The act of watching is considered an external activity; you, sitting, observing, motionless; a receptor to whatever visual bombards you. There’s the adage of “shutting off your brain” for the duration of certain mayhem-extensive pictures, suggesting some sort of cosmic catharsis in disengaging with a visual text; ergo, it’s just more fun when you don’t have to think about what you’re watching. Just you, sitting, observing, motionless.
In 2015, purposeful or not, I ended up paying more attention to what was going on inside me while I was watching all these films. I was trying to engage with every text on a personal level, attempting to make sense of a visual language and breaking it down to a comprehensive syntax and grammar that I could easily master. That didn’t really happen, but it did accentuate certain details in films.
Like the scene in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, where Dolan extends the expanses of the frame utilizing Ludovico Einaudi’s composition, “Experience”. It was a moment, perhaps the moment, of the year that effectively transcends the distance between the screen and spectator. Similarly, other films, like John Magary’s The Mend and Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, had fun in subverting expectations, commanding attention through its purposeful and calibrated chaos. In them, you’ll find familiar stories told in dynamic ways, and in this way, the distance between screen and spectator is shortened.
So with that in mind, I present my top 25 (+1) films of 2015. A list and probably the closest I’ll get to the list. It was a good year.
The Hateful Eight
Still mulling over Quentin Tarantino's latest. Rather than shoehorning the film into the list proper, I opted to give it a special space until I am better capable of articulating my feelings toward it. For now, this will do:
Savage, even by Quentin Tarantino’s standards, The Hateful Eight remedies the comic overtures of Django Unchained for something disarmingly somber. In fact, most of the film, at least prior to the picture’s intermission, suggests a more sophisticated Tarantino, setting aside his tools for sadomasochism to emphasize the milieu in which that sadism occurs. Filmed in the cold mountains outside Telluride, The Hateful Eight, despite its chamber setting, is less about character than it is about space. It’s one of the great coups of the picture that so much of the film’s stageplay setting reverberates with intensity not from dialogue or performances, but from deliberate and precise cutaways to the location’s exteriors. As a blizzard storms outside, with the nailed (coffin) door opened and shut numerous times throughout the film’s runtime, the harshness of nature becomes palpable.
Toxic strains of code infiltrate a Hong Kong nuclear plant, affecting a coolant pump that prompts a meltdown. Elsewhere, at Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange, the same hacker spurs the rise in soy futures. Michael Mann’s Blackhat is preoccupied with one central concern: the confrontation between the tangible and the digital. All of Mann’s films have more or less been about the bruised marginalization of masculinity, about its eventual confrontation with monstrous horrors (Manhunter) or hierarchical systems of oppression (Thief). But the fears and anxieties in Blackhat are obscured, less defined by traditional conceptions of hegemonic opposition. It’s a kind of evil that is battled not through ineffectual brawn (as realized by Chris Hemsworth) but the speed of ones fingertips over a keyboard. But what makes Blackhat so poignant, so of-the-now, is how the results of this new kind of cyber combat - the causalities and collateral damage of confronting this visage of evil – amount to the same: as bodies strewn around the globe.
Heaven Knows What
(Ben and Joshua Safdie)
The fine line between nonfiction and fiction filmmaking is blurred beyond distinction in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s traumatizing Heaven Knows What. Adapted from an unpublished work by the film’s muse, Arielle Holmes, the film recounts the life/death style of a cadre of New York City junkies. The authenticity of its milieu, however, is unlike any other production I’ve seen. The Safdies replicate significant moments in Holmes’ narrative while also capturing the spontaneous naturalism of their non-professional actors (who, besides the film’s co-lead Caleb Landry Jones, were part of Holmes’ community of users). As the Safdies pull their camera back to capture the unrehearsed responses of terror from New York pedestrians, you’re baring witness to a kind of harrowing filmmaking that defies and subverts all expectations. No other film this year confronts you with the people you’d rather observe through the periphery of your vision with this much force.
Todd Haynes owes a lot to the photography of Saul Leiter. So many wonderful sequences in the film are shot through rain-soaked windows or mirrors, whereby the affections of the picture’s two lead characters, Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) seem to be constantly obstructed, always blurred and unrequited. And yet it’s to Haynes’ visionary credit that he can take the wonderful images he composes out of Leiter’s influence and unite them to make a wholly cinematic object. Right from the start, as Therese drifts from the gloomy corridors of her department store job to the bustling Christmas crowds of New York City, Haynes captures that sense of loneliness in groups, that feeling of isolation in a mass of moving bodies. Yet the moment she lays eyes on Carol, those moving bodies are but a blur when compared to the distinct features of what, in essence, is The One. There are plenty of films that attempt to capture the instinctual feeling of love at first sight but Haynes gets it better than most any other director before him.
Embroiled in controversy before its release, Spike Lee’s Chi-raq never did stand a chance. In a culture that passes damning judgment based on the trailer of a film, where criticisms are levied on its controversial director rather than the product of his artistry, it’s unfortunate that the loudest detractors of Lee’s work are the ones who are least familiar with his filmography.
Part of me adores Chi-raq strictly out of principle, wherein Lee utilizes Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as a satirical framework to deconstruct the violence that pervades the Chicago southside. Theoretically it’s an absolutely brilliant, unorthodox move. The results are somewhat less convincing, if only because every brush of genius that Lee indulges in, he also succumbs to sequences of overwrought didacticism. The messy product nevertheless weighs heavy on the heart of this native Chicagoan – as someone who avoids Englewood or even seedier sides of Hyde Park based on the multitude of anecdotes and horror stories that come from friend’s accounts, the frustration of systemic violence registers as palpable and true. The satirical components that define the film’s latter portions are at a tonal register one too many octaves high, but nevertheless, the craft is of the highest order.
While most will champion Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy as the best critical study of dominant/submissive relationships, it’s the underseen Magical Girl that wins my affections. Though in Carlos Vermut’s case, this study of dominants and submissives is something buried within the picture’s bizarre sense of humor and critical deconstruction of contemporary Spain, a country, as one character in the film suggests, that’s divided by its allegiance to reason and passion. Humbly beginning with a father attempting to purchase his daughter a costume, the picture develops into something much more labyrinthine and macabre, ultimately coming together in an explosive finale that ushers in a brilliant new talent in Vermut.
Speaking of macabre, nothing gets quite as dark in the cinema of 2015 as Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, where, among its many concerns, is a murderer who attempts to pump bovines with the carcasses of his victims. There’s a lot you can detest about Quinquin, what with Dumont’s tendencies toward exploiting the visually unappealing. But this is pretty damn funny, in a straight-faced winking sort of way. Bernard Pruvost, who plays one of the two lead investigators set to uncover the mystery, provides a comic performance for the ages, where his steady and persistent facial tics (think Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners) goes for humor rather than anything dreadfully serious. In the wake of such self-serious and ultimately fleeting procedural experiences like the aforementioned Prisoners and True Detective, Li’l Quinquin’s queer comic approach makes it stand out all the more.
Mountains May Depart
Both Jia Zhang-ke’s most accomplished and frustrating film, Mountains May Depart has undergone a degree of critical reevaluation through its festival run in 2015 before it receives a theatrical run in 2016. Coming out empty handed at Cannes, the film’s reputation of declining narrative return – with each of the film’s three narratives becoming less potent – emerged as the critical mode du jour. The tag of disappointment that accompanied the film upon its fall and winter festival spots eventually spurred a vocal community going to bat for the film – suggesting that this may indeed be Zhang-ke’s best.
Case in point: critical bodies tend to embellish on both spectrums when it comes to divisive works. Mountains May Depart possesses some of the most formally inventive techniques in Zhang-ke’s entire catalog, though the film’s final act, though not a disaster, is a jarring audial shift. In transitioning from Mandarin to English, there’s a distinct audial subtleness that’s lost. It doesn’t compromise the thematic urgency of the film, rather reinforcing the loss of cultural identity that occurs through an increasingly globalized world. But this would-be masterwork does have a few issues that a rewatch could remedy. So its placement on this list suggests that, in spite of its issues, Mountains May Depart is indeed one of the best films of the year.
As (surprisingly) effective as The Big Short’s macro-comic deconstruction of the 2008 housing crash turned out to be, it’s Ramin Bahrani’s micro approach in 99 Homes that is the superior effort. Condensing the crisis to the life of a father, his family, and a predatory prospector ultimately gives way to something of Steinbeckian sweep. Bahrani, who seems to have fallen out of favor with contemporary film critics, has evolved tremendously, curiously developing a parallel between his characters that have and have not. This concern, as realized through the Andrew Garfield’s moralistic everyman and Michael Shannon’s cutthroat capitalist, situates the housing crash as something immediate and tangible.
Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog may be the closest we’ll get to a Don Hertzfeldt live-action film. It possesses many of the thematic qualities that I associate with Hertzfeldt: a wispy, dreamlike allegiance to storytelling, a preoccupation with our capacity to generate memories, and an acute observational quality that exposes unsaid truths about life and living. Wryly narrated by Anderson herself, this documentary finds room to discuss the ethics of surveillance, our attachments to our pets, and the lies we tell ourselves to make sense of the universe. Utilizing a variety of formal techniques to stimulate the feeling of entering someone’s stream-of-consciousness, the film remains cinematically fluent in what’s a penetrable diary of what it means to be a human being.
Even the most spiritually upbeat constitutions will find themselves absorbing knockout blows when watching Josh Mond’s James White. The film details the trials and tribulations of a young aspiring writer (Christopher Abbot) as he contends with the immediate death of his father and his mother’s cancerous disintegration, tending to her as she begins to whither away with every passing month. Mond’s all-business approach more or less positions the audience as spectator to agony, though it’s his subversions to such extremes that really elevates James White. Whether it be a scene involving a shower handjob or a gentle exchange between mother and son discussing an unforeseeable future, Mond plunders for real human emotion, in all its highs and lows.
What Sean Baker achieves in Tangerine is nothing short of visionary, capturing a complete and total milieu, making use of its vibrant and often marginalized inhabitants. It’s aggressive yet urgent, as its total and perpetual movement insists on a viewer’s active participation. Those who jive with this After Hours-esque plunge through the seedier back alleys of Los Angeles will be rewarded with something surreally poignant. With Baker’s impressive handle of spatial movement and a coterie of remarkably assured actors – notably Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor – Tangerine is a model of American indie filmmaking.
(Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
Yes, we all cried a little (a lot) at Inside Out. Most will probably cite the demise of a childhood memory as the turning point when the Pixar machine – the reliable tenderness of Michael Giacchino’s score, Richard Kind’s agonizingly whimsical voice, and the animated subtly of something pink and fluffy fading into the gray and black – cranks it up to 11. But there’s another moment, later into the film, that suggests a far more complicated – and ultimately truer – understanding of our emotional endurance. It occurs during the compassionate embrace between father, mother, and daughter, where our ability to forge happy memories often depends on great personal sacrifices. Pixar has always been ahead of the curve with its frank existential concerns, but the anxieties found in Inside Out are profound: they’re asking their audience to ascribe meaning to life itself, utilizing a framework of anthropomorphized emotions to realize its ambitions. It’s a stroke of genius that amounts to one of the most moving experiences in all of Pixar’s canon.
Mia Hansen-Løve is an important filmmaker, and along with Richard Linklater, has become the preeminent voice on the concept of time. Both filmmakers have found their preoccupations with the way we age, about the passage of time, and our futile attempts to hold onto something that’s beyond our grasp. With Eden, Hansen-Løve positions her narrative adjacent to the rise Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, fixated on the ones who never did become household names; collateral damage of a movement. And it’s this device, this proximity to success from meager beginnings and the subsequent divergence in their paths, that leads to flourishes of pure cinematic poetry. As the picture reaches its conclusion, with Daft Punk’s “Within” playing over the soundscape, the cumulative weight of years assumes a tangible crushing aspect: whereas Linklater emphasizes the physical ramifications of time, Hansen-Løve realizes the insular and hermitic.
Magic Mike XXL
The tight abdominal, I mean narrative, construction of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives way to something infinitely more shaggy yet nevertheless profound (for a movie about strippers) in Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL. Jacobs approaches the material with a casual esteem, providing a lax attitude to material that seemed to have found its conclusion in Soderbergh’s original. But whereas the original’s concerns emphasized the commodification of the male frame, Jacobs opts for something more existential, functioning as a study on wounded masculinity, correcting the racial divide of the first feature, as well as promoting a fundamentally sex-positive attitude. Capped off by what’s the year’s greatest accomplishment in cinematography, Magic Mike XXL achieves what all sequels should strive to be: better.
The savvy few that had a working knowledge of Arnaud Desplechin and his formal virtuosity could brace themselves for John Magary’s off-kilter debut film, The Mend. Those who didn’t, like myself, were in for an experience like no other. This is a massive accomplishment on virtually all levels: performances from Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett are among the best of the year, the sleek veneer of Chris Teague’s NYC cinematography gives the city a seedy warmth, and Joseph Krings’ editing is as nuanced and compelling as Magary’s writing and direction. The film is a vision of unpredictability, subverting any and all expectations, ultimately yielding to the singular idea that the unmanageable aspects of life are certainly worth sharing – if not with a loved one, than a captive audience.
The way he avoids questions about the girl from last year; his instinctual knowledge of his profession; his quick-to-anger demeanor at those who don’t work as hard as him; the photos that ornate his camper. The steady accumulation of details that amass in Charles Poekel’s wonderful debut feature Christmas, Again shows a writer/director with an acute sense of what it means to establish character. It’s a character study of a young man selling Christmas trees and the situations that organically occur out of this milieu. Realized through Kentucker Audley’s graceful performance that underplays every gesture, this is the kind of heartfelt and poignant Christmas movie I can get behind – fuck A Christmas Story.
In the Shadow of Women
Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women is so remarkably funny that it’s bitterly sharp insights on love, monogamy, and masculinity may not register as especially profound until days after an initial viewing. But this compact exercise sinks its canines deep into you, imparting wisdom about the way men and women behave that are both insightful and severe. Shot in black and white, Garrel’s preoccupation with dichotomies carries a significant visual element, which often spitfires into diametrically composed frames, whereby the film’s title begins to take on a literal effect. Taking on the spirit of early Woody Allen (think Manhattan or Annie Hall), In the Shadow of Women cajoles your preexisting knowledge on films about infidelities and marital discord and, in the vein of Hitchcock, asks if you really do know what’s coming next.
David Foster Wallace wrote that plagiarists aren’t lazy, so much as kind of navigationally insecure. They have trouble navigating without a detailed map’s assurance that somebody has been this way before. The inexperienced Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) hasn’t been anywhere and is alone. The people that orbit her isle of solitude fail to conjure anything meaningful within her, that is until she meets with her soon to be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). In her she finds the weight of experience bringing her down. She’s a character. She has interesting things to say and is unlike anyone that Tracy knows. So Tracy uses Brooke, uses her experiences, her anecdotes, exploits her tics, and sculpts a story out of her.
Of Mistress America’s many concerns, it’s this intersection between reality and fiction that makes for such a rich and rewarding picture. The film addresses how artists attempt to shape something out of nothing, constantly searching for truth yet careful not to exploit its source. And Baumbach explores this with such fervent humor and warmth that you begin to wonder what happened to the cynic with a keen bullshit antennae that made Greenberg. We get our answer the moment the curtain reveals Greta Gerwig.
My Golden Days
Unwieldy and tonally dissonant, I can thank John Magary’s The Mend for bracing me for the cinema of Arnaud Desplechin. That’s at least how I felt 30 minutes into My Golden Days, where Desplechin’s sense of time management and cinematic logic can be considered slack, at best. But the film reveals itself, not through the usual indicators of narrative storytelling or actorly gestures, but through the undercurrent of anxieties and emotions that seep outside the periphery of the frame. The way Desplechin positions the film as memories within memories promotes an initial wave of nostalgia that settles into smooth currents of revelations and epiphanies. The film’s major narrative aspect – the familiar young love plot – is realized with the kind of cinematic flourishes that inspire and emphasize all the whimsy that comes with that experience. And the bitter moments of recollection take what could have been vapid clichés and convert them into something genuine and absolutely, gut-wrenchingly real.
Composing a list of the best films of 2015 requires a lot of sifting, so one eventually becomes reliable on the memory of their first experience with a picture. And as I watched Dolan’s fifth feature film, I was shattered by all the big details that come from his filmmaking. From the claustrophobia that comes from his 1:1 box frame, to his frequent and grandiose use of music, to the mammoth performances he draws out of Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément, and especially Anne Dorval, Mommy resists every temptation to remain still throughout its runtime. Normally, I’d consider this aggressive stylism and penchant for self-indulgence to be a detriment, but all this grandstanding is rooted within a context of pure, unfiltered, and raw emotion. I cannot fault someone who is clearly writing, acting, designing, and directing from the heart, particularly when the results are this assured.
(Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman)
Anomalisa, like with most of Charlie Kaufman’s work, is fundamentally an existential journey of a modern man, and as such requires its audience to interact with it on a primarily emotional level. Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York, etc. are very personal films that probe the concerns of the day, the sort of concerns that amass and assemble and decorate a life, that ornate our pilgrimage on Earth. But the finer details of Kaufman’s scripting, the sense of aloneness that Anomalisa explores – the idea of giving up grand ambitions for living the most ordinary life imaginable - is revelatory. I felt Anomalisa at my nerve endings as something authentic and true, it scoured every inch of my being and froze me still. It means a whole lot to me.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Mircobudget indie filmmaker Stephen Cone has made seven films. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is not just Cone’s best film; it’s genuinely one of the most significant American films of the year. Set over the course of a day, Cone pivots around the Gambles, a devoutly Christian family headed by a pastor patriarch (Pat Healy) as they celebrate their son’s 17th birthday with a pool party. Immaculately sprawling yet tenderly intimate, Cone introduces the Gamble’s friends and family piece by piece, with characters moving in and out of the frame at a moment’s notice. There’s an Altman-esque quality to the picture that makes it feel especially mammoth despite being centralized largely within the Gamble’s household for its runtime. What you get out of the film’s increasingly growing cast of characters and moving bodies is a sense that so much is occurring outside the periphery of the frame, that it lives and breathes outside the confines of what the camera presents. As the credits roll, those characters, their plights, their circumstances, their ideologies stay with you.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Part chase film, part race to redemption, Mad Max: Fury Road is a full-on spectacle. Those who have likened it to an opera or symphony do so because of the depths and density of its moving parts. George Miller’s masterpiece utilizes the fundamental mythopoeia of his original trilogy and springboards it into new and nonpareil heights. From its vivid deconstruction of colonial rebellion to its pronounced and vital feminist commentary, Mad Max: Fury Road is above all a film of such explosive élan. Three films may have preceded its making, yet there’s no film quite like it. Doubtlessly, few films will be able to reach its heights this year, and for that matter, the years that follow.
In Jackson Heights
The dangers of discussing Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary In Jackson Heights, a sociologically robust portrait of a Queens neighborhood known for its diverse population, is that you gravitate toward composing a top five list of your favorite scenes and writing about that; something I hope to avoid. Based on his recent films, beginning with At Berkeley and followed by National Gallery, I don’t think it would be unfair to call Wiseman a maximalist. At 190 minutes, In Jackson Heights is only the second longest of those films (Berkley clocking in at over four hours, National Gallery at a comparatively brief 181 minutes). Not to suggest that length strictly applies to the concept of maximalism, but it’s clear that Wiseman’s exploration of minute details has required an ample runtime to elaborate on the profundity of his subjects. As such, the results have been transportive. Through his keen observational approach, Wiseman’s maximalist tendencies promote a distinct sensitivity to his surroundings. The Berkeley campus exudes warmth, the corridors of the National Gallery feel stepped in and conquered, and with In Jackson Heights, the meticulous details of Wiseman’s craft persuades you into submitting yourself to the milieu – you are a citizen of this community. This goes beyond superficial sightseeing or touristy asides. From the bookended aerial images that ornate the picture, you’re beak-deep in Jackson Heights.
World of Tomorrow
The films of Don Hertzfeldt mean a lot to me. I was introduced to Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be Ok early in my cinephilia, in a particularly dark time in my life. It’s not a film that reaffirms life and existence, but rather empathized with my plight, offering no distinct answer beyond acknowledging that other people deal with this too. Sometimes that’s all you need: the empathy, the understanding.
World of Tomorrow floats, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a contemplative study on life and death. The film’s premise involves a young girl named Emily and her encounter with a future self, where the two will transcend the expanses of time and space to uncover pieces about themselves. This simple synopsis does the film no justice, as much of the picture’s intensity is derived from the film’s abstract digital animation and Hertzfeldt’s astounding grasp of human behavior – his simple stick figures say more about life and living within the confines of 17 minutes than most even suggest over the course of a feature. Its weightlessness and wispy contemplations may allow the film to move with swift playfulness, but this is a device that’s utilized to bypass petty detail – it does not conceal the fact that World of Tomorrow mounts an unexpected assault on the senses that cuts straight to the bone. As the audience follows Emily and her future self, where the concept of past, present, and future lose meaning, Hertzfeldt’a major pronouncement is to live, feel, and create. Humanity is contingent on it.
My critical capacities can’t really judge a film like World of Tomorrow, at least not in any sort of unbiased and emotionally detached way. I think there’s plenty to commend in regards to Hertzfeldt’s formal flourishes. But the fact that this is one man making a film from his desktop says a lot about the intrinsically personal nature of the work. You’ll either get it or not. And that’s fine. But when I’m making a list of the top 25/10/5/whatever films of any given year, the film that spoke to me most directly usually occupies the top of the list. And for 2015, that was World of Tomorrow.