Sunday, January 10, 2016

Ten Best Films of 2015

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/
The first new feature in eight years by one of the medium's greatest artists, and one 2015's most outstanding achievements, The Assassin masterfully pursues its super-cinematic fetish to the point of conceptual exhaustion: rippling silks, a flickering candle, a fluttering branch. Hou returns to cinema's first source of spectacle in this lavishly detailed portrait of invisible presence.

2. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/United Kingdom/France/Germany/Malaysia/South Korea/Mexico/United States/Norway)
An open and digressive masterpiece from the best director of his (post-Hou) generation, myth and remembrance find their place in a hospital ward populated by sleeping soldiers. Thai military rule intervenes accordingly, along with Apichatpong films past, in this latest expansion of the filmmaker's sprawling multiverse.

3.Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, United States)
Fragmented, lyrical and impressionistic to the most extreme of degrees, the suddenly prolific Malick's Pilgrim's Progress riff possess the same "similitude of a dream" as Bunyan's high-Protestant 17th c. original. To the Wonder looks less and less like a divertissement seen in light of this portrait of a Hollywood star's soul.

4. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
No less than the third (and certainly the most unambiguously entertaining) feature made by Panahi since receiving his 20-year ban from filmmaking, Taxi asserts the director's latest alibi in his car's dashboard security device. Talk of interrogators and its final-act theft also insure that this is the director's most overtly political film too. 

5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
A return to the twice-told format that defined his pre-2008 body of work (cf. Virgin Stripped Bare by His Bachelors), Hong's 17th feature provides just enough variation to radically disassemble story from plot. A film about how stories can be told differently, Right Now, Wrong Then is filmmaking as the most potent form of film criticism.   

6. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France)
2015 marked the tragic passing of Akerman, but not before the feminist film icon produced the year's most moving piece of essay cinema. No Home Movie also represented a seismic shift in our understanding of the director's art, a corpus, because of this latest, that now demands to be seen in reference to the filmmaker's mother. 

7. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania/France)
The precisely structured latest from one of Romania's smartest auteurs, The Treasure plays off its Robin Hood intertext to produce a real-world fairy tail that continually subverts the expectations created by its art-cinema framework. A return to the thematic and stylistic territory -- not to mention the pleasures -- of the director's best, Police, Adjective.

8. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
Staged on a rented private vessel in the Aegean Sea, Chevalier cunningly exposes the absurdities of male competition in its presentation of a game in which the participants are judged by each other in everything they do. The Attenberg director's latest is a new peak for Greece's exceedingly allegorical nascent art-cinema idiom.

9. Tharlo (Pema Tseden, China)
In Tharlo, leading Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden often prefers to shoot reflective surfaces. He visualizes -- and dramatizes -- conflicts between the old ways of life and new in practically every frame, which likewise register the film’s small-town and mountainous rural locales in lustrous black-and-white. A work about the contested arrival of modernity.

10. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan, China)
In the midst of the film’s dreamlike narrative, first-time filmmaker Bi Gan pulls off a 40-minute tour-de-force in the form of a single, unbroken take that follows, departs from, and then rejoins the film’s lead as he sets off on an extended journey by foot. This is a work of extraordinary formal audacity in the unmistakable manner of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ten Best Films' 2015 Mini-Poll

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
76 points (AZ, KW, MS, RS, SB)
2. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
71 points (LB, MA, ML, RS)
3. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
58 points (MA, ML, RS)
4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
54 points (KW, MA, RS)
5. Carol (Todd Haynes)
49 points (KW, MA, RS)
5. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
49 points (AZ, KW, MS, SB)
7. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
46 points (AZ, LB, MS)
7. Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
46 points (LB, MA, ML)
9. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
42 points (KW, MS, SB)
10. Out 1: Noli me Tangere (Jacques Rivette, 1971)
37 points (LB, MA)

Also receiving multiple votesInside Out (Pete Docter) - 36 points (MS, SB), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) - 33 points (MS, SB), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) - 32 points (AZ, SB), Love (Gaspar Noé) - 30 points (AZ, ML)Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014) - 29 points (KW, LB), Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014) - 29 points (LB, MA)Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo) - 28 points (MA, RS)Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs) - 27 points (LB, RS)The Big Short (Adam McKay) - 26 points (KW, SB), The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson) - 26 points (LB, ML)Office (Johnnie To) - 25 points (ML, RS)

Eights years into the Ten Best Films' Mini-Poll, and we're down to all but the die-hards now, to eight NYU Cinema Studies masters' program alumni (circa 2005) who have managed, against all odds, to participate in every survey. What we lack for in numbers at this point, however, we seem to be making up for in greater consensus -- at least in this year of Mad Max and The Assassin and Carol, to name but three worthy (if predictable) favorites. In fact, in comparison to last year, when three or more voters agreed on a mere five films, this year we came together on nine of our top ten, and overall, there were two or more votes for 20 films. Like I said, a year of consensus.

Except when it comes to our choices for best film, where only one film was selected by more than one voter (Cemetery of Splendour, by Mike Lyon and R. Emmet Sweeney). Other choices included: The Assassin, Carol, Inside Out, It Follows, Li'l Quinquin (which received an additional first place vote last year), and Lost and Beautiful -- respectable choices all, if I do say so myself. Speaking of Cemetery of Splendour, it was, along with the 44 year-old Out 1, one of the two films selected as top three by each of their two or more voters. Interestingly, our winner Mad Max: Fury Road, finished no higher than third on any of this year's ballots, and averaged roughly a sixth place finish. Even more notable for the lack of passion it generated was Ex Machina, which placed on an impressive four ballots, but never higher than seventh on any one.       

With that, I would encourage the poll's readers to click on the ballots below, with the caveat that mine links to my 2015 world premiere list and not to my (poll-fixing) ballot; for those interested in the choices I made to manipulate this year's tabulations, they were: The Assassin, Out 1, Cemetery of Splendour, Knight of Cups, Phoenix, Taxi, Jauja, No Home Movie, Right Now, Wrong Then, and Carol. All films I saw for the first time since last year's poll.

Here's to another great year of film-viewing, and to the hopes that we will be doing this once again a year from now. At the very least we need to hit double-digits for the world's least prominent film poll, right?

Contributors: Alberto Zambenedetti (AZ), Lisa K. Broad (LB), Karen Wang (KW), Michael J. Anderson (MA), Mike Lyon (ML), Matt Singer (MS), R. Emmet Sweeney (RS), Soren Bailey (SB)

2015: Soren Bailey

1. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
2. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
3. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
4. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
5. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
7. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
8. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
9. Spectre (Sam Mendes)
10. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Soren Bailey is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker with a M. A. in Cinema Studies from New York University.