The Films of 2015: Looking back

- 2015 was a quietly satisfying year at the movies, both literally and figuratively.  Most of my favorite films of the year could be described as quiet—character- and performance-driven, dialogue-heavy, many of them centering on female characters and relationships.  As bombastic, borderline assaultive action blockbusters continue to rule the box office, I found myself gravitating toward subtler, more intimate fare.  Even Mad Max: Fury Road, which became one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings, left me cold—though I did enjoy the yin-and-yang pair of Westerns that ended the year, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant.  My favorite cinematic memories of the last twelve months, though, were seeing the Somerville Theatre's Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective over the summer and, more recently, attending a two-day screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) at the Harvard Film Archive.  In addition to being an unforgettable experience, the latter screening proved that Rivette (may he rest in peace) was a better filmmakercrazier, riskier, more blindingly passionatethan 95% of any of today’s would-be auteurs. 

- Both times that I saw it I found myself riveted by every moment of 45 Years, in particular by every micro-movement of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay’s faces.  Crafting a film this controlled, without making a single false step at the level of the writing, the acting, or the direction, is akin to walking a tightrope.  45 Years feels modest in its scope and ambition but contains a world of emotion vaster than almost any other in a film this year.  It has obsessed me; I can’t say what my relationship to it will come to be over time, but for now it is my favorite film of 2015, followed very closely by Clouds of Sils Maria, a work of consummate grace.  Clouds tackles big ideas—its about the passage of time, youth and aging, the changing face of art in the twenty-first century, women, acting—but is (mostly) subtle in its deployment of them, and it lets its characters drive.  I’ve seen many of Assayas’ previous features but this is the first one I’ve loved. [Update: In the months since making this list Clouds has come to eclipse 45 Years in my estimation. Such is the effect of time on the process of critical judgment.] 

- My three favorite films of the year were each anchored by a magnificent performance by a lead actress: Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, Cate Blanchett in Carol.  Their respective acting partners—Tom Courtenay, Kristen Stewart, Rooney Mara—were equally impressive.  Some of this year’s most sublime pleasures lay in watching each of these pairs work together onscreen.  I also appreciated Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, and Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.    

- An observation: many of my favorite moments from this year’s movies are tied to songs.  Over the course of the year I found myself returning, over and over again, to Olivier Assayas’ use of Handel’s “Largo” (“Ombra mai fu”) in Clouds of Sils Maria; Jennifer Jason Leigh singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in Anomalisa; the final dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in 45 Years; Amy Winehouse’s performance of “Love Is A Losing Game” in Amy; “Speak Low” in Phoenix; “Oh, Girl” in Chi-Raq.  The use of source music in these films was more impressive than any of this year’s original scores—the best of which, however, would have to be Ennio Morricone’s for The Hateful Eight

- The slate of films for 2016 looks grim.  We will finally see Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence, as well as some highly praised smaller films by figures like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chantal Akerman, and Kenneth Lonergan.  (Personally, I await Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on Brian de Palma.)  But overall there appear to be very few films from major filmmakers on the horizon.  I hope I’m wrong.

- My top 15 films of 2015 (click each title for a full review of each):

1. Clouds of Sils Maria, dir. Olivier Assayas

2. 45 Years, dir. Andrew Haigh

3. Carol, Todd Haynes

 4. The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino

5. Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman

6. Mistress America, Noah Baumbach

7. Inside Out, Pete Docter 

8. Amy, Asif Kapadia

9. In Jackson Heights, Frederick Wiseman

10. The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer

Honorable mentions: Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson; Chi-Raq, Spike Lee; The Revenant, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu; Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry; Brooklyn, John Crowley.

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