Although we’re still getting used to the place here at Cinephile City, prestige movie season is approaching fast, leaving us no time to deliberate further before presenting you with our top 10 films of the year so far.
If you’re not fully caught up, look up yesterday’s Near Misses and Miscellany.
Each movie’s score is listed next to its title. Here’s how the scores were calculated:
- Each of the Cinephile City writers compiled their own top 10 lists, and each movie was awarded points for appearing in a certain position on a list: 10 points for first, 9 points for second, and so on down to 1 point for 10th place.
- A movie got 1 point for each list it was named on. This was to provide an additional reward to the movies that appeared on the most lists.
On to the countdown!
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (23 points)
Like the clouds of its title, Olivier Assayas’ latest is an ephemeral and ethereal experience. Thinking back on it months later, it wisps within the memory, its themes and mysteries remain a cohesive whole while its three central characters seem more delicately connected. Maria Enders, the aging actress revisiting her past in an effort to embrace her future. Valentine, a young assistant attempting to assert herself against the powerful force of her employer/mentor. Jo-Anne Ellis, a millennial starlet attempting to prove she is more than a lurid headline. Each of these stories is clearly an element of each woman, though the strong performances by, respectively, Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz ensure each character is more than the archetype their story may suggest. It is also more complex than each actress representing an analog of the role they are playing; though that tabloid temptation is a difficult one to avoid. Assayas creates conflicts that, in a more traditional film, would result in melodramatic, Oscar-clip ready, screaming competitions. But the most melodramatic scenes in Clouds of Sils Maria are scenes being rehearsed for a play. In the actual confrontations people mostly play politics, masking their true feelings and giving performances even more convincing than the ones they play for art. The true intentions of Maria, Val, and Jo-Anne are nebulous and hidden, though there are enough clues to make the mysteries more engaging than frustrating and any conclusions drawn more rewarding than certain.
- Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (24 points)
There are some people who would argue that the actions that Kumiko takes in trying to pursue the money hidden at the end of Fargo are illogical and poorly thought out. Those who do miss that the character of Kumiko, brilliantly portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi, is not meant to be entirely seen as fully stable or able to actually plan precisely how she’ll pull everything off. Instead, Kumiko is driven by a rigid world of expectations she feels she can’t live up to a sort of madness, one where a promise of any sort of escape, even one that involves traveling to a land where no one speaks your tongue, is one well worth taking. This film is great to look at, capturing the deep melancholic beauty both of the neon drenched Tokyo skyline and the seemingly endless snow drenched fields of Minnesota. Yet its heart lies within Kumiko, who captures a deep sadness in her eyes and a desperation to escape that many of us feel at one point or another, even if we don’t fly across the world trying to find buried treasure from pop culture.
- Phoenix (25 points)
Christian Petzold’s newest noir drama is gorgeous. That alone should be shocking, because the film is set amidst the rubble of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The characters live in crumbling basements and walk past mangled buildings, all part of Petzold’s plan to display the beauty of destruction, the promise contained in things which have the potential for regrowth and rebirth. Petzold’s long-time muse Nina Hoss plays a concentration camp survivor facing a similar rebuilding process, when she becomes involved with a scam that plays upon her pre-war identity. This is a metaphor for the new identity that Germany itself required after the war, of course, a metaphor which Petzold keeps as restrained as Hoss’ admirable performance. It all adds up to a virtuoso display of subtlety, as moody and melancholy as Hitchcock’s Vertigo while maintaining a voice all its own.
- The Look of Silence (29 points)
An ancient man, crippled and blind, scrambles across the floor of his own home in an attempt to flee from an invisible terror. His family attempts to comfort him, but he has forgotten who they are so their touch only increases his sense of dread. This man is the father of Adi, a middle-aged optometrist whose brother was viciously slaughtered two years before he was born, during Indonesia’s anti-Communist purge. Adi’s son attends a public school where he is taught that Communists were attempting to suppress democracy, and that their suppression was a great victory for the country. This film is Adi’s attempt to ensure that his son does not grow up in the same culture of fear that still haunts his dying father. Director Joshua Oppenheimer uses less provocative methods to tell the story of Adi’s family than in his companion film, The Act of Killing, but both films have proved equally provocative in Adi’s homeland. The importance of the film, and the genuine change it has generated within Indonesia, is almost enough to make one skeptical that it is propaganda for a good cause, but not an enduring work of actual art. What makes The Look of Silence more than “just” a commercial for much needed progress is the personal, intimate nature of the film. This film is capital-I Important; but it is also interesting, challenging, complex, beautiful and terrifying.
- Ex Machina (30 points)
A confident, artful, and intelligent directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, this sci-fi chamber drama hits all the right beats of thoughtful philosophy and tense entertainment. Provocative yet not confrontational, challenging yet accessible, this tale of a modified Turing test milks maximum suspense from deceptively straightforward conversations. Domnhall Gleeson’s audience surrogate Caleb tries to parse out the motivations of Oscar Isaac’s eccentric C.E.Bro, Nathan, while coldly probing the synthetic brain of Alicia Vikander as the android named Ava. The stylistic and heady way Garland tells the story manages to draw the audience in while taking plenty of opportunities to appropriately upend expectations the way a good science fiction movie should.
- Mistress America (32 points)
If the unfortunate incident of While We’re Young taught us anything this year, it’s that Noah Baumbach needs to collaborate with Greta Gerwig all the time. The delightful follow-up to Frances Ha, Mistress America exhibits the same mix of youthful joie de vivre and thoughtfulness in its examination of the stumbling path one takes toward young adulthood. To say that Gerwig’s performance is typically amazing is to do an injustice to her abilities. The character of Brooke could easily come across as a ditzy, careless mean girl, but Gerwig’s portrayal keeps her relatable; for all her flaws, she still endeavors to be a good person. Not to be overlooked is Lola Kirke as an out-of-her-depth college freshman who falls into Brooke’s trajectory, simultaneously envious of Brooke’s lifestyle and critical of her perceived failings. Much of the pleasure in Mistress America is simply watching the two as their relationship develops. A pitch perfect supporting cast fleshes out their world, culminating in an extended third-act tour de force set in the modernist nightmare dwelling of Brooke’s “nemesis.” But the film isn’t solely dedicated to wacky hijinks – it also explores the growing pains of becoming an artist and the burden of adult responsibilities. Like Baumbach and Gerwig’s previous collaboration, it’s not to be missed.
- Inside Out (41 points)
The beauty of the best Pixar films is that they are children’s movies made by adults who have not forgotten what it’s like to be a kid. Inside Out is no different, and despite the plea made by the filmmakers toward their children in the closing credits, kids have to grow up, and the film is a gentle lesson on what it takes to navigate the emotional minefield of entering into adolescence and adulthood. Like the best Studio Ghibli films, the lesson is not just to put on a brave face and beat a happy path through life, but to embrace sadness as a tool into adjusting to the complexity of life. As we grow up, the world becomes more complex and our emotions become more complex to deal with it. And, of course, we have to leave some things behind. Inside Out illustrates this in Pixar’s usual style, juxtaposing the goofy, the serious, and the sad into an entertainment that works equally well for parents watching their kids grow up and the kids who have to grow up themselves. Inside Out proves once again that the Pixar team are vastly important and irreplaceable filmmakers.
- It Follows (51 points)
Many horror films use the cheapest of cinematic tricks to make their audiences vicariously experience what its characters are going through. Sudden noises or something unexpectedly entering the frame may jolt viewers and on-screen victims alike but are little more than using film to shout “boo” at people. More attuned to different moods of dread, It Follows uses the long takes and deep focus often associated with European art-cinema to alter how the viewer watches. The audience is forced by brilliant direction to constantly search the background for both threats and an escape, thus becoming a surrogate for the film’s characters and equally helpless. Because the central threat is linked to sex and much of the story is about how sex changes people’s behavior, it’s possible to reductively read the film as being about sexually transmitted diseases. But it’s best to forget about trying to find the right metaphor or interpretation and just accept It Follows as an eerie mood piece, an experience in pure dread in which death is unfair and always approaching.
- The Duke of Burgundy (52 points)
Coming off an exercise in turning giallo into a haunting metafiction, Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland turned his eye toward 1970s European softcore. With playfulness and thoughfulness to spare, he has transformed that genre into a deeply felt look into romantic relationships, the give and take they require, and the joy and hardship that results. From the humorous (the “Perfume By” credit) to the unexpected, The Duke of Burgundy is able to build a gorgeous world around a unique romance, all coalescing into a wonderful whole that may just be the most romantic film to ever involve someone peeing into someone else’s mouth and to turn a safe word into a signal of despondent sadness. And since we’re singing the praises of the final movie on this list having a few strong female characters, how about this, a movie in which there are only strong female characters. It’s a woman’s world, indeed.
- Mad Max Fury Road (95 points)
The unabashed feminism in George Miller’s latest is a big deal amongst franchise blockbusters, in an era when Scarlett Johansson can’t even make it onto the Avengers: Age of Ultron Blu-Ray cover in the UK. But even if the film weren’t so revolutionary in that area, Miller still deserves praise for delivering the most electrifying action picture in decades. The practical car-race effects lend the action intensity and immediacy, such that the computer-generated spectacles have all the more gravitas when they finally do come. Staging his magnum opus as though he were still a film-school renegade with everything to prove, Miller delivers a film as perfectly paced as Aliens. And just as Sigourney Weaver received an Oscar nomination unprecedented among women in science fiction films, Charlize Theron should be lauded in the upcoming awards season for a performance so focused that it drives the movie’s titular character into the background. There isn’t a wrong minute in this movie.