Ranking films is difficult and, ultimately, not of much value; but as a succinct way of looking back over the year and reliving some of the cinematic joys contained therein, lists are as good a way as anything. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen everything. There were critically acclaimed films released in 2015 with which I have not yet caught up – such as The Duke of Burgundy, The Martian, Still Alice and, to my sadness, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But even despite the numerous exciting films I missed out on, 2015 has been a good year, in particular the final few months, which yielded a number of the films on this list.
The top 10 below, presented in alphabetical order, represents the best 10 films I saw in 2015. Enjoy it, and be sure to catch up on these if you haven’t already:
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star as a long-married couple in Andrew Haigh’s poised double header about a piece of information which surfaces from the past to throw shadow over what initially appears to be an idyllic relationship. Taut, considered and not afraid to linger on intricacies, Haigh’s film works as a study of a relationship, but also has flickers of mystery and darkness in it. It generally relies on subtle emotions and understatement to tell its story, but the ending is a powerful and powerfully ambiguous triumph.
Michael Shannon is spellbinding as a morally objectionable – but perversely wise – real estate crook in Ramin Bahrani’s politically savvy thriller. Our protagonist is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) who is evicted by, and later works for, Rick Carver (Shannon) – a confused relationship that is never less than intriguing to watch. Carver delivers a speech roughly halfway through about how America is economically rigged, and it’s one of the most overtly political, hard-hitting moments I’ve experienced in the cinema this year.
Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg is such a reliable directorial hand. Watching his movies, you almost always get something that is, at worst, well crafted. From the early trailers for Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s telling of the true Cold War story of US insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks), it just felt right. This is a brilliantly told Cold War thriller, consisting mainly of increasingly fraught men talking in rooms. Hanks is brilliant, as he so often is, and Spielberg demonstrates for the umpteenth time that he has an innate understanding of cinema. Few directors blend theme, image and performance the way he does. Just wait for the scene near the beginning in which Donovan derides a CIA officer for disregarding the sanctity of the constitution. It might not sound like it on paper, but it’s breathtaking stuff.
Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby did a tremendous job adapting Colm Toibin’s well liked novel about an Irish girl – Eilis – who moves to Brooklyn against her will but eventually settles down when she falls in love. Things are complicated when she returns to Ireland to attend a funeral, and a secondary love interest comes into play. Emory Cohen is effectively charming as Tony, Eilis’ American sweetheart, but the film belongs to its young star, Saoirse Ronan, who gives her best performance. The introduction of a second suitor may feel a tad contrived and even Domhnall Gleeson, despite his best efforts, can’t make that section play flawlessly, but the film as a whole is ravishing and romantic.
Certain to be a regular on critics’ end-of-year lists, Carol is a tremendously delicate romance from director Todd Haynes depicting a relationship between Carol – worldly but damaged; going through a divorce – and Terese – innocent, struggling with her sexuality, inexperienced. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as Carol and Terese respectively) are excellent in different ways, and Kyle Chandler provides able support as Carol’s disconsolate husband Harge. It’s tender and affecting, shot beautifully by Edward Lachman on Super 16mm, and paints a sumptuous picture of 1950s America.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
In what should act as a star-making performance for British actress Bel Powley, Marielle Heller’s complex, passionate film is one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent years. Powley plays Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old who finds herself in an affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend. Although the film never loses sight of the disturbing elements of its storyline, it also never forgets to be funny and believable. As a quickly maturing teenager, Powley is terrific, embodying wisdom beyond her years but also the fundamental innocence of youth. Her single-minded journey is a joy to watch – bold and beautiful, with strong supporting performances and a lovely period feel.
A sensational return to form for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur may have been greeted apathetically in November, but earlier in the year Inside Out provided a welcome reminder this summer of just how good Pixar can be, and how far above most other animation houses it is. Director Pete Docter, whose most recent feature was the also-excellent Up, infuses this touching, intelligent narrative of the anthropomorphised emotions inside a young girl’s head with wit, pathos and profound beauty. I laughed, cried, and immediately wanted to see it again. I know the same will be true the next time I see it.
Mad Max: Fury Road
In 2015, George Miller returned to the Mad Max franchise 30 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The result felt like a release of decades of pent up energy, and it was brilliant. Tom Hardy (taking over from Mel Gibson) was great as the cracked Max, a man of few words haunted by fragments of the past, but the real star was Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa – a memorable and charismatic action heroine. Miller’s decision to refocus the franchise was a brave and ultimately rewarding one, while his penchant for vehicular mayhem has not diminished one iota. Bonkers and breathtaking.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
How pleasing to be able to put a Star Wars film on my end of year list. JJ Abrams’ fun-filled reawakening of George Lucas’ dormant franchise was a triumphant, action-packed spectacle, which – although it was extremely familiar in terms of plotting – had the daring to introduce a whole new generation of characters. The main three of those – Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver respectively) – all left the required impression, effectively pre-empting another two films in which to see them grow. It felt like Star Wars, and an entire generation of filmgoers breathed a sigh of relief.
“Not quite my tempo” are the memorable words of psychotic music teacher Terence Fletcher (a tremendous JK Simmons) in Damien Chazelle’s outrageously entertaining drama, as he pushes Miles Teller’s obsessive jazz drum student to the limits, both physically and mentally. There’s one contrivance in the story that feels unnecessary, but Whiplash is a film which hurtles along and will leave you breathless. It’s tense, wonderfully acted and really gets inside the minds of its deeply flawed characters, as well as presenting tense performance scenes that chill and thrill in equal measure.
Ex Machina, It Follows, Sicario, Slow West, Sunset Song