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).

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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.

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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.

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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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Halfway through 2015: Movies

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

 

A companion to this list, here are my ten favorite films of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order.  I’m including titles technically from last year that didn’t open in Boston until 2015 and also festival titles, most scheduled for a release in the next six months.

Last year, I had a clear and obvious favorite at this point; this year, not so much. For me, the biggest surprise so far has been Gett, a talky, Israeli procedural set entirely inside a courthouse–ordinarily not my cup of tea, but for nearly two hours, it’s consistently riveting. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter also held up to a second viewing–I anticipate The Look of Silence will as well. Still, I suspect (hope?) that I haven’t come across my favorite film of year just yet.

99 Homes
The End of The Tour
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
In Transit
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
The Look of Silence
Packed In A Trunk
Stray Dog
Two Days, One Night
Winter Sleep

Voyage: KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER

kumiko

“A beguiling mix of Aki Kaurismaki, David Lynch and Tsai Ming-Liang” is what I tweeted moments after leaving the theatre. Looking back now, I’m not sure that description is on point, for this film doesn’t really feel like anything else I’ve seen. Granted, this is my first Zellner Brothers film (David writes and directs, Nathan writes and produces and both act in supporting roles) and I suspect it’ll be the first most other viewers see, thanks to a vital, fearless lead turn from Rinko Kikuchi (BABEL).

As the titular heroine, Kikuchi makes a fierce commitment to playing an exceptionally withdrawn misfit: she’s a would-be secretary whom rarely makes eye contact with anyone and lives alone in a dank studio apartment with her pet rabbit. She’s also obsessed with a decrepit VHS copy of the movie FARGO she found stashed away in a pile of kudzu in a tunnel-like space. As the battered tape jumps and skips around in her VCR, she becomes fixated on two specific moments: the opening disclaimer that the film is a “true story” (which the Coen Brothers admitted was totally facetious) and the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the briefcase full of money in an endless, empty field of snow, marking it with a pickax. Kumiko mistakenly deduces that the money is a “treasure” for hers to claim—it’s unclear whether she’s a little slow or just crazy, but Kikuchi always lends credibility to the character’s genuineness.

On that note, this is the sort of film where you either go with all the craziness it throws at you, or you don’t. However, a method to its madness emerges in a deliberate structure the Zellners execute: as the action moves from Tokyo to rural Minnesota, it loosens up, possibly getting increasingly inside Kumiko’s head. Harmonically rigid Bach pieces give way to free-form ambient drones on the soundtrack, while Kumiko’s quest obtains the disorienting but not altogether unpleasant effect of alternately involving and distancing the viewer. It’s a neat balancing act, and a journey of the mind that, with its visual splendor in shifting from closed-off to ever-more open spaces, begs to be seen on a big screen. Seeing the film with an audience also allows for discussion of its polarizing conclusion, which I accepted but others may see as a cop-out; that KUMIKO actively engages viewers to partake in such a debate only endears it to me more.  Grade: A-