Best-selling author and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis made waves this past year when he declared that 2015 was the worst year ever in American film. For anyone who listens to Ellis’ widely popular podcast or follows his blog knows that the writer cum film commentator—perhaps best known as the author of American Psycho, which was adapted into the 2000 film starring Christian Bale—is not one to shy away from controversial remarks. His recent blog post laments that ideology trumps aesthetics in modern film discourse, and you would be hard pressed to hear a Bret Easton Ellis podcast in the past four months that does not reference this notion. Though I tend to disagree with most of his stances on the industry and recent film releases—especially his crusade against films like The Babadook, It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, and The Witch, which he dismisses as “art-house horror”—it was only after I had completed my top ten list that I realized over half of the entries are not American films, the most ever to appear on the list.
Perhaps I am realizing how nebulous a top ten list can be when reflecting on the state of the medium—or more likely, the state of cinephile culture and film criticism. Last year we lost two of the most valuable online outlets for in-depth, thought-provoking film writing in The Dissolve and Grantland, further insulating a forum that champions a kind of cinema that ought to be preserved. For it is this section of film culture that inspired the creation of this site. Though the search continues to develop a viable economic model to sustain or grow a content-rich, online film publication, the passion for meaningful film discourse is apparent in the varying ways and platforms we connect with one another to share our love for the medium.
If there is a theme that runs through my list, or the year in film, it would be women. Sparked at the beginning of the year by Patricia Arquette’s impassioned Oscar acceptance speech demanding equal pay for men and women in the industry, and continued by outspoken advocates such as Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, this charge was mirrored by some of the most memorable films of the year. From a rogue imperator to a feminine A.I. to a pair of New Yorkers in a secret romance, the year may prove to be a turning point for women, though there is plenty of progress still to be made.
When I marked my tally of films seen over the year, I saw a slightly smaller number from a year ago. However, my method for picking the list still stands. If only ten films from 2015 could be kept and preserved, which ten would you pick? Though it may not be perfect (I would now find a way to move Calvary and The Immigrant into my Top Ten of 2014), I find lists work best when they serve as a snapshot in time.
Below you will find my top ten films of 2015. I hope you enjoy it, and be sure to post your favorite films from the year in the comments.
By its description alone, Timbuktu—a film about the occupation of the titular city by a band of jihadists—may seem like another cautionary tale intended to demonize radical Islam. Of course, there are plenty of horrors that take place throughout the film, but director Abderrahmane Sissako’s fixation is on humanizing the conflict between an occupying force and the inhabitants who become oppressed. He does this by pointing out the stark contradictions by the men tasked with upholding Sharia law in the city. Smoking is banned, yet one of the jihadist leaders sneaks away daily to light up in the outskirts of town. Soccer is similarly forbidden, but a particular scene shows a few of the invaders chatting about the French national team. These hypocrisies bring out an ironic sense of grace because indeed, these men are human, and they always have been. As committed to their religion as they may be, the error in their ways is not exclusive to Islam, nor organized religion for that matter. But as a result, the atrocities these men commit become exponentially more disturbing, especially when their reign of terror clashes with individuals in the city, including a particular family that we revisit throughout the film. Sissako observes this all with thought-provoking imagery that is calmly observant but also quietly furious.
In life and in the movies, it has been said that often times the journey holds more value than the destination, but what makes Jauja so memorable is that it presents a whole new logic to the journey, not only in comparison to traditional Western cinema but also in relation to the rest of director Lisandro Alonso’s body of work. Viggo Mortensen stars as a Danish soldier assisting the Argentinian army in 19th-century Patagonia during the genocidal conquest of the land’s indigenous people. His journey begins, however, when his teenage daughter seemingly absconds with one of the young Argentinian soldiers. Fearful that the couple may be intercepted by the natives, a father must traverse the wilderness alone, but his adventure takes him—and the audience—to unexpected places. Fans of Joseph Conrad may find some familiar plot elements, but most importantly, Jauja marks a substantial work from a cinematic voice that is increasingly singular and increasingly necessary.
8. The Look of Silence
The face in the photo above also appears in the opening shot of The Look of Silence, the second half of Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych of the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the 1960s. What is not clear about this face until later in the film is that it belongs to a man who has committed countless murders yet has not answered for his crimes. The military regime that overthrew the government decades ago remains in power today after over one million dissidents were labeled “communists” and subsequently slaughtered. The families of the dead continue to coexist with the families of the military leaders, and while Oppenheimer’s preceding documentary, The Act of Killing, examined the atrocities from the point of view of the murderers, The Look of Silence shifts to the perspective of the oppressed. Oppenheimer follows Adi, an optometrist who visits the still-living, still-in-power perpetrators and confronts them about the killings, including the murder of his brother, as he tests their eyesight. The metaphor is meant to be obvious, but emotions and tensions build as the camera shifts from one face to another, often in silence, but in a way that says so much.
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
As a treatise on the art of acting, Clouds of Sils Maria would serve as a worthy double feature with another French film, 2012’s Holy Motors. Though where Leos Carax’s more somber tribute presents an actor’s impact on those around him, the latest team-up between director Olivier Assayas and Juliette Binoche shows how an actress’ surroundings can bring about her inner youth. Binoche stars as Maria, an international superstar who rose to fame in a breakout stage role early in her career. She is now asked to perform in the same production decades later in a different role—the one that romances the younger character she played in her youth. Maria’s assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) assists her in preparation for the role, and eventually Maria meets with her co-star, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. The dynamic is something to behold as the three actresses at the top of their game circle each other throughout—exploring the fleeting nature of careers, the old vanguard giving way to a younger generation, and the impermanence of art in its many forms.
As a face-lift of Albert Hitchcock’s immortal Vertigo, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is quite successful, but the film truly shines as a post-war allegory of how a nation deals with the severe trauma of military conflict. Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a German-Jew who was a nightclub singer before World War II, but after her husband seemingly betrayed her to the Nazis and her face is disfigured in the concentration camps, she has returned to her bombed out home to recover any semblance of the life she had before. Further complicating the storyline is her husband, who no longer recognizes her yet thinks she looks familiar enough to help him claim the inheritance of his believed-dead wife. The conflict within Nina is gripping, allured to the idea of recreating the life she once knew but twisted in the most perverse manner possible. How do we deal with guilt? How are we willing to forgive? These questions do not just apply to Nina and her husband. They also pertain to the remnants of a nation responsible for so many atrocities, and Phoenix suggests the only way to fully reconcile is to bring everything out into the light—even if it is blinding.
5. Ex Machina
Great science fiction often points to the paradox that the ardor of mankind to develop new technology to better our world is often soured by the inherent fallacy of its creators. In the case of Ex Machina, the technological frontier is artificial intelligence, and its creator could be described as a combination of Dr. Frankenstein and Icarus. What is so impressive about the film is that first-time director Alex Garland (screenwriter on 28 Days Later and Sunshine) does not let such compelling subject matter relapse into the pitfalls of the genre, giving ample space for his characters to develop layers and for the film’s complex themes to breathe. Oscar Isaac embodies the tech genius with a serious masculinity complex, and Alicia Vikander plays his creation with a sensuality that is both beguiling and ominous. As a result, the film’s remarkable climax feels more inevitably tragic than outright shocking, but it still leaves you with plenty of questions about male and female identity, the utility of love and attraction, and our own limits as a species.
In Todd Haynes’ deeply measured but sublime Carol, everything—from a misplaced pair of gloves to a fleeting moment of a woman’s hand placed on the shoulder of another—carries weight. The film echoes its source, Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, with a furtive air as Highsmith was known for writing compelling mysteries. Furthermore, what lingers most after seeing Carol is not the overarching narrative of its characters, but instead it is the objects, the gestures, and the looks that communicate a desire that goes beyond the spoken word. The story—of Carol, a wealthy suburban wife and mother and Therese, a young, single urbanite—could take place in any time, but the film’s setting, 1950s New York, seems wholly essential. Credit the refracted beauty of Ed Lachman’s 16mm cinematography and the effervescing restraint of Carter Burwell’s score. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara shine the brightest, however, as the star-crossed lovers pulled into each other’s orbit; one hurtling towards the moon and the other wistfully falling to earth. At one point Carol even remarks, “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space.”
3. World of Tomorrow
For years the spellbinding and essential work of animator Don Hertzfeldt has gone largely unnoticed by the American moviegoing public, aside from critics and film fanatics who frequently encounter his work on the festival circuit or via more obscure streaming platforms. With his latest film—and quite possibly his magnum opus—Hertzfeldt still may not receive the “household name” status he so clearly deserves, but this 16-minute short demands to be seen, re-seen, debated, and held up as a landmark of science fiction and animation. World of Tomorrow is about a young girl, Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four-year old niece), who meets a third-generation clone of herself over 200 years into the future. When young Emily is brought into the future, she is taken through a brilliant array of set pieces, exploring everything from the socioeconomic implications of technological advancement to how raw human emotion will morph and evolve (or devolve) in the centuries to come. The film most resembles the post-war science fiction of the mid-twentieth century, chilling in its implications but also strangely optimistic in tone. This combination creates a fair share of humor, but in no way does it detract from the myriad themes found in the film’s many layers. World of Tomorrow is the kind of movie that gets better every time you watch it.
Maybe the best way to describe Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is as a tapestry of vignettes—so rich in detail and visual splendor that its immersiveness surrounds and envelops you like a blanket. There is a story involved—one about a princess who was kidnapped as a child and trained to mercilessly kill political opponents—but its enigmatic nature suggests there is more to Hou’s vision than simple plot structures. Ask most critics and they would willingly admit that they did not catch every story detail. Instead, Hou uses purposeful blocking and breathtaking vistas to develop a cinematic language that speaks to age old questions of duty versus conscience and tradition versus desire, presented in a light that can only be achieved by a master director. The wuxia genre has long been a staple of Eastern culture—brimmed with legends of powerful assassins and ever-shifting political environs. But while The Assassin remains true to these tenets, the film feels wholly original, furthering Hou Hsiao-hsien’s own legend as a seasoned auteur.
It is easy to anoint George Miller’s much-heralded return to the Mad Max mythos simply for the film’s breathtaking set-pieces and impeccable display of filmmaking craft. Indeed, many have suggested that Mad Max: Fury Road is the new gold standard in action cinema, after decades of filmmakers have strained to follow the action-film gospel according to Mad Max: The Road Warrior. But what makes Fury Road the best film of the year is its spectacle in the service of its substance, namely the forceful statement it has to say about a patriarchal society and the destructive tendencies that come with it. As our titular hero and heroine race across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to free a group of women held captive by a malicious warlord, the thematic heart of the film emerges. Amidst a maelstrom of fiery explosions and bone-crushing collisions, the film essentially hinges on the arc of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, striving to feel a shred of humanity as she longs for some form of redemption. But the real masterstroke speaks on a planetary level of allegory. Rather than run away with hopes of finding a better, purer place, the only salvation in a world as mad as ours is to try and rebuild, and in the process, perhaps George Miller has offered his solution to a world devoid of groundbreaking action cinema.
Ryan Coogler’s brilliantly directed return to the Rocky Balboa franchise with a standout performance from Michael B. Jordan, Creed; Arguably the most important Spike Lee film of recent years, the angry but sincere Chi-Raq; A hilarious vampire mockumentary from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows; The snot-filled, excrement-laden final feature from Russian director Aleksei German, the grand science fiction gross-fest Hard to Be a God; The solemn but hopeful story of the remarkable bond between a mother and son, Room; The decade-spanning journey of an aspiring DJ during the European electronic music scene of the 1990s, Eden; Pixar’s latest landmark, the imaginative journey inside the mind of a child, Inside Out; The coming-of-age of five sisters in Turkey and the challenges of a society that holds exceedingly strict and demeaning views of women, Mustang; Easily the most debated horror film of 2015, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows; A sobering triumph of investigative journalism in the midst of a scandal that shocked the world, Spotlight.