The Best Films of 2015*
*That I managed to see in a cinema
I saw 20 new films in a cinema this year, and only a handful of them were disappointing. A great year of filmmaking.
What I still need to see:
- Bridge of Spies
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- Magic Mike XXL
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens — almost certain to rank highly on this list.
- Steve Jobs
What I’ve seen, ranked in reverse order:
Despite the potential of two Tom Hardys in one film, I was surprised at how dull Legend is. Hardy is good, and Emily Browning is great in the little screen time she has, but the film has too many elements, failing to intertwine a romance and a crime saga. Goodfellas gone wrong.
19. Tale of Tales (Italian: Il racconto dei racconti)
This Italian-British fantasy horror film, based on archetypal Italian fairytales, probably won’t be seen by many, despite starring the likes of Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly. I caught it at the Karlovy Vary film festival in July. It’s strangely paced and lacks the substance to match its baroque style.
I was optimistic going in to see this. And I was optimistic after that great Touch of Evil style opening. Entering the cinema in Camden on Halloween, moments after being surrounded by skeleton masks, watching the Day of the Dead introduction was awesome. But the rest of the film is formulaic without being self-reflexive, essentially being the lesser clone of this summer’s Mission: Impossible, which ranks higher on this list.
17. Avengers: Age of Ultron
I love a good popcorn movie, and I love how Marvel is constructing their own mythology, however money-driven it may be. Superheroes are to the modern audience what gods and goddesses were in the age of Homer and Ovid. But Ultron takes on the grandeur of this mythological mode too much, too self-aggrandizing and not self-effacing enough. Some say the witty quips in Joss Whedon’s script provide a comic touch, but it feels too mechanic and sporadic. Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are more enjoyable because of their levity and a sharper narrative focus.
16. Bob and the Trees
This docudrama won the main prize at Karlovy Vary in July, and I can see why. Initially a short documentary, director Diego Ongaro decided to let Bob Tarasuk, a real forester, to star in a fictional, but cinéma vérité, film about his quotidian life. It’s less of a film and more of a still-life, and I feel the shorter documentary may have told the same story more powerfully.
15. Rams (Icelandic: Hrútar)
Rams won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and, like Bob and the Trees, has that social-realist tone commonly seen in festival favourites. An interesting character study of the conflict of two elderly brothers in Iceland, but a film without any great drama.
14. Slow West
This is a really enjoyable film, a new take on the western genre by director John Maclean in his first feature. It’s just too short. Like this description.
An interesting take on the Scottish Play, thrilling at times but occasionally lacking energy. The bookending war scenes and smokey, colourful visuals are wonderful.
12. I Am Belfast
This is Northern Irish filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins’ love letter/magic realist documentary ode to his home, Belfast. A single female character is the personification of Belfast, her voice in dialogue with Cousins’ to provide the narration. A poetic, beautiful piece of work that I saw in Karlovy Vary, where Cousins participated in a Q&A and showed his intellect and enthusiasm.
This documentary is great because it understands how intriguing its subject, Marlon Brando, is, and adapts its form accordingly. Brando narrates the entire film, with director Stevan Riley using his personal recordings, allowing the experience to be like a cinematic séance. Click here for my full review, ‘Brando Reborn’.
A thrilling insight into the intense world of Il Palio, a horse race held in Siena twice annually. The documentary is brilliantly shot and features interviews with the celebrity-like legends of the race.
9. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
Somehow this series of films is getting better with each installment, partly because a new director brings their own style to the template each time. Rogue Nation, by Christopher McQuarrie, is well-staged and, most importantly, funny. Starring Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise: the best Bond film this year.
The kind of film that forces you to laugh so you can cope with all the squirming you’ll be doing. The Lobster is a dystopian black comedy in which Colin Farrell’s despondent face is its own story. My full review, ‘All the Lonely People’, here.
7. Ex Machina
Ex Machina was sorely under-marketed, despite being one of the best science fiction films this decade. While the narrative asks profound questions about artificial intelligence, and the tension is surprisingly intense, the location and set design — set in a modern, Scandi-utopian forest retreat building — is enough to make this film a thing of beauty.
It’s got the Oscars to prove its worth, but what impressed me when watching Birdman again recently is how practically the ‘continuous’ tracking shot is employed. It isn’t a gimmick or circus trick; the style perfectly channels the film’s darkly comic substance. Cinematographer Lubezki’s newest collaboration with director Iñárritu on The Revenant looks to be another case of technological artistry.
5. Inherent Vice
I couldn’t believe hearing reports of walkouts at screenings of P.T. Anderson’s latest film. I saw it in the cinema twice and found it great both times. This year, only Carol could compare in the way Inherent Vice evokes a mood of a time passed. Both films depict a woozy, hazy perspective, with Vice using the weed smoke-filled frame to suggest the paranoia of the post-Manson years at the turn of the 70s in California.
I found The Martian consistently entertaining and light-hearted, something lacking in the world-weary, world-is-ending pessimism of the typical blockbuster. Click here for my full review.
3. Inside Out
Inside Out redefines the idea of a ‘family film’. This label typically suggests harmless fun, and a watered-down, passive experience. Pixar’s film is just the opposite: an intellectual movie that has a message for any viewer of any age. For children too young to understand the psychological science behind the film, it’s a visual treat with a stunning colour palette and funny characters. For pre-teens, teens, and young adults, it’s a poignant depiction of emotions in flux during the tumult of growing up and accepting loss. Adults will discover a new perspective on the behaviour of children, with each emotion having a role to play; while Joy initially seems to be the film’s central character, it becomes clear that Sadness is equally important, which is a great modern message regarding mental health.
Just so, so beautiful. My full review here, including quotes from Todd Haynes at a Q&A. Surely an Oscar favourite.
My favourite films are those that have self-contained, tight narratives that feature a conflict we see constructed and then demolished in the climax. I appreciate all kinds of filmmaking, but the most satisfying experience in the cinema is when a story is emphatically concluded. The final scene of Whiplash is the most applause-worthy conclusion I’ve seen to a film yet.
It’s thanks to the Oscar-winning role of J.K. Simmons, as Fletcher, that a powerful conflict is built in Whiplash. Miles Teller’s performance is subtly strong too — he shows the emotional arc of Andrew, going from punchbag to fighter, brilliantly. Somehow, a film about jazz drumming manages to ask large ethical questions, regarding the pursuit of perfection and the teacher-student dynamic. Framing all of this is a film of stylistic flair, with whip-pans and close-ups accentuating vital moments. Whiplash is a drum roll, a crescendo, followed by the smash of a cymbal — cut to black.