Daunting New Year resolutions are nothing compared to the agony I feel when putting down my year-end list of favorite films. A sentiment that seems to get worse with each passing year as watching movies gets exponentially more enjoyable. Therefore it’s needless to say 2015 was the worst/best year ever, depending on how involved you get making year-end lists.
So let’s talk about some of the films that made the year so great and I think count as essential viewing. It’s important to remember that unless part of a critics association, these lists are often very arbitrary and most of my picks here keep changing according to my mood. The movies were that good!
But I’m pretty sure no one reads these things for the introductions so I’ll end mine with this: the order in which these movies are presented means nothing. They are all incredible and that fact is not arbitrary. So screw it, and let’s get to it.
Acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland has finally deemed us deserving of his directorial debut. Ex Machina is a beautifully shot examination of humanity and its own qualifiers for identity. Who knew locking a stark “female” andriod, her unseeming AI competency evaluator, and her abusive, super-genius maker in one remote mansion in the mountains could serve as such a captivating study of audience-character identification, and as deep an introspection into our history’s ruthless subjugation of women.
Writer-director Garland manages to deliver a sci-fi flick that is a thrilling and total subversion of the genre by being self-aware enough to imagine our mistakes as its characters’. Meaningful in ways that so effortlessly creeps up on you that the intention behind the characters’ every look and the film’s every cut is palpable. This movie set around artificial intelligence uses its premise to extraordinary effect as it showcases how its least human character may in fact be the most human of all.
What if there was a mockumentary about the daily (nightly?) shenanigans of four vampire roommates living in Wellington, New Zealand you ask? Well, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have you covered. Taking a truly silly concept and turning out a hilarious movie in the process, these two have also crafted a great vampire flick as well.
While the vampires are charming, constantly funny, disastrously naive, and surprisingly human, they are also treated with apt credulity when it comes to lore, leading to some moments of genuine horror as well. In a modern film terrain obsessed with building universes, What We Do in the Shadows manages to build one subtly and quietly, with details so rich you never want to leave.
If there are any reverent portrayals of transgenders in 2015, they are all in Tangerine. You wouldn’t know it from just watching the film but writer-director Sean Baker’s super indie was shot to completion all on the iPhone 5S, making for one of the most interesting aesthetics of the year. One that goes hand in hand with the film’s street level day-in-the-life comedy about two totes BFF transgender sex-workers on a clueless and outrageous pursuit of their pimp.
Just like its main characters, Tangerine is colourful, strange, and non-stop. It also manages to exude realism while maintaining a dreamlike logic to its propulsive pacing and kinetic energy. The realism seems to come from a place of deep disinterest to the characters’ plights, not from the film itself, but from everyone around them. And in doing so this movie makes us feel like outsiders to a world maybe we should have always been paying attention to.
There are underdog movies and then there are Rocky movies. Director of the seminal Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler and the ever present Sylvester Stallone work together to bring us back to the world of Rocky Balboa. Except now we follow the journey of aspiring boxer Adonis Creed, son of the legendary Apollo Creed from the earlier films, constantly living in his father’s shadow.
A dark horse tale for a new generation, Creed very much gives us today’s world while capturing the magic of what made the first Rocky so engaging and relatable. Director Ryan Coogler hits every beat of a sports underdog story with dexterity so sharp it could rival even that of Adonis’ boxing prowess. Somehow he balances this by also maintaining his steady, deft hand at visual storytelling. This guy just gets cinema. And it doesn’t hurt to have Michael B. Jordan as your leading man, for the second time in a row.
With Creed, Coogler has quietly conjured yet another Oscar shoo-in that also happens to be a perfect blockbuster in its own right, without the cash but all the panache.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel documentary to his own masterpiece The Act of Killing was initially last year in Venice but I only managed to see it recently after its wide release a few months ago.
In a year already filled with astounding documentary work there was really only one to take the cake—and then eat it too. While Cobain: Montage of Heck is a great doc, The Look of Silence is a future-generations-won’t-forgive-us-if-never-preserved doc. Like its predecessor, this film too is an extremely unusual treatment of mass murder and the people who commit it. Silence continues Oppenheimer’s ghastly trip into the purportedly anti-Communist, state-sponsored killings in 1960s Indonesia, and acts less as a direct sequel and more as an intended companion piece to Killing.
The film follows the story of one victim family as it sees one man’s death through the eyes of his younger brother Adi Rukun, an optometrist in his 40s, born after the killings and seen by his parents as a kind of proxy for their dead older child (if not a complete replacement). Using this as a natural gateway into a larger conversation about the nature of evil and how it lives and breathes alongside us every day, Oppenheimer skillfully corners in on the apparent inescapable truth that perhaps evil’s greatest tolerator is human nature itself. Finding groundswell in how we so easily compartmentalize, justify, and redirect blame elsewhere in order to spare ourselves complicity.
The Look of Silence is a documentary that makes you very literally question everything you know as right and wrong with its sheer audacity and will to bring nothing but truth to the screen, making it perhaps one of the most important documentaries ever made.
This internationally co-produced film set in northern Turkey from writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has the ability to strike many of us right at home. Its motifs of archaic patriarchy-as-prison are brought to life by turning a home into a literal prison as five young, beautiful and enchanting orphan sisters are forbidden by their constrictive uncle and grandmother to make contact with the outside world—especially with boys.
Upon their last day of high school, Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay are essentially locked away in their house only to learn the ways of homemaking and one by one await their respective marriages to complete strangers.
Suppression of blossoming feminine youth in favour of outdated and irrelevant tradition is not unfamiliar territory to theatrical audiences but Mustang presents these themes with such vibrant and infectious portrayals of sisterhood, that it spends every moment celebrating the very ideals the premise tries to oppress.
2015 in film has been nothing if not a year of celebrating women, and no movie proves it with more joy than Magic Mike XXL. With a shocking level of depth and humility, Gregory Jacobs and Channing Tatum’s sequel to Soderbergh’s Magic Mike takes its turn as the most sex positive film of the year. Less concerned with the seedy nature of the male stripper industry than the original, XXL focuses on the constructive side of what that premise has to offer. And in doing so, it takes us right into the heart of its love of women and celebration of feminine desire.
A movie chock full of empathetic characters making it impossible for anyone to not have fun watching them transcend racial, sexual, and societal divides with no more than expertly crafted and purposeful dance sequences. Unlike so many films today, Magic Mike XXL strives to put on display what’s truly awesome about sexuality, instead of all that’s wrong with it. Despite the lack of a central conflict (which is entirely the point), Channing Tatum and co. manage to produce a film that is all about the power of love, and nothing less.
Here we have yet another movie that exists only because of the sheer audacity of its filmmaker. Banned by the Iranian government from making movies and belonging in the public eye in any way, director Jafar Panahi screws it all and puts forth a documentary set inside a taxi cab on the streets of Tehran, starring himself as the driver. In doing so, he manages to capture essential social commentary on the daily lives of Iranian society as passengers, both known and unknown to him, enter and leave the vehicle with their own stories.
Panahi infuses Taxi with these stories into meta-commentary on the film itself as he permeates themes of art, cinema, and persecution in the face of it all. In the end, his movie stands as a love letter to artistic freedom and expression, something even we in Bangladesh can relate to on a fundamental level.
Short films don’t get enough attention as it is but when something like Don Hertzfeldt’s animated sci-fi masterpiece World of Tomorrow comes along, we’re reminded of this much overlooked medium’s boundless artistic horizons. 17 minutes of brain-busting, high concept strokes reaching every possible (and impossible) corner of science fiction matter synthesizes in the story of a little girl, Emily, meeting a familiar messenger from the future.
What follows this fateful encounter bends all kinds of reality as the film allows itself to be understood in calculated increments of narrative and visual acts within the story. Among its multitudes of themes, the short grapples with love, life, and death as conduits for contemplating space, time, and reality. No small feat to tackle for any film, and amazingly enough, even with its svelte runtime the short doesn’t appear underdeveloped or overstuffed.
Tightly directed along with its multiversal layers of dense thematic material easily makes World of Tomorrow the most rewatchable film of 2015, and even one of the most riveting sci-fi accomplishments in recent history.
Perfection is a rare, nigh impossible feat to accomplish. But that is exactly what septuagenarian mastermind George Miller has achieved with the latest quasi-sequel to the Mad Max franchise. This movie is singularly perfect, being the best version of itself that could possibly exist. And the fact that it does exist at all is pretty insane—but not nearly as insane as the characters in it.
Fury Road is the fresh meat blockbuster culture so desperately needs right now. Its story is told entirely through action, and delivered so ruthlessly it borders on the experimental. A two hour long high octane chase built on a simple point-A to point-B structure, this movie stands as a chaotic triumph of modern action filmmaking on every front. And from within its chaos and debris of dust and metal and madness this film proves to be inherently inclusive and furiously feminist.
If a movie is to be defined as a set of framed images giving audiences the illusion of constant motion, then the incessantly propulsive and gloriously relentless Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015, because it never stops moving.
Listen to Me Marlon
Heaven Knows What
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
The Duke of Burgundy
Clouds of Sils Maria
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Bande de Filles