Another year gone by, just like that. Nuts. For my personal list, I’m going with 20 because splurging all my love for only 10 movies in a year that’s been this gracious just feels wrong. I should note that of the heavy hitters in the year that could’ve (maybe) cracked my top 20, I haven’t gotten around to “Steve Jobs” and “The Big Short” yet, and in the art-house realms, “Right Now, Wrong Then,” “The Tribe” and “Breathe” are still sorely missing from my watched list.
My list is strictly U.S.-release-based, where a number of films I saw last year made it through because they were only officially released in 2015. No matter their genres, mainstream or art-house sensibilities, I like to think that the common link between all of these films is how they celebrate the limitless and unique offerings of cinema as both art and entertainment. None of them are as cheesy as that last sentence, either.
OK, enough introductions — on to the list!
20. “Bone Tomahawk”
S. Craig Zahler wrote and directed a horror tale of a rescue mission bedecked with all the fineries of the Western genre without being the least bit flashy about it. And it’s fan-fucking-tastic. Kurt Russell, grizzled and perfect as Sheriff Hunt, leads a magnificent ensemble toward a thrilling climax that feels as organic as can be for a Western featuring cannibalistic troglodytes. (Eli Roth, eat your heart out). Suspenseful, engrossing and graceful even while containing the single most squirm-inducing scene of the year, “Bone Tomahawk” oozes elegant balance with its approach to a prickly genre theme and is all the more impressive for being Zahler’s directorial debut.
19. “Li’l Quinquin”
Bruno Dumont‘s miniseries had its US theatrical debut a few days into 2015, and it’s been mostly brushed aside (except, most notably, by the wonderfully peculiar folks of Cahiers du Cinéma last year) to the point of becoming a must-entry for our recent Films You Didn’t See piece. “Li’l Quinquin” is framed with exemplary precision, photographed beyond the current Golden Age of Television standard, and showcases Dumont’s inspection of humanity’s dark side in his most accessible way yet — probably because it’s the funniest movie of the year, thanks mostly to Bernard Pruvost‘s central performance as the bumbling detective on the case. It’s a bit taxing to see it in one sitting, but once you watch the first part, it’s impossible to stop.
18. “Crimson Peak”
I’ve recently dished out my love for Guillermo del Toro’s latest, so the fact that it’s not closer to my Top 10 might confuse some, but that’s only because this year was so strong for U.S. releases. “Crimson Peak” harks back to the good old-fashioned powers of cinematic storytelling: carving its memorable Gothic world into my memory bank through material things and novelistic atmosphere. With “Jane Eyre” being del Toro’s primary inspiration, the film breathes life like the kind of novel that calls for a thick blanket, with just enough creepiness to keep me glued throughout. So yes, it gains bonus points because I’m a literature nut, but beyond that, it reminded me of how singularly imaginative and cohesive del Toro’s films are — so much so that it inspired me to write a 5000-word retrospective on the guy.
The world is a bitter and bleak place, with very little room for dotted I’s and crossed T’s, regardless of where your moral compass seems to be pointing (if it’s even working). That’s the kind of portrait Denis Villeneuve painted (with vital assistance from DP Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) in “Sicario,” the not-so-straightforward plunge down the rabbit hole for an FBI agent (Emily Blunt in a beautifully understated performance) into the unbalanced world on the Texas/Mexico border. Josh Brolin provides great support as a flip-flop-wearing lawyer-hater, and I hope Daniel Kaluuya‘s agent is busier than ever right now, but it’s hard to argue that the film belongs to anyone other than the eternally cool cucumber Benicio Del Toro, whose mere presence commands every scene he’s in. Props to Villeneuve for successfully dodging every cheesy dead end, and having the cojones to run the red light on the PC police by keeping it real to the end.
The immediate comparison to Tom McCarthy‘s bastion for old-school journalism is the greatest of them all, and maybe if I hadn’t seen “All the President’s Men” this year for the first time (!), I would’ve appreciated the symbiosis in “Spotlight” that much more, rather than comparing the two and not getting the same kind of storytelling oomph from the latter. There’s still no better example this year of ensemble acting, though, and McCarthy has managed to erase all of his cobbling traces with this wonderfully authentic, expertly paced, and masterfully written film. I love it for not turning any sanctimonious corners, and for being a picture based on a true story that actually feels true through every character and spoken word. It could’ve been a forgettable made-for-TV lookalike; instead, it’s the Best Picture frontrunner — what a wonderful thing.
15. “The Revenant”
Holy shit, how could something so brutal be so captivating? There’s a film in my Top 10 that takes the whole “life is nasty, brutish, and short” philosophy to a few levels above “The Revenant,” but no other film this year depicts agony in all its physical, psychological, environmental, and subliminal forms quite like this one. You can hear the Oscar jokes from here, but if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t finally win it for his astounding portrayal of a man on the brink of existence, then he should just make room for that Honorary Oscar and boycott all future campaigns. Alejandro G. Iñárritu is back in the world of misery and pain, only one year after his upbeat “Birdman” won the Oscar, and Emmanuel Lubezki is back with him, shooting all natural and making the ferociousness on screen feel that much more visceral. A painfully poetic film.
14. “The Fool”
There’s something about the way Russians approach cinema that just hits my wheelhouse dead center. Yuriy Bykov‘s “The Fool” has some glaring similarities with my No. 1 film of 2014, but even if it’s not as cinematically sophisticated as “Leviathan,” it’s arguably more enjoyable with its approach to state corruption and political implosion. (Oh God, did I just use the word “enjoyable” to describe this film? I’m messed up.) It follows a lowly plumber (Artyom Bystrov) and his desperate attempt to warn his government officials about a dangerous crack in a public-housing building that’s threatening to collapse the whole infrastructure. Of course the officials don’t care, and the narrative quickly grows into a relentless build-up that’s disheartening and all-too-realistic. Nina Antyukhova‘s “Mama” the mayor is one of the year’s highlight performances, and if it hadn’t come out so close to Zvyagintsev’s film, I bet more people would be talking about it.
13. “White God”
All these lists are super-subjective, obviously, and it would be dishonest of me to ignore the fact that being a dog lover has absolutely nothing do with how highly I rate “White God.” It does, but only so much. Kornél Mundruczó directs a compelling allegory on Hungary’s class system and the relationship between master and owner, all while enthusiastically playing with genres and somehow getting a whole bunch of dogs to act. That’s what it certainly feels like as Hagen (played by two different dogs called Body and Luke) upstages everyone, even the young Zsófia Psotta, who makes a startlingly assured acting debut. It’s equal parts entertaining, triumphant, and emotional as it zigs and zags through its hyper-reality, all the way to a breathtaking finale. Certainly a strong contender for the top 5 greatest dog movies ever.
Following up the excellent “Barbara,” Christian Petzold found a way to outclass himself with “Phoenix,” the story of one woman’s desperate attempt to rekindle her marriage. Re-teaming with his muse, Nina Hoss, and writing the character of Nelly Lenz in a way that inspires a career-best performance from one of the finest European actresses working today, Petzold’s greatest achievement with “Phoenix” (besides constructing the most satisfying and heart-stopping ending of any film in the century so far) is how neatly he fits a post-war allegory with one woman’s wholly personal journey. Shot like a film noir and trickling style through a Hitchcockian filter, “Phoenix” works on multiple levels and is the year’s finest example of the kind of power that can lie behind a director-actor partnership.
From post-war Germany to modern-day Cincinnati, the theme of identity crisis get an entirely different spin in the hands of Charlie Kaufman, a man who hasn’t directed a feature since “Synecdoche, New York” and who this year shares the director’s chair with Duke Johnson for “Anomalisa.” The year’s greatest animated film, and the most memorable puppet show since “Being John Malkovich,” the film still feels like 100% Kaufman, with all the mundanities of life bubbling up to the surface in fashions equally hilarious and melancholic as is the writer-director’s eccentric penchant. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan breathe all of life’s regrets and hopes into the characters (or, in Noonan’s case, suck them out), while the familiar beats of an existential crisis are replenished through Kaufman’s sensitive and endlessly creative imagination. On top of that, it’s as beautifully crafted as it is told.
10. “Arabian Nights”
Decisions, decisions: Do I include Miguel Gomes‘ 3-part epic as one film or three separate ones? For our staff list, the decision was to consider “Arabian Nights” as a single work, but they were released in theaters as three films, and only ‘Volume 2, The Desolate One‘ was entered as Portugal’s Oscar entry. After nights of tossing and turning, I’ve decided to consider it as one because it was filmed as such, and no one volume stands as strongly on its own without the other two supporting it. The third volume takes the wind from its sails; otherwise the whole film would be much closer to my top 5. Regardless, this is Gomes’ magnum opus, an epic poem about Portugal’s state of economic affairs and (mostly through Volumes 1 and 2) a magnificent display of the supremacy and art of storytelling. Every story has its peculiar rhythm, some are more memorable than others (the judge!), but all work together to create one of the most enriching viewing experiences of the year.
9. “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence”
With humor as dry as sandpaper, Swedish legend Roy Andersson reflects on what exactly it means to be a human being for the third and final time (previous occasions are “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living,” and both are easy recommendations for anyone reading this paragraph). ‘Pigeon’ invokes Danish painters through its meticulously staged vignettes (and mouthful of a title), which Andersson’s dead-still camera captures in jaw-dropping style. You know how the one-take has become a standard of cinematographic excellence to the point of becoming a flashy attention-grabber? Andersson’s use of the one-take redefines technical excellence by not allowing fancy camera movements to distract us from the developing scene at hand. Some of these scenes — the two in the cafe and the one with the human instrument, especially — build up with such grandeur, it made me weak at the knees.
My fellow Playlister, Jessica Kiang, is rolling her eyes so hard right now, but I’ve got a lot of love for Lisandro Alonso‘s beguiling totem “Jauja.” Featuring Viggo Mortensen in a role that certifies his status as the most fascinating leading man working today, this is a story about a father’s search for his daughter in a mysterious desert, where, legend has it, many men ventured never to be heard from again. Like a few others on my list, “Jauja” makes up for its purposefully befuddling narrative with arresting cinematography (courtesy of Finnish vet Timo Salminen), its distinctive 4:3 ratio recalling silent-era films, and an intensely pristine use of deep space and focus to evoke an indescribable presence throughout. This underlining mystery, with dreamy shades of David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky (one of my favorite directors of all time, by the way) is what spellbound my senses into submission.
No other film deserves to be called “exquisite” more than Todd Haynes‘ 1950s lesbian romance. What Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara lack in physical chemistry, they make up for in a couple of heart-sinking performances, both women making the most of their respective weapons (Mara and her subtlety, Blanchett and her theatrical flair). “Carol” is exquisite not only because of the two sublime lead performances, but also Carter Burwell‘s sonorous score (channeling some Philip Glass, methinks) and Edward Lachman‘s gleaming cinematography, which — through a handful of unforgettable montages — creates an incredible intimacy that calls for the biggest screen you can find. A magnetically pulpy vibe sifts through Patricia Highsmith’s world (the film is adapted from her novel, “The Price of Salt“), but it’s ultimately Haynes’ sophisticated direction that makes “Carol” not unlike a centerpiece gem in the world’s most prestigious jewelry store.
6. “The Forbidden Room”
Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson‘s “The Forbidden Room,” on the other hand, seemingly does everything in its power to be as anti-exquisite as possible. This mishmash of narratives and plot devices swallow one another in a cinematic food chain that features a blaze of familiar faces, spitting out one uproarious scenario after another. It’s the most relentless film of the year, one that’ll make you dizzy with vertigo like a rollercoaster, but I found it ridiculously satisfying and delightful. With some of the year’s greatest editing, sound mixing, and quite possibly the greatest title cards ever, “The Forbidden Room” pays homage to the bygone era of silent-movie storytelling and all the insanely bizarre lost films of yesteryear to create one extraordinary gift of a film. You can read more about how I feel about this film in our Films You Didn’t See piece.
5. “Hard To Be A God”
Aleksey German‘s posthumous masterpiece and career-long passion project, “Hard To Be A God,” finally saw the light of day this year, and those who’ve had the stomach to see it through to its end came out feeling like, “What sort of Hell did I just crawl out of?” One that’s stained with copious amounts of shit, no doubt, but, more importantly, one that also expands on the boundaries of this art form. Cinematographers Yuri Klimenko and Vladmir Ilin paint the film’s extraterrestrial Dark Ages with the kind of raw and smoky gruffness that recalls Orson Welles‘ later pictures, while the hard-to-follow narrative delves into universal themes of religion, violence, and history within the frames of civilization. “Ambitious” is too puny a word to describe what German has achieved here, and once you see the frightening detail of the sets, and feel the film’s observations right in your bones, you’ll see how all those years of hard work were worth it. You’ll also want to breath in some straight-out-of-the-drier clean laundry for the next few hours.
4. “45 Years”
In a year that’s seen wondrous spectacles from both ends of the spectrum (that is, mainstream and art-house), Andrew Haigh‘s humble and delicate story of a 45-year-long marriage experiencing its greatest test stands apart. Generated by the power of its two seasoned performers, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years” left an emotional bruise of seismic proportions on me. Rampling’s got the tougher task of the two since we experience the story through her character’s eyes, and she does such a tremendous job that I completely forgot about the screen between us. She feels so much like a living, breathing person that even saying “character” feels strange. I felt her reevaluating over half her life, thinking about the decisions that brought her to this moment and all the opportunities she’s missed out on, and I just wanted to give her a hug. “45 Years” reaches an underground level of emotional depth rarely frequented, marked by two single-take scenes featuring Rampling that are just pulverizing.
3. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
I’ve watched it more than any other film on this list, and if this Top 20 was purely about “favorites” rather than films I believe to be “the best,” George Miller’s adrenaline-drenched chase film would be number one (picture Immortan Joe flashing his index finger in the air right now). What else is there to say about this gargantuan piece of filmmaking bravado? A symphony of action so harmonious and compelling that it’s rightly been accepted as the greatest action film of the century so far. A spectacle for all senses, with cinematography, production design, and costumes building a world in a desert that make an everlasting impression. Its roster of ridiculously entertaining characters foiled against Tom Hardy‘s stoic Max (stepping up in Mel Gibson’s stead like a pro) and Charlize Theron‘s insta-iconic new hero Furiosa. Just, you know, a glorious blockbuster that has redefined the action film and elevated George Miller to genius status. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is all these things, and, yes, even more [sprays chrome paint in mouth].
2. “The Duke Of Burgundy”
2015’s cup runneth over with relationship films, with five in total making their way to my Top 20 (totally counting “Anomalisa” as a relationship film here). None of the other four, however, reach quite the same cinematic level as Peter Strickland‘s “The Duke of Burgundy,” the second lesbian relationship film on my list, but the only one to use toilets as a declaration of love. Danish vet Sidse Babett Knudsen and Italian ingénue Chiara D’Anna deliver two magnetically opposite performances that are electrically attracted to each other, while Strickland digs deep into his bag of influences to deliver a Vladimir Nabokov-esque story of two lovers whose BDSM role-playing lifestyle undergoes the butterfly effect in more ways than one. Audacious, funny, sensational, emotionally and visually resplendent, “The Duke of Burgundy” symbolizes the precarious moments of a relationship in endlessly rich ways.
1. “The Assassin”
I’ve written profusely about Hou Hsiao-Hsien‘s wuxia masterpiece on this site and elsewhere, but I’ll never tire of talking about it. Formally, it makes every other film — even ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Burgundy’ — wither in comparison. With essential assistance from his close-knit team of craftspeople, Hou attains a divine level of movie bliss that left me dumbfounded the two times I’ve seen it. If a film’s underlining purpose is to transport us to another world in ways that leave us slightly altered, no 2015 film does it better, or more authentically, than “The Assassin.” Shrouded under a mysterious narrative cloud, the film is an inner journey as much as an outward one, where human frailty meets the unstoppable rhythms of nature at a crossroads. Defiantly sublime in all areas of execution, it reiterates the awesome powers of cinema from up on high, gives us a slice of Tang Dynasty life, and contains a mesmeric quality that rendered me wholly at peace by the time it was over. In a word? Miraculous.
There was no room for them on my Top 20, but if I was to extend to 25, “Faults,” “The Second Mother,” “Theeb,” “When Marnie Was There,” and “In Jackson Heights” would’ve made the cut.
Let me know what you think, share your faves with me, and let’s keep fingers crossed that the 2016 film year is just as generous. Happy New Year, ya’ll!