Hooray for list! Lists, despite them being superficial in a sense, spawn a necessity that induces opportunities for which films that would otherwise not be highlighted get the chance to make an impression on my readers. This list inherently looks far beyond the borders of the United States of America, far beyond the system of Hollywood because my philosophy on these lists, on moviegoing, itself, remains firm that the biggest cinematic experiences of the year do not always revolve around films that have the biggest promotional campaigns or the biggest fanbases. These films are not always a pivot in an elongated franchise. Sometimes, the biggest cinematic moments of the year happen through the smaller films. Ambition shows in the way filmmakers tell their visual story. Moments where there is a brief chance to understand, to apply empathy upon a world unaccustomed, to humans unaccustomed. This list then is inherently diverse but not for diversity sake; the films that represent an idea of the best the year of 2015 had to offer all deserve to be here. Yet, absent is deep contemplation with decisions on whether to add films that did not bring anything new and visceral to the table. Sometimes, bringing something new to the table means revitalizing the old, but it must be done well to capture my emotions and excite my curiosity.
The year of 2015 was an incredible year, a year of trying many new things, of looking back to our past in order to find something new, or to just completely invert a traditional experience. As you will see, there were many great films but the limit imposed on the list made it challenging, obligating the choosing of films that have lingered with this writer due to their compelling nature. Before the main list of fourteen, here is an explanation on the strange existence of the ‘.5’ in the title. Basically, that half represents the films that were great but did not make the list along with the films that were released in 2015 but this writer had no way of watching. As you will see, there will be some films that were incredibly difficult for me to watch and because of that they have chosen to push those films for consideration of the 2016 list next year. Firstly, as a reminder form last year’s list, here are the films that were pushed from 2014 to make this list:
- “Two Days, One Night” (dir. Jean Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
- “Song of the Sea” (dir. Tomm Moore)
Next, we have the list of films that were far out of my reach to see unfortunately. I wished I could see them in theatres but it did not come into fruition. Although, it does make my decision making easier.
- “The Assassin” (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
- “Anamolisa” (dir. Charlie Kaufmann)
- “Son of Saul” (dir. Laszlo Names)
- “Embrace the Serpent” (dir. Ciro Guerra)
- “In Jackson Heights” (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Really, though, it bewilders me how I did not see “Anamolisa” but sometimes, it happens. So it goes. Anyways, this next list is quite revealing, listing all the films that were great but did not make the list for some reason or another. As you can see, there are a lot of films; it could be its own secondary best-of list! Either way, I would recommend most of the films to any passerby though I will say many of these films do hold so hefty weakness, problems, etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I watched them in the theatre. Those marked with an asterisks would be the next ones into the main list if it was not full already.
- “The Hateful Eight” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
- “Creed” (dir. Ryan Coogler)*
- “Brooklyn” (dir. John Crowley)
- “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” (dir. David Zellner)
- “Cheatin'” (dir. Bill Plymton)
- “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (dir. Mark Burton, Richard Starzak)
- “Red Army” (dir. Gary Polsky)
- “Carol” (dir. Todd Haynes)*
- “What We Do in the Shadows” (dir. Taiki Waititi, Jermaine Clement)
- “Hard to Be a God” (dir. Alexsei German)
- “Jauja” (dir. Lesandro Alonso)
- “National Gallery” (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
- “Amy” (dir. Asif Kapadia)*
- “It Follows” (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
- “Grandma” (dir. Paul Weitz)
- “Infinitely Polar Bear” (dir. Maya Forbes)
- “Spotlight” (dir. Tom McCarthy)
- “99 Homes” (dir. Ramin Bahrani)*
- “Ex Machina” (dir. Alex Garland)*
Alas, the main list, a list filled with wonder, excitement, drudgery, and dismay. It is a colorful exposition for the year that once was and these films showed an ambition that renders a grateful feeling within me as I see my passion and my love for the medium grow because of these films. These stories range from the most epic to the most intimate, opening a door for us to understand; the unfamiliar becomes the familiar and the familiar becomes that unfamiliar. Here’s to infinitely more years of infinitely great films.
14. “Love & Mercy” (dir. Bill Pohland)
A biopic that originates inside the head of the subject, director Bill Pohlad continues his metaphysical biographies of musicians (he directed the abstract biopic “I’m Not There”) with The Beach Boys think tank, Brian Wilson. What is excellent about this film is that it spends a great deal of time with the music in that the it helps shape the way Brian is depicted by the dual performance between Paul Dano and John Cusack. With one of the best sound designs this year, this film is as much an auditory endeavor into the troubled mind of a musical genius, where creativity is not only shown in the studio but also aurally in Brian’s head. Surprisingly, it is Elizabeth Banks’s performance as Melinda Ledbetter that holds the power and fury I didn’t know the film needed but couldn’t do without.
13. “The Revenant” (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
A blurred and obscure relationship between man and nature exists as Hugh Glass seeks revenge in the wilderness for his fallen son in all of its beautiful gore. This is not only one of the grisliest films I have seen but it is undoubtedly the coldest film I have ever felt! Dicaprio’s transformation is one of his best roles of his career mainly because he does so much with the little dialogue given. The film employs an almost Herzogian perception to nature and revenge in such a way where the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki captures celestial imageries of Earthly landscapes but also the brutally explicit details of pain and suffering, both physical and psychological. Also included is an incredible score by Riyuichi Sakamoto in which its silence allows for the soundtrack of the wild to permeate across the darkened theatre.
12. “Timbuktu” (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)
A film that necessitates viewing as it gives us an opportunity to see a Malian village being overrun by a Jihadist regime. Among the beautiful photography and compelling set pieces, the film excels at humanizing a group of people who, in the west, are always generalized. Observing the attitude and decision-making of the jihadists is both frightening and revelatory. Gradually but quietly, the suffocating tragedy seeps in as the ramification for such ideological brutality is inevitably domineering. The film also features one of the best long takes in recent memory, one that visualizes the loneliness of humanity in a world full of human turmoil.
11. “We Come As Friends” (dir. Hubert Sauper)
A bizarrely scarring trip through a tumultuous Sudan during a time where the country was looking to into two due to competing ideologies. Through it’s surreal imagery and unexpected access to many of the institutions within the troubled Sudan, what is revealed is a continuity of a historical blemish. Imperialism and colonialism exist in new forms in which Sudan becomes more like a neutral basketball court played on by other developed nations. “We Come As Friends” builds on its devastating visual prose to induce a foreignness between audience and subject such that while we watch, we realize that though we might live in a small world, there exists great gaps between us as people.
10. “Song of the Sea” (dir. Tomm Moore)
Dazzling colors and illustrations of a new take on an old folktale, “Song of the Sea” illuminates culture in the most beautiful way, much like Moore’s previous outing in the great “The Secret of Kells.” Moore correlates a modern tale of loss with a mythic tale of loss and intersects them with imaginary playfulness. The 2D animation functions as elaborate illuminations akin to contemporary take on Medieval manuscripts which aesthetically contributes to its narrative structure. Of course, a boy and a girl’s journey back home to search for their mother is handled with grace and an unbelievable amount of care. What a fun film and take note of the one character with the longest beard I have ever seen!
9. “Chi-raq” (dir. Spike Lee)
Spike Lee is freestyling again! He throws us verses of colorful textures and pompous players, of hard times but redeeming futures. Spike Lee is mad, but he is also a realist, a thinker of the complexities that surround the issue that Chicago has more victims of guns than military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sourced from a Greek play, Lee returns to a “Do the Right Thing” attitude and joyously imagines a Chicago where all the ladies have given up sex until the killing stops. Yet, as joyous and fun it can be, Lee is serious about the implications and the testifies to a ludicrous environment that sees kids die all the time and nothing is done. This is an emergency, and the only director right to show us why is Spike Lee.
8. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” (dir. John Pirozzi)
Out of all the films on this list, this one probably has garnered the least attention. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there is only admiration for such a project. In fact, this film is most certainly one of the most culturally important on this list because, through the ten years of work director John Pirozzi has done, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is monumental and brilliant in its reveal of a hidden culture. Ravishing in its ecstasy with neon lights and blazing guitar solos, Cambodia hosted a rock n’ roll scene so excited in its own exploration into the inherently rebellious musical realm. Yet, the whole nation loved it, which is why it is so tragic that such a culture was almost wiped off the face of the Earth by a totalitarian regime bent on destroying anything Western. Here, Pirozzi creates what I like to call an archeological film that uses the limited interviews he was able to get and mis it with even less archival footage all while illuminating a world he knows no one has ever seen. It works and it is an incredible piece of filmmaking. Hopefully, more people see this and discover for themselves those times of happiness when cultural diffusion unites us.
7. “Inside Out” (dir. Pete Doctor)
I said this in my review but I will say it again. “Inside Out” takes kids seriously. While many other films for this demographic splurge upon the spastic mimetic culture of gratuitous punchlines and immaturity, this film takes time to explore a fascinating world right inside the head of a growing girl. By its very nature, the conflict of the girl is taken so seriously that this whole world and the characters that inhabit it are all there for such a conflict. I would like to touch upon my favorite character though, who happens to be Bing Bong. There is something so Proustian about this character that upon viewing this film my emotions were at it very zenith. They did everything right with this character and, just for that, I think this is an incredible animated work I will cherish for a very long time.
6. “Room” (Lenny Abrahamson)
Frankly, a film about fluctuating perceptions of reality is something that inherently casts my curiosity with great heed. With excellent performances by both Brie Larson (now nominated for an Oscar) and Jacob Tremblay as the two who are imprisoned in a small room, we see how these different perceptions gives rise to how they deal with the larger world and their trajectories are what drags us in and convinces us of a certain level of suffering and wonderment. Only a carefully crafted script can deliver such tone and realism in an otherwise absurd premise. After viewing this film I was compelled to look up at the stars, to scan upon the assortment of lights that twinkle in a vast darkness I may never explore in my lifetime. My room may be a little bigger, but I believe I still live in a room to an extent.
5. “Tangerine” (dir. Sean Baker)
Topical, ferocious, warm, messy, and ultimately revealing, Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” is a new kind of dramatic comedy that is both boisterously loud but humbled by a sense of loneliness. Love as a perceptible thing for these estranged characters, transexual prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra, wavers between clarity and an illusion in a world that sees them as discarded objects. What is amazing is Baker’s effectively unsentimental approach towards the unique premise. Sin-Dee is not wholly sympathetic and many of the decisions she makes raises concerned eyebrows. But it is the filmmaker’s willingness to remain consistent with such characterization in a way that only helps serve the depth of the character in the end. The orange palette of LA creates a heated arena of thoughts and desires mapping the landscape of Sin-Dee’s escapades to find the woman her ex-lover was sleeping with while she was in prison. Unfortunately, this sort of film induces hype upon release but fizzles out just as quickly because the film is ultimately too nontraditional. Its bombastic approach might be overwhelming to some but there is something triumphant in such a presentation, where it does not sit there and show but, rather, stands up and slaps you in the face with new characters in a familiar world. Consistent ferocity only reveals the aforementioned vulnerability that transcends even its topical aspect and “Tangerine” is a feisty masterpiece on love and friendship.
4. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (dir. George Miller)
Injected with the latest high-octane fuel, “Mad Max Fury Road” is the reimagining with strength and persistence. In a year where we saw many films turning to the past as a way to reinvest their audiences, George Miller’s action masterpiece is the one that did it best because it seemed like it was never satisfied at just investing itself in the past. No, it invests itself in a future that promises an adventure far more alluring, exciting, and less macho than what we are use to. Dizzying fantastic cinematography coupled with a score that brings in divine absurdity, it is gender politics that dominated such a crazy gearfest and it is done so without being preachy. Leave it to the filmmaker who can make a great action series as well as a great talking animal film at age seventy to make a landmark film like this. You will see clones and you will see a trend with major studios that will implement similar narrative facets. Will they be as good? Who knows…probably not.
3. “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (dir. Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz)
Every shot in this Israeli film is provoked by the last in a way that builds momentum like a landslide of repressed feelings due to religious limitations. If this film is minimalistic in its production design, taking place largely in one room, then its dialogue and editing are completely maximalist. What protrudes is a human tension that is devastating as one women fights for a divorce in a court or culture that will barely hear her voice. How the camera moves between the characters and how the character block speak volumes as gender dynamics and ideological breakdowns rise in clarity and untainted ferocity. This film is a requirement to understand the beauty of visual syntax and it even provides far more compelling subtext then say, the most recent Tarantino film of similar nature. Even so, “Gett,” resonates in its cultural and human significance and the film is a fascinating study of love and faith. Simply astounding, too, that one of the directors (Ronit Elkabetz) is also the lead role, a role of supreme honesty.
2. “The Look of Silence” (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
The inevitably essential companion piece to the groundbreaking “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” screams loudly form those that were muted. Rather than focusing on the perpetrators’ perception of the mass killings in Indonesia during the 1960s, Oppenheimer not only focuses on the victims but employs one victim as the protagonist almost similar to Michael Moore in the sense that this victim tracks down main perpetrators and asks the questions no one is willing to ask. It is startling and horrifying as the film depicts how time, as well as wretched ideology, has withered much of the truth that the victims seek. There is also a familial theme that compliments the passage of time, as our protagonist never lived through the genocide but his parents did. Though, everyday, he must bear the same sorrow. Just like the previous entry, this film leaves cynicism that is hard to bear but with this film and hopefully subsequent viewings, the victims will at least be silent no more.
1. “Two Days, One Night” (dir. Jean Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
A women is ousted from her job as her coworkers choose a raise instead of keeping her on the payroll. Yet, she is allowed one weekend to convince them to vote again and keep her on staff. Though she is in a world of suffering and uncertainty, it is revealed that so many of her coworkers are too. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra and she is fighting two things: a brutish administrative system and her depression. In fact, this is a film all about depression and anxiety. It is one of those films that is hard to watch because, through its minimalist approach, it becomes too real. Yet, this film has touched my soul in a way that surprised even me. The humanistic qualities of this film by veteran masters Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne rival the careful touch of Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Stajayit Ray. The Dardenne brothers strip down anything unnecessary to lay a bare an essence, exposing a panoramic view of humanity struggling to survive in its own civilization. That it is about depression cultivates a seriousness to the topic that we should all acknowledge. Cotillard is absolutely brilliant in this film, a role she so desperately wanted even though the filmmakers scour away from big actors. This is a film about encounters, and each encounter reveals something different, something emotional and contemplative. Cinema is an empathetic machine where we sit in a dark room for two hours absorbing a story and setting not of our present experience. “Two Days, One Night” flourishes in an empathy and defines the cinematic experience. I applaud the simplicity of such a work because its simplicity allows for the big issues to exist in the foreground unabridged. This film reminded me how fragile it is to be human, how the struggle is our sensitivity that life exists, and that we may keep on struggling, in order to find a certain peace.