G Clark’s Top Films of the Year
I’ve been waiting all of 2015 for a film like my #1. Actually, I was waiting all 2014 and 2013, too. Some years, no film truly stands head and shoulders above the others (though sometimes, the worst sure does1), and I feel immense ambivalence in choosing a ‘best’. Was The Act of Killing really better than Blue is the Warmest Color? Now, I’m not so sure. By what degree do I value Boyhood over Gone Girl? Not a huge one. But 2015, like 2011 and 2012, was a year when a movie rose from the cinematic stack, kicked me in the balls, and announced, ‘HERE I AM.’ There was no internal debate this year.
1. The Revenant
The best movie of the year is The Revenant. Maybe you’re not an Alejandro González Iñárritu fan. For some reason, he seems to be a ‘cilantro or soap’ director. The complaint I see repeatedly about his work is that all his films seem forged in a pressure cooker—his films adopt a tone that he relentlessly, oppressively intensifies until the credits roll. Well, if that’s what you think, there’s probably nothing I can tell you. His films primarily work for me because of that; that kind of tonal consistency is extremely difficult to pull off, and something of a miracle when done successfully. (See: Aronofsky, Fincher, Haneke, Tarr, &c.)
The Revenant provides a physical and emotional experience unlike any other film this year. It is an immersive whole, a complete world. You don’t just feel as though you’ve watched The Revenant when the lights come up, you feel that you’ve lived it. Its central idea seems to be that, not only are humans helpless in the face of the overwhelming force of nature, but that this overwhelming force is something from which humans are not separate. This is, of course, anything but a new idea; however, The Revenant is the first film I’ve ever seen to make me feel this truth, in my bones. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is an example of a film that discusses this idea intellectually, but the brute thew of González Iñárritu’s film announces it to the very atoms in your body. The Revenant shook me to my core, a feat achieved by no film since The Tree of Life.
I flatly reject many criticisms of the film. Some have complained that AGI doesn’t need 2½ hours to tell the story. Well, no, he doesn’t; if the straight plot is all that interested him, he could easily have made a boring pulp film in 80 minutes. This would have destroyed the theme and tone. At least one critic, Manohla Dargis, has said something to the effect of, ‘Once González Iñárritu goes for the spiritual, he blows it.’ I find this something of a headscratcher, because there is nothing even faintly resembling spirituality in the film. Maybe she was thinking of The Tree of Life—this film does share the same cinematographer and production designer. Sure, there are mad visions and fever dreams, but this is not the same thing. The film is brutally, single-mindedly physical. Every avalanche, meteorite, herd of bison—basically, every shot that some people complain contributes nothing to the film except padding the runtime—is a cold reminder that, no matter how many expeditions these characters mount, no matter how much land they claim, no matter how much they pitifully fight amongst each other, they are simply no match for the brute force of capital-N Nature. And what’s more, though humans pride themselves on their self-awareness and mastery of the world, we are every bit a part of the unconscious force of nature as the bear. Watch closely at how AGI stages the bear mauling scene. Then compare it to the staging in the final climatic fight between DiCaprio and Hardy. It’s the same thing going on. Characters talk over and over in the film about how ‘revenge is in God’s hands.’ But there is no God in the film; only nature, unconsciously working itself out.
One of the ways you can tell you’ve seen a great film is, once it’s over you think to yourself, ‘I need to see that again.’ When The Revenant was over, I thought that to myself. So, I stayed in the theatre until the next showing started, and watched it a second time, right then and there. I’ve never done that with a movie. After four viewings I can tell you that here, lies the Best Film Of The Year.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Last year, I tweeted that, shot-for-shot, David Fincher’s Gone Girl featured the most exciting filmmaking of the year. Well, this year it’s George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a masterpiece of action cinema. Does the plot even matter? Imperator Furiosa rescues a bevy of sexual slaves from the fascistic Immortan Joe with the help of rogue Max—all in a post-apocalyptic world where water and gasoline are scant. This tells you nothing.
I’ve seen this film four times too, once going through it shot-by-shot. There is not a single wasted frame; a shot lasts precisely as long as it needs to to convey a piece of information. Miller is nothing short of a master at showing you the geography of an action set piece. The largest sequences are like watching a chess match: you know exactly where all the pieces are in relation to each other, and thrill at watching them move about the board. At the end of the day, Mad Max: Fury Road might just be the greatest action movie yet made. (Also, it’s endless fun watching people try to shoehorn politics into it.)
3. Inside Out
Of course the most sophisticated movie yet made dealing specifically with complex human emotions is an animated film from Pixar. Make no mistake, this is Classic Pixar—the kind of film you would have expected from them pre-Cars 2: massively entertaining for children, engrossing and poignant for adults. Inside Out takes us literally inside the mind of a prepubescent girl, and shows us how Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear interact with each other in her head. This is done with remarkable complexity, grace and insight.
And, as Alex so eloquently put it,
Damn it, Bing Bong.
— Alex Carlson (@filmmisery) November 14, 2015
Denis Villeneuve’s film, far from being a simple tale of the Americans’ ‘drug war,’ also muses on (extra-)judicial processes and sexual politics. Emily Blunt plays a by-the-book FBI agent enlisted by Josh Brolin to join a CIA task force set to take down the head of a savage Mexican drug cartel. Villeneuve sets Blunt up as a Strong Female Character™, our window into this cold and dangerous world, only to have the male characters frustrate this trope in scene after scene, rendering the character increasingly impotent, and the audience increasingly aggravated. Ah, but then the film takes a bit of a left turn, and we see the men’s true intentions.
Allegedly, Blunt’s character was supposed to go to a male actor, at the pressing of the financiers. Villeneuve wisely fought to keep the lead a woman. From Blunt, we receive what I believe to be her best ever work, as a hopeless idealist, feckless in the face of the complexities of the world.
5. 99 Homes
The Big Short might be the film this year that comprehensively explains the housing crash to you, but Ramin Bahrani’s new film makes you feel the shattering impact the whole mess had on so many American families. Andrew Garfield, in his best performance to date, is evicted from his home along with his son and mother (Laura Dern, who seems to be getting more luminous with age). Eventually, he finds work with Michael Shannon, whose job it is to remove those evicted people from their homes. Garfield becomes the thing he despises most in the world in order to provide a reasonable life for his child and mother. Bahrani, in the best film he has yet made, offers insights not only into the financial crisis, but also the moral and ethical compromises the underprivileged must make just to survive in the oh-so-prosperous United States. It’s not subtle, but it’s hard for a movie this angry to be so.
Beyond the top five, the other best movies of 2015 are more or less equal in quality. They are presented alphabetically:
They really don’t make them like this anymore. This very simple tale of an Irish girl’s immigration feels like it could have been made by Elia Kazan in the ’50s. It’s also so quiet and good-natured, I found myself uncontrollably smiling throughout most of it—except the final third, which I found bizarrely suspenseful, to the point that I was a nervous wreck at the end. With the exception of two ‘F-words,’ inserted at the very beginning only to pad the rating to a PG-13 (12 in the UK), it’s great family entertainment. Saoirse Ronan shines, and here becomes a Movie Star.
Carol is something of a museum piece: a resplendent, passionate love affair behind glass (sometimes quite literally), made primarily to be regarded, and felt only incidentally. This is somewhat to be expected; when your film deals with the secret codes and clandestine navigations inherent in forbidden lust, you will probably hold your characters at a distance, for that is how they must hold each other. But hold each other they do, and the performances by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson are near master-classes in understatement and misdirection. That being said though, this is perhaps the warmest film Todd Haynes has yet directed.
I’ve never been too much of a fan of Andrew Haigh’s work, but his latest film is a deeply moving, harrowing foray into the human heart. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play Kate and Geoff, a couple celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. Geoff receives word that the body of his lover before Kate, Katya, was found in ice, perfectly preserved. As Geoff recounts more and more events from his relationship with Katya, his relationship with Kate seems to corrode, creating a widening rift between the two. A terrifying film about the inaccessibility of loved ones, and how tenuous love’s grip can be. (Incidentally, Haigh also could have titled this film The Revenant…)
A horror film that’s, whaddaya know, actually scary. David Robert Mitchell manages to build suspense not with loud noises and cheap gotcha scare tactics, but with good old-fashioned staging and camera placement. It’s also quite refreshing to see a horror film where every character isn’t a blithering idiot⎯far from being brainless morons who always do the exact wrong thing at every available moment, Mitchell’s characters resemble real human beings who do the best they can with the information they have and the situation they’re in. Great direction, effective score by Disasterpiece. A horror film for people who hate horror films.
A most magical film. Lisandro Alonso’s latest plays like a fairy tale; from the plot that slowly submerges into surrealism, to the beautiful compositions resembling the illustrations in a child’s storybook. The beautiful 35mm photography, in academy ratio and complete with rounded corners, makes the environments seem like more perfect versions of Oz. An enigmatic performance—and musical score!—by Viggo Mortensen is just the icing on the cake. Jauja is a quiet gem.
The Look of Silence
Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his excellent The Act of Killing is actually a more accessible film; if you’ve not seen that film yet, I recommend familiarising yourself with the subject matter by viewing The Look of Silence first. With the probing persistence of a Claude Lanzmann, Oppenheimer confronts the perpetrators of inhumane horrors to understand how such inhumanity can flourish. Haunting; the year’s best documentary by a very wide margin.
A Holocaust survivor has facial reconstruction surgery to cover a bullet wound. Once the war ends, she returns to Germany, unrecognisable to herself and the others she’s known. She makes an effort to locate her husband, who she learns may have been the one to betray her to the Nazis. He fails to recognise her, but feels she resembles his wife enough to ask her to impersonate his late spouse, so he can collect the inheritance. It may require a bit of a leap of faith, but this fascinating film rewards the viewer with plenty—including one of the very best endings of 2015. Also brings Nina Hoss into the international spotlight; expect to see more of her soon.
Spotlight certainly isn’t a visual or stylistic masterpiece; the compositions are fairly flat and nothing you wouldn’t see on a CBS procedural. What makes Thomas McCarthy’s film so interesting—enough to invite comparisons to All the President’s Men and Zodiac, two definite benchmarks of style—is his complete sidestepping of all melodrama. In telling the story of how the Boston Globe brought to light the horrible child abuse in the Catholic Church, McCarthy focuses exclusively on the process of journalism, eschewing emotional scenes of bombastic, capital-A Acting. This brings the complex web of power and secrecy to the forefront, as well has the unswerving determination of the reporters involved. It also ensures that heavy subject matter, which could have easily have been handled exploitatively, is dramatised with nuance and respect.
Taxi Tehran (distributed in the US as Jafar Panahi’s Taxi)
Iran’s ban on Jafar Panahi’s filmmaking has done nothing to blunt the director’s passion. Taxi Tehran was filmed entirely within a licensed taxi, using but a few cheap cameras that Panahi could mount to the dash and doors. With this setup, Panahi shows us a couple hours in the life of Tehran, and a series of sharply-drawn, memorable characters. The passion, emotion, and artfulness on display here, with a budget of practically nil, puts all the artless Sean Bakers of the world to shame. Taxi Tehran is the greatest found-footage film yet made.
Bone Tomahawk: A truly chilling horror/western. Yes, there is violence aplenty in Bone Tomahawk (including one of the most disturbing onscreen murders I’ve ever seen), but it’s the slow, suspenseful buildup that gives the film its true impact. The best summary is probably that given by Scott Tobias.
Boy and the World: Perhaps a more audacious animated film than even Inside Out, Boy and the World plays like a mad hallucination. Richly thematic, with the perhaps most beautiful images you’ll see all year. A surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature, but well-deserved.
Bridge of Spies: Spielberg is still at the top of his game with Bridge of Spies, a gripping drama about the importance of holding onto your ideals, especially when it’s inconvenient. My only complaint about the film is that it’s too short: the film naturally splits into two halves, each of which could use another 20-30 minutes to flesh out and breathe. Still, a film rich with treasures.
Dope: The funniest film of the year. Rick Famuyiwa directs this outlandish tale with such verve; the script might peter out just a bit towards the end, but the energy stays farcically and joyously high, even into the credits. A film too damn good to be overlooked.
The End of the Tour: It’s rare that movie characters have interesting conversations, and almost downright unheard of that those conversations are to any degree fascinating. But I found the interplay between Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel (revelatory as David Foster Wallace) so riveting, I wanted the movie to go on for hours and hours.
Goodnight Mommy: The third movie on my list that could be classified as ‘horror,’ this Austrian film shares It Follows’s mastery of staging and tone. An incredible mood piece with a bravura finale.
No Escape: A harrowing and (relatively) realistic portrayal of a foreign family trying to survive in a war zone. I’ve already written about why criticisms against the film are misguided and dishonest.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: Like all of Roy Andersson’s work, you could just sit back and marvel at the film’s style: intricately staged scenes shot in languidly-paced shots on meticulously designed sets. Of course, this can’t alone make a film; Andersson’s sharp, dry wit, and his cutting social commentary, give A Pigeon its true impact.
Other 2015 releases worth your time:
- The Big Short
- Clouds of Sils Maria
- The Gift
- The Hateful Eight
- Infinitely Polar Bear
- The Martian
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
- Shaun the Sheep Movie
- Straight Outta Compton
- When Marnie Was There
And for fuck’s sake, people, The Danish Girl isn’t half bad at all; I quite liked it.
1I debated if I was even going to discuss the worst of the year, because I wanted this entry to be a celebration. However, my pick for the worst is so craven and artless and rancid, it doesn’t deserve its own post. It deserves to be a mere footnote, an afterthought—which it will quickly turn into.
The film is Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a putrid-looking, aesthetically offensive wreck. Where to begin? First let me say that I do feel a bit guilty picking on an indie work. I know how hard it is to get movies made, and the fact that one gets completed or distributed at all is a minor miracle. But I just can’t let the crimes of Tangerine slide; even high profile stinkers like 50 Shades of Grey, Jurassic World, Minions, The Hunger Games: Mockingly—Part 2, and San Andreas are competently bad.
Let’s start with the look of it: I just called it putrid, and will do so again. Look, I understand the budget was low—so low, in fact, that it was shot on an iPhone—but this is not an excuse for slipshod shooting. Hell, in Taxi Tehran, Jafar Panahi used shittier cameras and didn’t even have a cinematographer, but still managed to craft indelible images from his limitations. Some scenes in Tangerine look like Baker just glued the phone to a frightened puppy and whatever happened stayed in the picture.
There is no discernible script. There’s nothing here that even sounds like a line reading. It’s just the word ‘bitch’ repeated ad nauseam between bits of dialogue that seem improvised by a Kardashian on a DXM bender. Dear God, the whole ‘I don’t like sand’ scene from Attack of the Clones is Shakespeare compared to the word-diarrhoea on display here. I cringed so much I couldn’t move my neck after a while, which sucked, because I desperately wanted to turn my head so I wouldn’t have to be looking at Tangerine anymore.
No one here can act. Maybe that’s harsh; I’ll be charitable and say that no one here does act. Almost everyone in front of the camera looks like they were kicked into place without instruction and unsure if the cameras were rolling or not. Even in the first scene, it looks like at least one of the poor sods is looking around unsure if the take has begun. The only actors with any discernible talent are Karren Karagulian and James Ransone (both of whom have been quite good in different works), and even they look slightly bewildered here, like they can’t believe what their agents had gotten them into. The experience of watching the actors is as painful as watching an elementary school play where none of the kids can remember their lines and are all on the brink of tears from the embarrassment. Except the expectation there is that the children will grow out of it and become talented, productive human beings.
Basically, Tangerine displays incompetence at every single stage of the moviemaking process. There is more pathos, artistry, and creativity in a Vine video of someone falling in love with shoes. Seriously. Here’s a link. And there’s better social commentary in this one. And this one is funnier. (Okay, I’m done with the Vines, but these people manage more cinematic artistry in six seconds than Baker in the whole run time of Tangerine.)
I haven’t said anything about trans ‘representation’ because I want to be clear: Tangerine offends me purely on an aesthetic level. In theory, an absolute masterpiece could be made portraying trans women as nothing but drug-addicted, intellectually-stunted, emotionally batshit grandes horizontales whose identities are inextricably tied to their wigs and whose whole existence consists of acting in a desperately affected manner. Tangerine shows the audience all these things and more; it is not a masterpiece. I don’t care about the identity of its characters, or the actors playing them, though all of the film’s supporters certainly do. I have not read one single positive review of this video—and I will not call it a movie—that did not mention how super duper GREAT it is to have trans people playing trans characters. Congratulations for setting the bar so high! I mean, many actors of Middle Eastern descent still have to play terrorists in TV shows and movies, but hey, at least they get work, amirite?
I think I can prove how awful this film is to its supporters. Let’s do a little thought experiment, okay? Let us imagine that, frame for frame, Tangerine is exactly the same movie it is right now. Nothing at all on the screen is different. The only difference is, the two lead actors personally identify as cis-gender men. Cis-gender men playing Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Would you like the film just as much in that circumstance as you do now?
Yeah, I thought not. Politics doesn’t trump sundry aesthetic crimes. It’s trash.
Anyway, White God, or, as I like to call it, Rise of the Planet of the Puppies, is a close second. Followed by Tomorrowland, and the other movies I mentioned above.