The Best Films of 2015

duke of burgundy

1. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
As I previously wrote, Peter Strickland’s strange, sublime film is “not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story.” It’s that last part that makes The Duke of Burgundy truly special, in part because it’s so unexpected: come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror, soft-core erotica and the avant-garde masterworks of both Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack (as detailed by Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, whose stunning lead performance is for the ages).

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2. CAROL
Not all will agree, but I believe Todd Haynes has yet to make a bad film. His very best—Safe, Far From Heaven and now this Patricia Highsmith adaptation—all have female protagonists reacting against boundaries set by their respective cultures. What distinguishes Carol’s early ‘50s lesbian relationship apart from Far From Heaven’s heterosexual interracial dalliance (set a few years later) is more complex than a shift from the suburbs to the city, or different gender or class dynamics: it’s the love story itself—As expected, Blanchett and Mara are both terrific and the attention paid to recreating meticulous detail is top-notch; still, it’s all in service of a bravely slow-building screenplay that feels even more nuanced in retrospect after you take in its absolutely perfect final scene.

look of silence

3. THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing may leave admirers of the earlier film underwhelmed—it doesn’t have as ingenuously entertaining a hook and it never reaches the same level of catharsis, either. However, it’s just as essential a documentary for laying bare the long-lasting consequences of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens. Whereas the preceding film focused on the killers, this one is from the perspective of the victims’ families as filtered through a middle-aged ophthalmologist (his brother was murdered before he was born) who confronts the killers in the guise of an eye exam. His attempts to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still not talked about are by turns revealing, shocking and nearly heartbreaking (and, in at least one case, somewhat hopeful).

Anomalisa1

4. ANOMALISA
Like the three titles above it on this list, Anomalisa provides exceptional insight regarding the human condition; unlike those films, it does so with puppets. An inventive, visually distinct, full-length, stop-motion extravaganza even better than Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie Kaufman’s latest (co-directed with animator Duke Johnson) could have come from no other mind. While it’s best to go into it cold—the film’s conceptual twist is most effective as you gradually comprehend it, and thus too good to give away—I will say the relationship that develops in the second half (with strong voiceover work from David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh) is just as lovingly executed and uncompromised.

kumiko the treasure hunter

5. KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER
I’ve raved about this odd little film since I first saw it at a festival nearly two years ago, and I continue to mention it whenever someone asks for a recommendation. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone but I would hope most people I know could take to this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series) that traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and has as perhaps its most beloved character, a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.

Spotlight

6. SPOTLIGHT
My most middle-of-the-road selection, but a damn near perfect film for what it accomplishes. Recounting The Boston Globe’s 2001-02 investigation of sexual abuse cover-up within the local Catholic archdiocese, director/writer Tom McCarthy constructs this story in a simple but effective linear fashion, almost building the narrative block by block until the immensity of it all becomes resoundingly clear. The great ensemble includes spirited flashy turns from Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, but thankfully, far more subtle work from the likes of Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci (both nearly unrecognizable here) doesn’t get overshadowed. Easily the best Boston-set film of the modern era.

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7. GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE ANSALEM
As a cineaste, it’s often to your advantage to remain open to anything. For instance, I never guessed a two-hour plus, excessively talky Israeli drama about a woman trying to get her husband to grant her a divorce would’ve made my year-end list; even as the action never, ever left the courthouse, I found it constantly riveting—a testament, perhaps, to its writer/director/star Ronit Elkabetz, whom I had noticed in earlier films like Or (My Treasure) and The Band’s Visit. It’s a name you should know, and Gett masterfully revivifies the courtroom drama for a specific time and place that nonetheless scans as relatable to a discerning viewer of any culture.

diary-of-a-teenage-girl

8. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL
Funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, this 1976 San Francisco-set coming of age tale is the sort of indie gem you didn’t think anyone still made. In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller conjures up a meaningfully imaginative world for its 15-year-old heroine, Minnie (a breakthrough role for charismatic, convincing British actress Bel Powley). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, Heller lets her story play out refreshingly without judgment or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. And, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.

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9. THE FORBIDDEN ROOM
In retrospect, I was correct in calling Guy Maddin’s last feature a transitional effort, because this is a leap to another plane entirely. Still recognizably a Maddin film (although co-directed with new accomplice Evan Johnson), this takes the limitless reach of stuff like Brand Upon the Brain! and just runs with it, stitching together a dozen or so short films into a massive, nesting doll-structured epic that reprises all of his pet themes and twists and turns them into something that feels new, even if it looks ancient and ephemeral. Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in, but there’s no other title in this top ten I currently want to watch again and again.

tangerine

10. TANGERINE
Put aside all the much-discussed talking points (entirely shot on an iPhone, has two transgendered actresses as leads, takes place on Christmas Eve in seedy Los Angeles) and you’re still left with a thoughtful, surprising, one-of-a-kind film. It doesn’t appear that way in its abrasive, hyperactive first ten minutes, but as it organically develops a rhythm and gets deeper into this small world full of richly-defined misfits, it increasingly endears as a cultural slice-of-life and eventually, as a portrait of friendship—specifically how you’ll put up with a friend, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad.

11. WINTER SLEEP
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or winner (it first played Boston last March) was inspired by a few Chekhov stories, which explains the intense, mesmerizing twenty-minute long conversations in the midst of the usual astonishing and vast Turkish landscape shots.

12. IT FOLLOWS
A surprise breakout from the new indie horror film ghetto, and a deserved one: this cunningly executed, mostly psychological notion of terror shrewdly reaches its fullest fruition not in Detroit’s ravaged, abandoned neighborhoods but in its aging, nondescript suburbs

13. STRAY DOG
Debra Granik’s nonfiction companion piece to Winter’s Bone benefits considerably from her foresight to center on Ron Hall, a grizzled biker and Viet Nam war veteran suffering from PTSD who proves to be a natural, compelling subject.

14. RESULTS
Some balked at the idea of Andrew Bujalski making a romantic comedy (especially right after Computer Chess), but this likable effort ends up nearly salvaging the genre for his generation; of course, it helps to have a superb trio of leads (Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders).

15. 99 HOMES
Like The Big Short, it’s far from a perfect study on the housing crisis, but Michael Shannon’s turn as a self-serving realtor is nearly up there with his great work in Take Shelter, and Andrew Garfield resumes his pre-superhero career as an actor to watch.

16. IN TRANSIT
Co-directed with four other people, Albert Maysles’ final film (following the pleasant, if middling Iris) simply views riding an Amtrak train as a transformative journey with a sense of community not found in any other means of long-distance travel, and it deserves a place at the table with Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter and Salesman.

17. ROOM
A few minor quibbles (the score, Jacob Tremblay’s unnecessary voiceover) kept this off my top ten, but this gutsy literary adaptation has lingered longer in my mind than expected. Brie Larson more than makes good on the promise of Short Term 12, as does director Lenny Abrahamson on Frank.

18. 3 ½ MINUTES, TEN BULLETS
The year’s most underseen, vital documentary recaps a black Floridian teenager murdered by a white middle-aged adult for playing his music too loud. As much about the need for gun control as the value of the Black Lives Matter movement, I can’t name a more relevant (and moving) documentary from this year.

19. THE END OF THE TOUR
Remember Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace dominating awards buzz when this premiered at Sundance a year ago? Remember the likes of DiCaprio, Fassbender and Damon once seeming ideal for such a small but articulate, stimulating project? Remember how some films used to be concerned with ideas and observed behavior, as opposed to plot-centric actions and speechifying?

20. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND
Every few years, Francois Ozon emerges with another lush dramedy that reminds us he’s a big talent, albeit one too French (or too gay) for the film crit cannon to fall over for. This charming Ruth Rendell adaptation has Romain Duris in a dress, which the actor pulls off with effortless aplomb, just like his director does with this tricky, lovely story.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

About Elly, Amy, Brooklyn, Call Me Lucky, Ex Machina, Girlhood, Grandma, The Hateful Eight, Heart of a Dog, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Packed In A Trunk, Phoenix, Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tom At The Farm, Tu Dors Nicole, What Happened Miss Simone?, What We Do In The Shadows

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Last Ten Films: Playing The Part

The Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy

 

My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between October 26 and November 26, 2015).

The Search For General Tso (Cheney, 2014) 7/10
Anomalisa (Kaufman/Johnson, 2015) 9/10
The Assassin (Hou, 2015) 7/10
The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris, 1981) 5/10
Room (Abrahamson, 2015) 8/10
The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014) 10/10
Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015) 7/10
The Conversation* (Coppola, 1974) 10/10
Best In Show* (Guest, 2000) 9/10
White God (Mundruczó, 2014) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

Peter Strickland hasn’t made a safe follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio; if anything, The Duke of Burgundy is even further out there, paying intricate homage to not one, but two subterranean genres. It reprises the previous film’s Giallo fixation, and pours over it a soupcon of classy sexploitation as its two lead characters are involved in a lesbian love affair. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a wealthy, middle-aged lepidopterist and Evelyne (Chiara D’Anna), her younger housemaid, initially appear to have a working relationship with master-and-servant undertones; within the first fifteen minutes, those undertones become explicitly sexual overtones.

However, the film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. While Cynthia plays the master role, it’s increasingly apparent that Evelyne is the person leading the whole pas de deux, dictating much of the action, feeding Cynthia many of her lines. Meanwhile, Cynthia feels less and less comfortable in her role as she falls deeper in love. Strickland parses this dynamic carefully via interactions between the two women that often ask what it means for a lover to play or even live up to her role. The slightest shift, the smallest change in routine or crack in a façade can bring a significant, occasionally devastating result.

The Duke of Burgundy is a both an extreme visual and aural feast, from its deliberately lovingly retro opening credits (greatly enhanced, like the rest of the film, by a beguiling psych-folk score from the band Cat’s Eye) to its stunning lighting and cinematography (watch out for Evelyne’s eyes as she repeatedly looks into the microscope) to its overall period design, which heavily suggests late ‘60s/early ‘70s without ever definitively pinpointing it. I could also go on about the Stan Brakhage-like editing, the rich butterfly motifs, the many scenes where the narrative seems to pause and temporarily fade away as if dangerously entering a dream state. Knudsen is also flat-out brilliant in expressing the wide chasm between Cynthia’s assumed role and her actual self. Although not for everyone, Strickland has made a daring, stimulating, one-of-a-kind, as filling as a seven-layer-cake confection that affects the senses in a way only film as an medium can—that he did it with an all-female cast (when’s the last time you saw a film that had one?) is the extra icing on top.

Room

Room

 

I’ll write about Anomalisa in more depth once it’s released nationally in January (and I have a chance to see it again), but I suspect cineaste buzz regarding Charlie Kaufman’s foray into stop-motion animation (co-directed with Duke Johnson) will be off the charts come then—it’s as very much its own thing as Synecdoche, New York (or for that matter, Her) was, and I can’t imagine how Paramount will market it. As for other new titles, Room excels mostly because of Brie Larson’s performance, which will surely nab her the Oscar nomination she deserved two years ago for Short Term 12. I’d tighten up the second half and nix Jacob Tremblay’s so-occasional-it’s-pointless annoying voiceover, but this might be the most challenging film (subject matter-wise) to win the audience award at Toronto. Brooklyn also benefits from a solid, film-carrying lead performance; I hadn’t really noticed Saoirse Ronan in anything since Atonement (never saw Hanna), and here she renders what could’ve been another middle-of-the-road prestige indie quite watchable (Emory Cohen also comes into his own as her affable beau.)

If I were rating The Assassin on technique and style alone, it would get a higher mark. The narrative begins and ends strongly but sags in the middle—a problem I’ve often had with Hou’s work (in particular, his historical epics). But if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, by all means go. On that note, I think I might’ve gotten a little more out of White God had I seen it in a theatre, especially for the film’s already-famous wide shots of dogs running through Budapest’s streets. Sort of a gloss on The Birds but told from both perspectives, it’s interesting in how it shows/contrasts processes of learned behavior for both canines and humans. However, I can only recommend it with the caveat that it does contain many scenes of animal cruelty—all humanely staged, as the credits take great pains to point out, but I couldn’t sit through them again. Although far from the best new doc I’ve seen this year, I have no qualms recommending The Search For General Tso, a thoughtful, fizzy think-piece on Chinese-American food and the secret history behind the titular, seemingly omnipresent take-out staple.

As for older titles: Best In Show remains the funniest Guest-related mockumentary, though not the one with the most heart (or the one with the most soul)… The Decline of Western Civilization has value as a cultural artifact, a decent record of Los Angeles punk circa-1980, but the scene itself simply isn’t as intriguing or as good as its New York/London progenitors. I have higher expectations for the sequel (AKA The Metal Years), currently sitting in my DVR queue… I have yet to watch The Godfather Part II (someday, I promise), but I’ll bet The Conversation is Coppola’s best work, made at a smaller scale he’s tried to recapture in recent years and probably never will post-Apocalypse Now. A big name star (Gene Hackman) playing a rather prudish (but brilliant) character, a crisis of conscience, intricate sound design and camera work, a plot twist that remains startling 15+ years since the last time I saw it: is there, or could there possibly be any modern analogue to all of this?