Nobody reads these for the introduction, so I’ll keep mine brief. The fun thing about year-end lists is we all have ones that are completely different from one another. They’re unique! So whether you want to take mine at its word, or if you consider the assigned numbers arbitrary or interchangeable, that’s completely up to you – whatever works for your peace of mind! Let’s get right to it then, shall we?
15. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Country: United States
Language: Japanese, English
Directors often find ways of working their obsessions into their work, and some love cinema so passionately that they can’t help but pile reference upon reference to other films in their own. The Zellner Brothers, however, get to the dark side of cinematic obsession and the people who indulge in it. The lonely, the socially mal-adjusted, and even those who have trouble telling fiction from reality. Rinko Kikuchi’s Kumiko is one such nerdy shut-in, for lack of better terminology, and her escape and obsession is the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. More specifically, the briefcase buried beneath the snow like a treasure. Urban Japanese office culture is far too much of a restriction for her (mentally, physically, emotionally) and the only thing keeping her going is the idea that she might one day make it to the shooting location in Minnesota and find the buried briefcase. When she finally does, with no luggage and a poor command over the English language, what follows turns out to be both Kumiko’s own cinematic adventure, as well as a treatise on suburban kindness, the type she’s unfortunately too obsessed with her journey and with filtering people through cinematic archetypes to see. #TeamBunzo.
Language: Hindi, English, Marathi, Gujarati
Court follows a ridiculous legal case in which a folk singer is accused of abetting an apparent suicide through his lyrics. What follows not only critiques the sophist conflation of morality and legality, but examines the kind of society that allows archaic offense laws to thrive. It has no qualms about its western influence (both in aesthetic and ideology) and its lack of nuance is a necessary retaliation to recent increases in Government censorship. While it demands an extended look at the specifics of courtroom procedure, its main concern is how the private lives of the people involved inform each of their ideologies. From the forward-thinking yet brash defense attorney who lives in solitude, to the family-oriented, nationalistic prosecutor, to the superstitious presiding judge, it’s a film that puts all of Indian society on trial. Quite frankly, I can’t believe India chose to send a film this critical, introspective and brutally honest to the Oscars. Not that I’m complaining, of course.
13. The Duke of Burgundy
Country: United Kingdom
Perhaps the most visually arresting film of 2015, The Duke of Burgundy explores a slave/master sexual relationship between Cynthia, a lepidopterology lecturer, and her student Evylyn. Their role play involves Cynthia forcing Evylyn to work as a maid, followed by severe punishment when she fails to complete her tasks. As these things often go, Evylyn is the more domineering of the two outside bedroom, so to speak, orchestrating their daily sexual rituals on note cards for Cynthia to adhere to. Cynthia’s unhappiness in the relationship stems from both Evylyn’s increasing demands (including being made to sleep in a trunk, separating them further) as well as the creeping realization of her own age. The film approaches its subject matter tastefully, lacking both the male gaze and men in general, and the even kinkiest of scenarios are treated with an almost childlike sense of discovery, with rain and soap bubbles a-plenty, and Peter Strickland deserves an award just for making learning about moths seem arousing in its own way. More than a movie about kink, it’s a movie about relationship dynamics and how fragile constructed identities can be when rubbed against one another, with sex and sexuality as their coliseum.
12. 45 Years
Country: United Kingdom
Like a masterful exercise in framing and point-of-view, 45 Years is the kind of film that can be watched entirely on mute, and not a single emotional beat would go unnoticed. Charlotte Rampling’s Kate and Tom Courtenay’s Geoff fulfill the roles of the film’s active and passive voices, each delivering performances that feel like they’ve been calibrated to match every lens and angle. As the couple approaches their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff gets a letter about a dead woman from his past that begins to unravel secrets that are neither mysterious nor scandalous, but secrets that begin to chip away at the fabric of their relationship regardless. It’s as if Andrew Haigh has created a love triangle between two of Britain’s finest actors and a ghost. While it’s Geoff’s story propelling the narrative, the film’s main concern is how Kate interprets his emotions, as well as how she reacts to them. In fact Geoff is seldom in focus and doesn’t get so much as a close up. The film allows the mere potential for lies and secrets to loom over every moment, including the film’s bittersweet final scene that feels enormous in emotional scope, despite being as small as a closeup of Rampling set to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes".
Set entirely in a cab and starring its director Jafar Panahi, Taxi is a movie that shouldn’t exist, owing to the Iranian Government having banned him from filmmaking, but does by sheer force of will and creative ingenuity. As passengers enter and exit the vehicle, some known to Panahi and some complete strangers, the film’s commentary on Iranian society becomes a meta-commentary on the film itself, and just how close it came to not being made in the first place. Panahi imbues the story and characters with both his anxieties of persecution as well as his love for cinema, as art and creativity that take center stage in order for him to make a desperate plea for artistic freedom. Like his niece’s school project within the story, Panahi’s film was deemed ‘unscreenable’ in his home country, so we’re incredibly lucky to have access to it elsewhere.
Country: United States
A stop-motion film that weaves its form’s aesthetic and inherent flaws into its very fabric, sometimes to devastating effect, Anomalisa is Charlie Kaufman’s nightmarish externalization of a very real cynicism. It’s as inexplicably melancholy as its lead character, customer service and self-help guru Michael Stone, whose midlife crisis has given rise to a self-centered outlook on the people around him, and on life in general. I’m at that stage of my life where I have to finally accept the responsibilities of adulthood, somewhat unaware of what comes next, and this movie terrified me to my core. Cue Toys R’ Us theme.
Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe Nina Hoss’ journey as Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstructive surgery. Nelly struggles in her own skin, unable to recognize herself and torn between moving to the new Jewish state of Israel, and reuniting with her husband who not only thinks she’s dead, but may have even been the one who sold her out. Her identity conflict is exacerbated further when her husband, believing her to be a different woman who happens to bear a resemblance to Nelly, asks her to impersonate her (former) self for financial gain. It’s a story of a skewed relationship looked back on very differently by both parties, as one attempts to rebuild her individual identity in the wake of an entire culture needing to do the same. It’s also a slow build to an incredible gut-punch of a final scene, a musical rebirth that uses "Speak Low" from One Touch of Venus to make its sole audience member face up to the weight of his sins. Like I said, haunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Country: United States
A distinctly un-cinematic work, Spotlight is a film about The Boston Globe’s unearthing of the Catholic Church scandal, one that avoids indulging the obvious cinematic tendencies we’ve grown accustomed to in favour of letting us fill in the dramatic blanks ourselves. And while that means it’s not the kind of film that works for everybody, boy does it ever work if it’s for you. The beats that land do so with sickening thuds in the pit of your stomach, helped along by performances that are withheld even when they’re at their most theatrical (Ruffalo in particular, who gets one of the film’s only two scenes shot on a long lens) as well as subtle stage-like blocking that follows suit. As much as it’s a film about people’s relationship with faith, it’s also its own journalistic investigation, deviating from the facts in order to portray a more accurate truth, one that holds the Globe itself accountable for not acting sooner. I can’t decide what’s more devastating, the horrifying text scroll at the end listing all the other places where such scandals were discovered, or the idea that even the momentary heroes of the period – people who have likely seen the film by now – are made to face their own complicity in the long run.
Country: United States
The spiritual cousin to Todd Haynes’ own Far From Heaven, Carol dissects the unspoken elements of society in an era when the vocabulary for them had barely begun to exist. The onus then falls on visual storytelling, and Haynes rises to the occasion by creating a vivid, hypnotic tapestry of love, loss and longing, writ large through mere glances and hand placements. It isn’t just one of the best queer dramas in recent memory, allowing its leading women the full spectrum of cinematic experience whilst letting them conquer their victimhood, it’s also a damn fine romantic piece in general, with a final shot so beautiful it’ll make you want to jump out of your seat. My favourite scene of the film however, perhaps even of the year, is Carol driving by Therese’s workplace in the hopes of seeing her again. It’s simple, and not a single word is spoken, but Cate Blanchett’s face conveys the weight of the world on her shoulders, and for a brief moment, it’s as if she’s wills Rooney Mara into existence.
Country: France, Turkey, Germany
Doubling down on its patriarchy-as-prison metaphor by turning a home into a literal jail, Mustang is a coming-of-age story where blooming feminine youth is suppressed in favour of backward tradition, but kept alive in secrecy by modern sisterhood. After their last day of high school, orphans Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay matriculate directly into what they call the ‘wife factory’, as their uncle and grandmother insist they learn the ropes of homemaking while they wait to be married off one by one. The clash of modern and traditional ideas is the fulcrum around which their destinies pivot, and it’s a battle fought between the generations in the center of the screen, but also by sports and the media at the fringes. Ultimately, it becomes akin to an intense, small-scale heist movie, but instead of breaking in to secure jewels & riches, the girls are breaking out to secure their very futures. (Full review)
5. Clouds of Sils Maria
Country: France, Germany, Switzerland
The title of both Clouds of Sils Maria and Maloja Snake, the fictional play within the film, refer to the winding Maloja Pass in the Alps, specifically the phenomenon whereby snake-like clouds appear to slither between the mountains. Oliver Assayas’ screenplay is an equally winding trail, layered with hidden meaning at every turn, trapping Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders in a sort of time-loop as she prepares for a revival of Maloja’s Snake after the playwright’s death. She’s set to play the vulnerable, aging Helena, a reflection of herself that she refuses to look at, opposite a new actress as her callous young lover Sigrid, the very role that made her famous when she was eighteen. Stuck in the middle of all this is Kristen Stewart’s Valentine, Enders’ assistant who fills in for the role of Sigrid during the long rehearsal hours, while their own relationship weaves in and out of art-reflecting-life territory in ways that Enders has trouble admitting. Or perhaps she’s willfully ignorant, refusing to accept the scars caused by time while also refusing to let time heal old wounds, as she struggles to use the art at her fingertips to connect to the world around her, and to herself. Valentine on the other hand, along with Chloe Moretz’ destructive but insightful Jo-Ann Ellis (the new Sigrid) find themselves digging into and dissecting the trashiest of pop-art in order to find real meaning, as the film becomes a refutation of its own perceived superiority as independent ‘high art’ and makes the case for bold ideas in mainstream youth culture. Moretz, Binoche and Stewart deliver three of the year’s best performances, and each one feels connected to the other by more than just the page, as if Valentine’s commentary on the hidden treasure that is Ellis is not only about Enders’ waning spark, but about those of us that overlook Stewart herself. If any film is going to prove the general public wrong about her once and for all, it’s this. It’s also the closest any film has come to making me feel like I did after watching Inside Llewyn Davis, for what it’s worth.
4. Inside Out
Country: United States
Pixar is no stranger to dealing with heavy concepts, from coming to terms with mortality to dealing with death itself, and many a time the perspective it chooses tends to be that of a parent. Sully, Woody, Marlin, and one could even say Joy herself occupies the role of a maternal figure, helping guide Riley through her childhood, but Inside Out isn’t just about parents. It’s about children learning what it means to grow up. It isn’t about Joy’s success. It’s about her failure, and the acceptance of that failure. Furthermore, it’s about how both she and Riley (who are ultimately one and the same) come to terms with the complicated nature of memory. Like guiding hands reaching through the screen, Pete Docter and Jonas Riviera sketch the film from their own recent experiences raising young girls, and it feels as if they’re comforting those who can’t fully process breaking away from the black & white perception of emotional experiences, be it as children or adults. Letting sadness run its course can be a terrifying thing, but it’s one that ultimately makes us stronger, even if that means letting go of childhood comforts like Bing Bong. As many life lessons as Pixar has prepared us for, the one that seems most vital (one I wish I’d been able to understand when I was younger) is how to deal with being on precipice of adulthood, where everything feels like a complicated mess. Maybe life isn’t about cleaning up that mess. Maybe it’s about letting the mess have its stay, and learning to work through it one step at a time. As colourful and seemingly frivolous as it is, Inside Out is a tremendously important guide to growing up. (Full review)
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Country: United States, Australia
There’s not much to say about Fury Road that hasn’t already been said, and there was no way it wasn’t going to end up on this list. It’s an action-heavy, effects laden car chase and a revival/fourth sequel to a franchise that began in the '70s, but it’s made with the utmost cinematic precision at every turn, pulsating like a living organism that thrives on adrenaline. Daring doesn’t even begin to describe it. More explosive than the film itself however was the blistering reaction from audiences and critics alike, who almost unanimously fell in love with it, as it slowly began to occupy the space of an anthemic tribute to female empowerment, ripping away the very face of the patriarchy. It may very well be one of the greatest action movies ever made, and I just bought tickets to watch it in theatres for an eighth time this New Year’s Eve. WITNESS ME. (Full review)
Country: United States
Speaking of reviving old franchises, no movie has ever taken the tired sequel/relaunch/pseudo-remake routine and mastered it the way Ryan Coogler has with the thunderous Creed. In fact, it’s ‘guilty’ of doing all the things Star Wars: The Force Awakens did, a seventh sequel that exists as a broad re-telling of the first Rocky, and it zigzags in just enough opposing directions to make it an interesting take on the familiar – Rocky Balboa was a poor guy who had to fight, Adonis ‘Donny’ Creed is a rich kid who doesn’t know how to do anything else – but more than a re-tread, it’s a recontextualization of Rocky’s rags-to-riches American Dream, instead telling a story of violence and black youth as it relates to father figures and legacy. Adonis, son of the late Apollo from Rocky I-IV (a man he never knew), seeks out his father’s rival-turned-friend and begins his own journey to the ring while wrestling with a professional legacy that he reveres, but a personal legacy he rejects, using his mother’s last name for most of the runtime. Just as interesting as Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, an intoxicating music artist with progressive hearing loss who, like Adonis, can’t help but be drawn to a passion and obsession that’s slowly destroying her. The two young lovers find strength in one another, but it’s Sylvester Stallone who’s the film’s real MVP. In addition to Balboa, the passage of time has always been one of the series’ main characters, and Stallone embodies that constant to heart-rending perfection. Everything and everyone that Rocky has ever loved has left or moved on, but he finally has a second shot at fatherhood. Coogler redefines the visual language of the boxing movie as the young Creed fights to justify his worth and his very existence, culminating in what is perhaps the single most earned familiar cinematic moment and musical cue in recent memory, one that blew the roof off both the theatres where I saw it. In a year defined by narrative legacies, aimed at a generation wrestling with its own identity, Creed could not be more momentous. Just as Rocky ran up the steps nearly 40 years ago, young Adonis races towards his aged mentor’s home, flanked by modern Philadelphia youth astride bikes and ATVs, creating his own iconic moment. This is one for the history books.
1. The Look of Silence
Language: Indonesian, Javanese
There was never going to be another #1 on this list. In a year filled with stunning documentaries, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his own masterpiece The Act of Killing dives even deeper into the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, holding each rung of the system accountable for both a bloody past and a present resting on a knife’s edge, in a movie that you’ll wish was ‘just a movie’. Travelling optician Adi Rukun sits down and interviews the various people responsible for the massacre, from the leaders and politicians who orchestrated it, to the local villagers who carried out the killings, all of whom are still hailed as heroes to this very day. But these aren’t just any murderers. They’re the people responsible for kidnapping and mutilating Adi’s own brother – information that, if made known to the leaders he’s interviewing face to face, could put him serious danger. It’s a film that brings human evil face to face with its own worst fear: guilt. However, that evil’s greatest ally is human nature itself, and our ability to compartmentalize, justify, and lay blame elsewhere as we refuse to admit our complicity in the actions of our society. It’s a film that examines a broken culture held together with lies and propaganda, like so many cultures around the world, and it’s a film that makes a desperate plea for us to admit to our mistakes if we’re to ever heal as a people. Otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes forever. I wouldn’t hesitate to call The Look of Silence one of the most important documentaries ever made, but more than anything, it’s a film so powerful, so audacious and so nerve-racking that I couldn’t quite believe some of the things in it were ever brought to the screen. (Full review)
There you have it. Here’s to an equally stellar 2016!