While most of the world has Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the mind (and rightfully so, it's fun), I've been thinking back to the various forces inhabiting my favorite films of 2015. Some are thrilling visual feasts that do all their talking with abs and swords of steel, while others rely heavily on the power of language and miscommunication to convey their intent. What binds them is their vitality.
Blockbusters lacking in strangeness drifted from my memory almost immediately, but some claimed an idiosyncratic identity and remained potent. Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, a beguiling and beautifully flawed space opera about legacy and genius, remains one of the few Hollywood epics to actually say something about the future. Jon M. Chu's oddly affecting adaptation of Jem and the Holograms also tested the limits of narrative logic, but did so with such reckless abandon and joy that it provided the social media landscape with a jolt of tenderness and humanity.
It was a great year for female protagonists (more on The Assassin, Clouds of Sils Maria and Mad Max: Fury Road later). Ricki and Flash showcased the great Meryl Streep in a role that on paper looked wafer thin yet, under the guidance of Jonathan Demme, examined the complexities of maternal compromise and guilt. Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Phyllis Nagy all collaborated to make the 1950s-set lesbian melodrama Carol a quietly sublime meditation on longing and separation.
Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers' Fort Tilden, a nasty piece of work sporting two complicated young women at its center, is both a daring and discomforting look at millennial comeuppance. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's fleet-footed Mistress America could be seen as the rosy counterpoint.
As usual, there were plenty of damaged men to go around. Josh Lucas' and Stephen Plunkett's ornery brothers in John Magary's The Mend struggled to break free from the genetic and psychological chains handed down from their father. Bertrand Bonello's intoxicating Saint Laurent complicated its central subject by envisioning history as a tormented series of gaps and ambiguities.
Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu each balanced the political and personal in deft ways while also exposing the consequences of institutional breakdown after prolonged isolation. Denis Villenueve's Sicario and Paul Feig's Spy both used virtuoso aesthetics and contradictory gender dynamics to deconstruct what it means to wield power over others.
If the above titles and a few more (including Tangerine, It Follows, The Hateful Eight, Phoenix and Inside Out) form an Honorable Mentions list, the next 10 are my choices for the best of 2015. In a world where so many films are comatose, they are defiantly alive.
Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien spent seven years making (1) The Assassin, a textured, abstract, and lush Wuxia film about a young killer who refuses to adhere to the radicalized boundaries of her training. Lush details of time and place, costume and character fill every powerful composition. Speed and agility are swift communication methods, but are augmented by the unspoken melancholy of someone pining for an alternate path. Most essentially, Hou's film sees acts of non-violence as a way to combat the hierarchies of power and corruption that can tear us apart.
It was only a few weeks ago that I dedicated this very space to Frederick Wiseman's (2) In Jackson Heights, a three-hour documentary masterpiece observing the sights and sounds of the titular neighborhood in Queens, New York. My fondness for its patience and powerful resolve has only grown since then, proving this kind of objective and empathetic community building is priceless.
Anurag Kashyapís five-hour crime opus, (3) Gangs of Wasseypur, traces the decade-spanning history of gangster life (and death) in India during the 20th century. To put it simply, this is madness incarnate. If you were lucky enough to catch the wild film theatrically during its brief run at a local AMC, you were treated to a mosaic of bloodshed, betrayal and sacrifice, equal parts intimate and epic, intricate and raw.
Our digital world is crumbling in Michael Mann's brilliantly strange and frayed techno thriller (4) Blackhat—and the only way to move forward is by embracing an analog existence.
Jafar Panahi's latest documentary/fiction (5) Taxi is a love letter to cinema, endurance and courage under the pressure of governmental oppression. Itís also sly, entertaining and indelibly playful. Come for the protest art, stay for the director's infectious smile.
The cinematic equivalent of Wile E. Coyote, (6) Mad Max: Fury Road is the speedy, messy and relentlessly directional blockbuster America needed to wake up from its franchise fatigued nap. A feminist yarn that mixes action, suspense and social critique, the boomerang narrative changes directions on a moment's notice, following Charlize Theron's Furiosa and her coven of badasses into the desert abyss.
(7) Jauja, Lisandro Alonso's gorgeous art-western that played at this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival, stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish military man whose daughter is kidnapped while traveling through Patagonia. Shot on 35mm in 4x3 aspect ratio, it compresses the frame to intensify the sharp detail and texture of landscape, costume and facial expressions. What a ravishing and mysterious ghost story.
What is performance? The two leads of (8) Clouds of Sils Maria, played to perfection by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, tango over this question throughout. Olivier Assayas' meta-narrative about an aging movie star who's reeling from the death of a famous friend never admits to finding an answer.
The joyous, playful, and politically relevant (9) Paddington is 2015's biggest surprise. Paul King's breakneck and tender adaption of the popular cartoon character mixes animation and live action to regain the power of community and diversity from the clutches of colonialism.
Last, but certainly not least, is the most seamlessly enjoyable film of the year, a version of sweaty utopia where everyone can participate in the process of pleasuring others. (10) Magic Mike XXL finds Channing Tatum doing his best Fred Astaire and director Gregory Jacobs invoking the smarts and sass of Preston Sturges. Bliss. If this is torture, chain me to the wall.