Year-end top ten lists are arbitrary time capsules; invariably we look back on them a few years down the road and are as baffled by some obvious omissions as we are by the inclusion of movies we barely recall. As I write this on the last day of 2015, here are the ten (well, okay, eleven) movies that stuck with me from the year gone past. Their expiration dates remain unknown.
Mad Max: Fury Road – The Force Awakens may have pushed all the right nostalgia buttons, but George Miller’s revival of his own decades-old sci-fi saga does something much more: it fuses action with narrative and world-building in a seamless way that reinvigorates the genre. The movie never stop hurtling forward, and we feel the weight of the vehicular mayhem and spectacular real-world stunts in a way today’s CGI-saturated blockbusters can never achieve. Miller sidelines his title character (now played by a barely verbal Tom Hardy) in favor of Charlize Theron’s tenacious Imperator Furiosa, and like his post-apocalyptic characters, builds the rubbish of the old world into something startling and new.
Tangerine – That it was shot on iPhones and centers on transgender characters may mark Tangerine as a movie of the moment, but the result is no mere gimmick. Director Sean S. Baker has captured the real Hollywood in a way few filmmakers ever have, from its corner donut shops populated by fringe street characters to the particular quality of the sunlight just before dusk. The transgender leads aren’t professional actors, but they certainly are lively and capable of emotional depth as this shaggy-dog story of a prostitute searching for the pimp who broke her heart demonstrates.
Western – Put aside your preconceived notions of what a documentary on border relations between the United States and Mexico might look like. Directors Bill and Turner Ross dispense with voice-over narration and talking-head pundits in favor of the personal stories affecting two neighboring communities (Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico) trying to maintain their way of life even as the drug cartels and increased militarization of the border patrol threaten to disrupt it.
The Mend – As it begins, John Magary’s debut feature looks like a standard-issue indie about two estranged brothers reconnecting–the sort of thing the Duplass brothers churn out three or four times a year. What follows, however, is the year’s most unpredictable movie in both tone and narrative. You never know what’s coming next, but Magary’s sharp writing, disorienting direction, and the strong performances by Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett keep you hooked to the end.
The Hateful Eight – The latest provocation from Quentin Tarantino errs on the side of the slow build, but those lucky enough to catch its “roadshow” 70mm engagement (completely with overture and intermission) won’t mind. Robert Richardson’s widescreen cinematography is perfectly matched to the sweeping, snow-covered Wyoming vistas, but equally impressive in detailing every claustrophobic inch of the cabin where the outlaws of the title find themselves trapped together. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh highlight the cast, and while the final hour’s exploding heads and geysers of blood aren’t for the squeamish, they do put the exclamation point on the year’s most unlikely “Black Lives Matter” plea.
The Big Short – There’s a case to be made that Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s nonfiction bestseller about the housing crisis is too brash and impressed with its own cleverness, but I would counter that the tone is perfectly suited to the subject matter. McKay’s slyest trick is to get us rooting for the investors who are betting on the big banks to fall, only to catch ourselves in the realization that what we’re rooting for will cause financial calamity for millions of Americans and result in no punishment for the guilty parties on Wall Street.
It Follows – This throwback horror movie proved divisive, accused by many genre aficionados (including Quentin Tarantino) of breaking its own rules. The specifics of the story matter less than the mood and tension of writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s allegory about sexually-transmitted disease, which has a nightmare logic all its own that transcends such nitpicking.
Slow West – It was a surprisingly good year for the western, with Bone Tomahawk joining The Hateful Eight and this little-seen debut film by John Mclean as worthy contenders. Mclean marries absurdist humor reminiscent of Charles Portis (True Grit) with stark, gorgeous landscapes and startling bursts of violence in this tale of a young man seeking his lost love with the aid of a grim bounty hunter.
The Duke of Burgundy – The latest from Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is anything but a straightforward love story. It centers on a sub/dom lesbian romance, but the question of which woman is the dominant force in the relationship is up for grabs. Strickland doesn’t play it straight, piling up surreal touches and black humor reminiscent of Luis Bunuel along the way.
(tie) Results and 7 Chinese Brothers – Two longtime members of the Austin indie scene returned this year with largely overlooked but worthwhile additions to their filmographies. Results is more conventional than Andrew Bujalski’s previous effort, Computer Chess, but it’s no less funny while also capturing Austin’s current boom-city zeitgeist.
A surprisingly sympathetic performance by Jason Schwartzman highlights Bob Byington’s typically off-kilter comedy 7 Chinese Brothers, which revives the slacker spirit of Austin past.
Honorable Mentions: Spotlight, The Look of Silence, Dope, Nina Hoss in Phoenix.