On March 2, 2016

Last year’s top ten movies

By the time this column reaches you, reader, the 88th Academy Awards will have come and gone, and you’ll barely be able to remember what happened. But as I write this, the Oscars are still a couple of days away, and both the professional and amateur spheres of movie criticism are abuzz with predictions and correctives: i.e., articles telling us which movies will win, and articles citing the critic’s personal favorite in each category in order to tell us which movies should win instead of the ones that will.
I’m not especially into this second type of article. To suggest that the Academy ought to have chosen one’s own choices is to presuppose some degree of overlap between one’s movie-related concerns and those of the Academy, a 6,000-person organization that sometimes (not infrequently, in fact) rewards films that I also like, but whose purpose and process—that of an American industry taking stock of itself, figuring out which of its products it can and should collectively feel proud of, and giving opportune recognition to its “leading lights” (as determined by some instinctual algorithm whose factors include the nominees’ histories and relationships within their professional community; the artistic value of their recent contributions as indicated by critical, popular, and intra-Hollywood acclaim; and the apparent social merit of their endeavors)—have very little to do with the practices of a recreational movie enthusiast.

I don’t especially care whether the Oscar goes to a good movie or a bad one—though, for the record, I don’t think there are any truly badly made movies among the Best Picture candidates. That said, the Academy’s favorites, by and large, are not my own for the year 2015.

If you love movies, you’ve probably already seen most of the Best Picture nominees. Here, then, if by chance you’re looking for more movies to watch, is my own list of favorites (so far) from 2015: a non-professional’s Top 10, like the ones that critics release in December, but still incomplete in the final days of February as I struggle to catch up with what I missed.

1. “Tangerine” (directed by Sean Baker): This bright, kinetic comedy, shot with dazzling style via iPhone on the vibrantly crummy streets of the real Hollywood, follows (with empathy and amusement) a scorned woman’s tireless Christmas Eve quest to track down the man who wronged her. Streaming on Netflix.

2. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (directed by Roy Andersson): Straddling the line between sketch comedy and art-gallery installation, Andersson’s bizarre and hilarious vignettes illustrate historical and existential concerns. Streaming on Netflix.

3. “Güeros” (directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios): Ruizpalacios’s buoyantly grim debut feature chronicles the madcap idleness on the periphery of a student revolution in Mexico City, capturing, as Jean-Luc Godard once did, all the boredom and excitement of being young. Streaming on Netflix.

4. “Buzzard” (directed by Joel Potrykus): This slacker comedy slowly, steadily becomes a horror film as its disaffected protagonist makes increasingly bad decisions, his ultimate ugliness a counterargument to the lovable heroes of “Mallrats” and “Office Space.” Streaming on Amazon Prime.

5. “Mississippi Grind” (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck): Ben Mendelsohn gives (for me) 2015’s most poignant performance as a hard-up gambling addict in this unabashedly romantic slice of Americana. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

6. “Carol” (directed by Todd Haynes): Cate Blanchett’s typically overstated (though artful and intelligent) performance doesn’t fully work for me here, but from its score to its production design to its cinematography, “Carol” is the most gorgeous movie of the year.

7. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (directed by George Miller): Miller’s epic post-apocalyptic masterpiece of high-voltage action demonstrates both the possibilities and the limitations of “pure cinema.” For image and sound as a roller coaster ride of nonstop sensation, stripped of all “extraneous” matter, “Mad Max” may have pushed the envelope as far as it’ll go. Streaming on HBO Go.

8. “Creed” (directed by Ryan Coogler): Filmed with as much grace and seriousness as John G. Avildsen applied to the first installment of the boxing franchise, “Creed” doesn’t have as strong a love story as “Rocky” did, but it’s still the only one of the sequels to recapture the lovely and appealing spirit of the original.

9. “Youth” (directed by Paolo Sorrentino): In this relentlessly aestheticized, unashamedly pretentious work of self-indulgence concocted by the director of 2013’s “The Great Beauty,” Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel exchange stilted quips and old-age ruminations amid an oddly moving and memorable dreamscape in the Swiss Alps. Sorrentino’s directorial pleasure is ultimately irresistible.

10. “Joy” (directed by David O. Russell): An uneven but ceaselessly involving story of a single mother’s unyielding pursuit of glory (and stability), “Joy” immerses its audience in the messiness of daily life: chasing one’s dream means dealing with a lot of junk, both related and unrelated to the dream in question, along the way.

Honorable mentions: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

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