2015 didn’t produce as many special films as the previous two years, but it was strong and it was consistent. So consistent that, I admit, I had a hell of a time putting the films below in any kind of order, and, as you can see, couldn’t help but add an extra slot. It was also unpredictable. Some films that I was sure would top this list didn’t even make it (see The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa and the extremely disappointing The Tribe) while a number of erstwhile afterthoughts became favorites. We saw some great films from prolific auteurs, but perhaps even more from filmmakers just starting out. And the especially encouraging thing is that these first, second or third efforts weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with boundary pushing or stylistic bombast. Instead, they exhibited traits more often acquired over the span of much longer careers: patience, respect for characters, knowing what not to say. Some of these films have rather tough outer shells, but if you give them some time and just little bit of effort they’ll surely deliver you cinematic pearls.
A few spoilers below, but nothing, in my opinion, that would detract from one’s overall viewing experience.
- James White (Dir. Josh Mond)
James White is the story of a rudderless, twentysomething New Yorker (Christopher Abbott, of Girls fame) caring for his dying mother as he simultaneously struggles to make sense of his own life. Films that deal with terminal illness can skew sappy, but director Josh Mond and his actors understand that the film’s heaviest aspects work well enough without embellishment. The writing, too, puts the bulk of the focus on characterization, filling the smallest of moments with just as much detail as the more vital ones. The look of the film is appropriately naturalistic, but with just enough flourish to feel the filmmaker’s identity. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera often stays tight on James’ face, obscuring everything around him. This technique is especially well employed in the opening sequence, which also sports some impressive sound design that allows both the character and the audience to drift between thumping club beats and the sweet croon of Ray Charles.
James White boasts a truly breakout performance from Abbott, who showcases an exhaustive range of emotion without ever chewing scenery, and Cynthia Nixon as James’ mother Gail has never been better (sorry Sex and the City fans). But these standouts aside, it’s the dynamic between all of the characters (the best friend and girlfriend characters are wisely given equal shrift) that allows the film to reach an impressive level of authenticity. The ending may feel like it comes a little early, but I admire the film’s focus on a very specific and intense period of the protagonist’s life and the director’s restraint in refusing to give us much closure. James White is Mond’s first feature length directorial effort (he was a producer on the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene); it’s a fine debut, one of the year’s best, and I look forward to whatever it is he’s able to cook up next.
- Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Let me just say this at the outset: Room does not make this list without the astoundingly capable performance of ten year old Jacob Tremblay, and the film does not work nearly as well overall. Despite its disturbing premise, at its core Room is a film about growing up, and to execute that well you need a child actor mature enough to convey the pain and awe inevitably required. Held prisoner in a single, bomb shelter-like room by a very sick individual known simply as “Old Nick”, Tremblay’s Jack and his “Ma” (Brie Larson in an Oscar winning performance) pass the many days with creative games, stories, and their almost religious routines. Ma was kidnapped and confined to Room (not “the room”, or “a room”, just “Room”…more on that later) almost a decade prior. Jack was born in captivity, the product of Old Nick’s sexual abuse, and as a way to shield his fragile young psyche from the horror of their predicament, we learn that Ma has concocted an elaborate mythology explaining the pair’s claustrophobic existence. “Room” is their entire world, and every object within (like Bed, Rug and Chair Number Two) is monolithic, finite and elemental, no need for articles. But Room is just as much about what happens to Jack and Ma after their harrowing escape, a painfully tense sequence providing one of my favorite shots, or series of shots, I suppose, of the year (see picture above).
The latter half of the film deals with the post captivity adjustment period; the initial elation that eventually gives way to frayed family relationships, intense media scrutiny and the crushing question of “now what?” Jack struggles to process the big, loud world all around him, often wishing to return to Room, while his mother struggles to reintegrate herself into a world that kept on moving while hers was effectively on pause. While certainly exacerbated by their unique situation, both characters deal with many of the same issues we all deal with as we mature, and it’s Jack’s sense of wonder, especially, that hit me the hardest on an emotional level. Even the way he uses language conveys ideas in their most basic form. “There’s so much of place,” he says to himself at one point, and I think everyone comes to that simple realization at one point or another in life. Room leaves you with the sense that despite Jack’s ordeal, the rest of his life will be the real adventure.
- Inside Out (Dir. Pete Docter)
There was one animated film released in 2015 that I absolutely could not wait to see. Helmed by a seasoned and celebrated filmmaker, it seemed poised to provide a ground-breakingly fresh take on the medium. That film was Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, and while it was certainly an interesting and thought provoking piece, it ultimately disappointed. Pixar’s Inside Out, on the other hand, stunned me with its creativity and depth of emotion. Directed by Pete Docter, the member of the Pixar stable of creative minds that brought you Up and Monsters Inc., Inside Out takes place mostly within the mind of a pre-teen girl, Riley, just after a family move from the midwest to San Francisco. We, the viewers, largely experience this transitional period via the perspective of Riley’s personified emotions (Joy, Fear, Disgust, etc.), voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling. The film sucks you in with the details of Riley’s mental machinations, running the audience through the rules and principles that govern her inner world in a way that’s always fascinating and never comes off as unnaturally expository. These fresh and funny details might carry Inside Out well enough, but it’s the film’s emotional gravitas that really makes it something special. I mean, who knew a character named Bing Bong could afford me one of the most deep, cathartic cries I’ve had in years? It’s a movie that aims to literally bring the fear, excitement, nostalgia and bravery of growing up to life, and unexpectedly, amazingly, Inside Out nails it on its own unique terms.
- The Revenant (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The Revenant was one of the year’s most lauded films: Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Drama), 12 Academy Award nominations and three wins, including the third in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, second in a row for Director Alejandro Iñárritu, and a hitherto elusive first for Leonardo DiCaprio. It came on the heels of Iñárritu’s big winner last year, the more successful Birdman, and where Birdman was playful, meta, often silly (though with a surprisingly affecting emotional core), The Revenant is grave, dour and relentlessly punishing. As engrossing as much of the film was, there was an emotional disconnect for me. DiCaprio’s 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, mortally wounded in a bear attack, betrayed and left for dead, finds himself in such a cartoonishly insurmountable situation that when he ultimately claws his way back to civilization it threatens to undercut the realism that had been so well earned by the film’s cast and production team. Granted, The Revenant follows what the real-life Glass recounted in his own writings (aside from the shoehorned-in creation of a “half breed” son), but there are scant other sources to corroborate this decidedly tall tale. There’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned yarn, but regardless of the story’s authenticity, Iñárritu’s reach for an emotional response ends up feeling like overreaching.
Clearly I found flaws in this film, but what it does right it does very, very right. The Revenant looks amazing, from the production design to the costumes to the hair and makeup to Lubezki’s nimble and naturally lit camera work. He utilizes his signature long tracking shots superbly; the early encampment attack scene is the stuff of nightmares (if you thought those long takes in Children of Men were intense…). DiCaprio is fully committed and very good, even if his character is a little flat, but Tom Hardy actually steals the show with his nuanced handling of the story’s “villain.” Oh, and the score is pretty great too. The Revenant definitely misses a few marks narrative wise, but it’s skillfully made and ambitious as hell, and for that I must doff my critical cap.
- The End of the Tour (Dir. James Ponsoldt)
My knowledge of David Foster Wallace is more so as an icon, a literary legend, than as an actual writer. His first novel, The Broom of the System, was the inaugural selection of a short lived booked club I participated in several years ago, and I admit that I only made it about halfway through. I didn’t dislike it, and it wasn’t impenetrable, it just didn’t pull me in hard enough to urge me towards the conclusion. My cursory understanding of the author remains based on the facts (and lore) of his life: young, midwestern college professor publishes 1,000+ page opus Infinite Jest in the mid 90s; book has major impact on the literary world while author is thrust into the media spotlight; author has recurring struggles with depression; author commits suicide in 2008 having never published another completed novel. This is, of course, a facile description of Wallace’s life and career and does little to get at who the man really was, which is why The End of the Tour was, for me, such a fascinating film.
- Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)
Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ adaptation is, above all, a gorgeous film. Its 1950s setting, the cars, the clothes, the hair, are fertile ground for cinematographer Edward Lachman (who also shot Haynes’ fantastic 2002 period drama Far From Heaven), and his choice to shoot on 16mm film (as opposed to 35mm or digital) gives every color a muted yet saturated hue that feels absolutely authentic. It’s this aesthetic authenticity that really sets the stage for two wonderfully understated performances by the film’s leads, Cate Blanchett in the titular role and Rooney Mara in her best performance to date as Therese Belivet.
Carol is a simple story of a same sex love affair that happens in a time and place where such things are still very much taboo; we’ve heard these stories before. What sets this one apart is its execution. Carol is a film of glances, gestures and things left unsaid, much like real life. This is not easy to pull of and it’s a credit to the actors and filmmakers that we’re able to sense the beats of the central relationship’s evolution with so little overt expression. Haynes, thankfully, trusts his audience enough to take this approach. Carol, has a sociopolitical bent (and ends on a healthy yet well earn note of affirmation), it must; but we also get to know the characters well enough that they come off as real people and not just stand ins for a larger debate.
- Amy (Dir. Asif Kapadia)
The rise and fall of the troubled artist is a perennial tale, and Amy Winehouse is as worthy a subject as any. Asif Kapadia’s skillfully rendered film is mostly comprised of intimate archival footage, and it stitches together a rich cinematic fabric documenting the English musician’s life and career. The director’s tactful sensibilities would matter little, though, if it weren’t for the magnetism of his film’s subject. Before seeing Amy I’d possessed a passing appreciation for Winehouse as a talented neo-blue-eyed-soul singer. Afterwards, that appreciation morphed into a very real sense of respect for her artistry and vision, and further into sadness. Not just a sadness for the loss of great music that might have been, but the sadness one feels seeing someone you care about in pain. Of course I didn’t know Amy Winehouse, but Amy kind of made me feel like I did.
A true prodigy from musical stock, Winehouse began serious vocal training at age 11, took up guitar at 14, and was a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Ensemble by 17. Ten years, two albums and five Grammys later she was dead. But unlike most coverage of her explosive career and ultimate demise, Amy refuses to exploit the woman at it’s center. It leaves viewers with more than a sense of Hollywood tragedy; it demands an appreciation for her truest legacy: her music. Like other singers who, in the true jazz tradition, use their voice as an instrument (Van Morrison comes to mind), Winehouse’s vocals are often unintelligible. But Kapadia’s choice to use titles during much of the performance footage allows the audience to enjoy her immense talent as a lyricist as well. Musicianship aside, Winehouse comes across as a genuinely lovely person with a lust for life that no doubt contributed to her astuteness at capturing raw human emotion in song, and Amy makes us feel her absence.
- The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing, an incredible film that actually found itself in the same position on Moving Pictures’ top ten list that year, tackles the Indonesian genocide from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the perpetrators, The Look of Silence turns its lens to the victims. The film’s central subject is Adi, the younger brother of a brutally murdered “communist sympathizer” (read: anyone whose views and lifestyle were not compatible with the military dictatorship that took over in the mid 60s); and when I say brutally, I mean brutally. Oppenheimer’s film spares the audience no terrible details. The director once again heavily utilizes the treasure trove of interview footage he amassed over many years spent in Indonesia talking with members of the current regime (yes, the people who carried out these mass killings fifty years ago are still in power). But Silence adds further layers to the tragedy with its focus on Adi and his elderly parents (both seem unsure of their own exact age), showing us how grief can seep into the soul like a sickness.
Adi, a local optomologist, uses his occupation to secure face time with those responsible for his brother’s death. As each slowly realizes Adi’s true motives, their responses range from righteous indignation to cold blankness to outward hostility; one high powered politician even suggests that if people continue to ask questions like Adi’s, maybe there needs to be another purge. One passage, in which Adi visits an aging uncle, ruthlessly illustrates the extent of the complicity that permeates these communities. Another late scene hints at some hope of healing for the younger generations, but it’s a cold comfort given all that precedes. There is, without a doubt, significant artistry is the way The Look of Silence is put together, but it’s also a confidently quiet film which understands that the gravity of its subject matter is conveyed best with simple presentation, rather than editorialization. During the film’s coda, Adi’s frail and senile father skuttles along the laundry room floor, frightened and confused. “I’m lost,” he says, and in his words we hear the cry of an entire generation.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)
We have to ask ourselves two questions when critiquing art of any kind: what is the artist trying to accomplish and how well does the piece achieve their self-established goals? Fury Road is, reductively speaking, a sci-fi action film, but Australian filmmaker George Miller has spent decades fleshing out the idiosyncratic universe of the Mad Max film series that he created. This most recent installation, the director’s crowning achievement, is essentially one long post-apocalyptic chase sequence, and its use of pacing, staging, editing and effects (mostly practical, as opposed to CGI) nails everything an audience could possibly want out of such a scenario. But Fury Road ended up so high on this list because it’s able to do and say so much more than what one would expect of it. It is an overachieving film in every way.
On the surface the world of Fury Road, it’s set pieces, it’s rituals, it’s characters’ garb, could seem like a random assortment of wackiness for its own sake. But if one considers the context and other bits of information Miller provides, all of these details are grounded in a thoughtful understanding of the world in which his characters desperately exist. Aesthetically speaking the film is marvelous, both in its most kinetic moments and most quiet ones. It’s at times a ballet of mayhem, at others a dystopian opera. Fury Road deals with some relatively elevated themes as well. Commentary on climate change and water scarcity (something even the most privileged developed countries will have to deal with much sooner than we think) are front and center. The film has a strong feminist message as well, and makes no bones about it; another refreshing departure for the genre. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is effectively the lead, Max is merely the audience’s vehicle through which to witness her efforts to liberate her subjugated sisters.
This is a film one really must see to understand. It may not be for you, but it would be wrong to lump it into the same category as the mindless Hollywood action offerings that are all too common. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film with explosions and blood and guts, but it also has a heart and a head; these days that’s something very rare and special indeed.
- Son of Saul (Dir. László Nemes)
There are so many films about the Holocaust that they’ve basically formed a distinct subgenre, and I’ve seen quite a few of them. It is, of course, a vital story to tell; as a memorial, as a warning, and, perhaps, for the little catharsis it might provide. But I’ve never seen a Holocaust film like first time Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul. Covering only a day or so inside the walls of Auschwitz, 1944, it maintains a laser focus on Saul, a Hungarian Sonderkommando on a singular mission to provide a proper Jewish burial to a young camp victim who may or may not be his estranged son. There are millions of stories that have emerged from this nightmare period of history and dozens of films that deal with its subjects and themes; what makes this story stand out is the way it’s told. Nemes utilizes the now rare “Academy Ratio” (which makes the frame much closer to a square than a rectangle), long, point-of-view shots and a very shallow focus that blurs everything outside of Saul’s immediate sphere. Tamás Zányi’s incredible sound design lends another layer to this immersive film, creating a cacophony of cries and whispers almost as disturbing as the obscured atrocities surrounding the protagonist. The result is a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation that puts the audience inside the experience, rather than allowing them to merely observe. Géza Röhrig as Saul, a former teacher, current poet and first time actor, is mesmerizing in the largely wordless role; his face says it all.
Son of Saul also includes details of a prisoner uprising that actually did happen at Auschwitz in ‘44, and how Saul’s goals come into conflict with those of the larger group; but the film is ultimately more about feeling and experience than narrative. Some have bemoaned its so-called first-person-video-game presentation, charging the filmmakers with exploitation. I, on the other hand, found Son of Saul to be authentic and subtle, a thriller so intimate that it forces us to confront the Holocaust up close, and never forget how horrible human beings can truly be if we allow fear to breed hatred.
- 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)
In many ways, 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s approach couldn’t be more different than George Miller’s. This list’s number three film thrives, nay depends, on maintaining a near constant state of kinetic energy; not only via the characters’ movements through Miller’s wasted landscapes, but also through its editing and visual style. 45 Years, on the other hand, uses stillness, silence and a steady gaze to generate a level of tension that stands up to many of the white-knuckle sequences in Fury Road. What’s not so different about these films, however, is their impeccable attention to detail, the way that little specificities, teased out just enough, can so quickly thrust the viewer into a thoroughly realized world. 45 Years’ premise sounds almost silly on paper: the comfortable, pastoral existence of an old English couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling in an Oscar nominated performance), is compromised when the body of Geoff’s long ago girlfriend is discovered, perfectly preserved, in a block of ice in the German Alps. This woman, Katya, was killed during a climbing accident years before the now-couple met, and her life and death have been minimized to a few passing conversations. But over the course of a few days leading up to their 45th anniversary party, long buried memories are resurrected, and Kate’s curiosity and Geoff’s evasion begin to fray the emotional fibers that have so long held the two together.
Stylistically speaking 45 Years is nothing earth-shattering, employing classic Euro-cinema techniques such as long static shots, naturalistic performances, frank sex and ambiguous narrative turns. But it’s all done so well. Haigh and Cinematographer Lol Crawley create some fantastic imagery, though much of it is born of a tastefully selective eye rather than a particularly masterful manipulation of craft. It’s the ever so lived-in nature of the characters’ world and the easy rapport of the actors that make the film superlative; the routines, the stealthily divulged histories, the characters’ unique quirks (Geoff’s tarzan-like chest thumping was a favorite of mine). 45 Years is a film that seems to simply exist, effortlessly. If I had to pinpoint what made it my favorite film of the year, though, it’d have to be the ending. The proceedings build, appropriately, to the anniversary party, which seems to take on 45 years worth of significance. The final shot in particular, its use of music and Charlotte Rampling’s delicate performance, delivers one of the most haunting finales I’ve seen, with implications for the characters that reverberate through the credits and far beyond. I guess the more simple way to put it is this: 45 Years is the best among several great films I saw this year because it’s the one I’m still thinking about.
Ex Machina…for the best hard sci-fi film in ages, and the year’s most memorable dance sequence!
Spotlight…for a very well made journalistic procedural with solid performances and a genteel handling of its difficult subject matter.
Sicario…for yet another visual masterpiece from cinematographer Roger Deakins and a wonderfully menacing score from Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Queen of Earth…for a weird-as-hell, retro psychological horror film featuring the greatest Elizabeth Moss performance ever (outside of Mad Men of course).