My Counterpoint to the Oscars Snub

Films with rich insight to the human condition

Darleen Ortega | 2/23/2016, 5:13 p.m.
With a bit of Oscar commentary, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2015
Films with rich insight to the human condition top judge Darleen Ortega's top film picks of 2015.

The Academy Awards, which will air on Sunday, are gradually making themselves irrelevant, as they shamelessly overlook some of the best work and promote only a small and all-white cadre of performers. In keeping with my own tradition, I offer this list of the 10 best films of 2015 just in time to provide a counterpoint, with a bit of Oscar commentary thrown in.

I must acknowledge at the outset that this is a pretty heavy bunch -- not a single comedy, and some pretty dark themes. More than half are foreign films and half are not in English; I saw two at last year's Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) and would have included one more ("The President" from Georgia) except that it's not had a DVD release in the U.S. Still, all these films are rich with insights about the human condition and well worth plunging into their depths. The truth-telling here is beautiful and enriching.

To start, here is the list:

  1. Timbuktu
  2. Love and Mercy
  3. The Salt of the Earth
  4. Son of Saul
  5. The Revenant
  6. Tangerine
  7. Leviathan
  8. 45 Years
  9. Marie's Story
  10. Peace Officer

(1) "Timbuktu" is a devastating examination of lived experiences of jihad in a community in Mali. Director Abderrahmane Sissako focuses his gorgeous film on scenes of ordinary life in a Muslim village under siege by outsiders hired to impose religious regime change, impervious to the entreaties of even the local imam. Sissako portrays the brutality of fundamentalism with quiet clarity: Rules are imposed against music and sports and mixed company -- and yet, at every turn, the human spirit of the villagers fights being crushed. A group of boys assembles a soccer game with an imaginary ball; a woman whipped for singing in mixed company turns her cries into music; members of a small family savor their love for each other and dare to hope that humiliations will end. This is both a universal vision of human struggle against tyranny and a window into very particular aspects of an African culture that has not found its way onto Western movie screens. I saw this at last year's PIFF, and nothing has topped it since. You can read my full-length review here:


[Not rated; on at least 76 other critics' top 10 lists; in Arabic, French, Tamasheq and Bambara; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015; available on DVD]

(2) I cannot for the life of me figure out how "Love and Mercy" got so totally shut out of the Oscars this year. It contains three of the very best performances of the year -- Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson, John Cusack as the middle-aged Brian Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's second wife, Melinda Ledbetter -- and provides a remarkably insightful window into an inscrutable life. For once Hollywood has given us a biopic that doesn't merely chronically recount events but gets at some deeper and more complex truths about Wilson, pointing you toward his essential mystery. The particularity of Wilson's intention and his enthusiasm for the act of creation come through in Dano's scenes with mostly older studio musicians and at the piano assembling the scaffolding of the wondrous "God Only Knows"--and throughout, the genius of Wilson's compositions come through as never before. And Cusack and Banks bring a remarkable sense of authenticity to their depiction of the love that grew between Wilson and Ledbetter under the most trying of circumstances. This wise and beautiful film sparks love and mercy for an unknowable person, and sends you back to his music for more of the secrets hidden there. You can read my full-length review here: