In a good year, I’ve been known to publish a top 20. This year’s standouts were as obvious as they were few and far between. As such, more thought went into selecting the bottom ten. I could just as easily have called it quits with three by Kevin James, three by Adam Sandler (they both share in the blame for Pixels), and four Apatow factory byproducts, but that would have been too easy.
Note that four of the ten honorees held their local premiers at the Digital Gym, where the booking of late (give or take fanboy frights and the occasional telenovela) is the finest to hit town since this reporter parted company with MoPA. Would some beneficent, deep-pocketed cinematic soul brothers and/or sisters out there please pony up the funds needed to fit the booth with a Sony 4K projector? The addition would catapult the Gym into the ranks of the big boys, a hall where artistic champs would be proud to showcase their might.
Onward to 2016. In fear of repeating a line that’s been called into play for almost two decades’ worth of ten-best lists, I’ll refrain from noting next year can’t get much worse.
1) The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien expends more time and thought on composing individual shots than most directors do on complete features. Ten minutes in, it became clear this triumph of style over subject was unlike anything that opened in 2015. No surprise that the paucity of plot and the promise of limited, austere “action” scenes kept audiences at bay. Too bad. Not even Tarantino’s 70mm fantasy fulfillment looked this good on a screen.
Black Souls (Anime nere)
2) Black Souls
One of the most original gangster films since Don Corleone bought it in the orange grove. Director and co-writer Francesco Munzi has assembled what could amount to the quietest gangster chronicle ever made, with many of the key character shadings imparted in slight gestures and nimble movements of the camera.
Al Pacino snapped a career losing streak that dates back to Donnie Brasco. Even more impressive: between this and Danny Collins, he managed to crack both my top and bottom ten! (Manglehorn director David Gordon Green, also responsible for the inexorable Our Brand Is Crisis, came close.) With its long, precision-crafted parallel editing, sound design, and constantly evolving lap-dissolves, Manglehorn is almost as much an epistle to a certain tendency in ’70s cinema as it is tender homage to the power of Pacino.
In Jackson Heights
4) In Jackson Heights
The sites and sounds of the the world’s most culturally diverse neighborhood act as linking devices for “nonfiction filmmaker” Frederick Wiseman to stitch together a tapestry of seemingly irreconcilable roars, coolly knocking down barriers to rough out a microcosmic portrait of a community struggling to find harmony between old-world loyalties and assimilation in a new land.
This year’s surreal wild ride showcased a hygienically challenged young lass, awash in a sea of bodily fluids and banking on an anal fissure to reunite her with friends and family. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. In his fourth film, director David Wendt’s establishment of a near-scientific system of lexicography proves him to be the Sergio Leone of scat. There hasn’t been anything quite like this since Dogtooth.
Marshland (La isla minima)
Slowly but steadily, a pair of case-hardened homicide detectives discover they have more in common with each other (and the serial killer they tenaciously pursue) than initially thought. Spanish director and co-writer Alberto Rodríguez puts a fresh (even if seamy) spin on a genre that’s long been taken for granted.
7) The Gift
The ads scream Fatal Attraction, but rest assured this is not a typically minted crime of passion. For his first time doing double-duty behind the camera, Joel Edgerton unwraps a gift that doesn’t stop giving, right up until an indeed disturbing climax — never saw it coming — designed to haunt and resonate for days after. Download it tonight!
8) Black Sea
Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly know full well there are only “10 moves you can make” on a submarine picture. They make them all, both men exercising great prudence when cutting and shuffling the cards in this year’s most enjoyable genre feature.
Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
9) The Prophet
An assortment of seven acclaimed, stylishly diverse animators are each assigned a chapter of Kahlil Gibran’s Hallmark Greeting Book, with former Disney animator Roger Allers handling the framework and bridging sequences. Parents, refusing to remove the Pixar blinders, flocked to the studio’s exhortative, dialogue-centric Inside Out, while shunning this visually sumptuous delight.
Shot exclusively on cellphones, I’ll be damned if director and co-writer Sean Baker’s audacious, expressionist use of color and smooth, aggressive camera movements don’t put the technology to the test.
Belle and Sébastien
1) Belle and Sébastien
If Nazis were as dopey as the ones depicted in this child’s Bertesgarten of good versus evil there would have been no ovens, due to their inability to spark a pilot light.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
2) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
Once I ran from Kevin James. Now I run to him. A movie? This doesn’t qualify as television! As astonishingly inept films go, this is mandatory viewing.
A stern, monochrome, relentlessly depressing video lecture aimed to supplant the historical fundamentals our parents and public school teachers failed to instill within us.
By the Sea
4) By the Sea
Angelina Jolie, trying hard to tap into the Antonioni vein, comes up vain in this year's #1 vanity production. At least when Liz and Dick took us on paid holiday vacations, the star couple had the good sense to pack master stylists like Joseph Losey and Vincente Minnelli to ride herd on the camera. It was a screening of three and I didn’t have the heart to awaken the pair of snoozing seniors seated two rows behind. Their snoring kept me awake.