Let me start by saying that I did not see as many films as I wanted to this past year. I didn’t realise I would be writing a best of 2015 list online at the start of the year and it has now come around to bite me. Clearly I should have more forethought. It’s already looking like this year I will be much better prepared to provide this service. Anyhow.
A lot of the entries on the list come from franchises and existing commodities. Most of the reboots, remakes, sequels and franchise entries were done surprisingly well (ignore Fantastic Four and Spectre) this year as (some) studios start to work towards making an art of tentpole filmmaking.
10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
I love coming-of-age films (there are two on this list). I love films with female leads. I also love films with a good amount of idiosyncrasy. The Diary of a Teenage Girl has all of these and plays a little like Submarine mixed with Juno. Laugh-out-loud funny with jokes that come from a place of truth and sincerity. Bel Powley inhabits the quirky 15-year-old protagonist. Her performance captures teenage curiosity and infatuation and puts it on display for the audience. Alexander Skarsgård is equal parts creepy and charming, which justifies the machinations of the plot. Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of a single mother dealing with life is honest and delicate. A top shelf coming of age film with a good bit of quirk, heart, character, and humour.
9. Mission Impossible 5
I never thought I’d say this but I think I’m a fan of Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise the actor that is. Tom Cruise the person is beyond the scope of this website. After last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, I opened up to the idea of actually enjoying him on screen. In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Cruise returns to the role of Ethan Hunt and rides planes on the outside, does all his own stunt driving, dies, is reborn and doesn’t get the girl. What more could I want from an action film? MI: RN is another one of those films from this year that has a clear understanding of what it is to be a blockbuster, and that understanding and consciousness leads to it being a great film. In my opinion, self aware films are a good sign for the industry this year.
8. By the Sea
Moody, personal, at times disturbing, and almost insidious in its pace; Angelina Jolie’s third feature film succeeds in making the audience complicit to the voyeuristic temptations of the central troubled husband and wife. The performances central to this character study from Jolie, Pitt, Arestrup, and Laurent are magnetic. Charisma and presence drive the story more than plot at times. With meaningful framing and an eye for colour, making the most of the Maltese sun, the cinematography contrasts with the psychological brutality of the story. If nothing else, this film was different from everything I saw this year and that means a lot to me.
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Another coming-of-age film? You’re damn right. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does a brilliant job at showing off its young cast. Allowing them the time they need and having the confidence that they can play entire scenes pitch perfect without having to rely on any excessive intercutting to find a performance that works. The story is well adapted from the novel, forming a tight script that moves along well. Sure there are a lot of trope-y elements to the film: whacky adults, token friends, extremely specific cliques, and an outsider protagonist. Me and Earl uses these clichés in an honest way, however, understanding why they became clichés. The film is also shot in an expressively meaningful style that is bold and fresh for the most part although at times it can be excessive. Another entry on the list that is here because it understands the form and executes it with flair.
6. The Martian
Some book adaptations don’t work as films. Personally I think some would be better as series on television. I’m looking at you This is Where I Leave You. Other books read like film scripts. The Martian, even though it contains a heap of maths and science, is one of these books. This isn’t to discount the brilliant work that was done by the script writers, directors, and actors that brought The Martian to the screen. It easily could have resulted in a lesser film. The decisions made by Ridley Scott and his creative team (except for some of the additions to the ending) made the transition look effortless.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This film could so easily have felt like a recurring nightmare for all the Star Wars fans who felt a let down by the prequels, but instead JJ Abrams produced a solid entry that felt very “Star Wars.” Sure, it aped the original films a lot, but it was done so as to ingratiate the audience to the new series. If it had have moved too far from what happened before it very easily could have stepped into the same territory that plagued the prequels. It was a much more diverse cast than a lot of blockbusters that have come before and the performances were all great. It also showed that practical effects still have a place and the best CGI is that done in harmony with real life filmmaking. As a film it probably would have made this list on its own merits but it gets a nudge up the rankings for giving hope to the six-year-old inside me that one of my favourite series is in safe hands.
4. The Lobster
This film is on the list because it tried something new. I’ve started watching a lot more films recently and occasionally I’ve started to see the strings attached to everything, pulling me out of the experience. The Lobster threw me a curve ball right off the bat… Mixed metaphors aside, The Lobster is one of the most didactic and directly critical satires that I’ve ever seen. It is incredibly dry thanks to the universal deadpan delivery and I found myself laughing at things in spite of myself. It is shot to emphasise the stellar performances of the cast. Colin Farrel and Rachel Weisz manage to produce a chemistry with each other amidst the strict performance constraints of the film. Both actors appear dedicated to the message of the film and provide a necessary vulnerability that lets the conceit sail through.
3. Ex Machina
If there was one film this year that was directly aimed at my interests, this is probably the one. I love philosophical films. I love purposeful art direction. I love expressive filmmaking. Chamber pieces can easily end up being little more than filmed plays but Ex Machina tells a story through script, sound, and image all at once. Each shot carries meaning, each exchange has purpose, every choice is purposeful. The men in the film present well but it is Alicia Vikander’s pitch perfect performance that pulls you into the story.
As I said, there are a lot of adaptations, sequels, and reboots on this list. This is another. Creed, like Star Wars, shows just how a reintroduction to a series should be handled. There is just the right amount of reference to the source material, combined with a strong directorial style all of its own that makes Creed a stand out amongst film sequels. Especially seeing as this was the seventh entry into the series. Sly is great. Michael B. Jordan, who for me can be a bit much at times, is on point for the majority of the film. Tessa Thompson, who was an active part of creating her scenes, was fantastic and the presentation of the relationship within the film was more honest and dare I say, realistic, than others of the genre. All in all, it is a mature entry into the series.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
It’s at the top of a lot of people’s top 10s that I’ve seen floating around and for good reason. Mad Max was an experience from start to finish. It grabbed you, held you, and wouldn’t let you go until the film ended. There are few films that so wholly hold my attention. Performances are captivating, casting and character come together off the pages of a bare bones script that lets the world do most of the talking. The film shows just how well an action film can be made and shot. George Miller along with directors like JJ Abrams and David Fincher, show how the current state of CGI and digital compositing are best utilised in the telling of visual stories. Coming out of Mad Max you feel like you’ve seen a film that will be well remembered for years to come.
To provide some context for the films that made the list, here are the ones that didn’t make it this year that I did get around to seeing. If you are thinking “Where is (blank)?” check this list to see if I missed it and feel free to drop a comment with a recommendation.
Films watched from 2015:
Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Jurassic World, Joy, Magic Mike XXL, Pitch Perfect 2, Spectre, Trainwreck, Youth.