I saw a lot of good movies in 2015, some were even great. Not all of them were first released this year—for example, Take Up Productions put on brief Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives sprinkled across a couple theaters at the same time (sigh) allowing me not only to see Vertigo on the (relatively) big screen again but also to see the keenly weird Marnie, the rag-tag blarney of F for Fake, and the pell mell horror of Macbeth for the first time—but more than a few of the good ones were new. In fact, I saw so many good movies that by November, after agonizing about which films would make my final ten and which had to go, I ended up seeing Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, and my list, for the second time in the past couple of years, expanded to eleven.
Two movies that were on and off my list like the insistent trembling of a moribund fluorescent light were Ex Machina, a smart and compelling science fiction movie and Inside Out, an animated film from Pixar with intelligent jokes, a clever premise, and a warm heart that is another feather in Pixar’s voluminous cinematic cap.
I was smitten by two strange love stories this past year. Amour Fou was the stranger of the two, recounting the months leading up to the moment Heinrich von Kleist killed his lover and himself in an unhealthy realization of Romantic nihilism. The movie is funny in both senses of the word, as evidenced by von Kleist’s pick-up line, which was basically an argument for suicide.
The other was A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a kind of Iranian hipster vampire movie. Evocative black and white cinematography, relatively static camerawork, and cool emotions recall Jim Jarmusch, which isn’t such a bad thing, but my favorite scene is when the main couple fall for one another in The Girl’s room, lights from a disco ball swirling around the room in a heady delirium.
Finally, I wasn’t sure what to make of Inherent Vice. I like P.T. Anderson’s films quite a bit and I love most of Pynchon’s novels, though admittedly, Inherent Vice may be my least favorite. Despite some excellent acting—Martin Short is brilliant in a brief role—the movie felt kind of flat. I need to see it again, I think.
Without any more fanfare, here are my eleven favorite movies of this past year, arranged in the order in which I saw them:
The Duke of Burgundy
Lepidopterology and lesbian BDSM are at the heart of this strange, erotic love story that draws on the aesthetics of ‘60s and ‘70s sexploitation costume dramas to surprising effect. The film opens with what appears to be a young maid, Evelyn, being humiliated and punished by a cruel matron, Cynthia, but soon after a rather unexpected and severe form of punishment—that, though off-camera, is quite funny and that Evelyn seems to enjoy—turns out to be an erotic scenario imagined by Evelyn. As her fantasies become more complex and extreme, the women’s relationship becomes strained, the film revealing itself to be a perceptive exploration of the power dynamics of love and desire that is at times slyly funny and at others dreamlike and beautiful.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his chilling 2012 documentary The Act of Killing once again turns to the aftermath of the “communist” genocide in Indonesia of the 1960s. However, while The Act of Killing focuses on the imaginaria of those responsible for the genocide, many of whom retain power in Indonesia and brag with graphic detail about the atrocities they’d committed, The Look of Silence forces some of those men to confront the suffering they caused. The film follows 44 year-old optometrist Adi—whose brother Ramli was killed in the genocide two years before Adi was born—while he fits the guilty men for glasses, helping them to see more clearly not only with the lenses he tries on them, but with the pointed questions he asks. The men’s responses, defensive, squirming, angry, sometimes threatening, reveal just what the look of silence is.
Mad Max: Fury Road
As far as I’m concerned, The Road Warrior is the greatest action film ever made, and George Miller, who directed it, is one of the genre’s greatest filmmakers. After Miller had devoted the past couple of decades to making children’s movies, I wasn’t sure he had another action film in him. Fury Road proves he did. While it’s not quite as good as The Road Warrior, it’s pretty close. The action is high octane, the humor sharp and satirical, and the visuals arresting. In short, it’s a blast. Miller has gotten so good as a filmmaker that he tells in a single pan across a room what most films would take five minutes of expository dialogue—or worse, voice-over narration—to establish. Refreshingly and surprisingly, Max takes a back seat in the film’s action. Fury Road belongs to Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. The prospect of more Max films, especially if they’re of this caliber, is tantalizing.
Hard to be a God
Nothing will quite prepare you for the experience of Aleksei German’s final film. Teeming with incident and texture, Hard to be a God centers on Don Rumata, an Earth scientist sent with about a dozen others to observe the alien planet Arkanar, which, mired in an age resembling medieval Europe, never had its age of Enlightenment. For reasons foggy to me because the profuse life that abounds in each and every moment of the film obscures a coherent plot, Don Rumata is thought to be a demigod, a ruse that I believe was meant to keep him above the fray (much like in Star Trek, the scientists visiting Arkanar are not to interfere with the cultures they encounter), though the narrator tells us that Rumata’s demigodhood was challenged as much as demurred to. And challenged it was. Not only was Don Rumata constantly threatened with violence, but all around and on him, people and animals shit, puked, pissed, spat, farted, blew snot from their noses, sweat, coughed, and bled, as, at times, did Rumata himself. Dazed by the end of the events detailed in the film, much as the audience is, Rumata makes clear just how hard being a god can be.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Any year featuring a new movie by Roy Andersson is already better than it might have been. A Pigeon … is similar in approach to the other installments of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”—Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—employing bleak humor, surrealism, an episodic structure, and a distinctive dioramic visual style. Yet, unlike the previous films, A Pigeon … seems to have something resembling protagonists: traveling novelty salesmen Sam and Jonathan. Thoroughly Beckettian characters for whom life is a protracted series of miserable situations, one can’t help but laugh when they stoically announce to potential clients, “We want to help people have fun.” The final section of the film, titled “Homo sapiens,” features two scenes, one involving a lab monkey and the other slaves who are herded into a large copper drum, that are so unvarnished they leave one a bit woozy with horror and disgust.
Released as a film in the US, this French mini-series centers on the inept police investigation of a series of gruesome murders perpetrated in a small, coastal town in northern France. The movie is an absurd comedy about humanity’s propensity for darkness and violence, the murders serving to link various events unfolding in the town mainly involving Quinquin (a nickname that means “little child” in the northern French dialect spoken in the town) and his friends or Commandant Van der Weyden, the rumpled, Clouseau-esque detective whose extensive arsenal of facial tics creates an ever-shifting, comical nothingness against which the savage meaninglessness of life is hurled. If the crimes, in which body parts are found inserted inside of cows, suggest almost unbelievable viciousness, so too do the interactions of Quinquin and his friends who cruelly taunt and threaten a couple of Muslim children with devastating consequences.
Viggo Mortensen portrays Danish surveyor Gunnar Dinesen in Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s beautiful, surreal film set in the Patagonian Desert of southern Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century during the “Conquest of the Desert,” when Argentine forces killed or displaced 15,000 native inhabitants. It’s clearly not the safest environment for Dinesen’s fourteen-year-old daughter Ingeborg, whom Dinesen has brought with him. He suddenly realizes the enormity of his error when at one point Ingeborg tells him, “I love the desert, the way it fills me,” and then runs off with a young soldier, disappearing with him into the desert where a rogue military officer, Zuluag, is rumored to be marauding the countryside with a band of followers. Armed with his sword and a rifle, Dinesen pursues the young couple, but the farther Dinesen goes, the more lost—physically and psychically—he becomes. After a while, it becomes difficult to figure out which landscape Dinesen traverses, one of the desert or of his increasingly unmoored mind.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel/graphic novel of the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl tells the story of sexually precocious, fourteen-year-old Minnie who initiates an affair with her mom’s boyfriend Monroe. As Minnie’s sexual explorations expand to others, her relationship with Monroe, much to Minnie’s anguish, lurches back and forth between on and off. Her growing pains are harrowing and funny. In some ways, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an excellent companion to Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, another movie based on a ground-breaking graphic novel about a young woman searching for her identity, adopting various roles and doing stupid things along the way. Both movies eschew sentimentality in favor of dark humor that occasionally dips into gleeful misanthropy, though Marielle Heller’s film is rawer and less ironic than Ghost World.
While Sicario recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Sicario is more willfully pulpy, turning less into an expose of the war on drugs than a taut, brutal revenge drama. Regardless, the movie makes clear how US drug enforcement tactics have helped to transform the war on drugs into something resembling an actual war, as in one of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, of the many under the masterful eye of longtime Coen Brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins, when U.S. operatives engage in a nighttime raid wearing heat sensitive and infrared goggles. As this gripping film shows us, when the might of America weighs down on the Mexican drug cartels, the cartels attempt to respond in equal measure, exacerbating a protracted war that rages under the guise of a police action.
Carol is Todd Haynes’ ravishing film about two women from different classes and generations, who fall in love in the 1950s, one of the most repressive decades for homosexuals in America. The movie is a swoon, the magnetism of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara sweeping us off our feet and drawing us deeply into their characters’ intense field of attraction for one another. Indeed, if their initial encounter at the department store is charged with desire, it’s downright intoxicating at the martini lunch the women share shortly afterward. Adding to the film’s spell is Carter Burwell’s score, recalling the sensual pulse of Philip Glass’s film work, and Edward Lachman’s sumptuous cinematography, often framing the action of Carol through windows—refracting light, reflecting what lies outside them, clouded with rain or soot, capturing the way that perception is distorted, sometimes voluptuously so, when one is in the throes of love and desire.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s strikingly shot wuxia tells the story of Nie Yinniang, who, in 9th-century China, has been trained from about the age of ten to be an assassin whose task is to eliminate corrupt politicians. When her nerve fails her on a particular mission because she shows mercy to her target, her mentor, a kind of martial arts bhikkha, sends her on a difficult mission: she’s to assassinate the man to whom she was once supposed to marry. If she can do it, she joins the rarified ranks of the assassins. If not, she will be barred from their order, banished to an ordinary life. If the story sounds a bit cheesy, it’s not. Hsiao-Hsien has created an intimate film that with its fantastic elements and the grandeur with which it is filmed—design, composition, and editing contribute to the movie’s epic reach—takes on the dimensions of myth.