Sunday, July 3, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2015, Plus One

This list is coming earlier in the year than usual, but thank to improved distribution choices and fairly short list of foreign obscurities I was interested in tracking down this year, I got through everything in record time.  I'm also definitely using the "Plus One" spot to mentally draw a line.  I made point of seeing "Son of Saul" for the list, but I think "Rams" and "No Home Movie" can wait.  Overall, it felt like a leaner year for art films, and the gap between the blockbusters and everything else continues to grow.  I'm happy that so many smaller, interesting films still got made, and my list is dominated by them.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2015, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count.  Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list. And here we go.

Brooklyn - A simple film, when executed well, can be something magnificent.  And I can't think of anything more perfectly executed this year than "Brooklyn," which follows the ups and downs of a young Irish immigrant building a new life for herself in New York.  It's a film that's universal in its themes, genuine in its aims, and so lovely in spirit.  Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen share the best onscreen romance in years, and the story is so old fashioned in its sensibilities, it feels downright subversive.  This is a rare picture that I'd recommend to anyone without hesitation.

Inside Out - I expected this to be a movie about growing up, but it's also a movie about letting go.  Pete Doctor and the gang at PIXAR set up a zany existential buddy comedy starring a young girl's conflicting emotions, and then turn it into this beautiful metaphor for all sorts of touchy topics: identity crisis, parental fears, and, yes, emerging maturity.  Though it's full of bright colors and exaggerated designs to appeal to the smallest audience members, I expect that it's the grown-ups who will find "Inside Out" the most absorbing and affecting.

The Duke of Burgundy - The most sensual film of the year by a wide margin, "The Duke of Burgundy" is an homage to the erotic European art house films of the 1970s.  At the same time, it's also one of the more honest examinations of romantic relationship dynamics, though the relationship in question is highly unconventional.  Director Peter Strickland has proven to be a sensational visual and aural stylist, and sustains a rare, delicate mood of intimacy throughout.  And the two lead actresses are absolutely stunning in their fearlessness.

Love & Mercy - You don't need to know anything about Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys to enjoy this ambitious biopic, which tell two different stories about Wilson in two different eras.  They're connected by the music, and it really is Brian Wilson's music that is the star of the film, carefully rearranged by Atticus Ross and incorporated into the original score.  Recording sessions are recreated, familiar melodies are recontextualized, and Wilson is lovingly given his due.  This feels like a passion project for everyone involved in the best way possible.

The Martian - Is it possible that we have a space adventure movie that celebrates the optimistic, can-do spirit of humanity, and is a total crowd pleaser to boot?  Yes, it is.  "The Martian" is a technical tour-de-force, which uses all of Ridley Scott's epic filmmaking powers to create a convincing version of Mars where Matt Damon could be marooned.  However, I really love the movie for its humor, it's spirit, and it's boundless positivity in the face of crisis.  And for its embrace of science and engineering in a way that is downright inspiring.

While We're Young - Noah Baumbach and Ben Stiller haven't been my favorite pair, but they're both at their absolute best in this wry comedy about the generational divide between aging Gen Xers and the incoming Millennials.  I really enjoy the way that the script plays with expectations, building up to very different kind of epiphany than viewers were anticipating at the outset.  There's also a gleeful absurdity to the film's portrayal of self-obsessed New Yorkers which I enjoyed very much, and seems to have become a hallmark of Baumbach's work.

Room - There's a very different version of "Room" that could have been made, a typical crime thriller about a terrible injustice.  However, by shifting the POV, starting in an ambiguous situation, and creating the opportunity for Jacob Tremblay's extraordinary performance, suddenly "Room" becomes something much more thoughtful.  The two-part structure has been termed problematic by some, but for me the quieter second half allows "Room" to become exactly what it should be: a film about resilience, healing, and above all else, love.

Creed - About the most perfect example of a franchise film passing the torch that I can think of.  Ryan Coogler had a tall order, trying to pay homage to one of the most iconic films of the 1970s, bringing its hero into a modern context, while also giving a new rising star his due.  He not only did all of things, be he also made a legitimately great movie, and a boxing movie no less.  Even if Adonis Creed's story ends here, "Creed" has distinguished itself as more than just a piece of nostalgia, and more than just another cynical franchise reboot.

The Embrace of the Serpent - The journeys of two white men into the depths of the Amazonian jungle summon the usual themes of colonialism and the clash of civilizations. However, this time our guide is Karamakate, the last of his massacred tribe, who also grapples with survivor's guilt and his responsibilities to his lost people and the preservation of their knowledge. Part ethnographic study, part subversion of the white man's narrative of exploitation, and part dream quest, this is a fantastic achievement for the nascent Colombian filmmaking movement.

It Follows - Suspense can be a hard concept to define, but few horror films have managed to create as much suspense as "It Follows" with so little.  It simply takes the uneasy feeling you get when you see someone walking straight towards you, and keeps building on it, magnifying it, until the viewer is nervously scanning every frame, looking for the monster they know is coming.  The opening sequence alone, with that wonderful long take POV shot, is one of the most wonderfully chilling, entrancing bits of cinema I saw in 2015.

Plus One

Boy & the World - Great animated films are starting to appear from everywhere around the globe, now that the cost of production has come down, and the technology has become more accessible.  Brazil has produced animated films before, but there's been nothing quite like AlĂȘ Abreu's "Boy & the World." It takes place in a world that looks constructed from children's crayon drawings, but the story is thematically rich and complex, tied deeply to Brazil's history and culture.  Best of all, the style of animation is entirely its own, beautiful and unique.

Honorable Mentions

99 Homes
Ex Machina
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Son of Saul
The Forbidden Room
The Second Mother


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