Well. What a year. And granted, it’s not over. There’s a certain returning franchise looming over this list. And yeah, if it’s good enough I’ll come back and squeeze it in somewhere. But in case it’s not, I’m calling this my end of year Top 20 Films of 2015.
It’s felt like a very mixed year, and a year of extremes. There have been titles which have pushed my buttons for a variety of reasons. Amid some middling blockbuster fare, the outliers have either stood out for being really, really bad or – as celebrated here – really, really good. And on some occasions the blockbuster fare has been among the best, as the following will attest (I did a rhyme!).
Some nods to the also-rans that very nearly made the list this year and are well worth your attention: 45 Years, Starry Eyes, Faults, Straight Outta Compton and Ant-Man. They’re your unofficial numbers 25-21, in whatever order you like. But onto the top 20, or rather the first half thereof. The top 10 will appear soon.
For inclusion in this countdown the titles had to have their UK release in 2015. Some of these titles appeared elsewhere before that.
In A Sentence: A lecturer becomes obsessed with seeking out a confrontation when he watches a locally made film and sees his exact double starring in it.
At The Time: Enemy feels like a lost film from the 70’s, helped in no small part by the film’s yellow-scale palette, Gyllenhaal’s brown suits, his Serpico–like beard and Villenueve’s apparent love of concrete cities. He adopts a super-serious tone from the very beginning, and from start to finish the film feels purposeful, made up of long, quiet scenes. Villenueve’s camera studies Adam, pushing in on him as his world starts to fray at the edges… Putting this long-delayed title on a Best Of 2015 list may end up looking absurd, but that might not stop me. (January 1st)
And Now?: Didn’t top me. Enemy is portentous to a fault, but coolly gripping. Villenueve may have had more success later in the year with compromised drug-war thriller Sicario, but Enemy feels like a more assured, complete picture, even if that picture comes with several oblique mysteries. Gyllenhaal is great here, and it’s a shame this movie more or less slipped through the cracks in the UK.
In A Sentence: A dramatised look at Ansar Dine’s 2012 occupancy of the Malian city of Timbuktu, and how the oppressive Jihadist regime brought torment to the local population.
At The Time: The film’s finest moment – and this will stand as one of the year’s greatest scenes of all – sees a group of children simulating a football game with no ball. They dodge and weave, creating their own drama, reacting together in a shared dream of a real game; something outlawed by their extremist overseers. It’s a shining moment in modern film. Defiance. Protest. Imagination. Movement. Play. All are celebrated in this wonderful scene. A pure moment of cinema, and for this alone Timbuktu ought to be remembered. (May 29th)
And Now?: The above remains true, but there is more to Timbuktu. A wonderful, wise film that displays quiet fury and dignity in the face of absolute intolerance. Sissako’s approach may initially seem detached, but the end result is particularly affecting.
18. The Tribe
In A Sentence: A brutal look at an epidemic of gangs and prostitution occurring within a school for the deaf and mute in the Ukraine performed entirely by deaf and mute actors and featuring no dialogue whatsoever.
At The Time: Slaboshpitsky does nothing here to suggest that this depiction of tribalism is solely caused by his subjects’ disability. Not for a second do you get the impression that he intends to tar all deaf and deaf-mute people with the same brush. This is a specific story maintained by a specific set of circumstances. If there is a greater allegory, then it is for the state’s knowing neglect of it’s most vulnerable citizens, something which sadly resonates universally in tandem with Slaboshpitsky’s purely visual storytelling. (June 23rd)
And Now?: Not exactly a barrel of laughs, nevertheless The Tribe features some of the year’s most electrifying moments and as a piece of filmmaking feels as though it angrily, impatiently aims to break new ground. As a debut, this is as intimidating as it is exciting.
17. The Lobster
In A Sentence: In a dystopian society being single is outlawed, so when David is ditched by his wife he is sent to a hotel retreat where he has 45 days to find a new partner for life, or else the management will turn him into the animal of his choice.
At The Time: The wild originality of the film is its greatest asset and perhaps it’s near downfall. Watching most films I have some idea of where I am in the story because it conforms to an expected shape. The Lobster offers no such security… There’s a delight in that, and I wish more films challenged me so, but at the same time Lanthimos’ dogged reliance on such an increasingly morose tone makes the initial sprint feel like a rose-tinted memory. Go in expecting a cute flight of fancy and you’re liable to leave utterly floored. (October 31st)
And Now?: Batshit crazy, but with a lot to say about our society, The Lobster is one of the year’s funniest films, but also one of the most sobering and cruel. Lanthimos’ first English language film ought to make more people aware of his prior work (including the brilliant Dogtooth), but it’s likely to repel as many people as it attracts with its jet-black tone.
16. The Martian
In A Sentence: An astronaut is accidentally left marooned on Mars and has to figure out how to survive until NASA can launch a mission to rescue him.
At The Time: Goddard’s script frequently brushes aside tougher psychological questions about sustained isolation or even prolonged space travel, but it does so in order to keep the audience at a different level. This is not an introspective movie. It’s a cocky, indulgent, against-the-odds ride that celebrates mankind’s thirst for discovery, survival and the belief in the power of a symbol. It’s designed to be uplifting. (September 30th)
And Now?: One of the year’s mass-appeal triumphs, this blockbuster adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is a hoot and a half, anchored by Matt Damon’s doggedly likable scientist-guy. Long, but worth it, keep your other eye on Jessica Chastain, ringleader of a superb supporting cast.
In A Sentence: A magical princess discovered by a bamboo cutter grows up at astonishing speed and finds herself pursued by variety of suitors as her notoriety spreads.
At The Time: Takahata’s stylistic change of pace is the first Ghibli has indulged in since it garnered such a worldwide popular spotlight, and could be seen as something of a gamble. However, it suits the material perfectly and looks divine from beginning to end. The impressionistic flourishes linger long in the memory, particularly whenever fast motion is evoked. (March 28th)
And Now?: Takahata’s film develops just as its heroine does, and if this is to be his final feature, then it’s as worthy and as dignified a swan song as Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.
In A Sentence: In 1950, a young department store saleswoman and a rich housewife grow enamoured with each other, but their romance is threatened by the harsh judgments of the era and the intrusions of others.
At The Time: In the main this is a showcase for Mara and Blanchett, and the chemistry captured by Haynes is intoxicating. Theirs is a relationship built from gestures, out of necessity of the times and their politics. Advances come in the form of hand movements or glances, barely caught winks and hand-written notes. The attraction between them is spoken around for a long time; they are both so aware of it that it doesn’t need naming. It’s development makes up much of the film, but this is time very well spent indeed. Few relationships on screen have felt so earned. (November 28th)
And Now?: Carol is still fresh in the memory, as intoxicating as it’s titular character’s sweet perfume. It lingers. Rooney Mara is sensational, as is Cate Blanchett. Together they ought to be leading this film to Oscar recognition. But don’t dismiss it as mere awards-hungry prestige filmmaking. There is much more to it than that. I look forward to seeing it again.
In A Sentence: Marieme is a black adolescent growing up in the Parisian suburbs who finds solace joining a girl gang, but being a gang member leads her to a series of life-altering choices.
At The Time: Sciamma’s method here is exceptional. Girlhood boasts moments of stylised beauty, long slow tracking shots that fetishise youth set to (a) rousing score, yet these scenes are countered by a consistent sense of truth and realism. It’s a delicate balance but Sciamma makes it seem effortless. (November 6th)
And Now?: Understated but impressive with performances that convince totally, Sciamma’s film is as much a celebration of youth and self-empowerment as it is a comment on the lack of role models for the young in modern society.
In A Sentence: Am ambitious student of the drums at a prestigious conservatory of music gets caught up in a masochistic relationship of encouragement and punishment with his tempestuous teacher.
At The Time: The perverse psychological back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher will no doubt be one of 2015’s greatest, most twisted cinematic partnerships. While Chazelle’s vice-like grip over his audience will hopefully resonate as another. The film itself opens up challenging questions about where the motivational becomes the sadistic, and if the subject is as equally prone to masochism, where do you draw the line? How much pressure is too much pressure? (January 12th)
And Now?: Whiplash started out as the year’s underdog and has ended as one of it’s most widely adored releases. A word-of-mouth success powered by the intensity captured within. It’s a riveting, claustrophobic film, powered by two great performances. An instant classic.
In A Sentence: Are you kidding? Err, in 19th century Argentina, a Danish soldier doggedly pursues his runaway daughter over increasingly inhospitable terrain. No. That doesn’t sum it up at all.
At The Time: While it connects spiritually to work from the likes of Tarkovsky or Reygadas, the essence of the film feels confidently monolithic, like something Kubrick would’ve loved to have attempted. The sense of large, unattainable mystery, in fact, recalls the sensation conjured on arriving at the bed chamber at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit stretched out over the course of this film’s entire 105 minute running time. It’s like a lost artefact that has appeared outside of time and reason, outside of context, willing us to imprint it with our own definitions. (November 11th)
And Now?: Make no mistake, this is cinema as art, and if you’re not up for that you should beware. Yet still, I would ask for open minds to embrace Alonso’s beguiling, perplexing film, one that haunted me for days following my first approach. And while the lumpen soundbite above suggests Jauja exists in the shadow of former masters, it in fact stands by itself as a great work in its own right.
To be continued…