It’s a weird time to be talking about movies. We are perched at a precarious point in the history of our species, with cultural divisions and ideological extremism threatening to tear us apart at the seams. The very act of entering a theater no longer holds the inherent comfort it once promised. How can we hope to connect with strangers if we spend our days in fear of them? Our craving for nostalgic escapism has reached a fever pitch, as evidenced by the box office success of derivative fan-baiting exercises like “Jurassic World.” More than ever before, audiences seem to prefer the reassurance of the familiar rather than the thrill of the new.
Consider this list a challenge to the mainstream status quo. Sure, there are a few blockbusters in the mix, yet they stand as indelible examples of how a Hollywood product can be raised to the level of high art. The power of cinema to generate empathy has become utterly indispensable, and numerous pictures in 2015 achieved this to unforgettable effect. It has also been a great year for women in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Out of the 20 films that made the cut for this list, seven have female directors.
Without further ado, here is Part I of Indie Outlook’s official list ranking the Top 20 Films of 2015 (stay tuned for Part II)…
20. Mad Max: Fury Road
Three decades had passed since George Miller directed a “Mad Max” movie. For the last twenty years, he had been primarily devoted to helming family fare such as “Happy Feet” and “Babe: Pig in the City.” Who could’ve guessed that at age 70, he would return to his signature franchise and create one of the most breathtaking action spectacles in the history of the medium? The film is a jaw-dropping feat in every technical department, yet what counts most of all is Miller’s tireless exuberance. It’s a postapocalyptic cat and mouse game set against a scorching desert landscape, with ingeniously designed vehicles fusing classic models with fantastical appendages. The villain’s henchman tasked with performing a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower pretty much encapsulates the film’s tone, which is pitched at the level of a Looney Tune. Watching the film in 3D on the big screen was too much of a sensory overload for my tastes. Revisiting it in 2D on an HD television, I was able to truly appreciate the visceral splendor of Miller’s storytelling, enhanced immeasurably by Charlize Theron as a badass warrior fighting oppression and sex slavery, while driving a tanker truck full of breast milk. She’s like Maria Falconetti in “Passion of Joan of Arc,” albeit with a thirst for vengeance.
19. Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation
“This week has been singularly barren of exciting events.” Thus read the first sentence of the first article in the first issue of The Nation upon its debut in 1865, which solidified the publication’s commitment to avoiding sensationalism in all forms. After viewing this documentary profile from two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A.”) at the AFI Docs festival, I felt compelled to not only purchase a subscription to the left-leaning weekly magazine, but also inquire about job opportunities. As illustrated by Kopple, The Nation has been consistently ahead of its time, reporting on the link between smoking and cancer when cigarettes were still fashionable. Several sequences delve deep into the archives, linking current events investigated by staff reporters with articles that previously ran in the magazine several decades ago. The film is also very funny, with many of the biggest laughs generated by the sheer charisma of the publication’s staff. Stealing all of her scenes is the adorable daughter of executive editor Betsy Reed, Georgia Reed-Stamm, who thoughtfully analyzes the views of her conservative peers. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, “Hot Type” is undeniably potent in its depiction of how history tends to repeat itself.
18. Radical Grace
I love the “Nuns on the Bus” for the same reasons that I love Malala Yousafzai. Their crusade for gender equality transcends all faith-based boundaries, while championing the notion that all beliefs should be respected, not just one’s own. I wanted to reach out and hug every frame of Rebecca Parrish’s hugely inspiring documentary, which reveals a progressive side of the Catholic Church distressingly underrepresented in modern society. We follow three particular nuns—Sister Simone Campbell, Sister Chris Schenk and the scene-stealing Sister Jean Hughes—as they rebel against a Vatican-ordered censure by becoming engaged in social activism. After delivering a rousing speech during her first stop on the nationwide bus tour, the camera remains on Sister Campbell as she sits back down and mutters incredulously to herself, “We have 14 more days of this? Holy s—t.” It’s in countless small moments like this where Parrish’s film achieves greatness by humanizing its subjects rather than portraying them as one-note saints or martyrs. Sister Hughes confesses her own religious doubts while maintaining her humanitarian endeavors despite ailing health. And on an illuminating tour of Rome, Sister Schenk shows how various ancient artworks indicate the history of female involvement in the church conspicuously missing from the male-authored Gospels.
Click here to read my interview with director Rebecca Parrish.
It’s not for nothing that Céline Sciamma’s first film—2007’s coming-of-age gem, “Water Lillies”—was about synchronized swimmers. Few filmmakers have been as adept at exploring the complicated dynamics between young women and their struggle to define themselves despite societal strictures. Oftentimes kids will imitate the behavior of others as a half-step toward forming their own identity. There’s a wonderful scene in Sciamma’s 2011 marvel, “Tomboy,” where the young heroine practices spitting in her attempt to pass as a boy. Themes of gender fluidity are also on full display in Sciamma’s latest film, which she considers the completion of an unofficial trilogy. Karidja Touré delivers a sublime debut performance as Marieme, a teen whose limited options lead her to befriend a gang of shoplifters. The motif of synchronicity materializes when the girls teach Marieme some dance moves, and there’s a transcendent sequence in a hotel room where the friends lip-sync to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” basking in a fleeting moment of scintillating bliss. Like many of 2015’s best characters, Marieme makes unwise decisions in her pursuit for independence, yet she is learning more every step of the way, all the while determined to live life on her own terms.
Editor’s Note: In April 2015, I co-hosted a post-film discussion for “Girlhood” onstage at Ebertfest, along with three esteemed colleagues (Sheila O’Malley, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, Dr. Eric Pierson) as well as Godard’s latest leading lady, Héloïse Godet. It was one of the greatest honors of my career.
16. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Another memory I will cherish from this year were my many discussions with John Russell Taylor, the legendary Hitchcock historian, at the Chicago International Film Festival. We were both serving on juries at the festival, and Taylor’s group awarded the Silver Q Hugo prize to Stephen Cone’s most audacious ensemble piece to date, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” When I asked Taylor why he voted for the film, he said that it was “expertly crafted.” Coming from Taylor, those words mean a great deal, and more importantly, he’s right. There’s something unmistakably Altmanesque about the film’s structure. Events unfold over the period of a single day, as a large array of partygoers intermingle. What they say is never as important as how they say it, and the pauses that they make between words are often quite revealing. Jason Chiu’s elegant camera relishes in exposing the rippling tensions that occur when a sexually repressed community strips down for a pool party. The set-up is impeccable, building to a climax reminiscent of “Nashville” and “Short Cuts” in how it jolts the characters into rethinking their lives. With splendid performances (hats off to newcomers Cole Doman and Nina Ganet) and a killer soundtrack, this is Cone’s best film since “The Wise Kids.”
Click here to read my interview with director Stephen Cone and actors Cole Doman, Nina Ganet, Pat Healy and Elizabeth Laidlaw.
Both a rousing celebration of investigative journalism as well as a chilling look at the societal denial that enables insidious networks of abuse to exist, Tom McCarthy’s career-best achievement deserves all the Oscar buzz it has received thus far. There are perhaps no two American institutions considered more sacred than church and football, and many parallels can be drawn between the real-life stories that inspired “Spotlight” and fellow awards hopeful “Concussion.” Yet whereas the latter relies too heavily on familiar clichés of the whistleblower genre, McCarthy’s film is much more effective in its understatement. The opening scenes are committed to involving us within the everyday rhythms of life in a newsroom. It’s clear that the staff at The Boston Globe are an intelligent bunch, but they don’t need to rattle off Sorkin-style quips to convince you of their I.Q. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo head the first-rate ensemble, involving us in every stumble and epiphany as they uncover the Catholic Church’s horrifying scandal of child molestation. In a way, Boston emerges as a microcosm for the entire world, in how it avoided turning a critical eye toward its beloved place of worship, for fear of obliterating its integrity. This film is not anti-religion, it is pro-truth.
Click here to read my interview with composer Howard Shore.
14. Listen to Me Marlon
Two of the year’s finest documentaries did the seemingly impossible: they resurrected deceased icons and allowed them to share their life stories in their own words. Director/editor/co-writer Stevan Riley went through hundreds of hours of audio personally recorded by Marlon Brando in order to construct this arrestingly intimate picture, as vividly nuanced and transfixing as the man himself. The actor’s candid dissection of infamous roles on his resumé will be irresistible for movie buffs—he detested being associated with the loathsome Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar,” and considered his revered “Coulda Been a Contender” monologue in “On the Waterfront” to hardly be among his best work. To Brando, audiences were the real actors, projecting their own emotions onto the screen. With the emergence of video essays redefining how we approach film analysis, “Listen to Me Marlon” must be considered a peak example of the form, with its seemingly effortless blending of film clips and archival footage. It is also one of the great films about acting, not just onstage or on film, but in life. No film can capture the entirety of a human mind in all of its complexities, yet Riley comes as close as any documentarian ever has in conveying the essence of his subject.
While I had been a lifelong fan of Brando ever since I first saw him in “The Godfather,” I’ll admit that I had no familiarity whatsoever with singer Amy Winehouse prior to viewing Asif Kapadia’s documentary about her. I had known her primarily as a late night punchline—the go-to name for a cheap drug addiction joke—until her death at age 27 rendered such gags no laughing matter. Now that I’ve seen Kapadia’s film, I regret every instance in which I chuckled thoughtlessly at the misfortunes of someone I hadn’t known. Like the director’s previous effort, 2010’s “Senna,” “Amy” is constructed entirely of archival footage, inviting the audience to view Winehouse from as many angles and perspectives as possible. Though her family has spoken out against the film, there doesn’t appear to be any trace of bias in Kapadia’s direction or the editing by Chris King. Both men are merely portraying the events as they unfolded with brutal honesty and the utmost respect for Winehouse herself. There’s no question that she was a musical genius. Her lyrics provide a poignant and nakedly honest look at her inner evolution and the struggles that kept her from evolving further. She was a raw, unfiltered talent unprepared for the searing magnifying glass of fame. I never knew Amy Winehouse, but after seeing this film, I miss her terribly.
Click here to read my interview with director Asif Kapadia and producer James Gay-Rees.
12. The Armor of Light
“So you need Jesus…and the Gospel…and a sidearm?” asks minister Rob Schenck, the gun control activist at the center of Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes’s extraordinarily timely documentary. He’s addressing a roomful of firearm enthusiasts who also happen to share his Evangelical faith. Only after several fatal shootings hit all-too-close to home for Schenck did he awaken to the moral hypocrisy of his church’s stance on one of our nation’s most decisive issues. After meeting with Lucia McBath, a woman fighting for justice in the aftermath of her son’s death at the hands of a paranoid gun owner (a story powerfully detailed in another terrific doc, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets”), Schenck is moved to speak out, regardless of the inherent risks to his reputation. The bravery and civility that he displays during such tense confrontations is remarkable to behold, while his dissenters display the sort of short fuse that would make them among the last people one would want to see brandishing a loaded weapon. This is one of the most revealing examinations of the appeal that firearms have for many white religious conservatives in America, and how that appeal is, in many ways, in direct conflict with their supposed beliefs.
Click here to read my interview with Lucia McBath.
11. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
In a year filled with tales of female persecution, few packed as furious a punch as Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s magnificent courtroom drama. Viviane Amsalem (played in a powerhouse performance by Ronit Elkabetz) is an Israeli woman who desires to divorce her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). As required by law, a rabbi can only approve of a divorce as long as he has the full consent of the husband. Elisha’s refusal to give his long-suffering wife her freedom causes the court hearings to drag on for years, yet the film is anything but an interminable dirge. It has all the urgency of a thriller and the wicked absurdist humor of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” Practically all the action is confined within the single, claustrophobic room that the couple must return to in order to meet with the judges. It’s an ideal location, considering how increasingly trapped Viviane appears during each subsequent visit. Of course, it all comes down to Elisha’s insatiable need to have ownership over his wife and prevent her from being with another man. When Viviane finally reached her wit’s end and screamed in protest at her captor, I felt as if I were screaming the words myself. It’s a moment of catharsis on par with Kirk Douglas’s fittingly glorious outburst at the end of “Paths of Glory.”
Stay tuned for #10-1 in Part II…