Another year, another list of my favourite movies.
I can't believe 2015 is now in the rear view mirror. Time is flying by at such an insane rate. But the year is done and dusted and these are my favourite 20 films I saw in 2015. As always I don't claim them to be the best, just my favourite. It is all subjective. I'd just say as well that the top two films on the list stand a fair way over all the rest moving into instant classic territory. So without further ado...
20. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner, this is the debut film directed by actress Marielle Heller and is a funny, dark, honest, non judgmental and wonderfully inventive coming of age story set in 1970's San Francisco. British actress Bel Powley gives an unafraid performance of depth and honesty as 15 year old Minnie who begins to explore the adult world of sex, drugs and misplaced love as she struggles to discover the person she truly wants to be. Excellent support comes from Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård. Often uncomfortable but always honest and inventive, this marks a terrific debut for Heller as a director.
Denis Villeneuve's tense and riveting thriller stars Emily Blunt as a principled FBI agent who is enlisted by a government task force to bring down the leader of a powerful and brutal Mexican drug cartel. The film is morally complex and tells a story set in the grey and murky margins of what is right and wrong both in means and ends. Blunt is great as is Benicio del Toro in a vital supporting role but arguably the true star of the film is DP Roger Deakins who once again does superlative work. Give him an Oscar already. Utterly gripping and morally challenging, Sicario is simply a terrific thriller.
Girlhood is the story Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young black girl who lives in a rough neighbourhood outside of Paris. The film follows her as she navigates through and struggles with social, gender and racial issues and pressures in modern France to try and forge some kind of worthwhile future for herself and her little sister in an uncaring and bureaucratic world that seems to have already written her off. Karidja Touré is a great find and while Marieme often does things we the audience find objectionable we stick with her and root for her because we see the real person within and how the deck is being constantly stacked against her. Sensitively written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Girlhood is often tough to watch but is ultimately a rewarding human experience.
Written by Justin Benson and directed by Benson and Aaron Moorhead (V/H/S: Viral), Spring is perhaps the most original and wonderfully strange film on my list. To escape his downward spiral of a life a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) leaves the US for Italy where he soon meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman (Nadia Hilker) with a dark and disturbing secret. What follows is a full-on and believable romance in the vein of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise but given a dark and horrific twist. The film looks lovely, the two leads are likable, have real chemistry and are good to watch. Watching the film is like having a delicious delirious sun kissed dream of love tempered with sadness and icky horror. Kind of classic Cronenberg meets 90's Linklater. Weird, scary, gross, beautiful.
16. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
The writer/director debut of Iranian American Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a wonderfully stylish, evocative and thematically rich take on the vampire myth. Described as "The first Iranian vampire Western", the film is set in a fictional Iranian town nicknamed 'Bad City' and follows a female vampire aka the titular Girl who stalks the night time streets feeding off of the many lowlifes she encounters and who seems content with her solitary predatory existence until she crosses paths with Arash, a young, compassionate, hard-working man who lives with and takes care of his heroin addicted father. The film is about loneliness, isolation and the struggle to make meaningful personal connections as well as to overcome personal adversity and escape to a better life not to mention the actualization of innate female power. As The Girl Sheila Vand is powerful and hypnotic and the rest of the cast provide solid support. The film looks great, too, as director Amirpour shoots the entire movie in a stark and moody black and white making wonderful use of shadows and street lighting. Stylish and smart this is a terrific debut film from Amirpour making her a real name to watch out for.
15. When Marnie Was There
It wouldn't be a yearly top twenty without at least one animation from Japan and this last year saw what is likely the final full length feature from Studio Ghibli (at least for the foreseeable future). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on the children's novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There is a simple and sweet little story about a troubled 12 yr old girl called Anna who is sent by her foster parents to stay for the summer with relatives in a small seaside town. Anna is a loner and outsider filled with self doubt and insecurities but while staying in the town she strikes up a powerful friendship with a mysterious young girl called Marnie who apparently lives in the big old mansion the other side of the local salt marsh. What follows is a simple and lovely story of friendship, family and love. As always with Ghibli the film looks beautiful with its gentle watercolour stylings and simple-yet-effective hand drawn animation. And while the story has a slight supernatural bent and a small mystery at its heart, it never lets the more fantastical elements overshadow what is a simple and heartfelt story of a young girl dealing with her troubling emotions and finding her own personal happiness. Sweet but never sickly and completely delightful. I miss you already Ghibli.
14. Turbo Kid
Written and directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, Turbo Kid is a brilliant homage to 80's direct to video actioners mixing a post apocalyptic Mad Max type of flick with a kids adventure ala BMX Bandits with a horror/mutant exploitationer from the likes of Cannon or Charles Band. The basic plot sees The Kid (Munro Chambers), a teenage boy in the post apocalyptic wastelands become a mythical comic book superhero through the help of a mysterious girl he meets called Apple (Laurence Leboeuf). The pair then team up to stop the brutal and tyrannical leader Zeus (Michael Ironside) from ruling over the wasteland. To be honest the plot is really not important. What is important is the sheer creativity, exuberance and love shown for the material the movie draws from. There is action, chases, fights all done so weirdly and yet so imaginatively and with a ton of energy and style. Plus plenty of OTT gore. Also as Apple Laurence Leboeuf gives a winning and utterly adorable performance. Yes, she may be yet another example of the so-called manic pixie dream girl trope, but there is a twist here and her main trait is an adorable wide eyed innocence which is impossible not to love. A truly great genre homage and a hugely fun movie in its own right. I just hope we get a Turbo Kid 2: Electric Boogaloo.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Otherwise known as the film that broke Joss Whedon. Only kidding...or maybe not. Ultron is huge. There is so much going on, so many spinning plates, so many characters, stories (and future stories) to serve that what could have been another truly great film from My Lord and Master Joss gets buried somewhere in the midst of TOO MUCH. Still, there are great ideas and strong themes throughout and all the main characters get moments to shine. The story is solid and thunders along at a decent pace and James Spader does a fun turn as the evil Ultron AI with daddy Stark issues. For the most part the action sequences are great if perhaps a bit too busy just like the rest of the film. By no means a bad film, AoU is actually a very, very good film...it just isn't as good as it could (and should) have been. Poor Joss. I feel for him. He did his best given all the masters he had to serve and ended up getting a ton of abuse on social media for such a totally misunderstood thing (Natasha and her sterilization). But hey, taking down a Hydra base, Hulk Buster, naughty Ultron, saving people above all else (take note Superman) and bringing Vision to life is more than enough to earn AoU its place on this list. So thanks Joss. Now, you have a nice long rest then go make something 100% YOURS again. Love you.
12. The Final Girls
On the surface The Final Girls is a very funny affectionate meta homage/spoof of 80's slasher films which sees a bunch of contemporary teens getting trapped inside 'classic' 80's slasher film Camp Bloodbath and having to then navigate through the story dealing with the actual characters within the film while discovering the rules which will allow them to eventually escape back to reality. Essentially this is Last Action Hero with stalk and slash. A fun concept for sure. But what makes the film work so beautifully is that it has real heart and is genuinely emotionally affecting. For beneath the silly concept the story is really about a young daughter desperate to reconnect with her mother whom she misses terribly after she was killed in a tragic car accident. And it turns out a younger version of her mother was an actress in the movie she is now trapped in. The film is inventive, stylishly shot and directed and has a funny, layered and emotionally affecting script. Also the performances are all terrific with Taissa Farmiga & Malin Akerman being the stand-outs as daughter and mother who eventually get to reconnect in the weirdest way possible. Stylish, funny, silly and touching, The Final Girls is a genuine unexpected gem. See it.
11. John Wick
Every so often Keanu Reeves makes an awesome action movie. It seems to be cinematic law or something. Point Break in 1991, Speed in 1994, The Matrix in 1999. So he has been long overdue a new one. But finally, here it is. John Wick isn't deep, it isn't clever, but what it is, is one hell of a cool and effective noir actioner which uses Reeves extremely well – a troubled loner of few words who unleashes one hell of a murder spree on bad guys after they steal his car and kill his pet dog. There is a bit more to it than that but basically this is a revenge thriller with ex-hitman Wick, a figure of mythic proportions within the criminal fraternity, taking down a whole organisation of bad guys with multiple head shots and ass kickery. The movie is smartly and sparsely written and is shot, directed and edited the hell out of. What is also great is the word building the movie does creating a strange-yet-believable criminal underworld for the movie's villains to inhabit. It feels like the film was based on a graphic novel ala Frank Miller or something but is in fact an original screenplay with the first time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch drawing on anime, John Woo movies and noir crime thrillers to deliver something that feels original and delivers real visceral impact. Utterly awesome! Thankfully John Wick 2 is on its way. Keep your heads down bad guys!
Ant-Man shouldn't work. It is a goofy character/concept with a daft title based on a comic that no-one outside of comic book nerds would have ever heard of. It certainly shouldn't be a better movie than a Joss Whedon Avengers throw down, especially considering how the original director left the project late in the game and a new director and writer were brought aboard to quickly re-tune the film and get it shot and done within a very, very tight time-scale. Nope, should be a train wreck, right? Wrong. Ant-Man is a blast. Against all the odds new director Peyton Reed and co-writer and star Paul Rudd pulled a blinder. The movie is a ton of fun, plenty weird (in a good way) and has a whole lot of heart. It is refreshingly small scale, too, and not just the titular hero. The story is not a save the city/world story but rather a heist film which is about righting past wrongs and reconnecting fathers and daughters. Paul Rudd is perfect as reformed criminal Scott Lang who just wants to make a life outside of prison and spend time with his young daughter, while legendary actor Michael Douglass is his usual terrific self as inventor Hank Pym who enlists Scott's help in preventing an old rival from using and abusing his potentially dangerous technology. Great support comes from the lovely Evangeline Lily as Pym's estranged daughter Hope, Corey Stoll as tech rival Darren Cross, and the fab and hilarious Michael Pena as Scott's former cell mate and pal Luis. The story is simple and fun and the action inventive and original with all the actors giving their all. Basically Ant-Man is just a whole heap of fun and I can't wait to see the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp. Bring it on, Peyton! (see what I did there?)
9. Song of the Sea
For me, to be truly successful a film has to make an emotional connection. It has to make you honestly truly feel something real. I had no big expectations of Song of the Sea, an animated fantasy from Ireland. The reviews were great and it looked lovely in the trailers so I expected it to be good. But watching it I was instantly captivated and drawn in to its beautifully rendered world of Celtic myths and legends and its story of a brother doing his absolute damnedest to help and protect his little sister whom up until now he'd strongly resented. This is the story of two young children who have lost a mother and whose father has become somewhat withdrawn and remote and who are then taken away by their grandmother to live in an unfamiliar world which seems alien and uncaring. To save his little sister's life Ben must get little Saoirse away from the grim city and back home to their lighthouse by the sea. For it turns out that little Saoirse is a Selkie, a mythological creature who lives as a seal at sea and sheds its coat to become human on land. There is more story which has to do with ancient Celtic legends of giants and owl witches but at its heart this is a film about a fractured family reconnecting and getting over a tragic loss. Inspired, artful, beautiful and with Celtic influenced songs and music which can sooth the soul, Song of the Sea is a captivating delight that builds to a powerful emotional conclusion which I don't mind admitting moistened my eyes.
8. White God
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, White God is a Hungarian film which follows mixed-breed dog Hagen, who moves with his 13-year old owner Lili to stay with Lili's estranged father. However due to local laws and Lili's father being an ass, Hagen gets dumped and the film follows both Hagen making his way through the city searching for Lili as well as Lili rebelling against her father and getting into all kinds of trouble while searching for Hagan. Hagen's journey is a dark and brutal one which includes escaping from dog catchers, getting brutalised in a dog fighting ring before finally being caught and put in the pound where he is scheduled to be destroyed. However something amazing happens and Hagen and a pack of feral dogs break out of the pound and go on a rampage through the city taking savage revenge on all those who have wronged and hurt them. As the police try and hunt the dogs down it is left to Lili to try and find Hagen and stop his rampage before he hurts anyone else or gets killed by the police. White God is a brilliant film. It is harsh and brutal and uncompromising and has something to say. This is no Disney flick, kids. Dogs are tortured (not for real I hasten to add). People get eaten and throats are torn out. Hagen is basically Spartacus leading a savage slave revolt and the film plays as a brilliant allegory for all downtrodden peoples who eventually rise up and strike back in fury. The last act also plays like King Kong as young Lili tries desperately to find and soothe the now savage beast in order to save him from a sure-to-be tragic fate. The film is directed with style and energy with chases and set pieces as exciting and tense and scary as anything in a big budget Hollywood movie. Young Zsófia Psotta as Lili is terrific and the film plays as much a coming of age story for her as it does a story of revolt and revenge for Hagen. Just see it, okay. It is great. And remember no dogs were hurt at all making the film. Dunno about the humans though.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
So, Star Wars. What more is there to say? Okay, so by all rights this film SHOULD have been number one. I wish it were. And while it is great and a ton of fun it has too many issues that just wouldn't let it creep any higher up my list. The issues are far from fatal and the good far outweighs the not so good. But those issues are there. And they are mostly down to story and plotting. I love all the characters old and new and they are all perfectly cast and all perfectly played. Harrison Ford is the most engaged he has been for years and having Han & Chewie back again is bliss. The film looks great, too, for the most part, and the pace is fast and fun as it charges along skipping merrily over plot holes and contrivances and coincidences to get to the exciting and emotionally charged finale. But despite all the good stuff, all the nostalgia, all the joy at having more Star Wars...I still have the nagging feeling that this is all just very expensive fan fiction. It feels like it. It plays like it. And that is fine. It is a lot of fun – basically just giving us fans what we want....but maybe not what we need. For at its core Star Wars IS George Lucas with all his genius and shortcomings. And yes, I know the prequels are not very good. But it was still his overall vision, what he wanted to say with his story, his creations. It's just a shame he lost his ability to communicate his vision back then. And while Abrams et al sure do make fast fun frothy popcorn flicks I can't help wondering/worrying that the core of SW has been lost. I dunno. I'm probably just being dumb. But hey, I loved this movie with all its problems and can't wait for more SW. I just kinda wish that somehow in some way George was still involved. Hey ho.
Alex Garland's directorial debut from his own script is a fantastic scifi story involving the potential creation of artificial intelligence, testing that it is true intelligence and the ramifications of man's hubris if such a creation comes to fruition. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) gets invited by his employer, eccentric billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), to administer the Turing test to an android with artificial intelligence he has created called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava seems real and her and Caleb strike up a relationship which could be considered as love. Is Ava genuinely self aware and alive or is it all still just a computer program mimicking life? And what is Nathan's real objective in having Caleb and Ava interact? The film is set mostly in just one location – Nathan's reclusive modernistic Alpine house with its sharp sparse rooms and locking doors . The film feels like a three-hander play and is a story which could easily be put on stage. But it never feels stagey and is always cinematic and utterly riveting thanks to the deeply intelligent script, deft direction and fabulous performances, especially from Vikander. Themes of what being alive and being human actually mean, of slavery, of sexuality and of abuse are all there amongst others. The film is so deep and so rich with so much to chew on and is a damn smart think piece which is always compelling and never boring. Plus it looks amazing. The limited sets are all great and the FX used to help bring Ava to life are quite beautiful. Ex_Machina is a smart, engaging and brilliantly conceived and executed scifi drama. You don't get many films like this. Savour it.
5. The Martian
Finally! Ridley Scott is back at the top of his game with this, his movie version of Andy Weir's novel about a biologist astronaut who gets left behind on Mars and must somehow survive alone until a rescue mission can be sent for him...if one can be sent at all. Matt Damon is excellent as stranded astronaut Mark Watney who must “Science the shit of this” to survive in a totally hostile environment where nothing lives except him. The film could have been dry and heavy and tragic and very science heavy but Scott, working from a superlative script by Whedon alumni Drew Goddard, keeps the tone playful and light without ever making light of the actual situation Watney is in. There is humour to be found in all situations and Watney exemplifies this as it is his sense of humour as well as his smarts which keeps him alive and sane. This is simply a great story which takes itself seriously but is never po-faced or dour and treats its subject and its science with the utmost respect. Tense, exciting, charming, laugh out loud funny, The Martian is a great adventure which celebrates intelligence and humour and holds scientific discovery and exploration up as a dangerous but entirely worthwhile and noble thing to do. It is so good to have Ridley Scott back making great looking movies with great characters and a terrific script. It has been way too long. Welcome back, Sir Rid!
4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Tom Cruise is back as IMF super spy Ethan Hunt along with Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and new addition Rebecca Ferguson as possible aly/possible betrayer Ilsa Faust. Long time Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie takes over writing and directing duties and delivers what is my second favourite of the franchise after Brian De Palma's classic first flick. The story is all about a shadow “anti-IMF” known as the Syndicate and Ethan's attempts to bring it down before it can do terrible damage to the IMF and the wider world. But really it is an excuse for more fabulous action and drama set pieces, for exotic locales and for Tom Cruise to run, fight, run some more, chase, be chased and hang off of things really high up. And that is fine by me. Cruise is great as always as is the returning supporting cast. But the stand out is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust – a beautiful, lethal, charismatic and utterly compelling woman who has her own agenda and who can take down anyone (including Agent Hunt) without hardly breaking a sweat. She is awesome! Giver her her own franchise and cast her as Captain Marvel, like, NOW! The plot is actually well constructed and weaves around in a game of cat and mouse with the main bad guy played by Sean Harris a genuinely creepy and threatening dude. And it all comes to a head in a terrific end sequence on (and below) the streets of London. A ton of fun from a franchise which shows no danger of growing old and stale. Cruise, now 53, still looks and runs and fights better than many a guy half his age. Deal with the Devil or something (or maybe Thetans)? Jeez! So yeah, more please. I fucking love this franchise.
3. It Follows
I love this movie. David Robert Mitchell's film is a throwback to classier, smarter big screen horror which takes a shockingly simple idea and turns it in to a genuinely creepy and scary and disturbing piece of genius level cinema. The concept is simple. You have unwitting sex with a cursed person and the curse passes to you – an evil entity only you can see (taking the shape of a stranger or someone you know) begins to stalk you until either you have sex with someone else and pass the curse on or the entity gets you and kills you by busting your bones in to so very nasty shapes. But the thing is, if you do get killed by it, the entity goes back on down the line after the person who passed the curse on to you. Yikes! Our heroine is Jay (Maika Munroe) who gets the curse passed to her after a date with a guy she thought was a new boyfriend. After Mr Creep tells Jay the rules and shows her the evil entity coming for her he sets her loose. Somehow now Jay must evade the entity while convincing her friends that it is indeed real and that she is not mad. Can Jay survive? Will she pass the curse on to someone else? Who in the crowd of people at school or in the street is the evil entity that wants her dead? It Follows is not a jump scare movie like Insidious et al but rather a creepy atmospheric chiller with strong likable characters and a killer central concept which works as metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. The script is taut, smart and does a good job of creating teenage characters we actually like and root for. Plus Mitchell's direction is old school Carpenter-esque but with plenty of his own artistic flourishes. The 360 degree camera shot at the school is brilliant as is the entire sequence at the swimming pool. As our lead Maika Munroe is great showing the same abundance of talent, likability and strength she showed in last year's The Guest. I've seen this film several times now and it continues to impress and to chill. Horror as smart art is a tough thing to do. The Babadook did it last year and It Follows did it this year. Horror as it should be.
2. Inside Out
Pixar's Inside Out directed by Pete Docter is a wonderful film on every level. The story is all about the internal emotional life of a young girl, 11 year old Riley who has just moved to San Francisco with her mum and dad. Riley misses her old home and her friends and her life and one thing leads to another causing her emotions to fall out of sync with Joy and Sadness being accidentally banished from her emotional control center leaving it up to Fear, Disgust, and Anger to try to keep Riley happy. But inadvertently they distance her from her parents, friends, and hobbies, and begin to cause the collapse of young Riley's internal emotional world. Meanwhile Joy and Sadness are trying to find there way back to HQ along with Riley's long lost childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong so as to try to restore Riley's emotional balance before it is too late. Can they do it in time? Can they bring Riley back to a place of happiness, bringing back her core memories where so many good times are recorded? Inside Out tackles a complex subject that many films aimed solely at adults don't even attempt. And it does so brilliantly. That this film aimed at children and families uses such genius methods to get across such complex concepts is, well, genius. And the story is completely engaging and charming and funny and invests us utterly in the emotional well-being of one 11 year old girl. The characters of the emotions are all terrific with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith both wonderful as Joy and Sadness. Of course being Pixar the film's animation is top notch and looks gorgeous and the score by Michael Giacchino's, his fifth for Pixar, is as good as any he has done. In the end what this film does is exactly what I said a great film should do way back at number 9 with Song of the Sea – it has to provide an emotional connection, an emotional kick that gets you. And when what everything in your film boils down to is simply the happiness of an 11 year old child, then that kick comes hard and fast. And hits home. Inside Out is my favourite Pixar film. It is pretty much perfect and any normal year it would be my number one film. Any normal year that didn't have George Miller being insane in the desert with crazy vehicles and flame throwing guitars and Charlize Theron with a robot arm.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Please see below my honest reaction/review of Mad Max: Fury Road directed by the insane mastermind George Miller....
OH MY FUCKING GOD OH SHIT OH SHIT OH FUCK ME THIS IS AWESOME JESUS FUCKING CHRIST THIS IS INSANE LOOK AT THOSE CARS WHAT IS THAT GUY DOING CHARLIZE IS KILLING ME THAT DUDE HAS A FUCKING FLAME THROWER ON HIS GUITAR HOW DID NOBODY DIE SHOOTING THIS STUFF ARGGHHH MY BRAIN IS MELTINGGGGGG SO SO PRETTY IMAGES OF CARNAGE AND WHAT THE FUCK IS TOM HARDY DOING STRAPPED TO THE FRONT OF THAT CAR OH MAN LOOK AT THAT HUGE TRUCK TIPPING OVER JESUS H CHRIST I THINK I JUST PEED A LITTLE AND NOW THEY ARE GOING BACK THE WAY THEY CAME THIS IS INSANE THIS HAS NO REAL STORY BUT I DON'T GIVE A FUCK CUZ CARS CARNAGE EXPLOSIONS STUNTS CHARLIZE CHARLIZE AND MORE CHARLIZE OH GOD MORE CHARLIZE SHE IS SO GODDAMN HOT AND BADASS HOW COME MAX IS THE SIDEKICK IN HIS OWN MOVIE BUT HEY WHO GIVES A FUCK CUZ THIS IS FUCKING AWSEOME AND CHARLIZE AND OH LOOK MAX HAS LEFT AND CHARLIZE NOW RULES THE WORLD WHICH I SO WISH WAS TRUE PLEASE GEORGE MILLER MAKE MORE OF THESE AS IT FEELS LIKE HAVING A FUCKING TWO HOUR ORGASM IN MY BRAINNNNNNNNNN!!!!
Good movie. I liked it.
Roll on 2016.