A few of the films that could have made the list, but didn’t include: Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder) is a truly fascinating documentary about an “alternative” school that allows students a voice in every decision made – and the problem that can happen when one of those students takes advantage of that situation, and threatens to ruin it for everyone else. Eden (Mia Hansen-Love) is an excellent film about a man drifting through his life, not quite realizing he’s wasting it. Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap) is a two part, more than five hour Indian gangster epic – a visceral, violent, enthralling movie, and one of the best kept secrets of the year so far. Paddington (Paul King) which was an absolute delight from start to finish – my three year old loved it – I think I loved it more. Red Army (Gabe Polsky) is the rarest of things – a wonderful hockey movie – and it’s also a fascinating documentary about the USSR in its waning days. ’71 (Yann Demange) is an expertly paced thriller, that is also politically smart. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taiki Waititi) was an absolutely hilarious mockumentary about four vampires sharing a flat in New Zealand. While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach) veers off course in the final act, but overall is a funny, perceptive view of the generational divide. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón) is a deliriously entertaining Argentinian film – a set of short stories, all of which revolve around violence and death, which basically concludes that all people, everywhere, are horrible.
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a very good movie, with an absolute stunner of an ending that raises the level of the whole movie. This German film is a take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo – with Nina Hoss delivering an excellent performance as a Jewish released from the camps in the days after WWII, and returning to Berlin. She wants to find her husband – despite the fact that he may well have been the one who turned her in. She has been scarred – literally – by the camps, and her husband doesn’t recognize her – but thinks she looks enough like his wife, who he says is dead, to fool some people – so he can get her money. She goes along with the ruse, hoping to eventually reveal the truth, and be welcomed back. The whole movie is handled with subtlety and intelligence – a slow burning tension that bubbles under the surface. Then, the final scene in the film happens, and your jaw hits the floor. No, one scene does not a masterpiece make – but it certainly raised my appreciation of what was already a very good film.
The biopic of the genius musician has become a tired clichéd – only occasionally resulting in a movie actually worthy of its subject. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson, is one of those films. The film shuttles back and forth between the 1960s – when Wilson stepped away from life on the road with the Beach Boys, to write and record his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and his mental issues start getting worse, and in the 1980s, when he is controlled by a doctor, until a new woman enters his life. John Cusack is excellent as the older Wilson – it takes a scene or two to get used to him in a very un-Cusack like role (not to mention, he looks nothing like Wilson, or the younger version of him in the film) – and Elizabeth Banks may be even better in this segment. But it’s Paul Dano, as the younger Wilson, who delivers what is probably the male performance of the year so far. His Wilson is a genius, of course, but an insecure one – one constantly teetering on the brink of a mental abyss he may not be able to come back from. Director Bill Pohlad – making his first film as a director in more than 20 years (he has produced some great ones though – 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, Into the Wild, A Prairie Home Companion, Brokeback Mountain) brings a sensitivity to the direction, and the screenplay (co-written by Owen Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, about Bob Dylan, and the best of the recent genius musician biopics), mainly avoids the clichés that often drag the genre down. The film takes chances throughout – and while they don’t always succeed, they do enough to make this a highlight of the year so far.
Director Peter Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio, was an homage to the giallo horror films from Italy – that directly referenced the films it was playing around with, but also works on its own terms. It was not a masturbatory regurgitation of well-known tropes, but rather something deeper. The same is true of his follow-up – The Duke of Burgundy – whose opening looks precisely like a soft-core, European porn movie from the 1970s, and plays with the genre throughout in its story of a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship between two women – the older one (Sidse Babett Knudsen), appears to be in control, but really may not be, given how the younger woman (Ciara D’Anna) manipulates everything. The film is brilliantly well made – both in terms of its visual, and its meticulous sound design, genuinely erotic, and yet also deeper than the films it sends up. The film really is about the compromises we make in relationships, so no matter who you are, you may well find yourself genuinely moved by this film.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows joins the shortlist for the best horror films of the decade so far – with its brilliant premise of a presence stalking a teenage girl, who can only stop it by passing it on to someone – by having sex. The film plays with the tropes of the horror genre – which has always been moralistic about teenage sex – but goes further than just that, and has made a film of genuine ideas about growing up, wrapped up in a genuinely creepy, scary and disturbing horror film – and brilliantly constructed one at that, with its long takes. The only flaw with the film is a confused and confusing climax in a swimming pool – which really doesn’t work at all – but otherwise, this is top notch horror filmmaking – and like the best the genre has to offer, one of ideas as well as scares.
6. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)I usually do not put shorts on my lists like this – in part, because I don’t see that many – but Don Hertzfeldt’s 17 minute, animated sci-fi film really is as brilliant as any feature I have seen so far this year – and packed with more ideas than almost all of them. The premise of the movie is that a young girl is visited by one of her future clones, who walks her through the future – which is a dark, horrifying place. The little girl has no idea of that though – she cannot comprehend what she is being told – but we do. The film is simultaneously hilarious, and disturbing –a genuinely moving exploration of what it means to be human, and what we are giving away. The animation – with Hertzfeldt’s trademarked stick figures, and a much more detailed background than he normally has, is brilliant. I rented the film from Vimeo – where you get to keep it for 30 days – and I have no idea how many times I watched the film in that month, but I still cannot wait to see it again. One of the great shorts I have ever seen – and if it doesn’t win the Animated Short Oscar this year, I’m going to be pissed.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary that is, admittedly, tailor made for me – a Nirvana fan from my teens on. Yet over the years I have seen many docs on Cobain, Nirvana and grunge, and none of them have been anywhere near as good as this one. Part of the reason for that is that director Brett Morgan has access to things no one has had before – home movies, audio recordings, journals and interviews with Cobain’s family, who haven’t given on camera interviews before. But a lot of it is the way Morgen himself assembles the footage. Like his episode of the ESPN show 30 for 30 (which may be the best one in a great series), where he assembled a montage of one very busy day in sports history to make larger points about news, sports and celebrity – Morgen does something similar here – making the film one big, haunting, heartbreaking montage. Yes, the movie runs out of steam a little towards the end – when we’re in more conventional territory – but not much. This is easily the best doc of the year so far.
We’ve already had more than our share of action blockbusters this year – and to be fair to them, most have been at least moderately entertaining. But they all pale in comparison to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is the best, most bat-shit insane action movie to come along in quite some time. The film is almost all action from beginning to end – and yet, it finds time for a complex narrative, and character arcs that are told almost all through actions, both large and small. For a movie called Mad Max, you wouldn’t expect the best, most complicated character to be Charlize Theron’s Furiosa – but that you have it, it happened. The original Mad Max trilogy really only had one great film – the second one, The Road Warrior – but that was an action masterpiece. This is another one – and makes me really sad that director George Miller essentially abandoned the genre for 30 years. But he’s back now – and this movie is blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.
Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is one of the best, smartest science fiction films in recent years. It is a small film – four characters, one location – a large house in the middle of nowhere – with great special effects, that are used sparingly, but with greatest results. The film is about a young programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) who is called by his eccentric, billionaire, genius boss (Oscar Isaac) to his secluded house to give a Turing test to robot he has created (Alicia Virkander). The film is tense, gradually ratcheting up the suspense as it moves along. It is also brilliantly acted – especially by Isaac and Virkander, the latter of which does a great job with a difficult role. The film is more than a sci-fi thriller however – it is a smart take on gender roles and misogyny. Like all great sci-fi, it is a film of ideas that enhance the plot – that uses special effects to enhance the story and not detract from it. Imagine that.
2. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
After a few down years for Pixar, they have returned with one of the very best films they have ever made. The film is also without a doubt the most daring film they have made – taking place entirely inside the head of an 11 year old girl, with her emotions being the main characters – with the ultimate message being that sometimes it’s okay to be sad – in fact, you need to be sad at times. This is a complex idea for a children’s movie – and yet Pixar was able to pull it off brilliantly, in a movie that works on one level for kids and another for adults. Like all Pixar films, it trusts it audience to be able to handle more mature material – material that challenges them, and can indeed make you sad. I’m not ashamed to admit that the movie made me cry – a lot – and not just because of Bing Bong (although, yes, Bing Bong destroyed me). All of this probably makes Inside Out sound depressing or serious – and it isn’t. It’s still a joyous and hilarious – as well as brilliantly animated. This has been a strong year so far for movies – but even saying that, Inside Out is far and away the best movie I have seen so far this year.