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You hear “cinema is dead” constantly. You also hear that movies are exclusively focused on superheroes and teen dystopias, and anyone wanting anything else has turned to the "golden age of television." To which we say: bullshit.
It’s not that there aren’t problems with cinema right now, but anyone who says that there aren’t enough good movies didn’t see enough movies or was seeing the wrong ones. From the multiplex to the arthouse, from hugely expensive blockbusters to micro-budget indies shot with tools you probably have in your pocket, there’s an enormous breadth and depth of great film in 2015.
We’ve been celebrating the year in film for a few weeks now, and as we reach the midpoint, it felt like the right time to unveil our list of the Best Films Of 2015. Last year, for the first time, we conducted a poll of Playlist writers and staffers, collating their top tens (10 points for first place, 9 for second etc, plus a bonus point for every list a film was on) into a grand group Top 20.
Last year saw “Under The Skin” as our runaway winner, with “Birdman,” “Gone Girl,” “Foxcatcher” and “Nightcrawler” also making the Top 10. This year, we’d wager that our final list is a more interesting, surprising and, frankly, better line-up. How did it unfold? Take a look below.
A quick note about our year-end coverage: We, like you and everyone else, haven’t seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” yet. J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box remains firmly closed until the week of release. As such, like the National Board of Review or the New York Film Critics Circle or any number of voting groups that are forced to make their decisions without seeing it, 'The Force Awakens' won’t be appearing on the bulk of these lists for now. Once it’s been reviewed, we’ll be discussing in the film full and will indicate where it would have featured on these best-of lists retroactively. Other late December releases such as “Joy,” “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight,” have already been seen by at least one staffer, and though they aren't featured here, those films will likely pop up in individual staff lists we'll be running later this month.
20. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Coming-of-sexual-age stories in cinema are usually reserved for boys becoming men, but when such films focus on young women, there’s often either a fuzzy haze of romance or the harsh glare of judgment on its protagonist. Marielle Heller’s 1970s-set “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the rare film that deals frankly with its heroine’s experience of and appreciation for sex while never condemning her for her choices. At the film’s bursting heart is Minnie, played with wide eyes and a heady combination of maturity and naivete by Bel Powley. Despite being in her early 20s and British, Powley so perfectly captures Minnie’s San Francisco adolescent artist spirit that we’re eager to doubt the actress’s own biographical details. In addition to Powley’s breakout performance, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” marks a bold entry into filmmaking for writer-director Heller. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, the adaptation handles the book’s challenging subject matter —Minnie’s affair with much-older Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend— with apparent ease. Beyond the strong screenplay, the film also incorporates animation from Sara Gunnarsdóttir throughout, a nod to both Minnie’s own cartoons and the original novel’s art. In other hands, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” could feel like a standard period film about a young woman’s sexual and artistic awakening, but Heller and Powley have made this a vital experience filled with creativity and wonder. [Read our review]
It was perhaps inevitable that the seventh installment of a long-dormant franchise would end up making our top 20. The surprise, with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” still under wraps, is that it turned out to be “Creed.” But if J.J. Abrams’ movie is even half as successful as reviving the 'Star Wars' milieu as Ryan Coogler’s was at giving new life to “Rocky,” we’ll be very lucky indeed. Focusing on Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky Balboa’s former opponent and pal Apollo Creed, with Stallone’s veteran boxer moving into a role as the younger man's mentor, the film delivers on the promise of Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station” and then some. It’s not that it reinvents the boxing genre —it’s hitting many of the same beats as many boxing movies since “Rocky” and beyond. But Coogler has such specificity in his writing (teamed with Aaron Covington) and such a clear idea of these characters and their journeys that it feels utterly fresh. And he shoots with a vitality (the one-shot boxing match has already passed into legend) that you need if you’re going to resurrect a dusty old war-horse like this. Not to rest on the kind of cliches that Coogler mostly avoids, but “Creed” packed an emotional punch like few other movies this year. [Read our review]
18. “The Assassin”
It’s been a long time coming for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new full-length feature film —over 7 years in fact, with the collective film world speculating each year whether that would be the one we see “The Assassin” grace screens. After 2014, hopes dwindled and it became an inside joke amongst the director’s fans. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Not Hou.” But once it finally premiered in Cannes earlier in the year, the jokes quickly switched to chastened murmurs. The legendary Taiwanese master’s new martial arts film befits his reputation for meticulous mise-en-scene, methodical pace and liquid camera movement. Running just under two hours, the film tells the story of Nie Yinniang (the mesmerizing Hou regular Qi Shu) and her internal struggle between following her assassin’s instincts and following her heart. There’s no space to write about the narrative in the detail it warrants here, but Hou’s methods —synced with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing and production designer Wen-Ying Huang— turn the aesthetics into the story. Even while working within the confines of the traditional wuxia genre, “The Assassin” stands apart as wholly transcendental. No book, painting, or piece of music can truly replicate the kind of purity this film manages to miraculously achieve. The hazy narrative is very much part of the film’s philosophy; it is as liberated from convention as nature itself. Through phenomenal craftsmanship, scenes melt into one another and transport us in a trance to another time and another place, dissolving humanity and the natural world into a singular condition. This is cinema, folks: pure and anything but simple. [Read our review]
“Mustang” is one of those little miracles: a film from a first time feature director that arrives fully-formed, distinct of style and vision and utterly fearless. It’s a lot like its protagonist, Lale —unwavering, clear-eyed, determined. Loving the film is easy if you already agree with co-writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s argument against the repression and control of women and their sexuality. But she and co-writer Alice Winocur skillfully lay out the ridiculousness of the situation—namely, the frantic, grasping attempts at control, starting with the inciting incident that snowballs into paranoia and destruction. As a story, “Mustang” is really more of a fable, one not just for women but for any kind of extreme control or repression. Ergüven places the audience in the girls’ perspective, thus making us one of the sisters, with the camera following the herd, peering out of windows and doors. We’re on the same level, draped in the piles of lanky limbs and manes of hair. It makes it that much harder when one by one, the sisters are systematically ripped away, married off, their vibrant girlish spirits squashed into wifely duties. The youngest, Lale, observes everything as she clings to the window bars, wriggles out of the windows, fanning her own spark of defiance. In a year when some of the best films demonstrated the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of the last gasps of ruling patriarchy, little Lale is right up there with Imperator Furiosa as a badass feminist heroine. Vive la resistance. [Read our review]
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, sitting around on your ass waiting for someone to hand you money to make your feature is no longer good enough: Sean Baker took a hundred grand and a couple of iPhones and made one of the best movies of the year. The film received much of its acclaim thanks to its legitimately beautiful iPhone 5s photography, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the movie’s virtues, which back up what we suspected after “Starlet” —Baker’s one of the most interesting indie filmmakers working. Set over one long Christmas Eve night in L.A. (it’s a holiday classic in the making), the movie tracks Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), as they set out to find Sin-Dee’s boyfriend (James Ransone), who’s allegedly been cheating on her while she was in prison. Given that both the central characters are trans women and sex workers, Baker makes them three dimensional while also not ignoring their identities, and the film feels far more progressive than, say, the leaden “The Danish Girl." But more than that, it’s a raucuous, restless blast, feeling closer to a sort of' 70s sex farce, the spirit of Hal Ashby and Peter Bogdanovich running through it, than anything else. After a lean 88 minutes, you emerge rejuvenated and with a renewed hope for the future of film. [Read our review]