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the-best-films-of-2015

The Best Films of 2015

What is Art, at its best, but the very weapon by which we wage the necessary, perpetual war on Culture? Here, but a quiver full of the world’s arsenal of 2015 film offerings.

Anomalisa

Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman

Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

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Anomalisa
Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman

The master of internalised anguish and bitingly funny insecurity is back with his first animated feature, Anomalisa. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, who oversaw the wonderful stop-motion sequences in Community, and with a number of team members from the show on board, Anomalisa is a desperately sad, intricately clever journey through one middle-aged man’s mental crisis, all shot in gorgeous stop-motion. For all the comic touches and beautiful animation, it’s a desperately sad and powerfully affecting experience. — Stephen Mayne

 

Film: The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Studio: Paramount Pictures

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The Big Short
Adam McKay

So who blew up the economy back in 2007? Adam McKay’s blistering, righteously funny The Big Short offers an answer. Based on Michael Lewis’ sharp chisel of a nonfiction bestseller about the guys who predicted the collapse and couldn’t believe that nobody wanted to know, it’s a story of misfit heroes, larger-than-life villains, and helpless victims. It’s the comedy that Michael Moore could have made about the financial crisis if he had a sense of humor. It’s also a tragedy about how an “atomic bomb of greed and stupidity” blew everything to hell but couldn’t stop everyone from going right back to business as usual. The film is ragged, jolting, and savagely funny guerrilla agitprop that gives after-the-fact credit to these financial Cassandras. But the film doesn’t turn their prescience into a triumph. It grants them no comfort in being right about the idiocy that ruined the lives of so many people. They would much rather have been wrong.– Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Carol

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson

Studio: Weinstein Company

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Carol
Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ Carol offers two views of the holiday season. In 1952’s New York City, we first see family gatherings, snowy sidewalks, and shopping trips. Just below that surface, two women engage in illicit romance, at every turn reminded of everything they are not allowed to have. Their world doesn’t allow for same-sex attraction, much less the idea that two women could share a life together. Everything in Haynes’ vision emphasizes how trapped the women are. They’re framed inside windows, cars, and phone booths, surrounded by rain, clouds, and drifting snow. Even their swoons are tinged with regret and worry. Yet there remains something in Blanchett’s burning intensity and chaotic urgency that refuses to accept their predetermined future as lonely outcasts. “You’ll understand this someday,” Carol tells Therese. Try as she might to play the pessimist, however, the light in Carol’s eyes says the opposite. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Chi-Raq

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Studio: Roadside Attractions

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Chi-Raq
Spike Lee

Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee Joint of exponential dimensions, the movie draws from current headlines and hip-hop lyrics, Aristophanes’ play (411 BCE) and Lee’s own movies to forge a vibrant, propulsive saga of fury and hope. Of course, it’s not just Chicagoans or Americans who like war. The movement that’s named and initiated in this fictional Chicago extends almost instantly worldwide, via social media. The women drive the movement, by force of will and poetic, gorgeous energy. They gather and debate, they make their demands: they mean to withhold sex until their men lay down their arms. Inspired by Lysistrata, she and her many sisters embrace media and use their spectacular bodies to draw and maintain attention to the cause. As divisive as media can be — and surely the sheer noise of cable TV and social media can be daunting — their potential to transform is equally compelling and dramatic. As they see it, Lysistrata and Miss Helen can change the world. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: Cinderella

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Derek Jacobi

Studio: Allison Shearmur Productions

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Cinderella
Kenneth Branagh

If there’s any justice, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderellawill become the definitive cinematic adaptation of the classic Grimm fairy tale. For a start, it’s the most cinematic of them all. Every technical department, from Dante Ferretti’s production design to Sandy Powell’s costume design, achieves perfection. Every frame, thanks to Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography, is gorgeous eye candy. In addition to the film’s aesthetic qualities, there are the terrific performances by the cast. Lily James of Downton Abby fame is a charming Cinderella, and her smile alone sells the movie. Cate Blanchett is in prime diva mode as the wicked Stepmother, and her cackle alone is a cinephile’s dream come true. Nothing this year was more pleasurable than the Stepmother’s not-so-subtle shade-throwing at Cinderella. Cinderella is a blast from start to finish, and one of those rare family films that actually appeals to the entire family. — Jon Lisi

 

Damaged

Director: Filip Bajon, Wojciech Pacyna

Cast: Agata Kulesza, Gabriela Muskala, Marcin Dorocinski

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Damaged
Filip Bajon, Wojciech Pacyna

Damaged‘s focus is a family whose most forceful figure (Krystyna Janda’s strident matriarch) believes in insularity, proudly proclaiming that the Dulska clan has never participated in any social movements and keeps its dirty laundry (should it have any) firmly behind closed doors. The story reveals its three main characters — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter alike — to all very much be products of their time. It’s not too surprising to discover that Panie Dulskie has some original roots in a play, Gabriela Zapolska’s 1907 classic The Morality of Mrs. Dulska (Moralność pani Dulskiej). With its vivid, juicy roles, and with the majority of the action unfolding inside the house, this is a film that’s theatrical in the very best sense. Bajon uses the interior wonderfully well: it’s a stage for a satirical comedy of manners, but one capable of a Gothic flourish or two, and that combination encapsulates the film’s tone. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard

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The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl is the laudable attempt by a big glitzy Hollywood film to take on an ignored area. It’s the story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender re-alignment surgery way back in the ’20s. Eddie Redmayne, hot from last year’s Oscar win, burns up the screen as Einar/Lili, managing the transformation with jittery conviction. He’s matched every step by Alicia Vikander as Einar’s wife Gerda, an artist in her own right. Tom Hooper’s film, he of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables fame, brings his glossy period style to bear in a gorgeous to look at and ever so tame account of Lili’s gradual journey from the body forced on her. — Stephen Mayne

Ex Machina and more…

Film: Democrats

Director: Camilla Nielsson

Cast: Paul Mangwana, Douglas Mwonzora, Peta Thornycroft

Studio: Upfront Films

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Democrats
Camilla Nielsson

Democrats offers up a minute or so of the history of Robert Mugabe, the notorious “ruffian” who has been president of Zimbabwe since 1987, via archival footage, then launches directly into its focus, the work to be done by co-chairpersons Mangwana and Mwonzora negotiating for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), headed by the relatively liberal Morgan Tsvangirai. Again and again, you see in a montage that’s at once horrifying and comic. As hard as the negotiations must be in a political environment where speaking truth to power is precisely not the tradition, and as opposite as their assignments appear to be, Mangwane and Mwonzora nevertheless pursue the objective of writing a constitution. That the sticking point ends up being a clause that limits a president’s term to a certain number of years is at once predictable, mundane, and surreal. Mangwane insists he must seek “political instructions” before he can proceed, leaving the room while the camera watches him recede from sight. That he comes back to the process is testament to commitment by both men, and also, the film suggests, the pretense that must be sustained. That the show has effects, some lasting and admirable, some fleeting and raucous, makes it a lot like any other democracy. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Director: Marielle Heller

Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni

Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller

In Marielle Heller’s grungy but somehow still bright-eyed coming-of-age story, The Diary of a Teenage Girl , the awkward but vivacious Minnie (a radiant Bel Powley) tries to navigate the raging storm of her adolescent hormones while still paying attention to her own true desires. It’s 1970s’ San Francisco and the whiff of countercultural permissiveness is still heavy in the air, allowing Minnie room to roam mostly free once she decides to start chasing down new sexual experiences. But that doesn’t mean that Minnie’s well-meaning but dizzy mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) would exactly be excited about the affair her daughter is having with her morality-challenged boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skasgard). Although the look is hazy and dim, that’s more for period effect. While never ignoring the potential pitfalls of Minnie’s risk-taking, Heller’s eagerly exploratory film keeps its giddy spirits high. — Chris Barsanti

 

11 Minutes

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Cast: Richard Dormer, Paulina Chapko, Wojciech Mecwaldowski

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11 Minutes
Jerzy Skolimowski

11 Minutes This film brilliantly takes up the theme of what the director vaguely calls “the commotion of contemporary life … that leads to accidents”. The film dispenses a genuine chill as it shows the ease which catastrophe can become absorbed into our experience these days, as just another incident in a city’s daily round. Like much of Skolimowski’s output 11 Minutes has certainly divided critical opinion. But I, for one, have no hesitation in calling this thrillingly expansive, formally rich and fiercely intelligent work one of the finest films of 2015. The story feels like a warning, but the precise nature of that warning can feel tantalisingly ambiguous. The fact that Skolimowski, at age 77, has produced a movie this rich, this dynamic and this blazingly adventurous constitutes a wake-up call in itself. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Domhnail Gleeson, Alicia Vikander

Studio: Lionsgate

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Ex Machina
Alex Garland

Ex Machina is a magnificent intervention in the sci-fi tradition of robot anxiety, but its magnificence lies not in its visual sumptuousness or understated performances (both of which deserve recognition). What sets Ex Machina apart is the delicacy with which it brings together humanity’s fear of artificial life with the patriarchal fear of female independence, resulting in a futuristic Bluebeard fable narratively framed as a Turing test. The film initially positions Ava as an object of investigation. Like her interviewer Caleb, we too have been brought here to determine whether or not Ava has consciousness. However, what initially seems like a unidirectional interview quickly becomes a sexually charged relationship, interspersed with increasingly hallucinatory interludes that test Caleb’s grasp on reality. It eventually becomes clear that Ava is conducting her own investigation, which eventually erupts and overtakes the narrative in a morbid flourish of righteous violence that levels everyone in its way. Not quite sci-fi, not quite horror, and thoroughly morally ambiguous, Ex Machina is the kind of film that clearly wants to unravel its audiences completely. It’s safe to say that it has succeeded admirably. — Desirae Embree

 

Film: Experimenter

Director: Michael Almereyda

Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo

Studio: Magnolia Pictures

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Experimenter
Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda’s coruscating, ambitiously intellectual investigation Experimenter opens with a recreation of the 20th century’s most famous psychological experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961. He put a volunteer in a room with an officious research assistant and called them “Teacher”. He instructed Teacher to ask questions of a “Learner” in another room, a man they could hear but not see, a man they were told had a heart condition. Teacher administered a series of apparently escalating and painful electric shocks to Learner, and to continue no matter how many times Teacher heard Learner grunt and shout in pain. Teacher was free to leave whenever they liked. After the experiment, the subjects are asked, “Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain?” None of them has a good answer. The dark gulf between what is asked and what isn’t said helps give Experimenter its provocative sting. — Chris Barsanti

 

45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh

Cast: Agnieszka Grochowska, Bartlomiej Topa, Barbara Kubiak

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45 Years
Andrew Haigh

45 Years, David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country”, is a kind of ghost story, as memories, personal histories, and truths, are found to have been hidden within dark crevices all along. Indeed, the elder Kate’s (Charlotte Rampling) fears of a past that’s not hers begin to haunt her. Haigh’s film works with familiar devices of the ghost story; creaking floor boards, howling winds, and an eventual look at an image of Katya, her husband’s tragically long lost love, as a slide image projected on a patterned sheet, at once unsubstantial and crushing. — Renée Scolaro Mora

 

Film: Going Clear

Director: Alex Gibney

Cast: Lawrence Wright, Mark Rathbun, Monique Rathbun

Studio: HBO

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Going Clear
Alex Gibney

It wasn’t so long ago that just letting the word out that you were making a film about the “Church” of Scientology would have been enough to shut down production. The money-squeezing self-help racket founded by pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard was never been afraid about suing or otherwise trying to destroy their critics, much less former members who wanted to leave. But Alex Gibney’s research-packed documentary of Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology’s long and sordid history changes all of that, perhaps permanently. Going Clear is an evenheaded but devastating takedown of a pyramid scheme cult. Gibney toggles capably between hilarious rundowns of its pulp sci-fi-like theology (volcanoes, intergalactic wars) and stomach-churning accounts of the police-state tactics and prison-camp conditions used to keep members in line and its celebrity spokespeople like Tom Cruise happy. If Scientology’s non-profit religion status is ever challenged in court, parts of Gibney’s smartly-targeted film film could be used as Exhibit A. — Chris Barsanti

The Hateful Eight and more…

Film: The Hateful Eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum, Zoe Bell, Dana Gourrier, James Parks

Studio: Weinstein Company

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The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino

Nobody ever accused Tarantino’s characters of keeping their thoughts to themselves. The Hateful Eight is no exception, and it’s one of the best things about the film. The characters have time to digress on subjects and ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot, from the hard-nosed Ruth’s (Kurt Russell) surprisingly tearful response to the personal letter from President Lincoln that Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) keeps close to his heart, to the plaintive old folk ballad that Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sings during a lull in the yelling and scheming. Such detours also allow actors to create full-blooded performances. The richness of character, however, doesn’t preclude Tarantino’s splatter-happy tendencies: by film’s end, there is nary a body that hasn’t been blasted apart or coated in viscera. The Hateful Eight doesn’t pretend the American frontier was a wide-open oasis of freedom. Here, it’s just another lawless land of bone-deep prejudices where money is made with canny, ruthless force. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Heart of a Dog

Director: Laurie Anderson

Cast: Archie, Gatto, Lolabelle, Little Wille, Laurie Anderson

Studio: Abramorama

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Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson’s memory of her mother talking to animals opens her new film, Heart of a Dog. In what follows, Anderson doesn’t talk to Lolabelle, her beloved rat terrier, but she talks a lot about her, as the center and also a movable point of reference in a series of reflections on life and death, love and art. Lolabelle “goofs around” with Anderson, she attends Anderson’s studio recordings (Anderson imagines her response: “Sure, let’s listen to that track for the 70th time! Great idea!”) and, when she’s diagnosed with cancer, she learns to play the piano. Here a bit of frantic-seeming footage shows the dog batting at keys, an image that might be startling if it weren’t so strange and cute. The many stories offered in the film remain incomplete. You know, without hearing or thinking too much about it, that the lives and deaths circulating in these stories include those of her husband, Lou Reed, who died while Anderson was making the film. They also include those of people you know, and animals too. Because we’re all part of this experiment. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: In Jackson Heights

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Studio: Zipporah Films

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In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights doesn’t just celebrate a neighborhood; it immerses you in it. A working-class neighborhood in Queens, about a half-hour’s subway ride from Manhattan, Jackson Heights features a patchwork of ethnicities and an ever-transitioning gateway for immigrants looking to get a toehold in America. Home to so many thousands of the documented and undocumented immigrants living alongside a stewpot of native-borns, Jackson Heights is a living civics laboratory for the ever-evolving American experiment. In In Jackson Heights, community is moving and ever shifting, shaping and shaped by its residents. It would be difficult to find a stronger, more effective rebuke to the brigades of anti-immigrant, English-only Tea Party reactionaries, those who would erase Emma Lazarus’ welcoming words from a certain statue in New York Harbor. Sure, the film ends in fireworks on the Fourth of July. Why not? This is America, after all. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: James White

Director: Josh Mond

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon

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James White
Josh Mond

This film is the latest offering from the Borderline collective, the enterprising group of NYU alums comprising Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond who, with works such as Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and Simon Killer (2012), have proved that there’s still hope for inventive, serious-minded American independent cinema, after all. This time out its Mond’s turn to take the directing reigns, and the results are sensational. James Whitemight be described as a hipster weepie. But don’t let that put you off. At times abrasive, with edgy elements of visual and aural dissonance, the movie is an intense, sensory experience. Yet the picture also has surprising warmth. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Director: David Zellner

Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner

Studio: Amplify

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
David Zellner

The film follows the adventures of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). Almost everyone who meets this 29-year-old “office girl” thinks she’s on the road to nowhere. Her shoulders are slumped and her eyes downcast, Kumiko wears a bright red hoodie, resisting expectations that girls grow up to be wives and mothers. She’s alone and obsessive, and her particular object of obsession is the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. Sitting night after night in her dingy apartment with only her adorable rabbit Bunzo for company, she pores over a worn-out VHS tape with Talmudic fervency, keeping a notebook full of scribbled clues that only make sense to her. Because of Fargo‘s famous opening epigraph — “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987” — she takes it as a faithful transcribing of reality. That’s why she keeps re-watching the scene where Carl (Steve Buscemi) buries the suitcase of cash by a fence in a snowy field. In Kumiko’s mind, she just needs to get to Minnesota. Staggering through the snow wrapped in a motel blanket fashioned into a ramshackle cape, her eyes blazing, Kumiko herself takes on an almost heroic grandeur. During one unsuccessful attempt to explain her quest, she likens herself to a Spanish conquistador. But by the time Kumiko reaches its bittersweet denouement, we might be reminded of another reality-challenged Spanish adventurer: Don Quixote. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller

Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nicholas Hoult

Studio: Village Roadshow/Warner Bros.

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Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller

You know his name is Max, as he’s proclaimed at the start of Mad Max: Fury Road since it is, after all, titled for him. Max is an outsider by definition, loathe even to try to reconnect, to feel intimacy. Yet as soon as he sees Furiosa, each traveling in a separate vehicle at high speed in the desert, the superb editing (a signature of the franchise) signals their mutual understanding. Such mixing of beauty and bruising violence is a signature of the Mad Max movies. So too is Max’s ambiguity, his determination not to do anything and his inclination to do the mostly right thing. This is where Furiosa is both his reflection and his opposite. Like him, she seeks redemption, and like him, she’s good at everything needed to survive. But unlike Max, Furiosa knows what she wants. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean

Studio: 20th Century Fox

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The Martian
Ridley Scott

With his new movie, The Martian, Ridley Scott sloughs off all the baggage and strikes out for brighter climes. The story doesn’t immediately lend itself to this turn. In a time just far enough in the future for interplanetary travel to be possible, but not far enough for new technology to fix every problem, NASA has landed a manned mission on Mars. When a sudden storm kicks up, the team is forced to evacuate, leaving behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), whom they believe to be dead. Waking up half-buried in a sand dune, Watney faces one of those unfixable problems. Pivoting from epic adventure to light comedy, the movie draws from the sort of characters’ interplay that keeps the better Marvel films from imploding and also the grand awe and terror that comes from contemplating the solitude of the cosmos. By summoning his lighter side, Scott has ironically created a thrilling adventure tale that resonates more deeply than most of his purportedly more serious work. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke

Studio: Indian Paintbrush

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Coming-of-age movies are a dime a dozen, but rarely do they come along with the blunt and brazen attitude that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s dramedy bucks the soapy melodrama that so-often plagues films of the genre and provides an at-times hysterical, at-times crushing look at how a hapless teen (Thomas Mann’s Greg) learns to grow out of his limiting personality flaws through a friendship with an ailing leukemia patient (Olivia Cooke’s Rachel). Gomez-Rejon sets an irresistible tone early and mixes in exciting directorial panache, and Jesse Andrews’ witty, complex script helps the film balance its levity with its more-sorrowful scenes. The young leading trio of Mann, Cook and RJ Cyler (Greg’s running buddy Earl) make strong marks – the movie’s best qualities don’t shine without their sterling performances. Oh, and good luck getting this one out of your head after the credits roll. The film’s rich blend of creativity and catharsis gives it remarkable staying power. — Cory Woodroof

Mountains May Depart and more…

Film: Mountains May Depart

Director: Jia Zhangke

Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jing Dong

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Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhangke

Continuity and change, what’s repeatable and what’s forever lost, are very much the concerns of Mountains May Depart, which follows its characters over a 25-year period. As it progresses, the film reveals itself to be about the pain of mother/child separation and, more broadly, a film about the experiences of Chinese exiles, losing a sense of their history and heritage as they adjust to life in the West. As often in Jia’s work, pop songs are also crucial to the movie: here it’s the Sally Yeh ballad “Take Care” and the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West” that are featured. The latter song bookends the film, bringing the picture full circle for a poignant, perfectly judged coda that’s equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: Mustang

Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven

Cast: Güneş Şensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan

Studio: Cohen Media Group

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Mustang
Deniz Gamze Erguven

The view from the family home of five sisters living in a remote Turkish village on the Black Sea is the kind of vista for which wealthy travelers pay dearly. The panorama of Mustang is also a taunt, because the sisters will never be allowed anywhere near it unless a male guardian accompanies them. A joyful tragedy, if such a thing is possible, Mustang starts playfully, winds its way through comedy and melodrama, and ends in qualified hope without ever quite losing its appealing lilt of innocence. This isn’t only a bold debut from a brilliant new talent, it’s also one of the most beautiful and evocative films to be seen on screens this year. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: Paddington

Director: Paul King

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman

Studio: Studiocanal

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Paddington
Paul King

He comes from Peru. Though he’s socially awkward, he’s still very polite and extremely well mannered. He has a thing for marmalade, and he always keeps a spare jelly sandwich in his floppy explorer’s hat, just for emergencies. As the star of Michael Bond’s magical Paddington Bear books, the loveable bruin with a heart of gold and a head for trouble should have already been the source of several sensational family films, not just one. Still, after decades of development, we finally have our full length feature film, and it’s terrific. Unfortunately, one fears that the potential demographic, already battle-weary from a 2014 onslaught of power robots, spy penguins, and animated building blocks, will leave poor little Paddington at the train station, just like the Browns almost did. However, if equally fatigued Moms and Dads give this unqualified gem a chance, they’ll discover something that both they and their wee ones will enjoy equally. Six months ago, one could have easily predicted that Paddington would be just another lame excuse to get the kiddies into the Cineplex. Now that it’s finally out, however, it’s easy to see that it’s a certifiable delight. — Bill Gibron

 

Rabin, The Last Day

Director: Amos Gitai

Cast: Yitzhak Hizkiya, Pini Mittelman, Michael Warshaviak

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Rabin, The Last Day
Amos Gitai

Rabin, the Last Day This docudrama about Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination proved magnificent. Mostly consisting of drawn out interviews, Gitai explores the security lapses that allowed for Rabin’s death, and the environment that created the threat. Add in a powerful score and it’s two and a half hours you won’t regret. — Stephen Mayne

 

Film: Rebels of the Neon God

Director: Tsai-Ming Liang

Cast: Chao-jung Chen, Chang-bin Jen, Kang-sheng Lee

Studio: Central Motion Pictures

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Rebels of the Neon God
Tsai-Ming Liang

Rebels of the Neon God deals with two stories that separate and intertwine seamlessly. The first is about Hsiao Kang (Kang-sheng Lee), an almost mute boy with a fraught relationship with his father and a desire to escape his cram school. The second follows two petty thieves, Ah Tze ( Chao-jung Chen) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen), and the relationship that Ah Tze forms with Ah Kuei (Yu-wen Wang), a shopaholic girl that seems to spend most of her days working at a roller disco. The director comes out of the gate swinging, establishing himself as a formidable filmic force. The use of style, the characterization, and the philosophical depth of thought present in the film seem indicative of a more seasoned director, even though by this time Ming-liang only had a string of TV movies to his name. The acting feels incredibly natural, especially from Ming-liang regular Kang-sheng, although Yu-wen’s performance is also quite skilled. If there’s a bad thing to say about this film, it’s that it doesn’t always feel fully formed. But then, it’s not always supposed to — it’s a snapshot of city stories, imperfect renderings of infinitely complex lives — and it’s done incredibly well. The newest DVD release of the film comes from an HD restoration put out by Big World Pictures, although there’s a disappointing lack of extras — all you get is a theatrical trailer. — Valeriy Kolyadych

 

Film: Remember

Director: Atom Egoyan

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Dean Norris, Martin Landau

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Remember
Atom Egoyan

Remember Christopher Plummer, an eminently watchable actor, plays an aging Auschwitz survivor living in America. Following the death of his wife, he sets out to track down the camp officer directly responsible for the loss of his entire family. It’s not quite that simple, though. Catch one: the SS officer is working under an assumed name. It’s been narrowed down to one of four people but he has to go to each in turn to find his man. Catch two: he’s suffering from dementia, Memento style; he frequently wakes up unaware of where he is or what he’s meant to be doing. He even writes reminders on his arm. Plummer is superb in this role, and the film never lets up, building to one of the best endings I’ve seen in a while. I went in tired and left buzzing. — Stephen Mayne

 

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Agnieszka Grochowska, Bartlomiej Topa, Barbara Kubiak

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The Revenant
Alejandro González Iñárritu

With The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu weaves a story both simple and complex, brutal and beautiful, and with a focused and impressive visual aesthetic. At it’s heart is not just a story of survival, but questions about the nature of man. After all, the destructive power of a grizzly bear is nothing compared to the destructive power of humans. The film seems to make a definitive stance on the inextricable connections between humans and nature, and the violence of each mode of existence. In the last scene everything coalesces into a violent and beautiful whole, and after concluding the film’s philosophical journey, the audience is tasked with synthesizing Glass’s journey. Iñárritu purposefully mimics the sparse landscapes in the construction of the film, much is left unsaid, but it is not left obscured, and the film’s faith in the audience makes dissecting it all the more rewarding. — Valeriy Kolyadych

 

Film: Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Brie Larson, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy

Studio: A24 Films

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Room
Lenny Abrahamson

Lenny Abrahamson’s darkly shimmering Room is a pointedly lyrical but still gimlet-eyed story. Given its scenario of imprisonment and a mother and son’s titanium-like bond, the film could have been an unrelentingly grim or sentimental slog. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also handled the screenplay, it starts as claustrophobic as Ma and Jack’s lives. Abrahamson keeps his camera close, as though it had nowhere else to go in that cramped space. Room then becomes more the tale of the son’s slow, emerging adaptation to this world he is discovering anew each day, years of childhood unpacked all at once. It’s beautiful and terrifying, like the film itself. — Chris Barsanti

Sicario and more…

Film: Sicario

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

Studio: Lionsgate

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Sicario
Denis Villeneuve

Director Denis Villeneuve creates an unsettling mood of despair in Sicario, as if he knows that the war on drugs will continue on for decades with no end in sight. Sicario is as tense as any thriller in recent memory, and Emily Blunt’s performance as the inexperienced FBI agent at the center of the conflict is terrific. However, there’s a futility to the action. It doesn’t really matter what happens to Blunt’s heroine. She is merely a cog in a machine. Unlike most thrillers, which provide a prepackaged sense of closure, the bad guys aren’t caught at the end of Sicario, and the heroine gets out of the conflict before it’s too late. As I think about the images of this menacing environment, like the carcasses of Mexican drug dealers hanging on hooks by the border entrance, I understand why Blunt’s character chooses self-preservation over selfless sacrifice for the greater society. It’s a necessary act of survival in a world where many don’t make it out alive. — Jon Lisi

 

Film: Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci

Studio: Open Road Films

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Spotlight
Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s crisp and riveting drama, Spotlight about the squad of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of the diocese’s dozens of sexual predatory priests is a closely-observed study of power, corruption, and the tendency of wrongs to go unrighted for no better reason than sheer inertia. It’s an accomplishment alone for McCarthy to have made a crusading journalist film without resorting to the genre’s hallowed cliches: carefully manicured eccentricities for the truth-tellers, bland corporate stench for the evil-doers, and an ecstatic moment of revelation to cap everything off. But he also assembled a crackerjack cast who all grip their roles with two-fisted gusto and somehow don’t showboat (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams, in particular, with John Slattery and Liev Schreiber doing their usual sly work in the margins). Like The Big Short, this is a film about against-the-grain truth-tellers who don’t expect to be rewarded for their efforts, but only ask not to be ignored. — Chris Barsanti

 

Film: (T)Error

Director: David Felix Sutcliffe, Lyric R. Cabral

Cast: Saeed “Shariff” Torres, Khalifah Al-Akili

Studio: The Film Collaborative

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(T)Error
David Felix Sutcliffe, Lyric R. Cabral

Consider the complicated mirror images here. While the documentary (T)Error might be the first film to follow an FBI sting operation as it happens, the FBI decides to follow the film, which is to say, the filmmakers and their efforts to release the film. (T)Error exposes a number of what might be termed “errors” on the part of the agency. It’s possible that the FBI might have an interest in correcting what it might term the film’s “errors”, but it’s also possible it has an interest in keeping its own secrets. The problem of who knows what turns inside out again and again, as the movie urges you to worry about what you see, what you trust, and what you can’t know. As compelling as its restless images are, the film never lets you forget what you can’t see, what’s out of frame, what’s deliberately hidden and what’s receding from view even as you look. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

The World of Kanako

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Nana Komatsu, Satoshi Tsumabuki

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The World of Kanako
Tetsuya Nakashima

The World of Kanako has every chance to go off the rails, but it doesn’t. It’s solid and it’s experimental and dark as hell. Despite a wealth of ’70s exploitation influences that are made extremely apparent in the film’s campy opening and fight scenes, you never get the sense that you’re watching an exploitation film. It’s much more apt to approach Kanako as an arthouse film, because hidden beneath a veneer of soulless violence is a film that challenges viewers with unique storytelling and a visual playfulness. This is a film for which much can be written about, and comes from a director who wants to show people an eclecticism that one wouldn’t have imagined watching 2010’s Confessions. Kanako isn’t going to appeal to everyone — in fact, the sheer violence of it may put off a lot of people — but going into it with an open mind is a dizzying and worthwhile experience, with an emphasis on dizzying. — Valeriy Kolyadych

 

These Daughters of Mine

Director: Kinga Debska

Cast: Agata Kulesza, Gabriela Muskala, Marcin Dorocinski

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These Daughters of Mine
Kinga Debska

These Daughters of Mine is a family portrait that seems to start in fairly broad sitcom mode but develops unexpectedly into something richer, deeper and very moving, while managing to remain laugh-out-loud funny throughout. In its mixture of humour and tears, plus its focus on a professional woman’s struggles in caring for a dying matriarch, These Daughters of Mine evokes Nanni Moretti’s recent Mia Madre. The cast excel, with the veteran Marian Dziędziel especially memorable as the women’s father, capturing beautifully the old man’s confusion, rudeness, charm and vulnerability. — Alex Ramon

 

Film: Toto and His Sisters

Director: Alexandre Nanău

Cast: Hovarth Ilie Nicusor Gabriel Petre, Andreea Violeta, Ana-Maria Badulescu, Siminica Petre

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Toto and His Sisters
Alexandre Nanău

In some of its brief and poignant scenes, Toto and his Sisters not only suggests Andreea’s struggles, but also her thoughtfulness, her resilience, and her typical teenage-girlness. For all the heartbreak she’s endured, she worries still what “people say”. That she shares her concern here, with the camera given her by Alexandre Nanău, suggests as well a comfort with the process of recording her life, an understanding of the relationship between communication and performance. As she describes herself, Andreea makes clear her participation in the documentary, which is by turns observational and collaborative, a means for Andreea, her nine-year-old brother Toto, and their older sister Ana, not only to show but also to shape their experiences. Those experiences are difficult, to be sure, and the film offers complication and nuance, as well as respect for the kids’ ingenuity, their generosity, and their havoc. You might see in Toto and His Sisters that all the kids feel left behind. But as they engage in this filmmaking process, as they share their lives with one another and with Nanău and with you, their possibilities loom larger than their losses. And even if they’re unable to find solace with and in Petre, they discover community and compassion in art, in self-expression, in each other. — Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: Two Days, One Night

Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Christelle Cornil

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Two Days, One Night
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

It’s well known that the Dardennes privilege the body in their cinema. Their films are comprised more of gestures than words. Yet, less noticed, is how a single-minded focus on labor and work often accompanies the Dardennes’ cinema of the gesture. Two Days, One Night follows a woman’s desperate need to stay employed not just for sustenance, but also for a sense of self-worth. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who had been on sick leave due to depression, fights to maintain her job after most of her fellow workers had voted for her termination in order to receive bonuses. Although one might hesitate to call Two Days, One Night. a propaganda film for labor, it nonetheless expresses an intimate concern for those who labor by exploring how precarious working conditions affect one’s daily lives, personal relationships, and sense of identity. Labor is not simply something we do; it structures our lives and very being. The film reveals how labor and its attendant struggles extend beyond the factory’s walls into our homes. Furthermore, the film expresses how the most important thing emerging from our labor is not the profits that it reaps, but instead the communities and bonds that it fosters as people struggle for a sense of respect. — Chris Robé

 

Film: White God

Director: Kornel Mundruczo

Cast: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth, Lili Monori

Studio: Proton Cinema, Pola Pandora Filmproduktions Filmpartners, Chimney Pot, The Film, I Vast, Hungarian National Film Fund, ZDF/Arte

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White God
Kornel Mundruczo

Drop what you’re doing and watch White God (2015), Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s Orwellian parable about a pack of enslaved dogs that revolt against their human masters. This unrivaled masterpiece is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time. When the film opens, Young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is separated from her dog Hagen after her father Dániel (Sándor Zsóter) leaves it on the side of the road. The Hungarian government deems the dog “unfit” for society because it is mixed-breed, and Dániel gets rid of it so he doesn’t have to deal with the punishment. When we put the genre conventions aside, White God tells a fairly universal story about the ties that bind us, and the forces that try to tear them apart. Circumstances separate Lily and Hagen for most of the film, but it’s clear that their bond can never be broken. As strange as it may seem, the relationship between Lily and Hagen is a testament to the enduring power of love in a hellish society. In addition to the bonus features about the film’s complicated production, the DVD release has an insightful 14-minute interview with Mundruczó about his artistic intentions. He answers questions about the meaning of the film’s title, his specific use of mix-breed dogs, his disapproval of CGI, and his newfound passion for animal rights activism. — Jon Lisi

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