2015 was a great year for movies, and I hope returning readers will see those results on the lists below. However, I understand if my favourites at the tip of the iceberg aren’t surprising – they haven’t changed since the mid-year report. A couple of excellent documentaries, and an army of dogs set the bar astronomically high. On another note, I hope people will consider checking out the films that flesh out the lower rungs. There are some terrific films that acquired plenty of buzz, but are still hidden enough to warrant pleasant surprises from newcomers who discover these great films on DVD, Netflix, or on VOD.
Documentarians Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York chronicle the ups and downs of comedian/actress Tig Notaro. Tig (now streaming on Netflix) is versatile with its candour. It’s unembellished, naturally funny, and a compassionate view on heartbreak and discovering inner perseverance.
#9. While We’re Young
While We’re Young is Noah Baumbach’s entry to Ben Stiller’s “neurotic guy” catalogue. While that may be a turn off for movie goers wanting Stiller to perform in a different key, those viewers shouldn’t worry. Baumbach has conceived a comical, perceptive film about generational change and reality checks around Stiller’s usual awkwardness and meltdowns. Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Adam Driver are hilarious as well.
#8. Mistress America
Noah Baumbach is two-for-two in 2016! Mistress America – which he co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig – is a pitch-perfect comedy of manners. A delightful recommendation for theatre folk, and this year’s biggest surprise.
#7. Deep Web
Alex Winter’s sophomore doc Deep Web is still making its rounds to film festivals (the film screens this weekend at Peterborough’s ReFrame Film Festival), which speaks volumes about the film’s resonance. Winter masterfully peels away layers of the “dark web” and the debatable trial of Ross Ulbricht in this fantastic documentary. An added bonus: Keanu Reeves narrates – a fitting choice.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is fascinating as it is disturbing. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s relentless film burns itself into our mind, and finds a balance between being a thought-provoking study on the effects and abuse of power, and a controversial first-hand view at how humans surprise themselves with their instinctual choices.
#5. Inside Out
Pixar’s Oscar-nominated film is a progressive one. It’s expected for Inside Out to have vibrant animation and an inconspicuous cast, but the thoughtful portrayal of heartfelt memories and the range of emotions showed yet another side to Pixar’s brilliance.
The Mo Brothers are able to clearly comprehend the film’s disturbed social context while applying their own stylistic whiplash to the project. Nonetheless, Killers is not for the faint of heart.
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine’s purpose is to honour a friend, a relative, and an outspoken individual. And, it does so with professionalism and sophistication. It also acts as a sensational debut for filmmaker Michele Josue.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an epic documentary that takes viewers from life to death. It’s marvelous to watch as well as heartbreaking. I know Brett Morgen has earned acclaim for his doc, but Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck still deserves so much more.
#1. White God
White God is an amazing achievement in filmmaking and animal performances. Filmmaker Kornel Mundruczó juggles many genres and tones, and manages to stick each landing every time. It’s a perfect movie.
As someone who edits the work of Wylie Writes, I too watch a lot of movies – usually with Addison. Here’s my list:
#10. Black Mass
#8. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
#6. American Ultra
#5. Mistress America
#4. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
#2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
#1. Inside Out
It’s been an interesting year for sure. For the first time in my life, I was bored during a Tarantino movie – I never thought I’d see the day. The year, overall, looked like it was going to end up being a bit disappointing. However, within the last month, I saw five movies that made my list. Hopefully, next year is a little more spread out in terms of quality.
I’m pretty surprised this film snuck onto the list. There are some things I loved about it, but I also had issues with how the story unfolded. It seems as if the pros outweighed the cons though because I just couldn’t part with it.
The cinematography is great. In fact, it’s the visual storytelling that really makes this film stand out. There are multiple images that are imprinted in my brain and possibly my nightmares. Benicio Del Toro gives a great performance and makes the viewer really appreciate how good of an actor he is.
#9. It Follows
It Follows, easily, has one of the most simplest and creative ideas for a horror film in a long time. There’s no escape from this evil that hunts you, and the way it manifests itself is terrifying. It doesn’t need a lot of gore or crazy CGI monsters to scare us; just emotionless people leisurely walking over to kill you. That may sound stupid if you haven’t seen the film, but the film’s representation of it makes that paranoia into a powerful fear. There’s usually one horror movie on my list every year, and It Follows earns that spot.
This was the funniest film of the year by far! I won’t say too much more other than if you’re looking for a pick-me-up, check out this mockumentary. And, this is coming from someone who hates the mockumentary shooting style of filmmaking. Luckily, filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement transcend the usual motions, and create a surprising delight.
#7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Yes, the entire plot is recycled from A New Hope. You could even make the argument that it’s more of a remake than a sequel. You could EVEN make the argument that JJ Abrams didn’t have an original thought while making the film. We could sit here and point out all the little things that didn’t quite make sense, and the only defense for the moments is “because The Force”. We could dwell on those things and try to convince ourselves we didn’t like The Force Awakens, but when it comes down to it, Abrams’ addition was an incredibly fun space adventure. It was funnier than expected – even Chewbecca made me laugh.
I’ve never been a diehard Star Wars fanboy, but I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. JJ might have made a few missteps in areas, but he accomplished two of the most important things: the film was highly entertaining and he set up a great foundation of characters and story. I can’t wait to see the next one!
#6. Straight Outta Compton
Believe it or not: this handsome small town Canadian white boy knew a lot about N.W.A. growing up. So, naturally, I was excited to see a biopic about Eazy-E and the boys. Thankfully, the movie was well made and didn’t fall into too many biopic ruts. The cast is great, but Jason Mitchell – who portrays Eazy-E – gives an Oscar-worthy performance.
#5. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
MI:5 is a good spy movie, and easily made up for the failure of Spectre. It’s just so much fun!
Rebecca Ferguson – as the female British spy – stole the show. I’m going to toss out a bold statement here and say she should be the next Bond if Craig gives it up. I’m not bringing this up as some sort of feminist/equality statement. I don’t think Rebecca Ferguson should be the next Bond because she’s a woman. She should carry on the legacy because she’s the biggest badass I’ve seen in a film in years.
#4. Mad Max: Fury Road
I love describing what this movies about. A group of people drive from Point A to Point B and then back to Point A. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and a lot of chaos and mayhem along the way.
By ditching Mel Gibson and destroying the famous car in the opening scene, long-time fans of Mad Max wonder why the producion would give themselves a huge handicap. Through scene after scene, filmmaker George Miller expertly shows us the tricks up his sleeve. Mad Max: Fury Road is insane, and I love that Miller was able to make Mad Max relevant in 2015 – who would have guessed?
Is this the best Rocky movie ever made? BLASPHEMY! It may be though.
Rocky was a bit of a creep in the first one and, yes, the 4th one is amazing in a great/stupid way, but Creed is an exceptional addition to boxer dramas. Keep an eye on director Ryan Coogler. Based on Creed, his career will flourish. I loved all the characters (especially Michael B. Jordan’s performance), and I might’ve even got a little teary eyed at parts. I pray they don’t follow through with a sequel. Leave it alone, Stallone!
#2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Halfway through the year, this was my #1 pick – it was only knocked down one spot at the end of the year. Kingsman is hilarious, exciting, and a fresh spin in the espionage genre. I’ve recommended this film to so many people and will continue to do so. It’s on Netflix, so check it out immediately!
#1. The Revenant
Alejandro González Iñárritu is on a roll. He cleaned up the awards season last year with Birdman – which I hated by the way – and now he comes out with The Revenant. It was a great year for survival movies and The Revenant was my favourite out of all of them. It was brutal, painful, and captivating. I’m still thinking about this movie and the impressive production – I can’t wait to watch it again.
#5. A Brilliant Young Mind
A Brilliant Young Mind (formally titled X+Y) is a fascinating heavy drama, and a unique coming-of-age tale that will break and warm your heart. Best of all, it shows that international math competitions can be interesting.
#4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A worthy continuation of the saga: The Force Awakens captures the Star Wars aura perfectly – cheesy dialogue and all – and it’s still a good film. Who would have thought?
#3. Inside Out
Inside Out doesn’t just pander to different age demographics separately within the film like so many animated films do these days. Pixar’s animated film is legitimately enjoyable for the entire family.
#2. Welcome to Me
Kristen Wiig proves that she can be a comedian and a damn good actress in the same film. While Welcome to Me offers both a serious and humourous take on mental illness, its sincerity shows that it doesn’t take the subject lightly.
#1. He Never Died
This unique mastery of mixed genres never fails to keep your interest. Avoiding clichés and providing a simple story with character depth, He Never Died should be on everyone’s must-watch list.
#5. I Smile Back
Comedian Sarah Silverman gives a stunning dramatic performance as Laney, a suburban housewife and mother struggling with her own out-of-control behavior and substance abuse issues. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from presenting a stark portrait of a woman who is bent on self-destruction; favoring gritty-realism over the usual “redemption” narrative, director Adam Salky gives us a story that is relentless and completely engrossing.
A non-linear, fragmented storyline and stream of consciousness approach to narrative set this film apart. In its refusal to settle on a single protagonist, Louder Than Bombs becomes a portrait of an entire family as they struggle to deal with a tragedy. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, and Isabelle Huppert, Louder Than Bombs challenges the viewer both thematically and visually.
#3. What We Do in the Shadows
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary is hands-down the funniest film I’ve seen this year. Housemates Viago, Deacon, Vladislav are centuries-old vampires living in present day Wellington who argue about doing chores and struggle to adjust to 21st century life. The film is fresh, despite having one of the least fresh premises possible. What We Do in the Shadows pokes fun at the conventions of the horror genre while avoiding tiresome tropes – the result is hilarious.
#2. Mistress America
Overflowing with memorable moments and quirky, quotable dialogue, Noah Baumbach’s latest film follows a thirty-something New Yorker (Greta Gerwig) and her friendship with her future stepsister, a lonely college freshman played by Lola Kirke. Gerwig is impressive, entertaining and charming, but it’s ultimately her chemistry with Kirke that makes Mistress America appealing and allows it to delve so sharply into the way that two people with different perspectives can connect and inspire one another.
Paul Weitz’s surprisingly literate and subtle dramedy about an aged poet and her teenage granddaughter journeying through Los Angeles hoping to find the money for the granddaughter’s abortion isn’t what one might expect from the same filmmaker who directed American Pie. A nuanced script and great performances from Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner make this film as moving as it is funny.
Honourable Mentions: Creed, Unfriended, Horse Money, The Hunting Ground, Bone Tomahawk, The Mend, Spotlight, 88:88, Tangerine, Secret in Their Eyes, Goodnight Mommy, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Demolition, The Wave, Hardcore, Kill Your Friends, Body, The Final Girls, Right Now Wrong Then, Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story, Court, Best of Enemies, Magic Mike XXL, San Andreas, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, L for Leisure, The Nightmare, Paddington, Wild Tales.
A throwback to 80s creature flicks like Poltergeist and Gremlins, Krampus is never overwhelming with its self-reflexivity. In other words, it manages to become its own thing, combining elements of riotous comedy with frightening creatures to form a new holiday horror classic.
An underseen Canadian horror film, Backcountry features the most impressively verisimilar depiction of a bear attack I have probably ever seen (sorry, The Revenant). Infusing feminism with survival horror, Backcountry finds terror not only in confrontation with the wilderness, but also with our sense of loss and confusion.
#8. Inside Out
Pixar released two films this year: one will quickly be forgotten (The Good Dinosaur), while the sensitive emotional core of Inside Out will hopefully be remembered for years to come. Inside Out draws out the very best of Pixar in a powerful balance of emotional maturity and comedy.
An underrated gem from January, Blackhat is another marginalized effort by Michael Mann to experiment with narrative and digital aesthetic forms. Critics complained about the film’s confusing narrative, but what is most striking about Blackhat is how it creates a digitalized physical space: from above and below, urban architecture and infrastructure are cinematized in such a way that they become reminiscent of the spatial properties of hardware.
#6. The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin’s pet project of the last few years is The Forbidden Room, which is best explained as an intertwining anthology series emanating out of a kind of cinematic “séance” to contact the spirits of lost films. Deliriously funny and wonderfully edited, The Forbidden Room is a masterful journey through the art of the ephemeral.
Iran’s internationally celebrated auteur Jafar Panahi has been under house arrest since 2010, and has been banned for making films for 20 years. Yet, since then we’ve had three films from Panahi: This is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and Taxi (2015). With Taxi, Panahi continues on his trend of straddling the lines between reality and fiction as he takes on the role of a taxi driver. Playing himself, Taxi follows Panahi as he picks up strangers and friends in what ultimately continues a cathartic journey for the filmmaker as he challenges the government’s allegations.
#4. The Whispering Star
Known primarily for his vibrant, excessive, and violent genre films, Siono Sono’s The Whispering Star – starring his wife Megumi Kagurazaka – is a black-and-white science-fiction drama about a robot travelling through the universe delivering parcels on nearly barren planets. The Whispering Star is Sono’s statement on the displacement of Japanese citizens living near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, and its subsequent effects on the environment.
#3. The Witch
I had the pleasure of seeing this horror film at TIFF 2015 – it will be released this year in North America. The Witch combines elements from a various New England urban legends to craft a vertiginously frightening story about how paranormal elements destabilize a family in 16th century New England.
#2. The Lobster
Set in a weird, emotionless dystopia, The Lobster has a strange premise: single people must check into a hotel and find a compatible partner by the end of their stay. If they fail, they are turned into an animal of their choice. The Lobster’s central thesis is that romance is a neoliberal construction intended to facilitate and encourage conformity. Yet, despite their ostensible lack of emotions among the characters, their quiet suffering, loneliness, and desperation is perfectly articulated in one of the most evocative films of the year.
Todd Haynes’ Carol is a revisionist intervention into the 1950s Hollywood melodrama, inserting queer romance into a subgenre and time period where such a theme lacked visibility. Aesthetically gorgeous yet restrained, Carol forgoes the proselytizing of so many contemporary queer films and opts for an emotionally resonant love story that boasts one of the most significantly optimistic conclusions in mainstream queer cinema.
Best Short Films of 2015:
#10. Myrna the Monster
Myrna was stolen from her home planet by astronauts and now, she has to live amongst the humans in Los Angeles. This is another heartbreaking/heartwarming study of diaspora.
#9. Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling
A cast of internet personalities and professional wrestlers recreate the timeline of WWE wrestler Triple H, in an effort to explain why wrestling appeals to audiences despite not being “real”.
#8. Yardena ~ Baghdad ~ Yardena
Sama Waham is an Iraqi-Canadian who planned to visit Iraq to return to her roots. The Islamic State’s takeover of the region ended those dreams. Instead, it led to this treatise on identity, diaspora and never being able to go back home.
This film is honestly one of the scariest films I have ever seen. While it does masterfully utilize jump scares, its strength is in the moments between those. Scenes that are so tense, that they makes the viewer beg for the jump scare. Scenes so tense, that the biggest jump scare involves a knife being placed..on a counter!
#6. I Could Eat a Horse
A stop motion college student is starving. There is a deal on kebabs nearby, but his last five dollars was stolen by a mouse. What is a person to do?
#5. The Chickening
The oddest film to play TIFF by a medium-length shot (it would be a long shot, but Der Nachtmahr was there), this chicken-based variation on The Shining must be seen to be believed.
#4. My Enemy, My Brother
An Iranian child soldier saves the life of a wounded Iraqi soldier. The war continues and both are captured. Years later, their paths cross again.
#3. World of Tomorrow
Hertzfeldt’s first film to incorporate digital components, this is more of the thought-provoking oddity for which he has come to be known.
#2. Movies in Space
The rise, fall and redemption of a man who falls into the world of space film production and becomes the greatest filmmaker ever. And, it doesn’t hurt that it is absolutely hilarious.
#1. How to Remain Single
An experimental instructional guide on how to navigate a metropolis without fear of ending up in a relationship.
The Best Feature-Length Films of 2016:
#10. The Witch
While this film is not advertised as such, its greatest strength is that it is technically “based on a true story”. Adapted from actual “eyewitness testimony” of the 1600s, this film tells the story of a family afflicted by the devil. It is difficult to explain: this film is not particularly scary (beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, but not scary), but when it ends and you end up back on the street, you will realize just how deeply unsettling it was.
#9. Standby for Tape Back-up
When I was starting to make this list, I had pretty much forgotten about this little documentary from Hot Docs. However, seeing its name brought the memories flooding back. It’s a documentary consisting entirely of rewound and played VHS tapes of pop cultural artifacts. Standby for Tape Back-up allows the filmmaker to come to terms with his own mental state, and the messed-up state of his life. This is the rare sort of personal film that does not come along very often.
#8. The Hunting Ground
Kirby Dick does for American universities what he did for the military in The Invisible War. While it is common knowledge that there is a rape problem in American (and many other) universities, this film still manages to shock by showing just how overarching it is.
#7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
As someone who is not the biggest fan of vampire films, the last few years have been steadily creating brilliant offbeat vampires. A Persian horror film created with a cast of expatriate Iranians, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the love story between a vampire and a human in beautiful stark black-and-white.
This is another one of those films with a weird concept that just somehow works. In this case, Szumowska tells the story of a relationship between a CSI, his anorexic daughter, and her therapist who is also a medium who helps her get in contact with her dead mother. While everything in this film needs to be commended, it is ultimately the cinematography which is the biggest star of this film. Every shot is filled with meaning and intricately crafted down to the smallest detail.
#5. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
The first Sion Sono film to make my list this year, this love letter to trash and low-budget cinema sees a group of amateur filmmakers working with the Yakuza in search of realism. This is a more traditional Sono film, replete with the blood and violence that has come to be expected from him. Sono seems incapable of creating flops!
#4. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos’ last two films took place in a deeply enclosed physical space and a deeply enclosed mental space. This time, in his first English language film, he tries his hand at building a bizarre world where being single is punished. Another reminder of how the filmmaker’s deadpan peculiarities translate so well.
Charlie Kaufman returns to cinema with this deeply human, puppet film about a man who has lost all ability to interact with other people. Only Kaufman could write puppets that are more human than the average Hollywood live-action character.
2. Love & Peace
A loser buys a small turtle on the street and names him Pikadon. After he’s mocked by his coworkers, he flushes the turtle where it ends up in an underground city with talking toys and animals, and given the power to grant wishes. He uses the power to turn the loser into a rock star. This describes the first twenty minutes of Sion Sono’s creative, inventive musical-comedy-fantasy-children’s kaiju monster movie.
Following his last two films, Jafar Panahi continues to turn his own predicaments into compelling filmmaking. This time, he drives a taxi around Tehran, interacting with people and creating a hyperreal world where there is a very fine line between reality and filmmaking.
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