It took me a while to watch most of the films that should be in the running (The Hateful Eight, Carol) and there are still a few (Anomalisa, 45 Years) I haven’t watched yet. But here’s the first part of my humble selection.
25. Port of Call (Hong Kong), directed by Philip Yung
Up-and-coming Hong Kong director Philip Yung disguises a story of urban alienation and loneliness under the premise of a grisly murder. Yung displays an intimate interest in his characters in this thoroughly researched piece. The film’s intricate narrative structure pays off thanks to the shrewd editing work and audacity on the filmmakers’ part, which is sadly rare in Hong Kong these days. Young actors Michael Ning and Jessi Li shine in their roles as the killer and the victim of this chilling real-life tragedy that speaks volumes about Hong Kong values.
24. Alive (South Korea), directed by Park Jung-bum
Why continue to live when everything works against you with no end in sight? Writer-director-star Park Jung-bum’s searing performance as a modern-day secular version of Job who works exploitative jobs in order to support his unstable sister and young niece is as admirable as it is challenging for the duration of 175 minutes.
23. Tangerine (USA), directed by Sean Baker
Let this be a wakeup call for filmmakers everywhere. It’s high time to hire transgender actors to play transgender roles, as the ladies of Tangerine have proven themselves to be more than capable. Also, we have witnessed the apex of iPhone cinematography.
22. Carol (USA), directed by Todd Haynes
Everything seems so perfect in Todd Haynes’s 1950s forbidden love story—Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s performances, the cinematography, the production design, the music and so on. Yet I still feel being kept at arm’s length by this film. Nevertheless, the fact that Haynes manages to improve from the sweeping Far From Heaven should deserve any moviegoer’s applause.
21. The Hateful Eight (USA), directed by Quentin Tarantino
With the majority of its 2.5 – 3-hour running time (depending on the version) happening within the four walls of an inn in the snow, The Hateful Eight is effectually Quentin’s Tarantino’s closest effort to a stage play, which limits his often stunning visual presentation. Yet this self-imposed constraint has put his equally renowned talent for the written word and directing actors in the front and center. The dialogue is as incisive and clever as usual. And the best part is how Tarantino manages the dynamics of his ensemble like a conductor of an orchestra. The Hateful Eight trades the excitement of the bombastic Django Unchained for a slow burning riot that paints a more complicated picture of racism in the United States of past and present.
20. Jauja (Argentina), directed by Lisandro Alonso
I admit that the 4:3 aspect ratio with curved corners around the frame in this supremely beautiful picture shot on 35mm is all it takes to steal my heart. Just when you think Lisandro Alonso has adapted some sort of conventional storytelling about a man (Viggo Mortensen) looking for his runaway daughter, Jauja veers into a journey of cryptic allegory where neither plot nor daughter could be found.
19. Eden (France), directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Based on her brother’s life and career as a DJ in the 90s, director Mia Hansen-Løve’s fictionalized history of French house music that gave the world Daft Punk (who are minor characters here) is the antithesis of music biopics. With glamour and bravado scaled to a minimum, Hansen-Løve turns her focus to geeky enthusiasm and post-comedown angst. Somehow she finds a way to ease a sobering aftermath into a tribute to youth without spoiling the party. Let’s look forward to more of her films in the decades to come.
18. Mustang (Turkey, France), directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Despite the fact that both films revolve around five young girls being confined inside a house, comparing Mustang to The Virgin Suicides does not do justice to Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s fierce directorial debut, whose style and themes are widely different from the American picture. Think of it as a teenage Papillon or arthous. Anchored by the phenomenal Güneş Nezihe Şensoy (the youngest of the five), Mustang is an open rebellion against patriarchy. These wild horses shall not be tamed.
17. Mommy (Canada), directed by Xavier Dolan
Continuing his favorite theme of dysfunctional mother-son relationship, Canadian prodigy and flip-phone connoisseur Xavier Dolan creates his most difficult character yet in Mommy’s Steve—a violent and unhinged teenager who pushes his mother to the brink while creeping on his timid neighbor. Dolan somehow makes this unlikely trio work and rewards viewers with a redeeming side of this hopeless case (as trite 90s music also gets a shot at redemption). Melodrama and emotional energy still pave the way for the young auteur to his audience’s hearts as he continues to show tremendous growth as an actor’s director. As for the visual aspect of his filmmaking, unlike those who gripe about Dolan toying with the aspect ratio, I’m all for young filmmakers having fun and playing with the medium.
16. Taxi (Iran), directed by Jafar Panahi
This is the third film directed by Jafar Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from filmmaking for 40 years. While the ban still stands, the defiant auteur continues to find new ways to engage in the art form that means the world to him. Compared to his previous two attempts, Taxi is decidedly lighter in tone and leaves more room for hope, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was shot outdoors—in a car, nonetheless, where his former boss Abbas Kiarostami filmed many of his films. Again blurring the lines between drama and documentary, Panahi keeps his pulse on the lives and thoughts of his fellow Iranians as he drives through the city.
15. Two Days, One Night (Belgium), directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Using a movie star (Marion Cotillard) for the first time has not changed the Dardenne Brothers’ commitment to telling stories about the plight of the underprivileged. The Belgian masters’ trademark realism and restrained drama remain their strongest attributes. Cotillard’s bona fide portrayal of a woman who is simultaneously fighting for her job and mental health makes this film an essential viewing.
14. Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea), directed by Hong Sang-soo
Another year, another Hong Sang-soo. At this point, his yearly input feels like the kind of déjà vu he employs in films yet they never cease to fascinate and entertain. Right Now, Wrong Then simply runs the same story with the same characters twice, with minor details in the characters’ interaction changing the outcome of the story (it isn’t Sliding Doors, goddamnit). Hong continues to show a sweeter side (since Hill of Freedom) that is rare in his earlier works.
13. The Duke of Burgundy (U.K.), directed by Peter Strickland
Some filmmakers have the rare talent of creating a world that is unmistakable in their films. Peter Strickland is one of them. In The Duke of Burgundy, men do not seem to exist and well-dressed women of the English countryside routinely meet up to present their findings on various species of moths (with mannequins in attendance). Besides, the visually and auditory striking film also pays homage to experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. After the Italian giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland fashions an intimate tale about a relationship on the brink due to their difference in the bedroom. After you get over the initial giddiness in regards to their BDSM exchanges and discussions concerning a “human toilet”, you are faced with the fundamental struggle of a couple growing apart.