The 10 Best Films of 2015

Time has swallowed up 2015 in its ever insatiable appetite and so all that is left to do is look back and see just what gems the year gave us […]

Time has swallowed up 2015 in its ever insatiable appetite and so all that is left to do is look back and see just what gems the year gave us on the big screen. As ever, films are eligible via their UK release date, even if they were available in other countries before then, meaning a bunch of films that did pretty well during last year’s awards season are eligible. Honourable mentions must be given to a few films that haven’t quite made the list, the likes of Patrick Brice’s excellent indie sex comedy ‘The Overnight’, Steven Spielberg’s powerful ‘Bridge of Spies’, the harrowing ‘Catch Me Daddy’ and Bill Condon’s understated ‘Mr Holmes’, but they have all been bested by those here.

Join me as we dive in to the ten best works of 2015 and indulge me while I gush about them:

10. ‘A Most Violent Year’

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JC Chandor’s best film to date is an atmospheric, deliberately paced and subversive take on a gangster film featuring another fantastic performance by Oscar Isaac, who makes another appearance on this list after last year’s ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Isaac has an amazing ability to capture the personality of a character, and here his portrayal of Abel Morales is that of a man in quiet turmoil, the nuances of his performance making it a truly believable struggle between honesty and deceit. Jessica Chastain is also excellent as his calculating wife Anna, another piece in the puzzle that makes Abel’s choices so difficult. Chandor’s film is gritty and thought-provoking, making use of excellent cinematography and an atmospheric score by Alex Ebert to make something tense and intelligent, even if it could do with more interactions between Morales and his wife, as the script really comes to life when they interact.

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9. ‘Slow West’

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This is the first feature length film by former musician turned writer-director John Maclean, and is a pretty damn good one at that. ‘Slow West’ is a film that doesn’t bother with a complex plot, instead preferring to focus on character development and interaction, doing so fantastically well. Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee have excellent chemistry, arguing their way across the vast plains of the American West (filmed in New Zealand, which doubles as the region rather well), Maclean’s script managing to capture moments that encapsulate the mundane moments of travel together with short bursts of visceral brutality that captures the nature of the West at the time. The finale is the film’s pièce de résistance, gripping and beautifully shot, it shows that Maclean’s command of wordless sequences is equal to or even surpasses the more dialogue heavy sequences. Maclean is a talent to be watched, and if his début is anything to go by we will get more valuable cinema in future.

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8. ‘The Martian’

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After about ten years without making a good film, and even managing to make a few terrible ones (looking at you ‘Prometheus’ and ‘The Counsellor’) it is nice of Ridley Scott to join us again. ‘The Martian’ has everything you could want from a science fiction film. It’s gripping, intelligent and often very funny, bolstered by a strong script by Drew Goddard and great performances from an all-star cast, with Matt Damon at the lead. Scott has always been astute behind the camera, films like ‘Prometheus’ aren’t badly made, but his films often fall down because of awful scripting and Goddard makes sure that’s not the case here as he delivers something that’s genuinely engaging, allowing for Scott’s direction to be flashier than usual, with some excellent camera work capturing the vast landscapes of Mars. It helps that the book on which the film is based, Andy Weir’s eponymous novel, was extremely popular and aided the film in becoming Scott’s highest grossing film of all time, a title it deserves.

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7. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

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This film suffers from a title that suggests what we’re going to get is a saccharine, over-ripe story that lays on the romantic clichés and resorts to mawkishness to exploit tears from its audience. It isn’t that at all. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film is a thoughtful, quirky and funny coming of age film and is bolstered by excellent performances from its young main cast and a fantastic script, adapted from his own novel by Jesse Andrews. Thomas Mann’s performance as main character Greg is so authentic it’ll be hard to see him as anyone else in future, and Olivia Cooke and Ronald Cyler back him up excellently. The likes of Jon Bernthal and Nick Offerman also turn up to make amusing turns and add some heft to the younger cast, but they don’t have to do much to aid a film that already has all the bases covered when it comes to making something where teenagers have believable and authentic interactions with poignant and sincere results.

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6. ‘Still Alice’

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Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for this film last year, and her performance completely deserved it. ‘Still Alice’ is a tale about Alzheimer’s disease that really gets under the skin with its honest portrayal of the effect it has not just on the person who has it but on the family around that person. Moore’s performance as Dr. Alice Howland is revelatory, demonstrating her ability to encapsulate a character and portraying both her resilience and anguish as the disease progresses with remarkable clarity. Impressive supporting performances come from Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, the latter of whom has come a long way from ‘Twilight’ and is really starting to show herself as a great actress. ‘Still Alice’ is a film that accentuates humanity even at difficult times, and will always deserve plaudits for it.

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5. ‘Amy’

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Documentarian Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to ‘Senna’ sees him making us care about Amy Winehouse this time, someone who I must say I was indifferent towards before I saw the film. What followed was an intelligent, thoughtful and powerful character study that sought to get to the heart of who she truly was, and uncover just what led to her demise. Kapadia introduces a sense of humanity to the name, going through old films of her hanging out with friends or on holiday with family and interspersing it with telling interviews about her character and her problems to make a film that grips all the way through, such is the power of the story as it progresses. Kapadia is also not afraid to use Winehouse’s music to bookend the story and bring to life different parts of her life, shedding new light on her back catalogue of work and helping you to see her, and what she did as an artist, in a more detailed and nuanced way.

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4. ‘Sicario’

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Denis Villeneuve’s follow up to 2013’s ‘Prisoners’ is a tense, pulsating thriller packed with moral ambiguity and thoughtfulness while at all times maintaining that sense of unease that makes it so gripping. It features wonderful performances from its cast, with Emily Blunt making huge strides as main character Kate Macer and Benicio del Toro, whose chilling performance has earned him a BAFTA nomination and will probably get him one at the Oscars too. Johann Johannson aids that tension with a bombastic soundtrack that oozes tension, rendering almost every scene nailbiting, and working perfectly in tandem with veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camerawork.

The film does tell a story that’s been told before, crime thrillers love the drugs trade, but it’s the way Villeneuve decides to make the film, throwing Macer, a fish out of water, in to an unknown world where things aren’t as black and white as they normally are for her, and allies may not be quite what they seem, that contributes to making it so great. From the very first sequence, which is both breathtaking and shocking, the film grabs hold and doesn’t let go.

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3. ‘Inside Out’

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Pixar have always been at the very forefront when it comes to innovation in animated films, but there has been some criticism of late that they are focusing on sequels, to varying results, more than original content. ‘Inside Out’ is one of two original titles that the subsidiary of  Disney released last year along with ‘The Good Dinosaur’, and it’s most certainly one of their best. It boasts all the things that are best about Pixar, things that director Pete Docter, having helmed both ‘Monsters. Inc’ and ‘Up’, knows very well. In their style, it’s a film that has plenty in it for both children and adults, a deeply moving and emotional story that’s clever and easy to empathise with, utilising gorgeous animation and great voice acting from the likes of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith together with a script that’s packed full of jokes, be they slapstick or more wordy, nuanced ones. Pixar excel at both and use that to maximum effect in a film that gets to the heart of the human condition while being thoroughly entertaining to watch.

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2. ‘Steve Jobs’

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The idea of making a Steve Jobs biopic has been around for a while, particularly since his death in 2011 and we did indeed get one with Ashton Kutcher in the main role. It was thoroughly forgettable. Then came talk of yet another one, and it sounded like a tired idea. Both Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle made sure it was much more than that though, making what could have been a boring indulgence in to a riveting drama that’s as wordy as you expect from Sorkin but is also always engaging. Michael Fassbender shines in the main roleas Jobs, portrayed as a manic but gifted individual who is almost impossible to get along with in a personal or professional capacity, resulting in conversations that can be both dryly amusing and emotionally effective, particularly when they’re held with Kate Winslet, who is in fantastic form as Joanna Hoffman and more than holds her own against Fassbender’s domineering performance.

It’s a verbal rollercoaster ride of the highest quality, matching ‘The Social Network’, the film that won Sorkin so many plaudits. He’s ably supported by Boyle, whose snappy directorial style makes the film, which always feels claustrophobic due to the fact that we never really go outside, have the feel of being a three-act play of the sort that would be on for many weeks on the West End. It’s a shame that it hasn’t taken off commercially, because it’s worthy of all the critical praise it got, picking up various nominations at awards shows and most recently Golden Globe wins for both Aaron Sorkin and Kate Winslet.

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1. ‘Whiplash’

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Eligible for my list because it was released in the UK in January of this year, ‘Whiplash’ is cinema at its very best. Young director Damien Chazelle gives off the impression that he’s been making films for decades, constructing something that’s perfectly shot and makes the most of its two main actors, the revelatory Miles Teller and an extraordinary turn from JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor that is truly terrifying. The chemistry between the two is electric to the extent that you barely have time to blink while watching it all unfold in a furious, malevolent frenzy of insults and even physical abuse.

‘Whiplash’ is a war film set inside a practice room, the battle being waged through the medium of jazz, and it could not be more riveting. Sure, it’s about drumming, but it’s actually about much more that as it examines the extent of a person’s passion and interests, testing how far someone is willing to push something to the detriment of their life in general. The history of cinema has seen many ‘master and student’ tales before, but we’ve never had something so intense and visceral, every scene oozing that edge-of-your-seat suspense, all while you watch someone perfect the art of jazz drumming. The film would have been less effective if it were not for the brilliance of the soundtrack however, and we’re definitely given some classics over the course of the film as we’re made to appreciate the journey the characters took to get them there. A worthy winner of film of the year, ‘Whiplash’ is a formidable and valuable experience.

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Sep Gohardani

About Sep Gohardani

Sep is an avid film and music enthusiast who takes any opportunity to verbalise his often snobbish opinions to any unlucky soul who is near him. He was editor-in-chief of independent student newspaper The Student Review from 2013-14 and is an ardent writer of reviews and feature pieces.