These movies sing a happy song, sing a happy song.
To paraphrase one of the great wordsmiths of our time, MacGruber: this has been a fucking asshole of a year. I mean, in general, 2015 was an absolutely relentlessly awfully miserable excuse for a year – the kind of year that kept finding new lows to sink to, even when it appeared for certain that we had finally reached the bottom of the barrel – but it was also a dreadful year at the movies. Anybody who tries to tell you otherwise is either lying to you or is waving their “Professional Critic who Gets to Go to Film Festivals and See Indie Movies and Shit” card in your face like the smug prick at a party who brags about how he went to school with a bunch of famous people who are just so down to earth.
Let me hit you with some figures, right quick. I saw 172 new release films in 2015. Once you strip out the awards season holdovers and the 2014 releases that inexplicably took until this year to make it to the UK, that figure drops to a still-ridiculous 157. I would say that roughly 16 of those films are legitimately fantastic. 16. Before I undertook my annual year-end catch-up session, that number was 13. 13. 13 films, out of, once again, 157, that I would feel comfortable running up to people in the street and excitedly ordering them to see immediately. Last year, even before the catch-up session, I could have filled a Top 20 with little effort (and, in fact, did). This year, even with that catch-up session, I really struggled. To be bluntly honest, numbers 20 to 17 on this list are occupied by films I really liked rather than loved.
That being said… what films I did love this year, I really loved. In fact, quite frankly, I believe that my Top 4 in particular consists of some of the best films that I have ever seen. It’s also been somewhat of a banner year for movies about, fronted by, or aimed at women and women’s issues; 12 of my Top 20 films satisfy one or more of those categories. What’s more, locking in that Top 10 was rather painful, since the movies that just missed out are absolutely worth talking about almost as much as the Top 10. Hence why, for the first time ever, I’m properly divulging my full Top 20. Again, I may not have loved much during this awful, abysmal year, but those that I did love deserve every bit of praise that they’re about to receive. Also, thanks to workload problems and the fact that my body spent much of the Summer slowly killing me, I didn’t get a chance to talk about most of these films and I really want to subject you to more of my ramblings.
Before we jump in, though, the usual pointers. This list is restricted in three ways. The first is that any film that was released in America in any non-festival way prior to getting a UK release in 2015 is not eligible because it is two-thousand-and-goddamn-fifteen and I am sick to death of this bullshit release window disparity. Whiplash would have made the list, Big Hero 6 would have made the list, John Wick would have made the list, but all were released in America in 2014 and therefore are disqualified. Likewise, if a film has been released in America this year but has yet to cross over to the UK (Room, Creed, The Hateful Eight), it is also ineligible due to the whole “I haven’t seen it” thing. Finally, although 157 movies is a ridiculous total, I still have not seen everything and, naturally, only films I have seen can be featured. I especially really wanted to get around to Clouds of Sils Maria and Girlhood before penning this list, but time was sadly not on my side.
OK, those are the formalities dealt with. Today, we speed through numbers 20 to 11, then tackle numbers 10 to 6 tomorrow, and The Final Five on Thursday. So, without further ado, kick it.
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
20] The Martian
Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain
Blockbuster filmmaking tends to get a bad rap nowadays – albeit one that, based on the evidence of this year, is somewhat deserved – for being shallow, safe, uninterested in doing anything other than generating as much money as possible, and refusing to cater to and feature anybody but generic White guys. However, and this is somewhat of a running theme throughout the list, it doesn’t have to be that way and, just as importantly, spending big bucks on films with modest storytelling aims need not inherently be a bad thing, as proven by Ridley Scott’s surprisingly great adaptation of The Martian. It’s a simple and pure crowd-pleaser, yet still manages to locate a charmingly light and positive tone, working in a diverse cast (of age, gender, and race) and a collaborative globalist tone without making a big deal out of them, and utilising the big bucks to create images, sets, and special effects of magnificent beauty. Sure, it’s about 20 minutes too long, but The Martian is a great example of the kind of fun that crowd-pleasing blockbuster filmmaking can provide when done right.
Dir: Riley Stearns
Star: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Faults is not revolutionary, and maybe a little too indebted to its various influences for its own good, but as good old-fashioned character-studies dressed up with thriller elements go, I didn’t see a better one this year. Faults works because Stearns (who also wrote the script) keeps things simple. The primary focus on the film is on Ansel and Claire, as the former tries to deprogram the latter from cult control whilst the latter tries to open the former’s mind to the cult’s power, and long stretches of the film consists of the pair going back and forth, as it slowly becomes apparent that Ansel has much less control than it at first appears, whilst Orser (a veteran character actor finally getting his moment in the spotlight) and Winstead (one of the best actresses working today) strike up the exact kind of multi-faceted chemistry that the film requires to pivot on. It all culminates in one of the best scenes of the year, as the subtle-yet-dark comedy contained in the rest of the film recedes and the tension that has slowly been building throughout the film’s airtight 93 minutes is brought to the forefront, forcibly gripping my attention to the screen and refusing to let me look away lest I miss anything. It’s one hell of a debut and I can’t wait to see what Stearns comes up with next.
18] Mr. Holmes
Dir: Bill Condon
Star: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker
People who criticise Mr. Holmes for the mystery being too obvious and lacking in depth completely misunderstand what Mr. Holmes is going for. The mystery is not important. What’s important is the remembering, the nagging sensation that you know you screwed up at some point but can’t remember why and when, and the helpless fear that comes with the realisation that you will eventually be incapable of remembering seemingly important memories like that and that your mind will deteriorate with age. Mr. Holmes is not a mystery movie. It is instead an understated and moving mediation on aging and the encroachment of death that also, because it utilises Sherlock Holmes as its central character and has him portrayed by Ian McKellen, doubles as a similarly understated examination on the negative effects of idolisation and hero worship. Films about aging and death push every single one of my personal buttons (because the concepts of growing old and death are legitimately paralysingly terrifying to me) and the low-key nature of Mr. Holmes caused it to hit like a tonne of bricks. The only reason it’s not higher is because I never got the chance to revisit it prior to writing this list.
Dir: Sean S. Baker
Star: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone
Whilst we absolutely should praise Tangerine for what it represents and presents – a transgender film starring trans actresses in the lead roles, in a comedy no less, that is informed by transgender issues but is not solely about them and never devolves into misery, whilst also refusing to portray the sex worker industry in a negative light – we should also remember that Tangerine is a film, and a damn fine one at that. A raucously funny screwball comedy that takes the trashy, punk visual aesthetic introduced by the Crank series (courtesy here of iPhone 5s’ that imbue the film with a surprisingly pretty semi-day-glo and constantly-moving aesthetic) and applies it to a subject matter that requires that off-kilter touch, whilst also boasting a surprisingly moving heart that is always beating throughout but becomes most clear during the quietly brilliant ending. It also serves as a calling card for Mya Taylor who turns in one of the strongest supporting performances of the year as Sin-Dee’s long suffering best friend Alexandra, the kind of charisma-filled performance that makes one want to see more of that person in more films immediately.
16] Bridge of Spies
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Star: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell
When Steven Spielberg finally folds up his Director’s chair for the last time, it is going to be an incredibly sad day and a huge loss to Film. Unlike when other great directors hang up their hats, however, Spielberg will do so without ever really having lost a step. Even after four decades in the business, he is still one of the best directors working, and Bridge of Spies is effectively 2 hours and 20 minutes of him casually reminding us of that fact. For a nearly two and a half hour movie, it never once drags, never once feels padded, capturing and retaining one’s attention the whole time, even managing to create genuine tension in a story with a more-forgone-than-usual conclusion. Spielberg’s heart-on-sleeve earnestness proves to be the perfect delivery system for an optimistic look at the power that fair justice can provide, whilst a script that was partly handled by the Coen Brothers simultaneously exposes the ludicrous and pointless nature of The Cold War through a combination of absurd humour and a focus on the middle men involved in negotiating this mess without losing face for their higher-ups. It’s another Spielberg masterwork and couldn’t have been made in this way by anybody else.
Dir: Asif Kapadia
In a way, we are all responsible for the untimely death of Amy Winehouse. Celebrity culture, our modern celebrity culture that we have all worked so hard to cultivate and shape into this specific culture over the years, is toxic. It is toxic for us, as we turn into judgemental thoughtless pricks who will take any misstep that anybody makes and proceed to mercilessly rake them over the coals for it in the court of public opinion, and it is toxic for those who are subjected to it, that kind of constant pressure and judgement and belittling breaking them down and often only furthering their slide down that hill. Arguably, the most surprising part of Amy Winehouse’s death is not the fact that it happened at all, it’s the fact that it didn’t happen sooner.
Asif Kapadia’s furious documentary, Amy, holds the viewer to account, ordering you to acknowledge your part in her death. As it sketches its portrait of Amy – a shy jazz-enthusiast who feels most at home performing songs from her heart, whilst simultaneously completely uncomfortable with the concept of fame, and dealing with the fallout from her upbringing by her oft-neglectful parents and how that shaped her struggles with abusive relationships and substance addiction – the film demonstrates exactly how ill-prepared somebody like Amy was for our Celebrity Culture, the sexist hypocrisy in mythologizing men like Jim Morrison for the same things we were ripping Winehouse to shreds for, and how we practically drove her to her ultimate fate. Crucially, Amy doesn’t paint Amy as a paragon of virtue, taking the time out look at how her own decisions and flaws also affected her life, and the fact that it depicts those flaws only serves to further its overall point: Amy Winehouse was a goddamn human being. Why the fuck did we treat her like a dancing monkey whose very public tears and cries for help were deserving more of mockery and scorn than compassion and empathy?
14] Steve Jobs
Dir: Danny Boyle
Star: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen
This may be the finest film script that Aaron Sorkin has ever written. I have seen Steve Jobs twice and both times the script has bowled me over on multiple levels. The way that Sorkin purposefully downplays any attempt at remaining historically accurate, instead utilising the three act set-up – which, incidentally, I am dying to see a theatre group of some renown attempt to recreate in the future – as a method of examining the ways and increments in which people change or, as is more accurate in this film, don’t change over time. How everything pivots around Steve with everyone else being a vessel for exposing the different aspects of his rampant assholery, yet still managing to make people like Wozniak and Hertzfeld feel like characters instead of purely being mouthpieces for Sorkin and vessels for Jobs. The sheer quotability and wit of the dialogue that’s almost Social Network levels of on-fire.
But, most importantly, there’s how the film handles Jobs himself as Sorkin, living embodiment of “yeah, he’s an asshole but he’s a genius so his assholery is worth it”, seemingly demonstrates some self-awareness and spends the vast majority of the runtime coming down on the side of “no, his assholery is definitely not worth it”. Jobs, as penned by Sorkin, is a self-absorbed, bullying, difficult, bitter, angry egomaniac who may eventually have gotten it right but that gives him no reason to have been such a massive asshole to his colleagues, close friends, and even his own biological daughter whom he spends much of the film’s runtime refusing to admit is actually his. Even the fact that Sorkin refuses to fully stick the knife in come the end feels right, a reminder that everyone, even people like Jobs, are more complex than just being pure assholes. Scripts this good are the kind that make one wonder why they should even bother trying to do any writing ever. How can I compete with something this good?
13] The Peanuts Movie
Dir: Steve Martino
Star: Noah Schnapp, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Bill Melendez (voices)
It feels like Peanuts. I spent something close to 20 straight months absolutely terrified that Blue Sky Studios were going to mess this up, based both on the studio’s past experience – “Blue Sky Studios: We Exist” may as well be the studio’s motto after 15 years of making completely forgettable animated kids’ films – and the fact that Peanuts is so at odds with what most kids’ animated entertainment at the cinema is today. Whizz-bang setpieces, loud comedy of the broadest variety, visuals so enticing and pretty and dynamic that you can practically see the money being burnt away. In this landscape, Blue Sky would have to change the small, melancholy, off-model, wryly clever personality of Peanuts. They’d have to, since the number of studios and people who trust that kids are clever and mature enough to take pure undiluted Peanuts in 2015 can be counted on one hand.
Although it’s not 100% pure undiluted Peanuts, The Peanuts Movie still feels like Peanuts, and that’s all I wanted. The characters feel like themselves, the honesty about the unforgiving harshness of reality that constantly hangs around the edges of childhood and the existential fears over our personal inadequacies and future responsibilities is baked right into the heart of the film, the melancholy and nostalgic feel that’s so key to the Peanuts charm is intact, and there are several sequences and little scenes that feel ripped straight from Schulz’s seminal strips. It doesn’t try to be anything more than a low-key idiosyncratic and faithful interpretation of Peanuts’ Greatest Hits, with only minor sacrifices to the modern day, and because it nails that feel I am more than satisfied. Blue Sky did right by Peanuts. For once, my fears were unfounded.
12] Crimson Peak
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Star: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
My incredible wussiness over anything that even remotely starts to resemble Horror or is in the least bit scary has caused me to miss seeing a lot of apparently strong films that I get the feeling I’d really like if I just woman-ed up this year – hence why It Follows, Unfriended, and Krampus are completely missing from my Viewed list – but I am most annoyed at myself for having skipped over Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterwork when it was in the cinemas. Partly because it’s a masterwork, obviously, but mainly because Crimson Peak is not a ghost story but rather, as Edith Cushing explains in-film with regards to her own novel, a story with a ghost in it. In fact, ghosts take up maybe five scenes in the film, tops, although they are of course always hanging around the film, (non-)living metaphors for the various ways that the Sharpes are trapped by the past, fated to remain at Allerdale Hall, locked into their current paths due to actions taken years ago that they can’t move on from, and whether they recognise their situation (Thomas) or choose to ignore it (Lucille).
Much of this is communicated via Crimson Peak’s impeccable atmosphere, a chilling and unsettling gothic Hammer Horror throwback that looks utterly sensational, the film parading a seemingly endless series of memorable and gorgeous images to the viewer’s eyes as a firm reminder that del Toro is one of the best visual storytellers working today. Meanwhile, the film is anchored by a show-stopping Jessica Chastain performance that may tip Lucille’s hand too early but also furnishes her with both a magnetic presence and a deeply tragic undercurrent that keeps her right on the verge of sympathetic pity until it becomes clear that she would rather let the past consume her than move on. I guarantee you folks that, at the very latest, two decades from now, film lovers are going to look back at us in pure bewilderment as to why we kept ignoring Guillermo del Toro movies at the cinema. Crimson Peak is one more example of our wilful stupidity in that field.
11] 45 Years
Dir: Andrew Haigh
Star: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Charlotte Rampling’s performance in 45 Years is the single best I have seen all year. This is not up for debate. This is not a subjective opinion. It is a fact, and an indisputable one at that. In every scene, every single scene, she is Kate Mercer. The nuance, the shades, the subtleties that Rampling brings to Kate transform the character into a person; the way that you can always tell exactly what Kate is thinking, how much the knowledge of the relationship Geoff had with Katya is eating away her, even when the scene in question just involves her staring out at the lake whilst on a boat, with her face barely changing. There’s a noticeable sense of weariness, of quiet and restrained turmoil, a nagging existential crisis that is palpable in every scene, even when Rampling is given long stretches with no dialogue whatsoever. When Kate’s previously natural appearances of affection towards her husband switch to being nothing more than a facade, Rampling manages the near-impossible balancing act of letting the viewer know that it’s a facade and yet still being so convincing that there’s always the chance that the facade is actually genuine.
45 Years is Rampling’s film, an acting masterclass unfolding before one’s eyes, but that’s not to mean that the rest of Andrew Haigh’s first film since 2011’s Weekend isn’t also up to snuff. Tom Courtenay proves a fantastic partner to Rampling, constantly pushing us away from Geoff every time we think that we can start to properly understand and sympathise with him, Haigh’s script prides economy in every aspect yet still manages to explore with genuine depth how the ghosts of relationships past, especially those from which one person has never truly moved on from, can impact those in the present, regardless of how long the current relationship has lasted – side note: possible interesting double bill with Crimson Peak? – and the psychological toll it takes on those affected by it, and his direction cultivates an absolutely gripping tension that subsists right through to the very end of the film. This is the very best of what British cinema is capable of.
Return here tomorrow for the first half of the Top 10.