Most of the best films of the year, in France at least, were released in two ‘swarms’, one in the first few months and the other in the autumn. At other times, what was on offer in the cinemas wasn’t so exciting. Still, at the very top end of things, there were many great films this year, with movies with conceptual underpinnings seemingly predominating (though that may be coincidental). It was also cheering that so many of the better films were genuinely aimed at and accessible to a mass audience. We have become almost resigned in recent years to mainstream cinema flailing in the wake of television drama and comedy. Is this year proof that cinema might still be able to go toe to toe with the more couch-friendly small screen?
As ever, my rules for inclusion are a cinema release in France before the third weekend in December (films too late for last year’s list are also considered). If there are any unexpected omissions, it’s probably because it either got here last year or hasn’t arrived yet, or possibly because I just didn’t like it.
1. The Arabian Nights (As mil e uma noites) – Miguel Gomes (Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland) 381 minutes
Having seen Miguel Gomes’s free-wheeling adaptation of The Arabian Nights for a second time this summer, I had little desire to go watch any other new releases because in comparison every other film then in the cinema seemed slow-witted, predictable, contrived and unsophisticated. I resisted watching it a third time because, if I had, I might not have set foot inside a cinema for the rest of the year.
As the film’s title card indicates, it’s not really an adaptation of The Arabian Nights but it does take inspiration from its structure and Scheherazade’s own story does take up a fair amount of time, though told in a very unconventional fashion, with little overweening attention to period detail. It is the disregard for convention, familiar from Gomes’s earlier work, that makes the film so exhilarating. Working from a trove of stories from recession-hit Portugal which he commissioned journalists to unearth, Gomes draws up a compendium of sad forlorn tales, shaggy-dog stories (one with an actual shaggy dog) and short observational documentaries. He uses professional actors (often in multiple roles) and amateurs (in some cases reenacting their own stories) and blends burlesque drama with Frederick Wiseman-style social realism. Some tales are less than five minutes long, others are related entirely in voice-over, like the one of a Chinese student who falls in love with a Portuguese policeman and the testimonies of the workers of the Viano do Castelo shipyard facing redundancies.
What is truly remarkable about the film is the way Gomes shows complete mastery over what is an unstructured, free-flowing narrative, one which is allowed to breathe in a way you normally don’t see on screen. While Gomes is not a revolutionary innovator as such, his films do give a sense of new possibility to an art form that is in desperate need of formal change. And, insofar as six-hour films without any major stars go (albeit released in three parts), The Arabian Nights is very accessible, with a superlative soundtrack, ranging from Phyllis Dillon to The Exploited, Tim Maia and the Langley Schools Project. Cinema is far too often an over-parented child –– whether it be Hollywood fare or the more integrity-ridden stuff of art-house film, there is a tendency to fret too much over the nurturing of the final product. Miguel Gomes has let his characters and his scenarios run a bit wild and the end result is something that is at times unruly, lovable and ultimately inspired.
2. Son of Saul (Saul fia) – László Nemes (Hungary) 107 minutes
There will be few debut films this decade as astounding as this holocaust drama by former Béla Tarr assistant László Nemes. The titular Saul is a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz –– namely a Jewish deportee given a stay of execution so as to be used to dispose of corpses –– whose living death is suddenly interrupted when he finds (or thinks he finds?) the body of his son when cleaning out the gas chambers. He is suddenly seized with a sense of purpose, which is to give the boy a decent burial, complete with a rabbi to say kaddish, and he proceeds to enlist people to help amid the camp’s linguistic and logistical muddle. Nemes’s camera follows Saul in practically every scene in what is a gruelling though enthralling journey –– the horror of the camps takes place generally out of focus at the periphery of the frame, which might be seen as a visual representation of the Sonderkommandos’ self-desensitising. As well as being a bracing piece of kinetic cinema, Son of Saul is also an interrogation of the ethics exercised by people in impossible situations such as the death camps. It has already been the subject of one monograph, Sortir du noir, by the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman. One can expect many more to come.
3. Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogus) – Aleksei German (Russia/Czech Republic) 177 minutes
The last of the great Soviet directors left one last film after dying in 2013, a three-hour adaptation of the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, best known for writing the source novel of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Hard to Be a God tells the tale of a team of scientists sent to a distant planet, which is just like Earth but which is going through its own violent and chaotic Middle Ages, in which artists and intellectuals are ruthlessly suppressed. The observers are forbidden from interfering in the course of history but they are tempted to protect one enlightened prodigy. German’s film is a dizzying, immersive experience where the Dark Ages are recreated in an uncomfortably immediate way –– unidentifiable shreds hang in front of the camera at times, partially obscuring the view, while boorish bystanders lurch in and out and you are thankful the black and white photography spares you the worst impressions of the mud and excrement the characters are literally up to their knees in. Medievalists might rankle at the familiar travestying of an era that gave us Dante, Chaucer and gothic architecture but that quibble aside, this is a savagely brilliant film.
4. Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (Argentina/Denmark/France/Mexico/USA/Germany/Brazil/Netherlands) 109 minutes
Lisandro Alonso’s Patagonian Western is one of the most beautiful films of the year, stunningly photographed in burnished colour, to give it a near sepia air of wistful nostalgia. It is also a hard-nosed portrayal of colonial encounters and the genocide of native Patagonians such as the Yaghan (also documented this year in Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button) and the resistance of the Mapuche. Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish military engineer engaged in a ‘civilising’ mission among the colonisers whose daughter goes missing. The similarity to The Searchers is obvious but Jauja goes down a different route, with lurches into surrealism and a coda that Kubrick would have been proud of.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (Australia/USA) 120 minutes
George Miller hadn’t exactly disappeared from sight but he has spent most of the last two decades making things very different from the movies that made him famous. When the fourth instalment of the Mad Max films (not, strictly speaking, a sequel) finally arrived after years of stalling, few would have expected anything more than a mildly entertaining jaunt through the franchise’s past, à la Star Wars or Jurassic World. What we got instead was one of the greatest action movies ever made. A brilliantly inventive rereading of Miller’s own creation, in which Tom Hardy’s Max is shunted to the side by Charlize Theron’s astounding Imperator Furiosa. The film recounts a roaring tale for two hours, much of it without any recourse to dialogue. It’s a triumph of editing and photography brimming with virtuoso turns and it ties in a range of contemporary concerns, such as climate change and apocalyptic death cults into what was already a most visionary conception.
6. Inside Out – Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen (USA) 94 minutes
Pixar’s finest film since Wall-E is a nuanced portrayal of children’s emotions, which are represented by five different characters inside 11-year-old Riley’s mind, in a manner not unlike the long-running ‘Numskulls’ comic strip in The Beezer and The Dandy. Riley is having difficulty adapting to her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco, falling prey to loneliness and depression. It’s a bit of a truism that Pixar’s films are as much for grown-ups as for the kids that drag them to watch them; Inside Out though seems more like a film for grown-ups that might interest kids as well. It’s a film that is at turns sunny, sprightly and touchingly sad, replete with gags and scenarios that never lag or feel contrived, and the cast is superb, led by the wonderful Amy Poehler, who is perfect in the role of Riley’s inner emotional Candide, Joy. It’s an improbably daring film for its intended audience and is probably the most profound piece of children’s entertainment we will see for a long time.
7. El Club – Pablo Larraín (Chile) 98 minutes
Larraín’s subject of predilection to date has been the Pinochet regime and El Club continues in the vein of his previous three films. A number of disgraced priests live in retirement with their housekeeper on the wintry Pacific coast, keeping distant from the local community, their only activity being training a greyhound to race in local meets. Their cover is one day blown by the arrival of a disturbed homeless man who has tracked down the padre who abused him as a child. With a left-leaning young Jesuit sent down from Santiago to investigate, the priests decide they must react quickly. Combining fascism and clerical child abuse in one political parable might easily have made for a lugubrious tale but El Club is a limpidly persuasive film. The visuals exert an icy, murky hold (Larraín used old Soviet lenses in a successful effort to replicate Tarkovsky’s aesthetic). The director’s regular leading man Alfredo Castro once again embodies Chile’s bad conscience in a role that is as compellingly disturbing as the film itself, which is Larraín’s finest since his 2008 masterpiece Tony Manero.
8. Aferim! – Radu Jude (Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France) 108 minutes
Probably because recent Romanian history offers such rich subject matter, the abundantly fertile New Romanian cinema has not touched much on period films to date. Radu Jude, previously director of sharp social comedies such as The Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in our Family, takes a step back in time to offer us what is effectively a Western (or, strictly speaking, an Ostern), set in early 19th-century Wallachia, albeit one that has a strong contemporary resonance. Constandin, a provincial police officer –– played by Teodor Corban, great as ever –– is hired by local boyar Iordache to recover Carfin, the runaway Roma slave who has cuckolded him. Constandin and his son Ionita cross the Romanian plains in search of the slave, whom they find to be far more cultured and worldly than most others in the land, his master included, having accompanied his mistress to Leipzig, Vienna and Paris. Marius Panduru’s gorgeous monochrome scope photography gives the film an eerily mythical air and Romanian speakers have commented on the beauty of the archaic language the film uses, adapted as it is from a number of literary works of the period. Aferim! (the name comes from an Ottoman word for ‘bravo’) deservedly won Jude the Silver Bear for best director at Berlin this year and is another reminder that every film that comes out of Romania is worth watching.
9. The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer (Denmark/Finland/Indonesia/Norway/United Kingdom) 107 minutes
I was less taken by Oppenheimer’s acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing than most other people were, finding it too enamoured of its own ingenuity for my liking. The Texan stayed in Indonesia for this follow-up, which tells the victims’ side of the story, or rather the unnamed brother of one victim, who confronts the killers. It’s an act of incredible bravery on the part of the man, given the impunity which reigns among the country’s genocidal Pancasila rulers. It is also indicative of the difficulty Oppenheimer had in getting relatives of the communist victims to speak (this had been his original intention before he found the killers to be far more forthcoming about the massacres). The Look of Silence is a simpler, less artful film than its predecessor yet speaks far more to the climate of fear that continues to prevail in Indonesia. He is also gifted a fortuitously elegant metaphor: the hero is in real life a peripatetic optician, who slides lenses in front of the persecutors’ eyes as he speaks to them. Oppenheimer probably won’t be able to work in Indonesia again after these films (most of his crew are, once again, credited as ‘Anonymous’) but it is satisfying that he has managed to, however inadvertently, issue a corrective to his earlier impressive but deeply flawed film.
10. The Second Mother (Que horas ela volta?) – Anna Muylaert (Brazil) 112 minutes
Val (Regina Casé) is a faithful housekeeper in a wealthy São Paulo household, tolerating with the best grace the petty everyday humiliations such a role incurs. A cuckoo in the nest soon shakes things up, namely Val’s bright but bolshy teenage daughter Jéssica, who moves down from Pernambuco to go to college and whom Val hasn’t seen in ten years. Jéssica has few of her mother’s scruples about knowing her place in the household, which is accentuated by her being a far better student than Fabinho, the family son, to whom Val is, as the English title indicates, is a second mother. Anna Muylaert’s film was a big hit in Brazil and it’s not hard to see why –– it’s a feelgood film buoyed by Casé’s perfectly modulated performance that binds cheerful ingenuousness and petit bourgeois propriety into one tight ball. The Second Mother also has a tough core though and charts the emerging class consciousness of a middle-aged woman with robust grace. A great piece of popular cinema and one that, along with Felipe Barbosa’s similarly themed Casa Grande, Kléber Mendonça’s Neighbouring Sounds and Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Trabalhar cansa, is testimony to the current rude health of Brazilian cinema.
11. Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen) – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand/United Kingdom/France/Germany/Malaysia/South Korea/Mexico/Norway) 122 minutes
Weerasethakul has said his latest film is explicitly political and that he doesn’t expect it to be shown anytime soon in his native Thailand. There’s no reason to doubt him but the political subtext is a lot more subtle than explicit, even if it’s not hard to see something in the scenario of soldiers suffering from some sort of sleeping sickness as they lie in a hospital built on an old royal cemetery. The film takes the point of view of a middle-aged woman volunteering to care for a soldier whose family lives in a distant province and a younger woman with telepathic powers hired by families to communicate with their sleeping children. As ever with Weerasethakul, the lines between illness, spiritual ancestry and national malaise are blurred. Cemetery of Splendour is beautiful, stately and enigmatic and will probably require multiple viewings to fully grasp what it’s about. And that’s no bad thing.
12. A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (USA/United Arab Emirates)125 minutes
A Most Violent Year, on the face of it, appears to be a rather straightforward New York film, heavy on the period trappings of 1981, the year of the title. But there is a lot more to it than that –– J.C. Chandor in his third film constructs a counter-narrative to the traditional mob movie, in which an immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) desperately tries to skirt the violence and illegality of the city’s fuel trade, even as his fleet of delivery men runs the daily gauntlet of hijackings and harassment. Abel’s wife (Jessica Chastain), herself a mobster’s daughter, is about to go into Lady Macbeth mode, to ensure he resists the twin attacks of his competitors mounting a cartel against him and the District Attorney, who is combing through Abel’s accounts, waiting to pounce for any irregularities. It’s a smart, dramatically taut interrogation of the genre, in which the New York winter looks as handsome as it did in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis (also starring Isaac), and there appears to be enough left over from the film to warrant a sequel, or even a whole TV series.
13. It Follows – David Robert Mitchell (USA) 100 minutes
David Robert Mitchell’s second feature was one of the big surprises of the year, a stylish, thoughtful horror movie about a curse that can only be lifted by passing it on to someone else via sexual intercourse. It Follows manages to be genuinely scary while also painting a discursive landscape that leaves ample room for interpretation, weaving together AIDS, Dostoevsky, existential angst and even American urban decay (the film is set in Detroit). It’s all the better for being intelligent without being pretentiously gauche.
14. Taxi – Jafar Panahi (Iran) 82 minutes
Jafar Panahi’s third film since his enforced house arrest cocked a further snook at Iranian authorities, filmed entirely from the dashboard of a taxi that the director himself drives around Tehran. Among those he picks up are a thief who vaunts his profession while arguing morality with a schoolteacher, a couple desperate to get to hospital after a serious accident, a pair of pious old women on their way to visit a grave and an itinerant hawker who used to supply him with foreign contraband movies. It’s uncertain whether the encounters are staged or real but from this uncertainty the film draws its dramatic force. You can even forgive Panahi for ripping off the conceit of the film-set-in-a-car from his former master Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten since Panahi has been unflinching in his long-running defiance towards the social and political repression in his country. Taxi won him the Golden Bear at Berlin, yet another award the director was unable to pick up in person.
15. ’Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng ai) – Wang Bing (Japan/France/Hong Kong) 227 minutes
China’s foremost documentarist stayed in Yunnan province, where he filmed last year’s Three Sisters, for this documentary set in a severely dilapidated psychiatric hospital. The conditions in the place are so decrepit and superannuated that you are tempted to use the term ‘lunatic asylum’. As ever with Wang’s work, the film is an oblique look at Chinese society and its structural and institutional sclerosis. Some of the internees are severely insane, others have been committed by their family due to personal distress or, more often, poverty. It is a moving humane work, especially in the case of a man who protests his sanity every time his wife comes to visit. She has the patience of a saint and clearly loves him but it is also apparent that whatever happy domestic life they once had is never to return.
16. While We’re Young – Noam Baumbach (USA) 97 minutes
The prolific Baumbach turned out two highly-regarded films this year (Mistress America is absent here because it doesn’t arrive in France until the New Year), cementing his reputation as probably the finest American director of comedies working today. While We’re Young is a bittersweet account of forty-somethings John and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who feel rejuvenated hanging out with young hipsters Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The older couple paradoxically relearn the joys of analog living from the kids but Jamie is on the make in a way John, an artistically blocked filmmaker, has never been able to master. The film recalls the better of Woody Allen’s more erudite comedies but Baumbach’s range of interests is far broader than Allen’s. His attention to detail is also impressive –– even the fragments we see of John’s work-in-progress are amusingly credible. And in Driver’s Jamie, there is one of the best portrayals of a man on the hustle ever committed to screen.
17. Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) –– Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan) 126 minutes
There are few filmmakers in the world as unerringly consistent as Koreeda. The Japanese director has never made a bad film and he doesn’t look like going off the boil anytime soon. Our Little Sister starts with the funeral of the estranged father of three sisters, Sachi, Yoshino and Chika. They haven’t seen him in fifteen years and at the ceremony, they discover they now have an orphaned teenage half-sister Suzu. They invite her to live with them in the big ramshackle house they have inherited from their parents. Based on Akimi Yoshida’s manga series, Our Little Sister is fascinating from a dramatic point of view, given there is little or no friction onscreen –– all of that lingers in the family’s painful past –– and the characters are all effortlessly nice and sympathetic, even Yoshino and her bank colleague who are pained at having to bring bad news to a struggling client. The whole thing ought to be dramatically inert and insufferably good-natured but Koreeda suffuses the film with a sad undertow of loss that makes it both winsome and lovable. Another great film by one of the best humanist directors going.
18. The Wakhan Front (Ni le ciel ni la terre) – Clément Cogitore (France/Belgium) 100 minutes
The first film to emerge from France’s 14-year involvement in the Afghan war was actually filmed, on a modest budget, in Morocco. Video artist Clément Cogitore teamed up with Jacques Audiard’s regular screenwriter Thomas Bidegain for this unusual take on wartime alienation. A number of sentries on a French outpost on the Wakhan front go missing without trace, prompting the platoon commander, played by Jérémie Renier, to confront insubordination and flagging morale among his men. He even collaborates with the Taliban, who have themselves been experiencing the same phenomenon. The Wakhan Front is a gripping tale of suspense that yields its secrets in small doses, heavily influenced by John Carpenter and is the best French film of the year.
19. Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller (USA) 134 minutes
Miller stuck with sport for his third feature, once again drawing his material from real life –– the hands-on effort by John du Pont, he of the eponymous industrial empire, to fund and train the US wrestling team for the Seoul Olympics. Of course, that is not really the story here –– it is rather the fact du Pont shot dead one of his trainers, Dave Schultz, whose brother Mark had also been on the Foxcatcher roster. For a film where everything is known in advance, Foxcatcher is compelling stuff, with Steve Carrell’s performance as du Pont the stand-out –– it is unnerving and creepy in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has once known a domineering incompetent in a position of authority. Marc Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as the two brothers round off a superb lead cast. Foxcatcher is an old-fashioned studio film that does everything right and is a good portrayal of slowly simmering resentfulness, for which Miller deservedly won Best Director at Cannes in 2014. Academy voters preferred the so-so Birdman, but that’s hardly surprising.
20. Fish Tail (Rabo de peixe) –– Nuno Leonel, Joaquim Pinto (Portugal) 103 minutes
Leonel and Pinto, whose documentary memoir What now? Remind me was one of the best documentaries last year, made this film about a fishing village, evocatively named Rabo de Peixe, in the Azores around the turn of the Millennium, and it only got a release outside Portugal on the back of the success of their latest film. More socially inclined than the similarly-themed Leviathan, which came out a couple of years ago, Fish Tail is in the same half-breezy, half-melancholy register of much Portuguese cinema (particularly the 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon!, also filmed in the Azores). The two directors, who have long worked as crew technicians for numerous major European auteurs, have a splendid mastery of recorded material and historical texts, and they tell an ordinary tale very well. A rain-lashed pleasure.
Also worthy of mention
The Duke of Burgundy – Peter Strickland (UK/Hungary) 104 minutes
Louder than Bombs – Joachim Trier (Norway/ France/Denmark) 109 minutes
Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) – Damián Szifrón (Argentina/Spain) 122 minutes
Amour fou – Jessica Hausner (Austria/Luxembourg/Germany) 96 minutes
The Wonders (Le meraviglie) – Alice Rohrwacher (Italy/Switzerland/Germany) 110 minutes
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson (USA) 148 minutes
The Voices – Marjane Satrapi (USA/Germany) 103 minutes
La Sapienza – Eugène Green (France/Italy) 101 minutes
Story of Judas (Histoire de Judas) – Rabah Aimer-Zaïmeche (France) 99 minutes
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) – Roy Andersson (Sweden/Germany/Norway/France) 101 minutes
Casa Grande – Felipe Barbosa (Brazil) 115 minutes
Marshland (La isla mínima) – Alberto Rodríguez (Spain) 105 minutes
Love & Mercy – Bill Pohlad (USA) 121 minutes
Amy – Asif Kapadian (UK/USA) 128 minutes
Red Rose – Sepideh Farsi (France/Iran/Greece) 87 minutes
Les deux amis – Louis Garrel (France) 100 minutes
Blood of My Blood (Sangue del mio sangue) –– Marco Bellocchio (Italy/France/Switzerland) 106 minutes
Much Loved – Nabil Ayouch (France/Morocco) 104 minutes
Marguerite – Xavier Giannoli (France/Czech Republic/Belgium) 129 minutes
Fatima – Philippe Faucon (France) 79 minutes
The Missing Picture (L’image manquante) – Rithy Panh (Cambodia/France) 92 minutes
The Pearl Button (El butón de nácar) – Patricio Guzmán (France/Spain/Chile/Switzerland) 82 minutes
Black Mass – Scott Cooper (USA/UK) 122 minutes
Mia madre – Nanni Moretti (Italy/France) 106 minutes
Rams (Hrútar) – Grímur Hakonarson (Iceland/Denmark/Norway/Poland) 93 minutes
The Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos) – Radu Muntean (Romania/France/Sweden/Germany) 93 minutes
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (USA) 136 minutes