Aren's Top 10 Films of 2015

1. Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes)

What It’s About: A Jewish forced-labourer(Géza Röhrig) working in Auschwitz, Birkenau finds the corpse of his son in the gas chamber and searches for a rabbi in the camp so that he can perform a proper Jewish burial.

Why It’s Good: I’ve never encountered a film like Son of Saul. While glib Holocaust films like Jakob the Liar and Life Is Beautiful twist the terrible event into sentimental tales about the triumph of humanity, Son of Saul attempts to display the Holocaust in all its monstrosity. There is humanity to be found in Son of Saul, but there is no sentimentality, nor a false sense of hope. In his feature debut, director László Nemes is trying to dispel myths about the Holocaust and demonstrate its visceral horror. He tries to capture the efficiency of the Nazis’ monstrous machine, which turned the most evil actions into banal routine. In terms of pure formal technique, Son of Saul is astonishing. Its Academy aspect ratio, shallow depth of focus, and unbroken tracking shots of the remarkable Géza Röhrig’s face keep the horrors just out of focus, but ever present in the frame. It makes the evil indistinct but omnipresent, a malevolence that works its way into your soul. Son of Saul is by no means an easy film, but if cinema is capable of capturing something essential about reality, of reflecting back both humanity’s triumphs and its failures, thenNemes’ film becomes an essential statement about the monstrous depths of human evil.

2. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)

What It’s About: After having sex with her boyfriend, a young woman (Maika Monroe) finds herself haunted by a spectral monster that will never stop moving towards her until it kills her.

Why It’s Good: Few horror films are as potent as It Follows. David Robert Mitchell’s film is the best of its genre in over a decade, a film that terrifies by mining that basest of fears: the fear of death. Mitchell’s use of cinematic space fills every scene with dread. The characters are always looking over their shoulders, wondering whether the monster is after them and hoping they’ll recognize it in time. The viewer is similarly scanning the screen, searching every corner of the frame for a visual clue as to the monster’s whereabouts. You’re never allowed to relax in It Follows, and when the scares do come, they’re clever and relentless—not cheap jump scares but patient, disturbing moments that wrestle their way into your subconscious and stay there. As well, the strong characterizations and thematic focus on sex make the film a potent look at the journey out of adolescence and the fear of adulthood that comes with any sexual awakening. It sometimes takes a film like It Follows to remind us of just how powerful the horror genre can be.

3. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

What It’s About: A companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence follows Adi Rukun, the brother of a man killed in the 1960s anti-communist purges in Indonesia, as he confronts the individuals personally responsible for his brother’s death.

Why It’s Good: If The Act of Killing was Joshua Oppenheimer giving genocidal murderers the rope to hang themselves with, The Look of Silence is his empowering survivors of that genocide to tell their story and seek reconciliation with their oppressors. He sheds light on the monstrosity of the killers in one film and gives a voice to the victims in the other. The notion that a movie can change the world has become something of an empty phrase nowadays, what with Hollywood’s constant self-congratulation of its empty and tame progressiveness, but as you watch Adi Rukun baldly ask old men why they killed his brother or hug the wife of a mass-murderer in a bid for healing, you understand that some few films can actually change things in the world for the better. This is one of them. The Look of Silence uses cinema to confront the injustices that plague one of the world’s largest countries. It is a film of extreme bravery and power.

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams)

What It’s About: A deserting stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) finds themselves thrust into the galactic battle between the sinister First Order and the virtuous Resistance when they come into possession of a map to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is the last of the Jedi and has gone missing.

Why It’s Good: I enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens more than any other film this year. Returning to the characters and look of George Lucas’s original trilogy, J.J. Abrams has delivered a film that captures much of what made people fall in love with the series in the first place. While I prefer the prequels to this latest sequel, I still admire its mythic quality, its visual wit, its relentless pace, and the way it repeats old images and thematic struggles in a way that evokes nostalgia while forging ahead. Best of all, I appreciate its characters, old and new, who shepherd us into this fantastic world that I love so dearly. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is perhaps the last time I’ll greet a new Star Wars film with such enthusiasm and optimism. I cherish it.

5. Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

What It’s About: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) volunteers for a dangerous and murky government mission to strike back at the cartel, headed by a laid-back shadow operator (Matt) and a mysterious Latino assassin (Benicio Del Toro).

Why It’s Good: With Sicario, Denis Villeneuve makes a bid for being one of contemporary cinema’s most consistent directors, as well as one of its grimmest. His films are mired in darkness, both thematically and visually. Villeneuve could have contented himself in making Sicario a handsome, dark, and thrilling crime picture, which it is, but he also makes it so much more. It veers away from convention in fascinating ways. Most notably, it narratively sidelines its female protagonist in a way that deliberately and critically reveals so much about the masculine culture of law enforcement as well as the way Hollywood treats its heroines. The experience of watching Sicario will have your stomach tied in knots by the end, unnerved by Roger Deakins’ grisly images and Jóhann Jóhansson’s relentless score, but its themes about moral ambiguity and character agency will linger long after your stomach rights itself.

6. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

What It’s About:In a post-apocalyptic future, Max (Tom Hardy) must decide whether to assist a group of women led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a daring desert escape from a vicious warlord.

Why It’s Good: Mad Max: Fury Road grips you from beginning to end. Just when I’d written off the blockbuster action film as having lost visual grace and momentum, George Miller returns to prove just what the genre is capable of.As someone who is ambivalent about the old Mad Max films, I wasn’t anticipating George Miller’s revival with the same glee that I was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or even Creed. And yet, Fury Road surprised me in every way. Mythic, full of furious action and editing, and completely bonkers in all the right ways, Fury Road is simply the best pure action film in years.

7. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

What It’s About: Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, moves to Philadelphia to convince Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to be a great fighter like his father.

Why It’s Good: Creed will make you cheer and it’ll make you cry. That’s a handy feat for any movie, especially one simultaneously aimed at aging men and African-American teens. This seventh entry in the Rocky series goes back to its roots, retracing the narrative beats of the Oscar-winning original while transplanting urban African-American culture onto this traditionally Italian-American franchise. It registers as strongly in the quiet character moments as it does in the dazzling boxing scenes. It’s a remarkable film, that rare mid-level blockbuster that pleases conventionally while forging new ground in character and the acutely-observed texture of its world.

8. Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad)

What It’s About: A biopic about Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, focusing on two periods in his life: Paul Dano plays Wilson during the making of the landmark album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and John Cusack is Wilson in the 1980s, when he was recovering from a series of nervous breakdowns and under the control of an abusive therapist (Paul Giamatti).

Why It’s Good: An unconventional biopic can be a beautiful thing. Focusing on two immensely important chapters in Brian Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy never feels like a greatest-hits recounting of a fascinating life. In fact, even though it chronicles Wilson’s creation of Pet Sounds—possibly the best pop album of all time—it’s more focused on his lows: his complete mental breakdown during the process and his decades-long recovery. The acting here is great, but Dano is especially remarkable, getting inside the mind of a mentally ill genius, allowing the insight and the illness to coexist without portraying one as the result of the other. As well, I can’t think of another film that has captured the act of musical creation as well as this one. The scenes in which Brian writes Pet Sounds, recording and riffing with the Wrecking Crew to create genuinely new sounds in pop music, is astonishing. It’s both lively and inventive, capturing the glee of musical discovery as well as the intuitive and emotional process of forging ahead, trusting the sound in your head against the conventions being repeated in your ear, in both music and life

9. Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

What It’s About: A young woman (Lola Kirke) moves to New York City and befriends her soon-to-be-step-sister (Greta Gerwig), an optimistic whirlwind of a personality, who takes her under her misguided wing.

Why It’s Good: Mistress America had me smiling from start to finish. I never expected to love a Noah Baumbach film, but here I am, and I’m happy to put aside my reservations to his work and wholeheartedly praise this lovely film. Mistress America is the closest thing I’ve seen in recent years to a pure screwball comedy. Its characters are witty fools, both beautiful and shallow, speaking a mile-a-minute and forging furiously ahead on paths before they’ve even contemplated the potential consequences of their actions. The pace is lightning quick, the themes are light as a feather, and the whole thing is over in a flash, but what a delightful flash. It’s the comedy of the year.

10. Office (dir. Johnnie To)

What It’s About: A musical about two interns (Wang Ziyi and Lang Yueting) who join a high-powered business firm and find themselves mired in corporate intrigue on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis.

Why It’s Good: Office is the most visually dynamic musical since Moulin Rouge!. It’s a masterclass in how to use cinematic space, which isn’t surprising coming from Johnnie To, the Hong Kong master who shoots action cinema’s most complicated gunfights without the aid of storyboards or shot lists. Here, To leverages his immense talents for visual momentum and clarity into a musical that never ceases to dazzle. He moves his camera as if it dances when the actors don’t. Its fantastic minimalist set imagines the Hong Kong locations as a skeletal stage that looks like an architecture display in the vein of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Lo Dayu’s energetic songs might not linger in the mind as you’d expect from a great musical (the fact that I don’t speak Cantonese probably contributes to this) but the film’s images do—and that’s equally essential to a musical movie. Office could never exist on the stage. It’s a musical that thrives off the vocabulary of the cinema.

The Next 10 (In Alphabetical Order):

Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Far From the Madding Crowd (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)

Spectre (dir. Sam Mendes)

Spotlight (dir. Thomas McCarthy)

Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)

When Marnie Was There (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)