From lightsabers to lobsters, from Macbeth to Mad Max, our resident film critic Tom Bangay gives us his top 10 cinematic countdown of 2015…
As 2015 wraps up, it’s time to take a look at my top ten films of the year. Honourable mentions go to The Falling, Love and Mercy, Spy, It Follows, The Martian, Sisters, Beasts of No Nation and Ex Machina (though I’m not sure what Alex Garland is trying to say about women with the latter). Also, try as I might, I didn’t manage to see Sicario which I’m sure would have trafficked its way into the list.
10. John Wick
Last year it was The Raid 2 that muscled its way onto my pretentious list, although that wasn’t particularly surprising after the success of the first film. John Wick, on the other hand, came completely out of left-field. A year ago I wouldn’t have imagined a Keanu Reeves hitman shoot-em-up keeping out the likes of Beasts of No Nation or Love and Mercy, but here we are. Keanu’s sumptuous gun-fu dance through legions of bewildered Russians has revitalised its lead’s career, kickstarted its director’s, and almost certainly started up a successful franchise. And all because of one innocent puppy.
9. The Invitation
I worried about including this – at the time of writing, a UK release date hasn’t been set – but I caught this at the London Film Festival and it deserves a wide audience if it does arrive. This agonisingly tense thriller from Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) is not particularly star-studded – Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) and Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones) are probably the biggest names – but if anything that helps to keep us on our toes. The film concerns a man accepting an invitation to a dinner party from his ex-wife, only to find that something is desperately wrong in the house, and nobody else seems willing to acknowledge it. Kusama keeps the reveals till very late in the game, but lets the slow-burn horror slowly build. Don’t miss this one when it arrives.
Michael Fassbender is an obvious choice for Macbeth and the results are predictably excellent, with Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel directing and Marion Cotillard taking hand-washing duties as Lady Macbeth. This was the highlight of another bumper Fassbender year, including Slow West and Steve Jobs – does the man never take a holiday? Aside from his stylised, dreamlike vision of the Scottish highlands, Kurzel’s main innovation was to make the Macbeths recently bereaved, with their child’s funeral opening the film. This doesn’t at all feel like a gimmick and gives context for Cotillard to deliver a much more fragile and nuanced version of Lady Macbeth than the cartoonish arch-schemer we often see. Kurzel and Fassbender reunite next year for the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed.
7. The Gift
First time director Joel Edgerton’s film about an odd, forgotten school friend, Gordo (Edgerton) trying to inveigle his way back into the life of a successful fellow pupil, Simon (Jason Bateman), was a nasty little psychodrama that had me hooked from the first scenes and short of breath by the end. Rebecca Hall plays Simon’s wife Robyn, who suspects there’s more to their childhood story than the cool, calculating Simon is prepared to admit. Cranking up the danger until the delicious denouement, it’s a tense and superbly confident debut from Edgerton and hints at great promise behind the camera in the year to come.
6. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos quickly earned a reputation for challenging and darkly humorous films with Dogtooth, and for this, his English language debut, he assembled a terrific cast including a paunchy Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman and Ben Whishaw. The film imagines a society where being single is forbidden and individuals who are unable to find mates are sent to a hotel to pair off. If they don’t manage it in the allotted time they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice. The first half of the film focuses on exploring this concept, with deadpan black comedy and horrible farce ruling the hotel. Although it loses its focus a little as the film wears on, it’s a thoughtful and entertaining look at the darker corners of modern romance.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I can’t in good conscience say there’s nothing wrong with the new Star Wars. The plot is remarkably similar to episodes IV and VI, as well as the 2009 Star Trek; every character who needs to meet someone and get somewhere manages to do it astonishingly quickly and conveniently; and some of the cameos and revivals of old characters just fall flat. But set against the sheer scale of expectations, and the scope for failure, that JJ Abrams faced when trying to deliver on Disney’s $4bn investment, this has to be viewed as a huge success. There weren’t many other times this year when palpable joy seemed to be breaking out all around me in the cinema, and the heroes and villains that have been established for the next episodes will certainly hold our interest – particularly Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. It’s cracked a billion dollars already, and episode VIII is slated for May 2017.
4. Inside Out
Pixar’s latest was the first children’s film I’d seen in a while and I’m not ashamed to admit that it gave me All The Feelings. This one’s pretty abstract – the story of a troubled young girl as seen through the eyes of the personified emotions that pilot her brain. Whatever happened to some toys coming to life? But as per usual the master emotional manipulators at Pixar make it seem like an ages-old fable they discovered in their magical attic. Note-perfect voice work from Amy Poehler (Joy), Mindy Kaling (Disgust) and Phyllis Smith in particular (Sadness) brings the high-minded but accessible story to life, and yet again Pixar have a modern classic on their hands.
3. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Ana Lily Arimpour’s genre-ambivalent Iranian fang flick is at times dreamy, tense, funny, frightening, quiet, loud, moody, musical, romantic, violent, and always compelling. The last couple of years have seen a stream of vampire movies that thumbed their noses at the gothic traditionalism of films like Twilight, with other highlights being Only Lovers Left Alive and What We Do in the Shadows. This is the pick of the bunch, crashing a classic teen romance into a load of death and suffering in a bleak, beautiful black and white town, leaving the viewer uplifted and entertained. Arimpour’s English-language debut comes next, The Bad Batch, which she describes as ‘a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story set in a Texas wasteland’. Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey are set to star.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
It’s a wonder that Mad Max: Fury Road was ever made at all, never mind that it turned out to be rather good. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third in the series, came out twenty years ago and made $36m at the box office. Director George Miller managed a few hits in between (The Witches of Eastwick, Happy Feet) but it seemed unlikely that the 70-year-old in 2015 would live up to his Mel Gibson-toting glory days of 1985. But what Miller managed with Fury Road was almost inexplicable. How does something that’s essentially one long anarchic chase sequence get a $150m budget and an iMax release? How is Tom Hardy so compelling when he barely has any lines? How does Charlize Theron’s character have people hailing this as a feminist blockbuster? That’s without mentioning the extraordinary cinematography and a superb turn from Nicholas Hoult. One of the few big-ticket films this year that smashed expectations and delivered in spades.
1. The Duke of Burgundy & Carol
I’m cheating and I don’t care. Todd Haynes awards-tipped romance, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is probably the better feted of these two; Peter Strickland’s women-only domestic drama, starring Sidse Babbette Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna, was for me the more riveting and affecting of the pair. But both are films that couldn’t care less about the male gaze and focus instead on the subtle power dynamics and emotional mayhem at work as a relationship between two women develops. Burgundy concerns the increasingly strained role-play that governs the relationship between two butterfly academics; Carol is a period piece about an aspiring photographer’s affair with an older divorcee. Both are superbly played, intensely moody, and steered by a real master behind the camera. Together they represented a true departure from the male-centred modern cinematic hegemony, and in doing so, marked themselves out from almost every other award-seeking film around. A cracking double-bill too.
And the biggest disappointment of the year?
Too many candidates this year – Jurassic Park was many things but it was never dumb in the way Jurassic World was. Inherent Vice was just too stoned and snoozy to stay interesting, and Steve Jobs felt like a missed opportunity. But the biggest disappointment of all has to be Spectre – why would Sony spend all this time and money gathering talent like Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz and Sam Mendes, only to shove in front of them a retrograde, half-cocked script that was big on loud bangs and extremely short on actual character development? I’d be amazed if Craig stuck around for the next one.
And next year? Well, Superman takes on Batman, the X-Men, Star Trek and Captain America make another appearance, Jungle Book and Ghostbusters get a reboot, it’s likely that DiCaprio and Redmayne battle for awards glory and, of course, there’s another bout of JK Rowling’s wizarding world next Christmas…bring on 2016!