Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (Gomes, 2015, 9.4) (link to review)
“Gomes’s wildest, most auspicious and gloriously messy film to date borrows the structure of the eponymous Middle Eastern collection of folkloric tales, but appropriated to modern Portugal under the government’s extreme austerity measures.”
What’s the Time in Your World? (Yazdanian, 2015, 9.0)
Safi Yazdanian’s first film is an enchanting story of love, loss and the bittersweet emotions of returning home as an emigre. Superbly acted by the trio of Leila Hatami, Ali Mosaffa and Zahra Hatami and aided by Christophe Rezaei’s charming score and elements of magical realism, Yazdanian’s French-tinged exploration of the northern Iranian milieu is cinematically impeccable and, for personal reasons, emotionally resonant for me.
316 (Haghani, 2015, 8.7)
The premise of an experimental film that tells a woman’s story from birth to death through her shoes doesn’t quite prepare the audience for the tenderness, humour and insight in 316. Haghani’s film, devoid of any faces and with the camera mostly pointed at the feet and shoes of all characters, is a visionary work that deserves a lot more attention that it has internationally received.
Oblivion Season (Rafei, 2015, 7.1)
Oblivion Season‘s de-saturated palette and thoughtful framing elevate a story that is otherwise somewhat tired in Iranian cinema, the added twist in this story of a woman fighting against a society that views her as second class is that her past as a sex worker deprives her of respect and trust even from those closest to her. Yet, the star of the show is clearly Sareh Bayat, whose sensational performance makes the character compelling, layered and sympathetic.
Two (Golestani, 2015, 5.5)
Golestani’s first try behind the camera is technically impressive but the story’s immense potential for thematic exploration is undermined by vague narrative construction and a truncated ending.
Taboo (Masoumi, 2015, 4.0)
Masoumi’s film is gorgeously shot, but it’s impossible to save the film from its archaic gender politics, cliched plot turns and shrill tone of writing and acting.
I Want to Be a King (Ganji, 2015, 8.7)
At once hilarious and harrowing, Ganji’s documentary about a business owner in the suburbs of Shiraz is comedy gold, but also successful at subtly conveying the horrors of living with emotional abuse. The uniqueness of the subject matter, the intimate access of the filmmaker and the wild personality of the man at the film’s centre make this one of the best documentaries to come out of Iran in a long time.
Jameh-Daraan (Ghotbi, 2015, 7.5)
An unexpected delight. Ghotbi’s period drama about hidden identities and mysterious pasts digs deep into the problematic side-effects of patriarchy and gender inequality and the personal toll of the trauma it causes. Slick, elegant and polished in production and featuring outstanding performances across the board, particularly from Baran Kowsari and Pegah Ahangarani, Jameh-Daraan is much stronger film that it will get credit for.
Ashkan, the Charmed Ring and Other Stories (Mokri, 2009, 7.9)
Continuing Mokri’s interest in challenging storytelling conventions in cinema that he had exhibited in his early short films, Ashkan‘s multi-faceted narrative forces the audience to reconsider the effect of each individual frame in their perception and understanding the story. Details that would be overlooked in other films gain significance here even for any viewer with an untrained eye. Ashkan announced Mokri as one of the most exciting new voices in Iranian cinema.
Confessions of My Dangerous Mind (Seyyedi, 2015, 6.3)
Seyyedi’s work in subgenres that are generally foreign to Iranian cinema merits attention, and Confessions‘ hyper-stylized camerawork, lighting and editing are worthy efforts, but the plot’s neat tricks have been explored by several filmmakers in the past couple of decades (most notably Christopher Nolan in Memento) and the film is rather thin thematically.
Night Shift (Karimi, 2015, 7.7)
Even stronger on a second screening, Karimi’s exquisitely controlled direction is masterful and the performances are intense and magnetic. Iranian cinema has no shortage of marital dramas, but this level of empathetic scrutiny is a rare gift.
Death of the Fish (Hejazi, 2015, 7.7)
“Hejazi’s first three films were all interesting misfires, but Death of the Fish is a massive leap forward. Featuring a staggering ensemble cast and a keen eye for small moments of tender human connection between its characters, the film’s sparse narrative crawls under our screen and lingers long after. A genuinely moving story about loss and grief.”
I am Diego Maradona (Tavakoli, 2015, 8.1)
Relentlessly energetic and overwhelmingly talky, Tavakoli’s ensemble comedy is what, to characterize it in reductive terms, we would have if Charlie Kaufman and Pedro Almodovar collaborated on an Iranian film; and I am Diego Maradona is exactly as glorious as that sounds.
Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015, 8.5)
Smartly written screenplay, carefully considered politics, superb individual performances that gel together seamlessly in the ensemble and the understated but measured direction of McCarthy make Spotlight one of the best American films of the year. This is an intelligent, thrilling and important film, and an emotionally powerful one.
Where’s the Friend’s Home? (Kiarostami, 1989, 9.8)
Truly one of the greatest films ever made.
10 on Ten (Kiarostami, 2004, 6.8)
Kiarostami’s video essay on filmmaking is rather monotonous, but his sense of humour and the wealth of his knowledge about the medium make this an essential film for all cinephiles.
Mustang (Erguven, 2015, 7.6) (link to review)
“Mustang would be a brave film for any director, but particularly so for a Middle-Eastern woman making her first film. Being from Turkey—a country where, much like the rest of the region, the burden of representation is always heavy on the shoulders of artists—telling the story of women’s oppression so boldly is no easy feat.”
In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima, 1976, 7.7)
Notions of devotion and sacrifice in love in Japanese folklore have been always been of particular interest to me for their proximity to similar ideas in Iranian culture, and In the Realm of the Sense was an interesting case in point. The film’s emotional authenticity intensifies as the story progresses, along with the connection between the main characters. By the end, even the gruesome finale is tempered by the tenderness of the moment the lovers share.
Bridge of Spies (Spielberg, 2015, 7.3)
For the majority of the film, until the second part of the third act, there is a curious lack of tension in the story, but Spielberg’s construction of moods and spaces is brilliant, as are the performances of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.
Junun (Anderson, 2015, 7.9)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s foray into documentary filmmaking is a near spiritual experience. Anderson’s approach is smartly unobtrusive, allowing the magic of the moment and the sheer power of the music to take centre stage.