For Reel

The 10 Best Films of 2015
January 8, 2016, 8:42 pm
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Below you will find my list of the top ten best films of 2015. As with all lists, this is entirely subjective, and I did not (nor ever will) catch up with everything that I was interested in seeing.

10. EX MACHINA (dir. Alex Garland)

10 Ex Machina

Much of the dramatic action in Ex Machina hinges on the famed Turing Test, which suggests that if a human doesn’t know that they are talking to a machine, then it is reasonable to identify that machine as having intelligence. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a prototypical A.I. that was engineered by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a mogul who resides in a secluded modern retreat. Nathan invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a low level employee at his company, to his residence for the purpose of examining Ava and providing a report about whether or not she could be considered intelligent. Ava comes from a long line of posthuman females in contemporary science fiction films, and by the end of Ex Machina it becomes evident that writer Alex Garland is flirting with a sort of feminist rapture as much as he is the singularity. The film’s richest moments come when Nathan challenges Caleb to start considering the relationship that he’s developed with Ava. It is questioned if Ava feels a genuine affection for Caleb, or if she is simply “pretending” at it–that is, responding to his primal human emotions in a purely mechanical way designed to bring about the desired outcome. Is this not one of the chief anxieties in relationships of any sort? Does my partner love me, or are they playing at loving me? When the question is framed in that manner, the fact that Ava is a machine seems beyond the point. Like Gone Girl, this is a film very much about the risks one takes in forming any interpersonal relationship.

9. 45 YEARS (dir. Andrew Haigh)

9 45 Years

45 Years is the best of ghost stories, where entities from beyond the grave serve as metaphors for past longings and unsurfaced tensions. Of course, Andrew Haigh’s followup to Weekend doesn’t involve the visitation of any spirit, but the way that the discovery of a perfectly preserved body sends shockwaves through the film’s marriage suggests something unearthly. Similarly, Haigh has the tremendous benefit of casting two of the greatest living actors in Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, whose own storied film careers help fill in the blanks about what their characters’ marriage might have looked like. Courtenay, the purest of the Angry Young Men, plays both somber and childlike, his retreat to his former habit of smoking suggesting that he hasn’t quite grown up. In his least sensitive moments, he seems aloof to his wife’s growing anxieties–much of the early half plays out as a game between two people who are testing each other’s reactions to the news. As with Weekend and his great HBO series Looking, Haigh shows a particular adeptness at telling stories about romantic anxieties and the near impossibility of truly sharing a life with someone. 45 Years is perhaps his most damning rebuttal against long-term relationships in that it argues that, even if a couple is nearing five decades of being together, they might not really know each other at all–more frighteningly so, maybe they never did.

8. LOVE & MERCY (dir. Bill Pohlad)

8 Love & Mercy

Eschewing the conventional rise-and-fall structure of a typical music biopic, Love & Mercy leaps between two significant periods in a man’s life in an attempt to give a full portrait of the artist. Said man is Brian Wilson, the prodigy responsible for the Beach Boys’ most well-regarded album, Pet Sounds. Casting two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) risks playing like a gimmick, but what works so terrifically about the picture is that it doesn’t feel disjointed, rather like each half informs the other. There is no “fall” in a traditional sense–that is, Wilson is always tortured to varying degrees. Reconciliation isn’t so much the goal as is getting through the moment. The studio scenes are a particular highlight, with director Bill Pohlad navigating the space in a way that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil. Wilson’s genius is revealed as he oversees the tedious process of directing each and every instrument, and there is a remarkable 360 degree tracking shot that shows both his artistic deliberations and the monotony and patience that such projects take.

7. NASTY BABY (dir. Sebastián Silva)

7 Nasty Baby

Nasty Baby understandably created a huge critical divide when it premiered at Sundance, and it is similarly unsurprising that it hasn’t gained much traction in the wake of its release. Opponents of the film have felt betrayed by the direction it takes–the first three quarters play as an ambling, lightly pleasant comedy drama about a gay couple and their surrogate. The final fourth involves a violent shift, upsetting what had been revealed about these characters and, more specifically, how one might view them. It is precisely Sebastián Silva’s seeming objectivity that problematizes the material–as Nasty Baby unfolds, it does so as a skewering of the comfortable bourgeoisie. And yet, he is uninterested in placing value judgments on his characters, instead opting to let the audience make those decisions on their own. To me, the final act of the film feels earned and almost as if it were an inevitability, this being a film with an undercurrent of brutal, violent social Darwinism, where the rejects of society pose a threat to a comfortable living. Whereas many films that critique New York “hipster” culture point to the vanity of twenty somethings, Silva suggests the very violent act of gentrification, where the socially progressive, liberal young people ironically become blind to what the cost of their comfort is.

6. LISTEN TO ME MARLON (dir. Stevan Riley)

6 Listen to Me Marlon

The first image of Listen to Me Marlon is a 3D rendering of an aged Marlon Brando’s face as he discusses the fact that he’s been digitally scanned on the soundtrack. Critically, director Stevan Riley doesn’t attempt to update Brando’s face with today’s technology, rather he remains satisfied with presenting it as an uncanny emergence disrupting a black background–the jagged, pixelated edges remind one of the Electronic Voice Phenomenon equipment seen in horror films that are used to transmit one’s being from the other side. Indeed, Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t play as a resurrection, rather as a ghostly echo of a brilliant life. As with this year’s Amy, Listen to Me Marlon is a remarkable feat of editing, cobbling together material from numerous sources as a way of arriving at a sort of mystical truth about Brando. Beyond being a terrifically enlightening autobiographical film, Brando’s musings have an intrinsic value of their own–the way he talks about acting is a learning resource independent of the film’s intensely personal focus. But the film’s real lasting impact comes from its ambitious form, where the sense of newly uncovering a deeply complex, thoughtful man isn’t jeopardized by the sense of visual expressionism, rather the form serves as a means of bridging the gap in a primal, sensory way.

5. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (dir. Marielle Heller)

5 The Diary of a Teenage Girl

To 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), sex is the key to unlocking the adult world of passions and romances, a necessary coming-of-age stepping stone that will somehow make sense of the messiness of life. As she will learn (as all teenagers do in their first trysts with love), that’s not exactly how it works. First of all, she loses her virginity to her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). The way that The Diary of a Teenage Girl treats the relationship is with a refreshing lack of moralizing–director Marielle Heller knows that audiences have their own opinions, and isn’t interested in disputing them. But Monroe doesn’t seem so much predatory as he is clueless, and Minnie is often the initiator. Instead of engaging in this line of contemporary gender politics, the film is more interested in the fallout, the sense of how any relationship opens the door to questions about what love is and where one achieves their sense of self worth once sex is brought into the equation. It’s messy and brilliant, true to its title in the loosely structured, multidirectional pull of the narrative. Powley’s large, doe-eyes suggests her naïveté, but she’s a smarter actress than that and has several remarkable moments of realization near the end. Skarsgård, continuing to impress, doesn’t play Monroe as a weasel but as a goofball. Not exactly likable, not totally pathetic–he, like Minnie, is someone who is still trying to figure all of this stuff out. Aren’t we all?

4. MISTRESS AMERICA (dir. Noah Baumbach)

4 Mistress America

A central prop that appears in the Connecticut mansion which becomes the setting of Mistress America’s take on the drawing room comedy is a chess board. It’s as utilized as any image in the cinema, but one that seems just right in Noah Baumbach’s latest. For one, the relationship between Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig) plays as lengthy feeling-out process before tensions start to come to a boil. The women are both polar opposites and soul-sisters, eventually coming to despise each other for the exact same qualities that they themselves are guilty of. Furthermore, said drawing room comedy is a terrific feat of blocking unlike anything Baumbach has committed to screen thus far. Each movement and line is meticulously calibrated–the pregnant woman waiting on a ride (Cindy Cheung) and the suspicious neighbor (Dean Wareham) are included both as witnesses and as pieces to crowd and confuse the action all the more. As with Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies, the dialogue is spit fast and often two or more conversations are happening at once, each line is spoken with a barbed layer of resentment, and the carefree, upperclass setting only underscores the frivolity of it all.

3. INSIDE OUT (dir. Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen)

3 Inside Out

Pixar is no stranger to gutsy family entertainment, with a track record involving narrative risks such as imagining an old curmudgeon as a hero, or through the visual sophistication of an entire first act rendered as a silent comedy film. And yet Inside Out feels like the coup de grace, the first full-bodied adventure that gets even richer at the point where previous outings have settled for routine action sequences involving third act villains. Through the brilliant depiction of its hook (that the five “core” emotions of an 11-year-old girl are personified), this is a film that can successively navigate ideas such as the difference between sadness and depression without leaving an aftertaste of pretentiousness. Director Pete Docter is the most feeling of Pixar’s storytellers, and his very sentimentality is key to the film’s accessibility–even an imaginary friend who momentarily risks becoming the film’s Jar Jar Binks is given a poignant send-off in the film’s most poetic and brutal moment. As a whole, the picture serves as a beautiful resetting of expectations for young audiences, a film with truly honest aspirations. Whereas many children’s films continue to display the idealistic attitude of, “you can do anything”, Inside Out actually feels like a realistic conversation about how to cope and live a healthy, emotionally-balanced life.

2. PHOENIX (dir. Christian Petzold)

2 Phoenix

The pivotal location of Christian Petzold’s new masterpiece is the Phoenix night club that gives the film its title. A bright, intense red glow on a street that has been otherwise reduced to rubble, the entrance seems like a door into another world, an image straight from a fantasy novel. Its unreality is matched by Petzold’s own embrace of coincidence and other devices associated with melodrama. If the plot–involving a newly transformed woman (Nina Hoss) pretending to be herself at the behest of her oblivious husband (Ronald Zehrfeld)–seems rooted in pulpiness, it is. But Petzold pays such great care to the emotional stakes at hand that one is left only admiring the confidence and precision of the storytelling. There’s a simple devastation in watching Hoss fail at her own self-mimicry–when her husband tells her that her “performance” isn’t authentic, one wonders if he is simply delusional or if she literally cannot be the woman that she was before the war. In the brilliant final act, there’s an unforgettable play of authorship, where the husband describes with accurate detail what the unveiling of his wife will be like before he is challenged by her own imposed will. It’s a striking, low-key finale, forgoing the hysterics that one might have expected. She is reborn from the ashes, indignantly disregarding the fire that caused them.

1. ANOMALISA (dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman)

1 Anomalisa

To watch a Charlie Kaufman film is to rediscover cinema; so uncompromised are his visions that one gets the thrill of occupying a foreign headspace. If his scripts are unified in discussing male loneliness and narcissism–peppered with blunt metaphors and dry, absurdist humor–they also show a consistency in the evocation of alienation and loneliness. These motifs evade the too-easy “you just get me!” reflex by playing as appropriately idiosyncratic (oftentimes great films are about one person’s conception of a feeling, not a universal concession). Anomalisa is perhaps Kaufman’s most narratively “simple” feature in that it could be easily whittled down into a fairly breezy short story, but it is also his most devastating and critical. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) isn’t meant to be a man the world simply doesn’t understand, but quite the opposite. Kaufman understands that to be lonely is to lack a fundamental instinct to “fit in” as opposed to feeling betrayed by the world. That the stakes are presented aurally adds a new dimension to Kaufman’s oeuvre and even to contemporary American cinema–if filmmakers often concern themselves with soundscapes, dialogue itself isn’t regularly conceived of in terms of its very sound, how one projects their voice and how others respond to it. With Michael’s listening limited to hearing one cadence (the voice of Tom Noonan), Kaufman suggests that he’s so preoccupied with his own misery that he is literally unable to hear those around him. With this device, Kaufman involves a too-often neglected aspect of storytelling for his thematic means, showing his growth as an artist who considers every aspect of storytelling.

6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Excellent writing. I’ve not heard of half these films. The local ‘independent art house’ cinema definitely didn’t have them, that’s for sure. Didn’t even known Anomalisa came out. Where do you live and how are you seeing all these films?

Comment by Movie Quibble

Most of them are available now via DVD/streaming. Only exceptions: 45 Years just came out on DVD in the UK, but it hasn’t opened stateside yet. Anomalisa just opened here in Chicago this weekend, but it was playing festivals before that. I imagine that it will open relatively wide, so your art house will probably get it.

Thanks for the comment! 🙂

Comment by Eric Fuerst

glad to see some hidden gems on this list – keep up the informative and insightful film writings!

Comment by Tommy

Thanks a lot Tommy! Very much appreciated 🙂

Comment by Eric Fuerst

Another year of enjoying your reviews. Keep up the good work!

Comment by Filip

Thanks for the comment, Filip! And for checking in from time-to-time over many years. It means a lot! 🙂

Comment by Eric Fuerst

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