What, in 2015, makes a movie one of the best of the year?
Does it have to entertain? Enlighten? Does it have to have a flawless screenplay, flawless acting, flawless editing—whatever that adjective even means in such a subjective context?
Does it need to have an agenda, or be free of one? Is it allowed to be politically incorrect? If it puts a straight white man to sleep, is it out of the running? If it offends a person of color, does that automatically make it trash?
Coming up with an annual best of list is always a tricky business. On the one hand film is, at close of day, a matter of personal preference. I'm personally neutral to superheroes and star wars; many of my friends would never even think of watching anything else. Yet as an amateur film critic, I'm never content to settle for a purely subjective view of cinema. Surely, I think to myself, there must be some objective standard against which to judge everything, so that when I unveil this list every year I can spring to the defense of my picks with more than just my opinion as artillery.
If there were such a Holy Grail of criticism, every critic under the sun would arrive at the same conclusions in their year-end curations. That not being the case—for the best, honestly—I have to settle for my intuition. The movies that floated to the top of my list this year all met a basic level of filmmaking competency; so did many others not enumerated here. What I found to be the special ingredient common to my ten "bests" (+one honorable mention) was a certain "why cinema?" factor. The theater will always be the destination for the franchise blockbusters and shows of special effects derring-do, but for any other genre a theatrical release is no longer a foregone conclusion.
It isn't just that more and more movies go straight to On Demand: it's that there are ever-expanding ways to tell the stories that once may have only been tellable on the big screen. Why pay upwards of $15 plus parking and popcorn to lock yourself into a room at the edge of town for some 90 to 180 minutes when you could listen to a podcast, binge watch a TV series, read a book? Why go to the movies at all when we have personally-curated newsletters and Instagram feeds and Snapstories?
I don't have answers to these questions. What I do have are 11 movies that convinced me of the unique contribution of cinema to storytelling, and I hope you approach them with an open mind to consider sharing them with me.
(One last note before we begin: There's a 2009 movie on this list that I included here because it had a U.S. theatrical release for the first time in 2015. For posterity, I wouldn't consider it a 2015 film, but for the sake of a year-in-review I'm opting to keep it here.)
Honorable Mention: Clouds of Sils Maria
I had somewhat written Clouds of Sils Maria off when I first viewed it—"It's so bourgeois it hurts," I quipped on social media—but on closer reflection there's a lot more going on under the hood than I first gave the movie credit for. A tale of three generations of actresses, portrayed by three generations of actresses playing variations on themselves, Olivier Assayas' psychosexual drama is light on the -sexual and heavy on the psycho-. Juliette Binoche's Maria Enders must come to terms with the passing of her glory days, while Kristen Stewart upstages her at every turn without even trying (in the film as in real life: the lion's share of praise has been heaped on Stewart, Binoche largely left in the cold). On top of all that, the juxtaposition of the fading beauty of celebrity with the eternal beauty of the Alps makes Clouds of Sils Maria one of the year's most rewardingly dense features.
When most foreign films get formalistic, it comes at the expense of viewer pleasure ("oh joy, a thirty minute-long tracking shot of a man eating potatoes in the dark"). Not so with Girlhood, Céline Sciamma's at turns heartwarming, at others heartbreaking coming of age story. Taking some cues from François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Sciamma infuses a fairly quotidian narrative with visual excitement. Without hitting you over the head, she uses shot composition, lighting, and music—Rihanna's "Diamonds" will never be the same again—both to showcase the beauty of her characters, girls living at the relative outskirts of Parisian society, and to acknowledge the pressures and challenges they'll run up against in life merely because of their gender and the color of their skin.
9. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Ronit Elkabetz directs, writes, and acts in this courtroom drama about a woman dragged through 5 years of hearings in pursuit of a divorce from her husband under Rabbinic law. Evidently Gett is the third in a trilogy of movies charting the unhappy marriage of Viviane Amsalem, but no knowledge of the preceding films is necessary here. Without ever leaving the confines of the courthouse, Gett keeps you on the edge of your seat through all the twists and turns of the court proceedings. There are some fabulous performances by the witnesses, brought on for a few minutes each to inject the movie with unexpected bursts of energy, but the film totally belongs to Elkabetz. Through her facial expressions as much as through her foot tapping or hair fiddling, she conveys the crippling claustrophobia of Viviane's situation while commanding every frame with her beauty as do the subjects of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.
No one seems to be entirely clear on what the restrictions are on Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director previously sentenced to house arrest and barred by the government from making movies. Nevertheless, it's clear as day that he had a blast getting out on the town in disguise as a taxi driver, who conveniently manages to run into a host of crazy passengers and old friends alike in the course of an hour or so about town. Taxi is a highly self-reflexive work of filmmaking, yet it's remarkably entertaining. Though censorship prohibited Panahi from crediting any of his collaborators, including his niece, an aspiring filmmaker herself, and his civil rights activist friend Nasrin Sotoudeh, fresh off an 11-year prison sentence and hunger strike yet looking bright as day with a bouquet of roses in hand, Panahi would be the first to recognize that their contributions are as much a key to the movie's power as his own ingenuity.
Phoenix has received a puzzling thrashing from some cinephiles I otherwise trust and love. I think I get where they're coming from: it's a perfectly middlebrow movie that has shades of Hitchcock and Fassbinder, without ever wholly being a Hitchcock movie or a Fassbinder movie. Yet Phoenix is perhaps the perfect middlebrow movie. A Holocaust survivor returns to a dilapidated Germany after facial reconstruction renders her a new woman, and thus unrecognizable to the husband who's been hoping she would return (or perhaps not?!) Such a melodrama requires a small amount of suspension of disbelief, sure (seriously, small: we never clearly see what she looked like prior to the events of the film, so it isn't that difficult a thing to ask of the viewer), but by its indisputably fabulous end Phoenix has risen from the ashes of inferior films on the strength of the dueling performances of Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Entire volumes of history are etched in their faces, though we're only privy to their full story in fits and bursts. Ultimately the film turns out to be as much about willful blindness as it does about rebirth—of a person and a nation.
6. Inside Out
Though I wouldn't rank it quite so highly as some of the other Pixar greats, Inside Out is exhilarating and inventive in ways few American animated movies are. I had long hoped that Amy Poehler would someday lend her voice to a Pixar film, but I was even more taken by Phyllis Smith's work as Sadness, perennial Negative Nancy with a late-game twist. Though I was rubbed slightly the wrong way by how prescriptive the movie could be at times—Now we want you to feel this! Now you should be feeling that!—I'm so impressed by the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of such scenes as the journey through Abstract Thought that I'm willing to forgive the story's didactic hand. (I have no strong thoughts about Bing Bong. Sorry if you were looking for an authority to be the judge on that.)
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
The image above is from a Hollywood blockbuster that made over $100 million at the domestic box office. Look at it. JUST LOOK AT IT. My apologies that I can't restrain myself from bursting into spontaneous capslock when writing about this movie. I was in no way prepared to be floored by Fury Road and yet floor me it did. (Floor is perhaps too weak of a word; more like pile-drive me into the ground and send me flying back up into the air in a geyser of awesome). Fury Road is what you get when you give a master director almost total creative control over his wildest fantasies; Fury Road is what you get when you let women be the heroes of an action franchise. George Miller's masterpiece stands athwart the limp body of the Marvel-industrial complex (who even remembers this year's Avengers movie?) bellowing into the twilight: "Oh what a lovely day!"
4. In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman has been a fly on the wall of institutions since 1967, when he made his documentary debut with the appalling and immediately-censored Titicut Follies, about a Massachusetts insane asylum. This year he broadened the scope of his filmmaking from single institutions to an entire neighborhood. One of the most densely diverse places in America, Jackson Heights provided Wiseman with countless characters and stories to play with. Somehow, from 120-odd hours of footage and dozens of languages he didn't understand while filming, he fashioned a mesmerizing, 3 hour and fifteen minute-long narrative that threads together many key aspects of life in the neighborhood. At 85, Wiseman has honed his craft for this kind of storytelling to an incredibly sharp point. The film speeds by, light as a feather at times and heavy with the weight of humanity at others. Immigration, gentrification, religion, politics, song, dance, discrimination, compassion, chicken-slaughtering: everything under the sun is here—and as Wiseman was first to point out at the Q&A I attended with him, that's only the half of it.
Carol does not inspire easy enthusiasm, so I will make no effort to have mine rub off on you. Everyone can agree that the film looks great, but beyond that it takes either some psychological connection or some crazy academic dedication to see what makes Carol so outstanding. Personally, I could see a lot of myself in Rooney Mara's Therese, queer and quiet and quizzical (and always hiding behind a camera), and the extreme care with which director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy assembled this story rendered Carol something of an event film for me. Beyond the specifics of the story (to which I admittedly relate less), Cate Blanchett astonishes in one of her most multifaceted performances yet; Carter Burwell pays homage to the film scores of Sirkian melodramas of old without stooping to pastiche; and Edward Lachman invokes the spirit of Edward Hopper in painting Carol and Therese's world in all its varying shades of beauty and uncertainty.
2. About Elly
I didn't need much further affirmation after A Separation that Asghar Farhadi is one of the premier dramatists working today, but About Elly gave me just that. Though not as far-reaching in its scope as the microcosmically potent Separation, Farhadi's 2009 precursor to his Oscar-winner is equally adept at welding unforeseen tragedy to the everyday. A group of middle class friends go on a waterfront vacation, bringing along their kids' schoolteacher (Elly) in the hopes of setting her up on a blind date. Despite the relative laxity of the company, there's an underlying tension to the vacation that comes to a head, L'avventura-style, when Elly suddenly vanishes. A classic tale of good intentions gone wrong, About Elly transcends the trappings of its made-for-theater plot through subtle filmmaking touches. The gentle lapping of the waves on the beach becomes a haunting, taunting threat; the periwinkle hue of the film hints at a drowning that may or may not have occurred, literally or figuratively. The movie's gripping and unsettling, all the more so for being so un-out of the ordinary.
1. The Assassin
The Assassin stands head and shoulders above every other movie I saw this year (yes, dear Mad Max, even you). In large part I suppose this owes to the sense I had while watching it that this wasn't a film so much as the actual, on-the-ground experience of 9th-century China. Everything in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's extraordinary world is alive: from the birds in the soundtrack to the mountains standing sentinel in the background. Though Hou is working firmly in the wuxia genre, his take on the beloved Chinese martial arts flick is one that prizes nonviolence, period precision, and the beauty of creation above all else. For that reason I can't heartily recommend the movie to most people: by most accounts, the lethargic pacing is infuriating and the plot esoteric. But it's also as transformative and transcendent a work of cinema as anything I've ever experienced. To tell a story and send a message with standard dramatic conventions and tropes is one thing; to do so by using sound, production design, and cinematography to integrate the viewer into the very fabric of the film's universe is another entirely.
Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't leave some space to mention Room, Mistress America, Spotlight, and Sicario. While they didn't quite hit the same marks as the movies on this list, they each made for memorable experiences at the theater (each, obviously, for vastly different reasons).
2015 Movies I Intended to See but for One Reason or Another Did Not: Ex Machina, The Hateful Eight, Creed, Anomalisa, Chi-Raq, Victoria
2015 Movies That Still Haven't Opened Near Me: 45 Years, Mustang, Arabian Nights, Son of Saul
A 2015 Movie I Never Intended to See and Never Will: Hard to Be a God