the documentaries that ruled 2015

The year’s finest non-fiction films left us with complex questions and unfathomable truths to wrestle with.

by Michael-Oliver Harding
17 December 2015, 4:52pm

A harrowing portrait of vigilante groups on opposite sides of the U.S./Mexico border (Cartel Land), an exhaustive survey of Scientology (Going Clear) and 80 minutes with a beloved nonagenarian fashion icon (Iris). Looking back on what has been a banner year for nonfiction storytelling, the common denominator appears to be filmmakers' desire to unpack dichotomies: good/evil, left/right, rich/poor and real/imaginary. As the eminently quotable German filmmaker Werner Herzog once saiddocumentaries are feature films in disguise because they "create a deeper form of truth, which is not fact-related."

The year's finest achievements in documentary did just that. They explored the personal trials and tragedies of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, the Angulo brothers, Laurie Anderson, Adi Rukun and an array of Harlem outcasts, while leaving us with complex questions and truths to wrestle with. While a sense of sadness permeates our fave 2015 documentaries, they all hint at a remarkable triumph of the human spirit. In the words of artist Khalik Allah, this year saw the following filmmakers carry out much-needed "camera ministry." Consider us both #grateful and #blessed.

1. Field Niggas
The most powerful film about urban outcasts since Marc Singer first brought to light a self-sustaining community of tunnel dwellers in Dark Days, Field Niggas is the ridiculously good debut of 30-year-old photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah. After childhood trips to Harlem spent avoiding the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, a grown-up Allah returns to the area with his camera, wanting to look beyond initial assumptions and capture the after-dark comings and goings of the intersection's poorest residents, which he likens to modern-day "field slaves" (something Malcolm X first evoked in a 1963 speech).

Runaways, addicts, the homeless and even local police are documented in Allah's hyper-saturated, quasi-spiritual glow, with the self-taught filmmaker slowing down his gorgeous visuals and layering them atop a soundtrack of poignant conversation fragments. The result is unlike anything you've seen: unsettling, impressionistic, immersive and enlightening.

2. The Look of Silence
The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's nightmare-inducing history lesson The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a less flamboyant, even more sobering (if that's possible) snapshot of human cruelty. While the first film introduced us to the remorseless Indonesian death squad leaders responsible for their country's 1960s genocide, Look turns its attention to the victims. Specifically to Adi Rukun (not his real name), a soft-spoken optometrist and younger brother to Ramli, executed before he was born. Under the guise of giving the killers eye exams, Adi pays them a visit and asks them to explain how they could carry out such senseless violence. It's a courageous project that gives agency to Adi and to an entire country forced into silence — as exemplified by the many anonymous Indonesians who worked on both films.

3. Heart of a Dog
No one could mistake Lolabelle, Laurie Anderson's beloved rat terrier, for your run-of-the-mill pooch. This multifaceted canine played concertos, painted and took up sculptural pursuits at the request of her master, an acclaimed multimedia artist, performer, and musician in her own right. Using the death of her pet as a jumping off point to explore subconscious states, Anderson's Heart of a Dog is an engrossingly experimental meditation on grief — at once philosophical, funny and tearjerking. Shot mostly on mobile phones and weaving together voiceover bits and memory fragments in a Chris Marker-esque, stream-of-consciousness style, Anderson's essay is lyrical and navel-gazing in the best of ways. The film's beautiful send-off to "Turning Time Around" by Lou Reed (Anderson's late husband) is an indelible cinematic moment guaranteed to give you the feels.

4. The Wolfpack
For her first film, director Crystal Moselle formed a tight-knit bond with the seven lanky, long-haired Angulo sublings (six guys, one girl) who had spent their entire lives confined to a four-bedroom apartment on New York's Lower East Side. Their overprotective (okay, paranoid) Peruvian father was afraid his kids would be "contaminated" by the Big Apple. No screenwriter could have dreamed up the haunting, stranger-than-fiction family dysfunctions that Moselle is gradually allowed to observe. Given their hostage-like predicament, the homeschooled bruhs turn to movies and get really crafty and creative. All film buffs, they painstakingly re-stage scenes from their all-time favorite Scorseses, Tarantinos and Nolans — cobbling together Dark Knight armor using yoga mats and cardboard scraps, for instance. While there's a troubling cloud of ambiguity weighing the whole thing down (i.e., why did father Oscar suddenly relinquish his iron-like grip?), it's the Angulos who make this Sundance prizewinner an absolute must-see. Articulate, ultra self-aware, charismatic and wise beyond their years, it's as if the siblings had been rehearsing for their 15 minutes their whole lives.

5. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck & Amy
These two biographical portraits took wildly inventive, collage-like approaches to charting the lives of their mythical musical subjects - from youthful promise to dizzying stardom to tragic demise. Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck presents a smattering of impressive childhood artwork, cassette tape diaries and home movies of the sensitive alt-grunge icon, whose painful upbringing in Aberdeen, Washington prompted him to become an outstanding outsider songwriter, lifelong feminist and advocate for society's misfits.

Asif Kapadia's box-office-smashing Amy eschews tired doc tropes by avoiding talking heads and relying solely on audio interviews to move the story along, while letting the jazz great's raw lyrics float across the screen in diaristic fragments. Whether it was the beehive and eyeliner or the flannel shirts and cardigans, Amy and Kurt were both reluctant fashion rebels who sang from the heart, yearned for connection and struggled with fame and addiction in the heyday of tabloids (Cobain) or the ascent of the blogarazzi (Winehouse). Yet as sensitive and inventive as these docs may be, Morgen and Kapadia's portraits also feed into the longstanding mythology of (and our perverse fascination with) the "27 Club". As the familiar narratives of self-destruction play out, seeing Amy's and Kurt's posthumous on-screen appearances is distressing, to say the least.


Text Michael-Oliver Harding

the Wolfpack
The Look of Silence
kurt cobain
Heart of a Dog
Field Niggas
michael oliver harding