It’s that time of year. Sleigh bells have been rung, gifts have been given and we have officially closed the door on what was 2015. A year that saw us once again take a journey into a galaxy far, far away, revisit the post apocalyptic landscape of Mad Max and the ever expanding reach of world and documentary cinema, 2015 has been one of the greatest of film years, arguably the very best since 2007 (probably cinema’s greatest year?) and as one has likely already one hundred top [insert arbitrary number] films list, why not make it one hundred and one? Be it a group of young women attempting to break free of the backwards patriarchy that has them oppressed or a bravura, epic-length satire from one of world cinema’s foremost artists, these are the ten best films that 2015 had to offer.
Honorable mention: Have you heard about this new thing called television? Apparently television shows are in a “golden age?” With more and more networks and streaming services jumping into the serialized television storytelling game, the discussions surrounding the medium are becoming drowned out by one another. However, there’s one show that stood head and shoulders above the admittedly small sample size that yours truly has seen this year, and that’s Sense8. From J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski comes this bombastic, esoteric, narratively confounding and often frustratingly obtuse look at eight people and how their lives suddenly not only become connected, but in many very real ways shared. Lacking something most TV desperately needs in an age where the amount of critically regarded programming is becoming almost cartoonish, this show is arguably the most ambitious thing in any form of visual storytelling this year, a massive mess of a series that is as breathtakingly gorgeous as it is occasionally head scratching. Not every beat of it works, but this is what TV should be. Smart, profound, emotionally powerful and above all else aesthetically inventive and ambitious, these three storytellers have created an absolute gem that will only grow more upon numerous viewings. I’d feel an unshakable sense of regret if I didn’t bring it back into the discussion. Now to the list proper.
10. Mistress America
Of all of 2015’s output, all of its bombastic franchise pictures, all of its brain-killing blockbusters and of all of its quiet, plaintive dramas, no film left the theater in rapturous joy and pure laughter quite like one of two Noah Baumbach-directed pictures released this year. A film that opens like any standard proto-Sundance indie comedy only to evolve into a screwball picture of the highest order, and ultimately dip its toes into perfectly distilled farce, Baumbach’s Mistress America is without a doubt the year’s best comedy.
Arguably his most assured, charming and emotionally resonant work, Mistress is a showcase for his star and co-writer Greta Gerwig, but the real story here involves Lola Kirke’s Tracy, a young woman starting college in New York and in need to not only find a place in the world, but her own artistic voice in the face of the Big Apple. The two play off one another wonderfully, and with top notch cinematography from Sam Levy and a score from Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips that will never leave your brain, Mistress America will be a comedy that generations return to, with a final act that defies any and all expectations. A comedic classic.
9. Mustang (REVIEW)
France’s Oscar submission for the upcoming Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category, this Turkish-language production from director Deniz Gamze Erguven tells the story of a group of young women in a small Turkish village, who after gallivanting with local boys, are placed under proverbial lock and key in their strict, fundamentalist, patriarchal home. As each sister gets trained in home duties and are married off, we see as each one deals with their distinct situation, culminating in a final act that is as profoundly moving and of this moment as any in all of 2015’s cinema.
With the younger sisters teaming up to try and help one another escape, we see the impact the rigid patriarchy is having on each woman, and with the youngest sibling comes the finale, a bit of bravura magical realism that follows her as she takes it upon herself to break free of a life lacking any free will. Vibrant in every sense of the word, Mustang jumps from one sequence that feels like it’s ripped out of an escape picture like Brute Force, only to become a melancholic neo-realist film, and everything in between. It’s a truly fantastic piece of filmmaking. Quietly released in the back quarter of the year, Mustang is one many may have missed, but should earn much more support after it’s potential Oscar nomination.
8. The Assassin
While most believe that quiet pictures bring with them quiet filmmakers, director Hou Hsiao-hsien, throughout his career, has proven quite the opposite. A master autuer of the highest order, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmography is full of breathtaking motion pictures that are as profoundly beautiful as they are esoteric and of their own sensibility. None of his films prove this greater than his latest, and arguably greatest film, The Assassin. Ostensibly a wuxia picture, this is a far cry from the type of films that made the genre iconic.
Telling the story of a woman sent on a mission to kill her own cousin, a military leader, The Assassin is easily the year’s most visually entrancing achievement, with Hou’s camera and Mark Lee Ping’s photography turning this film from what sounds like a trite drama into a devastating, obtuse and visually groundbreaking meditation on everything from class to one’s own identity and morality. Shot in 1.37:1 for much of its runtime, the wide shot is the star here, as Hou’s camera allows not only the stunning action set pieces to play out opposite grand vistas, but gives enough room for the viewer to thrust themselves into this breathlessly crafted role. The Assassin is cinema, boiled down, until all you have is its purest essence.
7. 45 Years (REVIEW)
Of all the late year treasures we’ve seen this fall and winter, few have hit as emotionally hard as the latest film from director Andrew Haigh. After the masterpiece that was Weekend comes the equally profound drama 45 Years, a look at not only a marriage as it stares down 45 years in the books, but also one lie and the devastating impact that it has on what looks to be a strong-as-steel relationship.
Led by possibly a career-best turn from actress Charlotte Rampling, this is a rich, layered, mature and most importantly nuanced look at the lies we tell and how powerful they can truly be, and is proof yet again that there are few voices in the film world quite like Haigh. Be it his beautifully composed frame or his ability to mine simple things like gestures or facial expressions for his heaviest emotional moments, Haigh crafts a startlingly assured picture here, and one that ends with arguably the year’s best final shot. This is an experience one won’t soon forget.
6. The Look Of Silence (REVIEW)
It’s hard to think of a modern documentary filmmaker pushing the boundaries of not only non-fiction storytelling, but of the very cinematic language that has defined the medium of documentary filmmaking quite in the same manner as director Joshua Oppenheimer. Making a name for himself with his last film, the breathtaking The Act Of Killing, he has once again taken to the subject of the genocide in Indonesia for what is both a companion to his last film, and something entirely its own stroke of genius. A somewhat smaller film in aesthetic conceit, The Look Of Silence turns its eye from those who committed these heinous acts to those who have survived in its shadow, as the perpetrators remain in power.
We meet Adi, an optometrist, and his family, who survived the 1965 genocide, despite having lost Adi’s brother in the violence. Offering free eye exams to a handful of men involved in the death of his brother, Adi hopes to find a deeper reason behind these men and their actions, forcing them to not only look at the pain they caused, but to take some form of responsibility. Despite lacking the bombastic nature of Killing, Silence is just as profound a look at this horrible situation and is a gorgeous and emotionally devastating journey into this world. An intimate tale of one man looking brutality square in the face, this film focuses squarely on the repercussions of violence, the space between the two realities that the victim and perpetrator live in. Focusing on the morality in that space, Oppenehiemer’s new film is one of depth and richness, as well as raw emotional magnitude.
What more is there to say? Readers of this beautiful website will see from the early part of December that there was one film, in all of its six hour-plus long runtime, that stole this writer’s heart, mind and soul. Debuting in theaters in the early weeks of December, Miguel Gomes’ grand masterpiece Arabian Nights is at moments profoundly oblique and at others obliquely profound, weaving together numerous tales and tales within tales all skewering the government of his native Portugal, a government that this film states as being “devoid of social justice” following the implementation of numerous austerity measures following an economic collapse.
Placing higher taxes on workers throughout the nation while also slashing their wages, this is a film that is deeply angered by Portugal’s response to their collapse. Satirical in every sense of the word, Gomes’ picture is a breathtaking cinematic achievement, an epic in story scope, structure and ultimately the runtime. Funny, angry, melancholic, hopeful and absolutely clear headed in all of its rage and satire, Arabian Nights is yet another masterpiece from one of world cinema’s greatest poets.
4. Heart Of A Dog (REVIEW)
From musician/visual artist Laurie Anderson comes Heart of a Dog, not only the year’s most entrancing non-fiction effort, but proof that the format known as the essay picture is at its absolute peak today. Coming in the wake of feature films like Room 237 and most importantly Los Angeles Plays Itself, Dog is a much smaller scale, personal picture, touching on subjects as grand as surveillance in a post 9/11 world through tales as personal as those involving her beloved dog Lolabelle and even her relationship with the late Lou Reed.
It’s a film very much inspired by modern New Age style meditation, even digging itself narratively into the Tibetan Book of The Dead which Anderson has an interesting relationship with. Political, personal, spiritual, Heart Of A Dog is a stunning cinematic experiment blending different formats like digital and 8mm film, and even some animation, this is simply one of the year’s most important, and impressive, cinematic experiences.
3. Taxi (REVIEW)
For most filmmakers, being banned from practicing his or her craft by their own government would be cause for a career to come to an end. However, Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi has proven time and time again that he is not “most filmmakers.” By now, most cinephiles have become privy to the injustice surrounding Jafar Panahi, but for those who may not be familiar with the name, it’s a story of gross governmental censorship. And yet, in the face of all of this governmental overreach and oppressive criminalization of art, Panahi has given the film world a handful of breathtaking motion pictures that not only toy with themes and narrative structure, but are deeply affecting and intellectually stimulating.
Very much blending non-fiction and fiction storytelling tropes, similar to his previous film, Taxi finds Panahi at both his most experimental, and also his most existential. Ostensibly set entirely inside a taxi, the film sets Panahi behind the wheel, as he drives through Tehran making small talk with everyone from a bootleg DVD salesman to his niece. A quiet picture, the narrative here is deceptively minor scale, with the only real bursts of drama coming in one short segment near the middle of the film and then the very last, bravura moment of existential crisis. As funny as they are melancholic, the interactions here seem to the naked eye to be minor tales, but with Panahi’s hand, they become deeply profound. At once deeply angry and yet just as moved by the true beauty and power of his native Iran, Panahi has created yet another masterpiece in Taxi. An example of how backwards much of the world is to true art, this film, and any of Panahi’s pictures, particularly of late, are ripe examples of the true power of cinema. Despite being small in aesthetic scope, Panahi has been able to, with his last three films particularly, make some of the most angry, antagonistic and emotionally resonant political statements cinema has ever seen. May he one day see the justice he so rightly deserves.
2. 10,000 KM (REVIEW)
For a large portion of 2015, the latest film from director Carlos Marques-Marcet, 10,000 KM, stood large at the very top of this list. The film introduces us to a loving young couple, Alexandra and Sergi, in the midst of making love. They’ve decided to try and have a child, only to, in the same roughly 20 minute long opening take, discover that Alexandra has been offered a gig 10,000 km away in LA. Both have been moonlighting as teachers, both not being able to truly follow their dreams, so it becomes very hard for Alexandra, an artist, to pass up a shot at working in the art world in LA. So, following the opening sequence, we see their various interactions through text messages, Skype calls, Facebook, emails and any other modern way of communication.
Told through lengthy tableau-like sequences, we see this couple as they go through various stages of their relationship, from the loneliness one feels miles and miles away from the one they love, and at its most moving we see the couple attempt to rekindle their romance through either trying their best to be sexually intimate or even dance with one another. Very much influenced by a director like Richard Linklater (at least his Before trilogy) and especially Abbas Kiarostami (with whom the director has worked on shorts previously), KM is a film of tones and moods, a quiet meditation on romance in an age where distance may seem like just a number, but is something so very much more to even the strongest of affairs.
1. Carol (REVIEW)
So what knocked 10,000 KM out of the top slot? Not just the best film of 2015, but quite possibly the best film of this still young decade. From director Todd Haynes comes Carol, a film based on a novel written by Patricia Highsmith and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. introducing us to two women in the middle of what appears to be a deeply moving conversation. Opening in media res, we discover through what is both the film’s central narrative and ostensibly one long flashback (more on that in a moment), that the women in question here are the young Therese (Mara) and utterly striking Carol (Blanchett). While working her post at a local big box store, selling dolls to those in what appear to be the upper classes of society, Therese meets Carol, a married (or “soon to be divorced” anyways) mother of one on the hunt for a gift for her daughter. However, after Therese sells her on a train set, Carol leaves having forgotten a pair of gloves, which Therese can not allow.
From here the two find their lives intersecting, joining in many ways, ultimately turning into one of the most entrancing romantic yarns the big screen has seen in ages. Carol is a film of incredible nuance, deeply moving emotion and profound meditations on love, a film of glances and gestures, textures and intonations. Shot on Super 16mm, there is not a film released this year that is quite as beautiful, quite as devastating and driven by two greater performances than Haynes’ latest masterpiece. Arguably the auteur’s greatest achievement, this love letter to films from directors like Douglas Sirk and Chantal Akerman is a masterpiece of the highest order.