Judging any year on its cinematic merits can be a challenge, even for the most avid of film fans. Every year has its pros and cons, its progressive leaps forward and its unfortunate yet entirely expected reinforcements of the status quo. We’ll inevitably see this problem at its peak when Oscar season reaches its harried climax, but for now, let’s just enjoy the fun bits.
As always, this list is completely subjective based on what I saw and enjoyed. Like all critics, I have my inherent biases, the stuff that I avoid based on preferences and principle, and I’m bound by budget and UK release dates. There’s a ton I didn’t get round to seeing and a bunch of films that have 2015 releases in the US but don’t come out here until next month. The delayed release date system also explains why some 2014 US releases are in my top 10. With that in mind, enjoy the show!
10. Black Mass: A portrait of a gangster as a vampire. This slow-burning crime drama isn’t quite a future classic, but it does offer a refreshing change of pace to the plethora of Goodfellas knock-offs that have oversaturated the genre (hi Legend, you’re looking worse with each passing day). Lauded as Johnny Depp’s return to actual acting beyond silly hats and sillier accents, his performance as the infamous Boston crime-lord Whitey Bulger isn’t that much different from his much derided recent efforts, but it’s a more suited match in tone than the Burton assembly line. He skulks through the grey city like Nosferatu, his shadow looming overhead while his zombie-like milky eyes watch on. The real star of the glittering ensemble cast (and also Benedict Cumberbatch) is Joel Edgerton, pitch perfect as the toadying FBI agent whose ends-justify-the-means attitude to bringing down the Italian mob in the city lead to Bulger’s dominance. He’s the snotty school bully who got his way despite total lack of charm and strength because his dad was a teacher.
9. While We’re Young: Ah, hipsters. Impossible to define yet simple to spot. Noah Baumbach’s comedy-drama about an artistic 40 something couple who befriend a 20 something pair with similar interests managed to skewer the burgeoning Brooklyn millennial set while ensuring an equally piercing take on the hypocrisies of previous generations. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts (finally getting a great comedic role for the first time in years) veer between giddiness and embarrassment while dipping their toes into hip-hop dancing, artisan ice-cream and at-home shaman experiences, yet it’s the charismatic Adam Driver who steals the show. I struggle to think of an actor currently working who so seamlessly balances smarm and charm in such a way. His All About Eve turn is equal parts goofy and sinister, and a showcase for his unique presence. Every generation gets its infuriating fringe-group, and Baumbach is excited to poke fun at them all.
8. Inside Out: Praise by to Pixar for spending millions of dollars and years of man-power on making a film that reminds the world it’s okay to be sad! I’m sure this film had a similar effect on the men who viewed it, but as a woman who cries at basically everything, I cannot tell you what it meant to me to see a film, and one intended for kids, focus so specifically on the ways in which girls are often forced into displays of joy to convince the world there’s nothing wrong. There’s much to praise in Pete Docter’s film – the ingenious design, the top-notch voice work, the best cat gag in years – but it remains exceptionally heartening to see such ambition and ingenuity dedicated to exploring something as weird, messy and often impossible to understand as human emotions.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: You hear about this one? It’s pretty good. The unavoidable pop culture powerhouse has returned for a new generation, but much of the same story. It’s this fascinating interrogation of the stories that preceded it, and the new twists it puts on much-loved genre formulas, that kept me gripped throughout The Force Awakens. The Hero’s Journey of the original series is here, but with actors that reflect our world today (the main threesome of John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac will surely be playground staples for years to come). The masked baddie lurks in the shadows, formed by the powers of the past that have twisted him into something unbearably tragic (Adam Driver, you guys, he’s kind of amazing). Familiar faces appear to pass on the mantle while continuing their own tales in a way that feels organic and often achingly moving. And on top of all that, it was damn good fun. I’m genuinely excited for the kids of today who get to have their own Star Wars, and the ways they’ll be shaped by those stories.
6. Selma: There are small moments throughout the superb Selma that only Ava Duvernay could have done. What other filmmaker – especially the line-up of white dudes previously attached to the project – would have included Martin Luther King putting out the rubbish, or the girls in church discussing Coretta Scott-King’s hairstyles, or Coretta herself laying down the law as her husband sits achingly still before her? Who else would have given the role of a lifetime to David Oyelowo, surely one of the best British actors currently working? Selma is a wholeheartedly human film, raw in its brutality but also unabashed in its hope.
5. The Man From UNCLE: This is the film whose presence in my top 10 seems to raise the most eyebrows amongst my friends. I have an almost evangelical love of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (the Cockney gangster stuff does nothing for me), so the promise of a similar handsome pair hijinks action-adventure with a 1960s setting was like a late birthday present. I’ve never seen the TV show the film is based on, but I seldom had as much fun at the cinema in 2015 as I did while watching The Man From UNCLE. It’s a fast-paced GQ photoshoot come to life, with Henry Cavill oozing charisma from every pore in a way that makes me think Zack Snyder had it vacuumed out of him for Man of Steel. It’s super stylized with style over substance, but when it looks this good I can’t work up much opposition. This’ll inevitably be the film I put on during rainy Sundays.
4. Carol: I’m stunned by certain critics who insist Todd Haynes’s Carol, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, is emotionally cold. Buttoned-up the film may be, but beneath its restraint lies a fully beating heart and a passionate core that’s anything but chilly. Haynes deals in repression – Far From Heaven most notably, with its vibrant Douglas Sirk palate a stark contrast to the conformity of the era – but with Carol, that focus highlights the coded ways in which those shunned by society managed to live their lives. Carol herself (so perfectly embodied by Cate Blanchett) moves through her world like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, a true star in every way, but that façade only barely hides her pain. Her communications with the focus of her affection Theresa (Rooney Mara, finally in a role that showcases just what she can do) are subtle but telling to those who know the signs – the misplaced gloves, the carefully chosen words, the exchange of looks. It’s a film of exquisite details, with everything feeling lived in in a way newly built sets and freshly sewn costumes often can’t convey. Watch it and be swept away.
3. Amy: The film Amy Winehouse needed and also the one she deserved. Asif Kapadia’s mosaic documentary of the singer’s short, contradictory life reminds viewers that, amidst the drugs, drink and damning public messes that were so instantly labelled tragic, Winehouse was one hell of a performer. Her lyrics, like diary entries of her ups and downs, punctuate the constructing of her fame and its subsequent unravelling. Often, the film feels invasively revealing, as the voices of Winehouse’s closest friends and family talk candidly about her life, accompanied by images of her decline that are tough to look at. Despite that rawness, the film is never exploitative. It’s empathetic yet just angry enough; the champion Winehouse needed but not a mindless hagiography. It’s already become one of the highest grossing documentaries in the UK, so here’s hoping the message spreads further.
2. Crimson Peak: I keep hammering on about how Guillermo Del Toro’s latest auteur/fanboy indulgence feels like it was made just for me, but it’s true. This is the kind of film they just don’t make enough of (and probably won’t for a while due to disappointing box office numbers) and to see it executed with such love and clear knowledge of the genre is a delight. Less a ghost story than a good old fashioned gothic romance, Crimson Peak carries all the markings of the formula, told with complete dedication to the tropes, characters and images that are so familiar to this type of story. It’s got all the puffy sleeves, the crumbling mansion rooftops, the quivering candlelight and pale-faced women barely concealing their madness. It’s lush, sweeping and proudly melodramatic. More like this, please!
1. Inherent Vice: It should be of absolutely no surprise to anyone that the latest film by my all-time favourite director has topped my 2015 list. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel is a hippie-crime noir with melancholy in the air as thick as the pot-smoke. With an enviably talented cast – including Katherine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael K Williams, Hong Chau & many more – it’s less an ensemble piece than The Joaquin Phoenix Show with guest stars. Who would have thought he’d be such a good prat-faller? Divisive upon release, Inherent Vice is less trippy than its plot suggests, but it remains a masterclass of tone, style and humour. The film manages to feel inimitably Pynchon-esque, with its ludicrously named characters and deliberately labyrinthine plot that seems both simple and ridiculous, and completely the work of Anderson. Watching the film is like being taken on a strange journey rooted in familiar settings. It’s a stoner film that feels a bit stoned itself. I have friends who just hated this film, but I’ll forever root for it and languish in its wave-like rhythms. It’s already in my top 20 favourite films ever.