2015: Favorite 30 Films

Artwork: K.E.T.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films and TV shows that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


In 2014, we basked in the warm, soothing glow of genre films. While a number of them veered toward the dark and macabre, many of our absolute favorites — like The Grand Budapest Hotel and our #1 of the year, Under the Skin — were divorced from reality — fascinating and brilliant, obviously, but in the realm of the fantastic rather than in the now. 2015 was a tough year, and just a glance at its major news headlines was enough to make us shudder. Our favorite films of the year tended to reflect our increasing anxieties and disillusionment, as our knowledge of rigged systems and fraudulent institutions reached its peak, causing us to feel even more powerless at our inability to combat them.

If the cinema of 2015 was anything for us, it was the year of the social outsider. Disenchantment with reality morphed itself into empowerment via cinematic proxy, giving a voice to the voiceless and face to those normally lost in the crowd. From those thrust into society’s margins due to their race or sexual/gender identities (Field Niggas, Carol, Tangerine, Chi-Raq), drug addiction (Heaven Knows What, Stinking Heaven), or inborn disabilities (the deaf kids in The Tribe) to those forcibly cut off from the outside world (Room) or who simply reveled in giving it a giant, perpetual “fuck you” (Buzzard), characters in our favorite films of the year just flat-out struggled to navigate reality.

Even the settings and environments in this batch of films were unrelentingly vicious and challenging. From the brutal blasts of icy winds in The Hateful Eight and The Revenant and the unforgivingly dry desert landscapes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Timbuktu to land soaked in blood (Crimson Peak), mud, and feces (Hard to Be a God), Mother Earth wasn’t taking any more of our shit and felt compelled to inform us. Even the reliability of good, old-fashioned sex to come through with a little unfettered pleasure and joy came at a hefty price, leaving its characters as reticent sadists (The Duke of Burgundy), with a supernatural being or gang of dominatrices hunting them down (It Follows, R100), or defenseless in a dark, damp European corridor (Spring). Forget about it being hard to be a God; in this year’s cinema, it was hard enough to be a fucking person.

Yet despite all this doom and gloom, our favorite films never wallowed in misery and instead met the trials and tribulations of existence head-on in wildly entertaining and innovative ways, transcending struggles and leaving behind inspiring treatises that left us richer and stronger in the process. No, this was not a defeatist year at movies — quite the opposite, despite the dark shadow cast by its films. Cinema ran into the face of adversity and came away with its fair share of victories that empowered the powerless and touched us all deeply on an experiential and intellectual level. The significance of cinema was exemplified, to loosely paraphrase Godard, not only in its uncanny ability to reflect reality, but in that reflections’ reality to change us for the better. 2015 took us into some dark new territories, but the light it shed upon them may just have made the path ahead a bit clearer.


30

Field Niggas

Dir. Khalik Allah

[Khalik Allah]

With Field Niggas, director Khalik Allah made the bold choice of uncoupling the video from the soundtrack in this freeform portrait of people living on the streets of Harlem. By intuitively collaging sound and image, Allah created a sense of being in a kind of dream state that echoes the sense of fractured reality expressed by the characters. The streets felt like a kind of living hell fraught with mental illness, a place with no code of honor beyond survival. But from within the floating dialogue (in which you can only guess which of the onscreen people are speaking), thoughts of blinding clarity and insight also emerged. Allah’s jazzy, shallow focus cinematography beautifully captured both the romance and grit of the place, expressing the filmmaker’s heartfelt, personal connection with the location and the characters. It’s the rare documentary that successfully managed to look out at the surrounding world from inside its subjects’ psyche, a uniquely intense, intimate, frightening, and enlightening experience.

29

Chi-Raq

Dir. Spike Lee

[Amazon Films]

Like its name, Chi-Raq is composed of elements that do not, in good taste, go together: an adaptation of Aristophanes’s erotic comedy Lysistrata, performed primarily in rhyming verse, about the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago’s black community. Lee constantly shatters the 4th wall, via a Greek chorus transposed to (and infinitely improved upon by) Samuel L. Jackson (billed as “Dolmedes”), who is dressed as a high-fashion pimp. Just as kaleidoscopically, the fiery head of the black congregation is played by a pasty John Cusack. But somehow, the disparateness of Chi-Raq’s formal elements feels seamless, especially within the complex framework of its politics. The issue in Lee’s film is naively obvious: gun violence is a problem for African Americans. But its web of causality is more complex, putting the onus for change — or at least for steering the discussion — on the black community, even while acknowledging the nationwide systemic issues, like poverty and racism, that perpetuate the deadly status quo. Lee’s hyperactive direction — and the best ensemble cast of the year, led by Teyonah Parris, to whom, Dolmedes rightly says, even Queen Beyoncé bows down — miraculously saves Chi-Raq from being dismissed as a message movie. Even so, its message has angered everyone from feminist critics to Black Lives Matter activists. Lee’s grandiose jumble of elements seems to even encompass them: rather than offensive, Chi-Raq was big-hearted.

28

Crimson Peak

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

[Legendary]

Crimson Peak was a peculiarly familiar story that seemed to almost take pleasure in telegraphing and exposition, but it was swift like the waltz “European style,” heavy with gleeful visual references and joyfully ominous symbolism: viscous red clay oozing up through the snow, seeping between floorboards and making taps run like blood; meaningful glances and lingering shots of insects consumed by other insects (not the only film this year — or ever — to indulge that fascination); a house with a hole in the roof and ornate chandeliers and candelabras, spikier than usually considered appropriate for human habitation, creaking and breathing as the wind howled inside and out, with leaves and snow falling inside the building. The cast knew their steps well; the candle never went out as they danced through it all; and there were a few moments just brutal enough to punctuate/puncture the haze of the (typically desexualized) romance and comfortingly low-level psychological “fear” with the ludicrous reality of flesh and bone. Because, as our protagonist says near the beginning of the tale she’s writing: it wasn’t a ghost story, “more a story with a ghost in it. The ghost is just a metaphor…”

27

Creed

Dir. Ryan Coogler

[New Line]

On “Freedman’s Bureau,” billy woods raps, “Crackers still win when they lose, like Rocky.” Putting race aside, that line calls to mind one of the most memorable and defining aspects of the first installment of this 40-year-old boxing film series: that the titular protagonist does not prevail in the end, except in that he has made it to the end. Regardless of how the movie fares on this year’s awards circuit, Creed won by revisiting and moreover reinvigorating the core structure and themes of Rocky. Thanks to the talents of the director, screenwriters, cast, and crew, the revisited elements kept us on the edge of our seats, and the reinvigorated moments had us standing and cheering louder than we have for any spots drama or legacy title in ages (Fury Road notwithstanding). Whereas The Force Awakens took extra care to follow the formula of A New Hope, resulting in forces arguably neither awakening nor new nor hopeful, Creed seemed less concerned with fan service than telling a solid story that could hold up against the cynicism of 2015 filmgoers. As for the film’s Oscar chances, we defer to Clubber Lang: “I don’t need no has-beens in my corner. And you better wipe that look off your face before I knock it off. You wanna jump, JUMP! Come on, Creed!”

26

Stinking Heaven

Dir. Nathan Silver

[Factory 25]

Stinking Heaven dwelled in the age-old tradition of no-budget direct cinema. Filmed with an Ikegami HL-79E Betacam video recorder, haunting washed-out colors denoted a quasi-documentary video of a bygone era, as the film portrayed a fictional commune for drug addicts in New Jersey, 1990. Nathan Silver has a penchant for outsiders and misfits, beyond the realm of the quirky and the adorkable. His world is constantly inhabited by deeply flawed maladroit characters, rarely presented with a chance of redemption and whose faults and ineptness lead them toward an eventual and inescapable downfall. Ruthless and unapologetic, Stinking Heaven depicted a move toward controlled chaos, a world where anti-heroes attempt a second chance at life amid their own through mutual aid and understanding. Silver is a breath of fresh air for the transgressive potential of naturalism and experimental improvisation within American cinema, and his latest output came as yet another confirmation of his talent.

25

A Pigeon Sat On Branch Reflecting On Existence

Dir. Roy Andersson

[Filmproduktion AB]

From a vivid depiction of human incineration to the warbling of a lonely barmaid named Limping Lotte, the short scenes that Roy Andersson portrayed in the final chapter of his Living Trilogy brought about a majestically lackluster tapestry of emotional response. Each of the slowly-spun scenes were bound together by two characters who underwent the despair of their own banality while trying to sell novelty items to a variety of disinterested, stone-faced personalities. To say that the film was “entertaining” or even “enjoyable” would go against the grain of the pitch-black humor lying at the underbelly of each story. And yet, through the humiliation, jealousy, conceit, and bitter envy that Andersson’s characters endured, we were permitted insight into the most erudite observations of our species’s recent evolution. Sure, it tested the limits of our patience and had us cringing at the edge of our seats, but we found ourselves mesmerized in the front row at one of the most groundbreakingly mundane social commentaries of the year.

24

Timbuktu

Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako

[Arte France Cinéma]

Timbuktu could just as easily be an ode to Toulou Kiki, whose fearsome, transportingly beauteous performance as Satima (Tuareg wife and mother of two) nearly caved our shivering eyeballs in. But the movie was a stunner all around. Kettly Noël owned the screen as Zabou, laying out elaborate ritual curses on the occupying forces (who seemed wary enough to give her a wide berth). The film flashed a winningly muted, offbeat sense of humor, cresting with a sexually frustrated man stopping his pickup in the desert to machine-gun a stand of grass between two dunes. This man’s fumblingly threatening, improper, and artless advances on Satima came off like the machinations of lovesick dope. His forbidden desire for her wound up being the only point in the militant’s favor. But this was Satima’s story at heart. It was about those who stay, even when things get impossible, because the love they hold for their home and family is inextricable and ultimately larger than any sort of basic self-preservation. Satima’s love was a glorious irrational devotion built to rival that of the jihadists, even when the cost was the last thing staring us in the face.

23

Furious 7

Dir. James Wan

[Universal]

Sure, critics everywhere love to talk about “Magical Realism” when it’s coming out of hotshots like Iñárritu, but what was more truly fabulist in 2015 than Furious 7? Cars jumping through (multiple!) skyscrapers, a dying man being revived by the return of his amnesiac wife’s memory, The Rock flexing his way out of still-fresh arm casts, getting away with calling a speed competition “Race Wars” without setting off a thousand #problematic hot takes: this was a movie that made the impossible possible, consistently and thoroughly. It had the good sense to feature plenty of Kurt Russell just as the zeitgeist-at-large was keen on rediscovering The Grand Old Lion of Hollywood Trash, and (sorry) it even made paying tribute to the recently deceased hilarious. Basically, Furious 7 went down like an expertly formulated energy drink, the rush and saccharine blocking any parts of your brain that might otherwise be concerned about the complete lack of nutritional value. It was some of the purest, finest trash Hollywood had to offer last year, a designation that it owned with shamelessness, swagger, and a big stupid heart.

22

Room

Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

[A24]

I don’t wish Room’s legacy to include its nutshell description as “the film about the rape-child,” as I’ve heard it hurriedly put. Then again, maybe I need to run into better people. Room’s central relationship was between Joy (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay), who, yes, was born of Joy’s rapist captor, and such a relationship is so rarely captured on film with poignancy and delicacy. The film did not simply entail the struggle of a single mother protecting her child from danger beyond Room — their name for the garden shed keeping them in and sunlight out — but about the walls that narrowly keep us in blissful, often willful, ignorance. There was the condescension of Larson’s interviewers following her rescue, her frustration at how everyone’s lives continued while she reconstructed hers, and how her son hardly realized how close they both came to total doom. That’s why his narration seemed so adorable on the surface and more troublesome underneath; the idea of thinking we “know everything” is a habit that often follows us at childhood and never lets go.

21

Heaven Knows What

Dir. Joshua Safdie & Ben Safdie

[RADiUS-TWC]

Heaven Knows What’s opening — a drawn-out, approximately 10-minute sequence of heroine Harley threatening to slash her wrists (out of love for her indifferent boyfriend Ilya) and then, finally, actually doing it — presents a good microcosm for the whole film. The homeless heroin addicts of Heaven Knows What loudly hurtled toward an inevitable destruction, only no one was listening. The film created an overwhelmingly lonely portrait of the lifestyle of a street junkie in the Upper West Side of New York City; Harley had friends, a caring dealer, and Ilya, among others, but we got the sense that she was awfully, cripplingly on her own. What we saw was more of a scene-by-scene crumbling than a conventional story (highlighted by Isao Tomita’s vibrant reinterpretations of Debussy), a structural choice that paralleled Harley’s and other addicts’ constant search for a fix that only burrowed them further into a self-inflicted decay. Heaven Knows What dispensed with all the romance that like-minded films might’ve provided, resulting in an electric watch that deployed the right formal touches to create an incredible sense of immersion.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films and TV shows that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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