(This list is based on UK release dates.)
2015 is at an end, and what a year it’s been for films; perhaps no film arrives as daring and magnificent as last year’s Boyhood, but the year has been both consistent and generous in its steady thrum of excellent films. My top 20 of 2015 only scratches the surface of what this year has had to offer – it contains octane-fueled action flicks, melancholic romances and moody period pieces, but I can’t begin without mentioning a few films that barely missed out on a place in this list:
The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy, boasted a hilarious script and some wonderful, quirky ideas, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a heavily energetic if somewhat familiar return to the beloved franchise. Another film high on energy was Chappie, unfairly criticised by many critics; I thought it was a wonderful return to form from Neill Blomkamp, depicting the birth of AI in a captivating and touching way.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was a well-handled, extremely entertaining superhero caper with some fantastic humor integrated in seamlessly. A more serious film came in the form of Ex Machina, a more cold and calculated look at AI that was shot and performed deftly, its themes mature and wonderfully explored. And the last of my honourable mentions goes to London Road, a mundane musical that was both poignant and hopeful.
And now, the Top 20.
20. TOKYO TRIBE
An exhilarating offering from Sion Sono, Tokyo Tribe is quite possibly the greatest battle-rap martial arts musical I’ve ever seen. It’s as all-over-the-place as it sounds, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t extremely entertaining. This is partly due to the cinematography, production design and soundtrack that Tokyo Tribe uses – flourishing camera movements and unbridled neon add to Sono’s incredible knack for world-building, giving the film’s portrayal of an alternate Tokyo a dusky, neo-noir feel. The heavy drum beats and how the raps are structured into the film are all masterful in their execution, serving to maintain its adrenaline-fueled plotting that surprisingly never becomes tiresome. The ideas, too, are fresh and startling – from pale naked bodies used as furniture to a giant rotating vacuum-blade in the middle of a fight sequence, Tokyo Tribe feels new and exciting, a film that breaks conventional genre boundaries. And amid the stark emphasis on tone and atmosphere in comparison to plot, you genuinely care for Tokyo Tribe’s central protagonist – an accomplished feat when considering the flick’s stylised B-movie grandeur.
19. IT FOLLOWS
I admit I’m not one of the horror genre’s most adoring fans, but that fact only serves as testament to It Follows and its place on this list; as a horror flick, it may not be as intensely haunting as several critics have purported, but it’s most certainly thrilling and exceptionally well-crafted. Taking place during a non-era that’s fantastically retro, the film centers on a teenage girl (Maika Monroe, fast-becoming one of my favourite actresses) and the nameless creature that follows her relentlessly after she has unprotected sex. An unsubtle STD metaphor, sure, but the actions thereafter and the mechanics surrounding the creature all serve to heighten the suspense and overbearing sense of dread that’s created. And I can’t talk about It Follows without mentioning the John Carpenter-esque score that’s frightening and involving in equal measure, allowing the palpable tension to be maintained throughout the film’s running time, only diminishing during a bombastic climax that’s hugely enjoyable and edge-of-the-seat jittery, but contradictory to the flick’s previously secretive content. Still, It Follows is a film that will linger in your mind for days on end.
If there ever was a film that was hopelessness in cinematic form, Sicario may very well be it. Dark and intensely disturbing, Denis Villenueve’s latest has won universal acclaim among a wide range of critics, and justifiably so. Centering on drug cartels across the Mexican border, the tense subject matter isn’t shied from; it’s allowed to flourish with a fantastically bleak score, Deakins’ polished cinematography and an array of hard-hitting performances – Emily Blunt as a helpless FBI agent and Benicio del Toro as a Mexican mission leader with dubious morals especially excel. The plodding script is overcome with terrific direction, a real sense of atmospheric urgency maintained throughout. This isn’t even mentioning one of 2015’s finest scenes in the form of a high-tension border crossing in Juarez, the intensity tangible; I don’t think I’ve recovered from it yet. It’s a simple story expertly portrayed, and deserves all the plaudits its currently receiving.
When I first saw Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, I passed it off as a competent if underwhelming insight into dark subject matter surrounding wrestling, and its theme of masculinity. Since then, the film has stuck with me, and after dwelling on it, Foxcatcher is truly a great film. Each film I’ve mentioned beforehand in this list has generated mood and atmosphere with fantastic technical skills, and this film is no different; the ambience is less showy and more sombre, conveying a despairing tone with a droning, melancholic score and visually discoloured cinematography. It’s brooding, calculated, and perfectly matches the film’s content, at the expense of appearing distant. That could not be further from the truth, however; Tatum’s determined, sympathetic performance as wrestler in question creates the right amount of empathy towards the character that counteracts this coldness. Ruffalo, too, gives the stand-out performance as Tatum’s brother, his unease with Carell’s also-terrific wrestling team leader John du Pont intense, the chemistry building in an expertly-paced manner and climaxing in a perfectly disturbing, sorrowful way. It’s a powerful film that has remained vividly memorable since January.
Yet another early-2015 release, Selma, as opposed to the previously mentioned films on this list, focuses on its thematic content and politically-hefty plot instead of placing prominence on stylistic vigour. It’s fixating, highly-relevant subject matter that manages to feel crucial rather than preachy, a success managed due to director Ava DuVernay’s mature handling of the storytelling; the film surrounding MLK’s actions in Mississippi. The 2015 Oscars were swamped with controversy after Selma was snubbed, the attention directed at DuVernay’s non-presence in the Best Director category. Yet it’s David Oyelowo’s performance as the Civil Rights leader that features as Selma’s main attraction – he’s an empowering, flawed figure that stirs a sense of wonderful urgency; the tragedy and hopefulness surrounding the events he leads would not be evoked as strongly without Oyelowo’s performance, and Selma would be all the worse without it. The film, aside from expertly acted, is incredibly moving, emotionally involving and quietly inspiring. And best of all, it’s a biopic that shies away from melodramatic tendencies and pretentious directing.
15. LOST RIVER
Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is an entrancing, invigorating delve into a Grimms fairytale-like world, where buildings are either in ruins or being used as perverse gore-fetish facilities. Lost River is luridly beautiful and extravagantly arthouse, a film that neglects plot for a haunting, dreamlike mood – a choice that has proved to have many detractors, though I’m not one of them. This is exactly my type of film: vividly nonsensical, brilliantly imaginative and wonderfully rewatchable. Its sociopolitical parallels to the run-down Detroit is lost among Gosling’s fancy for visual storytelling, but my, it looks great and sounds great. Gosling has clearly taken inspiration from many of the directors he’s worked with (and, in turn, many of my favourite directors), where elements of Cianfrance and Winding-Refn’s styles are clearly visible. Lynch and Malick feature too, the concoction conveyed intensely gripping and surprisingly balanced. As a result, Lost River serves as Gosling’s homage to these directors, and a showcase of his potential as one himself. I gladly await his next film.
14. A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE
The third installment from the trilogy “about the human condition”, following on from Songs from the Second Floor and the superb You, the Living, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch… is surreal black comedy at its finest, an exploration of loneliness, of guilt, of mourning and of greed. Its scenes are essentially disconnected, aside from the underlying theme of what makes humans human, and Roy Andersson depicts this theme in such a humorous way that it’s easy to forget how poignant the subject matter is – though a few juxtaposing scenes, such as a rotating torture chamber reminiscent of Auschwitz serves to jolt attention back to this deep sadness. In another scene, the 1800s’ King Karl XIII and his men roam through the modern streets of Sweden, stopping at a bar to demand a drink. It’s baffling and beguiling stuff, and creates a sense of generational interlinking that conveys the universality of such human emotion as entitlement. It’s shot uniquely and imaginatively, too: the camera remains at a fixed point until the scene ends, allowing the action to unfold from a position of helplessness; the human condition has never looked this beautiful.
13. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E
In a year saturated with spy capers, (Spy, Kingsmen, The Bridge of Spies, MI5, Spectre), Guy Ritchie’s latest ascends to my definitive favourite over the course of its runtime. Like a few of the aforementioned spy flicks, it’s a hugely enjoyable romp, but unlike the rest, it maintains this bombastic sense of fun throughout, helped by a charming soundtrack, moments of hilarity and Ritchie’s signature showy style. Following Henry Cavill’s CIA agent Napoleon Solo through a significant era during the Cold War, we are thrust into the world of espionage as Solo smuggles Alicia Vikander’s Gaby Teller, daughter of an important missile-creator, out of Berlin with Arnie Hammer’s trained member of KGB Ilya Kuryakin in pursuit. The sequence is dizzyingly fun, and leads to the reveal that Solo and Kuryakin must work together to recapture Teller’s father and prevent the Cold War transitioning from mere threats to action. It’s a fantastic premise with potential easily fulfilled, Hammer and Cavill’s chemistry a large reason behind this success. It may not have stunned other critics or set the box office alight, but it’s a highly rewatchable flick with an excellent 60s atmosphere and a terrific sense of fun. The torture scene alone is worth checking this film out.
12. ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
Free from the shackles of cynicism, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a mature and film-loving portrayal of the repercussions of being diagnosed with cancer at a young age. It breaks conventional stereotypes with every scene – for one, the film follows Thomas Mann’s Greg rather than the titular dying girl, and how her illness affects his life. The film’s plotting is formulaic and predictable, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon takes its familiar story and crafts it in a wholly unique and fulfilling way. Flashy camera movements and scenes of witty dialogue add a quirky, Sundance-esque tone to the proceedings; so much so it’s almost as if it won Sundance. The involving camerawork makes each character more accessible, but the bulk of the legwork for that feat is managed by Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke’s performances, their little facial movements and delivery of weighty lines of dialogue – a long take depicting an argument between the two a fine example of this – allowing key character development and an insight towards their self-loathing and despair in turn. It’s deeply funny, too, visual gags where classic films are riffed upon acting as a love letter to all things film, and giving Gregg and Earl’s characters substantial background. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl deals with its subject matter in an eccentric, endearing manner, without ever hindering the content’s potency.
If there was a film on this list to spark a flurry of controversy and debate, then this is probably it. The marketing campaign may have been misleading – the titular world of invention and wonder barely features in the film – but that doesn’t prevent Tomorrowland from being another superb accolade in Brad Bird’s filmography. Tomorrowland brought me back to my young childhood, to the days of Spy Kids or Indiana Jones, in a way no film has achieved this year. The reason for this isn’t the performances – though Clooney is reliably-charming, and Raffey Cassidy a rising star, but largely due to the imagination and hopeful yearning for a bright future on display. It’s a film that’s wholly optimistic and managed to put a smile on my face at the start that never dropped throughout its runtime. It’s a film with an overbearing moral message that has clearly put many viewers off, but which I commend; Hugh Laurie’s monologue putting into perspective how warped our views have become on the world we live in, how devoid of motivation we are to make a difference. Critics are forgetting that this is a story aimed at children, and a story that successfully inspires these children. If we can’t admire Tomorrowland for that, then we’re no better than the cynical, miserable figures that Laurie’s almost-villain depicts us as.
– Gus Edgar