As usual at this time of year, I’ve picked 20 highlights from all the films I saw during 2015, this time from a pool of 227 candidates. The only rule I follow is that I saw the film during 2015, though this year there’s only a bit of an overlap with 2014 so that probably isn’t all that important.
Also as usual, there’s a few honourable mentions at the end, if this wasn’t enough to keep you going.
Song of the Sea
The work of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has featured here before, with The Secret of Kells and Moon Man having both impressed me with their incredible visuals and touching performances. Song of the Sea is no different, an Odyssey-like quest through Irish folklore as two children try to find their way home from the city. Cartoon Saloon make animations like nobody else, with a rough, hand-crafted, thickly-layered look that’s luminescent on screen. This unique style alone would make it worth a watch, but with a story that explores depression, memory and loss without ever coming across as morose, and stellar voice acting from Brendan Gleeson and David Rawly among others, Song of the Sea is a jewel.
In a film full of neatly-drawn characters, it was Kofi Smit-McPhee’s unbearably naive hero that stood out the most, politely tramping through the violent Old West with nothing more than a tattered paperback to prepare him, in search of his One True Love who, it turns out, was getting along just fine without him. Slow West is less like a film and more like a series of micro-Westerns, each one a perfectly-formed, beautifully-shot vignette — the trading post shoot-out, the encounters with hostile natives and passing wanderers, the drunken fire-side stories — with the film only opening up to breathe in an explosive finale. The Western, boiled down to only its most vital elements, not a moment wasted.
Clouds of Sils Maria
There’s sophisticated cinematography, some faint bits of mystery and a great, fizzing screenplay, but Clouds of Sils Maria is, in the end, a film of outstanding performances from Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. Binoche burns with a directionless ferocity at having become a middle-aged woman in a world that so often looks down upon middle-aged women, Stewart quietly simmers, swallowing back the sexual tension between her and Binoche, and Moretz puts in her best performance yet as the young, beautiful and arrogant starlet, smugly oblivious to the fact that one day, she’ll be where Binoche is. Clouds of Sils Maria had me hooked from start to finish.
Oscar Isaac continues to make regular appearances in my annual highlights list and he’s brilliantly creepy here as a Larry Page-style isolationist tech genius by way of Dr. Moreau. Ex Machina is a piece of classically-old-school science fiction, with just a handful of characters, one location and an exploration of ideas and concepts around what makes a person human. While Isaac is remarkable, Alicia Vikander stands out the most as the artificial intelligence at the centre of a story that keeps you guessing right up to the end, and keeps you thinking and discussing long after.
Laura Linney and Milo Parker put in solid supporting work but this is really Ian McKellen’s film, and he’s on great form as usual, both as the 93 year old Holmes battling with his own failing memory and also the cold and sharp deducer we know from the novels and countless adaptations. This isn’t a film with a fiendish, complicated mystery at its heart, and there’s no Watson on hand to document it, no Moriarty for Holmes to battle against. Mr. Holmes is, instead, simply about making peace with your past, and using that to understand your present. A gentle and thoughtful film.
A Most Violent Year
Another strong showing from Oscar Isaac as the owner of a small heating oil company driven to increasingly desperate measures to secure his business and political influence in the face of ruthless competition. Slow-burning but never boring, A Most Violent Year is atmospheric, tense and thrilling, with sudden, heart-racing action beats. A fascinating look at a character determined to play a game by rules nobody else is abiding by.
Age of Ultron
There’s one scene in Age of Ultron that sums up why I’m so fond of the film, and it’s near the end, when Paul Bettany’s Vision gives a rousing speech to the assembled Avengers before handing Thor the hammer that only ‘the worthy’ can lift. It’s a tidily-layered moment, a callback to earlier scenes that serves as character development, exposition and comedy all at once. While Ultron strains at the seams a bit, particularly when trying, begrudgingly, to link up to the wider Marvel universe, it achieves what it sets out to show; just who The Avengers are, and what they stand for, showing that they’re not just a grab-bag of over-powered quirks, but protectors who won’t tolerate even one life being lost. A clear counterpoint to the mass loss of life seen — and uncommented on — in 2014’s Man of Steel, Age of Ultron is a polished, confident piece that blends the usual snappy Whedonesque dialogue with character-driven action sequences, and while it may have seemed underwhelming at first, it’s deeper than it lets on, and only grows on me the more I watch it.
The funniest film I saw this year by a long way for so many reasons: Jude Law’s sleazy b-list secret agent, the self-parodying turn by Jason Statham, Melissa McCarthy’s downtrodden, self-deprecating wannabe who’s more capable than any of her colleagues and Rose Byrne’s hilarious, foul-mouthed antagonist; even Miranda Hart here is almost tolerable. But Spy isn’t just a comedy, it’s also a compelling and heartfelt secret agent movie with set-pieces and action sequences that rival the best; the kitchen fight scene, inspired by any number of Jackie Chan movies, for instance. Deconstructing the genre while remaining affectionate and faithful towards it, and delivering a clear feminist statement at the same time, Spy is hopefully the first of a long-running franchise.
The Duke of Burgundy
A fascinating, attractive and just slightly baffling oddity by Peter Strickland, previously in my highlights list with Berberian Sound Studio. The Duke of Burgundy‘s gripping exploration of the nuances and complications of a BDSM relationship between two women, set in an all-female world of lepidopterology study, feels like watching something from the ’70s, with beautiful sun-dappled cinematography and an amazing experimental-rock soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes.
John Wick grabbed me from the start with a sharp script, balletic action sequences and enjoyable cameos, and kept me interested by going into deeper, weirder territory than most revenge flicks, setting the action in an intriguing underworld where gold sovereigns are currency and deadly assassins stay in a hotel with its own strictly-enforced rules of etiquette. I also can’t complain about Wick’s motivation to go on a killing spree: you kill someone’s dog, you’ve got to expect consequences.
Everything about this deep, slow-burning and richly detailed romantic drama is perfect: the performances, not just from leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara but from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson as well, the soundtrack and score are wonderful and perfectly placed, and visually it’s as grainy and smoky as good Scotch. An intimate and engrossing work.
The “animals separated from their owners but beat incredible odds and distances to rejoin them” genre is a staple of the Disney made-for-TV dross that pads out airing schedules; safe and bland pieces where the worst threat any animal faces is a territorial porcupine or a busy road. White God is to The Incredible Journey what Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is to the Adam West TV series, with a patchwork cinematic style that borrows tropes from westerns, prison flicks, heist films, revenge crusades and is even vaguely reminiscent of Battle for the Planet of the Apes at times. White God can be a difficult watch: there’s cruelty, there’s dog fighting, there’s perpetual violence, but get through all of that and the pay-off, which features nearly 300 dogs breaking free of their shackles and turning on a whole city is incredible to watch, not just for the technical achievement this represents — the largest number of dogs in any film, ever — but for the sheer, exuberant joy of it all.
While the story of The Guest isn’t anything tremendously original — if you’ve spent any time at all trawling the B-movie scene you’ll have found any number of films in which a mysterious, charismatic stranger ingratiates himself in a trusting family home, only to later reveal that ALL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS — but the execution here, cinematically and musically, is first-rate, almost as if John Carpenter had directed Drive. Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey, is barely recognisable as the ultra-efficient killer soldier and the script is both tense and laugh-out-loud funny at times. A solid bit of fun.
When Marnie Was There
Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a long-time animator at Studio Ghibli and director of The Secret World of Arrietty, has directed what is potentially the last film to be released by Studio Ghibli following the retirement of studio founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. As with Arrietty, When Marnie Was There features a child with one of those mysterious debilitating diseases that only affect children in fairy tales and only confines them to bed when they’re not having adventures. Unlike Arrietty, Marnie has a faintly spooky, gothic tone, at its heart both a ghost story (of sorts) and a love story (of sorts). Slow-paced but charming and a little tear-jerking, if this is to be the last Ghibli film, they’re at least going out on a high.
I saw both Nightcrawler and Enemy this year, and while Jake Gyllenhaal turned in a remarkably convincing, skin-crawling portrayal of a sociopath in the former, the latter has two great Gyllenhaal performances and is the more unnerving, interesting and fulfilling film of the pair. Nightmarish and surreal, demanding multiple viewings and your undivided attention, Enemy doesn’t reveal itself easily but is all the more rewarding for it.
Coherence combines two of my favourite things: complicated science fiction ideas, and middle-class people losing their shit. In this case it’s a dinner party interrupted by some sort of quantum happening that fragments reality and pits duplicate groups of dinner party guests against each other, for fear of not being the party that survives the eventual recombining. It has the scientific plausibility of an episode of Star Trek but the film has fun with the idea, as people try to come up with foolproof survival tactics like a team-building exercise gone horribly wrong. One for fans of Primer, Triangle, Timecrimes and other films of that ilk.
This 2013 Japanese animation sets up a ludicrous conceit at the start — that the Earth’s gravitational force began to repel rather than attract — and skips trying to explain it in favour of having fun. Beginning with a society forced to live underground to prevent themselves from hurtling off into space, and seen through the eyes of a young, strong-willed girl typical of a Ghibli film, director Yasuhiro Yoshimura mixes and matches characters from different gravities and obliges them to work together traversing each other’s worlds. It’s a very videogame-like mechanic but the film itself is exhilarating with its sudden, swooping perspective shifts and detailed exploration of weird physics.
If you’ve read Robert Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies, as I had before seeing Predestination, then this adaptation won’t hold any surprises. Fortunately it isn’t a film that depends exclusively on a big twist; Predestination gets by on performance, and both Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook are strong throughout. There’s a solid, talkative script and a retro-futurist look and feel that gives the whole thing a bit of a Gattaca vibe. I’ve got a lot of time for dialogue-heavy speculative fiction like this, and this is a very well-executed example of the form.
I can usually find room for a zombie movie, and I’m always fascinated at the myriad ways in which films avoid using the z-word — in the case of Maggie, they go with the ludicrous ‘necroambulist’. Truth be told, Maggie isn’t a great film but it’s worth checking out for an unusually sombre and thoughtful turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a father grimly determined to protect his daughter from the incurable disease she’s already contracted. As a zombie flick, Maggie falls a little short, but as an allegory for coping with terminal illness, it does pretty well.
The Forbidden Room
I’m not sure where to begin with this one. Beginning life as an art project by Guy Maddin that set out to remake lost films, The Forbidden Room kicks off one ludicrous story after another, tossing each aside only to revisit them all later, and all constructed to look like fragments of long-lost films recorded on damaged celluloid. Weird and funny throughout, in a sort of dorky, nose-snorting kind of way, I couldn’t tell you what any of it was actually about, but that may not have been the point. If you’ve never seen a Guy Maddin film before, The Forbidden Room may not be the most accessible to begin with, but it’s at least unforgettable.
Rumiko, the Treasure Hunter, The Young Girls of Rochefort, God’s Pocket, My Old Lady, Paddington, The Fugitive, Blind, Moomins On the Riviera, Nightstalker, Turtles Can Fly