The usual disclaimers. There’s a lot I didn’t see in 2015 that I wanted to, most notably Charlie Kaufman’s latest bid for mind-blowing greatness Anomalisa (his underappreciated 2008 weirdo epic Synecdoche, New York is one of my all-time favorite films, though it only pulls 68% on Rotten Tomatoes). It Follows and Goodnight Mommy looked intriguing in their own ways. I’m also tempted to see The Hateful 8, though the idea of sitting through over three hours of Tarantino’s increasingly tiresome racial ventriloquism is not encouraging.
On the other hand, I feel like we went to the movies more this year than in a long time, perhaps ever. Cheap weekend morning matinees at Decatur, GA’s North DeKalb Mall ($4.28!) contributed, as did the appeal of killing time through the long days of last Summer’s Ramadan. In any case, here are my favorites from a great year of film:
1. Inside Out, dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen – I loved this so much I saw it three times. It’s tough to reach the upper echelons of Pixar films, but the endlessly imaginative, witty, and heart-rending world that the filmmakers created inside a pre-teen’s head was not just moving, but gave profound insight into the way we all think, feel, and make sense of life.
2. Carol, dir. Todd Haynes – It’s stunning that the same wunderkind who could make the cold, alienated Safe and the kaleidoscopic I’m Not There (another two of my favorite films ever) could make a romance as sumptuous and tender as Carol. Haynes is as technically gifted and fastidiously detailed as ever, but it’s the rich performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – one a wounded veteran of forbidden love, the other a wallflower coming into her own – that made this film so memorable.
3. Ex Machina, dir. Alex Garland – Speaking of great performances, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac stole the show in this claustrophobic AI drama. Isaac got most of the attention for his swaggering tech-bro genius, but Vikander’s expression of feminine artifice was as understated as it was amazing. The film is also a marvel of art design, with almost all the action occurring in the tight confines of Isaac’s prison-like compound.
P.S. Garland is slated to direct the adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s beloved Southern Reach trilogy, or at least the first novel, Annihilation. No reader can ever be really thrilled about the prospect of a favorite book being adapted for the screen, and Annihilation nears Cloud Atlas and Naked Lunch in unfilmability, but its hard to think of the Southern Reach being in abler hands than Garland’s.
4. Tangerine, dir. Sean Baker – Many critics seem to have been wary of this film, skeptical that it might be all concept and no substance (a film about transgender sex workers, shot entirely on an iPhone for $25 bucks and a ham sandwich!). But almost no film was an energetic and surprising as Tangerine, which swept viewers into a world that may be unfamiliar for many, but seems recognizably real, honest, and funny, despite dealing with themes of marginalization that could lend themselves to pathos. With a kind of crazy 1970s energy, the quest of Sin-dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) through the streets of LA to settle scores with a philandering pimp boyfriend works in large part of because of the colors of Baker’s saturated cityscape and Rodriguez’s effervescent performance. It also calls to mind the classic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, raising questions about how much has changed – and how much as stayed the same – for trans people in the last 25 years.
5. Buzzard, dir. Joel Potrykus – Like Tangerine, Potrykus’s quintessentially indie film also concerned misunderstood outsiders, but with very little of the empathy that characterized Baker’s iPhone odyssey. Buzzard concerns a seemingly sociopathic office temp who takes every opportunity to exploit loopholes in the system for his own personal enrichment, bending rules til they break in even the pettiest ways. Joshua Burge’s performance as the grifter Marty Jackitansky was one of the year’s most memorable breakouts, as the scrawny and malevolent protagonist marauds with a modified Freddy Krueger/Nintendo Power Glove. The director himself nearly steals the show, though, as a painfully goofy and underdeveloped manchild/coworker who plays video games with Marty. In the wake of the Great Recession, Buzzard has a lot to say about the inequities of a corrupt system – where a small-fry con artist like Marty faces more serious consequences for his actions than anyone on Wall Street – as well as a sort-of stunted masculinity experienced by many in the abysmal economic recovery.
6. What We Do in the Shadows, dir. Taika Watiti and Jemaine Clement – Fans of Flight of the Conchords, Monty Python and similar comedy will love this film, a Real-World-style documentary about vampire roommates in New Zealand that lampoons reality TV, masculinity, sexuality, and ageism with supreme aplomb.
7. Spy, dir. Paul Feig – What We Do in the Shadows might have been more novel, but Spy‘s expert recycling of spy movie cliches – and its brilliant mockery of sexism – made for what was probably the funniest movie of the year. Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham shone, but it was Rose Byrne’s snobby and foul-mouthed Bulgarian aristocrat that made me laugh the most.
8. Slow West, dir. John Maclean – the Scottish director’s debut was seen by few, but its tale of a clueless innocent (Iain Canning) who leaves his native Britain to find lost love in a brutal American West of starving immigrants and ruthless fortune-seekers brought a fresh take to the hoary genre of the Western. And almost anything with Michael Fassbender in it has to be at least a little good, except for Steve Jobs.
9. Love and Mercy, dir. Bill Pohlad – I’m a confirmed hater of biopics, but this bittersweet tale of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson avoids many of the usual music-movie traps by splitting the musician’s story between a 1960s heyday, when his struggle with mental illness first became clear, and an achingly sad 1980s period when a car saleswoman played by the always-great Elizabeth Banks tries to rescue a debilitated husk of a man from himself. Paul Dano’s performance poignantly captures the awkwardness of the young Wilson, but it had a bit too much of the tortured-genius to it for me. But John Cusack’s take on the schizophrenic older Wilson was on-point.
10. Dope, dir. Rick Famuyiwa – perhaps the best year’s best coming-of-age film, Dope told the story of a high school senior (Shameik Moore) and his two friends (Kiersey Clemons and Grand Budapest‘s Tony Revolori) who get mixed up with the wrong crowd. The plotline itself is familiar from many such teen movies, but the film benefits from its winning and refreshingly diverse trio of leads. Also, in a year when Blackish, Larry Wilmore, and even the President brought the blerd into the mainstream, Moore’s journey through LA and its suburbs felt like it was in tune with the moment.