Thursday, 31 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015

2015 was a pretty eclectic year for film. Whilst the return of two long dormant massive franchises, in the form of Jurassic Park and Star Wars, broke box office records, there was still plenty of room for small idiosyncratic movies to delve into the many facets of the human condition. 2015's best films explored the nature of ambition, expectation, time, love, sadness, fatherhood and technology, but in fresh unexpected ways. Once again this was a year when unheralded films turned out much better than the hyped-up award-hunters.

This year I've aimed to write a shorter, punchier review of this year's films, so hopefully it'll act as a nice brief overview for you all.  
As usual this is a personal look back at this year's releases, so this is not necessarily a list of the greatest movies of the past twelve months, but a collection of my recommendations. As usual any feedback and discussion is welcome.

Disclaimer! - Many other films of the year lists will contain films yet to be released in the UK. I don't include these in mine, even if I've seen them at preview screenings. We usually get these films in January and February, so there's lots to look forward to early in the year. This year those films include "The Hateful Eight" (8th January), "The Revenant" (15th January)"Room" (15th January), "The Assassin" (22nd January)"The Big Short" (22nd January), "Spotlight" (29th January),  "Anomalisa" (11th March), "Son of Saul"(1st April)"Arabian Nights" (TBA)

This year's trends - father figures, a love of science, modern love and relationships

10. The Duke of Burgundy

A strange but beguiling film from Adam Strickland, director of 2012's also rather idiosyncratic Berberian Sound Studio. Shifting between genres as it details the routines and sex lives of two women living in a secluded woody mansion, its stylistic blend can often be confusing and disorienting, but is always thought-provoking. I think it's at its best when it leans towards black comedy, more fully rounding out the characters and their motivations than the dreamier sections, but the surreal, visually-arresting moth-based imagery also leaves a big impression. 

9. The Martian

After making his name with dark visions of the future, Ridley Scott directs a more optimistic take on the science fiction genre, finding the joy in scientific exploration to go alongside the fear in The Martian Matt Damon's ultra-capable astronaut Mark Watney becomes stranded on Mars when his team are forced to leave the planet without him, but he uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to eek out life on the martian surface whilst awaiting rescue. Watney's insane levels of optimism can lessen the emotional weight and dramatic tension of the film, as you never really feel he's fully pushed to the edge.  However as this film focuses more on the thrill of exploration and the power of a focused, intelligent mind, this is a pretty forgivable flaw. Despite Watney's isolation, the film's focus is broad, with a brilliant ensemble cast supporting him from afar as both his guilt ridden fellow astronauts and an expansive team back on Earth work to bring him home.  

8. Ant-Man

I never thought Ant-Man would feature on my list ahead of the latest Avengers effort, but after the disappointment of Age of Ultron, this made for a very pleasant surprise. It may not be the film it could have been under Edgar Wright, although his finger-prints remain obvious throughout, but his replacement, director, Peyton Reed, steers this film away from near pre-production disaster to create a charming, comedic action film.  While many of the tired superhero tropes are still in place, they are augmented with inventive use of Ant-Man's size-changing powers and an excellent ensemble cast of scene stealers. Chief among them is Michael Peña, who brings an optimistic exuberance to every scene.  
To be honest, it's worth watching just for the Thomas the Tank Engine cameo alone, which isn't something you get to say every day.

7. Inherent Vice

After my initial indifference, Inherent Vice benefited massively from a second viewing. As a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, I was a little underwhelmed after the fantastic The Master blew me away a few years ago, but subsequent viewings have shown me the error of my ways. Packed full of interesting characters played by a spot on cast (my favourite being the coked-up dentist portrayed by Martin Short) and oddball set pieces, it works much better second time round, once you've removed any narrative expectations. If you're a fan of Thomas Pynchon's novel, on which the film is based, this may seem obvious, but coming to the film without having read it, I hadn't realised how meandering the story of Joaquin Phoenix's drug addled P.I would be as he haphazardly goes about solving the mysteries of the film. As usual for a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it's beautifully shot, has a great soundtrack and grows better with age.

6.While We're Young/Mistress America

This year's cheat entry, I've gone for both of Noah Baumbach's 2015 releases as their themes dovetail so well together. Following on from 2013's Frances Ha, Baumbach has worked his way through from people in their mid-twenties to early forties over the course of these three films. The films deal with the weight of expectation on each generation and the fear of failure that haunts them throughout, yet the films remain light, funny and entertaining
In Mistress America we find a confused young college student played by Lola Kirke finding solace in an (almost) half-sister (Greta Gerwig) who seems just as unsettled at reaching her early thirties with her grand plans unfulfilled as the callow student does about her new surroundings. 
In While We're Young, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watt's face their forties realising that the careers and family life they expected never materialised. In both films the older characters gain fresh, new perspectives from the younger protagonists, but end up betrayed by them, as the youthful figures work from a different moral playbook. This is especially the case with Adam Driver's entertaining über-hipster who becomes the bane of Ben Stiller's tortured documentarian's existence in While We're Young.

5. Force Majeure

A fascinating drama that examines the dynamics of the modern family and the expectations of fatherhood.  When a family is faced with a life-threatening situation whilst on a skiing holiday in the French alps, the instinctive reaction of the family's father causes ripples of distrust that run through the entire film, touching everyone they meet. This unease forces the protagonists to reevaluate all their relationships and how they are perceived by others. This may all sound quite intense, but the film isn't heavy or preachy, it's subtle, underplayed and often very funny. It has uniformly deft performances from it's mostly Scandinavian cast, although the presence of Kristofer Hivju, better known as the ginger bearded Wilding from Game of Thrones, threw me a little at first in a contemporary setting.

4.Inside Out

A return to form from Pixar, Inside Out finds them back creating an original tale with a lot of heart. Looking into the inner workings of a child's mind as represented by a group of anthropomorphized emotions, it takes us on a journey through the growing pains of a girl's teenage years. The way it explains emotional development and the importance of sadness is masterful, wonderfully exposing a truth we all have to embrace as we grow older. This assured storytelling is reinforced by it's casting, with Amy Poehler's Joy and Phyliss Smith's Sadness perfectly juxtaposed in their roles.
Managing to find the right balance between laughs and tears has been Pixar's calling-card right from its early days and this one thoroughly pulls at the heart strings to make it their best since Up. 


As a basic premise, the film's plot can seem rather generic and hackneyed. "Reclusive scientist creates artificial life" is a trope we've seen many times, but Alex Garland crafts a stylish and engaging picture that expands on these building blocks to make something rather more unnerving. Alicia Vikander is outstanding as the robotic women created by Oscar Isaac's tech billionaire to be tested by nervous employee Domhnall Gleeson. The film expertly builds tension as it plays with our expectations to create distrust and unease, as the strange interplay between the protagonists unravels what it is to be human. The motivations of the characters become murkier as the film progresses, especially in terms of gender politics, forming awkward scenarios that lead us to constantly question their actions.
This is all told with great visual flair and features perhaps my favourite scene of the year, a bizarre synchronized disco dance from Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno
2.The Lobster

A wonderful film that exudes a truly unique tone and atmosphere, director Yorgos Lanthimos has a style that finds an underplayed normality in fantastical situations. I first discovered his work in the strange and brilliant Dogtooth, a film which shares The Lobster's dark humour and flair for the uncomfortable.
The film follows a group of singletons who must find love within 45 days or face being turned into an animal of their own choice, in Colin Farrell's case, the titular lobster. In creating this scenario, Lanthimos uses subtle world building to posit a whole society running along bizarre yet believable lines, whilst shedding light on our real world attitude towards modern relationships and the need to conform.
It's a touching, funny and brutal mix that leaves a deep impression.  


Whiplash takes first place this year based on the strength of repeat viewings. I first saw the film at a Picturehouse preview back in 2014, then twice again on general release in 2015 and there's just something incredibly compelling about Whiplash that keeps bringing me back for more. J.K Simmons is of course superb in his Oscar winning performance as the imperious and intimidating band leader Fletcher, but the film has more to it than just his dynamic charisma. Miles Teller oozes desperate ambition as his student and Melissa Benoist manages to create a relatable character as Teller's girlfriend despite very little screen time.
The themes of obsession and sacrifice in pursuit of excellence are also incredibly compelling as it drives the story forward.
However I think the real star of the film is the propulsive jazz music at it's core and the way Damien Chazelle's direction creates energy whilst maintaining narrative cohesion. The visual flair used in representing the music allows us to better understand the strive for perfection that drives the characters and the decisions they make. It may have some slightly unbelievable plot twists toward the end, but a bravura finale smooths these over to leave you satisfied by the end, even if you may still feel unease at the ethics that went towards creating musical perfection.
Worthy Mentions
Not quite on the main list...
Listen Up Phillip - I loved most of this film, but felt it fizzled out a little towards the end, mainly due to the brilliance of Elizabeth Moss. Despite the presence of Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce, the film never feels as alive as when she's on screen and suffers when she's gone too long.
Funny but unsentimental, this is the closest film to making my top ten and I still highly recommend it (it may also make you laugh every time you have to staple something).
Brooklyn - A lovely film fueled by Saoirse Ronan's star power. A simple premise that you'd expect to be laden with cliché avoids those pitfalls to create a charming movie with real emotional investment.
Mad Max: Fury Road - A great action film, but I viewed it in a sub-par Odeon which lessened the movie's frenetic energy. I should have gone to see it at a better, louder cinema, then it may have made my top ten.
Carol - A beautiful film, with great performances from Rooney Mara and the always excellent Kate Blanchett. Unfortunately I saw this film on a Sunday evening when I was extremely tired, which wasn't the best match for this film's classy, but slow, pacing.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Almost made it onto my top ten list for not screwing up one of the most eagerly awaited films of all time. I absolutely loved the first half of the film, but the second half was somewhat formulaic and lost me a bit towards the end. I still thoroughly enjoyed it though.
Selma - The pacing seemed a tad off to me and the clackety-clack of the typewriter over each scene was a little distracting, but it's a powerful movie that made me cry more than once.
Still Alice - Another tearjerker, it features an incredibly moving performance by Julian Moore who deserved the Oscar win for best actress.
White God - It's probably best to go into this one not knowing too much, but beware that this tale of a girl and her dog gets pretty dark and twisted by the end.
Tangerine - Impressively shot on an iPhone, it offers a lively alternative Christmas narrative.
Paddington - The trailer made it look absolutely terrible so it took me a while to get round to seeing it, but it turned out to be a lovely family film with a positive message about immigration, which is all too rare in the media today.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya - A stunningly beautiful animated film from Studio Ghibli.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - An odd but touching vampire romance that is wonderfully atmospheric. 
Worth a Watch
Films worth a look -
"Foxcatcher", "Timbuktu", "Straight Outta Compton", "A Most Violent Year", "Dope", "Slow West", "Me, Earl and the Dying girl", "Birdman", "A Bridge of Spies"

It Follows - A promising premise, but the film breaks its own rules too many times to fully satisfy. Once the monster starts becoming more erratic, it loses some of its menace.
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl - A victim of hype, it's an enjoyable enough film, but nothing remarkable.
Birdman - Technically great and with some fun performances, but the preachy tone and stereotypical character types didn't endear the film to me.
Macbeth - A bold and exciting start gives way to a surprisingly tame and muted rendition of the Scottish play. 
Spectre - An overlong soulless greatest hits. Once again it's a Bond film reaching for the soul-searching reboot button when a fun spy romp would have sufficed.
Map to the Stars - A bit over theatrical for my tastes, it didn't really engage with me.
Avengers: Age of Ultron - After loving its predecessor I had great expectations, but this film was an uneven mess with a nonsensical plot. It gets kudos for being the anti-"Man of Steel" with a focus on preservation of life, however.
Sisters - It starts appallingly, but it does find its feet halfway through. Start forty minutes in if you give it a watch. 
The Forbidden Room - A visually interesting experiment that tries your patience once strung out to feature length. 
Jurassic World - A fairly good return from the franchise, but weirdly lacking in tension.

Probably Not Worth a Watch
Possibly The Forbidden Room, it is a very frustrating watch...

The ones that got away...
In an ideal world, I would have seen these too -

Love & Mercy, Furious 7, Clouds of Sils Maria, Welcome to Me, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, The Wonders, Hard to be a God, 45 Years, The Walk, Amy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Sicario, Spy, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Wolfpack, Trainwreck, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wild Tales, The End of the Tour, Beasts of No Nation, Wild, The Theory of Everything, Dear White People
Hope you enjoyed reading my breakdown, Happy New Year!
2014 Update
The ones I caught up with that I missed last year...

"Lucy" and "The Muppets: Most Wanted", "What We do in the Shadows"

The ones I didn't...
"Night Moves", "The Rover", "John Wick", "The Skeleton Twins", "Get on Up", "The Wind Rises", "Cold in July", "The Raid 2: Berandal", "A Most Wanted Man", "Leviathan", "Two Days, One Night"

Last Years Top Ten 
10. Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2 
09. Under the Skin 
08. Calvary 
07. Guardian of the Galaxy/Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
06. Her
05. Frank 
04. '71 
03. Inside Llewyn Davis 
02. The LEGO Movie 
01. Ida