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Four-Star Reviews of 2015

In the fourth installment of our series compiling all reviews from 2015 according to star rating (click here to view the first, second and third), we're focusing on the films that earned our coveted highest rating of four stars. Courtesy of this site's in-depth coverage, you'll find titles listed that may not have opened at a theater near you, but are well worth seeking out. Others, such as "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Ex Machina," enjoyed wide releases. 

Of particular note are two titles, "Timbuktu" and "Wild Tales," that were nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year but didn't arrive in U.S. theaters until 2015, thus making them entirely qualifiable for consideration in end-of-the-year best-of lists. "Wild Tales," by the way, earned an utterly rapturous response at this year's Ebertfest, provoking multiple rounds of applause from the clearly delighted crowd. "Red Army" also received wild applause at the Cannes Film Festival last year, but was introduced to American audiences in 2015.

The reviews are presented in alphabetical order and are written by our superb team of critics. They include editors Brian Tallerico and Matt Zoller Seitz; featured critics Godfrey Cheshire, Glenn Kenny and Peter Sobczynski; contributors Scout Tafoya and Danny Bowes; and Far Flung Correspondent Omer M. Mozaffar. Click on the name of each title and you will be directed to the full review.

Please check back Friday as we present the worst films reviewed so far this year.

About Elly by Godfrey Cheshire

About Elly” represents all the tendencies of [Asghar] Farhadi’s mature style as brilliantly as “A Separation,” yet it is not a successor to the latter film. It was made just before it and won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009, but, due to complicated rights issues, was not released in the U.S. until now. Its belated appearance should be welcomed by cinephiles, as it offers solid proof of this writer-director’s distinctive gifts.

Amour fou by Scout Tafoya

One of the final images in “Amour fou” rhymes with a shot near the end of “Lovely Rita,” only a few of the details have changed. Hausner has softly evolved in the years between these movies into one of the greatest directors in the world, but her gaze at the enervating fact of female disenfranchisement hasn’t wavered. 

Amour fou is available for pre-order on Amazon.  

Amy by Susan Wloszczyna

What sets “Amy” apart from similar train-wreck bio-docs […] is the almost overwhelming sense of voyeuristic intimacy achieved by a vast array of archival clips, many unseen before and some shot by Winehouse herself, accompanied by vividly candid current-day audio commentary by those who knew her best. Sometimes, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on day-to-day conversations rather than just hearing the usual litany of platitudes and regrets.

Court by Laya Maheshwari

The oration from the lawyers practically dares you to stay awake. The case itself is jaw-dropping in its staidness. The arguments are routinely filled with jargon, and this jargon may even be irrelevant. For most of its 116-minute runtime, a resolution appears quixotic. And yet, Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane’s first feature is a masterpiece, one of the best films of the year.

Ex Machina by Matt Zoller Seitz

The movie never loses grip on what it's about; this is a rare commercial film in which every scene, sequence, composition and line deepens the screenplay's themes—which means that when the bloody ending arrives, it seems less predictable than inevitable and right, as in myths, legends and Bible stories. 

Ex Machina is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Gangs of Wasseypur by Danny Bowes

One of the most ambitious gangster films ever made, and quite possibly one of the best. Hyperbole is in no shortage in modern film criticism, but please put that grain of salt down. It is not necessary. “Gangs of Wasseypur” is that good, and Anurag Kashyap will forever be a major filmmaker on the sole basis of making it.

Gangs Of Wasseypur [Blu-ray] is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem by Matt Zoller Seitz

Every shot, cut, line, performance, indeed every moment in this feature is perfectly judged, always conveying precisely what it needs to convey in order to define its characters and move the story forward. And yet the result never seems merely neat or efficient. 

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Goodnight Mommy by Peter Sobczynski

Co-filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have conjured an intelligently staged and executed creepfest that takes one of the most universally compelling of notions—the unbreakable bond that exists between a mother and her children—and approaches it in such a formally and narratively bleak manner that it makes the works of fellow countryman Michael Haneke seeming almost benign by comparison.

Güeros by Godfrey Cheshire

Right off the bat, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “Güeros” captures three superlatives from this reviewer: Best debut feature I’ve seen in the last year, best Mexican film in recent memory, and best (black and white) cinematography since Pawel Pawlikowski’s equally stunning but very different “Ida.”

Hard to be a God by Glenn Kenny

“Hard To Be A God,” the final film by the inspired Russian director Alexei German [...] is not only an unforgettable individual masterpiece but probably one of the capital-G Great Films. You’ll need a strong stomach and another kind of endurance to sit through it, as it’s nearly three hours long and is more than a little oblique in its approach to narrative, [...] but once it is over you know you’ve really had an experience.

Hard to Be a God is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Inside Out by Matt Zoller Seitz

It avoids a lot of the cliched visuals and storytelling beats that make even the best Pixar movies, and a lot of movies by Pixar's competitors, feel too familiar. The best parts of it feel truly new, even as they channel previous animated classics (including the works of Hayao Miyazaki) and explore situations and feelings that everyone has experienced to some degree.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck by Brian Tallerico

Just as Nirvana took elements of music we had heard before and made them sound new, filmmaker Brett Morgen deconstructs the music documentary and makes it feel new again. In fact, this is one of the best music documentaries ever made.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (DVD) and Blu-ray is available for pre-order on Amazon.

La Sapienza by Godfrey Cheshire

La Sapienza” strikes this reviewer as easily the most astonishing and important movie to emerge from France in quite some time. While its style deserves to be called stunningly original and rapturously beautiful, the film is boldest in its artistic and philosophical implications, which pointedly go against many dominant trends of the last half-century.

La Sapienza is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Li’l Quinquin by Scout Tafoya

One of the sharpest autocritiques in recent memory. [Bruno] Dumont's real trick isn't spinning his iconic imagery for laughs, but doing so without straying from his usual mission of investigating the extent to which humans can possibly be modeled after God in the most violent imaginable terms. That's having your cake and eating it in ways Lars Von Trier could only dream of. 

Li'l Quinquin is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Mad Max: Fury Road by Brian Tallerico

The first chase in “Fury Road,” as Joe’s men catch up to Furiosa and her precious cargo, is one of the most remarkable action sequences in film history. And that’s really just a warm-up. It’s no exaggeration to say that, if you think something in “Fury Road” is the most breathtaking action stunt you’ve seen in years, you really need only wait a few minutes to see something better.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Special Edition DVD + UltraViolet) and Blu-ray are available for pre-order on Amazon.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine by Matt Zoller Seitz

It is wrenching but never exploitive. It is impressively skeptical of the same mission that it takes on its shoulders: to make something positive from a senseless crime without diminishing its senselessness. This film doesn't just revisit an atrocity, it moves through it, and finds meaning in it. 

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation by Matt Zoller Seitz

"Rogue Nation" feels like it could’ve been a movie by [Buster] Keaton’s most fervent disciple, Jackie Chan, who gifted the human race with the likes of "Project A" and "Supercop." It has a loose, hurtling quality. Despite all the bone-breaking violence, its touch is light.

The New Girlfriend by Peter Sobczynski

One of its greatest pleasures is seeing how filmmaker Francois Ozon manages to find just the right note for such challenging material. He transforms what might have been a tonal nightmare in other hands into a wildly entertaining work, one that manages to be simultaneously funny, touching, slightly unnerving and undeniably sexy to behold, regardless of where your predilections may lie.

The Ocean of Helena Lee by Peter Sobczynski

The two main characters in "The Ocean of Helena Lee" live together in the Venice Beach area of California, and each represents one of those two particular perspectives. Watching them navigate through their lives makes for one of the more unique, evocative and deeply felt coming-of-age films to come along in quite some time.

The Ocean of Helena Lee is available on Amazon.

Phoenix by Brian Tallerico

With echoes of “Vertigo,” and a deeply confident visual language, Petzold’s film resonates long after its perfect ending. This is a riveting piece of work that never loses sight of its human story while also serving as a commentary for how an entire country deals with tragedies like war. A film this satisfying on every level—one that can be enjoyed purely for its narrative while also providing material for hours of discussion on its themes—is truly rare.

Red Army by Godfrey Cheshire

Emotionally charged, viscerally exciting and consistently enlightening, Gabe Polsky’s “Red Army” is a sports documentary like no other. [...] That it covers such a momentous sweep of history gives “Red Army” the allure of an epic, though it’s one told in very intimate terms. 

Red Army is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Shaun the Sheep Movie by Susan Wloszczyna

As a pushover for this distinctly Ol’ Blighty brand of comedy, the chuckles came early and often for me. There is something in the way that the sheep’s mouths unhinge and slip sideways whenever they emit an utterance or simply smile that I find charmingly ingenious in its physiological impossibility.

Straight Outta Compton by Odie Henderson

The filmmakers have made a fiercely political movie that’s an equally fierce “talk back to the screen”-style crowd-pleaser for folks eager to hear the tale of an influential rap group. “Straight Outta Compton” is a reminder that the biopic genre held the patent on the cinematic origin story long before the Marvel Universe; it plays like a Marvel superhero movie had Marvel been run by Suge Knight.

Timbuktu by Glenn Kenny

A thoroughly remarkable and disquieting film from Mali’s Abderrahamane Sissako, “Timbuktu” is also a work of almost breathtaking visual beauty, but it manages to ravish the heart while dazzling the eye simultaneously, neither at the expense of the other. It’s a work of art that seems realized in an entirely organic way.

Timbuktu is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Valley of Saints by Omer M. Mozaffar

Musa Syeed’s first feature, “Valley of Saints” is a quiet tapestry of such colorful beauty that it had me sighing and smiling through every scene. [...] Syeed explores the heart of a rarely visited landscape, and the souls of the resilient Kashmiri people. This is an amazing film.

Wild Tales by Godfrey Cheshire

An extraordinary surprise. Perhaps the best multi-story feature this reviewer has ever seen, the Sony Classics release, a nominee for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, deserves to become a serious art-house hit in the U.S. thanks to its skill in deftly overcoming the form’s usual deficits, for a result that feels as amazingly cohesive as it is relentlessly clever and entertaining.

Wild Tales is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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