Sunday, January 24, 2016

Favorite Films of 2015

Top Ten Favorite Narrative Features

Love & Mercy (USA dir. Bill Pohlad) The biopic genre got a needed kick in the pants with this transcendent portrait of troubled Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, brilliantly realized by actors Paul Dano and John Cusack. Screenwriter Oren Moverman (Todd Haynes' I'm Not There) alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes of Wilson during two contrasting eras – the creative peak of masterminding "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" and his early 90's nadir under the dictatorial control of evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy. The movie's real revelation, however, is Elizabeth Banks' wrenching performance as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue

Tangerine (USA dir. Sean Baker)
Move over It's a Wonderful Life, there's a new holiday classic in town – one in which a pair of transgender hookers drag the audience on a Xmas Eve cross-town rampage in search of an unfaithful pimp boyfriend. Bursting with propulsive energy and featuring gloriously garish, candy-colored cinematography (famously shot on a tricked-out iPhone 5s), Baker's screwball comedy for the 21st century hurls us through a Los Angeles netherworld of strip malls, crack dens and drive-thru carwash blowjobs. The rough edges get smoothed over by a pair of endearing and unforgettable performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

Li'l Quinquin (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
With this four-part TV mini-series, formalist auteur Dumont made his best film since The Life of Jesus, his 1997 debut. Set in a coastal village where human corpses are being stuffed inside dead cows, this policier-of-sorts has the touchstones of Dumont's earlier work – off-kilter non-pro actors, wide-screen vistas and impassioned examinations of morality, violence, racism and religion. What sets Li'l Quinquin apart is its uncommon hilarity (the non-intentional humor of Humanité and Twentynine Palms notwithstanding). While I'm glad to have caught this on a big screen at last year's Palm Springs International Film Festival, it's effective on smaller formats as well.

The Forbidden Room (Canada dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
While I'm certain that nostalgia-obsessed absurdist Guy Maddin has many more films in him, it's not too early to cast magnum opus status upon this fevered, overstuffed paean to the lost films of cinema's early sound era. The movie begins with a droll demonstration on "How to Take a Bath" that segues into a cockeyed lost submarine adventure. By The Forbidden Room's end we've lurched along a preposterous plotline boasting bladder-slapping contests, virgin volcano sacrifice and poisoned leotards. It was a special thrill catching this at the SF International Film Festival with Maddin indulging his fans in a generous Q&A that lasted into the early morning hours.

Aferim! (Romania dir. Radu Jude)
Radu Jude won the Best Director's Prize at Berlin for this neo-Western cum road movie about a constable returning an escaped Roma slave to his malevolent boyar overseer. Stunning B&W widescreen cinematography, a gallery of finely drawn characters and spot-on period art direction all contribute towards making this sweeping epic a captivating examination of another era's mores and customs. It's also an eye-opening portrayal of slavery and anti-Jewish/Roma sentiment in 19th century Eastern Europe that has plenty of resonance for today.

The Overnight (USA dir. Patrice Brice)
This 79-minute Duplass Brothers-produced indie – reportedly made for under $200K – was the funniest and sexiest movie I saw in 2015. It's also a pointed social satire that's loaded with surprises and much heartfelt charm. Jason Schwartzman plays one-half of an ebullient L.A. nouveau riche couple who invite non-descript Seattle transplants Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) over for a Friday night playdate after their young sons bond in the park. Sphincter paintings, breast pump infomercials and anxiety over penis size all enter into the merriment once the kids get put to bed. I loved it even more on second viewing.

Alléluia (Belgium/France dir. Fabrice du Welz)
The sordid saga of American "Honeymoon Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck got a French twist in this ultra-perverse remake starring Laurent Lucas (the prey in Du Welz' 2004 psychotic hillbilly shocker Calvaire). Lola Dueñas (Volver, The Sea Inside) co-stars as the victim turned co-conspirator whose sexual jealousy summons forth a grisly body count. Alléluia oozes style, with grainy 16mm complementing the film's 70s exploitation vibe, and claustrophobic hand-held close-ups seemingly emulating fellow Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The scene in which Dueñas sings an ill-omened aria over a naked corpse splayed across a kitchen table – before cutting off its foot with a hacksaw – was for better or worse the most hauntingly beautiful thing I saw at the movies in 2015.

The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
The latest from France's most entertainingly subversive director slapped a grin on my face during its bravado opening sequence, refusing to let go until long after the credits had rolled. In one of his finest performances to date, French superstar Romain Duris plays a widower who dresses in his recently deceased wife's clothes as a way of comforting their infant daughter. When his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in the act, the pair embark on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. This witty, tightly-wound transgender dramedy is based on a Ruth Rendell novel, whose works were also the source material for Chabrol's La Cérémonie and Almodóvar's Live Flesh.

The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Set in a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired, the entirety of The Tribe's dialogue is "spoken" in unsubtitled sign language, requiring the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action. That's an easy task given the riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The plot shadows a new pupil who becomes a participant in the nihilistic schemes of his bullying classmates, which includes the transport of female students to a local truck stop for prostitution. An unbearably frank abortion scene serves as a litmus test for one's ability to withstand cinematic transgression, and had the SF International Film Festival audience fleeing for the exits. Detractors have labeled the The Tribe exploitative and soulless. For me it represents filmmaking at its most dynamic and singular.

The Hateful Eight: 70mm Roadshow Engagement (USA dir. Quentin Tarantino)
While I absolutely loved this deliriously mean-spirited chamber drama, I'll admit it was the pimped-out roadshow extras – jaw-droppingly gorgeous 70mm (yes, I'm talking about the interiors as well as the exteriors), overture, intermission and 14-page souvenir booklet – that ultimately goosed this into my 2015 Top Ten.

Bubbling Under the Top Ten
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, dir. Ciro Guerra)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel, dir. Ronit & Shlomi Elkabetz)
Goodnight Mommy (Austria, dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz)
Hard to be a God (Russia, dir. Aleksey German)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA, dir. George Miller)

The Best of the Rest
Amour Fou (Austria, dir. Jessica Hausner)
The Assassin (Taiwan, dir. Hou Hsiou-hsien)
Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Diao Yi'nan)
Bridge of Spies (USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Carol (USA, dir. Todd Haynes)
Corn Island (Georgia, dir. George Ovashvili)
Court (India, dir. Chaitanya Tamhane)
Dheepan (France, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Diplomacy (France/Germany, dir. Volker Schlöndorff)
Disorder (France, dir. Alice Winocour)
Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)
Experimenter (USA, dir. Michael Almereyda)
A Few Cubic Meters of Love (Afghanistan, dir. Jamshid Mahmoudi)
Fidelio, Alice's Journey (France, dir. Lucie Borleteau)
The Gift (Australia/USA, dir. Joel Edgerton)
Güeros (Mexico, dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios)
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Hungry Hearts (Italy, dir. Saverio Costanzo)
In the Grayscale (Chile, dir. Claudio Marcone)
The Measure of a Man (France, dir. Stéphane Brizé)
Mistress America (USA, dir. Noah Baumbach)
Nasty Baby (USA, dir. Sebastián Silva)
The Perfect Dictatorship (Mexico, dir. Luis Estrada)
Phoenix (Germany, dir. Christian Petzold)
Red Amnesia (China, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Room (USA, dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Saint Laurent (France, dir. Bertrand Bonello)
La Sapienza (France/Italy, dir. Eugène Green)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon)
Son of Saul (Hungary, dir. László Nemes)
Steve Jobs (USA, dir. Danny Boyle)
Tangerines (Estonia/Georgia, dir. Zaza Urushadze)
Two Days, One Night (Belgium, dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Valley of Love (France, dir. Guillaume Nicloux)
Victoria (Germany, dir. Sebastian Schipper)
Welcome to New York (USA, dir. Abel Ferrara)
What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand, dir. Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
Winter Sleep (Turkey, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Top Ten Favorite Documentary Features

Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Winter on Fire (Ukraine/UK, dir. Evgeny Afineevsky)
Call Me Lucky (USA, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
The Pearl Button (France/Chile, dir. Patricio Guzmán)
Best of Enemies (USA, dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville)
All of Me (Mexico, dir. Arturo González Villaseñor)
Amy (UK/USA, dir. Asif Kapadia)
Listen to Me Marlon (UK, dir. Stevan Riley)
The Wanted 18 (Occupied Palestinian Territory, dir. Paul Cowan & Amer Shomali)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (France/USA, dir. Kent Jones)

The Best of the Rest
Arteholic (Germany, dir. Hermann Vaske)
Cartel Land (Mexico/USA, dir. Matthew Heineman)
Cobain: Montage of Heck (USA, dir. Brett Morgen)
Do I Sound Gay? (USA, dir. David Thorpe)
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon (USA, dir. Douglas Tirola)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (USA, dir. Alex Gibney)
The Look of Silence (Denmark, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Tab Hunter Confidential (USA, dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (USA, dir. Liz Garbus)
The Wolfpack (USA, dir. Crystal Moselle)