And that’s it: 2015 is in the books. If you listen to what everyone else is saying, it’s been a pretty good year for the movies. Frankly, they’re not wrong, but the best testament to the quality of cinema in a single year may be the films that don’t get any recognition in the year-end lovefest that is awards voting. (The second best testament, mind you, is almost certainly the absence of clear consensus, which is certainly true of 2015 even if pretty much everybody agrees that Mad Max: Fury Road is just the greatest.) Oh, sure - there are a lot of great movies, future landmarks and masterpieces among them, that are part of the conversation right now. But there are countless others that nobody is talking about at all.
How can they? There’s only so much time in the day to chop it up about underseen, off the radar movies, particularly when there are more movies now than ever for viewers to consume. But that’s what I’m here for, for the second time: to try to cover some of the less explored territory in 2015’s wide array of excellent, worthy movies. Given that my own top ten a) took me three tries to nail down, and b) wound up expanding to ten plus ten honorable mentions, I feel like I’m the one person on the web who is best suited for this job, and I say this without any trace of pompousness or self-aggrandizement. None.
A few key things: while I would love to talk about Tangerine here, that movie is so much on the radar that it practically is the radar, and while it’s probably true that you can never talk about a great movie too much, I think I’ve said my piece on that one already. There will also be no mention of What We Do in the Shadows beyond this, because if you read BMD, you probably know all about it already. And finally, the logic applied in the previous two sentences might not necessarily apply to every film on this list, depending on how well known they are to you. So if any entry touched on here strikes you as disconnected from my stated purpose, well, shame on me; I just really wanted to write about Jafar Panahi. Is that too much to ask?
I Smile Back
What makes a great leading performance? Is it refinement of expression, or the subtle conveyance of emotion? Is it about delivering big, profound monologues to the screen? Suffering for your art? Promoting a powerful message? Maybe it’s all of these, but in the case of Adam Salky’s I Smile Back, it’s about elevating an otherwise average film into something better.
Salky made the very shrewd decision of hiring comedienne Sarah Silverman - that Sarah Silverman, the Sarah Silverman of The Sarah Silverman program, “I’m Fucking Matt Damon,” and Jesus Is Magic, among many other movies and shows - to play his lead, depressive and destructive upper middle class housewife Laney Brooks. That decision might strike you as odd. If so, you haven’t seen the movie, and you should remedy that and possibly change your entire perspective of Silverman in the process. Put in short, she’s incredible; she single-handedly makes I Smile Back worth watching by putting on a shocking masterclass in dramatic acting. Her performance is the kind that reviewers might condescendingly refer to as “brave,” but that’s just a way of circumventing more applicable adjectives, like “powerful,” or “breathtaking,” or “stunning.”
Silverman is a marvel from the first frame to the film’s final, harrowing shot. If I Smile Back was a stronger picture overall, she would still be the year’s most unsung Best Actress candidate. You expect Cate Blanchett to walk into a set-up and act the crap out of it. You probably don’t expect that of Silverman, but maybe you should.
Anyone who pays attention to the news knows that immigration is a big thing right now, especially as certain leathery windbags bellow and bluster about barring non-citizens from entering the United States. But television and the movies have gotten to have their say about immigrants, too, from John Crowley’s Brooklyn, to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, to Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea, which feels like a cousin to both Crowley and Ansari’s efforts despite taking place mostly in Rosarno, Italy. Consider, if you will, Carpignano’s heritage; he’s a black Italian-American whose life occurs between New York City and Rome, which gives him a decidedly unique perspective on the subject.
But if you boil that perspective down to its essence, the message of Mediterranea becomes one of intention: this is a movie that’s all about the “why,” and which is singularly focused on what it is that drives people to uproot themselves and make for a foreign country; better opportunity, sure, and not just for themselves but for their families. The trouble is that when Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) relocates to Rosarno, he finds himself in a world populated by people who see him as an outsider and who hate him for it. Between Carpignano, making his feature debut as a director, and Seihon, making his feature debut as an actor, it’s hard to tell who the bigger star is, but Seihon’s personal stake in the story (which is based on big chunks of his own life) and Carpignano’s innate understanding of that story’s complexities make for gripping filmmaking. (It helps that they’ve worked together in the past, and on the short film that provides Mediterranea its basis.)
Carpignano’s film slyly recreates the events that led to Rosarno’s 2010 immigration riots, which most of us here in the U.S. probably aren’t familiar with. If not, that’s okay. Let Carpignano teach you all about the incidental and overarching effects that allow these kinds of travesties to happen.
Every year with the sad old white men films, huh? As those films go, Manglehorn is pretty damn good; it’s the first of two David Gordon Green flicks released in 2015, and indisputably the best, but it’s also a tonally, emotionally off-kilter flick that requires patience and a debt of attention to hang with. More so than most of the films listed here, Manglehorn demands at least two viewings to fully appreciate, particularly in light of its climactic shot, where all of the tale tall chatter we hear about old keymaker A.J. Manglehorn, Green’s protagonist, suddenly becomes more than just chatter and we’re forced to reevaluate the entire damn story. Thus is the power of a single shot of magical realism.
But if Green’s cheeky creativity provides the film with its chassis, Al Pacino’s leading performance is the engine that drives the whole damn thing forward. Pacino has been on something of a tear this year, popping up in not one, not two, but three movies, each ranging from good to great; it is more meaningful, of course, that Pacino happens to be wonderful in each of them, particularly in Manglehorn, where his easygoing brand of melancholy infuses the whole picture with unexpected hangdog charm.
Generally speaking, we expect Oscar-nominated filmmakers to do higher profile things with their time after a jaunt in the awards spotlight, but no sooner did Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik do her time on the prestige circuit than she took four years to make a movie about Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam vet and hardened biker. You don’t know Hall, but actually you do; he’s the man who brought Thump Milton, Winter’s Bone’s off-in-the-margins Ozarks crime boss, to life. This revelation just makes Stray Dog into even more of an oddity. Why make a documentary feature about a man who played a minor character in a film Granik made nearly half a decade ago?
Spend just a few minutes with Granik and Hall, and you’ll get your answer: he’s a magnetic and thoroughly wonderful person who has lived, and continues to live, a life that’s as rich and meaningful as it is rough and heartbreaking. Stray Dog latches onto Hall and sticks with him, leaving Granik herself out of the frame entirely; this is an anti-vanity picture, the kind of cinema that’s made purely in service to its subject instead of the whims of its director. We see Hall go through his days, advising his granddaughter on the virtues of self-reliance, helping those in need patch up their damaged houses, giving his fellow army vets a shoulder to lean on, and participating in memorials for soldiers who died not only in Vietnam, but in the Iraq and Afghanistan. He with visits his therapist. He embarks on a pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in D.C., where he falls apart upon finding the name of his friend.
Granik shatters our stereotypical view of Hall within Stray Dog’s first few minutes; he might be a big, burly man composed almost more of tattoos than of flesh, but he’s incredibly kind, and his story is immeasurably moving. But it’s the way that the film continues to force the evolution of our perspective not just on Hall, but on anyone who has fought and lost in the name of the United States, that makes it so special.
Don’t make the mistake of equating Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior with Lena Dunham’s Girls. They’re related but only distantly, and Akhavan uses the creative space she’s made for herself to explore ideas that are personal to her experiences. She also sets up and pays off the very best fart joke presented in a film this decade, so if you’re worried that the film might be just another example cross-cultural millennial navel gazing, worry not. Akhavan takes herself seriously, but not so seriously that she can’t pull off a good gag, be it flatulent, intellectual, or slapsticky; by extension, the same is true of Appropriate Behavior, which explores its central ideas in earnest without ever forgetting the old Arthur Freed adage: make ‘em laugh.
The film fits in snugly alongside 2015’s numerous tales of outsiders; Brooklyn, Carol, Tangerine. Here, Akhavan plays Shirin, a young woman from a family of Iranian immigrants who is comfortable in her bisexuality, but not enough that she feels like she can tell her folks about it. Shirin’s reluctance to come out to her mom and dad creates a rift between her and her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), which leads to a break-up and sets Shirin adrift in the world by herself. Appropriate Behavior is very much about Shirin’s very specific circumstances, but it’s also about the more general matter of being the “other,” whether in blind dates with total strangers or confrontations with kin. The usual trappings of the film’s category are ever present here - aimless twenty-something ennui, for one - but Akhavan brings her own vision and ideas to the material that give her film a keen sense of individuality.
Call Me Lucky
If, like me, your familiarity with comedian Barry Crimmins only extends as far as the impact he had on Boston’s comedy scene, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky is a major gut punch; the film goes on as you might expect any documentary to, presenting talking head interviews with Barry’s fellow comedians and delving into his career as a stand-up comic. But then, just under an hour in, Crimmins tells the camera point blank that as a child, Crimmins was subjected to brutal sexual assaults by a man his babysitter would bring over to his house. You can hear the record scratch in the back of your mind as the film swaps gears and tells us the story of how he has coped with the trauma throughout his life.
That Crimmins founded The Ding Ho and Stitches back in the 1980s is well and good; that he is a quick-witted, acerbic talent with a severe allergy to idiots and bullshit is thoroughly entertaining. But Call Me Lucky asks us to consider Crimmins’ comedy through the lens of the abusive horrors he endured as a boy, while also contrasting his comedy and those horrors against his confrontations with Congress regarding the child pornography chat rooms he personally monitored and researched for the express purpose of reporting on them to America Online. Goldthwait maintains a certain amount of focus on Crimmins’ sense of humor, relishing any opportunity to run footage of him cutting down hecklers and ignoramuses, but the film is in greater awe of Crimmins as a hero and as an activist. Call Me Lucky might run a little long in the tooth, but Crimmins is such a compelling figure that we don’t mind the film’s bloat.
Heaven Knows What
If you have any experience with America’s homeless population, you know that they’re equally visible and invisible. You know they’re there, so you leave a wide berth between you and the park bench they’re occupying so as to reduce the chance of them beseeching you for spare change. Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What puts its viewers right in contact with those people, though, and in doing so replicates their own experience with their star, Arielle Holmes. Josh met Arielle on New York City’s streets, and after getting to know her a bit, he encouraged her to tell her story; she listened, and her resultant to-be-published memoir, Mad Love in New York City, came to serve as the foundation of the Safdie’s film.
Heaven Knows What is an unruly slice of reality. It’s an ugly movie, in the sense that the world it inhabits is neither glamorous nor stable, and by consequence the picture adopts an unabashedly raw veneer. We begin with a suicide attempt by Arielle’s character, Harley, and we end with another character burning alive; in between Arielle does what she can just to survive, leap-frogging from her manipulative and emotionally abusive boyfriend, Ilya, to drug dealing charmers, though her social maneuvers are depicted without judgment. Heaven Knows What has no taste for that. Instead, the film is a wrenching appeal to its viewers’ humanity.
Mélanie Laurent’s second directorial effort is nearly flawless, save for the last five minutes, where her story of girlhood’s vicissitudes nearly goes off the rails; it’s the point where the film suddenly abandons measured character observations in favor of baffling histrionics. But take this only as a polite head’s-up instead of a warning to stay away. However badly Breathe may end, the eighty or so minutes leading up to the film’s only misstep comprise a sterling, thoroughly engrossing portrait of toxic friendship and teenage infatuation. Laurent works with such confidence and crafts her picture with such deliberate strokes that you might expect to check her IMDB page and find that she’s been directing movies all her life. It’s masterful stuff, and a good argument for actors hopping behind the camera and into the director’s chair.
Breathe isn’t a flashy film. It’s a quiet, simmering film, one that lets its tensions slowly brew beneath its characters’ surfaces. It’s also instantly familiar to anyone who has seen, say, Thirteen; it’s about Charlie, a young high school student, befriending new arrival Sarah and how the two forge an unstable, unhealthy bond together. But if Laurent does any one thing right with Breathe (and she does much, much more than just one thing right), she takes the familiar and make it feel new. That’s no small feat, not the least because Laurent is adapting a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, but despite mining material from another storyteller, Breathe feels personal to Laurent all the same.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
Back in 2010, agents of Iran’s government arrested filmmaker Jafar Panahi, along with family and about a dozen of their friends, and hucked them all in Evin Prison, that lovely correctional auberge where Maziar Bahari spent one hundred and eighteen days of his life under false charges of treason. The good news is that most of the group was released from Evin within 48 hours. The bad news is that “most of the group” did not include Panahi himself, who remained in jail for more than a year and a half before the Islamic Revolutionary Court banned him from making movies for twenty years and sentenced him to six behind bars. Dick move.
Following international outcry, the court generously put Panahi under house arrest but kept the ban in place. Funny thing, though: it hasn’t stopped him from making movies, first 2010’s This is Not a Film, then 2013’s Closed Curtain, and now Taxi, in which Panahi poses as a cabbie and motors around Tehran, picking up fares and generally proving less gifted as a chauffeur than as a filmmaker. If that sounds boring to you, well, whatever. Panahi could film himself brushing his teeth for eighty minutes and he would probably find a way to imbue tons of incidental social subtext into his documented hygienic routines than most directors who aren’t hamstrung by judicial censorship.
That’s Taxi’s great trick, though: the subtext is the text. This is a pretty straightforward observation; the film kicks off with two of Panahi’s passengers having a frank exchange of ideas about Sharia law, after all. But the film’s commentary is both disguised and undisguised at the same time, and deployed so simply as to appear innocuous. If it looks like a lark and it sounds like a lark, a lark it must be. Just don’t let Taxi’s merry, carefree facade fool you: beneath the pleasantries, it has impressive bite.
There are an awful lot of debut features on this list, but none are quite so self-confident as John Magary’s The Mend. It takes real chutzpah to come out swinging with a movie that’s this brash, this unapologetic, and this good at getting us to laugh at flagrant human douchebaggery; The Mend may be 2015’s most quotable picture, a black comic opus that’s replete with one-liners so cleverly constructed that we wish we’d come up with them ourselves. Hilarious though the film may be, Magary’s approach is akin to ice skating uphill; audiences have a way of rejecting movies with unlikeable assholes as protagonists, after all, and more so than a Listen Up, Philip or even an Inside Llewyn Davis, The Mend wants us to empathize with its unlikeable asshole protagonist, which makes the film an even tougher pill to swallow at first blush.
But the trick to The Mend is its rawness. Magary’s sharp writing is seductive enough to get sensitive types over the hump and make them feel something for brothers Alan (the underrated Stephen Plunkett) and Mat (a revelatory Josh Lucas); more important than that is the film’s unabashedness and willingness to go deep on both of these characters, reveling in their stunted emotionalism and the fireworks displays of buried male rage that result from their reticence. Calling The Mend “brave” or “bold” for its honesty would step right over the line of pretentious hyperbole, but Magary’s knack for telling a good joke in roundly unfunny circumstances lends it a genuine sort of daring that makes the film feel startlingly fresh.