“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — I caught a few smartly done films in the “teen dramatic comedy” category this past year — most notably “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Dope.” But this sophomore feature from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was the best of them. It innovatively merged an outcast buddy story with an unlikely romance story, all glazed with a self-aware millennial sensibility. An instant favorite.
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” — The premise alone will grab you: A solitary Japanese woman discovers a hidden VHS copy of “Fargo” and, believing that it’s real, sets out for Minnesota in search of the movie’s buried treasure. Months after Filmworks screened this little gem of a film, directed by David and Nathan Zellner, I remain in awe of its visual ambition and its beguiling conclusion.
“The Russian Woodpecker” — I love documentaries that don’t play out like a standard documentary, and this debut feature from Chad Gracia definitely qualifies. Protagonist Fedor Alexandrovich turns his conspiracy theory about the Chernobyl disaster into a chilling parable on the Soviet Union. My favorite at the 2015 Fresno Film Festival.
“Tangerine” — Not to be confused with “Tangerines,” the excellent Estonian war drama shown by Filmworks, this over-the-top love letter to Los Angeles was my favorite at this year’s Reel Pride film festival. Shot in a surreal style and entirely on an iPhone, director Sean S. Baker’s drama-filled portrait of two transgender sex workers is ultimately a story about love and friendship.
“Frank” — The first 80 minutes of this movie about an experimental rock band and its paper-mâché-head-wearing frontman plays as quirky but mostly average. Then, the final 15 minutes: Michael Fassbender as the unforgettable Frank, in one of the most understated and under-appreciated performances of the year, perfectly delivers a perfectly written ending.
Note: These films are listed in no particular order. Honorable mentions for “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” “Love and Mercy,” “Mustang,” and “Theeb.” And I’m looking forward to seeing “Anomalisa” when it makes it to Fresno.
- “Mad Max: Fury Road” — I’m tempted to just write “Mad Max: Fury Road” five times as comment, but I won’t. The best in a long, long time.
- “Güeros” — Lyrical, beautiful, and surprising at every turn.
- “Paddington” — Any movie that works in a joke about a travel piano also gets my vote.
- “Wild Tales” — Multiple short tales of vengeance spinning out of control to their most absurd ends. My favorite comedy this year.
- “The Russian Woodpecker” — I’m not sure how much, if any, of this happened, but I couldn’t look away.
Note: These films are listed in no particular order. Movies that might have made my list if I had seen them by now: “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight.”
- “Theeb” — Young Theeb follows his brother and several other adults on a treacherous journey into the Arabian desert. Along the way, Theeb himself is forced to become an adult. This surprisingly mature film, the debut film of British Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, is visually stunning. All but one of the cast, including sta Jacir Eid who plays Theeb, are actual Bedouin villagers. Eid’s performance is impressive and natural. The film is one of nine films shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
- “Wild Tales” — This Argentine film features six short stories demonstrating the lengths to which people will go to exact revenge. I remember this film as frequently amusing even when the vengeance turns brutal.
- “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” — Rinko Kikuchi gives a haunting performance as Kumiko, a single and solitary woman who ventures to the tundra of Minnesota seeking treasure she believes is buried there. Kumiko’s innocence and vulnerability captured my heart. The cinematography captured the beauty of the frozen world she discovered.
- “The Big Short” — The actors in this film are perfectly cast to play the brilliant social misfits who uncover information that enables them to predict the massive mortgage defaults, burst of the housing bubble and resulting bank failure. Director Adam McKay uses asides to the audience a la Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” This technique renders the characters even more human and imperfect.
- “Irrational Man” — This is so classically Woody Allen that it is great fun to watch solely for that reason. But it has more: witty dialogue and unpredictable plot twists, and and flawed characters we can recognize from real life: Joaquin Phoenix as a college professor going through an existential crisis; Emma Stone, his naïve college student who believes in his brilliance; and others. Not Oscar material but perfectly entertaining.
“Bridge of Spies”
“Tangerines” — The Estonian film from director Zaza Urushadze.
Note: These films are listed in no particular order.
“Cartel Land” — Both sides of the drug war are captured in this documentary. But without a doubt, the glimpse into the civil unrest in Mexico makes a bigger impact, and it shows just how brutal life can be for people who get caught up in the mayhem.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” — If I had children, no matter what age, I would have taken them to see this film with me every single one of the six times I saw it theatrically. It is that important of a film, and my condolences if you missed seeing it on the big screen.
“Sicario” — Director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a masterpiece with a brilliant cast, cinematography, and musical score. A beautifully haunting film.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” — Coming out of left field, the movie based on the spy comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons came at the right time of the year and provided a breath of fresh air. A gratuitous, hyper-violent good time for all.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — It’s awesome. Just friggin’ awesome. Let go of any preconceived notions and go have fun watching this ride J.J. Abrams has crafted.
Note: These films are listed in no particular order. Honorable mentions to “Crimson Peak” and “Straight Outta Compton.” I have not yet seen but am looking forward to “The Revenant.”
“I’ll See You in My Dreams” — Blythe Danner is perfect in this heartfelt comedy about a woman named Carol as she finds out that life can start again at any time. Carol is accompanied by her friends, portrayed by June Squibb, Mary Kay Place, and Rhea Perlman. This film is thoughtful, delicate, and heartwarmingly honest.
“It Follows” — One of the best horror films that I have seen in a very, very long time. It is such a refreshing film in the genre of modern horror and it bypasses unnecessary torture and gore to bring forth a truly unique and remarkably scary film.
“Mustang” — My favorite Fresno Filmworks movie from this past year. Very “Pride and Prejudice” with all of the marriages, yet this French/Turkish film, which was shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is really all on its own. A coming of age tale in a community that only has one mindset for young girls. This film is heartbreaking at times with an emotional rawness that resonates.
“Tangerine” — It is Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee is fresh out of prison looking for her boyfriend/pimp, much to the dismay of her best friend Alexandra. This film is a marathon from the second it starts as it follows Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and taxi driver Razmik. A portrait of modern L.A., “Tangerine” is a comedy with a heart of gold. Mya Taylor shines in the role of Alexandra.
“The Age of Adaline” — The beautiful San Francisco scenery and magical storytelling, I still can vividly remember every gorgeous scene months later. Blake Lively is timeless and in a movie where she is forever in her 20s even though she is technically well over 100. Add Ellen Burstyn as Blake Lively’s daughter and I was sold.
Note: These films are listed in no particular order. Honorable mentions to “Brooklyn,” “Girlhood,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Spotlight.”
- “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” — A brilliant, colorful wonder of a film, which unfortunately had only four screenings with little promotion at a Fresno multiplex.
- “Spotlight” — Reminiscent of “All the President’s Men,” this film tells a shocking true story while avoiding the salacious details. Great ensemble cast.
- “Trumbo” — History that holds a lesson for today, well told with superb acting!
- “The Wanted 18” — An extraordinarily creative documentary about an episode of extraordinarily creative nonviolent resistance by a Palestinian village during the First Intifada.
- “Mustang” — France’s now-shortlisted entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards, it tells a heartbreaking, inspirational, and at times even humorous story of the treatment of women in a Turkish village.
Note: An honorable mention for “Tangerines,” the Estonian (who knew?!) film. A beautifully told story of two farmers’ reactions when war threatens their crop and wounded warriors arrive on their doorstep.