No sentence distills the essence of one strain of cinephilia — mine especially — better than this one: “Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women.” Bracing in its profound simplicity, this line was written in 1983 by Boyd McDonald (1925-1993), author of the essential collection Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV, reissued by Semiotext(e) this fall. McDonald, a gay man, ruminated lustily and wittily about actors, but few critics have expounded as passionately (if platonically) about actresses. His observation became something of a mantra for me in 2015, a year dominated by superb performances by women and exceptional movies about them, several of which appear on the list below.
1. Carol: So much of the soaring romance in Todd Haynes’ flawless adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, unprecedented at the time for the happy ending it imagined for its lesbian couple, depends on the gazes exchanged between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Watching them is akin to the way Highsmith described the real-life encounter that sparked her book: “I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.”
2. Clouds of Sils Maria: Olivier Assayas’ immensely intelligent exploration of the porous boundary between performing and being, text and meta-text consistently surprises: Juliette Binoche, playing an internationally renowned star, and Kristen Stewart, as her personal assistant, nimbly refract and reflect their own offscreen personae, launching the viewer into thrilling ontological free fall.
3. Phoenix: In the role of Nelly, a concentration-camp survivor, the superlative Nina Hoss must remake herself in Christian Petzold’s ingenious, perverse melodrama, itself a reimagining of sorts of Vertigo, and set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Seemingly self-deluded, the heroine delivers a coup de grâce that, despite its subtlety, still sears as an indictment of a nation’s pathologies.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road: Did George Miller consult radical-feminist tracts of the 1970s when envisioning the electrifying fourth installment of his dystopian franchise? The title character is nearly superfluous; the planet is saved and the patriarchy toppled by woman power, as Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and joins forces with wizened, chopper-riding separatists.
5. Saint Laurent: Spellbinding and sinuous, Bertrand Bonello’s study of the eminent couturier, shrewdly played by Gaspard Ulliel, restricts its time frame to 1967 to 1977, a decade marked by YSL’s greatest excesses, whether on the runway or at the orgy. Rather than rehash the high and low points of a well-documented life, this biopic immerses us in its subject’s heady milieu.
6. In Jackson Heights: As New Gilded Age excess in New York continues unchecked, Frederick Wiseman’s tonic salute to this vital, vastly diverse neighborhood in Queens reminds us of the quotidian marvels that still define the city, made possible by, among thousands of others, immigrant activists, queer and trans protestors, and taxi-school instructors.
7. The Assassin: I was lucky enough to see Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s exquisite martial-arts film with a friend who’s an Asian-cinema scholar; she assiduously clarified the network of relationships and oblique backstories in this Tang Dynasty–era tale. As grateful as I was for her explication, I’ve largely forgotten it. What remains indelible are the movie’s sensory pleasures: a room filmed through gauzy silk; a low, mesmerizing drum beat.
8. 45 Years: The title of Andrew Haigh’s shattering marital drama refers to the length of time that Kate and Geoff have been wed — the beginning of their union nearly coinciding with the moment that the actors who play the couple, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, first became stars. Rampling’s iconicity adds even more layers to her piercing performance as a woman shaken by a ghost from her beloved spouse’s past.
9. The Wonders: Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature is an uncommonly graceful and astute coming-of-age story, one rooted in the writer/director’s own biography. Centering on the oldest of four daughters in a chaotic family, living off-the-grid in the Tuscan countryside, the film charts the dutiful pubescent’s slow rebellion, her liberation set in motion by an elaborately costumed Monica Bellucci.
10. Heaven Knows What: Among the best New York-based filmmakers working today, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have a particular talent for assembling casts of charismatic misfits to orbit around an often aggravating but entirely absorbing protagonist — in this case, a tiny homeless junkie named Harley, played with corrosive intensity by Arielle Holmes, here dramatizing events from her own very recent past.
Best revivals of the year:
1. Out 1: Noli me tangere: To describe Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour-long opus about post-’68 paranoia and despair, which was filmed in 1970 and first screened the following year, is in some way to betray it or tame its strange power. Loosely organized around a pair of avant-garde theater troupes, this deranging project takes place in a Paris that is both freewheeling and sinister — and filled with some of the most incredible faces I saw on film this year.
2. Losing Ground: One of the finest portraits of a marriage between two ambitious members of the creative class, Kathleen Collins’ second (and final) film, from 1982, is effervescent, brainy and sexy — much like the central couple, a philosophy professor (Seret Scott) and a painter (Bill Gunn), who are still very much in love but not without their unorthodox arrangements.
3. Will You Dance with Me?: Derek Jarman’s video chronicle of one September night in 1984 at a gay club in East London is dance-floor reportage at its best, an exhilarating record of a coed, racially diverse crowd chatting, drinking, flirting and gyrating to Hi-NRG hits. Jarman’s document was the highlight of the Film Society’s “Art of the Real” program, where it screened only once. Which rep house will book it for at least a week and (as the Shannon anthem goes) let the music play?
Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner), Amy (Asif Kapadia), Anomalisa (Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman), Court (Chaitanya Tamhane), The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (Guillaume Nicloux), The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro), The Royal Road (Jenni Olson), Spy (Paul Feig), Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako).