With the Oscars behind us, it’s time to reveal my favorite films of 2015! All told I watched 152 movies from last year, a new personal high. I saw quite a variety of films: everything from big blockbusters to small independents, as well as foreign imports and documentaries.
That said, I regret that certain acclaimed films remain unseen by me (namely because they were not available via streaming or rental at the time I wrote this list). These are Heart of a Dog, James White, and Son of Saul. I’ll be planning some future capsule reviews to make up for their omissions.
As with last year, I’ve only counted films that had a theatrical release in the United States in 2015. For this reason you won’t see films like Embrace of the Servant or A War, both films I will be considering for my 2016 list. That’s about it! Let’s start with…
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
The Assassin (Nie yin niang)
The End of the Tour
Girlhood (Bande de filles)
The Hateful Eight
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
The Look of Silence
Kaufman has mesmerized and delighted us with mind-bending films before, but this marks his first foray into stop-motion animation. He and co-director Johnson imagine a sort of solipsistic nightmare for protagonist Michael Stone, who sees his world populated by people with the same face (save Lisa of the title). We may be trapped within Michael’s ego, but you can glimpse the real world poking through Johnson’s impeccably designed sets. Kaufman’s bracing, Kafkaesque dialogue is filtered through a tiny handmade world, probing and prodding its protagonist even as it unlocks new fires within Lisa. The film finds more humanity in its puppetry than most live action films do with human actors.
Speaking of Kaufman…Vogt may owe a bit to that master eccentric with this surreal meta-masterpiece. Ostensibly Vogt’s film follows Ingrid, a woman who has just lost her sight, struggling with problems both personal and authorial. She seems to be writing a story, but is it fiction or non-fiction? In scenes of beauty and creeping horror, we witness the fragile line between Ingrid’s imagination and her reality. The editing by Jens Christian Fodstad is key; disorienting our equilibrium as we return to familiar sights marred by disturbing new details. Despite the lack of resolution, the film flies in the face of absolute truth, showing the ways in which physical and mental reality intersect, overlap, and fuse together.
Haynes’s 1950s romantic drama earned little love from the Academy, which I’ll be sure to rectify here. Shy shopgirl Therese pursues a mysterious affair with the high society woman of the title, treading potentially dangerous territory. The strength of the film comes from conveying huge emotions behind guarded veils, emphasized in gazes through camera lenses and rainy windows. The performances are uniformly excellent, from Cate Blanchett’s theatrical intensity to Kyle Chandler’s genuine pathos as her jilted husband. In a society where homosexuality was barely acknowledged, let alone condoned, Therese and Carol live out a passionate, reckless, and ultimately not-tragic (!) whirlwind romance. This is stirring melodrama of the highest order.
7. Listen to Me Marlon
I’ll be perfectly honest; I don’t hold Brando in the same esteem as many critics. Yet my favorite documentary of last year offers an uncompromisingly intimate look at the screen icon, with voiceover narration provided by archives from the Brando estate. That’s right, only Brando’s voice guides us along, but Riley shows us a fragile soul caught between his emerging legend and his human frailties. Brando narrates with self-deprecating humor, as Riley selects and edits footage so that we see a life gradually discovering itself. And yet we’re always aware of the deliberate craftsmanship; Riley is playing with authenticity, especially in ghostly images of Brando’s likeness. It’s moving cinematic necromancy.
6. 45 Years
If Carol lifted our hearts, 45 Years brings us back to earth. In Haigh’s incredibly mature marriage drama, retirees Kate and Geoff are set to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary until a discovery from the past throws their plans into disarray. Soon Kate is questioning everything about their relationship, as if jolted awake from a pleasant dream. Haigh wisely shows us the events from Kate’s perspective, haunted as she is by the specter of a woman she never even knew. She and Geoff grow distant through small moments: flickers of eyes, Parthian shots, a brutal revelation on an old slide projector. There are no tantrums or blowups, but there is quiet devastation in a wrenching final scene.
Christian Petzold’s post-WWII thriller functions as a Vertigo remake of sorts, but this version comes with historical baggage and surprising humor. Nina Hoss portrays Nelly Lenz, an Auschwitz survivor and recipient of facial reconstruction surgery looking for her husband Johnny in war-torn Berlin. Here’s the catch…her husband may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. What follows is a strange con game that doubles as an allegory for Germany’s relationship with its horrific past. And yet Nelly and Johnny have histories very specific to their personal relationship. Petzold keeps his film at a slow burn until a shocking finale, a terrifying reveal that can no longer be denied.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Well, you knew this was going to wind up on my list somewhere. Fury Road is as fine an action film as has ever been conceived, offering an audio/visual smorgasbord of delights, from screaming tires to gas-spitting “warboys.” Despite the ubiquitous chaos, bravura camerawork from cinematographer John Seale and smooth transitions from editor Margaret Sixel mean we never get lost in the fray. But most commendable of all is Miller’s assertion of developing characters visually. He and Charlize Theron bless us with Furiosa, the most kick-ass cinematic heroine since Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. The film may be light on story, but it pulses with emotion, proving heart and high octane need not be mutually exclusive.
3. Inside Out
After a spotty last few years, Pixar Animation Studios strengthened their reputation with an original passion project: rendering a child’s consciousness with uncommon depth and maturity. I still marvel at their depiction of “Joy”: well-intentioned, yet also hopelessly desperate and perhaps a bit insane. Much has been made of the film’s essential message of sadness having a place in our lives, but the film has more abstract things on its mind. It shows what our psychological processes look and sound like: marble-like spheres that hold snippets of memory, or the wrenching steel scream as fragments of personality fall away. It does all this while remaining consistently funny, endlessly inventive, and ruthlessly heartbreaking.
Despite the hazy, wild setting of Hollywood, CA, Baker manages to make perhaps the finest Christmas film since Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers. The film takes off like a rogue missile, introducing us to ex-prostitute Sin-Dee Rella, on the prowl for the woman who slept with her fiancée. Despite the varied backgrounds, Baker finds unexpected similarities among all his characters, and lets their manic and sometimes violent encounters play out without judgment. He shows great versatility behind the camera, layering in languid scenes of connection with farcical set-pieces of calamity. At its heart, this is a true Yuletide film, with each character desperately searching for a place to call home on a cold winter’s night.
1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
I’ve championed this film before, but it’s so underseen I feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. There’s no way a film about a messy divorce, set mostly in one courtroom, should be as scathingly funny as this drama from the Elkabetz siblings. It’s an ever broadening range of perspectives from family members, friends, old traditions, and modern frustrations. With an elegant script spotlighting the absurdities of the court system, the filmmakers keep finding new ways to frame each segment of the proceedings so that we get inside the head of each character. Every actor bucks our initial perception of their character, with Ronit refusing to play Viviane in any kind of predictable way. The film points the finger at a broken system while acknowledging even its heroes as faulty cogs within that system.
And there it is! 2016 looks incredibly promising, and I can’t wait to see what lies in store. I’m particularly excited for the newest films from Jeff Nichols, Jeremy Saulnier, and Martin Scorsese. And as always, I’m sure I’ll be discovering great new talents along the way. Here we go.