CHI-RAQ. From MSNBC.

2015 Recap Part 2: Honorable Mentions, Five Favorite Documentaries, Five non-2015 Releases & Special Recognition

I’ve tried to post links to where films are available for online streaming or rental wherever possible, but there are so many VOD outlets that I’ve mostly just stuck with the major ones (Amazon, Google, iTunes). For a complete list of 2015 releases from which my 2015 Recap is culled, see this sidebar. View this list on Letterboxd here.

Fifteen Honorable Mentions:

MOMMY. From YouTube.

Mommy (Canada, dir. Xavier Dolan)

Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature is another epic drama, this time using a quasi-science fiction setup as a jumping-off point for the story of the relationship between harried single mother Diane (Anne Dorval), her troubled teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and Kyle (Suzanne Clément), a neighbor who befriends them. MOMMY displays Dolan’s penchant for outsized emotions expressed through excellent performances (Clément once again steals the show) and scoring scenes to massively popular songs. This time around Dolan shoots in a perfectly square aspect ratio (1:1, calling to mind the 1.33:1 frame of his 2013 masterpiece LAURENCE ANYWAYS), and he uses it to emphasize the restrictions which his characters feel hem them in. It’s a bold move, but we’d expect no less from Dolan. Of Dolan’s two films released in the States this year (his claustrophobic psychological thriller TOM AT THE FARM being the other), MOMMY is the better one but they’re both worth watching.

’71. From YouTube.

’71 (UK, dir. Yann Demange): Epix

Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a UK soldier assigned to Belfast, is separated from his unit and lost in the IRA-controlled part of the city. Hunted by the IRA and uncertain of who he can trust, Hook has to make his way back to his regiment while the riots plaguing the city become increasingly violent. Director Yann Demange makes a hell of an impression with his feature film debut, an intense thriller about a period of recent history with which many viewers in the States are probably unfamiliar. The experience of watching ’71 is exhausting but always fascinating. It’s basically one skillfully executed, almost unbearably intense set piece after another for its entire running time.

SUNRISE. From YouTube.

Sunrise (India, dir. Partho Sen-Gupta)

Detective Joshi (Adil Hussain) is obsessed with tracking down a serial child killer. He is so driven that he neglects his traumatized wife and seems to live only in the dark of an endless, rainy night. Everywhere he goes leads to the same place, the seedy club Paradise where underage girls dance for a leering audience. Meanwhile, a young girl named Aruna (Komal Gupta) is kidnapped and prepared for work in the club by its vicious owners. As Joshi wanders the streets, Aruna is in more danger with every passing moment. SUNRISE is a bleak, surreal psychological thriller that follows its protagonist on a terrifying spiral into despair. Its beautiful cinematography and powerful performances conjure an atmosphere of dread that would make any serious horror filmmaker envious.

DARLING. Still courtesy Glass Eye Pix.

Darling (USA, dir. Mickey Keating)

A young woman only ever called “Darling” (Lauren Ashley Carter) is hired to take care of the oldest house in Manhattan while its owner is away. The problem is that Darling is already unstable, and the history of the house — including the suicide of it previous caretaker — makes it inevitable that something in her mind will break before she is in the house alone for too long. It’s not too hard to guess the major inspiration for DARLING is Roman Polanski’s REPULSION, and this film is modeled on that film’s striking black & white photography and the deterioration of a woman’s mental state as she lives in isolation in a claustrophobic space. Carter (who also played one of the leads in this year’s psychic sci-fi/horror THE MIND’S EYE) gives a nerve-shredding performance as Darling, who is in nearly every shot in the film. Keating mostly gives her plenty of room to explore the more unsettling aspects of her character, but he also fractures many scenes with jarring near-subliminal imagery often accompanied by ear-splitting noises. It feels more like an exercise in style than something designed to really get under the skin, but on that count it absolutely succeeds. And at a lithe 74 minutes, DARLING avoids two of the major pitfalls of too many of its independent horror film contemporaries: it jumps into the action fairly quickly, and never wears out its welcome. DARLING is sure to be a divisive film among horror fans, but anyone looking for a stylish take on REPULSION-style psychological horror will definitely want to watch out for it.

Spy (USA, dir. Paul Feig): Amazon, iTunes, Google

After BRIDESMAIDS and THE HEAT, I was both looking forward to SPY and somewhat concerned. Melissa McCarthy is a great comedian, but her coarse, foul-mouthed characters in those two films felt a little too similar. Fortunately, McCarthy is in a much different mode for much of SPY, bringing a welcome sweetness to her character. Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is the assistant to superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law, paradoxically playing a James Bond type with an American accent), helping him pull off all that cool spy stuff by monitoring his situation via satellite and advising on the best course of action. When Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a notorious arms dealer, somehow learns the identity of all of the CIA’s top field operatives, Cooper is sent into the field to track and report on Boyanov to prevent a nuclear weapon from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The most refreshing aspect of SPY is that Cooper is never treated like a punchline because she doesn’t match up with the audience’s expectation of a glamorous spy. She’s a smart, highly competent agent who gets the job done despite constant interference from an annoying rogue agent (Jason Statham, gamely sending up his typical screen persona). The cast is fantastic and everyone seems to be having a great time, and it’s infectious. Pretty easily one of if not the best major American studio comedies of the year.

COZ OV MONI 2: FOKN REVENGE. From Okayafrica.

Coz Ov Moni 2: FOKN REVENGE (Ghana, dir. King Luu)

COZ OV MONI billed itself as “the first pidgin musical,” and was a fun musical/comedy that followed the FOKN Bois (rappers Wanlov and M3NSA) as they tried to collect debts and find good food. The sequel expands the scope and polishes the technique a bit with higher-quality visuals and better sound as well as a couple of sequences shot in Romania. The story is very similar to the first film, just a day in the life of these two guys trying to get paid and eat, and hopefully not get beaten up in the process. The songs are mostly simple, hooky, and infectious, but laced with clever wordplay and impressively nimble pronunciations of difficult phrases (“We gonna grapple until you grovel and gobble gravel” possibly being my favorite). The tone is very light and laid-back, and Wanlov and M3NSA are natural performers, so it’s fun just watching them play off each other and the other characters in the movie. The ending seems to promise another FOKN Bois adventure in the works, hopefully coming soon. COZ OV MONI 2: FOKN REVENGE is super fun and perfect for a crowded midnight movie screening.

FELT. From Random Nerds.

Felt (USA, dir. Jason Banker): Netflix

As with most films, viewers should go in to FELT knowing as little as possible. Even discussing it as a genre film flirts with spoiling its surprises, but ultimately FELT belongs to the sort of female-led psychological horror films of 1970s like THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA. Amy Everson plays Amy, an artist living in Los Angeles who has suffered some kind of traumatic event before the action of the film begins. What exactly this event was is never directly addressed, but Amy’s increasingly unhinged behavior hints strongly at a sexual assault. She does not seem to have told anyone about it, as her friends seem completely blindsided by her sudden change in personality. She begins dressing up in a “superhero” costume as a character with no face, a strap-on dildo, and a sword. spending her days wandering around in a wooded area and isolating herself from her friends.

FELT immerses the audience in Amy’s world, and makes her retreat from the real world seem like a completely reasonable reaction to the horrible men she has to deal with on a daily basis. FELT is not without moments of humor, but mostly it is overwhelmingly bleak, and confrontational in a way that few films (genre or otherwise) are willing or able to be.

CHI-RAQ. From Indiewire.

Chi-Raq (USA, dir. Spike Lee): Amazon

After the confoundingly awful DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (his inexplicable remake of Bill Gunn’s 70s cult classic GANJA & HESS), I was not particularly looking forward to what Spike Lee was going to do next. So it was a huge surprise that CHI-RAQ is one of Lee’s best films in ages, a very funny updating of Lysistrata for modern-day America. The tone veers wildly from cartoonish broad comedy to deadly serious drama, but that feels right for a subject that directly impacts the lives of so many people every day. This is Lee’s DR. STRANGELOVE: facing down a subject that is so overwhelmingly horrific, the only way to even begin to process it is to go totally absurd. Lee and his excellent cast and collaborators have made a passionate, daring satire that demands attention.

TRAINWRECK. From USA Today.

Trainwreck (USA, dir. Judd Apatow): Amazon, Google

TRAINWRECK got dumped on pretty hard by a lot of people who felt disappointed it didn’t somehow magically combine the standard tropes of the romantic comedy with the blistering satire of Amy Schumer’s Comedy Central series, which I think is expecting a little too much for her first outing as a lead. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of legitimate nits to pick about the film (a compelling argument can be made that the third act may actually be the titular wreck), but thinking it’s going to completely overturn the status quo of modern American romantic comedy in one go is pretty ridiculous and not necessarily what the film was aiming for in the first place. Schumer wrote and stars, and she’s hilarious. Typical of Apatow productions, she’s surrounded by a roster of great supporting players: Vanessa Bayer, John Cena, and LeBron James in particular steal every second they’re on the screen. TRAINWRECK doesn’t rewrite the book, but it writes some pretty funny stuff in the margins. Like a lot of folks, I hope Schumer’s next feature incorporates more of the intelligence and weirdness from her show, but unlike a lot of those folks I also think TRAINWRECK was a great introduction for her to a wider audience.

FAULTS. From The AV Club.

Faults (USA, dir. Riley Stearns): Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, Google

Ansel (Leland Orser) is at the end of his rope. Formerly making the rounds on TV talk shows as an expert on cult deprogramming, he’s landed in a rut of making appearances in hotel conference rooms desperately hawking his latest self-published book. Just when his money runs out and his debts suddenly come due, he’s approached by the parents of Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who hope he can save their daughter. But Ansel quickly learns that the cult that has its hooks in her, a mysterious organization called Faults, is not like anything he’s ever come up against before.

FAULTS is a brilliant showcase for Leland Orser, a veteran television and character actor finally given center stage for a full feature. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Ansel, and his nervous energy and unsteady relationship with Claire (Winstead is also great in a performance notable for being the exact opposite of Orser’s) carry FAULTS through a number of tricky tonal shifts to a finale that feels both surprising and inevitable. This is a unique comic horror/psychological thriller that was absolutely robbed by not getting a proper theatrical release. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of Orser in larger roles going forward, and I’m very anxious to see where writer/director Riley Stearns goes from here.

RESULTS. From Collider.

Results (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski): Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Google

Andrew Bujalski’s COMPUTER CHESS was one of my favorite films of 2013, a spectacularly unique low-key hang-out movie that used obsolete video technology to create a highly convincing early-1980s period atmosphere. RESULTS shares that film’s loose feel, and seems less structured and more overtly comedic. These aren’t complaints, though: RESULTS is still a long way from conventional modern “romantic comedy.” Cobie Smulders plays Kat, a high-strung trainer at an Austin gym run by the relentlessly positive Trevor (Guy Pearce). Their lives become a little complicated with the arrival of Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a newly-rich out-of-towner who wanders into the gym more looking for something to fill up his limitless free time than any real desire to get into shape.

This plot summary sets up expectations that RESULTS handily subverts and avoids, wandering off (sometimes aimlessly) in a number of unexpected directions. The real pleasure of the film is in its leads’ excellent characterizations; it’s a genuinely good time hanging out with these people, and if the movie feels a little long that can be easily forgiven. If the audience feels so warmly towards these characters after an hour and half, imagine how attached Bujalski must have been to them.

HE NEVER DIED. From the Los Angeles Times.

He Never Died (USA, dir. Jason Krawczyk): Amazon

In a playful twist on vampire mythology, Henry Rollins plays an ancient, unkillable hermit named Jack who barely leaves his apartment except to eat at a local diner and hit a nearby church for Bingo a few times a week. Jack has lived long enough and isolated himself from humanity for so long that he hardly speaks more than the minimum number of syllables required to get through any given interaction. This is, in other words, the role Rollins was born to play. But in addition to being hilariously terse and a physically intimidating presence, Rollins gives the character some unexpected shading that keeps HE NEVER DIED from tipping too far into straightforward comedy. This is a fun film that any fan of genre cinema or Rollins should not miss.

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. From the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Heaven Knows What (USA, dir. Ben & Joshua Safdie): Amazon, Google, iTunes

There are a ton of heroin movies, and a ton of New York movies, so why would we need even one more of either? Well, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT justifies its existence by being one of the least glamorous depictions of junkie culture in film history. Harley (Arielle Holmes, on whose memoir the film is based) and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) are an unstable homeless couple who cannot escape each others’ orbits, even though they are clearly very bad for each other. Before the opening credits even roll, Ilya has callously demanded Harley follow through with her threat of suicide as atonement for some unspecified wrong, and she hustles to buy some razor blades so she can slash her wrist. This is already a long, long way from TRAINSPOTTING.

As bleak as it is, there are a number of things that contribute to making HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT a compelling watch. Directors Ben and Joshua Safdie stage a number of scenes between characters out among the bustle of foot traffic, giving those sequences a queasy, nervous energy. The film is also scored to an insistent soundtrack of music by Isao Tomita and original pieces by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink, creating a frequently unsettling atmosphere that gives the viewer no room to breathe. Arielle Holmes is excellent in the lead, and the act of taking drugs never looks like anything other than an exhausting chore. There are fleeting moments of happiness for these characters, but they come from rare moments of human connection rather than from shooting up, which never seems like anything other than an unfortunate necessity. This is some great filmmaking at the service of what at first seems like well-worn territory, but uncomfortable vérité immediacy of HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT makes it feel like something totally new.

STATIONS OF THE CROSS. From the Irish Film Institute.

Stations of the Cross (Germany, dir. Dietrich Brüggemann): Netflix, Amazon, Google, iTunes

Fourteen year old Maria (Lea van Acken) is approaching her Confirmation. Raised in a strict Catholic church, she desperately hopes that personal sacrifice may convince God to heal her young brother. She struggles with piety in the face of temptations of the world and bitter disappointment from her mother, and ultimately may make a much bigger sacrifice than anyone could have expected.

The structure of STATIONS OF THE CROSS mimics that of the traditional images used by Catholics to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ: each one of the Stations is represented by a single unbroken shot, usually static, in which the action of the scene plays out. Director Dietrich Brüggemann carefully frames and choreographs each shot with an expert eye for composition and use of space across different planes. It’s a technically impressive film that raises serious questions about the effect of severely traditionalist and repressive religion on young people. Brüggemann presents Maria’s story dispassionately, almost coldly, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions from her behavior and that of the people who surround her. But as coldly precise as the film is from a technical standpoint, the performances are excellent and involving.

Crumbs (Spain, dir. Miguel Llansó): Amazon, iTunes

Like John Klein’s 2014 post-apocalyptic film CHRYSALIS (shot in Gary, Indiana), CRUMBS uses a specific geographical location (Ethiopia) to maximum effect in creating the illusion of a ruined world. Unlike that film, though, CRUMBS features more than a little surrealism and absurd humor, taking place after an undetermined apocalypse in a distant future. A giant alien ship hangs ominously but quietly in the sky while the few remainders of humanity trade pop culture trinkets as currency. There are some breathtakingly strange locations and landscapes throughout the film that would make this worth seeking out even if it weren’t for its fascinatingly bizarre sci-fi story.

Five Favorite 2015 Documentaries:

AMY. From YouTube.

Amy (UK, dir. Asif Kapadia): Amazon, iTunes, Google

Amy Winehouse was inarguably a hugely talented vocalist and musician, tragically plagued by self-destructive tendencies only amplified by her incredibly rapid rise to worldwide fame. Asif Kapadia’s documentary cannily assembles interview footage, news reports, home movies, recordings of live performances, and more into an intimate portrait of Winehouse in her own words and the words of those closest to her during her short life. This is an expertly crafted documentary worth a look whether or not you’re particularly interested in Winehouse’s music, an alternately thrilling and poignant look at the toll fame can take on a person who isn’t ready for it or just doesn’t want it in the first place.

REMAKE, REMIX, RIP-OFF. From IGN.

Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema (Germany, dir. Cem Kaya)

If you’ve ever heard of “The Turkish EXORCIST” (SEYTAN) or “Turkish STAR WARS” (THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD), you probably have a vague idea of what sort of movies the Turkish film industry makes. This is a great documentary tracing the roots of Turkish cinema from its beginnings to the circumstances that made such notorious rip-offs of American blockbusters possible (spoiler: it has a lot to do with a lack of copyright laws in Turkey). There is an amazing amount of information here and it’s structured expertly, cutting between interviews with filmmakers and stars of Turkish cinema from the 60s to the 80s and dozens upon dozens of films that nearly all look completely insane. If there’s a major complaint to be made, it’s that REMAKE REMIX RIP-OFF is exhausting in its depth — possibly too much of a good thing, in other words. Regardless, this is an ambitious, must-see documentary that gives viewers a crash course in a world of cinema they may never have previously known existed.

THE CREEPING GARDEN. From the Flatpack Film Festival.

The Creeping Garden (UK, dir. Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp)

Obsession frequently makes for compelling documentary material, and when a shared obsession is as utterly strange as the slime mold, it may seem like a big part of a filmmaker’s job is already done for them. Fortunately, co-directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp are keen on digging into the outer limits of their subject and present their film beautifully. Slime molds are a fascinating life form, neither plant nor animal, and the people profiled in the film approach the study of the slime mold from a number of unexpected and imaginative angles. There’s straight science, of course, but there are also artists using the slime molds as “collaborators,” and the film’s mix of different worlds is its biggest strength. The evocative ambient score by Jim O’Rourke and Woob and some stunning time-lapse photography all help make THE CREEPING GARDEN one of the most unique and entertaining documentaries of the year.

DOGLEGS. From Vimeo.

Doglegs (USA, dir. Heath Cozens)

For 20 years, “Sambo” Shintaro has been the star of a Tokyo-based semi-underground wrestling league called Doglegs. Doglegs allows people with physical and mental disabilities an arena in which to fight each other as well as able-bodied people like Shintaro’s best friend and ringside nemesis “Antithesis” Kitajima. DOGLEGS follows Shintaro leading up to what he hopes will be his triumphant retirement match against Kitajima, but Kitajima throws him off by suggesting that the winner of the match earns a glorious retirement. Shintaro has never beaten Kitajima in their 20-year history; can he pull it off this time, or will Kitajima walk triumphant, unbeaten, into the sunset? DOGLEGS offers a look at a world that will be vaguely familiar to wrestling fans with its outrageous showmanship, but also completely unlike anything most viewers have ever seen before. Parallel stories follow L’Amant, a cross-dressing fighter with severe cerebral palsy, and how his family deals with his sadly declining health, as well as L’Amant’s caretaker Yuki Nakajima, who suffers from paralyzing depressive episodes. Along with many touching segments out of the ring, there’s a lot of footage of the fighters in the ring as well, some of which is terrifying. Ultimately, DOGLEGS is an inspiring but realistic look at the triumphs and trials of these utterly unique fighters in various aspects of their lives.

DANIEL’S WORLD. From The Hollywood Reporter.

Daniel’s World (Czech Republic, dir. Veronika Lisková)

In 2014, Luke Malone published a harrowing piece on Medium entitled “You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?” In it, Malone talks to a young man who has joined an online support group of pedophiles. Needless to say, it’s a tough read, but it raises serious questions about a subject that people really don’t want to confront. Similarly, DANIEL’S WORLD is a documentary about a man who is a pedophile but, like the people in Malone’s piece, has accepted that he will never have any kind of real relationship with someone to whom he is attracted. Daniel has friends he met online with the same sexual orientation, and they offer each other support and camaraderie. Daniel is intelligent but deeply lonely, and director Veronika Lisková presents a picture of his life that is both painfully sad and inarguably disturbing. Like Malone’s piece, DANIEL’S WORLD provides a look at a facet of humanity that is too often hidden away. The most remarkable achievement in this documentary may be that it may not be possible to identify with Daniel’s sexuality, it’s equally impossible not to identify with his constant struggle against his own nature and his intense loneliness. This is an uncomfortable but compassionate look at a world that will be mercifully alien to most viewers, and of a man who has to fight more than most of us to feel human.

Five Favorite Films I Could Not Count as 2015 Releases:

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D. From Stage and Cinema.

Goodbye to Language 3D (France, dir. Jean-Luc Godard): Amazon (3D Blu-ray)

Good God, what can I even say about this? If it hadn’t played in Wisconsin near the end of 2014, making it possible for me to have seen it during that calendar year, this would be way up on my list of favorites for 2015. Unfortunately, its U.S. release fell into that weird limbo where it ended up on more than a few “Best of 2014” lists and will also appear on more than a few “Best of 2015” lists. Godard uses 3D in ways no other director has previously envisioned, destroying the traditional concept of the gimmick and rebuilding it from nothing. Something as banal as watching ripples in the water of a fountain is transformed by the camera to something beautiful and alien. It’s an incredible achievement, and it’s also sort of mind-blowingly disappointing that there even exists a “2D version.” This is the sort of singular experience that should only ever be seen exactly as its director intended. Incredible.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. From Doddle.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (USA, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour): Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, Google

Anyone expecting an “Iranian vampire western” (as described by the film’s marketing materials) is probably going to be utterly perplexed by A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, which is actually a very low-key, almost plotless study of a bunch of desperate characters living in a desolate urban nightmare. One of them happens to be a vampire. The black and white cinematography is stunning, the characterization is subtle but effective, and the soundtrack is great. One of the best, most unique genre films in recent memory, calling to mind silent expressionist horror and Jim Jarmusch’s COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (with which this would make a fine double-feature) in almost equal measure.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. From Indiewire.

A Most Violent Year (USA, dir. J.C. Chandor): Amazon, Google

On paper, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR sounds insanely boring. It’s 1981 New York, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) wants to expand his heating oil business by purchasing a large distribution center in a high-stakes deal with its current owners. Abel puts up $1 million of his own money and must pay the remaining $1.5 million in one month to finalize the purchase, but his truck drivers have been attacked and a number of his oil shipments stolen. This has put a serious dent in his profits, and in the midst of this already intensely stressful situation the district attorney begins an aggressive investigation into Abel’s business practices. Abel’s not too worried at first, but his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) seems to believe the situation is more complicated than Abel might think. With the clock ticking on his real-estate deal, the DA breathing down his neck, and his competitors moving in to take advantage of his weak position, Abel struggles to stay afloat during the most volatile month of his life.

In the hands of director J.C. Chandor and the stellar cast, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a compelling and tense drama marked by two excellent lead performances from Isaac and Chastain and a small but pivotal supporting role for Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the film a distinct look that has the quality of an old photograph (the frequently dark interiors bring to mind the effects of natural light in Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON), and Jessica Chastain’s vintage Armani wardrobe would make the film worth watching alone.

WILD TALES. From The Telegraph.

Wild Tales (Argentina, dir. Damián Szifrón)

Knowing that Pedro Almodóvar is a producer on Damián Szifrón’s appropriately-titled WILD TALES might help prepare you for what you’re about to watch, an anthology of short stories touching on the subject of revenge. But far from the typical dark take on the subject found in many films, WILD TALES is a frequently hysterical comedy, examining the consequences of payback given outrageously disproportionate to the original wrong(s). As with any anthology, some segments are stronger than others, but the opening sequence and the closing one are so funny and bizarre that they would make the entire film worth watching by themselves. Fortunately, there’s plenty more to like here, all tinged with a sense of humor clearly influenced by Almodovár’s work. It’s kind of amazing that WILD TALES was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Academy Awards, as it’s a world away from the straight-faced and comparatively sedate competition of the other nominated films. Most U.S. audiences didn’t get a chance to see WILD TALES until 2015 during a post-Awards theatrical run, and hopefully it will continue to find an audience on home video.

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR. From Teleport City.

Gangs of Wasseypur (India, dir. Anurag Kashyap): Fandor, Netflix (split into 8 “episodes”), Vimeo, Amazon, iTunes, Google

Originally released in India in 2012 and playing various festivals around the world since then, GANGS OF WASSEYPUR finally made its way to an official U.S. theatrical release this year, split into two features and distributed by Cinelicious Pics. The full film is over five hours, but it never feels like it. This is a compellingly exhaustive portrayal of the struggle between crime lord Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and four generations of the Khan family for control of the town of Wasseypur. This is a sprawling crime epic that moves at a breakneck pace, cramming in legions of characters and covering several decades. It’s gory, poignant, funny, and exciting by turns, and none of those things ever get in each other’s way or feel contradictory; it’s a portrait not just of the nuts and bolts of criminal enterprise, but of its characters’ lives. GANGS OF WASSEYPUR is an impressive achievement that absolutely deserves a place in cinema history alongside landmark crime films like Kinji Fukusaku’s BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY series.

Special Recognition:

HORSE MONEY. From YouTube.

Horse Money (Portugal, dir. Pedro Costa): Netflix

Our upstairs neighbor frequently has a little Pomeranian named Honey in his apartment. Honey seems excitable but relatively intelligent for his breed, but still spends most of his time running around in a panic, barking and panting and trying desperately to burn off all that little dog energy. Imagine one day our neighbor comes home after Honey has been in the apartment alone all day. Honey is super jazzed, running in circles, jumping up and down, yipping. But instead of taking Honey out for a walk or playing with him, our neighbor sits down in a chair and holds open a large coffee table book with photographs of famous works of art. He patiently flips the pages and explains to Honey what each picture is, the artists’ intent, and the cultural importance of each one of the works of art. Honey is excited, happy, and grateful that someone wants to show him these things, but has absolutely no concept of what he’s actually looking at.

That is exactly how I felt while watching HORSE MONEY. It’s beautiful and elegiac, but beyond that I have no more understanding of it than Honey does when someone tries to explain Guernica to him. I’m anxious to learn more about the film and to see more of Pedro Costa’s work, because it’s obvious that this is filmmaking of the highest caliber. It’s actually refreshing to have a film so completely confound me, because that’s a rare thing. Not because I’m some kind of super genius, but because most filmmakers aren’t willing to make films so completely on their own terms, regardless of how opaque the result might be to a viewer. This is so far out of my realm of experience and expertise that even though I strongly believe this to be one of the best feature films I saw in 2015, I don’t feel like I’m even qualified to put it on my list of favorites.

WORLD OF TOMORROW. From Vague Visages.

World of Tomorrow (USA, dir. Don Hertzfeldt): Vimeo

Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short is so utterly amazing that I’ve seen a number of people put it at the top of their list of best films of 2015 above lists that are exclusively made up of features. I’m not going to argue with that, because it really is that good, an incredible animated film that is hilarious, bizarre, creepy, and deeply moving. In 17 minutes, Hertzfeldt manages to do things most filmmakers never accomplish in entire careers. This is not really surprising, given how his previous feature IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY is one of the most effective and touching portrayals of mental illness ever committed to film and like WORLD OF TOMORROW it’s entirely populated by characters drawn so simply they’re barely a step above stick figures. But Hertzfeldt has repeatedly proven that’s all he really needs, a few expressive lines and inspired voiceover choices combined, and that approach reaches an apex with WORLD OF TOMORROW.

THE LATEST SUN IS SINKING FAST. From Chicagoist.

The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast (dir. Melika Bass)

I was fortunate enough in 2014 to catch Melika Bass’s quiet prairie art/horror film SHOALS at the Oakton Community College Pop-Up Film Festival programmed and organized by Chicago film critic Michael Smith after missing it at a few other local screenings. Her latest film project was an installation at the Hyde Park Art Center consisting of four short films screening on continuous loops and projected on different screens in a dark room through which viewers could wander. Two of the shorts featured the same woman, but otherwise they initially seemed to be unrelated. Spending time wandering from screen to screen and listening to audio from one short while watching a different one allowed the viewer to create their own connections between the different parts of the film. It was one of the most fascinating film experiences of the year, and I can’t wait to see what Bass does next.

“Mad Men Porn” from XCONFESSIONS. Still courtesy Erika Lust Films.

XConfessions (dir. Erika Lust)

XCONFESSIONS is an ongoing series of short films made by Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust that are based on stories submitted by subscribers to the site. They feature explicit unsimulated sex, but unlike typical modern mainstream porn these films are made with a high standard of production quality. Lust’s films are beautifully shot and frequently very funny, framing each sexual encounter in a context and basic storyline. The style of the shorts is tailored to the subject matter (which is wildly varied), and the performers are not stereotypical “porn stars.” In short, these films are sexy, fun, and cinematic in ways that mainstream porn almost never is.

Lust was invited to the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival to present a program of her XCONFESSIONS short films and a discussion with local filmmaker Maria Finitzo about “the taboo nature of onscreen pleasure.” The CIFF program was unsurprisingly well-received, and it’s hard to imagine a better introduction of explicit adult cinema to the festival (and to the audience in attendance) than this. A video of the full CIFF screening introduction by Erika Lust, her post-screening discussion with Maria Finitzo, and the post-screening Q&A is available on Vimeo here. This was one of my favorite theatergoing experiences of the year, and hopefully its success will lead CIFF to make similar screenings a regular part of their programming going forward.

2015 Recap:

Part 1: Favorite Restorations & Reissues, Five Favorite Independent Genre Films

Sidebar: The Field

Top 50 for 2015 Part 1: 50–41

Top 50 for 2015 Part 2: 40–31

Top 50 for 2015 Part 3: 30–21

Top 50 for 2015 Part 4: Top 20