best of 2015

Top 20 Films of 2015: 1-10


10. EX_MACHINA, UK, Alex Garland
Part sci-fi, part horror but wholly social commentary. At least to me. EX_MACHINA is a modern day Frankenstein story. Alicia Vikander, who stars in this as the android Ava is having a banner year with 6 film releases and 2 Golden Globe nominations under her belt. She has shared some interesting reactions and interpretations to the film, that trans women have come up to her and told her they found Ava finding her femininity moving and relatable. For me as a young feminist, Ava's rebellion against her misogynistic creator and 'father' and her 'Nice Guy' love interest is powerful, vicious, and timely. The reaction to the final act and Ava's actions differ wildly. Many men I've spoken to loathed the ending, thinking Ava was an Evil Female who punished the poor Nice Guy. But women understand that both men were trying to cage Ava, just in different types of prisons. If everything about this film fails to engage you though, at least there's that dance sequence with Oscar Isaac


9. Our Little Sister, Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda
Our Little Sister or Umimachi Diary is probably not going to be a top tier Koreeda film, but even a lighter Koreeda film is still wonderful because Koreeda is a filmmaker that draws from the greats like Ozu and Mizoguchi and creates deeply humanist stories. Even more important to me personally, is the writing of women and the focus on four sisters and their relationships with each other and personal growth in this story. Several times in the film, you make the assumption that the film will follow conventional storytelling and explore the romantic relationships of the sisters, but it never does, choosing to keep romantic relationships at the backgrond and keeping the sister relationships as the focal point. This is a lovely little film that will make you feel warm inside, and yet, also explores the difficult themes of infidelity, abandonment (Koreeda has a fascination with abandoned children), death and of course, womanhood. 


8. Mustang, Turkey/France, Deniz Gamze Ergüven
The debut feature film of Turkish born, French raised director Deniz Erguven, Mustang follows the lives of five orphaned sisters who are raised by their conservative grandmother and misogynistic uncle in a tiny village near the Black Sea. Parallels can be easily drawn with Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, another tale of five sisters trapped in their own home , but the five sisters in Mustang are fighting, in some ways, a much harder fight. They have the spirit and will to live, but their grandmother and uncle are determined to clip their wings by marrying them off . The youngest sister, Lale, in particular, is determined to free herself by finding her way to Istanbul. Director Deniz shows a sure and confident hand in executing this story, and never shys away from any difficult subject matter while still maintaining a determined and hopeful spirit. 


7. Iris, USA, Albert Maysles 
A documentary about the style icon, interior designer and businesswoman Iris Apfel. Apfel has had a rich, exciting and amazing life, most of which has been with her husband of 67 years Carl Apfel. She's traveled the world, designed and restored the interiors of every great old house in USA including several administrations of the White House. But it was only until the last decade that she became a public personality after the Metropolitan Museum Costume Intitute in New York staged an exhibition of her collection of her costume jewelry and clothes that drew record crowds. People talk about individuality and uniqueness, but Iris is truly the definition of what those words mean. Iris's singular wardrobe, style and approach to life, her enthusiasm even at the age of 94 shows a joy and a life truly lived. 


6. Phoenix, Germany, Christian Petzold 
Phoenix is the kind of film you rarely see anymore. A true European arthouse noir psychodrama with old-school storytelling sensibilities but modern characters and themes explored, the film calls to mind the great film noir directors Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang. Lang and Preminger's noirs are some of the best in film history because they understood that t human mind was the darkest place they could go. Similarly, Petzold understands that, and his heroine Nelly Lenz goes to some dark places as she wars with whether or not her husband Johnny was complicit in her capture by the Nazis and allows him to mold her into her former self, Vertigo-style. Petzold also once again shows his signature flair in creating extraordinary tension, as well as gaining yet another successful, nuanced and complex performance with his frequent collaborator Nina Hoss, who is extraordinary as the conflicted heroine Nelly.

5. Carol, USA, Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes has been one of the great underrated American directors who, in his entire career, has made nothing but films that aim to tell stories about human relationships and passions. He has a particular affinity with the American housewife as well, from Julianne Moore in Safe and his Douglas Sirk homage and masterpiece Far From Heaven, Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce, and now Cate Blanchett in Carol. Somehow, I think, his films have always been overlooked because of how female they are, the same way Douglas Sirk's was. But finally critics have come to their senses and given Haynes his due with the very beautiful Carol. Ed Lachman does career best work in his photography, shot on 16mm film to achieve the graniness of photography from the 50s. This is a film meant to be seen in a cinema. That kind of experience cannot be shortchanged. I can't say that about many films. And that has influenced my choice and feelings of my Top 5 Films for this year.

Many of the photographers that inspired the look of the film were female photographers from the 50s, and this choice again shows how much Todd Haynes wanted to show the film from a female perspective. Everything about the film is impeccable, from the set and production design, costume design to Carter Burwell's delicate score.

But of course, the love story between these two extremely normal characters is the true star of the film. Like any good story about people, there is a sense of self-discovery in the film, particularly with Therese, who starts the story off as a slightly aimless young woman who discovers what she wants in life and in love in the course of the film. Carol, who is older, has already made many of those discoveries, but in the course of falling in love also comes to make difficult decisions about who she is and how she wants to live. The story to me is about choices, and I loved how much it is highlighted how Therese and Carol are making active choices: about who they are, about falling in love with each other, and what they want in life. Because their relationship was not a whirlwind, the way movies love to portray romance--- at least to me--- their love was a series of choices. That they chose each other. P.S. The love scene in Carol also makes a case for sex scenes on film. That love scene was quite simply the most beautiful, emotional and human sex scene I have ever seen on screen.

4. Crimson Peak, USA, Guillermo Del Toro
Crimson Peak, flaws and all, was the single most enjoyable and insanely bananas and beautiful film that pushed all the right buttons for me. I loved it so much that I saw it 3 times in cinemas. Guillermo Del Toro has very specific tastes and niches that are exactly my own. From The Devil's Backbone, to Pan's Labyrinth to Pacific Rim, he shows immense love and passion for telling human stories in fantastical settings. He loves dark, macabre but beautiful things, and Victorian Gothic Romance is something he gravitates towards, naturally.

Crimson Peak is very much a celebration of all the Gothic films that came before it like Rebecca and Jane Eyre. But it is also very much its own creature, with an extremely modern heroine and villainess. At its heart, Gothic Romance is about a woman confronting the dark side of herself, the Byronic hero serving as a metaphor for the darkness in her, as well as the toll of history, with the crumbling Gothic houses serving as a metaphor for the death of the old world. Del Toro has assembled the perfect trio to tell such a story, with Mia Wasikowska reliably leading as the bookish heroine Edith who has more courage in her than she knew. Tom Hiddleston is the Byronic hero Thomas, capable of treachery, but also of love. He ultimately takes a backseat to his sister, Lucille, played by Jessica Chastain, who is some sort of witch because she knows exactly when to camp up her performance while maintaining so much nuance to her performance, that her insane, serial killing character of Lucille is the character you feel for the most. 

Of course, the film itself looks stunning. Del Toro has bathed the film in the most sumptuous and rich color palette of cold blues and rich golds. The attention to every detail in Allerdale Hall from its worn down murals to the clay seeping out from the walls, the incredible costume design is all part of the creation of this bleeding, breathing, strange and extraordinary creature that is Crimson Peak.

3. The Witch, USA, Robert Eggers
Director Robert Eggers has said that he was always disappointed that The Salem Witch Trials turned out to have no witches at all. I get him. He gets it. So he wrote and made The Witch, set in mid 17th century New England that precedes the Salem Witch Trials. Egger's film is austere in all things: the muted color palette, the strict compositions that call to mind Flemish paintings, the adherence to capturing every single facet of the setting and era, right down to the old language. The language is a barrier that the audience has to cross, but it is crucial to putting the audience and the story right in its setting completely.

The Witch walks the line between uneasy ambiguity of psychological horror and full-blooded (excuse the pun) supernatural horror. For some reason, it really works, probably due to the fact that Eggers' is such a disciplined filmmaker that every scare, psychological or visceral, is perfectly calibrated. The audience I saw this with did not enjoy the trips down the more traditional horror paths, but I believe that the story built up enough psychological paranoia and religious hysteria that it has earned its reveal. 

The Witch is many things, including the oppressive nature of Christianity (or religion in general) and how that would be the foundation for the madness that would lead to the Salem Witch Trials, but it is also the story of Thomasina, the oldest child at the center of this horror plagued family. In a wry way, it can be argued that this is the story of Thomasina's coming of age. It is her strange journey of her own loss of innocence and confrontation of her own darkness. The film goes from strength to strength in all the themes it deals with, but Thomasina's journey is the one that I relate to the most, and the haunting last scene that is all about her is every bit rewarding and earned as a viewer that chooses to plunge with her into the darkness. 

2. The Assassin, Taiwan, Hou Hsiao Hsien
I've written about The Assassin before, but I will try again to add on to my explanation as to what is so beguiling about this film. The Assassin is about women. It is of course focused on one woman, Nie Yinniang, our titular assassin. It is times like this where I am glad for my Chinese background because the fact that the Chinese title is her name lends so much in my understanding of the film, the same way it mattered that the title of Carol was not The Price of Salt. The same way the Chinese translation of Wong Kar Wai's martial arts film The Grandmaster was "a grandmaster of the generation", and explored all the different possible "grandmasters", the way that the English translation was never able to capture. Names matter. 

Director Hou plays with aspect ratios. I believed and interpreted the varying aspect ratios as Yinniang's limited worldview. It is first 1:1 in black and white, and when she is unable to carry out her mission of killing a corrupt official because of his child, it turns into color, and widens into 1:85:1 aspect ratio. The only instance where the film is in the 16:9 high definition aspect ratio is when the folktale of the bluebird is being told because it is a story in a story. The folktale serves as a metaphor for every one of the women in the film. They are limited by the role in society, but Yinniang shows an ability to fly beyond her cage and her own unstable upbringing. She chooses not to take lives even though she she has been nurtured and trained all her life to do so. In her confusing, tumultuous, violent life, where she has been isolated and shown little love, she has somehow emerged to show the most humanity and kindness. Director Hou therefore imbues a martial arts film with the hard questions that are never usually asked about what it means to take a life. 

Whispery conversations take place between curtains, or on top of mountains with floating clouds. This is an intensely ravishing film, thanks to the stunning work of DOP Mark Lee Ping Bing. The emphasis of the beauty of nature, as well as the simplicity of the mundane are recurring themes in director Hou's work but never more so in The Assassin. This is a film that deserves to be seen over and over again on the big screen. 

1. Brooklyn, UK/Ireland, John Crowley
Critics agree that Brooklyn is a lovely film, but I can feel that it would be considered a 'soft' story and I can't help but feel that there is a sliver of sexism to that because this is a young woman's story, and is intensely populated with women. First of all, to get it out of the way, Brooklyn is beautifully shot and gives both Irleand and Brooklyn distinct personalities. Saoirse Ronan is in nearly every frame of this movie, and her performance comes off as effortless even though Ronan will tell you herself in many interviews that it was the hardest role she had ever played. It is well paced, with a sparkling, funny script by Nick Hornby, who has carved himself out a niche for adapting women's stories for screen with great success.

Why I loved Brooklyn was partly because it was a story about women. It focuses on Ellis, our protagonist of course, but we meet lots of women of all ages along the way. There's Ellis's mother and sister, there's Mrs Kehoe, the middle aged lady who mothers all the young ladies who live in her boarding house. There's all the young ladies in the house  and there's Miss Fortini, Ellis's manager at the department store. And they're all intimidating to Ellis at first, because they are new people in this new foreign land she has just arrived in, but as she opens herself up to people, they in turn help her. 

Brooklyn is by no means sentimental in my opinion. It confronts that feeling of displacement, of being trapped in limbo of your identity with a head-on honesty. It is also one of the first films to actually discuss such a displacement. Stories about homesickness and immigration exist, but no one actually talks about the transition period where you fit into neither country, where you don't belong in your homeland, nor your new country, and how you just have to fake it till you make it. 

Brooklyn's place as my favorite film of 2015 is mostly personal and I have written about it. The story in Brooklyn is beautiful and resonates deeply with me, this constant feeling of displacement and treading water and trying to find your place. I never had childhood friends because I kept switching schools. My parents split up when I was 15. To me impermanence was a way of life and I didn't really know how to feel about that because while I always felt that I had made the right decision switching places, because I was at another level of my personal growth, it was also sad to leave things and especially people behind. Brooklyn showed me that it was ok to feel this way, that you can feel all these confusing emotions at once. One of my favorite films 2046 has a line that goes "love is all a matter of timing.". This was referring to romantic love (and this line will have resonance in the romantic entanglements of Ellis as she makes her choice between two men) but it can also refer to Brooklyn's place in my heart. It came at just at the right time for me when I was pondering on my place in the world, in limbo between my home country of Singapore and my new place in Melbourne. "Home is home," as the film says. and home is wherever you make it out to be. 


Top 20 Films of 2015: 11-20

I previously posted the introduction to my Top Films of 2015 list that discussed the pattern of my film watching and favorites this year. Now here are the films that made it into my Top 20! As usual, horror, complex and magical animation, and stories about girls and women pervade. 

20. The Lobster, various, Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English language debut with a deeply absurdist black comedy. Featuring an ensemble cast with the likes of Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman and Ben Whishaw, this extremely talented cast deliverstheir most deadpan performances with hilarious results. This is a story that takes a swing at the absurdity of society's expectations towards romantic relationships, couples AND singles culture. 

19. Girlhood, France, Céline Sciamma
Director Sciamma has built up a steady filmography of female oriented coming of age films. Girlhood is probably her boldest and brightest in this tale of what it means to be a young woman of color in the Paris banlieue. Girlhood follows Marieme, a 16 year old who lacks educational prospects and is horrified at the thought of going into 'vocational training'. Instead, to combat her aimlessness, she joins a gang of girls led by the loud, confident Lady. There is an absolutely wonderful scene where the girls lip synch and dance to Rihanna's 'Diamond' and for a moment they are allowed to run away from the stark natures of their reality. It's not all 'girl power' in this exploration of female friendship as Sciamma is not afraid to explore the darker more complex side of these girls' lives in relation to sexuality, race, gender and class. 

18. It Follows, USA, David Robert Mitchell
I don't believe that horror need to shock and traumatize. What a good horror film needs is to haunt, unnerve and get under your skin, to tap into an inner fear. It Follows does that. The haunting presence that dogs protagonist Jay and her friends is persistent, malignant and not at once recognizable. For a horror film, the ghost-like, abandoned nature of Detroit has never been better used as a setting and the final showdown where Jay and her friends take on the presence Home Alone style in a deserted pool is insanely fun and terrifying all at once. 

17. When Marnie Was There, Japan, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
The supposed final film from Studio Ghibli as they go into hiatus, When Marnie Was There is a fitting, quiet but luminous addition to the studio's legendary oeuvre. When Marnie Was There is a story about female friendship, self discovery. It follows the story of Anna, a shy and tomboyish girl with no friends. She suffers from asthma and also happens to be adopted, which contributes to her lack of self-esteem. Sent to the countryside with a distant relative for her health, she comes across a grand old mansion and a mysterious blonde girl Marnie, who she befriends and confides in. Studio Ghibli is always at its best when telling the stories of its young female heroines, and this particular one is a timely tale of female friendship that has been so lacking in the cinematic landscape. 

16. Song of the Sea, Ireland, Tomm Moore
Song of the Sea is the follow up to Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells. Again, Moore roots his story in Irish folklore, with enchanting results. Song of the Sea follows Ben and Saoirse, siblings who get caught up in the magical realm of selkies, faeries and giants. The wondrous quality of the story calls to mind Studio Ghibli's best in films like Ponyo and Spirited Away, but the animation style and its Irish roots are very distinctly Tomm Moore and his artistic director Adrien Merigeau's. With this film, Moore secures his spot as a force to be reckoned with in the animation world, on par with the greats like Laika Studios and Studio Ghibli. 

15. Cinderella, UK, Kenneth Branagh
People who know me know I adore fairy tales, but I have never been particularly interested in Cinderella. So how is it that the live action big studio film from Disney of Cinderella so captured my heart? It would be the luminous, star-making portrayal of the heroine Ella by Lily James, and the writing of script that breathes new life into somewhat archaic tropes. Cinderella's passivity in many of her incarnations is what has so frustrated me about the story. But Disney's live action retelling instead shows us WHY Ella chooses to put up with her mistreatment and abuse, with the brief but strong backstory of Ella's deep and loving relationship with her parents'. Lily James imbues Ella with so much spirit that she never feels passive. What is made clear in this story is that Ella is an abuse survivor. Kenneth Branagh, as a director, lends his eye for old-fashioned opulence and theatrics to bring about the most eye popping ballroom sequence. Special mention must also be given to Cate Blanchett's scenery-chewing performance as Ella's cruel stepmother. But really, the star of the film is the humanity found in Lily James's Ella, and the film never lets you forget that. P.S. John Waters agrees Cinderella is fucking great. 


14. Spy, USA, Paul Feig
I never really got on board with Bridesmaids and was only somewhat entertained by The Heat. But Spy knocked it out of the park for me, with its amazing ensemble cast and lead performance from its star Melissa McCarthy. Jude Law plays a spoof of a James Bond type spy for the CIA with a terrible American accent that could either be a brilliant coincidence or a directorial choice. The highly underrated Rose Byrne plays an Eastern European crime heiress with a towering hairdo that would make Marie Antoinette proud (Rose Byrne also happened to be in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette). Jason Statham plays a paranoid and overly intense spy straight, with amazing results. Everyone is fantastic, but it is really McCarthy's electric chemistry with all of her supporting players that makes this film delight. 

13. 45 Years, UK, Andrew Haigh
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give the performances of their careers with this subtle and unsettling relationship drama. Andrew Haigh, writer and director of the quiet but deeply felt Weekend, once again proves his keen eye for the details and frissions in a relationship, even one as long as Kate and Geoff's of 45 Years. Doubt is the main theme of this piece, and Haigh shows how when the Pandora's Box of secrets is open, the hunt for possible secrets and doubts consumes Kate's thoughts after an event from 50 years ago comes to haunt the couple. 


12. Macbeth, UK/France/USA, Justin Kurzel
Justin Kurzel's interpretation of Macbeth is not for the Shakespeare purists. The most immortal and crucial pieces of dialogue are kept, but many others excised. There has never been an interpretation as brutal or bleak or so blood soaked as this one. Kurzel sees Macbeth's story as one of PTSD, and also of the Macbeths shared grief and trauma of loss and the inability to reconcile and face that dark chasm that drives the bloody deeds of the couple. Fassbender and Cotillard are knockouts in their roles as the doomed couple. Cotillard is particularly riveting in her opening monologue. DOP Adam Arkapaw, the brilliant rising talent from Australia who also lensed Top of the Lake, does some breath-taking work in this, capturing the beautiful but unforgiving landscape of the Scottish highlands. 


11. Far From the Madding Crowd, UK, Thomas Vinterberg
Perhaps not as gritty and raw as what we're used to with Thomas Vinterberg's work, he nevertheless lends a clean and sure hand in this fresh update of the Thomas Hardy novel. Carey Mulligan is at her most charming as the headstrong and modern heroine Bathsheba Everdene, who is allowed to be her own woman, stand as an equal amongst men and make her own mistakes. Matthias Schonaerts as the stoic and ever reliable Gabriel Oak is also fantastic casting and he and Mulligan have a wonderful, easy chemistry. This is period film adapted for modern audiences and sensibilities set against the breathtaking English countryside, with characters that we can root for.