2015 was yet another strong year for movies, so much so that we had over 100 films submitted by our numerous contributors for consideration. In the end, these are the 30 that made the cut for PopOptiq’s Best of the Year. Enjoy!
30.) Shaun the Sheep
Aardman Studios is the stop-motion clay animation equivalent of what Pixar is for computer-generated animation, only that fewer people recognize the name, unlike with Pixar. While shiny computer animation is easy on the eyes and has taken family entertainment by storm for about 20 years without ever looking back, it is interesting to note that Aardman simply keeps on taking whatever time is necessary to write, produce and release stop-motion clay animated films every few years despite what everyone else is doing. Their latest, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is, well, the cinematic adaptation of the Shaun the Sheep cartoon. Following the cleverly devised slaptstick misadventures of Shaun and his fellow sheep brethren as they leave their boring farm life for the excitement of the big city, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton’s motion picture (in the truest sense of the word) is a delightful example of visual storytelling, from gags, to action, to genuine heartstring pulling, and then plenty of more gags because those are just so much fun. Absent of any dialogue save the undecipherable mumblings of the humans and the adorable ‘Bahs!’ and ‘Mehs’ of the sheep, the film is something of a throwback to the era of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, a time when, because there was no dialogue, everything, literally everything, had to be communicated through the visuals. Is it a brilliant, provocative and groundbreaking piece of cinema? No, but it is an absolute treat if there ever was one. (Edgar Chaput)
29.) Arabian Nights
Portuguese critic-turned-filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ six-hour, three-volume Arabian Nights is too wild and ambitious to be perfect, but it’s so stuffed with radical ideas that I can’t help but adore it. Arabian Nights is an audacious attempt to survey the aftermath of Portugal’s severe financial crisis, based on stories reported to Gomes by journalists he employed to take stock of that country’s changing social landscape. Instead of limiting himself to the conventional documentary format or filmic realism, Gomes runs in the opposite direction, creating a work of magical realism that blends fiction and non-fiction, while also drawing on other art forms like literature, theatre, and pop music. Using the loose outline of the original Arabian Nights stories to allow for an episodic format, Gomes documents the effects of the crisis by retelling the personal accounts of private citizens. Sometimes these stories are told directly, through interviews or documentary footage, while other times they are interpreted through fantasy sequences that function much like Biblical parables, albeit with more anachronisms. Stuffed with exploding whales, island princesses, and ironic music choices, Arabian Nights is one of the boldest and most inventive films of the year, not just a radical rethinking of political cinema, but an ode to the liberating and expressive power of moving pictures. (Nathan Smith)
Charlie Kaufman’s adult stop-motion animation imbues its human puppets with a realistic sense of empathetic openness to experience that melds desperation and tenderness into a whirlwind of gorgeously distressed interactions. The mundane location of a hotel in Cincinnati is the setting for the complex emotional disintegration of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), an author and motivational speaker who specializes in customer service. Kaufman’s daring writing dissects various stages of depression, elation and lust in an effort to explore humankind’s often fruitless search for meaning and connection. There is a real attempt to examine the character’s role in the well-being of others even as he focuses so intently on himself and finding what may make existence bearable. A graphic albeit delicate sexuality permeates the whole affair as Michael becomes smitten with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose voice rises above the din of everyone else (all voiced by the gifted Tom Noonan) to encompass what hope there might be left in the world. The intricate animation seamlessly stuns as the plot vacillates between sweet and disturbing behavior. Anomalisa is a dizzying head-trip into mental disarray and a flawed man’s earnest exercise in escaping mortality that impresses with its elevated venture into the byzantine void that everyone seeks to fill. (Lane Scarberry)
27.) The Lobster
Following the wholly distinct one-two punch of Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), Greek filmmaker and world creator extraordinaire Yorgos Lanthimos presents another fascinating tale of a time and place beyond any true reality, but one that somehow still seems disturbingly, captivatingly, and oddly reasonable. This time, the scenario revolves around an isolated hotel where single guests must find a mate within 45 days or be transformed into a variety of animals and then be cast out (well, maybe not that reasonable). The originality of Lanthimos’ plot could in itself be enough to teasingly carry a film like The Lobster, but amplifying the picture’s impact is an observational approach that visually pulls back as the ridiculousness unfolds, maintaining a dryly cynical distance. Lanthimos’ framing frequently keeps everything just in view enough to be clear and just remote enough to be jaundiced in its ambivalent acceptance of the illogical. And it’s all very funny. The Lobster stars a plumper, mustachioed, and bespectacled Colin Farrell as David, a man who speaks every word and conveys every emotion as if it were a chore to do so, perfectly embodying a calculated, regimented, and efficiently emotionless existence where everything is arranged and orchestrated beyond the realm of human individuality (most other characters are identified only by certain traits: Lone Swimmer, Receptionist, Biscuit Woman, etc.). In its humorously metaphoric way, The Lobster skewers the perceived necessity of a stable, conventional relationship, while those who rebel against the societal norm of companionship are discarded as insufficient. Like all of Lanthimos’ cinema, The Lobster is distinguished by a surrealism so earnestly acted and so meticulously presented that nothing about it seems entirely unrealistic, no matter the darkly comic absurdity.
26.) Bone Tomahawk
It’s hard to imagine that there are places where society doesn’t exist, where looking off to the horizon is facing the unknown; the potential for hope maybe, but also for something much worse. In the case of first-time director S. Craig Zahler’s new western, it’s the latter. Approaching traditional motifs from a slightly different direction, Bone Tomahawk sprinkles a bit of horror into the genre, not shying away from the more grisly struggles of its heroes and villains, set against a stark, open landscape, beyond the reach of any real law other than nature’s. People fear what they do not understand, and conflict is inevitably what comes from trying to force a civilized life into an uncivilized world. Stray too far into uncharted territory and you could lose yourself entirely. For those weak of grit, lacking in steely will, without sure footing, the wild frontier can be terrifying insanity, and ultimately death. Beautifully photographed and elegantly assembled, with poetically blunt dialogue, Bone Tomahawk is a fresh entry in a once popular genre that even for fans has felt a little stale and formulaic at times, proof that there are still plenty of stories to tell on the plains, and intriguing ways to tell them. (Patrick Murphy)