Last week, in anticipation of the Oscars, we published a special “Women and Movies” issue of Public Books. Now that the statuettes have been handed out and the glitter has settled, we look back on our favorite movies of the past year, ranging from underdogs to popular favorites. The envelope, please …
Ryan Coogler, Creed, and Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
For me, 2015 was less a year of favorite films than of favorite cinematographers and actors. Maryse Alberti, the director of photography on Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, extended her talent for turning combat into poetry with the beautifully choreographed boxing matches that punctuate Creed. Every actor in The Diary of a Teenage Girl was amazing, including the always subtle and off-kilter Kristen Wiig as the mother of Minnie, the teenage girl of the title, played by Bel Powley. Watch Wiig in the scene where she proposes that since her boyfriend and 15-year-old daughter have been having sex, they should marry. Alexander Skarsgaard plays the boyfriend as both a lost child and a sexual predator and manages to inspire understanding for the character without extracting any sympathy for him. For a master class in how almost wordless acting can speak volumes, watch the exchange of glances when Minnie’s stepfather (Christopher Meloni) instantly sees something is awry from the casual greeting Skarsgaard gives Minnie as he lolls on her mom’s couch, eating cereal in the late afternoon. Shot / reaction shot: pure cinema.
Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria
With this quietly ambitious film, Assayas fully reclaimed his spot—initially won with the likes of Irma Vep and Late August, Early September; imperiled with the second half of Demonlover and all but lost with Boarding Gate; newly contested with Summer Hours and Carlos—as one of my favorite directors working today. If Juliette Binoche as Maria, an acclaimed middle-aged actress suddenly threatened by the kids coming up from behind, is the wounded ego of Sils Maria; Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann, her Millennial would-be usurper, its voracious, somewhat stagy id; Kristen Stewart as Valentine, Maria’s long-suffering and -succoring personal assistant, is the film’s critical intelligence and brilliantly ambiguous conscience. In what was for me (and for many others, it seems) a revelatory performance, Stewart’s Valentine shows herself entirely capable of holding several opposed ideas in the mind at once: that though her job generally requires her to efface herself and flatter Maria, sometimes what her boss really needs is her honest opinion; that Maria might be both worthy of her respect (and maybe even love) and unable or unwilling to recognize her talent; that the great artistic achievements of the past shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should they keep us from learning how to appreciate the art of the present. She’s a heroine for our time. And she really should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Part of the pleasure of The Lobster is figuring out the rules of the bizarro universe in which it takes place, so it would be a shame to give away too much of the premise. I’ll leave it at this: the movie satirizes the impulse to couple off, and of the social scripts behind relationships, in a way I’ve never seen before. Tonally and thematically, it’s a strange crustacean beast: imagine a crossover between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, written and directed by Gogol. I don’t usually have much patience for fantasy, but the movie’s lack of self-seriousness won me over, and left me charmed to the finish.
Paul Feig, Spy
While the Oscars routinely ignore comedies (at least for the major award categories), this movie starring Melissa McCarthy was a particularly glaring oversight this year. It’s easily one of the sharpest and funniest comedies I’ve seen in years. McCarthy’s character undergoes a radical transformation from CIA support staff to international super-spy over the course of the film, and it’s a wonder that her performance, at once outrageous and utterly charming, was overlooked for Best Actress. That’s before we even get to Rose Byrne’s brilliantly deadpan villain.
Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
This was a quiet and bleak new entry from Kaufman, which might be why it was overlooked in so many categories at this year’s Oscars. The artistry that went into the puppetry and animation was incredible, and the large conceits of the film—using the same voice for all but one of the other characters, for example—worked for the most part. Overall, it was less ambitious, but, I think, more successful than Kaufman’s first piece of auteur filmmaking—2008’s Synecdoche, New York. And it should have competed in more than just the typically Pixar-dominated category of Best Animated Feature Film.
John Maclean, Slow West
This was a charming and beautiful western, a genre of which I am particularly fond. Kodi Smit-McPhee is an aristocratic British teen roaming the Western US in search of the Scottish girl he loves. Along the way, he meets an outlaw played by Michael Fassbender, who takes the youth under his wing, in part because of the bounty on the head of Smit-McPhee’s beloved (played by Caren Pistorius). Ben Mendelsohn rounds out the top-billed cast as a rival outlaw heading a gang also in search of the aforementioned bounty. As usual, Fassbender’s performance is captivating, and his scenes with Mendelsohn are particularly compelling. Mostly, though, I love the film for its thoughtful, exquisite visuals—the cinematography and scene composition are breathtaking. Though obviously not filmed in the location in which it is set (principle photography was done not in the American West but rather New Zealand), the visual disjunction makes for an updated take on the classic spaghetti western and underscores the ways in which the story both reinforces and departs from the tropes of both the western and the romance.
Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Bizarrely from the same director as Jane Eyre (2011), this film about child soldiers in Africa confronts impossible truths about childhood amid warfare, with Idris Elba’s stunning (as always) performance to boot. This was an obvious snub that rankled many, and points with just one example to Hollywood’s racism problem, which Chris Rock masterfully monologued as host. (See further the live snub of actor Abraham Attah by Stutterer writer and director Benjamin Cleary, who hugged presenter Jacob Tremblay but not Attah.)
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
I think this excellent movie ended up slipping some people’s minds by the end of the year because it came out in early 2015, but it was phenomenal in its nuanced portrayal of a complicated female character, as well as the male minds that try to shape her according to their own standards. Alicia Vikander, as always, was astounding, as were Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs. Quite frankly, the fact that this dance scene was not recognized makes my heart break a little bit.
Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
I think it was a bit of a shame that this movie didn’t get wider recognition for its innovation, particularly in the animation category. I’m not one to question Inside Out’s win, but this is a grown-up version of the same idea of growing pains, just without the redemption. The stop-motion animation brings a new take on the traditional idea of animation, and underscores the film’s reckoning with human interchangeability in a devastating way.
Christian Petzold, Phoenix
In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly, a Jewish woman, gets facial reconstructive surgery after horrific disfigurement in Auschwitz. Recovered but barely recognizable, she returns to Berlin to find her husband. But when she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her. This is evidenced by his attempt to enlist her in a plot to claim his “dead” wife’s inheritance. While aiding him in this macabre caper, Nelly simultaneously attempts to discover whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. The film’s premise is plausible (I guess), but lends easily to surreality, as Nelly continues to pretend to be someone else pretending to be her. Phoenix’s screenplay was co-written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, and was the last work of Farocki’s career.