Goodbye 2015. What with different US and UK release schedules, and film festivals, let’s not quibble about what counts as a 2015 release – here’s everything I feel like including.
Grade A / *****
- Ex Machina
It’s a classic science fiction tale, it’s a thriller, it’s a mystery, it’s a philosophical riddle, it’s a tricksy nightmare, it’s a social satire… Ultimately it’s a magician’s trick that relies on gender as a socially-constructed performance plus good old fashioned male arrogance. Ex Machina is an unexpectedly feminist twist on the “sexy female robot” trope, and a delight throughout. All three leads are great, especially Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava and Oscar Isaac as her creator. In fact, of all this year’s science-fiction movies where Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are enemies, this was the best. And it has the best, creepiest dance scene of the year.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
The best movie chase ever? Yes. So good that it can take up pretty much the whole movie and not outstay its welcome. Chases have such a long illustrious history in cinema, and Fury Road is a shining exemplar of the form. At times this earned the mantle of pure cinema.
The best straight-up romance of the year. No nightmare surrealism, dream-logic, anti-romance or satiric sour taste (see The Duke of Burgundy or The Lobster) in this one – just pure romance, aching, longing, beyond anything I’ve seen for years. Plus it looks gorgeous, all decked out in deep reds and lonely teals.
- It Follows
Excellent John Carpenter-esque horror; wonderfully dreamy throughout, this perfectly captured the feeling of an inescapable nightmare.
- The Duke of Burgundy
Another dreamy/nightmarish movie; somewhere in the 20th century (to borrow the opening line from Brazil), somewhere in central Europe (possibly). In a world seemingly without men, two women pursue a relationship steeped in role-playing and artifice. In between hints of David Lynch and homages to Stan Brakhage, tensions slowly mount and loyalties dissolve. Romantic, heartbreaking, and melancholy. The most painful romance of the year.
Grade A- / *****
- Catch Me Daddy
A modern western set in the north of England, as a runaway Pakistani bride is hunted down by her family and their thugs-for-hire. This movie expertly plays the audience like an instrument throughout. Only the very very ending hits perhaps the wrong note, but everything else is great. The best scene is one of dancing to Patti Smith (with choreography by FKA Twigs!): second best dance scene of the year.
- The Lobster
The funniest satire on romance this year. Sure, it’s much better in the first half than the second… but even the second half is pretty good, and the final moments are sublime. But more importantly, the first half is just that good that it wins the film an “A” grade all on its own. Colin Farrell, Olivia Coleman and Ashley Jensen are stand-outs.
- 45 Years
Heartbreaking in its quiet intensity – Charlotte Rampling gives the performance of the year in this portrait of a marriage disintegrating as the past literally unthaws.
- World of Tomorrow
The only short on this list is also the best animation I saw this year – a bleak comedy of the future, and the nature of existence itself. Available to stream. Google it.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Star Wars movie we’d been waiting for; essentially a remix of A New Hope, and to a lesser extent Empire and Return, but what a remix. Map-based plot-holes and dangling threads be dammed, this was a good old fashioned adventure romp with a great villian, touching friendships, a noble sacrifice and a cute robot. Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm, and they got off to a great start. That said, hopefully the other four Star Wars movies they have planned will follow their own path.
- The Witch
Not out until Spring ’16, but featured at various Film Festivals this year. Terrifying. Kinda disregards The Crucible by saying “what if there was a witch in the New England woods?”, but if a horror film is this good, well… it earns that right.
Grade B+ / ****
Another excellent chase movie, this time a disoriented British squaddie on the run behind ‘enemy line’ in Belfast in 1971 – after seeing something he shouldn’t have every side wants him dead. If foot chases are more your thing, this is the movie for you. Plus it has armed people knocking on front doors, pretending to be friendly and concealing their weapons just out of sight of the peep hole. You know the kind of scene. Excellent.
- The Wolfpack
The best documentary I saw all year (NB: I didn’t see Amy). Phenomenal, and like a lot of my favourite films I saw this year, strangely dreamlike. A family of (mostly) brothers who are forbidden to leave their New York apartment compensate by remaking blockbusters inside it. But when one of them escapes dressed as Mike Myers from Halloween, everything changes.
There’s such wonderful joy in this movie, such energy and humour and power; it just winds itself up and rips through the screen for 88 solid minutes. Move over Die Hard, this is my new favourite Christmas movie
- Green Room
Another festival film set for release in early ’16. A worthy companion piece to the director’s earlier Blue Ruin, a siege movie in the Assault on Precinct 13 mould; sweaty, claustrophobic, tense, panicky, and often suddenly very very violent. Patrick Stewart gives an excellent performance as the Neo-Nazi who needs some teens disposed of, and Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin are especially great as a bunch of kids who just happened to be in the wrong green room at the wrong moment.
- A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence
Like a Swedish Monty Python on Xanex, this completes the loose trilogy of sketch-based movies Roy Andersson started with Songs from the Seventh Floor and You, The Living. Pure savage deadpan humour delivered at a snail’s pace, and all the more relishable for that. Again, I seem to be all about the dreamlike movies this year, but what are movies if not a dream we can all share in the dark?
- A Most Violent Year
There were three big movies about the struggles of people fighting to start businesses this year: this, Steve Jobs, and Joy. This was the best one. Oscar Isaac – who is ON FIRE this year, let’s notice that – wants to establish himself as a major player in the heating oil business. But when his trucks start getting hijacked, how long can he resist calling in the services of his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) kingpin father? Incidentally, Chastain is amazing in this, more than making up for her limp, badly directed turn in The Martian later in the year. A Most Violent Year got middling reviews from some people who wanted it to be Carlitos’s Way or something. I like Carlito’s Way a lot, it’s the first 18 I ever saw in a cinema. This isn’t that movie. But come at it without expectations and it’s really good.
- While We’re Young
Noah Baumbach once again trolling hipsters, but this time also taking on narcissistic middle aged couples fighting the loss of youth instead of growing into it, and (interestingly) picking over the state of modern documentary making. I think Baumbach is genuinely annoyed by the BS slights of hand of the likes of Catfish or Exit Through the Gift Shop. I’m happy he got the chance to express that while showing us Naomi Watts at a hip-hop exercise class.
A single shot, lasting 2 hours 15 minutes, tracks Victoria. She’s a young Spanish girl enjoying, then leaving, a Berlin basement dance club. Some guys are leaving at the same time. They’re friendly. They’re drunk. They’d like a chat. Don’t worry, they really are nice guys… but nonetheless this is about to turn into the night from hell. The single shot technique leaves you feeling utterly trapped in a narrative sliding out of control. Awesome.
Excellent Michael-Mann style US/Mexico border antics. Amazingly shot (thanks Roger Deakins, WHEN WILL YOU WIN YOUR OSCAR?). A little strange how they treat Emily Blunt – hard to explain without spoiling things, but they definitely drift away from her character towards the end, and she is supposedly the protagonist. Still, at least that gives Benico Del Toro some space to get ridiculously macho/brutal with a drugs lord. Comes on like a cross between Heat and Zero Dark Thirty, and would have been much higher in this list had Emily Blunt had much to do with the ending.
- Force Majeure
Another wonderful satire of relationships, and how much men need to be the heroes of their own stories. Dissects the modern marriage with surgical precision.
Grade B / ****
- Inherent Vice – Fuzzy, strangely mesmerising, oddly forgettable in the specifics but utterly memorable in its mood.
- Bridge of Spies – Spielbergian in the best sense, then (suddenly) the worst. Seriously, you can do an emotional climax without a lot of grandstanding shots, golden light and blaring mood music. But Hanks is great as ever, and Mark Rylance even better than that.
- Mistress America – the second Baumbach jab at delusional youth this year; great first half in the Francis Ha mould, then suddenly it’s a country house farce in the second half, and which point it stumbles around quite a bit.
- Clouds of Sils Maria – Kristen Stewart gives maybe the best supporting performance of the year. She’s so phenomenal in this (and bouncing lines off Juliette Binoche can’t hurt).
- Wild Tales – Argentinian portmanteu of revenge stories; 1/3 great, 1/3 fun, 1/3 forgettable.
- Girlhood – The best coming-of-age movie of the year, as a young girl starts to carve out her identity in an exurban Paris that just wants to put her in a box. Full of life.
- Anomalisa – What would have been a great 1 hour stop-motion sketch stretched out to feature length. A lot to love, but spread too thinly.
- Best of Enemies – Acidic fun; so wonderful to see William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal (already each looking like figures out of time) try and tear each other down, completely oblivious to the fact they already look like circus acts.
- Slow West – Dreamy western, punctuated with some excellent gunplay set pieces.
- Orion: The Man Who Would Be King – Heartbreaking true life tale (file under “stranger than fiction”) about a man doomed to live under the shadow of Elvis Presley, who could just not give up on his dream.
- Jurassic World – Leave your brain at the door for some B-movie hijinks served up with aplomb (with a side order of eye-rolling sexism).
- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – The first entry in this series that brings literally nothing new. So far the M:I films have each had their own slightly distinctive vibe. This fifth instalment was just a rehash of whatever bits of the first four seemed to work well. The highlight was the “De Palma” section, riffing on the first movie: the assassination at the opera with all the splitscreen. I love this stuff in actual De Palma movies, and I liked it being imitated here.
- Bone Tomahawk – Kurt Russell in an excellent men-on-a-mission movie. Imagine Jaws if Jaws were a western and the shark was a tribe of mutant cannibals. A long long trek is punctuated by great back-and-forth macho posse banter, and (ultimately) an insanely violent ending. Attitude to race is somewhat questionable though (the director proudly proclaimed is wasn’t just a mix of horror and western, but of the 19th century tradition of ‘lost race’ stories too – yup, maybe that’s the problem.)
- Steve Jobs – so much fun watching actors chewing over Sorkin’s dialogue that you don’t realise until the credits roll that ultimately… well, who cares? But Fassbender facing off against (the great) Kate Winslet is a joy to watch. Plus I cried in one scene.
- Spectre– A second-rate Roger Moore bond movie dressed up in Daniel Craig clothes. The other way around would have been better: a solid, meaningful, logical plot with a surface of fun spy hijinks could work; a bunch of random wacky plot mechanisms with a surface of dour self importance does not. One of those films that seems fun at the time, but a solid 24 hours of reflection later and you realise it was nonsense. Still, a good opening sequence.
- White Bird In A Blizzard – A dreamlike mystery centring on Eva Green in full-on rolling-eyes cackling hysteria mode. Obviously I liked this. Plus Shaline Woodley tries to seduce Thomas Jane (playing a cop) with maximum awkwardness.
SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED IF YOU ARE PARTICULARLY INTERESTED OR PERHAPS ON A PLANE
Grade B- / ***
- Life Itself – Touching Roger Ebert documentary.
- Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution – Now I know who Eldridge Cleaver is. EDUCATIONAL.
- The End of The Tour – Jason Segal is excellent as David Foster Wallace. The rest is a bit flimsy.
- Cartel Land – US/Mexico border doc, e.g. the “real” Sicario. Unfocussed at times, and overlong, but good.
- Hitchcock/Truffaut – Interesting/forgettable doc, fun to see Hitch critiquing Truffaut and Scorsese explaining why he likes Vertigo so much. Not much to this in the end through – like a superior DVD extra.
- High Rise – Disappointing. Looks great, and Luke Evans is surprisingly excellent. But the plotting is dire. They live in a highrise. Halfway through an argument causes a sudden and complete decent into anarchy. Too clumsy for satire, zero narrative tension, and characters so two-dimensional you just don’t care. Makes for a great trailer though.
- Fear Itself – Another dreamy movie. Documentary on horror movies that drifts from scene to scene with a chilling monotone voiceover. Simultaneously fascinating and soporific.
- Evolution – Nightmarish body-horror fable. Kids raised on a volcanic island by identical-looking women. Strange rituals abound. Memorable. But boring.
- Black Mass – Johnny Depp wants an Oscar, so slaps on the latex facemask. Vacuous, but nicely polished. Dakota Johnson is EXCELLENT, in her one notable scene.
- The Hateful Eight – Enormously disappointing – this had a lot going for it, and there are some great flourishes in the script, direction and acting. But the plot is woefully undercooked, with setups not going anywhere as interesting as they could have, and themes of racism cack-handedly mismanaged. Add in the only female cast member getting repeatedly punched in the face (sometimes for simple comic effect) and give it a butt-numbing three hour running time, and you have a strong contender for QT’s worst movie. It’s either this or Death Proof.
- The Martian – Solid enough. Pretty bland every time they cut away from Matt Damon though. Even Jessica Chastain suffers from that, so I assume it’s Ridley Scott’s fault.
- TrainWreck – I like Amy Schumer, and this had some fun moments, particularly from Jon Cena. But it’s not great and the Grease-style makeover ending is pretty awful.
- Kingsman – The exploding heads towards the end looked so poor.
- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – A worthy cause, but strangely dull. Good footage of Tom Cruise though.
- Paddington – Fun but forgettable. Nice warm character moments with High Bonneville and Sally Hawkins though.
- Ant-Man – Some nice moments, but the core of the script is just the same old origin story all over again.
- The Assassin – It’s very hard to merge wuxia tropes with Tarkovskian ‘slow cinema’. The Assassin mostly fails.
Grade C+ / ***
- Avengers: The Age of Ultron – Nonsense plot saved by character moments mainly b6sed on the foundations of earlier, better Marvel movies.
- Terminator: Genysis – Better than you’ve heard – works as drunken fan-fic. In fact, better than the last two Terminator movies.
- White God – Nice DOGS GONE WILD imagery in this tale of a canine revolution.
- Crimson Peak – Majorly disappointing: a gothic romance that’s not that romantic, a ghost story that rapidly loses interest in the ghosts, and a haunted house film that’s not that scary.
- Mr Holmes – Old Sherlock tries to solve the mystery of his disappearing memories. A nice film, nicely made. But forgettable (ba-dum-tish).
Grade C / **
- The Man From Uncle – Bland. Only Hugh Grant gets out with any credit.
- Everest – Saggy, though Josh Brolin gets a great sequence.
- Inside Out – Dull and manipulative.
- Mommy – Dull and pleased with itself.
Grade C- / **
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2 – Overlong and incomplete.
- Joy – Only the second act works.
- Kumiko The Treasure Hunter – Interesting in concept, boring in execution.
- The Wonders – Boring, but it does have one great hallucinatory sequence towards the end.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – Boring. A massive disappointment.
- John Wick – Stupid.
Grade D+ / *
- Jupiter Ascending – Could have been great camp. Isn’t.
- Aaaaaaaah! – A sketch extended to movie length.
Grade D / *
- Ghost Theater – Like a particularly bad Tom Baker Dr Who story.
Grade D- / *
- Listen Up, Philip – Mostly just dull. But the fake Roth-esque novel covers are fun (you can Google them).
ALMOST PHYSICALLY IRRITATING
Grade F+ / no stars
- The Forbidden Room – Astonishingly dull, endlessly pleased with itself, and just for good measure grindingly sexist.
Not yet seen: Amy, Phoenix, Mustang, The Revenant, The Room.