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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2015

Written by on December 30, 2015 

10. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Sicario 1

Director Denis Villeneuve knows how to shake an audience. With Prisoners and Enemy, he couldn’t have made two more-different (but equally chilling) thrillers. With Sicario, the director once again delivers a heart-pounding experience as he explores a situation rife with conflict and murky ethics. The sparse exposition, the striking compositions, the moral ambiguity, and its three excellent performances make for an entirely unforgettable drama. – Jack G.

9. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)

chi-raq_header

Spike Lee’s best picture in years, Chi-Raq is a timely call to action. Opening to a Chicago embroiled in controversy, Lee’s stated objective is to save lives on Chicago’s Southside, a fiery cry against gun violence and a system that protects gang members while women and children are caught in the cross fire. A modern-day adaption of Lysistrata, Chi-Raq is lively and often hilarious; it has the spunk of some of his best and most political work, such as Do the Right Thing. With a cast that includes Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Teyonah Parris in a break-out role as the story’s heroine, its lively performances are as transcendent as the film is ambitious. Rarely does a work achieve so much, and its stakes couldn’t be higher. – John F.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

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Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.

7. Hard to Be a God (Alexei German)

Hard to Be a God

You might only follow its plot on the basis of knowing who two or three people are, and you might find some (okay, more than “some”) of its violence to be hard on the eyes — this is a work that’s violent in the truest sense of the word — so if it wears you down to the point of surrender, that’s understood. Yet there’s a morbid beauty in all the blood, shit, mucus, and mud captured through roving shots and stark black-and-white photography; if nothing else, the pictures sure do look pretty. Alexei German’s towering final feature is precisely the sort of film built to last: one that, more than now being widely available on home video, should only become more widely accessible as repeated viewings allow its narrative complexities and formal oddities — equal in distribution and each necessary to the other — to blossom. Or maybe there’s no getting over that wooden spike. – Nick N.

6. Son of Saul (László Nemes)

Son of Saul

Emotionally devastating and profoundly moving without ever being soft or cheap, László NemesSon of Saul is a tour de force that puts many Holocaust-set films to shame. In no way shying away from the horror, Nemes actually enhances the atrocities by closing in and making this the personal document of a man waging a war for his own soul amidst a living nightmare. Shot almost entirely in close-ups so tight that we appear to be constantly staring into Géza Röhrig’s weary, guilty eyes, Son shears away easy sentiment in favor of looking through the chinks of this swelling darkness to find some hidden stores of compassion and feeling. The journey is neither easy for him to endure nor easy for the casual viewer to digest, but Nemes, in his first foray behind the camera, shows us the Holocaust in a way we’ve never seen it before: almost directly through the eyes of someone who is desperate to atone for his part. For this reviewer, it’s the most emotionally affecting cinematic experience of 2015. – Nathan B.

5. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Ex-Machina

Alex Garland’s debut Ex Machina toys with your emotions like few films can. Because its three main characters would each like to believe they are smarter than the others, there’s a constant game of chess being played. But it isn’t until the end that you realize how high the stakes are. Every movement, upon rewatch, seems to be moving a piece closer to the end. It’s a delicate balance the film manages in giving us the riveting moments of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) interviewing Ava (Alicia Vikander) while the quiet sequences between Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb gain more and more importance as they get past the initial ice-breaking stage. The key stroke, though, is a component that Garland has received a lot of flack for in his screenwriting career: the ending. Here, though, he nails the turn into psychological thriller that continues to leave me reeling even after half-a-dozen rewatches. – Bill G.

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

Phoenix

There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.

3. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)

Spotlight

One of the best movies about journalism since All the President’s Men, Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight bears all the earmarks of an old-fashioned ensemble entertainment from another era while capturing enough wistful, crucial details to serve as a reminder and warning to the current media-saturated climate we live in. McCarthy scales back his style in a way similar to his best film, The Visitor, and Spotlight houses a similar moral outrage beneath a veneer of the day-to-day grind belonging to everyday people. What is specifically powerful about Spotlight is the way it eschews the intimate details of the Catholic Church’s individual molestation cases, instead focusing on this issue from the eyes of survivors and the community. We are not goaded into complicity with these newspaper men and women, but drawn into their fight through an experience as immersive as any this year. The cast, led by Michael Keaton, is one of the strongest 2015 had to offer, and they inhabit these people in a way that draws this struggle from the recent past in clear, immediate lines. – Nathan B.

2. Carol (Todd Haynes)

Carol

From the first note of Carter Burwell‘s magnificent score and opening shot of Edward Lachman’s ravishing cinematography — introducing a Brief Encounter-esque opening bookend — Todd Haynes transports one to an intoxicating world of first love and its requisite heartbreak. Carol excels at being many things: a romantic drama; a coming-of-age story; an exploration of family dynamics and social constructs of the time; an acting showcase the likes of which simply isn’t seen in today’s cinematic landscape — and that’s just on the first viewing. The film blossoms on further revisits as minuscule gestures and glances articulate a myriad of emotions, and as themes of male impediment and desire are subtly divulged. A harmonious, immaculate masterpiece, Carol is one of cinema’s finest love stories. – Jordan R.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

Mad Max Fury Road 2

That George Miller returned to resurrect his Mad Max saga three decades after its last entry (the divisive Beyond Thunderdome) is, in itself, a certain sort of feat. That he produced an anti-patriarchal, post-apocalyptic, action-fantasy epic worthy of mainstream appeal is damn near achieving the impossible. But with the help of a stellar cast (led by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron) and enough stunt people to fill ten movies, Miller introduced a new generation to his fully imagined world and all the carefully choreographed fight sequences and face-melting destruction that come with it. The fact that a film of such gloriously creative weirdness could become both a critical and box-office success makes me think there’s hope for us all. – Amanda W.

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