2015 has been a rollercoaster of a year for film. From highly anticipated blockbusters and franchise reboots to critically acclaimed directorial debuts, this year saw the release of a wide variety of quality movies. Here are ten films that were particularly impressive with their cinematic ingenuity, brilliant performances and finely executed stories.
Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien is a master of the mood piece. His latest wuxia film, “The Assassin,” which earned him the Best Director award at Cannes, is a testament to his ability to tell stories through subtlety. Set in the Tang Dynasty, the film tells the story of Yinniang, the titular assassin who is ordered to kill her cousin, a governor to whom she was once betrothed. Highlighted by the painterly cinematographer Mark Lee’s camerawork, the film’s glacial pacing may be off-putting to some audiences, but it is a rewarding experience nonetheless.
Beasts of No Nation
The human cost of war has been portrayed on screen in countless ways, but seldom more strikingly than in “Beasts of No Nation,” in which we follow the experiences of Agu, a child soldier in a war-torn West African country. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s Bildungsroman — a novel dealing with a character’s psychological growth — of the same name, the emotionally drenching film is fuelled by powerhouse performances by newcomer Abraham Attah as Agu and Idris Elba as a demagogic battalion commandant. With this film, director Cary Fukunaga can be credited for solidifying Netflix in the realm of important cinema.
One of this year’s most visually enticing films, “Carol” is a provocative, character-driven romance. Director Todd Haynes’ signature precision and attention to period detail does justice to the film’s source material, the pioneering queer novel “The Price of Salt,” written by Patricia Highsmith in 1952. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are enthralling in their performances as two women caught in a whirlwind of forbidden love. At times playing out like a spy film because of its aesthetic and subtle suspense, “Carol” is easily the most exceptional love story this year.
Love and Mercy
“Love and Mercy” is a moving portrait of the Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson in two stages of his life, played with equal skill by both Paul Dano and John Cusack. Dano plays Wilson during the peak of the band’s success and the release of “Pet Sounds” in 1966, when his drug use seems to be leading him to an inevitable demise. Cusack shows Wilson in the 1980s under the abuse of psychotherapist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. Most impressively, the film captures Wilson’s unchanging innocence and musical genius over the decades.
A follow up to his 2013 French New Wave pastiche “Frances Ha,” indie film favorite Noah Baumbach’s latest directorial effort is overwhelmingly funny. “Mistress America” follows college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) as she, and the audience, becomes enamored with her stepsister-to-be Brooke, played by the supremely charming Greta Gerwig – Baumbach’s muse who also co-wrote the film. The film is replete with witticisms and screwball situations that are instantly relatable to the college-aged viewer.
As Ashton Kutcher proved with 2013’s “Jobs,” playing one of the most iconic figures of the century is no easy task. Fortunately, Michael Fassbender’s tour de force performance as the founder of Apple is superb, and it speaks volumes that Fassbender’s spotlight is never stolen, even among a strong supporting cast featuring Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen. Director Danny Boyle’s visual dynamism finds an unexpected chemistry with Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, although some viewers may find the theatrical structure exhausting as the film progresses.
Straight Outta Compton
The film sparked controversy for omitting certain ugly truths about N.W.A., but what could one have expected of a biopic on one of the most important hip-hop groups in music history, produced by two members of said group? “Straight Outta Compton” is an ever-relevant movie, touching on gang violence and police misconduct. The film is also filled with uncannily spot-on performances and the same energy that skyrocketed the group to stardom in the 1980s. In other words, it is exactly what a musical biopic should be.
Winner of this year’s Golden Bear, Jafar Panahi’s cinema verite masterwork is a one-of-a-kind film. Disguised as a taxi driver, Panahi films his interactions with his passengers, each telling a different story about life in modern-day Tehran. Panahi is no stranger to experimenting with narrative layers, and “Taxi,” which includes neat references to his earlier filmography, is the culmination of his skillful storytelling. In the face of government bans and censorship, Panahi remains defiant, and “Taxi” is a compelling reminder of the power of film.
Last year, this Ukrainian film about an institute for deaf-mute teenagers sent shockwaves across the international film festival scene, for both its harrowing subject matter and its cinematically groundbreaking presentation. Much has been written about the “The Tribe,” but as the film itself shows, images often speak louder than words. Watch the film with few expectations, and prepare for the subsequent emotional trauma.
Starring Michael Caine as a retired composer whiling his days away at a Swiss resort, “Youth” explores how one re-evaluates family, friendship and love through the process of aging. Admittedly, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language debut is a love-it-or-hate-it film; it is in equal parts an overt homage to Fellini and a drawn-out real estate commercial. Yet the film exudes richness in almost every aspect, from cinematography to production design to score, and invites introspection.
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