Friday, 1 January 2016

The Best Films Of The Year 2015


What with the growing choice of release formats - cinema, on demand, home rental and multi-region physical media, plus the proliferation of both major and smaller regional film festivals (particularly the increasing number of horror related events), it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track of what movies get released where and when during a specific calendar year. So for this, my annual end of year countdown, instead of sticking to just confirmed UK releases as I have previously done in the past, I'm changing the rules from here on, so this year I'm basically allowing any new release film (excluding re-releases or rep screenings) which I have seen in 2015. Therefore any new release films which I logged on my Letterboxd diary since January 1st 2015 are fair game. In other words, one-off festival screenings are now eligible for consideration, as are films perhaps not yet released in the UK, but are available online via the likes of U.S. itunes and similar readily accessible on demand and streaming platforms. Just for the record, according to my Letterboxd diary HERE I watched 312 films in 2015 (5 less than 2014, which at least is fairly consistent I suppose?). 

As ever, I've not seen anything like every new release worthy of inclusion, but I think I've caught a fair cross section of the most important and popular films of the year, and hopefully this round-up reflects that. Worth noting I think what a particularly strong year it's been for science-fiction / fantasy cinema - half of my Top 10 including my entire Top 3 films of the year fall under this category. Also an impressive showing for Westerns (3 included), which continue to make a welcome comeback with both The Hateful Eight and The Revenant due to open here in January (and therefore may well make this list in 2016). A solid and particularly diverse year for horror cinema too - as ever I have dedicated a separate list to the genre on Letterboxd to highlight its rich variety of offerings this year. You can check out that particular list HERE:

THE BEST FILMS OF 2015:


1) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Apocalypse Wow!
Part reboot, part sequel, part tribute to the original trilogy played out on a different tangent, the thirty year gestation period between the disappointing Beyond Thunderdome and the insanely anticipated Fury Road has afforded director George Miller ample time to expand his vision of the post-apocalyptic Western he was largely responsible for in the first place. And whilst technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since his original Mad Max trilogy, Miller to his credit uses modern CGI and special effects sparingly, preferring instead to unleash an eye-popping orgy of practical effects and death-defying physical stunt work which makes the Fast And Furious series look like a sedate Sunday afternoon drive. What he's come up with pretty much renders all previous action cinema obsolete and antiquated in two brilliantly bonkers hours of undiluted nitrous-fuelled mayhem. Fury Road is like injecting a speed ball directly into your brain, a visually stunning, insanely choreographed maelstrom of motorised carnage played out at amp-blowing levels. Here's a film which is as unhinged as it is adrenalised, it begins with our hero eating a live two headed lizard, before hurtling headfirst into a frenzied bout of motorised madness. It then shifts up half a dozen gears, floors the accelerator pedal, fires up the nitrous and rockets along at an unrelenting breakneck pace which leaves your head spinning, ears ringing and eyes bulging out on stalks like a delirious Looney Tunes character.
Essentially the climactic tanker pursuit from Mad Max 2 turned into one frenzied feature length chase movie, Miller's genius here is using the relentless action itself as the propulsive plot mechanism - there are brief moments of respite and backstory, but much like James Cameron's original Terminator, there's zero baggage or exposition, everything is done on the move like a sleek, cinematic shark - if it loses momentum, it's dead in the water.
That's not to say there's no characterisation here - Tom Hardy's take on Max is more physical, if perhaps less charismatic than Mel Gibson's previous incarnation. But you get the sense Hardy's Max would be a survivor out there in the brutal, barren wastelands - he's a primal, feral, imposing presence, and with his flashbacks, grunts, gruff demeanour and gecko diet, certainly merits the 'Mad' tag of his character name. And yet Hardy finds himself usurped in his own film by Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, a shaven-headed, hard as nails, alpha female giving the film a commendable whiff of oestrogen amongst all the testosterone, heading up a cast populated by several impressively rounded, strong female characters.
With astonishing production design and meticulous attention to detail, stunningly shot throughout, with an incredible use of colour and lighting - at times the startling choice of blues and reds makes this feel like a Mario Bava movie on crack, whilst there's one blissful moment of candlelit beauty amidst the chaos, which is simply sublime. Fury Road will leave you giddy on exhaust fumes with its relentless, teeth-rattling spectacle, a high-octane vehicular Valhalla, which doesn't just move the goalposts of action cinema, it transplants them into a whole new arena! The world doesn't belong to the mad. In 2015 it belonged to a seventy year old called George Miller, the undisputed King of carmageddon.

2) EX MACHINA



A new world of Gods And Monsters - writer turned director Alex Garland's debut feature is a stunningly assured slice of cerebral science-fiction which explores themes of artificial intelligence, consciousness, singularity, sentience and attraction. Despite its ambitious themes and weighty ideology, at its core Ex Machina is a surprisingly lean, stripped down film - essentially a three-hander thriller set in a single stylish location.
Ex Machina unravels as a totally gripping and utterly unpredictable thriller of perception, deception and manipulation. You are never quite certain of the motivations or believability of any of the key protagonists, as hints and clues of sinister undercurrents are revealed. Who can be trusted? Who is playing who? Blessed with three fantastic central performances from a trio of actors whose stars are very much in the ascendancy, Ex Machina is visually stylish with incredible special effects work given its modest budget (the early incarnations of Ava with her translucent torso, and balletic artificial movements are particularly striking), has a terrific incessant electronic score, moments of idiosyncratic oddness (a strangely disturbing dance sequence), and is proud to pay homage to its B movie exploitation roots (let's just say there's a lot of artificial flesh on display). Alex Garland may have covered some of this territory before, particularly so in the superb and criminally underrated Never Let Me Go, but he arrives here in the director's chair with a stunning statement of intent, as a natural born filmmaker delivering what I honestly believe may just be the best science fiction film of its kind since Blade Runner.


3) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Breathe a massive sigh of relief, for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most eagerly anticipated film of 2015 is the perfect symmetry between past and present, going back in time to advance into the future, passing the torch to a new generation with maturity, spectacle and wit. Whilst Lucas was always a better merchandise salesman than director, he was right that his original vision was for a film aimed at children, and it wasn’t his fault adults liked it too. JJ Abrams and his writing team’s masterstroke is to deliver a film for all age demographics – there are still cute droids and crazy creatures aplenty to appease the younglings, but now there’s a sophistication of storytelling evident, jettisoning all the convoluted taxation and trade mumbo jumbo of the prequels and the often laughably inane dialogue which has always blighted Lucas’s screenplays from the saga’s very outset. Characters old and new are more rounded, more believable, more ingrained with emotion and purpose. The visuals are frequently breathtaking, less reliant on CGI, the sets and set pieces have a tangible physicality and location, there’s an epic sense of scale and style on show.
It’s not perfect admittedly; but I laughed, I had several huge euphoric shivers down the spine moments, and yes I had a lump in my throat at the ‘no spoilers’ scenes. JJ Abrams has spectacularly wiped the memory of those much maligned prequels in one beautifully realised reboot. This is the film Star Wars fans have waited over three decades for. 

“Chewie.......we’re home.”

4) THE WITCH
Fading light, blighted land, nature in retreat, a Puritan family falling apart through superstition, stubbornness and sin, and an ancient evil lurking ominously in the shadows. Played out beneath slate grey skies and sparse interiors barely illuminated by flickering candlelight, the way The Witch builds a malevolent air of darkness, doom and despair is impeccable. Awash with overwhelming dread and utterly unnerving, here is a film that genuinely left me feeling on edge and uneasy, the obvious comparisons are the likes of the original Blair Witch Project in the way it cultivates an aura of something insidious and evil in the background, whilst its folk horror credentials bring to mind classics of the genre like Blood On Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General.
It's a slow-burning and stunningly shot fable, with flawless turns from its small-scale cast, including some of the most convincing performances from child actors I've witnessed in some time. Creepy as Hell, compulsive and a film where somehow a goat called Black Phillip became the year's most iconic horror character. Very possibly a future horror classic, believe the hype, and be sure to catch this when it officially opens in 2016.


5) SPRING
Those bemoaning the lack of quality and originality in modern horror cinema really need to cast their gaze further afield than the latest mainstream conveyor-belt produced Paranormal Insidious clones. There have been some remarkable genre offerings of late, largely from the independent or international end of the market. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Spring is the latest picture to add to that ever expanding list. Their second feature, coming after their admirable but flawed debut Resolution, this is a massive leap forward in terms of ambition, scope and ability.
Spring is a film which is best appreciated with as little prior knowledge of its deceptively simple, but strikingly unusual and twisted plot as possible. Safe to say it's a Lovecraftian love story, a gorgeously shot travelogue which gently veers off down ever stranger and more sinister paths. It's both poetic and potent, a haunting, heartbreaking meditation on the bliss, beauty and brutality of nature. A film which delivers a truly enthralling and unexpected central relationship, which gradually builds via an impending sense of doom and portent to a remarkable climax, the resolution of which hangs in the balance to the very end, in a textbook example of how to evoke tension and dread simply through having characters you genuinely care about.


6) WHIPLASH
Blood, sweat and tears in a musical boot camp, jazz as a white-knuckle war zone. Whiplash may not break much new ground in terms of narrative or structure, with its basic mentor/student dynamic and triumph over adversity storyline, but it builds with such tightly wound intensity and melodramatic potency that it transcends its cliches and plotting pitfalls - like its entire final act hinging on a huge coincidental meeting for instance.
At the pulsating beat of its frantic rhythm is Oscar winning J K Simmons, magnetic as tyrannical New York academy teacher Terence Fletcher, a sadistic, sinewy ball of seething rage and splenetic perfectionism. Simmons has taken his cantankerous J.Jonah Jameson persona from Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy and turbocharged him into some sort of vexatious, acid-tongued R Lee Ermey tribute act. His fearsome, foul-mouthed band leader bully utterly dominates proceedings, although latest protege/victim Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a precocious and ambitious young drummer more than holds his own as tutoring turns to torturing in a psychological test of endurance and stamina.
On paper, Whiplash sounds pretty unremarkable, not helped by the fact I hate jazz music, but thankfully that's a mere backdrop to the central searing relationship, which writer/director Damien Chazelle tunes into with increasing intensity and gruelling emotion. And frankly, any film which can survive the biggest crime against music - a five minute drum solo, and still enthral and excite has to be special. Whiplash really is! Far more than just a "good job."


7) SICARIO

A morality minefield as the rules of engagement are twisted and torn apart. Denis Villeneuve's borderland drugs war thriller was one of the standout films of the year and further cemented his reputation as one of the most essential filmmakers currently at work in Hollywood.
Sicario is a film which deliberately keeps its narrative cards close to its chest, it's a film of secrets and lies, ethical and professional duplicity, trust and mistrust, hidden agendas, personal vendettas and deadly retribution. It kicks off with an incredibly visceral and stunningly choreographed house raid which almost turns into pure horror cinema by its shocking climax, which leads to Emily Blunt's idealistic FBI agent being recruited by Josh Brolin's shadowy task force charged with "shaking the tree" of Mexico's ruthlessly violent drug cartels. Blunt is the ethical beat in the heart of darkness, kept at arms length by Brolin and enigmatic right hand man Benicio Del Toro (who has rarely been more charismatic or compelling, and totally owns this film), she becomes the audience's conduit, as much in the dark as to the mission, methods and questionable morality as the viewer, as her crew head south of the border and violence begets violence with terrifying results.
Here's a film which although hardly treading new ground (Traffic amongst several other films have been here previously), manages to be a pulsating, powerful and often nerve-shredding exercise in tension. An early elongated action sequence which is basically an insertion behind enemy lines to extract a prisoner, is a stunning example of a director at the top of his game as we follow a militarised convoy deep into cartel territory where mutilated headless bodies swing from bridges like some hellish vision of drug-fuelled Dystopia, more a deadly Middle Eastern war zone than an impoverished Mexican border town. This all leads to one of the year's finest sequences - a thrilling example of pure cinema, a border crossing traffic jam where perspiration pours, nerves jangle and trigger fingers twitch with anticipation as surrounding vehicles ominously appear as laden with potential gun-toting targets ready to engage with deadly force in the blink of an eye. Spectacularly shot by the masterful Roger Deakins (who simply must finally be due an Oscar for this?), the film looks jaw-dropping - one review I read described his cinematography of the arid desert landscapes here as so huge and panoramic you can actually see the curvature of the Earth.
Sicario is simply a terrific, taut, often terrifying and frequently thought-provoking film, and although I personally loathe the idea of any sort of sequel to Blade Runner, if we must have one, right now I can't think of another filmmaker better equipped to make it something special than Denis Villeneuve.

8) BIRDMAN
Birdman is theatre as pure cinema. A savagely satirical fantasy of illusion, delusion, ego and art. Primarily it's a blackly comedic ode to actors, their eccentricities and insecurities, and the disposable nature and duplicity of the entertainment industry, with terrific performances throughout its star-studded ensemble. And yet while theatre is very much an actor's medium, Birdman despite its cast at the top of their game, proves film is very much a director's platform, with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shedding the doleful, ponderous tone of his earlier films, to deliver a dazzling directorial tour de force. Accompanied by Gravity's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Inarritu uses the same conceit as Hitchcock's Rope, presenting Birdman as if filmed in one seamless continuous take (it's not obviously, but the illusion is a convincing one). The camera literally takes flight - soaring in and out and around the theatre set, sweeping through rooms and corridors, spinning around the stage and stairwells, and hovering around the play's protagonists with flawless fluidity.
From a purely visual and stylistic perspective this is simply a jaw-dropping creative and technical marvel. I've read accusations of it being over-stylised and pretentious, but as far as I was concerned I found this to stay just the right side of smug showmanship. Yes, it's self-knowing, its meta credentials are writ large - Michael Keaton plays an actor past his prime, best remembered for his role as a screen superhero. Edward Norton plays a confrontational and challenging method actor. You get the idea? But despite the bickering and bile and breakdowns there's a warmth and wit and wonder at play in a film full of ideas and invention and frequent moments of offbeat madness......it is afterall a movie which opens with Keaton levitating several feet above the floor in some kind of hypnotic transcendental state as if to underline the fact this isn't going to be any kind of run of the mill film. In fact, it's a fabulous, frenetic, unusual, ambitious, cinematic sleight of hand and got 2015 off to a high flying start.




9) THE MARTIAN
Essentially what we have here is a 1950's B movie plot with modern day blockbuster credentials....think Robinson Crusoe On Mars with Matt Damon instead of Adam West and state of the art technology in the place of a chattering monkey. Working from a tight script which blends pathos, humour and plausibility (although there is some artistic license for dramatic narrative effect of course), this is Ridley Scott's best work for some time, and although it may not have the unwieldy ambition of say Prometheus, it's a far more engaging and ultimately thrilling film.
Damon is terrific as the Mars marooned astronaut, relying on resourcefulness and determination to survive against seemingly overwhelming odds in a triumph of the human mind and spirit over adversity. A particularly star-studded ensemble provide what are essentially minor supporting roles (Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor to name but a few), in a film which is a textbook example of how to squeeze every last drop of tension and trauma out of what appears a deceptively simple premise, which you would mistakenly presume would soon hit a narrative dead end. It's the science of survival - visually arresting, emotionally gripping, and crucially, tremendous fun. 


10) THE FALLING
I always try and include a lesser seen hidden gem of a film in my end of year Top 10, in the hope of encouraging others to discover its delights, and this is 2015's choice. Set in a strict English girl's school in the late 1960s, Carol Morley's film is an amorphous, enigmatic mystery / fringe horror which expertly creates a dreamlike off-kilter aura via subliminal imagery and unsettling ambiguity. It has a strangely offbeat vibe of things just not being right. A film unafraid to drop hints and indications as to its true meaning and direction without ever delivering any solid answers or confirmation of whether it was all psychological, supernatural, mass hysteria or simple mischief. With an ethereal, hypnotic style it's a film which shares similar DNA to mysterious movies like The Wicker Man, Don't Look Now and especially Picnic At Hanging Rock, and was one of the more pleasant and interesting discoveries of the year, and definitely one to rewatch at some point to search for clues and context.

THE BEST OF THE REST: 

 

11) THE VOICES
12) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
13) JOHN WICK
14) A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
15) HARD TO BE A GOD
16) BONE TOMAHAWK
17) WE ARE STILL HERE
18) LAST SHIFT
19) COP CAR
20) GOODNIGHT MOMMY

21) ELECTRIC BOOGALOO - THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
22) SLOW WEST
23) GOOD KILL
24) BRIDGE OF SPIES
25) DIGGING UP THE MARROW
26) THE INVITATION
27) HYENA
28) BIG HERO 6

29) THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
30) THE FINAL GIRLS
31) THE SALVATION
32) AMY
33) SPECTRE
34) MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION
35) DARK WAS THE NIGHT (aka MONSTER HUNTER)
36) THE HALLOW
37) JUPITER ASCENDING 
38) LEGEND
39) KRAMPUS
40) ANT-MAN

41) CUB
42) THESE FINAL HOURS
43) CRIMSON PEAK
44) AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
45) INSIDE OUT
46) MISSISSIPPI GRIND
47) AMERICAN SNIPER
48) WHITE GOD
49) THE LOBSTER
50) THE TRIBE
 

BEST HORROR FILM: THE WITCH

BEST COMEDY: SPY (Not one single comedy made my Top 50 - a very poor showing!)

BEST SCIENCE-FICTION / FANTASY: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

BEST THRILLER: SICARIO

BEST SPECIAL FX: EX MACHINA

BEST SCREENPLAY: WHIPLASH

BEST DIRECTOR: GEORGE MILLER (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD)

BEST ACTRESS: CHARLIZE THERON (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD)

BEST ACTOR: EDDIE REDMAYNE (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING)

RISING ACTRESS: ALICIA VIKANDER (EX MACHINA / SON OF A GUN / SEVENTH SON)

RISING ACTOR: OSCAR ISAAC (EX MACHINA / A MOST VIOLENT YEAR / STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS)
 
      

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