Best of the 2010s: My Favorite Films of 2015

Mustang (Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
From my review:
Filled with humor and joy, Mustang is a timeless story. It transcends any particular religious or geographic specifics and conveys an experience that is felt by women across the globe at varying levels of intensity. Societies seem to have a preoccupation with controlling the will of their female citizens, based on a fear of loss of control. Director Erguven states firmly that this type of energy is impossible to contain, and through Lale, she tells a story that gives hope to those who may feel like they have no more freedom.

Entertainment (Directed by Rick Alverson)
From my review:
Entertainment is not a film that will appeal to everyone. Because some moviegoers have that expectation of films making them feel good, they are going to react angrily at movies like this. I suspect Alverson would welcome that reaction. The majority of movie studio fare is emotionless, just a series of dramatic formula plot points, but never anything that evokes honest emotion. It’s important that we have films like Entertainment and The Comedy because they remind us that the emotions that arise out of dissonance are some of the most real movies can make us feel.

Ixcanul (Directed by Jayro Bustamante)
From my review:
The women’s calmness in the face of continuing suffering is the mark of a people living in the shadow of a volcano. You rely on the sustenance the land gives you always knowing that at any moment, harm and death can come raining down. Maria submits to her fate in the closing scene of the film, coming back full circle to where we found her in the opening. For all the promise of a different future, she can’t afford the risk to herself and her family to do anything but what is expected of her. The powerful rely on the poor’s view of inevitable suffering to give them power. Against this beautiful tropical background, we watch another chapter in the sad story of humanity unfold.

Mississippi Grind (Directed by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden)
From my review:
The film teases the threat of Gerry’s bookie but subverts our expectations and refrains from making this a movie heavy on plot and about a race against time. Time has already run out for these two men, and now life is just them finding some way to make into the next day. Mississippi Grind is all the best of 1970s independent cinema brought into the 21st century. It shrugs off the cocksure macho bravado of that era in exchange for a profoundly sobering contemplation of addiction and the hopeless. It’s relatively sure that life will not brighten for Gerry or Curtis, but for a brief moment, they find themselves the benefactors of great luck. Having observed their patterns, the audience knows this won’t be enough, that they will continue to push and see where the breaking limit is. They’ll never stop grinding long enough to know when they’ve won.

The Hateful 8 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
From my review:
You know you are in good hands with Tarantino. Just watching the first few minutes of this picture, you feel you’re with an utterly confident filmmaker. The first figure we glimpse is Major Marquis (Samuel L. Jackson) standing in the middle of a snow-covered valley with a stack of three bodies behind him. Characters are introduced in small batches, and we take some time to get to know them before the crux of the plot kicks in, like most good Tarantino films. The music in the movie is terrific, composed by spaghetti Western vet Ennio Morricone […] As for the bleak and hopeless nature of the plot, I think it’s incredibly reflective of what life in the American West was like. If there were a place and period I would NEVER want to live in, it would be this time of lawlessness and brutal violence. However, it makes for a damn good film. While The Hateful Eight is a beautiful homage to the spaghetti Westerns Tarantino loves, he manages to play with that genre and deliver a riveting mystery film wrapped inside all of his flair and technique.

The Revenant (Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)
From my review:
For most of The Revenant’s two and a half hour runtime, it is wordless, not a silent film but one where the sounds of the environment dominate the soundtrack. There’s one moment where the trappers are forced to shout over the glacial torrent of a mountain top’s melting ice, a reminder that humanity is forced to change its behavior in this place. Iñárritu does an excellent job of eschewing Native mystic cliche and instead paints an agnostically spiritual view of nature. There is not guiding cosmic force there is simply the influence of every part of the environment on the world, from the rain to the wind to a passing grizzly bear and Glass himself. These elements act upon each other, some times in tandem and others in conflict, but the overarching tone is one of neutrality. Everything is trying to survive in a space that makes survival near impossible.

Embrace of the Serpent (Directed by Ciro Guerra)
From my review:
Guerra has made a powerful meditation on the conflict of progress and tradition, making some bold statements about the merits and problems with both. Early in the film, Theo has his compass stolen by the chief of a small tribe the group spends the night with. The German explorer is insistent; he gets the compass back and damages his relationship with the tribe in the process. He explains himself to Karamakate as they depart that he doesn’t want the clan to learn how to use the compass because then they will lose their old way of using the constellations and adopt the Western method. The shaman spits back at Theo, “Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.” This feels like a reversal of roles, the Western not wanting to disturb the way of life of the natives while a native showing resentment over having education kept from his people. The film is not a condemnation of the intermingling of cultures, rather an examination of when the wrong elements of an invading culture become dominant and exploitation and disrespect ensues.

Sicario (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
From my review:
In all his films, Villeneuve purposefully puts us in the shoes of the character who knows the least about what is happening and then builds tension through that sense of confusion and disorientation. In this film, we’re in the shoes of FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who is invited onto a Department of Defense task force targeting the drug cartel in Ciudad Juarez. The man apparently in charge is Matt (Josh Brolin) who has brought an enigmatic figure, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) onto the team. Kate is intentionally kept in the dark about what is happening, and is just drug along from location to location, getting glimpses of the dark work being done behind the scenes. It is impossible to convey just how palpable the tension in this film is. From the first daylight rush into Juarez to the final night vision shoot out, you feel all the confusion and tension Kate is experiencing. Villeneuve is also incredibly talented at showing you action but not passing judgment on that action, respecting his audience to make their own decisions about the morality of what happens.

Anomalisa (Directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman)
From my review:
Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind, and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such an unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry, they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems to drive Michael deeper into the need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
From my review:
Personality is absent from every character in the film. Conversations are monotonous and devoid of emotion. A character is violently punished for self-pleasure, and his reaction is fairly muted for what happens. Characters fall in love and barely crack a smile. Characters die and are killed, and everyone essentially walks away with a shrug. There’s no room for sentimentality in the world, dating, marriage, and having children are like business transactions. It is expected and frankly demanded of everyone in the world of the film. David is faced with a choice of severe sentimentality at the film’s conclusion, and as I simmered on it afterward, it struck me that by not committing this act he would show the strongest sense of individualism in the entire film. So while the culture around him is unsentimental, he would possibly conform to it in the end.

Green Room (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
From my review:
The violence in Green Room reminded me a lot of Simon Rumley’s Red, White, & Blue. Harm to human beings is presented as realistically as possible, taking into account what actually happens to a body when hit with these sorts of traumas. There are many moments where you have to look away, and the film doesn’t pull punches about who gets hurt and killed either. These are a group of young adults who aren’t trained to fight for their lives, and they make the sorts of mistakes and show ineptitude with weapons that they truly would. I also loved the confidence of a couple of characters going into extremely bad situations. That confidence is dealt with appropriately.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Directed by Oz Perkins)
From my review:
I was floored by how good The Blackcoat’s Daughter turned out to be. From the opening frames, there is a concerted effort to build a dark atmosphere, anticipating the coming horror. The director chooses to spend time developing the characters and not through heavy exposition. Perkins understands that often spouted film advice of “Show, don’t tell.” While some reviewers are expressing their dislike of the movie due to its slow-burn nature, I see it as the same structuring that made The Witch so lucky. We learn who Kat is, not some facts about her life, but about the core of her character and her values through her actions and interactions with Rose.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Directed by George Miller)
From my review:
In the same way, The Force Awakens provided a fun, high adventure space escapade, Fury Road did the same with its style of action. There is the same sense of forward momentum from the opening frames, and in Fury Road, it never lets up to the end. I have been a fan of the Mad Max films since I was a kid and this firmly stands as the best of the four. As almost a counterpoint to my thoughts about George Lucas and how he was a detriment to Star Wars, these films have had the same director, Australian George Miller, and he has gotten better with each one.

I think there is an argument to be made about creativity when you are making billions (Lucas) and creativity when you are doing well (Miller). The thing that makes Miller different is that he listens to other people and allows himself to be influenced, instead of having his mind made up about every piece of minutiae in his world. The magic of Fury Road is the physicality of it. Miller has stated that he is influenced by silent film comedy like Chaplin and probably even more importantly, Buster Keaton. People exist in a concrete space, not a green screen, and interact with actual objects. There are some splendidly acrobatic moments in the film. At their core, Mad Max films are essentially Westerns: the silent man shows up in town, tries to dodge dealing with a problem, is forced to deal with the problem, the townsfolk are saved. And it is that simplicity that makes it such a great film.

Son of Saul (Directed by László Nemes)
From my review:
You are meant to be overwhelmed by the perpetual forward motion of this movie, by how chaotic life in Auschwitz was. Murders and obscenities are performed often just off-camera, but we are clinging to Saul, praying he guides us out of these horrific spaces. The film is brutally confrontational without making the audience wallow in images of humanity desecration. Nemes knows where the line is, how to be true to what the Holocaust was without being exploitative. The main take away for the audience should be the high levels of disorientation, how any sense of community was torn away from the Jewish people intentionally. Unified they posed a threat but broken down into mechanistic animals, driven by paranoia and quickly snapping on each other at the smallest transgression.

In the same way that Saul, by merely witnessing the extinguishing of a young boy’s life, a stranger to him, makes his life about holding this lost soul above the chaos, we become endeared to Saul. We never get his backstory, we know he is Hungarian, but we never know about the existence of a family, the circumstances of his arrest. We care about Saul because he is a human being deserving of life beyond the squalid hell he’s been plunged into. It is a human obligation to see the dignity in others and protect them from the sins we can heap upon each other.

The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)
From my review:
Eggers understands that good horror should be steeped, slowly allowed to boil over. This is why the paranoid family dynamics are real horror, and the witch is secondary. In fact, the Witch has only to push the family towards the edge, and they do the rest of the work themselves. There is no jump scares that we’ve become accustomed to and instead a pace of life that feels of the period. Eggers did meticulous research, so that much of the dialogue used is taken from prayers and letters written in the 1600s. Authenticity is what pulls us in deeper into a world foreign and familiar.

There was some disagreement about Thomasin’s smooth conversion to the powers of the devil in the film’s conclusion, but I think the signs were always there. She is shown to have doubt during her father’s trial with just a subtle glance when they have issued their verdict. Thomasin’s fight with Mercy on the shores of the river reveals even more of her inner world, using the fear of the witch to frighten her sister away. So when everything has fallen apart, and Thomasin has been driven to the brink of sanity, her next step into the arms of Black Phillip feels as if it was inevitable.

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