A couple of notes: this year the movies I loved and the movies I actually got to review did not overlap as much as they might have, as you'll see particularly in the uppermost twenty. You will see more documentaries than I normally put on such lists, and this is because I'm seeing more documentaries, a surprisingly pleasant side benefit, it turns out, of freelancing at The New York Times.
1) Hard To Be A God (Alexei German)
2) Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
3) Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
This is a picture I saw more or less cold, at this year’s EbertFest, and it just floored me. Not just in its commitment to its characters and its setting, but in its cinematic fluidity, which is best, or most noticeably, expressed in a scene in which its partying girl squad lip-syncs the Rihanna song “Diamonds.” I am about as far as you can get from a Rihanna admirer, incidentally.
4) Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Wherein Costa’s collaboration with the personage known as Ventura veers off from a statuesque poetic not-quite-realism into a realm of nearly sci-fi dystopia and dread. Intimations of the underworld and the very real spectre of fascism are given utterly convincing form in a shudderingly beautiful film.
5) Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
6) Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
7) Heaven Knows What (Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
The first five or so minutes of this film, which opens with an almost anti-virtuoso traveling shot through a fluorescent-ugly medical facility while electronic music blares very loudly and unheard characters scream at each other, constitute a sort of endurance test. Not that the remainder of the film is a picnic, but once you settle in, the movie tells the terrifying story of the routine life of junkiedom. I remember someone like Burroughs saying that addiction had a very organizing effect on one’s life, to wit, you got up whenever you got up knowing that you had to do two things that day: cop and shoot up. Everything else is leisure time. I have not seen another film that put across the algebra of need to pitilessly and accurately. A horrific masterpiece.
8) Brooklyn (John Crowley)
9) The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
It’s nice to see an actively anti-social Quentin Tarantino working his malevolent magic again. His sprawling but surprisingly fluid not-properly-locked-room mystery could have stayed within the prickly, racially incendiary whodunit conventions it seems to be setting up in its first half, but when the violence really explodes in the second half, Tarantino achieves Authentic Sadistic Cinema. Yes, by all means call it “objectionable.” It is.
10) Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)
Another beautifully realized movie, perfection from stem to stern, almost every pertinent detail the introduction to an observation or a gag that will pay off beautifully, sometimes within seconds, sometimes not until the end credits. Also a sincerely sunny and sweet-natured work that’s never cloying.
11) Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
I spoke about this picture with a filmmaker friend of mine and we both expressed a kind of irritated mystification about it: how did Alex Garland, an experienced novelist and screenwriter, become such a goddamn good director his first time out? It’s kind of maddening. Complaints about the film’s ostensible sexism are really…kind of sad, because it’s clear that the people making them haven’t really thought the piece through, and that questions of gender construction get kind of complicated when artificial intelligence engineered by a horny chauvinist are concerned. For further on the film's larger topic, see Heinrich von Kleist’s story “On The Marionette Theater.”
12) Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Classical form in cinema still has its uses. Petzold’s survivor tragedy tells a story that’s squalid and irrational in equal measure, and tells it with measured, masterly detachment. Killer ending.
13) Son of Saul (László Nemes)
My friend and colleague Manohla Dargis angrily condemned this film as “radically dehistoricized” and while the characterization is correct I kind of think that a form of dehistoricization was part of director László Nemes’ point. His demonic conception and execution of his Holocaust story, holding claustrophobically tight on his doomed lead character, removes the viewer from the realm of historical contemplation and into the realm of experiential phenomenology. It is a cinematically virtuosic “you are there” movie, completely harrowing and upsetting and confusing and nobody knows what time it is and death is all around and it’s coming for you. One recalls what Stanley Kubrick said to Fredric Raphael about Schindler’s List: “Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn'’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” Son of Saul is a film about The Holocaust—in miniature.
14) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
It takes a very smart storyteller to come up with the very simple idea that makes this movie work so well. J.J. Abrams understood the only way to unfuck the franchise—or the myth, if you really believe it’s a myth—was to go back to First Principles. So he remade Star Wars, or, A New Hope if you’re like that. And did a damn good job of it.
15) The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
I enjoyed the visuals and I understood the plot. So no worries.
16) Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
As I observed elsewhere, really would make an excellent double feature with Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
17) Carol (Haynes)
Tender, seductive, immaculately crafted. Also displays a side of Rooney Mara I really enjoy seeing, one in which she seems kind of happy. There was a rumor a while back that she was moving into my neighborhood (see entry for Mistress America, below) and I was worried that she’d issue edicts requiring everyone wear black, that no one make eye contact with her, or laugh, anywhere, ever. If she continues performances in this vein my perhaps mistaken impression of her as a person will abate. And she didn’t end up moving into my neighborhood anyway.
18) The Mend (Magary)
19) Timbuktu (Sissako)
20) Creed (Coogler)
You can look at this two ways: Director Ryan Coogler’s spectacularly engaging follow-up to his powerful debut feature Fruitvale Station, or an effective and rousing entry in a franchise that had squandered a good deal of its integrity and juice over the years. The direction and the acting are energized, invigorating, but I was also really taken with the construction—satisfying boxing-movie narratives aren’t as common as all that these days.
21) Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers)
22) Clouds Of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
23) The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu)
Iñarritu’s much-dreaded-by-me return to heavyosity turned out to be not so overbearing in its heavyosity as I’d dreaded, so I was kind of able to enjoy this as a drawn-out brutalist Western with spiritual touches. I know, I know—I said “overbearing!”
24) Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
It’s a bit of a no-no for me to include this but to hell with it, it was a super fun movie and Greg Jacobs is a fantastic director and also one of my favorite people, as are a few others who worked on this.
25) The Forbidden Room (Maddin and Johnson)
At first I thought this ripe-rot-suffused pastiche of serial, Expressionist, and Doris Wishman stylizations was on the drawn-out side, but on considering its spectacular climactic payoff and more, I think I’d like to see the three-hour version of which I’ve heard tell.
26) Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)
Both playful and earnest, Almereyda’s unconventional film about Stanley Milgram is as engaged with his ideas as it is with his life. Peter Sarsgaard takes his uncanny ability to come off like the world’s biggest know-it-all up to eleven, and makes you like it.
27) Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)
This tightly-focused exercise in Finding The Bad In People is even more assured and discomfiting that Perry’s Listen Up Philip. When will Mr. Perry meet people that he sincerely likes, and feels he can be himself with, and when and if this happens, will this change his art? Stay tuned.
28) Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones)
Another movie directed by a friend, the great critic and programmer Kent Jones…and a pleasingly thorough examination of two filmmakers, their sensibilities, and the collaboration that produced one of the great texts on cinema.
29) Democrats (Nielsson)
30) Field Niggas (Allah)
31) Bridge of Spies (Spielberg)
Mr. Spielberg’s Cold War picture is a frequent nail-biter even if, like this old man, you know how the story turns out. It is very Spielbergy but without crossing that line many say Munich crossed. I was one of a relative few people who thought it was hilarious that Eve Hewson had a part in a movie in which Francis Gary Powers was a character.
32) Eden (Nilsson-Love)
Discussed very briefly here.
33) Mistress America (Baumbach)
I've lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood since 1990. When I first moved in it was still a pretty solid Italian-American working-to-middle-class enclave with small pockets of quasi-bohemian folk, and the ensuing years have seen, well I don't really have to tell you, do I? The influx has been a mixed bag, from ambitious restaurateurs who buy their mozzarella from the local guy to sneery hipsters who giggle at the shrines to Padre Pio on some front stoops. As I get older, I find myself almost reflexively less amused by the self-regarding Bright Young Things and their strollers and such, but I try to maintain tolerance, understanding that aging will do that to you. Still. A couple of years ago a bistro opened around the corner from me, in a one-time eyebrow-raising doom spot, and with its big front windows, low-key lighting, and pricey menu in small type, made me think they might as well have put an equivalent of one of those debt-clock countdown signs on the roof, telling me how long I had before I was completely priced out of the neighborhood. I have to admit that one night there were a bunch of kids causing a ruckus at the park nearby, and as they sort-of dispersed, a few of them made some aggressive gestures into those aforementioned windows, and I was not displeased at the napkin-clutching of some of the patrons. I avoided the place on principle for a while, but recently I was coaxed in for a brunch with some friends and it was really, really good. I feel rather similarly toward this movie, for reasons I can't quite articulate.
34) Crimson Peak (Del Toro)
No, I did not find the narrative particularly satisfying. Yes, I really would rather see Del Toro get all the money to make all the Lovecraft adaptations. Still. Not just the visual ravishment but the clear emotional swoon-lust that animates this movie caught me up but good.
35) Grandma (Weitz)
36) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (McQuarrie)
A neat if slightly hoary elliptical narrative, sweet action set pieces, and Rebecca Ferguson.
37) Trainwreck (Apatow)
When “full disclosure” looks like name-dropping, I don’t disclose. So. Beyond that, I thought, some dips into celebrity absurdism at the end notwithstanding (I am totally fine with LeBron James’ role though), the movie worked very well as a credible, intelligent 21st century rom-com. I am, I have to admit, tired of all the Bra Sex in Judd Apatow’s movies. Which should not be misconstrued as a call for topless woman exposure. It’s just…try some different angles, maybe. Nobody has Bra Sex as a matter of course unless there’s a mild fetish involved.
38) Blackhat (Mann)
The old “Pure Cinema” defense applies here. Quite convincingly dynamic.
39) The Martian (Scott)
A minor peak in sci-fi optimism. Make NASA Great Again!
40) Love and Mercy (Pohlad)
41) Tangerine (Baker)
I like its vitality and its small innovations but it’s still a straight white man’s view of trans culture, which, you know, I could do MYSELF.
42) Spotlight (McCarthy)
This is a compelling story, well-acted. I’m not entirely certain how well-told it is. What’s funny is that should one observe that it’s visually flat, one runs the risk of being accussed of being some kind of shill for “pure cinema” (see above), which means you’re only interested in things like flashy camerawork and show-offy editing, and that’s bad, you see, because the thing about storytelling is that technique is supposed to be invisible. Only problem is, technique is also not invisible when it’s BORING. In terms of pacing, Spotlight is beyond pedestrian. Every scene is a very neat little package of a few minutes, one after the other, each one fixed on a single topic or action that will move the narrative to the next square, until all the squares have been covered. The possibility of surprise, spontaneity, perversity, anything that is not specifically related to The Lesson, has been squeezed out of the work probably before the first scene was lit. Even if Tom McCarthy had wanted to do something along the lines of the seven-minute split-diopter shot of Redford making the Dahlberg call, he couldn’t have, because there’s nothing for it in the script. Again: a compelling story, well-acted. And competently told. But if it hadn’t been so well-acted the competence would seem like mediocrity.
43) The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland)
44) The Big Short (McKay)
45) Ant Man (Reed)
46) I’ll See You In My Dreams (Haley)
47) Ballet 422 (Lipes)