2015 was a great year for cinema, with UK box office takings on the rise for the first time since 2012. Big hitters such as Spectre, Jurassic World and The Avengers: Age of Ultron drew audiences in record numbers, although many of the sequels and franchise instalments of this year proved disappointing.
These are my top ten films of 2015. As usual, rather than obscure festival darlings, I’ve selected films that were out in UK cinemas between January and December last year, because too many best film lists are made up of films that haven’t yet or won’t be on general release. This is a list of great films you could have seen, and if you didn’t then you should catch up. These are all worth a watch.
10. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
UK Release: 17 December 2015
A runaway droid protects a critical message, an evil empire is on the rise and a young orphan is discovers their potential to use the force.
In a year full of franchise installments, this was the most highly anticipated of all, but after the disappointment of George Lucas’ hamfisted trilogy of prequels it was also one to approach with caution. Thankfully, J.J. Abrams delivered a Star Wars movie full of nostalgia for the original films that also introduced compelling characters that bring new life to the franchise. Like any Abrams production, the story evaporates if you look at it too closely, but there’s a lot of fun to be had and for that, I can forgive the film’s shortcomings.
Director: James Ward Byrkit
UK Release: 13 Feburary 2015
The effect of a passing comet wreaks havoc on a group of friends at a dinner party.
Coherence is an experiment in cinematic minimalism – shot at the Director’s house over five days with no script and a skeleton crew. The result feels raw and naturalistic. The improvised dialogue is shouty at times but the conflicts and fractures that the group experience as the night wears on give an emotional grounding to the cosmic phenomenon. Byrkit capitalizes on an engaging premise that is perfectly suited to a tight budget.
8. Force Majeure
Director: Ruben Östlund
UK Release: 10 April 2015
The bond between a picture-perfect family is tested on a skiing holiday in this darkly comic drama from Sweden.
While the family are at lunch, a controlled avalanche comes uncomfortably close to engulfing the restaurant. Tension arises when Tomas, instead of coming to the aid his wife and children, runs for his life. What follows is an examination of gender roles and expectations within marriage and family and the frustration that arises when these ideals do not hold true in reality. Tomas’s masculinity is in crisis, strained by the restrictions of family life and societal expectation.
The film is punctuated by the surreal routines of the ski resort as cannons blast through the night creating more avalanches and snow ploughs hum across the slopes maintaining order. What is going on is an attempt to restrain nature, to make it more attractive and acceptable – more safe. But as the contradiction of the ‘controlled’ avalanche suggests, nature is wild and dangerous and our attempts to control its power are sometimes futile.
The family’s crisis sparks a debate that picks at the tension between who we truly are and the face we present to the world. The film loses its way a little towards the end, but after unpacking such a can of worms it’s not surprising that finding a resolution is difficult. Despite that, this is a fantastic scenario to chew over, especially when it is so artfully presented.
7. Bridge of Spies
Director: Steven Spielberg
UK Release: 27 November 2015
A lawyer who is tasked with representing a suspected Soviet spy soon finds himself deeply embroiled in the Cold War in this engrossing thriller based on true events.
Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the Jimmy Stewart-like man of values. He plays to his usual type here but is well suited to the role. Mark Rylance also gives a great performance as the stoic enemy agent, resigned to his fate whatever it may be.
The Coen brothers share screenwriting duties with Matt Charman, lending an air of satire and absurdity to the proceedings, especially in the convolutions of the German and Russian bureaucratic processes. The comic touches don’t outweigh the suspense, however. The film contains very little action, but the Cold War setting provides the constant threat of potential violence. The plot is driven by conversation, with numerous scenes that are basically just men talking in rooms and yet the performances and direction keep the tension high throughout the discussions, which could have been inert in lesser craftsmen’s hands. The Coens’ script keeps Spielberg’s usual sentimentality in check and the result is the product of a confident director at the top of his game.
The film is especially pertinent in raising issues with America’s treatment of its enemies, as society is quick to deny basic rights to the accused spy, with the fear of the un-American threat outweighing people’s abilities to see or treat the suspect as a human being. His trial is biased, his right of appeal is denied and the public are baying for his blood in a first act that has shades of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is easy to see reflections here of the current political climate and the ongoing ‘War on Terror’.
Director: Sean Baker
UK Release: 13 November 2015
Two transgender sex workers have an action packed Christmas Eve in this vibrant farce.
Tangerine was one the most talked about films of 2015’s Sundance Festival, namely for being almost entirely shot using adapted iPhones. The low tech filming technique is a perfect way to capture life on a street level, giving the film a guerilla feel. Life is the operative word here – Tangerine is a film so buzzing with energy and colour that it’s vibrancy is captivating. What is captured is a snapshot of a world that feels genuinely lived-in, every street corner holding potential for more characters and stories that extend beyond the short period we spend there.
Actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are both revelations playing fully rounded, flawed characters with foul-mouthed vigour and heartbreaking tenderness. Despite all of the laughs, the bond between their two characters is the most striking and memorable element of this breathless film. This is a Los Angeles that is far from the gaze of traditional Hollywood and a film that, though stylized, feels undeniably true.
Director: Christian Petzold
UK Release: 8 May 2015
It is the end of the war and German Jewish nightclub singer Nelly is a concentration camp survivor. Her face, disfigured by a bullet wound, is reconstructed with plastic surgery, leaving her unrecognizable to herself. Eager to return to her former life, Nelly searches Berlin for her husband.
Christian Petzold’s compelling post-war drama is all about the German people’s struggle in the wake of World War II. Berlin is a city ravaged by conflict and working to rebuild itself. The film plays with ideas of identity be it lost, altered or performed. Those spared the horror of the camps seem unable to acknowledge the truth, preferring to deny or distort reality. Central to all of this is the identity crisis of Nelly, played perfectly by Nina Hoss. Nelly remains an enigmatic character throughout the film and yet her ambiguity doesn’t distance her from the audience. We are kept in suspense throughout, always wondering who Nelly trusts and what she has planned. The film is beautifully understated, subtle and low key, yet gripping all the way to its electrifying conclusion.
Director: Todd Haynes
UK Release: 27 November 2015
A department store clerk falls for an older woman in 50s New York.
Haynes’s sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt is one of the most moving cinematic love stories of recent years. Every shot is gorgeous, with magnificent period detail and costuming. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have such crackling chemistry onscreen that it is impossible not to root for the couple. The tension of being gay in the restrictive 1950s looms like a cloud over the pair and yet Haynes never makes martyrs of our heroines, giving them dignity and agency rarely afforded to queer characters in Hollywood. Carol is a work of sheer beauty, completely enveloping the audience in its exquisite world. It’s a crime that it didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture this year.
Director: Damien Chazelle
UK Release: 16 January 2015
Ambitious young drummer, Andrew Neiman, strives for greatness at an illustrious music school under the watch of abusive teacher, Fletcher.
Whiplash is a tour de force, charged with energy and intensity. JK Simmons and Miles Teller excel in their roles of tyrannical teacher and driven student, bringing a complex dynamic to life. Simmons terrifies, dominating the screen and Teller’s portrayal of the the internal conflict between Neiman’s drive and his discomfort will have you squirming in your seat. Brought together by a desire for excellence, this pair have a toxic relationship that forces the viewer to question the cost of greatness.
Do artists need to suffer in order to succeed? Simmons’ character certainly thinks so, relaying an anecdote of how a young Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head when he played badly, and how the resulting shame led him to focus on becoming his absolute best. Whiplash is an unsettling film as we watch Fletcher continually push Andrew, berating and bullying him, always wondering how much more he can take. This intensity is matched by the music of the film, fast-paced, punchy jazz with energetic drumming that requires a really physical performance from Teller. The spirit of the music is suffused throughout the film, as the rhythmic editing follows the beat.
I particularly like the ambiguity of the ending, which could equally be seen as Andrew’s victory or his defeat.
2. It Follows
Director: David Robert Mitchell
UK Release: 27 February 2015
“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is one of the best horror movies of recent years. It’s not often that a genre movie, especially horror, can be seen as art, but this smart and stylish film is spectacular. Beautifully shot, it is like a spiritual sibling to The Virgin Suicides, existing in a hazy teenage world where adults are rarely seen.
The concept is modern and edgy, so perfect for the genre and its adolescent perspective that it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before. The threat is a supernatural entity that pursues its victims endlessly until it kills them. The only way to save yourself is to pass it on by sleeping with someone. It is open to all manner of potential interpretations such sexually transmitted infections, the loss of innocence and issues of consent. For these young people, sex is a scary concept, one with messy and life-altering implications and the need to pass ‘it’ on is an added pressure to act.
Our unfortunate heroine falls prey to ‘it’ after a date with a charming man that takes a horrible turn. Rising scream queen Maika Monroe brings a balance of vulnerability and resilience to the role of Jay.
The pervading sense of dread is hair-raising and the ever-approaching force leaves the audience on constant lookout during every wide shot as any approaching figure could spell death for our characters. You’ll be looking over your shoulder for a long time after this one.
1. The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
UK Release: 11 June 2015
Joshua Oppenheimer returns to Indonesia in this follow-up to his documentary The Act of Killing.
The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013, but it is also a difficult film for a number of reasons. The documentary took an uncomfortable look back at the Indonesian massacre of 1965-68 in which over 500,000 alleged Communists were murdered by Government-sanctioned death squads. Even more disturbing is the fact that the killers are still in power in local and national government, with the families of the victims continuing to live in silence as their oppressors were celebrated for their ‘heroic’ acts of killing. What has evolved since these events is a society that is deeply held in a complex system of denial through which both victims and perpetrators filter their memories of the past and their present day interactions, unable to accept or acknowledge the tragedy of what happened.
With The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer took an unconventional approach in his exploration of the massacre by asking the leaders of the death squads to recreate the killings as movie scenes in the style of their favourite gangster films. This proved to be a powerful way to demonstrate the galling lack of remorse and empathy of these men. What is tricky for the audience, beyond the shocking content, is that little blame or scrutiny is placed on the killing squad leaders. In order to shine a light on their blasé attitudes to murder, it was necessary for Oppenheimer to collude with these men and to play devil’s advocate. When he began the project, Oppenheimer’s intention was to make a film with the survivors of the genocide, but they were bullied into silence. The Act of Killing was the film that Oppenheimer had to make in order for The Look of Silence to be possible.
All of this background is necessary to begin discussing The Look of Killing because this second film helps to bring the first into perspective. Oppenheimer redresses the balance, giving voice to the victims by bringing us a much more personal viewpoint, that of Optometrist Adi, whose brother Ramli was brutally murdered in the genocide. Adi introduces us to his parents, still traumatised by Ramli’s death and courageously confronts the killers in a series of astonishing and tense interviews. Throughout the film, Adi comes up against the dismissal that “the past is the past,” meeting a resistance to remember on both sides of the atrocity. This denial of the past is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it’s as if everyone has been brainwashed. It is an irreparable wound, cutting deep into the heart of Indonesian culture and being perpetuated through generations.
The Look of Killing is an astonishing and extraordinarily powerful film. It’s more accessible than its forerunner, but no less striking. This is essential viewing.
What were your favourite films of 2015? Tell me in the comments below or let me know on twitter.