Movies always provide windows into seeing the world, but this year they cast a particularly wide net. From extreme tales of human survival to broader sociological challenges, 2015’s releases offered a comprehensive look the recent past, the uncertain present and a very unsavory future. Here’s an overview of several recurring themes that kept popping up during this year’s cinematic offerings.
Civil War and the New Frontiers
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s dynamic look at frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds him left for dead after the world’s freakiest bear attack in the wilderness of Montana in 1823. The movie’s chaotic atmosphere is brought to life with vivid camerawork and grisly showdowns between Glass and various enemies, from arrow-wielding Native Americans to one of his own. While its story grows thinner than Glass over the course of the long, cold winter, "The Revenant" presents a masterful depiction of the barren American landscape, an unruly place of fierce attitudes and horrific biases that led directly into the Civil War just a few decades later.
That’s where the women of "The Keeping Room" find themselves in Daniel Barber’s clever twist on the standard Peckinpah formula, with a trio of young women holed up in a cabin fighting off the advances of rogue soldiers from the Union Army. Julia Hart’s intelligent screenplay reduces a fractured country to minimalist ingredients, finding its soul in the desire to survive against brutal forces. Also trapped in the cabin and fighting against ugly tendencies, the ensemble of Quentin Tarantino’s "The Hateful Eight" grapple with the lingering scars of the war through rambunctious monologues and gunplay, as the ever-inquisitive filmmaker reduces the country to a loathsome arena of partisan agendas in which the only solution is a complete reboot.
Traumatic stories of widespread persecution tend to get simplified with time, and that has certainly been the case with the Holocaust. Lazlo Nemes’ bracing depiction of a young man running around Auschwitz in a feeble bid to bury a young child complicates the equation. Shot almost entirely in closeup, the movie takes none of its gravitas for granted, instead burrowing inside its beleaguered protagonist’s world and creating his traumas from the inside out.
A similar strategy applied to gentler ends exists in Todd Haynes’ "Carol," which rescues the melodrama from sugarcoated depictions of American society in the fifties with its textured representation of a lesbian romance inserted into the conservative milieu. Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman bring the period alive, but stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara enliven its humanity, and enrich our contemporary perspective on the setting.
But no movie this year deals with a dark historical chapter more powerfully than "The Look of Silence," Joshua Oppenheimer’s tragic and unsettling non-fiction portrait of an Indonesian man confronting many of the former government officials who tortured his relatives decades earlier. Uniting past and present with tense exchanges, "The Look of Silence" encourages the fascinating possibility of interrogating evil rather than simply running from it.
Set in the late seventies, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" explores a process of sexual awakening for a young girl played with remarkable authenticity by Bel Powley. As much as the movie takes root in its young character’s experiences, it also explores her time — an era of immense desire for freedoms that ran smack into the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. In response to those frustrations came a new form of escapism, which moviegoers got to relive this year with the resurrection of the "Star Wars" and "Rocky" franchises, two properties launched in the seventies that have become more potent than ever.
Music Industry Woes
While that decade concluded with the birth of the modern blockbuster, it led straight into an era defined by another, more enticing cultural phenomenon: The birth of hip hop. "Straight Outta Compton" offers a lively chronicle of American rap music’s capacity to channel the rage of African American communities into a new form of populist entertainment. But more than that, the film’s vibrant performances (crowds of thousands shouting "Fuck tha police") speak to the communal nature of any successful creative enterprise — as well as the danger of getting too lost in the scene.
A similar motif exists at the center of "Eden," Mia Hansen-Love’s tender depiction of the French electronic music scene, which also takes places over the course of a decade as it finds its energetic characters holding onto their hard-partying ways for as long as they can. They’re so wrapped up in the energy of the moment that they’re blindsighted when it has passed. And the whirlwind nature of the music industry has a tendency to overwhelm its participants, as Asif Kapadia’s devastating "Amy" showed in its chronicling of singer and songwriter’s Amy Winehouse’s steady decline.
The first decade of the 21st century kicked off with a major tragedy on American soil and grew even more complicated when the country ran headlong into a recession. In her wonderfully poignant essay film "Heart of a Dog," Laurie Anderson contemplates a modern age of uneasiness surrounding the safety of everyday life. It’s an issue confronted more explicitly by Matthew Heineman’s involving documentary "Cartel Land," in which the Mexican drug war and rogue attempts to take control of American borders tap into the extreme paranoia crippling both countries.
But it’s Joel Potyrkus’ absurdist look at the diminishing effects of capitalism in "Buzzard" that probes the psychological trauma afflicting American society, with its hustling anti-hero trapped between his anger with the world and the malaise preventing him from doing something about it.
But few 2015 films speak to recent headlines more immediately than Jonas Carpignano’s "Mediterranea," a sharply-wrought neorealist tale of African migrants heading to Italy and finding something less satisfying than they expected. With the migrant crisis in Europe worse than ever, "Mediterranea" complicates the narrative by humanizing it. Spike Lee takes the opposite approach in his feisty satire "Chi-Raq," confronting gun-related violence through a modern refashioning of the Greek text "Lysistrata."
While some complained about the film’s premise — African American women embarking on a sex strike to get their gangster husbands to lay down their arms — Lee’s rambunctious lampooning of various attitudes is intentionally shrill; the filmmaker transforms his message-mongering into a colorful political cartoon. It’s certainly a finer call to action than any more straightforward approach to the subject matter.
The idea of a provincial lifestyle entirely based around face to face communication has become an increasingly antiquated notion. Such is the case in beautifully acted "45 Years," when the aging couple confronts a dramatic secret from their past while clearly alienated from the present. They’re out of synch with modern times, which are moving faster than anyone can surmise.
The scary future is at the center of the wonderfully devious "Ex Machina," Alex Garland’s thrilling sci-fi drama in which a man romances a machine, only to learn that she’s much smarter than he realized. Humanity’s greatest flaw may be its inability to see the impact of its destructive tendencies until the time has passed to rectify their impact. That story is writ large in the scorched earth of "Mad Max: Fury Road," while Don Hertzfeldt’s brilliant short "World of Tomorrow" suggests that even escaping the planet won’t cure the flaws of human behavior.