Yes, my Best of 2015 movie list is a little late. But I wrote it anyway because I hope you seek out these movies, if you haven’t enjoyed them already.
Yes, there’s more than 10 movies on this list. It was a good year for movies. Some of the best directors working today – Paul Thomas Anderson, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, J.C. Chandor, Asghar Farhadi, Mike Leigh, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Andrey Zvyagintsev – all released movies last year for us to soak in. That’s seven names right there, and a Top Ten list shouldn’t be occupied by the heavyweights only.
Yes, there is some overlap between movies released in 2015 and some from late 2014: poor movie-watching opportunities in northeastern Louisiana.
No, I did not list “Fantastic Four,” though I wanted to, badly.
No, that was not a joke.
1. Winter Sleep
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of my favorite directors working now, and “Winter Sleep” continues to expand my admiration for him, which began after I saw “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”
Both “Winter Sleep” and “Anatolia” as well as his former “Distant” and “Three Monkeys” feature some of the most surreal and beautiful cinematography ever onscreen.
In “Winter Sleep,” Aydin is a hotel owner who prefers to be thought of as an adventurer. He’s a newspaper columnist who calls himself a writer. He’s a petty landlord who ignores his tenant’s tribulations because he’s an intellectual and has more important things to tend to. He’s a has-been actor who performs for guests instead of trying to serve them. He acts savagely toward his sister for trying to correct him. He’s a husband who doesn’t know his young wife.
And yet Aydin isn’t the only one in “Winter Sleep” whose pride will undo and isolate him from love and children.
“Winter Sleep” is a devastating picture, one that exercises our muscles of compassion.
2. Inherent Vice
Let’s talk about how we got here.
News that Paul Thomas Anderson would adapt and direct a Thomas Pynchon novel was not surprising. After all, PTA’s narratives may feel more orchestrated than a Pynchon tale, but both storytellers love building worlds for the same kind of people who are themselves only kind of people: characters who are nearly abstracts, though often humorous ones.
In PTA’s “Boogie Nights,” there’s Dirk Diggler and Rollergirl and a host of other exaggerated figures in a movie so outrageous and funny and disturbed and heavy-handed I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it again.
In “Magnolia,” there’s multiple intersecting and capital-S Significant storylines like a store owner named Solomon Solomon who admonishes and fires Quiz Kid Donnie Smith or Tom Cruise playing the long-haired creator of a “Seduce and Destroy” seminar for oversexed creeps. And let’s not forget about the rainfall of frogs to tie up one end and unravel another.
In “Punch Drunk Love,” Character as Abstract is pushed to an absurd level: a man finds his life disrupted and resolved by a harmonium. He collects Healthy Choice Foods pudding so he can fly. He’s up against the villain Mattress Man and DJ Justice, who cuts you down to size, and then there’s the scene of Hawaiian hanky panky that makes you chuckle and wince.
“There Will Be Blood” was largely received as an ostensible struggle between Oil and Religion. It’s more specifically about an oilman’s mission to literally undermine the Church. Remy Wilkins sees the oily tycoon as a kind of biblical Serpent, which makes sense.
Then there’s “The Master,” which I find to be the strangest and best work PTA has done yet, mostly because Freddie, but especially Dodd, can’t be parsed like the characters in his previous movies. Their mystery, like that of the eponymous newspaper tycoon in “Citizen Kane,” is key – it’s the aspect that leads to cult followings and theories and rumors and loneliness.
And now we come to “Inherent Vice,” and a prolonged confession: I can’t say for sure that I know what’s going on in this movie. This delightfully baffling movie begins with stoner private eye Doc Sportello plunging into the mystery of a missing person, which spirals into a whole confusing string of mysteries, some involving coke fiends, real estate scams, heroin shipments, rehab center cults,the LAPD, mysterious deaths, broken families and more.
“Inherent Vice” was of course the next natural step for PTA. The narrative is at the other extreme from where his career began, a story told on an epic scale but one that resists the obvious interweaving of multiple subplots, one that backgrounds the reveal.
(A second viewing confirmed the editing in a few scenes is definitely off, which makes for the distracting inclusion of some badly timed lines.)
3. Crimson Peak
Similar to the production woes that led to a media backlash and Marvel fanboys knocking “Fantastic Four,” marketing bungles and resistance from kitschy Guillermo Del Toro fans have kept “Crimson Peak” from enjoying the appreciation it deserves.
A young woman is whisked away after a murder and some sinister courtship melodrama to a haunted mansion called Crimson Peak where two creepy siblings try to ignore the ghosts that hang around.
The dialogue and situations from the movie’s first half toe the precipice of Victorian period movie marathons on the Lifetime Channel, but that’s as much as I’ll concede. “Crimson Peak” is taut, terrifying, gorgeous, a pleasing period thriller that’s absolutely finely crafted.
4. Force Majeure
Think of “Force Majeure” as “Eyes Wide Shut: Family Edition.”
In fact, the influence of Stanley Kubrick is all over this movie, from its musical choices to its symmetrical mise en scene.
Unlike “Eyes Wide Shut,” this movie is not interested in any sexual fallout, but with the ways in which selfishness invades a marriage and breaks trust, with the guilt that gnaws.
It’s got a total Kubrickian ending too: When does that cycle of harming each other end?
5. Mr. Turner
“Mr. Turner” is a rich and surprising movie. Turner’s relationship with his daddy produced real tears, and the scene with the pretentious art buyer who loves gooseberry pie is only one of many laugh out loud moments.
It’s a biopic that doesn’t feel like one, resisting the urge to idolize its subject, to vindicate or criticize him. The story moves from one episode in the artist’s life to another, most of the time shifting between the two women who close the picture, suggesting that we cannot ever comprehend the whole of a man.
Forget “The Road.” (You probably already have.) “Jauja” is the Cormac McCarthy story you wanted to see Viggo Mortensen in.
It’s an odd picture that maintains its 4:3 aspect ratio throughout, and it’s beautiful as well, in spite of its lighting, which is frequently unnaturally produced – lights emanating from parts of the screen other than the campfire at night and so on.
“Jauja” is the strangest movie I’ve seen since “Borgman.” It’s never tiring, and some of the shots and scenes in this movie are exquisite and haunting.
Also, if you want to watch Viggo Mortensen speak Danish, Spanish, French and English, then check out “Jauja.”
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
“Mad Max: Fury Road” drops you in and speeds to the finish.
The texture of this movie is so simple and imaginative, a mythic and child-like way of imagining a futuristic world: blood bags, war rigs and war pups, mother’s milk in a fuel tank, the Green Place, Gas Town, Bullet Farm, Furiosa, chrome spray paint, Larry and Barry neck tumors, witnessing death and declaring suicides mediocre, the Valkyrie, Immortan Joe, Valhalla, and &c.
It’s one of the few movies that pulls off the over-saturated orange-blue look while still feeling new. And the centered camera framing and the tight editing are all jaw-dropping.
Don’t let all the hype make you think it’s overrated. It’s not, though hyperbole seems the only right way of referring to this movie.
8. Lost River
Ryan Gosling’s debut feature as director bears a significant debt to Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Gosling in “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” (the latter better than the former, mostly because “Drive” doesn’t make sense and “Only God Forgives” doesn’t even try to). But “Lost River” is a far more interesting picture than anything Refn has bragged about lately.
“Lost River” may have some missteps (the underworld of the underworld – an overly ironic skin-peeling night club – and the mother/performer, played by Christina Hendricks, are two of them), but it’s a pleasantly simple story that suggests whole worlds beyond what appears during its too-brief running time. There’s the horror night club, Bully and Rat, a creepy grandmother, an underwater Dinosaur park, and other terrific touches.
Ben Mendelsohn is a treat, as always, but cinematographer Benoit Debie and music composer Johnny Jewel are the movie’s real stars.
9. The Homesman
I was not prepared for how compelling “The Homesman” would be. I remember Tommy Lee Jones’ last movie, “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” as a solid but unremarkable feature, and actor-directed movies still inspire just a little suspicion that what I’m about to watch may not be any good (e.g. George Clooney, Kevin Costner, &c).
“The Homesman” is different. It begins with some pretty harrowing depictions of life on the frontier and the madness and loneliness that sets in, and then it builds to the kind of ending that Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil” tried and failed to produce. When the end credits roll, you wonder how you came to believe the movie would end any differently.
Also, the camera framing and movement (or absence thereof) is astoundingly restrained.
10. Hard to Be a God
How do you describe this black-and-white Russian sci-fi movie about a parallel universe where the Renaissance never occurred and the people on the planet remained in an endless and gonzo Middle Ages?
“Hard to Be a God” is like Andrey Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” got hijacked by Terry Gilliam’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” plus David Lynch. That’s about all I can say of this movie.
Once you begin watching it (finishing it is probably part of some bizarre rite of passage), you’ll understand what I mean.
11. About Elly
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” a group of friends go on a cruise, their weekend of adult fun dampened when a woman disappears after voicing her discontent with their group’s promiscuous behavior. The premise in Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly” is not so different, though it concerns the family and the blood expectations and tension that come with it.
Here a family goes on a weekend vacation to the beach, and one of their companions disappears, but unlike Antonioni’s picture, the vanished woman doesn’t set the movie’s moral compass. “About Elly” watches the family drama unfold slowly, and somehow the movie avoids melodrama, at every step. If you watch this movie, you’ll be impressed by that feat, too.
12. A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor has already showed up his colleagues in Hollywood with the Wall Street drama, “Margin Call,” and the survival-at-sea thriller, “All is Lost,” and yet he continued to escape being pigeonholed in any genre with “A Most Violent Year,” proving his Woody Allen-like production speed and frugal filmmaking habits.
Dramatically, this movie outdoes Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.
It’s wonderful, and so is the Alex Ebert soundtrack.
“A Most Violent Year” is the parable of the unforgiving servant, but with New York City and oil and the family and the classes and crime statistics: the American epic, condensed.
Manipulation can refer to skillfully handling objects or people, and that’s exactly the world in which “Whiplash” is set.
The jazz band background helps cover up how artfully this film is edited and how it establishes mood and suspense with the repetition of sounds.
The movie is partly a tale of artistic perfection a la “Black Swan,” but without the sexually haunted terror. In “Whiplash,” do artists like Neiman need violent instruction from teachers like Fletcher in order to be great? Maybe, but it’s a deal with the devil – the man trying to master the drums is no different from the man trying to master the drummer.
In recent years, the Book of Job has inspired two really great movies: the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.”
So it’s slightly disappointing that the characters and narrative of director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” is more slavishly rooted to the plot points of the biblical text without much of the book’s anguish.
But there are so many things in “Leviathan” to admire and to provoke sadness and sympathy: the wife, her husband’s best friend, the corrupt but frightened mayor, and the destruction of a beautiful home.
The problem with “Leviathan,” I think, is how disconnected we are from the movie’s main character and from his suffering (compared to his wife). At the end, he’s just so loosely drawn, and though “Leviathan” ultimately stretches to suggest a divine order, it skips Job’s interrogation of God.
15. The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” is not your typical wuxia film.
“House of Flying Daggers” has long been one of my favorites in that movie genre, partly because its police story and night club romance and plot twists all seem to draw from the same well of characters and situations as Humphrey Bogart film noirs, with equal wit and tragedy (the quick, haunted detective is fairly common in wuxia movies).
Yet “The Assassin” is immersed so deeply in the mythos of wuxia, and its story is so contained that it feels like the swordsman epic has only now been born. Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time” is one of the few pictures that feels even remotely similar.
The movie begins with a young assassin whose master decides to test whether her disciple’s swift blade is guided by a cold, cold heart, so she sends the assassin to slay some governor she was previously supposed to marry. There are scenes that I’m still scratching my head over, trying to figure out how they relate to the rest, though the overarching narrative always feels completely organic and right.
And “The Assassin” never builds to any climactic finish. Its restraint in this aspect and others, especially when it comes to filming martial arts, is very pleasing.
Plus the movie’s cinematography alone would earn it a spot on this list.
16. The Hateful Eight
There’s no subject that couldn’t be infected by Quentin Tarantino’s sick pleasure.
And if it wasn’t for Tarantino’s sharp storytelling sense, each of his movies would be an entirely unwatchable parade of squalor. But he’s got a keen awareness of how to arrange and pace a narrative, how to build suspense, and he also knows how a narrative would be hampered if he uncorked a flood of filth so he settles for a few token perversions in each movie (e.g. the Bear Jew – played poorly and immoderately by Eli Roth – and that character’s baseball bat scene are the only unnecessary and objectionable parts that keep “Inglourious Basterds” from being a perfect motion picture).
Tarantino’s last movie, “Django Unchained,” went too far. And parts of “The Hateful Eight,” which inhabits the period after the Civil War, seem like a more restrained remake of his Civil War revenge epic for African Americans, except that Samuel L. Jackson’s revenge on the white man in “The Hateful Eight” is total sleaze, though I can understand the impetus behind that particular sub-plot.
“The Hateful Eight” is also part-Agatha Christie mystery, a whodunit confined to Minnie’s Haberdashery, and though some of the characters are sometimes forced to deliver large chunks of Tarantino’s portentous, too-cute lines – I’m thinking of Tim Roth, specifically his monologue on frontier justice – other characters brood and stare and exhibit enough suspicion and tragic history you’d think the cast of “Once Upon a Time in the West” had returned.
So yes, “The Hateful Eight” does some genre hopping, but that’s not unusual for a Tarantino flick.
It’s beautifully shot – ah, those rich, rich colors – though the beginning stagecoach scenes are much more stagey and distracting than what happens in the limited interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery (the boredom inside the stagecoach does not result from any fault of the lighting or camera work, but because of insufficient attention to sections of the screenplay, most likely Tarantino’s unwillingness to trim and condense sections of dialogue he’s wrongly proud of).
Thus far, I’m not sure I’ve said anything to make you want to seek this movie out, so let me tell you why I’ll re-watch it.
In spite of himself, Tarantino has made a movie that’s laden with questions and investigations about dishonesty and the nuances of deception, when is it justified, when is it not, who judges the line between truth and lies (sheriffs or generals or people with guns?), is it another form of murder, is self-deception present in self-defense killings that would therefore also make them murder, and so on. The monologues about frontier justice and the Battle of Baton Rouge and so on are all red herrings, surface-level stuff that conceals some pretty substantial struggles.
“The Hateful Eight” wants to ask important questions. It opens with a long shot of a statue of the crucified Jesus Christ, and it closes with two enemies who are cherishing a falsehood about Abraham Lincoln: are there lies we must sustain in order to live in harmony?
It’s frustrating that “Partisan” doesn’t indicate its story’s time or place. There’s a cult leader with a compound of women who bear him children he then raises to become assassins.
It’s also unclear why some people must be assassinated or why the world is evil or how Gregori (Vincent Cassel) maintains control of the growing population in his harem.
But “Partisan” intentionally avoids answering these kinds of questions. The use of sound and the set design and camera work subtly set a tense but colorful mood, one that’s not interested in a rapidly developing series of plot twists. Though the unexplained Where and When of the story was distracting, the other narrative blanks were not.
The focus is on Alexander, a young boy approaching adolescence who begins to question Gregori and the world his father has created for him.
As soon as the picture begins, it’s clear where the story is headed, and yet the movie still incorporates a number of surprises, many of them revolving around a child-like discovery of the world: secretly enjoying a chocolate bar or protecting a chicken because it’s a descendent of the now-extinct tyrannosaurus rex.
The movie’s title seems to refer to eastern Europe resistance fighters during World War II, and likens that connotation to conflict between a father and his son, to a domestic challenge of authority that exists only because the authority figure says so.