BEST FILM OF THE YEAR
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
An optometrist whose family survived the brutal mass genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed his brother while tending to their eye sight. Stunning. Shocking. Quiet, yet humming with danger and submerged violence. A companion piece to the perfect THE ACT OF KILLING, but different in every way. Smaller, less cinematic in scope but not in vision. With just two films Oppenheimer has proven himself to be the single most important documentarian of his generation. The best film of the year, and part two of a landmark work in documentary history.
A transgender sex worker newly out of jail tears through Hollywood on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart. Amazing from frame one. Exploding with energy and heart and authenticity. Shot entirely on the iPhone, which makes it sound like a gimmick, but I can’t express the joy and power that this film possesses. Just a fucking blast. If punk-ass DIY humanism is your thing, this is your jam.
An aging folk singer is tried in court on charges of abetment of suicide, accused of performing an inflammatory song targeting worker’s rights abuses in India which the government claims incited one such worker to kill himself. As the trial unfolds, the personal lives of the lawyers and the judge involved in the case are observed outside the court, until deftly, quietly, comically, the Indian legal system is utterly eviscerated. Astounding in tone, structure and formalism. This is Tamhane’s first feature film, an amazing achievement from a new and powerful cinematic voice.
4. MAD MAX FURY ROAD
A female war-rig driver rebels against her tyrannical ruler in a post apocalyptic world by helping his prized harem escape into the wastelands, while reluctantly assisted by a drifter named Max. In our age of plastic cinema, tired remakes and safe corporate I.P. investments that are whipped into cultural frenzies, the craziest of all franchises returns like a runaway train, doubling down on the insanity that has kept it a vital part of counter-culture cinema all these years. The rarest thing in the world is a hundred-million dollar film that embraces pure cinema craft, aspires to operatic scope and doesn’t give a fuck about the viewer’s notions of what it’s supposed to be. A big-budget summer movie that is as much art as it is action. Motherfucking movie heaven.
5. Jafar Panahi’s TAXI
Director/writer/Cinematographer/Star: Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi continues to defy his court-order ban from making movies by the Iranian government with this, his third film since he was arrested for cinema propaganda. Here he poses as a taxi driver and uses both non-actors and scripted scenes to explore the social challenges facing Iran, as well as the role of cinema in culture, particularly under extreme and oppressive leadership. Part documentary, part staged gleeful rebellion, the film strikes a wonderful tone. Panahi is a personal hero of mine. His joy and humanism remains unfettered by the state that struggles to control him. He is one of our most important directors working today, if only because when he picks up a camera, it’s against the law.
Director: Asif Kapadia
The devastating story of Amy Winehouse and a damning portrait of her circle of friends, lover and family who prized her fame over her emotional safety. Often told in her own words, featuring unseen archival footage and some genuinely gorgeous sequences of her recording in the studio, including a scene with Tony Bennet that’s pretty amazing. Whether you’re a fan or not, the story is powerful and it’s impossible to walk away from it without feeling heartbroken for the young girl who just wanted to make music, but hated – and often tried to subvert – the fame that hounded her.
7. BEST OF ENEMIES
Incredibly effective at achieving multiple thematic ends without coming off as overly dense, this documentary about the series of televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley explores the current state of our discourse, giving us a history lesson on the genesis moment of television punditry. It’s also a fascinating look inside network news in the time of American political convention “gavel- to-gavel” coverage, the last time such coverage ever happened. It’s an exploration of how TV changes us, or at the very least, reveals us to ourselves, both as people who long to be in front of its cameras, and as a nation who watches it. It’s about how the two sides of the late 1960’s culture war found their primetime voices. It’s about class, and how where we come from, or how where we wish we had come from, affects how and what we think. It’s about the personal journeys of the intellectuals at the center of it – gay left-leaning best selling counter-culture author Vidal and establishment defending policy-affecting conservative Buckley – and how their confrontation never really left the center stage of their own minds. But most spectacularly, it’s about how the issues of a turbulent period (our republic caught in an ongoing war of attrition, race riots in the streets, the all too familiar rhetoric of income and racial inequality at the center of the political debate) never really ended.
8. The Second Mother
The estranged daughter of a live-in housekeeper moves in with her mother and in doing so challenges the universal definition of family, how money impacts character and the unspoken class barriers that exist in Brazilian society. The movie is incredibly deft with its themes and characters and light on its feet with its tone. Regina Case is a wonder to behold, utterly emotive and perfectly natural in her skin, making her performance the strongest of the year for me.
9. Queen of Earth
Two young white women who grew up rich together and have never had to support themselves retreat to a family lake house so that one can recover from the breakup of her longterm relationship. As the women discover they have drifted apart one begins to show signs of a mental breakdown while the other becomes more and more emotionally cruel. The film is genius in its ability to create a dark comedy out of the descent into madness while still having a great deal to say about genuine emotional instability, particularly among those who can “afford” to go crazy. Elisabeth Moss’ performance is simultaneously powerful and hilarious… which is true of every aspect of this film. In form the movie descends right along with her, and what begins as a minimal pastoral exercise – and perhaps an over-reliance on close-up – quickly becomes the only filmic technique that could possibly echo the interior landscape of the central character. It is a movie that I found myself wanting to re-watch immediately and one I couldn’t stop talking about. What it had to say about madness and, in this situation, its connection to class, seemed so unspoken and so deeply buried in the subtext of what is often an outrageous and intentionally over-baked work that decoding how it made me feel became a personal mission. One I’m still failing at. While watching it I was either laughing at it or staring at the screen with my head tilted like a dog trying to get some depth perception. Writer/director Perry has said in interviews that “Queen of Earth” is not a comedy, which feels like a genuine comment… but also hilariously, impossibly absurd… like the film itself.
10. Welcome to Leith
A documentary chronicling the attempted takeover of a small town in North Dakota by notorious white supremacist and Neo-Nazi Craig Cobb, filmed in the days leading up to Cobb’s arrest for terrorizing the townspeople with an “open-carry” rifle on an “armed patrol”, and his subsequent release from jail six months later. The movie explores the limits of freedom and micro-community democracy in the face of a horribly toxic ideology, but it also ultimately illuminates the strength of the true, inclusive American ideal and the flaccid, empty philosophy behind the organized white supremacy movement in the United States. A fascinating document that, along the way, manages to shatter small-town cliches.
OTHER GREAT WORK DONE THIS YEAR
An austere 1950s lesbian love story about a New York department-store clerk who falls for an older, married woman. A beautifully constructed tale of the embattled lifestyle, inherent sacrifices and outright injustices female gay-culture faced at the time. Haynes’s style seems to become more and more classical and delicate with each passing film and Rooney Mara is ephemeral and utterly believable. Cate Blanchett…well, at this point I don’t have to tell anyone… is perfection.
Director: Crystal Moselle
A documentary about the Angulo brothers, six boys who were locked in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for much of their childhood and learned about the outside world through the films they watched. With nothing else to do they reenacting their favorite movies using elaborate homemade props and costumes. As frustrating in its gaping narrative holes as it is fascinating in its subject matter.
Straddled between last year and this, I’m slipping it in here because I saw it early in 2015 and it deserves to be talked about. Particularly since no other horror film really captured my imagination this year (MOMMY came close, but didn’t quite hit the mark). A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after a casual sexual encounter. Ostensibly an obvious exploitive metaphor for STD’s the film is shot and cut together with great care, and also features the best soundtrack of the year. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of those rare films where its flaws only make it more charming.
In the World War I Ottoman province of Hijaz, a young Bedouin boy embarks on a perilous journey to guide a British officer to his secret destination. This is the kind of adventure story we rarely see in cinema anymore. Juxtaposing a small-scale coming of age drama against the vast desert backdrop in a time of great historical chaos and shifting cultural conflict. And, in the same way, contrasting a languid pace with a constant life and death struggle. Just good, old-fashion cinema.
Tomas is too much for his single mother so she sends him to live with his older brother Federico, aka Sombra, in Mexico City. Together, with Sombra’s friends, they stumble through an existential and politically charged cityscape in a film that borrows heavily from the youth cinema of the French New Wave. While the movie is derivative, it’s beautifully shot (this cannot be understated – the black and white photography is gorgeous) and a joy to watch as it lambast politics, philosophy and cinema itself. Has it been done better? Sure. But if you’re going to copy someone, might as well copy Goddard.
STILL MORE GREAT MOVIES
Five-year-old Jack and his mother have been kept hostage in a shed for Jack’s entire life. Emerging into the almost incomprehensibly larger world will not be easy. The movie benefits immensely from being told almost exclusively from Jack’s point of view, and young Jacob Tremblay does an incredible job with heavy material. A deeply emotional experience.
Every Last Child
Director: Tom Roberts
Documentary about the families and healthcare workers who find themselves in danger of being the victims of Al Qaeda violence as they attempt to eradicate polio from Pakistan. Extraordinary story about real heroes.
The New Girlfriend
It was a strong year for gender-challenging cinema. Between TANGERINE – one of the very best of the year) – THE DANISH GIRL and now this. But I thought this was a better film than the THE DANISH GIRL, even with its flaws (one major character’s close-mindedness comes off forced and overdramatic). Maybe I’m just a fan of that weird Ozon tone. A fun flick that relishes in its melodrama.
Rocky is a franchise that relies on a particular formula and rarely has that formula been used in the service of good. Much of this film feels really wonderful and for the first time in a long time the formula succeeds at elevating the viewer’s spirits instead of coming off as tired and boring. But the final fight, the heart of any Rocky film, is sadly under-dramatized and seems cursory. Still, a movie with a lot of heart, and Michael B. Jordan’s performance is powerful.
The story of a young girl’s first emotional crises – told from inside her mind. A lovely metaphorical kid’s adventure flick about what goes on, not just in their heads, but in everyone’s. It’s not Pixar’s best, but it somehow feels like their most human (and that’s saying a lot for Pixar, as the movie illuminates to children – and adults – how all our emotions, even the ones that seem to work against us, actually act in concert to serve the grand purpose of making us who we are. By giving young people a visual metaphor to help them understand their inner world, Pixar can only make the outer world a better and more understanding place.
I’m not really into all the new modern iterations of Sherlock Holmes. I like the period stuff, that’s where he belongs to my mind, so this little film really scratched an itch for me. Watching the great Ian McKellen play an aging Holmes whose mind has begun to betray him was an absolute joy. And the smallness of the case he confronts was refreshing. The most human take on Holmes we’ve seen in a long, long time. Just lovely.
This was way more fun than I thought it would be. Instead of relying solely on fat jokes and broad slapstick, the movie searches for humor in its theme, the idea that traditionally “unattractive” women are invisible in our society. Repeatedly the film digs its teeth into that concept and tears in, taking a break only to mock other forms of misogyny in the workplace. This sustained, thematic attack elevates everything about the film and speaks to what’s appealing about McCarthy as a performer. Also, McCarthy’s character is incredibly capable, if a little insecure, and so the comedy never comes from her incompetence. It’s true that Feig isn’t much of an action director, but if you’re going to this for the action then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Having said that, McCarthy actually turns out to be the most interesting action star of the year, and putting her in the role of a “bad-ass” is inspired. Also, Rose Byrne utterly outstanding.
ANTICIPATED FILMS NOT YET VIEWED
Here’s the films I was excited to see this year but that slipped passed me.
Spike Lee’s modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago seems to have arrived right on time in the year of the incredibly important Black Lives Mater movement (or possibly even a little late).
I’ve been eagerly anticipating Yorgos Lanthimos next film ever since DOGTOOTH became one of my favorites of this decade. I don’t how that son-of-bitch slipped past me.
This potentially visually-stunning film about Ukrainian deaf culture hit my radar literally the day after it left theaters here in Los Angeles. I’ve been trying to track it down on the big screen ever since, once even contemplating driving to San Diego just to see it in a theater. Balls.
The Big Short
I’m obsessed with the 2008 financial collapse.
Comes highly recommended by people I trust, but don’t always agree with. A fantastic trailer.