1. “Son of Saul.” This unique World War II thriller comes from two holocaust obsessives, rookie Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes and New York poet Geza Rohrig, who makes his feature debut as Saul, a Jewish prisoner-of-war at Auschwitz in 1944. Nemes’ tightly-focused camera follows the Sonderkommando’s blinkered close-up POV as he does the Nazis’ dirty work and moves through the camp seeking to bury a young boy. The movie’s immersive action and layered sound design reveal the hideous scale of the mass slaughter of Jews and is not soon forgotten.
2. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was dreamed up on an airplane by 70-year-old Down Under maverick George Miller, who shot the eye-popping digital cinema spectacle in the Namibian desert 35 years after his feature debut with the original “Mad Max.” The writer-director does not follow any formula that any studio executive would recognize. It helps that Miller owns the “Mad Max” franchise, and took the time he needed—fifteen years—to realize this non-stop almost-silent western with his superb crew and two powerful actors: Charlize Theron as one-armed Imperator Furiosa and Tom Hardy as Max.
3. “Inside Out.” It isn’t easy to take a radical, original idea—what happens inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl when she turns toward adolescence—and mold it into an accessible, entertaining, lively, funny, unpredictable animated movie that plays well for both kids and adults. The best Pixar entry since Pete Docter’s “Up,” “Inside Out” is a bold yet personal exploration of a world that has not been portrayed on film before: the brain. And it changes the way we view the world.
4. “The Martian,” both epic and intimate, is director Ridley Scott’s best effort since “Black Hawk Down” in 2001. Cannily adapted by Drew Goddard from science wonk Andy Weir’s bestseller, “The Martian” showcases Matt Damon’s movie star chops as a wily astronaut stranded on Mars who talks to video cameras around the Mars base to keep himself pumped to survive. Much like “Argo,” the movie celebrates American ingenuity. It makes us feel good about ourselves.
5. “Spotlight” is a smart emotional investigative drama about real people devoted to their jobs who remind us of what great journalism is supposed to be. Director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer reported the story “Zero Dark Thirty”-style about how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative staff of four (an editor and three reporters) revealed the extent of the Catholic Church’s institutional cover-up of sexually predatory priests. And McCarthy wrangled a superb and egoless ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams.
8. “Tangerine.” Sean Baker shot this hilarious Los Angeles transgender comedy in extreme close-up with energy, verve and a bicycle. By exploiting the iPhone5s’s ability to move more freely than bigger cameras, the movie is unlike anything you’ve seen before. And Baker uses a light touch with what could be a heavy subject, the often sordid and dangerous lives of transgender prostitutes. His two rookie actresses, singer Mya Taylor and healthcare worker Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, as two best friends bickering on Christmas Eve, bounce off each other in a most entertaining way.
9. “45 Years.” English writer-director Andrew Haigh adapted this portrait of a marriage in crisis from a short story by poet David Constantine. This two-hander relies on expressive Brits Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as Geoff and Kate, anticipating their 45th wedding anniversary, whose silences speak volumes. When Geoff is sent a letter about the young woman he once loved, who died suddenly before he met Kate, suddenly, everything changes. Geoff harbored secrets. Haigh keeps us engaged and wondering past the final, enigmatic frame.
10. “Clouds of Sils Maria.” French auteur Olivier Assayas’s Cannes competition entry is an intimate English-language “All About Eve” variation set in the Swiss Alps. Kristen Stewart plays Valentine, the high-powered loyal assistant to aging film and theater actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who is preparing to take on the older role in a revival of a stage two-hander in which she dazzled years ago as the manipulative younger assistant who seduces her boss. Both stars are beguiling as the actress and assistant who spend weeks isolated in a mountain aerie reading through the play, struggling with conflicting emotions.
1. “The Duke of Burgundy.” As fecund and fetishistic as its central relationship, Peter
Strickland’s exquisite, surprising homage to Italian giallo was the very first film I saw in 2015—and, ultimately, the finest. As it traces the fraught dynamic between kinky lesbian lepidopterists Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), “The Duke of Burgundy” elicits a
powerful charge, by turns erotic and affective; like the rare butterfly of the title, the mere sight of it left my heart racing.
“Phoenix.” Christian Petzold’s mysterious, unsettling homage to “Vertigo,” set in war-torn Berlin circa 1945, recaptures the psychological horror of Hitchcock’s enduring classic with a potent understanding of what Hannah Arendt once called “the banality of evil.” As concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Germany in the hopes of beginning anew, the complicity of innkeepers, neighbors, friends, and even her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) in the the mechanics of the Holocaust shadows the film’s tale of deception and mistaken identity from start to devastating finish. Becoming Nelly as Nelly attempts to become herself, Hoss turns in the finest performance of the year.
3. “Carol.” A ravishing, fully realized romance, from Edward Lachman’s tactile Super 16 photography and Carter Burwell’s lush score to stellar lead performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. More than a decade ago, in “Far From Heaven” (2002), Todd Haynes remade “the women’s film” in the style of Douglas Sirk; with “Carol,” he reinvents it in a cinematic language all his own.
4. “Clouds of
Sils Maria.” “Maybe I only remember what it suits me to remember,” aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) says in Assayas’ intelligent, multifaceted re-examination of the cinema’s longtime self-obsession. With Kristen Stewart transformed and Binoche battered but beautiful, its half-misty, half-rigorous treatment of stardom’s nesting resentments is far more compelling than the facile pieties of “Birdman.”
“Brooklyn.” Deftly scripted by Nick Hornby, director John Crowley’s finely wrought period melodrama is an emotional powerhouse. As Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis faces a choice between two men—Domnhall Gleeson and the stellar Emory Cohen, channeling young Brando—and two homes, “Brooklyn” recreates the profound sense of attachments severed and formed at the heart of the immigrant experience.
Years.” As a follow-up to his lovely, low-key “Weekend”—and to his stalwart work on one of the best TV series of the year, “Looking”—Haigh’s stricken, haunting two-hander confirms him as one of our finest filmmakers. With sterling performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as an English couple sent reeling by a 50-year-old tragedy, “45 Years” punches far above its weight.
7. “The Look of
Silence.” In his extraordinary companion piece to last year’s “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s quite literally with new eyes. It’s as spare and as quiet as a ghost story, but of course it is: as Faulkner once said, the past isn’t dead—it’s not even past.
“Spotlight.” A riveting, masterly kitchen-sink drama, writer/director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s retelling of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal is also a ferocious argument for investigative journalism.
9. “Tom at the
Farm.” A promiscuously stylized portrait of the sadomasochistic allure of the “masculine”—a tale of horror and hard-ons—Xavier Dolan’s lurid thriller is dangerously sexy, especially when the menacing, beautiful Yves Pierre Cardinal is on screen. As I wrote in my initial review, “Tom at the Farm” isn’t a wet dream. It’s a wet nightmare.
Grind.” In Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s lovely, funky caper through middle Americana, strangers Gerry (the always-superb Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (an impressive Ryan Reynolds, playing against type) embark on a road trip down the Mississippi that captures the eccentric spirit of the Hollywood renaissance—not to mention the rich, sometimes warped texture of a part of the U.S. too often dismissed as “flyover country.”
1. “Spotlight.” Tom McCarthy’s highly
engrossing and superbly acted procedural of how the Boston Globe investigated
the many-layered cover-ups involved in the Catholic Church’s child abuse
scandal arouses the kind of awe that happens when you witness someone doing
their job at the highest level. It also serves as a mournful reminder that this
type of dogged journalism is nearly extinct.
2. “45 Years.” If you want to see two
veteran stars at the peak of the powers, you won’t do any better than Charlotte
Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a retired British couple whose cozy life is
slowly shaken to its core by an intrusion from the past.
3. “Amy.” There seems to be an
avalanche of musical documentaries of late, some worthy, some less so. But
director Asif Kapadia turns what could have been a rote account of Amy
Winehouse’s supernova rise and trainwreck fall into a shattering examination of
the toxic side of fame while providing a achingly intimate reminder of what was
lost when this abundantly talented British songbird died too soon.
4. “Room.” A rivetingly humanistic
thriller about a mother, a boy and their cramped yet rich existence and how
their unbreakable bond proved their salvation when they finally were released
into the outside world.
5. “Inside Out.” Who could
imagine that a journey into a prepubescent girl’s mind could be this hilarious,
harrowing and heartwarming? The geniuses at Pixar, that’s who.
6. “Grandma.” From “Laugh-In” to
“Nashville,” from “All of Me” to “Flirting With Disaster,” Lily Tomlin is and
has always been a treasure. It’s about time that at 76, this Hollywood legend
got another gem of a lead role and Elle, her feisty lesbian intellectual who
goes to bat for her pregnant teen granddaughter, does the trick and then some.
7. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” One of the best cinematic
surprises of the year was that the film franchise that introduced much of the
world to Mel Gibson is the source of one of the most pro-feminist action
adventures since Thelma met Louise.
8. “I’ll See You in My
Dreams.” Between the “Meet the
Parents” franchise and being upstaged by daughter Gwyneth Paltrow, it has been
easy to forget that Blythe Danner is a sublime actress. Her radiant
presence in this late-life dramedy about a widow who suddenly discovers the
joys of karaoke with a knockout rendition of “Cry Me a River” and unexpectedly
finds male companionship could not be a better reminder.
9. “Shaun the
Sheep.” Aardman’s clever little
stop-motion lambs and their barnyard cohorts might be silent, but the constant
stream of laughter that their wild-and-wooly antics invoke sure isn’t.
10. “Clouds of Sils
Maria.” An “All About Eve”
updated with an intellectual hipster sensibility boasts a dream team of multi-generational
actresses in the form of Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace
Moretz amid hypnotic Alpine vistas.
1. “Carol.” We rarely see an unadulterated romance, so
when one comes along that is this exquisitely made and so gloriously moving,
then it’s impossible not to succumb completely.
2. “The Assassin.” An object lesson in minimalist action and
sophisticated genre filmmaking, from which the purveyors of wham-bam formula
ought to learn. Gorgeous and mysterious.
3. “Inherent Vice.” I could happily scratch my head for hours
before the stoner genius of Paul Thomas Anderson’s under-rated “surf noir.”
4. “Amy.” Superbly orchestrated documentary from one
of the form’s most interesting practitioners, Asif Kapadia. Part-homage,
part-lament, quietly putting all of society in the dock.
5. “Girlhood.” After recent events, this seems an even
more vital account of a Parisian – and female – milieu that boisterously comes
to life in the limelight.
6. “Sicario.” Top-notch thriller that’s intelligent,
relevant, nail-biting and superbly cast.
7. “Steve Jobs.” Putting the talk into “talkie”, Sorkin’s
script and Fassbender’s performance made a computer geek compelling.
8. “Jauja.” I went down the rabbit hole with Lisandro Alonso and Viggo Mortensen at the
start of the year, and I’m not sure I ever made it back.
9. “Spotlight.” I’m just a sucker for journalistic procedural. This might not be “All
The President’s Men”, but it’s a worthy second.
10. “45 Years” and “Radiator.” Sharing a
place, two very different but equally potent accounts of elderly couples, one
discovering its failure late in the day, one that’s limped on regardless for
1. “Carol.” Beneath Todd Haynes’ glassy surfaces is a big, sweeping, gorgeous swoon of a movie.
2. “Amy.” Kapadia’s artful dossier of the life of Amy Winehouse shows no restraint in implicating us all in mythologizing the tragic singer as a trainwreck.
3. “Queen of Earth.” Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston terrify as girlfriends on edge in Alex Ross Perry’s painfully funny and unnerving Polanski homage.
4. “Sicario.” An impeccably styled, sadistic borderlands horror film starring a subtly affecting Emily Blunt as a cog in Denis Villeneuve’s machine.
5. “Phoenix.” An intimate, classical Holocaust story by way of “Vertigo” or “Eyes without a Face,” with one of the grandest, most jaw-droppingly devastating movie endings ever.
6. “45 Years.” Termite art that nibbles at the soul. Charlotte Rampling compresses 45 years of lives both lived and not lived into a single swoop of her hand in the closing shot.
7. “James White.” Debut director Josh Mond brings a beast of a performance out of Christopher Abbott, but it’s Cynthia Nixon who utterly destroys you.
8. “Eden.” This long, soulful and episodically structured epic recreates the glory days of the EDM music scene through the eyes of a tormented artist.
9. “Stinking Heaven.” Nathan Silver achieves something special in this extraordinarily powerful film, shot on scratchy Betacam, that plunges into the lives of residents in a sober-living commune.
10. “By the Sea.” Mystifying, frustrating, elegant, dull, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “itty bitty art film” is an Antonioni parody unaware of itself that I can’t quite peel off my brain.
1. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” Roy Andersson’s sixth film in 45 years is his greatest yet. A comedy even funnier visually than its incredibly wry story segments (set in an imagined Sweden over different modern eras), which build on both long-ago cinematic traditions and literary antecedents from past authors and dramatists. That said, it as modern a film as the even older Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” last year. Sadly neglected by too many in its U.S. release — the Los Angeles Times didn’t even bother to review it when it opened locally for a week-long run.
2. “Taxi.” Jafar Panahi’s movie is about as independent as one could wish. Though under a ban from filmmaking in Iran for political transgressions, he managed to shoot a low-budget film about himself now driving a taxi and encountering a variety of people new and old to him. That it is an upbeat, cheerful, optimistic film conveying a love for his country is a minor miracle. That it is as incisive and revealing about daily life in Tehran as his earlier films (“The White Balloon,” “The Circle,” and “Offside” among them) shows how inventive a director he remains.
3. “Anomalisa.” Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson restaged Kaufman’s play—set in a Cincinnati hotel room as two lonely strangers randomly meet and form an unlikely (and tricky) bond—as a stop-motion animated film. This film about loneliness and disconnection manages in its funny and also heartbreakingly sad way to represent the human condition in the greatest tradition of animation.
4. “Heart of a Dog.” The year’s best documentary is this heartfelt personal essay from Laurie Anderson, which covers a lot of territory—post-9/11 New York, reflections on her dog, and ultimately acceptance of death. It’s all done with the eye of a director making only her second film, but it’s filled with the insight and skill of her other creative activities.
5. “Carol.” This, not “Brokeback Mountain,” is the breakout mainstream gay relationship film that deserves all the acclaim it is getting. But it is much more, as Todd Haynes adds to the terrific period feel he captured in “Far from Heaven” with heartfelt drama and passion matched by few romantic stories in contemporary American film. Co-lead actresses Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett have both never been better.
6. “Paddington.” In a year of many tradition-of-quality Oscar-bait British movies, another terrific comedy, the best family film of the bunch and as laugh-out-loud funny as any was this adaptation of what a Peruvian bear experiences when he lands in London. A great ensemble of actors having the time of their lives (including Hugh Bonneville, Julie Waters, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, and Sally Hawkins) enhances a great script, outstanding special effects and a general go for broke feel that delivers. The spirit of Ealing Studios lives.
7. “Office.” It’s a cliche that Hong Kong action films are choreographed, but action master Johnnie To (“Fulltime Killer,” “Election”) advances beyond his recent forays into romantic comedy with this terrific musical that seems to have been inspired by Jacques Demy and Jacques Tati. Set in a similar world as “The Big Short” (the financial meltdown of 2008), equally trenchant and also pointed about rapacious Chinese capitalism, this equals any film this year in visual design (the sets alone make it worth seeing). It had limited showings at mainly Chinese-oriented theaters in the U.S., and even fewer in its original 3D. Co-starring veteran actress Sylvia Chang, whose play “Design for Living” preceded this adaptation.
8. “The Walk.” Robert Zemeckis remains America’s least appreciated big-budget director. He has his first commercial flop in this 3D spectacle mistakenly regarded as an indifferent build up to a heart-stopping climax. In reality, it is a fully realized narrative with broad, bigger- than-life characters, as is typical in Zemeckis’ work, but more than that it’s a celebration of madness akin to what directors on his level do each time they make a movie.
9. “Tangerine.” A different scale of movie entirely from “The Walk,” but similarly attuned to its characters (two struggling transgender working girls on Christmas Eve in L.A.), “Tangerine” is—among its many pleasures—a panacea against the multitude of smug, calculating indie films than manage to get bigger initial festival attention.
10. “The Assassin.” I wanted to love this film, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cerebral and stunningly staged martial arts movie, more than I did on initial viewing. Still, even if it has yet to resonate fully, its exquisite craft, atypical genre approach and slow build up deserve at a minimum respect and additional viewing.