A few of these may not be eligible for the real awards, but let’s ignore Oscar guidelines for now; we’ll do a separate post predicting the actual winners. These are the Best of 2015 as I see it.
Best Picture: Clouds of Sils Maria — ★★★★ — See my Flickchart review here. I neglected to compare it to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but the similarities are great. A quick edit may be in order before the Oscar nominations make the review relevant again. Kristen Stewart is getting the buzz, thanks in part to Cannes voters’ enthusiasm for her performance, but my own preference is seen in the picture above.
Best Director: Paolo Sorrentino, Youth — ★★★★ — The best thing I saw at the 2015 Austin Film Festival. My write-up is here. It’s nice to see this amount of full-frontal male and female nudity in a film, and have it be largely non-salacious, but it’s nicer still to see a work so well-crafted and so lovingly indebted to Fellini. Shot for shot, this is the most gorgeous film of the last several years.
Best Actor: Tom Hardy, Legend — ★★★☆ — My write-up is here. Brian Helgeland’s film, which is good, has flaws, but Hardy’s portrayal of two distinctive twins does not. Sure, I’m an easy mark for mob movies and a swingin’ London setting, but this performance isn’t just a stunt. Hardy is two different and fascinating creeps.
Best Actress: Daisy Ridley, The Force Awakens — ★★★☆ — My review on this blog doesn’t highlight what an excellent job Ridley does of characterizing the new hero of the Star Wars franchise. Where she could be merely scampish, she conveys suppressed gravitas. When she is afraid, she suggests also the reserves of courage that heroes inevitably possess. I eagerly await Rey’s scenes with Luke in Episode VIII.
Best Supporting Actor: Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina — ★★☆☆ — I wasn’t impressed by this film’s worldview or the logic of its plotting, but Isaac brings more to the role of Nathan than is written. My full review is here.
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak — ★★☆☆ — My full review is here. This is overacting, but it is overacting par excellence, and it is wholly appropriate to Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsens’s potboiler gothic setting. Without Chastain’s performance, the film simply does not work.
Best Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant — ★★★★ — My Reel Rumble featuring The Revenant is here. A win for The Revenant would be Lubezki’s third in a row, and it would be well deserved (sorry, Roger Deakins). Somehow very distant backgrounds and foregrounds are equally clear even in Lubezki’s natural light. Whether shooting a bear attack or a stand of trees, it looks and feels so real that I was reminded of my virtual reality experience.
Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight — ★★★★ — One of my favorite films is All the President’s Men, and Spotlight has a lot in common with it. Both have montages of journalists knocking on doors, crossing names off phonebook-sized lists, and digging through documents in libraries. In both movies, journalists make progress by wheedling names out of uncooperative subjects over the phone. Both even have a character named Ben Bradlee (the son of the legendary Watergate-era Bradlee was managing the Boston Globe during the priest abuse investigation.) At every step, Spotlight reminded me of the greatest journalism movie of all time. More importantly, it helped me better understand one of the most disturbing news stories of my lifetime, and how that story became a story.
(I will skip the Best Adapted Screenplay category, not having read any of the relevant source material.)
Best Foreign Language Film: Atomic Heart — ★★★★ — One of the best films I saw at the 2015 Austin Asian-American Film Festival, as I wrote here. Iranian film has perhaps never been better than in the past five or ten years, though Flickchart’s Iranian New Wave filter highlights a flurry of activity in the 1960s. Atomic Heart is sultry, provocative, progressive, mind-bending, sarcastic, and politically sophisticated. If you don’t associate those descriptors with Iran, you’re not watching the right movies.
Best Documentary Feature: The Chinese Mayor — ★★★★ — Another strong entry at the 2015 Austin Asian-American Film Festival, written up here, The Chinese Mayor is a deep dive into contemporary Chinese politics and economic development. It is a moving and sometimes funny story of obsession, progress, gentrification, and top-down rule. I saw a lot of good documentaries this year, but this is the only one that I think constitutes an indispensable visual document of a time and place.
Best Animated Feature: Giovanni’s Island — ★★★☆ — A burst of excessive sentimentality in the final third does not efface what comes before, which is one of the most gorgeous anime I’ve seen not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. Its tale of intercultural friendship between Russian and Japanese children in the bleak, starved years after World War II highlights an almost forgotten footnote of history, and does so with elegance. My write-up is here.