I wish I had a clearer focus in 2015 to appreciate what an excellent year in film it’s been. Even as I’m writing this I find it harder to get an objective sense of the year in film than to get a sense of my own year. Largely spent shuffling between periods of transience and placelessness, I can say with clarity that it was a year of identity-affirming paperwork, collegiate conclusion and tiresomely distended home-hunting. That I’m currently living and working in Somerville, MA shouldn’t suggest I’m settled or sleeping there; only that it’s the epicenter of my life right now, regardless of my (hopefully temporary) removal from it.
That outsider’s sense, reluctant and special, has been echoed by many of my favorite films and TV series’ of 2015, both of which I finally consider in the same cinematic medium. If I were to expand my Top 20 to 25, I’d only have enough room to squeeze in my Top Five TV Shows of 2015, and I’d still be leaving out large chunks of the year’s cinema. By my very process of year chronicling, I’m leaving many of the year’s best U.S. releases out, as I already gave them notice – though in some cases, not nearly high enough praise – in my Best of 2014 list.
My encompassing rule for inclusion on this list: Must be a film publicly screened in the U.S. with a release date in or beyond 2015, that I saw for the first time this year. That may frustrate U.S. release purists, but it’s always been my way of bookmarking exemplary films to look out for in 2016. Much of my personal drive in making these year-end lists has been to bring my friends around to films I cherish, hoping they may find something uniquely valuable in it for them. Usually their lives continue with little alteration, but I’m happy on the fleeting occasion that I make an imprint on someone’s cinematic experience.
Most years I find films only occasionally slipping into a recurring theme, but this year nearly the entirety of my Top 20 deals with people attempting to cope with what holds them outside the circles of comfort and happiness that others seemingly prescribe to so easily. Even standouts beyond this list, Amy, The Assassin, Blackhat, Blind, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Eastern Boys, Ex Machina, In the Shadow of Women, La Jaula de Oro, Minotaur, Testament of Youth, and Uncertain Terms, just to name (more than) a few, grapple with outsider status in distinct, often revealing ways.
And I’d be remiss in neglecting my year’s best repertory and music video experiences. My year started with sharing five films from Studio Ghibli with the childhood friends who helped engender in me a love of Somerville this year, and the engrossing Spirited Away viewing experience of my life. Paul Thomas Anderson outshone his last two features, Junun and Inherent Vice, with the lived-in energy of Joanna Newsom’s Sapokanikan, and Taylor Swift and Joseph Kahn reinforced their brand of fabulously designed media-crossovers, particularly the classic costumed sheen of Wildest Dreams. If 2016 fails to deliver at least 20 films of greater emotional impact, then you may hear me wax poetic on their fantasy blockbuster adaptation of Out of the Woods.
I’d say the only way for me to truly do service to all the great films of 2015 would be with a top fifty list, but these twenty films sum up what this year meant to me and what I’ll share with friends and family in the years to come.
Lena’s Top Twenty Films of 2015
20. Tu dors Nicole (Dir. Stephane LaFleur)
A modern black-and-white comedy about twenty-something stagnation and social abandonment? Sure sounds like Frances Ha, the big lines of division for Tu dors Nicole being its Canadian suburban setting and its refusal of overt French New Wave remarks. There’s still an unusual, vignette-driven visual and editorial attitude about the film, delicately ordered and framed to make its somnambulant nothingness seem nice. Beyond that is an disarming psychological dimension, as the titular Nicole’s feelings of stasis and isolation over a lazy summer, already exacerbated by insomnia, are further plagued by nightly noise interference from her deadbeat brother’s band sessions. If Tu dors Nicole comes across as pleasant, but elusive tedium in its first half, the latter half carefully wades us into a waking dream of adolescent adulthood, where Nicole and her friends are left to deal with or deny the blind-siding wreckage in their lives. There’s perverse sexuality to it, particularly in Nicole’s relationship to the young, ludicrously mature-voiced child Martin, but also an assuring sense of patience about the slow-cruising pace of adulthood.
19. When Marnie Was There (Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Studio Ghibli’s done a good job of extending their cinematic shelf-life, with their last film unreleased in the U.S., Only Yesterday, finally premiering this year, courtesy of GKIDS. My heart’s still torn asunder by the thought of their sincere, compassionate voice finally going silent, especially after When Marnie Was There paved revolutionary new ground in subtle, naturalistic strokes. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the most exciting discovery of Ghibli’s modern era, follows the miniature riches of Arrietty with another moving, heart-sore tale of childhood depression. What sets Marnie apart, in examining the otherworldly relationship between gender non-conforming Anna and beacon of classic feminine confidence Marnie, is how it subverts the studio’s usual hetero-normative look at female pre-sexuality by rendering each of Anna’s relationships in queer terms. Anna’s journey to existential confidence and composure is complicated, and perhaps continues the contemporary confrontations with incest of From Up on Poppy Hill, but Yonebayashi understands that the magic of childhood isn’t beyond the dark clouds, but weaved bittersweetly through them.
18. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (My Golden Days) (Dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
If My Golden Days sounds a bit trite for frenetic French auteur Arnaud Desplechin, the english translation of its French title, Three Memories from My Youth, better fits the too-sweet-to-last energy. Ostensibly a prequel to My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, Desplechin’s latest requires no intense research to empathize with the post-cold war romanticism of his coming-of-age story. Following Mathieu Amalric’s Paul Dedalus, depicted in his youth by the prettily charming Quentin Dolmaire, we casually maneuver scenes of Paul’s troubled childhood and his spy adventures in Soviet Russia, before settling on his bright blooming with Lou Roy-Lecollinet’s Esther. As in Desplechin’s best films, there’s too much delicious, colorful detail to be absorbed at once, but it leaves a melancholic hangover from its amber autumnal bliss. It’s a film about our everyday identity crises, and how we contextualize our sense of self in every memory, both beautiful and toughly melancholic, of our past.
17. Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley)
This year has earned me a whole new empathy for immigrant stories, and while neither Brooklyn or Paddington packs the sumptuously varnished punch of James Gray’s The Immigrant, both tell disarmingly genuine stories of beneficial assimilation. Brooklyn, however, adds an element of eerie transsubstantiation to what’s initially full-blush romantic drama. And as that, it’s quite disarming gradual, as Saoirse Ronan’s Irish Eilis slowly negotiates herself towards feeling the love Italian boy Tony (Emory Cohen, the affable and adorable flip side and complement to Ronan’s flinty resilience) feels for her so openly. There’s warmth, humor, and even a potent enough Irish atmosphere in her Brooklyn life, brushing with similar melting pot portraiture as Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights. In its back-half, though, this story of becoming takes on similarly ghostly, metaphysical attributes as When Marnie Was There and My Golden Days, following characters struggling to negotiate a place for themselves in their own lives. For Eilis, the specter of loss and comfortable vacancy in Ireland goes toe-to-toe with the bright, visionary life she leads in America. Each choice is an opportunity and a sacrifice, but one has a hold of her already.
16. Goodnight Mommy (Dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz)
While not a massive horror buff, 2015 was an effectively gut-churning year in indie-leaning horror, from It Follows to The Visit to The Witch. While all those are smarter on character, theme and form than most studio-produced shocker, I found the German domestic chamber horror of Severine Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy to be the most shocking, heart-ripping experience I had all year. Its twist visible enough from the beginning, the transparency of this mother-children face-off (and face off) thriller only makes the degradation of their trust, relationship and creepily contorted home complex more disturbing and mind-consuming. Bookended by hauntingly ornate German childrens’ chants, the film feels like a mind-blending nightmare vision of an alternate universe, where familial love is characterized by torture and conditional surrender.
15. Mistress America (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
“I’m the same. I’m just the same in another direction now.”
Mistress America is the complement and pleasantly silly inverse of Frances Ha in just about every way. While one film feels like Noah Baumbach bringing hard-edged wit to the weathered hopefulness of co-writer Greta Gerwig’s vision, their latest feels like a Baumbach vision as filtered through Gerwig’s infectious, ebullient energy. Both films focus on the crushing tragedy of having to adapt, to sacrifice sincere aspects of oneself, in order to be happy enough in a world that makes no allowances for true happiness. There’s ego and doomed confidence to the stride of the film and its characters, each fiercely seizing the frame’s attention and adoration, desperate to never let go. It’s a bright-burning inferno of a miniature, brief and bitter for the irresistible joy, even against moral consideration, that briefness cuts short. Any longer and it’d teeter into fantasy, its characters unable to cope with the blunt disappointments the world serves them up. (Longer Review)
14. Anomalisa (Dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman)
Stop-motion filmmaking always requires a degree of patience and struggling sympathy for emotionally distant objects. Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) & Duke Johnson take that concept to its utmost extreme, crafting a slow-cruising chamber dramedy about an inoperably egotistical middle-aged dude growing increasingly detached from humanity, his family, and himself. The audience is rarely unaware that they’re watching plastic dolls made animate, but the characters themselves feel never less than human. Humanity is begrudgingly artificial, and we can scarcely make sense of the mechanics that guide our own responses, let alone others’. Anomalisa is an aching, upsetting portrait of profound confusion and detachment, and the fierce covetousness that engenders. It had me quaking as I re-examined my relationships and how limiting my own vision of them is. You’ll find me talking more than once in this top ten about loving people for precisely who they are, not what they’re not. Anomalisa is so deeply moving because it’s moored in a psychology that’s literally incapable of understanding that.
13. Macbeth (Dir. Justin Kurzel)
The lyrics of William Shakespeare – dialogue sounds too direct to describe the Elizabethan author’s prose – tend to be fairly impenetrable to cinematic translation. How can one visually go toe-to-toe with such densely rich text without inundating the audience with extra-sensory information? Justin Kurzel doesn’t even bother asking, packing his film head-to-toe with chaotic, potently poetic visual and sonic detail. This is Macbeth as a ferocious explosion of cyclical grief and vengeance, taking the violent violations of the Bard’s play and extending that to a violation of reality and psychology, like senseless violence is itself tearing holes in the fabric of space and sanity. Michael Fassbender and seething, venal, slow shattering Marion Cotillard do some of their best work as former parents struggling to fill the void of their loss. Macbeth is not just one of the great Shakespeare adaptations, but a guide to meeting his work with an equally meaty cinematic appetite.
12. The Duke of Burgundy (Dir. Peter Strickland)
Two films this year most beautifully capture the otherworldly bliss of romance, but only Peter Strickland parses through the commitments and compromises that allow it to thrive, or to become smothered. Much more than idle, carefree approach of Before Midnight, Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy understands that the erotic thrill of love doesn’t go away, but reforms into something either blissfully sustainable, or downright suffocating. In approaching a lesbian BDSM relationship through a lens of Euro-eroticism, Sidse Babett-Knudsen and Chiarra D’Anna craft their own distinct tastes and affectations, delight in where they deliciously overlap, and struggle to find one another in the deep crevices where they don’t. Every component is sensously and aromatically attuned to marinate the viewer in an infectiously glistening atmosphere, only to trap us in the same difficult positions as its characters when that infinitely reflective light is boarded up.
11. Joy (Dir. David O. Russell)
If David O. Russell, the reigning king of acidic family dynamics plaguing and unavoidably accenting the American dream, is beginning a new trilogy, Joy is his aptly feminized companion to The Fighter. Following another suburban domestic figure whose dreams and sense of self have been smothered by family demands, with an added cocktail of gender expectations, Joy thrives in embracing its suburban artifice – chintzy soap opera drama, the retro-futuristic idealism of QVC, and the thin, family-quilting veil of Christmas – while delving into the unavoidable degradations of family. The ignorant, manipulative patriarchy, represented by bumbling & volatile Robert De Niro, seethingly desiring Elisabeth Rohm and fabulously vampiric Isabella Rossellini, are intrusive influences keeping Joy (a rarely more commanding Jennifer Lawrence) from finally embracing who she really is. Told with an otherworldly peace and omniscience, Joy can’t help but pump itself into your veins in its righteous final moments.
10. Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper)
Sebastian Schipper’s bravura-but-not-bravado single-take thriller Victoria begins on the epileptic surge of flashing strobe lights, inundating the viewer with hyper-sensitive detail from its first moment. It’s less a sustained 136 minute image than the macro-expansion of a single shard of light, fragile and ephemeral. The people Schipper’s camera expands onto aren’t exemplary individuals, each sidelined by society, ready to be discarded. The framing is at once inelegant, yet hyper-attentive. The performances are unadulterated, messily emotional and utterly exhausted. The effort is enormous and convulsive and consuming, and so is the pure rush of experience. Its joys are bright and voluminous; its crashes, visceral and chaotic. It’s an insomniac’s dream and nightmare, so heavily swaying, yet tight-wound and compact. It’s a genius work of momentum, too extraordinary to feel entirely real, not that reality is its goal. Reality has cuts and abbreviations. Victoria has no way to siphon off its erratic feeling till the drained, hungover conclusion.
9. White God (Dir. Kornel Mundruczo)
Two films in my top twenty deliver unexpected political messages through humanity’s most resiliently affable animal companion. The pups are less than friendly here, but the human patriarchy is even more volatile. Focusing on Lili and her sheltered, unsuspecting mutt Hagen, who she allows more freedom of honest expression than most owners, as they’re separated by Lili’s anxious, deflated dad, White God is basically Homeward Bound by way of Jason Bourne. Both kindred spirits lose their innocence in concurrent, but ferociously different ways. Lili flirts with drugged-out underground counter-culture while the sweetness is bred gratuitously out of Hagen by a more mean-spirited underground ring. As Mundruczo carries us inevitably into Grand Guignol, mankind and muttkind taking vengeance and senseless butchery out on one another, the film settles improbably into a desperately compassionate portrait of our society’s knee-jerk inclination towards violence over understanding.
8. The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
“We all dance by ourselves. That’s why we only play electronic music.”
Yorgos Lanthimos is an absurd, apologetic weirdo, and that disturbing weirdness translates to inexplicably sweet loneliness in The Lobster. Nearly anything that’s made mandatory in society becomes a draining process, so what more seminal underpinning of humanity to make unconditional than romance? The world of The Lobster is meticulous, anti-septic, and tensely controlled to its most minute detail, and yet there’s a heart-breaking tenderness underlying its grim examination of the daunting expectations of modern love. Both societies that prescribe romance and self-isolation end up breeding desperate longing, and when deep, obnoxious love finally blooms, the weight of expectation tears them, and the thin similarity that links them, apart. For such a clinical, proficiently hilarious film, few others this year have left me as raw, in hope and sadness. (Review)
7. The Tribe (Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Strip away language and articulation and people become insects, responding instinctively to stimuli. That’s the proposition made by The Tribe, both as narrative and as experience. Never in my life has a theater been moored in such devout, surreal silence, wrapped in care and attention, trying to make sense of the drama and their emotional response to it. From the street we enter a boarding school for the deaf. From the school, we enter a drug and prostitution-based subculture and heirarchy. The Tribe only circles inward from there, shocking with the intense intimacy and bleakness of its inferred story, which itself is more of a launching pad for the spontaneously rising emotions, concerns and doubts that the film empathetically paints with.
6. Magic Mike XXL (Dir. Gregory Jacobs)
There’s no plot in Magic Mike XXL. There’s no conflict. There’s no objective gain. It’s the rare successful depiction of an American cinematic utopia; a world nestled believably and refreshingly outside the realms of economic and social heirarchy and competition. Short of Paris, Texas, I can’t recall a road trip film with such startling formal command, such reinvigorating positive energy, and such a diversity of human experiences and desires. It’s the perfect companion to Mad Max: Fury Road, another studio spectacle built on four distinct acts, each of which supplant masculine privilege to affirm female desire and accomplishment. While Magic Mike was about the indulged ego of the desired object, XXL is about the appreciative gaze, seeing only what’s appealing, promising, exciting in every person, regardless of race, age, gender, sexuality. In a world without competition, everyone is equal and alive.
5. Arabian Nights (Dir. Miguel Gomes)
By the sheer, unignorable weight of quantity, I’ve written about no film more this year than Arabian Nights, Portuguese autuer Miguel Gomes’ invigorating, heart-breaking, absurdly funny, ambitious financial crisis anthology trilogy. Unlike Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the power of Gomes’ vision is amplified by the independence of its three volumes, centered around restlessness (Vol. 1 Review), desolation (Vol. 2 Review) and enchantment (Vol. 3 Review), but like Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise triad, those subtitles are dense with resilient political potency. Depicting the intense poverty and hardship caused by the Portuguese government’s harsh austerity measures, through the titular framing device of an Arabian princess’ longing stories, we slowly gather a more universal portrait of humanity enduring beyond hardship and social encumbrance. It’s a layered work of storytelling about the joys, fatigues and necessities of storytelling.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)
Months after my bewildering first brush with George Miller’s astonishing feat of intensely physical, even more intensely humanist, filmmaking, I may not be able to elucidate my response better than my crudely silly first reaction. Mad Max: Fury Road is bursting with ludicrous, hyper-masculine insanity, a deliciously grotesque coterie of villains and henchmen representing the destructive pillars of capitalism, militarism and tyrannical dictatorship. Yet nestled inside its bravado machinations is a story of women inspiring a sense of revolution and redemption in each other and in the men who become reliant on their leadership and skill for survival. Every extended action sequence has its own distinct energy – the nighttime assault, in particular, distills the film’s furious rust tones with a metallic blue tinge that embellishes the film’s silent-era expressionistic imagery – and for once the quiet moments aren’t the only beacons of empathy and emotional release. In chaos and mayhem come rousing moments of kinship and human respect. It’s a marvel that one dreams might inspire studios to further loosen the reins so such auteurist visions may break through.
3. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)
With Weekend and two seasons of HBO’s Looking under his belt, it feels odd to call Andrew Haigh’s latest a revelation. He’s already proven the intimate merits of his casual approach, but 45 Years nonetheless surprises with its unthinkable immaculateness and its sudden, agitated psychic energy. Haigh’s film takes off as a typically generous, warmly autumnal marital drama, before a chill slowly settles over an late-aged couple – rendered in acute, blemished performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay – in the week before their 45th anniversary. Long buried ghost come out of the woodwork, and disarmingly out of each other, as Rampling’s Kate questions the authenticity of the massive, irrevocable life she’s built a man who’s suddenly faded out of focus. Both are obscured from each other, but we follow Rampling through to the ravishingly spectral final shot, an immaculately staged performance that could reaffirm or shatter their relationship, and left me shaking regardless of its outcome.
2. Girlhood (Dir. Celine Sciamma)
“Vic. Vic as in Victory.”
There are things universally indentifiable with in Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles, a film dazzling in its sense of communal social performance and gradually collected identity, and others that viewers outside its specific racial, gender and socio-economic subset can’t fully understand. Sciamma herself may not be able to fully understand, but there are simple bookmarks of teenage experience she intuitively does. The fluidity of performed public identity. The unwavering confidence of desire. The joys of submission to the intimate frequency of one’s companions, platonic or sexual. She understands the discomfort being compliantly exploited for someone’s unwanted gaze, and isn’t shy about implicating her own gaze, as well as the audience’s, in that discomfort. What I understand more and more in its final moments is the fear and confusion of not having a place that’s decided for you by society, and finding the will to pave your own in spite that nearly crippling uncertainty. Its vision of social and identity transience felt more familiar to me than anything else I saw this year. (Review)
1. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)
Carol making my #1 spot is a little like falling in love; at a point you realize, you don’t have a choice in the matter. It didn’t fully occur to me until compiling this list that my top three films all involve queer filmmakers working far beyond their own experience to tell less-than-common stories of connection and understanding, with all the small successes and stagnating failures they involve. With Todd Haynes having already made Far From Heaven, an unsuspectingly stirring, queer spin on Douglas Sirk, Carol ran the risk of repetition, but never has Haynes been this startlingly direct in his always passionate brand of delicately woven period subversion. I’ve been confused by the claims of Carol being too distant, cold even, when the film I saw at New York Film Festival was oozing at the seams with infinite longing, desire, in a manner similar to, but refreshingly distinct from, its source material.
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt leaned on the tension of being so caught up in the uncertain emotions of Therese (a quietly, delicately intelligent Rooney Mara), never knowing if they’d thrive or flatten when presented to Carol (an effortlessly charismatic, ultimately heart-stopping Cate Blanchett), much less to greater society, rendered in a glassy, mint-tinted haze, both beautiful and impenetrable. Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation abandons that tension, but injects a contemporary sense of tentative certainty behind both Therese’s and Carol’s desires. Queer desire is hardly a secret, in spite its dejected status in 1950s society. It’s a struggle, and the compromises made to sustain it feel as insensitive back then as they are today, but it’s not an impossibility. It’s not a radical social act, either. Simply a radical private one, intimate and infinitely reflecting between the glint in its characters’ eyes.
And that’s all for 2015, awards festivities notwithstanding. And for the release date purists out there, here are my top ten U.S. releases of 2015:
1. The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
2. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)
3. Girlhood (Dir. Celine Sciamma)
4. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)
6. Arabian Nights (Dir. Miguel Gomes)
7. ’71 (Dir. Yann Demange)
8. Eden (Dir. Mia Hansen-Love)
9. Magic Mike XXL (Dir. Gregory Jacobs)
10. The Tribe (Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy)