In some ways, #20-11 of my favorite films of 2015 is a more interesting and unique list than my top 10, which I’ll publish tomorrow (You can find #25-21 and my Top 5 Documentaries here). These are provocative, challenging, diverse films. There are many coming-of-age tales here, and lots featuring female protagonists and their significant relationships and difficult circumstances. I’ll write more about 2015 as The Year of the Female Lead, but for now, enjoy this list of 12 more films I appreciated from this year:
20. Girlhood. This is a coming-of-age film with such a subtle and affecting approach, I wasn’t entirely sure where the whole process was headed, even in the final moments of catharsis. The French film focuses on a young woman as she navigates a new group of friends, her budding sexuality, and questions of identity. While the plot meanders and gets muddled at times, the performances are solid and the script takes a unique approach to a familiar story. The scene in a hotel where the girls sing and dance along to Rihanna’s song “Diamonds” is simply mesmerizing.
19. Sicario. Bleak and brutal, Sicario is one of the more tense and disturbing films I saw this year. Emily Blunt is excellent as the idealistic agent bent on stopping the Mexican drug cartels’ invasion at the U.S. border, but her idealism is overshadowed by Benecio Del Toro’s channeling of No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh. Expertly shot by Roger Deakins and with ambitious directing choices by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario is unflinching and uneasy. (My essay on Sicario and immigration)
18. Mistress America. Noah Baumbach’s second film with muse Greta Gerwig–his Frances Ha is one of my favorites from last year–is the funniest film I saw all year. Harkening back to the whiplash frenetic dialogue of Howard Hawks films, the film’s jokes and humor are quick, smart, and charming. Gerwig is excellent as usual, but the best surprise is Lola Kirke as her young mentee of sorts. A witty screwball comedy for the millennial generation.
17. Clouds of Sils Maria. Art and reality, authenticity and performance, identity and memory–these all begin to blend together in Clouds of Sils Maria, a film about the complex relationship between an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart, giving a phenomenal performance). There’s much more going on beneath the surface, and the film’s exploration of art through the two women’s dialogue kept me intrigued. Featuring the second-best performance by clouds and wind in 2015 (the best performance comes tomorrow in my Top 10).
16. The Duke of Burgundy / Tangerine (tie). These are two films I’m nervous about listing here due to their approach to sexuality and basic premise–the former is about the BDSM relationship between two women, while the latter is about transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. Neither are films which would appeal to the evangelical community, and probably would be deemed as depraved and perverted (and I’d be judged for having watched them as a Christian pastor). Yet both films are remarkable and thrilling works of cinematic art, featuring evocative visuals, affecting performances, and masterful direction. I almost turned off each film multiple times due to the content. But somehow these characters grew on me, and by the final moments of each film, I felt it: compassion. Roger Ebert once said the movies were machines for generating empathy, and that’s what these films do in spades. The Duke of Burgundy and Tangerine foster human dignity for groups of people who wouldn’t normally be known, let alone accepted, by the Christian subculture; as such, these films helped me love my neighbor as myself. (Caveat: Both films contain explicit sexual references and strong sexual themes. The Duke of Burgundy contains no nudity, but Tangerine does. Use wisdom, discernment, and caution should you choose to view either film).
15. Timbuktu / Stations of the Cross (tie). Both of these films have grown in estimation since my first viewing, as they both explore religious fundamentalism and its tragic consequences. Regardless of spirituality–Timbuktu is about Islam, while Stations of the Cross addresses Roman Catholicism–fundamentalism inevitably leads to isolation, disintegration, and death. Both films feature stunning cinematography and images, and both focus on a particular family’s experience with fundamentalists, with a young girl’s life caught in the repercussions. In an era of ISIS, Syrian refugees, and the religious rhetoric in our political climate, these films feel deeply important, even prophetic. (My review of Timbuktu. My review of Stations of the Cross)
14. Room. I was already impressed by Brie Larson for her performance in my favorite film from 2013, Short Term 12. Her portrayal of Ma in Room is equally as good, as is the powerful story of a young woman held captive in a garden shed, raising her son in a 10×10 foot space. Her commitment to survival and her son’s well-being is admirable and forceful. Featuring Joan Allen in an excellent supporting role; her conversation at the kitchen counter with Jacob Trembley is an outstanding moment in 2015 cinema. This is the less-funny, more-serious version of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (My review)
13. Creed. I knew this film was working for me when I burst into tears during a brief conversation in the final matchup between Adonis Creed and the current #1 boxer in the world. Creed simply says, “I’m not a mistake,” and I lost it in a moment of rich catharsis (I ended up crying about four times in the theater). Everything about this film works well–acting, directing, cinematography, script–proving filmmaker Ryan Coogler is not a one-hit wonder. He has made one of the best films in the Rocky series, a true Hollywood blockbuster, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
12. White God. White God would best be described as an allegory about the relationship between oppression and oppressor. It is Hitchcock’s The Birds meets the Dardennes’ La Promesse; it is a mashup of District 9 with Homeward Bound. I’m not a dog person at all, but White God‘s Hagen won over my heart. Featuring one of the better final shots in cinema from 2015. (My review)
11. Brooklyn. The charming script and lush color palette take this simple story that you feel like you’ve seen before and does something beautifully original. This film has character and gumption, much like it’s heroine, Eilis, in an award-worthy performance from Saoirse Ronan. There’s something classic about Brooklyn that harkens back to a different era, one less cynical about marriage and religion. (My review)
Coming tomorrow: my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015.
Chris Horton says
As always Joel, I look forward to your list for those gems that I somehow missed this year. Already added a half dozen titles from this list alone. Thank you for your well thought out explanations and for challenging us to get out of our comfort zones with films. I appreciate ya buddy!
Joel Mayward says
Good thoughts on the redemptive quality of TANGERINE – felt that too as I watched it and didn’t really connect with it until those last truly affecting moments.
Joel Mayward says
The final scene in TANGERINE surprised me by how much I genuinely cared and was moved by those two characters. I guess that means the film was effective in fostering empathy.