Not that into the Oscars? We don’t blame you. That’s why we compiled an alternative list. Categories include: Best Adaptation of an Extinct Film Genre, Best Non-Narrative, Best Use of a Film Gimmick and Best Holiday Film.
Here’s the best international art house, independent, or just plain under-appreciated films from 2015.
Best Adaptation of an Extinct Film Genre:
Claiming a new interpretation to the notion of a “silent film”, Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe features a violent crime drama devoid of any spoken dialogue or text as the actors communicate entirely through sign language, a tactic that risks isolating the majority of audiences.
The silence, as the film features no soundtrack, can be unsettling, almost suffocating; but soon, the compelling visuals and powerful body language are enough to follow the narrative of a new kid (Grigoriy Forsenko) at a corrupt state boarding school for the deaf as he gets recruited into a gang of petty thief’s and pimps, and subsequently falls for one of the young prostitutes.
Slaboshpytskiy cites his own experiences as inspiration for the film. He grew up in a depressed area of Ukraine across from a state boarding school for the deaf, and recalls watching with fascination as the deaf kids communicated entirely through hand signs and gesture.
While The Tribe has received criticism for what is seen as sensationalist violence and a misrepresentation of the deaf community, Slaboshpytskiy should be praised for his success in neither shying away from ugly subject matter, nor patronizing that community. It seems that many films that feature a minority group focus on the plight of said group; here, the fact that the characters are all deaf is irrelevant to what is practically Ukrainian Scarface.
Much like the horror of Harmony Korine’s Kids, The Tribe features a kind of niche youth brutality unbeknownst to the majority of audiences. In The Tribe, having a physical impairment does not grant one moral transcendence, as is true in life.
Best Adaptation of an Exhausted Film Genre:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour
The Iranian writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour offer a refreshing interpretation of the blight on popular culture that is vampire romance, with her graphic novel turned film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
While the story still features a primarily young, attractive cast enacting a hetero-normative romance, our heroine is not a lost, sullen girl waiting for her male saviour, but a sinister vampir-ess solely occupied with exacting vengeance upon men who terrorize women in the fictional ghost town of “Bad City”.
Here the tension is not one combating sexual desire with restraint, but of an upheaval of traditional roles. Amirpour offers an empowering fictional reality in which a girl walking home alone at night could be the predator not the prey. It’s a Tarantino style reversal of power dynamics in which the subjugated enact a brutal revenge, akin to the Jewish soldiers in Inglorious Bastards, or Django in Django Unchained. While Tarantino excites through an excess of action and violence, Amirpour utilizes slow scenes, minimal dialogue and the deep shadows of the black and white film to create suspense and curiosity.
The film seals its charm with an indie soundtrack and a skateboarding female vampire protagonist who dances to punk in her poster-adorned bedroom.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
In a series of absurd vignettes that range from hilarious to devastating, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence breaches the surreal and the existential.
As the title of the film denotes, the viewer is taken to be watching from the objective stance of a pigeon looking upon a range of largely unconnected human experiences and micro tragedies.
Each scene takes place in a different set, all of which are unsettlingly contrived. Every person and item has been meticulously placed. Combine this with the fact that the actor’s faces have been painted a chalky white (like the very life has been drained out of them), the film has the eerie impression of taking place in a liminal state, somewhere between a film and a play, life and death.
The film features only two characters consistently, a pair of octogenarian pals who are on a futile quest to sell novelty merchandise.
While the episodes do seem to mock certain societal conventions such as consumerism and tedious social customs, one does walk away with the understanding that companionship, in whatever form it may take, may be the only thing that keeps the threat of obsolescence at bay.
Best Use of a Film Gimmick:
Gaspar Noé returns in Love to his unapologetic depictions of sex and violence (2002’s Irreversible), and novel approach to cinematography (2009’s Enter the Void); this time utilizing two of filmmaking’s most notorious and taboo techniques: 3D and unsimulated sex.
This semi-autobiographical film follows a young American ex-pat Murphy (Karl Glusman) through Paris as he struggles through memories (narratively in reverse) of his tumultuous relationship with his true love Elektra (Aomi Muyock), while grappling with his present oppressive domesticity with Omi (Kristin Klara).
While it’s difficult to find compassion for this brazen, misogynistic aspiring filmmaker (one of the many cringe-y references to Noé himself throughout the film), the characters are in their early to mid twenties, and as such, narcissistic behavior, erratic emotions, and not-so-insightful-insights are not unthinkable.
What distinguishes this film more so is its striking portrayal of memory, an exceedingly challenging phenomenon to illustrate. While 3D is a film trope most can live without, it is nonetheless interesting and noteworthy to see it used beyond the realms of science fiction and action. The 3D realm here only enhances the dreamy surreality of Murphy’s memories, as well as the intended euphoria of the characters sexual episodes. It even serves to enhance Noé’s consistently stellar portrayals of subterranean nightlife.
Love may fall short in portraying an agreeable depiction of “sentimental sexuality” (as it is referred to in the film), but it succeeds in challenging the boundaries of the visual realms of film.
The Clouds of Sils Maria
The Clouds of Sils Maria follows the ageing, revered actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) as she revisits the play that launched her career many years ago. The play at hand, “Maloja Snake”, tells the story of a middle aged corporate boss who falls prey to the whims of her manipulative young intern and the subsequent affair that leads to the older woman’s demise. Maria’s return will mean taking the role of the older woman, and relinquishing the role of the younger that she so identified with.
The majority of the film is spent in an isolated cabin in the Swiss Alps as Maria practices lines with her young personal assistant Valentine (a surprisingly good Kristin Stewart).
A Hamlet-style-meta-narrative surfaces in the dizzying parallels between Maria and Valentine’s relationship and that of the characters in “Maloja Snake”. Their bond surpasses the professional, and their practicing of lines becomes an airing of real grievances and real affections in their complex relationship. The viewer is left uncertain which passionate dialogue belongs to Maria and Valentine themselves, and which to the characters in the play.
The meta-narrative is exacerbated by Maria’s own struggle to accept ageing and the new roles available to her as a mature actress. She increasingly resents her character in the play, and yearns for her original role as the conniving young seductress, as opposed to what she perceives as the aged, weak woman.
Featuring three strong female leads (a significant novelty) the film delves into the nuances of the practice of acting, and the corresponding fear of ageing as it so often means irrelevancy in a profession that prioritizes youth and beauty.
Greatest Cinematographic Feat:
Victoria has gained international attention for its incredible single shot format lasting over two hours. The film follows a young Spanish girl (Laia Costa as Victoria) partying solo in Berlin.
Admittedly, the slow build in the first half of the film made the catastrophic events in the second half slightly less believable; but Victoria’s evident loneliness and fragility is key in understanding the unprecedented eagerness to follow three strangers into what can only be described as a hellish, life altering 138 minutes.
In Victoria, the unbroken shot serves a purpose beyond novelty or meaningless record breaking (it is the longest single shot film to date). The cinematographer’s deeply invested movements become an unseen member of the party, placing us, the viewer, in the role of cameraman. The experience is not unlike watching the unbelievable events from a night out on a friend’s cell phone (with significantly better lighting and composition of course).
The unbroken shot’s success owes a great deal to the actors abilities to stay completely immersed in character for the extended period and in a variety of locations and conditions. Victoria was virtually unscripted, thus relying heavily on improvised lines based around predetermined events. Laia Costa in particular gave an outstanding performance in a role that demanded a huge range of intuitive emotions in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.
Stunt or not, this technical and theatrical feat is worthy of recognition.
Most Characteristic of the Digital Age:
Directed by Alex Winter and featuring interviews from several authorities on the matter (particularly Wired journalist Andy Greenberg, whose investigation into the matter essentially inspired this doc), Deep Web explores the deep web and the controversial matter of the governance of this unruly territory
The doc predominantly features the story of Ross Ulbricht arrest and incarceration by the FBI in 2013 on the grounds of his alleged role in founding Silk Road (an anonymous online marketplace for the sale and exchange of illegal substances and items), as well as affiliated money laundering, drug trafficking and even murder.
What makes this doc such an important and fascinating watch (aside from the fact that it’s narrated by Keanu Reeves) is the unsettling depiction of how unequipped the current judicial system is to adequately handle the drastically vast and complex network of online activity, crime or otherwise.
The Deep Web is made up of a vast group of anonymous users, many of whose intelligence and expertise in the field exceeds that of the governments. What’s more, passionate resentment of the “fascist” government runs deep. There’s an overwhelming notion that the government’s endless bureaucracy and antiquated laws threaten the libertarian spirit of the wild web, which prioritizes freedom and right to privacy above all.
While the film no doubt leans sympathetically to the defence of Ulbricht, the viewer is also made aware of the extent to which the Deep Web’s Libertarian philosophy can be just as dangerous as it is liberating.
It leads the viewer to question, in an analogue-digital world, where the citizens are in many cases more knowledgeable than the government, who’s to govern?
Best New Genre Comedy:
This semi-autobiographical tale written and directed by Desiree Akhavan features the story of a young, underachieving, bi-sexual Iranian woman struggling to handle the end of her first serious homosexual relationship.
The movie is in good company amongst the mass of anti-hero women gracing screens these days, from Lena Dunham’s Hannah in Girls, to Abbi and Illana in Broad City, and Greta Gerwig in, well,everything.
What makes this film unique amongst the growing genre is Akhavan’s Middle Eastern heritage. Shirin’s interactions with her somewhat traditional, high-achieving Iranian family make for some of the best scenes in the film. Akhavan’s Shirin, in all of her awkwardness and un-remarkableness, is genuinely funny, and painfully relatable.
Best Holiday Film:
Sean S. Baker
Tangerine has claimed attention for being filmed entirely on an iphone (with the aid of a widescreen attachment lens); and while that is indeed a feat worth noting, it becomes irrelevant as one is watching the film.
What makes this film noteworthy beyond the novelty of it being filmed on technology nearly everyone has in their pocket (making the concept of filmmaking – a notoriously exclusive and expensive practice optimistically accessible), is the heartwarming friendship between Sin-Dee-Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). They are two trans prostitutes of color working the streets in LA on Christmas eve. Parallel to this story is that of a Middle Eastern cab driver with a penchant for sex workers of Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s type.
Our heroines are always walking, always with purpose whether it is in pursuit or on the run. It’s a novel concept for LA, a city notoriously walking unfriendly, but which characterizes the lives of these working girls, and puts the film in conversation with the early films of Godard, whose characters seem to never sit still.
While essentially a comedy, the movie has some seriously earnest moments that are not to be undermined. The narrative follows Sen-Dee’s pursuit of revenge on the cis-woman whom she hears slept with her boyfriend while she was in prison, but the ending seals what is evident all along, that Sin-Dee & Alexandra’s friendship is the most important relationship in either of their lives.
United by their mutual experiences and attitudes, they share a tender moment of mutual vulnerability at the end of the film. Victimized by what appears to be a ritual hate-crime, they sit in a tense silence, yet mutual understanding, of their devotion to one another, wigless, and in a Laundromat on Christmas Eve.
Tangerine offers a portrait of a non-traditional but not so unfamiliar family. While the majority of audiences may never be familiar with walking the streets of LA in a colored, trans body, they surely are familiar with the notion that friends are family, and in some cases, the only family we have.