LISTFUL THINKING: Top 10 of 2015 (Individuals and Institutions)

31 12 2015

The end of the year has arrived once again in its typical fashion – surprising, jarring yet oddly welcome. On this occasion, per usual, it is time to celebrate 2015 in cinema. Thanks to a number of festivals as well as generous assistance from studio and regional publicists, I was able to see more movies than ever before. This year, the tally of 2015 releases alone soared to over 200. (I came so close to reviewing them all … but would rather provide well-considered commentary instead of rushing to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline.)

When I sat down to pen my first top 10 list back in 2009, I doubt I had even seen 100 films, so the list represented roughly the top 10% of my year. With 2015’s edition showcasing less than 5%, I feel obliged to at least mention 10 other films that left an indelible mark on me this year but, for whatever reason, fell outside the upper echelon. These, too, are worthy of your time and attention. In alphabetical order, they are:

But the ten films that stood out above the rest this year all had one thing in common: they looked beyond their characters and plots towards larger, more difficult concepts to capture. Each in their own way spotlighted (pun fully intended) an institution or a system that guides, influences and even inhibits the actions that take place. I make no secret that my two fields of study in college were film studies and sociology, and to have such an exciting slate of movies that evinces how the former can shed light on the latter was a source of great joy (again, pun fully intended) throughout 2015.

Remarkably, each work never lost sight of the individual personalities that power our emotional engagement. The human element never detracts from the issues at hand, instead providing an entry point to ponder impersonal or intangible forces. In an era where television provides a depth of coverage that has become tough to rival, these films found power in a concentrated bursts of content where every second was carefully and wonderfully calibrated.

So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2015 along with the individuals and institutions featured within them.

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REVIEW: Son of Saul

8 12 2015

Son of SaulThis review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” boasts one of the most rigorously committed aesthetics in recent memory. Without subduing the roving camera of DoP Mátyás Erdély to the limitations of first-person photography, Nemes finds a radical method of plunging the viewer into the subjective experiences of the protagonist: Géza Röhrig’s Holocaust prisoner Saul Auslander.

Two shots prevail throughout the proceedings. The first is a rushing handheld shot taken over Saul’s shoulder while he is in motion, usually with an extremely limiting shallow depth of field. The other is a close-up of his stoic face, stark in how little it emotes. Imagine the kinetic immediacy of Emmanuel Lubezki combined with the claustrophobic intimacy of Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

It’s the kind of choice that can only be made by an established auteur who has earned complete autonomy, or a brash newcomer yet to learn the so-called rules. Nemes is the latter, which only adds to the wonder “Son of Saul” inspires.

His technique hardly constitutes some kind of self-imposed artistic chastity belt, however. Nemes uses his form to illuminate the complexities of his content (co-written with Clara Royer), allowing for a more nuanced understanding of these unimaginable atrocities. Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando group that was forced to become cogs in the Nazi machinery of mass murder, never falls into a clear cut category. He is neither entirely hero or villain, victim or perpetrator. Saul is just a human trying to survive inhuman conditions in any way possible, and the camerawork suggests his method of coping is to block out the world beyond his nose.

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