by Robert Joseph Butler
An aging actress realizing her career is quickly passing by. Two great animated films in one year, as well as two great wintry westerns in one year. A brilliant study of sexual repression in a time period of taboo. A wife discovering that her marriage was based on deception. 2015 was a year that started off rocky, however it ended very well with numerous end of the year titles. The year’s best films were some of the most intimate, delicate, and honest films released in a while. It was also a year that included visually rich themes, as well as genre films which had familiar stories told in new and refreshing ways. These films below will certainly stand the test of time.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria (d. Oliver Assayas)
Out of all the films released in 2015 “Clouds of Sils Maria” spoke to me the most. It’s a film that you can’t really pin point the exact themes going on because it’s so multi-layered, and it holds great mystery. French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Carol, Summer Hours) has crafted the film of his career here and the interplay between Juliette Binoche who plays an aging film and theater actress, alongside her millennial assistant Kristen Stewart is affectionate and tense. Their bond between them is some of the finest onscreen chemistry you will see this year. This is a film that reaffirms how performance, acting, memory, and art matters in an era of Hollywood blockbusters and media TMZ frenzy. Overall this a masterful study about the past colliding with the new.
2. The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino)
“The Hateful Eight” is another great film in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. The film is like watching a great stage play become cinematic with it’s 70mm presentation. For over 20 years now Tarantino has played homage to cinema by speaking the visual language of genre movies. Now he’s going to new heights by playing an ode to cinema itself by bringing back the old tradition of a bygone movie culture thanks to a filmmaker just as passionate and committed to his audience and to his art of filmmaking. As you watch “The Hateful Eight” you can’t deny that this is a man who truly loves cinema.
With it’s limited setting that plays on the tropes of a whodunit mystery and of course a reinvention of the western genre is perhaps his most verbose film to date. In a way the film is a mix of “Reservoir Dogs” meets “Django Unchained”. The film has a brilliant first half of great twists and turns, and the second half is quite explosive and lurid. While the film doesn’t have the sheer technical genius or the style of “Kill Bill” or “Inglorious Basterds”, the film is very much a writer’s exercise and the 70mm is a technical marvel on it’s own.
3. Carol (d. Todd Haynes)
Director Todd Haynes once again paints an authentic, honest and sumptuous portrait of repressed sexuality in a time of patriarchy. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the groundbreaking 1950’s “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, the the film offers elegant cinematography, a complex and heartbreaking love story between the two leads-Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and both women deliver wrenching and intimate performances, this is about as intimate and delicate as a love story gets. We experience the internal conflict, complexity, confusion, and alienation in the world these women are confined in. What’s refreshing for this film is that it still lives up to the source material. “Carol” is as moving and poignant as it is a ravishing period piece told by a master of filmmaking.
4. Anomalisa (d. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Charlie Kaufman, the brilliant mind behind “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation”, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” teams up with animator Duke Johnson and together they have created one of the most moving and humane films of the year featuring animated puppets. A masterful study of modern alienation and the mundane cycle of life, the film offers a refreshing idiosyncratic point of view about loneliness. The film is about a self-help author and motivator Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), everyone else around him sounds exactly the same (Voiced by Tom Noonan) and he feels completely disconnected on his one night trip to Cincinnati). Until he meets Lisa (Voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who brings Michael hope. The stop-animation is brilliant and the skill with the staging is impeccable for an animated film, Kaufman decides to use a lot of moving shots and long takes. “Anomalisa” is by far one of the most humanistic films of the year with a film starring animated puppets.
5. The Revenant (d. Alejandro G. Innaritu)
If the meditative stylistic devices of Terrence Malick were applied to an action adventure, the final result would likely resemble Alejandro G. Innaritu’s brooding and visionary epic film “The Revenant”. As much concerned about the battle between man and nature and it’s essence of humanity as a whole, the endlessly ravishing film is equal parts a revenge story as it is evocative and spiritual in the tone of Malick and Werner Herzog, and every bit as raw and brutal as a Mel Gibson epic like “Apocalypto”. Everything from the impeccable set-pieces to the awe-inspiring visuals will transport you to 19th century frontier America. Featuring a career defining performance from Leonardo Di Caprio as the fur trapper HughGlass, “The Revenant” is a complete tour-de force of visceral filmmaking at it’s most breathtaking.
6. Sicario (d. Denis Villeneuve)
A thriller from Director Denis Villenueve and the great DP Roger Deakins together create great mood and atmosphere to heighten the world of the drug war. The film is a brilliantly tense and endlessly taut film that explores a world of ongoing conflict and questionable ethics. Everything from the first-rate set-pieces to the unforgettable sequences are nail-biting. The film raises a lot of ambiguity in it’s libertarian debate on the war on drugs, and the film offers three superb performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benecio Del Toro. This is certainly a timely morality play.
7. The Assassin (d. Hao Hsiao-Hsien)
This was a film I got lost in and I just surrendered myself to its masterful and elegiac beauty. All around one of the most ravishing and lush film experiences of the year, Taiwanese film master Hou Hsiao-hsien has crafted a sensory martial arts film that’s easily in the vein of Akira Kurosawa. Completely void of plot detail with its enigmatic story, the obtuse narrative is overwhelmed in a justified way to it’s elegant visuals, lush sounds, and visually stunning compositions that flows in a hypnotic and meditative way. The film takes you to a richly detailed period of 7th century China, and it offers a brilliant mix of a dream world merged with ripples of history.
8. The Salt of the Earth (d. Wen Wenders & Juliano Riberio Salgado)
Technically this film is a 2014 film because it was nominated for Best Documentary at last year’s Academy Awards, however it wasn’t released theatrically until late March of 2015. Now already being shuffled aside by film critics, while Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” is behind crowned as this year’s finest documentary, I found “The Salt of the Earth” to be far more engaging and hopeful. The result is extraordinarily unsettling and powerfully moving. While the film is different than Wender’s previous docs that include “Pina”, “The Beanu Vista Social Club”, this film comes of as an epigraph from world renowned photographer Sebastaio Selgado. The film is very explicit in his accounts and experiences he saw from the starvation of Ethiopia to the international conflicts in the Middle East, as it emphasizes the past through his lens and photograph, but instead of just focusing on the bleakness his work has discovered, directors Wen Wenders and Sebastaio’s son- Juliano Selgado together focuse on the hope and redemption our planet still holds, despite all the cynical and bleak news we often hear from the media.
9. 45 Years (d. Andrew Heigh)
Writer-Director Andrew Heigh’s (Weekend 2011) “45 Years” is one of the most engaging and profound examinations of love and marriage since Michael Haneke’s 2012 masterpiece “Amour”. Unlike other films about long-enduring marriages in turmoil, “45 Years” doesn’t rely on overly dramatic melodrama, but instead Heigh utilizes small melancholic and nuanced moments that end up carrying a lot of dramatic weight. Haigh allows actress Charlotte Rampling to use a lot of psychical gestures and expressions instead of being overstated. This is a very rich and involving film about secrets and reveals. The final scene is the most poignant final shot of the year as The Platters classic song “Smoke In Your Eyes” plays in the background.
10. Son of Saul (d. Laslo Nemes)
Far from the manipulation or sentimentality that most Holocaust-set films suffer from, “Son of Saul” is a masterfully crafted and emotionally shattering portrait of a man living through the horrors of the Holocaust. Never compromising the horrors or brutality, filmmaker Laszlo Nemes stages the film mostly in tight close-ups as if we are joining Geza Rorig into his doomed journey as the camera guides him through menance and darkness. On this journey we find empathy, compassion and care. The film is very harrowing and a difficult watch, however it explores Holocaust history in a affecting and genuine way we haven’t seen since Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”.
Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)
Ex-Machina (d. Alex Garland)
Screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) has helmed an impressive directorial debut with “Ex-Machina”, a film that unfolds like a cat and mouse thriller with its sci-fi futuristic setting and tropes. An anti-patriarchal, futuristic, and cautionary tale about man and machine is very psychological and riveting. Actress Alicia Vikander delivers a truly memorable character as a female droid machine Ava, who’s layers and emotions are every bit as humane as any human character you’ll see from any film from last year.
Inside Out (d. Pete Doctor & Ronnie Del Carmen)
The finest work by Pixar since “Toy Story”, the film is by far Pixar’s most nuanced and cerebral work yet. The film is universal in appeal, anyone who watches it will find a glimpse of themselves. You will perhaps find your own joy, sadness, and insecurities in this film. The film asks you to tap into your own psyche as you watch it. It’s a poignant coming-of-age story about the complexities of growing up. The character of Joy (voiced wonderfully by Amy Poehler) is perhaps Pixar’s most endearing character yet.
Love & Mercy (d. Bill Pohland)
With the breadth of time and emotion in it’s exploration, Bill Pohland’s “Love & Mercy” is a sprawling and intimate biopic of Beach Boys front man Brian Wilson and his trials and tribulations with mental illness. Instead of getting overwrought and suffering from regular biopic trappings, the film instead displays Wilson (in a great dual performance by John Cusack and even greater Paul Dano as Young and Older Brian Wilson) that shows Wilson’s mental turmoil without ever being manipulative, instead Pohland uses complexity, and the transformation of Brian’s illness with his encounter with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is filled with compassion and empathy. The film is rich in perid detail, time, setting, and character, and by far the most refreshing and aesthetically satisfying biopic since Todd Haynes “I’m Not There”
Mistress America (d. Noah Baumbach)
I ended up placing “Mistress America” into this list because it’s by far the funniest and sharpest comedy of the year. It’s also one of the warmest films and I couldn’t help but root for the characters until the end. Like Baumbach’s first-rate “Frances Ha” and 2005 masterpiece “The Squid & The Whale” Baumbach truly cares about his characters and he always builds his flawed characters in ways that you walk out hoping they get their lives together. “Mistress America” is by far the most optimistic and joyful film of the year, a film that brought a smile to my face from beginning to end. Co-writer and lead Greta Gerwig is the most hilarious actress working today, I hope she gains a larger audience and more exposure in years to come.
Steve Jobs (d. Danny Boyle)
With a heart-pounding, energetic, and sharp script by the great Aaron Sorkin along with Danny Boyle’s electrifying direction together have created a verbose film that unfolds like a brilliant stage play. Unfolding with vignettes in separate time periods of Steve Job’s release launches of his breakthrough technological debuts all have a similar structure, yet each one has a great arc for the character of Steve Jobs played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender. Kate Winslet is superb as his adviser and his conscience. Like Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”, who would have though such verbose and talky scripts would turn into such rich cinema?
Honorable Mention–Other Strong Titles of 2015
Best of Enemies
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
The End of the Tour
Hard to be a God
Heaven Knows What
I’ll See You in My Dreams
The Look of Silence
Maps to the Stars
Queen of Earth
Shaun the Sheep
Most Overrated Films of 2015
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Me Earl and the Dying Girl