assassinThe Assassin (Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Well Go USA)

Eight years since his last feature film, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien returns with The Assassin and it proves worth the wait. Popular actress Shu Qi and frequent Hou collaborator is transported to China of the 8th century, the Tang Dynasty’s decline, in Hou’s take on the wuxia genre. Under the tutelage of a nun-princess, formidable and mysterious, Yinniang (Shu Qi) has perfected her craft as a deadly assassin. Though her skills are matchless, as her master praises, her mind is still bound to human sentiment, and after a failed assignment Yinniang is ordered to murder her distant cousin (Chang Chen), political ruler of the Weibo court. The is task rendered difficult by her feelings—they were once betrothed— mostly unspoken and transmuted through the film’s visuals. The narrative thread can be a challenge to navigate, obscured by confusing hierarchy, talk of military strategy, amid other historical details. An elaborate family tree diagram might have proved beneficial, but it’s not sorely missed and beside the point in Hou’s moving tale of rapturous beauty.

Forget which princess is which, who is married to whom and luxuriate in the sumptuous visuals of Hou’s artful eye and Mark Lee Ping Bin’s gorgeous cinematography, 35mm film, which don’t require interpretation or explanation. Among them: fog lifting off the water and sunsets that makes any other you’ve witnessed feel cliché and pale in comparison; a fight amid silver birches; the flicker of a candle; layers of silk, billowing in and out to veil the character’s faces; more ravishing textiles, especially those of Tian Jing who lounges around in the finest threads, metallic brocades, that would make Yeezy jealous. Genre touchstones like palace intrigue, swordplay—here quick and incisive, like the movement of Yinniangs’ short sword—and sorcery are all present, but Hou’s film is much more, as he brings his idiosyncratic style, full of long takes and extended silence, and a bewitching switch of aspect ratio in this densely beautiful work. – Elissa Suh

blackhaBlackhat (Dir. Michael Mann, Universal Pictures)

Once you’ve gotten over the initial absurdity of Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway—the world’s preeminent bad-boy computer hacker—Michael Mann’s entire high-concept folly of a film begins to make sense. This seemingly inane casting decision actually proves the lynchpin for a work focused on contrasting textures and collapsing boundaries, in which the utter wrongness of the protagonist’s presence sets the stage for a progressive upending of traditional structures. In the same way that web-based intrigues can create real-life havoc—shutting down power plants and wreaking havoc on the stock market—this burly slice of beefcake can also be a sensitive soul with a unique feel for the inscrutable realm of ones and zeroes. Pursuing this scenario with utmost seriousness, the film draws a clear point of connection from its ultra-modern cloak-and-dagger yarn to the recent financial crisis, where the greedy, behind-the-scenes machinations of rogue investors led to untold pain and suffering in the physical world. But beyond an engagement with this issue which completely surpasses overwrought pulpit cinema like The Big Short, Blackhat also perfectly evokes the unease of a post 9/11, increasingly intangible world. Its forlorn professionalism illustrates the general confusion of modern existence, in which the distinction between good and bad guys is about as hazy as the line between the electronic and the actual.

A film that explores these divides both formally and narratively, Blackhat uses digital equipment in service of an aesthetic that makes use of its capacities as few other movies have, exploiting its potential for close-range shooting and a freer range of camera movement. A globe-trotting adventure story that embraces classic Western tropes while also toying with their quaint simplicity, it imagines a digital playing field that extends further into the world at large, the gamesmanship between black and white-hat hackers swinging between on-screen stratagems and sweaty “low-tech” maneuvers. All this frantic action is made poetic by the film’s digital impressionism, its smeared blurs of movement and energy echoing the collapsing of its other binary distinctions. The climax comes during the Balinese Nyepi festival, a ritual of cleansing intended to create balance with God, during which the story’s data-focused abstractions find real human expression and complete negation, all plot threads merging into one knotty mass as the film’s final reckoning takes place. – Jesse Cataldo

buzzardBuzzard (Dir: Joel Potrykus, Oscilloscope Pictures)

It’s a testament to Joel Potrykus’ skill as a filmmaker that one of the most emotionally complex and moving film sequences of 2015 was a six-minute-long, unbroken shot of a 20-something eating a plate of room-service spaghetti. Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), on the run from the law and burning through a stash of stolen checks, books an evening at an expensive hotel. Reclining against his headboard with the plate balanced atop his stomach, he wolfs down heaping forkfuls of pasta and meatballs, heedless of the strands dropping onto his pristine hotel bathrobe. The utter lack of restraint in his appetite manages to be both repulsive and oddly sweet, while also neatly encapsulating Marty as a character: a walking illustration of what it is to live totally in the moment with no thought to what the next day (or even the next hour) might bring. It imbues this sequence with an undertone of melancholy. Right now, Marty is happy, but for how long?

Other critics have tried to pigeonhole Buzzard as a critique of capitalism, but such a reading feels narrow. Capitalism plays a role in Marty’s situation–he works as a sort of “permanent temp” for a bank and his personal life is a near-caricature of millennial nostalgic regression, with his whole world consumed by heavy metal, horror movies, and video games. Yet no confluence of economic circumstance can account for a creature like Marty. Like the titular carrion bird, he ekes out a comfortable existence picking the bones of the world he inhabits, running petty scam after petty scam, using and degrading the closest thing he has to a friend, co-worker and cartoonish man-child Derek (played by Potrykus himself). Marty’s life begins to unravel when he makes the move from bilking customer service reps to full-on check fraud, resulting in a descent that is alternately hilarious and harrowing.

Potrykus’ unwillingness to choose between comedy and tragedy is part of what makes Buzzard so indelible. We can laugh along with Marty’s childish hijinks, all the while feeling that sick sense of dread grow in the pit of our stomachs as he barrels ever more erratically towards an inevitable act of violence. It’s not often a film so ably operates on its audience’s emotional pressure points, and even rarer when it prominently features a Nintendo Power Glove that’s been retrofitted into a Freddy Krueger razor gauntlet. – Joe Hemmerling

carolCarol (dir. Todd Haynes, The Weinstein Company)

Todd Haynes’ period melodramas have occasionally seemed too stiff for the filmmaker, replacing his puckish semiotic play and his vicious critiques for movies that foreground their social commentary but blunt it. Ironically, Carol, his most buttoned-up, starched film, is by far the most poignant of his period pieces, muting its forbidden lust underneath an endless array of suggestive glances and loving caresses. Yet it is in tracing those minute gestures that the film gradually gains its power, replacing the on-the-nose scenarios of, say, Far from Heaven with the subtle eroticism of silent cues. Hands on shoulders have never communicated so much on film, whether the clumsy and possessive full hand grips of men or the gentle, fleeting squeeze that Carol (Cate Blanchett) gives Therese (Rooney Mara). Blanchett and Mara make perfect foils, with Blanchett’s theatricality and broadly telegraphed gestures made naturalistic by Mara’s inherent reservation, configuring Carol’s obvious come-ons as intuitive teases to get Therese out of her shell.

Shot on 16mm, the film has a rough, energetic charge that belies the stasis of its formal composition. Cinematographer Ed Lachman regularly films characters looking out of fogged and streaked car windows that abstract the world around them, reinforcing their increasing devotion to each other and how it pulls them away from 1950s society. These subtle illustrations ground the later narrative turns into explicit confrontation with dated mores, providing an impressionistic context that prevents the blunter scenes from grandstanding. Haynes has never been this scaled back, but none of his films has expressed nearly as much interiority, where characters are less representative of a thematic meaning than simply human. It’s an unexpected breakthrough for the director, who maintains his usual level of formal command but cedes an unprecedented level of control to his actors. – Jake Cole

creedCreed (dir. Ryan Coogler, Warner Bros.)

When it was announced the director of Fruitvale Station would be helming a Rocky spin-off/sequel, it felt like we’d lost another emerging voice to the soulless IP exploitation racket. Sure, Coogler could probably make a decent Rocky film, but why settle for clearing so low a bar? Instead of a serviceable, winking nod to its predecessors, Creed is a welcome aberration in the canon of franchise filmmaking. It ticks off all the boxes of what audiences should expect from a Rocky feature, but rather than a gleefully nostalgia leaning procession of foregone conclusions, the movie functions as its own beast, as well as Coogler’s official coming out party.

Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are now two for two, director fitting performer like a hand in glove, leaping from the indie stage to the main event with terrifying ease. As Coogler displays an assuredness in his compositions and camera movements, Jordan exudes every ounce of leading man charisma his previous roles have been mere appetizers for. With a fascinating turn from Tessa Thompson and one of the finest performances of Sylvester Stallone’s career, Creed is one of the most quietly well-acted films out this year, never quite stopping to straight up schmaltz, but wetting eyes everywhere in the process. From the bravura sweep of the now infamous one-take fight to the orgiastic release of Jordan’s Donnie running through the streets of Philly while Meek Mill plays, every moment feels like it has been presented exactly the right way. It succeeds as a worthy successor to one of America’s most enduring film series without obfuscating one of its boldest new voices. – Dominic Griffin

dukeofburgundyThe Duke of Burgundy (Dir: Peter Strickland, IFC Films)

2015 has been a terrific year for films about female relationships and The Duke of Burgundy may be the best. Look beneath the involved role-playing, the written instructions from one lover to the other, the allusions to Jess Franco and Stan Brakhage, the minutiae concerning rare butterfly species and the sober discussions of custom S&M gear—including something called “the human toilet”—and you’ll find one of cinema’s most tender and most relatable relationship dramas. With his previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland established himself as a master stylist, and a director to keep an eye on; The Duke of Burgundy cements that impression.

By using an all-female cast and stripping away any semblance of context, Strickland creates an insularity that, while bizarre, allows the story to unfold with a psychological intensity not otherwise possible. The film is not just a study in power dynamics, but a powerful depiction of the lengths a person will go to in order to be with someone they love—whether it’s locking your partner in a trunk for the night or attending interminable lectures in which you have no interest.

Gorgeously photographed, scored beautifully by Cat’s Eyes and featuring commanding performances by Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen, this film—released in the first month of the year—is an aesthetic treat worth unpacking in greater detail. The Duke of Burgundy is currently streaming on Netflix, which is somewhat dangerous considering its addictive re-watchability. Strickland is fortunately still early in his career, and whatever he does next, you can bet I’ll be the first one in line to see it. – Seth Katz

ex machinaEx Machina (Dir. Alex Garland, A24)

As we hurtle ever closer to the technological singularity, we should make sure to take the opportunity to stop and enjoy artificial-intelligence based films while they’re still considered science fiction. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. may have set the bar for films that explore the line between the synthetic and the sentient, but while that film was epic in scope, screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut explores similar concepts within a far more unsettling and claustrophobic framework. Ex Machina not only hinges on the virtually inevitable creation of self-aware technology, but it also captures some of the creepier elements of data-mining that can theoretically be done now that so much of our lives are web-based.

When programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest at work, he’s awarded with a rare visit to the remote mansion of the company’s reclusive CEO. Upon arriving, Caleb discovers a futuristic abode with many locks, and he eventually chats with the enigmatic (and hard-drinking) technological wunderkind Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The founder of a ubiquitous Google/social media mashup called Bluebook, Nathan reveals that Caleb is there to conduct a Turing test on his most top-secret project, an alluring A.I. he’s named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan has been able to imbue her with artificial humanity thanks to info on human behavior he’s harvested from Bluebook data, and he’s modeled her mannerisms with speech and body language from photos and videos he’s hacked from billions of cell phones. Things soon go awry as Caleb’s interactions with Ava lead to him questioning the very nature of reality and whether his own self-awareness is enough to ensure his humanity. What’s more, Ava soon reveals the history of Nathan’s prior A.I. creations, who would go so far as to damage themselves rather than be kept under lock and key. After all, if a machine is capable of free will, is it right that the machine is not allowed to be free?

Unlike many other futuristic films, Ex Machina doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle. Other than post-production to make much of Ava’s robotic body transparent, the film relies far more on tension than on flash. The film touches upon what it means to be a conscious being without delving too far into abstract philosophical territory. Ex Machina is the kind of science fiction that adeptly portrays a scenario that could, quite literally, be part of the not-too-distant future. – Josh Goller

hardtobeagodHard to Be a God (Dir: Aleksei German, Kino Lorber)

Cinema is the depiction and condensation of space and time. The camera captures a space in front of it for the duration between two cuts, which we then experience exactly as we watch the film. This theory of the art form’s indexicality is, admittedly, troubled in a post-celluloid age, but it remains more-or-less true. Countless films try to capture one or the other as it is, from High Noon to Boyhood and La Chambre to Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God.

It’s hard to think of an appropriate analogue for the camerawork in German’s greatest and last film. The cameras willingness to dance between bodies at speeds slow and fast recalls Kalatazov, his rupturing of apparent point-of-view shots might suggest 8 ½, and the overwhelming virtuosity of the tracking shots brings to mind Miklos Jansco, but none of these – nor Sokurov, nor Tarkovsky – quite captures German’s formidable style. There is barely a shot in the film whose depiction of 360-degree space is not entirely convincing, in which the most daunting cinematographic techniques are not performed with what appears to be a total lack of effort.

The result is one of the most immersive and visceral cinematic experiences ever crafted, something only aided by the sudden violence that pervades the picture. The story, about a scientist who anoints himself a king in a planet that resembles medieval earth but is in fact perpetuating its own stagnancy by murdering intellectuals and suppressing a renaissance movement, is based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and there is no doubt as to why German was drawn to it. German only made six films in his 46 year career; he was stifled by government every step of the way, and Hard to Be a God is a resentful analogue of his own oppression as an artist. The story is muddled and unclear without multiple viewings, a potential flaw that in fact only further suggests how embittered German was after a lifetime of opposition. The seething anger is another reason nobody but German could have made the film, but even without sufficient background, the visual experience is frightening in its power, and it alone makes Hard to Be a God an unforgettable three hours. – Forrest Cardamenis

horsemoneyHorse Money (Dir. Pedro Costa, Cinema Guild)

Expanding upon an episodic short featured in 2013’s four-part omnibus Centro Historico, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money further fleshes out the inscrutable Ventura, the real-life local dignitary of Costa’s semi-fictionalized Fountainhas trilogy. Set in a since-demolished low-income housing block, populated largely by rootless Cape Verdean émigrés, those previous films aestheticized poverty in a manner that felt both artistically gratifying and unsavory, using a heightened version of the documentary form to dig into the micro textures of a specific immigrant experience. Now hospitalized due to an unspecified ailment, which has rendered his body rigid and his hands tremulous with rhythmic spasms, Ventura reappears here as a spectral character, his shaky grip on reality mirroring the film’s own uncomfortable position between fact and fiction. Here that transition signals the bold conversion from works of relative verisimilitude to a gloom-drenched horror movie steeped in surreal touches and phantasmagoric happenings, marked by a shadow-tinged palette and dotted with ghastly reminders of his adopted country’s embattled past.

The government’s destruction of Fountainhas did little to remedy the underlying problems which had turned the housing project into a nest of vice and neglect, and Costa therefore expands his scope accordingly. The hasty integration of the Verdeans into the larger populace thus inspires a cinematic inquisition into recent national history. The Portugal presented here is a world of ghosts both melancholy and malevolent, drawn from his own personal history and that of the country’s brutal military dictatorship, which held power from 1933 to 1974. Using the old man’s addled state as an excuse for a wide-scale reckoning, the director turns the hospital into an entirely symbolic space, its walls eventually giving way, eliminating the aura of confinement but doing nothing to diminish the film’s thick atmosphere of dread. The story spreads outward accordingly, as if the destruction of Fountainhas has suffused all of Lisbon with its specific style of misery. Through all this wanders the Dantean figure of Ventura, both an emissary from a vanished world and a wasted symbol of the present, slowly making his way toward the darkness of the underworld. – Jesse Cataldo

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