Any list should be useful in containing films you’re not familiar with. In that sense, the purpose of this list is not to list movies in order of preference, but rather function as a suggestion to seek out significant films that might have flown under your radar. The goal is to call attention to movies you might have missed in a year where blockbusters overshadowed smaller productions.
For that reason, I have excluded “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, even though it deserves a place on this list. But let’s face it; we’ve all seen J.J. Abrams’ retro throwback. Another film I greatly admire, nowhere to be found here, is Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”. Technically, Malick’s film doesn’t open nationwide till March of 2016, which disqualifies it from inclusion. That said, had it been released in 2015, I would easily call it the best film of the year. You can read my review of “Knight of Cups” here. Without further ado, the best films of the year in no particular order:
The Look of Silence (Indonesia)
Joshua Oppenheimer follows his bizarre, “The Act of Killing”, with another brutal documentary focusing on the aftermath of a genocide. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his penis, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun confronts the group of men who killed his older brother.
At first, the killers brag about their killings with nationalistic pride. “I know from experience, if you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter, full of holes…it doesn’t matter. If they’re bad people you can hack them.” At the end of each interview, Rukun reveals to the former killer his identity, and the camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.
The Lobster (Greece/UK)
“The Lobster” is a love story set in a dystopian future where single people are arrested and transferred to a hotel. There they are obliged to find a matching mate within 45 days. If they fail to meet the deadline, they are transformed into animals and released into the woods. This bizarre synopsis alone should be enough to tickle your curiosity. Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy is an exercise in absurdness. It also happens to be the funniest film of the year.
If it were up to me, I would’ve awarded it the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the prestigious prize. The most original film of the year mocks the many facets of society from our universal obsession of finding a compatible spouse to reproducing. “The Lobster” is pitch-perfect satire that ridicules modern dating obligations. Colin Farrell delivers one of the most underrated performances of the year.
Victoria is the most suspenseful German thriller since “Run Lola Run”. Sebastian Schipper notably shot the entire film in one single take clocking in at 134 minutes. Last year’s “Birdman” may have stolen the spotlight of this feat, but unlike “Birdman”, “Victoria” does it for real, without any smart transitional editing tricks.
Victoria is a young Spanish pianist who quickly finds herself in the midst of a heist with a group of friends she just met. Set within a single night in Berlin, the film grabs you by the throat from the get-go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end. “Victoria” is pure cinematic fineness. Schipper neatly develops his characters within the first half of the night, before thrusting the characters we grew to love into realistically portrayed danger. The film also features a magnificent musical score by Nils Frahm.
When Marnie Was There (Japan)
Pixar’s “Inside Out” may have the brains, but Studio Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There” most certainly has the bigger heart. Studio Ghibli is synonym with quality animation. The truth is, every Studio Ghibli review is most likely to contain the same descriptive words, breathtaking animation, fleshed-out characters, beautiful music, and a heartwarming story.
“When Marnie Was There” is no exception. The studio’s first film since Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement is an exceptional work of art. The film tells the coming-of-age story of a young introverted foster child with asthma who is sent to the countryside by her guardians. Soon she runs into Marnie, a ghostly friend at the big mansion across the river. Through their friendship, she learns many things about herself. As for the viewer, we learn about traditional Japanese values: forgives, family, and harmony.
The Big Short (USA)
Adam McKay figured out a way to make a film centered on the credit and housing market collapse of 2008 entertaining, and that’s no easy feat. It is the strongest film explanation of the global financial crisis to date. The reason it works so well is because it takes financial concepts that are hard to grasp by the general public and packages it as a comprehensible “Wall Street Banking For Dummies” nutshell.
“The Big Short” is surprisingly light footed for a subject matter so heavy- the greatest economic tragedy since the Great Depression. McKay managed to translate finance into plain English and make it all engaging thanks to a script that boasts comedic one-liners from an all-star ensemble. Yet, the film is as unsettling as it is entertaining. It possesses the energy of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the investigative enthusiasm of “Moneyball”.
Listen to Me Marlon (UK)
After watching Listen to Me Marlon, the first thing I did was walk over to the ticket booth to buy another ticket for the next showing. Stevan Riley dissects Brando’s life using nothing but audio recovered from tapes the actor recorded himself. He also utilises a 3D digital version of Brando’s head that the actor got made in the 1980s in order to be part of future digital performances. It’s a first documentary of its kind.
The end result is the best-documented film on, not only the most influential actor ever, but on acting itself as an art form. Riley paints Brando’s words with corresponding visuals that perfectly encapsulate the meaning behind the spoken word. Like Brando’s many monumental performances, Riley has figured out a way to showcase a portrait in a way that has never been done before. To watch this documentary is to not only understand why Brando is regarded as the greatest actor of all time, but it is to grasp the undeniable fact that he was truly one of the most remarkable human beings to ever walk this planet.
Tu Dors Nicole (Canada)
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.
Bridge of Spies (USA)
Steven Spielberg’s sharp espionage thriller is a marvelous exercise in classical-virtuoso filmmaking. “Bridge of Spies” feels like it belongs to a different era of films. Tom Hanks’ performance has Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” written all over it, and Spielberg’s classical directing cements him as a modern day Frank Capra. This is a fine piece of vintage Hollywood moviemaking.
Fans of Spielberg will find many of his signature trademarks, from the classical musical score, to the suburban family setting, great iconic set pieces, and the common theme of ordinary men achieving extraordinary tasks. The term traditional can perceived in a negative light, here I mean it in a positive way. At times when every filmmaker is trying to break new ground, the old-fashioned “Bridge of Spies” paradoxically feels rather refreshing.
Like every Charlie Kauffman film, “Anomalisa” exposes the melancholy of the human condition in spades. However, what distinguishes it from his past work, and really any stop-motion animated film to date, is its deliberate use of that form of animation. Stop-motion and voice acting in particular serve the plot dynamics as opposed to being a filmmaking gimmick.
“Anomalisa” is a slice-of-life animation that couldn’t have articulated its message in any other form. Voice-over acting serves as a narrative plot device metaphorically symbolizing the act of falling in love. “Anomalisa” is just as much about falling out of love, as it is about falling in love. Nevertheless, what makes “Anomalisa” truly stand out is not what it is about, but how it is about what it’s about.
Ex Machina (UK)
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 an AI is programmed 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.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA)
I think by now, it’s quite clear that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the blockbuster spectacle of the year. It 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?
The Assassin (Taiwan)
Some critics have likened the viewing of this film to watching paint dry. But when the overall canvas resembles a scenic museum piece, you don’t really mind the slow pace; the paint can take all the time it needs to dry. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature in eight years won the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival, and with good reason, it is a feast to the senses, a moving painting if there every was one.
That said it’s not for everyone. Students of film will appreciate “The Assassin” more so than regular moviegoers. Hou creates an anti-wuxia film, replacing generic wuxia fight scenes seen in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers” with soothing compositional elegance. “The Assassin” floods us with one picturesque sequence after the other. The camera often peeks at characters through thin layers of fabric curtains, ultimately unveiling the most beautifully composed film of the year.
Son of Saul (Hungary)
A Hungarian Jewish prisoner involuntary assists Nazis with operating the mass extermination inside a concentration camp. One day, as he’s forced to burn his own people, he comes across the body of young boy he takes for his son. We’ve seen one too many Holocaust films, but “Son of Saul” takes us closer to the horrors of Auschwitz than most films.
Laszlo Nemes shot the film almost entirely in close-ups sculpting a claustrophobic documentation of how a concentration camp operated. It is one of the year’s most important films. Not only does it accurately depict the horrific procedural mechanics of a concentration camp, but it also manages to use exceptional framing to trap viewers inside one of the most horrific places ever constructed by man.
Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Ukraine)
Witnessing the Ukrainian revolution is bound to bring back memories of the Egyptian revolution. Watching how dictatorships similarly react to peaceful demonstrations is absolutely fascinating. In late 2013, Ukraine erupted after president Victor Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement to join the European Union, and resorted to hardening an alliance with Russia instead. “Winter of Fire” covers the almost 90 day uprising period that led to Yanukovych’s resignation.
Netflix scored its first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 2014, and two year later, the streaming service is emulating that success with a deeply involving look at the Ukraine situation. While “The Square” took a micro look at the Egyptian revolution by following a small group of protesters, “Winter of Fire” uses a macro bird-eye perspective look at the whole situation. Some of the images of footage presented in this documentary should send shivers down your spine.
Denis Villeneuve takes a tactical filmmaking approach to explore morality in the violent world of drug cartels. “Sicario” fumes with chilling photography. This comes as no surprise when you have 13-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Richard Deakins added to the mix. The film also boils with nerve-wracking tension, thanks to a thunderous score by Johann Johannsson, and Benicio Del Toro’s powerhouse performance.
Few actors demand the viewer’s utmost attention like Benicio De Toro. With only a few lines and limited screen time, Del Toro completely dominates the film from start to finish. Much like Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”, and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, one can feel Del Toro’s towering presence hovering over the whole film, even when he’s off-screen.
It Follows (USA)
“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 theatres, 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 reminiscent of the work of John Carpenter. It’s very much an impeccable exercise in pure terror.
What would it be like to experience the world for the first time? “Room” tells the extraordinary story of a mother and her five-year-old child’s escape from captivity. Much of the film takes place inside a small room. This portion of the film plays out like a suffocating version of “Panic Room”. Both main characters and the camera never leave the confines of the room, which is a remarkable technical achievement in itself.
However, the film’s dark first half is perfectly balanced with a heartwarming second and third act. “Room” has the power to make us look around, and notice the little things we often take granted in life. Lenny Abrahamson practically opens a window to the world. This dark room shines with uplifting performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.
Inside Out (USA)
Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece has steered viewers, both young and old, to take a deep look inside their own minds. Much of the film takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl dealing with joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The film is full of insights about the nature of how we process emotions. More importantly, it demonstrates how we are essentially the sum of our past experiences.
Memories from different points of our life shape who we are and how we behave. We learn that every outer-experience dictates an inner emotion, and suppressing emotions like sadness won’t do any good. In fact, it is important to acknowledge and get fully immersed in every emotion to lead a healthy life. “Inside Out” compresses the universal fundamentals of humanity in a fun journey to the core of child psychology.
The Revenant (USA)
Alejandro González Iñárritu continues his campaign of experimental filmmaking with “The Revenant”. Iñárritu always had a flair for pulling off impossible feats. His first three features, “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” and “Babel”, were exercises of nonlinear interconnected narratives. ”Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” appears to have no editing whatsoever, and came from the realization that “we live our lives with no editing”.
His latest entry in a very impressive filmography practices natural lighting. “The Revenant” uses no artificial lighting techniques whatsoever. Iñárritu’s dedication accumulates to an anti-revenge flick simultaneously breathtaking and brutal. In a film with standout action-packed cinematography endeavors, my favorite scene is surprisingly the film’s quietest moment. Hugh Glass encounters a lone Native American butchering a wild beast in the middle of nowhere. For the briefest moments, two individuals from opposing sides, strip themselves of titles and skin color. At desperate times, they become simply men sharing a meal.
45 Years (UK)
“45 Years” portrays the devastating effects of keeping secrets in a long marriage. After an incident from the past gets uncovered, we witness the old couple attempting to recapture youth in a desperate attempt to cling on the grounds they’ve built over 45 years of marriage. The film speaks of the difficulties of sustaining a relationship so long and taming retrospective jealousy. At the end, one can’t help but recognize the fragility of relationships, no matter how long-lasting.
Charlotte Rampling commands the screen with a tragic performance sizzling with subtle nuances that expose an avalanche of emotions. It is a case study in refined acting, and perhaps the most powerful female performance of the year. The final moments of “45 Years” makes very strong use of musical lyrics, helping the protagonist, and the viewer, arrive to a heartbreaking revelation.
“Phoenix”, “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Charlie’s Country”, “Macbeth”, “Mustang”, “Carol”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Hard to be a God”, “Steve Jobs”, “Theeb”, “Youth”, “Spotlight”, “Queen of Earth”, “Brooklyn”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “The Martian”, “Chriaq”, “The Russian Woodpecker”, “James White”, “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, “Straight Outta Compton”, “Paddington”.