Sunday, February 28, 2016

11 Best Films of 2015: 'Saul' to 'Tangerine' & 'Pigeon'

Before we all settle in front of the TV for this year's Oscar telecast, I'm presenting my list of the best flicks to flash in front of my eyes in 2015. It's never too late to present movie-love lists.

1. I've seen the Hungarian "Son of Saul" twice and plan a third trip to the theater for another viewing. Yes, it's that amazing. A Holocaust story that pushed the boundaries of such narratives and with virtuoso cinematography and flawless sound design. Brutal humanity in a soulless death camp. First seen at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Deserve every accolade it receives.

2. With beautiful production design in service to the plot and creative team in front of and behind the camera, "Carol" knocked my socks off. Another triumph for auteur Todd Haynes with flourishes of melodrama to make Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder proud - and envious. Should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year.

3. A bravura look at the iconic life and career of musician and political advocate Nina Simone, director Liz Garbus's documentary revealed the majestic heights and travesties of her life. "What Happened, Miss Simone?" brought this brilliantly talented woman back to life and seeing it with an appreciative audience, thanks to the San Francisco Film Society made for a magical screening.

4. From Romania, the black and white epic "Aferim!" opened a window into gypsy slavery and feudal rulers in the 1800s countryside, in a widescreen format perfect for adding dusty and dank atmosphere to the plot. Wicked comedic relief as horrors for a runaway slave returned to his owner, leading to castration. Seen at the Mill Valley Film Festival and later enjoyed a short commercial run.

5. Who needs the spoken word? From Ukraine, "The Tribe" used only sign-language and pure cinema to show the sexual and moral depravity of teenagers at a state-run school for the deaf. Cast of amateurs are (sometimes too) believable rough and raw, a truly unique work with tight cinematography. Made its local debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

6. Philippine auteur Lav Diaz's epic, "From What is Before", examines 1970s life in a village as the Marcos regime is fighting Marxist guerrillas. Told over nearly six-hours, long takes and luminous cinematography illustrate a poverty-stricken community's struggle for dignity and security. Brought to us by the adventuresome programmers at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room.

7. The master of the dramatic historical Hollywood film with a robust dose of actual truth, Steven Spielberg, chilled and thrilled me with his Cold War drama "Bridge of Spies" and Mark Rylance shone as a Soviet spy on trial. Terrific camerawork and from a terrific screenplay co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

8. In a single long and un-edited take, "Victoria" followed an attractive young woman meeting a handsome street boy-thug in a Berlin techo dance club and their criminal spree across the city's gritty landscape. More than stunt-filmmaking - a new extended way of telling cinematic tales.

9. The queerest film this year, "Tangerine", directed by straight-boy Sean Baker, took us on a wild quest tracking a black trans street sex worker, just outta the slammer, and her blabbermouth BFF, hunting for her boyfriend pimp who's been cheating on her was an extraordinary jolt of DIY-moviemaking. Another film seen thanks to the San Francisco Film Society.

10. It took decades for master Russian director Aleksei German's "Hard to Be a God" to reach the screen and it is a glorious, mostly incomprehensible film overflowing with bodily fluids and cruelty. As with all German's works, scenes are crammed to the hilt with stunning compositions, made all the more eye-pleasing in black and white. Thanks to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room for scheduling three screenings.

11. Droll, with a drab color design and still gorgeous to look at, "A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting Existence" contained absurd characters in a series of fixed-camera scenes, inducing chuckles. That this latest head-scratcher from Swedish director Roy Andersson received distribution in U.S. arthouses is testament that there is a theatrical audience for challenging independent film. Gratitude goes out to the Roxie Theater for playing this film.

Check out these films. What were your best-loved films of last year?

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