I don’t know if I saw fewer movies this year than last or more, and I don’t feel like counting to find out. For sure, there were a few I wanted to see that I didn’t, like Phoenix, which made quite a few critics’ lists, but as for Hollywood and bigger budget entertainments, I found that if I did miss press screenings I could usually count on them being shown at my local multiplex, which is ten minutes from my house by bicycle. They have late shows for only ¥1,300, and Thursday is “Men’s Day.” Tomorrow, I’ll turn 60, which means…well, no need to get anal about it. It’s been so long since I’ve regularly seen movies in a theater rather than in a screening room that the occasions when I do have become special. What’s weird is that whenever I go to the multiplex, I’m usually the only person in the theater, which makes me wonder how they can possibly stay in business. Of the movies on the following list, only one was watched in a movie theater. I almost included Mad Max: Fury Road, another movie I saw in a theater, but since I never wrote about it I hadn’t really considered why I enjoyed it. In a sense, its appeal was centered on how resistant it was to analysis. I get the stuff about female power and George Miller’s talent for comic violence, but those points seem tangential to the movie’s effect, which is purely visceral. It would be like saying, I loved the movie because I got to see it on a huge screen with kickass sound in a theater I had to myself. It has nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with “the movies.”
After the jump is my list of the best movies released theatrically in Japan in 2015.
1. The Assassin (Taiwan/China): Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first historical action movie is as narratively distinctive as all his films, so genre fans might find the storytelling frustrating, even if the plot, about a female assassin (Qi Shu) dispatched to kill an old lover, sounds pretty familiar. What isn’t familiar is the way Hou stages fight scenes, which are graceful, economical, emotionally engaging. Death has meaning and killing is difficult, even for the highly skilled. You won’t miss the blood.
2. Timbuktu (Mauritania): The jihadists who take over the titular Malian city wield their authority in a reckless manner that is no less terrifying for its arbitrary application. Abderrahmane Sissako shows the humanity of oppressors and oppressed alike, a strategy that only highlights the fallacy of the former’s insistence that their faith is pure. Just one beautiful, banned song from the lips of a young woman proves the folly of their mission and the indestructibility of personal expression.
3. Mr. Turner (UK): Less interested in exploring the psyche of 19th century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner than in figuring out how his milieu affected the way he saw, Mike Leigh abandons his unique script development method and gives us a celebrity biopic that feels like something out of time; almost like one of Turner’s pictures, though there’s the bonus of Timothy Spall’s eccentric performance–all grunts, glowers, and eruptions of gall.
4. Inherent Vice (USA): A fitting addition to the cinema of Southern California, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is, like the best of that canon, a private eye mystery. Set in 1970 and filled with drugs, hippies, crooked cops, drugs, slumming movie stars, black activists, and drugs, the story is worthy of Chandler in that it doesn’t need to be coherent to make its points about L.A. as a unique state of mind, and Anderson is enough of a Pynchon aficionado to do justice to the author’s peculiar turns of phrase and psychedelic situations.
5. Two Days, One Night (Belgium): The Dardenne Brothers’ characteristic social realism trades in discomfort: A young mother (Marion Cotlillard) attempts to persuade her blue collar co-workers–one at a time–to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. The movie is such a test of the viewer’s sympathies that you almost disregard the Dardennes’ point, which is that capitalism depends on competition among those at the bottom of the system.
6. A Most Violent Year (USA): J.C. Chandor’s feature also examines a social issue in detail, but since it does so through the stylistic lens of films made during the period depicted–1981–it has the dramatic heft of Scorsese and Lumet. Oscar Isaac plays a New York heating oil distributor whose ambitions compel his cartel-like competitors to acts of violence. Chandor turns everyday business choices into gritty matters of life and death and shady accounting practices, when they’re carried out by Jessica Chastain, into sexual gamesmanship.
7. Inside Out (USA): Conceptually Pixar’s most audacious feature if not necessarily the funniest or most affecting, Inside Out takes place in the brain of an 11-year-old girl as she navigates the mine field of childhood after her family moves to a new home. Five personified, ego-driven emotions vie for control of her actions, and the genius of the film is the way it represents the workings of the mind using candy-colored pop culture references without reducing behavior to pop psychology. “Train of thought” will never have the same meaning again.
8. Goodbye to Language 3D (Switzerland/France): 3D is not used to enhance anything in Jean-Luc Godard’s latest provocation. Instead, it separates the audience from the reality he wants to recreate, forcing us to consider something objectively, often from two points-of-view simultaneously. Images overpower words with a scattershot collection of visual comments on the state of Europe and Godard’s place in it. The paranoia is palpable, and half the joke is that it may all be in Godard’s head. Now it’s in yours.
9. Three Stories of Love (Japan): In Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s mashup of three intertwined but descrete tales, love is not an ideal to be pursued but a sanctuary from everyday woe. None of his protagonists–a frustrated housewife, an arrogant gay lawyer, a widowed bridge inspector–want much, but what they do want always seems beyond their grasp. Hashiguchi doesn’t present their needs and desires as being separate from their existence, and does a masterful job of elevating the quotidian to the epiphanic, because that’s where we live.
10. Art and Craft (USA): As entertainment, this documentary about art forger Mark Landis is as deceptive as Landis’s con: He fools museums into displaying his versions of semi-famous paintings by making them believe they’re the originals, but since he doesn’t take money he’s not breaking the law. Directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman downplay Landis’s mental health issues, concentrating on our culture’s obsession with “authenticity,” which Landis uses to his mischievous advantage.
The Look of Silence (USA/Indonesia): Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his documentary The Act of Killing is less of a head trip. An optician whose brother, along with thousands of others, was identified as a communist and murdered following the Indonesian coup of 1965 confronts his killers, all public figures, face-to-face. Depressing, infuriating, and vital in the way it points up the hazards of historical denial.
Clouds of Sils Maria (France): Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart square off as women of equal capacities but unequal power due to their professional relationship: superstar actress and personal assistant. Olivier Assayas presents their verbal conflicts as a non-sequential series of mini-plays and in the process reveals how you can’t have art and commerce without compromise.
Foreign Parts (USA): Verena Paravel’s and J.P. Sniadecki’s portrait of a doomed junkyard in Queens, New York, is sharp and confrontational. An insular world inculcated by a barter economy—people come here to dispose of their cars or find cheap parts for them–is naturally a place with its own codes and sensibilities, and reduces America’s automobile fetish to its essence.
Rams (Iceland): Two sheep farmer brothers in rural Iceland who haven’t spoken to each other in years are forced into confrontation by circumstances at once comical and desperate. Blood is thicker than water and sentiment is the enemy of common sense. More important, you’re a product of your environment, especially if you’re a sheep.
Creed (USA): Rocky rebooted for the post-millennial hip-hop generation, a cohort that finds more relevance in Sylvester Stallone’s archetypal story than he ever did. But he’s on hand to make sure it still works as melodrama.