1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Everything about this movie - the stellar performance from Charlize Theron, George Miller's perfect, high energy action directing, its refusal to take its foot off the gas, the Doof Warrior - makes it both the most fun I had at the movies this year and the most perfectly crafted film I saw this year.
This is one of those love stories that beautifully captures what it is like to fall in love, while making you experience a full range of emotion over a short time, fully invested in and affected by the relationship of Carol and Therese - due to the unbelievable combination of performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, direction of Todd Haynes, cinematography by Edward Lachman, and my favorite score of the year from Carter Burwell.
Paolo Sorrentino fills the Swiss resort that is the setting of this film with some of the most interesting characters from this year and through them meditates on everything from life and death to the purpose of creating art in a way that makes me think he is using the film to meditate on his own life and work, all the while directing like he is conducting a symphony as the action and tension rise and fall to the beat of the music.
4. World of Tomorrow
Don Hertzfeldt's 17-minute, animated short has more to say about the human condition, more memorable lines, more interesting frames, and more emotion than almost any other feature film I saw this year.
Sean Baker's low budget film about two trans prostitutes feels more fresh and more of the moment than almost any other film, from its superb use of setting to the fact that it was shot using an iPhone to the incredible relationship at the center of the film from two first time actors, and in the end it is one of the most heartwarming and funniest films of the year.
1. The Look of Silence
The ambition of a documentary tends to vary inversely with the importance of its subject. The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s second documentary about the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966, after 2012’s The Act of Killing, is both an important documentary and important film.
Carol is set in 1950s America, but like all good period pieces, it is just as much about the United States today. The film is expertly shot through windows and doorframes as the audience peers in invasively at what seems like a world, but could almost be a play. Rooney Mara, standing in for the audience, delivers one of the best performances of the year as a young and indecisive woman trying to live in a time to which she doesn’t belong, stranded in the midst of certain people and concrete identities. The film looks back both with nostalgia and unease at the artificial past of our shared imagination and finds only uncertainty and contradiction.
3. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film is a further dive into his endless fascination with violence and old movies. Continuing the trend from Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight has more of a political message than Tarantino’s earlier purely stylistic films. With frequent references to the Civil War, racial politics, and justice, The Hateful Eight uses its genre trappings to form a cogent message about America.
4. Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is a very theatrical film. It’s a character study of ambition and selfishness in three acts, each largely confined to the single setting of a product launch. Seth Rogen is a surprisingly good Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender is perfect as Sorkin’s Steve Jobs. Although the directing is flawed, near perfect writing and acting still make Steve Jobs one of the best films of the year.
5. Slow West
An underseen film with the aesthetic of a Wes Anderson adapted True Grit, Slow West has a strong and precise aesthetic in a time when fewer and fewer directors are visually identifiable. Despite its flaws and slightness, Slow West stands out sharply in a year dominated by interchangeable and soon forgotten action movies with run times exceeding two hours. Slow West is a strong debut, and Maclean is a promising director.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
I saw Mad Max: Fury Road with no knowledge of the franchise or plot of the movie, and was amazed to be drawn in so quickly and deeply to a truly mad story. Director George Miller’s ability to sustain momentum, shock, and suspense while crafting inventive characters so authentically with no forced exposition was a thrill to watch.
2. Mistress America
Though opposite in style to Mad Max, screwball comedy Mistress America also offered some of the most interesting and well thought out characters in film this year.
Creed, both the character and the movie, is an apt heir to Rocky’s throne and a great film in itself. The movie managed to thoughtfully build on the Rocky series while staying true to the franchise and offering something new in the form of Apollo Creed’s son and his relationship with the Italian Stallion.
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
One of the most beautiful and evocative films of this year was Clouds of Sils Maria, for its mesmerizing performances, lush visuals, and its affecting meta-commentary on aging and the meaning of art.
5. The Big Short
The Big Short is an educational account of the housing market and 2007-2008 financial crisis but shines not just for its pedagogical value, but because it manages to be uproariously funny, innovative and poignant all at the same time.
1. Beasts of No Nation (podcast)
Criminally underseen, Fukanaga’s ethereal film asks such spiritually moving questions of pain and suffering, faith and humanity. Released against the backdrop of an escalating refugee crisis and some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory, Beasts of No Nation is not only the best film, it’s the year’s most important: asking why we fight – and what we hoped for.
2. Youth (article)
Youth, from release, owed itself comparison to director Sorentino’s previous Academy Award winning work. But such rapid critical lensing is quick to sour the simple joys of the work, whose Fellini-esque oscillation between sincere emotional moments and exuberant laughter serves a celebration of life itself.
3. Victoria (podcast)
A technical Tour de Force that’s surprisingly heartfelt, Victoria puts last year’s critical darling, Birdman, to shame - South America hasn’t been this thoroughly outdone by Germany since the 2014 World Cup.
4. It Follows
Certainly the most divisive film on my list. It Follows preys off the type of subliminal, uncanny malaise that hasn’t been done this well since The Shining, leaving a deep psychological burn-in of empty hallways and unlit corners long after the credits have rolled. But the film isn’t just harrowing, it’s a meditation on those adolescent pangs of uncertainty which fueled the coming-age-horrors of the 1980’s it owes so much to.
5. The Big Short.
If Spotlight’s tedious and methodic exposition was so allegedly self-justified by the story it needed to tell, The Big Short offers a firm counterpoint to such half-baked explanations for inexcusably lazy filmmaking. Boasting the most relentlessly original and respectfully intelligent editing of the year, The Big Short smashes all expectations of requisite financial dryness, delivering one of the year’s most entertaining films as well as its most politically cogent. Director Adam McKay, along with ensemble star Carrel, chalk up another win for successful comedy crossovers, once again making the case for the genre’s long underappreciated merits – the same, however, can’t be said for McCarthy’s lethargic adaptation or for the Sandler film he released earlier this year.
1. The Lobster
Easily the year’s best love story about compulsory animal transformation, The Lobster is not a great film, but it is a strange one, and it deserves celebration accordingly.
Youth is not even Paolo Sorrentino’s second best film, but it’s still fun to watch, and thanks to Luca Bigazzi’s great cinematography, it’s very pretty to look at.
3. The Big Short
The Big Short makes Collateralized Debt Obligations entertaining, and if that hasn’t sold you, Christian Bale gives a great performance as a man with one eye.
4. Cemetery of Splendour
Watching Cemetery of Splendour is a process of almost existential oddification -- I have no idea what I mean by that, but it’s the kind of thought one has after seeing the film.
Changed my life.
Be sure to also check out pt. 1!