Anyone of the opinion that 2015 was a mediocre year at the multiplex just wasn’t looking hard enough. Why even narrowing the titles down to a workable 30 titles was no small feat – I cringe at the many worthy films that didn’t make the cut – and a cursory glance at the titles assembled here shows a wonderful and wide-ranging miscellany.
The auteur is alive and well, arthouse and blockbusters are plentiful, genre films are stronger than ever, female-led projects are populist and bankable, as are strong women characters.
Without further ado, let the roundup commence, and in 2016 let’s catch up in the queue and compare notes, shall we?
Miguel Llansó, Ethiopia/Finland/Spain
With a straight-face Crumbs tells the surreal story of a diminutive adventurer (Daniel Tadesse) who, along with his beloved Birdy (Selam Tesfaye), lives in a relinquished bowling alley, but must journey to find a tyrannical Santa Claus and ask him to put them aboard a spaceship.
Armed only with his wits, a toy sword – still in it’s original packaging – and a vinyl pressing of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to barter with, and dogged by a dollar store trinket-adoring Nazi, Crumbs is the crazy directorial debut from Ethiopian filmmaker Miguel Llansó. A post-apocalyptic melodrama, and peculiar pop culture collateral as objet d’art, this is a bedtime story for children of the far future. You’ve never seen a film like Crumbs and you’ll never forget it, either.
29. The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, China/Hong Kong/Taiwan
There’s nothing atypical about legendary Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (Millennium Mambo) revenge-fuelled variation on the wuxia genre. While martial arts fans may be left out in the cold at this delicate, restrained, and original approach to sorcery and comeuppance, others will be blown away by Hou’s muscular long takes, the rich period details of the 9th-century Tang Dynasty setting, and the brilliant performance from the unerring Shu Qi in the eponymous role.
Sumptuous, reflective, and inventive, this exacting and expertly choreographed film, which won the director’s prize at Cannes, is unlike any other action film released this year. Exceptional.
Sean S. Baker, USA
Part domestic drama, part two-timing revenge narrative, and all screwball pastiche, this Kickstarter-funded festival favorite, famously shot via iPhones, is, remarkably, an old-fashioned farce. Making their screen debuts are BFFs Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender sex-worker recently released after a short stint in the clink are reunited on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles.
Director and co-writer Sean Baker (Starlet) brilliantly subverts stereotypes we’ve all seen ad nauseum when it comes to tart-with-a-heart caricatures, and these deeply-flawed women are authentic, deeply delightful, emotionally honest and enthralling throughout. Tangerine is gritty, as you might expect, but it’s also riotously entertaining, and one of the funniest films of the year.
27. Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad, USA
In many ways as eccentric and onerous as the friable genius it celebrates, Love & Mercy, the unconventional Brian Wilson biopic, is a complete and unequivocal success. Brilliant turns from Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and John Cusack (Say Anything), both playing iconic savant songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, each at different points in his stormy and misunderstood career.
Dano is Wilson circa 1965, on the precipice of recording Pet Sounds, a complex pop album that would, over time, be viewed as the Beach Boys’ masterpiece. Cusack is 1980s-era Wilson, a desolate figure in the throes of mental illness, under the auspices of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy’s endless prescription drug cocktails are leaving Wilson in ruins, but all this will change when he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, brilliant).
Pohlad’s juxtapositioning of these two fractured timelines is intricate and satiating, making for an immersive study of mental illness, musical genius, and empathy.
26. The Similars
Isaac Ezban, Mexico
Mexican filmmaker Isaac Ezban’s turned heads with last year’s sci-fi success The Incident, and now his speedy follow-up is the stylish, strange, and artfully atmospheric The Similars.
Set in an eerie, out-of-the-way bus station in 1968, this Twilight Zone tribute – complete with a Rod Serling-style narrator – is fuelled and fed by an economical understanding of shots, cuts, and reveals that are rich in ambience and anxiety.
The Similars intentionally presses plausibility, but it’s a genre film with genuflections as wildly varied as Orson Welles, the Evil Dead, Hitchcock, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Fans of self-reflexive cinema without a safety net will cling to Ezban, a new cinematic voice who’s called and commanded our attention.
25. Nina Forever
Ben and Chris Blaine, UK
Nina Forever is an occasionally romantic, often amusing, and outright macabre debut from Brit brothers Ben and Chris Blaine, showcasing a pronounced visual savvy and at least one breakout performance from Abigail Hardingham.
New couple Rob (Cian Barry) and Holly (Hardingham) can’t get it on without Rob’s ex, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), deceased, making a blood-spattered forced entrance of cockblocking impropriety. Not cool!
The film smartly delves into ideas of grieving and recovery, of first love, coming of age, acceptance, and desire. These may be recognizable genre tropes, sure, it is a horror film, after all, but there’s a tenderhearted love story at its core, too, making Nina Forever as intellectually edifying as it is carnally seductive.
24. The Revenant
Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA
Arguably Iñárritu’s finest film yet – from the guy who gave us Birdman and Amores Perros – this revisionist revenge Western also contains a career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as lovely/ghastly nods to both Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
The head-spinning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity) is reason enough to see this film, as it adds an urgency and an execution so rarely seen and so stunningly executed. A big-canvas survival yarn, based off of actual events in the 1820s, rarely if at all receives such visionary and grandiose industry, making a wilderness epic for the ages, or at least, for those with the sinews and stamina to bear with it.