So ends another year of film. A year of ups-and-downs, but the comforts of the cinema have remained frequent. To note this year: there have been less 4.5 and 5 star films for me – truly great ones – but a consistent stream of very good films. I can’t remember a year of such incredible depth. International films were certainly weaker this year. Perhaps it was the fact that not so many were available to me, but many of my favourite films last year (Two Days, One Night, Force Majeure and Ida for example) were international films. But, American cinema has been stronger than usual year, with some terrific mid-budget productions. Selecting this 25 (a number I have liked using for some years now) was a challenge that took many hours of deliberation and jostling, so I hope you appreciate the consideration and respect the high esteem of quality I place in these films.
Firstly, some films I have been seeing appear on other ‘Best of 2015’ lists that received a mention on my 2014 list include: It Follows, Tokyo Tribe, Girlhood, Clouds of Sils Maria, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, What We Do in the Shadows and Mommy. All wonderful films if you haven’t yet seen them.
Though I have been lucky enough to see a good chunk of the Jan/Feb 2016 releases there are still quite a few films releasing early next year here that I didn’t get the chance to squeeze in. So, you won’t be seeing The Hateful Eight, Room, Jobs, Anomalisa, Son of Saul, The Lady in the Van, as well as two Australian favourites from the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, The Daughter and Sherpa, on this list.
Of course, one can’t see everything and some notable exclusions due to lack of opportunity are: Timbuktu, Listen to Me Marlon, Horse Money, The Second Mother, Chi-raq, Straight Outta Compton, Breathe, Queen of Earth, Bone Tomahawk, Grandma, The Forbidden Room, The Pearl Button, James White and Experimenter.
My taste is changing, and my reaction to a film is certainly more dependant on current life situation than it used to be. I am starting to understand now, finally, what I consistently like and dislike in films. But I am always pleased when I surprise myself and recognise features or ideas I once upon a time would have missed or ignored. I feel like I have defended a lot of films this year from vocal dissenters – it has been one of the most negative years in my time as a film addict, I hope this trend reverses soon. A few unfortunate films have felt my wrath too (sorry Jurassic World, Slow West and Ruben Guthrie), but I am glad I still find myself enjoying just about everything I make the increasingly-limited time to see. I have said this the last few years, as I have whittled down my long short-list of films, if you’re struggling to find ten films that you liked in a year, you haven’t seen enough. I hope you enjoy my selections and learn a thing or two about them along the way.
You can find the extended list over at my Letterboxd page, but here are five honourable mentions that missed this Top 25 by a whisker: Keep on Keepin’ On, Love & Mercy, Taxi, Rams and Song of the Sea.
25. Marshland – A superb and unexpected reminder of why I love the detective-procedural genre, and cuts straight through the glut of mediocre entries into the top-tier – Memories of Murder feels like a justified comparison. Winner of a bunch of Goya Awards (Spanish Oscars) last year this is a confident piece of craftsmanship. At merely a shade over 100 minutes, it contains more than enough intrigue to drive a Top of the Lake-esque miniseries and the thrilling mystery unravels incredibly efficiently. The writing is sharp, the direction of each scene perfectly judged – juggling a lot of data through its visuals, and effortlessly developing its scarred, increasingly desperate sleuths in sync with the sprawling serial-murderer case.
24. Creed – This is brash, modern and emotional filmmaking and it wears its weathered nostalgia proudly. Most committed to observing the legendary Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (an electrifying Michael B. Jordan) develop his mental toughness as he searches for his identity, and to forge his own legacy, but the bouts are astonishingly well shot. I love a filmmaker who understands when to keep the camera rolling and not cut away. Ryan Coogler (see also Fruitvale Station) is a fine young filmmaker. Sylvester Stallone gives one of his finest ever performances, proudly continuing the Rocky Balboa legacy, but with a different vulnerability than we have seen before. Full of chilling, heart-wrenching, fist-pump inspiring moments, including a single take for the ages.
23. Shaun the Sheep Movie – This spin-off from the popular television series of the same name is hilarious, inventive, wonderfully animated, and quintessentially British family entertainment. Shaun the Sheep is essentially a silent film – the dialogue is mostly unintelligible gibberish – so the narrative is driven by the mechanics of the world, the relentless action and the character’s expressions, which are extraordinary. I haven’t seen all of the Bristol-based Aardman’s films, though I grew up with the brilliant Wallace and Gromit shorts, but from my experience this is one of their biggest in scale. The details of the city are incredible and there are so many jokes and pop-culture references it is dizzying to keep track of them all. This is a refreshing interloper in the world of digital animation that dominates the market. One of the very best family films released in this cinemas this year; the children in my screening went through the full spectrum of emotions. Me: I just laughed at everything.
22. A Perfect Day – The best film I saw at the Melbourne Film Festival during my long weekend there. The subject of this anti-war comedy/thriller – the bureaucracy-plagued international aid program in the Balkans during the Bosnian War – was compelling on its own. Assigned the task of removing a body from a well before it contaminates the village supply, a misfit troupe of aid workers attempt to procure some rope. When all sorts of obstacles impede on that mission the series of misadventures are equally hilarious and nail-bitingly suspenseful. The balance of these disparate tones, and the way that character-progression is always a priority, is what is especially impressive about this Cannes Director’s Fortnight selection. And how terrifically directed it is. The performances (headlined by a superb Benicio Del Toro, and also including Tim Robbins and Olga Kurylenko), and the unusual soundtrack are also terrific.
21. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Action-legend Tom Cruise is back as the gifted IMF agent Ethan Hunt in the fifth Mission: Impossible entry. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), it is evident during the soaring prologue that this instalment is in professional hands. The modestly stylish action sequences are brilliantly executed and the whole experience is a great deal of fun. This is a much heftier film than its equally incredible predecessor (Ghost Protocol), and I admire the fact that the franchise has continued to evolve. The way that McQuarrie manages to reign in the rather elaborate script into a cohesive and satisfying resolution is what ultimately made this film a real standout for me. Cruise’s underwater plunge into the depths of a Moroccan power station is heart-palpitating and there is a spectacular high-speed bike pursuit, captured beautifully by master DP Robert Elswit. But, I left the cinema keep thinking about opera, and how phenomenally tense, unpredictable and well-constructed that covert reconnaissance/rescue sequence was. It is one of the scenes of the year. Also, I can’t leave out a mention for Rebecca Ferguson, who steals the film, capably and confidently going the distance with Cruise.
20. Brooklyn – This beautiful and understated romantic drama is pretty close to perfection for most of its runtime, and utterly impeccable when the story is set in Brooklyn. It tells a universally relatable immigrant story, of the courage it takes to build a life independently in a big city or strange land, juxtaposing the youthful embrace of a challenge, with the unadventurous comforts of home. Saoirse Ronan and an equally Oscar-worthy Emory Cohen are wonderful; their chemistry delightful, but Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent are also very charming. Costumes, period design, musical score – all divine.
19. Citizenfour – The deserved winner of last year’s Best Documentary Oscar. A vital, sobering examination of 21st Century civil liberties and the NSA surveillance scandal. It is also a terrifying film – loaded with audio and visual data, often simultaneously – with a striking sense of immediacy and scope. The sourced information comes from within the trappings of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s ruffled hotel room and is delivered to the global headlines hours later. It evokes an extraordinary sense of involvement within the audience; as you feel like you are witnessing these revelations first-hand. Imagine watching this, Dirty Wars and Inside Job back to back? I am not sure I could contain my anger about the state of the world we live in.
18. Mistress America – Dean Wareham’s delivery of the line “It’s not a nice story” is the comedy moment of the year for me. This hilarious film is a coming-of-age story/screwball comedy, endlessly quotable and uncomfortably relatable. The film’s opening college-initiation montage is such efficient character-building, while the final third is a theatrical showcase for the ensemble of performers, as Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke’s characters learn a valuable life lesson. Even if you haven’t been a fan of Noah Baumbach or Gerwig in the past (why you wouldn’t be, I don’t know), you’re sure to have a ball with this. After While We’re Young I declared that it was my favourite Baumbach film. It is still my favourite I think, but Mistress America might be his best, and certainly the strongest collaborative writing between the couple.
17. The Look of Silence – The Look of Silence is a companion piece (but no less vital) to Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing documentary, The Act of Killing, continuing to focus on the Communist genocide of 1965-66 in Indonesia, but from a more personal angle. Oppenheimer acknowledges the survivors of the Military Coup, and reveals even more of the very worst offenders who have now reached old age and remain unpunished. As a result of Oppenheimer’s filmed interviews with the perpetrators, a family who survived the genocide learn of the identities of the killers of their relative. They, like many survivors, have been terrorized into political silence. The youngest son, Adi, born a few years after the genocide and distressed about the reality of raising his own children in such a world, decides to confront the killers one by one. Adi is an optometrist and he arranges visits with these men under the guise of testing their eyes so that they can be fit with spectacles. His questions begin to delve deeper, challenging these men to respond on the spot. They do so with often fiery retaliation and threats, failing to mask their fear and anger. Adi is risking his life here, but again Oppenheimer’s camera condemns these men.
16. A Most Violent Year – One of the first films I watched in 2015 remains one of the best. This is another brilliant piece of work from J.C Chandor (All is Lost), who I now wholeheartedly trust. Oscar Isaac (how good is this guy?), Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks are all fantastic in this tale of a family man trying to keep his growing enterprise afloat; adhering to a self-imposed moral compass while dealing with the repercussions of previous criminal behaviour and a crime boom. Another understated thriller that is driven by character and, through a cleverly established context, a gripping sense of stakes. This cracker of a screenplay contains lots of emotional heft, as the complexities of the narrative mount without one even realising. And props to DP Bradford Young for more fine work.
15. The Lobster – It has been several months now and I still struggle to put my feelings about this film into words. It has such a confident vision, a perfectly judged balance of tones, and is devilishly clever comment on contemporary coupledom, the disposability of relationships, and how much we stress on trying to impress and connect (the repercussions of forcing the compatibility are explored in very interesting ways). Rarely have I had the urge to laugh out loud and cower behind my hands in such close proximity. The slower woods-set second half is slightly less enjoyable overall – but the first half is so bizarre and funny. Farrell certainly delivers one of the best performances I have seen this year. Unbelievable. Ben Whishaw is very memorable in a supporting role. My only other exposure to Yorgos Lanthimos is Alps, which I very much don’t care for. Talk about an about-turn.
14. Carol – The last film I watched before compiling this list, and a film that I still haven’t completely unpacked yet. I have settled on this spot because I think it is an exquisite, remarkably restrained piece of work that didn’t quite arouse the euphoric emotions of the films above, but still took my breath away. I am likely to still be obsessing about sequences from this film for months to come. Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) doesn’t make too many films, but he is a master director who always creates fascinating female characters and examines them in wonderfully complex ways. This beautiful production – stunning 16mm film compositions, an authentic recreation of the 50s, and a lovely score from Carter Burwell – tells the transcendent, heart-swelling attraction between young department store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and the elegant older Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), and the complicated consequences that follow. The two leads – who should both be Lead Actress Oscar-nominated – are absolutely radiant, but every frame of this film is a work of art.
13. Welcome to Leith – Set in the tiny town of Leith in North Dakota. 3 square miles. 24 residents. The place is in peace. When the reclusive and mysterious Craig Cobb moves into a vacant lot (and starts buying up land for cheap), the locals becomes suspicious. It turns out that he is a notorious white supremacist and has been contacting like-minded people and inviting them to Leith. As his behaviour becomes more threatening, the residents unite and wrestle with democratic principles to fight back against their unwanted neighbour. The filmmakers’ determination to see both sides of the story is what makes this a standout documentary. We are taken both into the homes of the citizens of Leith as they try and figure out a way to get rid of Cobb, and the home of one of the NSM (National Socialist Movement) families as they cook dinner and express how they feel their rights have been violated. Both sides feel so strongly about their civil rights that they allow the cameras in, and often willingly supply privileged iPhone footage. We are immersed in this civil war – at the front of the siege, in the council rooms where the decisions are made, and within the homes of these panicked citizens trying to avoid life-threatening unrest. It is terrifying to think that this all actually happened. It will chill you to your core.
12. The Martian – A ridiculously entertaining story of human resilience and survival, scientific innovation, intergalactic engineering feats and daring rescue with clear direction and logic. This box office champion improves on a repeat viewing, too. It features an extraordinary vision of Mars from an accomplished world-builder, accompanied by a smart screenplay from Cabin in the Woods’ Drew Godard. Matt Damon is superb but it efficiently builds a deep roster of supporting characters – Chiwetel Ejiofor is especially fantastic – and establishes high emotional stakes that it riffs off nicely with the substantial humour. Ridley Scott’s best work in a long time. Since Matchstick Men. That’s 12 years.
11. Sicario – As I greatly admire all of Denis Villeneuve’s films (Enemy, Incendies, Polytechnique), I was pretty certain I’d like this. Depicts an immensely troubling off-the-grid dirty drug-war as its soldiers descend into uncompromising darkness. An FBI agent is drawn blindly deeper into a struggle that challenges not only her morals, but her life. Performances from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, along with Roger Deakins’ jaw-dropping cinematography, and the nerve-shredding score/soundscape are all incredible. One of few essential ‘cinema’ viewings of the year. I hope you saw it.
10. The Big Short – Adam McKay achieves an improbable task here with The Big Short; turning the dauntingly impenetrable catalysts for the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the terrifying-to-consider effects, into a tremendously entertaining comedy-drama. He also never ignores the tragedy of the event and isn’t afraid to dig deep into the world of complex mortgage derivatives and use inventive approaches to make it accessible. The film is a damning indictment of Wall Street, from the angle of men who saw the crash coming and who begin to realise what their unexpected profit opportunity meant for the U.S financial system, and the rest of the world. Based on the Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling 2010 book of the same name, the film details the GFC that spawned from the housing and credit bubble, built by large-scale fraudulent activity within Wall Street’s corrupt financial institutions. It’s qualities include the breathless pace, the phenomenal ensemble cast (led by Steve Carell and Christian Bale), Barry Ackroyd’s shallow focus camera that captures the claustrophobia and the emotional tension of the closed-door meetings, and the fabulous soundtrack. The surprise of the year.
9. Inside Out – What more can be said. I loved it. Made several false starts at reviewing the film, but couldn’t put the emotions into words. I have decided, after two viewings, that this is one of Pixar’s best ever films. Beautifully animated (and scored by Giacchino), this is an inventive all family-friendly (inquisitive kids will learn a lot, others might struggle a tad) exploration of the complex chemistry that is human emotion, but appreciation can be found on multiple levels. I fought off cries throughout, which is a rare thing indeed. Amy Poehler is sensational from the uniformly excellent voice cast.
8. The End of the Tour – A film that brilliantly takes a snapshot of the existential-anxieties of the mid 90’s while still remaining poignant and relevant to the present, documenting a myth-busting of a giant of contemporary literature, and a breakdown of the pedestaled trappings we often associate with celebrities and ‘geniuses’. The film chronicles a five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter and novelist Dave Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal), which closely followed the 1996 publication of Wallace’s acclaimed groundbreaking novel, ‘Infinite Jest’.The End of the Tour captures the turning point in the lives of two brilliant men whose riveting conversations and thrilling, unpredictable relationship would reveal the fragility of aspiration as a double-edged sword. In a film full of often-crippling personal emotion, we see our ambitions, our anxiety of failure, and the potential for disillusioned loneliness at the heart of success, rise to the surface in these men. While there are events that drive the plot director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies are committed to letting the conversations speak for themselves, ensuring that we hang onto every word uttered, and understand what these men individually draw from what is shared. It is Ponsoldt’s most sensitive and observant work to date, with much attention given to what is hanging in the space between the men. This is an excerpt from my favourite review of the year, which you can read here.
7. Inherent Vice – Following the film’s opening sequence, which sets up the impeccably judged look and mood of this film, and Doc Sportello (a brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), the hapless PI we are going to take this odyssey with, Can’s iconic ‘72 track ‘Vitamin C’ pumps into action. The film’s neon-lit title explodes off the screen, and Anderson proceeds to do whatever he likes, continuing Joanna Newsom’s eloquent narration as the song plays through its entirety. It was then that I knew this film was going to be playing by its own set of rules. The complicated and vastly-threaded narrative does require strict attention from a viewer, but at the same time it is endlessly rewarding to just relax and luxuriate in the film’s atmospheric natural high, to soak in its riches and not even stress yourself out about putting all of the pieces of the mystery together. Very faithful to Pynchon’s source novel Inherent Vice is brimming with crazy characters and hilarious gags and Pynchon’s dense prose remains Pynchonian in the best way possible. His story has been transformed into a Big Lebowski–esque madcap adventure with the embedded danger and tone of a hard-boiled detective noir. If you are as into that world as much as I was, sitting front-and-centre in the cinema with a cheeky grin on my face, you will still adore this for reasons entirely your own.
6. Corn Island – This tremendous feat of filmmaking is for appreciators of cinematography – shot on 35mm it looks absolutely gorgeous – and with less than a dozen total lines of dialogue, the narrative is reliant on these extraordinary images. The story is set on the Eguri River, which runs as a border between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, a territory that has been contested and been the cause of violent conflict since the early 90’s. Every Spring small islands of fertile soil are created – and one such island is territorially claimed by an elderly farmer; a new settlement for sowing corn and a haven of peace and tranquility. Over the perfectly paced and meticulously detailed runtime we watch this island hypnotically grow into a functioning civilisation before our eyes. The territory – a neutral space between the conflict, as gun-toting soldiers zip past in their boat and give the old man a respectful nod – appears from beneath the river and begins as a bare strip of land. It offers the bare essentials and necessities; everything required to survive – food, water, shelter. But in times of conflict, every calm is at risk of threat. The farmer, with the help of his teenage granddaughter, builds a house from the ground up with the lumber he transports over in his boat. They bring simple bedding. They cultivate the soil and sow the corn. We witness the passing of time through the growth of the corn stalks. The simplicity of this existence is invigorating. When an injured soldier seeks refuge they find the troops that formerly rode past quietly are at their door, and they know that island life will never be the same. I was absolutely blown away by this film, it is a lesson in how to purely use the medium to tell a story and convey theme without the weight of dialogue.
5. Magic Mike XXL – This euphoric masterpiece is the most under-appreciated film of the year. And certainly one of the funniest and most radically inclusive. The film is a celebration of expression. Everyone is searching for new ways to express themselves and we all do so in different ways. It may be through the way we dress, or via a particular art form. For the Kings of Tampa, who have hit the road to Myrtle Beach for a last hoo-rah (note: plot), their physiques and their ability to entertain is their language of expression. While on the road they each are confronted with the question of what they truly love in life, and personally hone their language to incorporate that element. It is a testament to the film that a ‘titillating’ sequence involving could simultaneously express so much emotion and feeling and be pleasurable and empowering for both the giver and the recipient at the same time. While XXL offers up plenty of the desired eye candy, it is also an exceptionally well crafted film that shows real love for its characters, while being refreshingly racially diverse and wonderfully female inclusive. It is the women (Jada Pinkett Smithm Amber Heard, Andie Macdowell, Elizabeth Banks and more) who shine brightest in this film. While Magic Mike explored the uglier belly of the stripper business, this film celebrates the beauty of the form – whether it is black or white, male or female, gay or straight. You may come for the abs, but you will leave giddy with joy that a mainstream blockbuster film could be so revolutionary.
4. Selma chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo, a mighty performance) led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Ava DuVernay’s film tells the real story of how the revered leader, and his brothers and sisters in the movement, prompted change that forever altered history. Selma is a very significant film, immensely powerful and superbly written, directed and performed. Shamefully overlooked at the Oscars earlier in the year, it is strictly focused, and yet bigger than the great man at the heart of this period of history.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road – One of the loudest silent films ever made this phenomenal achievement from maverick director George Miller deserves a spot on the action cinema Hall of Fame. Jaw-dropping world design and chase-action stunt choreography. With relentless insanity, to the smallest details, it is completely of its own. That’s what rewards on repeat viewings, those character moments that you may initially miss because of the spectacle. Theron is immediately outstanding from the cast, but they all manage to say so much without dialogue. Notice a trend here? Also outstanding is the editing, how did all those planes of chaos make cohesive sense? Loved the score too, and the way that the pursuers’ drum/electric guitar battle-chorus fuses with it. It is pretty much perfect in what it is trying to achieve and when those ambitions have no bounds the result is a wonderful gift.
2. Victoria – It is fitting that the first closing credit for this amazing single-take wonder was for cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. While his immense contribution – such a treacherous physical gauntlet – is imperative to the film’s success, the actors – largely improvising their dialogue – are also superb. I have never seen a film like this before, never missing a beat as it finds a delicate balance between a romance and a heist thriller. Victoria has a runtime of over two hours, which seems long considering the approach director Sebastian Schipper has taken to tell this story. And it is. But, to build an emotional connection to these characters and allow us to accept Victoria’s decisions, it had to be. There is a substantial amount of time developing the relationship between Victoria (Laia Costa) and the charismatic group-leader Sonne (Frederick Lau), and this pays off gloriously later on when the pair of them are under extreme pressure and dealing with debilitating emotional stress, and have to trust each other with their lives. Victoria takes you into the psychology of pulling off a bank heist, an effect often unexplored in such films. The emotive performances are so convincing that what you are watching transcends the realm of fictional cinema.Never once did I feel distracted by the dazzling premise, because itbecomes a visceral and immersive experience, and due to the way it is so intimately photographed you feel like you an extended member of the group. Did I mention this is a single-take?
1. The Revenant – Some films, as you are watching them for the first time, feel like they are immediately amongst the greatest films you have ever seen. The Revenant created that feeling in me, and I left the cinema so shaken I could barely speak. A few others to ignite such a feeling – There Will Be Blood, Stalker, Playtime. It joins an elite class of film. This is a starkly beautiful, purely visceral, astonishingly merciless survival-come-revenge spectacle from a filmmaker who is working at the peak of his abilities. It is unfathomable that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose remarkable film Birdman cleaned up the Oscars last year, would return with another masterpiece so swiftly. Especially one with a production like this. Leonardo DiCaprio, who deserves the Oscar this year (I know I said that after The Wolf of Wall Street, but I honestly don’t know what else the guy can do), looks like he gets dragged through hell. I was so immersed in DiCaprio’s journey here and astounded by Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography that I could have watched this for hours more. The soundscape created by Ryuichi Sakamoto is another overwhelming feature, while Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter all must be recognised for their supporting work, despite this being the DiCaprio, Inarritu and Lubezki show. A violent, grueling and often distressing film, for me this is what the cinema is all about.
By Andrew Buckle