The list of favourites (in alphabetical order)
45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
Arabian Nights 1-3 (Miguel Gomes)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg)
Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
It’s that most wonderful time of the year again when I somewhat reluctantly compile a list of the films that have meant the most to me from January 1 to right about now. Of course, if I were to compile this list tomorrow, next week, or next month, its contours would probably be quite different. For example, any of the films that have received honourable mentions could easily substitute for those on the list proper (Foxcatcher, really should be up there, but missed out in the shuffle for reasons I don’t even know). But I’ve already whittled this list of 20 down from an unruly list of 60 contenders. And at some point this unnecessary agonizing over something very few people really care all that much about really should just come to an end.
The requisite apologetic disclaimers
I compile this list fully aware that I have barely touched the surface of new release films for 2015. That despite six months of unemployment and a healthy average of at least one film per day (not counting festivals and other bumper screening days) seeing it all and seeing all that I’m told I should have seen remains an impossible task (I am especially sorry I missed By the Sea, Eden, Creed, The Big Short and Spotlight which I’ll catch up with early in 2016, and Suffragette on Boxing Day). Nevertheless, I’m happy with what has made the cut – some films I always knew would be there, and others that buried themselves under my skin in surprising ways. Magic Mike XXL was one of those. I was in a state of complete bliss watching this film. Difficult not to fall in love with a film that depicts male bonding as a force for good in the world instead of evil.
I’ve chosen not to number the 20 films but if you pushed me, gently, I’d tell you that my top spot would be shared between The Lobster, Phoenix and Carol.
For the sake of my own sanity I’ve also absolved myself from naming any documentary features among the twenty. You’ll find them in my honourable mentions where the standouts for me were The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders) and The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán), two exquisite, compelling, deeply human works of art.
One final disclaimer: Xavier Dolan’s Mommy doesn’t appear anywhere here not because I don’t love/rate it, but because it was my joint favourite film of 2014, the year I first saw it, and it seemed redundant to repeat my adoration here just because of its official Australian 2015 release date. That said, I’ve not applied any date related rules this time around, hence the presence of a few films that haven’t officially landed at all.
The state of the union
Over on Twitter I recently declared that 2015, the year in film, has been many things, but that above all it has been a year of magnificent, majestic, magnetic women. Variety has been the key: furious warriors, transgressive lovers, and self-possessed teens, survivors armed with secrets, bombshells, anxieties and sewing machines. All of these characters are a testament to what has been a vivid year of women’s stories and brilliant performances by some of the finest actresses working today. All of them women it is impossible to look away from, impossible to silence, impossible to ignore.
It’s also been a year of fierce debate about women in film, both in front of and behind the camera. We’ve debated grim statistics that tell a sorry tale about female screenwriters and directors. We’ve debated the kinds of films these women should be allowed to make, and which films audiences will pay money to see, and whether women have to meet ridiculous standards for success that their male counterparts never do, and why women aren’t allowed to fail. The debate goes on. It absolutely must. There is still so much work to be done around the means of production, around content and representational issues, around consumption, audiences and also the disproportionate voices of female film critics. Sometimes I get so frustrated, clawing at my own face feels like the only reasonable response.
Statistics on their own are certainly grim, but I’m rarely as excited by numbers as I am by stories, regardless of who is telling them. I want to see diverse women tell diverse women’s stories, but I also want women to tell men’s stories, and men to make films that articulate something other than a limited, toxic view of masculinity. I want films that expand the visual language that shapes and reshapes all of us. I want new images, new ideas, and new possibilities. But at the end of the day, all I really want to see when I pay my money and take my seat in the dark are quietly emotional, forcefully original stories told well. And I got them this year, in droves.
Girlhood and The Diary of a Teenage Girl capture the yearnings of young womanhood. Here are two films about young women, made by women, which stand out from the pack of other films about ‘growing up’ and ‘coming of age’ because they let their female protagonists, Marieme (Karidja Touré) and Minnie (Bel Powley) dictate how we should see them. Both teenagers look and talk back, following their desires for sex and something more from their lives, exhibiting an unapologetic agency rarely permitted on screen. In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, when Minnie stands before a mirror and evaluates her naked body, she’s taking control of the narrative, wrestling back the gaze from men’s (and other women’s) eyes. This scene, like the whole film and Sciamma’s electrifying look at life in the Paris banlieues, feel like minor revolutions, making what has been previously unknown and unspeakable, loud and visible. It’s almost like looking inside the female brain. In the extraordinary animation, Inside Out, we go right in.
Challenges to the conventions of the male gaze got a further workout in The Duke of Burgundy and Carol, where the power of looking is realised in exquisite detail. Each film plays with the erotics of looking and desire, reducing narrative down to the intimate spaces between two women, structured around their passion, control and release. After its opening scene, Carol abandons a male point-of-view to follow the intertwining paths of Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) and The Duke of Burgundy has the audacity to create a completely plausible world in which men simply don’t exist. Each film’s beautiful surface contains a full-blown emotional sting.
Films of great compassion and empathy remain the main reason to invest in the experience of cinema at all. Jafar Panahi’s clandestine Taxi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour ably fulfill this brief. Weerasethakul’s films create melancholy poetry. Cemetery of Splendour is a sublime film about dreaming, loneliness, and spirituality expressed through magical, feverish imagery. I didn’t try to understand all of it; I just let it wash over me. Panahi continues to defy the ban on his making films in Iran through ever-ingenious means. Here, from behind the wheel of a taxi, he takes his cultural rebellion to the streets. Panahi’s film is an act of civil disobedience, of deep humanism and boundless grace.
Humanism is strong in both Selma and Phoenix. Ava DuVernay’s quietly electrifying film about Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, takes historical events and breaks your heart with them. DuVernay, whether intending to or not, places her audience directly inside the experience of trauma, by reminding us that for all of us, the personal is political. Similarly, Christian Petzold brings us into postwar Berlin through the trauma of one woman, whose identity is as shattered as the city. Collective guilt is addressed through Nelly’s (Nina Hoss) story; her need to be seen and recognised by her husband Johnny (Ronny Zerhfeld), an allegory for the necessity of telling Holocaust stories as a complex act of remembrance.
Women take control of their destinies, in disparate ways, in both The Dressmaker and Far From the Madding Crowd. I’m a sucker for period films, romantic dramas, and literary adaptations, and these films provided delights aplenty. It’s nice to be reminded, from time to time, that watching a film, swallowing it up with your eyes, should be a pleasurable act, a feast for the senses as much as the soul, featuring characters with gorgeous costumes and beautiful faces, or whatever tickles your fancy.
There was plenty of visual flair and epic orchestrations of action in both Macbeth and Mad Max: Fury Road. Justin Kurzel gave us Shakespeare’s play pared down to its tragic essence through exquisitely composed tableaux; and Miller’s reboot of his own successful series brought an energy and grandeur to action cinema – plus a fierce female heroine who was much more than the sum of her breasts – that it has been sorely lacking for years. That an action film is appearing amongst my favourite films of the year is a surprise to me too.
I was less surprised that I fell in love with Clouds of Sils Maria and 45 Years. Each film focuses on a twosome and each in their own way on the nature of performance. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas gives us a celebrated actress played by a celebrated actress, Juliette Binoche, and her younger, smart assistant played by Kristen Stewart, in a film full of enigmas and mirror images and conversations that blur the lines between acting and reality on numerous levels. Andrew Haigh examines a deception of a different kind in 45 Years – marriage, which also requires some blurring of lines between fact and fiction. Here a secret, long buried, is exposed in the week leading up to Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) 45th wedding anniversary. Haigh applies a gentle scalpel (until that icy final image) to the unfolding damage, and proves that whether he’s looking at gay or straight relationships, he knows exactly which details to focus his camera on.
Films like The Lobster and Arabian Nights (Volumes 1, 2 3) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, create wholly original worlds and as a result wholly original film-going experiences. Arabian Nights (all three volumes) is a passionate, imaginative, confounding political statement that asks a lot of its audience but rewards it magnanimously in turn. Much more than an intellectual exercise, Gomes’s three films burst with feeling. Pulses also beat rapidly within The Lobster and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Lanthimos and Andersson paint similarly grey worlds seemingly drained of life and colour, but each becomes, in their own way, nothing less than investigations of the very state of our humanity in the 21st century.
I’ve spent a lifetime watching films about characters who are nothing like me, so I didn’t run away from Knight of Cups and Youth which fall into that now much-maligned category of ‘films about white male problems’ that I’m expected to loathe. Sure, on the surface, this is what they might appear to be, but look a little deeper and you might see something else. Each is a film about betrayed ideals and the promises of youth that don’t eventuate. Sorrentino’s Youth is a melancholy opera about ageing (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, the old white dudes here), but people of all ages are falling to pieces at the Swiss mountain hotel he uses as the film’s central locale.
Malick’s Knight of Cups is no less symphonic. It follows a screenwriter (Christian Bale) through the excesses of Los Angeles, another of Malick’s melancholy men, wandering, questioning the meaning of his life. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography here reaches new height of gorgeousness, endowing an empty, sick landscape with spiritual beauty. Given that both films deal with mid-to-late life disillusionment before touching at hopefulness, maybe 25-year-old cinephiles aren’t going to be their main audience. And that’s okay. But maybe, just turn off all that noise that social media generates around a film that seems to predetermine your response before you’ve even seen a frame. We should always enter the cinema with an open heart and mind, phones switched off.
Let me leave you with a quote from the 15-minute short film, World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeld), which is a little thing of rather grand beauty, which I’ve now watched and cried over several times. World of Tomorrow is a film about loneliness, about our collective fear of forgetting, and the terror we feel about an uncertain future. When one character says to another about the painful process of growing up that “You will feel a deep longing for something you can’t quite remember,” it sounds a lot like the experience of cinema itself to me, which fulfills a deep longing in us that we never knew we had.
The honourable mentions
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amy, The Assassin, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Citizenfour, The End of the Tour, Ex Machina, Far from Men, Foxcatcher, Junun, Leviathan, Listen to Me Marlon, Love & Mercy, Magic Mike XXL, Nasty Baby, Partisan, The Pearl Button, Queen of Earth, The Salt of the Earth, Sicario, The Tribe, The Walk, Wild Tales, World of Tomorrow.