2015 The Year in Film

Tangerine

Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s

 

By Joan Hawkins

A caveat to begin. I’m writing this before Christmas and
a number of films that are making my favorite critics’ top 10 lists, most notably Todd Haynes’ Carol and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, are taking their sweet time getting to Bloomington. So my top 10 film selections of the year right now are:

Diabolique Film Festival–it’s cheating, I know, to name an entire festival as a selection, but Bloomington’s Diabolique, which started out as Dark Carnival, has been consistently programming excellent indie and international horror for years. It’s been the only place I could see some of the wonderful international shorts being produced, and the sheer breadth and variety of offerings, year after year, has been impressive. 2015 marked the final year of the festival, and I, for one, will be very sad to see it go. Kudos to David Pruett, Arthur Cullipher, Scott Schirmer, Leya Taylor and everyone else connected with curating, programming and mounting this wonderful showcase. This year I particularly enjoyed Michael Medaglia’s Deep Dark, Levan Bakhai’s Landmine Goes Click, the shorts Laberinto en Espiral (Cecilia Pego) and Heels (Jeremy Jantz), and the feature length, Tales of Poe (dir. Alan Rowe Kelly and Bart Mastronardi) because I still love Gothic horror.

Abderrahmane Sissako Timbuktu (France/Mauritania). Technically this is a 2014 film, but it just opened in the U.S this year. Breathtakingly beautiful and very moving, the film details what happens to a peaceful group of dune dwellers when Jihadists impose a reign of terror. The film is free of cant, focusing on the director’s very real humanistic concern for people facing a horrible situation.

Alex Garland, Ex Machina (U.K). I’ve been surprised that Ex Machina hasn’t been making more top 10 lists. This film about a young programmer selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment in artificial intelligence is visually stunning and one of the most disturbing films I have seen in a very long time. The male gaze which the film itself employs is troubling, but I believe it works to implicate us in the sexual politics on display (quite literally) within the world of the story. The only film this year that I’ve been driven to see three times—twice in the theater and once on a long flight.

Hsiao-Hsien Hou, The Assassin (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France). Another gorgeous film, this time set in 9th century China. Ten year-old Nie Yinniang is abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors. Film critic J. Hoberman says this is the one 2015 release that he immediately wanted to see again.

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, U.S). If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and rent it/stream it now. It’s an apocalyptic story set in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed from fighting for the necessities of life. Within this world are two rebels on the run. There’s Max, a man of action and few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child. And Furiosa, a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland. On the road, they meet a wonderful and strange band of characters, and kick a lot of ass. Charlize Theron is fantastic as Furiosa.

Sean Baker, Tangerine (U.S) The ads say the film will grab you from the first frame. That didn’t quite happen for me. In fact, I was beginning to regret the food order I’d put in at Bear’s Place, and then the film totally won me over. Starring first-time actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, the comedy-drama follows Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella, two transgender prostitutes, as they roam the streets of Hollywood on Christmas Eve looking for the latter’s cheating pimp boyfriend. The movie attracted a lot of attention at Sundance, especially after it was revealed that Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s (outfitted with the 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter from Moondog labs, the FiLMic Pro App, and external recording devices). The film looks great and it’s very, very intimate–with everything tightly framed. Funny, sexy and poignant.

Olivier Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria (France, Germany, Switzerland). This is another 2014 film that arrived in the U.S. late, already weighted down with European prizes. Starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, this is a complex puzzle-box of a film. At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders (Binoche) is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. As a young actress, she had played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. This is hard enough, but she also recognizes herself in the young actress playing opposite her. And then there is the complicated relationship she forms with her assistant (Stewart), who mysteriously disappears. And the death of playwright who had made Maria a star, who had been her mentor. The description makes it sound like a very melodramatic, hothouse affair, but it’s not. The affect is much more complicated than that. Assayas has been heavily influenced by Asian cinema, and there is something about the performance of emotion here that reminds me of Asian film. But Sils also feels quintessentially French, with its emphasis on relationships and on what can and cannot be spoken. French with nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. A beautiful film that had me still sitting in my seat when the lights came up, and one that I would like to revisit.

Moving to documentary, I loved Liz Garbus’s What Happened Miss Simone? (USA), an insightful, interesting film about the legendary musician, singer, activist Nina Simone. Culled from hours of autobiographical tapes, the film shows Simone’s struggles with domestic violence, her work with the Civil Rights movement, and her attempts to balance her political commitment with her artistic career. At the height of her fame Simone walked away from her family, country, career and fans, to move to Liberia and, temporarily at least, gave up performing. I watched this on my laptop, in a stuffy hotel room, and I was just transfixed.

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiv, The Tribe (Ukraine) is set in a boarding school for deaf children, where a new arrival is drawn into an institutional system of organized crime, involving robbery and prostitution. He crosses a dangerous line when he falls for one of the girls to whom he’s assigned as pimp. The film is entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no subtitles. So watching it is an incredibly immersive, non-linguistic, visual experience, like watching Stan Brakhage, if Brakhage had made thrillers. But at the same time very reminiscent of Artaud’s notion of dramatic cruelty. There’s nothing else quite like it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days and would love to see it on the big screen a second time.

Finally a 2015 restoration that deserves special mention. Ousmane Sembene’s 1966 film Black Girl is a favorite of mine and I was very happy to see the beautiful new restoration at the Indiana University Cinema this year. The film is out on Blu-Ray now, so if you missed it at the Cinema, you can still watch it at home. Black Girl is a powerful indictment of French colonialism in Africa and of deeply ingrained European racism. But it also plays with various levels of meaning–veering toward magical realism at times, and with a strong black and white palette that has been the film’s crowning achievement and its curse. For many of us who initially saw damaged 16 mm copies of this film in French college classrooms, much of the visual detail was simply lost in the saturated shadows. Criterion’s previous DVD transfer of the film helped, but the new restoration is simply stunning. I have seen this film at least 20 times, but I saw detail in this screening that I had never seen before. And it just knocked me out.

Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Indiana University Media School. She has written extensively on horror, European art cinema and the Avant-garde. Her most recent book is Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001 (U.K.: Intellect Press, 2015).