You Probably Haven’t Seen the Ten Best Films of 2015

They’re obscure, they’re poorly distributed—but you can track them down. It will be worth it.

Michael Atkinson

(Mongrel International/Phi Films)

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Atkinson’s other reviews may be read here.

A stop-motion puppet animation set almost entirely in a Cincinnati hotel, where a lonely man on a business trip (David Thewlis) suffers a paranoid breakdown until he meets a lonely woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and has a one-night stand that seems, all too briefly, to change everything.

This is the lot of the dedicated film critic at year’s end: to rage against the machine of robber-baron blockbusterdom and make claims for films most readers haven’t heard about. The former can feel near-hopeless as we clutch the guide ropes in the blinding blizzard of the seventh Star Wars movie. (I can barely muster a passing interest in the seventh of anything.) The latter, however, has been made more practical by home-viewing streams such as Netflix. No matter how obscure or badly distributed a film — like my 2015 favorite, Guy Maddin’s meta-movie-orgy The Forbidden Room—they all are, or will be, reasonably accessible. You just need to know what to look for.

Maddin, the film-crazed mad scientist of Winnipeg, has been crafting his ferociously odd, hilarious, self-consciously retro fantasias for 30 years, evoking ancient film genres and defunct cinematic modes in outrageously unpredictable ways. The Forbidden Room is something like a magnum opus — a boiling mélange of stories of doomed submarines, lumberjack gangs, jungle vampires, volcano worshippers, and endlessly on. It is, for cinephiles, a Dionysian feast of excess.

Which pits it aesthetically against my numbers two and three, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe and Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s The Assassin, both remarkable for their subtraction, distance and rigor. Some viewers may prefer one extreme or the other; I bliss out on both. The Tribe, a Ukrainian drama about a nightmarish teen boarding school for the deaf, does not subtitle its signing and is constructed out of only 34 shots. The Assassin, a serene, secretive and visually ravishing martial arts saga, doesn’t dally with close-ups either, and tells its heartbreaking story out of the corner of your eye, with action scenes so fast and elusive you need to watch them twice.

Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is another kind of experiment — a stop-motion puppet animation set almost entirely in a Cincinnati hotel, where a lonely man on a business trip (David Thewlis) suffers a paranoid breakdown until he meets a lonely woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and has a one-night stand that seems, all too briefly, to change everything. Simultaneously hilarious and achingly sad, it’s also utterly unique.

Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul may not need any more critical flares sent up about it — this suffocating, over-the-shoulder march through the horrors of Auschwitz is as riveting and unsettling as you’ve heard, and because it shows you so little, it may stand as the least compromised portrayal of the Holocaust in movie history. There’s no distance in it. By contrast, Todd Haynes’ Carol remains a studied but beautiful arm’s length from its 1950s melodrama about a wealthy woman (Cate Blanchett) and a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) embarking on a forbidden affair. You have to lean in — the social crisis throbs beneath the surface, just like it did back in the day.

Another cornucopia, Miguel Gomes’ six-hour multi-storied Arabian Nights, my number seven, may be the toughest sell — it’s not a movie so much as a passing train of ideas, larks and diversions, all sourced out of Portugal’s economic crisis. The least experimental film on my list, the Iranian family drama About Elly, by Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), has enough accessible dramatic firepower for three American films.

The late Aleksei German’s final film, Hard to Be a God, is another monster that’s hard to casually recommend — a sci-fi/medieval explosion of imagery that buries its story in a Babel of Boschian muck. But like other movies I loved this year, it’s fascinating for its rejiggering of visual narrative — what you see, what you don’t and what it means. My number ten does that, too: David Robert Mitchell’s inventive It Follows, a horror film/​absurdist exercise, in which a shapeshifting force is transferred like a virus through sex. With suspenseful 360-degree pans, Mitchell limns this carefully, as a daylight haunting you might not notice until it’s too late.

The runners-up, in order of preference: Brooklyn (John Crowley, Ireland/​Great Britain), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden), Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, U.S.), The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/​Indonesia), The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, U.S.), White God (Kornel Mundruczo, Hungary), Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/U.S.), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia).

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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