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15 for ’15: Best films of the Year

I have been putting this list off because I was not entirely sure I could put together a group of 15 films strong enough to genuinely be considered the best of the year. I don’t know if that was down to 2015 not being a stellar year or if I simply hadn’t seen enough movies (i’m thinking it’s the latter) but either way I wasn’t looking forward to it. Then I started jotting down films I thought deserved a mention and within minutes I had over twenty. I went from fearing there wasn’t enough quality films this year to panicking that there were too many and I didn’t know how to whittle them down. But whittle I did.

Some films had moments that made me consider them, but as a whole didn’t quite cut it. The fact Furious 7 made me cry almost won it a placing, but then I remembered that everything makes me cry so I decided against it. The relationship between Black Widow and The Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron is both surprising and layered and yet the rest of the film around it isn’t quite satisfying enough to earn the film a spot. Macbeth came close thanks largely to the glorious dream like visuals, but the choice to have Macbeth start out as insane rather than slowly descend into madness hurt the story for me (The Shining is the only film I’ve seen that can get away with that character arc). But those are the films that didn’t make it. Here are the ones that did:

15. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS 

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This film is kind of a mess. JJ Abrams is not the most competent storyteller in the world, lets just be honest. The connective tissue in his films, the set ups and sequences that lead to the big moments of his movies, is an afterthought. He is more than happy to just have everything happen by coincidence or dumb luck. You spend more than a minute giving any of his serious thought and they fall apart.

BUT… the man has a talent for propulsion. The stories fly by at such a pace, with such a bang and pop, that you don’t notice the flaws in the moment. That, coupled with his knack for casting, and his pleasant characters, often results in an enjoyable movie going experience despite his obvious weaknesses as a director.

Never has this been more true than with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The entire movie is one long love letter to the original trilogy. The plot is almost beat for beat the same as the first movie, with a few winks and nods to the sequels. This could be why the fans ate this up. But I’m not really a Star Wars fan, so why did I like it? Because the new additions to the universe, the characters, are such fun. Moments after meeting Rey I knew I would be happy spending an entire trilogy in her company. Poe Dameron is at the moment little more than the generic all round good guy but Oscar Isaac plays him with just enough of a glint in his eye that I’m interested to see where he goes. And the villain, whilst looking like the iconic Darth Vader, couldn’t be more different. Kylo Ren is an angry, petulant child constantly on the verge of throwing a temper tantrum. The plot may have played it safe, once again returning to another Death Star as the climactic battle, but the characters feel fresh and modern and will hopefully give this series the push it needs to head in a bold new direction. It’s these characters, and the performances behind them, that really sold me on this film and earned it a spot on this list.

14. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS 

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Did this come out in 2014? I don’t know, but I saw it this year so whatever.

A mockumentary about a group of vampires who all share a house. Sounds dumb? Well, at times it is, but in a delightfully charming way. The film mixes up the silliness with moments of real emotion that pack a punch. A sly look at male friendships that rings truer than you’d expect from a film containing so much spilled virgin blood. It’s already on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it give it a watch.

13. SPY

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Spy is my most quoted film of the year by a country mile. Barely a day goes by since having seen the film that I don’t utter one of Jason Statham’s numerous gut busting lines of dialogue. I could spend the next 500 words just listing them off to you, but if you haven’t seen the film I’ll leave you to enjoy them coming from the man himself.

But really it is Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne who steal the show. Both women are hilarious from start to finish, and manage to imbue their relatively broad characters with a real sense of depth. McCarthy has played the ass kicking bad ass as quick with a punch as she is a quip before, but she has never had the chance to do so whilst retaining her femininity. And that is the biggest success of the film. McCarthy isn’t playing some loud mouth vulgarian (something she can do well), she’s a normal woman who is very good at her job, but has been overlooked for years because of men, who can throw down and curse with the best of them whilst also being caring and compassionate. It’s the role she has long deserved and having finally got it, she knocks it out the park.

12. ANT MAN

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

Marvel’s Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

Another year, another success for Marvel Studios. The surprise is that it’s Ant Man on this list and not Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Ant Man was initially written off because of the behind the scenes turmoil with the film. The original director walked (the much loved Edgar Wright) and with him went the fans’ enthusiasm. But the film came out and proved to be one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year. It was funny, had lovable characters, decent action, and enough personality to set it apart from the other Marvel properties.

Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is Marvel’s most entertaining every-man. He’s a regular guy who just wants his family back, and Rudd plays him with the perfect amount of goofy charm and pathos.

As I said in my review at the time, “Ant Man moves along briskly, has some great gags, and just enough heart to make you really care about these characters.”

11. CRIMSON PEAK

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After marrying the darkly alluring Sir Thomas Sharpe, Edith is brought back to his Gothic mansion in England to live with Thomas and his unnerving sister Lady Lucille. The house, whilst still beautiful, has fallen into a state of disrepair, slowly sinking into the blood red clay upon which it was built. The more time Edith spends in the house the more she learns of the dark secrets it holds.

The most poorly marketed and widely misunderstood film of 2015. Many thought Crimson Peak was a horror film, and the studios were happy to market it as such, but to go into the movie expecting scares would be to come out disappointed. Guillermo Del Toro isn’t interested in frightening the audience. He’s telling a Gothic romance story and populating it with ghosts as metaphor to visualise the misdeeds of the past. The central character actually explains this early on, and yet few listened. The film bombed and has been left with a middling reputation, which is a real shame as it is one of Del Toro’s most visually sumptuous, atmospheric films.

Definitely a film that will be reappraised with time.

10. SICARIO 

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This movie has so much going on thematically that it demands a rewatch just so you can grasp even half of what it’s saying, but is so tense and emotionally draining that the second viewing is something you may not look forward to. This is a movie about the drug trade but it is so much more than that.

There are a number of sequences in Sicario where my stomach was in knots for so long that I felt ill. Emily Blunt’s Kate is dragged head first into a world of compromised morals and questionable violence. She is used and abused at every turn, making this a movie about rape without ever actually featuring the act. But make no mistake, that is what is happening to Kate throughout. The men in this film, under the guise of doing what is right, take away her agency, her power, and her choices and then leave her with the mess.

It is a film about power, about consequence and responsibility. It’s about the difference between taking the fight to those that wish to do us harm, and fighting to propagate fighting. Sicario is an intelligent, hard hitting adult thriller and is one of the year’s best.

9. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION 

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It seems insane that the fifth entry in a franchise would be the best one, but it happened with Fast and the Furious and it has happened again with Mission Impossible.

Rogue Nation is a solid, slick, action movie that nails every beat effortlessly.

As I said in my review, “The reason the film works so well and why it is the best in the franchise is that McQuarrie gets exactly what this property is. It’s a spy thriller turned all the way up to eleven. It’s the series where Tom Cruise does things that would make professional stuntmen think twice. It’s the franchise that goes big or goes home. The film opens with Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane for real. That is a statement of intent. Everything plays at a heightened reality. It perfectly walks the line, reaching for the ridiculous without ever knocking our suspension of disbelief.

Every action scene in the movie walks that same tightrope, and every one is expertly executed. The opening set piece on the plane is thrilling, and funny, and quickly shows how the team around Hunt work with him. The action informs character as well as excites. That’s what all good action should do.”

And Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is one of the year’s coolest characters, second only to the other ass kicking chick who will appear further down this list. Hopefully she returns for Mission Impossible 6.

8. SLOW WEST

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Slow West initially seems slight. A Coen Brothers-esque yarn of black comedy and sudden violence that ambles along at its own pace, happy to ignore plot in favour of subtle character revealing moments. But once the credits have rolled and you have given the film some time, you’ll find yourself still thinking about it. It creeps up on you and buries itself under your skin without you becoming aware, and then BAM, you’re talking about it to anyone that will listen. A lot of that comes down to the ending of the film, a sequence that sits as one of my favourites of the year.

Michael Fassbender plays Silas, a dangerous yet charming rogue who agrees to act as bodyguard to Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Scottish teen who has arrived in America looking for his lost beloved. Throughout the search they come across strangers on their own journeys, some comedic, some heartbreaking. Almost all foreign. This is a Western that reminds us America is a country of immigrants. None of these characters trying to make it a home are born there.

Slow West is a film few people are talking about, making it something of a hidden gem. The fact it is now on Netflix hopefully means more people will see it.

7. IT FOLLOWS

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From my review, “It Follows uh, follows, Jay (Maika Monroe, fresh off the awesome The Guest), a bright girl in her late teens who has just started dating a cute boy. The relationship soon turns physical, and to Jay’s horror she catches something… unexpected. Someone begins following Jay. Someone only she can see. It can look like anyone, a complete stranger or the most cherished of friends. It never talks. It never runs. It never stops. All it does is follow. And if it catches you? …You don’t want to know.

It’s a nod to the old slasher cliche of once you screw you’re screwed, but It Follows gives it a nice twist: The only way to save yourself (temporarily) is to pass it on to someone else by having sex. The subtext is far from subtle but it gives the film an appreciated layer of depth none the less. This type of meta referencing usually results in something arch ala the Scream series but It Follows plays it mostly straight. The characters aren’t one note archetypes, but typical down to earth teens. Jay and her friends care for one another (they are essentially a self sufficient family unit, as almost no adults appear in the film) and fully invest in what’s happening, rather than scoff at the ludicrousness of the situation. They don’t quip sardonically throughout (which is not to say they aren’t funny) but react realistically, weighing up their options and the physical and moral toll those options will take. The premise may be high concept but the characters ground it.”

It Follows may not chill the blood but it is an original idea in a genre that often sorely lacks in them. It is creepy, stylish, clever and inventive, and consistently surprising.”

6. THE MARTIAN 

maxresdefault3“During a manned mission to Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is injured during a storm and is believed to be dead by the rest of the crew. They leave and Mark wakes up to find himself stranded on a planet that has no means of sustaining his life. But Mark gives death the finger and starts solving the seemingly insurmountable problems that stand in the way of his survival.

It is, astonishingly, neither grim nor dull. The film is full of great performances, has a wicked sense of gallows humour, and is propulsive from start to finish, which is impressive as the film is literally about a man going nowhere.

Damon as Watney is the whole damn movie. It lives or dies on his shoulders, and Damon makes it fly. Mark Watney is one of the great Science fiction heroes. He’s relatable, down to earth, funny, and very, very smart. And it is those brains that make The Martian such an enjoyable time at the movies.”

The Martian makes you think of the times in history we’ve performed miracles. There are a lot of films that show you just how shitty people can be, but The Martian reminds us that Humans, as a species, can be pretty great. And almost impossible to keep down.”

Well done Sir Ridley Scott.

5. EX MACHINA

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A superb little sci-fi about man’s system of control and objectification and woman’s search for autonomy within it.

Alicia Vikander is a revelation as Ava, the film’s A.I. “Her performance walks the impossibly fine line between child like naivety and a computer’s cold logic without ever leaning too hard into either. Her eyes hint at genuine feeling but every movement or expression is accompanied with a reminder of the character’s artifice. Vikander studied ballet and it shows in her movements, every step and tilt of the head too precise to be truly human. Ava is the film’s greatest accomplishment.”

Ex Machina is a heady brew of big ideas and interesting character dynamics. There is much to chew on throughout. “Is the film a critique of a certain type of boys fantasy, or is it simply the boys fantasy, albeit with a sting in the tail? The film critiques objectification, but to do so it ends up objectifying. Is Garland attempting to have his cake and eat it too? I think not. The film’s sympathies clearly lie with Ava. Nathan’s fantasy is that he is essentially God, and every woman in his world is subservient to him. Caleb’s fantasy is that underneath all his awkwardness he is really the white knight in shinning armor, saving the damsel incapable of saving herself. Ava’s dream is to simply not have to play a role in either of those fantasies.

Ex Machina is an interesting, stylish little film with some weighty subjects at its core. Garland has proven himself a director to watch, but it is Vikander’s film. Her performance is what lingers in the mind long after the credits.”

4. WHIPLASH

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This was on a lot of Best of’s last year but in the UK it came out in January, earning it a spot on this list.

Whiplash is a film about becoming great. It shows the lengths one must go to be more than good, but to truly become one of the greats. It takes grit, determination, balls. But more than that it can take a self belief bordering on egomania. It can take an arrogance and ruthlessness that “nice, normal people” just don’t have in them. It takes being a bit of a dick.

Whiplash is about two of these dicks and what happens when they are put in a room together. Andrew (Miles Teller) is the student, a wanna be great jazz drummer, and Fletcher (a never better J.K Simmons) is the teacher, a man who knows exactly what it takes to be great. The performances are mind blowing, but it is the drumming sequences that are the highlights of the film.

“They play out as thrillingly as any action scene. They are essentially prolonged fights. Fletcher jabs, Andrew parries. Fletcher throws instructions at Andrew, Andrew does his damnedest to play them back. The amount of tension derived from whether or not Andrew will ace a difficult drum roll is unbearable. But it becomes clear that Andrew won’t be stopped and Fletcher won’t be budged. In the final, heart stopping performance in the film, we are shown what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object: They make music.

The film is remarkable, but it’s greatest achievement is how it avoids the obvious. The film doesn’t become about how misunderstood Fletcher is and how inspiring he is. Nor is it about how the pursuit of greatness can be a hollow, joyless existence. It doesn’t judge Andrew or Fletcher for their reprehensible behaviour the way many films would. Their flaws would only be flaws if they intended on living normal lives. But greatness doesn’t belong to those that live normal lives. It’s a film that kicks the ass of anyone who tried to be great at something but settled for merely good.”

3. TANGERINE

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A transgender hooker Christmas movie shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Sounds cheap and exploitative right? Wrong. Tangerine is a surprisingly sweet little movie about two women society could care less about who have dreams and aspirations of their own, and give the finger to anyone who judges them for trying.

The film follows Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of prison, and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) as they each both go about their day trying to achieve a goal. Alexandra is trying to drum up support for the show she is performing later that night, and Sin-Dee is trying to find the woman who slept with her pimp boyfriend whilst she was in prison. Both women are constantly confronted with the kind of ignorance and bigotry that would crush most of us, but they remain resolute in who they are and what they want. But this movie is no lesson on the value of acceptance, it is a good time with fun, human characters whose friendship for one another will uplift you.

It would be amazing if a movie shot an iPhone 5 was good. But for it to be this good? It’s a Christmas miracle.

2. INSIDE OUT

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One of Pixar’s greatest achievements, and that’s saying something considering they gave us Toy Story.

Inside Out is the story of Riley and the five central emotions that live inside her head (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger), guiding her through her day to day life. Events out of Riley’s control cause her life to be uprooted and kick starts a chain of events that leave her without Joy or Sadness. She begins to lose everything that made her Riley.

So Joy and Sadness do everything they can to get back to headquarters and help Riley through this difficult time. Throughout Joy and Sadness’s adventure you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll learn a little something about yourself.

“Inside Out is a film that really makes you think about other people, as well as yourself. You think about friends and family and start picturing which of the five central emotions are running things in their Headquarters. You put yourself in their shoes and try to understand them a little better. You empathise. How great is that? That a film, a film many would write off as a “kids movie”, makes you strive to better understand those who share your life. Such is the power of Pixar.”

I adore this film.

1. MAD MAX FURY ROAD

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From the moment I saw this I knew there could be no other number one on this list.

I came out of the cinema and instantly wrote the most gushing review ever put online. I said things like “About twenty minutes into the film I realised, as I sat giddy with excitement, pulse racing, grinning like a fool, that I was having the most fun I’ve ever had with a film. I felt high. The entire film, from the opening roar of an engine, to its final second is a blast. A rush from which I still haven’t completely come down”.

And “Mad Max Fury Road is a perfect action movie. I say that without fear I am over hyping it because it cannot be over hyped. It is that much fun. George Miller staked his claim as one of the great action movie directors with Mad Max The Road Warrior, but with Fury Road he cements his legacy. It is fresh. It is vital. It is fun. It is Mad Max Fury Road, and it is cinema at its best.”

And “Here is a list of the things I didn’t like about Mad Max Fury Road.

1. It ended.

That is all.”

That is some serious fawning. And yet, does it make me cringe? Not even a little. That is still exactly how I feel about this movie. It is a masterpiece.

And not just because of the beautiful carnage captured onscreen. But because of the world building. Because of the way it tells its story. Dialogue is kept at a minimum, and it is the visuals that inform the audience. “You look at a character and their appearance tells you all you need to know. You look at the world, the way it operates, and you understand its systems and hierarchies. Immortan Joe is the cruel and unforgiving ruler. The V8 engine is god. The world has been scorched and all that remains is metal, fire, chrome and gasoline. It is a dark and ugly place but handled playfully so it doesn’t come at the cost of our enjoyment. It is as pure and vivid as any imagined world or worlds yet captured on screen.”

But above all that I love it because of Imperator Furiosa. “The film belongs to Theron’s Furiosa. A warrior woman tired of being and allowing her fellow women to be treated as prize livestock. It is Furiosa that takes a stand against Joe’s tyranny, Furiosa that fights the status quo, and Furiosa that drives the plot. She is Fury Road‘s true hero and its true heart. Theron is perfect in the role, giving the character a toughness that doesn’t ignore her femininity. The women in Fury Road may be mothers, lovers, and the givers of life, but they are just as badass as the boys and Furiosa is the film’s most shining example of that fact.”

No other film in 2015 reminded me of the pure joy, of the pure power of cinema the way Mad Max Fury Road did. And that is why it is my number one.




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