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).

carol-movie-poster-cate-blanchett-rooney-mara-5

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.

gett

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.

The-Forbidden-Room

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

Advertisements

Last Ten Films: Unknown Pleasures

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

 

My last ten films seen between July 27 and August 23, 2015, with number ratings out of 10.

Tangerine (Baker, 2015) 9/10
Boogie Nights* (Anderson, 1997) 9/10
Irrational Man (Allen, 2015) 5/10
Brazil* (Gilliam, 1985) 10/10
The End Of The Tour* (Ponsoldt, 2015) 8/10
The Trip To Italy* (Winterbottom, 2014) 7/10
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Pennebaker, 1973) 6/10
Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015) 6/10
Mistress America (Baumbach, 2015) 7/10
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015) 10/10

*indicates that this was at least a second viewing

Two exceptional new indies bookend this list; both may very well end up in my year-end top ten.

I’ve seen enough coming-of-age films to contribute to a Chlotrudis poll about them, but I’ve seen nothing quite like The Diary of a Teenage Girl: funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, it’s also a period piece, set in 1976 San Francisco. And, it kicks off with a whopper of a revelation: 15-year-old protagonist Minnie (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is not only twenty years older but also her mother’s (Kristin Wiig) boyfriend.  Divulging this news via a diary recorded in her bedroom on cassette tapes, Minnie’s not ashamed of what happened, but clearly transformed: you sense the thousands of hormonally charged emotions rushing through her as she both carefully considers while also allowing herself to be swept away by the newness and immensity of it all.

In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller fluidly and inventively incorporates animation into Minnie’s world. An aspiring comic book artist, Minnie’s drawings often leap off the page and onto the screen, creatively depicting the realms of her imagination and how it co-exists with her reality. Which gets complicated as she continues her clandestine affair with Monroe, for her emotional maturity hasn’t yet caught up with her recent sexual liberation. Exacerbated by an unstable, overly permissive environment (Monroe, her mother and assorted friends often hang out at home drinking, dancing and snorting lines of cocaine), Minnie wants to be bold and free, but is she ready to take responsibility for her actions? Heller lets this all play out refreshingly without judgement or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. However, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.

Skarsgård is ideally cast as a slacker/loser who is nonetheless nice to and fully aware of his desire for Minnie (however misguided it is) while trying, not always successfully, not to exploit or take advantage of her. Although somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars, Wiig steps into the fun mom role with ease, while Christopher Meloni has a few good, acidic moments as her intellectual, withholding ex-husband. Still, this is rightfully British actress Powley’s film. Both charismatic and convincing, she manages to make Minnie a believable American teen (she was 21-22 during filming) and has a winning enough persona to create a distinct young heroine for the ages (think of Thora Birch in Ghost World, or even Ellen Page in Juno). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, this uncommonly perceptive coming-of-age tale is highly recommended for anyone going or having once gone through puberty, regardless of gender, sexuality or era.

Tangerine

Tangerine

 

Tangerine, Sean Baker’s so-microbudget-that-it-was-shot-on-an-iPhone (though it looks good enough that you’d never guess) feature appears to be a throwback to indie film’s golden age (‘80s Jarmusch, but also New Queer Cinema) in that it seems like it came from out of nowhere to saturate the festival and arthouse circuits (it has quietly grossed $600K in six weeks). It’s far more modern than that—innovative, actually, in how naturally it presents its two male-to-female transgender leads, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Some may balk that they’re both playing prostitutes (respectively named Alexandra and, ahem, Sin-Dee), and at first, the film can barely keep up with this motor-mouthed duo as they seem to invite drama and create chaos wherever they go.

Happily, within 10-15 minutes, Baker and his leads establish an identifiable, endearing rhythm as they traverse L.A.’s seedy sidewalks and parking lots and the corner donut shop which serves as the film’s home base. The story centers on a single day-into-night search for the girl rumored to be sleeping with Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome). Then, Baker introduces a parallel narrative involving Armenian cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian) whose path intersects with the leads intermittently until both strands eventually, fully align with an extended screwball exchange back at that donut shop.

The film succeeds largely in part of Baker’s direction of his cast. From the start, you pick up on Taylor’s and Rodriguez’s chemistry; both are also strong enough to carry scenes individually–especially Taylor, whose karaoke performance is a highlight (she could easily achieve Laverne Cox-level fame with a higher-profile role). Karaguilan maintains his protagonist status even as the film reveals increasingly less savory facets of his character. Ransome’s Chester is like an older and slightly (but really not much) wiser iteration of the actor’s best-known role, fuck-up Ziggy from season 2 of The Wire. For all its zesty trash-talk and colorful situations, Tangerine is more or less about friendship—how you’ll put up with a friend, remain loyal to them, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad. Remarkably, Baker emphasizes these points in the final two scenes not with cloying sentimentality but via a lived-in bond between Alexandra and Sin-Dee that feels honest and earned.

*****

As for other new titles: preferable to While We’re Young but certainly no Frances Ha, Mistress America is as scattered as Greta Gerwig’s more ambitious-than-talented New Yorker, although it’s at least pleasantly fizzy, like that Whit Stillman film she starred in a few years back. Based on her droll turn here, I’d bet on Lola Kirke maintaining a more interesting career than her older sister Jemima (currently saddled with the worst-written character on Girls). Best of Enemies is indeed best when showing clips from the Buckley vs. Gore debates but occasionally fumbles when it tries placing them in a meaningful context. The End of The Tour mostly held up to a second viewing, but this time Segel’s Wallace seemed a little more novel than real; I’m not really aching for a third viewing. Despite Joaquin Phoenix’s and Parker Posey’s decent effort to fit into the Woodyverse, Irrational Man is a lukewarm Hitchcock pastiche that doesn’t catch fire until the final climactic scene (and even then, not worth sitting all the way through for).

Two of the older titles I hadn’t seen since the late ‘90s: Brazil has aged as well as one could hope—one of the key films of the ‘80s, really, and seeing it on the big screen definitely heightened its impact. Boogie Nights is also still a blast, but it loses some steam in its second half (though not in the brilliant, startling “Sister Christian”/Alfred Molina sequence); I think I now prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s last three films to his first four, (which does not prevent me from wanting to see all of them again and again). The Trip to Italy, re-watched more for the scenery than the Coogan/Brydon banter remains solid entertainment for those who like that sort of thing; Ziggy Stardust succeeds less as a piece of filmmaking than as a document of David Bowie at his delirious peak, as fabulous as Liza Minnelli the previous year and as influential and original as David Byrne would prove a decade on in the cinematically superior Stop Making Sense.