Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ed's Top 20 Films of 2015

The Cobbler...a film which will not be appearing in this list.
First off: yes, this countdown of the best films of 2015 is a tad late, both compared to when everyone else published their lists, and when I have published lists in the past. There's a couple of reasons for that, but the main one is that I decided that I wanted to wait until after the Oscars had been handed out, because that extra two months would allow me to catch some of the films which, due to time and availability, I was completely unable to catch in November and December.

Then the Oscars passed, and it became a matter of good old fashioned procrastination. But using that extra couple of months did allow me to watch a lot of films from 2015 and, while most of them didn't end up making my Top 20, enough did that the list wound up being significantly different to the one I would have written back in December. So in this one instance, laziness/a lack of planning on my part proved to be a real boon.

While this list is by no means definitive, I'm pretty happy with it, and think that it offers a good reflection of the films that meant the most to me last year. It also offers a chance to consider my viewing habits and where I might be lacking. This year, I tried to see more foreign language films than I have in recent years, but I still don't feel like I have done enough on that front, and I didn't see nearly enough films directed by women or people of colour. That's partly the result of wider problems in the industry, but it is up to me as a viewer and a critic to seek out more work by people who aren't white men because their perspectives are pretty well served at this point. These are all areas that I can and should try to improve upon in 2016 and beyond, and hopefully the list I publish next March (or whenever) is a little more diverse.

20. Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan)

"Brooklyn-set comedy-drama about a bisexual Iranian-American woman" may sound like the most stereotypically capital-I Indie description ever, but that doesn't detract from what a great realisation of that idea it is. Akhavan (who also stars) crafted a funny, touching exploration of sexuality, family and cultural identity that is far more interesting and specific than a lot of the post-mumblecore films to which it could so easily be compared.

19. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

This is probably the one film whose placing was most hurt by my three month delay in assembling this list. Back in December, this would easily have been a top five finisher, but as I watched more films and reconsidered others in the list, it gradually got shuffled further and further down. That's not to say that it's any less brilliant than I thought it was a few months ago, just that its deliberately restrained and chilly tone makes it harder to love in the same way that I love the other films that placed ahead of it. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are incredible, not merely as performers, but at portraying characters who are themselves performing in order to fit into a restrictive society, and no film since Inside Llewyn Davis has so effectively conveyed the biting cold of winter.

18. Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma)

A film which manages the (unfortunately rare) trick of telling stories of disenfranchised and marginalised young people without romanticising or vilifying them. In following a group of young black women growing up in a poor Parisian suburb, Sciamma captures both the thrill and the excitement of being young and coming of age (beautifully depicted during a scene in which the cast lip-sync to Rihanna's "Diamonds") and the ease with which people, if forgotten and ignored by their own society, can easily slip into bad habits. Yet even then, Sciamma allows that sometimes being a criminal can be pretty fun.

17. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)

One of the most riotously fun movies I've seen in years. It's easy to get sidetracked by the fact that it was shot on an iPhone, and while that is an intriguing tidbit, it's only interesting insofar as the freedom afforded by that choice allowed Baker and his crew to bring a level of immediacy to their story which perfectly suits its streets-eye milieu of prostitutes, drug dealers and late-night donut shops. Set over the course of a particularly eventful Christmas Eve, it follows two transgender prostitutes as they try to track down a cheating pimp, a quest which requires them too stare down, cajole and browbeat everyone who gets in there way. (Oh, and to set a possible world record for uses of the word "bitch" in a feature film.) At the same time, it's a genuinely sweet story about friendship and the value of community, especially when you are marginalised by society at large.

16. Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

The best Roman Polanski film since Frantic, but without the moral and ethical compromises that come with watching his films! Perry uses a limited setting and amazing performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston to create an intense, unnerving examination of toxic friendships and mental illness.

15. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Following up The Act of Killing, a film which twisted the documentary form into new, disorientating shapes in order to better explore and understand evil, was an unenviable task, yet Oppenheimer astounded again. The Look of Silence is in some ways a more traditional film, there are no lavish recreations and it doesn't follow around a ground of proud mass-murderers, but it's no less powerful as it tracks an ophthalmologist who uses his eye exams to quiz the men responsible for murdering his older brother about their motives and their actions. An unsparing look at the lingering effects of tremendous violence which stands as a bleak yet necessary counterpoint to The Act of Killing's more extravagant discomfort.

14. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

2015 was a big year for seventh installments of long-running series. While Furious 7 and The Force Awakens raked in ungodly sums of money, Creed gave us the most compelling reason for a series to continue on by returning it to its roots, both stylistically and narratively. By taking the framework of the original Rocky but shifting the class and race of its protagonist, Coogler delivered a story which offered a fresh perspective on well-worn material, while also allowing room to innovate during the film's thrilling fight scenes. Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson have charisma and chemistry to burn, while Stallone got another chance to remind the world why they fell in love with the series in the first place. An underdog with the swagger of a champion.

13. Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

So funny, so smart, and so deliriously entertaining - particularly during its farcical second half - that it almost made me forget that Baumbach also directed While We 're Young, one of my least favourite films of 2015. Baumbach gets back to the hyper-verbal, Whit Stillman-esque social satire of his early work, but brings in some of the energy and vim that he displayed to brilliant effect in Frances Ha. Greta Gerwig is great as the embodiment of excited/delusional millennial angst, while Lola Kirke established herself as an actor whose work I will now look forward to in earnest.

12. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (dirs. Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz)

The courtroom drama is one of cinema's sturdiest genres. That's a blessing and a curse, since while it means that it's hard (but far from impossible) to make a truly bad one, it takes a lot for one to truly excel. In the concluding part of the Elkabetzs' trilogy about the life and marriage of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), they made one for the ages. A rigorously focused account of Viviane's years-long attempt to get a trio of rabbis to grant her a divorce from her husband (Simon Abkarian), it's an incredibly compelling look at a process which - as a British atheist who was raised in the Church of England - I knew nothing about, and a keenly observed study of a dissolving marriage. I hadn't seen the previous films in the series, so knew nothing of the characters, but by the end they felt like characters I had known my whole life.

11. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler)

The thing everyone says about Bone Tomahawk is that it's really gruesome. And everyone is right. When it comes time for its cannibalistic villains to start carving up flesh, they do so in the most gut-churning, bone-crunching ways imaginable, and it's hard to get the sights (and the sounds!) out of your head after you've encountered them. What most people fail to mention is how funny and warm it is in the scenes that don't involve people being torn to shreds. At times reminiscent of Antonia Bird's Ravenous, cinema's preeminent darkly comic horror oater, it has shades of classic Western archetypes - Kurt Russell as a just but unflinching Sheriff; Matthew Fox as a preening, arrogant gunslinger; Richard Jenkins as Walter Brennan - which it then recontextualises and subverts by forcing them to confront primordial horror. It all adds up to a film which is at once comfortingly familiar and distressingly alien.

10. Anomalisa (dirs. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)

Charlie Kaufman has pretty much cornered the market on wildly ambitious films about self-hatred and self-reflection, and with Anomalisa he created his strangest and most human film to date (which is saying something when the competition is Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York). Using stop-motion animation and an incredibly small cast, Kaufman and his co-director Johnson created an achingly sad depiction of loneliness which also doubles as a stinging rebuke to all films that tell stories about sad sack men who get "saved" by that one perfect woman. By telling the story of a man (David Thewlis) who thinks that all people have the same voice (that voice being Tom Noonan's), but who then starts to hear another voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and believes that he has found his salvation, Kaufman and Johnson are able to mine rich veins of sadness, while also probing the reasons for that loneliness. In between the flights of surrealism and puppet sex, Kaufman questions a whole sub-genre of sexist cinema in ways which are by turns hilarious and devastating

9. Magic Mike XXL (dir. Gregory Jacobs)

One of the most purely enjoyable films I've seen in a long time. A shimmering celebration of friendship, sex, and physical movement, all driven by one of the lowest stakes stories ever written. It aims to do nothing more than offer a good time, and it does so with aplomb. It also fundamentally reshaped how I think of both "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys and "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. You can't say the same about Spotlight.

8. 45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh)

Andrew Haigh made a big impression a few years ago with Weekend, in which he charted the (possible) beginning of a relationship over the course of a couple of days. For his follow-up, he goes to the opposite end of the spectrum by charting the (possible) end of a relationship over the course of a week. While the focus of the two films could not be more different - one is all about a pair of young gay men, the other is about an elderly married straight couple - the style and tone are of a piece. Haigh is a master at telling intimate stories which rely on small, barely perceptible moments to reveal deep truths about the characters, and human relationships in general. He's a minimalist in the style of Raymond Carver, and when you give him two incredible actors like Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, you can get wonderful results.

7. Listen to Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley)

I was a big fan of Riley's cricket documentary Fire in Babylon, which can legitimately claim to be one of the best sports films ever, made documentary or otherwise. His next film, Everything or Nothing, was a puff piece about the history of the James Bond franchise and made me wonder if perhaps that shot of brilliance had been a one-off. With Listen to Me Marlon, he laid those worries to rest, delivering a profile of one film's great artists which is strange, haunting, and aims to do nothing less than take the viewer inside the mind of Marlon Brando. Using recordings Brando made for his own private use, along with computer-generated facial scans that he made in his later years, the film reconstructs the great actor and allows him to ruminate on his life, the toll that tremendous success and fame had on him, and the terrible personal tragedies that marred his later years. The best, most piercing look at an artist since the similarly innovative Tupac: Resurrection.

6. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)

Pixar had an up and down sort of year in 2015, one in which they offered one of their best films and one of their most mediocre. Inside Out was undoubtedly the good one. An endlessly inventive, hugely fun, and deeply moving film about the importance of sadness which makes it not only possible but essential for an audience to cry over a cat-elephant hybrid named Bing Bong. Speaking of which: Richard Kind is a phenomenal actor and we should all take a moment to be grateful that we still have him.

5. Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore)

Tomm Moore's only directed two films* since 2009, and while it's sad that he's produced relatively little work during that time (especially when, say, Zack Snyder and Michael Bay have directed five apiece during that same period), when the results are as beautiful as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, it's almost worth it. Like his previous film, Song of the Sea is steeped in Irish mythology, and the points at which the worlds of men and magic collide. Where Song of the Sea breaks away from The Secret of Kells is in the way that it melds a unique visual style to a story of a family being torn apart by magic. In a strong year for animation, it was a real highlight.

*Well, two and a bit since he directed part of the animated anthology The Prophet.

4. Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Given its premise, Room could easily have been awful. Even if it wasn't awful, it could have ended up being out-and-out exploitation or a Lifetime movie. Instead, it's an unflinching look at what it takes to survive in a harrowing situation - being held captive by a man and forced to bear his child - and what it takes to readjust to the world after getting out. Or, in the case of Jack (the incredible Jacob Tremblay), learning to adjust to the world in the first place. The central performances, from Tremblay and Brie Larson, are superb - perfectly pitched to convey how extreme their situation is while remaining grounded and painfully real. A punishing, yet intensely worthwhile experience.

3. World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)

It's rare for me to include a short film in my list of the best films of the year, but then again it's rare that Don Hertzfeldt puts out a film, so I feel like the exception is warranted. Hertzfeldt's visual style - a mixture of simple line drawings for his characters over dense, abstract landscapes - is a perfect metaphor for his approach to storytelling. His story of a young girl who travels into the future with a clone of herself is at once simple and straightforward, but sits atop a roiling mass of ideas about life, death, the impermanence of memory and the ways in which we shape the world around us. Packs more jokes, heart, and thought into its 17 minute running time than some directors manage in their whole careers.

2. Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)

For a film with a fiendishly complicated premise - a Holocaust survivor, thought to be dead by almost everyone she knows and horribly scarred by her experiences, returns home to discover that her husband doesn't recognise her, then is recruited by her husband into a scheme in which she will pretend to be herself in order to claim her own inheritance - Phoenix is a remarkably accessible experience. A kind of inverted Vertigo, one in which we know who the woman being reshaped really is, Petzold's film is a slinky, sly noir that manages to explore themes of guilt, love and identity in ways which are both very entertaining and incredibly rich. It also boasts one of the few genuinely perfect endings in cinema.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

If it was just a really, really good action movie, Fury Road would be cause for celebration, but not something for people to lose their minds over. What makes it special, and what I think has fueled a lot of its appeal, is that it is both a really, really good action movie, and the antithesis of most contemporary action movies. Where most modern action films have needlessly busy plots but aren't about anything (see: Avengers: Age of Ultron), Fury Road's plot is absurdly simple, but is in service of ideas that have some substance to them. It's quite literally a case A to B storytelling - or, to be more accurate, A to B then back to A again - but that linear narrative allows Miller, returning to live-action filmmaking for the first time since (the equally bonkers and brilliant) Babe: Pig in the City, to explore and attack misogyny in the most aggressively entertaining way imaginable.

Its action, meanwhile, emphasises physicality in a way that few films of its type and scale do anymore. There's been a little too much focus on its use of practical effects considering that most big-budget films use at least some practical effects, and Fury Road would be impossible - not to mention ridiculously unsafe - to make without digital filmmaking. What's important about its practical effects is that they are used to make it look as if real people are doing incredible things, rather than incredible people are doing impossible things. Its story takes place in a broad, crazy world full of performances so big they might as well be kabuki, but every hit feels real, and every injury looks like it really bloody hurts. There is a reality to Fury Road's unreality which is rare and magical, even though its world is decidedly grim and unforgiving.

Beyond all that, though, it's also really fucking entertaining! It's an incredibly fun movie that is blisteringly fast without being incomprehensible, solidly anchored by Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a role and a performance which deserve to be ranked alongside Sigourney Weaver in Aliens when it comes to the pantheon of action cinema. It's an amazing, visionary work that I've now watched six or seven times, and it has only improved with each viewing. And I liked it an awful lot the first time.