Note: I usually name this annual entry “10 Best Films of (whatever year)”, but since I was busy in 2015, I didn’t see enough movies to feel confident declaring these the overall best. Therefore, these are simply my favorites. Of course, “best” is just a pompous way of saying “favorite”. So really, nothing has changed. Happy New Year!
Director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel is gorgeous and profound, a romance built on a dream of the past. In my favorite performance of the year, Rooney Mara plays a soft-spoken Manhattan shopgirl in the 1950’s, who falls in love with a charismatic older woman (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey patrician in the midst of a difficult divorce. Haynes often films the actors in close-ups through panes — a rainy car window, a foggy telephone booth — that force the viewer to observe the subjects with obscured scrutiny. The film is in many ways a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama of repression. But unlike Haynes’ similar film, Far From Heaven, with its unspoken suffering and desire, Carol is ultimately about confidence and freedom. It’s optimistic about romantic actualization. Its lovers are not ashamed to be unapologetically themselves, to lock eyes across a crowded room, indifferent to whomever is watching or judging.
2. Inside Out
Inside Out was literally the brainiest movie to emerge from Hollywood this year. It was also the most emotionally elaborate. From Pixar studios, this animation explores the psychological and mental headspace of eleven-year-old Riley. Her five major emotions (joy, anger, fear, disgust and sadness) are illustrated as humanoids in a control tower. When her family moves to a new city, she starts to experience unfamiliar thoughts and feelings. Inside Out cleverly plays with various elements of human psychology: imagination, fascination, abstraction, etc. Typical of Pixar’s brand, though, the mature ideas are framed by an adventure story that kids can enjoy. But when a film makes me sad, only to then comfort me by suggesting that sadness is itself a healthy part of one’s emotional development and complexion, I can forgive some silly characters and plot turns.
3. The Hateful Eight
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino works as an entertainer often, but never has he worked so clearly as a provocateur. After controversy about racism and violence in his films, The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino in a rage, upping the carnage and complicating the politics. Set in Wyoming after the Civil War, the plot involves several unsavory men and one woman, a condemned convict, holed-up in a cabin during a blizzard, and nobody is who they say they are. I didn’t love the payoff, but Tarantino moderates his cheeky reference-making in order to expose the hypocrisy inherent in most exclamatory issues of violence and racism, evidenced in the film by a Rebel marauder turned lawman and a former slave guilty of lynching and rape. The woman — the story’s most conspicuous plot device and, maybe, its hero — is silenced by men, handcuffed to them, with little control over her own fate. Tarantino comments on genre, Hollywood, and, as Westerns often do, society in general.
4. 45 Years
John Milius said, “Ambiguity is a tool of the artist.” Few filmmakers utilize that tool well. Andrew Haight, the director of 45 Years, employs ambiguity with the utmost precision, suppressing his story of marital fissure in the blackest recesses of secrets and shadows. One week before their eponymous anniversary, Jeff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) become tormented by a past event that only now reveals itself. The story is mounted like a cruel mystery, with vital information revealed sparingly or not at all. It is filmed as mundane realism, which counters the complex emotions beneath the bourgeois surfaces. The sound mix makes background noises — wind whipping the house, voices in a cafe — into whispered ciphers. Many scenes end in wakeful darkness. In 45 Years, a soulmate becomes a stranger, and Kate is left horrified by what she never knew about her husband, and by all the things she never will.
While no classic, Unfriended was too fascinating to dismiss. Teens on a Skype session are terrorized by an unknown force, either their classmate’s vengeful ghost or somebody impersonating it. Its identity remains a mystery until the very end, but be it hacker or poltergeist, the movie brilliantly conflates them: i.e. when our active lives move online, hacking becomes a form of haunting, an inescapable malevolence that seems to be everywhere, infecting everything. The kids’ deaths at its hands, implied suicides, are both clever and plausible in the era of cyber bullying. One girl’s Mac desktop provides the entire (unreliable) narration, as she frantically clicks between applications, windows and browsers, in what could be described as digital stream-of-consciousness. When it’s clear she’s trying to convince herself that she’s guiltless in her classmate’s death, Unfriended shows how the internet so effectively reinforces the delusions of its users.
Charlie Kaufman is known for thinking outside the box. Written and co-directed by Kaufman, with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa was made using stop-motion animation, with characters who look like anthropomorphic plush toys with robot faces barely hinged together. It follows a customer service guru on a business trip to Cincinnati, where he attempts to reconnect with an old lover, and eventually develops a bond with a female fan in town for his lecture. It’s hard to describe the film fully without giving away its secrets, but Kaufman and Johnson beautifully, hauntingly use sci-fi imagery to visualize an intense loneliness that only a human could feel. The protagonist is so overcome with interpersonal monotony that everybody becomes a clone of the very same stranger. Does Anomalisa depict mental illness, mid-life crisis or the way superficial attractions are bound to fade? Kaufman leaves the answer up to us.
It’s true that Brooklyn was probably your grandmother’s favorite film of 2015. It’s nostalgic, romantic and, remarkably, even pragmatic. The effortlessly talented Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish immigrant in the 1950’s who struggles adjusting to life in New York City. She falls in love with a charming Dodger fan (Emory Cohen), but is drawn first emotionally, then physically, back to her homeland. Written by English novelist Nick Hornby, based on a book by Colm Toibin, the story shows an ambivalence toward Ireland that could be described as Joycean. The filmmaking feels like the love-child of Douglas Sirk and John Ford, part Weepy, part paean. A tribute to the immigrant’s journey, and the nation that was built on her back, Brooklyn is furthermore about maturation and experience, about the factors in choosing not only your home, but your identity, too.
Many German films about the post-war years deal with guilt and betrayal. Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold, is one of the more unassuming and mysterious iterations. A concentration camp survivor returns home after the war facially disfigured. After surgical reconstruction, her unwitting husband exploits the residual resemblance and teaches her to impersonate his “wife” so he can claim her inheritance. The film is like Vertigo meets The Third Man, but with a fascinating obscurity all its own. We’re left to ponder why the woman goes along with the ruse. The answer, I think, is that she’s afraid to embrace her new reality, and will do anything to reclaim her old life. Phoenix makes her experience a metaphor for Germany after the war: broken and then rebuilt, at odds with its history and nervous about the future, reluctantly, arduously negotiating its demons.
9. Far From The Madding Crowd
Good adaptations of fine literature come along so rarely that it’s important to celebrate them when they do. Directed by Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg, Far From The Madding Crowd is based on the same-named Victorian novel by Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy’s prose, Vinterberg’s film has a modest, classical eloquence. Carey Mulligan plays a rural Englishwoman who inherits a farm. Unmarried, she’s placed in the rare position of boss, landowner and financier, which makes her attractive to many suitors. The film stays faithful to the book’s wary romanticism, agrarian idealism and progressive gender politics, as it shows a heroine allowed to fail or succeed on her own terms, with some semblance of control over her own romantic and professional destiny. While certainly more transgressive in 1874, Madding Crowd nevertheless has morals worth reminding modern audiences, and relaying new to the many misogynistic cultures of today.
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is far from the same area-code as perfect. The plot is discursive, the politics intransigent and the resolution simplistic. But there was not a more imaginative film all year. An update of ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the film, set on Chicago’s ultra-violent south side, follows a gang-leader’s girlfriend; after a child’s death by stray bullets, she rallies neighborhood women in a sex strike, to motivate the men to make peace. The dialogue is written in hybrid blank verse and slam poetry. Samuel L. Jackson chimes in and out as a one-man Greek chorus. There are sumptuously mounted musical numbers, an attention-grabbing rap prologue, and Dave Chapelle in a hysterical cameo as a strip club proprietor. Chi-Raq is a filmmaking eruption, a directorial feat, and there’s nothing subtle about it. But when you’re protesting for peace, subtlety is is not exactly a virtue.
Honorable Mentions: The Assassin, Clouds of Sils Maria, It Follows, Mad Max Fury Road, and Tangerine