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Best Films of 2015
by Jordan Canahai
2016 is here, and one can only hope it’s as good a year for film as 2015. For discerning viewers, the past year saw the release of one cinematic gem after another. Listed below are my completely subjective and indisputably personal choices for the best new films to play in Buffalo in 2015.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road—The best major studio release of 2015, Australian director George Miller’s long in-development fourth installment in the Mad Max saga is a spectacularly mounted, big budget epic, a beautiful symphony of destruction which transforms what is basically an extended two-hour car chase into a visionary mediation on human survival in a post-apocalyptic world engulfed by chaos. There wasn’t a more extraordinarily crafted film all year, but beyond being a stunning technical achievement, the film’s deft handling of its progressive politics (most apparent in the film’s focus on Charlize Theron’s action heroine Furosia) and the staggering degree of artistry with which Miller realizes his mythic vision ensures Mad Max: Fury Road will stand as one of the most rich and multilayered action pictures ever made.
2. The Look of Silence—Joshua Oppenheimer’s essential companion piece to The Act of Killing solidifies his place among the world’s most important filmmakers. Where his previous documentary explored the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s from the perspective of the perpetrators, The Look of Silence takes as its subject the family of an optometrist whose older brother was one of the millions killed during the genocide. Through one tense exchange after another, Oppenheimer documents his meetings with those responsible, even as they remain in positions of power throughout Indonesia. More personal, intimate, and complex than The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence has also had a measurable impact on how the Indonesian people view their history and the genocide. More immediately, it’s a devastatingly beautiful film full of sadness, anger, and empathy, one that I’ve come to admire even more since I had the opportunity to briefly interview Oppenheimer a couple months ago.
3. Phoenix—Functioning both as a nail-biting thriller and a haunting examination of Jewish identity and memory in the wake of the Holocaust, German director Christian Petzold’s masterful suspense drama Phoenix draws inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Europe’s great post-war cinema in equal measure. It tells the story of a Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss) who returns to her home in Berlin after the war only to find her husband doesn’t recognize her since she underwent facial reconstruction surgery following her disfigurement in a concentration camp. To reveal anymore of the 90-minute film’s plot would risk cheapening the experience of watching it unfold yourself; suffice to say if you haven’t seen Phoenix do so immediately. It’s as perfectly directed and well acted a film as any in recent memory, and it’s capped off by the best ending of any film this year, too.
4. Carol—With its gorgeous period production design, smoky cinematography, and swelling musical score, Todd Haynes romantic melodrama Carol enraptures viewers with the same seductive power that causes shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) to fall deeply in love with the middle-aged housewife (Cate Blanchett) of the film’s title. Slightly subduing the stylistic flourishes of his Douglas Sirk-influenced Far From Heaven to better mesh with the understated, revelatory performances of Mara and Blanchet, Haynes’ assured direction is carefully calibrated to bringing Patricia Highsmith’s novel to vivid life. Carol doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the stifling social mores that defined the Eisenhower era, but it’s far from a simplistic message movie either. Like many of the best screen romances, Carol instead probes the fascinating mysteries of human attraction, arriving at a conclusion that is both inspiring and melancholy.
5. Hard to Be A God—George Miller wasn’t the only aging director to release a gritty, post-apocalyptic masterpiece in 2015, although it’s a shame that the late Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God hasn’t attracted a fraction of the attention Mad Max has received, especially since German passed away late in the film’s post-production process. Set on an alien world trapped in the dark ages and concerning an astronaut’s attempt to help its inhabitants build a sustainable future, this nightmarish sci-fi epic does away with the can-do optimism of Ridley Scott’s The Martian in favor of a portrait of humanity at its most base and brutal, complete with grotesque imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Yet no matter how ugly the world of Hard to Be a God might be, one can’t help but admire the beautiful craftsmanship that German and his collaborators painstakingly invested in his film, the most singular piece of science fiction to come out of Russia since Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
6. Inside/Out—What does it say about movies today when an animated children’s film contained more insight than the overwhelming majority of American films marketed for adults in 2015? Perhaps it says more about the collective genius of Pixar, the studio responsible for Pete Docter’s Inside/Out. Set inside the mind of a 12 year old girl as she attempts to adjust to her new life and starring her personified primary emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust), Docter and the Pixar team use the ingenious premise to provide one imaginative and inventive animated set piece after another (the most memorable being a trip through the abstract thought portion of the girl’s mind). Yet for all its visual splendor and heady concepts, what makes Inside/Out truly special is how the film so poignantly renders its central theme, which is that joy and sadness need not be opposite forces constantly clashing, but rather they coexist as necessary dualities of life. It’s a beautiful lesson regardless of whether it resonates more with the adults in the audience than the children.
7. The Assassin—In a year that produced no shortage of beautiful looking movies, Taiwanese master Hou Hsao-hsein’s martial arts period drama The Assassin might be the most visually gorgeous, transporting viewers to 8th century China to tell the story of a deadly assassin who must kill the man whom she was once set to marry. It’s a simple premise containing all the familiar trademarks of the Wuxia genre (warrior poets, swordplay and sorcery, wise old masters, love and vengeance, etc.) but Hou is quick to frequently subvert genre conventions at unexpected moments, as evidenced by the film’s somnambulant pacing, muted acting style, and emphasis on enigmatic dialogue exchanges in lieu of extended fight sequences. As a result, The Assassin is certainly among the most bewildering of 2015’s great films, but also one of its most rewarding, if for no other reason than how lyrically Hou captures the swaying of tree branches in the wind.
8. Magic Mike XXL—Who would have thought that Magic Mike XXL, the glossy sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 sleeper hit about male strippers, would be one of the great American films of the year? Its many detractors harp on its shortcomings compared to its predecessor, but by stripping away (pun intended) the defining elements of the original (the down-on-his-luck underdog narrative, Matthew McConaughey’s show-stealing performance, and any semblance of a villain or love interest) to instead offer a purer distillation of performance provided by Mike (a ridiculously charismatic Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers, Magic Mike XXL ends up being one of the most unabashedly fun movies of the decade. Only the grumpiest (or least secure) of straight men will deny getting a kick out of the film’s gleefully entertaining (and really well-shot) dance sequences, and by cheekily throwing Hollywood conventions to the curb in favor of giving the ladies what they want, Magic Mike XXL also proves similarly transgressive in its gender politics to Mad Max: Fury Road.
9. Blackhat—Another misunderstood masterwork examining masculinity in 21st century society, Michael Mann’s cyber thriller Blackhat, which details the efforts of a hacker convict (Chris Hemsworth) recruited by the U.S. and Chinese government’s to track a high level cybercrime network across the globe, is both brainy and muscular. Like The Assassin, Blackhat is an auteurist work disguised as a genre exercise, a moody anti-blockbuster that finds Mann utilizing a variety of visual flourishes stemming from his trademark expressive camerawork to further explore both the possibilities of digital filmmaking and his recurring pet themes. Mann’s camera is as comfortable among skyscrapers and urban spaces as Terrence Malick’s is in the natural world, transforming bustling metropolises into digital jungles where his human characters philosophical and existential battles are fought and lost. Blackhat can stand alongside Heat, The Insider, and Miami Vice as another sublime, subversive neo-noir from one of our very best filmmakers.
10. Bridge of Spies—While strained political relations between the U.S. and Russia proved a frequently recurring news story throughout 2015, our most successful and celebrated populist filmmaker drew upon a little known historical episode involving the two nations to produce one of the year’s best and most satisfying entertainments. Set during the height of the Cold War, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which concerns the efforts of an idealistic American lawyer (Tom Hanks) to negotiate the exchange of captured spies between the opposing superpowers, is one of the great historical procedurals of recent years. Though it contains a handful of gripping suspense set pieces, much of the dialogue-heavy Bridge of Spies places value on conversation and compromise to detail the intricacies of effective political maneuvering in a way that recalls Spielberg’s previous triumph, Lincoln. It’s also a surprisingly funny film, credit that to Hanks’ deadpan performance and the Coen brothers’ witty dialogue. Bridge of Spies finds Spielberg in full command of his immense talents, once again asking American audiences to remember our history and the greatness we’re capable, holding true to our core values in our continuing struggle toward justice.
Honorable Mentions: Ten always seems like such a severe limitation. I have to give praise to the year’s other great procedural drama, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, about a real-life journalistic investigation by Boston Globe reporters. In a year that had no shortage of great female performances, I was transfixed by Saoirse Ronan in John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Brie Larson in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, and Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas Clouds of Sils Maria. I loved David Robert Mitchell’s dread-filled 80s horror throwback It Follows and Alex Garland’s brainy sci-fi thriller Ex Machina. 2015 saw the release of two instant classic rock-docs, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Amy, both the definitive portraits of unique musical voices that were tragically lost too soon. It also gave us J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ryan Coogler’s Rocky reboot Creed, both of which lived up to the legacy of their respective franchise. I still am not sure how I feel about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, and I’m still waiting to see Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq along with many more 2015 releases which have yet to play in Buffalo. Here’s looking forward to 2016!blog comments powered by Disqus
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