Top 30 Films of 2015
As has become my own little tradition in recent years, this December was largely spent desperately trying to catch up on as many movies that I missed in 2015 as I possibly could. Despite my best efforts, notable absentees that I didn’t get time to see but which come highly recommended include, The Lobster, 45 Years, Amy, Legend, Diary of a Teenage Girl and Brooklyn, all of which have received plenty of love in various quarters.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of quality movies that I did get to see this year. This includes plenty of strong indie showings and while some of the year’s uber-blockbusters proved a little underwhelming (Spectre, I’m looking in your direction), there were also a number of absolute stormers.
Just missing out on a place on this list were Guy Ritchie’s stylish The Man From UNCLE reboot, J. C. Chandor’s murky crime drama A Most Violent Year (which includes yet another excellent performance from Oscar Isaac), Antoine Fuqua’s generic but extremely watchable boxing drama Southpaw, Paul Thomas Anderson’s confusing yet exceptionally entertaining Inherent Vice and Crystal Moselle’s unique and unsettling documentary, The Wolfpack.
The fifth outing for Ethan Hunt and Co. is a hugely enjoyable action-packed entry in the Mission Impossible franchise. While other franchises seem to be going dark and opting for deep introspection, Rogue Nation sees the MI films embracing their silliness and going all out to top the previous breakneck action sequence. Tom Cruise is as game as ever and the set-pieces are all perfectly executed by director Christopher McQuarrie. Quite possibly the best Mission Impossible movie yet.
Parts 5 and 6 in the Fast and Furious franchise won me over completely. As I’m sure was the case with many other people, I got on board once the boy racer aspect was toned down and the utterly bonkers and over the top action sequences was ramped up instead. Part 7 doesn’t quite reach the dizzy demented heights of its two predecessors, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride nonetheless. The untimely death of Paul Walker famously necessitated a delay in the film being released and a hefty re-write of the film’s plot, however his absence is handled admirably by the filmmakers and it provided a surprisingly touching conclusion to Walker’s final movie outing.
It was always going to be a struggle for this movie to match the high standards set by the first Avengers film and unfortunately as expected, Age Of Ultron does feel a little underwhelming. This doesn’t mean it is a bad movie however, it’s still great fun and filled with the now customary level of witty dialogue and barnstorming set pieces we’ve come to expect from the next Marvel cinematic behemoth. It did feel at times like one big set up for the next phase of Marvel movies, but for eye-catching popcorn entertainment it did exactly what was required.
As someone who is usually a huge fan of gangster films, I had Scott Cooper’s movie earmarked at the turn of the year as one to look out for. The finished article was a little bit too gangster movie 101 in the end however, with elements of various other crime epics clearly visible in the unfolding battle between cops and robbers in which concepts of right and wrong become increasingly blurred. However it should not be completely written off simply for not quite achieving its full potential. There’s still plenty to enjoy here including a chilling central performance from Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. Depp is unsettling and menacing throughout, and the increasingly destructive impact his presence has on those around him is compelling to watch unfold.
One of 2015’s most pleasant surprises, Spy was an extremely funny movie starring Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper , the film’s loveable heroine who transforms from hard-working office doormat to ass-kicking no-nonsense action woman, as well as Jason Statham in full on comedic OTT mode. The film spoofs traditionally sexist spy movie tropes, packs in plenty of silly physical comedy and also possesses a solid action-heavy espionage story too. A thoroughly enjoyable film that may well have slipped under many people’s radar.
Another hugely entertaining 2015 spy movie here, a high energy and raucous action comedy from director Matthew Vaughn. Mixing typical Bond-esque movie clichés with gratuitous violence and youthful exuberance, Kingsman swiftly won me over once I realised it was fully embracing its own ridiculousness. While Colin Firth’s against-type turn as a suave but deadly all-action spy s a joy to behold, its Taron Egerton’s charming and cocksure performance as young tearaway Eggsy which steals the show.
Amy Schumer writes and stars in this raucous Judd Apatow rom-com, bringing her razor sharp wit to the big screen and in Amy, creating a refreshingly different romantic lead. Schumer delivers not just a wonderful comedy performance but also a nuanced dramatic one as the film delves further into the “rom” aspect of its story. Bill Hader is on fine form as Amy’s love interest and Lebron James gives an unexpectedly amusing performance as himself. Comfortably one of the funniest movies of the year.
Alex Ross Perry’s comedy drama revolves around Jason Shcwartzman’s staggeringly obnoxious author who manages the startling accolade of possessing not a single redeeming feature. The story follows Philip’s misanthropic actions as he awaits the release of his second novel. Regardless of what the public thinks of it, in Philip’s mind he is an unappreciated genius. We see him interact repeatedly with his ex, treating her as poorly as one would imagine, and befriend a fellow self-indulgent writer in Jonathan Pryce’s Ike. Elisabeth Moss shines as Philip’s ex-girlfriend Ashley and as the only remotely likeable character in the story, she swiftly becomes the relatable heart of the story. An often darkly humours tale that is buoyed by outstanding lead performances.
Keanu Reeves stars as the titular hero in this neo-noir action movie in which his deadly trained assassin decides to take bloody vengeance on a group of gangsters who foolishly cross him as he mourns his lost wife. Incredibly bloody and stylishly violent, this is a simple B-movie executed extremely well. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you like brutal fight scenes and unflinching shoot-outs, you really cant go far wrong. Reeves is the best he has been in years and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch deliver a bloody action flick that is expertly choreographed.
This latest attempt at translating Shakespeare’s Scottish play to the big screen is a resounding success. Fiercely loyal to its source material, the prospect of a two hour Shakespearian tragedy may not be to all tastes, but for those so inclined, its a visually stunning take on the tale, rich in dreamlike moods and filled with powerful performances. Michael Fassbender’s raw intensity is put to great use and Marion Cotillard is as elegant and mesmerising as ever. It is dark, brutal and unforgiving, but its also incredibly absorbing.
The first hour or so of this NWA biopic is right up there with some of the most enjoyable cinema of the year. A passionate and enthralling look at the formative years of the group as they blazed a trail across the United States, fuelled by a growing sense of injustice and defiantly taking on the establishment that stood in their way. What drags the movie down to just number 20 on this list is the far more conventional following ninety minutes which while entirely watchable, just isn’t quite up to the same standard. Nevertheless, at its peak, Straight Outta Compton bristles with energy and anger, its young cast doing sterling work, with O’Shea Jackson Jr. standing out as his own father, Ice Cube.
For one reason or another, I went in to Ant-Man with perhaps the lowest expectations for a Marvel film to date. Luckily though, my lack of faith was severely misplaced and Peyton Reed’s entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a fun, energetic and very funny offering that combined elements of a traditional heist movie with ample sci-fi spectacle. The massive action set pieces which adorn most Marvel movies are cleverly homaged and the titular character’s minuscule size utilized expertly. Paul Rudd is as likeable as ever and he and the rest of the cast inject plenty of warmth into proceedings. A tremendous super hero romp that doesn’t forget its human relationships in amongst the sci-fi action.
This documentary looking at the life and career of Kurt Cobain is an unmissable watch for anyone with even a passing interest in Nirvana’s music. Incorporating private home video footage, live performances, modern day interviews and even cartoon recreations, its a visual collage that really thrusts you into the mind of Cobain himself, demons and all. It’s an extensive portrait of the iconic frontman, taking in his formative childhood years as well as his explosive relationship with Courtney Love. An adsorbing and poignant tribute.
Love & Mercy revolves around the life and music of legendary Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, the psychological troubles that blighted him and his eventual salvation. The film is split between two time frames, with Paul Dano playing a younger Brian in the 1960s as his mental issues begin to take hold, and John Cusack playing him in the 1980s, at a time when he is seemingly held hostage by his own shrink. There’s a clear melancholic thread running throughout the film, with Brian’s demons and his struggles taking centre stage, but there’s also a definite sweetness formed by Brian’s inherent naivety and his blossoming relationship with second wife Melinda. It’s a wonderful study of Wilson’s musical process and both Dano and Cusack turn in exceptional performances.
A combination of Danny Boyle directing, Aaron Sorkin writing and Michael Fassbender starring was always likely to be right up my street and despite its tepid box office success, Steve Jobs was an engrossing and entertaining biopic that paints a memorable portrait. Fassbender is superb in the lead role, creating a character who appears driven, determined and enigmatic but also incredibly flawed, a far better innovator than he ever was a father. Sorkin’s screenplay is split across three different time frames, each one wrapped around Jobs launching a new product at a different stage of his career. It’s a distinctly theatrical construct and with Boyles immersive direction and a wonderful cast include Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels in fine form, its thoroughly entertaining.
Selma was a compelling and still incredibly vital drama that chronicles the actions of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and his fellow activists as they plan their Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 . The film shows the tremendous courage required by those who fought for equals rights and the incredible hardships they endured in order to secure the rights which would help to change America forever. Director Ava DuVernay delivers a stirring and heartfelt drama with the outstanding cast, led by David Oyelowo as King, all putting in powerful performances. It’s a rousing reminder of a struggle fought not so very long ago that is still alarmingly relevant today.
Another smash hit for Disney here in this funny and poignant movie about a young boy genius and his unconventional robot pal. As with most Disney movies, it’s young protagonist (Hiro) suffers a major emotional hit early on, but thanks to the presence of a loveable robot (Baymax) and a band of hyper-intelligent pals, he overcomes his grief and decides to channel his energies elsewhere. In this case, Hiro sets about turning the group into an all-action crime fighting team of superheroes. Baymax is undoubtedly the star of the show, a hapless cuddly oaf of a robot whose relationship with Hiro takes centre stage and provides not only most of the film’s laughs, but also it’s heart.
Sicario is a slow-burning and intense thriller that focuses on various government agents operating along the volatile Mexico/America boarder as they attempt to bring down a violent drug cartel. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin all put in great performances while director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) utilises moments of brutal action and nail-biting tension to powerful effect. The dangerous and often corrupt world in which these agents operate is laid bare and Villeneuve, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, really lure you in to this cut-throat and murky underworld.
Steven Spielberg’s Cold War espionage thriller may not have been met with the fanfare his movies often receive, but I thought it was an immensely entertaining spy drama which delivers a beautifully crafted snapshot of a bygone era. Cold war spy games have been done many a time before, but rarely have they been this slick. Tom Hanks can do the affable hero shtick in his sleep and he absolutely nails it here, delivering a take on the real life James B Donovan that perfectly encapsulates his unwaveringly belief in justice. Mark Rylance is also superb as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, and the burgeoning friendship between the two men is handled excellently. A fascinating and visually grand thriller which will drive anyone with a passing interest in history to go away and read up on the true historical account as soon as the film is finished.
Carol is a captivating romantic drama set in America in the 1950s. It stars Rooney Mara as Therese, and Cate Blanchett as Carol. The former is an unfulfilled store clerk who longs for a more exciting life, while the latter is a confident and elegant socialite whose marriage to Kyle Chandler’s Harge is in crisis. The film is a story of the relationship between these two women and of their self discovery at a time when such matters were frowned upon and spoken of only in hushed tones. It’s delicately handed, and expertly acted. The two female leads are excellent throughout, Blanchett the demure beauty facing the threats made against her with grace and poise, while Mara transforms from wide-eyed young girl to experienced woman . Carol’s sumptuous cinematography and wonderful period setting are both crucial elements that contribute to making it such a memorable film.
Beasts Of No Nation only got a very small cinematic release this year but thanks to it being an original production by Netflix and it soon appearing on their streaming service, it still reached a fairly hefty audience. I’d heard a lot of good things about it online but started watching it not knowing at all what to expect. After watching it one night, inappropriately close to Christmas, I was blown away. It’s a harrowing war drama that packs a strong emotional punch. It charts the story of a young child in an unnamed African country who. after his family gets caught up in a deadly civil war, is forced in to becoming a child soldier. The film’s focus is not the root causes of such conflicts, instead it is more focused on the young boys who get corrupted and taken advantage of once they get caught in this senseless cycle of violence. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking film, one that will stay with you long after you’ve watched it.
One of my favourite blockbuster movies of the year, Ridley Scot’s The Martian was a hugely entertaining sci-fi adventure that is anchored by one of Matt Damon’s best performances in years. After a routine mission goes badly wrong and he gets stranded on Mars, Damon’s Mark Watney must find a way to survive long enough in order to then take part in a risky rescue mission. Along the way there’s plenty of obstacles to overcome and sci-fi/maths type problems to be solved, and that’s part of The Martian’s great appeal, watching a great cast (Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig amongst many others) bonding together to try and get this guy home. While other sci-fi films may be visually more stunning or conceptually more complex, The Martian is just unabashed fun, remaining surprisingly grounded despite its subject matter.
Noah Baumbach movies tend to be an acquired taste with some people finding them slightly too knowingly hipster for their own good. As a huge fan of Frances Ha however, I was excited to see what he would do next. Luckily for me, Mistress America proved to be an incisively witty comedy with moments of wonderful screwball farce, aided in so small part by two strong performances from its female leads . At its heart is Tracy (Lola Kirke), a confused and lonely young college student who is taken under the wing of stepsister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a confident woman about town who appears to lead the urban chic lifestyle which Tracy craves. The fact that Brooke’s hipster dream may be mostly a façade is of no surprise, but watching it unravel and seeing both hers and Tracy’s reaction to it doing so is a joy to behold. It’s a film about growing up, generational differences and above all, friendship.
Slow West is an impressive début from writer/director John Maclean, a slow burning western which sees young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) traipsing across the American West to find his lost love. Jay is accompanied on his quest by an enigmatic loner named Silas (a typically charismatic Michael Fassbender), who takes the boy under his wing and seeks to help ensure his safe passage across dangerous lands. Flitting between moments of savageness and moments of absurd comedy, the duo’s adventure makes for captivating viewing. It’s also a visually stunning movie, with Maclean delivering an American West that looks as good up on screen as it has in years. A climactic set piece at a remote country homestead is one of my favourite sequences of the year.
Ex-Machina is a mesmerising science fiction thriller that simply involves four characters interacting in one solitary location. It may sound basic, but the drama that unfolds is truly excellent. Domnhall Gleason’s Caleb is a low level computer programmer who wins the chance to visit the remote retreat of his employer’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once at Bateman’s home, he is shown the true purpose of his visit, to help the genius billionaire with his pet project, Ava, an android with artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s primary role is to see whether Ava can pass the famous Turing test, a test designed to see whether AI can pass as human. As Ava, Caleb and Nathan interact, it becomes increasingly unclear as to who is testing who, and the nature of what it means to be human gets called in to question. At times it can be every bit as unnerving and tense as it is clever. Easily one of the best sci-fi movies of recent years.
It seems an age since Birdman was released but I can assure you it was within 2015. Alejandro G. Inarritu’s black comedy-drama quite rightly received plenty of plaudits thanks to its unique story, spectacular performances and exquisite technical camerawork. The plot sees Michael Keaton playing an actor famed for once portraying a superhero, who is now struggling to be taken seriously in a Broadway play and to come to terms with his own demons prior to opening night. The use of Keaton in the lead role is in itself fairly meta, but the whole film plays out as a biting satire on the plight of movie actors as well as the role of critics in the creative process. The director’s decision to shoot the film so that it appears as one continuous take works brilliantly and adds to the flowing dreamlike quality of the story. A daring, stylish and utterly unique movie experience.
Another movie that feels like it was out ages ago but still falls into the 2015 category, Whiplash is an electrifying movie about obsession and the pursuit of perfection that manages to make jazz-drumming the most gripping subject matter possible. It charts music student Andrew Neiman’s (Miles Teller) desire to become the best jazz drummer he can be and the abusive and hard nosed instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who stands in his way. We see Fletcher push Neiman to his limits as the two engage in an increasingly destructive battle of wills. It’s a wonderfully intense movie that is anchored by two top draw central performances, with Simmons in particular excelling as the terrifying and domineering mentor.
Comfortably one of my favourite ever Pixar movies, Inside Out raised the studio’s bar yet again. The film follows the growing pains of Riley, a young girl whose family moves from the Midwest to San Francisco. We see the story unfold through personified versions of her emotions, Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness, who guide Riley in unison from her own internal control panel. It’s an incredibly complex idea for a kids movie and part of its triumph is taking these big concepts, such as the subconscious and imagination, and turning it into a visual adventure that both adults and children will follow. It’s clever, funny, and often extremely moving and perhaps articulates the perils of growing up and leaving childhood things behind with more subtlety than any other movie before it.
Ohhh the relief. Not only did The Force Awakens meet most people’s colossal expectations, it also went some way to helping us forget the immense disappointment of the prequels. For me it was everything I had hoped for, a deliriously fun and exciting blockbuster sci-fi movie that contained plenty of subtle (and some less than subtle) nods to the originals, while at the same time feeling like its own entity. It introduces new characters who you grow to care about and invest in, as well as bringing back old ones to great effect. The new recruits all shine, with Daisy Ridley’ Rey and John Boyega’s Finn injecting youth and vitality into the story, while Domhall Gleeson and Adam Driver’s bad guys sneer and scowl with aplomb. It was an exhilarating space adventure that managed the delicate balancing act of pleasing old fans as well as winning over a generation of new ones. Roll on Episode VIII!
Where some action movies might take their time and build up to a big dramatic crescendo, George Miller’s glorious Mad Max: Fury Road decided to just start out at breakneck speed and keep accelerating from there. A stunning visual spectacle from start to finish, even desert sandstorms become strangely balletic moments of beauty. The plot is simple, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a drifter joins forces with a female solider in order to flee a crazed cult leader, Immortan Joe, and help deliver Joe’s five wives to safety. They escape in an armoured oil tanker and engage in a bloody and brutal battle with Joe and his army as they cross the blistering and unforgiving desert. It’s utterly deranged from start to finish and it’s all the better for it. Tom Hardy is great as the brooding titular hero, as is Charlize Theron as the badass warrior, Imperator Furiosa. Everything about the movie works perfectly, the stunts, the cinematography, the soundtrack, it all adds up to make this one of the finest action movies of all time. And I do not say that lightly.