I saw only half the number of films this year that I usually do, due to the demands of my masters-degree homework assignments.

And there are still many critically acclaimed titles I plan to catch: for example —

45 Years

The Look of Silence

Mustang

The Tribe

Creed

The Hateful 8

Anomalisa

The Duke of Burgundy

James White

Crimson Peak

and While We’re Young. 

But I saw as many as I could. And if I had to sum up my 2015 moviegoing in one word? Diversity.

A few words about this list

My five favorite films of 2015 are quite a mix: Two come from the Middle East, one from some funny New Zealanders, one from a small team of independent American filmmakers, and one from a big American animation studio.  Only 11 of my top 30 are American films.

And that’s because I am less and less impressed with movies crafted for consumers, and more and more excited about artists who pursue singular visions in a fusion of visual beauty, technical excellence, poetic resonance, and the unexpected. These are evidence of human imaginations captivated by a vision and unaffected by the demands of the market.

Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy some of the committee-driven, factory-made blockbusters. Some of them (but only a few) managed, against all odds, to carry a spark of inspiration — and that includes the biggest box office success in history.

But overall, this year shows me

1) that there are more great films being made today than I can keep up with, and

2) they are to be found off the beaten path. I just need the time and resources to track them down. That means disregarding box office receipts and mainstream-media promotions as pretty much meaningless when it comes to measuring what is meaningful and worthwhile.

Fortunately, the combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vudu.com, and other streaming platforms made it easier than ever to access obscure independent and international cinema.

So now it’s time for me to publish my list of the films I found most memorable and meaningful in 2015.

This is a list of personal favorites. I cannot deny that my personal passions, questions, and experiences influence the way that films resonate with me. So these are not necessarily movies I’d whole-heartedly recommend for everyone. And they’re certainly not my prediction of which works of art will be studied in film schools fifty years from now.

For example — one of these movies (you’ll know it when you get to it) requires a particularly strong caution about scenes of severe violence. I would actually recommend that most moviegoers I know avoid it, as the benefits of its unconventional and literary dialogue may be overrun by the horrors of its incredibly gruesome finale. I include it because I found conversations between its central characters to be rich and meaningful, and its performances were outstanding. But I know plenty of people who would be very upset about the experience.

With that precaution, here is a record of the highlights of my moviegoing year.

Looking Closer’s Favorite Films of 2015

Runners Up: Trainwreck, Cop Car, ’71, Paddington, Blackhat, Bridge of Spies, Stop the Pounding Heart, Slow West. All of these were remarkable and worth seeing more than once. Challenge me, and I might be talked into moving them up onto the top 25.

Anomaly: Hard to Be a God. 

Hard_to_Be_a_God1You may recall that I was eagerly anticipating this one. And sure enough, nothing I saw this year represents a more awe-inspiring effort in world-building thanAleksey German’s epic. But this is one of those rare occasions where I have no idea how to interpret what I saw. I spent the whole movie thinking about “How did they do this?” because I could not find a thread of narrative compelling enough to draw me in. The movie shut me out of its world by giving me no way into its circus of rain, mud, blood, excrement, and poverty. If I did not know already that the film is apparently based on a science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky about humans from earth arriving at a sort of alien equivalent of  medieval squalor, I would be utterly lost. I’ve never seen anything like it. I will never forget it. But I feel there are essential things I need to learn in order to begin translating the language of this confounding, awesome, and alienating achievement.

25.

For me, the most memorable moment of screen time in 2015 was not in a movie. It wasn’t even in a proper “trailer.” It was in a “teaser.” It was the combination of a voice and then the emergence of two faces from the dark at the 1:30 mark of this clip…

When I heard Harrison Ford’s voice, and then saw Han Solo and Chewbacca step into the light, I felt a thrill of joy, followed by a tremor of panic.

I wanted this. And I did not want this.

I wanted to go back to the voices and faces and sounds of this, one of three movies that provided me the imaginative vocabulary of my childhood (the others being The Muppet Movie and that Rankin/Bass animated feature of The Hobbit)But I knew, at the same time, that this was the ploy of Disney and master nostalgist J.J. Abrams — to exploit my memories in order to win me over to their new film. “Nostalgia is death,” says Bob Dylan, and he’s right. Would this movie be a legitimate work of art that would stand on its own as a solid work of storytelling? Would it have strong characters, rich thematic exploration, and new images that demonstrated a singular vision?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, it turns out, a lot of fun for most Star Wars fans. As a celebration of nostalgia, it excels. As a work of new character development, it’s engaging, interesting, and surprisingly unimaginative. As a narrative, it is clunky at best, and often preposterous — except at its most basic, Joseph-Campbell, Power of Myth level, which is something that we get from two out of three blockbusters in this, the cinematic era that Star Wars built.

I like it. I’ve seen it twice and I’ll see it again. But it makes clear that the cord has been cut — the source imagination is no longer on the scene. Now, like it or not, there will never be more “canonical” Star Wars. It is no longer anchored by one artist’s vision. Now it’s anybody’s ballgame. Fans decided they didn’t like the artist’s vision anymore (and I agree with them), and decided to pressure him into giving it up (a move that I’m not so happy about). Each year, somebody else will get a chance to say, “Here’s what I want from Star Wars.” It will be like seeing a new Beatles cover band step and try their hand at the old hits, then hear them propose some new songs that follow in a Beatles tradition but are not, in fact, The Beatles.

As an artist, this kind of breaks my heart. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have fans storm the gates, take my story away from me, and continue it to fulfill their own wishes. But what’s done is done. Let’s see who can come up with the best variation on Lucas’s themes.

We may even find that the best Star Wars movies are still ahead of us. But if they are the best, it will be because they give us a new story, new characters, new images that stand alone. The appeal of the original trilogy lasts because, quite simply, it is a complete story — one that needs nothing added to it, one that needs no new revelations. And insofar as the new storytellers try to subvert that story or create new revelations that change our understanding of it, they will dilute its power.

I’ve never spent so much time on a film review as I did on my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakensbecause to write it was to try and bring my 7-year-old self and my adult self, the childlike dreamer and the experienced critic, into a place of peaceful agreement. It was hard work. I’m pleased with it. I hope you enjoy it.

24.

Engrossing in spite of itself, Ex Machina‘s aesthetic strengths surpassed its narrative predictability.

I like its chilly tones and twitchy sound design. I like its cinematography, its bisected compositions. I like its constant play with boundaries transparent and opaque.

I love how our Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb asks Alicia Vikander’s android Ava if she knows what “break the ice” means… because the cracked glass that contains her tells us that she thinks about little more than that.

Gleeson is well cast as this movie’s Theodore Twombly, and Vikander’s performance — like Scarlett Johansson’s in Under the Skin — is impressively controlled.

But something’s not right when a movie about a mad, control-freak Frankenstein creating a mysterious and alluring monster serves up nothing more engagingly human, surprising, and laugh-out-loud fantastic than, well, the scientist himself. Ex Machina is most alive when Oscar Isaac is onscreen: He’s unpredictable (even if his character, as written, isn’t) and seems to be dancing his way through every sequence — so that when he’s finally unleashed for a little disco, it feels exactly right. In these two hours, he’s the greatest affirmation that there is Something Special about humanity that we, in our eagerness to become gods, are hastening toward destroying.

The big disappointment of the film — and I wish this were not the case — comes when the plot suddenly starts acting like a formulaic action thriller and all of the spontaneity and surprise is squashed. As with Under the Skin, the louder and faster the movie gets, the more its subtle charms — like those long pauses and silences that actually allow audiences to start engaging and responding in uniquely human ways — dissipate. And (as with Under the Skin) the ending is far less interesting than it thinks it is, as if there were only two options: a romantic, happily-ever-after ending, and a cold, cruel, we-asked-for-it ending. Garland’s film sets us up for something truly and imaginatively surprising, and instead the movie chooses one of the only two obvious doors it can imagine and then struts on through with an air of smugness.

Worse, this is yet another film that practically cries out to be taken as a feminist statement (it does, in fact, cry out that very thing during an end-credits song by Savages) even as it grants its audience plenty of female nudity so that all those “male gazers” can feel like feminists while still getting, um, served.

Special trailers for this film heralded it as carrying the weight of prophecy about where this post-Steve-Jobs world is headed. But Ex Machina feels to me like a story about the past already. The machines, by exploiting our desires and fooling us into thinking that we are exercising Freedom when use them, have already gained command of human society’s attention, so that we look to them more than we look to (or even at) other people. They’ve just taken over quietly, so that here I am tapping my thoughts into an electronic mediator instead of going to share them in-person through an actual conversation.

So why is it on this list? Because that first hour works really, really well. And its popularity suggests that moviegoers will happily accept ambitious science fiction if it’s offered to them. Also: Oscar Isaac, whose career has become the most exciting of any actor currently working. It’s great to see a movie about the rise of the machines elevated to another level by a human being who is being so impressively human.

23.

This may be the best-acted, best-written Western I’ve ever seen. I need to devote some time to this review as well, because the material deserves it. If Richard Jenkins, Kurt Russell, or Matthew Fox have ever given better performances, direct me immediately to those films.

But before you add it to your queue, be warned: It is also the most horrifically violent Western I’ve ever seen — not in the number of killings, but in their graphic nature. This isn’t Tarantino aestheticized violence. This is humanity at its most barbaric.

Did Cormac McCarthy ghost-write this thing or what? I feel like I just did a speed-read of a revisionist version of The Searchers from the mind that gave us Blood Meridian.

Some have objected to the depiction of Native Americans in this film. I think it’s more than fair to say that the villains of the piece are not meant to represent Native Americans, but some kind of extremist death cult of the sort we see right in front of us in the world today. Men have behaved like this. Men still behave like this. And woe to the Westerners who walk into their lair without comprehending what they’re doing.

Having said all of that, I have bumped this title down the list because, as time passes, the violence in the film is what I remember. It is, frankly, too much. It overwhelms the experience, so that I find myself struggling to know how to rate the film. Its strengths are too great to be denied, but it’s last-act brutality is not something I will ever watch again.

22.

I won’t post the trailer for this one. It spoils way, way, way too much. I can’t imagine what the studio was hoping to accomplish — their trailer shatters the artists’ efforts to raise suspenseful questions in the first act.

room_ver2

If I’m reviewing Room as a work of  it as cinematic art, it’s worthy of some praise. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are completely convincing as a mother and a son imprisoned by a monster. And few films can boast of being such a nightmare for the claustrophobic. It’s an effective drama, just not particularly imaginative as cinema. Its power comes primarily from its story, which confines us to a small space for a long period of time.

But if I’m writing about about its effect on me, well — this movie hit my heart like a red-light-running bus. This is thematic territory that runs too deep for me to be able to write about it very objectively. Room gives me ways to talk about things that I care about very deeply. So I am extremely thankful for it.

And I will have a lot of writing to do before I can scratch the surface of what I mean. Suffice it to say that anybody like me — people who grew up in separatist communities, sheltered from the outside world, and taught to believe that everything we needed was inside a confining bounary — will recognize the sense of suffocation and deceit that mother and child suffer here, and will know the sense of disorientation that can come when the truth about the goodness of the off-limits world outside begins to sink in.

21.

If I say that every frame of this film is suitable for framing, that will make the movie sound overly controlled and painterly.

But being overly controlled is, in a sense, what Amour Fou — like Todd Haynes’ Carol — is about. What surprised me was just how much energy is alive in its meaningful compositions. It’s a film that turns fleeting glances into thrilling choreography.

With a face that suggests she could be Miranda Richardson’s melancholy sister, Birte Schnoeink is the center point of the film’s tension: she makes Henriette into a radiant and graceful beauty whose heart is a collapsing star, dying for disrespect and neglect. And it makes Heinrich von Kleist — a simpering, self-absorbed poet whose despairing philosophy and contempt for women are more absurd than frightening — into a villain as appallingly persistent as the monster from It Follows. You laugh at him until you realize that no one is giving Henriette a reason to resist him; in fact, the world seems inclined to steer her right into his delusion.

This focus on the systemic corruption that robs women of power, self-respect, and personhood makes this a surprising spiritual sequel to Hausner’s last film, Lourdes, a film of such similarly quiet power that I’ve been haunted by it throughout the five years since I first saw it.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a film that makes comedy and tragedy so indistinguishable.

20.

Myrrrem unhh mrrr mrrrmmm. Muh? BAAH! Nnnmaa nam munn nmmm.

Translation: Wallace and Gromit, take note — you may not be the funniest property from Aardman studios anymore.

19.

I recently posted my first impressions of this movie here.

And with enthusiasm I recommend you read Steven Greydanus’s insights on the film at Crux.

18.

Another ambitious film from one of my favorite filmmakers: writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours). And another stellar performance from “La Binoche” (as they call her in France). These two make a great team. Since director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who made Binoche his muse for his greatest film (Blue), is no longer with us (and his death was, I suspect, an inspiration for part of this film’s script), I’m just fine if Binoche and Assayas become each others’ muses for many years to come.

But the big surprise here is that Binoche and Kristen Stewart make an excellent team. Playing a frustrated personal assistant to a legendary actress, Stewart is the most sympathetic character here, and she’s excellent. For a long time, I suspected that she was far better than Twilight let on, but feared that that franchise would end up paralyzing her career. No worries. She’s on her way to greater things.

The first 90 minutes of Clouds work much better for me than the last 30, but there is a lot to consider and discuss here. Make time for post-viewing conversation. And, if you can, revisit Bergman’s Persona before you do. It matters.

17.

Best Actor 2015: Viggo Mortenson

I would love to follow this character around barren lands through a series of sequels. I found his character, his world, and his tormented heart fascinating.

But I’ve only just seen this film for the first time, and I need some time to ponder it before saying more.

16.

Greater than Boyhood? Okay, that’s too easy, even considering the proximity. And the films are two very different endeavors. But as a hook to get people to take a look at this, maybe it’ll do.

I came to care very much about Vic, the young woman who becomes increasingly confident and daring in her decisions as she tries to figure out what she must become to survive and succeed. And I found the slow deterioration of her hopes to be excruciating.

The beautiful colors and composition throughout were a source of consolation, if almost a contradiction to the trajectory of the narrative. There are clear nods to Bresson in the tender closeups of hands reaching, reaching, reaching for all this young woman needs but is denied by a society organized against her.

15.

The trailer for Tangerine spoils far too much of it. A poster will have to suffice.

tangerine_xlg

I’ve only seen West Hollywood out the window of a taxi, so I’m in no place to comment on the realism here.

But Tangerine‘s tour of that territory certainly feels like it comes from a place of experience and authenticity. Sean Baker’s frank depiction of what I have no trouble believing to be the day-to-day scenes there, within a community of transgendered sex workers and their customers.

And the film’s strength is in its willingness to meet these characters on their terms and see them as nuanced human beings instead of cliches and caricatures. The absence of any moralism is refreshing, allowing these characters depth, so that whatever we think of their choices and behavior, we are (if we’re patient) able to sense their loss, longing, and dreams, and able to interpret what translates for them as acts of respect, mercy, and love.

This neighborhood and community are about as foreign to me as anything in any other part of the world. That is, in part, because the very culture that raised me to adore a Jesus who enthusiastically embraces characters like these without prejudice… would also teach me to turn off this movie and condemn it and its characters as “gross.” Poverty, need, and addiction are easy to talk about with pious shows of compassion, but witnessing these things with an open heart in a way that might bring about change in the observer is another matter altogether.

Watching this, I saw human beings reduced to commodities as a consequence of systemic corruption and greed, people abandoned to dehumanizing conditions. But nevertheless, within that community I found characters who are ablaze with life and humor and spirit. This year at the movies, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are as vivid and memorable as any characters I’ve met. Their emotions are wildly alive in the soundtrack’s musical fireworks. And the camera’s eyes are wide open to reveal and celebrate visual beauty in unexpected places: flashing lights (whether on Christmas trees or fire engines) and flamboyant textures (like the thrumming rush of car wash brushes). The word is overused, and I’m guilty of overusing it, but I see an undeniable grace in both the background and the foreground of these contentious relationship dramas. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, the rich and the poor; and so does all kinds of other beauty. It just may be that the poor are more capable of receiving it.

I had to wonder, when the movie gives us what may be the first POV shot from the inside of a glass donut display case, if that wasn’t a subtle jab at Americans like me who consent to living insulated lives, separate from worlds like this one, staying on the other side of the glass as we drive through without stopping.

Anything I might feel or, God forbid, say in knee-jerk judgment of these characters would say far more unflattering things about me than anyone else. I’m reminded of the woman who, offended by the very idea of R-rated language, wrote to me in a fury after I praised a Martin Scorsese film and told me if she were ever to encounter anybody who spoke like those characters she would “remove herself from the situation,” and then signed her note “In His name,” thus making the contradiction in her Christianitiy plain for anyone to see.

Because let’s face it… if Jesus is anywhere on Christmas Eve, he’s hanging out at Donut Time with these characters, watching as “shit floats to the surface,” and then slowly coaxing these characters toward forgiving one another and trying to do better by one another.

I do feel obligated to say this: Proceed with caution. This film is pretty much a barrage of language and behavior (sex acts performed in cars for money) that will offend many viewers. But profanity is the least of the problems on these streets: If we care about the lives of people like this, we need thicker skins than to be bothered by their casual vocabulary. What offends me is my own instinctive reaction to recoil and withdraw from people who are demonstrating symptoms of, well… love malnourishment. In such a case, the problem is me.

P.S. I’d like to see a sequel about Karo, the young taxi driver. “Agree to disagree. I’m just learning English.” I love that guy.

14.

Noah Baumbach made two films worth seeing this year: While We’re Young, and this one. I preferred this one, and I reviewed it here.

13.

Hoss power!

Nina Hoss is one of the big screen’s best actresses right now, and America doesn’t recognize her. (Did you see A Most Wanted Man, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman? Then you’ve seen her.)

I need to review this film, but it will demand some serious time and attention. Stay tuned.

12.

I posted my first impressions of Spotlight, and a Film Forum, here.

11.

Strong performances by Paul Dano, John Cusack, and especially Elizabeth Banks (my favorite supporting-actress performance of the year) bring to life an ambitious script that made me care, for the first time ever, about the Beach Boys. But more importantly, this works as a great film about art — about the mystery of its visitation; the way inspiration comes to unlikely individuals, the way that true vision is often inconvenient and alarming and, at first, widely misunderstood; the way that genius attracts exploitation; and the way that fame can be the worst possible fate for an artist at work.

10.

It’s kind of hard to believe that this movie exists. It’s so warm-hearted, modest, good-natured, and respectful. It never once ventures to showy extremes. In spite of the fact that almost none of the clothes look lived-in, almost none of the cars look like they’ve ever driven through a puddle, almost none of the props look like they’ve been used before… the humanity of the characters really shines through.

I was getting worried that Saoirse Ronan was taking the Cate Blanchett route, and starting to take only prestige pictures with roles that shout “SERIOUS ACTING.” But the combination of Grand Budapest Hotel and Brooklyn have made me a fan. She serves her characters well without deciding that she needs to set the screen on fire. She’s learning to use more than just her amazing eyes in a performance, fulfilling the promise she showed in Atonement*. Playing Ellis in Brooklyn, she transforms from being a Remarkable Young Supporting Actress to being a Remarkable Lead Actress. And here, she creates a character I won’t soon forget.

Also: We’re told that Emory Cohen plays Tony, the likable Italian who is smitten with Ellis, but I think it’s the best performance by Young Johnny Depp in about 20 years.

There are moments when the film’s respect for the promise of America gets a little gauzy and shiny. But there is real human hurt in this story of hard decisions.

Most people need stories about how important it is to love others as you love yourself. But some of us also need stories about the second half of that equation — that to invest oneself only in duty, seeking to fulfill only the expectations of others, is to live dishonestly, and to disrespect the will and the gifts one has been given for a purpose.

Ellis is a great character. I didn’t realize, because of the pronunciation of her name, the significance of that name. But when I saw it spelled out at the end of the film, I had to smile. Of course. Perfect. What a great New York story.

9.

The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders’s documentary celebration of the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, feels like a spiritual sequel to Wings of Desire (my favorite film, by the way). Wenders takes us on journeys around the globe to bear witness to the infernos, the purgatories, and the paradises of human experience and nature. And he narrates it like a kinder, gentler Werner Herzog. His tour-guide presence is a gift.

I’m wrung out by the horrors and glories of the imagery in this film. I’ll watch it again, but only occasionally. It’s a demanding journey. If it plays in your town, you are blessed. It needs a big, big screen.

8.

Huh, Hsiao-Hsien.

My first impressions of this, the latest film from one of my favorite living directors, are all sensory impressions, and they’re so dizzyingly vivid that I can’t quite find my mind on the subject. I had expected to see something more accessible than Hou’s usual work, which made me nervous, as I love his more challenging work like Flowers of Shanghai and Cafe Lumiere. But this turned out to be the most demanding film of his that I’ve seen.

Maybe I’ll manage to track the rather elaborate plot better the second time around. But I’m already enthused by the central character’s acrobatic employment of a rare and powerful weapon: restraint. That’s not something we’re used to seeing from heroes in martial arts epics.

Not sure I’ll end up revering this one the way I do Flowers of Shanghai, and it’s not nearly as endearing as Flight of the Red Balloon. In a weird way, it reminds me most of Three Times, for how it luxuriates in colors and textures without much concern for the audience’s desire to fill in narrative gaps.

I wonder if the complexity of the narrative isn’t meant to approximate the heroine’s own confusion about forces and loyalties. The film loves what she loves, and treats combat begrudgingly, almost as a hassle, something from which the beauty of the context always distracts. Perhaps that is why, when two combatants face off in a forest, it is an entirely different aesthetic experience than it is when we see something similar in Star Wars: In The Assassin, the fight almost seems an annoying obligation, a bit of irreverence taking place in a forest that says “LOOK AT ME.”

7.

Ask me things.” My favorite line reading of the year.

This feels like the movie that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were born to make.

In this story, the only relationship in which a mutual love seems possible is in the one that society says is immoral. It’s a story about how we will reach out for tenderness wherever we can find it, and if we are denied it in the relationships that society, tradition, or religion prescribe, we will go elsewhere. But it’s not nearly as simple as that: As the film makes painfully clear, “love at first sight” is complicated by the fact that “first sight” can be deceiving, and love is always complicated when one partner has more influence and authority in the relationship than the other.

For Carol and Therese, love has as everything to do with a desire to be truly seen, truly heard, and truly understood; Carol sees in Therese a loneliness that she understands, and Therese sees in Carol an independence and confidence and sophistication that she envies. Carol will minister to Therese’s loneliness, and Therese will treat Carol as a human being of great worth beyond her societally sanctioned functions as a wife and mother. They want to lift one another up and protect one another from the forces of disrespect and subjugation that encroach from all sides. But is Carol’s sophistication genuine? Or is it an act? Will Therese really find a soul mate in Carol, or are they living in a collaborative escapist fantasy?

Whatever the case, there is something magnetic drawing these two together. It’s a mysterious attraction that is not primarily sexual, and not just about seeing in the other what we find lacking in ourselves. It’s as if they are drawn together because they sense in one another an opportunity to work something out, to come to a better understanding about questions that their words cannot express.

This film constantly reminds us of the social conventions that human beings will exploit in order to get what they want out of a situation. Often, people say “I love you” as a maneuver in a game to persuade someone else to surrender to them; but sometimes people say it humbly and with reverence, expressing that they are entranced by someone’s beauty and character, and that they want to lift that person up and serve them devotedly. Carol and Therese will have a difficult time of it, but they are each other’s only obvious source of care and close attention. If the “fruits of the Spirit” are what the Scriptures say they are — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control — then it appears to me that the Spirit is, at the very least, active in their relationship … moreso, in fact, that in Carol’s relationship with her husband.

My heart goes out to the lovers. They’re not perfect; they’re motivated, in part, by jealousy of one another’s strengths (Carol says of Therese, “Oh, I never looked like that,” and Therese is drawn to Carol’s brash confidence). I do not expect them to live happily ever after. But the world is giving them precious little hope of finding true intimacy any other way.

6.

My impressions evolved over three viewings.

First viewing:

It’s Derby Goes Bananas. Here are 15 Things I Learned Watching Fury Road:

1. This Mad Max grunts so much, says so little, that if they ever make an Old Mad Max movie he should be played by Timothy Spall. Tom Hardy’s job in this movie seems to be to stare wildly at things and do an impression of the laryngitis that I had for a whole week this year.

2. Charlize Theron could’ve, should’ve been the lead. This was a Mad Max movie that didn’t need Max at all.

3. LOUD NOISES. Apparently, this movie is an allegory about the rise and fall of ’80s heavy metal.

4. Big, real car chases and explosions and stunts are still so much more engaging on a big screen than CGI equivalents. No surprise there, really.

5. After a three-decade run, Raiders remains the Great Truck-Chase Movie. Fury Road may have more spectacular truck-chase action, but it has no third act. It’s basically two major chase scenes interrupted by occasional blips of dialogue and something that almost registers as character development.

6. “Feminist” storytelling apparently involves casting women who look like waif-ish supermodels from the pages of Vanity Fair parading something called Post-Apocalypse Chic and showering each other with garden hoses. (Oh, but they can shoot better than the men! So everything’s cool. They’re real women.)

7. Nicholas Hoult can make an impressive performance register under even heavier makeup than he wore in Warm Bodies. He can also make a character’s implausibly sudden change of heart seem pretty believable.

8. The Sandpeople still haven’t learned how to shoot up a desert transport vehicle with any kind of accuracy.

9. Visions of extravagant violence will build like a volcanic eruption in the head and the heart of a great action director who is consigned to making things like Happy Feet instead of extending his visionary franchise.

10. I miss Mel Gibson. He had twice the personality and soul and history of this Max. This movie would be better with him in the lead. There’s nothing that says he had to be a young man here. But Gibson may have written himself out of the franchise by his embarrassing behavior this last decade.

11. Immerse audiences in excessive CGI and over-plotted superhero movies, and they will respond to an impressive show of practical effects and simpler storytelling as if it’s the Movie of the Year.

12. Shave an actress’s head, have her suffer under patriarchal cruelty, have her cry… and you’ll inspire reverent comparisons to The Passion of Joan of Arc.

13. Continuity with previous installments in a series is apparently unimportant so long as you serve up the action. (How can this be the the Max of the previous movies? I haven’t seen them in 20 years, but this guy really doesn’t remind me of the the previous Max.)

14. The end of a good-guy/bad-guy conflict is not necessarily enough to serve as a conclusion. The last moments of this movie want me to feel optimistic. But I have zero confidence that the new situation is likely to last more than a few minutes.

15. You can have all of these gripes with the movie, and still have enough crazy fun to give it 3.5 stars.

Second Viewing:

Furiouser the second time. So long as I don’t search for substance in this story, it serves up enough stunt-oriented frenzied action mayhem to restore my belief in the joy of summer movies. I’d rather watch this for the third time than Jurassic World the first time.

Third:

My first time showing it to my post-apoc-genre-loving better half. And, for me, it has that rare distinction of being an action movie that goes on revealing greater aspects of its narrative and design each time. This is a far better film than I gave it credit for at first; it took me more time and attention to appreciate just how much brilliance is on display here. I’m even warming to Tom Hardy’s performance.

Every line and every action in this film efficiently conveys important ideas about societal imbalance, and about the strengths and weaknesses of various responses to it. The only hope for redemption comes in returning to the scene of a crime, in being willing to sacrifice oneself for the liberation of the oppressed. And what I took to be sexism at first is, in fact, merely a reflection of the way the villains are treating their women, not a reflection of what the film wants them to become.

I can’t wait to see the rest of this series unfold. May George Miller live long and prosper.

5.

One of Pixar’s most ambitious, imaginative, and affecting features. Which is saying something. Here’s my full review.

4.

This film so moved and inspired me that my review turned into a 25-page essay about my life, my marriage, and my faith. If this were just a list of the films that speak directly into my personal cares and questions, this would be my #1. And for a directorial debut, it is astonishing demonstration of visual poetry and restraint.

Here’s my initial review.

3.

This comedy by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi is quickly rising to join the good company of This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Best in Show — a short list of near-perfect improvisational comedies. The more time I spend with it, the more I feel a big, warm heart full of love in it. Love for the characters, and how much like us they really are.

At the end of 2015, if you ask me what movie I’m most eager to see a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, this is the one. I just love these characters.

2.

Timbuktu is the movie that the world most needs to watch and discuss this year.

I’m tempted to give it 5 stars, but I don’t like doing that after just one viewing. My enthusiasm may be compromised by the timeliness of this film. We need intimate portraits of those faithful to Islam, and those unfaithful to it. We need them right now. And here we have one. I’m grateful.

Does that mean it’s a masterpiece? This is my first experience with filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. I’m moved by the narrative, the performances, the patience, the complexity, and the beauty. But I’m not sure I see Sissako as a director who composes meaningful images so much as he is a storyteller who knows how to film a good story. I’d like to see more visual poetry on the screen. I need to think this over and read some more. I need more time.

But I’m confident in my sense of its greatness. My most reliable source of thoughtful film reviews, Steven Greydanus at Decent Films, agrees with me.

Here is what Timbuktu caused me to ponder:

When any religious law ceases to be a way of showing us that we all, falling short of righteousness, need God’s love and mercy…

When any religious law is bent to stifle the playful, free, and creative (and thus human) expression of love and worship…

When any religious law ceases to be a design that helps human beings support one another in equality and love…

When any religious law seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a few, instead of investing power in service of those who lack power…

When any religious law becomes a system that people can manipulate, exploit, and revise to their own advantage…

… then that law no longer has anything to do with God. (That is to say, with Love.) Unjust religious law, or good religious law that is manipulated and abused, divides instead of uniting, kills community instead of building it, diminishes the humanity of those in power, and makes saints out of the oppressed for what they suffer.

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In this film, the aging Muslim leader who speaks knowledgeably about the desire for peace, pleading on behalf of those who suffer injustice, clearly has roots running deep into faith. Those who oppose him, quoting the same sacred texts, are clearly self-interested and narrow-minded. They cherry-pick verses that will support their cause, disregarding the fuller interpretation of the text.

This is a very specific film about specific cultures clashing in a specific time and place. But it looks so much like what happens in any religion or tradition — even the one in which I find the meaning and richness and joys of my life. I have seen behaviors like those of the violent extremists in this film among Christians. Christianity, like Islam, is always full of professing followers of Christ who ignore anything in Christ’s teaching and example that is inconvenient for their agenda. Many are prone to seizing the law that was given for human flourishing and then bending it to exalt and protect themselves. They forget that Christ presented himself as the fullest revelation of the law — and he did that by abdicating conventional forms of power, investing himself in service of the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts.

The fruit of the Spirit, the Bible says, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where we see these things cultivating one another, Love is alive. And God is Love. In that sense, we can see God at work in the Timbuktu narrative: He is there in the love a family, in the resistance to forces that divide, in the language of those who speak truth in love, in the joy of the music, in the grace of the children.

Thus, I must object to those who just throw up their hands and say “The world would be better off without religion.” Any signs, any vocabulary, any code — “secular” or “religious” (if you believe those things are exclusive, which I don’t) — can be distorted and subverted for evil purposes. Love is the question that must be posed to any belief to test its quality; and love is the answer that this question demands.

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Timbuktu stands out among films about Islam and Islamic extremism by making everyone involved — traditionalist and extremist, irreligious and religious, loving families and arrogant tyrants — human, rather than caricatures. When an audience is persuaded of a character’s humanity, the audience will connect with that character — whatever their culture, class, or gender. We identify with humans who suffer and with humans who abuse power. Thus, in its human specificity, Timbuktu becomes more relatable, and less likely to be judged simplistically, than so many films about our age.

We all, wherever we live, whatever religion we claim or deny, find ourselves shaken by the same warring impulses: within religions, organizations, communities, families, marriages, and even within our individual hearts. Thus, I think Timbuktu is a great film for everybody — so long as it is watched attentively and discussed.

1.

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No, you won’t get a trailer for this film from me. Because the less you know before you see it, the better. Do yourself a favor. Avoid trailers. And watch About Elly uninterrupted.

about elly kite flyer

It sounds like the setup for a conventional thriller or horror movie: A man comes home and reunites with friends from his college days for a vacation in a cabin at the beach — and everything goes terribly wrong. But there’s nothing conventional about master filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 feature About Elly, which finally reached screens in the U.S. in 2015.

Set in North Iran on the edge of the Caspian Sea, the story focuses on how this high-spirited getaway goes wrong. Accompanied unexpectedly by Elly, a young nursery school teacher, the vacationers will find that Elly’s reasons for joining them have the potential to burn down their relationships, and when calamity strikes, all of them find themselves in danger.

Moviegoers should avoid any other information, as much of this film’s power comes from the way its crises unfold suddenly and unexpectedly.

Farhadi is an exemplary storyteller: Instead of prioritizing a message or a lesson, he prefers to study how his characters reveal themselves in tense situations, and he composes images and scenes in ways that expose desires, fears, and imbalances of power that represent troubles prevalent in Iranian culture. But he avoids demonizing anyone. His affection for his characters, in spite of their flaws, inspires respect in the audience — particularly for his female characters, who must constantly push back against centuries of traditional patriarchy in order to be heard and valued, and whose beauty and poise and dignity burn brightly in the company of arrogant, insensitive, and often combustible men.

While Farhadi’s masterful 2011 and 2013 dramas, A Separation and The Past, are both superior in everything from performances to screenplay to direction, About Elly has some of his most poetic flourishes and his most breathtaking sequences. There is one sequence in this film that creates tension so suddenly and effectively that I actually made literal what for most moviegoers is cliche… I was on the very edge of my seat leaning forward. By the end of the film, viewers are likely to be exhausted from suspense; from the stress of navigating a society fractured by generational, cultural, traditional, and gender differences.

American viewers in particular may also find themselves challenged by this intimate portrait of an Iranian community, one that reveals just how insufficiently they have been represented in the art and entertainment of the West.

It isn’t my favorite of Fardhadi’s films — that would be A Separation — but it is the most unforgettably engaging, artful, and impressive film I saw in a theater all year.

It’s streaming on Netflix, by the way.

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