These are the best films of 2015.
In Jackson Heights (Dir: Frederick Wiseman, Zipporah Films)
Frederick Wiseman’s latest feature documentary In Jackson Heights takes a peaceable stroll through the titular neighborhood and one of the most culturally diverse in the world. Situated in New York’s Queens borough, Jackson Heights is one home to a vast array of immigrants from all over the world, including many countries in South America and Southeast Asia and boasts over 78 spoken languages. The film takes a look at what it means to be American today, with Jackson Heights standing in for the nation as a whole. Wiseman surveys various facets of the neighborhood as many work to improve their lives in an ever changing landscape, from LGBT advocacy groups and grassroots organizations, to the local beautification group and the members of the city councilman’s office who field and answer the residents phone calls.
Wiseman shows in effect a democracy at work through all the droning meetings and at times less than thrilling particulars of paperwork and process. The livelihood of many are threatened, as the ominous business improvement district, a looming presence in the film, hopes to take over the local storefronts, many of which are owned by immigrants, and replace them with popular markers of commercialization like Gap.
This portrait of the city is an indelible one, weaving the images of distinct groupings that create the larger whole. They include everything from a belly dancing class; a live poultry factory; a taxi medallion academy with some very funny mnemonic devices; ladies of a retirement community. He captures beauty at every turn, showcasing everyday people, of all walks of life, religious backgrounds, ethnicities and ages. No explanations are proffered, and none are needed as Wiseman finds always the beauty in the quotidian, elevating the prosaic, here made more significant in its depiction of a microcosm of the greater nation as a whole and raising the question of where it is headed next. – Elissa Suh
The Look of Silence (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer, Drafthouse Films)
An elderly man who looks like a fragile cross between Charlie Callas and Tony Curtis is having his eyes tested. It sounds like a chapter out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but this seemingly quaint scene is fraught with tragedy and conflict: the patient is a mass murderer, and his optometrist is the brother of one of his victims.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer returned to the scene of his essential 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, which introduced us to the men behind Indonesia’s death squads in 1965. The advance word on this companion piece was that it was “more human” than the first film; but what is more human than murder? Even less so than his previous film, The Look of Silence is no conventional talking-head documentary. Its exquisitely composed scenes of village life and observational pacing have the elegance of a somber art house fiction feature. Multi-camera setups and deft editing create a slow rhythm that establishes location and intimately brings you into the lives of the film’s subjects. This is a beautiful film, but its lush setting sets you up for horror, with harrowing tales of murder, mutilation and the difficulty of forgiveness that makes it painful to watch.
That frail eye patient tells the most brutal stories of war crimes, with undisguised glee and no remorse. Killing revealed the uncomfortable truth that war criminals have an undeniable charisma, and used a sometimes outlandish spectacle to convey this conflict; a visceral guilt even lent the film’s monsters a kind of redemption. But there is no redemption for the families of their victims. With an aching restraint, Silence turns the camera on their tragic loss, and a quest for justice and closure that can never be fulfilled. – Pat Padua
Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir: George Miller, Warner Bros.)
Nostalgia once again dominated this year’s blockbuster franchise extensions, with their terrible lizards and candy-colored superheroes and adorable droids. And yet Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth and best installment of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic series, stood alone as a ridiculous spectacle nobody may have wanted but we all desperately needed. An elegant — and deeply weird — masterwork, the film proves a frenetic action picture can brush away stray popcorn kernels and veer into something closer to high art.
Fury Road upends expectations with clever bits of misdirection. Its title suggests Max Rockatansky will once again be our protagonist. Instead, his sole purpose is to provide a ligament to the nuclear wasteland of the earlier movies. Often silent and frequently sidelined, Tom Hardy’s Max cedes heroic machismo to Charlize Theron, who plays the triumphant one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa. Rather than deepen the mythos of his previous Mad Max releases, Miller pares the film to muscle and bone. Fury Road requires zero prior knowledge from the viewer. It only demands willingness for slack-jawed awe.
Fury Road is fundamentally an extended out-and-back chase sequence, one that ratchets up the stakes as it draws a symmetrical narrative roadmap. The demonic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his War Boys tail our heroines (the good guys here are mostly women) with the tenacity of swarming hornets. Automobiles gun toward the horizon, through a mighty dust storm and perilous rocky passes. Acrobatic baddies sway to and fro, on long sticks, atop moving vehicles. A demented metal guitarist strums power chords as flames shoot from his instrument’s neck. The bizarre visual world Miller creates, primarily through the use of practical effects, is one of a kind. But the story he tells is primal: escape by any means and revolution at any cost. – Peter Tabakis
Magic Mike XXL (dir. Gregory Jacobs, Warner Bros.)
How to describe the sheer, unrelenting pleasure of Magic Mike XXL? At once building on and completely tossing aside its more serious-minded predecessor, this ludicrous sequel of male strip-uh, entertainers on one last ride is calculated on every level to maximize its target audience’s response. This isn’t just a movie about hot dudes dancing in various states of undress for women; or, rather, that’s exactly what it is, but the entire movie is a testament to the fact that fulfilling desire, in even the most exaggerated and titillating terms, is a matter of great complexity. Magic Mike XXL was made by men and centers on men, but it is constantly framed around the reactions of women who squeal, scream, giggle and gape at the spectacle, and their delight is infectious. Some day they could slot this movie in with footage of Elvis or the Beatles playing to shrieking teenage girls to show the primal reactions of women who find a pop culture moment targeted straight at their sexual drive (as well as how rare such moments are).
It’s amazing how much this film does well, and how carefully everyone involved thought about each decision. The actors are uniformly amazing: Joe Manganiello undoubtedly steals the show as Big Dick Richie, forever in search of his accommodating “glass slipper,” but everyone from Channing Tatum’s sweetheart muscle head to Matt Bomer’s smoldering pretty-boy to Jada Pinkett Smith’s proud impresario stands out. Steven Soderbergh defers final authority to Gregory Jacobs (and despite talk from auteurists seeking to attribute all credit to him, this is wildly different from Soderbergh’s usual approach), but his cinematography and editing nonetheless add his idiosyncratic touch to another person’s vision. Overused teal and orange color timing is replaced by deep reds and greens, while the editing flips the music video pattern of associative money shots for a logical flow of transference, of action and reaction that builds every set piece to a fever pitch. Diverse and inclusive, Magic Mike XXL takes a throwaway concept and makes a termitic masterpiece out of it, and one of the few American films to recognize and openly celebrate sexuality. Bring a notepad. – Jake Cole
Mistress America (Dir: Noah Baumbach, Fox Searchlight Pictures)
If teaming with Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha softened Noah Baumbach’s penchant for chronicling the lives of the oft-condescending overeducated and privileged with an acerbic wit, then Mistress America, the duo’s second collaboration, allows Baumbach’s less-than-starry-eyed view to seep back into the picture alongside Gerwig’s optimism. There is both blind admiration and ruthless criticism at work in the relationship between soon-to-be step-sisters Brooke (Gerwig), a larger-than-life ideal of the consummate New Yorker, and Tracy (Lola Kirke), a cripplingly lonely college freshman desperate to prove herself as a writer. Brooke is an ambitious woman with a million projects in the works (including freelance interior decorating and opening a homey restaurant), but she has zero follow-through. But to Tracy, a writer in need of a character, Brooke seems impossibly accomplished; the epitome of what your 20’s should result in.
Mistress America works a balancing act between these realities throughout, with Tracy acknowledging her self-willed ignorance of Brooke’s flaws because she finds her so fascinating. What she actually says is, “I was in love with her.” The confession comes at the end of Tracy’s short story about “Meadow.” Instead of revealing romantic inclinations, though, the line is a pitch-perfect reflection of being so thoroughly enamored with a muse. Of course, the person that Tracy is obsessed with is more caricature than character, as Gerwig shamelessly riffs on Brooke and her consciously constructed facade of the entrepreneurial 20-something. At work here is none-too-subtle commentary on looking at someone as an ideal, a representation of some “other,” and reducing them to quips and anecdotes (hence, why Brooke displays many Manic Pixie Dream Girl quirks).
As told from Tracy’s point of view, Mistress America allows viewers to feel just as helpless in the face of Brooke’s overwhelming personality while simultaneously judging her for her very flaky nature and stalled development. Its ending isn’t as neat as Frances Ha‘s, nor should it be. But the takeaway is that Baumbach and Gerwig only continue to improve. – Katherine Springer
Queen of Earth (Dir. Alexander Ross Perry, IFC Films)
“The house was quiet and the world was calm,” said Wallace Stevens in his famous poem. The house in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is quiet but the world of his protagonist is far from calm. It’s shaken by romantic misery, familial loss, physical displacement and rampant anxiety. Wallace Stevens wrote poems that fused the creative imagination with objective reality and Alex Ross Perry’s does the same in Queen of Earth, a dizzying “woman gone mad” picture that’s one of the best movies of the year.
Elisabeth Moss was the best part of Listen Up Philip, Perry’s acerbic 2014 comedy of romantic dalliance laced with jazz and cynicism, and in Queen she gets the showcase she deserves. The film opens on a close-up of her face and it’s in a rough state. Her makeup is smeared. Her hair is disheveled. She’s been crying for a long time and it seems she might never stop. On top of a breakup, she’s also lost her father, but the promise of recovery arrives when her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) invites her to a family home in upstate New York.
The consolation of Ginny’s friendship dissolves when she begins to pay more attention to a neighbor boy than poor Catherine, the fragile friend whose sanity isn’t always clear. “I don’t really feel like I exist anymore,” she says. Moss’ delivery is the perfect mix of gloom and deadpan humor. She goes on to tell someone, “I could murder you right now and no one would ever know.” It’s one of the best lines of the movie—creepy, random and funny, all at once.
Queen of Earth is highly referential; candy for cinephiles. Its depiction of a female breakdown has elements of Rosemary’s Baby, Sisters and Persona. Is Catherine going crazy or is she being driven crazy? It’s impossible to tell. Perry’s attention to detail draws comparison to Wes Anderson but the heart of Perry’s films are always darker, less willing to placate. “I just want to be left alone,” Catherine says. The world is not calm but it makes for damn a good movie. – Erica Peplin
Sicario (Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Lionsgate)
When people discuss the tense crime thriller Sicario, the latest film by Toronto director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners), they usually begin with the startling opening sequence, in which an FBI SWAT team led by idealistic agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) moves in on suspected kidnappers holed up in a small house in Chandler, Arizona. What they find inside is pretty standard for such a scenario—some bad guys with guns ready for a shootout, one or two hostages that need rescuing; it’s what they find within the house that matters. The team discovers dozens upon dozens of dead bodies lining the walls, a veritable graveyard where victims of the ultraviolent Mexican-American drug trade have been crudely laid to rest. The sequence kick-starts the rest of the film, which follows Mercer as she joins a shadowy government task force on the promise that their investigation will lead them to the powerful crime lord responsible, but it also illustrates the film’s chief theme and a subject Villeneuve has been chasing in his recent films: the illusion of control.
Mercer’s team no doubt exhausted themselves on background information before entering the home, knowing its ins and outs and ensuring a clean job with no surprises. Their discovery, aside from shocking, is disillusioning, and it shows that even the most orderly and pokerfaced of operations can never account for good old fashioned human horror. And while that doesn’t completely explain Mercer’s decision to join special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious henchman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), it’s enough to remind the audience that seeing isn’t always believing, especially in cinema. Villeneuve’s conjuring of mood and his airtight visual style—complete with its immaculate framing and stunning cinematography—epitomize perfection even as they deal in obfuscation and muddiness. In other words, we think we know everything about Sicario until suddenly realizing that we don’t, and that’s precisely the point. Again, Villeneuve thinks within. — Drew Hunt
Taxi (Dir: Jafar Panahi, Kino Lorber)
Jafar Panahi is legally prohibited from making films, so even if his films were not wildly original, entirely separate takes on his situation, a perceived solipsism would be permissible. Fortunately, Panahi has done what great artists have always done and turned restrictions into creative outlets. Taxi is undoubtedly his most digestible and accessible of his three films post-ban, lacking both the intentional difficulties of This Is Not A Film and the equally-planned frustration and darkness of Closed Curtain. It is, in some ways, the closest of the bunch to his earlier films, hovering on the line (if there even is one) between documentary and fiction just as closely as Offside did.
Attempting to untangle fiction from documentary in Taxi is one of the many pleasures it offers, and one just as fun as the tremendous performances by both Panahi, as a taxi driver in Tehran who meets locals, friends and family, and his niece Hana Saeidi, who plays a pivotal role in the film. Panahi sets his entire film in his taxi, swiveling a camera to create shot/reverse-shot and cutting among the other, less visible cameras in the car, only rarely allowing for prolonged glimpses of the outside world. What he does in the small space, however, is tremendous both in the way he uses visual restriction to create dramatic tension and in its allegorical potency. Taxi is a film that has a great deal to say about a number of things – creativity, family, morality, oppression, nationhood, artistry – while only letting on in brief, understated conversations that it is concerned with any. Each becomes the explicit subject of a conversation, usually brief and/or interrupted, but subsequent vignettes, rather than abandoning the previous ideas, continue to explore them. The film never settles for easy answers, or even suggests that any answer might be sufficient, but rarely have cerebral and intellectual puzzles been delivered through such joy and directness. – Forrest Cardamenis
Timbuktu (Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, Cohen Media Group)
Aside from being among the most purely beautiful films of 2015, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu might also be the most provocative, a dialectical and figurative piece of polemic filmmaking that resides somewhere on the periphery of human drama and Brechtian documentary. The story revolves around a few different situations, each of them unfolding within the title city struggling to maintain their customs while under control of sharia law imposed by a group of militant jihadists. Their basic narrative functions are legible, if not entirely predictable, but the director’s long-take, “slow cinema” style considers the implicit interactions between everyday life and extremist politics, evoking a tension between ideology and reality that transcends contrived conflicts and conventional movie comforts.
Somewhat surprisingly, the effect is often comedic. The militants, a misfit band of recent recruits and Arabic-speaking foreigners unfamiliar with the region, are unruly and easily bored. They chase women and discuss verboten Western subjects like soccer and music, all while relying on translators to impart their edicts on the locals. (One scene in particular nearly gives the idea of “language politics” new meaning.) In essence and structure, such a premise feels like a joke—the extremists can’t follow their own rules, ha ha—but Sissako avoids generic conventions even as he utilizes their underlying qualities. (And he doesn’t stop with comedy—in certain spots, the film nearly resembles a western). He understands that extreme fundamentalism isn’t about religious or political principle, it’s about power and control, and the only “joke” is thinking otherwise. This sentiment is most harrowingly expressed when a couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death. We see neither their crime nor their trial (if they even had one), only the inhumane repercussions. The scene is quickly followed up with an outright gorgeous sequence of a man silently performing a ballet, proving Sissako isn’t relying on simple didacticism here: he’s using visual lyricism to make an honest, substantial statement. — Drew Hunt