Top 20 Favorite Films of 2015
Just as the title says! I saw way more films this year than last year so obviously it was a lot harder picking favorites. I almost decided to increase the list to 25 but eventually opted against it. Also this list is going by 2015 USA release dates or whatever I happened to see at a festival in 2015. Before I start the countdown here are a few films I really loved that didn’t quite make the cut.
Honorable mentions: The Tribe; Phoenix; Tag; Magic Mike XXL; Nasty Baby; Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter; White God; Tangerine; Heaven Knows What; In Jackson Heights
But anyway, here is the list of my favorite films of 2015 with a few, simple words on each.
20. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
As John Waters said in his top of the year list, this is a film that deals with sex between teens and adults that manages not to be creepy or unintelligent. I always hate when I’m watching films about sex and the actual sex is sugar coated or portrayed in a prudish manner. Thankfully, it’s not only incredibly frank about its subject matter, it’s also incredibly heartfelt (in part from the fantastic lead performance of Bel Powley). I went into this expecting another typical American indie comedy and instead got something incredibly funny, sweet and actually kind of edgy.
19. Goodnight Mommy (dir. Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala)
When both my girlfriend and I were able to figure out the twist of this horror mystery film about halfway through its running time, neither of us expected to enjoy it nearly as much as we did… but by the time it ended we were floored. In a strange way, knowing the twist only added to the last incredibly disturbing, unpredictable and horrifying third of the film. And in many ways it made it only scarier, so much so that I wonder if it was intentional that we were able to figure it out? Regardless, there were gasps and screams in the theater and they definitely weren’t unwarranted. This film about two young boys who question their unrecognizable mother’s true identity gets pretty damn freaky.
18. Tokyo Tribe (dir. Sion Sono)
Sion Sono is one of our greatest living filmmakers. So when I say a Sono film isn’t among his best work, you can still count on it being a hundred times more interesting than most people’s entire body of work. In this case, Sono crafted an insane, sloppy, brilliant and totally hysterical rap battle musical. The rapping itself isn’t all that great but I could care less. This is a blast from start to finish! Shot in a floating, god-like perspective we move from scene to scene as the film only builds in insanity, vulgarity and implausibility. But perhaps the best aspect of Tokyo Tribe is when the true intentions of its villain are revealed. I won’t spoil it here, but I always love films with high stakes (in this case warring gang tribes) which arise from something totally insignificant, as it only makes it more ridiculous. Far from perfect, but one of the most fun film experiences I had this year.
17. The Mend (dir. John Magary)
Definitely among the more underrated films on the list, this dry, (extremely) dark comedy explores something that I am personally fascinated with and tend to make films about myself: failed men. The Mend centers on two brothers who initially appear like polar opposites but are eventually both uncovered as pathetic, selfish and deeply angry individuals. Neither of them are very likeable but there are aspects of them that are vey relatable (in a scary way). Although I did frequently laugh during this film, most of the humor was so cringe-worthy and uncomfortable I wasn’t able to make a peep. It’s also incredibly well crafted, well paced and consistently manages to be visually interesting.
16. Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
What an absolutely phenomenal debut feature! Despite some big flaws (all the girls kind of blend together at the beginning of the film) I was so moved by this film I forgave all its problems. Mustang is about a group of sisters in Turkey whose home starts turning into a sort of prison as they are forbidden from interacting with the outside world for fear that they might ruin themselves before marriage. It manages to be inspiring without being sappy, and political without being in-your-face. The emotions of the film totally snuck up on me, and sure enough before the credits started I was tearing up. This is a fantastic feminist work of art that of course reflects the current cultural climate of Turkey but is also very universal.
15. Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
Charlie Kaufman needs to be given every possible resource he needs so that he can make as many films as possible before he dies. The fact that he’s only directed 2 films is an absolute crime. Perhaps this isn’t as moving or as ambitious as Synecdoche, New York but it’s not trying to be. It’s a smaller, more intimate film that revolves around a motivational speaker who meets a woman in a hotel who seems to breath new life into him. Anomalisa is a stop motion film and it actually incorporates the puppetry of the main character into his breakdowns and fantasies. It’s a deeply sad film but one that abstains from being cynical. It also has the best sex scene of the year. Go figure.
14. Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi)
Iranian director Jafar Panahi was banned from filmmaking in his home country in 2010. Since then he’s made 3 feature films. Taxi is not only his best film under the ban, it’s also one of Panahi’s best films in general. The entire movie takes place inside a taxi cab as Mr. Panahi himself drives, picks up passengers, meets up with old friends and watches as his niece makes a film herself for a class project. It wasn’t until after the film ended that I realized the entire thing was staged. Taxi serves both as a meta discussion on the kind of society that would lock up and censor one of its best filmmakers (the ending of this film is heartbreaking given Panahi’s situation) as well as an incredibly sweet and intimate portrait of the people of modern Iran, the kind you won’t see in any western media outlets. The fact that this film exists at all is stunning, but the fact that it’s as good and engaging as it is is even more stunning.
13. The World of Kanako (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
Without a doubt the most vile, repulsive, disturbing and transgressive film on this list, The World of Kanako is a mad whirlwind of violence and mayhem that doesn’t slow down once for the length of its two hour running time. We follow an ex-detective as he searches for his daughter and starts slowly falling down the rabbit hole of the pitch black world she inhabits. The editing is slick and quick as we are constantly jumping between 3 different timelines, trying to piece together just what happened to Kanako. What’s revealed is beyond perverse, as even our protagonist is shown to be as disgusting and amoral as any of the villains he’s chasing. Cinematically explosive (every trick in the book is pulled out in this film) and totally degenerate, I couldn’t help but get sucked into one of the most fascinating and exhausting films of the year.
12. Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper)
At 138 minutes, Victoria is the longest single shot narrative film ever made. One might be worried that this gimmick would be distracting to everything else in the movie, but it isn’t. The characters and their performances make the journey incredibly real and emotional (Laia Costa as Victoria was my favorite performance of 2015) . There were times where I even forgot that I was watching something done in one take. I don’t wanna give away too much about the plot because going in completely ignorant will probably lead to a much better viewing experience. I will say that this is the kind of naturalistic filmmaking I really admire. One where extraordinary events take place, but not a single moment feels untruthful.
11. The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
As much as I really enjoyed Birdman, I didn’t quite think it was on par with some of Iñárritu’s best previous work (Biutiful and Babel are two favs of mine). However, The Revenant is without question one of his strongest and most impactful films. Teaming up a second time with Emmanuel Lubezki (arguably the greatest cinematographer currently working), together they crafted an absolute visual masterwork. The entire film could have have been silent and the story would have been as clear as day. DeCaprio also delivers the best performance of his career, achieving an almost Mifune-level over-the-top-ness that is constantly intense but never becomes cheesy. Out of all the films on this list, this one begs to be seen on a big screen. It’s a true spectacle.
10. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his masterful The Act of Killing is just as brilliant and perhaps even more powerful. Once again focusing on the Indonesian genocide of 1965, but instead from the point of view of a victim’s family. The brother of a murdered “communist” confronts all the men directly or indirectly responsible for his brother’s death. A beautiful but haunting film that’s extremely difficult to shake off once you’ve seen it.
9. The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin. co-dir. Evan Johnson)
A solid quarter of the audience I saw this with walked out of it. Maddin is a true cinematic madman, willing to try and do absolutely anything in his films. It would be kind of pointless to try to describe this movie because there are a million stories in it and about a billion things that happen in it. A lumberjack ends up in a submarine, bananas come alive and tell a story, a man becomes so obsessed with butts that he has parts of his brain removed, skeletons force a lover to don a poison suit, a mustache has a dream… etc. etc. etc. All shown through grainy, kaleidoscope-esque images. Equally hilarious, destructive and insane, this is probably one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It’s bizarre even by Maddin’s standards.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
I mean, what is left to say about this one? This film seems to be on absolutely everyone’s “best of” list this year (and if it’s not I’m assuming that person either hasn’t seen it or is insane). It’s a masterpiece of the action genre. I’m not going to say much else about this one because if you have yet to see it, stop reading and go watch it.
7. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
This film has had me looking over my shoulder when I’m walking alone ever since I saw it. I’m one of those people who gets really scared by good horror. And man, this scared me like no other film I’ve seen recently. I’ve only just started watching more horror films (thanks to my girlfriend, who’s much more of a buff in the genre than I am) and this film definitely stands out as one of the best and most original American horror films in current memory. The concept of people -whom only you can see- following you no matter where you are and who are intent on killing you is terrifying enough, and thankfully this film is so well made that it truly is as scary as it sounds.
6. World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
The only short film I even considered to be on this list. Hertzfeldt has created yet another hilarious, emotional, and supremely intelligent film. He manages to pack more ideas into a single scene than many films can muster in their entire running times. A little girl is greeted by a 3rd generation clone of herself and is brought to the future, where she is shown and taught many extremely significant things… all at an age too young to fully grasp the information she’s given. By the end of this 17 minute journey, I was weeping.
5. Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifrón)
The opening scene of Wild Tales is the closest thing to Buñuel-style absurdity I’ve ever seen in a modern film. And the rest of the film is pretty great too! This dark comedic anthology film from Argentina really took me by surprise. It’s comprised of six unrelated stories that all deal with revenge taken to its most extreme, logical conclusion. I laughed so hard during this movie that the couple sitting in front of me in the theater moved seats. It’s extremely dark, at times absolutely absurd, beautifully shot and has a lot of fantastic social commentary that is very universal. One particular story about a man getting his car consistently towed is almost too relatable.
4. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
I’ve been a committed fan of Yorgos Lanthimos since Dogtooth, so when I heard the basic concept for The Lobster a year or two ago I’ve been eagerly anticipating it. Having finally seen it, I can safely say that it’s definitely Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film yet. The story, revolving around a hotel where single people are forcibly sent in order to find a new mate (and are turned into animals if they don’t), is one of the best films about how completely ridiculous relationships can be. The whole movie is a brilliant breakdown of what makes something normal and how arbitrary the rules in our society often are. It’s a hilarious, beautifully made film and has the best overall acting of 2015.
3. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
What’s already turning out to be Tarantino’s most divisive film also turned out to be one of my favorites by him, if not my absolute favorite (a 2nd viewing will tell). Yes, the 70mm roadshow version made the screening really special (complete with an intermission and overture) but aside all hype surrounding the format, this is one of the few times I’ve felt like Tarantino was commenting on something other than filmmaking (or past films) itself. The Hateful Eight deals with issues of misogyny, racism, the death of the American dream and how all of those things fit into the myth of the American west and how that relates to our current culture. Also, the fact that it’s as engaging as it is for a 3 hour movie that takes place mostly in one location and only has despicable characters is a miracle. I personally think this is Tarantino’s smartest, most subversive and most mature film yet.
Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan)
Xavier Dolan knows how to craft classy melodramas. The emotions the characters go through in Mommy are massive and almost become over the top. But instead they are very real and very felt in the audience when watching it… at least for me they were! I cried and cried during this movie. It’s the most emotional experience I had during any film from 2015. However it’s not just beautiful and heartbreaking, it’s also a marvel of filmmaking, using a totally unique 1:1 aspect ratio (one that’s not reflected in the still I chose), featuring incredibly sincere uses of pop songs, and having some of the best cinematography of the year.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson)
2015 seemed to be a great year for absurdist comedies! Roy Andersson is one of our best living filmmakers and every film he makes is an absolute treasure. Pigeon is no exception. Meticulously crafted for years on end, Andersson can spend up to 5 weeks just creating a single shot (everything in Pigeon is shot on a soundstage as well, so the shots can look exactly as Andersson likes them to look). Andersson is also a champion against outdated concepts of traditional story structure, with his last 3 films focusing more on moments and situations rather than arcs or characters (although Pigeon is the most character driven of the trilogy, but not by much). This film is also hysterically funny, filled with macabre, absurd and surreal moments. While the other two films in his trilogy may have asked “Where are we now” this one asks “What do we do now?” The answer (if he even has one) isn’t always pretty, but it’s almost always funny.
1. Entertainment (dir. Rick Alverson)
Entertainment takes Gregg Turkington’s infamous “Neil Hamburger” character (an aggressive, intentionally terrible meta stand up comedian he’s played since the 90s) and poses the question “What if he were a real person?” The result is one of the strangest, most horrifying and most cinematic films of the year. This film entered a very dark part of my consciousness and stayed there. We follow “the comedian” as he travels from shitty gig to shitty gig playing to audiences that couldn’t care less (or sometimes are even violent). He occasionally makes phone calls to a daughter we’re not even sure is real, he visits relatives he has nothing in common with and he takes awful tours of the desert to kill time between shows. It unfolds its themes and story (if you even wanna call it a story) visually, utilizing gorgeous widescreen cinematography that takes advantage of its Mojave desert landscapes. Entertainment is an uncompromising character study of what it means to be “entertainers”, the mask they use versus their inward emotions and the hollowness that can accompany artists (especially unsuccessful ones). The film starts slowly moving into the totally surreal, and by the end we don’t even know what’s reality and what’s not. This is the most unsettling film I’ve seen all year. It truly got under my skin and as painful as it can be, it’s a trip worth taking. Even if the destination of said trip is the center of hell.