The international lineup proved to be something of a mixed bag for film buffs in 2015. But the one thing that stood out among other features in this year’s films were the acting performances. Some were skilled, others were extraordinary, but mostly they were memorable and gutsy, delivered with the kind of sincerity that allows a character to reach out from the other side of the screen and touch the audience. This happens a lot less often than you would expect, but when it does, it feels like you’ve been handed a gift. On that note, here are my top 10 films from 2015 — invisibly wrapped and tied with ribbons.
10 The Captive: Critics once loved director Atom Egoyan but his more recent films generally haven’t been as well-received. “The Captive” perhaps marks the beginning of a return to greatness, although the thriller didn’t quite attract the attention it deserved at the time of its release. As the name suggests, “The Captive” tells the story of a child of working-class parents who is kidnapped. The drama unfolds against Egoyan’s favorite Canadian backdrop: snowy white skies and icy streets.
9 Selma: Somewhat surprisingly, Ava DuVernay is the very first filmmaker to produce a dramatized feature film based on events in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Selma” primarily focuses on the three civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 that changed the course of race relations in America forever, but it also offers an insight into the private life of the pastor and activist.
8 Wild: Actress Reese Witherspoon delivers a powerhouse performance as Cheryl Strayed, the real-life author of a book called “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” who hiked more than 1,700 km in an attempt to shake a drug habit and right the wrongs of her life. Over the course of her journey, Strayed’s feet became blistered and she was forced to confront her demons, her fears and loneliness on a daily basis. In spite of all the hardships, Strayed ultimately found the redemption she was seeking. “Wild” left a lasting impression.
7 The Look of Silence: The sequel to the 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing” is as difficult to sit through as its predecessor. This time, director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses on one of the survivors of the massacres in Indonesia that took place in the 1960s. The victim is an ophthalmologist living in a village where tens of thousands of people were brutally murdered, including his own brother. The perpetrators that were involved in the deaths are still around — complacent, prosperous and dangerously powerful.
6 Terminator Genysis: This movie is a mess, but former Californian Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves points for coming back and reviving the “Terminator” franchise in his late 60s. Schwarzenegger drives a pickup truck instead of straddling a Harley but he’s still got the moves, if not exactly the bod. “Terminator Genysis” features a lot of heavy-duty computer graphics, paying off in a hilarious scene when a very young Schwarzenegger (from the first installment in 1984) dukes it out with his older self — before John Connor was born and Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke) was a waitress.
5 Rhino Season: Italian actress Monica Bellucci has never looked so beautiful, despite appearing in half of “Rhino Season” with grey hair and making no visible attempt to disguise her age. Both parts sublime and painful, “Rhino Season” tells the story of a couple who were wrenched apart and kept in separate prisons when the Iranian Revolution broke out. The wife (Bellucci) is released after 10 years and the husband gets out after 30. Once released, the husband tries to track his wife down, but she has unknowingly married the traitor who had them arrested.
4 The Tribe: Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s drama kicked up a storm at the Cannes Film Festival, but it makes no sound of its own. Set in a school for the deaf, the film contains no dialogue or subtitles. Grigoriy Fesenko stars as a teenager who is new to the school and is struggling to fit in. He is smitten with a young woman (Yana Novikova), but she and her friends are part of a secret prostitution racket. Most of the money is given to the school boss, who also happens to be the girl’s boyfriend. Poetic, brutal and poignant, “The Tribe” shows how words can be totally redundant.
3 Lilting: This should be required viewing for anyone with an Asian mother. London-based director Hong Khaou mixes together issues such as mother-son relationships and sexuality to create a masterful blend of Asian family dynamics set against the backdrop of a wintry London. Ben Whishaw is superb as Richard, whose lover, Kai (Andrew Leung), has just died. When Richard reaches out to Kai’s mother (Cheng Pei-Pei), she’s full of resentment and has no idea of her son’s sexual identity.
2 Saint Laurent: It seems that Lea Seydoux is almost everywhere these days, such is the frequency of her appearances in new releases. In “Saint Laurent,” she exchanges earthy sexuality for elegance as she becomes Loulou, Yves Saint Laurent’s model-cum-muse. The story recounts the most scintillating decade in the designer’s career, and the ensembles from Saint Laurent’s famed 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection were recreated from scratch. Apparently, director Bertrand Bonello couldn’t get the full seal of approval from Pierre Berge (Saint Laurent’s partner) for the project, but that snag has only made it better.
1 Whiplash: Director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort is extraordinary but, curiously, it doesn’t linger in the brain or haunt the retina. “Whiplash” recounts the relationship between a young drummer (Miles Teller) at a New York music college and his freakishly committed teacher (J.K. Simmons), who bullies and abuses him no end. It struck a nerve for many viewers in Japan because plenty of students here have had to deal with abusive teachers at least once in their lives.