The Forbidden Room, Approaching the Elephant, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure
Year-end lists are arbitrary, reductive, and tedious. This one’s mine! I’ll start by rattling off my loose, alphabetical #25-11: Approaching the Elephant, Brooklyn, Buzzard, Crimson Peak, The Forbidden Room, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure, The Look of Silence, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Mend, Mistress America, Queen of Earth, Shaun the Sheep, Tangerine, and Timbuktu.
The following movies didn’t receive theatrical distribution this year, but (1) Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake was released online by the BBC in January; (2) the neo-noir music video Bitch Better Have My Money, co-directed by Rihanna and the filmmaking team Megaforce, premiered on YouTube in July; and (3) Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard-Passage #14 may have played at festivals in 2013 and ’14, but I caught it at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this past March. All three stretch the definition of “2015 cinema,” but all three also struck me as abrasive, essential experiences.
Ten runner-up performances: Jason Bateman, inverting his “nice guy” persona in The Gift; Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash, playing another of the unkempt women who define Diablo Cody’s patchy oeuvre; Blackhat’s Chris Hemsworth, using the whole of his Norse god bulk for brooding and grief; Rinko Kikuchi, holding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter together with sheer conviction; Sidse Babett Knudsen, playing submissive in The Duke of Burgundy with both emotional delicacy and sexual vim; Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, bouncing off one another through the thick and thin of a friendship in Tangerine; Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, so inviting even as he gives away so little; Michael Stuhlbarg, showing once again what character acting is all about as an Apple second banana in Steve Jobs; and lastly Taika Waititi: goofy and benign even as he leads a ring of bloodthirsty vampires in What We Do in the Shadows.
Every year I name a Best Performance in a Documentary. The past winners have been Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter), Anwar Congo (The Act of Killing), and Actress star Brandy Burre. This year, the award goes the pseudonymous Adi Rukun in another Joshua Oppenheimer movie, The Look of Silence. Just behind him, though, is 11-year-old hellraiser Jiovanni in Approaching the Elephant.
If, for some reason, you want to read more of my opinions on the year in film, I voted in the Village Voice and #12FilmsaFlickering polls. I also provided a couple of suggestions for MUBI Notebook’s annual collection of “fantasy double features.” And now, with all that preamble out of the way, onto my list proper:
10) The Assassin, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
As so often tends to be the case, the best movies this year have roots deep within the past. About half the entries here are period pieces, with Hou’s wuxia epic reaching back the farthest. The Assassin is a window (a 1.37 : 1 window, nearly as square as the movie that tops this list) into Chinese high society over a millennium ago. It’s steeped in their candlelight and draperies, their reds and greens, the sounds of their birdsong and whistling wind. The camera—often patiently static, sometimes subtly panning—tells the story of political negotiations robed in protocol. It tells of Shu Qi’s title character and the choices she confronts: to engage in or refrain from violence? When she does act, Hou invests her swordplay with just as much visual and moral weight as her placidity.
The mediocre Uncertain Terms benefits from a murderer’s row of young actresses, the finest of whom is Tallie Medel, her eyes wide with searching intelligence and a desire to be loved.
In Inside Out, Richard Kind voices a near-forgotten imaginary friend with all the pathos of an obsolete vaudevillian.
9) The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland
The surfaces in which this film is tightly bound are often patterned after the cycles of English folk horror stories and Italian gialli released throughout the 1970s. From the dusty oranges and browns to the ethereal score, the slow zooms, and the motif of fluttering moth wings, The Duke of Burgundy evokes a rustling unease. Yet its point is not strictly to induce shudders, nor to pay homage, but to relate a romance of utmost tenderness. Its Möbius strip structure doesn’t point toward nihilistic gloom; counterintuitively, it demonstrates how relationships (kinky lesbian relationships especially) can break and mend. Strickland musters all the opulently sinister excesses at his disposal for the sake of vulnerability and sexual candor.
Eva Green gives a wordless performance in The Salvation that goes miles beyond the film’s assemblage of western clichés. She speaks volumes with her imperiously furrowed eyebrows alone.
Maximizing his limited screen time in Brooklyn, Emory Cohen uses his voluble body to suggest a boy who’s slightly embarrassed over how in love he is and fundamentally decent enough to make this young woman a good husband.
8) Horse Money, directed by Pedro Costa
Every shot held, every line delivered, every gesture made is suffused with pain. It’s pain that perhaps, as Costa’s waking nightmare of an art film suggests, an odyssey through dilapidated corridors and panes of shadow might help to exorcize. The ensemble’s wanderings and their monologues are informed by Portugal’s colonial relationship to the actors’ Cape Verdean homeland, and this dense context renders much of the loose narrative opaque. But even watching it with nil knowledge of Lisbon’s political history, the hoarse voices of the dispossessed are nonetheless haunting as they echo throughout an architectural embodiment of memory.
With her open, expressive face, Lucy Owen holds her own against the swaggering man-child leads of The Mend, her emphasis on how wearying it is to be a kill-joy mom.
Kevin Corrigan is essential to the off-beat romantic comedy of Results with his willful, full-bodied schlubbiness.
7) Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda
You have infinite options if you’re trying to tell someone’s life story. Most filmmakers limit their toolboxes to just a few. But as this sardonic spin on the timeline of Stanley Milgram’s career unravels, Almereyda employs increasingly unorthodox methods. Blatant rear projection, nested fictions, and narration out of the subject’s own mouth turn the practice of social psychology into a clever visual game. The fallout from Milgram’s work as his findings became common knowledge ends up as fodder both for wry jokes and hard-nosed intellectual investigation.
Jessica Chastain takes charge as a spaceship captain in The Martian, but she might be even better when she drains herself of empathy to play a gothic villainess in Crimson Peak.
Benicio Del Toro takes to moral ambiguity like a pig to shit in Sicario, lurking laconically over the shoulder of Emily Blunt’s naïf.
6) Unfriended, directed by Leo Gabriadze
This sick joke slasher movie may be full of hysterics and gory revenge, but deep within it lies a simple curiosity about online ephemera. The substance of its Macbook mise-en-scène is forum posts, Facebook messages, and Skype windows. All the detritus that’s supposed to vanish when you hit “delete” or click “X” is the accrued material of Unfriended’s single 80-minute shot. Every dumb high school grievance typed out in iMessage or captured on a webcam turns into a matter of life or death. It’s a metaphor-rich ghost story written with keystrokes and blood.
Casually wielding her sex appeal, Jada Pinkett Smith becomes the focal point of every shot she enters in Magic Mike XXL. Yet she’s never stingy about ceding attention to those around her; she knows she doesn’t need our love, though she’ll accept it if we insist.
Louis Negin slips between half a dozen personas across The Forbidden Room’s many vignettes, his weathered face and hammy line deliveries suited to every chapter of its film-historical phantasmagoria.
5) Amour fou, directed by Jessica Hausner
A real historical event—the double suicide of an ailing housewife and famed poet—marks the end point to this tragicomedy of manners. But Hausner’s deadpan style deflates the act of any romance that might be read into it. Instead, she foregrounds the tedium of the participants’ bourgeois lives; the dreariness of the décor that engulfs them; and the petulance of Heinrich von Kleist, who initiates the pact. Within Amour fou, shaped by its compositional rigor, lies a whole regimented microcosm of 19th century German society, laid out like a lifeless diorama.
Charlize Theron instantly entered the action heroine pantheon for her work in Mad Max: Fury Road, not merely for how she fights, but also for capturing the look of a woman who’s lost it all, come out alive, and kept on driving.
No matter how dubious its politics or plotting may be, The Hateful Eight makes an excellent showcase for Samuel L. Jackson, with his scarf-wrapped bravura and his unrivaled mastery of Tarantino’s linguistic gambits.
4) Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs
Among the most primal of cinema’s pleasures is the sight of a sweaty, beautiful man dancing. Valentino knew it, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit knew it, and Gregory Jacobs—picking up as director where Steven Soderbergh left off—knows it, too. A veritable model of narrative economy, Magic Mike XXL dispenses with anything that might get between its audience and their ecstasy. Its road movie bacchanal climbs state by state through the Southeast, pausing only for terpsichorean pit stops scored to the likes of Ginuwine, the Backstreet Boys, and an a cappella Bryan Adams cover. Even when the music’s over, pleasure remains the subject of discussion between the troupe of self-described “male entertainers” and the women they entertain. Like Aristotle, Mike and his boys wonder, “What is the good life?” They may not find it, but it’s pretty hot watching them search.
Bel Powley’s voiceover and tentative flirtations in Diary of a Teenage Girl contain so much of adolescence: the belief that you already know everything; the overwhelming desire to know more.
Henry Cavill may not be a bona fide movie star just yet, but in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he gives a full-on, old-fashioned movie star performance. He makes “making it look easy” look easy.
3) Heaven Knows What, directed by Joshua and Benny Safdie
Whereas Magic Mike XXL is rich with pleasures, the Safdies’ gutter-level addiction chronicle is rich with miseries. Not unlike Horse Money, it’s a movie that mixes and matches its fictions and realities into a patchwork of caustic realism. It lopes from one desultory episode to another as a woman named Harley tries to finagle some change, her next fix, or a bed for the night. No judgment here; just behavior, existence, survival in front of the camera. No “descent” into degradation, no platitudes, no contrived shot at redemption. Just poor decisions made while trying to undo poor decisions from three cycles back. It’s life, and it’s miserable.
Sartre may have written that “hell is other people,” and R. Crumb may have quipped that “hell is also yourself,” but Elisabeth Moss, queen of the close-up in Queen of Earth, says, “Guys, fuck off. Hell is me.”
Ventura, the star of Horse Money, somnambulates through the ruins of the past in dirty pajamas, wearing a hard lifetime on his body and in his eyes.
2) Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold
This postwar pulp tragedy follows the straight line of an absurd con game in which a woman must pretend to be herself. Every implication arises from that premise, and each new revelation tugs on another as they amass in a lurid daisy chain. Past intersects with present like needle pulling thread; Hitchcock crosses paths with Fassbinder; gaze is met with unseeing gaze. Countries, marriages, human beings: any whole that’s come asunder, says Phoenix, must first endure fire if it’s going to be rebuilt.
Phoenix star Nina Hoss keeps the whole precise construction from toppling with her post-traumatic mask of a face, first shrinking into her own body, then growing into herself anew.
Meanwhile, Joshua Burge plays a different species of bird as Buzzard’s scavenger anti-hero, all bug eyes and shit-eating grin.
1) Jauja, directed by Lisandro Alonso
A military officer drags himself across a blazing landscape where he does not belong. Time and space reveal themselves to be more malleable than was once presumed. Old relationships untangle and new ones form; obscured trails become harder to follow. But water keeps flowing, grass keeps growing, and rocks are worn by rain and wind. An inexact synopsis, perhaps, but that should at least get across the thrust of this sublime, oneiric movie.
Arielle Holmes goes beyond the pale in Heaven Knows What with her irascible, bullshit-free, and stubbornly human performance. The fact that the film is based on her own experiences is incredible, but appreciating her work onscreen doesn’t require that knowledge; the proof is in the bitter pudding.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram in Experimenter as no hero, but actually sort of an asshole. He’s smug, impatient, yet persistently curious about the workings of the human mind, and this nuance sells the man’s accomplishments far better than any sugarcoating could.
[Movies I have yet to see include Anomalisa, Arabian Nights, Carol, Chi-Raq, Creed, 45 Years, In Jackson Heights, and Son of Saul.]