2015 was a milestone for me, personally and professionally, for many reasons. My first book, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, was published by Columbia University Press in January; my first feature film, Cool Apoclypse, had its world premiere in May, won awards at three regional film festivals over the summer and screened at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in November; I started the White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast in September — recording six episodes with 10 different guests (including personal heroes Charles Burnett and Kent Jones); and I diversified my blogging duties by writing not only for this site but also for Time Out Chicago and Cine-File Chicago. While the overall length of my blog posts became exponentially shorter, I still managed to write dozens of pieces, reviewing both new and old films and interviewing filmmakers as diverse as Agnes Varda, Pedro Costa, Alex Ross Perry and Sean Baker. Finally, I programmed and hosted the 2nd annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in December, which screened the acclaimed films Actress, Black Box and Transformers: The Premake. I also saw more new films than ever before. Below is a list of my 10 favorite new movies to first play Chicago in 2015 followed by a list of 40 runners-up. Enjoy.
10. Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 9.4
Incredibly, Taxi is the third film Jafar Panahi has managed to make and smuggle out of Iran in defiance of a 20-year filmmaking ban handed down by government authorities. It is also a quantum leap over its predecessor, 2013’s despairing Closed Curtain, which, following 2011’s superb This is Not a Film, had started to show the (understandable) artistic limitations of making home-movie allegories about censorship and government oppression within the confines of one’s own home. The masterstroke of Taxi was for Panahi to take his camera into the streets of Tehran by posing as a cab driver and making a film about the colorful people he picks up over the course of an eventful afternoon. Among those captured by Panahi’s “dashboard cam”: two passengers who are allegedly strangers to each another debating Sharia law, a man selling bootleg DVDs, and Panahi’s own adorable moppet of a niece who asks for help with a school video project. The result is a fascinating pseudo-documentary that proves yet again how this singular director can wring a surprising amount of variation out of the same self-reflexive conceits. Also welcome is the film’s warm comedic tone; Panahi as a screen presence seems perpetually bemused by life’s rich pageant even during scenes that function as angry social criticism.
9. Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) – 9.4
My Cine-File capsule review here. Further thoughts here. My interview with Pedro Costa at Time Out here.
8. Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014) – 9.6
For those who haven’t yet seen it: imagine a remake of Vertigo set in post-WWII Berlin and told from the point-of-view of Judy Barton and you’ll have some idea of what director Christian Petzold is up to in his latest and best feature. Some critics complained about certain narrative implausibilities, which is quite frankly absurd when one considers that everything about this dreamlike film, including the title, is clearly meant to be read as allegory: the reconstructive facial surgery of the Jewish Nelly Linz (Nina Hoss, terrific as always) and her attempts to find the truth behind her betrayal to the Nazis constitutes a profound and painful narrative inquiry into how Germany as a nation might have begun to reconstruct itself in the immediate aftermath of the war. (Of course, the literal-minded viewers that Alfred Hitchcock liked to call “the plausibles” had problems with Vertigo too!) Also, that last scene.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia, 2015) – 9.6
Capsule review here.
6. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France, 2015) – 9.7
My Golden Days is both a sequel and a prequel to Arnaud Desplechin’s celebrated My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument from 1996, shuttling back and forth between the 1980s when Desplechin’s alter-ego, Paul Dedalus (Quentin Dolmaire), was still in high school and the present day, where the same character is now an adult anthropologist played by the inevitable Mathieu Amalric. Disorientingly, the film begins as an espionage thriller before seguing into a nostalgic tale of first love and first heartbreak. Reconciling that the conventionally handsome Dolmaire (an Adonis with curly locks and bow lips) and the more offbeat-looking Amalric are the same character turns the whole thing into a beautiful meditation on memory and subjectivity. Crosscutting between the two of them pays dividends in a highly charged climactic barroom altercation where the older Dedalus verbally unloads on an old friend, illustrating how easily decades-old emotions can come bubbling up to the surface; the people that we used to be are always still with us. This is a movie that Marcel Proust might have directed.
5. Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.7
Capsule review here (scroll down to #15).
4. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – 9.9
Full review here.
3. One Century of Power (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2015) – 10
My top ten lists in the past have always consisted only of feature-length movies. I’m making an exception this year for the extraordinary 15-minute short One Century of Power, the final film of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. Made when Oliveira was 106-years-old (and released posthumously online in June), this wordless documentary begins with a static shot of a quartet of classical musicians performing in what appears to be a large empty room. Oliveira then pans his camera 90 degrees to the right where images from a silent black-and-white documentary are being projected onto a wall. Those images are from Hulha Branca, Oliveira’s own non-fiction short from 1932 about the creation of Portugal’s first water-powered electrical plant. The remainder of One Century of Power sees Oliveira cutting back and forth between shots from Hulha Branca and shots taken in the same locations today. Eventually, three women wearing red dresses perform a dance in front of the projector causing large silhouettes of their figures to dance across the documentary images on the wall. The idea of a filmmaker interacting with one of his own movies from more than 80 years previously is unprecedented in the history of cinema but, more than being a mere stunt, this allows for a perfect articulation of the film’s moving themes of renewable energy and rebirth. I was also reminded of Adrian Martin’s assertion in his splendid new book Mise en Scene and Film Style that “dance films” are particularly beloved by cinephiles because mise-en-scene is so concerned with capturing “bodies in space.” You can watch One Century of Power in its entirety on YouTube here. You can read my obituary of Oliveira here.
2. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan, 2015) – 10
Capsule review here. Listen to me discuss how I have a “bee in my bonnet” about critics who have called it “incomprehensible” on my podcast here.
1. Goodbye to Language (Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014) – 10
Full review here. More thoughts here. Capsule review of the Blu-ray here.
11. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015) – 9.4
12. Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2014) – 9.3. Cine-File capsule here.
13. Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014) – 9.1. Time Out capsule here.
14. The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015) – 9.1
15. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015) – 9.0
16. The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) – 9.0
17. The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015) – 9.0
18. Mountains May Depart (Jia, China, 2015) – 9.0
19. Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen, USA, 2015) – 8.9
20. La Sapienza (Green, Italy/France, 2014) – 8.9. Time Out capsule here.
21. Tangerine (Baker, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Interview with Sean Baker here.
22. Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here. Further thoughts here.
23. Results (Bujalski, USA, 2015) – 8.8. Capsule review here.
24. Leviathan (Zvyiagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.8
25. Actress (Greene, USA, 2014) – 8.8. Cine-File capsule here.
26. Brooklyn (Crowley, UK, 2015) – 8.7
27. Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria/Germany, 2014) – 8.7. Cine-File capsule here.
28. My Friend Victoria (Civeyrac, France, 2014) – 8.7
29. Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio, Uruguay, 2014) – 8.7. Time Out capsule here. Interview with Enrique Buchichio here.
30. In Jackson Heights (Wiseman, USA, 2015) – 8.7
31. Nahid (Panahandeh, Iran, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.
32. The Mend (Magary, USA, 2014) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here.
33. Under Electric Clouds (German Jr., Russia, 2015) – 8.6. Capsule review here.
34. Queen of Earth (Perry, USA, 2015) – 8.6. Cine-File capsule here. Interview with Alex Ross Perry here.
35. In the Underground (Song, China, 2015) – 8.5. Time Out capsule here.
36. Straight Outta Compton (Gray, USA, 2015) – 8.5. Capsule review here.
37. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, USA, 2015) – 8.5
38. Girlhood (Sciamma, France, 2014) – 8.4. Cine-File capsule here.
39. The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, USA, 2015) – 8.4. Some thoughts here.
40. Heaven Knows What (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2015) – 8.3
41. Gemma Bovery (Fontaine, France/UK, 2014) – 8.3. Time Out capsule here.
42. While We’re Young (Baumbach, USA, 2014) – 8.2
43. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, USA, 2015) – 8.2. Capsule review here. Interview with Kent Jones here.
44. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Burton/Starzak, UK, 2015) – 8.1. Capsule review here.
45. Experimenter (Almereyda, USA, 2015) – 8.1
46. N: The Madness of Reason (Kruger, Belgium/Ivory Coast, 2014) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.
47. Women He’s Undressed (Armstrong, Australia, 2015) – 8.0
48. Casa Grande (Barbosa, Brazil, 2014) – 7.8. Time Out capsule here.
49. Eden (Hansen-Love, France, 2014) – 7.7
50. Stinking Heaven (Silver, USA, 2015) – 7.5. Cine-File capsule here.
For obvious reasons, I’m disqualifying Cool Apocalypse from consideration. I’m also disqualifying Stephen Cone’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, a wonderful movie that would have otherwise definitely made the list but it stars Nina Ganet (one of the co-leads of Cool Apocalypse and a friend). I would like to give a special shout out to the following short films and installations:
Chocolate Heart (Atkins)
The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast (Bass) – Time Out capsule here.
World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt)
Fucking a Succubus (Keller)
Transformers: The Premake (Lee)
Bite Radius (Parsons)
January 1st, 2016 at 11:08 am
Mr. Smith, have you read Ray Olson’s review of your favorite american movie the searchers over at classicflix website?
January 1st, 2016 at 11:21 am
I have not. Is it worth reading?
January 1st, 2016 at 1:39 pm
Yes, I think so. And I would like to get your thoughts on it.
January 3rd, 2016 at 12:08 am
Just checked it out. Seems like the old “I loved the novel and disagree with the filmmakers’ changes” routine. As far as Ford’s “corny humor” goes, that is one of his greatest strengths – the way he combines comedy and tragedy is Shakespearean!
January 2nd, 2016 at 1:23 pm
I would be interested to read your critique of the hateful eight. I don’t really know what I thought of it myself, at times it seemed stupid and terrible and then sometimes enjoyable and breathtaking even.
Surprising that you enjoyed Mad Max so much.It didn’t do much for me, but that is probably because of the culture that the series drew from is something foul to live through as a woman.
It’s an Australian era type thing that most people won’t get.
Thanks for providing this list Michael, it saves a lot of time searching for films to watch. Yours has been the most interesting one I have come across so far.
I was on the fence bout watching the Assassin and now I have to watch it right now just to get ahead of this controversy business.
January 2nd, 2016 at 3:47 pm
Also have to mention why no love for ex machina? That was so much fun to watch.
January 2nd, 2016 at 5:38 pm
I liked Ex Machina a lot – up until the end, which I thought was disappointingly reactionary (i.e., artificial intelligence is going to turn against us). There were quite a few movies I liked a lot that didn’t make the list.
I thought The Hateful Eight was, for the most part, pretty great. Tarantino knows how to shake the cinema up and create “event movies” that you have to grapple with – even when he’s at his most puerile. I’ve come to realize that the director he reminds me of most is Lars Von Trier! Anyway, the next episode of my podcast will feature a debate between me and another Chicago-based critic on the virtues of Hateful so stay tuned.
January 2nd, 2016 at 5:49 pm
ok I will be interested in listening to that tx. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on that one
January 7th, 2016 at 1:27 am
Great list, though I would have placed Inside Out in your top 10 cause that is a truly fantastic film 🙂 Keep up the great work as always 🙂
January 7th, 2016 at 8:56 am
Thanks, John. Feel free to sit in on any of my OCC classes this semester if you’re free.
January 7th, 2016 at 10:09 pm
Although this is a reply aimed more at Sweet cheke, than you, I am curious (cause I read one of her blog posts) on how she got to see Maps to the Stars in 2014, when it did not open to the rest of the US till 2015. In other words, although it sounds like a silly question, does she live in one of the states that got to see it in 2014? In other words, where it was playing in limited release. Regards 🙂
January 7th, 2016 at 10:21 pm
She comes from a land down under…
January 7th, 2016 at 10:55 pm
To put it in other words’ Australia 🙂
January 7th, 2016 at 11:16 pm
I left a reply on her site telling her that you told me she was from Australia and that is how shee was able to see Maps to the Stars in 2014 because it opened there that year. I am so sorry for asking such a stupid question, I just forgot about the fact that Maps to the Stars opened overseas first. Silly me 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always and once again, I love your Top 50 films list 🙂
January 8th, 2016 at 8:03 am
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