Scott’s Top Ten of 2015
I don’t intend to demean the quality of the films stocking tops ten of previous years, but in general, I tend to only feel really passionate about my top 3-5 choices. I know I’ll stick by them as the years go on (I keep a running list of the best films by year, going back to the 1920s, on Letterboxd), and they tend not to leave their general placement on that list. The rest are a bit more fluid. This year, I’m so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of quality filmmaking, it seems insane to rank them at all. Many of the films listed below could be in the top spot.
So I’ve taken a somewhat more playful approach. In addition to the “main selection” in the 1-10 slots, there is a “see also” selection of one, two, five movies that also came out this year that are thematically/aesthetically/emotionally related. In some cases, these might as well be ties. I’ll go into a bit more detail on all of this in an upcoming episode of the show, but suffice to say, this has been an incredible year. Even aside from every single film I mention here, I have a list of a further forty that ranged from rock-solid entertainments to near-great landmarks.
Runners-up: The Look of Silence, Chi-Raq, Results, Tangerine, Hard to Be a God, Mad Max: Fury Road, Irrational Man, The Hateful Eight, The Night Before, Fort Tilden, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
10. Far From the Madding Crowd
Screenwriter David Nicholls and director Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel in many ways reflects the sort of “Wikipedia plot summary” approach many such ventures tend to take (see also Jane Eyre, Unbroken, Les Miserables, the Hunger Games series), in which the canonized story of a popular book is more relayed than created. But a film is not defined by its screenplay, and the innumerable moments of pure grace that Vinterberg and his cast (most especially Carey Mulligan’s leading role, but quite notably Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge as the various suitors trying to woo her) bring to the film made it one of the year’s most winning, lovely films. To watch Mulligan lean back as she rides through the trees or see the snow flutter into an enormous house on a cold night is absolute bliss. To hear the shifts in her voice as her status evolves, the pain in her eyes when she falls short of her own ideals, and the gulf of feeling whenever she and Schoenaerts share the screen is as moving a subject as the screen might offer. Credit also must be paid to cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, whose powerful-but-subdued colors often give the genuine impression that one is watching a moving painting. This is a true collaborative effort, no force exerting itself in an effort to blot out the others. Everyone’s pulling, and everyone shines more for it.
See also: Beloved Sisters, Amour Fou, Jauja, Cinderella, Crimson Peak
Working in two modes that have nearly exhausted me (World War II movies and heavy allegory), and coming from the director of a thoroughly, almost purposefully mediocre film (2013’s Barbara), I’m kind of surprised to have responded as passionately as I did to his new film, Phoenix. While it seems to be getting at the desire of evil people to ignore and deny their deeds – a pertinent theme to a film that takes place in postwar Berlin – by draping this theme onto the story of a woman (Nina Hoss) whose face is burned beyond recognition and requires reconstructive surgery that leaves her unrecognizable to her husband, co-writer/director Christian Petzold has foremostly crafted a haunting slice of horror-tinged melodrama. The limited sets – a hospital, a couple apartments, a nightclub – lend the ruined city a ghostly feeling. The way the red light of the nightclub pours into all nearby corners makes it a sort of a beacon to which the woman must constantly return. She exorcises her demons gradually, resisting at every turn the possibility that her husband could be a monster when she feels like the Frankenstein creation. That this all builds to a rightly-hailed, jaw-dropper of a finale, well…there’s an argument that goes a movie is defined by how it ends, and this certainly emboldens that case.
See also: The Kindergarten Teacher
A screenwriting teacher’s favorite maxim is “show, don’t tell.” Michael Mann’s Blackhat suggests an alternative – “feel, don’t show.” Mann has spent the past ten-plus years exploring the capabilities of digital cinema, but this is the first film in that series in which that form is perfectly grafted into the story. Chris Hemsworth stars as Nicholas Hathaway, a bodybuilder/hacker (loosely based on a real guy Mann and co-screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl met in researching the film) sprung from prison to assist the FBI in capturing a hacker responsible for a nuclear plant explosion. Right from the mostly-CGI opening, which visualizes the effect that leads a virus to cause such destruction, Mann crafts a world not surrounded by technology, but suffused in it. Digital streams are its lifeblood, and only someone like Hathaway can navigate it. Hemsworth finds the right physicality, both immovable and malleable, working in concert with Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s fluid visual pattern, all of which finds its fullest expression in the final showdown at the Balinese Nyepi Day parade. People represented by lights, moving in a constant flow, some extinguishing amidst gunfire, while Hathaway moves against it to reach his target. Patterns in technology echo patterns in flesh; only a few can navigate this new world.
See also: Victoria, Sicario
Like her last film, Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden is an intimate epic. That film looked in on a series of milestones in the life of a young woman from ages 15 to 27, as she learns to let go of the more passionate attachments that one tends to have in those years. Eden pushes that concept, spanning twenty years in the life of Paul (Félix de Givry), who we meet in his late teens as he is just starting to invest himself in his dream career as a DJ. The effect of watching Paul live out the highs and lows of this dream across twenty years is mesmerizing, more ethereal than narrative or thematic. Hansen-Løve doesn’t come to any easy conclusions about what it means to dedicate your life to a single dream, but observes the natural way in which passion tends to dissipate as setbacks, complications, and personal disappointments pile up, and attempts to regain some of what is lost become futile. In its most heartbreaking scene, Paul, in the midst of a panic attack, is unable to communicate in any way the extent of his feeling to his latest girlfriend. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with her, or with him; she just wasn’t there for everything that lead to this point. But because we were, we ache alongside him.
See also: Joy
6. By the Sea
There’s nothing vain about Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea. It’s a daring, confrontational, vulnerable piece of work that engages with the collective want to see these two people, twisting and contorting the parasitic way people live off each other. The simplicity of the narrative, which sees Vanessa (Jolie) and her husband (Roland) visit a small French town, ruminate on their grief, and spy on their neighbors, allows for emotion and curiosity to fill the space. It’s gorgeously – but more importantly, intelligently – shot, accentuating the smallness of individuals and the insufficient amounts of themselves they make available. One shot in which Vanessa enters the bathroom, tossing off her towel just as she gets out of sight of her husband, Roland, teasing both him and us, is particularly memorable. It twists eroticism into a pleasure and a sickness, a binding force that’s nevertheless corrosive when explored recklessly. In an age of cinema so bereft of melodrama, I would have been content with much less. Fortunately, writer/director Jolie was not.
See also: La Sapienza
We’re stacked to the gills with movies about how awesome it is to be a teenager, and how dull it is to be a teenager. Rarely is the subject how scary it is. How much we look to others to define ourselves, and how incapable we are at that age (and too often remain) in communicating our disappointments and desires. Melanie Laurent’s second feature behind the camera is about two girls – played Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge – with such a relationship. They become fast friends when the latter’s character transfers to the former’s school, but just as quickly, divisions form. They long for one another physically, bordering on sexually, but which always remains within the realm of the sororal. Laurent (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Julien Lambroschini, adapting a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme) is invigoratingly unafraid to take things to every heightened, erratic end, letting the narrative bend to the emotional heights her characters do. Such willingness to break with expected norms does not demonstrate a lack of control – certainly her visual scheme should dispel that notion – but the utmost in bravery.
See also (for an older, male perspective on toxic friendships): The Mend, Mississippi Grind
Hollywood cinema has a great tradition of the 1:1 experience – they give you people to root for, and they retain your steadfast sympathies. There’s little in the way of moral, intellectual, or aesthetic complication; what you see is what you get. Room is operating in this mode, yet has a depth of feeling and a vitality of execution that is not at all common to the modern way of making these films. The story – of a young woman abducted and imprisoned for seven years, and the son she had along the way – is rife with sensationalist pitfalls, but by keeping the focus squarely on the emotive experience, the film (lead by novelist/screenwriter Emma Donoghue, director Lenny Abrahamson, and stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay) expands as a rich parable of a certain loss of freedom many young parents experience. They don’t need to show every specific trauma Joy (Larson) endures – the actress can convey it all – but the specific touches they do include, particularly in the leveling final scene, address the physical while encapsulating the spiritual.
See also: The Intern, Mustang
3. The Princess of France
Argentinian filmmaker Matias Pineiro’s sixth feature (his third in a series of Shakespeare riffs, this one on Love’s Labour’s Lost) is ostensibly about a young man trying to avoid romantic entanglements as he mounts a radio adaptation of the aforementioned play. He’s not succeeding. But lest you think this is another story of a dude who just doesn’t know what to do with all these hot young things, the story becomes much more about the women. Sort of. See, the film plainly introduces the entire cast and their roles in a title card within the first shot of the film, yet one is expected to do a good deal of work to figure out who is who even 35 minutes into the film, by which point it is more than half over. Key characters take most of the film to appear. Central characters are actually side concerns to the story. An entire relationship history might be revealed under the guise of discussing someone else. Luckily, at least for now, you can just as easily throw all that aside and enjoy the flow of kisses, glances, literary or artistic digressions, and white lies. The Princess of France beautifully conveys what it is to be young, passionate, artistically-minded, and restlessly sexual. It’s rare that a work must be seen twice because it is too energetic to be understood on first view. Rarer still to be such a pleasure to see again and again and again. And at a mere 67 minutes, there’s little reason to not indulge.
See also: Mistress America, Güeros
2. The Assassin
The power of its central narrative – about a female assassin tasked with killing her cousin, to whom she was once betrothed – is so forceful, and so movingly meditated upon, that it scarcely matters that so many of the plot specifics are incomprehensible. Plus, you know, it’s kind of fun to have mystics and masked warriors show up without any real context. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest masterpiece is so slowly paced that it defies the conventional sense of “entertainment,” but so gorgeously photographed, so constantly surprising and engaging visually, that the pleasure of watching it is quite akin to that label. Shu Qi gives one of the year’s best performances as the central character, conveying in expression and posture everything the minimal, mysterious dialogue elides.
See also: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The maturity of Todd Haynes’ direction in Carol is defined by how unresolved he makes it. It’s not in the narrative – Phyllis Nagy’s superb screenplay is a complete compendium for its characters, adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, and Haynes never obscures what happens between them, or what has already happened to them. He shows us everything, but leaves it to us what to make of it. What to make of Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) predatory approach to Therese (Rooney Mara). What to make of Therese’s resistance towards the end. What to make of how young she still is or how much Carol sacrifices to even ask her or whether that sacrifice, truly, will be for the betterment of who she says it is for, and the extent to which a bit of selfishness might be required to be your best self. It is a love story, one of the greats, because it is fully invested in how uncertain love can be.
See also: 45 Years