Sunday, January 17, 2016

The 50 Best Films of 2015

2015 is a strange year for film which a purgatory of many notable films plateau at "very good" but few forge the final summit of "exceptional." Early in the year, at the decade's halfway point, I combed through my list to come up with an in-progress top 100.  I've never written about nearly as many as 50 films in a year-end recap which speaks to the strength of this year's output through, proportionally, the year is underrepresented with only (currently) 13 entries.  Worse, only two in the top 30.  To put it another way, I had Clouds of Sils Maria on my 2014 list despite its 2015 U.S. release.  It was #13 on my 2014 list.  It would have been #4 on this one.

Perhaps part of the problem is unfair expectation as five of my top ten most anticipated movies of the year weren't released.  A few other auteur pieces not only missed their mark but became my least favorite of their directors' filmographies (Crimson Peak, The Hateful Eight).  Yet there's plenty of time for these titles to grow as some certainly have (Macbeth, 45 Years) even in a short spell.

2015 also marked my first opportunity to work on an independent film and this unexpectedly changed my view of the medium.  Experiencing the fruitful, collaborative process first hand paints the auteur theory as something of a sham: on an abbreviated seven-day shoot with Hollywood talent, I witnessed the bare-bones façade of the medium stripped of its magic yet also sat on a barstool providing passive fill onto Tom Sizemore and was overcome with emotion that actors can evoke like a switch.  In a way, the best I ever aspire to provide on this blog is passive fill.

I post this ever-growing list before it becomes irrelevant despite its deficiencies.  Notable absences awaiting to be screened include (in order of decreasing interest) In Jackson Heights, The Babysitter Murders, Of Men and War, Approaching the Elephant, RamsHorse Money, Heart of a Dog, Son of Saul, James White, The Forbidden Room, The Second Mother, Grandma, Hitchcock/Truffaut, and The Salt of the Earth.

I don't mean to sound unenthusiastic; 2015 was a very fertile year of challenging films   Much to my surprise, I even quite enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens which is a good analogy for the year: it's surprising, what it does well it does quite well, but I'll do well to temper my enthusiasm.  Here's to a couple Malicks in 2016.

50. Right Now, Wrong Then (d. Hong Sang-soo)

The bittersweet lilt of Richard Linklater told through Jim Jarmusch's extended takes by way of Takeshi Miike's proliferation, the films of Hong Sang-soo are regularly, mockingly autobiographical and thematically repetitive.  His latest, Right Now, Wrong Then, takes this one step closer to parody by telling its same central narrative twice.  Like our personal failures-- ones which we would never accept from film characters but repeat in endless cycles-- its characters are hard-wired and victims of circumstance more than we'd like to admit.  Perhaps too much characterization is forced onto our director protagonist through passive dialogue, but I forgive it under the presumption that public figures must often struggle in rectifying their true selves against public opinion. It's human and I hear its music.

49. Taxi (d. Jafar Panahi)

It's impossible to not admire the ardor that drives Jafar Panahi's mission. Arrested and charged with -propaganda against the Iranian government and sentenced to a six-year jail term and twenty-year ban from filmmaking, media interviews and foreign travel, Panahi has emerged from jail (post-hunger strike) a relentless punk.  He now thumbs his nose at this hypocrisy by naming his illegal films This Is Not A Film and having them smuggled out of the country to international festivals inside of cakes.

His latest, Taxi, is a strange form of scripted unscripted documentary in which Panahi poses as a cab driver in Tehran.  His lack of bearings despite his assumed profession is but one of many humorous indictments of a system likely to imprison him, physically or mentally, for the rest of his life. A true boundary-pusher in terms of medium, genre and legality, Panahi sacrifices everything for the truth of his art.

48. Jauja (d. Lisandro Alonso)

As a big fan of Gus Van Sant's death trilogy, it comes as no surprise that I admire the niche of Jauja's expectation shirking and meditative cinematography.  What I was unprepared for was a sci-fi ending that floored me.

47. Pan (d. Joe Wright)

An interesting thesis could be written in twenty years comparing the critical and commercial success of big-budget, recycled children's stories directed at young women this decade (Maleficent, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland) to their counterparts, dismal failures directed at young men (John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer).

Be it a failure in marketing or irrelevance to audiences, Joe Wright's Pan has earned its place alongside the latter.  A shame, too, as it has more panache, mythos and humanity than any of this year's superhero movies..

46. Ned Rifle (d. Hal Hartley)

I came for Parker Posey and Aubrey Plaza.  I stayed for the Vonnegut per viam Aristophanes.

45. Blackhat (d. Michael Mann)

Nobody does balletic viscera or crowded violence better than Michael Mann. That he is one of America's best visual storytellers and has fallen out of critical favor in electing for straightforward projects which parallel his effortless gift is laughable considering how the highly lauded and the didactic often go hand in hand.  He's an action director who would make Eisenstein weep.  It is no small feet that the chaos is always comprehensible.  More than that, beautiful.  Tell me this isn't the Odessa steps.

44. Girlhood (d. Céline Sciamma)

Sciamma remains a favorite here in terms of blog traffic and Girlhood continues her tradition of discovering superb young talent.  The dance scene to Rihanna's "Diamonds" is, perhaps, the most honest scene in cinema this year.

43. Appropriate Behaviour (d. Desiree Akhavan)

Akhavan's debut feature is a welcome entry in this decade's fertile genre of "women-in-their-late-twenties-who-don't-have-their-shit-together comedies".  What's refreshing is our protagonist's express naiveté in a genre often filled with too-cool-for-school culture bullies.  It's Lena Dunham without the "Girls" soundtrack and Eloise tattoo..

42. She's Funny That Way (d. Peter Bogdanovich)

Here’s what critics said that RottenTomatoes won’t tell you:
“[His] job on this film could hardly be called inspired.” – Toledo Blade 
“The film proceeds… to a [too] conventional ending.” – The Sydney Morning Herald 
“[T]oo pat and precocious, too confounded cute, and the humor has a dogged sameness.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 
These are not the criticisms of film scholar Peter Bogdanovich's latest panned film, but of Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown published in 1946: the Sullivan's Travels to She's Funny That Way's O Brother, Where Art Thou. Lubitsch's final film was neither a significant box office nor critical success and I fear Bogdanovich might join him in closing out his career to wide disinterest.

What RottenTomatoes will tell you is that Illegally Yours holds a 0% approval rating and, perhaps, its as critically en vogue to make a screwball comedy in the classical style in the politically distraught 2015 as it was to make a reverent Hollywood musical (At Long Last Love) in the cynical, subversive New Hollywood of the 1970s.  Lubitsch's 91% Tomatometer score for Cluny Brown exposes the anachronism that critics often revere the bygone.  Strange that when Bogdanovich has crafted straight-laced genre love letters to the bygone era, groupthink calls it uninspired, too conventional and pat.

The time for a reevaluation of Bogdanovich's output is now.  He is a national treasure born into the wrong generation who will be long gone before the critics send their flowers.

41. Slow West (d. John Maclean)

2015 marks the second year in a row that a Scottish indie-rock pioneer I greatly admire made a surprise directorial debut with a reverent genre film.  Perhaps 2016 will be the year Mogwai make their titular horror debut?

40. Tangerine (d. Sean Baker)

Every time I hear someone in Iñárritu's camp sell the spectacle of their cinematography in the name of art, I think of Tangerine which was also shot with largely natural light, but on an iPhone.  A humble case of content alongside form, free of pretension,

39. Results (d. Andrew Bujalski)

A "romantic comedy" from the guy that brought us Computer Chess, Results basks in the same awkwardness of the former's inability to arbitrate the mechanics of human sexuality and the soul of technology, here trying to span the gap between money and happiness like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

38. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (d. Roy Andersson)

A "comedy" in the existential sense that to live this human life is a comedy, the final installment in Andersson's trilogy "about being a human being" opens with "three encounters with death."  An unnamed man dies of a heart attack while his wife noisily does the dishes in the adjacent room. It's done in Andersson's signature extended single-take with an immobile camera.  It is difficult to watch and is only funny in that we cope with the uncopable through humor.

My father, afraid of dying alone, has often repeated a statistic that 50% of first-time heart attacks are deadly.  He had a heart attack the day after I watched this movie.  I coped by visiting him in the cardiac unit and saying, "and you didn't think you were going to make it."  A slight variation on this joke, my dad tells the story that I walked in and said "you didn't make it."  I don't know which version is darker, but I think Andersson would get a kick out of it.

37. Spotlight (d. Tom McCarthy)

A perfectly adequate Oscar frontrunner which plays it safe without offending.  Here's hoping the Oscar voters double-down on their promise to recognize Mark Ruffalo rather than the early buzz which had Michael Keaton stealing his... er... spotlight.  His is the rare breathtaking, understated performance that slyly steals the show.

36. World of Tomorrow (d. Don Hertzfeldt)

Full disclosure:  I've never liked Don Hertzfeldt.  I've found his films largely misanthropic and his bleak worldview self-aggrandizing.  That his crude, simplistic animation style lacks joy and beauty is consistent to his philosophy but not what I find meritorious within the medium.  It's largely a personal ethic; I believe there to be right and wrong answers in the liberal arts and, if you're going to laugh yourself into a tizzy watching a stick figure bleed to death out of his own ass, by all means, don't let me stop you.  But your drawing should at least look like you give a damn.

My single biggest surprise of this year was finding Hertzfeldt's foray into science fiction both moving and ingenuous.  Its themes were popular in 2015: engineered consciousness (Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World), the inability to communicate what makes us human (Anomolisa, Kumiko) and the bitter acquiescence to the untrumpable passing of time (While We're Young, 45  Years, When Marnie Was Here).  I was resistant to this film, but it got its hooks in me.

35. Magic Mike XXL (d. Gregory Jacobs)

34. Two Step (d. Alex R. Johnson)

One of the most pleasant surprises of the year, what Alex R. Johnson's directorial debut lacks in writing it more than makes up for in exploitation cognition.  Like It Follows, atmosphere is palpable.  Not one but two jump scares shook me; no small feat to a guy who watched 200 horror movies in the month of October.

33. (T)ERROR (d. Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe)

Todd Haynes recently praised the filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock (re: their adaptions of Patricia Highsmith) saying he had the uncanny visual gift to make the viewer feel dread and culpability in the plight of his films' protagonists.  The increased avenues of distribution and the economy of digital filmmaking in the past decade has allowed this disquiet to seep into documentary with increased regularity.  Last year's Citizenfour put us in the hotel room with Edward Snowden as he became the world's most wanted man.  Now, (T)ERROR rats out FBI intelligence as they are communicating with informants.

We shouldn't be there and the film knows this.  Part message and social justice film (while remaining relatively morally unbiased, no small feat), (T)ERROR is most effective as a thriller with an unease you can cut with a knife.

32. Welcome To Me (d. Shira Piven)

A cousin to John Cassavetes' A Child Is Waiting, if it were produced by Tim and Eric rather than Stanley Kramer.  Kristen Wiig would be nominated for an Academy Award in a just world.

31. Chi-Raq (d. Spike Lee)

I've lamented the decline in critical acceptance to many directors in this piece (Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Mann), but none are as unjust as the film industry's treatment of Spike Lee.  Perhaps the most alarming reason being that he still has it.  It's an odd world in which the projects Spike wants to make (like Red Hook Summer) play in only 41 theaters at their widest release, while his outstanding documentary work on subjects such as THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC (Bad 25) get no distribution.

I hate Chi-Raq's comparisons to Do The Right Thing.  Not only because they are lazy, but because they presuppose Spike Lee has had every opportunity but for some reason or other been off his mark practically since Michael Jackson's Bad.

Chi-Raq is vital not in spite of, but through its polarization.  Sometimes you learn art is true by the work it does in you rather than what you bring to the table.  This was a lesson hard learned when I saw Bamboozled in 1999.  And when I finally saw Get On The Bus a few years back.  And when-- though, this time, already a member of the choir-- HBO aired When The Levees Broke.

Spike Lee isn't the kind of didactic voice which condescends, he's the kind of voice that acts as a termite in the system's framework.  There will always be haters: Chicago rapper King Louie released "Fuck Spike Lee" on December 4 in response to Lee's call to disarm.  Nineteen days later, King Louie was shot in the face and the cycle continues.  Lee keeps gnawing.

Lee is never a voice which claims to have all the answers.  That the film industry has relegated him to roles which largely curtail his asking questions is the crime.

30. Call Me Lucky (d. Bobcat Goldthwait)

My dad has a crutch of an adage he leans on when the modern world seems overwhelming: "life was simpler in the '50s."  Bobcat Goldthwait's documentary about the life of Barry Crimmins shakes that theory's foundation and leaves its viewer in a darkness without bearings.

That we learn the title to be unironic sinks us even deeper.

29. Tomorrowland (d. Brad Bird)

I'm afraid Disney is going to get cold feet and pull development on "boy" adventure narratives (at least ones not named Star Wars) after the perceived disappointment of John Carter, The Lone Ranger and now Tomorrowland and stick to self-cannibalization with a decided "female" slant.

Funny as Tomorrowland and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are both formulaic "boy" adventures with which they've had the insight to give strong female protagonists agency.  Still, as with Joe Wright's Pan, audiences just don't seem to care.

Don't get me wrong, Tomorrowland is far from airtight; it takes on a lot of water.  That Bird champions its sense of wonder and doesn't shy away from, but humanizes, situations which seem traditionally uncomfortable is all the more admirable.

Terrence Malick said, "When people express what is more important to them, it often comes out in cliches.  That doesn't make them laughable; it's something tender about them.  As though in struggling to reach what's more personal about them they could only come up with what's most public." Tomorrowland is an at times unholy mess but it, at its heart, sweeping, tender and graceful.  It's sad it lost its chance to be more public..

28. The Midnight Swim (d. Sarah Adina Smith)

A brilliant companion to Studio Ghibli's When Marnie Was Here, this found-footage horror film (which is neither, really, found-footage nor horror), uses a nearly all-female cast to examine how we are a continuation of our parents ghosts, how willingly we accept image as truth, and pulls no punches staring into the black.

27. The Assassin (d. Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Like the best poetry, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's long-awaited return speaks not only in non-literal terms, but perhaps unliteral ones.  That is to say, I could regurgitate the synopsis I later read on Wikipedia, but it has nothing to do with how I experienced the movie.  If difference suspends meaning through an endless gauntlet of signifiers, perhaps a side of The Assassin, like the peace of God, gladly surpasses all understanding.

26. Creed (d. Ryan Coogler)

I hope in 2001 someone placed a prop bet in Vegas and paid off his mortgage on the inclination that 2015 would see the seventh Fast & the Furious movie, the seventh Star Wars movie and the seventh Rocky movie and that they would all be good.  The odds couldn't have been much better than that of winning the $1.3 billion Powerball.

25. Entertainment (d. Rick Alverson)

If Seymour: An Introduction and Steve Jobs are opposite sides of the same coin regarding how we measure out our life in coffeespoons, Rick Alverson's Entertainment paints us the improbability of the coin landing on its side.

24. Timbuktu (d. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Political empathy is never enough for me to endorse a movie no matter how strongly I might applaud its intentions.  This is a problem I have with much of the didactic, overly-serious foreign fare the Academy nominates every year and why I entered Timbuktu with a jaundiced eye.

Such cynicism vanished instantly and reminded me that the best films inform us about ourselves.  A scene early in the movie comes to mind when armed townspeople argue over what I presumed was militant, revolutionary behavior until we learn they're debating the merits of Zinedine Zidane vs. Lionel Messi.  Is it a cheap screenwriting tactic that borders on manipulative? Yes.  But what is cinema if not careful manipulation that we give ourselves over to in nips.

The power of Timbuktu is in its forcing me to see the ugliness inside myself when I thought I was an ally.  Graceful, essential viewing.

23. The Duke of Burgundy (d. Peter Strickland)

Bechdel test?  Try Bechdel doctoral thesis.

22. Louis C.K.: Live at the Comedy Store (d. Louis C.K.)

In classic Louie form, C.K. almost downplayed this film upon its (self-)release by saying, "This special kind of goes back to when I used to just make noises and be funny for no particular reason."  I'm telling you, though, he does this Ray Bolger impression and I laughed for about three straight weeks.

21. The Look of Silence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Even more subversive than The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer develops a harrowing scheme to troll surviving individuals culpable in the 1965 Indonesian "communist" killings under the pretense of an eye exam (an intensely powerful metaphor for how we see-- and refuse to see-- ourselves, and the dynamism of the recorded image, two more popular theme in 2015).

20. 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets (d. Marc Silver)

HBO's honest go at Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records' "Hell You Talmbout."

19. Boy & the World (d. Alê Abreu)

An idea as to the precision with which the essentially dialog-less Boy & the World taps into the psyche of a child, the clarity and sincerity of its worldview and the baggage with which we construct our lives as an adult: the titular boy, Cuca is crushed at the beginning of the film as his father leaves home.  I spent much of the film's duration assuming the boy's parents had divorced until the father returns having found work.

The realization of my error only impressed the palpability of my fear.  I am going to be a father in about five weeks.  I can't wait to watch this with my daughter.

18. Experimenter (d. Michael Almereyda)

Superior to, and overshadowed by, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Almereyda's biopic fits more nicely on a double bill with Ex Machina: if the latter draws empathy to the humanity of the scientist's creation, the former suggests, conversely, that it's humanity which isn't too different from the machine.  The sticky part being that the truth of the discovery isn't as cold as it sounds.  Peter Sarsgaard for Best Actor President.

17. No Home Movie (d. Chantal Akerman)

So, David Bowie died this week.  He meant a lot of things to a lot of people and his final album, released only days before his death, can almost exclusively be viewed as a rear-projection of a man grasping for immortality.  It's an interesting, fairly unexplored concept of intentionally using your craft to speak from death's doorstep.

Chantal Akerman took her own life three months ago and her films meant a lot to me.  Her final film, No Home Movie, documents interviews with her mother shortly before her 2014 (whose own mother died at Auschwitz).  The film's title, I presume, suggests a denial of timelessness associated with the medium.  Akerman once said of the film medium:
"When people are enjoying a film they say ‘I didn’t see the time go by’… but I think that when time flies and you don’t see time passing by you are robbed of an hour and a half or two hours of your life. Because all you have in life is time… With my films you’re aware of every second passing through your body."
It's easy to project domestic anxiety onto Jeanne Dielman as a feminist statement, it's more difficult, in No Home Movie, to watch time win. Akerman said of her final film, "I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn't have dared to do it."  It's more difficult to not project this same statement onto her final act.  Like Blackstar, I will only ever be able to associate this film with her death.  I only hope she found peace as the seconds counted down.

16. The Mill at Calder's End (d. Kevin McTurk)

The best Guillermo del Toro film of the year which saw an actual Guillermo del Toro film, Kevin McTurk's breathtaking, atmospheric puppet film is a reverent, affecting gothic horror that would make Jan Švankmajer weep.

That's the thing about atmosphere; it doesn't matter how many screenplays I've studied or how well I know the horror tropes, when I'm rapt by a special film, its conventions still shock me.  These 14 horrifying minutes are no exception.  Available at Vimeo.

15. Seymour: An Introduction (d. Ethan Hawke)

My grandfather was no Philistine, but one time my friend prank called him to ask his thoughts on art.  His response?  "I don't know any Art."

Watching Seymour Bernstein casually philosophize like a sensei makes me feel like I don't know any art either, but it doesn't change the fact that we need it.  It is the purest cinematic example of the transformative power of art in the worldview of the artist since Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time.

14. Bone Tomahawk (d. S. Craig Zahler)

Anyone reading this blog surely understands why I would feel that this movie sells itself.

13. While We're Young (d. Noah Baumbach)

I go back and forth on Noah Baumbach.  On one hand (and I may be one of the only people in the world to utter these words), I sympathize with Armond White's opinion that his narratives are characterized by white first-world problems verging on solipsism.  At the other end of the pendulum, former deity Wes Anderson has fallen into the irrecoverable wormhole of his own navel and Baumbach's films grow more mature in that void.

I'm not certain we're intended to condone the behavior of any character in While We're Young (or his also-good Mistress America) any more than we were supposed to condone Charles Grodin's character in The Heartbreak Kid.  That doesn't mean we don't relate to their appalling behavior.

A friend posted a Buzzfeed quiz on Facebook earlier this year calculating which "Girls" character you were.  Perhaps what Baumbach understand is every answer is abhorrent and every answer is true.

12. Bitter Lake (d. Adam Curtis)

No journalism is objective journalism just as no documentary is voiceless. Journalism-- like documentary filmmaking-- is a series of choices.  Framing and mise-en-scène are formal decisions which can (even unintentionally) capture something in a negative light. The very nature of editing is nothing but framing an argument. Even the decision as to which story is covered by a news program is a loaded decision. Adam Curtis's advocacy journalism is-- while not uncontroversial-- the most honorable type of journalism because it admits that the concept of objective journalism is a sham.

Daniel J. Leab says of “See It Now” in the era of McCarthyism, “[Edward R. Murrow] did not believe in objectivity for its own sake. He saw no value in balancing Hitler evenly against Churchill.”  This is a personal opinion as well as a moral decision, and I believe an adherence to personal ethic to be an important part of journalism. What I commend Curits (and Murrow) for is laying out his journalism as an argument and challenging viewers to consider facts and think for themselves.

This differs from much of the consumable 24/7 news networks we see today (who would have thought Anchorman 2 would actually be poignant in this arena?).  Bitter Lake demands its viewer critically engage with the workings of the powers at large, while, in my experience, the reporting on FoxNews or MSNBC make a business of preaching to the choir. 

Curtis's self-awareness recognizes that hypothesis requires subjective interpretation, but he makes his viewers think where news networks make their viewers say “that’s what I thought!” There’s a difference between arousing passion and coming away with knowledge.  Bitter Lake is more than just facts, but so is the process of learning.

11. When Marnie Was There (d. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

I was worried for about half of Studio Ghibli's latest (last?) feature that it wasn't going to work.  It recycles the studio's tropes, both good (prepubescent female protagonist deals with real-world loss and struggles with self-actualization) and bad (the dream world leans Victorian in ethic and aesthetic despite its rural Japanese setting).

It sounds like a backhanded compliment because some of the plotting wraps up too nicely (and would have worked without it), but Ghibli on cruise control is still more affecting than any output under the Pixar banner (since Disney got their fingers in development, marketing and distribution) not named Toy Story.  Consider the scene where Marnie, a new kid in a new town, calls an annoying, over-friendly companion a "fat pig."  The film understands that much of the battle of adolescence is internal and that an important lesson on the way to adulthood is confronting what makes us monstrous in the face of real pain.  Inside Out is fine (for a version of "Herman's Head" with no central conflict), but feels pap and canny by comparison.

10. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (d. David Zellner)

The famous definition of insanity misattributed to Einstein goes something like this: the expectation of different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

An addendum to this adage, I spent half a workday learning, would be trying to explain Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to a coworker who has never seen Fargo.  It's a meta exercise in myth and how images become our reality.

9. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (d. Christopher McQuarrie)

If someone told me, in 1996, that the Mission: Impossible franchise would extend beyond twenty years, that I would like each film more than its previous installment, and the fifth film-- helmed by a director with a scant résumé-- would be better than the previous four in a world overtaken by franchise, I would have believed it as far as I would have believed Tom Cruise would become a singular, polarizing, daunting innovator.  That that film is better than the attempts by New Hollywood's Brian De Palma, the visionary John Woo, Star Wars-inheritor J.J. Abrams, and Pixar golden child Brad Bird is enough to find the auteur theory dismissable.

8. Ex Machina (d. Alex Garland)

I feel that the majority of online film criticism appreciates genre bending over genre refining.  What shocked me while leaving Ex Machina is its ending was predictable at the midpoint and its young director didn't give us the Kansas City shuffle.  The film trusts its young talent to walk the straight and narrow (Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are formidable while Domhnall Gleeson's doe-eyed milquetoast protagonist makes for sparse characterization-- it was the same problem I had with Kodi Smit-McPhee in the otherwise fine Slow West, though it works better in a movie which forces identification onto a robot), and the balance it strikes between its budget-required minimalism and its believable, unique world is remarkable.

7. Spring (d. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

A companion piece to 45 Years, Spring is a tender tale of discovering monstrous betrayal in the ones we're fearlessly-- even senselessly-- devoted to and how we choose to make it work in spite of reason.

6. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller)

2015 is a strange year.  George Miller-- a man relegated by the film industry to making animated penguin movies-- gets $150m to reboot a gonzo exploitation flick with a feminist slant.  Star Wars does the same thing and gets largely lambasted for its unoriginality while Fury Road is universally acclaimed as film of the year.  Strange times, indeed.

5. 45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh)

Edifying everything I loved about Bergman in my formative years, just give Charlotte Rampling the Oscar right now and I don't even want a discussion. More than any movie this year, its barbs stick in my craw like Stephin Merritt's "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be."

4. It Follows (d. David Robert Mitchell)

The problem I have with Quentin Tarantino's criticism of David Robert Mitchell's gorgeous It Follows is that it presumes subscription to a defined horror logic.  It denies the film its rich, surreal qualities and forces it into an unfair box of simple "monster film" when, like a skewed When Marnie Was Here, it is more a horror movie of time, of experience and of working one's way through adolescence.

Even more interesting is Tarantino naming Tenebre as containing his favorite movie death scene while giallo doesn't get so much as a footnote among his genre-heavy list of "Coolest Movies of All Time."  Scholar Gary Neednam said "by its very nature the giallo challenges our assumptions about how non-Hollywood films should be classified, going beyond the sort of Anglo-American taxonomic imaginary that 'fixes' genre both in film criticism and the film industry in order to designate something specific."

Perhaps the subversive, genre-bending auteur is more of a traditionalist than he lets on.  Judging from his tedious genre work on The Hateful Eight, he could take a lesson in grace and humility offered in this giallo-inspired marvel.

3. '71 (d. Yann Demange)

Pacifist Bertrand Russell famously said, "patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country."  I think much of this is tied to the lack of ambiguity afforded the soldier's worldview. Yann Demange's debut feature, a harrowing historical war film played to the tune of dystopian sci-fi, abhors the monotony of the war machine but paints its horrors afresh.  Nothing in the picture is black-and-white, not politics, not nationalistic or religious sympathies, but, despite soldier ethic being diametrically facile, the film most empathizes with the soldier in a murky world.  It's difficult, it's timely, and it sadly got swept away from the year-end discussions.

2. Macbeth (d. Justin Kurzel)

I have poor stereotype threat test performance when it comes to Shakespeare.  Throw in a few audience members audibly laughing at an ironic twist in the tragedy and I sink further into my seat even if I'm certain it's pretense.  

Fortunately, Justin Kurzel brings something to the film medium the Shakespearean stage never could.  The formal representation of landscape is not an expression of character psychology as much as it holds its characters hostage as pawns in nature's immovable will.  That is to say, what I missed in dialogue (at least until an English subtitle aids my next viewing) was mitigated by cinematography.  Lady Macbeth challenging the dominant cultural ideologies of gender politics is extra-textually aided by both the script's decision to link lineage (and the impetus of their pain) to femininity in the opening shot and a mise-en-scène of feminized imagery in a paradise lost.

It explores sex drive across gender lines as men's only nature is violence and penetration upon a cyclical, dank, tactile earth of feminized creation. The sun is regularly shrouded in cloud and fog while cinematography denies us horizon for bearings.  It echoes Nicholas Winding Refn in its conjuring of Tarkovsky which is to say it instructs through image.

Visually and psychologically, versions by Welles and Polanski seem almost jejune by comparison. 

1. Anomalisa (d. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman)

I don't mean to throw shade at Pixar, but the emotional expanse excavated in three of Inside Out's competitors for Animated Feature Film (Boy & the World, When Marnie Was Here and the film of the year, Anomalisa) put its high-concept to shame.  It's full of Charlie Kaufman's favorite specters: notably, expressing what is most true through visible, self-aware façade as if realism is a disingenuous construct.  Puppets in charge of their own destiny but never free, it echoes Camus of whom essayist Tony Judt said "looked into the mirror of his own moral discomfort, disliked what he saw, and stepped aside."

Anomalisa features literal mirror-gazing, but there's a dread in the inescapability of freedom, of our failures to communicate what makes us most human and, for some, the malaise of Cincinnati.  The film avoids convention in every aspect, but never feels quirky for the sake of spectacle.  It's exactly the movie Kaufman wanted to make by, arguably, our most talented and honest sophist.  It's a shame he needed Kickstarter to do it but, like a puppet in charge of his own destiny, thank God we live in a world where studio inopportunity is not the end of the line.

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