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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2015

Written by on December 30, 2015 

30. 88:88 (Isiah Medina)


As the privileged bemoan the “death of cinema,” unbeknownst to them, young filmmakers seek to reinvent the medium — even with the cheapest of means. Isiah Medina‘s debut feature, while maybe a howl of anger against racism and classism, is above all a testament of his love — to his friends, family, and the possibilities that await him and his art. – Ethan V.

29. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)

Arabian Nights

In lauding Miguel Gomes‘ three-part, six-and-a-half hour behemoth, it’s perhaps important to consider his background as a critic. Not just in terms of the trilogy’s cinephilic engagement with Rossellini, Alonso, Oliveira, etc.; also in its defiant nature. While it’s easy to assign the trilogy certain humanist and satirical labels from the get-go and just praise these films for following through on them, Gomes continually seeks to mutate and complicate his of age-of-austerity saga. Far from perfect, and so much more exciting for that very reason. – Ethan V.

28. Taxi (Jafar Panahi)

Taxi Jafar Panahi

Paradoxically but not surprisingly, the filmmaking ban on Jafar Panahi has garnered him more attention as a director than he experienced during his first stint as a director — that is, the legal one. Nevertheless, the restriction of his art has led to superficially thematic similarities in his three films since the ban, all of which have to do with that ban itself. Still, to characterize the stark, probing This Is Not A Film alongside the urgent, depressing Closed Curtain and the lively, humorous Taxi is unfair. The legal situation of their maker aside, the films have little in common; reflexivity and transparency in production have long been mainstays of Iranian film. As such, Taxi should not be seen as a novelty or experiment. (And, unlike its predecessor, it really isn’t; it is overlooked more because of distribution models than anything else.) What we have is an illuminating meditation on cinema – what it is and can be, how it is nurtured and fostered, how it is distributed and recognized and treated, what powers and capabilities it can manifest – that uses its transparency and Panahi’s restrictions to further its case. Far from being blunt or didactic, as could so easily be the case, it continues to explore and complicate a constantly growing slate of issues. – Forrest C.

27. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello)


In its synthesis structure, composition, color, music, performance, and visual motif, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent is truly a magnificent film. So much so that there’s a point, for better or for worse, where its precise construction — this is a film that uses multiple visual signifiers (not least prominent among them the tenets of Lacanianism) to connect the life of a well-known fashion icon with the writings of Marcel Proust in a direct and, yes, entirely digestible way — makes words a bit futile. It also makes the thing sound pretty damn heavy and intimidating, so hopefully it’s safe to say that the smattering of pop songs and colorful lights and beautiful people constitutes a great amount of the afforded pleasure, and that you should take the rest as it emerges piece-by-piece. – Nick N.

26. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)


Even by Frederick Wiseman’s wondrously high standards, In Jackson Heights is a monumental masterpiece of a documentary. This sprawling mosaic portrait of the titular Queens neighborhood works both as an immersive and enchanting celebration of the multiculturalism New York has signified for decades and an urgent, inescapable wake-up call regarding its imminent extinction. – Giovanni M.C.

25. Horse Money (Pedro Costa)


Horse Money is a different beast than Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth, the designated Fontainhas trilogy to which Horse Money provides a sort of epigraph. The film is most explicit with its interest in history, as it dramatizes the past extensively; but instead of focusing on a community, director Pedro Costa imparts allegorical and communal significance on an individual. As such, those bored by previous Costa films will find this is an entry point and a more streamlined approach. For all its hallucinatory and temporal digressions, it has a relative clarity that even allows newcomers to enter. At the same time, Costa’s thematic focus is sharper than ever, granting the story the same allegorical potency of previous films while also offering critiques of Eurozone neoliberalism through increasingly surrealist devices. – Forrest C.

24. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)


Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, teams up with animator Duke Johnson to create a complex emotional drama starring lifelike puppets. The premise is riddled with existential dread of modern-day life, presented uniquely through Kaufman’s idiosyncratic point-of-view. For protagonist and self-help author Michael Stone (voiced soulfully by David Thewlis), everyone around him has the same voice (thanks to Tom Noonan) and nothing feels right. It isn’t until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that all this changes, and the fleeting romance they engage in becomes one of the most heartfelt relationships of the year. Kaufman has a way of using the neurotic tendencies of his characters as a vehicle to expose deep philosophical quandaries of the mind and soul, a bit similar to Woody Allen in his prime. Add to that the brilliant stop-motion animation, which is so realistic and spectacular that you may forget what is real. For a film starring only puppets, Anomalisa is strangely more human than most from 2015. – Raffi A.

23. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

Mistress America

A coming-of-age tale disguised as a writer’s process, Noah Baumbach’s second collaboration with Greta Gerwig places her as the faux-mentor to Lola Kirke’s NYC ingénue. Both inspired by Gerwig’s blissful energy but aware of her apparent obliviousness to reality, the young girl mines reality for fiction and never sees the fiction of reality. The film increasingly melds into a 1930s screwball comedy — complete with zinging dialogue and characters popping in and out of the frame on command — but always keeps its psychological stakes (in part thanks to the always frank eyes and dialogue delivery of its two lead performers) at its very core. Baumbach has often been known as a writer, but here he reveals his inner Truffaut, using the camera as a pen, each shot a direct articulation of its narrative of someone attempting to etch something into pen and meaning into her life. – Peter L.

22. Tangerine (Sean Baker)


Sean Baker brings downtown Los Angeles to vibrant life in this indie gem, featuring one of the year’s best performances from Mya Taylor. Set on Christmas Eve, the iPhone-shot picture follows two transgender prostitutes on a strange odyssey fueled by revenge. Relentless in its pace and manic in its comedy, Tangerine is a testament to the wealth of fresh stories still waiting to be told on a large canvas. – Dan M.

21. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)


Lingering and evolving in my mind since first viewing it earlier this year, Jauja has solidified itself to be one of the most invigorating and confounding films of 2015. While I imagine my regard for it and understanding of it will only grow in the years to come, on a basic level, it can be portrayed as one man’s (a stoic Viggo Mortensen) remarkably photographed journey through a 19th-century Patagonia to retrieve his daughter. On another level, it can be construed as an extensive metaphor for the ripples of history, a girl’s foggy dream, a time-shifting spectacle open to endless interpretation, or perhaps all of these things. – Jordan R.

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