EDGE Best Lists :: Robert Nesti on the Year in Film
What's most apparent when putting together a list like this one is just how much you missed at the movies over the year. No matter how many movies you see, there are a half-dozen out there -- in the theaters or streaming -- that you didn't watch. In fact the best part of reading other best lists is to learn of titles you should see: "Timbuktu," "The Dukes of Burgundy," "45 Years," "99 Homes," "Mustang," "The Look of Silence," "Viva" -- to name a few. Seeing them will be part of a New Year's resolution. For now, though, here is list of the movies I liked the most this year with a brief explanation as to why.
No film this year was as challenging to make as Sebastian Schipper's thriller, a mostly English language film made in Germany. That is because it was filmed in one continuous take in a dizzying, exacting piece of cinematic choreography. (The cinematography is by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.) Schipper's absorbing narrative follows its titular character -- a young Spanish woman living in Berlin -- who becomes involved with a group of petty criminals after a long night of partying. Attracted to one of them, she joins them in a bank robbery. It sounds improbable, but Schipper makes it work from moment-to-moment. As Victoria Laia Costa gives an exhausting, raw performance that's all the more astounding because she acts it in real-time.
9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Coming-of-age stories don't usually push the envelope with such brash assurance as writer/director Marielle Heller's debut film. Set in San Francisco during the free-living 1970s, Heller's film, which she adapted from the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, follows the sexual awakening of 15-year old Minnie (Bel Powley), an aspiring artist living with Charlotte, her bohemian mother (Kristin Wiig) and Monroe, her 35-year old boyfriend (Alexander Skaarsgard). Minnie moves from teenage boys to having an affair with Monroe. Heller tells the story with little judgement, instead filters it through Minnie's imaginative take on the world, which includes her fanciful artwork that pays homage to her idol, '70s counter-culture artist Aline Kominsky. At 24, Powley plays Minnie with remarkable confidence and conviction.
8. Beasts of No Nation
Another coming-of-age story, but one of a very different stripe is Cary Joji Fukunaga's adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's novel set in a West African country in the strife of a civil war in which 10-year old Agu (Abraham Attah) gets caught up in. First he witnesses his father and brother murdered, then he's swept up into a rag-tag rebel army led by the brutal, charismatic "Commandant" (Idris Elba). What follows is a picaresque tale in which Agu loses his innocence in a harrowing manner. Fukunaga's taut, realistic direction (he also acted as cinematographer) is tempered by a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality the story takes. The result is compelling, often difficult to watch movie-making with remarkable performances by Attah and Elba. The film also shook up the releasing model in that it was seen on Netflix on the same day as its commercial release, which led for four major theater chains to refuse to show it.
7. The Danish Girl
Okay, Tom Hooper's biopic about Lili Elbe, the transgender pioneer, has been roundly slammed in the activist community for featuring a cisgendered actor -- Eddie Redmayne -- as its lead. Politics aside, there's no denying the artistry of Redmayne's performance, which follows Elbe's journey to self-actualization in a time (the 1920s) when identity issues were not part of the conversation and the untried surgery was extremely risky. Redmayne disappears inside his character, a married Danish artist that realizes her gender identity and, through the help of her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), accepts it. Beautifully photographed and designed, the film is a throwback to the prestige dramas that the team of Merchant/Ivory specialized in two decades ago. At its heart is a tender love story with luminous performances by its two principals.
Few recent films have the contact high of Sean Baker's street-wise screwball comedy which follows a pair of trans sex workers on a wild trek through the streets of downtown LA on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just out of jail, learns from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome) has stepped out on her. Enraged, she searches for him and his new girlfriend. Alexandra's own Christmas Eve dream is to sing in a local club, while a third character -- an Armenian cabdriver with a thing for trans sex workers -- leaves his family to find Sin-Dee. Shot on iPhone 5, the film has a saturated, sun-soaked look that would be the envy of a movie a hundred times its cost. Explosively funny with an awesome soundtrack (that runs from EDM to Victor Herbert), the film ends up touching the heart with the central relationship between Rodriguez and Taylor -- trans actresses who make impressive debuts in this indie.
5. Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander (again) plays Ava, a humonoid robot with advanced artificial intelligence in Alex Garland's superb sci-fi thriller. She is the creation of Oscar Isaac, a ruthless tech CEO who has chosen one of his employees, a coder played by Domhnall Gleeson) to spend a week in his remote, underground lair. Once there, a tense chamber drama plays out between these three. What starts out as a contemporary variation of the Pygmalion myth becomes something closer to film noir as Gleeson participates in a test as to how human Ava can appear to be. Garland's tightly-written script, its sleek look and first-rate performances from Isaac, Gleeson and (especially) Vikander combine to make this a chilling and haunting exercise in mind games, both real and artificial.
4. About Elly
Made in 2009, but not released in the United States until this past year, Asghar Farhadi's riveting drama begins with high spirits: a group of young, middle-class Iranians head to a beachside resort for a weekend out of the city. The stranger to the group is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a schoolteacher asked to join the party with hopes she will hook up with a recently divorced member of the group. She, though, disappears and the film follows the desperate search for her and its aftermath. While Farhadi's film echoes Antonioni's "L'Avventura" in its narrative structure, it trades those bored Italians for a group of uneasy Iranians whose casual lifestyles comes under fire by authorities when crisis develops. Farhadi's more recent films -- the Oscar --winning "A Separation" and "The Past" tell smaller, more personal stories, this earlier work offers a damning portrait of a culture whose identity is in turmoil.
There's an elegant simplicity to John Crowley's heartfelt adaptation of Colm Tóibín's novel, which follows Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl from a small coastal village who relocates to the New York borough for which the film is named. Once in the States, she begins to blossom. What could have been twee in other hands is beautifully played, largely due to Saoirse Ronan's performance, who convincingly conveys Eilis's emotional journey from naïve girl to assured womanhood. Crowley's evocative vision of both Ireland and New York in the 1950s is a treat for the eyes, and Nick Hornby's script neatly parses its heroine's conflict between the old and the new. In a time when issues surrounding immigration are part of the national debate, this charming film speaks to the experience with unusual, pertinent resonance.
2. The Big Short
Like "Margin Call," the 2007 financial crisis makes for the basis of a great film. This one from an unlikely source: director Adam McKay, whose previous popcorn movies never quite prepared audience for the jolt they'll get here. Adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis's bestseller "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," the complicated story looks at a group of individuals who predict the financial crisis in 2005 and figure out ways to profit from it. What McKay does extremely well is make the crisis understandable -- no small task considering the Wall Street mumbo-jumbo he must make clear. He does through clever, unconventional techniques -- sequences where celebrities that appear to define wonky terms, narration that breaks down the fourth wall, montages that give the story its larger context. The result is exhilarating filmmaking -- funny and alarming at the same time; with the best acting ensemble of the year led by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
Todd Haynes has shown remarkable rapport with his lead actresses in the past (Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven," Kate Winslet in "Mildred Pierce"); in his latest, he has two: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Blanchett plays the titular character, an educated, sophisticated blue blood looking to get out of a bad marriage, while Mara is a younger, wannabe photographer in an unhappy relationship with her dull fiance. Sparks fly when these women catch each other eyes; but this being the early 1950s, such relationships are verboten. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the classic Patricia Highsmith 1952 lesbian novel (first published under a pseudonym), Haynes' film is an exquisite period piece, one whose power comes from how its central characters discover the power within themselves to be free from societal conventions that limit them. Both actresses are superb, but it is when Blanchett who commands the film from the moment she flirts with Rooney while Christmas shopping to her declaration of independence from her stifling suburban marriage.
The runners-up, in no particular order: "Spotlight," "The Hateful Eight," "The New Girlfriend," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "The Gift," "Sicario," "Dope," "Eastern Boys," "Anomalisa," "Amy," "Room," "The Walk," "Mad Max Fury Road," "Magic Mike XXL," "The Best of Enemies," "Wild Tales," "Mommy," "Mistress America," "Bridge of Spies," "Saint Laurent," "Breathe," "Queen of Earth," "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter," "Truth," "The Stanford Prison Experiment" and "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict."
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, "The Danish Girl"; Michael Fassbender, "Steve Jobs"; Abraham Attah, "Beasts of No Nation"; Tom Hanks, "Bridge of Spies"; Steve Carell, "The Big Short."
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, "Carol"; Saoirse Ronan, "Brooklyn"; Alicia Vikander, "The Danish Girl"; Brie Larson, "Room"; Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, "Tangerine."
Best Supporting Actor: Idris Elba, "Beasts of No Nation"; Oscar Isaac, "Ex Machina"; Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, "Spotlight"; Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies"; Jacob Tremblay, "Room"; Benicio Del Toro, "Sicario."
Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara, "Carol"; Kate Winslet, "Steve Jobs"; Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight"; Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina"; Rachel McAdams, "Spotlight."
Best Director: Todd Haynes, "Carol"; Cary Joji Fukunaga, "Beasts of No Nation"; Adam McKay, "The Big Short"; Sean Baker, "Tangerine"; Sebastian Schipper, "Victoria."
Best Ensemble: "The Big Short"; "Carol"; "Tangerine"; "Brooklyn"; Spotlight," "The Hateful Eight."