Aaron’s Top Ten of 2015
Making my top 10 list this year was so difficult that it made me question what a top 10 list should even represent. Should the list be as accurate a depiction of the year’s ten best films as possible (insofar as that is an actual possible thing) or is there room for more interpretation? Should it be a broad encapsulation of the year in film or simply the films I’ll want to revisit year upon year? I was increasingly aware that when there are 15-20 appropriate films to squeeze into 10, there is a lot of nuance in shaping the list. The most contentious film for me was Mad Max: Fury Road. If I’m being completely honest, it is one of the ten best films of 2015. But because it wouldn’t fall in my top 5, I grappled with the idea of leaving it off the list entirely to highlight a film less praised. The matter of degree between my 7th to 8th to 9th etc. is so small that this seemed reasonable, but I don’t know where that falls into the ethics of list-making. Ultimately, this is a problem that shows 2015 as a spectacularly deep year – I considered putting every film in my top 6 at #1. Aside from my ten picks, these also deserve the highest praise: Amy, Brooklyn, Carol, Creed, The Duke of Burgundy, Entertainment, The Hateful Eight, Listen to Me Marlon, Love & Mercy, Mustang, Mommy, Phoenix, Sicario, When Marnie Was There… I could go on. Films I unfortunately didn’t see at the time of writing this list include Arabian Nights, Chi-Raq, Court, The Second Mother, The Tribe.
In a year of hyperbolic “achievements” in filmmaking (The Revenant, Mad Mad: Fury Road, etc.), Sebastian Schipper’s German film Victoria is perhaps the most audacious and interesting of the year. You’ve likely heard of Victoria as the 140 minute film that takes place in one take. This alone is enough to be notable and even commendable, but it isn’t enough to guarantee consideration among the best of the year. What Victoria does with its style and how the film evolves in real-time, however, is what makes it truly special. There is perhaps no film this year that takes as long a journey from point A to point B – absolutely incredible because there are no breaks. Certainly, the film takes a while to get to full speed, but once you realize where the plot is going it seems impossible how Schipper, the cast and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen could make it happen (I’m being intentionally silent on the plot specifics as they should remain unknown if at all possible). Laia Costa, as the title character, completely transforms from one kind of fully-realized character to another in the span of 140 minutes real-time and is completely convincing along the way. Victoria is, in the purest sense I can imagine, a group of artists working together to create an extraordinarily difficult piece of art.
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York was a massive, intellectual giant, almost impossible to fully put together. Partnering with puppet artist Duke Johnson, Kaufman followed up with a drastically different film, but one as emotionally fulfilling as his Synecdoche was challenging. Anomalisa strikes a particular tone that hits me directly to the core – a depiction of depression that feels so personal, but is undoubtedly universal. The film’s conceit that every character besides Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (a delightful Jennifer Jason Leigh) is voiced by Tom Noonan works in many wonderful ways. It’s the kind of weirdness that you’d expect from Kaufman, though it isn’t as complicated as usual. Anomalisa is smart not to directly comment on this peculiarity (at least not right away), though it obviously informs Michael’s sense of the world and his state of mind. Noonan’s vocal performance stays at a constant, which morphs from soothing to grating. It also allows for the right amount of humor, nothing laugh-out-loud, but silly or witty enough to keep the film from becoming dry. Michael’s meeting with Lisa turns into one of the most touching and awkward romance scenes of the year, completely realistic in the way it depicts human connection between people who are so incredibly damaged. Artistically, the puppet work is gorgeous, looking for a more naturalistic style than Team America. Where a film about deep human emotion told through puppets should be all about this disconnect, Anomalisa’s presentation and tone harmonize beautifully.
2015 was a big year for the anti-comedy movement. Rick Alverson’s Entertainment is probably the critical break-out of the genre and Reality was Quentin Dupieux’s best film since Rubber. Buzzard, the second film from Joel Potrykus, is the best mix of uncomfortable situations and legitimate laugh-out-loud moments. Buzzard is a punk splashed slacker flick that is delightfully weird, awkward, dark, and very, very cool. In the film, Marty is a temp office worker, video game and horror film aficionado, overall slacker in the suburbs of Detroit. He is also the smallest of small-time scam artists, pulling schemes like canceling his checking account only to immediately open a new one for the $50 new checking promotion complaining to food companies for coupons for free Hot Pockets. He is either too lazy or too stupid (actually, probably both) to take in any bigger scores. Unfortunately, when he tries, it doesn’t go too well for him. Buzzard really shines in the third act, where anti-social Marty becomes increasingly paranoid of his surroundings and the dumb comedy turns into a pretty intense thriller. Detroit becomes a nightmarish landscape, tormenting Marty into insanity. Joshua Burge (who strangely also appeared in a small, but notable role in Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant) gives a surprisingly nuanced performance, especially as the character’s psychological state shows more and more cracks. I was completely charmed by the film’s peculiar sensibilities and I’ll be on the lookout for where Potrykus and Burge go next.
7. 45 Years
The instigating incident in the first scene of 45 Years is so complex that I don’t think it can be truly understood by anyone not directly affected. Without seeing the long history of these two characters, the film takes a bold jump by introducing the cracks in a relationship before we even see how it works. Through its acting and the steady, probing eye of filmmaker Andrew Haigh, 45 Years is the most dramatically resonant film of the year. Tom Courtenay’s Geoff can be easily characterized as selfish or uncaring or unemotional, but the more I think about his performance, the more complicated it feels. In future viewings of the film, I expect to be more aware of his choices. His counterpart, Charlotte Rampling gives a deeply internal performance that is one of my absolute favorites of the year – it is a shame that praise for her has seemed to overshadow her co-star, but I have to admit guilt myself. With her remarkable career, it is mind-boggling that she has never received a nomination for an Academy Award, though that seems destined to change this year. Her emotional journey builds to the film’s knockout final scene, where everything begins to come to the surface, but in the film’s more understated, more complex way.
6. Wild Tales
A 2014 Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, Wild Tales didn’t receive a U.S. theatrical release until early 2015. Typically, films released that early in the year don’t come up around award season – usually because films are often dumped there, but even the good ones are easy to forget over time. Wild Tales is difficult to forget. Made up of six independent short films, Damián Szifrón’s film packs a darkly-tuned punch, exploring revenge and retribution in a variety of situations, from the deathly serious trauma of killing someone to the wacky escalation of road rage. Each of the segments aren’t created equal (ranking them seems to be a necessary part of every review – I’ll go 1-5-3-4-6-2, for the record), but they bring together a similar style and tone that ties them all into a cohesive unit, building upon itself from beginning to end. The standout piece is without question the opening scene, the shortest and most clearly defined by the film’s theme. Set alone, it may be the best filmed entertainment this year. From there, Wild Tales explores corrupt bureaucracy, personal slights, sexual infidelities and more with humor and a definite dark streak. You won’t find a more broadly entertaining film of 2015.
The incredible story of the rag-tag group of journalists investigating the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal is a well-oiled machine with all of its pieces working together as well as the film’s central team. There is a certain momentum that comes with investigation films like this, but Spotlight goes about it in an interesting way, really highlighting the randomness. As the film so excellently explains, sometimes important information can be missed while right in front of you, sometimes a totally random and simple action can blow everything up. Strangely, the biggest breakthroughs in the film aren’t in the investigation but in the characters. Spotlight’s biggest strength might be the way it continually defies expectations in its characters, something that really clicks during a second viewing. Editor Marty Baron is usually the villain, threatening to cut this expensive program, yet he is its biggest champion. Lawler Garabedian transforms from a perceived quack to the smartest man in the room. Victim Phil Saviano is easy to dismiss as a raving lunatic until you realize he’s speaking the truth. I could go on. In a film that could so easily prioritize the quest, Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (who has experience writing TV procedurals) never forget their characters.
4. Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry received indie acclaim last year for his sophomore release Listen Up Philip, an acerbic comedy praised for its intelligent script. His follow-up, Queen of Earth, is a dramatically different film, even as its characters continue to be wholly unlikable. Here, though, the pleasures come not from Perry’s expert wordsmithing but heightened emotions, kinetic editing and the performance of its star Elisabeth Moss. The film’s unusual structure, as it bounces between two different years where the film’s two protagonists flip in their power dynamics, gives a rather bleak tone different levels. Queen of Earth is more of an impressionistic look at depression than a clinical one and the results are incredibly artful and soul-punching. On my second viewing, however, I realized I was laughing a lot more than my first time through. Queen of Earth is far from a comedy, but there is definitely a camp factor that Perry and Moss are plugging into – this comes as a consequence to her completely over-the-top (in the best way possible) performance that harkens back to former screen legends like Davis and Crawford. The incessant verbal sniping between former best friends Catherine and Virginia (Katherine Waterson, in a performance that has grown on me) is at times uncomfortable, but darkly funny.
3. Ex Machina
It’s no surprise that début film director Alex Garland made his chops for years as a screenwriter as his script for Ex Machina is one of the best sci-fi scripts in years. The film is primarily made up of conversations between two people at a time (either programmer whiz Caleb and towering genius Nathan, or Caleb and femmebot Ava), and the dialogue is sparkling, full of lofty ideas and technical jargon without much of a reference key. I’ll admit there were times that I felt a little left behind in the conversation, and I frankly should be when two very smart people are talking about very smart ideas. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t follow what was going on or felt the film was intellectually impenetrable, because its simplified location and high-concept premise, along with its eventual genre trappings, kept it all accessible. And the film smartly balances the heady material with emotional appeals with Nathan wanting to know how Caleb feels about Ava as much as what he thinks of her. But it is also an actor’s film. The three primary leads all give very different but equally brilliant performances, but Alicia Vikander is the standout. Simply put, if the actress in the Ava role doesn’t deliver, the film doesn’t work. Because a majority of the film’s premise has Caleb literally testing Ava to see if she has the capacity to be human, the audience is focused in on every word she says and motion she makes. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Caleb is fooled in ways, and so was I.
2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
If you were infuriated by the process of law and justice in Making a Murderer, what you see in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem might drive you insane. Taking place in a religious court run by rabbi to mediate a divorce, Gett is confined to one simple room (plus an adjoining hall) between a few characters at a time. Unfortunately for Vivane Amsalem, who wishes a divorce from her husband of 20 years, she doesn’t have any concrete grounds in the eyes of their religious practices – he provides her with money and food, doesn’t beat her or control her. Because he refuses her request and with complete power in decisions of the home, they are in a gridlock. I am often excited about films that employ a unique narrative structure; in Gett, we only witness the proceedings during the mediation, leaving out long stretches between the dispute. This completely stripped down style greatly simplifies a film loaded with political, social and cultural context, allowing the viewer to completely focus on the relationships of the characters and the complexity of the situation. Ronit Elkabetz (who also co-directed the film with her brother) gives a fierce performance, many of her best moments are wordless moments of disgust, anger and resignation. Given the film’s content, the actress has to hold a strong feminine ideal on her shoulders and she does so aggressively. I can only imagine that too few people have seen Gett as it has been so rarely mentioned in the year-end conversation, even just among the foreign language crop. It is essential, gripping, vital cinema.
1. The Look of Silence
Three years ago, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was a revelation – a cathartic, powerful documentary about a genocide told from the perspective of those who perpetrated it. When I heard about the follow-up project, The Look of Silence, I doubted it could possibly recapture the unique quality. The Look of Silence profiles an unnamed optometrist living in a small village where massacres took place in the mid-1960s. The man’s brother was killed two years before his birth, so while he only has a tangential experience with the genocide, shared history has left a deep scar. The death squads have become something of an open secret in the village as no one talks about it, some pretend it never happened or wasn’t so serious. The Look of Silence actively confronts the collective silence by having this man meet with the men and families that are directly responsible for his brother’s murder. The face-to-face conversations are riveting, more tense and dangerous than anything in The Act of Killing. Perhaps the most devastating thing about the film is that these people know each other, they live together, they provide each other services, and there is this suppressed dense fog constantly beating down on them. We see the rhetoric of those in power being challenged by those without power, which creates a different kind of catharsis. The pomp and circumstances within The Act of Killing were appropriate to telling that story and there was value in allowing the gangsters face their demons on their own; here, Oppenheimer knows to cut back on the style of presentation to dig deeper into the personal emotions. The Look of Silence isn’t just a supplement. The film stands on its own, captures new voices in this larger story, and creates a number of incredible moments of emotional release that stand apart from the original. Together, they are among the greatest documentary stories ever told.