2015 has been punctuated with some truly upsetting news. Manoel de Oliveira, Chantal Akerman, and Hara Setsuko are some of cinema’s angels we lost in 2015. Apichatpong Weerasethakul announced that from now on he would be working outside of Thailand due to the sheer limitation in artistic freedom permitted in his native country. And it seems that the Iranian government won’t stop persecuting Jafar Panahi any time soon.
However, cinema in 2015 has also been very good to us. Hou Hsiao-Hsien broke a seven-year silence with a revisionist wuxia movie. Nanni Moretti ditched comedy for a heartbreaking family drama. Sean Baker shot a feature length film entirely on an iPhone 5s. And perhaps most importantly, Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest and a 20-year ban from filmmaking, delivered yet another extraordinary picture (his third ‘illegally’ made movie after the ban).
I probably watched only a tiny fraction of the films released in 2015 from all around the world. To be realistic, covering even a half of them would be quite an achievement. A confession has to be made, I spent much of this past year catching up with cinema’s glorious history. Yet, I did manage to see a decent amount of new movies, maybe just enough to compile a ‘top 10~15 films of the year’ kind of list.
Naturally, this list is shaped, and definitely limited by a certain geographical factor—I am able to see only the films that are made available (in whatever form) near where I live, which is Seoul. Hence, my experience of 2015 in cinematic terms may significantly differ from those of yours from other regions.
That said, there are several films that I would have loved to see, but just wasn’t able to: Carol, Journey to the Shore, Cemetery of Splendour, Arabian Nights, No Home Movie, Son of Saul, In Jackson Heights, Anomalisa, Girlhood, Horse Money, to name a few.
Anyways, here’s the list of my 12 favourite films from this year.
Favourite Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order)
- The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien / Taiwan, Hong Kong, China)
- Blood of My Blood (Dir. Marco Bellocchio / Italy)
- Bridge of Spies (Dir. Steven Spielberg / Unite States)
- Clouds of Sils Maria (Dir. Olivier Assays / France, Switzerland)
- In the Shadow of Women (Dir. Philippe Garrel / France)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller / Australia, United States)
- Mia Madre (Dir. Nanni Moretti / Italy)
- Mistress America (Dir. Noah Baumbach / United States)
- Our Little Sister (Dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu / Japan)
- Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir. Hong Sang-soo / South Korea)
- Tangerine (Dir. Sean Baker / United States)
- Taxi (Dir. Jafar Panahi / Iran)
Below, I wrote a capsule review for each film, if you care to check out.
From start to finish, The Assassin showcases a breathtaking image after another. Using exquisite period details and wuxia genre as a backdrop, Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes what is unmistakably a Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie, and again proves that he is truly one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Though the dialogues are sparse and the narrative impressionistic, the sheer precision in the actors’ gestures and meticulously calculated motion, as well as Hou’s all-encompassing, masterful mise-en-scène are more than enough to give us keen insights into each character’s psychology. The seven-year wait for a new Hou Hsiao-Hsien picture didn’t go to waste, and this Taiwanese master surpassed our expectations by FAR. The release of The Assassin is without doubt the single most exciting event to have happened all this year.
I must warn you, however, to back away from this film if what you are expecting to get is King Hu’s Dragon Inn kind of wuxia movie. The Assassin is a martial arts picture in the same way that Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is a kung-fu movie. For those of you who are already familiar with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s extraordinary filmography: be warned that this new film is yet again a radical departure from his previous work just as Goodbye South, Goodbye was in relation to his earlier films back in 1996. But, at the end of the day, isn’t Hou’s unstopping innovation and experimentation as a cinéaste what we so cherish about him?
Blood of My Blood
Pasolini died four decades ago, and Bertolucci has virtually lost his steam. But, Marco Bellocchio, at age 76, is going hard as ever in the forefront of the radical bracket of the Italian cinema, and Blood of My Blood is the proof. The film tells two parallel stories set in the same place, but in different periods: one revolves around a witch-hunt at a rural monastery in the 17th century, and the other follows an ageing vampire leading a seclusive life in the same monastery, but in the present day. Aesthetically, it is a shot-gun marriage between Carl Dreyer and João César Monteiro. Obviously, the Jeanne d’Arc-like witch-hunt tale instantly evokes Dreyer, and the vampire tale Monteiro; however, the shadows of Dreyer and Monteiro are very intricately intertwined in both stories.
It’s absolutely true that Blood of My Blood may come across as a somewhat tamed movie in comparison with Bellocchio’s previous work. After all, it is militant socialism and political urgency that have characterised the director’s aesthetic trademark. However, underneath the allegorical elements in the plot and details of vampirism and religious drama lies devastatingly biting satire on the contemporary Italy. Yes, Bellocchio is no longer an active Communist (let alone a Marxist), but his new film is his most vibrant and politically charged work in years.
I have to comment on what is unmistakably a ‘miracle’—in its most Christian sense of the word—that takes place towards the end of the film. Not only does this scene glow with subliminal beauty, but also is very believable. In Histoire(s) du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard attributes Dreyer’s greatness to his ability to make miracles absolutely ‘believable’ on screen. I would dare say that in Blood of My Blood, Bellocchio comes real close to this realm of greatness; the difference between him and Dreyer, however, would be that this Italian maestro executes all this with real humour and eroticism.
Bridge of Spies
I’ll be brief on this one since I wrote an extensive review for it, which you can find here. But I must say: Bridge of Spies is one of Steven Spielberg’s very best, and demonstrates his serious ambitions as a cinéaste. After watching this film, at least I hope, no one should resort to the lazy, old criticism of Spielberg as an infantile director without much artistic drive.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that took me multiple viewings to develop an appreciation for. The film’s most remarkable achievement is probably the sense of wonderful mystery it inspires. I still can’t quite pin down what it is that makes this enigmatic movie so enchanting. Is it the suffering Juliette Binoche’s actress character undergoes while living through Maloja Snake, the play that is a painfully obvious homage to Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant? Is it the awe-inspring allure of the Maloja Pass footage? Or more generally, is it the exquisite setting of Sils Maria, the place where Nietzsche worked on many of his masterpieces? If anything, Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the films that most strongly echo Walter Benjamin’s comment on beauty: “The beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil.”
Olivier Assayas’s oeuvre is becoming more and more accomplished, and this new film is definitely one of his best to date. With Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas has made his name worthy to be mentioned in the prestigious Renoirian tradition of cinema. Oh, by the way, Kristen Stewart’s nuanced performance in the film is shockingly terrific, no less impressive than Binoche’s.
In the Shadow of Women
There are fewer cinéastes who deserve the label ‘under-appreciated’ more than Philippe Garrel. Often hailed as Arthur Rimbaud of cinema, Garrel has built an astonishing body of work in the last 50 years. Garrel’s latest outcome In the Shadow of Women is yet another welcoming addition to his filmography. The film explores some of Garrel’s staple thematic concerns: male-female relationships, fidelity, jealousy, and obsession. On the leading roles, Clothide Courau and Stanislas Merhar deliver some of the most electrifying performances to be seen this year. This is a great companion piece to its preceding film Jealousy.
Garrel is one of the best filmmakers when it comes to the use of extreme face close-ups. He often transforms actors’ faces into something akin to heightened landscapes. What Robert Bresson does with the image of hands, Garrel does with the image of faces. In the Shadow of Women is no exception. The complexity of the characters’ tortured emotions could be expressed in no other way than in Garrel’s signature landscape-face shots. And their magic can be fully experienced only when seen on big screen. Garrel’s films often serve as the existential evidence for movie theatres; and this is exactly why he is the treasure of cinema.
Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s long overdue reboot of the Mad Max series is arguably the most pleasant surprise of the year. Mad Max: Fury Road brought back what had been largely forgotten in the mainstream cinema for some time: the electrifying physicality of moving images. Here, Miller is channeling the sprit of the old ‘Cinematograph.’ For him, I think, Buster Keaton is primarily an action hero rather a comic genius. The adrenaline inducing action set pieces in the movie have the kind of immediacy that one finds in the finest stunt scenes in Keaton’s oeuvre. The famous sandstorm sequence (see the image above) overwhelms me with the pure excitement of motion picture—the kind of sensation the public must have experienced from watching the spectacles brought by Lumière brothers more than a century ago.
Those relentless, crunchy action sequences aside, at the end of the day what makes Mad Max: Fury Road truly great is Miller’s economical storytelling through the visual. A lesser filmmaker would have spent good 20-30 minutes establishing for the audience the post apocalyptic world of the film, mostly through verbal interactions. However, Miller manages to do all this within a handful of scenes exclusively through details in the images to greater impacts; and that is no easy feat. Pretty much every action sequence in the film refuses to be a hollow piece of spectacle, and contributes to moving the story forward. When’s the last time I saw intensity of such degree sustained throughout the entirety of its duration in a summer blockbuster?
Those who know Nanni Moretti chiefly through his comedies may at first be puzzled by his latest film Mia Madre. The movie is not exactly ‘sombre’ in its tone, but carries a serious weight that has not been found in Moretti’s work since The Son’s Room back in 2003. Inspired by Moretti’s own loss of his mother, Mia Madre communicates with an utterly raw emotional core. Maybe this unexpected shock contributes to the film’s powerfulness. But, what really amplifies the film’s penetrating pathos is the nuanced, understated portrayal of a daughter’s grief over her mother’s death. With such subject matter, Moretti could easily have lost his way in soapy sentimentalism. Yet, thanks to his thoughtful and subtle approach, the movie shines with grace and poignancy.
In Mia Madre, Moretti does much more than just mourning for his deceased mother. At numerous points in the film, Margherita (wonderfully played by Margherita Buy) and her brother (played by Moretti himself) openly express anger at their helplessness before their mother’s impending death. And soon enough, her mortality becomes a mirror that reflects their own. As a whole, Mia Madre is not only a heartfelt farewell letter to Moretti’s mother, but also a pensive contemplation on death.
In 2015, Noah Baumbach gave us two delightful comedies: While We’re Young and Mistress America. I happen to like both films, but wouldn’t hesitate to claim the latter to be the superior of the two. Beside the obvious virtue of the wonderful creative partnership between Baumbach and Gerwig, it is in Mistress America the director shows genuine maturity both in his artistry and outlook on the world. Just as impressive are the central performances—Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirk have given us one of the most memorable female duos on screen in the recent years. In short, this is an old-fashioned screwball comedy with dizzyingly fast-paced dialogues and the unending supply of cutting-edge repartee. I hope they publish the screenplay as I’m deeply intrigued to read those (what Richard Brody calls in his review of the film for New Yorker) “verbal acrobatics” written on paper.
Mistress America is far more inclusive and inviting than Baumbach’s previous efforts. Where his previous films tend to remain slightly unwelcoming and somewhat impenetrable due to a considerable dose of self-serving references and self-pity, Baumbach’s latest offering is free of all these. Moreover, the movie has more nuanced and diverse, hence more interesting characters for the audience to engage with, and juggles with a wider range of themes. I get the impression that at 46, Baumbach has learned to be more accepting, as well as to play with his cinephilic tendencies for the more effective use. I really hope he remains this prolific at least for the next ten years.
Our Little Sister
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family drama is always something to look forward to. Naturally, he is frequently compared to the grandmaster of the genre Ozu Yasujiro, and Ozu’s influences are manifest in Our Little Sisters. This tale of four sisters building a new family unit without their parents can be seen as the long overdue next chapter to Kore-eda’s 2004 masterpiece Nobody Knows. The four sisters in Our Little Sisters are older, and fortunately lead far more comfortable lives than the siblings in the 2004 film. Kore-eda’s new film is very meek in its pace and tone, and the exquisite seaside town setting photographed in pastel colour scheme makes the film borderline ‘twee’ in some places. However, underneath the seemingly calm surface exist inner scars, yearnings for familiar bonds, and quite contemplation on death.
While the family units in Kore-eda’s films tend to be much more dysfunctional than those in Ozu’s, both filmmakers seem to view each family member as an atom, and the family unit as a cosmos that encompasses them. Kore-eda reflects this view more directly in his style. In Our Little Sisters, the camera often floats in a circular motion as if a satellite orbits around a planet. A quiet film it may be, but the wavelength of its pathos is far-reaching.
Right Now, Wrong Then
Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong Sang-soo’s seventeenth feature, is the most audience-friendly film he has made in his career. Incidentally, it happens to be his most commercially successful film to date here in South Korea. (But make no mistake—commercially successful, only relative to the movie’s humble budget of less than $100,000.) The overall tone of the film is much brighter than those of Hong’s previous work, and the jokes and formal designs are relatively easier to grasp. However, there is no lamentable compensation made for these ‘comforts.’ Right Now, Wrong Then is just as profound and magical as The Day He Arrives and Hahaha.
Like in all of Hong’s films, form and structure in Right Now, Wrong Then bear much greater importance than its plot. It is divided into two ‘parts,’ and they are essentially the remake of one another. What I mean is that the same sequence of events in the first part titled ‘Right Then, Wrong Now’ is repeated in the second part ‘Right Now, Wrong Them’—but with few subtle differences in the action and the dialogues, which result in two very contrasting endings. Since ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’ is concluded with a more content ending than ‘Right Then, Wrong Now,’ one can easily resort to calling the film a Rohmerian morality tale. However, given Hong’s preoccupation with time and space, I think that the juxtaposition of these two parts is meant to direct our attention to the possibility of ‘infinite possibilities.’ We have merely seen two of the infinite possibilities. What we ought to do is not so much to define the logical bonds between the two as to marvel at what Hong calls “a permanent reverberation” created by a glimpse of an infinity.
The word was out at the 2015 Sundance Festival that Sean Baker shot his new film Tangerine entirely on an iPhone 5s. This instantly created a huge buzz in the media, and lots of people were curious to see what an iPhone movie looked like. Whether or not it was a good film seemed to be a secondary question. But what really mattered in the end was what a delightful film it really was. Tangerine is a madcap screwball comedy led by two sassy transgender sex workers exploring one of L.A.’s most ‘notorious’ subcultures. And like the fierce characters in the film and their fiery verbal deliveries, the camera shoots like a machine gun, thanks to its lightness. Stylistically, the film offers one hell of rollercoaster ride. The car wash blow-job scene is one of the most strangely fascinating sex scenes I have ever seen.
The iPhone cinematography in Tangerine proves to be versatile when it perfectly captures quieter, tender moments with the characteristic intimacy of the device. Perhaps one of the positive limitations of shooting with an iPhone is its inability to exploit the sexually transgressive elements of the story by turning them into mere spectacles. The texture of the image on screen looks too much like the photographs we see every day to appear even vaguely ‘glamorous.’ The iPhone-hype and the use of transgender actors aside, Tangerine has a lot to offer aesthetically. By the time the end credits roll, you feel as though you have known Sin-Dee and Alexandra quite some time.
It’s an exhilarating irony that the Iranian authority’s persecution of Jafar Panahi only made his critique of the government sharper and more militant. Though he is prohibited from filmmaking for the next 20 years, the means of his critique is still cinema. Taxi is Panahi at his most frank and radical. The whole premise of a film set in a taxicab driving around Teheran echoes that of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten. True, in both films a taxicab serves as our vehicle navigating through the Iranian society. However, Kiarostami and Panahi have rather different agendas to achieve in these films.
In Taxi, the act of filmmaking itself becomes the film’s underlying theme and the subject of much rumination. At its heart, the film is a heart-warming love letter to cinema and filmmaking, as well as an urgent reminder that cinema should never remain silent before socio-political oppression and the questions of ethics and morality. Panahi appears in the film as the taxi driver, and is shown operating the camera mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard. Throughout the movie, he continues to pan and reposition the equipment—a naked intervention which reflects his authorship, and at the same time provides a certain transparent insight into the act of filmmaking.
One passenger stands out in particular: a 14-year-old girl named Hana who is Panahi’s niece both in Taxi and in real life. Like her uncle, she has a great passion for cinema, and is actually working on a student project assigned at school. With a little digital camera, she shoots everything from her superstar-director uncle to a newly-wed couple. Hana recites ‘the guidelines for filmmaking’ she has learned at school, and one of them reads “avoid sordid realism.” Of course, she is confused by the comment, “Show what’s real but […] if reality is dark and unpleasant, not to show it.” Panahi informs his niece that the authority does not want some realities to be shown. Her response: “They don’t want to show it, but they do it themselves.”