It’s that time of year again when film critics everywhere are publishing lists of their favorite movies from the past year, and I naturally don’t want to miss out on the fun. Looking over my list, I noticed a couple things. First, 2015 was not a great year for Hollywood, but it was a great year for foreign and independent cinema; there were nearly twenty films I would have happily put in my top ten . Second, I don’t think there’s ever been a year when this many of my favorite films all were about strong, compelling female characters. So with my standard disclaimer that these are my favorite films of 2015 that I saw this past year, not necessarily the “best films,” with my second disclaimer that while I made a really good effort to track down all my most anticipated films, it is inevitable that some great work of cinema slipped through the cracks, and with my final disclaimer to please check ratings and content advisories before watching some of these, here are my favorite films of 2015.
Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):
Crimson Peak; Paddington; Slow West; While We’re Young; Ex Machina; Amour Fou; Steve Jobs; The Big Short; Something, Anything; (Dis)honesty – The Truth About Lies; Shaun the Sheep Movie; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation; Everest; Winter Sleep
20. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer) – A companion piece to 2013’s harrowing The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence interviews surviving family members of those executed during the Indonesian genocide of the ’60’s, exploring human reactions when confronted with unimaginable evil.
19. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) – A journey of a father searching for his daughter who elopes with an army officer, but what he finds in the new world – a land of mythological beauty – is as mysteriously incredible to him as it is to the viewer.
18. La Sapienza (Eugène Green) – When a husband and wife are separated during their vacation, their time apart causes them to reflect on both their indifferent marriage and their careers, as contrasted by the wonderful optimism for life espoused by a young brother and sister whom the couple meets.
17. The Armor of Light (Abigail Disney) – Chronicles the compelling spiritual journey of conservative Evangelical minister Rob Schenck as his efforts to be more pro-life lead him to realize gun violence is a pro-life issue and it is not possible to oppose gun-control and be pro-life.
16. What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi) – A mock documentary in which the filmmakers interview a cult of vampires who live in a sort of fraternity, this is one of the funniest and cleverest films of last year, spoofing both documentary filmmaking techniques and vampire tropes.
15. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako) – A tragic and moving depiction of how violence and jihadist extremism affects the entire diverse Muslim community of Timbuktu, beautifully connecting the lives of various people in spectacular cinematic fashion. Petty quarrels, loving families, and a peaceful community comprised of many different beliefs are all captured beautifully, only to have the film’s tone change to a soulful lament as it all threatens to fall apart.
14. Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann) – Almost a horror film in which misdirected fundamentalism tragically ruins the life of a young girl who wants to live her faith literally, but has nowhere to turn for guidance due to the unforgiving rigidity modeled by her mother and the unobservant piety of her parish priest. As the director said, the film is not an attack on faith, but a portrayal of how it is too often misapplied. (full review)
13. Brooklyn (John Crowley) – There is no other film I saw this year which so effortlessly and so convincingly portrays a time and place since passed. When Eilis (a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) leaves her home in Ireland to start a new job and new life in Brooklyn, the story which follows is a beautifully human drama which unfolds nearly without any conflict, simply portraying the excitement of starting a new chapter of life, the sorrow of homesickness, and the range of emotions which accompany such a time. All the characters are so wonderfully written and portrayed, that I would happily spend at least five hours watching them go about their daily lives.
12. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi) – The most striking feature of About Elly is the slow yet continuous crescendo of tension and emotion which results from everyday deceptions that we and the characters easily rationalize as harmless. When a family vacation abruptly goes awry, nothing turns out as we or the characters expect. As with Farhadi’s other recent films, all the characters here may be good people who mean well, but they still give into the human urge to put their own desires ahead of others’, and the conflict of interests inevitably adds to the growing tension. One of the most important aspects is the camera, which places us directly in the midst of the action as another character. Farhadi does not let us observe from a distance, but instead we share the characters’ misfortunes and joys, unable to judge, as we reflect on each new discovery which adds a layer of complexity to what we assumed we knew.
11. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz) – The Elkabetz brother and sister writer/director team have crafted one of the most riveting films of the year, and it takes place entirely in a courtroom. According to Jewish law, only a husband can divorce his wife, although if a wife presents enough evidence, a Rabbinical Court may force the husband to divorce her. Gett details the extremely lengthy process and unjust favoritism which a husband receives when his wife brings forward a request for a divorce. As Viviane Amsalem, Ronit Elkabetz embodies the unwavering determination of a woman determined to leave an emotionally abusive husband, even if he has never done anything legally wrong. The camera perfectly directs our attention to where it belongs, sometimes the speaker, but more often a bystander who sits quietly as others determine what is best for her. Regardless of one’s opinion of divorce, this depiction of the injustice of a society in which a woman’s identity is determined by the men she knows is gripping and sobering.
The Top Ten
10. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy) – The role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to some aspect of the world, shining a spotlight on its beauty or ugliness. In Spotlight, Tom McCarthy shines an unflinching light on one of the ugliest evils to plague the Catholic Church and the world in the last half-century, the sex abuse scandal, and the praiseworthy efforts of the Boston Globe Spotlight team to expose it. I’m sure many Catholics will flinch at this movie, but there is nothing to fear from the truth, and Spotlight takes a calm balanced approach to a very uncomfortable subject matter. With a stellar cast and script which depicts the tireless efforts of the journalists, the film criticizes not only the Church’s cover-up, but the culture of silence from the Boston legal system and press which unknowingly enabled it. (full review)
9. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assays) – When the renowned actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked to act in a revival of the play which made her famous, only playing the older woman manipulated by a younger conniving employee (her original character), she initially balks at the idea, still strongly identifying with the eighteen year old character she played over twenty years ago. Despite the best efforts of her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) to get her to identify with the older character, Maria remains adamant and uncomfortable regarding the production. As Val rehearses Maria’s scenes with her, the similarities between the play and their own professional relationship begin to make it unclear where life imitates art and art imitates life. Reinforcing the generational difference of opinions and starkly coming between them is Chloe Grace Moretz’s Jo-Ann, the young scandal-ridden actress who will be taking on Maria’s original role. The final scene between them may be expected, but the way it holds a mirror to Maria’s own fears and attitude towards acting is truly riveting.
8. Carol (Todd Haynes) – If you’re familiar with Carol, you may be asking what is a lesbian love story doing on a Catholic film critic’s top ten list. Aside from the fact that Carol is technically one of the most brilliant films of the year, it is also a deeply complex and nuanced one, filled with tensions, and it eschews straightforward dramatizations and easy classifications. Therese and Carol (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) are certainly sympathetic characters, but both of them are also self-centered enough that their affair may seem doomed without the conventions of the ’50’s. The film fantastically walks the line between tragedy and romance, avoiding clichés and subtly sprinkling noir-like trappings throughout. The result is a story of two women badly lost amidst their own desires and the roles society expects them to play, neither of which allows them to live honestly with society or with themselves.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) – Of all the revivals of franchises from the ’70’s and ’80’s which were released this year, Mad Max stands head and shoulders above the rest. The series’ original director, George Miller, steps back into the director’s chair as if he never left. The film is primarily comprised of a two hour car chase, and it is the single most thrilling and flawlessly executed car chase I’ve ever seen. Miller perfectly paces the movie with occasional pauses and a natural acceleration to the finale. Along the way he touches on themes of social justice, sexism, and environmentalism, showing how disrespect for one area of creation leads to disrespect in other areas, not dissimilar from Pope Francis’ points in Laudato Si. With Max (Tom Hardy) relegated to a supporting character, the movie belongs to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and as both learn to trust one another, their journey reveals that blaming our enemies for the state of the world is easy, but learning to work with those we despise is a far better way to reach one’s destination.
6. Man From Reno (Dave Boyle) – Consider this a cross between Chinatown and No Country For Old Men in the style of Japanese pulp fiction. Man from Reno brilliantly utilizes cross-cutting between a gritty “unsolvable” murder that baffles the San Francisco police department and a vacationing Japanese mystery novelist, who finds herself involved in a missing person’s case. The intertwining of the two stories maintains a gradual and perpetual increase of tension, perfectly punctuating that tension with bizarre and unexpected twists along the way. A writer finding herself lost in the type of story that she usually creates is not a novel idea, but the overarching sense of tragedy which stems from her mistaken belief that her writing skills make her a real life detective and director/writer Dave Boyle’s willingness to follow his concept all the way through its unusual and darker elements makes this presentation feel entirely fresh.
5. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) – The second film from Noah Baumbach and his girlfriend and co-writer Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, may not quite be the masterpiece that their last collaboration Frances Ha is, but it is a delightful screwball comedy nonetheless. As Brooke, Gerwig effortlessly returns to her effervescent screen persona, and this time she whirls through life even more haphazardly than Frances. When she meets Tracy, her step-sister to be played by Lola Kirke, there is an instant bonding between the two. However, Tracy’s infatuation with Brooke and her big-sisterly mentoring is not enough to overlook all of Brooke’s shortcomings, nor is it enough to excuse what Tracy chooses to do. It’s common to see comedies in which one character messes up and must seek forgiveness; Mistress America’s unusual twist on that scenario results in a riotously outlandish climactic set piece that also serves as a thoughtful cross-examination of its characters. (full review)
4. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad) – The most remarkable thing about Love & Mercy is not the way it avoids every biopic cliché, nor Paul Dano’s pitch perfect performance as the tormented young Brian Wilson, nor even Elizabeth Banks’ wonderful performance as a woman who reaches out to offer love to an injured, scared man whom many would find off-putting. The most remarkable thing about Love & Mercy is the way it seamlessly jumps between two time frames of Brian Wilson’s life and effortlessly ties all those elements together. The life of Brian Wilson – his early fame, desire to do something new, hitting rock bottom, and eventual recovery – is the type of story that would make for a by the numbers “inspirational” and ultimately forgettable film. Love & Mercy is so powerful and memorable because it focuses on the characters, their motivations, and their struggles, leaving the familiar beats of the story we know un-shown. What it does show adds tremendous depth and background, dramatizing Brian Wilson’s story in truly uplifting and mesmerizing fashion.
3. Phoenix (Christian Petzold) – Phoenix opens with Nelly (Nina Hoss) seeking facial reconstruction surgery after being shot and left for dead in a WWII concentration camp. Her request of the surgeon is that she wants to look exactly the same as she did before the war. However, that’s not possible, and neither is it possible for an identical return to life the way it was before the war, as comforting as that may be. With her appearance altered, Nelly’s main concern is to find her husband and rebuild her life with him, despite her best friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis, which Nelly is confident is a misunderstanding. When she does finally encounter her husband, the unusual journey they take underscores the importance of remembering the past and moving on from it all the while building to one of the most powerful musical finales of the year.
2. The Assassin (Hou Hsian-Hsien) – In seventh century China, a lethal female assassin (Qi Shu) is ordered by her superior to assassinate her cousin in order to preserve peace, and she finds herself increasingly reluctant to carry out her assignment. Her confrontation with her past and family causes her to reevaluate her life and to rethink the best means of achieving peace. Gorgeously shot and edited in such a way that scenes become clear as they unfold, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film about pacifism and war is in some ways the opposite of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Both concern an expert female assassin who reaches a crisis in her life, but whereas Tarantino’s protagonist chooses to use her skills to regain her career and lose her soul, Hou’s film shows how the assassin uses her skills to abandon her career, saving her soul and possibly others’ as well. Even more remarkably, the film’s meditative nature shows how the less-traveled road of non-violence can be even more difficult and require more courage than the path of violence.
1. Inside Out (Pete Docter) – Pixar released two films this year, and while The Good Dinosaur was an unmitigated disappointment, Inside Out was one of their best and arguably Pete Docter’s best work as well. With wonderfully developed characters, a brilliantly original premise, a vibrantly sketched world, and a heart stopping finale, Inside Out is a film that not only showcases the difficult transitions of growing up, but also the importance and goodness of all our emotions in shaping our personalities and our actions. By creating characters for five principle emotions, and exploring what happens when two of them get lost in long-term memory, the film humorously and touchingly provides a dramatic realization of the ups and downs which affect everyone as they mature. I can think of no other film which would manage to show young children the importance of sadness or how it’s possible to be sad and happy at the same time. Inside Out does just that, and the beautiful mixture of sorrow and joy which it contains has moved me to tears for at least half the film all four times I’ve seen it. (full review)