The year is off to a great start with triumphs in both blockbuster films and independent filmmaking. Like all my lists, it’s not organized in any particular order, with the exception of “Tu Dors Nicole” taking the top spot for being a clear personal favorite of mine. After that, all the listed films are scattered in random order. The list excludes critically acclaimed films I still haven’t seen such as “Inside Out”, “Timbuku”, “Love & Mercy”, “White God”, and “Far From the Maddin Crowd”. Whether or not any of the films survive to make it to my end-of-the-year list remains to be seen.
At one point, Nicole mentions she plans on visiting Iceland with her best friend; to which her brother’s buddy replies, “What are you going to do there?” She then thinks about it for a second and answers, “Nothing. We’ll do nothing, but we’ll be doing nothing somewhere else. Nice nothing.” I can see viewers watching this gem and complaining that nothing really happens throughout the film, but it’s the nice kind of nothing. Besides, by watching all this beautiful shot black and white nothingness, so much can happen to the viewer. “Tu dors Nicole” is probably my personal favorite film of the year so far.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, our two main characters examine a drip painting by Pollock. They articulate how the artist made his hand go where it wanted but didn’t plan his every move. The piece of art would never have come to be if you preplanned every stroke. Consciousness exists in the gap between randomness and deliberated action, so as long as the AI is programed to do automatic actions, it can never be regarded as truly conscious. In order for it to be regarded as an equal, we would have to somehow prove that it acts through random chaotic impulse. “Ex Machina” is a study of what it means to be conscious/human. With its release, I’m convinced more than ever that we are in the midst of a British New Wave in science fiction cinema. The film challenges the intellect by putting humankind, artificial intelligence, and our inevitable future together under the microscope.
I think by now, it’s quite clear that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the blockbuster spectacle of the summer. It’s only been out for a month, yet everything about this film has been discussed to death. With a strong feminist undertaking, mastermind George Miller pumps up his post-apocalyptic trilogy with a nitrous oxide charge of marvelous cinema. This recklessly fast-paced motion picture is quite possible the greatest stunt film since Buster Keaton took over a locomotive in “The General”. The fact that it tackles contemporary issues such as gender equality, climate change and the inevitable water wars to come is just the icing on top – or shall I say the shooting flame on an electric guitar.
According to Roy Anderson, the film’s 72-year old Swedish cult filmmaker, merely watching this film from beginning to end will make you a smarter person. This is his third installment in a philosophical trilogy about what it means to be a human being. However, like “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living”, it works as a stand-alone film. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is beautifully sad, and humorously bizarre. It will more likely find its audience in a museum than a multiplex.
“It Follows” is a near-perfect horror film. When I first watched this terrifying film, I was looking over my shoulder the whole way back. It very much follows you long after the credits roll. David Robert Mitchell has perfected a nerve-racking tale that is both intelligent in its use of metaphoric plot points and hypnotically terrifying, the like of which we haven’t seen since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. Layered with an STD subtext where sex has metaphysical implications, the film promotes the behavior as much as it feasts on sex-related fears. This is the type of film made for drive-in theaters, and if this were to screen in a drive-in, you would more likely be glued to the screen in absolute terror than undressing your partner sitting next to you. Everything about “It Follows” is perfectly executed, from the haunting Disasterpeace original score, to the dreadful atmosphere of a small-town that recalls the work of John Carpenter. It’s very much an impeccable exercise in pure terror.
Damian Szifron’s Academy Award nominated film is the most entertaining film on this list. The film is composed of six revenge tales with twists and turns at every scene. Not all of the stories here are great, but they’re all certainly engaging. One thing they all have in common is the directorial chef; Szifron peppers his stories with dark humor and a thread of wicked irony. “Wild Tales” grabs it viewers by the balls from the brilliant opening scene and doesn’t let go till the credits start rolling.
Oliver Assays blurs the lines between fiction and reality as art intertwines with actuality. This Bergman(esque) character study revolves around a legendary actress who accepts to star in a film where she revisits the role that made her a star twenty years ago. However, she has been chosen to play the role of an old veteran actress who gets practically walked over by a much younger talent. Things start getting out of hand when script starts to reflect reality. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Moretz deliver a trio of in-depth performances that fearlessly dig into the female psyche. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is in many ways a female-centered “Birdman” with European flair.
Technically, “Charlie’s Country” made its festival debut in 2014, but the film just opened in selected theaters across the US, which makes it qualify to land on my list. It is said to be the first film ever to be spoken in Yolngu, Australia’s indigenous language. The sad reality is that the film could also very well be the last of its kind. Once rulers of their land, the Yolngu only make up 1% of the current Australian population. I can’t think of a better film to preserve the roots of Australia’s native population than “Charlie’s Country”. Legendary Australian actor, David Gulpilil carries the whole film on his shoulders with a heartbreaking performance that is at times both witty, and comical. “Charlie’s Country” is a fine piece of Australian cinema, perhaps even, the most important Australian film yet.
“Slow West” is as close as we’ll ever get to see what a Wes Anderson western would look like. Writer and director John Maclean combines a somewhat similar visual style with offbeat humor in a story that follows a young man’s journey across the frontier in search for the woman he loves. Midway through, he stumbles upon a mysterious cowboy who offers him road protection. This isn’t by any chance a masterpiece, nor is it one of the genre’s best, but it’s a fun little gem of movie that works in unexpected ways. Michael Fassbender shines as always as the outlaw with a heart of gold.
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is based on the rock star’s diary entries, art and home videos, and the end result is as intimate as a music documentary could get. In fact, some of the material shown here is so personal, the viewer might feel uncomfortable prying into the artistic mind of artist. Brett Morgen uses beautiful hand drawn animation to retell key chapters of Cobain’s life that ultimately led to his sudden demise. It is an emotionally wrenching cinematic portrait of Kurt Cobain the person as opposed to the icon.
The funniest and most violent action film of the year comes from “Kick Ass” director Mathew Vaughn. Colin Firth stars as a secret agent who could probably pistol-whip James Bond to a pulp. Imagine if “Pretty Woman” was re-written as an R-rated superhero film about spies, and you’ll probably end up with “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. The film consciously spoofs both the “My Fair Lady” type of film and the espionage genre. Everything here is over-the-top from the hyper action scenes to the abrupt violence, the foul language, even the product placement is in your face. On paper, none of this should work, but somehow the sheer absurdity of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, and the director’s awareness of it, makes it one of the most entertaining films of the year.
“The Tribe” is presented entirely in sign language, without any translation, subtitles, or dialogue. It is a first of its kind in all of cinema and that alone warrants it a place on my list. The film follows gangsters in a school for the deaf as they spread anarchy whether they go. There’s a lot of sex, drinking, smoking, fighting, and unlawful criminal behavior committed throughout the film. It isn’t an easy film to watch, and it’s not because of the lack of dialogue and soundtrack, but because of the disturbing nature of their acts. A new cinematic communication is born with this film. “The Tribe” is a testament to the power of visual storytelling, and proves that gestures, facial expressions and body movement are all you need to tell an emotionally powerful story.
“Jurassic World” is composed of every ingredient you would expect in a generic summer blockbuster, but what makes it work is the fact that the whole spectacle is a big homage to the far superior original, “Jurassic Park”. Much like an actual roller coaster, the film is a roaring thrill ride from beginning to end. And even though one of the theme park’s managers tires to justify creating a new genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur by declaring, “people are bored with dinosaurs”, the most electrifying moments mount from the appearances of the very dinosaurs that made the original the classic it is today. “Jurassic World” lacks the wonder and awe of “Jurassic Park”; but it’s still the best sequel within the franchise so far.
Academy Award winning director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) masterfully crafts a film about the consequences of a lie. Following a beach incident, the mysterious disappearance of Elly leads a group of vacationing friends to lie. All lies bring forth suspicion, and with each question asked, the lies snowball into more fabrications. What we end up with is a study of group mentality and the psychological/emotional motivations behind the occasional painful necessity to lie for greater good. “About Elly” reaches its audience nearly six years after its initial release, and it cements Farhadi as one of the finest filmmakers working today.
Warm, charming, and absolutely delightful in every sense of the word, “Paddington” is the surprise hit family film of the year. Paul King stuffs his film with British charm and all things English. Like the “Harry Potter” films, both adults and kids alike can enjoy “Paddington”. The simplicity of the self-contained story will make you remember how wholesome it felt to hug a stuffed teddy bear.
Honoroable Mentions: “5 Broken Cameras”, “Red Army”, “Mojave”, “Spring”, “Shaun the Sheep”, “The Driftless Area”, “Duke of Burgundy”, “Heaven Knows What”, “Blackhat”