To demonstrate just how spectacular a year it has been for film, this Top 10 list is followed by three “special honorable mentions,” which should be considered a tie for first place (in 2014, that honor went to Lisa Cholodenko’s HBO miniseries, “Olive Kitteridge”). The article will then conclude with a list of no less than 27 more honorable mentions, which bring my grand total of recommendations (combined with Part I) to 50. Some of these titles are already available in theaters or for rental, others have yet to be released. All deserve to be sought out.
So grab a cup of cocoa, prop your feet up by the fireplace (or space heater), and enjoy Indie Outlook’s Top 10 Films of 2015…
In his review of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” Roger Ebert wrote, “The characters in this movie speak as if they would like to say things that had not been said before, in words that had never been used in quite the same way.” That same remark could be applied to all the characters in Paolo Sorrentino’s enchanting meditation on age and loss, one of the most sheerly pleasurable cinematic experiences I’ve had in 2015. Luca Bigazzi’s shimmering cinematography contrasts with the ragged emotions of the characters, as echoes from their past materialize in the form of alluring faces and familiar melodies. There is less of a plot here than a collection of scenes, and the great ones are plentiful: Michael Caine conducting outdoor noises as if they were a symphony; Rachel Weisz unloading her pent-up bitterness while lying in an otherwise serene spa; Paul Dano meeting a young fan whose life was unexpectedly altered by one of his films; and Jane Fonda obliterating Harvey Keitel’s delusions of a comeback in her showstopping cameo. Countless times I found myself nodding in recognition at the perceptive nuggets embedded in Sorrentino’s script, and the film’s final operatic crescendo—scored by David Lang and performed by Sumi Jo—cast a spell on me that has yet to be broken.
9. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
“Chewie, we’re home.” From the moment Harrison Ford uttered those words in the celebrated teaser that debuted this past April, it awakened new hope in longtime fans, myself included. There was an unmistakable glint of mischief in Ford’s eyes that evoked the smartass smuggler he played to perfection in the classic “Star Wars” trilogy. Could this new installment possibly recapture the essence of those beloved films, while paving a new path? The answer is a resoundingly forceful yes. It is easily the best “Star Wars” film in 35 years, and clearly the movie that its director, J.J. Abrams, was born to make. Whereas George Lucas’s regrettable prequels were stilted and flat, this film bursts with life from the very first frame and never lets up, spinning a suspenseful and heartrending tale without forgetting to have tremendous fun in the process. The actors are all aces, from appealing fresh faces Daisy Ridley and John Boyega to the endlessly entertaining Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, though the big attraction here—of course—is the returning cast. In the same year that Sylvester Stallone revitalized his iconic Rocky persona (courtesy of Ryan Coogler’s “Creed”), Ford has brought Han Solo back as a far richer and more vulnerable character than ever before. His performance is a labor of love for the ages, and so is the movie.
8. James White
The next two debut features are enhanced immeasurably by the work of Mátyás Erdély, a cinematographer who could give Emmanuel Lubezki a run for his accolades. In both cases, he holds his lens at a discomfortingly close distance from the face of the film’s protagonist, a man straining to keep his head above water amidst unbearable sorrow. In the first scene of Josh Mond’s deeply felt drama, James (Christopher Abbott, one of the year’s most deserving Best Actor contenders) drowns out the incessant stress of his life in the numbing noise of a club. He spends his days and nights as the caregiver for his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon, revelatory), as she battles stage 4 cancer, though he has floundered in his attempts to build a stable life for himself. For anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar predicament, it will feel as if “James White” were eavesdropping on their day-to-day life. After awakening to Gail’s urgent calls in the middle of the night, James helps her to the bathroom and ends up sharing his vision of a better life—one that she will never live to see—that allows them both to temporarily escape, as she rests her head on his shoulder. Abbott and Nixon’s work here is so transformative, even HBO subscribers will feel like they’re watching these actors for the first time.
Click here to read my interview with director Josh Mond and actor Christopher Abbott.
7. Son of Saul
Though the claustrophobic psyche of Saul (Géza Röhrig) in László Nemes’s shattering Cannes prize-winner may initially seem similar to that of James, he is motivated by wholly different demons. For nearly the entirety of the film’s running time, Erdély keeps his camera locked on Saul as he navigates his way through Auschwitz, forced by the Nazis to lead his own people toward their doom. The addition of a compressed aspect ratio mirrors the tunnel vision Saul must utilize in order to function in an unthinkable hell. This approach shields many of the worst horrors from our view, though the soundtrack spares us not a single detail. When Saul dares to look a little closer at one of the youngest male victims, he identifies the corpse as that of his son, and spends the rest of the film attempting to salvage it with the hopes of giving it a proper Jewish burial. I wish I could provide my own analysis of the film’s very final moments, which are among the most deftly conceived and hauntingly poetic in any movie on this list. Make sure to bring someone with you to the theater, so you can discuss it afterward on a long stroll in the park, preferably during the day. It’s the sort of film that you need to walk off, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Nemes has made one of the year’s unimpeachable masterpieces.
Out of the many first-time directors represented on this list, Guillaume Senez may be the least familiar to most readers in the U.S. I was lucky enough to see his film while screening Toronto selections for RogerEbert.com, and it blew me away on every conceivable level. “Keeper” is a rigorously unsentimental portrait of adolescence, tackling teenage crises that have been watered down in countless after-school specials, and revitalizing them with unaffected grace. The script co-authored by Senez and David Lambert leaves every obvious, plot-driven scenario offscreen, focusing instead on the moments in between, which often tend to be what linger most vividly in our memories. Galatéa Bellugi delivers my favorite child performance of the year as Mélanie, a 15-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant, much to the bewilderment of her boyfriend, Maxime (Kacey Mottet Klein). Neither of them planned to have a baby, and both have no intention of giving it up. Typical Hollywood formula would require this premise to rely on the “love conquers all” trope, though what matters to Senez, above all, is the reality of his character’s circumstances. When Mélanie starts to feel the weight of her responsibilities pulling her back to earth, no words are needed to convey her inner thoughts. Bellugi’s eyes tell us everything we need to know. “Keeper” is, quite simply, a keeper on every level.
5. Almost There
Something occurs during what appears to be the triumphant centerpiece of Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s documentary, “Almost There,” that would’ve thrown a lesser film clear off the rails. After a lifetime of obscurity, Peter Anton is ready to have his deserved moment in the limelight. His strikingly original and intensely personal paintings are receiving rave reviews at their celebrated exhibition in Chicago, though it starts to become clear that Anton’s dream of being discovered masks a deeper one—of being forgiven. No sooner does his name appear in the headlines than an exceedingly upsetting charge from his past resurfaces, accompanied by phone calls expressing outrage and anger. Suddenly, the reasons behind Anton’s self-imposed isolation and string of codependent relationships are no longer inexplicable. This is where Rybicky and Wickenden’s film blossoms into one of the very best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It challenges us to reevaluate how we perceive artists: as role models whose abilities must be married with equally admirable life decisions or as flawed human beings worthy of empathy. When Anton is first offered words of forgiveness, his face crumbles into a tearful avalanche of remorse and relief. Suddenly I realized that what I was watching was much more than a movie—it was a second chance.
Click here to hear my podcast interview with co-director Dan Rybicky.
Michael (David Thewlis) has trouble connecting with others. He may have a renowned mastery of customer service etiquette, yet he still can’t find any satisfaction in his personal interactions with others. Everyone in his life sounds the same, and since everyone else in the film (save for one exception) is played by Tom Noonan (the same man who memorably stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York”), we share in Michael’s disorientation. Only the voice of an infatuated fan, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, receiving an even meatier showcase here than in “The Hateful Eight”), manages to register in Michael’s ears, causing him to fall head over heels for her. If Craig Schwartz, the neurotic antihero from “Being John Malkovich,” had directed a feature-length puppet show, it would have looked relatively like this animated wonder directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. The astonishing stop-motion characters, distinguished by visibly fragmented faces, move in a way that is so lifelike, it is easy to forget they aren’t real actors. Though there are many trademark humorous touches (such as a running gag about the Cincinnati Zoo, and a hilarious reenactment of “My Man Godfrey”), the central relationships are treated with complete sincerity. It’s as ambitious as Kaufman’s previous films, yet it may also be the most accessible.
Click here to read my interview with co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.
3. In Transit
“I know I’ll never be out here again,” replies the war veteran as he glances at glistening vistas of the Pacific Northwest while aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder. “It’s been a good trip.” He might as well be speaking for the film’s legendary co-director, Albert Maysles, who passed away at age 88 in March of this year. I can’t imagine a more fitting final bow. In a span of 76 minutes, this picture weaves together an enormous collection of human moments, some lingered on for several scenes, others glimpsed in a single shot. The long train ride offers ample time for reflection, escape and companionship between people who may likely never see each other again. None of the individuals onscreen are identified by name, and that’s appropriate. This film is an ode to all the nameless souls who leave a lasting impact on our lives in the brief time we share with them. Maysles and his excellent team of collaborators—Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu—allow character to drive the editing rather than continuity, though the shifts between train locations are always seamless. The film has received great acclaim at multiple festivals (I caught it at AFI Docs), but it has yet to have a theatrical run, and many of my colleagues still think Maysles’s last film was the delightful “Iris” from earlier this year. Considering the divisions that are continuously being employed to prevent us from uniting as one collective family of man during these troubling times, a soul-cleansing film like “In Transit” cannot arrive in theaters soon enough.
2. Inside Out
No film this year has moved me to tears more frequently, even on subsequent viewings, than Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen’s “Inside Out,” the best film released thus far from Pixar Animation Studios. That is no small declaration, considering the unparalleled track record they have kept for much of their 20-year run. Yet as their output begins to turn heavily toward sequels, this picture reminds us why their brand of family films stood out from all the others. It has been Pixar’s penchant for taking risks and embracing the unknown that has made their creative potential seem beyond infinite. What Docter and del Carmen have devised here is at once an endearing tale of preadolescent angst and a playful yet provocative look at human psychology fused with staggering creativity. Much of the film takes place within the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose content Midwestern life is upended when her family moves to San Francisco. Riley’s emotions take the form of characters—Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black)—operating the control panel of her mind. The script was co-authored by Docter, Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve, but there are times you’d swear it was written by Charlie Kaufman: there’s a train of thought that “runs all over the place,” an abstraction room that renders characters one-dimensional and a studio lot where performers entertain the slumbering Riley by frantically recreating her memories with amateurish zeal. At the heart of it all is one of the most mature and vital messages ever conveyed in a children’s film: that sadness is every bit as crucial as joy in one’s own personal growth. It’s a reinvigorating moral, regardless of one’s age.
1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
So much of the violence in our world today spawns from male insecurity. The male need to dominate women, repress their sexuality and silence their voices is not limited to one specific culture, a fact proven inescapable by such essential documentaries as “The Hunting Ground” and “India’s Daughter.” How does one go about combating this sort of stigmatization? It all begins with allowing women to share their stories, and few have been portrayed onscreen with as much fearless authenticity as Marielle Heller’s directorial debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel of the same name, the film charts the sexual awakening of 15-year-old Minnie (played by 21-year-old Bel Powley in the performance of the year) who loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård)—a man 20 years her senior. Yet Heller and Powley refuse to treat Minnie like a victim. Every scene is guided by the sincerity of her emotions, as she gradually discovers her own self-worth. With its animated flourishes and candid observations, the film takes the form of a cinematic diary, suggesting what “American Splendor” would’ve been like, had it not focused on the mind of a misanthrope.
Sex is not the enemy in “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” it is merely the vessel with which Minnie comes of age. If she had suppressed her sexuality in the aftermath of her time with Monroe, her growth would have become irreparably stunted by undeserved shame. Minnie’s decision to continue delving further into her sexuality, experimenting with her identity while learning from her mistakes, has made her victorious. Somehow her vulnerability makes her exude an even fiercer strength as she embraces her newfound power. The taped confessions she privately records and the explicit illustrations she draws are healthy forms of expression, enabling her to acknowledge and articulate every detail of her experience and thus be able to reflect on them with added clarity. This is one of the most honest and insightful explorations of sexuality ever made, and the most liberating American film in recent memory.
SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS
Three short films this year were directed by female filmmakers whose work embodies the courageous spirit of Minnie in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” These women refuse to conform to Hollywood’s stereotypical definition of the female form, while tackling issues of gender and identity that many of their male counterparts have timidly neglected. Consider Joanna Arnow’s Berlin prize-winner, “Bad at Dancing,” a galvanizing black-and-white vignette zeroing in on the complicated dynamics between two female roommates (played by Arnow and the ever-superb Eleanore Pienta of “See You Next Tuesday”). It’s as funny as it is unsettling, though the determination of Arnow’s character to be an active agent in her own sexuality—even as it repels her friends out the door—is what makes the film oddly moving in its abstract grandeur. Next is Joanna Rudnick’s documentary short, “On Beauty,” which follows fashion photographer Rick Guidotti as he shifts his camera from models to a new, infinitely more interesting subject: girls with albinism. Watching these girls grow comfortable in their own skin is a joy to behold, as their inhibitions evaporate under Guidotti’s nurturing gaze. Rudnick’s Kartemquin production is a masterful example of how cinema can serve as a humanizing force in the world. And finally, no film made me laugh harder this year than the extended Emmy-nominated sketch on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer” satirizing Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic, “12 Angry Men.” Co-directed by Schumer and Ryan McFaul, the short was entitled “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” and featured a marvelous cast (including Paul Giamatti, John Hawkes and Jeff Goldblum) as disgruntled jurors tasked with voting on whether Schumer is hot enough to be on television. Their dialogue is howlingly absurd, until you realize that the very same conversations take place among pasty, unkempt male executives in Hollywood on a daily basis.
Click here to read my interview with “Bad at Dancing” director Joanna Arnow.
27 MORE HONORABLE MENTIONS
“About Elly,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “Danny Collins,” “Dreamcatcher,” “Ex Machina,” “45 Years,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “The Hunting Ground,” “India’s Daughter,” “The Look of Silence,” “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” “Mustang,” “Of Men and War,” “Prophet’s Prey,” “Queen of Earth,” “Red Army,” “Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014,” “The Revenant,” “Song of the Sea,” “Testament of Youth,” “Trainwreck,” “Unexpected,” “We Monsters,” “Where to Invade Next” and “Wild Tales.”