The Best Films of 2015
We're halfway through the second decade of the 21st century and cinema is very much going through a gamechanging transition. Avid TV viewers would be well aware that prestige television has stepped into narrative arenas that film used to hold monopoly over. Long form television serial storytelling has started to reframe the ways visual media deals with character and plot. As a result we've begun to see cinema really stake out a new territory, a territory that is all its own, experimenting with form and affect in ways that make for some really novel and original experiences.
Most of my cinematic picks of 2015 were rich and visceral sensory experiences and there are a bunch of films that haven't made the following list but certainly set the bar for what cinema can do in the 21st century. 2015 gave us VICTORIA, a stunning 136 minute heist film shot in a single take. We saw TANGERINE, a fun melodramatic play in the transgender scene in Los Angeles that was shot entirely on an Iphone. Cary Fukunaga took FULL METAL JACKET and APOCALYPSE NOW into Africa with the chillingly visceral BEASTS OF NO NATION, a film that made waves by premièring on Netflix, the first of many high profile films that streaming service plans to offer us up. THE LOBSTER took relationship politics to a full tilt absurdist extreme and THE TRIBE destroyed our well being with a film entirely performed through sign language and no subtitles.
These are all films that are resolutely Films with a capital F! They are films that are pushing the medium forward and creating singular experiences that are genuinely unlike anything we have seen. They are films that could only be films.
The following 15 films are the things that really stuck in my brain over the last 12 months. The top five in particluar are all films I adore and it was really difficult to order them. At several points across 2015 each of those top five films were my number one favorite. The other ten can be mixed around but take note of that top five. They are all amazing films.
Rick Alverson's last film, The Comedy, was one of my favorites of 2012 and Entertainment is certainly a continuation of his particular brand of anti-cinema. Here we follow Gregg Turkington's bracing comedic alter-ego Neil Hamburger on a journey through the existential wasteland that is a stand up comedy tour of mid-west America. Essentially a series of nihilistic episodes that become increasingly nightmarish and bizarre, watching the film is an ordeal in itself as the increasingly unpleasant scenarios all serve to highlight this inherent emptiness at the heart of our entertainment industry.
This is a difficult film to watch so approach with caution but for those wishing that Andre Tarkovsky and David Lynch had a bastard child who made movies with an Tim and Eric style of humour then this is certainly for you. It's also very funny... at times... for some...
After quite a few dry and uninteresting historical biopics recently, Ava DuVernay's look at Martin Luther King's work was a real shot in the arm. Selma told an important story with a sense of real immediacy that is entirely unexpected in this generally stodgy genre.
Digging into the procedural aspects of King's civil rights strategies the film not only made this story feel alive and current but it also importantly looked at how great protest movements struggle to achieve a balance between' on the street' activism and top end political negotiation. The way this film illustrated that dichotomy of activity was quietly revolutionary. It's also a damn engaging and well constructed piece of cinema.
13: MONTAGE OF HECK
If you have any connection to Nirvana's music then this film will hit you like a ton of bricks. As well as being genuinely revealing (some of the dug up archival material is truly astounding) this documentary animates Cobain's personal diary entries in ways that offer sincere insight into the young artist's headspace. It's a clever and effective aesthetic strategy.
The film also interestingly portrays Cobain as an artist that struggled with both wanting his fame and being tortured by it rather than painting the oft-told generic picture of an artist who was simply trying to escape popularity. Alongside the strong Amy Winehouse doco, it was a great year for musical portraits.
12: THE END OF THE TOUR
David Foster Wallace would've hated this film. As much as this film tries to avoid mythologizing the infamous and iconic writer, it still inherently falls into that trap and it's that conflict at the heart of the film that makes The End Of The Tour extra fascinating.
Aside from the meta-textual controversy, the film is also a magnificently perceptive look at the insecurity intrinsic to all creative types and a simply entertaining set of conversational jousts between two endearingly verbose writers. Eisenberg and Segal do good work holding the film together but it's director James Ponsoldt's magnificent control of tone and pace that make this low-key film soar.
11: THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Joshua Oppenhiemer's The Act Of Killing was my favorite film of 2013 and I still think it's a devastating masterpiece. This companion piece (filmed immediately after The Act Of Killing was completed but before it was released) is in many ways a better film. It is more focused and more precise than the shaggy Act Of Killing. Zooming in on the perspectives of the victims of the genocide instead of the perpetrators, this is a quiet but earth shattering look at how people live in the shadow of a great atrocity.
It is almost impossible to separate this film from The Act Of Killing as the context the previous film laid explains the power in this film's simplicity but together the two works combine to make one of the most important documentary features of the decade (if not the century).
10: QUEEN OF EARTH
In many ways this is Alex Ross Perry's most insignificant film often feeling like a superficial exercise in form and experimentation more than anything but Queen Of Earth is such an engrossing and sophisticated experience that it can't be easily dismissed.
Essentially a riff on the classic 'isolated in a cabin by the lake' film, we get the best performance of the year from Elizabeth Moss and a bunch of riveting riffs on Polanski, Bergman and Fassbinder. I'm not sure it really amounts to a great deal but as a cumulative cinematic experience it really hits home.
Gorgeous photography from Sean Price Williams too, who along with Heaven Knows What, has established himself as the best young cinematographer working today.
9: HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT
When the Safdie brothers befriended homeless drug addict Arielle Holmes and urged her to start writing down her experiences no one knew it would ultimately lead to this film. Heaven Knows What is a startling blend of reality and fiction with Holmes starring as a cipher of herself prowling the streets of New York struggling to get by and find her next fix.
As a genre, the junkie on the streets drama was seemingly played out until this film came along and blasted it with life and immediacy using an audaciously confronting aural and visual assault. The Safdie's doco background gives the film a confronting sense of authenticity and Holmes' amazing true life performance is alternately compelling and confronting.
When does art become exploitation? A challenging and intriguing American indie.
8: THE BIG SHORT
An absurdly comic yet deeply serious film about the Global Financial Crisis from the director of Anchorman and Stepbrothers? Adam McKay's unexpectedly angry polemic is about as prescient as you can get making for a killer double feature with 99 Homes.
Reminiscent of early 1990s Oliver Stone with its jumpy, jarring aesthetic, this voice-over heavy film attempts to educate its audience in some pretty deep economic principles while telling the story of how the global economy fell apart back in 2008. There is an energetic urgency to the film as it often cuts from scene to scene in mid sentence. McKay is an activist with a clear point of view and The Big Short is as much a call to arms as it is an entertainment.
This is a film that wants to educate and infuriate but also entertain. It hits all those beats in exciting and modern ways.
7: 99 HOMES
This film really came out of nowhere for me. Ramin Bahrani's films have never impressed me in the past but here he gives us the GFC film that we have been waiting years for. The first half in particular is incredibly gut wrenching as we follow Michael Shannon on an eviction warpath, kicking people out of their homes for defaulting on loans they should never have been given in the first place. Shannon is spectacular here but more surprising is Andrew Garfield who shines as a blue collar family man doing whatever he can to get by.
The film frustratingly drops the ball in its final act by simplifying its grey areas into a black and white moral dilemma but that left-leaning sincerity has a charm all of itself reminiscent of early Oliver Stone.
It's a preachy film, it's a blunt film, but it's also a great and important film.
When Justin Kurzel announced that his second feature film after Snowtown was to be an adaptation of Macbeth I'll be honest with you, I was a little confused. Upon watching his brutally pared back interpretation it all finally made sense. Kurzel managed to coax a raw intensity out of the classic Shakespeare work that no other filmmaker has been able to reach. The text has been pushed into the background as Kurzel amps up the fury of his sound and image to a degree that turns the film into a tormented howl of despair.
It may be a monotonal experience but it's such a rich and sophisticated one that it taps into the heritage of Macbeth adaptations and gives us something new.
Fassbender and Cotillard are perfect in the lead roles too.
5: MAD MAX FURY ROAD
This insane, exuberant pageant of destruction is probably the most pure action film I have seen in recent memory. George Miller distills a lifetime of cinematic skill into two hours of sublime chaotic choreography.
The narrative is pared right down to the bone offering us nothing but simple expository necessity (Miller reportedly wanted to make the film entirely dialogue free at one point) and the movement of the plot is satisfyingly linear - you could literally map this film along a straight line.
I'm still in awe of how impeccably the film is paced as it moves through a constant parade of set pieces without becoming screechy and exhausting.
It's also a deeply weird film...
Having not truly enjoyed a Todd Haynes film for well over a decade (and being particularly cold on his other 1950s set work) I entered Carol with low expectations despite the near universal critical acclaim. Boy was I wrong. Haynes may have made his late career masterpiece as Carol is a supremely beautiful film in every respect.
Anchored by remarkable performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a stunning exploration of a relationship suppressed by society. This is a film of subtle cumulative character details that build into the most beautiful final scene I saw in all of 2015. Haynes' direction here is masterful as he slowly, and almost imperceptibly, shifts perspectives between several characters as the film progresses.
The most gorgeous, intoxicating romantic drama I have seen in years.
3: NASTY BABY
Sebastian Silva hit the big time with his brilliant one-two punch of Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic in 2013. Two sensational films in the same year. His follow up Nasty Baby blends the improvisational aesthetic he developed in Crystal Fairy with his narrative tonal pivots from Magic Magic.
For much of it's running time Nasty Baby is a cute, almost derivative Sundance dramedy about an unconventional threesome in Brooklyn trying to conceive a baby. It's touching and a kinda interesting twist on a 21st century nuclear family until it all turns into something else. The tonal shift has proved too rough for many audiences but I think it's brilliantly navigated and thematically on point turning the film into a most literal depiction of the violence inherent in the act of urban gentrification.
I saw this film three times in 2015 and it was easily one of the most exciting cinema experiences I had all year.
2: WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Noah Baumbach gave us two films in 2015 – one brilliant and one terrible. While We're Young acted as a quasi-sequel to his sensational Greenberg from a few years ago. Where Greenberg interrogated the interstitial wasteland that is ones mid-thirties, While We're Young examines a couple in their early forties. No other film has so perfectly captured zeitgeisty generational detail as this and the battles between Gen X and the Millenials are absurdly on point. A final act shift into documentary theory and questions over individual authenticity also raise some fascinating issues around how different generations approach construction of identity.
1: INHERENT VICE
I'm a Paul Thomas Anderson acolyte. Let me be clear. I also love not only noir but the highly specific subset of California stoner-noir that this film is playing off. So you could say I was primed to hook into this film. Inherent Vice has been divisive, not working for all audiences and that's entirely understandable. Anderson has created a slow, at times turgid film that demands its audience be comfortable with inhabiting a state of confusion.
As the plot spirals into intentional incomprehensibility it becomes a real joy to witness a film where every beat, every scene and every performance is so perfectly calibrated. No other film has better depicted the cloudy blur of paranoia that drugs generate and the commentary on how whole generations were at sea in the early 1970s is strikingly illustrated.
I adored every second of this deceptively sophisticated experience.
For more top picks of 2015 check out the Parallax Podcast Best of 2015 ep featuring a variety of Australia's best critics talking their favorite films of the year.