December 10, 2015

The 15 films of 2015

1 Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). This is what a comeback looks like. Not a cash-in, not nostalgia, not a lazy retread but something bigger, louder, faster and wilder. Everything madder than everything else. It felt like it had to happen.
2 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In unexpected ways, this was almost a companion piece to Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth: it’s about performance, youth, glamour and the innate selfishness of artistic creation. It’s a nuanced, beautifully acted film.
3 Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). Sleep as escape, even as a political act. Deep and mesmerising.
4 Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014). Why are all the great actors in capes? Birdman was a technical feat, a stunt that felt lighter than air, an inside joke about acting and insecurity and Hollywood vs theatre, with almost too many self-aware layers to penetrate.
5 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call this psychedelic ethnography – there was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on screen. This Colombian revelation steered me towards Ciro Guerra’s earlier film The Wind Journeys, which is also highly recommended.
6 Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It was divisive and often unloved, but this ambitious Paolo Sorrentino statement (or is that “testament”?) floored me. Michael Caine, in his frailty, has seldom been better.
7 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). Factions and dark uprisings in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, told in sign language without subtitles – no, I didn’t understand a word but I got it.
8 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Brilliant, excessive, too much: Guy Maddin is good in small doses and this was a big, big dose.
9 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing Indonesian atrocity documentaries reveal a world in which evil has not just gone unpunished – no one has even called it evil. The effect is nauseating: you watch in disbelief as morality is turned upside down.
10 Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated and more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story as a success. 
11 Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A war film without a war, set on the porous drug-gang borders between Mexico and the United States. Denis Villeneuve generates ambient fear in the sky, on the ground, in tunnels and on dark, lonely roads that could be on either side.
12 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). In a perfect world, this Scientology expose, with David Miscavige as the tyrannical lord of time and space and Tom Cruise as his celebrity enabler and sidekick, will get the documentary Oscar next year. That would be like a bomb going off in Hollywood.
13 The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, 2014). Profundity came easily or flowed naturally in this sensational, moving documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado that tracked, over the course of one life, discovery, disillusionment and then that rare thing, hope.
14 Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Sleek, efficient and often funny science-fiction about female robots and male anxiety. It also contained the year’s least expected dance sequence.
15 Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). A portrait of the great artist as a grunting genius.

Worst film of 2015: Terminator Genisys. In a year of successful reboots (Mad Max, Star Wars, the disposable Jurassic World) this one was an absolute franchise-killer. It won’t be back, surely.

Disappointments: Blackhat, Inherent Vice, The Wolfpack

Acting: Michael Caine in Youth, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Films about writers: Should we have felt touched and even inspired by the mostly agreeable and cuddly version of David Foster Wallace that The End of the Tour gave us? Perhaps. But the less heralded, cynical Listen Up Philip was just as true in its portrait of a “notable” writer as a total fucking asshole. Not inspiring at all, but refreshing.

For kids: Inside Out.

Documentaries (recent New Zealand history edition): in The Price of Peace, The Art of Recovery and The Women of Pike River, three of the most traumatic events of the past decade were explained and contextualised in ways that even long-form journalism seldom allows.

Documentaries (the dark side of Hollywood edition): Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Listen to Me Marlon