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: 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 “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” (

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.


The 10 Best New Movies I Saw in 2014

This list includes all the new movies (first run) that I saw in 2014, regardless of their release date (full list here).  As long as they weren’t archival and were watched in a theater, they were eligible for this list.  And yes, this is by no means a representative list of all the great films I saw.  Now let’s get to it!

10. The LEGO Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord)

Everything was awesome with this movie that was basically a huge product placement for Legos…and filled with joy from beginning to end.

9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)

This story about a gay couple (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) isn’t on this list because of its timely issues (gay marriage, housing crisis), but because the performances of Molina and Lithgow are so wonderful.  The film steps a little wrong with the drawn-out ending, but that’s a small fault for a film that cares so much about its characters.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

I can’t say this is Anderson’s best film, as I’ve only seen the last three films he’s made, but this is the best of those three, depending not only on Anderson’s evocation of a Europe that vanished between the wars, but on Ralph Fiennes truly decent (and wonderfully acted) M. Gustave, which gives this film its emotional center, and its heart.

7. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)

I enjoyed The Host but felt it lost steam once it crossed its halfway point.  Not so Snowpiercer.  We have a hero who must grow into the role (Chris Evans), a mentor who is not all that he appears to be (William Hurt), and a wonderful performance by Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for a man.  Plus, unlike other movies about rebellion, this one truly contemplates the consequences of “winning,” while giving us characters that have depth.  When some of them die, we truly feel the loss.  Moral ambiguity at its best.

6. Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy)

The hardest category to choose best films from this year was documentaries.  I easily could have put four on here (Supermensch and Life Itself being the other two).  Maybe I should’ve limited it to one documentary, but Rory Kennedy’s film about the fall of Saigon and the efforts to relocate the Vietnamese who had collaborated with the U.S. to other countries is an incredibly well-made film about an incredible — and little-known — story, particularly to those of us who were born after the war ended.

5. American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Yes, this technically came out in 2013, but I didn’t see it until last year, so I’m putting it on this list.  David O. Russell’s tale of a con-man helping the Feds is too good to leave off, with crises created by Bradley Cooper’s headstrong and possibly inept FBI agent narrowly averted by Christian Bale’s quick-thinking con-man.  Plus, Bale, Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence are exceptional.

4. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

One could argue that J.K. Simmons’s character in this film is too abusive to his students to have lasted as long as he has at a prestigious music school.  To that I have two words: Bobby Knight.  But it doesn’t really matter: the real story here is two actors pushing each other to their limits: Simmons’s teacher and Miles Teller’s student, who is so driven to be one of the great drummers that he will suffer extreme abuse to get there.  The  climax of the film is a lesson in how editing can create emotional tension.

3. The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner, Ryan White)

The best documentary of the year deals with the decision to challenge Proposition 8 through the courts.  It results in the unlikeliest of bed-fellows and a reminder of how wonderful human beings can be when they forget to hate each other.

2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

Linklater deserves all the accolades he’s been getting for this film, which follows a boy (Ellar Coltrane) through twelve years of his life, by filming the actor who played him (and most of the other actors) over a twelve-year period.  It reminded me of the best parts of my childhood through its patchwork of moments.  This film made me smile.

1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

The best movie of the year is more tightly knit than Boyhood, with layers upon layers of meaning, centering around a priest (Brendan Gleeson) who is faced with death at the hands of a parishioner who was sexually abused by one when younger.  The best handling of faith that I’ve seen onscreen — not as something that solves all our ills, or has all the answers, but as something that can provide comfort in uncertain times.

….And 12 Honorable Mentions, in no particular order: Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Life Itself (Steve James), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois), A Letter to Momo (Okiura Hiroyuki), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski), Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland)Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), The Legend of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata Isao)

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

Last year, I did something a little different.  I wrote down all of the films that I saw in theaters and at home.  So, when deciding which films to highlight as the best of 2013, I actually have a list to go off of, which can be accessed here:

For the sake of my pics for best films of 2013, I am only including first-run films.  That means that some films from 2012 could make the list, if I saw them in 2013.  It also means that films I saw in 2014, but were released in 2013, won’t make the list.  Confusing enough for you?  Here we go.

15. Much Ado About Nothing (Josh Whedon)

A wonderful retelling of the Shakespearean play, done in modern times but in the original iambic pentameter.  A particularly good Beatrice from Amy Acker.

14. I Am Divine (Jeffrey Schwarz)

An exhaustive documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead, more commonly know as the performer known as Divine.  If there’s anything about Divine’s life that isn’t covered in this film, and isn’t covered with sensitivity, humor, pathos, or a combination of the three, I would be shocked.

13. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling)

This wonderful documentary is about a married Japanese couple who live in New York City.  While the husband has had the more illustrious (or infamous) career as an avant-guard artist, it is the wife who is the more interesting person.  While she has previously lived for her husband’s work, she is a talented artist in her own right, with a series of paintings centered around Cutie, a fictionalized version of herself and her life with her husband.  They also have a son, and in a discussion I had after seeing this film, we agreed that he is the best artist in the film, combining the strengths of his father’s flashy style with his mother’s more assured technique.  A gem of a film.

12. What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

Much of this film’s success hinges on its young star (Onata Aprile); the rest is due to a great screenplay that keeps the movie focused on Maisie’s perspective while also clueing in the audience to connections that Maisie may not be aware of.  It doesn’t hurt that Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore, playing Maisie’s parents, are excellent in their roles, particularly Moore.

11. Blackbird (Jason Buxton)

This movie, about a boy who writes about killing several of his classmates and finds the adults in the community taking the threat more seriously than he intended it, is a good reminder that paranoia is an unhealthy state for society to be in.  And yet, the film is on this list because it doesn’t follow the formulaic route that it could have followed.  Instead, the movie stays true to this teenager’s personality, and the circumstances in which he finds himself, which leads to a much more satisfying, and personal, place than if it had concerned itself with the reaction of the town, rather than the person at the center.

10. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

An even better use of silent film techniques than The Artist, this film is a retelling of “Snow White,” except that the title character is the daughter of a once famous bullfighter, who is confined to a wheelchair after a horrible accident in the ring.  The evil queen is her stepmom, who is a bit of a sadomasochist, while the dwarves belong to a troupe of bullfighters.  Poignant, beautiful, and sad.

9. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a man wrongfully accused of sexually molesting a child.  Unlike Blackbird, this film is entirely concerned with how paranoia and a series of wrong-headed decisions can lead to horrible behavior toward an innocent person thought guilty.  While some of his friends believe in his innocence, Mikkelsen’s character is treated as a pariah by most of the town.  Even long after his name should have been cleared, some people still treat him with suspicion.  Mikkelsen is excellent in this film, as is his young accuser, played by Annika Wedderkopp.

8. The Silence (Baran Bo Odar)

A girl is raped and murdered in a field.  The case remains unsolved, though the audience sees who the killer is, and who his accomplice is.  They are both pedophiles, though the accomplice has long suppressed his urges.  After the murder, Timo (the accomplice) freaks out and leaves the town, and Peer (the killer), behind.  23 years later, another girl is found dead in the same field.  Is it the same killer, and if it is, why has he killed again?  Now married with children, Timo secretly returns to the town to see if his “old friend” is responsible.  This great crime thriller shows how these crimes affect the characters involved, including the wife of the first child, the parents of the second child, a police detective who worked on the original case, and even the killers.  And yet the movie is really about people’s relationship with the past, and how it can destroy both those who wish to remember it, and those who wish to forget it.

7. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

Another of several great documentaries I saw this year, this one deals with Tilikum, an orca whale who has killed three people since being placed into captivity, including an experienced trainer at SeaWorld.  The real story, however, is how the conditions into which these whales are thrust lead to situations which don’t benefit the whales or the humans.

6. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Polley’s brilliant documentary about her mother starts dropping bombshells 30 minutes in, made all the more powerful by how matter-of-factly they arrive.  My family would never be this open about one of their own, and yet the film wouldn’t work if they weren’t.  Behind these stories is a deeper purpose: how we use stories to make sense of the people in our lives, knowing that these stories can never sum up an entire person’s essence, and realizing that some of them may not even be true.

5. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)

The best teen movie I’ve seen since Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything.  The first part of this film is about the burgeoning relationship between Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (the amazing Shailene Woodley); the second part delves into darker (and deeper) territory.  I felt like an emotional train wreck by the end of this film, and I mean that in the best possible way.

4. Horses of God (Nabil Ayouch)

I almost forgot to list this film, since I saw it as a screener, not in theaters.  I’m glad I remembered, for this film about two brothers and their friends growing up in Morocco is truly one of the best films of 2013.  Similar to City of God in its subject matter, but to tell you any more might spoil the film (as does IMDB’s listing of what the film is about).

3. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

The best documentary of the year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, in which gangsters responsible for a communist purge in Indonesia are asked to tell their story using various film genres, is a study in how ordinary people can justify committing unspeakable acts, until they are faced with the full impact of their actions.  More than any other film this year, this movie shows how powerful films can be, both for us and for its participants.

2. La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino)

The Great Beauty (as it’s known in the U.S.) is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, one in which the camera has complete freedom of movement.  This is as close to an epic film as I’ve seen all year and came within a hair’s breath of being my pick for the best film of 2013.  In style and substance, it reminds me of La Dolce Vita in how it tells its story through the lives of its characters (and through LIFE), but it also encompasses Rome, where these characters live, work, breathe, and party.  Tony Servillo, as the main character, has one of the most wonderfully expressive cinematic faces in history.  Except for some fake-ish looking CGI (used to create certain animals and in flashbacks), this film has no flaws worth mentioning.

1. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda)

Narrated by her daughter, Wolf Children follows a young woman from her initial meeting of her husband through her struggle to raise her two kids (a girl and a boy), who like her husband are half-human, half-wolf.  The film deals with the struggles of adulthood and the growing pains of childhood, while the transformation sequences and movement of the wolves adds beauty and poetry to an already poignant film.  It’s animated, it’s in Japanese, and it’s brilliant.

Special Jury Prizes: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) , Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Why these two films?  The first one for one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in a theater, one that hinges on a woman’s decision to give up and die or fight on and live, rather than hinging on a story; the other for one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship I’ve seen onscreen (minus sex scenes that went on a little too long and felt a bit staged) and the two best and most natural acting performances of the year (from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux).  Plus, both looked brilliant: the former in its use of 3D to heighten the claustrophobic feel of enclosed spaces within and the vastness of space without, the other to register every facial tick that its two main characters displayed.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Philomena, Short Term 12,  The World’s End

The Best Movies of 2012

Update 1/24/13: I have since seen Holy Motors and Django Unchained.  Also, I have added more honorable mentions to the list.

I have not seen every movie that came out last year (for example, I still haven’t seen Holy Motors or Django Unchained), and the ones that only came out recently in Seattle (like Zero Dark Thirty) will have to wait until next year’s list.  Still, here are the movies that stuck with me throughout the year, in alphabetical order.  If I reviewed it, you can click on the title to go to the review.

1. Argo

The most suspenseful movie out this year.  Ben Affleck’s story of the freeing of six American Embassy workers from Iran may not be factually accurate, but who cares?  I go to the movies to be entertained, and if fiction is more entertaining that reality, I’d rather have the fiction.  Still, the outline of what happened did occur, but it’s the tension that Affleck adds to the film, especially in the last 15 minutes, that makes this such a great movie.

2. Chicken with Plums

Vying with Skyfall for the best film of the year, this sweet movie about the world’s greatest violinist and his last days on earth are filmed with much creativity, love, and pathos.  The directors don’t go for tear-inducing sadness; instead, the last section of the film is filled with a great melancholy that ends with a perfect image, and then fades to credits.

3. Cloud Atlas

The most ambitious film of the year has a lot of heart and a lot of complexity, but if you approach it like music, where every theme resonates through time like a forgotten melody, then you may be able to make sense of this sprawling masterwork.  Visually stunning, emotionally touching, and able to entwine the strands of each story without tying them into knots.  A notch below Skyfall and Chicken with Plums, but certainly the best sci-fi film of the year (take that, Prometheus!).

4. Goodbye

The last film released by Mohammed Rasoulof before being put under house arrest, Goodbye deals with a woman who gets pregnant so that she can leave the country.  As realistic as the director’s previous The White Meadows was fanciful, but equally powerful in its depiction of the oppression felt in Iran by those who would dare cross the regime.

5. How to Survive a Plague

A documentary on the formation of ACT UP and its efforts to get more effective and cheaper AIDS drugs on the market.  Put together almost exclusively through video tapes recorded by its members, this is a harrowing, informative, and brilliant film.

6. Searching for Sugarman

A film about a musician named Rodriguez, who only recorded two albums in the U.S. before being released by his label, due to poor sales.  On the other side of the world, however, a copy of his debut album, Cold Fact, made it to South Africa and helped launch the anti-apartheid movement.  Years later, two Rodriguez fans try to track down this mysterious musician.  What results from their search is nothing short of incredible.

7. The Sessions

John Hawkes shows off his versatility once again as a man hooked up to an iron lung.  Only able to leave it for several hours at a time, he ends up meeting with a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) while in the course of writing an article about people with disabilities and sex.  This movie is not about sex.  Rather, it is about connecting with others, and learning to accept ourselves for who we are.  This one got to me.

8. Skyfall

I thought Casino Royal was one of the greatest action movies I’d ever seen, never mind one of the greatest Bond films ever.  Then came Skyfall.  As good as Casino Royal is, this is even better, with a final shootout sequence that reminded me (in the best way possible) of the shootout scene in L.A. Confidential.  Plus, by revealing more of M’s past, as well as Bond’s, the film goes beyond their iconic status to show us two flawed human beings who are at the mercy of their pasts.  And in a film which focuses as much on her character as it does on Daniel Craig’s, Judi Dench once again reminds us what a great actress she is (in case we forgot).  Plus, Javier Bardem has to be one of the creepiest Bond villains ever.

Honorable mentions: 170 Hz, Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Master, Safety Not Guaranteed, Samsara, Sleepwalk with Me