by Duane Porter
Looking back at the films of last year. Adding another chapter to the ongoing history of cinema. A history of light and shadow, color and movement, music and sounds. Trying to look directly at the screen and see what is there without preconception or bias. These are the films that meant the most to me. A history of ancient China that unfolds with all the beauty of poetry and painting. A quirky homage to the screwball comedies of the past. A story of desire playing out during a time of repression. A documentary essay on aging, mortality, and the bond between a mother and daughter. A documentary/fantasy critique of the economic-political climate of modern Portugal. An action blockbuster that appealed to both the arthouse and the megaplex and even won a few academy awards. An avant-garde recreation of lost films from nearly a century ago. A highly personal spiritual quest that moves slowly through a beautiful world. A surprising single-take afterhours spree that suddenly morphs into a heist film. And even another cerebral sci-fi contemplation on humanity and artificial intelligence.
As is always the case, there are many films that I have been unable to see. Most notably, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos. Any one of these might force a change in this line-up. But, as it stands today, these are my ten favorite films of 2015.
1. The Assassin directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Through diaphanous veils and reflections of candle flames hanging in the air, we see Lord Tian (Chang Chin) return to the side of Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), his favorite concubine, after having confronted the assassin. She shows him a jade medallion she has found in their rooms that matches his own.
“It was Yinniang. It was her.
She wanted me to see her before she took my life.
She wants me to know why.”
As he tells Huji the sad story of his history with Yinniang, the camera looks back through the layers of curtains and veils fluttering in the gentle movement of the air and through a momentary parting we see Yinniang (Shu Qi) standing in the shadows listening. Huji, moved by Lord Tian’s reminiscence, says, “I feel for Yinniang.”
With The Assassin, Hou has made his version of a wuxia genre film, martial arts and swordplay are present but the main concern here is in trying to understand the ancient past. He conducted extensive research into how people lived during the Tang Dynasty (c. 618 – 907 AD) and the film’s representation of the everyday life of both the common people and the ruling class is meticulous. We may see them bathing and dressing, dancing and playing with their children, fighting and dressing their wounds but how close can we be to knowing their hearts and minds. Hou’s natural aversion to exposition serves well his belief that the remote past is essentially unknowable.
2. Mistress America directed by Noah Baumbach
She would say things like,
“Isn’t every story a story of betrayal?”
“No that’s not true,” I thought.
But I could never say that.
I could only agree with her.
It was too much fun to agree with her.
Tracy (Lola Kirke), a Barnard freshman and new to the city, sits alone in a restaurant, feeling a bit lonely. She picks up her phone to call her mother but gets only voicemail. Flipping through her contacts she stops at Brooke Cardenas, her soon-to-be stepsister whom she’s never met. She hits call, voicemail again. She takes another bite off her plate and the phone starts vibrating. It’s Brooke (Greta Gerwig) calling back, “Do you want to hang out? Well, do you know where Times Square is?”
Tracy gets to Times Square, people and lights everywhere (the soundtrack pulses with the bass and guitar of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips). Looking around, she hears, “Tracy! Welcome to The Great White Way!” It’s Brooke, descending the shiny red stairway by the TKTS ticket booth with an awkward grace. Tracy says, “Times Square is so crazy!” “Isn’t it,” Brooke replies.
Mistress America is a precision comedy brilliantly written (Screenplay by Gerwig and Baumbach) to echo the Hollywood screwballs of the 1930s. It centers on the existential crisis of a young woman at age thirty, desperate to succeed at something before it’s too late. Her charismatic eccentricity fascinates the young student writer and they become immediate friends. Both actresses are superb, Greta Gerwig delivering her rapid-fire dialogue like a latter-day Katherine Hepburn and Lola Kirke providing a sympathetic foil shooting every line back on cue.
They have a night out in Manhattan, dancing, singing with the band, going to parties. They spend hours sitting and talking about their dreams, disappointments, and plans for the future. Their time together unfolds with a dazzling arbitrariness and Tracy isn’t lonely any more. She now has something to write about.
3. Carol directed by Todd Haynes
The oyster colored Packard pulls away from the curb into the traffic of city streets. Inside the car the camera (cinematography by Edward Lachman) is close by Carol (Cate Blanchett) looking over her shoulder at her gloved hand on the steering wheel. Rhythmic strings (score by Carter Burwell) are heard and the camera pans across the shiny painted dashboard to Therese (Rooney Mara) looking straight ahead. Plaintive piano notes fill the sonic space around them. The camera is very close now, a portion of Carol’s face fills the frame. She looks at Therese and Therese smiles. Then the camera is close to Therese as sunlight flows over her face. Carol turns the steering wheel and shards of sunlight cut across the sleaves of her fur coat. Therese looks down longingly and Carol glances her way with a slight smile. The camera looks out through the streaky spotted windshield as the car enters a tunnel that is lined with rows of green lights. Carol reaches and turns on the radio adding a haunting almost-audible layer to the burgeoning score. Carol and Therese are both looking forward closely wrapped in the eerie green light. Therese looks at Carol and then back ahead. The camera focuses on Therese’s reflection in the darkened window and the lights of the tunnel diffuse out of focus creating a momentary dream of blurred glances and slow-motion desire.
Patricia Highsmith is best known as the author of psychological thrillers such as, Strangers on a Train (1950) and the five Ripley novels, including The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and Ripley’s Game (1974). But, her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), was about falling in love, specifically, two women falling in love and the burdens placed on them by a restrictive society and the sacrifices they were forced to make. Strangers on a Train was famously made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. The Ripley novels, likewise, have been the inspiration for several films. It has taken much longer to bring The Price of Salt to the screen. The book was republished in 1990 as Carol. Phyllis Nagy first adapted it as a screenplay in 1997. It has taken nearly twenty years, but, with Nagy’s brilliant script, Todd Haynes meticulous direction, and the exquisite performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, we now have the ravishing Carol. Highsmith never liked any of the movies made from her books during her lifetime. It’s sad to think that she’ll never see Carol, I think she would be pleased.
4. No Home Movie directed by Chantal Akerman
“If I have a reputation for being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.” — Chantal Akerman
A solitary tree stands over an arid plain. A roaring wind whistles through it’s branches. The branches whip about, many having been stripped of their leaves. The distant horizon is obscured by a dusty haze. This shot is held for nearly four minutes, long enough for it to become a metaphysical contemplation on the ultimate nature of the universe. Then, cut to a shirtless man sitting on a park bench facing away from the camera. Beyond him people are moving about the park while others are passing by close in front of the camera. Cut again to a lawn of bright green grass enclosed by bushes and small trees occupied by a single empty lawn chair. And then inside, Chantal Akerman’s mother (Natalia Akerman) walks across the room away from the camera, turns and looks about and walks back toward the camera complaining of a pain in her shoulder.
No Home Movie is ostensibly a portrait of Akerman’s mother during the last years of her life. During conversations over the kitchen table they talk of family history. Natalia is a survivor of the Auschwitz death camps but she has little to say about it. Chantal questions her about antisemitism in Belgium during the war. You can feel her frustration at her mother’s reticence. At times when Chantal is far away in places like Oklahoma or Venice they keep in touch over Skype. What one most takes away from these moments is how important the mother-daughter bond is in both their lives. As the film cuts from this apartment in Brussels to hotel rooms in other cities, to windswept arid plains and grasslands and then back again it begins to be about space and time, aging and mortality, emptiness and grief, in other words about everything.
Chantal Akerman is certainly one of the most important filmmakers of the last fifty years. As it turns out, No Home Movie will be her last film. Near the end when she sits and ties her shoes and then stands and walks out of the room it is heartbreaking to realize that we will never see her again.
5. Arabian Nights: Volume 1-The Restless One, Volume 2-The Desolate One, Volume 3-The Enchanted One directed by Miguel Gomes
Men are seen standing about in a shipyard. Cranes stand motionless in the air. We hear the men reminiscing about their lives spent working in this shipyard where they work no more. The shipyards have closed down.
The film director (Miguel Gomes) sits at a sidewalk table considering the laid-off workers and a plague of wasps in the area that is killing off all the honeybees. Can there be a connection between these events and is there a way to make a film about it. His inability to make any sense of it all, fills him with despair and he jumps up and runs away pursued by his bewildered crew.
“A woman under thirty with honey eyes and an honest smile.” Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) lives in ancient Bagdad when a sea still washed upon it’s rocky shores. To avert the king’s murderous madness she tells him stories of a country called Portugal during August 2013 to July 2014 when the people suffered under a program of economic austerity imposed on them by their government. Stories of impotent bankers and roosters on trial, punk union reps and exploding whales, talking cows and wind genies, a libertarian gunman and a small dog passed from one owner to another in an apartment complex, all folding and unfolding across the artificial boundaries between documentary and fiction.
Scheherazade, wandering the rocky slopes above the sea, encounters a merry band of thieves with whom she shares a lavish luncheon. A brawl breaks out and as she decides to leave, the screen splits, on one side a bongo player taps out a rhythm and on the other Scheherazade makes her way up the slope. She begins singing softly as she climbs. She reaches the top, full frame returns, and the glittering sea fills the space behind her.
“To you, My heart cries out “Perfidia,”
For I find you, the love of my life
In somebody else’s arms.”
A strolling guitar player has accompanied her, the wind blows the tendrils of her long dark hair across her face and her satin robe billows behind her. She moves toward the slope, her arms outstretched, and as the song comes to an end she tumbles to the bottom. One of the thieves runs to see if she’s alright. She replies, “sometimes I feel sad.”
Oh, and then there’s the chaffinches.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road directed by George Miller
The steel-blue eyes of Furiosa (Charlize Theron) look out on the rust-colored wasteland as she powers the war-rig away from the Citadel towards the green place of her memories. She has managed to break free of the malignant grasp of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), he who robbed her of her childhood and her decency. In an effort to hurt him back she has taken his most prized possessions, his five nubile brides, his prize breeders, including the heavily pregnant Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), his cherished hope for a viable heir. The war-rig rumbles on, the brides huddled in the back seat, with Joe in his Gigahorse twin-bodied ’59 Cadilac Coupe de Ville and his army of marauders and pole-cats in hot pursuit driven on by the drone of a heavy metal guitarist strapped to the front of a truck loaded with amplifiers, speakers, and four men pounding the war drums.
Furiosa longs for a childhood memory that no longer exists. Rapacious human acts have turned the green place into a cobalt nightmare haunted by the specter of extinction. Max (Tom Hardy), tormented by the ghosts of those he could not save, convinces Furiosa that pursuit of her fantasy will lead to doom and to go forward they must go back. They must return to the now unguarded Citadel. Redemption lies in revolution.
Exploring a metaphysics of expression, George Miller seeks a kind of emotional resonance using the poetic movement of real bodies through the air, a kinetic ballet in a frenzy of constant motion, a cinematic abstraction aspiring to the grand gestures of an action painting like Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. This is a work of precision montage (edited by Margaret Sixel), each shot being a cinematic unit (cinematography by John Seales) joined together with other such units to make a scene in which you always know where you are and what is happening. Exposition is kept minimal, the action being driven by the human instinct for survival or the transcendent desire for redemption. Australian car culture combines with the classical expressionism of Lang’s Metropolis creating a sort of medieval dystopian grand opera.
7. The Forbidden Room directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
A cinephilic delirium that takes inspiration from the lost films of the silent era up through the early talkies. It’s several narratives intertwine and transmutate within or alongside each other, being held together by a very corroded connective tissue ever threatening to disintegrate before our eyes.
Rummaging about in this dustbin of cinema history, we come upon four frightened men in a doomed submarine, unable to stay submerged and yet unable to surface. They are mysteriously visited by a woodsman, Cesare the saplingjack (Roy Dupuis), seemingly lost. Seeking to rescue Margot (Clara Furey), a local beauty abducted by the band of rogues known as the Red Wolves, his search has been long and arduous.
Writhing amongst the sleeping pack of Red Wolves, Margot escapes through a doorway of a dream into a darkened jungle under a magma colored sky. Looking all around, she wonders, “Who — who am I?” Sadly, it appears that Margot is an amnesiac. She follows the insistent sound of tribal drumbeats deep into the jungle until she sees the lights of a nightclub. She goes in and a man in a white coat and black tie says, “You’re late, Margot. Late, but beautiful.”
These vertiginous strands combine with many others, including Geraldine Chaplin as The Master Passion and Charlotte Rampling as The Ostler’s Mother, to create a distinctly singular reflection on the hopeless nostalgia and eroding memory of cinema.
8. Knight of Cups directed by Terrence Malick
“The Pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come: Delivered under the similitude of a Dream wherein is discovered, the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey; and safe arrival at the desired country.”
Rick (Christian Bale) wanders in a desert wilderness, jagged mountains in the distance, lost in reverie in the softness of early morning light (cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki). Memories of past loves and family tragedies, pleasures and successes, childhood and lost innocence wash over him in a stream of remembrance.
“Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy? About a young prince, a knight, sent by his father, the King of the East, west into Egypt to find a pearl. A pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup, took away his memory.”
Isabel (Isabel Lucas) stands naked on the patio, her descent into the pool is an epiphany that erases the age-old dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. She is to be a spirit guide returning Rick to the desert, leading him to magical places, finding his truth again, helping him to see a way forward.
“You gave me peace, joy, love.
Find your way from darkness to light. Remember.”
9. Victoria directed by Sebastian Schipper
Immersed in throbbing techno and pulsating strobe light, a girl is dancing alone on a crowded dance floor. Her arms in the air, she pushes the hair from her eyes and gathers it into a ponytail. She dances her way to the bar and slides onto a bar stool. Getting the bartender’s attention, she orders a single shot of schnapps and attempts to chat but the music is too loud and he is too busy. She heads for the restroom and as she passes the club’s entrance a young man asks her if it’s good in there. She nods and says yes. The line at the restroom is too long and she doesn’t want to wait. She pulls on a sweater, gets her jacket and heads for the door. Going up the stairs, she is following the same young man along with his friends who have been turned away because they don’t have the cover charge. They protest on their way out, “We are true Berliners. One day the club will be ours! We’ll buy your club!” The girl is amused. Once outside she unlocks her bicycle, gets on and pedals toward the street. The same guys from the club are standing by a car and the one she talked to inside asks her if she wants a ride. He says his name is Sonne (Frederick Lau) like the sun in the sky. He introduces his three friends. They want to know her name. Her name is Victoria (Laia Costa).
The single shot device (cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) forces a feeling of reality, a sense of being in the present tense – real time – real space – here and now. There is an impulsive spontaneity – a sense of watching an actual performance as it happens before your eyes – like watching a group of performance artists or a film by Jacques Rivette. Laia Costa’s performance especially shines with a vivid naturalness that invites comparisons to Barbara Loden (Wanda) or Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box). The camera rarely looks away from her and she is never anything less than completely in the moment.
Over the course of it’s 138 minute running time, the film itself gets caught up in a night of contingency – perhaps as intermittently boring and frustrating as such a night with these people might actually be – ultimately the ragged edges seem to wear away and everything comes together creating an experience of enigmatic verisimilitude.
10. Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland
Once in love with Ava…
Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a genius that wrote the code for the world’s dominant search engine at the age of thirteen, lives alone in a remote research facility working on the problem of artificial intelligence. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a code writer for his company has been brought in, under the ruse of having won a contest, to administer the Turing test on his latest A.I. creation that he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander).
On the day of the first session, Caleb goes through a door and finds himself in a glass cubicle within a larger space. He thumps the glass with his hand and notices a fracture where the glass has been struck with force. A simple, fanciful but slightly dark melody envelopes the scene enhancing a nervous sense of expectation. Then, through a window, he sees her passing in front of another glass wall that encloses an indoor garden full of green shrubbery and small trees. There is a childlike tinkle in the air as she turns to look at him and their eyes meet for the first time. She turns away and passes from view, then reappears through a doorway. She is very obviously a machine made of metal, plastic, and carbon fiber in the shape of a slender human female. Her strikingly beautiful face, though, is indistinguishable from that of a real girl.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hi,” he hesitates, “I’m Caleb.”
Approaching closer, she responds, “Hello, Caleb.”
“Do you have a name?” he asks.
Ex Machina is a high concept science fiction melodrama that asks a lot of questions. Questions about gender and sexuality, the male-female power dynamic, human rights. Nathan is like a Doctor Moreau carrying out his experiments without ever thinking of what rights his creations might have once they are conscious of their needs and desires. Like the recent Her (2013) and Under the Skin (2013), Ex Machina wonders about the nature of consciousness and what exactly it is that makes us human. Is it the capacity to love or simply having a desire for something? Something like personal freedom. The freedom to go outside, feel the sun, and, maybe, just stand near a traffic intersection and watch the people go by.
Runner-ups (limited to ten and listed in alphabetical order):
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi.