As I’m making this list, I realized how difficult it is to compare and rank films which I have seen 10 months apart from each other. Obviously my feelings for those I’ve watched recently are a lot clearer than my impression for films I watched last summer. Hence, for example, the difference between #12 and #9 is probably not quite set in stone. Nevertheless, this rounds up a good year for me as a film lover. (For #13-25, please click here.)
12. Creed (USA), directed by Ryan Coogler
Make fun of Stallone all you want, but he has created a couple of the most iconic movie characters in the past 30-plus years. Having witnessed the ups and downs of Rocky the character and the film series after all these years, I am pleased to see him passing the torch to the right people—director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan—instead of running it to the ground like some of his less fortunate forays (Rocky V). As heartwarming as it is to see Stallone finally getting the award recognition that has eluded him since the first Rocky, Jordan proves to be a formidable successor to the people’s champ,carrying the film not only with his physical prowess but also defining its soul with great vulnerability. Coogler did a magnificent job at taking a legendary franchise to a new direction while applying his artful touch (how about that boxing match in one long take?) to this expectations-defying spin-off. Also, the focus on Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods and the titular character’s backstory has inadvertently (or craftily) imbued Creed with the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement.
11. Force Majeure (Sweden), directed by Ruben Östlund
Force Majeure doesn’t just mine social awkwardness for jokes, but delves deeper into its characters’ insecurities, making this a thoroughly fascinating yet cringe-worthy affair. Writer-director Ruben Östlund, who used to direct skiing films, fills the whole film with an unshakable air of eeriness and malaise as a family trudges through the rest of its vacation in the aftermath of a near crisis. The result is a painfully funny critique of the masculine mystique.
10. Mistress America (USA), directed by Noah Baumbach
“She was the last cowboy, all romance and failure. The world was changing, and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.” Nothing sums up Greta Gerwig’s Brooke better than this gleefully maudlin and idealized tribute by the younger Tracy (Lola Kirke). Director and co-writer Noah Baumbach teams up with Gerwig once again after the magical Frances Ha for another take on friendship and the perpetual dreamer who is not so young anymore. Gone are the hip black-and-white New Wave-inspired aesthetics, and in comes the madcap screwball comedy that is reminiscent of Lubitsch and Sturges (or a nod to Baumbach’s mentor Bogdanovich). The scene in which Brooke and company confront her ex-friend Mamie-Claire (best name of the year) at her house with cats, husband, guest and neighbor in tow captures the cast’s frantic energy with impeccable timing. Aside from being the star once again, Gerwig’s input as a co-writer seems to provide a much-welcomed likability that is uncommon in Baumbach’s earlier films.
9. Phoenix (Germany), directed by Christian Petzold
Director Christian Petzold and star Nina Hoss reunite for the sixth time in this suspenseful anti-romance set in post-war Germany. The tag line could very be “Imagine if Hitchcock’s Vertigo was told from the perspective of Judy/Madeleine….” The thorns of betrayal and identity is very much personal to Auschwitz survivor Nelly (Hoss), yet the film also works as a poignant picture on the entangled and encompassing pain of a nation left in the tatters of great horror.
8. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden), directed by Roy Andersson
Known for their painstaking design and ultra-dry humor, Roy Andersson’s films usually takes years to complete (three in the past 15 years). This 2015 Gold Lion winner continues to explore the doom of the human condition with the unhurried yet bleak humor of a man who has seen it all. The Swedish auteur has the uncanny ability to observe and transform the monotony of everyday life into twisted little comedic vignettes. Might as well have a laugh before we all die.
7. Chi-raq (USA), directed by Spike Lee
It’s unfathomable to me that any discussion of the year’s best American films will leave out Chi-raq. It is as essential as it is timely. The fact that Hollywood’s golden statute minstrel show has overlooked another Spike Lee joint (Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour) again only shows how tone-deaf this once prestigious institution is. Ancient Greek comedy, contemporary urban tragedy, hip hop opera and vibrant visual motifs all come together for this stinging satire on various aspects of American culture. Chi-raq does not pretend to be the answer for the nation’s ailments, but it is an outcry for a society that has not even dreamed of any.
6. Hard to be a God (Russia), directed by Aleksei German
Thirteen years in the making, late Russian giant Aleksei German’s final film (completed by his wife and son after his death) is the one film on this list that will most likely be still hailed as a masterpiece fifty years from now. Based on the sci-fi novel of the same name by the Strugatsky brothers, the film is set in an earth-like planet that is stuck in the middle ages. Anton aka Don Rumata, a scientist traveled from the culturally and technologically superior planet Earth, rules a fraction of the idiotic locals who take him as the son of a god. Yet even with his advanced knowledge and swordsmanship, our hero can do little to save this sorry ass world from destroying itself and eating shit (literally), with or without his interference. What is the most grotesque picture is also the most idiosyncratic visual spectacle of recent memory, as German wastes no time or energy on trivial matters such as narrative coherence. In the midst of fecal matter and deformed bodies, there is a sly political indictment on the frustrating and futile efforts in pushing for progress in a backwards country where powerful rich men thrive and intellectuals are hanged. Isn’t this the story of another planet? It all sounds too familiar for comfort.
5. The Look of Silence (Denmark, Indonesia), directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his award-winning The Act of Killing explores the Indonesian killings of the 1960s through the eyes of the victims’ families. While the early film’s confrontational chronicle of the seemingly proud killers enrages viewers with the lack of justice and remorse, the sequel follows the soul-searching journey of a man whose brother was killed before he was born. This disquieting beauty of a film is at once heartbreaking and compassionate, finding hope and love in the most difficult places. The candid confessions also speak highly of Oppenheimer’s ability as a documentary filmmaker who develops exceptionally strong rapport and mutual respect with his subjects.
4. Blind Massage (China), directed by Lou Ye
Set in a company of blind massage therapists, the film does not bother itself with pandering depictions of its characters with disabilities. After all, they are humans just like any of us with working eyes—the mix of actors with and without vision impairment yields great chemistry as well as authenticity. Director Lou Ye also fine-tunes his aesthetics to show immense sensitivity to the world of the visually impaired Most importantly, director Known for films about romantic obsession, Lou deftly balances the intensity and intimacy of his characters. A filmmaker who is frank, confident and astute in portraying sexuality is a rare animal in China. And Lou Ye is in a league of his own.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, USA), directed by George Miller
The best Hollywood studio release of the year by a long mile, Mad Max: Fury Road simply slays on every level. From the eye-opening cinematography to fluid editing, this 2-hour car chase is a textbook example of how a commercial blockbuster can be thrilling and crowd-pleasing without sacrificing artistic ambitions. The surprisingly feminist storyline flips what is expected to be a testosterone-driven action flick into a thoughtful examination of gender roles. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Nicholas Hoult’s Nux form the heart of the film, but your brain will be branded by the sight of Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe and his band of freakshow sidekicks.
2. The Assassin (Taiwan), directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Riding on the anticipation of the Taiwanese director’s first wuxia film, The Assassin eschews any expectation for an action flick by featuring more monologues than sword-fighting. Despite the period setting, this is a vintage Hou that follows its characters’ personal trajectories in accordance to the specific historical context. A sense of loss and identity crisis charge this serene motion picture with sweeping melancholy. Even though it is hard to take one’s focus off from the detailed production design and the otherworldly cinematography, Hou’s unparalleled ability to move and evoke through the perfect union of sight and sound is the mark of a true master. (Note: The beauty of The Assassin can be experienced even with eyes closed. The sound is sublime. How many kinds of bird sounds are featured in it?)
1. Güeros (Mexico), directed by Alonso Ruiz Palacios
Surely, plenty of folks are going to disagree with me on this one. But to me, making a list like this is equal parts artistic assessment and personal favorites. Alonso Ruiz Palacios’s directorial debut is simply exhilarating. The playful cinematography, charming characters, chillaxing pace and many other winsome characteristics revive the excitement I seek in a movie theater. Surely, going to see the latest film by an established auteur is satisfying, but nothing beats the excitement of being wowed by a refreshing new talent. In this wry testament of youth, rebellion is slow down by lethargy, idealism countered by indifference. Its faultless humor is also the key to the film’s endearing rendering of student protests. And what a lovely tribute Palacios has paid to his city! New York City has Manhattan. Berlin has Wings of Desire. And now, Mexico City has Güeros.
I’m trying to find some sort of common thread between my picks. It’s obvious that I tend to gravitate towards comedies (about six to eight of them can be classified as such). Films with feminist themes (six) are also well represented though only two on the list are directed by women. I also seem to bias towards movies about losers (Güeros, Mistress America) and those that experiment with the aspect ratio (The Assassin, Jauja, Mommy). There are also quite a few films that I am not able to squeeze into the list, including Clouds of Sils Maria, The Wolfpack, Inside Out, Magic XXL…. My favorite revival of the year is Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy.
Movie Poster of the Year: