1) Goodbye to Language (Adieu au Langage)-
An anti-narrative cinematic collage about an adulterous couple played by two
pairs of actors and actresses. Director Jean-Luc Godard films things (on digital
video!) that you would never see in 3-D in a film such as a dog playing in snow
and people discussing literature. This film features some of the most creative
cinematic uses of 3-D and freshest shot compositions I’ve ever seen, and one
shot is superimposed over another so if you move your head the image changes.
It's probably more innovative and invigorating (it woke me up completely) than
90% of the Oscar best picture nominees. This non-linear meditation on humanity,
love and canines did not make it to Chicago until 2015 (at the Gene Siskel
Center), so it made this year’s list. It might be too demanding for the casual
viewer. It premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. In
French with English sub-titles.
2) Spotlight-Fine investigative reporting
film about how the Spotlight newspaper investigative crew broke the Vatican
pedophile scandal in Boston. It contains fine performances by Michael Keaton
(who gave the two best performances of his career this decade) and Mark Ruffalo
(who was not my favorite Hulk). It’s nice to be reminded of what real
journalism was in this era of “Fox Facts.” Then again the Spotlight newspaper
did initially bury the story for years so you can also read it as a scathing
indictment of journalism as well.
3) This is a tie between two French films:
Clouds of Sils Maria- The always impressive
Juliette Binoche is an actress who stars in a play about an aging actress whose
life was destroyed by a younger rival. At the same time her real relationship to
a younger woman (Kristin Stewart) begins to eerily mirror the play. Multi-
layered and fascinating. The underecognized Binoche consistently does better
and more challenging work that Meryl Steep. Believe it or not Stewart is also
terrific in the film, and she was the First American Actress to Win France's
coveted Cesar Award for her role. In French with English sub-titles.
Lil Quinquin- Bruno Dumont’s nearly three
and a half hour absurdist comedy/police drama set in a quirky small town was
originally aired as a made for TV show in France in 2014. It is about a doltish
police chief who is investigating a cow that was found with human remains
inside. It also has one of the most convincing portrayals of preadolescent
idiocy ever plus it has unexpected moments of tenderness. This is kind of like
the Martin TV show mixed with Law and Order directed by Lars Von Trier. This is
also a critique of extreme anti-immigrant sentiment (Donald Trump fans take
note.) In French with English sub-titles.
4) Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalam-This
social justice film about gender politics concerns a woman in orthodox
Jewish culture who finds it almost impossible to get divorced even though the
couple has been separated for years. The whole court system is stacked against
her because she’s a woman and almost every scene in the film takes place in the
court so it’s like a gripping, frustrating, and intelligent one act play. It was
nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards. By
the way a “gett” is an Israeli divorce document and the film is in Hebrew,
Arabic, and French.
5) Timbuktu-Islamic fundamentalists take
over a small formerly free town and they persecute and prosecute everything from
smoking to singing to talking on a mobile phone. But the main narrative is about
a farmer who gets revenge on the man who killed his cow and the atrocious
punishment that the misguided judicial system gives him. The harsh, gritty
ending is among the most potent of the year. Sometimes think that the United
States is going in the same direction with the Patriot Act and the incestuous
relationship between right wing religion and politics. In French, English,
Tamasheq, and Bambara with English sub-tiles.
6) Love & Mercy-This daring biopic uses two
actors to portray the mentally unbalanced genius Brian Wilson in two crucial
parts of his life. In the more modern half, he is pulled two different ways by
his new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) and his domineering manager, Paul Giamatti
(who played another evil manager in Straight Outta Compton). This
underperforming but superlative drama is available for rental.
7) Carol-Todd Haynes’ circular film about a
woman who risks losing her daughter because of an affair with another woman is
the year’s most scrumptious looking film. It has some of the best uses of color
and stunning shot compositions (some of the shots reminded me of stills from
Antonioni’s films), and of course Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are excellent.
This period piece is very reminiscent of classic Hollywood melodramas especially
Douglas Sirk’s works. Blink and you might miss a cameo by the post-riot grrrl/
Sleater-Kinney member, Carrie Brownstein (her band also reunited this year and
put out a CD).
8) Youth-This marvelous film stars Michael Caine as a conductor who refuses to come out of retirement for personal reasons
related to his past. Both Caine and his co-star, Harvey Keitel deserved Oscar
nominations, and Caine created one of the richest, multi layered and real
portrayals of a person. Paolo Sorrentino has made another wonderful film (he
also did Great Beauty) that is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s best work
9) Brooklyn-Completely mesmerizing and well
told tale of an Irish woman who comes to America and has to choose between two
men and two countries. 2015 was a good year for female performances, but for my
money Saoirse Ronan (sorry Brie Larson) deserves to win a best actress Oscar.
10) Tangerine-Even though this highly
improvised film about trans gender prostitutes hunting for an unfaithful pimp
was shot on cell phones on a minimal budget, it was superior to most of the
year’s big blockbusters (including Star Wars the Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury
Road.) LA is used as a great backdrop, and it makes me want to visit it (but not
the areas in the film). The many hostile arguments seem to erupt from nowhere.
Not recommended for family Christmas parties.
11) Maps to the Stars- Julianne Moore, one
of my favorite actresses, gives another blistering performance as a maniacal
washed up actress, and John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams provide
excellent support in this darkly comic attack on Hollywood. Dave Cronenberg’s
intellectual and decentering film shows that he is still one of the smartest and
challenging directors around. This was a Canadian-French-German-American
production but the tone is coldy Canadian.
12.) Phoenix-In this noirish update of the
Orpheus and Eurydice myth, a Jewish woman with a reconstructed face searches the
underworld of Post-World War II Berlin to find her lost love, who was probably a
Nazi informant. When she finally finds him, he doesn’t recognize her, and he
hires her to play herself so that he can get her money. He tries to mold her
into her old self in Vertigo like twist. This powerful film deals with the whole
sale destruction of personality and memory that took place during the Holocaust.
This premiered in Chicago in the Gene Siskel Center’s European Film Festival. In
German with English sub-titles.
13.) The Best of Enemies-Outstanding
documentary about the endless feud between the two erudite intellectuals,
William F. Buckley, a founder of modern conservative thought and the ultra-left
leaning, author, Gore Vidal. Compared to the debates in this film, modern
political debates seem trivial, buffoonish and anti-intellectual. Thanks Donald.
14.) It Follows-Potent thriller about a
young woman (played by Maika Monroe) who is pursued by a very slow shape
shifting demon after she sleeps with the wrong guy. She has to make a moral
choice because if she sleeps with anyone else the spirit will pursue that
person. This is the freshest horror film in ages.
15.) Mad Max: Fury Road-This quasifeminist
reimagining of the Mad Max world was this summer’s most riveting action
film/blockbuster event. Charlise Theron may be one of the all-time great action
heroines. This might actually improve on the original films in the series (it’s
from the same director.)
16.) White God (Fehér isten)-A lonely girl
bonds with a mixed breed dog, but when he is cruelly mistreated he turns against
the whole human race. We are supposed to draw parallels between the plight of
dogs and immigrants. This is kind of like Planet of the Apes with canines
instead of simians. White God won the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes
Film Festival. In Hungarian with English sub-titles.
17.) What We Do in the Shadows- A spinal tap
style, Monty Python influenced documentary/comedy about vampires from New
Zealand was one of the year’s most amusing and marvelously inventive films. The
main reason that it’s this low on the list is that I saw it in the beginning of
the year so I don’t remember it as well as the other films. In English, German
18.) Salt of the Earth-Gorgeous documentary
about a photographer from Brazil, Sebastiao Salgado who used his b/w photos as
social commentary to witness the human condition. This film was directed by
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s son and Wim Wenders, one of the
leading lights of the German New Wave. Some of the powerful settings that the
photos capture include Rwanda after a war and the Galapagos Islands. Wenders and
his contemporary, Werner Herzog have made one great film after another for over
four decades. In French, Portuguese, and English.
19.) Amour Fou-Slow moving but haunting film
about a depressed poet who is desperately searching for the perfect woman to
commit suicide with. Not to be confused with the Jacques Rivette film, L'Amour
fou. Based on the last days of German Romantic poet’s Heinrich von Kleist’s
life. This premiered in Chicago in the Gene Siskel Center’s European Film
Festival. In German with English sub-titles.
20.) Diary of a Teenage Girl- A creative but
shy teen has an affair with her mom’s boyfriend. She is also a comic artist and
we see the fantasy world she creates on screen. One of the rare smart art films
that actually made it to the south suburbs this summer (I saw it at Crestwood
Cinema.) Based on the terrific graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An
Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.
21.) Beasts of No Nation-Potent African film
about a boy who loses his family to violent rebels. He is adopted by the rebel
army, and ends up a prepubescent soldier serving the people that ruined his
life. The sergeant is played by Iris Elba who received a best supporting actor
Golden Globe nomination. This film may have been under recognized because it
angered many industry insiders because it was released online the same time as
theatres. In English and Twi with English sub-titles.
22.) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on
Existence –Rewarding but hard to get through absurdist film directed by Roy
(Songs from the Second Floor) Andersson. There is not an actual plot in the
film, but it is comprised of a series of absurdist vignettes (some are about a
pair of pathetic salesmen that sell gag gifts door to door such as fangs.) Many
of the shots are like stills with all of the people in the background frozen,
and the whole film plays like an experimental theater piece captured on film
with lots of long takes and scenes with people in the background frozen like
statues. The film was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting" "Hunters
in the Snow" and he was wondering what the birds were thinking about the humans.
Recommended mostly for lovers of the esoteric. In Swedish with English
23.) The Big Short-Wickedly funny film about
the corruption of the US financial system benefits from a great all-star cast
including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt. The film
gets a bit smarmy at times with its self-reflexive asides. Great script though.
24.) The Walk-Celebratory and inspiring tale
of a French high wire artist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in yet another winning
performance) who walks over a rope suspended over the twin towers. Well directed
by Robert (Back to the Future) Zemeckis. I’m supersized this up lifting film did
not get more attention.
25.) Straight Outta Compton-Excellent biopic
about NWA, the controversial and highly influential gangsta rap band that were
exploited by their manager. Ice Cube is played by his real life son who looks
strikingly similar to his dad. Oh and of course the music is great too.
26.) Ex Machina-Another story about a man
who falls for an artificial female life form, but this film goes in a completely
different direction than Her or Electric Dreams. Alicia Vikander who portrays
the synthetic lady is a definitely a talent to watch (she was also in The Danish
Girl and The Man from Uncle.)
27.) Amy-Fine documentary about the talented
but ill-fated boundary smashing English soul-jazz-pop-rock singer Amy Winehouse.
28.) Listen Up Philip!-Engrossing story of a
disturbed young novelist (wonderfully played by Jason Schwartzman) and his
friendship with a famous novelist who serves as his mentor.
29.) Mississippi Grind-Mesmerizing road film
about two gamblers and the ups and downs they encounter living off their wits.
It’s a pleasure to soak up the local conversations, varied locales, and
interesting quips and stories.
30.) The Duke of Burgundy-Audacious film
about a wealthy insect expert who dominates her younger lover/maid or is it the
other way around? She suspects the maid has been unfaithful when she is seen
polishing another woman’s shoes. This gorgeous lesbian s and m film is much more
sophisticated and thoughtful than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it raises questions
about the nature of control. British Director Peter Strickland (he did Bjork:
Biophilia Live) effectively builds suspense and he enhances the viewer’s
imagination because he hides as much as he shows. This is available on Netflix
and since there are so many close-ups the films does not lose much impact by
being seen on a smaller screen.
31.) Ned Rifle-An ultra-religious boy sets
out to murder his ex poet laureate father accompanied by a young woman who has
some secrets. Hal Hartley’s absorb end to the Henry Fool trilogy is silly,
unbelievable, and totally fascinating. It’s great to see the former Indy film
queen, Parker Posey return to her role of Fay Grimm, the boy’s mom.
32.) Queen and Country-Worthwhile British
comedy about a pair of anti-authoritarian soldiers is like a World War II
version of MASH. John Boorman has created a delightful sequel to his earlier
classic, Hope and Glory.
33.) Mistress America-Greta Gerwig is
wonderful (in another collaboration with Noah Baumbach) as a student who tries
to help her flighty future stepsister start a business.
34.) Creed-This powerful sports movie is
able to pleasantly evoke the original film, and is actually able to recapture
most of its greatness. Michael B. Jordan plays the son of the original Apollo
Creed, and Stallone’s Rocky character takes him under his wing for some intense
training. Tessa Thompson is good as Creed’s love interest a creative club
musician who is losing her hearing.
35.) Room-This Kubrick inspired film about a
woman and son held prisoner in a room creates a supreme feeling of
claustrophobia (similar to the feeling I got from The Shining). The slow
otherworldly pacing is fascinating, and the film does what is trying to do but I
did not always like what it was trying to do.
36.) Trainwreck-Amy Schumer proves once
again that she is a major comic talent, and the climactic scene is classic.
37.) Far from the Maddening Crowd-Handsome
adaption of the great Thomas Hardy novel about a woman who must choose between
three suitors, so of course she makes the wrong choice. As much as I liked this,
the 1967 Julie Christie version is even better.
38.) The Danish Girl-Well acted story of a
man who poses as a woman named Lilly in order to model for his wife’s
portraits. Eventually Lily develops into separate and dominant female persona,
and this causes problems in his marriage.
39.) Dope-A trio of African American nerds
accidently gets involved with drug dealers when then accidently pick up some
dope. This plays like a smarter than average hip sitcom with elements of Risky
Business mixed in. Featuring a refreshingly unsterotypical portrayal of black
youth (I think fans of the show Community and early Big Bang Theory will like
40.) Ant Man- Totally enjoyable comedic
Marvel comics film about a criminal who steals a new experimental costume which
allows him to shrink and talk to insects. Paul Rudd is impressive as former
felon who seeks redemption, and Michael Douglas is good as his mentor, the
original Ant Man. This is more like Incredible Shrinking Man or Fantastic Voyage
than your typical superhero film. Still the Jessica Jones Netflix series was
this year’s best Marvel comics adaptation (and perhaps one of the best shows
41.) Black Panthers: Vanguard to the
Revolution-Terrific documentary shows how the US government was able to pit two
factions of the party against each other until it was destroyed. Viewers should
also look for The Murder of Fred Hampton (one of my former colleagues at
Columbia College did the cinematography.)
42.) End of the Tour-Jesse Eisenberg plays a
journalist who gets to meet his role model, a deeply troubled famous author. The
film is merely good, but Jason Segal is excellent as the author.
43.) Time out of Mind-Richard Gere is
marvelous in the unromantic role of a homeless man. There is little plot, but
the film follows his day to day struggles to get by, and his sad relationship to
his step daughter.
44.) The Revenant-Watchable but not
especially memorable film about a man who spends most of his time fighting
nature (I did love the grizzly scene.) He is buried alive (hence the title) by a
fellow fur trapper and hunts him down for revenge. I’m sorry but I still don’t
think DiCaprio is an A plus world class actor yet (Aside from Gilbert Grape),
and he did not deserve a best actor Oscar nomination.
45.) Armor of Light-Interesting documentary
about a conservative Pasteur who loses most of his flock because (gasp) he
supports sensible gun control legislation.
46.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens-I was
never a Star Wars fanatic, but I was mostly entertained by this engaging but
derivative story of the emergence of a new Jedi Knight. It’s great to see
Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher playing the old characters again, and I was
genuinely moved by the big death in the film. However, the villain is like a
weak imitation of Darth Vader and Dr. Doom. I’d still rather watch the original
trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy or the original Star Wars, but this J.J. Abrams
work is certainly an improvement over the second trilogy (sorry Lucas.) I would
not have problems recommending this film.
47.) Sicario-Impressive cast (including
Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin) and Emily Blunt) play government agents trying to
navigate around the tendrils of a Mexican drug cartel to make a big bust. Not
as good as Traffic (either the film or British miniseries.)
48.) Heart of a Dog-Laurie Anderson’s (she’s
a respected singer/performance artist) highly experimental meditation on life,
her dog, and her late husband, the late Lou Reed. I enjoyed this bold film, but
I liked some of her ‘80s films and videos better.
49.) The Martian-I’m a huge Ridley Scott
fan, but this is nowhere near the quality of Alien, Thelma and Louise, Blade
Runner or Prometheus. Matt Damon is fine as an astronaut who must fend for
himself when he is left behind on the angry red planet. Believe it or not this
sci-fi film which has very few laughs won a Golden Globe for best comedy.
50.) The Final Girl-Interesting Meta mad
slasher flick about a group of real teens that get stuck in a fictional horror
Blackhat, Chi-Raq, Cinderella, The Experimenter, The Gift, Good Night Mommy,
Going Clear, The Hateful Eight¸ Inside Out, In the Heart of the Sea, Kingsman
Special Service, La Sapienza, Macbeth, Magical Girl, Me Earl and the Dying Girl,
A Most Violent Year, Nasty Baby, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window,
Queen of the Earth, Red Army, Ricki and the Flash, Unfriended, You’re Beautiful
When You’re Angry, We Are Your Friends