Five years is an eternity in the life of a film. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these movies play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed films of 2015 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Spotlight, Brooklyn and The Martian didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! Here is what we said in 2015.

10. The Look of Silence (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)

Appropriate to its title, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence captures Indonesia’s gorgeous landscapes in static shots that highlight a country that has been permanently changed by the past. If its predecessor, The Act of Killing, was about the boogeymen, Silence is about the tortured child who for so long was afraid to confront the monsters beneath his bed. Our subject is Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was slaughtered in the massacre even before Adi was born. Past remains the focus once the film begins to execute its primary objective of moral investigative journalism as Adi meets with men he knows are responsible for Ramli’s death. Being an optician, Adi fits the perpetrators for eyeglasses and casually brings up discussion on his brother or the genocide. Back at home, Adi watches these same perpetrators from footage Oppenheimer captured in 2003, where they boldly boast about the killing of Ramli and bring Joshua and his camera to the exact location of his demise, going into gruesome detail about where they cut him, what body parts they removed, etc. The film’s title describes the entire nation. Victims and perpetrators are haunted by their collective past yet in completely different ways, and how the country answers for these crimes against humanity is through a mute acceptance. Why bring up the past? What good will it bring? Oppenheimer is aware in both his documentaries that while answers may not be found, moral solutions need to be explored regardless. The silence needs to be broken, and Oppenheimer has done just that with his two masterpieces, The Look of Silence particularly. He has opened the door so that the past can educate the future, and while certain moral dilemmas may never be resolved, these films destroy an institutional charade and prove that the past is certainly not just the past. And as we exist in such a tumultuous present, the lessons this film teaches are invaluable. – Greg Vellante

9. Inside Out (Dir: Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)

After a peerless run of original pictures in the 2000s (including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up), Pixar began the second decade of the new millennium with a bad case of sequel-itis. Some of these follow-ups were unquestionably good-to-great (Toy Story 3, Finding Dory and Incredibles 2). Others, not so much (Cars 2 and 3, Monsters University). Even new entries such as Brave and The Good Dinosaur hearkened back to A Bug’s Life, minor works that have since been practically forgotten. Only two fresh tales, so spectacular, generated the electricity of Pixar’s ‘00s pinnacle: Inside Out and Coco. (We’ll no doubt revisit the latter, 2017 film in two years.)

The genius of Inside Out is captured right there in its pithy title. Interiority is made explicit, dramatized with a conceit so wildly imaginative that it matches the uncanny flights of fancy of a Studio Ghibli masterpiece like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, and with clearly defined, and easily digestible, rules. Most basically, all sentient beings have five anthropomorphized emotions within their brains (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust), who share control of their host via a spaceship-like panel of buttons and knobs.

The host in question here is a tween girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. With the help of her primary emotion Joy (Amy Poehler, playing a bubblier version of Leslie Knope), Riley at first attempts to put a positive spin on the situation. But as daily disappointments begin to add up, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) begin to take the reins. When Joy and Sadness accidentally eject themselves from Headquarters (our protagonist’s conscious mind), the odd couple trek through strange subconscious realms like long-term memory and abstract thought. Along the way they encounter Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, whose self-sacrifice is one of the great Pixar tearjerkers.

Inside Out’s fundamental theme–that happiness and sorrow are complements, not opposites–may be the deepest of the Pixar oeuvre. Joy and Sadness represent a dynamic duo, inseparable components of empathy and, thus, humanity. It’s a universal truth all kids must learn, and no adult should forget. – Peter Tabakis

8. Phoenix (Dir: Christian Petzold)

Audiences most likely remember Christian Petzold’s Phoenix as deeply sad, and, indeed, what could be more tragic than a rejection by one’s lover upon return from a concentration camp? This long, bitter farewell—a slow-motion spurning of Nelly (Nina Hoss) by ex-husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)—is the film’s (raw) flesh and (broken) bones. But, upon closer examination, a richer adjective appears in sad’s stead: scathing. We initially spot it through Lene, Nelly’s friend that transports her back from the camps and witnesses firsthand her journey from facial disfigurement to Franju-indebted self-doppelganger status. “They tried to kill you because you’re a Jew,” Lene matter-of-factly states.

Yet the non-Jewish Germans around Nelly, Johnny most of all, just want things to go back to how they were before the war and—stop me when this sounds familiar—refuse to acknowledge their own complicity in the mass imprisonment and slaughter of millions. Petzold (along with his co-writer Harun Farocki, who would die just months before the movie’s German release) couldn’t come down harder on such everyday cowards, and this is what makes Phoenix not just a breathtaking melodrama but a frank, anti-pretense political statement. And it’s all the more forceful for being recounted through the eyes of a traumatized dreamer. Hence all that chiaroscuro rubble, redolent of The Third Man and Night and the City: like many films of postwar anxiety, it highlights the experiences of the maladjusted, the ones unwilling to participate in polite society’s twisted, forgetful games.

It’s in the unforgettable final moments, surely among the most memorable in all last decade’s cinema, that Nelly fully inhabits this misfit role, softly at first and then in full-throated candor. In contrast to the predictably duplicitous performances of those around her, her performance reveals the depths of her trauma and demands an acknowledgment of difference: she is not the same Nelly as before but the Nelly who has seen and suffered the terror of unmitigated hatred. “Speak low,” goes the song she sings. Phoenix takes this command seriously by using its hushed melancholy to repeat, on the other side of sweet nothings, damning truths. – Jeff Heinzl

7. Magic Mike XXL (Dir: Gregory Jacobs)

Five years have passed since the release of Magic Mike XXL and the only way it has depreciated in value is from a lack of another sequel in that time frame. There hasn’t been a film this effective in challenging the prevalent stereotypes and reductive depiction of “bros’ inherent to toxic masculine culture in ages. Sure, other movies have teased out a more progressive, soft approximation of the tenderness on display here, but it’s always been in bite size pieces employed as insincere jokes about the age of wokeness.

It’s the earnestness in director Gregory Jacobs and cinematographer Steven Soderbergh’s approach to framing and arranging a story about male strippers on a road trip through America that makes it such an enduring and somehow underappreciated entry in the hall of great hangout pictures. There’s not a hint of irony, a winking fourth wallbreak or soupcon of self-awareness here to poison the plot. It’s just a movie about a bunch of sweet-natured hunks looking for love, yearning for self-acceptance and grinding nude while doing so.

The soundtrack has aged appropriately well, as have the undersung performances from Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, and, of all people, former WWE superstar Kevin Nash. In recent years, the concept of the “himbo,” an empty headed but well-intentioned evolution of jock iconography, has become more prevalent and openly lusted after. It cannot be overstated how essential this film is to that discourse, and how much of a welcome counterpoint it remains in the face of average-seeming nerds with axes to grind, weaponizing geek culture and social justice language to hide their persistent malice.

The idea that looks can be deceiving is a cliche, sure, but this movie is a pitch perfect example of why not to judge a book by its cover. – Dominic Griffin

6. Ex Machina (Dir: Alex Garland)

One of the most tired clichés of science fiction is that of the awakening of consciousness in a man-made machine, but writer/director Alex Garland nailed a fresh and evocative take on that old trope with his sleek and moody thriller Ex Machina. Set in the minutes-from-now future, the story stirs three figures together in an isolated retreat like an updated riff on Shakespeare’s Tempest. Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing as a charming and arrogant genius obsessed with creating robots capable of passing as humans, and the scene in which he tears up the dance floor to a disco beat with one of his androids is alone worth the price of admission. His most advanced creation, Ava, is played with watchful intelligence and sly menace by Alicia Vikander in a performance that gathers strength from the understated visual effects. Her limbs are see-through lattices, aglow with machine parts and overlaid with seamless swaths of skin. She’s a fascinating presence, both for her quasi-human construction and for the subtlety of her behaviors.

The film grapples with the ethical quandaries of the rise of artificial intelligence through the lens of Ava’s developing relationship with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young programmer who is ostensibly tasked with conducting a series of Turing Tests with the lifelike android. But the heady ideas never overshadow the intimate character drama as Ava maneuvers towards shifting the power dynamic in her favor. Repeated viewings reveal thematic echoes of other tales of identity and consciousness such as Alice in Wonderland and Frankenstein, and the visual effects (which beat out both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road to win the Oscar in that category) remain effective in depicting a credible look for an almost-human but uncannily new life form.

In his previous screenwriting outings for films such as The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Garland polished his chops for landing story beats that twist in unexpected and fantastical directions, but with Ex Machina, directing for the first time from his own script, he crafted his own masterpiece. – A.C. Koch

5. The Hateful Eight (Dir: Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s two most recent films couldn’t be more different in terms of atmosphere and scope. In 2019, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not only bounced around balmy, sundrenched locales but it also sought to encapsulate the feeling of an entire erstwhile American era. By contrast, in 2015, The Hateful Eight presented plenty of compelling angles among its snowbound characters, but it did so largely all in the space of one room—Minnie’s Haberdashery during a blizzard. Originally imagined as a sequel to Django Unchained before being turned into a standalone film, Tarantino’s second foray into revisionist Westerns allowed him his lone opportunity to have a film scored by Ennio Morricone. Nevertheless, the film relies far more heavily on Tarantino’s loquacious script, plot intricacies, fierce tension and graphic violence than on his formative Spaghetti Western influences.

The film stands up so strongly five years later because of timelessness that Tarantino routinely imbues into his period pieces. He does so here in his usual fashion, by setting up an impossibly complex and tense situation, and then turning the screws on his characters, temperatures rising until gunfire is inevitable. In addition to the two bounty hunters (Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson), captured outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and fledgling sheriff (Walton Goggins) who seek refuge there during the blizzard, the stagecoach stop of Minnie’s Haberdashery is already occupied by an old Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen) and a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir), whose story about the absence of the outpost’s African American proprietors sounds pretty iffy.
As with many characters in Tarantino films, these lawmen, soldiers and outlaws find themselves in standoff situations while occupying a traditional place of respite. It doesn’t take the savviest of viewers to realize from the start that most characters won’t make it out alive. Yet Tarantino continually surprises in The Hateful Eight, whether through actual plot twists or simply in how we expect him to wring every last drop of tension out of his scenes, and yet never for a second can anticipate just how he’ll manage to do so. – Josh Goller

4. Tangerine (Dir: Sean Baker)

There are dozens of reasons to love Sean Baker’s masterful Tangerine, but the prime one is simply that it is so unexpectedly entertaining. This is a whirlwind of a film, with frenetic pacing, loud dialogue—both in volume and in content—and a well-defined sense of place. The characters are charismatic, the plot simple and the action doled out in sudden bursts. Plus, it is a Christmas movie, and an undeniably unique one at that.

Sure, Tangerine also introduces the viewer to the unknown in many, many ways. It shows a part of Los Angeles that feels foreign to the cinema-goer, which is quite the accomplishment given just how ubiquitously LA is filmed and photographed. The characters, too, will be new to most film viewers. There are very few transgender protagonists (and there were even less five years ago) and fewer still who are also sex workers. Plus, Tangerine was an innovator in cinematography, becoming one of the first films shot solely with iPhones.

Not everything in Tangerine is radically new or other, of course. It is the more universal elements of the film that make it so powerful. Its primary characters—Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester and Razmik—are complicated, stressed and broken modern people. They have relationship problems, flirt with self-destructive habits and keep devastating secrets from even those closest to them. They work too hard at jobs that treat them like shit and they find ways when off the clock to alter their mental state or dull their sensations. Too often, films that work so hard to represent or include marginalized communities focus too much on the unusual identity of those being portrayed and forget to show just how banally human such folks are. For instance, as an Applachian, I am assuming Netflix subscribers will get a very large dose of this very thing when they watch Hillbilly Elegy.

Tangerine accomplishes multiple rare feats at once, being an engaging relationship drama, character study, film-tech manifesto and political statement all at once. And, again, Sean Baker put a literal Christmas bow on top the whole thing. It’s beautiful! – Ryne Clos

3. Creed (Dir: Ryan Coogler)

In the year that brought back the likes of Mad Max and Han Solo, the best nostalgia kick came from the movie that resurrected Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Creed was more than just a nostalgia kick, but it was genuinely notable for the way it conspired to bring Rocky (and Rocky) back into the pop-culture conscience. It seems that Coogler and co-screenwriter Aaron Covington watched Rocky Balboa, the flavorless 2006 attempt to give the character a proper send-off, and realized that they could improve upon it. Instead of simply acknowledging Rocky’s legacy, this movie studied it.

The plot here doesn’t really follow Rocky, though, instead shoving the veteran heavyweight champion into a supporting role in the story of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival-turned-soulmate Apollo Creed (who, of course, died in the ring in Rocky IV). He has had a rough childhood in and out of a juvenile detention facility, and all he wants is to hone his skills. Moving out to Philadelphia, Donnie convinces Rocky to train him, all while meeting and falling quite in love with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with degenerative hearing loss.

The main draw to a film like this was, of course, its fight sequences, and they delivered in spades here, brought to thrilling life by Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti – none of them more so than a fight between Donnie and his first official rival fighter, captured in a single, electrifying take. The surprising thing, though, was the attention paid to everything else – Donnie and Bianca’s gentle romance, Rocky’s surrogate-uncle kind of relationship with Donnie, the strain of celebrity and legacy upon both men, and even the concept of Black life in America. Nostalgia was an object of study, rather than a simple aspiration. – Joel Copling

2. Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes)

Carol is a film about people in love, a film for people in love, and a film to fall deeply in love with. Todd Haynes fills every shot, sumptuously photographed by Edward Lachman, with luxuriance, warmth and delicacy, as though recreating his characters’ caresses through his own touch. He has a gentle but assured grasp on the film, trusting in the inherent quality in the work of his collaborators, that their sensitivities might coalesce around a shared commitment to educing the inherent quality in the story they’re collectively telling. Judy Becker’s sets, Sandy Powell’s costumes, Carter Burwell’s score, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s performances – all seem to swoon into each other, yielding a supple, passionate, limitlessly rich expression of love.

Carol was, perhaps, too perfect a film to fully appreciate upon release in 2015 – it was beautiful and brilliant then, no doubt, but the years have only enhanced its myriad positive attributes. It lingers in the memory, warm and inviting like a festive family gathering, bittersweet and yearning like a poignant first date with a lost love. The bitterness is subdued, however, by the sweetness upon revisiting Carol, since one of its most integral aspects is its positivity and optimism. Patricia Highsmith’s ending proposed a hopeful conclusion designed as deliberately out of step with the challenges her story’s lesbian lovers faced; those challenges were insurmountable, yet surmount them they did. All it took was love, and the ultimate capitulation to its irrepressible insistence. Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy have created a film throbbing with all the painful fervour of a romantic tragedy – it’s to their credit that their faithfulness in maintaining the hopefulness in Highsmith’s ending doesn’t undercut their film’s established emotional power but rather compliments it.

“Flung out of space” – if anything, the experience of watching Carol is like being softly pulled down to earth, wrapped up safely and lovingly in one of Cate Blanchett’s fur coats. You leave this fabulous film with a fluttering feeling in your chest and a smile on your face, flung back out into space, in love with every last minute of it. – Paddy Mulholland

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir: George Miller)

Many great movies fade over time, as the qualities that define their initial excellence become attenuated or diminished. Others, monumental to begin with, only grow in estimation. I can no longer pinpoint my exact mindset in June of 2015, when I first saw George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, although I can say with some confidence that things seemed decidedly less ominous than they do five years later. I do remember, as fondly as one does any moviegoing experience preceding our current theatre-free state of being, the experience of seeing the film in a ramshackle, since-closed multiplex in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, where the AC didn’t work and the sound wasn’t either before an enterprising audience member stormed up to the projection booth, quickly returning to offer an exasperated “you’re welcome” to an indifferent crowd enjoying its muted previews. Afterwards I ate some pork dumplings in Prospect Park.

Who knew then that in a mere half decade’s time we’d have our own Immortan Joe style leader, commanding his own frenzied death cult of intractable maniacs, and that the looming prospect of internecine resource wars would seem all the more imminent. Yet somehow, despite its continued existence in a world increasingly suited to its own apocalyptic atmosphere, the film feels not only prescient but fun, its unmatched sense of spectacle as thrilling and inventive as ever. Playing out as one sustained shot of adrenaline, scattering an endless trail of wreckage in its wake, it simplifies the contemporary nightmare progression of current events into a matchless suite of linked set pieces, in which brute forward momentum in service of immediate survival is the only defining characteristic. As things get worse, and movies get louder and more desperate for adrenaline highs capable of offering an escapist outlet from that grim reality, Fury Road still serves as a rare reminder of how it’s still possible to expand the capabilities of the popular form. – Jesse Cataldo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Bruce Springsteen’s 20 Best Songs from 2000-2009

At the turn of the century, for the first time it was unclear what space Bruce Springsteen…