Another year has passed and another batch of films has come and gone with it. When you work as the editor of a movie site, one spends so much time writing about movies that often you don’t get a lot of time to see them. I’m not a guild or critics group member so never get sent screeners. I do go to media screenings, but to get to one is a time-consuming and costly journey for me across town. On top of that there is no real local cinema in my area.
So what does that mean? It means, like most of you reading this, it is not a cheap or easy affair to get out to the movies. Seeing a new film, even one I really like, more than once on the big screen is a rarity. So if I do take a chance on a film, especially on something I’m going into blind, the film had better be worth the investment of my time and money.
My interests have moved into more TV and gaming arenas in recent times, which is one reason I haven’t done this list for the past two years. Earlier this year I set out to get heavily back into films and have succeeded for the most part – checking out more new films in cinemas in the past year than I had in the previous two years combined. As a year, 2015 was more interesting than the past two years as well – an overall higher standard even if the peaks and troughs of the quality spectrum were less extreme.
Despite my being based in Australia, I go by U.S. release dates for the list so films that opened here in 2015 such as “Inherent Vice,” “Selma,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Citizenfour, etc. don’t qualify. Also like any reviewer I also have some holes in my list as some films I didn’t get access to or time to consider before writing up. Each will be screened at a later date (within the next month or two) and this list will be subjected to edits at that time should they qualify.
The absentees this year are: 45 Years, Anomalisa, Arabian Nights Trilogy, The Assassin, Beasts of No Nation, The Big Short, Cop Car, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Experimenter, Gangs of Wasseypur, The Hateful Eight, The Hunting Ground, James White, The Lobster, Mistress America, Mustang, The Second Mother, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Son of Saul, Suffragette, Tehran Taxi, The Tribe, Trumbo, Wild Tales and Youth.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
George Miller’s masterpiece is hands down one of the best action films of the past decade. A female empowerment picture barely hidden within a masculine outer shell, ‘Fury Road’ boasts some of the most technically impressive action filmmaking ever put to screen. The vehicular craziness is always in motion, only at rare moments stopping to take a breath as it delivers wave upon wave of stunning, hyper-saturated imagery that has you shaking your head in disbelief in regards to how a film like this is even possible.
Employing as much realistic and practical work as it can, and as little exposition as needed, every bit of the budget is on screen. Max himself, played well by Tom Hardy, takes a back seat to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa – a creation that immediately takes her place alongside the likes of Ellen Ripley in the annals of great onscreen female asskickers. Deceptively simple, ‘Max’ is mythic in its qualities and keeps its themes and character work as streamlined as possible without ever feeling short changed or undercooked. An orgy of machine mayhem that will set a standard for many years to come.
Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s fifth and arguably best film to date spread outside both the festival circuit and Europe right at the start of the year, and what a revelation it was. A companion piece of sorts to his superb debut film “I Killed My Mother,” this hyperactive melodrama is permeated with the budding filmmaker’s boundless and exhilarating energy, along with his increasingly skilled and audacious technical flair. From his shifting aspect ratios to his shot composition to his use of music, it’s far from subtle but it can get away with it because it’s so inventive.
A character drama about a single mother, her troubled son and a mousy neighbour, Dolan manages to deliver a three hander with superb performances from all involved as this strange trio of differing personality types (he’s the id, mom’s the ego, the neighbours’ the superego) hit moments in life of both great joy and serious tragedy. Dolan though is the real star, his direction and script offering several moments of major emotional revelation from an absolutely jaw-dropping montage about a possible life that will never be, to a heartbreaking final conversation between the two women about where the future will take them.
3. “The Martian”
Ridley Scott’s most robust, complete and accessible film in a decade, “The Martian” is a straight up tribute to the power of science, human ingenuity and our collective spirit. Like its protagonist, it is often captivating, inventive, resourceful and widely appealing. It’s also a welcome reprieve from that new wave of space films that discard grounded and supported science theory in favour of pure fantasy when facts become inconvenient to the narrative they want to spin.
There’s no bulls–t quasi-theological implications, laughable spiritual self-affirmation character arcs or tired troubled familial relationship tropes, “Cabin in the Woods” scribe and “Daredevil” producer Drew Goddard adapts Andy Weir’s acclaimed novel without the often problematic earnestness and sentimentality of the genre. Sleek and brutally efficient, there’s zero time for extraneous subplots and tangents aside from some frequently self-effacing humour. That rocketing forward pace may be its only weakness, glossing over flat characterisation and lack of deeper substance, but the stellar direction and sheer drive often overcomes that hurdle. A real ride from start to finish.
4. “The Revenant”
Aside from George Miller’s post-apocalyptic madness, nothing else comes close to just plain astonishing filmmaking this year than Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant”. The brutal wilderness survival drama may have been a troubled production, but the results speak for themselves as visually it’s an absolute wonder – the locations, cinematography, editing, production design, costumes, make-up, etc. all combine to make every frame a piece of stark beauty – a vision of a world of ice, mud and blood. However it’s more than just the quality here, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers perhaps his best work to date and it’s a wonder to behold.
He’s ably supported by a strong cast with Tom Hardy in particular invisibly yet comfortably slipping into the deliberate physicality and thick accent of a nasty, murderous opportunist. If there’s a weakness, it’s the story and those in it are so stripped down to basic machismo concepts instead of fully realised characters that the “Death Wish” meets “The New World” comparisons aren’t hugely off the mark. Similarly the fundamental core is left wanting when held up against Joe Carnahan’s far more grounded and efficient evisceration of machismo in “The Grey”. You’ll either go with this film’s unrelenting bleak and dark beauty or you won’t, I personally was pulled in right from the start.
Denis Villeneuve’s masterful thriller explores the drug war from an unexpected perspective, and does so in an uncommonly gripping and suspenseful way. Emily Blunt is our entry into this dark world as an FBI agent brought onboard a joint agency operation headed up by Josh Brolin’s laconic but seasoned consultant and Benicio del Toro’s enigmatic and lethal enforcer. By the end however, this ethical and honourable woman finds herself more and more sidelined by those qualities which are not just futile but a serious liability in this particular war.
The filmmaking on all levels is top of its game. Neither Taylor Sheridan’s script or Villeneuve’s helming ever lets up its pace and tension, even some of the quieter moments where you think you can take a breath turn out to have a dark edge to them. Set pieces, such as the extraction of a key witness from across the border, are masterfully done with the help of Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which makes even establishing shots – like a plane’s silhouette flying over hills – carry so much weight. Performances are just as terrific with Blunt and Brolin providing excellent work and Benicio del Toro in particular a real standout as the steely hitman whose motives are never clear. A fantastic thriller.
Gripping but never showy, Tom McCarthy’s workmanlike drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic pedophile scandal is less about the contents of the scandal itself and more about the process undertaken by the investigative journalists who exposed the story. It is, in effect, far more “Zodiac” than “Se7en” in its intentions – a smart procedural relying less on narrative twists and more on actually showing journalists doing their job. On that front, it succeeds admirably and displays an incredibly mature sense of taste in regards to a most distasteful topic.
Performances across the board, from the sources to the editors to the reporters, are uniformly excellent to the point that it’s hard to point to the standouts. If I had to pick though, it was Mark Ruffalo twitching and high strung workaholic along with Michael Keaton’s forceful yet pragmatic editor who were my personal highlights. McCarthy takes the difficult task of taking long-form investigative journalism, something on the verge of dying out in our Internet age, and makes it compelling on screen without embellishment and with a real understanding of the subject matter. Its economical approach makes it a hard film to truly love per se, this is far more an intellectual than an emotional beast, but it’s one that pretty much anyone can truly admire.
What easily could have been a footnote in a franchise that overstayed its welcome, “Creed” astonishes by instead being an energetic and inspiring revitalisation of a tired series. This is a mini-reboot of sorts, a side-quel that balances nostalgia and fresh blood, melancholic reconsideration and exciting fresh promise, with such deft ease that it makes the fan-service overloads of “Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World” or the too dismissive “Star Trek” seem awkward in comparison – “Creed” is a true successor rather than a convincing imitation.
Ryan Coogler’s film shows great confidence from the get go. The story is formulaic to be sure, an impressive Michael B. Jordan as the son of Apollo Creed seeks the help of his late dad’s rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to mentor him. Yet there’s a welcome grit and earthiness here, a lack of posturing and everyman appeal which makes some of the more cliche elements – daddy issues, health scares, etc. – palatable. On a script and technical level it’s excellent, from insightful inspirational quotes to superb filming including a jaw-dropping single-take boxing match in the mid-section. A stellar restart to the franchise.
Los Angeles always loves to romanticise itself in cinema be it period (“L.A. Confidential”) or modern (“Collateral”), but so rarely do films capture its true soul – an over baked concrete oven of sweat, desperation, urban decay and wealth disparity – a city in self-denial and desperate for acceptance. Filmmaker Sean Baker not only does it, he goes one step further and delivers an agile, energetic, ambitious little narrative in the process in a film bound to be a cult hit a few years down the line.
Ground breaking in a lot of ways from its two transgender leads (Mya Taylor in particular is a revelation) to its being filmed entirely with iPhone 5s, this essentially real-time tale is in the moment character drama at its finest. Authentic without being pedantic, playful but rarely forced, there’s a lot of quite skilled filmmaking on display here hidden by its down and dirty shooting techniques. Naturalistic in both its dialogue and larger themes about the importance of friendship, this is a real gem.
9. “Ex Machina”
Alex Garland gives the Frankenstein story a new spin with “Ex Machina,” a timely tale about the dawn of artificial intelligence as a consciousness. Getting everything right where last year’s “Transcendence” failed miserably, the film is less about elaborate action with big stars and more a three-handed drama with standout performances by its leads tackling a smart and knowledgable approach to the subject matter. The set pieces are conversations, and the tone varies between romantic, playful, suspenseful and sinister.
This is classic science fiction in the truest sense, an exploration of themes through a fascinating big concept with morally ambiguous characters. Issues of emotional manipulation, choice vs. free will, servitude, and the greater implication of AI are all touched upon, but the way it unfolds is never dry or stiff – the design of the house, a strange disco dancing interlude, the truth of Ava’s heritage, the numerous verbal and emotional mind games, it’s all skilfully and smartly rendered to both enthral and leave one pondering its implications.
10. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”
The best and most consistent of the five “Mission: Impossible” films so far, Chris McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation sadly lacks the ambition and style of Ghost Protocol’s more conceptually epic and visually exciting set pieces. However, it overtakes it and the rest of the series in other areas including smarter scripting, more natural setups, a stronger supporting cast, and a more fascinating story of betrayal and counter betrayal as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt tries to take down a shadowy organisation and its mysterious leader.
It’s a slightly less “fun”, more grounded and utilitarian affair than some previous outings, but it doesn’t lose the playful tone of the series overall and steers it back towards genuine spy trappings which we haven’t really seen since DePalma’s first. Rebecca Ferguson delivers a spectacular, career making performance as the female lead whose intentions are never quite clear. She’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, including a fun turn by Alec Baldwin, and the action is hearty with the Hitchcock-esque Vienna Opera House sequence easily one of the year’s best cinematic sequences. Incredibly entertaining.
11. “Clouds of Sils Maria”
Olivier Assayas’ clever psychological drama is far deeper and richer than it first appears. Initially following an ageing glamorous actress and her young personal assistant in the wake of the suicide of the director who launched her career, it becomes a complicated meta piece. As the two rehearse lines from a play, the unfolding relationship of the script grows more and more to mirror their own – the lines between actual conversation and rehearsal blurring.
That’s just one element of numerous clever tricks and metaphors that Assayas pulls off with this thematically overloaded at times character piece about the nature of performance. The filmmaking varies between the subtle and the grotesque, but it always feels like its helmer is in complete control and knows exactly where he’s steering it. Juliette Binoche is stellar as always, but Kristen Stewart will be the revelation to those not familiar with her pre-“Twilight” work – the actress finally getting a chance to tackle some dramatic fare which she does so with relish. Smart and rich, it’s also something of a fun puzzle box that will inspire much conversation.
Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” doesn’t shy away from its dark subject matter, but cleverly uses its device of unfolding the story from the perspective of the young child lead to acknowledge, but not have to deal with, some of its most unsavoury elements. The same device also handles, with great care and sensitivity, the film’s overall metaphor of sheltered upbringings and over-parenting.
A two-hander for the most part, “Room” relies on the performances of both said child Jacob Tremblay and his mother played by Brie Larson. Both are fantastic, crafting believable and flawed characters in a unique situation. When the film moves to the outside, it becomes a whole different but no less compelling beast, impressively composed in its shooting style and believable in its handling of the pair’s return to the rest of the world. Though occasionally manipulative, it’s a superb little feature that will be long remembered.
13. “Steve Jobs”
Eschewing the romanticism and relationship elements that are often his weak point, screen writer Aaron Sorkin’s look at Apple co-founder Steve Jobs proves one of the most compelling biopics in years. Structured more like a play than a film, the three acts effectively unfold in real time in the forty minutes or so before three key presentations several years apart – thus combining Sorkin’s knack for “walking and talking” with the ability to see a visible progression within these characters.
Director Danny Boyle tames some of Sorkin’s excesses and avoids going overly showy with the work, while the cast are uniformly excellent – even some of the smaller roles which have very little screen time. It’s a film that never idolises or is afraid to show Jobs as the imperfect, impractical and borderline sociopathic prick he was. An attempt to humanise him through an estranged daughter subplot never quite works and its coming to a head at the end is the movie’s only real weak point. Otherwise it’s a clever and enjoyable piece about a stubborn man with a vision.
A wonderfully old-fashioned bit of entertainment, “Brooklyn” is a beautiful and pristinely crafted coming-of-age drama that’s timeless despite being lovingly evocative of a specific time and place. Sanitised so as to be palatable to all audiences, especially older ones, make no mistake – the production skill level here is excellent at every level from its performances to its design to the writing. For a film in which the stakes are so low and not a lot happens, Nick Hornby’s script manages to keep things witty and fun.
Saoirse Ronan is just superb as the young Irish girl who leaves behind her small Irish town to go to America and start afresh. She soon becomes torn between her new life in the U.S. with a sweet Italian-American and her old life in Ireland. At times it slips into melodrama, and the Irish scenes in the latter half aren’t near as compelling as those in New York, but it’s a film that fully understands and explores how everyday decisions impact our lives and it does so in a way that both satisfies and feels true to itself.
15. “Inside Out”
Pixar’s best film in some years, the animated geniuses effectively take the premise of the old 1990s sitcom “Herman’s Head” and ditches the sex jokes in favour of a family friendly and more elaborate idea with much of the action taking place entirely within the mind. It proves to be a conceptually daring, metaphor-heavy and compelling exploration of adolescence, emotional intelligence, letting go of the past, and dealing with the very adult idea of accepting feelings of melancholy.
The voice work, especially Amy Poehler’s Joy and Phyllis Smith’s Sadness, is beautifully on point in a film that’s one of the company’s breeziest and most fun, yet also quietly devastating in its own way. Never getting as self-serious or heavily sentimental as some of their other fare in the past decade, this is built on a more efficient and firm foundation than any film they’ve done since “Toy Story 3” and it shows.
16. “The End of the Tour”
A compelling deconstruction of hero worship, James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” is not just about humanising one’s heroes but holding up a brutally honest mirror to look at those who subscribe to idolatry. More like a film adaptation of a great two-hand play than a film itself considering it’s mostly just two men talking in everyday environments with the odd supporting character interaction, it’s the verbal sparring and small gestures here that are riveting – especially in the smaller moments which are the most revealing of character.
Jesse Eisenberg and especially Jason Segel deliver some of their best work to date, never overplaying and sharing a comfortable on-screen chemistry which only improves upon the incredibly strong and wonderously frank script where the larger “interview moments” talk refreshingly straight-up about life across a range of topics – anxiety, self-perception, depression, resentment and professional envy. It teaches a lesson that a long drinking session with a close friend will often tell you – look to and believe in yourself, not others, for inspiration and always be as emotionally naked and honest as you can be because life’s too short to play mind games.
17. “Bone Tomahawk”
One of the most rewarding genre movies of the year, S. Craig Zahler’s is two-thirds a John Ford western and one third cannibal horror film in a work that’s eccentric in the best possible way. Much like “Ex Machina,” “The Gift” and “The Babadook,” this is a directorial debut effort with some incredibly assured filmmaking and will likely take a few viewings to appreciate all its riches. Initially a character-driven version of “The Searchers,” the pacing is deliberately slow with scenes allowed to unfold at their own pace. There’s an obvious Tarantino influence here – long juicy dialogue scenes punctuated by moments of extreme brutalism, including the single most shocking death in any film you’ll see this year.
Yet it’s not as enamored with structural playfulness or visual trickery, rather preferring a more straightforward approach so as to deliver less showy but no less compelling characters. Trying to be as grounded as possible, too much so in the case of the somewhat dull visual look, the cast is led by Kurt Russell seemingly right at home as the noble sheriff along with Matthew Fox as an amoral dandy mercenary and Richard Jenkins as the seemingly inept old fusspot. Russell & Jenkins savour their characters and prove one of the best screen buddy pairings in ages, to the point that a prequel with these two characters would be most welcome.
A highly impressive suspense thriller, Yann Demange’s “’71” frequently jumps between frightening and hopeful as we follow a young and green young British soldier (Jack O’Connell) thrust into essentially a war zone – a Belfast neighbourhood at the height of ‘The Troubles’. As the actions of young Irishmen turn from violent to murderous, the soldier must essentially cross enemy territory to get away from his relentless pursuers.
As a chase thriller it ticks all the boxes – pacing is excellent, filming work is spot on, and it clicks its various pieces into place at the start before letting them rip throughout. All sorts of intriguing turns are chucked in there from hostile youths to breakaway IRA members to undercover Brits with dubious motives making this more that just a straight up ‘escape from some killers’ movie. O’Connell once again massively impresses, toning down his often fiery style for a more innocent yet believable take on a young man caught in an impossible situation.
The most enjoyable documentary of the year, Asif Kapadia’s surprisingly accomplished and rich “Amy” works because it avoids most of the formulaic pitfalls of the genre. Much like with his work on “Senna,” there’s no singular narration here and no talking head interview pieces. Instead he uses a combination of personal videos, news and tabloid videos, performance footage and audio recordings which are incredibly and skilfully edited together.
The result is you feel like you are alongside the late musician as her life unfolds from the early days of this young girl with an old soul and innate talent, to her eventual disintegration from addiction. The film is evenly balanced and dispassionate in its attempts to show exactly what happened – in the process not afraid to show its subject matter’s weaknesses or the opportunistic nature of those around her. Often poignant and unafraid, it’s a compelling look at a life of potential cut tragically short.
20. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Disney’s four billion dollar investment and the dreams of an ageing generation of fans were rewarded this year as J.J. Abrams successfully pulled off reviving the “Star Wars” universe once again into a respectable and beloved franchise. ‘Force Awakens’ wisely uses the original trilogy as its template to craft a simple story that blends a set of mostly fantastic new characters with a mix of returning beloved faces.
While that nostalgic bent is what drew many in, it’s also the film’s weakness. Much like “Jurassic World” and to a lesser extent Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, it is too slavish and offers too much fan service – resulting in narrative flaws and awkward payoffs that it hopes the pacing and nostalgic fog will mask. Effectively a remake of “A New Hope,” too often if feels like it’s playing it safe. As the initial launch vehicle of an annually updated cinematic universe, that’s not unexpected though and more importantly the film gets so many things right that could’ve easily gone wrong. Here’s to some hopefully darker, more narratively ambitious and cinematically risky subsequent chapters.
Admirable in its intentions and sumptuous in its execution, “Carol” sees Todd Haynes adapt Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s lesbian romance story “The Price of Salt” with a subtler and far more serious tone than his 2002 Douglas Sirk melodrama homage “Far From Heaven”. Decidedly more naturalistic despite remaining in period, “Carol” is a film conveyed so much in the small gestures of romance – the brush of hands, longing looks, and pangs of regret. Masterfully played by both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, it’s a film about love that wants to run free in a society that daren’t allow it.
Sadly “Carol” also harbours the weakness that plagued the “Holding the Man” film adaptation (about a 1970s Aussie gay romance) in that there’s a stilted, too self-serious and often cliche feel about it that robs it of some of its power – mostly when it shifts focus away from the central affair and out to the well played but less interesting larger social considerations and side characters. “Carol” certainly has more prestige, universal appeal, and far more exquisite production values to help it along – but it’s still mining territory long explored by various forbidden romance tales including Ang Lee’s more mythic and more emotional “Brokeback Mountain”. It might not be fresh, but the film is so beautifully done it doesn’t really matter.
22. “It Follows”
Though often slapped with the label of being a metaphor for an STD mostly due to the curse’s transmission through sex, the slow moving threat at the heart of “It Follows” is more akin to that which comes with generalised anxiety which is always there and always following you. You can escape it just enough that you almost forget about it – but you can never outrun it, never destroy it, and it is relentless. David Robert Mitchell’s film runs with this simple idea and manages to deliver a dark coming-of-age tale along with a suspenseful horror yarn.
Quickly laying out its rules and its characters from a friend harbouring a childhood crush to Maika Monroe’s excellent young heroine, the film uses a variety of tricks that make the elements that one often ignores in these films – the backgrounds and the extras in scenes – into endless sources of tension and potential terror. The film has a timeless quality to it, avoiding modern trappings (eg. social media) in favour of more classic tropes that help make it a new standard in the genre that will have a very long lifespan.
23. “99 Homes”
Though set against the financial collapse of 2008, Ramin Bahrani’s thriller is a relatively timeless story about capitalism at its most predatory. Anchored by a pair of great performances, there’s something of a “Wall Street” style feel here in a scenario that feels more down to Earth and oddly believable. Living in this world seems horrendously nasty and cutthroat, a place where you have to destroy the lives of good people not just to move up the ladder but to survive.
Bahrani never lets things turn into a lecture though – instead he puts the focus on two people – a young man (Andrew Garfield) who believes being decent and hardworking will get him through any situation, and an older man (Michael Shannon) who has long become a cutthroat man of conviction. Both play their parts with just the right amount of counterbalance – Garfield’s laced with desperation and Shannon’s with a tinge of regret – that it takes them beyond archetypes. An excellent drama that’s stronger than it first appears.
24. “Bridge of Spies”
More Frank Capra than John Le Carre, Steven Spielberg’s low-key 1960s Cold War tale is often surprisingly funny and certainly less showy than you’d expect. The central tale, involving an American lawyer going behind the Iron Curtain to effectively negotiate a prisoner exchange, is ultimately not nearly as interesting as Spielberg seems to think it is. Indeed, a script by the Coen brothers often requires that their particular form of dark satire be injected in to breathe some life into the sometimes all too stolid drama.
Yet it’s also a masterful bit of filmmaking from a man that you almost take for granted the fact that he knows how to direct a film with the ease with which most of us butter bread. That deft hand applies across the board here and can be seen in numerous scenes such as a dialogue free opening that reminds one of the Michael Caine-led Len Deighton adaptations of the 1960s like “The Ipcress File” and “Funeral in Berlin”, to the downing of the spy plane in a superbly tense sequence. He also draws masterful performances from his actors – Tom Hanks’ too good to be true lawyer, Mark Rylance’s often dryly resigned KGB agent, and the various actors as inept facilitators in this strange little tale.
25. “Far from the Madding Crowd”
A classy and straightforward adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, “The Hunt” director Thomas Vinterberg has found something of a wondrous muse in Carey Mulligan who reaffirms her status as a great actress a few years on from being cinema’s ‘it girl’ of the moment. Together the pair make the story’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene a strong, independent and admirable female figure, a modern woman in a world not caught up with her or our values. Matthias Schoenaerts also provides an excellent turn as the strong but often silent and loyal farmer Gabriel.
With ‘Far’, Vinterberg gives us an intimate epic which avoids bodice ripping passion for something much more subdued and low-key – preferring method over melodramatic. While the production values and the costumes are just gorgeous, they always feel very appropriate and fitting for the setting. Only Tom Sturridge’s overplayed turn as Sgt. Troy comes off like a cartoon villain, a shame that stands out in a story that otherwise has taken such great pains to avoid such archness. It’s a bit of silliness that can be overlooked because the rest gets things so right.
26. “Queen of Earth”
Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry tones down his forte for acidic black comedy but ups the bile in this down and dirty psychodrama. Self-destructive behaviour and unrestrained ego fly as two female friends let the insecurity, jealousy and envy that permeate their relationship spill out – cutting deep into each other the way only friends can. Always suggesting but never really succumbing to a shocking act of violence, there’s an unease and dread that haunts the entire picture even as there’s often no obvious cause for it.
Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, scene stealers in both “Top of the Lake” and “Inherent Vice” respectively, are excellent with their very different characters – the former coming apart at the seams to near histrionic levels whilst the later underplays it and is never quite as reasonable or sympathetic as she first appears. It’s a strange little beast, a haunting 16mm-shot throwback that looks like a grind house flick but has far more going on in its head than that. It’s also more than just an exploration of mental illness as well, metaphorical and even darkly funny. It never quite gels right, but is often disturbing and memorable.
27. “The Duke of Burgundy”
Forget “50 Shades of Grey,” Peter Strickland’s study of lepidopterist lesbians in a loving sadomasochistic relationship avoids sensationalism and salaciousness by focusing more on eroticism and emotional honesty. Populated only by women and boasting nothing in the way of real nudity, the film nevertheless is able to deal with the subject of kink in sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal and often delightfully frank ways. It’s less a study of bondage as much as it is a look at the personal boundaries people will push past for those they love.
Far stronger than his stylistically wonderful if problematically structured “Berberian Sound Studio,” the film starts off in one specific way before subverting that expectation and revealing itself to be something else. The production design and lush look of the film is exquisite, playing up the imagery of those erotic 70s soft-core films like “Emmanuelle” but without the tacky visual explicitness. The soundtrack fully commits to its moth and butterfly theme, but mostly its all a sumptuous and elaborate look at how people will fein interest in something they care little about because it makes their partner happy.
One of the most life-affirming of coming of age films I’ve seen in a while, “Girlhood” shines bright with a real vitality and energy to it that many others can only dream of emulating. Set in some of the poorer picturesque areas of France and following essentially an all black cast of unknowns, it’s a film about young women at a very specific age – a grounded look at a girl who comes from an often joyless situation facing an uncertain future.
Yet not since something like Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” has there been a film of this ilk that’s alive with such energy and promise. As the main girl forges friendships with a trio of young women, the camaraderie and righteous independence of the group is infectious and compelling – best seen in the brilliant lip-synching scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” which is one of the year’s highlights. When the other girls drift off the film is lesser because of it, with the third act running into some obvious issues, but like life it’s those few moments of joy that it regularly offers that make it so worthwhile.
29. “The Gift”
Joel Edgerton takes a tired genre and turns it on its head in his compelling directorial debut which starts out like one of those 1990s B-movie adult psychodramas like “Pacific Heights,” “Cape Fear,” “Unlawful Entry” or “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”. Beginning with the worn out trope of the pleasant outsider (Edgerton) from the past insinuating himself into the lives of a perfect couple (Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall), it slowly but surely begins to twist things on their head and subvert audience expectation at several turns.
It’s a game of manipulation, your sympathy for the characters shifting with each revelation and none of them ultimately prove reliable or likeable. Bateman is the standout, his very approachable everyday nice guy appeal luring you into a false sense of security until the sarcastic quips first trickle and then gush with cruelty. Hall and Edgerton are also excellent – she bringing honesty to the routine role of a housewife awakening to the truth, he bringing awkwardness and menace to make his character both pitiable and understandable. A last act twist sadly undermines some of the convention shattering the rest of the film has worked so strenuously on, but that doesn’t make the journey any less riveting.
My favourite Shakespeare play gets a robust and visually striking cinematic adaptation with the help of director Justin Kurzel. With stunning location work, cinematography and costuming, the result is an adaptation that plays out part like a fever dream and part like an elaborate music video. The style here is often incredible and this is a version not short on ambition, the actors and writers making some bold choices in their interpretation of the material.
Unfortunately those choices don’t always work. Cotillard’s grieving mother take of Lady Macbeth is an interesting idea, but also undermines the very nature and believability of the relationship at the heart of the play. Some of these decisions often strip the material of its vitality and intensity, and some are just confounding such as the loud plotting at a public banquet scene. Funnily enough it is the more fantastical elements of the play, those which many other adaptations avoid, that this gets right and is best seen in the fiery fog drenched final half hour. Not quite a success, but a truly fascinating adaptation nonetheless.
Too easily written off by many, “Spectre” is to Daniel Craig what “Octopussy” was to Roger Moore. It’s a disjointed affair, veering wildly between some wonderfully inspired and painfully bad moments which are amongst the best and the worst of the franchise to date. While “Octopussy” boasted a compelling narrative against a wildly messy tone, “Spectre” is the reverse – tonally consistent but script wise feeling essentially like a cobbled together first draft. Pretty much the first hour in Mexico, the UK and Rome is every bit as good as the rest of Craig’s run – the cold open is one of the (if not THE) best of the series, and the early parts unfold in an intriguing way.
Things mostly go off the rails once they hit Africa in the last hour, aside from a brilliant fight scene on a train. There’s ridiculous revelations that carry no weight at best and betray the character at worst, a criminal underuse of Monica Belucci, a strong female lead that sadly shares no chemistry with Craig, and a dud of a last act (which to be fair has been Craig’s weakness across all his films). By no means the tone deaf disaster of “Quantum of Solace,” it remains a fascinating and entertaining mess to me that I’ll probably revisit a few more times. Even so, a mini-reboot would be welcome with the next outing.
32. “Furious 7”
Though not as breathtakingly enjoyable and exhilarating as the mini-reboot that was the fifth film in the series, “Furious 7” is arguably the next best in the franchise to date. Far more ambitious and coherent than its immediate predecessor, James Wan’s entry shifts the franchise out of the pure heist element that dominated the last two films and moves into more espionage-laced territory – adding some superb new additions to the franchise in the forms of Kurt Russell as an agency handler and Jason Statham as a ruthless villain out for revenge.
It also ups the physics-defying ridiculous of its premise from its parachuting convoy to one sequence involving driving between skyscrapers – and of course the inherent but welcome silliness of Dayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs character. However, the real life death of Paul Walker hangs like a melancholy cloud over every frame of this film and here is where Wan truly achieves the remarkable. Such a thing might have crushed another production, instead Wan is able to take the series’ often over reliance on jingoistic lines about family and loyalty and use it to turn in a genuinely touching, sincere and incredibly tasteful tribute to Walker – concluding on a near perfect note that’s one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences of the year.
A smarter and more out there than it appears little genre movie, “Spring” blends a Euro-centric holiday romance tale with a creature feature from the guys behind the underrated and under seen “Resolution”. Less cobbled together and more evenly (if far slower) paced than that film, “Spring” starts out as an Italian travelogue with a young American man (a convincing Lou Taylor Pucci) having a meet cute with a pretty and very smart Italian girl out of his league.
Soon the supernatural elements start to encroach, the audience made aware before the guy is, but the truth is kept vague at first to continue the film’s effective buildup of dread throughout. The last act takes some wild and ridiculous turns, but that doesn’t stop it from its enjoyable exploration of a relationship that never quite feels balanced but ultimately has more appeal than many straightforward mumble-core dramas.
34. “Magic Mike XXL”
“Shut your mouth and dance” could well be the motto for ‘XXL,’ the follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s drama which sold itself on its stripper elements but ended being a rather dull rumination on the modern American male. “Magic Mike XXL” has no such mislabeled agenda, it does what it says on the tin. The real surprise though is that it goes beyond that – offering a film that promotes an incredible body positivity message for women of all shapes, sizes, races and types. Far more fun than its predecessor, it also end up being a more interesting bit of filmmaking as well (sorry Soderbergh fellaters).
More a collection of set pieces than anything else loosely connected by a road trip element (“Crotchpocalypse Now” perhaps?), these set pieces are often pulled off with great technical skill and a lot of fun be it Joe Manganiello’s ejaculatory grinding to the Backstreet Boys in a convenience store, to a half-hour sojourn to a lavish residence owned by Jada Pinkett Smith’s intriguing and skilled MC known as Rome. It’s a trip of a film, one that in between the bump and grind waxes melancholy about the fate of strippers once the abs start to give way to paunches. It goes to show you can both effectively cater to your audience, and be more thoughtful than they might expect at the same time.
A genuine surprise, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s satirical take on the spy genre overcomes its terrible trailers to deliver something that both celebrates and effectively subverts a genre long dominated by silent, steel-jawed masculine stereotypes. Starting out shy, frustrated and held back by both herself and the system around her, McCarthy embraces a varied approach to deliver a strong through line with her empowering transformation into an assertive ass kicker. Feig’s direction and the script smartly avoid extraneous elements like sentimentality or a forced romance subplot, even if it does spend too long on scene staging and retreading some gags.
Mostly though it happily devotes a good amount of time to an excellent supporting cast including Jude Law directly sending up the James Bond type, Rose Byrne as a Russian villainess with a withering stare, and Jason Statham spoofing pretty much every role he’s ever played with his increasingly implausible anecdotes about his past feats of world-saving. It’s a far smarter than it first appears affair, one unafraid to rely on some classic physical gags when needed including a brilliant character-centric vomiting scene, and certainly bodes well for a further teaming of Feig and McCarthy.
36. “The Stanford Prison Experiment”
A solid dramatisation of one of the more disturbing post-war psychological studies ever conducted, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film gives us a smart procedural take on the college experiment involving students playing prisoners and guards in a situation that devolved into systematic authoritarian abuse in a matter of days. Previous adaptations of the story have usually been fictionalised and more emotionally dark spins on the scenario, here though it tries a more objective and factual take.
The results are actually more disturbing because of that. Performances are strong across the board with Michael Angarano’s sadistic head guard being the obvious standout. The focus may be mostly on him, but some of the less showy roles like Ezra Miller’s rebellious prisoner 8612, Johnny Simmons’ mentally broken prisoner 1037, along with the various doctors (Billy Crudup, Nelsan Ellis and Olivia Thirlby) really add a lot of authenticity and weight to this. Often compelling, not just in the prison recreation scenes but in the interviews with the supervisors about the abuse of power by those arbitrarily given authority, it’s a polished and strong work about an event that it’s near impossible to believe actually took place.
A marvel of technical planning, the single-shot “Victoria” is easily one of the biggest achievements of the year in terms of filmmaking style – though sadly not much more. Shot in a legitimate, continuous single take around pre-dawn Berlin, it tries to be more than its components – a “Before Sunrise” meet cute mashed with a forgettable Jason Statham-style direct-to-video action thriller encapsulated in a well-orchestrated gimmick. How well it succeeds it on that front that depends upon your emotional immersion – if you can go with it and believe what you’re seeing on screen, you’ll have a real ride.
Unfortunately I didn’t, even as I greatly admired an incredible amount of it. The improv approach to the characterisation and motivation renders it frequently preposterous – such as our title character who is a 30 year-old woman who looks older than her years but behaves like an idiotic teenager (had the group all been a decade younger the whole situation would be far more believable). Occasionally tedious in spite of its frantic pace, it’s ultimately an amateur student film on a very grand scale – full of life, energy and ambition but also club-footed and often misguided. Had the characterisation and casting been as fresh, streamlined and well-planned as the production itself this would easily be a top ten title.
38. “Best of Enemies”
Exploring perhaps the moment when political discourse on American television began its descent into partisan screaming matches that drive ratings far more than they effectively debate topics, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s breezy doco has fun with its exploration of the series of televised debates in the late 1960s between two strong-willed men on either side of the divide. Self-appointed, stubborn and ego fuelled, leftist Gore Vidal and right-wing William G. Buckley were each intelligent men of strong political convictions and belief in their own moral superiority.
That led to these debates between these skilled raconteurs who despised each other, engaging in fascinating verbal sparring which ultimately shaped public perception of both of them. ‘Enemies’ does a good job of exploring both of their back histories, their personal failures and triumphs along with some excellent soundbites from people like Dick Cavett and the late Christopher Hitchens. It ultimately makes the intriguing point about how the topics of this kind of debate haven’t really changed, rather how the nature of what it has become has rendered this style so ineffective.
An intriguing setup in the underexplored setting of post-war Berlin, Christian Petzold’s tightly controlled piece starts out an almost high-concept thriller but quickly changes into a more dramatic study of character motivation and denial. Nina Hoss is superb, though occasionally overplays her role as a Jewish singer recovering from facial reconstructive surgery who seeks to reunite with her husband, a man who no longer recognises her but wants her help in retrieving the estate of his former wife.
From there things slow down yet remain just as compelling. The film is never quite clear what it wants to be – the situation avoids dealing with the darker and more tragic aspects of a scenario that stretches credibility to breaking point on more than a few occasions. Like “Victoria,” the believability of the scenario is a jump you’ll either take or you won’t. Even if you don’t though, the film is masterfully paced and tight – never overstaying its welcome and ending with one hell of an emotional punch.
40. “Cut Snake”
A 1970s Aussie crime drama built entirely around an intriguing central conceit, filmmaker Tony Ayres’ work isn’t so much about crimes committed but rather the obligations and consequences that result from them – in this case a love triangle in a setting and genre that doesn’t normally deal with this particular incarnation of such a scenario. Sharply directed, the film works best in its at times melodramatic but always adult exploration of the relationship between the handsome young hunk (Alex Russell), his striking new wife (Jessica de Gouw) and the fiery ex-con (Sullivan Stapleton) with whom he was more than just a cell mate.
Both Russell and de Gouw give solid performances as a far too pretty young couple in love, but it is “Strike Back” star Stapleton who makes the film. Delivering a performance akin to Jack O’Connell’s in “Starred Up” or Tom Hardy’s in “Bronson,” here’s a dangerous man – in this case an ex-con – who can go from charming to terrifying in an instant. It’s a juicy role filled with an electric performance, the actor literally seething with energy on screen and filling it out with more than just rage but a deep sense of hurt that is crucial to the character. It’s both adventurous and clunky, the crime elements of the story in particular are sometimes incredibly cliche, but when it sticks to exploring turbulent emotions it’s often mesmerising.
JUST MISSED OUT
The Look of Silence, Timbuktu, The Dressmaker, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Holding the Man, Going Clear, The Night Before, Love, Sherpa, Horse Money, Love and Mercy, Black Mass, Eden, San Andreas, Mr. Holmes, Kilo Two Bravo