Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!
1. The Look of Silence
A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story. In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.
2. The Lobster
Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast. It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.
3. It Follows
There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.
Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.
6. Force Majeure
A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.
Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.
8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.
While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.
Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.
And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.