1. Son of Saul
Dir. László Nemes
Set in a holocaust concentration camp, Son of Saul focuses on the titular Saul, a Jew who attempts to maintain his sanity and humanity while he is forced to aid in the extermination of his people. Rather than focusing on the atrocities of the entire holocaust, as most films on the subject have, Son of Saul centres on Saul’s personal struggle, creating an intensely visceral and intimate experience.
The camera follows Saul almost exclusively throughout the film, using impressively long takes, tight framing ,and a shallow depth of field. Combined with the effect of an ever-moving camera, these techniques create a feeling of immense claustrophobia. The camera’s focus on Saul also reflects his attempts to detach himself from his environment – perhaps a necessary measure for him to be able to cope. We are rarely, if ever, actually shown the horrors around him; they’re instead implied through terrifying sound design.
The film features no music, no melodrama, no highly choreographed action sequences or stylized set pieces, and it is all the more powerful because of it. Director László Nemes’ strict adherence to his intense, brutal, and raw style makes for the most emotionally harrowing experience of 2015. To make this all the more impressive, Son of Saul is Nemes’ feature length debut. And with it, he easily becomes one of the most exciting young directors working today.
Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Charlie Kaufman never seems satisfied with his own work, always striving to do something completely different from what he’s done before. Co-directed by Moral Orel creator Duke Johnson, Anomalisa is Kaufman’s first stop-motion feature. Similarly to the rest of Kaufman’s films, Anomalisa is unconcerned about the normal rules and conventions of reality and filmmaking. It is wonderfully inventive in its use of the stop-motion format to blur the lines between the real and the imaginary.
Though it is also a hilarious comedy and a vibrant animated film, Anomalisa is above all a poetic film, managing to portray the cold isolation of its main character while retaining a sense of intimacy. Anomalisa is moving in a subtle way, a film whose layers reveal themselves to the viewer well after the viewing has ended.
Dir. Christian Petzold
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix tells the heart-wrenching story of Nelly, a disfigured holocaust survivor who must undergo reconstructive surgery on her face following the trauma. She insists that she she should look exactly as she did before, but this proves to be difficult for the doctors, who have little to go off of. She ends up looking unrecognizable, and sets out to find her husband, who may have been the person who identified her to the nazis.
The film fascinatingly explores themes of betrayal and identity when Nelly finds her husband, but he does not recognize her at all. Phoenix features easily my favorite ending of the year – it’s seemingly simple, but it evokes incredible complexity, and stands as a perfect summation of the film as a whole.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller
Nearly 40 years after the release of the original Mad Max, George Miller resuscitates the film’s characters in an invigorating, high-octane fashion. Simultaneously breathing air back into a franchise that hit a roadblock with Mad Max: Thunderdome and providing an electrifying thrill ride for any audience, Fury Road manages to expand the Mad Max universe outside of the frames of the film without sacrificing character or story. In fact, Fury Road’s ability to meld character and action provides its most satisfying drama – action, at its best, furthers character. Visceral action is at the center of Fury Road, and by combining emotional depth and explosion, the audience is given a satisfying, deeply involving experience through which they can have their cake and eat it, too. Charlize Theron’s moving performance as Furiosa is also worth noting, as is John Seale’s stark cinematography, rich with contrasting oranges and blues and comprehensible centre-framed drama.
5. 45 Years
Dir. Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh followed up 2011’s beautiful Weekend with the equally emotional and thought provoking film 45 Years, which centers on a married couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay). In the days before the celebration of their 45th anniversary, significant and previously undisclosed elements from their pasts are revealed, as the film questions the nature of fate, relationships, and our perceptions of how well we truly know the people we surround ourselves with.
45 Years is told through a very objective point of view, employing no flashy techniques, and only giving us what is diegetic to the story. There is no score; the only music that plays is the music that the characters hear as well. In many ways though, this only makes Haigh’s use of music more powerful: because of how rare it is, we pay careful attention to it whenever it is present. The music is often used to build our understanding of the two main characters, with lyrics and tone that either reflect or provide great contrast and juxtaposition to what they are thinking and feeling. Both Courtenay and Rampling give fantastic performances, adding wonderful depth to their characters with subtle and nuanced expressions that are enhanced by the objective, minimalistic visual style.
6. Magic Mike XXL
Dir. Gregory Jacobs
Though Steven Soderbergh did not return to helm Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to 2012’s Magic Mike, Gregory Jacobs proves a worthy successor for the unlikely franchise. If Magic Mike defied expectations by being an effective commentary on the American Dream, XXL is the antithesis of what many expected from its sequel. More road trip comedy than indictment of capitalism, XXL is all the better for its differences. XXL is simply an enjoyable experience through and through: while little conflict rests on its surface, the method by which characters weave their way through dance numbers, friendships, and eventual romance holds audience interest until the credits roll. Its air of inclusiveness makes the film all the better. The boys visit clubs, an old friend’s mansion, and stripping conventions alike, dancing for the enjoyment of women of any type, no questions asked. Soderbergh, under pseudonyms Peter Andrew and Mary Ann Bernard, assumes the role of director of photography and his extensive experience as cinematographer becomes quickly apparent. Never sacrificing spatial geometry for the sake of a quick cut or flashy dance sequence, Soderbergh and co’s work remains both visually coherent and a treat to watch. It is filled with expansive wide shots and arresting hues in dance sequences and more understated scenes alike. Special mention must also go to Jada Pinkett-Smith, whose controlled but intense demeanor provides the film with its best dance scene.
Dir. Céline Sciamma
Celine Sciamma delivers an incredibly personal, honest, and powerful portrait of a girl growing up in the French projects. Having failed to get the marks to get into high school for the second time, and caring for her two younger sisters while dealing with an abusive older brother, Marieme finds a sense of belonging and self-determinism when she is adopted into a gang of teenaged girls. Sciamma brings excellent composition to every frame, which seems to always perfectly capture the tone of a scene. Fantastic scene blocking and framing are employed to great effect, building tension by slowly revealing different parts of the setting. These visual cues help tell the overall story of Marieme’s transformation throughout the film as well, as so much is revealed about her not through dialogue, but through gesture, movement, and expression.
Dir. Todd Haynes
Set in 1950s New York, Todd Haynes’ Carol tells the story of a young aspiring photographer who begins a relationship with another woman. Anchored by this compelling romance, portrayed wonderfully by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, the film explores the many prejudices and societal challenges surrounding being a woman and a member of the LGBT community, problems that are still very relevant today.
Haynes has great restraint in dealing with these topics, never being overly didactic or unrealistic in order to ensure that the audience understands what is happening. He chooses to use a more subtle delivery, explaining much about characters implicitly rather than through direct exposition. This works well given the subject, as the subtlety in the storytelling matches the subtlety with which the lesbian lovers must conduct their relationship in a time and place where they cannot be accepted as themselves.
9. The Duke of Burgundy
Dir. Peter Strickland
A woman pushes herself to her absolute limits as she tries to satisfy her much kinkier partner in The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland allows the subject matter to diverge into humorous, dark, and absurd places all while managing to make the film feel very unified and focused. The film is brutally honest in its portrayal of relationships, openly exploring their troubles, challenges, and associated anxieties.
Strickland tells his story with great cinematic flair. The Duke of Burgundy is overflowing with stunning visuals: every frame is composed with purpose and made with great care and attention to detail. It makes great use of every element that cinema lends it, complementing the great visual style with a unique, expressionistic use of sound design and layering to create a rich atmosphere.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
In Sicario, a thick sense of dread permeates each scene. Denis Villeneuve’s story chronicling a woman caught in the massive drug war between the U.S-Mexico border is predicated on the audience’s lack of knowledge. And while a lesser film may have frustrated viewers by restricting their understanding, Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan provide the audience with an excellent surrogate by way of Emily Blunt’s fraught CIA agent, as she navigates both countries’ complicated interests. Blunt is magnificent – though her character is mostly directionless, her performance has the opposite effect, emotionally anchoring the audience as the film devolves and she desperately attempts to grasp control. Benicio del Toro’s turn as the secretive Alejandro is also a highlight; del Toro plays Alejandro as a contained force of nature, primed to hit the film like a hurricane. As the story unravels, revelations about Alejandro provide some of the most satisfying and emotionally charged moments of the film. These performances are supported by Roger Deakin’s reliably excellent photography – the veteran cinematographer finds a nice rhythm in Villeneuve’s proclivity for tense and understated drama. Shooting in a calm, sustained manner creates hair-raising tension: something is always scratching at the corner of the frame, a time bomb ready to explode. Visual metaphors are laced throughout Sicario; a shot involving soldiers at dusk descending into the night’s darkness evokes the feeling of drowning, the audience (and Blunt) are rendered helpless as the soldiers march into a storm. That is Sicario: characters blindly enter maelstroms more violent than ever anticipated. Before they realize their fate, they’ve already been swallowed by the storm.
11. The Tribe
Dr. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
The opening frame of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe reads: “This film is in sign language. There are no translations, subtitles, or commentary.” This may feel daunting, giving the audience expectations of a completely impenetrable film. At first it is slightly offsetting; it is often difficult to fully understand what every character is saying, but you quickly realize that it is not important.
The Tribe is set in a deaf boarding school, and follows a new student as he struggles to fit in and gets involved with a violent gang of students. Despite its complete lack of dialogue, as well as music, The Tribe is one of the most powerful films of the year. Slaboshpitsky uses long takes and long shots almost exclusively to create incredibly disturbing images, giving the film it’s dark and desolate tone. The lack of speech serves to enhance the other sounds, such as the crashes and screams, making the film all the more powerful and disturbing.
12. Arabian Nights
Inspired by the collection of folk tales of the same name, Miguel Gomes delves into an exploration of the modern economic difficulties and realities of present day Portugal in his incredibly ambitious three part, six and a half hour long Arabian Nights. The film is broken up into many chapters that showcase Gomes’ great inventiveness. Some chapters include a court trial against a rooster (who gives his own testimony), an encounter between Portuguese government officials and a man with a penis enhancement potion, and a criminal that transports himself, among other things.
While wildly creative, wonderfully surreal, often hilarious, and at other times quite emotional, Arabian Nights can occasionally come off as frustrating. It is obviously an incredibly long film, and it at times can get quite slow, and it can be quite difficult to make sense of its loosely connected, far ranging and absurd tales. But after it has all sunken in, it just sort of seems to work.