Let’s start with some tough truths: 2015 was a lousy year in movies.
Not commercially, of course. Universal had huge hits with Jurassic World, the Minions Movie, and Furious 7. There was also a big Bond film in Spectre and franchise tentpoles such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
The billions rolled in and, as blockbusters go, these were all pretty solid. I liked Spectre, I admired Joss Whedon’s plate-spinning tricks directing Avengers (how many different story lines, back stories and effects shots?) and I liked M:I 5 a lot more than I thought I would. And Ridley Scott’s The Martian ran and ran.
And now comes Star Wars, of course, which is a force for good as far as cinemas go, because lots of people pile through the doors, munch popcorn and slurp enormous drinks. Events like this keep moviegoing at the heart of modern culture, and that’s exciting.
However, in terms of quality, there’s a lack of experimentation and edge coming out of Hollywood. They’re so worried about pleasing Chinese movie goers (without remotely understanding them), that we end up with safe product. I worry it’s the experience which keeps people coming to the cinemas, more than the movie itself.
I don’t like to moan, especially on an end of year list designed to cheer, but even in lean years I can easily find 20 films to treasure and watch again with relish. Just saying, I found that a harder task than ever in 2015.
Nevertheless, I’m happy with these 20 (25 if you count my bubbling-unders). I don’t think there are many masterpieces in there, but they’ve all got moments of genius and I’ll vouch for the quality and merit of all of them, and I think the top 5 here are all FABULOUS, so don’t get me wrong. I just wish the mainstream would provide a few more gems – but hey, my job is to seek out the best stuff, wherever it may hide. I’m particularly pleased to see that, out of no effort on my part, a strong female representation here, among both directors and main characters.
Re-issues of the Year: Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight (Orson Welles shows how Shakespeare should done on screen); L’Eclisse (remastered Antonioni treasure on money, modernity and alienation in 1960s Rome).
20: National Gallery – Veteran documentarian Fred Wiseman’s superlative, typically lengthy study of our own great artistic institution is beautiful, educational and akin to the experience of wandering through (and practically into) the paintings themselves.
19: Ex-Machina – Alex Garland’s sci-fi was sexy, smart and stylish (things sci-fis generally are not) and it made you think and feel about gender, sexuality and technology all at the same time. Alicia Vikander was perfect as the fembot Ava and Domhnall Gleeson excellent as the scientist afraid of his own sexual awakenings.
18: A Most Violent Year – Overlooked during last awards season, this was an icy cool gangster thriller with shades of Sidney Lumet, as Oscar Isaac’s Latino garbage tycoon tries to sign off on a property deal with some Hassidic Jews. Jessica Chastain was great as the wife and crime family heiress and the atmosphere of 1980 New York festered beautifully under JC Chandor’s direction – a quality film.
17: Catch Me Daddy – Contrary to unpopular belief, you don’t see much British social realism these days on screen but this debut from Daniel and Matt Wolfe felt like a jolt into properly dangerous territory. The story concerns a Muslim girl on the run with her pasty white boyfriend but hounded by a posse of vengeful Muslims and a bounty hunter (Gary Lewis) , all on the command of her dishonoured father. It plays out like a Western on the blasted Yorkshire moors, all dark and stormy and then flecked by cheap drugs and boxes of fried chicken. Plus there’s a memorable scene set to Patti Smith’s Horses.
16: Wild Tales – Argentinian director Damian Szifron wowed arthouse audiences with this comedic compendium of society on the brink. Each tales lasts about 20 mins and they’re all loosely on the subject of revenge. It starts with a zinger – a sketch about a plane hijack. There’s a great urban story about an explosives engineer (Ricardo Darin) getting angry about parking tickets and a finale at the Jewish wedding from hell. Brilliant stuff, with Pedro Almodovar helping out as producer.
15: Mia Madre – I love Italian film maker Nanni Moretti when he makes these very personal films and Mia Madre starred the director himself, taking care of his dying mother. But the main storyline concerned his character’s sister, a film maker (beautifully played by Margherita Buy) struggling to direct her latest movie, deal with her mother and daughter, and control a prima donna American film star Barry Huggins, a delicious character turn from John Turturro.
14: Dear White People – Ah, now here’s something dangerous and provocative, a film satire on campus politics about sexuality, wealth and race, very funny but also fresh and stylish, like seeing an early Spike Lee movie. Tessa Thompson is outstanding as the campus DJ with the titular talk show but there are loads of fascinatingly symbolic characters here in director Justin Simien’s breakthrough movie, and a Halloween party idea so toxic you have to laugh between gasps.
13: Taxi Tehran – I really admire Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s continued ability to make movies while under house arrest and ban from his government. For this one, he smuggled little cameras into a car and pretended to be a taxi driver (nice hat), driving various characters around Tehran so we get a social mosaic portrait of life on its streets, from cheeky DVD sellers to thieves, old women looking for blessings, human rights lawyers and crash victims close to death. It’s often pretty funny and has a wonderfully wry tone while digging deep into an inherently conflicted modern metropolis.
12: Whiplash – I’ve got to love a jazz drumming movie. Miles Teller was very impressive as the student driven to bleeding-hand madness by his over-bearing perfectionist tutor, the Oscar-winning JK Simmons. The film drove forward like an insane beat and put Duke Ellington’s Caravan back in the jazz charts.
11: The Second Mother – Tender and funny, this is the best film out of Brazil in a while, with a fabulous performance from Regina Casé as the long-serving maid Val in a wealthy Sao Paolo household. When her bright daughter Jessica comes from the provinces to study for an entrance exam to a prestigious architecture school, everyone’s life is turned upside down in a clever social satire, directed with a delicate, observational touch by Anna Muylaert.
To be continued….