Top 10 Films of 2015

I guess it’s the time of year for drawing up lists… or rather, well past that time, I suppose. Thinking of the inevitable “best of” list throughout the year, I kept projecting forward – where are those 10 best films? I’m so excited for them! Can’t wait! Until, with a bit of a shock, sometime around November I realized I’d probably already seen the 10 best films of the year. What? Those films?! I do not mean to slander the films on this list, but they do somehow feel less self-evident than last year’s did. While I can’t claim that Brooklyn is any revelation in terms of the history of cinema, and maybe not even the “best” film of the year, it was the film that had the greatest emotional impact on me, so… there it is, sitting on top.

  1. Brooklyn (John Crowley – Ireland)
  2. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve – US)
  3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell – US)
  4. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle – US)
  5. Hard to be a God (Aleksey German – Russia)
  6. Phoenix (Christian Petzold – Germany)
  7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller – Australia)
  8. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry – US)
  9. Dog Lady (Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella – Argentina)
  10. The Gift (Joel Edgerton – Australia)

Norte, the End of History – Lav Diaz (2014)

Lav Diaz is considered a practitioner of “slow cinema” – along with directors such as Lisandro Alonso, Bela Tarr, and Theo Angelopoulos. Somehow the “movement” has been defined as being minimalist, lacking much in the way of traditional dramatic structure or narrative, and, in some quarters, is considered antagonistic to the audience. Personally, I think the category is faddy and a bit pretentious, riding on the “I’m more authentic/sensitive/astute than you are” pieties of the slow food movement (among others). Then again, dear observant reader, you might have noticed that I’m a bit of an atavistic grouch, so take such food for thought with a grain of sun-dried sea salt. The observational mode, wherein the viewer does different work (I will not say more, because I think classical Hollywood film making requires an equal investment in viewer attention) – building a narrative in concert with a portrait of time experienced more phenomenologically – has been around as long as cinema has. What is now lumped into this category in the past were simply called “art films,” and included at least much of the work of the European new-waves and, to some extent, Neorealism. These films tend to be more concerned with the experience of time passing, and with lived reality, rather than dramatic structure.

Norte does not feel terribly slow, nor terribly different from other art films that tackle the lives of fairly ordinary people. The story (yes, there is one) has superficial similarities to Crime and Punishment: an intellectual adrift in his existential crisis kills a pawn lady and her daughter as a challenge to himself and a rebuke to his social position, and the good husband of a struggling family suffers for it in his stead. The first hour or so of the film follows the intellectual, a law school dropout, within his milieu, and then switches for the bulk of the film’s remainder to the family, fragmented by the crime. We see the husband in jail, slowly becoming beatified and transformed (he was already good, but becomes more so), while his wife, their children, and her sister struggle to get by and deal with the separation. The film does not lack drama; alterity reemerges in the final half-hour or so and offsets the “slowness,” or rather the habitual daily rhythms, established earlier, in ways that reconfigure our sense of the protagonists and their futures. (The last shot can be read as either slightly hopeful or despairing in a fashion that would make a Neorealist proud). Diaz does a great job of capturing the sense of time passing in a palpable way, the characters shifting as existence weathers and, to some extent, redeems them. Highest marks go to the audio; like much slow cinema, Diaz eschews music and favors seemingly ambient sound. It is mixed and layered so well that in some sequences it builds invisibly, but with more purpose and complexity than the visuals, with a high level of detail. He is also a master of shooting at night, capturing the nocturnal exhale of the earth, or the electric hum under the solitary smoker’s contemplation, as well as anyone. The climaxes of the film’s various lines were my only reservation. Diaz is not jerking viewers around, there are good reasons for resolving things as he does, but it also feels a little like he is jumping from one trope to another: art film as observer of lived reality to art film as deus ex machina, meter of the absurdity and impersonality of the universe. There’s no reason not to see it, friends, it’s on Netflix.

Four stars out of five

Two Days, One Night – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (2014)

I have only seen a few of the Dardenne brothers’ films – I know, time for the thumbscrews – but Two Days, One Night is more uplifting and less dedicated to sober realism than past efforts. Per usual for them, the film centers on working-class people living close to the edge, but the fact that one is Marion Cotillard and the other is the most supportive husband in the world raises this to an almost Hollywood level of good feelings and redemption. Cotillard plays Sandra, who gets notice on Friday that her job is to be eliminated, voted out by her co-workers in favor of an end of year bonus for themselves; depressive and self-effacing type that she is, she has to be goaded into fighting for her job, first by a friend in the company (who convinces the boss to allow a new ballot on Monday morning) and then by her husband, who convinces her to contact her co-workers directly over the weekend and lobby for her job. The film takes place over Saturday and Sunday, as she seeks out and attempts to convince said co-workers of her value, which she herself is unconvinced of. Without her job, though, she and her husband risk slipping back into the public housing they have only recently lifted themselves out of, and she backwards into a likewise depression. In being forced to speak for herself, Sandra comes to understand something not only of her own self-worth, but of the worth of colliding with all types of people, no matter the outcome; indeed, the film is strongest as a portrait of how work fragments and alienates people from each other, but also how it can form bonds and renew possibilities, even when antagonisms are the surface result. Her visits form an overall portrait of the working life, and some of her encounters are incredibly affecting – as with the co-worker who bursts into tears, hoping for her to win the vote and keep her job even though it would be a financial “disaster” for his family, as he is the sole breadwinner. It is within the material reality of these interactions that the film excels; in the macro, a definite moral emerges – that fighting or standing up for yourself is its own reward, and leads to happiness and hope – that while doubtlessly true somehow still feels slight. It never feels pat, though, or easy, which does matter. Cotillard gives a good performance, but not an amazing one; her self-hatred and destructiveness felt contrived to me, and a few key scenes centering around those tendencies could have been usefully cut (it seems like piling on after a certain point). The film’s climax has its own climax, a choice that one can see coming from a mile off, but even here, the almost Christian morality works rather than grates, and resolves into a genuinely feel-good conclusion. As for the film’s construction, it is solid, as is all the Dardennes work, but their style has gotten to the point of practically being an anti-style – “the official international hand-held camera vérité style deployed when keeping things real.” Perhaps take a flight of fancy sometime, bros, especially given that this film hews close to the terrain of fable?

Four stars out of five

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas (2014)

Olivier Assayas’s work is often uneven. He has directed some brilliant films (1994’s Cold Water, 2000’s Les Destinées, and Demonlover in 2002), some that are a mixed lot (such as his best-known, 1996’s Irma Vep), and a few absolute duds (2007’s Boarding Gate, for example). And then there is Carlos – the less we speak of Carlos, the better, but suffice to say that any film that spends a third of its six hour running time with a protagonist hiding out and complaining of varicose testes… One tendency in Assayas work that some perhaps find alienating or off-putting is his foregrounding of the problems of the glamorous, powerful, and well-to-do in a fairly non-ironic way. Irma Vep was about a director losing his way directing a famous actress, Demonlover concerned power plays by sexy movers and shakers within international corporations, and Carlos was Assayas at his international jet-setting worst, a work that signified “cool” at every juncture while being deeply boring, self-satisfied and self-indulgent.

Given that his best films tend to hew away from the surface sheen of money, fame, power, and what we could generally term the “eye-candy” of international capital, I was a bit hesitant on the approach to Clouds of Sils Maria. (The rush to judgement in certain online forums, where users were vehement about wishing the early demise of such “annoying” characters, didn’t help my hopefulness). The film concerns an older actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her hesitation to take on a role in a play about power dynamics between two women, one older and one younger, where the younger seduces and destroys the older. She originally played the younger role, to much acclaim, twenty years prior, and now is offered the role of the older (to be destroyed) woman, against a current Hollywood ingenue (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Along for the ride as a helper and confidant is her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.

The film becomes a kind of mental triangle among the women, with Binoche and Stewart mostly bonding, sometimes sparring, as Stewart helps convince Binoche to take the role and coaches her through dialogue preparation. A subtle transference begins to occur, and the dynamics of the play (titled Maloja Snake, after the rarely seen movement of clouds through a mountain valley) start influencing the women’s relationship. Binoche struggles with the meaning and personal ramifications of playing an older, “debased” role (when she is still somewhat resting on her laurels from her younger performance), while Moretz shape-shifts and personifies the “emptiness of today’s youth” that every older generation feels in some measure about its younger competition. Kristen Stewart is stuck in the middle, not only as the go-between for Binoche and the world, but as a woman who can see what getting older has in store for her, and is sympathetic to the prospect and compassionate in her analysis, but who also isn’t there yet and doesn’t want to be.

If this sounds like problems for the elite, well, on one level it certainly is. At the same time, I did not find the characters annoying or their problems uninteresting, as the writing is exceptionally good and the layers manifold. The film deals with multiple issues very subtly: the difference between “performance” and “authentic” self, the nature of acting and popularity, how women relate to each other, all of which is filtered through the larger dynamic of aging and what it means to get older and to feel you are still in step (or not) with your time. It is a drama without pyrotechnics, but it lingers, and the performances are incredibly strong – particularly Kristen Stewart, who I didn’t expect much from but who knocked me out. The film is up there with Bergman’s reflections on the performing life, but Assayas brings an appreciation and critique of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of the post-modern capitalist phantasmagoria. And in terms of a film that tries to observe, and not polemicize, what it means to be a woman and an image, and that seriously considers how women are or are not allowed to age and still remain socially relevant, this is the finest recent film I can think of. For Assayas fans, it’s his strongest film since Demonlover, and worth returning to.

Four and a half stars out of five

Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (2014)

Whiplash is my second favorite film of the year (top honors go to Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition). I skipped it earlier in the fall, as it centers on drumming and a striving student / taskmaster teacher relationship, neither of which I’m overly enamored with as subjects for a narrative. I’m glad I gave it a chance, and was able to see it on the big screen. In some ways, it is reminiscent of cult classic Breaking Away (which I’ve always had a warm fuzzy for), but is less character driven and more concerned with questions of the line between art and madness and the will to power underlying such strivings for “greatness.” It features a clash of the titans that keeps you guessing as to how it will resolve, but boy oh boy, when it does, it provides more pure cinematic catharsis than anything mainstream of the past year (even topping Snowpiercer). A few bits of the musical montage verge on the cheesy, especially in the climax, but unlike many films, the editing does actual work. The resolution is brilliant (especially the final few shots) and should leave audiences breathless and feeling great. I hope it finds a wider audience on video, as it is perfect Oscar material – serious, intelligent, and crowd-pleasing all at once.

Four and a half stars out of five

Force Majeure – Ruben Östlund (2014)

Force Majeure got little buzz at Cannes, and looked a mix of serious drama and satire, so my hopes were low. Happily, it turned out to be underrated; the satire is balanced by psychological nuance and writing that mines the territory in relationships between the trivial and the weighty. It’s an effective satire of the “Dad impulse” (over-explaining coupled with under-performing) but manages a level of modernist-style symbolism that both keeps the film itself from triviality and elevates it to Euro art film territory (which it easily inhabits). It works on multiple levels. Not amazing, but very solid and memorable.

Three and a half stars out of five

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I’d recommend Goodbye to Language even if it were horrible, simply because it is Godard in 3D. It is not horrible, however, and resides aesthetically somewhere at the middle point between Godard’s relatively more “normal” late narratives and his video work a la JLG/JLG and Histoire du Cinema. His use of 3-D is easily the most interesting I’ve seen (in a “mainstream” release), and the film is quite funny too. Spoiler alert: the juicy fart Foley work in this rivals the Wet Hot American Summer DVD for over-the-topness.

Four stars out of five