The countdown continues!
15.) Ex Machina
Screenwriter Alex Garland (Dredd, 28 Days Later) makes his directorial debut with a work of science-fiction that is quite possibly the most elegant, subversive and more meaningful of the decade (sorry Spike Jonze’s Her). Ex Machina is a riveting character study of humanity and what qualifies for personhood. Ultimately it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to dominate women, Ex Machina tells the story of men who try to engineer the ideal woman – a woman who can be controlled and manipulated but who appears to have a sense of self-awareness and agency, a woman who will never have to be forced or coerced because she will always say yes; and they’ll feel good about it because she said it with her own voice. The film uses the story of the birth of artificial intelligence as a springboard for a statement about the fallacy in attempting to engineer agency in your personal favor. Alicia Vikander gives us a breakthrough performance of Ava, a beautiful and enigmatic A.I. who shows us that like all people, when given the power to choose: no one’s life or body belongs to another.
Filmmaker Céline Sciamma is probably the queen of coming-of-dramas. Water Lilies about a young woman’s emerging sexuality, Tomboy was about exploring the “coming out” of a young transgender boy coming to terms with how he identifies with himself despite being born female. Girlhood presents the last of what Sciamma refers to as her trilogy and it follows a group of working class African-French teenage girls in Paris with increasingly cloudy and elusive futures as they fight to find their place in the world. The film discusses and challenges conceptions of race, gender and class but what makes the movie special was that through the specificity of its tale it was able to reach universality. These characters may come from a different walk of life than is normally portrayed on film but every plot beat about partying, getting into fistfights and trouble, young love and karaoke would feel right at home in an American teen dramedy with a cast of Abercrombie models. It is Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times and Doug Liman’s Go by way of François Truffaut’s 400 Blows but with young black Parisian women, but chances are you will definitely see yourself in one of these characters.
Along with movies like Room, Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road, a recurring theme in 2015 films was the idea of patriarchy-as-prison. By turning a home into a literal jail, Mustang plays up this metaphor with a coming-of-age story where the blossoming youth to adulthood transition of womanhood is kept suppressed by backward tradition. The film is partially inspired by Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with this Turkish import following five sisters whose brief, harmless flirtation with a few boys after their last day of High School results in their increased repression at the hands of a traditionalist uncle. Their small acts of desperate rebellion are righteously enthralling, as director Deniz Gamze Ergüven paints a portrait about the clash of modern and traditional, a battle fought between the generations. Ultimately, it’s not so much about the destruction of the lessons learned from tradition so much as using them as a springboard to evolve and create new ones.
Spotlight reminds us why we need journalists and what journalism should be about. Re-enacting the story of when The Boston Globe’s unearthed the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, Tom McCarthy’s film avoids indulging manipulative cinematic tendencies to allow viewers fill in the dramatic blanks themselves. Guiding us through this story are lived-in performances that are withheld even when they’re at their most “dramatic.” More than the precise filmmaking on display what makes Spotlight special is that it is about faith in two institutions: religion and journalism and the need for both to be committed to the people they serve. The latter especially comes down hard on the necessity of journalistic investigation where the deviating from the facts in order to portray a more accurate truth is inexcusable and that institutions must be held accountable not only for their actions but for their complicity via inaction. In an era where the media cycle focuses on sensationalism and religious groups work towards changing their image, that lesson of accountability is perhaps the most valuable part of Spotlight.
11.) The Assassin
Quite possibly the most gorgeous movie of the year, perhaps decade, The Assassin, which won Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien a Best Director award at Cannes, which many thought was the main contender for the festival’s big prize, the Palme d’Or. Using the familiarity of the wuxia (or “martial hero”) genre as a frame, Hou Hsiao-Hsien applies his famous understated & meditative work to create something unique and singular. The Assassin has all of the trappings of a martial arts movie while rarely getting around to actual martial arts and even when they do happen, the sequences are brief and staged as if the characters were more interested in actually ending the fight as opposed to entertaining spectators; ultimately it’s a movie about the choice to not fight: an IN-action movie. Shu Qi plays an assassin sent to kill her former fiancé in 9th-century China. More interested in opaquely outlined broad strokes than the formalities of intrigue and emotional struggles, the film is as immersive as it is slow moving and introspective. It’s also an exercise in aestheticism, how visual communication draws us into expressions that can’t be communicated any other way: from the draped interiors to the mist moving over a landscape in the half light, this film is like a series of confounding paintings brought to life.