When Sight & Sound magazine revealed the results of its year-end film poll last month, the announcement hailed 2015 as “a year of strong female characters and stories, with seven of the poll’s top 10 films having striking female leads.” There’s more than mere press-release puffery at work here: The same could be said of seven films in my own top 10, three of which also figure prominently in the Sight & Sound list. Coincidence? Not exactly, insofar as any halfway-attentive critic would have had to go out of their way to avoid the sheer number of rich, complicated, vital movies about women that lit up theaters and VOD queues in 2015.
As of this writing, the year’s top-grossing movies include a comic fantasy set inside the head of an 11-year-old girl; a sumptuous live-action retelling of “Cinderella”; an adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” that was several shades better than it had any right to be; and the fourth and final episode in the Katniss Everdeen saga. The sight of Jennifer Lawrence firing a bow and arrow isn’t even the most arresting or revelatory image of a female warrior this year; that honor goes (spoiler alert!) to Daisy Ridley as Rey, the spaceship-flying, light-saber-wielding Jedi knight-to-be at the center of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” When the biggest commercial juggernaut in movie history gets hip to the idea of stories that might prove edifying to more than just half the audience, perhaps it’s a sign that a revolution really is under way — or, to borrow a metaphor from an even better studio release, perhaps the gates of Immortan Joe’s white-boy citadel are not quite as impenetrable as they appear.
It would be fascinating to hear some commentary on Rey and her fellow blockbuster-babe archetypes from Maria and Valentine, the actress and personal assistant played by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, respectively, in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” While they’re at it, those two might have some acid-tipped insights to share about how Hollywood continues to fail women behind the camera — as made clear by the latest figures in the professor Martha M. Lauzen’s invaluable annual study on hiring practices in the industry, which noted that only 7% of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014 were directed by women. Why, you may wonder at this point, do critics and reporters keep harping on about these dismal statistics? Because the industry, left to its own devices, will never fix what it doesn’t perceive to be broken.
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Before I get to my list proper, here are just a few of the on-screen women who mattered this year: Ronit Elkabetz, ablaze with righteous determination in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the courtroom drama she wrote and directed with her brother Shlomi. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna in “The Duke of Burgundy,” the greatest lesbidopterist romance ever made. Tessa Thompson, turning a supportive girlfriend into more than just another Hollywood afterthought in “Creed.” Cynthia Nixon and Brie Larson, delivering the year’s most wrenching portraits of motherhood in “James White” and “Room.” Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke, socking over their neo-screwball sister act in “Mistress America.” Jennifer Jason Leigh, so bloody terrifying in “The Hateful Eight.” Charlotte Rampling, doing more with a jerk of the arm than most actors manage in an entire scene in “45 Years.” Alicia Vikander, a veritable one-woman essay on gender mutability in “Ex Machina,” and a vibrant rebuke to the gloss and superficiality of “The Danish Girl.” Shu Qi and Charlize Theron, moving with lethal grace and silent-movie expressiveness in “The Assassin” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” — the two films that meant the most to me at year’s end, and together a fitting reminder that diversity is not just a political issue but also an aesthetic one. In cinema, at least, the image still speaks louder than words.
Here are my 10 favorite movies of 2015:
1. “The Assassin.” The Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien can summon an entire epoch with a few gossamer touches: not just the whir of a blade or the thwack of an arrow, but also the flicker of candlelight, the glow of a moonlit mist, the sleek shadow of a killer-in-waiting (the mesmerizing Shu Qi) half-glimpsed through a billowing curtain. With his one-of-a-kind wuxia epic, Hou has conjured the year’s most shimmeringly beautiful enigma: Not just re-creating but reinhabiting a vision of ninth-century imperial China, it’s the rare movie that seems to exist both in and out of time.
2. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” George Miller’s full-throttle rejiggering of his incomparable action franchise is the hyperkinetic yin to “The Assassin’s” austere yang, and no less staggering as a feat of pure cinema — all sun-parched landscapes, screaming engines and human bodies in glorious, death-defying motion. Tom Hardy makes a smashing Mad Max 2.0, but he rightly steps aside for Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the molten core of a difficult, long-gestating production that had no business turning out to be a masterpiece, and by the end could hardly be mistaken for anything but.
3. “Phoenix.” I didn’t see a better performance in 2015 than the one Nina Hoss delivers in Christian Petzold’s spellbinding noir melodrama, a peak achievement in one of the most remarkable director-actor pairings in recent movies. As a Holocaust survivor searching for answers amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, Hoss reshapes her character’s face into a scarred canvas of pain and political meaning, even as she charges Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 tune “Speak Low” with haunting grace notes of loss, regret and betrayal.
4. “The Look of Silence.” A superior companion piece to his 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s damningly clear-eyed and compassionate second feature about the 1960s mass killings in Indonesia offers an essential piece of reportage on a still-unanswered historical outrage. Yet it’s the calm and steady gaze of a man named Adi, politely leading a crusade for justice on behalf of the slain brother he never knew, that lends Oppenheimer’s work (co-directed with an anonymous filmmaker) not just the sting of first-rate journalism, but also the weight of a moral inquiry.
5. “Carol.” With his supremely intelligent and heartfelt adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” Todd Haynes displaces Patricia Highsmith’s acid wit into a succession of darkly ravishing images, a score of purest heartache, and a pair of incandescent lead turns by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The result is a movie less overtly stylized but no less Sirkian in its contours than Haynes’ other great ’50s romance, “Far From Heaven,” set in a world where a single glance across a crowded department store or through a rain-pelted window can express a whole world of longing.
6. “The Tribe.” “The Look of Silence” could have served as an alternate title for Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s extraordinary immersion in the crime-riddled rank-and-file of a Ukrainian school for deaf teenagers, performed entirely in sign language and with nary a word nor a subtitle of onscreen dialogue. Then again, “silence” isn’t exactly the operative word in a movie that blends slaps, punches and gestures into a ferociously expressive soundtrack that, no less than its harrowing tale of young crooks on the make, demands and rewards the utmost concentration.
7. “Spotlight.” The backlash has already kicked in, so it’s worth remembering what a rare and improbable Oscar frontrunner we have in Tom McCarthy’s newsroom insta-classic — a drama minutely attuned to process, allergic to sensationalism, and unwilling to exaggerate heroics or exploit victimhood for the sake of its eminently worthy message. And amid all the praise for one of the year’s great acting ensembles, it’s become easy to overlook the unadorned expertise of McCarthy’s filmmaking, precisely suited to the unexceptional environs that produce the most exceptional, world-changing work.
8. “Inside Out.” At the heart of this dazzling family-friendly head trip is a sly chicken-or-the-egg riddle: Is Riley really acting at the behest of her feelings, or are her feelings merely abstract puppets in a delirious action-adventure being enacted for our benefit? It’s scarcely the only mystery left unsolved in Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen’s piercing lament for childhood’s end, a crafty deconstruction of human emotion that somehow becomes one of the most deeply emotional films Pixar has ever produced.
9. “Girlhood.” The most revealing diary of a teenage girl to hit screens this year was this expansive and fiercely empathetic portrait of a black 16-year-old from the French projects named Marieme (played by the blazingly gifted newcomer Karidja Toure), trying on one identity after another before tentatively coming to grips with her own. Bracing in its sly formal mastery and its skillful avoidance of gangland cliches, Celine Sciamma’s gorgeous third feature feels all the more vital in the wake of the Paris attacks, even as it refuses to sacrifice specificity on the altar of relatability.
10. “Brooklyn.” Saoirse Ronan carries each luminous frame of John Crowley’s sublime immigrant romance, her every downward glance and tentative smile teasing out a complete dramatic arc with the sort of delicacy rarely entrusted to an audience anymore. You don’t just follow a young Irishwoman across the Atlantic in this movie; you are ushered into a world of pure, unforced feeling, where the difficulties of settling down in a foreign land reveal every moment of humor, kindness and beauty for the gift that it is.
The next 10 (alphabetical order): “Anomalisa,” “The Duke of Burgundy,” “The Kindergarten Teacher,” “Magic Mike XXL,” “Room,” “Seymour: An Introduction,” “Son of Saul,” “Steve Jobs,” “Tangerine,” “The Walk”