The good, the bad and the unsettling

SN&R critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane on teenage journeys, disquieting topical themes and 2015’s best and worst films

<i>Mad Max: Fury Road</i>

Mad Max: Fury Road

In the last two years, SN&R critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane have placed the same film on their best-of-the-year lists only twice—12 Years a Slave in 2013 and The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. In 2015, there’s not a single overlapping movie. Yet there are some strange similarities—both lists feature a Noah Baumbach movie (Mistress America and While We’re Young), an animated movie (Anomalisa and Inside Out), a story of teenage female angst (Breathe and Diary of a Teenage Girl) and a movie about stubborn women standing up to the patriarchy (Mad Max: Fury Road and Far from the Madding Crowd). From Brooklyn and Mars to Tehran and Timbuktu, from the mind of an adolescent girl to the mind of Marlon Brando, the best films of 2015 touched our hearts and fired our imaginations.

Millennial narcissism and other cinematic touch points

Top 10 films

1. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: Imagine Stanley Kubrick directing Monty Python, or Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman collaborating on an art installation, and you begin to sense the psycho-comedic mindset running amok through Roy Andersson’s category-defying masterpiece.

2. Mistress America: Noah Baumbach’s film combines the millennial narcissism of Frances Ha with the jaundiced humanity of Greenberg and pitches it at the speed of screwball comedy. Greta Gerwig created a classic character and Lola Kirke became a movie star. … Too bad hardly anyone noticed.

3. Anomalisa: If you thought Team America: World Police had the last word on puppet sex, think again. In this pensive and surreal stop-motion mind-blower, the most achingly real and unsettling intimate sex scene in movie history is only one of the many miracles on display.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road: An endlessly inventive action film that assaults patriarchal oppression as it much as it assaults the senses. Charlize Theron is a coal-eyed badass for the ages, but a second viewing reveals the scrambled intricacy of Tom Hardy’s performance.

5. The Duke of Burgundy: A lesbian love story with more to offer than Todd Haynes’ exquisitely crafted but emotionally chilly Carol. Writer-director Peter Strickland previously made the hypnotic Berberian Sound Studio, but this film penetrates deeper, finding the erotic in the banal and the banal in the erotic.

6. Timbuktu: I could never shake Abderrahmane Sissako’s searing and lyrical look at an African city overrun by jihadists. Even as every act of religious repression gets met by a reflexive act of artistic expression, there persists a sinking feeling that quiet beauty will inevitably explode into senseless violence.

7. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: Panahi’s third this-is-not-a-film since the Iranian government banned him from filmmaking, Taxi blurs the lines between documentary and drama until they’re irrelevant. It’s a commute through the streets of Tehran, a touching meditation on artistic powerlessness and a prankster’s ode to the creative spirit.

8. It Follows: One of the best horror films of the millennium, deeply unsettling and nightmarishly lucid while never betraying its high-concept premise. The effect felt like Texas Chainsaw Massacre-era Tobe Hooper directing a Richard Linklater rewrite of Under the Skin.

9. The Hateful Eight: In a year when racial tensions continued escalating, the gleeful exploitation of Tarantino feels like a strangely soothing salve. In this widescreen Western/murder-mystery Tarantino subverts his own genre trappings to examine the long cons necessary for black men to survive in white spaces.

10. Breathe: The most unfortunately overlooked film of 2015, a devastating look at anguish and manipulation in a teenage friendship. Directing her second feature, Melanie Laurent brings all the hellish truth of Welcome to the Dollhouse without any of the quirky sadism.

Top five documentaries


1. Listen to Me Marlon: Most contemporary documentaries begin with a conclusion and structure the rest of the film around reaching it, but every frame of Stevan Riley’s exhilarating audio tour through Marlon Brando’s tortured psyche teems with discovery.

2. The Look of Silence: Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrage-inducing flip side to the role-playing insanity of The Act of Killing is just as emotionally devastating and even more beautifully shot and edited, with an eye for ghostly compositions and an ear for eerie silences.

3. In Jackson Heights: As attention spans continue to shrink, the let-the-camera-roll patience and empathy of Frederick Wiseman feels more like a luxurious throwback. In Jackson Heights, about the culturally diverse Queens neighborhood, is three-plus hours of people delivering speeches at public forums and community meetings, and it’s never less than riveting.

4. Cartel Land: The best war movie of 2015, but rather than focusing on faraway battles, Matthew Heineman unflinchingly surveys the violence being waged on America’s doorstep by the Mexican cartels, and by the armed vigilante movements that have sprung up in retaliation.

5. Approaching the Elephant: One of the year’s most disturbing onscreen horrors: a child without limitations. Amanda Wilder’s stark black-and-white mood piece takes place at a New Jersey “free school,” a place where classes are voluntary and kids call the shots. Warning: may inspire mass vasectomies.

Bottom five films

1. The Cobbler

2. Testament of Youth

3. Youth

4. Entourage

5. Trumbo


Primal storytelling and proto-feminism

Top 10 films

With the customary disclaimer for major releases still unseen at press time, here are my top movies of the year, in alphabetical order:

1. The Big Short: Director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, turned out an edgy satire on the 2007-08 housing market meltdown. They changed names and events but the general facts remained, mordantly funny and with a well-earned aura of moral outrage.

2. Brooklyn: Perhaps the best movie of the year, and almost certainly the loveliest. From the novel by Colm Toibin, with a heartfelt script by Nick Hornby and direction by John Crowley that framed the story in bright, bold colors, the movie was a showcase for Saoirse Ronan. As an Irish immigrant to America torn between the attractions of old and new worlds, Ronan delivered on the promise she showed as an adolescent in Atonement.

3. Cinderella: Equally lovely in a different way, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action remake of Walt Disney’s flawless animated masterpiece was a gloriously sumptuous confection, telling the old story without irony or revisionism. Cate Blanchett brought the stepmother to malicious life, but the movie’s revelation was Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the title role, with one of the most radiant smiles in movie history.

4. The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Bel Powley’s breakthrough performance was the mainspring of this pseudo-memoir (from Phoebe Gloeckner’s illustrated novel) of growing up in 1970s San Francisco. But actress-turned-director Marielle Heller’s movie had plenty else going for it: compassion for the flawed characters, an unerring eye for the period and some charmingly naughty animated sequences by Sara Gunnarsdóttir to parallel Gloeckner’s illustrations.

5. Far from the Madding Crowd: Thomas Hardy’s proto-feminist novel of an independent woman in Victorian England has aged little in 140 years, and it got sterling treatment from writer David Nicholls and director Thomas Vinterberg. The cast was first-rate, unerringly led by the amazing Carey Mulligan (who has yet to be the same in any two movies) as the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene.

6. The Martian: Andy Weir’s novel of an astronaut marooned on Mars was more tense and nerve-wracking, but Ridley Scott’s movie was a worthy adaptation—suspenseful, flawlessly cast (especially in the characters who get less screen time than in the book), and brilliantly designed; we never question that we’re really on the Red Planet.

7. Inside Out: Pixar hit it out of the park with this adventure inside an adolescent girl’s head, exploring subtle psychological concepts that all but the smallest kids could grasp. Sleekly beautiful as Pixar at its best, the movie told a story as primal as The Wizard of Oz or any other journey through wonders and dangers to the safety of home.

8. Spy: Melissa McCarthy finally found her perfect role in this hilarious send-up of glossy espionage movies. It hilariously spoofed the genre while being a fine example of it; a franchise is inevitable, and may they all be this good.

9. While We’re Young: Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s wry, perceptive dramedy of a 40-something couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) trying to be 20-something again was as good as anything he’s ever done—and movies hardly get any better than that.

10. Youth: Any movie that gives Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel the vehicle they have here is OK with me, but Paolo Sorrentino’s movie was even better than that, elegant and visually voluptuous.

Five biggest stinkers

1. The Good Dinosaur: After the homer of Inside Out, Pixar struck out without even taking a good swing; this was a beautiful-to-look-at-but-ugly-hearted bore.

2. Irrational Man: Good, bad or indifferent, Woody Allen has never misfired so completely.

3. Jupiter Ascending: This outlandish campfest should have been called The Wachowskis Crashing.

4. Pan: The backstory of Peter Pan, perpetrated by people without the slightest understanding of the fun and charm of the original.

5. The Visit: M. Night Shyamalan strikes again, proving once more what a lucky fluke The Sixth Sense was.