Film editor J.R. Jones
1 White God Could Hungary be the new Romania? Next month Chicagoans will get a look at László Nemes’s debut feature, Son of Saul, a Holocaust drama like no other, and earlier this year the Gene Siskel Film Center presented the local debut of Kornél Mundruczó’s arresting, dreamlike White God. A child could follow its story, about a spirited schoolgirl who scours the city in search of her big old mixed-breed dog, but that child would be in psychotherapy for years if he saw the climax, in which hundreds of shelter dogs tear through city streets on a deadly rampage.
2 99 Homes This has been a banner year for two of Chicago’s finest: John Cusack (Maps to the Stars, Love and Mercy) and Michael Shannon, whose portrayal of an Orlando real estate shark in 99 Homes surpasses even his Oscar-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road. Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), America’s answer to the Dardenne brothers, captures the human tragedy of the subprime mortgage crisis, getting great work not only from Shannon but from Andrew Garfield as a young construction worker, desperate to reclaim his family home from foreclosure, who becomes the hustler’s conflicted protege.
3 Spotlight In this engrossing drama, writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) chronicles the yearlong crusade of the Boston Globe to expose the Catholic Church’s systematic shielding of pedophile priests. Open Road Films managed to turn this indie effort into a serious Oscar contender by courting not just critics but news reporters, who were invited to press screenings and responded with enthusiastic commentary. Much of this commentary celebrated the movie’s attention to journalistic process, yet what really distinguishes Spotlight is McCarthy’s understanding that the Globe, by refusing to see the problem for years, betrayed its responsibility to the community just as the church did.
4 Maps to the Stars David Cronenberg’s Tinseltown horror movie bombed with critics and quickly disappeared, but it’s the Canadian director’s edgiest, most intimidating project in years, slicing into the ghastly soul-sickness at the heart of Hollywood entertainment. The story of a violent schizophrenic (Mia Wasikowska) who schmoozes her way into a job as personal assistant to a petulant, fast-wilting movie star (Julianne Moore), the film portrays Hollywood as a rigid hierarchy enforced by vicious cruelty, in which monstrous egos feed on the weaker ones surrounding them.
5 Queen and Country American comedies suck (Get Hard) suck (Entourage) suck (Sisters). This year brought a few cagey low-budget efforts—Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me—but I was more tickled by movies from Australia (Josh Lawson’s sex comedy The Little Death), New Zealand (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s vampire romp What We Do in the Shadows), and Sweden (Roy Andersson’s deadpan art film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence). The best of all came from 82-year-old British master John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance); continuing the personal memoir he began with Hope and Glory (1987), Queen and Country is a jubilantly anarchic service comedy in the tradition of Stripes and M*A*S*H, with a delectably dour performance from Richard E. Grant and a brilliantly manic one from Caleb Landry Jones.
6 Court Courtroom dramas will always be with us because they speak to people’s hunger for justice, but few movies dare to portray the legal system for what it really is: an expression of the state that created it. Court, the debut feature of Indian writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, centers on a smart, dedicated human rights attorney with the cards stacked against him: his client, a rabble-rousing folksinger with a history of dissident activity, is accused of having performed a song that incited a man to kill himself, and despite the flimsiness of the case, the system works against the defendant at every turn.
7 Mommy At 26, Xavier Dolan has already shown dramatic skills well beyond his years, and his fifth feature, a chamber piece of sorts involving two grown women and a teenage boy, marks him as North America’s most inspired young filmmaker. Mommy revisits the single-mother-versus-teenage-son psychodrama of Dolan’s debut feature, I Killed My Mother (2009), but since then his sympathies have shifted more from the son to the mother—in Mommy, a Quebecois widow (Anne Dorval) trying to control her incorrigibly rude and increasingly violent teenager (Antoine Olivier-Pilon) with only the help of a concerned neighbor (Suzanne Clément). Few films have captured so vividly the joy, pain, and responsibility of parenthood.
8 About Elly This gripping drama was Iran’s submission for the Academy Awards in 2010, but rights issues delayed its U.S. release until this spring, when it premiered locally at Film Center. The writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, won an Oscar for his subsequent drama, A Separation (2011), and like that film, About Elly is a personal story layered with legal, ethical, and social pressures, as the title character, an unmarried kindergarten teacher, arrives at a beachfront villa to vacation with some married friends and then mysteriously disappears. Farhadi is essentially a moralist, but in his singular films, morality reveals itself not in tendentious speeches but in action, amid constantly shifting circumstances.
9 Youth Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is only 45, but his grand philosophical comedy Youth persuasively confronts the discontents of old age, providing rich roles for three respected actors who all came to prominence around the time Sorrentino was born: Michael Caine as a retired orchestra conductor, Harvey Keitel as a lionized filmmaker, and Jane Fonda as the filmmaker’s hard-hearted star. Sorrentino’s previous feature, The Great Beauty (2013), won an Oscar for best foreign film, and one can see why American art-film lovers warm to him: his velvety tales of the rich and famous draw on Visconti’s sense of old-money splendor and Fellini’s sense of transporting fantasy.
10 Results Nothing is funnier than human weakness, which is why real actors can often dig out laughs beyond the reach of sitcom hacks and SNL ad-libbers. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski, our foremost chronicler of nerd passion (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation), has gotten great work from amateur players, but for this superlative screwball comedy he’s recruited three seasoned professionals. Kevin Corrigan stars as a fat slob with an inheritance who falls for overachieving personal trainer Cobie Smulders; he can’t buy himself a body she’ll love, so instead he throws money at her boss, a dopey wellness entrepreneur played by Guy Pearce.
11. The Assassin
12. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
13. The Forbidden Room
14. Best of Enemies
15. A Poem Is a Naked Person
17. Bridge of Spies
18. What We Do in the Shadows
19. Black Mass
20. A Most Violent Year
Film critic Ben Sachs
1 Fish and Cat This is one of the most imaginative movies I’ve ever seen. Shahram Mokri’s audacious puzzle—which screened at Gene Siskel Film Center in February as part of its annual Festival of Films From Iran—unfolds in a single 130-minute shot, but not in real time; the story contains flashbacks, flash-forwards, and hallucinations. The filmmaking is never less than stunning, though Fish and Cat is much more than a formal experiment. It’s a piercing commentary about intergenerational strife in Iran, a suspenseful tribute to American slasher movies, a Beckettesque absurdist comedy, and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of memory—sometimes all at once. I hope an American DVD release is forthcoming; this is a film that can be revisited endlessly.
2 Inherent Vice Like Fish and Cat, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel demands multiple viewings. Not only is the film crammed with hilarious stray details, but its mix of paranoid history and loopy comedy takes on a different vibe depending on how you look at it. This conveys remarkably well what it’s like to read America’s greatest living novelist, yet Anderson’s tribute never comes across as slavish. It’s a fully realized work that plunges viewers into a phantasmagoric vision of the American past (specifically, Los Angeles in 1970). The large ensemble cast is extraordinary—and extraordinarily funny—as well.
3 Eden This sweeping, highly personal account of the French house-music scene from the early 1990s to the present confirms writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. With a sophisticated command of cinematic technique, Hansen-Løve acutely conveys experiences that are difficult to describe in words, such as creative epiphany, loss of innocence, and the longing to recapture one’s youth. What might have come across as arcane feels immediate and universal. The film moves with breathtaking fluidity between different moods, achieving an emotional complexity that one associates with great literature.
4 Blackhat With this experimental action movie about international cyberterrorism, Michael Mann continues to suggest a strange and beautiful fusion of Howard Hawks and Stan Brakhage. Mann is one of the most perceptive filmmakers alive when it comes to the dynamics between committed, highly skilled professionals; he’s also one of the most abstract artists in mainstream cinema, developing stories through blocks of sensations. Few narrative movies convey so well the placelessness of life in the digital age, jumping between different countries and visual styles as breathlessly as one moves between different web pages while surfing the Internet.
5 Love Battles One of the highlights of my moviegoing year was seeing veteran French director Jacques Doillon (Ponette) attend the local premiere of his latest feature at Doc Films in March. Tense, beguiling, and surprisingly life-affirming, this perverse drama follows a young woman (Sara Forestier) who, returning to her small hometown when her father dies, reconnects with an older man (James Thierée) she once flirted with and gets him to help her through the grieving process by engaging in violent (and remarkably choreographed) hand-to-hand combat. The premise is an ideal vehicle for Doillon’s fascination with spontaneous and unexplainable behavior, and the committed, acrobatic lead performances merit comparisons to Buster Keaton.
6 Hard to Be a God
7 Mad Max: Fury Road
These are two immersive, apocalyptic visions by master filmmakers, glorious in their imagination and pessimistic in their view of human nature. Hard to Be a God is the final work by Aleksei German, one of the most important Russian directors of the last 50 years, and it marks the culmination of his art; every shot is a little symphony of densely realized imagery, exquisite camera movement, and meticulous sound design (indeed, German spent over five years on the soundtrack alone). German envisions an alternate reality where humanity, stuck in the Middle Ages, wallows in a state of barbarism. The film is grotesque yet hypnotic, drawing viewers into a state of meditation where they may reflect on man’s capacity for atrocity. Fury Road, on the other hand, is a wholly kinetic experience, bounding from one image to another with lightning-fast intensity. One gets so swept up in the movie that it’s easy to get aspects of the plot wrong (as I did when I reviewed the film over the summer). Yet its stirring feminist message is unmistakable, as is the exuberance of director George Miller and company in their realization of the futuristic settings.
8 Goodbye to Language Jean-Luc Godard’s first 3-D feature is characteristically brilliant and daunting, packed with enough big ideas to sustain at least three or four movies. It’s also as playful as anything Godard’s ever made, exhibiting greater curiosity with regard to 3-D than almost anything else I’ve seen in that format (the bathroom humor is pretty funny too). Language continues the filmmaker’s lifelong obsessions with language and romantic love and finds new things to say about both. The format is crucial to its meaning, the layering of images illustrating the coming together of two individuals and the evolution of language itself.
9 The Office Along with Magic Mike XXL, this contains the most unabashedly joyous filmmaking I encountered in 2015. Johnnie To’s first proper musical—arriving after numerous action films and romantic comedies that feel like musicals—finds splendor in the most unexpected place, the corporate office of an investment banking firm. To’s camera seems to dance through the incredible, theatrical settings, and the buoyant cast is irresistible. But beneath the bright surface tone is a serious consideration of what it takes to preserve one’s humanity in the impersonal (and increasingly powerful) world of finance; the theme makes this a worthy follow-up to To’s 2012 masterpiece Life Without Principle.
10 Nasty Baby The films of Chilean-born writer-director Sebastián Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) pulsate like living things, shifting frequently and unexpectedly between different tones, and this black comedy, his first feature to be hot in the U.S., is no exception. The principal characters (played impressively by Tunde Adebimpe, Kristen Wiig, and Silva) are alternately sympathetic and monstrous, and this ambiguity generates a surprising amount of suspense. A trio of self-regarding Brooklynites find themselves in a sticky situation when the mentally ill man on their block won’t leave them alone, and what begins as a straightforward satire of hipster privilege evolves into something dramatically complex and morally challenging.