A quick word about qualifying for this list - something has to have received a non-festival U.S. release. This means some stuff that people consider 2015 favorites like The Lobster or Embrace of the Serpent are not eligible here, as there was no way for Americans to have seen them in a limited release.
Sadly, there are also cases where I simply did not have time to watch everything. I try to make the best effort I can, but some movies like Arabian Nights I just didn't get to in time. If you have a question about something I may or may not have seen, I'd be happy to discuss.
The story takes place on an alien planet that is similar to Earth, but with a culture that is vastly different. The society on this planet appear stuck in the medieval dark ages, as though awaiting a renaissance that will never happen. In fact, not only was there no artistic or philosophical revolution, but the society is committed to exterminating its intelligentsia in a genocidal fashion. This ensures that our protagonist, an Earth scientist named Don Rumata, is hopelessly adrift in a sea of filth and ignorance. He and his fellow scientists are under strict guidelines to observe but not intervene with the alien population. Yet, even if they wanted to, how could they usher in a new era of prosperity without giving themselves away as intellectuals? By the time we meet our leading man, he appears to be completely apathetic and nearly mad.
The feeling of frustration and madness seeps into everything in this film. There is no conventional narrative structure, and what little plot there is must be deciphered from cryptic encounters and random images. It's difficult to put into words just how scattershot and meandering this movie can feel at times. One friend of mine who watched an advanced screening of it claimed that over half of the audience walked out, which does not surprise me at all. Watching it on my home theater, I will admit that I had to pause this film many times before finally reaching the end. It is a viewing experience that many will find exhausting.
So why is it here at all? Because it's one of the most ambitious and unforgettable movies I've ever seen. The world that's created here feels so visceral and fully realized. Everywhere you turn there are haunting images of muck and depravity, yet somehow it's an incredibly beautiful film. The cinematography and world building are excellent, but it's also a fascinating premise that leaves lingering questions about society and religion. As the days passed after seeing this film, I found myself thinking about it quite often. It's a terrifying vision of what a failed society can look like, and it's one that doesn't seem so far fetched despite its science fiction plot.
The style of animation is not without purpose, though. It works in conjunction with other stylistic choices that tie into the film's themes. The stop-motion animation puppets have a robotic aesthetic to them, even going so far as to show plainly how their heads are fake. The voices of the ancillary characters are dubbed identically, as well. For quite some time, the only character who appears to be genuine is the main character, Michael Stone. He is a man who appears emotionally lost in a world where everything feels disconnected and dehumanized (ironic when you consider his expertise is customer service) until he accidentally chances upon the character of Lisa. Despite her awkward and quirky demeanor, Michael immediately becomes infatuated with this young woman who he sees as the only other real soul apart from himself.
The plot of the film is surprisingly straightforward when pitted against Kaufman's other screenplays. One could even argue that it's more similar to something like 'Up in the Air' than 'Synecdoche, New York', for example. But while this may not be Kaufman's most challenging narrative, there is something about this film that lingers in the mind of the viewer. There's a deceptive amount of psychological depth to the characters and the story is tinged with melancholy. There's a moment in the film where Michael tells Lisa that there's something exceptional about her, even if he can't say what it is. Whether this is a genuine statement on his part could be debated, but it sums up how I felt about the film when I left the theater. It's a movie that rewards post-viewing reflection, as we consider who these characters are and how their experience changes them - or not, as the case may be.
Mistress America plays out like a screwball New York comedy in the style of Woody Allen. If that sounds like something up your alley, then you're likely to enjoy this. The jokes are fast paced and layered, giving the film a freshness and vitality that I find very endearing. As the plot moves along there's quite a bit of situational comedy as well, which makes it increasingly engaging. This culminates in a chaotic episode at the posh house of Mamie-Claire, Brooke's longtime rival who she contends stole her t-shirt idea and her cats. The craziness that ensues is genuinely delightful.
The chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke is funny and works dramatically as well. Both actresses do an impressive job here, but it's Gerwig who is the standout in this film, establishing herself as both a talented comedic actress as well as a savvy co-writer. Part of what I like about the script is that it's not overly ambitious or be the voice of a generation like other indie films often try to do. Admittedly, Brooke's character represents fading youth and is professionally adrift like a lot of her contemporaries. However, this is a movie that mainly thrives on its wit and the compelling relationship between these two young women. It's a light film, but it's a lot of fun.
Just how crazy is this movie? For starters, there is a submarine with explosive jelly which is mysteriously boarded by a lost woodsman. There is a dream volcano that dreams the fiery dream of molten justice, presiding over cases like squid theft. There is an amnesiac woman who moves between different plots with no recollection of how she got there. There is a man who is so sexually obsessed with derrieres that he hires a doctor to carve out part of his brain... I could keep going. If this sounds like something that you'd be interested in, then this film is for you. Conversely, if this sounds like a taxing experience that you wouldn't enjoy, you're probably right. It takes a certain kind of viewer to appreciate the madness.
Personally, I found it to be a fascinating and at times hilarious experiment. It lets you know right away that while it may be unconventional, this is far from highbrow art cinema. It opens with instructions on how to take a bath, chronicling how the practice dates back to Roman times and instructing bathers on how to set the water and scrub themselves clean. This is paired with archaic film techniques, many of which hearken back to the era of silent films. Indeed, the whole movie looks like it was dug up from an ancient vault and randomly edited together. There's an adventurous vibe to this dream logic production, as well as a playfulness that's very welcome. If you're a fan of absurd humor or just absurdity in general, I'd suggest taking the plunge.
Some may contend that this film follows too closely to the Rocky formula which has already spawned six films. It is true that there's only so much you can do with the format, and this does stay true to a lot of the tried and tested scenes that have worked in the past. However, this expands and improves on this elements in a way that makes the film feel fresh. Part of this is due to it being a reboot, but much of the credit has to go to the strength of the cast and the impressive direction of Ryan Coogler. The production quality of Creed vastly exceeds a lot of the previous entries in the franchise. The most obvious improvement being the fight scenes themselves, which are sometimes glossed over in a montage fashion. In Creed, there is a round of fighting that is done in one continuous take. It's far from a gimmick, as it really captures the essence of the brawl in a way I've never seen from a boxing film before. The fight choreography in general is head and shoulders above anything I've seen in the genre thus far.
Stallone (who I have never considered a great actor) probably turns in a career best performance here, working for the first time with an acting coach. Michael B Jordan is likely a star on the rise, but it's Tessa Thompson who was, for me, the real standout performance in the film despite limited screen time. As one might expect, these dramatic characters and their story arcs are heavily featured. Rocky movies have long been about the life struggle that exists outside of the ring, and this film is no exception to that.
A bit of an aside, but I also enjoyed how this film was so distinctly Philadelphia. As a longtime resident of the city, it was nice to see shots of places I've been to. Even those who have never been to Philadelphia have praised the film's use of environment. If nothing else, Creed finally got to explain to the rest of the world what a jawn is.