(This list is based on UK release dates.)
To read Top 20 Films of 2015 (20-11), click here.
10. CRIMSON PEAK
“Beware of Crimson Peak…“. Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to his explosive, terrible Pacific Rim is a more grounded, luscious tragic-romance disguised as a dramatic gothic horror. There may be brilliantly-designed ghouls terrorising the mansion in which the bulk of Crimson Peak is set, but the film’s priorities rest within the doomed romance between Mia Wasikowska’s Edith (fast making a name for herself) and the dubious baronet of whom she’s captivated by, Tom Hiddlestone’s Sir Thomas Sharpe. Whisked away to England after their marriage, she endures a torrid time at the hands of Jessica Chastain’s Lady Lucille, sister of Sharpe. The film’s suspense is sustained by the mystery involved within the manor Edith resides, and the film plays out in gloriously gory, melodramatic fashion, where sweeping thrums of piano-heavy scores and impeccable production design fuel the sombre, sinister atmosphere. The film’s pacing is effortless, culminating in a jealousy-fuelled showdown that’s incredibly involving. Critics have criticised Crimson Peak‘s sparse plot, but I couldn’t disagree more; it’s an intentional choice to allow the beauty of the film – and it really is beautiful – to flourish.
9. THE FORBIDDEN ROOM
Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is a cinephile’s ecstasy, a delirious traversal through everything that niche-cinema has to offer. It’s visually incredible and persistent in pummeling your senses with startling imagery and thundering sound design; it’s not so much style over substance, but the film’s plot is deliberately incohesive and dreamlike, an underlying theme that proudly ignores formulative storytelling. It begins with a man giving a lecture on how to take a bath, quickly transitions to men trapped in a submarine who use the air pockets in potato-cakes to conserve oxygen, and follows unrelentingly in a similarly bizarre, engrossing fashion. We watch a song about a man’s addiction to bottoms unfold (entitled ‘The Final Derriere‘), the memories of a moustache in its dying moments, and a parable regarding the god Janus, told through the vivid dreams of a volcano. It’s all nonsensical, unintelligible stuff, but it works, and importantly, it’s extremely funny. With moments of wit and slapstick spread throughout, it rises from excellent to euphoric, the film containing incessant imagination and beauty – often profundity – that will either astound, like it did for me, or tire; as some critics purport, The Forbidden Room is ‘too much of a good thing’. Regardless, any film as daring and wild as Maddin’s latest is surely deserving of a watch – perhaps for the ‘Book of Climaxes’ scene alone.
My most anticipated film of 2015, last year’s Best Picture winner is an eccentric meta-film that was a refreshing champion amid the abundance of precious biopics. Functioning as both a criticism of Hollywood cinema and critics, and a weighty odyssey of one man’s decision to risk everything for success, Birdman has a sharp script and some excellent performances to emphasise the themes of the film. It helps, too, that the film’s characters mirror their real-life counterparts – Keaton and his involvement with Batman, Norton and the tales of the notorious difficulty to work with him – affording Birdman some much-needed realism to contrast with the glorious segments of surrealist fantasy that are interspersed in the narrative. The film’s editing is admirable, where long-takes are spliced together to form a film that appears to be shot continuously without any cuts, accentuating the film’s structural spiral out of control. Keaton is fantastic as Birdman’s Riggan Thompson, the character uncertain and unhinged, hell-bent on proving his self-worth, surrounded by the doubt of Ed Norton and Emma Stone’s lively characters, each giving a performance deserving of their respective Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations. As a criticism of modern blockbusters, it stumbles slightly due to the fact that its reasoning isn’t fully fleshed out, but as a portrayal of a desperate man on the brink of success and on the cusp of defeat, Birdman soars.
7. INSIDE OUT
Pixar’s recent slump in form (for their standards, at least) led many to view Inside Out with a sense of apprehension. Following Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, had we finally witnessed Pixar’s recession to mediocrity? As Inside Out demonstrates, the answer is: no. Following on from the animation studio’s fascination with ‘what if ___ had feelings?’, their 15th story elaborates on the concept, ‘what if feelings had feelings?’. And it achieves this with hilarious, inspiring, heartbreaking success. It’s one of Pixar’s saddest films to date – which is no small feat when you consider Up‘s 10-minute opener – but the poignancy doesn’t feel abrupt; instead earned. The plot’s structure allows for tragic reminiscing and -potential spoilers- a lack of a defined antagonist, while the plot’s concept allows for a devilish inventiveness that’s been sorely missing from Pixar’s recent films. And in the wake of this inventiveness arises the eloquent, powerful emotion that forces through a refreshingly non-padded moral message at the film’s core. Inside Out deals with depression and its effects in a unique, accurate manner, ridding the harmful myth that sadness is synonymous with the illness. To expand on this theme any further would be heavily implying the crux of this film, and diminishing Inside Out‘s thoughtful potency. The animation is incredible (but that’s to be expected from Pixar), and the score is mesmerising and melodic, perfectly capturing the sense of wonder and creativity – and the idea of letting go of certain memories – that the film evokes. Inside Out manages to get inside your head as much as its central protagonist.
6. BEASTS OF NO NATION
The first film I saw at 2015’s London Film Festival was also my favourite; Carey Fukunaga’s feature film directorial debut is an insight into West-African child soldiers and an urgent criticism of our reluctance to prevent the cause. Idris Elba is receiving all the Oscar buzz for his brutal, manipulative – yet fragile – portrayal of the group’s ‘Commandant’, but Abraham Attah is the star of Beasts of No Nation, conveying that otherworldly tragedy of war and the harrowing, weary effect it enforces on him. The film is shot beautifully, by Fukunaga himself, using similar techniques to his acclaimed True Detective camerawork, and flawlessly captures the bleak, sprawling chaos of war in Africa. Beasts of No Nation deals with sombre themes in a brave, sensitive manner, where Fukunaga is unafraid to highlight the bloodshed and horrific nature of it all when showing the film’s more upsetting scenes. It’s 2015’s feel-bad movie of the year, a film that’s even more disconcerting when you acknowledge that the events on screen are taking place abundantly in real life.
Another feature film directorial debut, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is exhilarating, adrenaline-fueled, and will keep you captivated from its opening scene to its final, bombastic moments. The film follows Miles Tellers’ Andrew Neiman, an aspring drummer who eventually feels the brunt of his drum instructor’s wrath, played in scintillating fashion by J.K. Simmons. The two actors’ chemistry is wonderful, where Teller’s tenacity and arrogance is combatted by Simmons’ bullish intensity, helped by a smart, punishing and often hilarious script. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz (but really, who isn’t a fan), the essence of this flick lies not on what’s being played, but how it’s being played. The film’s iconic scene, where Simmons rages at Teller in harsh spittle over whether he’s rushing or dragging, is exceptionally executed, in no small part due to Whiplash’s terrific editing. This editing allows the film to seamlessly build up tension and structure the struggle between Simmons and Teller, where weighty themes of how a student should be taught to reach their full potential are explored. Chazelle shows a real craftsmanship and love for his subject matter in Whiplash, and you only have to look to the flick’s incredibly exciting, powerful ending to realise the extent that the director will go to create one of the best films that focuses on music in cinematic history.
4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
From the year’s best thriller to the year’s best action, the hotly anticipated Mad Max: Fury Road exceeds all expectations, and has become a surprise Oscar contender, juxtaposing a flurry of hefty dramas. You can see why it’s received critical acclaim, too: the action is monumental, the choreography is stunning, the acting is impressive, the score is vigorous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the world-building is Miller at his very best. The film takes place in a dystopian future, where water is scarce and the tyrannical Immortan Joe rules over the Citadel, the hub of the area’s prized commodities. Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron in a role of real venom and desperation, disagrees with Joe’s method of ruling and sparks a chain of events leading to a near-2-hour car chase akin to Road Warrior that’s thrilling throughout. The plot is kept refreshingly simple (though not non-existent or thin, as some people foolishly state), where universal themes of survival and dictatorship are brought to the forefront, and allusions to the ‘Four Horsemen’ parable are integrated. Director George Miller’s decision to prioritise practical effects over digital (though digital cannot be avoided, and is embraced in a magnificent sandstorm scene) adds a strong physicality to the fights and chases that has been sorely missing in recent action flicks; watching Mad Max: Fury Road in IMAX was my best cinematic experience of the year, and a film that I look forward to watching time and time again.
3. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
2015 may have given us 50 Shades of Grey, but The Duke of Burgundy reigns supreme as the BDSM flick to watch. Peter Strickland’s previous feature, Berberian Sound Studio, was an odd, atmospheric, quietly ingenious thriller, and Strickland builds on his acclaim with a lesbian romance that’s extremely touching, extensively daring and fantastically entrancing. The film, despite the functionalities of the romance, is an exploration of the dynamics of any relationship, of the lust for control, of each partner’s individual content. In The Duke of Burgundy, there’s no antagonist – the film’s conflict arises from unhappiness within the two character’s own relationship, and the effects it has on them. The characters, by the way, are played brilliantly by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, where Knudsen especially gives a frailty to her performance that she hides until the film’s final act, in a terrifically stirring manner. Yet it’s the film’s technical aspects that place it as my 3rd favourite film of 2015: the score, by band Cat’s Eyes’ is grand and minimal at the same time, its throes of vibraphone evoking a nostalgic, European atmosphere that alludes to Strickland’s intense love of pastiche 70s cinema. The film is continuously beautiful, the camera sprawling among the motif of moths (don’t ask) and focusing on the character’s aching faces, its use of angles literally portraying two sides to the character’s relationship: who’s truly in control? The film also flourishes when hiding the character’s interactions during their more sexual exploits; to delve more into that topic would be spoilers. From sitting on each other’s faces to constraining themselves in tight boxes, who says romance is dead? With The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland makes a good case that it’s more alive than ever.
Midway through French-Canadian drama Mommy, the previous 1:1 aspect ratio opens up slowly, portraying the full width of the screen for the first time in the film. It’s a euphoric moment, perfectly capturing the relief and jovial freedom felt by the film’s characters after a prior hour of claustrophobia and entrapment. The genius behind Mommy, and behind this scene? 26 year-old Xavier Dolan, achieving more at his age than most directors can in their entire career. The film focuses on a teenager inflicted with ADHD, and his mother’s struggles to deal with the intensity of this character. Antoine Pilon as the teenager Steve is exceptional, his goofy mannerisms and melodramatic, exaggerated anger heightening the tragedy of the story. He’s a character that does a lot of wrong, but you can’t help but love him. The mother, Diane (or ‘Die’ for short), performed with extreme talent by Anne Dorval, is a character that attempts to do a lot of right on the other hand, her endeavours engrossing and doomed. Their relationship forms the centerpoint of Mommy, and over the course of the run time it evolves from discontentment and admiration to hatred and love, the film increasingly evocative. Utilising that 1:1 aspect ratio, where the picture is box-shaped, the audience immediately knows where to follow, increasing the attachment to each character tenfold. It’s once again another fascinating film to look at, the beauty contrasting with the potent ugliness of the film’s content. Dealing with themes of maternal love and what the extent of that love is capable of, you’ll be sobbing uncontrollably by the time the end credits roll.
1. INHERENT VICE
My favourite film of 2015 goes to Inherent Vice, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest. Detailing the turn of the 70s and the end of hippie culture, the film follows – though perhaps ‘follows’ is too strong a word – Doc Sportello, played in a reliably humorous and confused fashion by Joaquin Phoenix, and his misguided attempts to traverse the murky criminal underworld and uncover the secrets regarding the enigmatic ‘Golden Fang’. The plot hardly matters, however – Inherent Vice is more intent on focusing on its moody, mesmerising atmosphere. It’s everything: a neo-noir, a 149-minute drug trip, a ballsy comedy, a misty romance, a sociopoltical statement on capitalism. It’s deeply funny, but also deeply sad, the sense of melancholy a prolific undercurrent that only rises to the forefront at the very end. And so with this conglomeration of themes and tones, it’s the best kind of film: a film that sets out to give the audience a rapturous, rhapsodic experience and achieves that aim impeccably. The acting is uniformly excellent, the soundtrack evokes that 70s atmosphere in faultless style, the grainy texture of the film used is palpable, and the journey is a superb microcosm for the yearning of the past. Inherent Vice may be impenetrable, but that’s not by coincidence: you’re experiencing the film from Doc Sportello’s point of view, and that experience is ecstatic, hilarious and bittersweet.