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2015 in Ten Double Features

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

Every cinephile knows the curatorial bliss of a great double feature. A flexing of film nerd muscles while sitting on your ass for three to five hours, a double bill brings two films into dialogue with one another based on style, subject, theme, or whatever connective tissue you can find. Double features, like well-sequenced mixtapes, require the instincts of a programmer. Thanks to streaming, digital rentals, and the perennial ease of sneaking into a second film at your local AMC, the work of making a double bill happen has never been easier.

Below, I rally through 10 great double features from 2015. Binge-watch them at your leisure.

10. Sicario and Cartel Land

United by a shared sense of hopelessness, Sicario and Cartel Land explore the War on Drugs from two distinct vantage points. In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s by-the-book protagonist discovers the lengths the American government can go to stem the Mexican drug cartels. Torture, shoot-outs on foreign soil, collaboration with rival cartel leaders – all are fair game for the men who fight this war with little oversight. The men of Cartel Land, meanwhile, presume that government officials alone can’t fight this Sisyphean war, forming vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to catch smugglers and curb cartel rule. Neither film fills the viewer with any hope; both the government and militia groups come out dirty in a war whose purpose remains dubious at best. As a statement on the War on Drugs, these films remind us of the money spent and the lives lost in the name of narcotics prohibition.

9. The Mend and Entertainment

Here we have two abrasive comedies that orbit way outside the world of standard American indie fare. From first-time feature director John Magary, The Mend ranks among the most stylistically bold debuts I saw this year — feral, surreal, and imbued with a melancholy that keeps you caring. A boozy freefall into the depths of masculinity, The Mend delivers a manic spin on the “dysfunctional family” subgenre of American indies. Entertainment follows a similar blueprint: dollops of stylistic surrealism, audience-alienating leads, and a quiet sadness that creeps under the jagged surface. The film operates as a biopic of stand-up comic “Neil Hamburger,” the vile alter-ego of writer/performer Gregg Turkington. The film captures the fury of an unsuccessful artist. In Hamburger’s eyes, any comic who gets laughs is a clown who caters to the lowest-common denominator, and every set he bombs is the fault of someone else. Both The Mend and Entertainment depict the lives of isolated, caustic men with unnerving accuracy.

8. (T)ERROR and Timbuktu

The subject of this double feature is Islamic extremism abroad and our erratic response to it at home. In Timbuktu, we witness the violence and darkly comic absurdities of life under Jihadist rule. Soldiers patrol the streets of Mali in search of petty crimes to punish: music, soccer, exposed female skin. In the film’s most striking image, a group of young boys play soccer with an invisible ball – a beautiful illustration of the creative work-arounds necessary to make life under fundamentalism bearable. With the documentary (T)ERROR, we shift focus to America’s response to Islamic extremism. The filmmakers have unprecedented access to an active FBI informant as he attempts to entrap suspected “Taliban sympathizers” (mostly they’re just angry young men who post rants on Facebook). The informant, Shariff, is a fascinating and complex figure: a Muslim and former Black Panther who justifies his ethically dubious dealings with the authorities because “if you’re making Islam look bad, you got to go.” (T)ERROR focuses on Shariff’s efforts to enter a mosque and bait a young man into confessing his supposed terrorist plans. Viewed together, these films expose both the realities of radical Islam and the lines we’ve crossed to fight it.

7. Taxi and The Look of Silence

How do you arrive at truth? Filmmakers have a near infinite number of tools to get there, but they tend to settle on one of two routes: documentary or fiction. Taxi and The Look of Silence are two films about national identity that blur this binary. Like many Iranian art films before it, Taxi fixates on the porous border between the real and the recreated. Jafar Panahi drives around Tehran as a cabbie, offering us a glimpse into modern Iran through his car window and discussions with passengers. Much of what we see, however, has the too-perfect quality of scripted social commentary. The Iranian government has banned Panahi from making films; Taxi, his latest hybrid work, highlights his constraints and his resourcefulness as a filmmaker. A more easily classifiable film than Taxi, The Look of Silence nonetheless eschews traditional documentary in its portrayal of present-day Indonesia. Joshua Oppenheimer has referred to the film as “a poem” and not a mere “boring report of what happened.” Like Taxi, The Look of Silence orchestrates a series of interviews to arrive not at unfiltered reality but at what Werner Herzog calls a higher “ecstatic truth.”

6. Spotlight and The Martian

Spotlight and The Martian are two world-class recruitment videos for investigative journalism and the sciences, respectively. In the former, we witness the enormous social good that can come when a team of reporters has the time to research and write stories at a slow pace, outside the daily grind of beat reporting. The film argues that, without the resources afforded to the Spotlight writers, major stories like sexual abuse in the Catholic church can slip past even the most high-minded reporters and editors. The Martian, of course, has its own blunt agenda: to make the sciences – botany, space travel, mathematics – look sexy and appealing as a profession. The film can make anyone with a humanities degree feel incompetent (unlike Damon, I likely would have died within days). These films also highlight the similarities between investigative reporting and the sciences. Reporters, like scientists, apply rational thinking to arrive at conclusions based on facts, not faith. As a double feature, Spotlight and The Martian serve as propaganda for investigative journalism, the sciences, and the act of using your goddamn brain.

5. Son of Saul and Phoenix

Grim by any measure, these films confront us with both the you-are-there horrors and the psychological aftermath of the last century’s darkest moment. Son of Saul is a visually daring Holocaust picture that could never be confused with any other. The camera follows Saul, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz, in long, claustrophobic shots with very little depth of field. The effect is not unlike a third-person video game, only here much of the brutality is out of focus or off-screen. The film’s formal tactics create a violent sense of immediacy. Watching the film becomes a physical act; the actions inside Auschwitz unfold with a renewed, visceral panic. Phoenix portrays the post-traumatic terrors of life in the wake of the Holocaust. A melodrama set in post-WWII Berlin, the film offers a showcase for actor Nina Hoss as a Holocaust survivor with intense physical and mental trauma. The film’s story of willful ignorance – both personal among its two leads and metaphorical for a nation as a whole – provides a sobering punctuation mark to Son of Saul. Every traumatic event will leave its residual impact. These films speak to both the event and the aftermath with dreadful clarity.

4. Inside Out and Anomalisa

Two animated films obsessed with the inner workings of the human brain; the first, Inside Out, is a marvel of inventive storytelling. The film attempts to do nothing less than visualize the emotions and memories that govern our behavior and make us who we are as people. It’s a mammoth conceptual task that somehow makes perfect sense as a Pixar road movie. What starts as a film about childhood joy turns into an argument for emotional maturity and the role of sorrow in our lives. Pixar’s most profound film makes me downright angry because it did not exist when I was a depressive 12-year-old boy. If Inside Out has the power to save lives, Anomalisa has the power to ruin them. Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion feature speaks to those who live life through a depressive fog. In the world of Anomalisa, every human being sounds the same, and even those that do pierce through the monotony will lose their allure with time. The film mimics the subjective experience of feeling nothing, catching a burst of manic energy, and then feeling nothing again. Like Inside Out, it uses the impressionistic qualities of animation to visualize the emotions we can scarcely put into words.

3. Hard to Be a God and Mad Max: Fury Road

Cinematic worlds don’t get much bigger or filthier than Hard to Be a God and Mad Max: Fury Road. These nasty, mud-caked dystopias are all about depicting a society in which our standards of living have been stripped to the bone. In Hard to Be a God, we spend three nauseating hours on a planet that never discovered such post-Enlightenment niceties as soap. A monumental feat of immersion, the film grabs you by the hair and drags you through the muck of the Middle Ages. I struggled to stay awake during this endurance test, and I struggled even harder to get it out of my head afterward. Mad Max’s universe, meanwhile, is not pre-Enlightenment but post-apocalypse. Civilization has crumbled into a greasy, grimy war for water and oil. The film operates as one long car chase – as rapid-paced as Hard to Be a God is a dazed slog. Together, the films offer two very different portraits of mankind at its most feral, unhinged, and unhygienic.

2. In Jackson Heights and Magic Mike XXL

2015 was an objectively shit year for America and much of mankind. From our year of religious and race-based murder, mass shootings, and Donald Trump, I have one main takeaway: For us to survive in any non-Mad Max way, our society has to place diversity and cultural pluralism as its highest value. We’re otherwise a xenophobic mass with a cast of moving targets: Hispanics, Syrian refugees, black Americans, LGBTQ individuals, lower-income neighbors. These two films, both radical in their own way, show an America that embraces its diversity as an asset, not as a menace. Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world, serving as a perfect test case for how a multicultural society can function. In Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, the only threat to coexistence is capitalism, which invariably squashes diversity for a more homogenous, higher-income lot. Magic Mike XXL, however, has no villains. The film is pure celebration, pure joy. It argues simply that, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, body type, age, spiritual beliefs, or any other marker of difference, we all deserve to have a good time. It’s a political statement dressed (or, OK, undressed) as a bawdy audience pleaser. Wildly divergent in tone, these two plotless celebrations of American diversity capture 2015 at its most hopeful.

1. Carol and The Duke of Burgundy

Love unfolds in stages. For most of us, there’s a rapturous build-up – a period of ferocious infatuation as we dance around one another, obsessing at a distance. We either conceal our feelings or soften them for fear of coming on crazy. The senses heighten, every caress and glance charged with some strange intangible force. Carol is an almost painfully perfect film about those early days of love. It’s a deeply cinematic work in which superlative elements (script, score, cinematography, performances, production design) cohere into a bewitching approximation of our most vulnerable moments. The Duke of Burgundy concerns itself with a wholly different stage of romantic love: domestic partnership. In this film, we witness a couple with differing interests and desires work to please one another without losing their own sense of self. Evelyn learns about lepidopterology to please Cynthia; Cynthia plays out sado-masochistic fantasies to please Evelyn. The film plays as both a kinky pastiche of ’70s erotica and an honest portrait of the compromises that make a relationship last. Together, the films carry you through the evolution of a long-term romance. That both films depict same-sex female couples is almost an afterthought when the experiences shown here are so universal. Still, in a year with at least one silver lining – same-sex marriage – it was a joy to see these two emotionally rich films tower above the rest.

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