The Year of the Monkey is drawing to a close. Despite the events in the real world, this year at least brought us some soulful films. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to prepare us for the impending yuckiness of future reality. Still, my picks for the best films of the year intriguingly combined sweetness and sentiment with a vicious streak — subtle in some cases, neon-lit in others. All are hauntingly memorable.
10 Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait: Director Ossama Mohammed was exiled in Paris when he teamed up with a young Kurdish woman named Wiam Bedirxan, who was in Homs in western Syria. Bedirxan sent Mohammed video footage of ISIS’ atrocities, film that she took herself on the streets, and he turned it into a documentary, also using footage found on social networking services. The result leaves you speechless; it’s hard to swallow, much less to understand how this war could still be happening.
9 Tsukiji Wonderland: Long before Tsukiji fish market was slated to move and the fiasco that ensued, director Naotaro Endo was permitted to take his camera into the deepest recesses of the inner market and film the community for an entire year. He had intended the movie to be a loving farewell to Tsukiji, but now it looks like the market will be around for a good while yet, which makes this documentary all the more enjoyable.
8 The Martian: Sustainability becomes the life-or-death obsession of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after a disaster forces his crew to take off and leave him stranded on the Red Planet. The logistics of procuring oxygen, water and food for more than a year with the few resources at his disposal forces him to stretch his intellect and imagination. It’s much more suspenseful than the Bourne franchise.
7 Hungry Hearts: Not one for foodies, this film showcases the talents of Adam Driver, who plays Jude, the endearing American husband of troubled Italian wife Mina (Alba Rohrwacher). The two meet in the toilet of a New York restaurant, marry and have a baby son, but when Mina becomes obsessed with the baby’s diet, feeding him only oil and greens, their relationship is put to a heart-wrenching test.
6 The Lobster: Weird doesn’t begin to describe what goes on in this droll nightmare of a tale starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. Interestingly, much of the near-future depicted here seems to echo certain components of contemporary Japanese society — people never smile, they’re always wearing suits, and everyone must be coerced into finding sexual partners.
5 The Danish Girl: Eddie Redmayne is famous for his boyish looks and roles, but in this, he morphs into sultry Danish artist Lilli Elbe, one of the first known transgender individuals in Europe during the 1920s. Redmayne gives an effective performance but the movie’s real heroine is Lilli’s artist wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who starts out happily married to a man but also fully supports him after he becomes Lilli.
4 Carol: The pleasure of watching Cate Blanchett on screen is enhanced by the pleasure of watching her as a jaded 1950s New York socialite, irrepressibly attracted to Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store salesgirl. Carol seduces Therese, who soon matures into the seducer and their passion escalates. Directed by Todd Haynes, it’s a love story for the ages.
3 Dheepan: Sri Lanka has been in the throes of a civil war for decades and Tamil solider Dheepan has had enough. He teams up with a strange woman and an orphaned little girl, and flees to Paris posing as a family to gain refugee status. Once there, Dheepan lands a job as janitor and thinks he has found peace — that is, until he’s embroiled in a local drug war. “Dheepan” is a tribute to our human strength to survive, adjust and ultimately find happiness.
2 Spotlight: The internet was inundated with fake news this year (especially in the weeks before and after the U.S .presidential election), which gave print journalism a big credibility boost. “Spotlight,” which won an Oscar for Best Picture, follows the investigative news team at the Boston Globe that exposed decades of child molestation and abuse by the local Catholic archdiocese. Nothing flashy or glamorous, but the drama is riveting.
1 The Red Turtle: Hayao Miyazaki apparently said of Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit, “If one day Studio Ghibli decides to produce an animator from outside, it will be him.” Sixteen years later, Studio Ghibli releases De Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” a dialogue-less gem of simple beauty. A young sailor is marooned on a tropical island, but every time he builds a raft to escape, a sea turtle appears and hacks it to pieces. Eventually, he finds out why.