Amid the widest variety of blockbusters and mega-franchises we could have asked for, 2015 showed some real potential in how the film industry could be moving forward. While we still saw our fair share of soulless, cash grabbing, franchise baiting nonsense, we also saw some blockbusters transcend their financial roots to become pure works of art. We further blended the line between what an awards worthy picture could be and found ourselves praising action movies and animated features just as much as prestige pictures. This is not to say that prestige pictures were not raising the bar as it was though, with some equally strong contenders to make this a solid year for all walks of film.
Of course, before I count down the best ten of the year I have my usual honourable mentions to give:
You can say whatever you want, but no other film felt like a more complete cinematic experience for me than ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. It’s a triumphant return to form for the franchise, reinvigorating it with good old fashioned filmmaking. JJ Abrams loving yet energetic direction allows the film to recall its past glory while proceeding forward with renewed energy. Along with a brilliant display from old favourites, new cast members like Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver to give us assurance that for now, that galaxy far, far away is in safe hands. It was joyous, heart pounding and utterly amazing.
While I don’t think ‘Anomalisa’ is quite the transcendent masterpiece some critics are calling it (it’s somewhat oddly paced and ends rather abruptly, as well as somewhat muddled over what it wants to be), I feel that Charlie Kaufman’s film is unique and remarkable enough to be worth mentioning here. In previous films Kaufman has denied his audience any easy answers, but here it seems he isn’t even letting us know what he’s asking to begin with. But it’s beautifully animated, oddly profound and utterly encapsulating.
‘The Revenant’ is such a unique cinematic experience that I could never imagine not mentioning it here. Boasting an Oscar winning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio (it feels so good to finally say that) it’s a story of astonishing endurance told with some of the best directorial prowess I have witnessed all year from Alejandro Inarritu and some breath-taking cinematography to say the least.
It is truly difficult that ‘Son of Saul’ was a debut directing effort. But then on the other hand Laszlo Nemes film does hold such a unique voice that feels unmarred and untouched by the industry around it that it does make sense when you consider it for a moment. It’s a story told with such raw intensity and unmitigated honesty that at times it almost feels cruel to make the audience see this subject matter. But confronting it head on is the best and only way to show this kind of story. The film possesses immediacy and intimacy on a level that few others have this year.
I was under the impression that Pixar were past their golden age, but with ‘Inside Out the animation house brought forward what may be my favourite film of their yet, which is saying a lot. The beauty and versatility of its animation is only topped by the beauty and versatility of its emotions, telling a coming of age parable that is universally resonant and endlessly complex. It is an emotionally driven film in every sense of the word.
10: The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s quiet and meditative martial arts film is certainly not for everyone. But where some viewers will be left cold by its staunch distance and uncompromising style, I found it to be a masterfully engaging and atmospheric piece of cinema. This is what happens when a director is well and truly able to reinvent a genre with his own style and while I’m sure typical action oriented martial arts films will continue to dominate the genre, that only makes ‘The Assassin’ all the more unique for its stunning cinematography, quiet landscapes and artistic depth. It is a film that is more interested in observing human behaviour than blotting it out with action. It almost feels poetic in its resolve, being both beautiful and mystifying.
9: The Hateful Eight
I am aware of the faults with ‘The Hateful Eight’, from its odd pacing to its tonal inconsistencies, but even if I still take those into account the film as a whole is simply phenomenal. It is both monumental and intimate at the same time, captured beautifully on its glorious 70mm print. Like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films it is unapologetically bold in its vision, calling back to the tropes of classic cinema in the way it dissects, merges and subverts genres like few others are capable of. It’s intense and enthralling, being less of a western and more of a murder mystery set with the archetypes of Tarantino’s favourite western tropes, like a kid playing with his favourite toys and boy do I love it. Some argue the film lacks sympathetic characters, to which I’d argue that Tarantino was never one for sympathy, he was always more interested in empathy and ‘The Hateful Eight’ has that in droves.
The future of filmmaking is here. While I wouldn’t count on a revolution of any kind the concept of being able to shoot an entire film on your phone is now a sign for independent filmmakers across the globe, anything is possible. The choice of camera never puts a limit on director Sean Baker’s vision as he crafts his film with a brilliantly unique style. Its technical achievements alone would be ground-breaking, but its subject matter and casting choices never fail to raise progressive and boundary pushing topics. But putting all of that aside, the film is simply a delight, wonderfully humorous, thoughtful and profound. It strikes a perfect balance and never ceases to amaze.
7: The Martian
As well as Pixar and Lucasfilm, another creative force to make a welcome return to form in 2015 was director Ridley Scott. With ‘The Martian’ he proved that despite the misfires that were ‘The Counsellor’ and ‘Exodus’ he was still wonderfully in touch with humanist filmmaking. The fact that ‘The Martian’ is an excellently written, exquisitely shot, fantastically directed and highly epic in scope would be good enough on its own. But the fact that it turns into a humane story and a terrific character study by letting its characters exist as three dimensional people, creating more empathy from the audience and generating more urgency for the situation at hand makes it even better. It also allows Matt Damon to deliver one of the best performances of his career as well as the rest of its ensemble cast. It’s wonderfully entertaining, massively uplifting and touchingly profound.
The central theme that lies at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller is that of borders, both of the geographical and moral variety. ‘Sicario’ is a gritty and brutal film, uncompromising in its portrayal of its subject matter. But that unflinching realism is just one of many factors that distinguish it an astonishing piece of cinema. Emily Blunt’s confident and powerful performance turns what could have been in invincible superhuman into a vulnerable and empathetic character, while Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro tread an eerily thin line of morality that keeps you constantly questioning their motives and allegiances. But the most valuable player is Villeneuve himself, who is so utterly in control of his craft that ‘Sicario’ only further proves he is one of the finest directors working today.
5: Ex Machina
2015 saw a number of impressive debuts, but none seemed more bold or impactful than Alex Garland’s striking break out hit, ‘Ex Machina’. Despite being an independent film it has a more polished and visually stylish look than a majority of studio films, and balances its visual beauty with heavy themes and complex ideas so well that it almost defies belief. Like the best science fiction films it acts as a reflection of our current society as it examines human interaction, gender roles and personal identity. But at the same time it acts as a remarkable character study, playing out like an intricate stage play as it places three very different characters together and asks us observe them, it never steers us to one particular argument, it just asks us to observe. Those characters in question are all brought to life brilliantly by Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. It’s intellectually engaging, refreshingly original and masterfully crafted.
One can only imagine the pressure that must be on a filmmaker when handling a subject like this. To tell a story such as the catholic priests’ abuse scandal without ever coming across as exploitative or melodramatic would seem near impossible. However Tom McCarthy’s restrained and respectful drama handles the subject in good taste, and is clearly focussed more upon the human drama than simply racking up awards. It puts you in the mind-set of its characters so well as they painstakingly uncover one piece of evidence at a time while opposing an all-powerful organisation that is centuries older than the very country they reside in. Its ensemble cast bring forth a sense of honesty that does not lionize or glorify these real-life characters, which combined with the tender direction and sharp screenplay make ‘Spotlight’ a brutally honest tale.
Many films that try to address the subject of homosexuality ultimately, despite their good intentions, end up placing their statement above their story or characters. Todd Haynes is not that kind of director though, and ‘Carol’ makes that obvious. It paints a portrait of two complex, layered and hugely empathetic characters falling in love, who just happen to be two women. Those two women in question are played magnificently by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who are at once strikingly different and unique but also brilliantly convey the sense of attraction and love as their relationship develops. Impeccably designed, beautifully shot and stunningly directed by Haynes, this is a unique vision expertly realised.
2: Mad Max: Fury Road
Nearly thirty years after we saw what we thought was the last of George Miller’s wasteland saga, he made one of the most spectacular returns in cinematic history with this post-apocalyptic action masterpiece. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is not only a lesson to future filmmakers in good visual storytelling, fantastic action and the benefit of practical effects over CGI, but it also bears a terrific example of how to subvert conventions and defy expectations. It has the sense of being crafted by a master filmmaker, well in command of his own ability, and given all the necessary resources from which to unleash his glorious vision. As subtly brilliant as Tom Hardy is in the title role, it is Charlize Theron who steals the show with an empathetic and layered action hero for the ages. It is hard to believe that what is essentially a two hour car chase could become one of the most beautiful, artful, character driven and thoughtful films of the year, but here it is and it’s absolutely fantastic.
In a year where we returned to a galaxy far, far away, recounted scandals that shook the world and ventured to Mars and back, the most emotionally impactful film of them all is set primarily within a single room and revolves mainly around two characters. ‘Room’ is an emotional powerhouse that leads you through so many twists and turns that you could go from being on the edge of looking away in horror to weeping tears of joy. It may seem a far cry from Lenny Abrahamson’s previous directorial effort ‘Frank’, but he makes the transition to comedy to drama masterfully. He balances the various emotions so brilliantly from the tension and horror to the joy and wonder. His direction brings forth the subtlest of emotional turns and utilizes his location perfectly. At times the room in which Ma and Jack are imprisoned seems as claustrophobic as one would expect, but the way Abrahamson directs can make it feel vast and spacious whenever he wants it to be. It also helps that Abrahamson is given two hugely talented actors, each delivering a phenomenal performance. Jacob Temblay brings forth a complex and layered character, who is both oblivious to the world around him but also craftily intelligent and perceptive. Then you have Brie Larson, whose performance is one of such raw intensity and honesty that it never fails to evoke empathy in this brave and frighteningly relevant story. I could talk about ‘Room’ for much longer, but to do that would deprive anyone the chance of discovering it for themselves.