2015 was an excellent year for the cinema, although most of the best films of the year were, unsurprisingly, found in more esoteric spots: the local art house, the festival circuit, On Demand services. However, there were enough intriguing options available to make this critic and columnist head to the cinema more than 120 times in the past year.
Still, the highest-grossing title of the 15 listed below only crossed the $50 million mark at the North American box office this weekend. That is not due to the dwindling status of blockbusters, even though for each blistering ride down Fury Road, there was a bloated Age of Ultron. Instead, it had to do with the sheer number of compelling art-house choices that were available.
Nevertheless, I hope I can help introduce you to some noteworthy titles you may have missed over the past 365 days. This list is full of numerous international titles – a whopping nine countries from five continents are here – and filled with as many stories about women as men. I will count down in descending order, with honourable mentions at the bottom.
Listen to Me Marlon
Marlon Brando was an actor of such versatility, saying his name likely yields a different reaction from many. Some initially think of his brutishness from A Streetcar Named Desire, others of his patriarchal fortitude in The Godfather. Regardless of your entering point to the beloved actor, Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s enormously insightful documentary, is an essential watch. Filmmakers raided the archives of various late artists this year – Kurt Cobain, for one – but this project, making adept use of the actor’s personal audio recordings, captures the soul of one of Hollywood’s most scintillating yet troubled stars. It is vital and deeply poignant, and any offer to see it shouldn’t be refused.
The word “lesbian” is never uttered in the new, lush melodrama from director Todd Haynes. Almost every sentence is suggested, rather than said, giving each interaction a smoldering intensity. That was the norm for quiet, closeted shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls in love with a wealthy older woman, the title character played by Cate Blanchett, circa 1953. The layered performances from both actors are deeply affecting, aided by the pregnant pauses and insinuations of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay (based off a Patricia Highsmith book). Strangely, the title has the emphasis on the wrong character: Mara gives the most accomplished turn of her career, as a woman trembling with excitement and tormented by period mores.
When Amy Winehouse was starting out in the music industry, she shrugged off thoughts of fame, saying in interviews how she worried about the emotional distress it would put on her life. Those somber thoughts are featured early on in Asif Kapadia’s documentary, almost entirely made of archive footage, and hang above the rest of the film like a spectre. Regardless, Amy is an absorbing tribute to a pop star gone too soon that captures her raw talent with verve and insight. Never veering into hagiography, the doc chronicles her creative process and collapse to substance abuse with equal fascination. Winehouse’s death may have turned her into a tragic showbiz cliché; thankfully, Kapadia’s film is just the rehabilitation the figure needed.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about the everyday travails of an impoverished West African town could have felt like a satire in any other year. In 2015, however, a story of Islamic jihadi groups enforcing strict rules over a bedraggled community stings with the urgency of breaking news. Sissako balances amusing comic moments with a devastating emotional toll, telling a variety of unforgettable stories. In one, an altercation between a poor cow-herder and a fisherman turns unfathomably bloody. The filmmaker captures the pain of living under religious persecution alongside the deep pride of those who resist the rule. Fans of humanist world cinema would be wise to see this film, a deserving Oscar nominee for Mauritania last year.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Almost every scene in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a gem from Israel, is confined to a tiny, drab rabbinical court. There, a woman – the title character played by co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz – demands to be granted a divorce. Her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), cannot relent. The result is a remarkably protracted legal journey, packed with comic highs and dramatic twists. Incredibly, the film’s momentum never lags. The tightness of the space and soaring volume often pushes toward an explosion of feeling. Elkabetz and her co-director, husband Shlomi, shoot like the best lawyers, ensuring the long takes press into the characters and reveal more than testimony ever could.
One of the year’s more unconventional films to manage a wide release was the new white-knuckle thriller from our current master of despair, Denis Villeneuve. Sicario navigates the circuits of the drug war between Mexico and the United States with both a nimble pace and a feel of existential dread. Blunt gives a great turn as a steely FBI agent called upon to help destabilize a Mexican cartel. While Lionsgate promoted the film as one where a determined heroine stares down a dark epicentre of crime, a la Clarice Starling, that’s all a ruse: we are left in her shoes, having to tiptoe around red herrings and ambiguous courses of action. It’s deceptive while also riveting, bolstered by a fierce turn from Benicio del Toro and masterful cinematography, courtesy of the man most overdue for an Academy Award, the great Roger Deakins.
The Big Short
What’s more unlikely? That the best film from a major studio this year came from the director of the awful Anchorman 2? Or that one of the year’s most exhilarating trips to the cinema would be a film about the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis? Well, they’re both true. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s business best-seller is enormously ambitious, jumping between many characters who realize, a few years before the housing crisis began, that the bubble was going to burst. Thanks to slyly packaged lessons about high finance (aided by cheeky celebrity cameos), McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph revisit recent headline news in a way that is refreshing and richly funny. Steve Carell gives a career-best turn as a cranky Wall Street suit, and the film manages to equal the actor’s high-wire energy. Yet, despite bouncing from tragedy to comedy and back again, The Big Short never feels uneven or overwhelming.
Science fiction is a genre that is hard to get right: you need to balance intriguing concepts with compelling characters– or more accurately, combine convincing elements of science and fiction. Alex Garland nails it with Ex Machina, an arresting film that feels more probable by the day. It takes place in a closed-off research lab, owned by tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He has called on a milquetoast coder (Domhnall Gleeson) to test out an AI prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and see if she’s good enough to reveal to the world. The result is a (mostly) three-person drama filled with intrigue and many ideas worth pondering – not just around science, but power, sex and what it means to feel human. The sophisticated science banter is engaging rather than alienating. One is left wondering what the film’s best visual effect is: the hypnotic Vikander as Ava figures out her human capabilities, or Isaac’s disco dancing.
The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino has always been a more exciting, interesting screenwriter than director: his elaborate scene constructions and twists with genre conventions are far more fascinating than his nods in homage. And while he remains in debt to the forerunners of genre, he has never been as confident or commanding behind the camera as with his newest venture. Much of The Hateful Eight takes place within one setting, a snowed-in cabin where eight ruthless Old West types are trapped for the night. The gang includes a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a captured outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a ruthless colonel (Samuel L. Jackson). The dark, daring comedy caters to the director’s strengths, full of punchy dialogue and steadily rising action. The characters spar with words and glances in the first half before getting trigger happy in part two. It’s an absolute blast: if you can handle some bloody blows to the head, it’s worth seeking out in an exclusive 70mm format.
Céline Sciamma’s perceptive coming-of-age drama is one of the finest films in recent memory to explore that mysterious space between being a girl and a woman. The film follows a teenager from the Paris projects named Marieme (Karidja Touré) over the span of a few years, as she blossoms from a shy schoolgirl into one of the cool kids, and even the leader of a popular girl gang. Yet alongside the film’s throbbing soundtrack (and an unforgettable, purple-hued dance scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), Girlhood brims with humanity and the brilliance of female camaraderie. Sciamma captures moments of joy and spontaneity among the teen ensemble that feel unscripted. However, the star is Touré, who gives a staggeringly good debut performance. She exudes a wide range – vulnerability, aggression, sexual liberty – without losing track of the woman growing underneath.
What do a doomed airliner, a case of road rage and a Jewish wedding have in common? All three are among the subjects for Damián Szifron’s omnibus comedy, a collection of six savage stories about retribution and justice. Packed to the brim with acerbic humor and searing class commentary, the various tales all build to a climactic punch. Each story, ranging from five minutes to a half-hour, provides a fine directorial showcase for the Argentina native to show off his genre filmmaking chops. There isn’t a weak segment in the bunch. The best is the grand finale, where a bride-to-be (Erica Rivas) finds out her groom has not been entirely faithful. Despite the brutal humour on display, each of Szifron’s stories is grounded in recognizable drama. We root for the characters, even as the situation spirals to unpredictable, bloody, sometimes literally explosive places.
The Look of Silence
One of the motion picture Academy’s greatest failings in recent memory is their failure to reward director Joshua Oppenheimer for his mesmerizing, masterful The Act of Killing in 2014. They have the chance to redeem those mistakes, as the filmmaker is nominated for his latest documentary, a devastating companion piece to Killing. The Look of Silence returns to Indonesia, as the director confronts the perpetrators of that country’s 1965 genocide and re-open the wounds of history. This time, Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist confronting the notorious gangsters who killed his brother. (How powerful do the war criminals remain? A large number of crewmembers on the film are credited as “Anonymous.”) The subject matter is undeniably harrowing, but that shouldn’t matter: the film is essential viewing, especially for those who cannot stomach Killing’s grisly violence.
An instant classic of journalistic drama, Tom McCarthy’s new film focuses on an investigative team of Boston Globe reporters. Their story is about pedophilia within the local Archdiocese, and these scandalous revelations ultimately rocked the city (and the paper’s Catholic subscribers) to the core. McCarthy, who co-wrote the film with Josh Singer, is fascinated with the protocols of journalism. Many have mistaken the film’s drab aesthetic as ripe for criticism; instead, the blandness is a stylistic asset, making the world feel lived-in and authentic. Also helpful: the rich work of the year’s best ensemble, from Stanley Tucci (as a hectored lawyer) to the empathetic Rachel McAdams, a worthy Oscar nominee. The attention to occupational detail, alongside the taut, smoothly paced, emotionally rigorous screenplay, makes Spotlight that rare film about telling a story that works as great storytelling.
No actor anywhere gave a more moving performance onscreen this year than Nina Hoss, who portrayed Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz in Christian Petzold’s complex new drama. Nelly’s face is badly disfigured in the war; returning to civilian life, she barely recognizes the new visage from reconstructive surgery. She also cannot comprehend that her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) looks at her and sees a total stranger – although one he hopes can pretend to be his wife, in order for him to collect Nelly’s inheritance. This slow burn noir gives us the time needed to observe Hoss as she explores the space of a woman aching to feel human again. Her face, ghostly pale and searching, says more than dialogue ever could. Phoenix is a psychologically rich and unsettling film about identity, memory and performance, although these themes slowly build into a tense character study. The drama’s devastating final scene is the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop, and will be talked about for decades.
When Marnie Was There
I don’t cry often enough at the cinema. I’m lucky if a single film makes me tear up each year. When Marnie Was There, meanwhile, made me audibly sob for the last 10 minutes, through the credits and as I turned into the theatre lobby. That was no fluke: a second viewing of the film released the same emotional response.
The film barely made a dent at the North American box office (earning less than $600,000) and received little critical fanfare. But it is as poignant and powerful as any film from (the now-defunct) Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, the creators of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The drama, based off Joan G. Robinson’s novel, is about Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), a social outcast who moves to an idyllic seaside town after an asthma attack. She sparks a friendship with Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), who lives in a mysterious house by the sea and is also searching for a friend.
As per any Studio Ghibli effort, the animation is glorious, as is Takatsugu Muramatsu’s original score. When Marnie Was There is also one of the finest films ever made about the bonds of friendship. Anna is one of the most complicated, compelling young protagonists to come along in some time, swelling with rage and sadness. She is also wary of social interaction, but craves to find a rewarding friendship. It is refreshing to see a film aimed at young women that respects its audience, understanding that youth is full of bliss and bruises. Simply put, no film this year was more wondrous or emotionally resonant.
And… 15 Honourable Mentions: Approaching the Elephant; The Diary of a Teenage Girl; The End of the Tour; Fort Tilden; Heaven Knows What; Inside Out; Jafar Panahi’s Taxi; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; The Martian; 99 Homes; Queen of Earth; Shaun the Sheep Movie; The Stanford Prison Experiment; What We Do in the Shadows