Sunday, February 28, 2016


[This post originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]
The Academy Awards, which will air on Sunday, are gradually making themselves irrelevant, as they shamelessly overlook some of the best work and promote only a small and all-white cadre of performers. In keeping with my own tradition, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2015 just in time to provide a counterpoint, with a bit of Oscar commentary thrown in.
I must acknowledge at the outset that this is a pretty heavy bunch -- not a single comedy, and some pretty dark themes. More than half are foreign films and half are not in English; I saw two at last year's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) and would have included one more ("The President" from Georgia) except that it's not had a DVD release in the U.S. Still, all these films are rich with insights about the human condition and well worth plunging into their depths. The truth-telling here is beautiful and enriching.
To start, here is the list:
  1. Timbuktu
  2. Love and Mercy
  3. The Salt of the Earth
  4. Son of Saul
  5. The Revenant
  6. Tangerine
  7. Leviathan
  8. 45 Years
  9. Marie's Story
  10. Peace Officer
(1) "Timbuktu" is a devastating examination of lived experiences of jihad in a community in Mali. Director Abderrahmane Sissako focuses his gorgeous film on scenes of ordinary life in a Muslim village under siege by outsiders hired to impose religious regime change, impervious to the entreaties of even the local imam. Sissako portrays the brutality of fundamentalism with quiet clarity: Rules are imposed against music and sports and mixed company -- and yet, at every turn, the human spirit of the villagers fights being crushed. A group of boys assembles a soccer game with an imaginary ball; a woman whipped for singing in mixed company turns her cries into music; members of a small family savor their love for each other and dare to hope that humiliations will end. This is both a universal vision of human struggle against tyranny and a window into very particular aspects of an African culture that has not found its way onto Western movie screens. I saw this at last year's PIFF, and nothing has topped it since. You can read my full-length review here:
[Not rated; on at least 76 other critics' top 10 lists; in Arabic, French, Tamasheq and Bambara; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015; available on DVD]
(2) I cannot for the life of me figure out how "Love and Mercy" got so totally shut out of the Oscars this year. It contains three of the very best performances of the year -- Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson, John Cusack as the middle-aged Brian Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's second wife, Melinda Ledbetter -- and provides a remarkably insightful window into an inscrutable life. For once Hollywood has given us a biopic that doesn't merely chronically recount events but gets at some deeper and more complex truths about Wilson, pointing you toward his essential mystery. The particularity of Wilson's intention and his enthusiasm for the act of creation come through in Dano's scenes with mostly older studio musicians and at the piano assembling the scaffolding of the wondrous "God Only Knows"--and throughout, the genius of Wilson's compositions come through as never before. And Cusack and Banks bring a remarkable sense of authenticity to their depiction of the love that grew between Wilson and Ledbetter under the most trying of circumstances. This wise and beautiful film sparks love and mercy for an unknowable person, and sends you back to his music for more of the secrets hidden there. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language; on at least 76 other critics' top ten lists; deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (John Cusack and Paul Dano), and Best Actress (Elizabeth Banks); available on DVD.]
(3) "The Salt of the Earth" is a cinematic spiritual journey via the photography of Sebastião Salgado, as curated by co-directors Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (son of the celebrated artist) and the great Wim Wenders. The photographs themselves are profound and other-worldly, charting the artist's immersive travels into cultures all around the world, particularly those suffering famine, war, and marginalization. Wenders elicits, among other things, perspective and wisdom from the artist in interviews filmed in dialogue with the photographs themselves, and the artist's son adds further insights from the perspective of his own journeys with his father. The trajectory of the artist's life, beginning with hunger and curiosity and through despair and then hope, is resonant and deeply inspiring. After three viewings, I still feel like this film has more to teach me. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity; haven't seen this on any other critics' top ten lists for 2015; in French, English, and Portuguese; nominated for, and should have won, the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015; available on DVD and streaming.]
(4) "Son of Saul" got its theatrical release in Portland just in time to make it onto my 2015 list. This Hungarian film is not for the faint of heart; it immerses you in a day-and-a-half in the life of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando -- prisoners whose job it was to assist with disposal of the dead--in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nearly all of the film portrays Saul's own tight vantage point; he is always moving, moving, moving through unthinkable horrors, never and yet always responding. I expect that this is likely the most realistic depiction of Auschwitz ever assembled, and conveys a real sense of the hell that was part of every waking moment for prisoners there. In the film's first moments, Saul has an encounter that awakens in him a determination to bury a particular body, an essentially impossible task--yet that purpose activates his humanity. The cinematography and sound work is like nothing I have ever seen, and the perspective of the film is so specific that it manages to communicate things about this aspect of human experience that have never been attempted before. Obviously this is not entertainment -- but at times films offer an opportunity to bear witness that I believe is extremely important for those of us who have the will to endure it. This is that kind of film, and an extraordinary achievement for its director, star, and everyone involved.
[Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity; on at least 112 other critics' top 10 lists; in Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, French, Greek, and Slovak; nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, of the four I have seen, it should win; still in theaters.]
(5) "The Revenant" is the only film on my list to have received major awards' notice--and it deserves the recognition, though for more than the limited reasons you'll hear articulated in the media. Yes, the director, cast, and crew challenged themselves by filming in remote locations under extreme conditions, and the film assembles scenes of frontier life that are impressive for their harshness, realism, and violence. And yes, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance deserves an Oscar (though John Cusack and Paul Dano deserved nominations as well for "Love and Mercy"). But the reasons this film ended up so high on my list of the year's best films also include that it grounds this story in the indigenous cultures that peopled this continent long before European settlers and plausibly equips the main character with tools and spiritual will to survive that he could only really have gained from exposure to those cultures. Hollywood may have missed the best of this film's wisdom, but I didn't -- and I'm glad that its director hasn't let industry accolades distract him from shooting higher than the industry can appreciate. You can read my full-length review here:
[Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity; on at least 130 other critics' top ten lists; in English, French, and Pawnee; nominated for, and deserves, the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, and Production Design; also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy); still in theaters and worth seeing on the big screen if you are prepared for violence.]
(6) "Tangerine" deserved the critical attention it got; though the Academy didn't notice it, this underground project filmed on iPhones depicts rarely-noticed and even less understood aspects of Hollywood life with its focus on a day in the life of two transgender sex workers. The director and his co-writer did so many things right in crafting this story, including building on a foundation of genuine interest in the lives of the two actresses who carry the film and giving them significant say in how this story is told. The result zings with energy and humor to equip you for the ache of watching lives of unending struggle to survive and to express something true about oneself. You can read my full-length review here: Tangerine
[Not rated but definitely racy; on at least 137 other critics' top ten lists; in the language of the street; should have received Academy Awards nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay; available on DVD and streaming.]
(7) Though it doesn't appear to have found much of an American audience (it played only briefly in Portland last March), "Leviathan" is worth finding on DVD if you are interested in a brilliantly perceptive story of institutionalized brutality. I can't think of when I have seen corruption so insightfully portrayed, and though this is absorbing enough as a distinct Russian story, it is even more riveting metaphorically and as example, communicating much about dynamics evident throughout Russian history and, beyond that, in human history. The immediate story involves Kolya, a hard-drinking, small-town man who has resided in the same well-located house his entire life, but is engaged in a pitched battle with a corrupt local politician who wants the land for development. Everything deteriorates from there, and as the story plays out, we see how the law and the church prop up this system against which Kolya has no chance of prevailing. A conversation with the local priest late in the film is worth the price of admission--devastating. Kolya is no hero, and most people would more readily identify him as a flawed person than the people around him, making him an even easier victim; this film pans out to the broader perspective. Not rated; on at least 20 other critics' top ten lists for 2014, though not released in Portland until mid-2015; in Russian; nominated for an Academy Award in 2015 for Best Foreign Language Film; available on DVD and streaming.
(8) "45 Years" feels like an ironic addition to my top ten list, given that immediately after I saw it, I joked that I would not put it on my list. That is because it is a bit of a downer. But as I have reflected on it, this film has really stayed with me as an unparalleled and richly observed depiction of the thin line that separates many seemingly happy and connected relationships from total disintegration. The undeniably brilliant premise involves a long-married couple preparing to celebrate 45 years together -- disrupted by news that the body of his former lover has been recovered, preserved in the ice where she fell to her death 50 years before. That body, and the husband's and wife's evolving reactions to its discovery, bit by bit reveal a fault line in their relationship that neither knew was there, and his description of his prior love's sudden drop to her death begins to feel eerily current. Charlotte Rampling deserves her best actress nomination for her especially fine performance (though not for her ignorant reaction to the criticism of lack of Oscar nominee diversity). I'd take this film above any Hollywood romance, because it is so full of wisdom and truth.
[Not rated; on at least 101 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (Rampling), and deserved a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay; still in theaters.]
(9) "Marie's Story" stood out among the films I saw at last year's PIFF -- and though cynical American critics dismissed it as treacly and clichéd, I saw a patient and inspiring depiction of how it is possible to know in one's soul that one is called to do something important, and yet encounter an extended period of failure before succeeding brilliantly. This film lingers in that space of defeat and struggle longer and with deeper intention than I can imagine most American films doing--we're not fans of discomfort--and part of the reason I admired the film so much is because it caused me to feel so strongly the despair of Marguerite, the nun at the heart of this story, that I had a hard time hanging in there even with the watching. Marguerite answered her heart's call to teach a blind and deaf girl to communicate with the world around her, and it is because of Marguerite's faith and love and determination that Marie's story ever existed as a story. Watching this film is the best find of spiritual work. You can read my full-length review here:
[Not rated; not found on any other critics' top ten lists; in French and sign language; available on DVD and streaming.]
(10) "Peace Officer" is a well-constructed look at a topic that has begun to surface in the news: the rise in incidents of violence in citizen encounters with American police, and increased militarization of police forces. The filmmakers started with a compelling character -- Dub Lawrence, a white former sheriff from Utah whose own son-in-law was killed in an encounter with police -- and followed where their subject took them, into a very incisive critique of a slow evolution of police thinking toward viewing citizens as the enemy. It's not something most police forces want to acknowledge, but Lawrence is a good entry point, and using his personal story as well as cases to which he now applies his relentless skills as an investigator provides terrific windows into a charged subject. It both helps and hurts the film a bit that all its examples deal with white citizens, but the topic of race does come up naturally in the very good interviews that inform the film. Kudos to first-time co-directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson for assembling such a clear and cogent look at this subject, including interviews with many police officers. You can read my prior review here:
[Not rated; not found on any other critics' top ten lists; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best documentary; available on DVD and streaming.

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