It’s been a good year, cinematically speaking (the world at large has gone to shit, obviously). It’s easy enough to look at the multiplex hoarding and get depressed: superheroes, legacyquels, minions. But aside from those, 2015 brought some of the best blockbusters in recent memory, from long-dormant franchises revived to thrilling original animation. And the independent and world cinema scenes came through too.
It was probably easier to fill out my annual top 15 than it’s been the last few years, but even then, I had another 25 movies that easily could have slotted in. And my top 5 might be the strongest ever: on another day, I could have seen them in a completely different order, so much did I love them all. Brief housekeeping: being based in the UK, I go simply by what I’ve seen rather than a U.S. release calendar, so there’s two or three movies here from the festival circuit yet to open properly. And ultimately, these qualify as ‘favorite’ rather than ‘best’ — the movies that made the biggest impact on me weeks or months on, rather than in the moment. Take a look below, and I’m always curious to know other people’s favorites too. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading throughout 2015.
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15. “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”
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I’m not sure anything gave me as much pure joy this year as “Rogue Nation.” I’ve always been fond of the “Mission Impossible” franchise, despite none of the first four being all that great: in part because of a genetic fondness for spy movies, in part because of the way the films serve as a kind of auteurist Rorschach test, using the same ingredients but letting each filmmaker put their stylistic and thematic mark on. Maybe it was this second reason that meant I was a bit skeptical about the fifth entry: I’ve always liked Christopher McQuarrie as a screenwriter, but didn’t flip for his two previous films as director. And yet he turned out easily the most entirely satisfying ‘Mission’ movie to date. “Rogue Nation” was a thrillingly old-school spy tale, built on suspense rather than shock and awe, indebted to Hitchcock and Hawks rather than more modern-era blockbuster action. McQuarrie brings a winningly fleet-footed, featherlight touch, and as Tom Cruise‘s closest and most frequent collaborator of late, knows how to use the megastar better than most. It is, admittedly, built around setpieces, but the setpieces are immaculately constructed and enormous fun, and the movie’s given a pleasingly opaque heart by Rebecca Ferguson‘s Ilsa Faust, joining Furiosa in being the stealth lead (and highlight) of somebody else’s franchise.
14. “High Rise”
I am, if readers aren’t already aware, a Londoner. And things in London are a bit shit at the moment. Our government of nearly sociopathic posh boys can barely disguise their contempt for anyone less white, male and wealthy as them, while the city’s being steadily bought up as empty assets from abroad, steadily pulling the soul out through the mouth of my favorite place in the world. Which is one of the reasons that I read Ben Wheatley‘s adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s “High Rise” not just as a terrific retro-futuristic dystopia, but as a delightfully blunt bit of agitprop about the way we live now. Set in a brutalist concrete nightmare of a new-build tower block, and the societal microcosm that’s swiftly established inside, it’s Wheatley’s biggest, most mature and most impressive achievement to date, creating an extraordinary world and letting loose a cast that are a true ensemble, serving the whole rather than their individual showreels. It’s funny, sick, strange, and at a time when buildings are opening in my city with separate entrances for the rich and the the poor, utterly vital in capturing the urban alienation, selfishness and rotten heart of David Cameron’s Britain. It’s something of a blunt instrument (I could have done without the Margaret Thatcher quote that ends the film), but as Wheatley has displayed more than once in his earlier work, a blunt instrument can make a hell of an impact.
13. “Crimson Peak”
Guillermo Del Toro doesn’t do one for them and one for him: even a superhero movie sequel like “Hellboy II” is as full of his peccadilloes and fetishes as his low-budget Spanish language fare. But “Crimson Peak,” his utterly gorgeous period ghost story, was really, really one for him. And, as it turns out, one for me too. Neither critics nor audiences went wild for the film, a lush, spooky melodrama about the triangle between American writer Mia Wasikowska, handsome Brit aristocrat Tom Hiddleston and his bonkers sister Jessica Chastain within the walls of the creepy old house of the title. But to me, it already feels timeless, with an unfashionable, winning sincerity, and a use of color to tell story (in a way reminiscent of my all-time favorites, Powell & Pressburger), that few are even attempting these days. And while some dismissed it as a movie focused on production design above and beyond all else, to me it felt almost novelistically rich: a look at a world changing as an old, aristocratic order dies away, desperate to change with the times but unable, or unwilling, to escape its decaying past. All that, plus it had, with Chastain’s performance, the most delicious, tragic and demented villain of the year.
12. “Arabian Nights”
Miguel Gomes‘ beautiful “Tabu” nearly topped my list a few years back, so to say I was looking forward to his follow-up, a giant, three-part, six-hour behemoth, would be an understatement. “Arabian Nights” isn’t quite a match for its predecessor, but it’s nevertheless a gorgeous, textured state-of-the-nation epic that constantly surprises, moves, and almost surprisingly for a film that seems so potentially intimidating, entertains across its miniseries-length running time. Mixing the docudrama hybrid of “Our Beloved Month Of August” with the more playful, heightened spirit of “Tabu,” it borrows the structure and central Scheherazade figure from the classic story “1001 Nights,” but little else. Instead using the framework to weave diverse stories of modern, austerity-racked, economically stricken Portugal, including the story of an elderly killer on the run, that of a dog’s passage between owners, taking in an erection-granting wizard and an exploding whale and genies of the air along the way. If I had a complaint, it’s that the third part feels more like a coda than a part of the whole, and doesn’t quite gel with the previous installments. But still it contains more ideas than most of the rest of the year put together, and did little to dampen a beautifully shot (on actual film, even!), wonderfully executed triptych that should be manna for cinephiles.
11. “Bone Tomahawk”
As an under-the-radar horror-western from an untested writer-director with a cast including Matthew Fox and David Arquette, I certainly didn’t go into “Bone Tomahawk” expecting it to end up on my year-end list (even if it did have an awesome name). And yet here we are. My favourite surprise of the year, S. Craig Zahler‘s film sees sheriff Kurt Russell, aged deputy Richard Jenkins, broken-legged husband Patrick Wilson, and dandyish, loosely-moraled sharpshooter Fox heading out into the wilderness in search of the almost supernaturally fearsome cannibal cave-dwellers who’ve kidnapped Wilson’s wife. The carnage, when it comes, is incredibly brutal (one kill in particular has passed into legend even with the film going largely unseen), but it’s the slow burn that makes it special. Zahler’s direction is classical without being fusty, his script writerly and unhurried without being indulgent (*cough* Mr. Tarantino). By the time we reach Cannibal Cave, we’ve come to care about our central quartet (with four excellent performances bringing them to life), as invested in Zahler’s multi-faceted examination of masculinity as in their quest. You need a strong stomach, but if you have one, don’t judge this particular blood-splattered book by its cover.
10. “Ex Machina”
It’s incredibly rare to find a movie where you don’t know what to expect from moment to moment. That’s the experience I had with “Ex Machina” when I saw it in January. I’ve always liked much of director Alex Garland‘s writing work without ever quite loving it, but as soon the film began, it felt like I was in sure hands. And he went on to play me, as an audience member, like a fiddle. Was this going to be a modest performance piece? No (though the performances are all tremendous: Domhnall Gleeson undersung at bringing out the darker side of a ‘nice guy,’ Alicia Vikander, glacial and inscrutable as the AI, Oscar Isaac surprising and specific as the billionaire nerd whose every dream has now come true, and is still as lonely as ever). Was it a who’s-the-real-robot guessing game? No, though Garland relishes walking you down that garden path for a while. Is it a deft, original look at the coming singularity, finding rare fresh territory to mine in the tired AI genre? Yes, actually, but it was something else too: it was stealthily a story of the terrible things that men can do to women, their possessiveness and hidden violence and creepiness. And it’s that that lingers, nearly a year on.
9. “The Duke Of Burgundy”
It’s been a great year for relationship movies, but one of the ones that felt most truthful and, oddly, relatable, was the experimental one set in a world seemingly without men, about a couple whose tastes (or, crucially, half of their tastes) include sadomasochism and, as the credits memorably put it, being a “human toilet.” A significant step up for director Peter Strickland even from his excellent last movie “Berberian Sound Studio,” it is, like three of my top five, a relationship movie, in this case set in a world seemingly without men and focusing on the relationship between Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), two lepidopterologists (scientists studying butterflies) who are deeply in love but are increasingly strained by Evelyn’s highly submissive sexual tastes. This might make it sound intimidating and un-relatable, but one of the film’s many pleasures is the way that it makes a seemingly extreme situation utterly relatable and deeply moving. Strip away its gorgeous design and more expressionistic elements, and you’ll find a deceptively sly, sexy and playful picture, an impossibly tender love story beautifully performed by its two leads, and which tackles universal truths in the most specific way imaginable.
Given that his last film, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the Palme D’Or, and given the sometimes sub-standard quality of some of the movies I saw in the main section in Cannes this year, it’s fucking outrageous that Apichatpong Weerasethakul was demoted to the Un Certain Regard section for his latest, the utterly gorgeous “Cemetery Of Splendour,” because it was as beguiling and haunting a picture as I’ve seen all year. You can tell a Weerasethakul (or “Joe,” to his friends) picture from a hundred paces: he has a unique mood and style that’s in full force here, as a middle-aged woman (the wonderful Jenjira Pongpas Widner) tends to a group of soldiers stricken by sleeping sickness and wanders the streets with a psychic possessed by a man named Itt. No, it doesn’t make much sense on paper, but it makes perfect sense when you watch it, similar to how a dream in which you hang out with Abraham Lincoln and a talking dolphin makes perfect sense at the time. The woozy, ever-shifting mood created here is entirely hypnotic, proving again that the filmmaker is better than anyone at evoking a semi-conscious state. Rich, utterly gorgeous and yet oddly entertaining, it’s been rattling around my head for six months now, and shows no sign of leaving any time soon.
I’m only realizing it as I write this list up, but one thing that ties many of my favorites together this year is a link to bygone eras of cinema, from the Hitchcockian moves of “Rogue Nation” to the silent comedy-esque choreography of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (shock horror: “Mad Max: Fury Road” will be on this list later on). Christian Petzold‘s “Phoenix” is among them: it’s a heart-on-chest melodrama of the kind they don’t make anymore, with echoes of “The Third Man,” Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” and, most obviously, “Vertigo.” Echoes is the right word, though: Petzold crafts familiar elements and themes into something new, and entirely powerful. The director’s most frequent collaborator Nina Hoss stars, and gives arguably her best ever performance, as Nelly, a singer who’s survived Auschwitz, but has suffered reconstructive facial surgery that leaves her looking similar to, but not quite, herself. She returns to Berlin, where her husband (the devastatingly selfish Ronald Zehrfeld) mistakes her for a doppelgänger of his late wife, who he may or may not have betrayed, and enlists her to impersonate herself in order to claim on an inheritance. There’s a touch of contrivance here, sure, but the tragedy of two people gains immense heft thanks to the tragedy of history. And it’s utterly lean and merciless: Petzold doesn’t waste a line or a shot, and Hoss doesn’t waste a single glance. Long may they continue to work together.
It’s not like the world needed another coming-of-age movie. Throw a tennis ball during a film festival, and you’ll hit one. It’ll probably be fine, but it’s unlikely to bring much new to the party. In a way, “Diary Of A Teenage Girl” doesn’t either: it has experimentations with sex and drugs, an illicit romance, some quirky stylistic elements, and a mixture of laughter and tears. And yet what writer/director Marielle Heller (working from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel) does with the genre is so utterly specific, and so finely honed, that it sometimes feels like she’s the first person telling this story. The title might seem as generic as the premise, but it contains the secrets to the film’s success. Diary: it’s completely raw and confessional, to the extent that the only time it’s anything less than authentic is when Minnie (astonishing newcomer Bel Powley) is lying to herself. Teenage: Heller so perfectly captures the confusing, maddening hormones of being 15 years old, with a particularly refreshing and frank approach to sexuality, one that never judges its lead even while it makes clear the naivety that leads to some of the decisions being made. Girl: in a year where, happily, more scrutiny than ever has fallen on the lack of female directors in Hollywood, Heller demonstrated it is that we actively support women behind the camera, because no male filmmaker would have got inside her heroine’s head like she does. This is a smaller film than some of these here, but its ambitions were just as big.
5. “Inside Out”
The last few sequel-heavy years aside, Pixar has built up such a reputation for brilliance that when the studio makes a film deemed only ‘pretty good,’ as with the currently-in-theaters “The Good Dinosaur,” you can feel disproportionately disappointed. But that certainly wasn’t the reaction to “Inside Out,” released earlier this year, because it’s certainly Pixar’s most ambitious film and easily one of its best. Set inside the head of young Riley, whose emotional turmoil after moving to San Francisco sends the personifications of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) into the deepest recesses of her mind, it’s a remarkably mature, yet accessible look at what makes us tick and which grapples with an elusive truth — sadness isn’t just unavoidable, it’s necessary — that so-called grown-up movies would cross the street to avoid. But this being from Pixar, and in particular from “Up” director Pete Docter, it’s also a total, well, joy — bright, exciting, funny (was anything funnier this year than the film’s closing credits? Or the gum commercial? Or the ‘abstract thought’ section? or (repeats ad infinitum)… “Inside Out” is fast moving, light of touch, beautifully voiced and impossibly touching. The bar’s been raised once again.
4. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
George Miller’s fourth movie in his post-apocalyptic franchise was an absolute wonder, literally the best action movie in decades, and a classic even before the title character (Tom Hardy) has had his mask removed. Stripping down to the absolute basics — it’s a chase movie in the same way that Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a chase movie, i.e. it’s the chase movie as poetry, as symphony, as head rush, as fever dream — barely ever stopping to catch a breath while building a fascinating world through side-details and establishing complex characters through action. The director gifted us all with an adrenaline shot of pure, unfiltered cinema, one that returned grace and beauty to the summer blockbuster. One that wasn’t afraid to get weird, like the blue-tinged section in the mudlands that feels almost like a Tarkovsky movie. One that stealthily put a woman at the heart of a testosterone-filled, gas-guzzling actioner. One crafted at a level that suggested that 95% of movies simply aren’t trying hard enough. Miller’s already started talking about potential further ‘Max’ movies, but there’s part of me that wants him to let it alone, because returning with something as utterly perfect as “Fury Road” is a big, big task.
Saying that “Carol” is so beautiful that it belongs in a museum sounds like a backhanded compliment, but no backhand is intended whatsoever. Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price Of Salt,” the film sees Rooney Mara’s introspective shopgirl Therese falling swiftly for the title character, played by Cate Blanchett, a wealthy woman undergoing a painful divorce from her husband. It’s the kind of Sirkian melodrama that Todd Haynes has had immense success with before, but whereas “Far From Heaven,” for all its emotional power, felt like pastiche, and “Mildred Pierce” echoed with past examples in the genre (not least the film it was remaking), “Carol” is entirely its own beast. It tackles the tropes and the style of the past (no film this year has better fashion; Sandy Powell deserves an Oscar just for Mara’s hats alone), but feels fresh and contemporary, whether in the breathless freedom of Carol and Therese’s road-trip, or the wrenching hurt of their separation. Everyone involved is doing something close to career-best work: Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score, Blanchett’s title turn, exemplary even by her high standards, Mara’s fragile, endlessly layered performance, rich, fully-realized supporting work from Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy (the latter playing fascinatingly with his Nice Guy image from “Girls” and “Obvious Child”), Haynes himself. And though it might seem chilly and distant early on, it’s just biding its time, and builds to a cumulative power that leaves you reeling and, eventually, even uplifted. It’s a delicate, elegant, exquisite thing, and a rare film that comes alarmingly close to being perfect.
2. “45 Years”
Between his tremendous breakthrough with “Weekend” and his gorgeous work helming much of HBO series “Looking,” I’ve had my eyes on British director Andrew Haigh for a while. But no one was prepared for “45 Years,” a serious step up for the director and one of the very best relationship movies in a very long time. The film focuses on the run-up to the titular wedding anniversary of an elderly, seemingly happy married couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), and the fractures that appear when the body of his ex-girlfriend, who died in a mountaineering accident and has been frozen in the ice for half a century, is discovered. It’s perhaps a contrived set-up (based on David Constantine’s short story), but that’s the last thing in Haigh’s film that’s anything less than utterly truthful, particularly when it comes to performances from the two leads that come close to being the best roles of their 50 year careers. European in style without being austere (it’s a textured, tender film, even funny in places), beautifully lensed throughout, it’s perhaps above and beyond anything else a ghost story about how the past can haunt and change us long after the fact, how time shifts and changes us, and how unearthed secrets can make you reevaluate everything in your life.
1. “The Lobster”
All movies — all the good ones, anyway — are relationship movies. But there are relationship movies and Relationship Movies, and 2015 was a banner year for the latter: the unspoken romance between Cruise and Ferguson in “Rogue Nation,” the tragic, broken incest of “Crimson Peak,” the ill-matched couple of “Duke Of Burgundy” desperately trying to make it work, the star-crosses “Carol” leads, the long-after-happily-ever-after duo of “45 Years.” But no film this year, and maybe no film since “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” has dissected the whys and whats of being in a relationship, or not, on a macro level as well as “The Lobster.” “Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos brings his pitch-black sensibilities to the English language for the first time in an utterly satisfying way, in his story of a world where single people are herded into a hotel and told that if they don’t pair up within 45 days, they’ll be turned into animals. It’s a ridiculous idea, but Lanthimos uses it for a whip-smart Bunuelian satire-of-manners, skewering society’s pressure to couple up, the ludicrousness of certainty, the rituals of dating and normal life and, in the film’s divisive second half (which to me, goes a long way towards completing the puzzle), the structures of power. Which makes it all sound very high and mighty, but I laughed harder at “The Lobster” than at anything else this year (Colin Farrell kicking a child in the knees is something of an all-timer). And swooned more, too: that second half becomes a deceptively sensual love story with a kick in its tail. Movies did so much in so many different ways this year, but for me, “The Lobster” did the most.
I Also Loved: Arnaud Desplechin’s cracking return to form with “My Golden Days,” Jeremy Saulnier’s punks vs. skinheads siege thriller “Green Room,” tremendous one-take German thriller “Victoria,” artful Sundance horror “The Witch,” Michael Mann’s expressionistic action love story “Blackhat,” Lenny Abrahamson’s wrenching “Room,” Luca Guadagnino’s gloriously enjoyable “A Bigger Splash,” Danny Boyle’s thrilling tour-de-force “Steve Jobs,” Ridley Scott’s Capra-in-space epic “The Martian,” Riley Stearns’ sly, under-seen “Faults” and Roy Andersson’s beguiling “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence.”
And not to forget László Nemes’ hellscape “Son Of Saul,” Joachim Trier’s soulful, novelistic “Louder Than Bombs,” Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s utterly gorgeous “The Assassin,” Ryan Coogler’s airpunch of a franchise revival “Creed,” Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” (my favorite of his since “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”), Justin Kurzel’s thrilling, drone-y “Macbeth,” the stimulating “The End Of The Tour,” the fury-inducing college-rape doc “The Hunting Ground,” Alex Ross Perry’s mindfuck “Queen Of Earth,” Pablo Larrain’s piano-wire-taut “The Club,” Cary Fukunaga’s wartime nightmare “Beasts Of No Nation,” and yes, J.J. Abrams’ satisfying revival of “Star Wars.” That’s nearly forty movies — if you didn’t find anything to like this year, you needed to look harder.