Though not exactly outstanding, 2015 was another solid year for world cinema, despite being, for many observers, a down year for Hollywood (on the level of quality, not box office, thanks mostly to male nostalgia). The past year was especially notable for producing four films that would rank near the top in virtually any year – though only two of these (The Assassin and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi) have screened commercially, thus far, in the United States and Oklahoma City. (Both, I can report, were among the more commercially successful foreign-language releases of the past year locally, just behind Christian Petzold’s career-best Phoenix, a fall 2014 world-premiere, which will be discussed in part 2 – along with other belated commercial releases, and Museum Film retrospective highlights.)
Let me back up. As is true each and every year, there were two years in film in 2015: a global year in film art (one that, from an art-film standpoint, mostly happens on the festival circuit, and was distinguished by the four masterpieces described above), and a local one (that happened to be better for depth than peak achievements), a year that is dependent upon commercial release schedules that often delay the best in foreign-language and independent cinema for a year or more. In both respects, 2015 was again a good year, though let me add, a good year if your thing is director-driven (auteur) cinema that smartly engages with film history and an art form that remains in a perpetual state of re-definition. Not so much if it was the art, rather than the commercial product of the multiplex.
So, to the first, to the global year in film art, 2015 once again confirmed cinema’s profound internationality, with countries as diverse as Guatemala (Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul, Berlin Film Festival), Colombia (Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, Cannes Film Festival), and Iceland (Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, my favorite of the three, from Cannes) joining the roster of major festival prizewinners. For the most part, however, it was the usual suspects, both in terms of director and country of origin (Chile, France, Greece, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand), who most defined the year that was. Leading the way were two major masterpieces from Asia, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s aforementioned The Assassin, the year’s most exhaustive exploration of a single set of conceptually linked, visual and thematic motifs, and Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (pictured above), an expansive and open extension of the director’s extraordinary multiverse, made amidst the uncertainty of military rule. Both are astonishingly original and deeply imbued with cinema’s past – for Hou it is the origins of his art and a genre he completely makes his own, and for Apichatpong, it is his own body of work, the most substantial of this current century.
Joining this pair of Cannes masterpieces are two additional supreme achievements from Berlin, rather than the Asian auteurs’ Cannes: the first, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, is the great Iranian director’s third film since receiving a twenty year ban from filmmaking in 2010. With the ominous role that the state plays in this narrative, it is impossible to believe that Panahi will make another – which means he will somehow manage. The second is the only American film to make my own personal selection of the year’s ten best, Oklahoma-native Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. A Pilgrim’s Progress of sorts told in a wholly singular, fragmented and spiritual idiom, Malick’s most formally extreme film was the best American film of 2015 (not that it will be screened in time to qualify for this year’s various awards).
Beyond these two major works, Berlin most notably also yielded leading Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s The Club, by far the year’s most compelling, if in its case conspicuously fictionalized look at the abuses of the Church (sorry Spotlight); and the equally engaging Victoria, German director Sebastian Schipper’s 140-minute, one-take tour of early-morning Berlin. No film covered more generic and emotional territory than Schipper’s entertaining experiment, a Run Lola Run for our long-take, digital moment.
In what appears to have been something of a down year for French cinema, following an excellent 2014, among the best from Western Europe’s cinematic superpower were My Golden Days (pictured), a loose prequel to director Arnaud Desplechin’s 1996 breakthrough My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into an Argument, featuring all of the split-screens, irises, and swells of romantic passion that have made Desplechin one of the most excitingly manic figures in the contemporary French cinema; and first-time, Turkish-born director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s French co-production Mustang (which opens in Oklahoma City, January 15, 2016), a sharp feminist fable for the implementation of an Islamic theocracy. The latter is France’s choice for Oscar, and seems a likely bet to be one of the final five nominees. Additionally, there was post-nouvelle vague director Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, the comparatively modest latest from one of the medium’s most consistent voices.
Perhaps the year’s best French-language film, however, was Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which manages to redefine the feminist filmmaking icon’s corpus with reference to her beloved, dying mother, who provides the non-fiction feature with its subject. For this writer, 2015 was a year for renewing my acquaintance with Akerman, even before the tragic news of her suicide following the film’s stormy premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. Locarno, as it happens, also witnessed the premiere of another of the year’s best East Asian films, Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which features the two-part structure of The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), both subtly referenced in this latest by the cinema’s Piet Mondian. Here, in this winner of the top prize at the Swiss fest, filmmaking once again emerges as the most effective and illuminating form of film criticism.
In other corners of Europe, Romania remained an important center with Corneliu Porumboiu’s exceptional The Treasure (opening January 22 at the Museum), a return to the stylistic and political preoccupations of the great Police, Adjective (2009), complete with a semi-comedic police interrogation and on-camera text, and Radu Jude’s Aferim!, a gypsy, Eastern-European Western set in the 1830s; Aferim! feels like nothing so much as a mix of Django Unchained (2012) and Hard to be a God (2013). Further south, Greece witnessed two internationally significant new releases with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, a very smart allegorical consideration of male competition, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language The Lobster, an eccentric and engaging sci-fi take on romantic companionship headlined by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. Together, Tsangari and Lanthimos have created a very distinctive new idiom for the troubled Mediterranean nation.
Italy claimed one of the year’s most idiosyncratic and moving (fantastical) fiction-documentary hybrids in Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful, talk about troubled, as well as Cahiers du Cinéma favorite Mia Madre, signature Nanni Moretti with an on-screen female filmmaker in the director’s role. Spain saw the return of In the City of Sylvia’s (2007) José Luis Guerín with The Academy of Muses, one of the year’s better ‘homemade’ productions, while heavy-hitter Portugal produced Miguel Gomes’s three-part, seven-hour Arabian Nights, a favorite of many critics I greatly respect that I should admit, nonetheless, was more to others’ liking than it was to my own, much as I fell for the filmmaker’s Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu.
Moving into the English-speaking world, the United Kingdom produced two of the year’s better Anglophone features in Sunset Song (pictured) and 45 Years. The former, directed by the spiritually pre-rock & roll Terence Davies, is sensitive and precise melodramatic tragedy, in the manner of Kenji Mizoguchi, set in World War I-era Scotland; while the latter, Andrew Haigh’s subtle and affecting 45 Years, opening at OKCMOA in February, sports two of the year’s finest performances – and a luridly melodramatic premise that doesn’t read that way. Britain also produced a very fine musical documentary biopic in Asif Kapadia’s Amy, culled from an incredible home-movie archive, and a creditable first feature in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, featuring the fast-rising Swede Alicia Vikander.
Across the North Atlantic, by way of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Winnipeg-based auteur Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson) was one of the most luridly and absurdly funny pieces of art cinema produced anywhere in 2015, replete with bathing instructional videos, banana-narrators, and bladder-slapping contests. Whereas in Australia, George Miller made one of the year’s consensus critical favorites, the invigorating Mad Max: Fury Road – though it would also seem, on some level, that its ubiquity in year-end polling is more a sign of the year’s English-language weakness than it is the film’s strength.
Beyond Knight of Cups, which again hasn’t even opened in the United States as of this writing, my own personal Hollywood favorites favored the disreputable and the unloved, whether it was Michael Mann’s January box-office bomb Blackhat, which was easily the year’s best-looking American film; Robert Zemeckis’s fall flop, The Walk, featuring 2015’s most immersive 3-D – and a perverse narrative where we root for our heroes to infiltrate the World Trade Center, under the noses of law-enforcement; or Gregory Jacobs’s Magic Mike XXL, a preposterously fun male-stripper-themed road movie built like a Vincente Minnelli musical, with the year’s best (gas station-set) set-piece.
Paul Feig made perhaps the funniest mainstream comedy in 2015 with Spy, featuring an awards-worthy Melissa McCarthy, while Pixar earned the kudos and box office receipts it deserved with Pete Docter’s Inside Out, one of the studio’s best in years. From Sundance, Andrew Bujalski’s Results and Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America were better than average works by their well-established directors; while Sean Baker’s Tangerine captured the spirit of twenty-fifteen more than just about any other film. Finally, in the realm of non-fiction, Frederick Wiseman once again produced the year’s best American documentary with In Jackson Heights, a portrait and time-capsule of a disappearing corner of New York City (that nonetheless may just signal the country’s future). In Jackson Heights opens at the Museum, January 2, 2016.
As for most of the other non-English language films described above, rest assured that Museum Films will be presenting many, if not the majority to Oklahoma City audiences over the coming months. If history proves any guide, they will provide the core of the best commercial releases of the coming year. As for the exclusions of Carol, The Hateful Eight, and even the foreign-language Son of Saul from my survey (not that all would be sure-things in my annual appreciation), I just haven’t had the opportunity to screen any of these yet. Indeed, as films that fall outside of the Museum’s scope, as a matter of the exigencies and politics of distribution, I will be seeing these with the rest of you, later this year or early next. As for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which you may or may not know opened earlier this week – and which, once again, I have not seen – I will leave it to you to determine how much or little a role it plays in cinema’s on-going development as an art.
For now, let me leave you with my top ten international premieres of 2015, in approximate order of preference. This list, as always, is subject to revision, and is limited, if you want to call it that, by my role and access as an art-cinema programmer and curator:
- The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan; pictured)*
- Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
- Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, United States)
- Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)*
- No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
- Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
- My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
- The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
- Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
- Sunset Song (Terence Davies, United Kingdom)
* Denotes a film that premiered commercially in the United States in 2015.