Most of the major film critics have announced their top 10 lists and have handed out their annual awards (I find that the critics groups awards, like the ones given by the Chicago Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, are more legitimate and diverse in honoring the BEST in cinema). Unfortunately, I don’t get the luxury of having screeners sent to me so it takes me longer to watch all of the films of that year. Hopefully one day I can make my top 10 list around December/January. I always manage though and I’ve watched some excellent films from 2015: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy (Radius-TWC) is a viscerally, unsettling Austrian horror film that surprisingly and thankfully found an audience in the States. Rick Alverson’s Entertainment (Magnolia) is a sad, cryptically funny and poetic look inside the life of a broken, middle-aged comedian. Also, Ennio Morricone’s sinister score from Quentin Tarantino’s beautifully hideous The Hateful Eight (The Weinstein Company) will be a future classic.
These great films almost made my top ten list, but 2015 was an outstanding year in film so it was a very hard decision. For people that know me, I work in film distribution and I have become extremely passionate about this component of the film industry. Distributors like Radius, A24, Amplify, Magnolia, Broad Green Pictures, etc. are providing a platform for original and unique independent films to maximize their audiences across all types of media (Theatrical, SVOD, VOD, etc.). These are the types of movies that are created with vision and aim to provide individuals with a greater and deeper understanding of life through cinema as an art form. These distributers are the players in the film industry that care about the craft of filmmaking and with Fox Searchlight Pictures acquiring rights to Sundance-winning sensation The Birth of a Nation (2016), even though Netflix offered a bigger bid, means that contemporary filmmakers have the same goals as these film distributers. Amen.
So with all these distributers releasing so many amazing films in 2015, it only made my job harder to narrow down all of the films I’ve seen to just the best.
Here are the ten best films of 2015 (click the photos to watch the trailer):
10. Beasts of No Nation (Bleecker Street Media/Netflix); Watch it on Netflix
True Detective Season 1 alum, Cary Joji Fukunaga, knows what he’s doing on the director chair, behind the camera and in the writer’s lab. This triple threat-artist not only introduced the world to the talented Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation but illustrated a story that is authentic and yet lyrical, making an utterly inhumane and alien situation both completely real and completely abstract. I’ll call this one a knockout.
9. Amy (A24); Watch it On Demand & On DVD
Documentaries don’t get more artful and thematically gripping as Asif Kapadia’s Amy. I wish I was at Cannes back in May to witness the standing ovation that this film deservedly received. Amy makes us look at Amy, the human being. It doesn’t get more tragic than to see an extraordinarily talented young woman being taken advantage of by her family and ridiculed by the media. There’s an incredible sequence in this film, nearly experimental in its approach, that cuts images together of Winehouse on stage as a stop-motion observation of what what was truly happening to this poor soul. Amy is a powerful documentary in which Kapadia allows this woman, even in death, to turn the camera back at the viewer who saw, mocked and ignored her descent as it transpired right in front of their eyes. I don’t think even winning the Best Documentary Oscar will do Amy Winehouse justice, but it’s a start if people watch this film.
8. Queen of Earth (IFC Films); Watch it on Netflix & On DVD
You want to talk about snubs? How about a pair of emotionally, towering performances delivered by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Every beautiful frame of Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth fosters an acute air of dread. While nothing physically happens, everything is happening on such a spine-tingling, passive aggressive level. Perry’s observations of complicated female dynamics are extremely perceptive. Queen of Earth reminds me of those European psychological horror films that completely f**k with your head. Just watch the opening scene of this film and you’ll see what I mean.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros. Pictures); On Demand & On DVD
Props to Warner Bros. Pictures for giving George Miller a lot of money and full creative control when making his masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road. This is a film that uses cinema for its primary purpose-a visual medium. It’s in the silences that Miller’s vision comes to life, exploring themes informed by an apocalypse caused by the “male species.” I mean come on, just look at that shot of Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in the desert! Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic art film. This movie throws off the current definition of the “blockbuster.”
6. Inside Out (Pixar/Disney); On Demand & On DVD
I was completely blown away by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen’s Inside Out and its thought provoking consideration of what it means to be happy and sad. This film is a psychological portrait of a young girl who becomes depressed and it is all disguised as a colorful, funny cartoon for kids. Let me say this, you take away all that fun stuff and you are left with a complex, devastating drama that is certainly not for kids. That shot above, of Joy holding Riley’s memory, is the moment when she heartbreakingly says, “I just wants Riley to be happy.” In this moment I realized that Joy’s feelings could be connected to that of a mother’s emotions, especially in this scene, there’s this type of helplessness that a mother feels and endures when her child is in pain. Mom was the first person that Riley saw when she was born and Joy was the first emotion that appeared in Riley’s mind simultaneously. Sadness is the “voice of reason” in Mom’s head, as we saw at the dinner table confrontation. A mother’s maternal instincts are to make her her child feel safe and happy. This further reiterates the film’s examination of the bond that happiness and sadness have with each other. Watch the film again and pay attention to the interaction between Mom and Joy. This type of dialogue that I’m having right now is what makes this kind of writing so perceptive and intelligent. Pixar has done it again.
5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sony Pictures Classics); On Demand & On DVD
Empathy is cinema’s most valuable tool and is how audiences become engaged with a film. I am not a girl nor will I ever understand what it feels like to be one. But in Marielle Heller’s debut film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, I was given the opportunity to learn, understand and whole-heartedly empathize with a spunky, 15-year old girl named Minnie. Bel Powley, who plays Minnie, is a revelation. She bares all, emotionally and physically, and never once makes Minnie’s sexuality exploitative. This is a director and actor duo that I hope I see again in the movies because this simple coming-of-age journey in the 1970’s was crafted into something quite special. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an authentic insight into a perspective grossly underrepresented in American cinema.
4. Son of Saul (Sony Pictures Classics); Now Playing in Theaters
Most Holocaust films these days require their stories to have some sort of redemptive ending for the Jews, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it veers from the truth of the horrors that took place in the concentration camps. Son of Saul, however, feels like one of the most honest films depicting the Holocaust I have ever seen because director, Laszlo Nemes, wants us to simply look. The protagonist, Saul (played to nuanced perfection by Geza Rohrig), is a prisoner of the Sonderkommando, whose members are given a few more months until their extermination but are forced to burn the corpses of their own people in the meantime. I don’t want to give away too much because this film becomes quite gripping in its escalation of events, which are based on witness accounts by Sonderkommando members. Son of Saul is a perfect example as to why good filmmaking is about having well written characters and not about creating a complicated plot. Saul is wisely presented not as a hero but as a casualty of Nazi evil. We cannot embrace his mission, which is to find a Rabbi to bury a boy that he believes to be his son, but there is something deeply moving in his quest to make his life meaningful. From the opening shot of the film, Nemes immerses the audience into Saul’s world with a subjective approach that attends to horrors of Saul’s existence – the bodies, fires, executions – are either out of focus or off-camera, suggesting Saul’s own psychological removal from the horror of his existence. Son of Saul blew me away and anyone interested in the power of cinema should see this movie.
3. It Follows (Radius-TWC); On Demand & On DVD
Where do I begin with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows? This is a film that makes a virtue of silence, that lives in the shadowy spaces between the splattery kill scenes that punctuate your average horror flick. Mitchell is sensitive to the complicated nuances of teenage friendship, rooting the horror in relationships which make the movie believable and effecting. With a mixture of ignorance, helplessness, horror and suspense as a final connection with America’s purest horror, sex is the fundamental ingredient in It Follows. If you sleep with someone who’s being followed, then you better watch your back. Sex is used as a metaphor for the encroachment of adulthood and with it the self-awareness of mortality, making the terror of It Follows not just physical but existential. Mitchell successfully balances scares with provocative analysis complete with a minimalist tone, all the while establishing himself as a master of the widescreen visual, expertly capturing “It” no matter which direction it comes from. Aided by a breathtaking score from Disasterpeace, It Follows has set the standard for horror films; it’s tender, remarkably ingenious, and scalp-pricklingly scary.
2. Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures); In Theaters Now!
A 40-something man named Michael crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary in Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion, animated masterpiece, Anomalisa. Michael (an excellent David Thewlis) is simply yet complicatedly bored with his life, and every single person he interacts with is one individual “voice,” played by Tom Noonan. This effect is both abstract and literal. However, when Michael gets out of the shower after a rough evening he hears a different voice, a woman’s voice (an incredible performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s difficult to describe adequately the haunting and profound intensity of Anomalisa. This film is a wonderfully odd consideration of those questions about love, pain, solitude and human connection we all ask; its subtle, emotional power lingers for days. And this movie has one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever seen in cinema.
1. Macbeth (Radius-TWC) In Select Theaters & On VOD/SVOD Soon!
Justin Kurzel marked his arrival in 2011 with the indie Aussie crime-noir, The Snowtown Murders. A few years later, Kurzel is given a lot more money and a much bigger canvas to paint on. Receiving a ten minute standing ovation at the 2015 Festival de Cannes, Kurzel’s stirring and unflinching retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is an astonishing achievement. The tale of a Scottish thane, his ambitious wife and a terrible deed that haunts them, leaving their hands forever stained, has been captured into spiritual and poetic greatness with remarkable eloquence. Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s vision is one of pummeling beauty. You could drop out the dialogue and be content with their red-and blue-bathed sceneries of mayhem, the white fog that obscures a blighted land. As a piece of art, Macbeth tracks the tragic decline of a good man gone bad, who finds murder too insignificant not to do again and again. The composer of this film is Jed Kurzel who is also the brother of the director. Jed scored his brother’s debut, The Snowtown Murders and Jennifer Kent’s horror-masterpiece The Babadook. Jed Kurzel’s music aligns and transitions seamlessly with every striking visual, as both components guide the way more breathlessly than any footnote could. The acting in Macbeth is unbelievable. Michael Fassbender is Macbeth and he effortlessly finds his character’s increasing mental deterioration with a physicality and anguish in his eyes that is wholly convincing. Then there’s Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth.
Cotillard’s performance is an acting triumph. She makes Lady Macbeth seem transfixed by her own capacity for evil and inhabits the role with a glorious fire and ice that will nearly haunt your dreams. I had to gasp for air during Lady Macbeth’s mad scene (see image above), I don’t think I have ever seen that kind of screen acting in my entire life. Fassbender, Cotillard and Justin Kurzel-who should step right up to full auteur status-have created cinematic art in the highest form. William Shakespeare would be proud. Macbeth is gloriously visceral and exquisitely performed; it’s the best film of 2015.