The 20 Best Films Of 2015

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As the Academy Awards approach, celebrating some of the finest achievements in filmmaking throughout 2015, it feels like an appropriate time to do my own reflecting on the movies of the last 12 months. As is an annual New In Cinema tradition, I am doing it in the form of an end-of-the-year list ranking the best 20 films of 2015 in ascending order (you can also find our lists for 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 at Letterboxd).

2015 wasn’t a particularly great year for major movies. While I’m generally optimistic about the future of mainstream moviemaking even in this era of television, online media and video-on-demand there has, seemingly, been an absence of big movies made by auteur filmmakers this year. Where were the likes of Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuaron, Ang Lee, Spike Jonze or Clint Eastwood? Even big name filmmakers like them who did release work this year only did so on a small scale. Steven Soderbergh relocated to TV for his drama ‘The Knick’, Paul Thomas Anderson released a low budget music doc ‘Junjun’ and Spike Lee, whose work I’m currently celebrating in a retrospective, had to go to Amazon Studios to make ‘Chi-Raq’.

Many critics and cultural commentators have theories about the increasing lack of iconic filmmakers making major movies. Could it be that serious, risky drama is moving to TV as studios favour bankable franchises like the ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel films? Could there be a lack of financing for auteur driven movies as studios become far more budget conscious amid so much competition, forcing those who make them into the mediocre studio system or out of work entirely? Whatever the reason, it has been more noticeable in 2015 than ever before.

This is demonstrated by the fact that this year’s list is dominated by world and independent cinema. It is packed with films financed or made in France, Hungary, Sweden, Iran, Canada, Indonesia and right here in the United Kingdom too. Similarly, all but three of the films in this year’s list were made on a low budget of under $15 million. Many were even produced on shoestring budgets of less than $1 million. Only a few studio-produced movies – be it blockbusters or awards season contenders – made it in my top 20 at all.

So which movies provided a beacon of hope in this average year? Here are 20 great movies which stood out as my favourites in 2015:

20. Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson (‘Frank’, ‘What Richard Did’)| Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy | Running Time: 117 Minutes | Country: Canada, Ireland

‘Room’, adapted from Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel of the same name, is an emotional hurricane of pure horror, love, tragedy and wonder. It portrays the confinement of Jack and his mother, known only as Ma, who are held captive in a sparse single room. Jack was born in the room and has no knowledge of the outside world beyond what he sees through their skylight. From his point of view we slowly learn of the circumstances that led to this unusual situation and why they cannot leave, which ‘Room’ allows us to experience by cleverly only revealing certain aspects of the room as his awareness grows. The movie is an ode to the unbreakable and resilient bond that exists between mother and son allowing Jack and Ma to endure their harrowing situation. Brie Larson’s Oscar-tipped turn in the lead role is shattering.

19. Amy

Director: Asif Kapadia (‘Senna’, ‘The Return’)| Cast: N/A | Running Time: 128 Minutes | Country: United Kingdom

‘Amy’ is an uncommon documentary in the sense that it features no new footage, such as so-called talking heads telling the story of the film’s subject (in this case the singer Amy Winehouse). Instead, the movie is told entirely through stock footage narrated by those closest to her. In doing so, the experience of watching ‘Amy’ is like witnessing her meteoric rise to fame and her ensuing troubles from right by Amy Winehouse’s side. It makes us feel implicit in what inevitably happened to her. It forces us to confront how we watched her most private struggles with addiction, bulimia and mental health play out in the media and collectively did nothing to stand up and stop it. Kapadia’s emotional and provocative film is a cry for more sympathy towards those in the public domain in the face of increasingly dehumanising tabloid journalism. (Read our full review)

18. Girlhood

Director: Céline Sciamma (‘Tomboy’, ‘Water Lilies’)| Cast: Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh | Running Time: 113 Minutes | Country: France

Céline Sciamma’s third film follows a 16-year-old girl from a poor Parisian suburb, Marieme, who has been kicked out of school and fears her violent older brother at home. Marieme finds an escape via a girl gang who fight and thieve to survive on the tough streets. This isn’t a wrist-slapping warning about befriending the wrong group though. Instead, the gang allows Marieme to come out of her shell and form her own identity – a theme Sciamma enforces by breaking her story into several chapters, each portraying a different reinvention of her personality and/or appearance. Céline Sciamma also uses this platform to wrestle with the realities of kinship and belonging amid inner-city poverty as a strong bond forms between Marieme and the girls, the centrepiece of which is a lip sync to Rihanna’s Diamonds that is one of the best scenes of the year.

17. Inside Out

Director: Pete Doctor | Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling | Running Time: 94 Minutes | Country: USA

Pixar’s latest, set inside the mind of a young girl as she moves to a new home, is a smart, creative and devastatingly emotional movie about the painful transition between childhood and adolescence. They playfully visualise what happens inside their lead character Riley’s head as she grows up and loses her innocence. It deals with profound and poignant truths about becoming a teenager, addressing how memories are tainted or simply forgotten as we age and how a healthy balance of both happiness and sadness is crucial in shaping who you become. After suffering a slump with ‘Cars 2’ and ‘Monsters University’ the movie reclaims Pixar’s crown as the most imaginative studio in the field of animation.

16. Magic Mike XXL

Director: Gregory Jacobs | Cast: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith | Running Time: 115 Minutes | Country: USA

More films should invert the male gaze and shoot men the way women want to see them, and more films should be tailored to the fantasies of female viewers instead of the other way around. ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is one of the few that does this. While its predecessor, one of my favourite films of 2012, was a thoughtful examination of economic strife and male identity in post-recession America – it is a film about men trying to make ends meet while working towards their dreams – ‘Magic Mike XXL’ wants us to understand why their work appeals to women. As the characters drive to a Myrtle Beach stripping convention for one final show, taking little detours and tangents along the way in which they bring a smile to the faces of various women, the film explores the essence of female pleasure. (Read our full review)

15. Heaven Knows What

Director: Ben and Joshua Safdie (‘Lenny Cooke’, ‘Go Get Some Rosemary’) | Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress | Running Time: 94 Minutes | Country: USA

‘Heaven Knows What’ depicts the milieu of homeless life with a documentarian’s realism. The reason why it feels so real is because, well, to a large extent it is. ‘Heaven Knows What’ is based on the unpublished memoirs of Arielle Holmes which she wrote in her journal as she lived as a heroin addict on the streets of New York. Arielle and her story were discovered by co-director Joshua Safdie while she was panhandling and, in a bold move, Safdie decided to not only adapt it as a film but cast Arielle as herself in the lead role. Her work has a naked honesty rarely seen in cinema and is one of the best performances of the year. (Read our full review)

14. Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland | Cast: Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander | Running Time: 108 Minutes | Country: UK

‘Ex Machina’ is the gripping, intelligent and genuinely terrifying story of a young programmer, Caleb, who is invited to a remote research facility by the Larry Page-esque innovator Nathan. There, he is tasked with testing out a groundbreaking AI named Ava to determine the extent of its abilities. However, as Nathan’s intentions remain dubious Caleb questions his role in the process and we begin to witness the true extent of Ava’s intelligence. Thus, Alex Garland’s directorial debut explores the ramifications of playing God to create a hyper-intelligent being. His film delves into the terrors of an inevitable near-future in which technology becomes increasingly sentient and man potentially relinquishes its position as the dominant species.

13. The Duke Of Burgundy

Director: Peter Strickland (‘Katalin Varga’, ‘Berberian Sound Studio’) | Cast: Chiara D’Anna, Sidse Babett Knudsen | Running Time: 104 Minutes | Country: UK/Hungary

Peter Strickland’s ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ explores the BDSM relationship between the mousy Evelyn and her cold employer Cynthia. However, the strange yet intoxicating movie plays with its audience’s expectations of who is dominant and submissive by shifting the perceived roles of the movie’s protagonists throughout. Depicting their ritual as it morphs and changes their relationship becomes far more ambiguous than we originally perceived. It may in fact be Cynthia who is submitting to these sexual requests while the seemingly conservative Evelyn is orchestrating them. Don’t mistake ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ for an erotic drama though. It is, first and foremost, a love story, and one that is surprisingly romantic too.

12. Timbuktu

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako (‘Waiting For Happiness’, ‘Life On Earth’) | Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki | Running Time: 97 Minutes | Country: France/Mauritania

‘Timbuktu’ provides episodic windows into various people’s lives in a community whose traditions are being disassembled by the recent arrival of fanatical jihadis. It is an angry film about the human and cultural effects of extremism (in the town music is banned, football is outlawed and women are subject to repressive laws) but the ensemble of stories it gracefully weaves together, especially those involving characters trying to quietly oppose the regime and maintain their sense of normalcy, are often beautiful. It isn’t afraid, furthermore, to humanise the jihadis themselves who, though committed to their nefarious beliefs, are often conflicted by the effects their laws have on the town.

11. Queen Of Earth

Director: Alex Ross Perry (‘Listen Up Philip’, ‘The Color Wheel’) | Cast: Elizabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit | Running Time: 90 Minutes | Country: USA

Indebted to Bergman, Roeg and Polanski, Alex Ross Perry’s low-key psychodrama is a quietly unnerving portrait of a legendary artist’s daughter, Catherine, descending into madness following her father’s death and the departure of her boyfriend. Set against the autumnal backdrop of her friend Virginia’s lake house where she’s staying for a few days as an escape, it captures Catherine’s psychological decline (as well as the manifestation of her depression) when her comfortable bubble is suddenly burst and she is forced to face reality. Perry slowly escalates the madness to the point that ‘Queen Of Earth’ is so chilling it feels like a horror film. Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston are both stunning in the movie in very different ways. Moss is wild, Waterston is restrained.

10. Force Majeure

Director: Ruben Ostlund (‘Involuntary’, ‘Play’) | Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju | Running Time: 120 Minutes | Country: Sweden/France/Norway/Denmark

Hollywood movies often provide us with male heroes who in times of peril step up to be the guardian of their family. However, the Swedish drama ‘Force Majeure’ is about a father who does the opposite. During an avalanche on a skiing holiday, he chooses to protect himself above his children, leaving their mother to save them instead. What happens to this ordinary nuclear family when the stereotypical gender roles become reversed? In a way that is probing, perceptive and even darkly comic ‘Force Majeure’ uses the aftermath of the avalanche to investigate this question. It shows us the quiet breakdown of their family as the man’s damaged pride and ego sends him into a crisis of masculinity while his wife must redefine her concept of their dynamic.

09. Taxi Tehran

Director: Jafar Panahi (‘Offside’, ‘This Is Not A Film’) | Cast: Unknown | Running Time: 82 Minutes | Country: Iran

Jafar Panahi’s third movie since he was banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government takes us on a literal tour through Tehran in this pseudo-documentary. Shooting on the streets for the first time since being censored, and featuring a cast and crew forced to remain anonymous because it was made illegally, ‘Tehran Taxi’ is about as subversive as filmmaking gets. From behind the steering wheel of the taxi Panahi discusses everything from film and censorship to capital punishment and human rights in the Iranian capital with the various characters who enter his cab. It is protest film of sorts, but ‘Taxi Tehran’s portrait of life in modern Iran also has a light step, playful manner and great sense of humour.

08. The Lobster

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos (‘Dogtooth’, ‘Alps’) | Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman | Running Time: 118 Minutes | Country: Greece/Ireland/UK

How many foreign directors have not only carried over their style when they began making films in the English language but, actually, become even more unconventional? Despite the A-list cast, bigger distribution and slightly larger budget of ‘The Lobster’ Yorgos Lanthimos not only refuses to compromise on the idiosyncrasies of his Greek language films (which include ‘Dogtooth’ and ‘Alps’) but delivers arguably his most offbeat movie ever. His film is a dystopian love story in which people are turned into animals by the state if they can’t find a mate. It is a wickedly quirky satire that takes contemporary anxieties about adult dating, the rules of attraction, loneliness and companionship to a toe-curlingly funny extreme.

07. 45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh (‘Weekend’, ‘Looking’) | Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James | Running Time: 95 Minutes | Country: UK

’45 Years’ is a ghost story of sorts. It is one in which the ghost is Geoff’s former partner, the discovery of whose body decades after her death resurrects repressed emotions and unlocks old memories in the build up to his 45th anniversary. However, ’45 Years’ isn’t Geoff’s story. It is his wife Kate’s. Andrew Haigh’s drama explores the ramifications of this development on her – demonstrated by the fact that Kate often occupies the centre of the frame  – as it disturbs their comfortable retirements and forces her to reexamine the last 45 years of their marriage. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are stunning in their respective roles as the news quietly eats away at them.

06. Son Of Saul

Director: Laszlo Nemes | Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn | Running Time: 104 Minutes | Country: Hungary

Laszlo Nemes’ vision of Auschwitz places us firmly in the eye of the hurricane, immersing us inside the ghastly machine that was a Nazi concentration camp. The film’s shooting style is frantic, grounded and brutally matter-of-fact, done mostly in unbroken hand-held tracking shots that hug close to face of our protagonist Saul as he searches the camp for a Rabbi to bury his son. The effect is claustrophobic, and made even more so by Nemes’ decision to shoot it in the box-like Academy ratio of 4:3. Meanwhile, the sound design is an overwhelming orchestra of deathly screams, frightening gunshots and clanging machinery. The harrowing film exists in the present and never feels like it is looking back at events of the past. It makes you feel like you are there. (Read our full review)

05. Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller (‘Mad Max’, ‘Happy Feet’) | Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult | Running Time: 120 Minutes | Country: USA/Australia

George Miller’s feminist revision of the ‘Mad Max’ formula is probably the best action film of the decade. It is a wild car chase across a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a woman (Charlize Theron, who gives a legendary action hero performance up there with Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’) escapes Immortan Joe’s gang with his female slaves and teams up with our eponymous hero to provide them a safe haven. The sheer madness of what ensues – it’s a chaotic carnival of violence shot largely for real in the Namibian desert – is a breath of fresh air for a genre that is increasingly sanitised, focus grouped and made-by-committee.

04. Blackhat

Director: Michael Mann (‘Heat’, ‘Collateral’) | Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tan, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis | Running Time: 133 Minutes | Country: USA

‘Blackhat’s marketing material quoted the CIA’s former director who said: “The next Pearl Harbour we confront could very well be a cyber attack”. But as a filmmaker how do you shoot the ‘cyber’ element? How do you make an action film about cyber terrorism when someone in their basement writing code is stale compared to a group of armed criminals bursting through a roof machine guns in tow? Michael Mann succeeds with this thrilling story of agents tracking something tangible in the physical world – the identity of the cyber-terrorist – among the intangible chaos of ones and zeroes in the digital world. Mann’s abstract digital style, shooting on HD Viper Filmstream cameras, is incendiary – maybe even revelatory – for a major studio picture like this. (Read our full review)

03. The Look Of Silence

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer | Cast: N/A | Running Time: 103 Minutes | Country: Indonesia

‘The Act Of Killing’ provided a nightmarish insight into modern Indonesia where those responsible for a genocide in the ’60s, having succeeded in their evil, have written history in their favours. It was an epic portrait of this society that focussed on the perpetrators, who have since since established themselves as heroes and risen to powerful positions in the country. Its companion piece ‘The Look Of Silence’ is a much more intimate movie. It deals with similar themes about life in a place where murderers govern the families of those they have slaughtered, but this time it frames it through the personal journey of one victim: Adi. In the documentary Adi confronts his older brother’s killers in a series of unbearably tense conversations. He attempts to discover the truth of how his brother died, find some closure on the events, and preserve the truth of the genocide as the killers’ propaganda spreads to a new generation. (Read our full review)

02. Anomalisa

Director: Charlie Kaufman (‘Synecdoche, New York’) and Duke Johnson | Cast: David Thwelis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan | Running Time: 90 Minutes | Country: USA

Charlie Kaufman’s first film since 2008’s epic, surrealist existential drama ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is decidedly smaller in scale. It is a 90-minute, $400,000 stop motion animation set almost entirely in one location. However, it is no less profound than one might expect from Kaufman who has become modern cinema’s great chronicler of male anxiety and mid-life crisis. Set over one night at a hotel ‘Anomalisa’ follows a mentally ill motivational speaker whose boredom towards life is defined by the fact that everyone sounds the same (almost the entire cast, both male and female, are voiced by Tom Noonan). That is until he meets Lisa who has a voice unlike anyone else’s, provided by the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh, and gives Michael a spark of happiness he hasn’t felt in years. But how long can the magic last before it wears off like everything else in Michael’s life? ‘Anomalisa’ is a deeply human film that despite its simplicity burrows deep into the male psyche.

01. Carol

Director: Todd Haynes (‘Far From Heaven’, ‘Safe’) | Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler | Running Time: 118 Minutes | Country: UK/USA/France

‘Carol’ is based on the legendary lesbian romance novel ‘The Price Of Salt’, which Patricia Highsmith wrote under a pseudonym in the 1950s because the concept of homosexual romance was deemed so controversial. Todd Haynes’ adaptation brilliantly conjures this era in which homosexual relationships were not only taboo but had to be conducted secretly in plain sight – a fact emphasised by the use of windows and doors as recurring visual motifs to create a sense of subterfuge. However, while ‘Carol’ is unmistakably set against a backdrop in which homosexuality is frowned upon, this is not a so-called “problem film”. It is simply a love story. And it’s one that for all its subtlety is bursting with emotion, romance and sexuality. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett depict the lovers beautifully while Director Of Photography Edward Lachman shoots in on gorgeously grainy 16mm film. (Read our full review)

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