either. Other characters have relatively little screen time, but we see several examples of people who pin their hopes to people that may not deserve it. Before Charlene met Sarah, her best friend was a girl named Victoire. Even after the friendship with Sarah becomes poisoned, she continues to ignore a tearful Victoire who longs to be close to her old friend again. A boy named Lucas is infatuated with Charlene, yet she acts as though he doesn’t exist. Even Charlene’s mother is in a relationship filled with emotional abuse and infidelity, yet she continues to make excuses for the man she loves. In one memorable scene, she asks her mother why she always goes back to him, knowing how wrong he is for her. Her mother simply replies “because I can’t do otherwise”. So much for passion making us more free.
Mélanie Laurent directs this film like a seasoned pro, showing that she’s an immensely talented filmmaker. I hope someone out there is taking notice of Laurent, because it would be a tragedy if she can’t garner enough opportunity to make this a successful career. Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge are flat out brilliant in this as well, giving two of the better performances I saw last year. I could see both of them going on to be well-known actresses for decades to come. As for the film as a whole, I’ve already stated that I consider it a masterpiece. I watch films often, but it’s very unusual that I’m as shell-shocked from a viewing as I was here. I was literally walking around for days afterward thinking “Oh, my God, that freaking movie…”
The first seven minutes of Sicario are going to give people nightmares. We arrive at a crime scene that is profoundly disturbing. But instead of showing us the horrifying imagery and moving on, the film comes back to these shots and hangs on them. The audience might want to look away, but the camera won’t let us. We’re meant to feel uncomfortable. We’re not supposed to forget what we’ve seen.
Sicario lays its cards on the table early. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’re watching, then you’re free to leave. But, more importantly, it’s letting us know what’s at stake. The only question left is how far you’re willing to go to stop this. When our protagonist is given the opportunity to join an inter-agency task force, she is asked by her superior to think very carefully before responding. She only asks one question – “Do we get a shot at the men responsible for today?” When the answer is yes, she immediately volunteers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize what she’s gotten herself into.
The real conflict of this film isn’t between the cartels and law enforcement. The battle is an ethical one, waged between our protagonist Kate Macer and the man in charge of the special operation, Matt Graver. Kate is an inexperienced but principled agent, someone who believes in the rule of law and doing things by the book. Graver is an uncompromising pragmatist, willing to get his hands dirty and skirt the rules whenever necessary. He is perfectly willing to use extreme measures like torture or placing innocents in harms way, so long as it achieves a worthwhile objective. Emily Blunt’s character is our eyes and ears, so it’s not surprising that she’s the moral center of the film. Yet the script also paints her as being in over her head or ill-equipped to deal with these problems. Her views are admirable, but their application in this war often appears naive. What I love about this script is that it’s asking some very difficult questions about whether the ends justify the means, and it’s not offering any easy answers. In the end, it’s up to you to decide what your principles are.
The film is masterfully done on almost every level. The three main performances by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are excellent. A lot of people felt that composer Jóhann Jóhannsson had the best original score of the year, offering a dark, pulsing soundtrack that feels ominous and almost evil at times. Director Denis Villeneuve has been steadily upping his game, and with this film he should now have everyone’s full attention as a rising star in the industry. But the man of the hour is obviously Roger Deakins, who I thought did the best job of any cinematographer last year. Unlike The Revenant or The Assassin, much of Sicario takes place in fairly ordinary environments that you wouldn’t think of as photogenic. Somehow, Deakins is able to make magic out of nearly every frame of this picture, using a technical precision and attention to detail that’s stunning. There is a scene where a pack of black SUVs cross over into Juárez which I’ve seen over and over again, never tiring of its craftsmanship. Other shots, like the one I chose for this review, are so clever and beautiful that they almost seem obvious in retrospect.
This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, but it’s one you owe it to yourself to watch. Its script challenges our moral boundaries, and it makes for a fascinating reference point when discussing modern issues like America’s drone program or the drug war. The ideas at play in this film date back to thinkers like Machiavelli and Kant. There’s plenty to be said for the differing views presented in this film. It should make for some very interesting post-viewing analysis and debate. But if nothing else, it’s one hell of a ride.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
There’s a moment from Mad Max: Fury Road that I’ll always remember. Our protagonist, Furiosa, is driving a war rig into a massive storm. With three war parties in pursuit, she can either surrender or risk dying in the tempest. As the rig goes into the storm, the music shifts from a frenetic action score to a stunning orchestral interlude. The apocalyptic winds carry her pursuers into the sky, their bodies tossed amidst the lightning and explosions. Most movies couldn’t even dream of a scene like this. If they did, it would be saved as the epic finale after hours of buildup. But this isn’t a normal movie, and this amazing sequence takes place before we’ve even hit the half hour marker.
Much of the criticism I’ve heard regarding George Miller’s latest film is based on the screenplay. It’s not uncommon to hear someone deride it as nothing more than a two hour chase sequence. I’ll touch on some of these criticisms later, but whether these charges have merit misses the point. Regardless of what you might think about the script, it’s merely one aspect of a larger whole. No matter how good or bad a script is, it’s something that precedes every other aspect of film-making. At a basic level, the screenplay is going to need a budget. It’s going to need a director and a team of artists to pull it off. In this case you’re going to need costume designers, makeup artists, sound designers, sound editors, film editors, a cinematographer, a composer, stunt experts, production designers, a visual effects team, actors… you get the idea. You can go down the line and give it a nearly perfect grade in every category. It’s no accident that this film won six Oscars and more cumulative awards than any other film in 2015. Believe it or not, every aspect of film-making is important when it comes to making a good film.
But let’s take a step back and examine this maligned screenplay. A lot of the criticism stems from its lack of dialogue and character development, as we’re shown just enough to get the gears going. An unfavorable reading of this might argue that this is action porn like The Raid: Redemption, a movie that has spectacular action but is paper thin on story. I actually don’t feel this is the case here. In fact, what I think Mad Max: Fury Road does is actually very clever, though it’s admittedly difficult to see on a first viewing. While most big budget films give us too much exposition, this film intentionally gives us almost none. We have enough relevant information to follow the story, but there are layers here that you might not get until your second or third viewing. Further still, there are some mysteries that are left to viewer interpretation. A savvy viewer might realize that the dynamics between Furiosa and her crew suggest a long-standing relationship, and that she’s obviously done missions like this for Immortan many times before. When she talks about redemption, we don’t know exactly what she means, but we’re able to connect the dots. But when she says her line about being remembered, that’s something you’ll be left pondering whether you see the film once or eleven times. Furiosa’s character has a hidden back story that could probably be an entirely separate film, but she’s not the only example of how this film is imaginative and open to interpretation.
There are so many impressive things I could say about this film, like how there’s surprisingly little CGI and it uses incredibly dangerous stunt work for its choreography. I could go on about Junkie XL’s phenomenal soundtrack, or talk about how George Miller is a 71-year-old rock-star. But I imagine you don’t want to read a twenty paragraph review where I run down the list from A to Z. Suffice it to say, this film had a more profound impact on me than anything I saw last year. I consider 2015 to be maybe the best year in modern memory, but putting this film at the number one spot wasn’t a difficult choice. I admittedly wasn’t as excited for this project as many of my friends, but when I left the theater after my first viewing I was flabbergasted. I went back to see it again in the theaters. I re-watched it over and over again on Blu Ray. The more I see of this film, the more I’m convinced it’s a timeless classic and a true masterpiece. It’s the best action movie I’ve ever seen.