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Arts + CultureFicks' Picks: The best films of 2015 (spoiler-free!)

Ficks’ Picks: The best films of 2015 (spoiler-free!)

Boxers, assassins, Star Wars, and Jem: Three dozen keepers that leapt off this year's screens.

48 Hills Best Films of 2015
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s demanding, transcendent ‘The Assassin’

SCREEN GRABS Our esteemed film critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, who ranged from horror classics to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, picks the cream 2015’s cinematic crop.


'The Tribe'
‘The Tribe’

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/China/HK/France) and The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine/Netherlands
These methodical masterpieces demand that audiences pay attention to more than just the plot or character development. Both films ask you to inhabit their silent soldiers as they seek sincere solitude. Multiple viewings are adamantly required to reveal twin sisters, structural systems working with the number four and even subtle shifts in aspect ratios. Both achieve maximum intensity through extreme minimalism. Talking about it is almost fruitless. Experiencing them is downright transcendental.

'Irrational Man'
‘Irrational Man’


2. Irrational Man (Woody Allen, US) and Chi-raq (Spike Lee, US)
Two of Hollywood’s most independent voices made one of the best films of their disrespected careers this year. Woody Allen channeling Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1953) and Rope (1948) gave yet another inspired opportunity to not only Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone but the under-recognized Parker Posey. With a subtly stunning Film Noir production design and wardrobe and hilariously cynical existentialism, Irrational Man might just be one of Allen’s most perfect films as well as perfectly reflect our present apathetic times. Spike Lee too seems to be working on a whole new level, combining immediate politics, both social and sexual, with some of the most fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious sequences of the year!

With a show-stopping performance by newcomer Teyonah Parris as the lead in this modern day adaptation of the Aristophanes’ Greek play Lysistrata (411 BCE), you get close to ten different films everything about Chicago as well as our country’s “State of Emergency” in relation to race, gender, sexuality, God, violence, language, love, death and most importantly survival. Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and John Cusack should all be nominated for their soul-searching performances, while Wesley Snipes and David Chapelle easily have my vote for the funniest sequence of 2015. Like the aesthetically controversial and politically charged French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Lee is our generation’s one of kind genius. Stop ignoring him and seek out Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a reboot of Bill Gunn’s 1974 social-experimental horror flick Ganja & Hess, that he Kickstartered this year as well.

'Mad Max Fury Road'
‘Mad Max Fury Road’

'Crimson Peak'
‘Crimson Peak’

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia/US) and Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, US/Canada)
Unwieldy women wrestling out of manmade microcosms. Don’t be fooled by the CGI-big budgets, both filmmakers utilize old fashion stunts and special effects as well as subversive storytelling techniques for the Y2teens. George Miller’s Fury(osa) Road will continue to be deconstructed for decades due to a healthy resurgence to the franchise while it seems it might take decades for critics to uncover Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. When revisiting del Toro’s Gothic master class, follow the thread that both Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are playing two sides to the same character here, as they battle it out deep within the living, bleeding walls of a grotesque castle. But it all feels even more poignant when you remember the novelist main character begged her audience (multiple times no less) to notice, “the ghosts were only metaphors.”

48 Hill Best Films of 2015

'What We Do in the Shadows'
‘What We Do in the Shadows’

4. Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, US) and What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi, New Zealand)
These hilariously hypnotic cinema-verite exploitation flicks have more heart to give than they know what’s good for them. Perfect films to start at midnite and stay wide awake for.


‘Magic Mike XXL’

5. Creed (Ryan Coogler, US) and Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, US)
Figuring out how to be a man in this day and age is harder than Hollywood makes it look. Both of these athletic allegories use stunning cinematographers, Maryse Alberti for Creed and Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andres) for Magic Mike XXL, to crisply capture America’s climate. Ryan Coogler’s ode to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa reveals something deeper upon multiple viewings as a tribute to the man himself as well as an exciting female figure, embodied by the enigmatic lead of Dear White People, Tessa Thompson. Gregory Jacob’s progressive continuation of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike franchise gives its middle-age audience a much needed sexual remedy that has the power to pop some seriously pressurized tops.


'Jem and the Holograms'
‘Jem and the Holograms’

6. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, UK) and Jem and the Holograms (Jon M. Chu, US)
Misunderstood and maligned, these futuristic feminist fairy tales did exactly what they wanted within the studio system that both films were savagely satirizing. Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina can be interpreted in so many different ways; it may lead some to no man’s land. Which is my take on it… while we spend the whole film trying to figure out which type of “husband” we actually are, a whole new perspective from a whole new kind of female is slowly but surely generating itself for a hole new world outside of our lair. Meanwhile, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the 1980s Saturday morning new wave cartoon was “the worst opening ever for a major studio release playing in at least 2,000 theaters.” But like its underrated and overlooked predecessors Josie and the Pussycats (2001) and Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981), Jem and the Holograms is a brilliant take on the entertainment industry as well as being a perfect time-capsule of its time. This neo-sincere, PG-rated, tween film is not only surprisingly heartfelt by using real footage of bullied kids, it’s downright completely outrageous when a Short Circuit-esque storyline enters the mix! Similar to last year’s undervalued Beyond the Lights by Gina Prince-Bythewood, this morality tale of the dangers of money, fame and facades is a film that everyone should watch, not just its marketed clientele. Spot-on casting choices of Juliette Lewis and Molly Ringwald as the film’s elders combined with the best post-end title surprise of the year, this dismissed gem is a film that, as a genuine Jem and the Holograms fan from the 1980s, will be recognized later as a cult classic from the Y2Teens (and will most definitely be screening at a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS event someday soon!)

'Mistress America'
‘Mistress America’

'While We're Young'
‘While We’re Young’

7. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, US) and While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, US)
Noah Baumbach is officially the new Woody Allen (even though Woody Allen is still making films that are better than all of the young filmmakers who emulate him). With Greta Gerwig perfectly embodying the Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow/Scarlett Johansson muse, her extremely hyperactive birdbrain character in Mistress America not only connected me to this Surrealist Screwball Comedy but helped me revisit and finally fall in love with Baumbach’s earlier release this year While We’re Young, which also explores modern New Yorker generation gaps. Pitting a “progressive” forty-something couple: Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) against an “enlightened” twenty-something hipster twosome: Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). These modern mousetraps are meshed so thoroughly into the nostalgic genre of Peter Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks, it could catch audiences off guard or even rub them the wrong the way.

'Cemetery of Splendor'
‘Cemetery of Splendor’


8. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) and Piku (Shoojit Sircar, India)

'Our Little Sister'
‘Our Little Sister’

'Songs My Brother Taught Me'
‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’

9. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, US) and Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)


'Bridge of Spies'
‘Bridge of Spies’

10. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US) and Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, US)


'White God'
‘White God’

10. Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, US) and White God (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany/Sweden)

'Sunset Song'
‘Sunset Song’


12. Sunset Song (Terence Davies, UK/Luxemberg/New Zealand) and Brooklyn (John Crowley, Ireland/UK/Canada)


'Christmas, Again'
‘Christmas, Again’

13. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, US) and Christmas, Again (Charles Poeke, US)

'The Forbidden Room'
‘The Forbidden Room’

'The Exquisite Corpse'
‘The Exquisite Corpse’

14. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, Canada) and The Exquisite Corpus (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria)

'Baijiro Mastani'
‘Baijiro Mastani’

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

15. Bajirao Mastani (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, India) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, US)



16. Carol (Todd Haynes, US) and Joy (David O’Russell, US)

"Bone Tomahawk"
“Bone Tomahawk”

"Hard to Be a God"
“Hard to Be a God”

17. Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, US) and Hard To Be a God (Aleksei German, Russia)


1. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France)
2. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/ Indonesia/ Finland/ Norway/ UK/ Israel/ France/ US/ Germany/ Netherlands)
3. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, US)
4. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, US)
5. Heart of the Dog (Laurie Anderson, US)
6. The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Garcia, Ukraine/UK/US)
7. Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK/US)
8. Western (Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV, US)
9. The Chinese Mayor (Qi Zhao, China)
10. The Visit (Michael Madsen, Denmark/Austria/Ireland/Finland/Norway)
11. Field Niggas (Khalik Allah, US)
12. Object (Poland, Paulina Skibińska)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches Film History at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series at the Castro Movie Theatre. He also writes film festival reviews for many Bay Area outlets.

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