The Most Fascinating (Unseen) Films of 2015

I saw many great films in 2015, some of which were released the previous year, yet every critic does a “best-of” list at the end of the year, and what do they tell you? That the same few movies were admired by most critics, with a fistful of variations. If I were doing such a list, I’d include Mad Max, Inside Out, Selma, The End of the Tour, and The Imitation Game. Instead, I’m including movies that may have slipped under your radar — and almost slipped under mine. You also can check out my reports from SIFF 2015, which include movies I haven’t included here.

Best Retrospective: Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

With the release of The Assassin in U.S. theaters last year, I hope that Hou’s films become more available to American audiences. The festival retrospective I went to included 35 mm prints of six of his films: A Time to Live And a Time to Die; Dust in the Wind; Flowers of Shanghai; Millennium Mambo; and Good Men, Good Women. All movies were screened at the Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum. In addition, Scarecrow Video hosted viewings of The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou’s first “artistic” movie), City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, Goodbye South Goodbye, and Cafe Lumiere in their screening room. Most films were introduced by cinephile and Hou aficionado Sean Gilman, including all the ones I went to (I missed A Time to Live And A Time to Die, Flowers of Shanghai, and all of the Scarecrow screenings, except for The Boys from Fengkuei). The films covered three specific periods of Hou’s filmography: coming-of-age tales, Taiwanese history, and contemporary (in Millennium Mambo, his mostly static camera is replaced with one that “floats” above the action). The prints were in excellent condition, the cinematography gorgeous, the stories meditative. I still need to see City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, consider Hou’s two best films, so here’s hoping the next Hou retrospective includes prints of them, as the versions released over here are not in good condition (according to Gilman, Scarecrow replaced the Region 1 DVD of City of Sadness with a superior transfer for their screening).

Best Archival Presentation on Film: The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)

For his final film, Tarkovsky employed the talents of Sven Nyvquist, Bergman’s legendary cinematographer. So, yeah, the film looked fantastic. I saw no dirt or scratches, just brilliance on the screen.

Best Archival Presentation Not on Film: The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), Jaws (Steven Spielberg)

Based on artistic quality, The Apu Trilogy easily wins, but the presentation for both films (DCP for one, laser projection for the other) was stunning. Jaws looked and sounded fantastic (I thought the music muted, but I discovered later that it’s supposed to sound muted). As for The Apu Trilogy, we’re lucky we can see it at all, since most of the original negatives were destroyed in a fire. This forced Criterion to hunt down duplicate negatives and existing prints to recreate the most life-fulfilling films I’ve ever seen.

Best Archival Presentation with Live Accompaniment: A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu) w/ live music and benshi by Aono Jikken Ensemble

In Japan, silent films were accompanied by benshi: men and women who translated and interpreted the movies on the screen, much as Tayū (chanters) tell the story in bunraku (puppet theater). This version of A Story of Floating Weeds included a modern equivalent, with one female member of Aono Jikken Ensemble performing the role of benshi while the rest of the ensemble played an original score. Since the members in the ensemble met the last living benshi, this is as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing silent films as they were experienced in Japan.

Best WTF Movie: The Astrologer (Craig Denney)

No other movie captured the glory of bad movies like The Astrologer, which played once during the Seattle International Film Festival. Random shots (including inappropriate slow-mo and rotating crane shots), horrible acting, bad cinematography, cheap special effects, cheesy dialog — it’s all there, blended in such a way as to be unintentionally funny. Among the spoken gems, my favorite was, “You’re not an astrologer; you’re an asshole!”

Best Use of Camera Angles: The Devils (Ken Russell)

Ken Russell’s UK cut of The Devils (on 35mm!) shows why most movies today are boring. His camera angles aren’t showy, but they have personality — something often lacking in contemporary films.

Best Vampire Movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

I didn’t see What We Do in the Shadows, but that was a spoof, so I’m still going with Amirpour’s Iranian vampire film as the best vampire film of 2015. A vampire that only kills men who sexually prey on and abuse women? Not hard to see what Amirpour’s getting at here. It’s as black and white as the film’s cinematography, but the artistry employed in translating that message to the screen makes this more than a message movie, including as it does shades of Let the Right One In  with its relationship between The Girl (Sheila Vand) and the Arash (Arash Marandi).

Best Cinematography: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh) — Dick Pope, cinematographer

Leigh isn’t an unknown quantity, but Mr. Turner didn’t get wide release in the US. For fans of J.M.W. Turner, that’s a shame, as the cinematography is as gorgeous as one of his paintings.

And now let’s list to movies you really should’ve seen, and why (in the order I saw them):

1. Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf)

Worth seeing for the two lead actresses, Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius, who play sisters: one of whom (Confurius) marries the poet Frederick Schiller (Florian Stetter), one of whom takes him as her lover, even though she is married. Herzsprung, in particular, is fantastic to watch as the more strong-willed of the two sisters, who has literary ambitions of her own.

2. An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein)

A documentary about the Amazing Randi, who has spent his life denouncing charlatans, particularly those whom he feel are dangerous to the people they dupe. One of the best documentaries you’ve never seen, for though he’s spent his life denouncing untruths, an untruth lies at the center of his life.

3. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)

The best animated movie not by Pixar, with a drawing style very different from Disney.  By the same studio that made Book of Kells, but with a better story. Like that film, based on Irish legends.

4. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

This wonderfully creepy film about an unstoppable force that is transmitted like an STD pays homage to 80s horror films, fills itself with characters we care about, and grounds its horror in the real world. Not quite as good as The Babadook, but scarier, it proves great horror films aren’t dead yet.

5. 1971 (Johanna Hamilton)

The premise of the film sounded interesting; who knew it’d be one of the best documentaries of the year? Re-enacting a break-in that occurred in an FBI office in Pennsylvania in 1971 in which the perpetrators stole files and sent them to major newspapers, the film interviews the participants of that event, who saw their break-in as an act of protest against the government and the Vietnam War. One of the documents led to the discovery of the secret surveillance systems that the FBI has on US citizens, leading to “the first Congressional investigation of an intelligence committee” (Variety 2014 film review: http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-1971-1201202631/). Not only were the perpetrators never caught; no one knew who they were — until they revealed themselves in this film.

6. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

One of the strangest films I’ve ever see, and one of the most beautiful. It starts in reality and ends in dream, as Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortenson) searches for his missing daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) after she elopes with a young soldier ((Misael Saavedra).

7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)

In 1811, Heinrich von Kliest — writer of “The Marquise of O,” among others — shot and killed his friend Henriette Vogel on the banks of the Wansee before turning the gun on himself. Though a suicide pact existed between the friends (Vogel was dying of cancer), this films leaves enough ambiguity concerning the prognosis and Vogel’s willingness to die with the young author to make for a fascinating, female-centric retelling of the event, and the days leading up to it. To quote Scout Tafoya’s review on RogerEbert.com: “Vogel’s illness was never questioned as seriously at the time as it is in the film. The official word is that she was going to die either way. The film creates reasonable doubt because its chief interest is in telling the story of a woman at the mercy of circumstances” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amour-fou-2015).

8. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

Excellent acting from Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, a woman who survives the Holocaust, but whose face undergoes plastic surgery as a result of her wounds. Her husband, not knowing she’s his wife, forces her to impersonate herself, in order to get her inheritance money. The ending is perfect.

9. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)

Constructed entirely from tapes that the late Marlon Brando made throughout his life, and edited with photos, movie clips, and TV spots. Admittedly one-sided, but what a fascinating side it is! And the editing job that went into this is astonishing.

10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)

Mainly to be seen for Bel Powley’s lead performance, who acts as a young woman — recently introduced to the joys of sex — would behave. And the fact that the film is honest about a young woman’s sexuality, instead of existing mainly for the male gaze.

11. The Diplomat (David Holbrooke)

Released by HBO, this documentary by David Holbrooke follows his father, Richard Holbrooke (mainly known for his role in the Dayton Accords), from the beginning of his career as a diplomat to the end. Honest in its portrayal of the flaws of the man, as well as the flaws of the administrations he worked under, this was one of the best surprises of 2015.

12. The Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)

Dreams, death, and observations about the world. The imagery is eclectic, as are the subjects covered, and yet Anderson somehow ties it all together.

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