Sunday, 20 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015

Movie-wise this year has been a great one for me. In October I ticked off the last of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, a moment I cherished if only for the fact that it allowed me to go back to watching whatever I wanted (though I have now started loosely working my way through the New York Times 1000 Best Movies - yes, a glutton for punishment). This is also the year that I almost entirely abandoned the cinema, preferring to watch at home and thus away from rustling popcorn, talking, mobile phones and 40 minutes of pre-film adverts. And of course the joys of the pause button for toilet breaks. For that reason, I go by the DVD rather than cinema release schedule, so my top 20 below were all new films released in the UK on DVD during 2015.

20. Ex Machina
A remote research facility is holding on to a great secret; they have developed the world's first robot with near-human levels of intelligence. Oscar Isaac is the mind behind it, the only human inside the remote and ultra-secure facility, who then brings in Domhnall Gleeson to test it's true capabilities. In the spirit of keeping this blog spoiler-free I don't want to say more about what happens, but it held my attention throughout, looks very slick and Alicia Vikander's A.I. facial expressions and body movements are expertly judged.

19. Interstellar
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. I like that Christopher Nolan has the ambition to make blockbusters that have a little more to say than simply showing characters repeatedly banging each other on the head. There aren’t after all many blockbusters using a Dylan Thomas poem as a central theme. An intelligent and complex script sees Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway shoot off into space in a bid to find a new home for humanity, before Earth’s food supply dies out. There’s a lot going on and it’s maybe not so easy to grasp all of what happens first time around, but that's one of the pluses; it rewards repeat viewings. I’d also like to take a moment to thank the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw for the significant plot spoiler he revealed when discussing the film on tv, it was greatly appreciated.

18: '71
A British soldier gets trapped 'behind enemy lines' in Belfast during the IRA battles of 1971. Jack O'Connell, who previously led the brilliant prison drama Starred Up, is that soldier who has to duck and cover his way through the streets without getting caught by those who wouldn't take kindly to his presence. The story is gripping and well paced, and it really feels like an honest portrayal of Northern Ireland's troubles, much of which is still bubbling under the surface today.

17. Kingsman: The Secret Service
There have been many Bond spoofs over the years, including the recent Spy which was passably entertaining, but this was much better. I think that is due to writer/director Matthew Vaughn wanting to make a film that appreciates Bond rather than mocking it, and is in many ways what the old 007 films used to be - knowingly ridiculous, funny and packed with action scenes. It's probably unfair to even call it a spoof, with plenty of invention to create it's own formula and a fantastic playing-against-type lead performance by Colin Firth. So much better than I'd expected.

16. The Salvation
Mads Mikkelson is a father travelling across the American plains with his wife and child, who runs into difficulty with two outlaws. The plot relies on what happens next so I can't say much more, but it is an impressive take on the rejuvenated Western genre, and Mikkelson yet again doesn't put a foot wrong. He really is becoming one of cinema's most reliable actors. Eva Green does surprisingly well with a character who cannot speak, and football fans (proper football that is, not American) can also enjoy the reappearance of Eric Cantona.

15. Night Will Fall
A documentary that I will never forget, telling of a long lost film titled "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey" that was commissioned by the British government as a record of the Nazi death camps, and involved Alfred Hitchcock in an advisory role. For political reasons, and because it was deemed too harrowing for the public to see, the film was quickly buried. It has only now been pieced back together as originally intended, seventy years later, and this is the story behind that film. I won't pretend it is an easy watch, it includes clips from the original which did make me want to look away. I didn't, because the only way to truly understand the horrors of what took place is to witness the recordings, but genuinely there are shocking scenes that are almost impossible to comprehend. In contrast to the multi-hour documentary masterpiece Shoah, which purposely described the scenes rather than show them, this shows some of the most graphic and upsetting war footage ever filmed. It's vitally important that it exists, it's an education that I feel everyone should see, when of course in the right frame of mind. Because it's also a film about another film, there is also interest from a cinematic perspective, the hows and whys of a film being planned, shot and then immediately self-banned by those who initiated it in the first place. The found and restored original film did find also find it's way into cinemas, I haven't seen that, I may do one day but this is enough for now.

14. Still Life
A lovely little film about a man (Eddie Marsan) whose job it is to trace the next of kin when a person has died alone, and begins to question his own place in life during his final case. It’s charming, understated and melancholic, but with a touch of humour, and for whatever reason I find myself so often drawn to films like this. The music is lovely, Marsan has never been more right for a part, and even if I wasn’t wholly convinced by the ending, this went straight into my ‘low-key favourites’ pile.

13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
The best vampire movie ever? Better than Dracula? Than Nosferatu? Quite possibly. Plot is thus: there's a girl in a cape with a thirst for blood, who wanders around an Iranian ghost town looking for victims. She barely says a word, can switch from normal to horrifying in a heartbeat, and somehow also comes across as a vulnerable young woman. Shot in striking black and white, and with a stupendously good soundtrack - I don't know how the filmmakers pulled it off, but I think I've finally fallen for a vampire movie.

12. The Drop
Tom Hardy and a final screen performance from James Gandolfini combine to produce one of the best crime dramas I've seen for many years. Together they run a bar which acts as one of many drop-off points that Chechen gangsters use to launder money, and inevitably they run into trouble. As I mentioned in my Christmas films list (a chunk of it takes place in the festive season), when you see Hardy deliver such a restrained performance and wholly convincing Brooklyn accent, you can't help but think of him in the same bracket as a young Marlon Brando. Such a shame we won't see any more of Gandolfini, but at least he went out with something of quality.

11. Lost River
I include this mainly because I didn't have the foggiest idea what was going on for most of it, and it's funny how often I find myself enjoying films that can do that. The debut feature from Ryan Gosling clearly takes influence from his previous workings with Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) and maybe David Lynch to an extent, which gives some indication of the tone. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) is a mother struggling to pay off her home in an area that most have abandoned, who resorts to taking the most bizarre job I've ever seen. The Drive-like synth soundtrack lights up the film, and I quite admire Gosling for having the guts to create something so out there.

10. Force Majeure
A happily married couple and their two children are on a skiing holiday. When an avalanche starts hammering down the mountain towards them, the instant reaction of the father rips the family's seemingly idyllic life apart. It's an avalanche movie that's not really even about an avalanche, it could have been any perilous situation, it is just the trigger for the wife to start questioning whether she really even knows the man she's committed her life to. One of the most original films of the year.

9. Still Alice
A highly intelligent linguistics professor is diagnosed with alzheimer's disease at an unusually young age, and we follow her struggles in coming to terms with the diagnosis and then in coping with her rapid deterioration in brain function. A highly emotional performance from Julianne Moore, that I imagine will greatly affect anyone who has been through such a situation of dementia or alzheimer's with someone in their own life. I've always regarded Moore highly, but this where I realised she really is one of the finest actors of her generation. It isn't just about learning and reciting lines, I can't get my head around how the best actors can place themselves into the right emotional state to play roles like this with such conviction and believability.

8. Whiplash
A jazz drummer turned teacher goes to extreme lengths to draw out performances from his students, pushing them to and then beyond their limits in search for the perfect drum solo. I can't say this sounded terribly appealing to me beforehand, but it builds to a crescendo like a great boxing movie and actually proved to be as inspiring as it was exhausting. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller give it everything they have and both are immense in the lead roles, and actually turned the act of drumming into something exciting and gripping to watch. Some achievement.

7. Mia Madre
Italian director Nanni Moretti brings yet another wonderfully judged script to the screen, this time more personal and sombre than his recent work, and probably his most complete film to date. On top of writing and directing, Moretti also stars alongside Margherita Buy as a brother and sister attempting to cope with the failing health of their mother. All the while, Margherita is directing a movie featuring a largely hopeless American actor (the superb John Turturro) who can't pronounce words correctly or even remember most of his lines. Turturro's role is vital in lightening the mood, and the 'shooting a film within a film' structure allows diversions from the heavier main story that would be much harder to achieve otherwise. Moretti is the sort of filmmaker I love, the sort that when you see their work for the first time you go looking to see what else they've done, and soon realise that everything they've produced is top quality and just your kind of film. If you're new to his films though, I'd suggest starting with his more comedic ones such as Caro Diaro (Dear Diary) and We Have a Pope.

6. Winter Sleep
The next piece of magnificence from Tukish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, following the amazing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, surrounds the owner of a remote cave-like hotel in that same Anatolia region. It is so fantastic in this day and age to find directors still bold enough, and studios still willing enough, to produce a 3+ hour film that moves at a snail's pace and has plot formed mostly through dialogue rather than incident. It is beautifully shot, you'd expect that if you've seen any of Ceylan's previous work, but again what he's so good at is making it engaging to spend this amount of time with normal people simply trying to live and work their way through the pettiness of others around them and the ordinariness of daily life.

5. Stations of the Cross
The story of a fourteen year old girl named Maria, raised by an oppressively fundamentalist Catholic family that take every word of the bible to be literal truth, who commits to the idea of sacrificing her life in the same manner as Jesus. Each chapter parallels the story of the girl with that of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion, filmed entirely in claustrophobic static shots, which I would assume is an attempt to reflect the rigidness of their beliefs. This sounds as if it would be heavy going but I found it fascinating and such a powerful statement on the state of modern religion, to me it felt like such extreme beliefs were being presented as a form of madness. When I was working through the 1001 Movies list I came upon the director Carl Theodor Dreyer, he explored similar issues especially in Ordet, and it's enough of a compliment to say that this feels like a film he could have made.

4. Jauja
Viggo Mortensen is a Danish Army captain posted to the wilderness of Patagonia. With him is his daughter, who disappears, leading to a lonesome trek through the vast barren Argentinean landscape in search of her. It's a wilfully obscure film that will no doubt push some viewers' patience, given how static, slow and silent it is for long periods - admittedly it took me a while to get it, but it creeps into your head and by the second half I was finding absolutely compelling. I thought the way it was presented on the screen was also interesting, in a squarish format with rounded corners as if you're viewing an old photograph. Further down the line I think this may come to be regarded as something of a masterpiece, it is certainly unique, surreal and subtle enough for that. Wins my 'hidden gem of the year' award (I'm sure everyone involved will be thrilled with such an honour).

3. Nightcrawler
"The best and clearest way that I can phrase it for you, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." Jake Gyllenhall plays an intensely strange man who discovers a way to earn a living by filming the aftermath of car accidents for television news. His obsession with getting the best footage before anyone else leads him towards increasingly extreme measures. Gyllenhall is an actor who physically pushes himself to the limits, this time turning himself into a scrawny waif-like weirdo that you root for as much as being creeped out by. Cracking film.

2. Enemy
Jake Gyllenhall again, this time as a university lecturer who discovers his doppelgänger whilst watching a movie. Confused and curious, he seeks out the low-level film actor who looks and talks exactly like him, only to soon find his life spiralling out of control. A bold and really quite riveting psychological thriller, with Gyllenhall back in Donnie Darko territory in terms of strangeness and perplexity. By the end my brain had turned to mush, and I loved it for that.

1. Slow West
What we have here is a Western that is fresh and unusual, whilst also steeped in the tradition of the genre’s classics. A teenage boy from Scotland heads out across the American frontier in search of his lost love from home, encountering typical situations and oddball characters along the way. One such fellow is Silas, an outlaw played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, who agrees to escort the boy Westwards. Fassbender still manages to be outshone though by the quiet brilliance of Kodi Smit-McPhee, the boy from The Road all grown up, who yet again shows a skill in mastering dialect and emotion that is surely unmatched amongst actors of his age. A special note too for John Maclean, the musician formerly of The Beta Band, who absolutely nails his first go at writing and directing. That he is a musician is to the film’s great advantage, the repeating score is fantastic and suits his direction so well. A dazzlingly vibrant landscape is a sight to behold, all down to Robbie Ryan’s beautiful widescreen cinematography, though the most striking scene involves colour being almost entirely suffocated out of the scenery (pictured above). For me, Slow West had everything I would want in a Western, and was comfortably the best looking, sounding and most entertaining new film of the year.

So, now... East. What news?
Violence and suffering. And West?
Dreams and toil.

Bonus mention to the following films which I enjoyed but were just squeezed out of my top 20: Inside Out, The Homesman, Paddington, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Birdman, Wild, Foxcatcher.

I still have a list of movies from this year's crop that I haven't got around to seeing yet, many of them are of the lesser-known variety so early in the new year I'm going to do another roundup of the best of those under-the-radar titles. In the week between Christmas and new year I will also be posting an article about a film released this year which I purposely left off this list, as it deserves something a little more in-depth.

In the meantime, if you have any of your own film of the year recommendations please drop them in the box below, I'd love to hear of anything good I might have missed.


  1. Great list! I'm so glad to see Enemy here, I loved that movie so much. Once the credits rolled I spent the rest of the night reading everything I could about it, it was such a clever movie!
    - Allie

    1. Thanks Allie. Grand to find another fan of Enemy, it is definitely one that makes you want to scream in confusion when the credits kick in, I love films like that. I've only seen it once so will definitely be watching it again before the year is out, I'm the opposite though as I avoided reading anything afterwards so I can try figuring it out on second viewing.