Friday, January 8, 2016

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2015

The best films tell us something about ourselves, something about what it means to be human. Sometimes, the picture is not so rosy, but look out the window. It is not so rosy out there either. The world is perched on a ledge, and it could tip at any moment. I do not mean to sound like a harbinger of doom here in my little movie column, but when we go to the cinema, it is because of what is going on in the world. Either we are seeking an escape from the darkness or a reflection of it.

Well, I have never been one for escape, so each of my top 10 films of the year is representative of the society we have built and the culture we have bred. If it sounds like a dour evening of programming, it is in some ways, but in these depictions of a world askew, I find hope. These are bleak films, yes, but this is because they dare to confront us with human truths, and if we are to find a way forward or some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, we must first open ourselves to honesty.

In one way or another, every film below is about people – or a dog or a machine – trying to take the next step toward a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. Their circumstances may be dire, and they may not always succeed in their quests, but the search for truth and meaning is always worthwhile. These are the top 10 films of the year because for whatever else they are, they are celebrations of the search for truth.

Before we get to the list, here are five other fantastic films from 2015 that exemplify the perilous march forward, either for individuals or whole movements: The Second Mother; Everest; Room; Suffragette; Macbeth.

The Top 10 of 2015:

10. The Kindergarten Teacher, directed by Nadav Lapid

For Nira (Sarit Larry), the kindergarten teacher at the center of the story, beauty comes with a responsibility. If one is capable of recognizing something beautiful, it is incumbent upon that person to share it with the world. Nira would love to be that beautiful thing, but she knows she is not. Instead, she finds it in the poetry of a 5-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman). Once she finds it, she can think of nothing else but sharing this boy’s poems with an ungrateful world.

Lapid has called Nira a warrior for poetry, a warrior for beauty in a world that has neither the time nor inclination to enjoy it. Lapid creates a universe – not unlike our own – in which people would rather watch inane television shows, talk about their sex lives, and drink away their worries. That Yoav is destined to be unappreciated causes great pain in Nira, and she acts out. Perhaps her decisions are irrational or extreme but only in the world in which she and Yoav live. In a better place, where beauty and poetry meant more, Nira would be hailed as a righteous hero, and it is that world for which she fights.

9. Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland

All of Ex Machina is a test. We learn this almost from the beginning. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) brings Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his secluded compound to test a new artificial intelligence program, Ava (Alicia Vikander). The goal is to see whether this machine can imitate humanity so well as to be indistinguishable from it. The obvious ethical question is if Ava is so human she fools Caleb, does she deserve to be treated like a human, or is she still simply a robot? Ava asks what will happen if she fails the test, and she is told her memory will be wiped and she will be broken down. At this point, Ava demonstrates the most human thing of all – the will to survive.

Isaac, Gleeson, and especially Vikander are tremendous as three characters who each represent a different path for humanity. Nathan is an innovator, but he is cruel. Caleb is kind but weak. Ava is strong but alien. Garland suggests only one of these will inherit the earth, and he forces the audience to choose an allegiance. We can create the future, fight the future, or be the future, but if we choose wrong, then we have failed the test, and the repercussions will be severe.

8. White God, directed by Kornél Mundruczó

Mundruczó set out to make an angry, unflinching film about his native Hungary and the growing inequities that have torn the country apart from within. He certainly has made that, but he has also made a beautiful fable about a girl and her dog. That two such disparate stories could be told not only parallel to each other but in concert is a testament to the remarkable filmmaking and storytelling on display in White God.

After Lili’s (Zsófia Psotta) father forces her to abandon her beloved dog, Hagen, the film charts the course of these two outsiders as they try to make their way back to each other. Both are abused and degraded by systems set up to keep them on the outside looking in. The wonder of Mundruczó’s story is that he makes Hagen the hero. Hagen is the one who finally cannot take it anymore and rises up with an army of the oppressed.

That they are dogs is what makes the story a fable, but in that fable, Mundruczó uncovers undeniable truths about the despicable ways we treat each other. He argues that if we cannot find some empathy inside ourselves, we are doomed to be destroyed, not by some outside force but from within.

7. 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani

Adam McKay’s The Big Short has received much acclaim and many accolades this year for the way it tackles the financial crisis and housing market meltdown of the mid-2000s. That film is a big, flashy, star-studded, smart-ass look at the world of Wall Street, but for me, it does not compare to 99 Homes. Bahrani’s film chooses substance over style and has the guts to examine the human toll of the crisis. While The Big Short laughs and jokes its way around big numbers and big ideas, 99 Homes goes for the throat, takes hold, and never lets go.

There are no winners in Bahrani’s film, only those who keep their dignity intact and their souls unstained – and there are not many of those either. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a good man who wants to do right by his family, but the only way he can do that is to give up a piece of himself. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is a bad man who also wants to do right by his family. He has already given up every part of himself to the system he serves and spends his days collecting the broken pieces of others. Bahrani creates a dichotomy in which we can either give in and be destroyed or fight back and be crushed anyway. 99 Homes may be a dark statement on our time, but it never feels anything but true.

6. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

It would be hard right now to find another auteur operating at the consistently high level at which Iñárritu works. The Mexican-born director has made just six feature films, and each is a masterwork. In 2014, he gave us the acid-tongued satire Birdman, which amazed with its vibrancy and technical wizardry. In 2015, he returned with The Revenant, a stone-faced adventure epic set in the Old American West. The technical mastery remains – in particular, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush cinematography – but this time, Iñárritu uses his storytelling gifts to far more humanist ends.

The story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) dragging his broken body hundreds of miles through the snow to find those who left him for dead could easily be positioned as a revenge saga. In fact, the marketing would have you believe that is all it is. It is not. The Revenant is about grief and guilt, survival and strength, nature and progress. Against the vast expanse of frozen tundra, Glass is barely a speck on the horizon, and his personal tragedy is just one of many tragedies suffered every day on this land. As he wills himself back to civilization, he discovers his true home and his duty to the universe.


 Complacency is a byproduct of a successful society. Certainly in the U.S., most of us have the luxury of being insulated from the truly terrible acts committed in this world. Even if we are not satisfied with what we have, we have the choice to go out and seek something more or something else, which is its own kind of privilege. Mustang is an important film because it has the ability to shock us out of complacency by showing us a world in which people do not have a choice.

Five sisters in a small Turkish village are held hostage by their family and forced to participate in a culture that has no place in a modern society. They fight back against their oppressors, but an entire system has been set in place to hold them down. However, Ergüven wisely does not fill her film with sorrow but rather rage. Mustang is an angry cry against inequality and an urgent call for justice. The subjugation and degradation of women is not a cultural issue but a human rights issue about which none of us can afford to be complacent.

4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, directed by Roy Andersson

Every scene in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is shrouded in death, but this is not a film about dying. It is a film about being alive. There is no more precious gift than life, and if it sometimes takes a morbid reminder of this fact, then so be it. Life is not always pretty or fun or sweet, as we are all well aware, but you know what – it sure as hell can be all those things, and when it is, the struggle and the pain seem worth it.

There is no story to speak of in Andersson’s film, just a few connecting threads here and there, loose tendrils of lives intersecting almost imperceptibly. In fact, the frame is filled constantly with life. People go about their business in the foreground, and the rest of the world goes about its day in the background. It quickly becomes clear that neither is more important as the next scene, or three scenes later, could focus on one of those background players, or we may never see any of these people again. Few films capture the simultaneous majesty and randomness of life as well as this, and as the film wanders, it pulls viewers along, making us a part of its wondrous tapestry.

3. 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh

Put next to films about the financial crisis, the systemic abuse of women, and rampant inequality, the small-scale marriage drama 45 Years may seem to involve fairly low stakes, but for its characters, the stakes could not be higher. Haigh’s film is a deeply penetrating look at the damage we inflict on each other when we refuse to be honest with ourselves. It concerns the way old wounds do not heal when left unattended but rot and infect everything they touch. The tragedy is that it could all be easily avoided if we were stronger, more open people. Instead, we become guarded, thinking we are protecting ourselves, but we are just causing further pain.

Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who give two of the best performances of the year) have been married 45 years and still seem deeply in love, but when news from the past shakes the foundation of their bond, they realize the fragile nature of everything they have built. Bit by bit, Kate’s world crumbles around her, and all she can do is sift through the rubble, searching for a reason to carry on with life the way it was before. She wants to bury the past, discard the truth, and ignore all those old wounds, but she cannot. Everything is in the open now, and she must confront her new reality or be destroyed by it.

2. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy

Spotlight is another film about people who would rather ignore the truth, and the film’s heroes are the Boston Globe reporters who refuse to remain silent. They uncover decades of abuse hidden by the Catholic Church, and everyone else would prefer to pretend the problem does not exist or will go away on its own. The Spotlight team, however, cannot abide the lie and goes to great lengths to ensure the truth will see the light of day.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s screenplay works as both a thrilling legal procedural and a moralistic drama. The film understands the mechanics of journalism and the lives of reporters like few others before it, but it never gets so bogged down in minutiae that it fails to tell a human story. The victims are the heart of Spotlight, and in his construction of the film, McCarthy guarantees we never forget the real people who suffered because of a corrupt system.

Finally, what Spotlight reminds us is that this work is never done. The Catholic Church still harbors and hides pedophile priests in cities around the world and places not fortunate enough to have teams of reporters, lawyers, and investigators dedicated to the truth. In the end, justice is our responsibility, and we must seek it everywhere, not just from the Catholic Church but from governments and Wall Street and schools and big business. Spotlight is a great film because it shows us how good people can change the world one truth at a time.

1. The Tribe, directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

For sheer audacity, there is no film that could match Slaboshpitsky’s tale of humiliation, rage, and defiance set at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf. Apart from being told entirely in Ukrainian sign language, the film is shot in a remarkable series of long takes that makes the audience complicit in the abuses and atrocities being perpetrated in this insular society. After a while, the silence becomes so unsettling it is almost unbearable. We want to scream for these kids and the suffering they endure, but we cannot. We remain quiet, passive observers, and in so being, it feels like we are allowing this to happen.

Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) is a new student at the school and quickly becomes embedded in the school’s ruling gang. The gang controls the student body through intimidation, fear, and brute strength. They sell drugs, deal in other contraband, and operate a prostitution ring. Anya (Yana Novikova) is one of the prostitutes. Sergei falls in love with her and wants to escape this life together, but she rebuffs him. This is the life she knows, and she refuses to give it up. From there, the story spirals into hate, madness, and violence so rapidly the audience is left gasping for air.

There was no other film this year that offered the mix of sensory overload and emotional devastation in The Tribe. It is not a fun night at the movies, but it is something more. Cinema is a beautiful medium because it inserts viewers directly into the lives of others. If those lives are not always pretty or happy, so much the better. In life, we shut ourselves off from the pain of other people, either because we wish not to feel pain or because we do not want to be reminded of our own. The Tribe is a daring, confrontational rebuke of that numbness. We want to hide, but The Tribe forces us to open ourselves to feeling.

Thank you for being a part of Last Cinema Standing's 2015 Year in Review. Be sure to check out the other installments in the series by clicking any of the links below, and keep coming back for continued coverage of this year's Oscar race and the year in cinema that will be 2016.

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