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End of Year: Best Films of 2015


Reflecting on the last twelve months, it is really inspiring to see the calibre of films which were released in 2015. There were duds and failures, of course, but there was much good that even this expanded list of the 25 best pictures has a few glaring omissions. Any year where the visual delights of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Midnight, the frank honesty of Diary of a Teenage Girl or humanizing power of Montage of Heck and Amy are not the best in show then it is a damn fine year. We’ve seen some of the best science fiction over the last decade appear in a few short months, not to mention probably the greatest action films since the mid 1980s. So without much further ado let’s take a look at what the most shining examples of cinema were this year. Words by Will Murphy.

25. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

Easily one of the most challenging entries on this list, A Pigeon is a film that is very easy to dislike. With its deliberately stilted, rigid performances, offbeat dry humour and one point perspective cinematography, the film almost seems to be baiting you into disliking it. While it is easy to slip out of sync with what the film is trying to do, when your perspective and the film do meet, it is able to provide unmatched insights into the man’s barbarity and folly as well as his kindness.


24. Fast and Furious 7

How did this happen? How did the series which gave us a title as aggressively stupid as 2 Fast 2 Furious manage to deliver an unparalleled thrill ride. From start to end, the film is one gloriously over the top set piece followed by another including but not limited to parachuting cars, driving cars between Dubai towers and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flexing so hard that he breaks his own cast. It’s not check your brain at the door movie making, it’s keep your brain fully engaged so you can appreciate the ludicrous fun of what is unfolding in front of you. With this you’ve also got Jason Statham as a one man army, Kurt Russell as fulfilling his rightful duty as a badass and a genuinely touching memorial to Paul Walker which, if this were to be the final installment, would be the perfect full stop for the series.


23. Catch Me Daddy

A truly exciting debut feature from Daniel Wolfe, Catch Me Daddy is a strange, lyrical picture that captures that same kind of vigor of Lynne Ramsay. The film is essentially a two hour chase scene as a young Pakistani woman and her Scottish lover attempt to flee from her family across the Yorkshire moors. This is overbearing sense of helplessness runs throughout the film as the family slowly close in on the duo. There is a woozy, almost ethereal, sense to the image and the atmosphere it creates is further cemented by its use of naturalistic dialog, offbeat sound editing and use of music such as Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’. While savagery runs rampant throughout yet the film is not afraid to be tender when it needs to be as the central relationship offers a counterpoint to the nihilistic power of untamed aggression. A gripping chase from start to finish as characters are bested at the hand of some unseen power: family, religion, money. Everyone is falling into the abyss and yet no one wants to be caught.

22. Predestination

From the Austrian Brothers Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, the duo who made 2010s Daybreakers comes this adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s –All You Zombies–. The film is a tricksy and twisty tussle throughout various timelines and lives grounded by two fantastic lead performances. Ethan Hawke proves once again to be one of the most naturally charming actors working today, but the real star of the show is Sarah Snook whose performance is nothing short of spellbinding. Flipping genders and periods is no easy task yet Snooks manages it with aplomb and injects her characters with a sense of real tragedy that few can manage. Add this to the Brother’s delightful visual trickery and chronology reshuffling and you’ve got the recipe for a great sci-fi film.

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21. While We’re Young/Mistress America

In 2015 there were a number of fantastic winning streaks: Ben Mendelsohn has firmly worked his way into our hearts, Michael Fassbender had hit after hit but the most exciting streak this year was Noah Baumbach’s double bill of While We’re Young and Mistress America. Both films are sublime examinations of maturity, growing up in modern America and the dangers of desperately clinging to the past. They’re dripping with charm and a playfulness that provided both with a warm hue but also underlined the melancholy at the heart of their characters’ lives. Performances are uniformly excellent with Ben Stiller giving the best performance he’s given in years and Greta Gerwig fast cementing the fact that she is one of the most promising personas in modern cinema. Plus the soundtrack in both are uniformly excellent with cuts from Bowie, Suicide and A Tribe Called Quest.

20. The Gift

Joel Edgerton’s The Gift came out of nowhere this year. Released with very little fanfare and a trailer that made it look like every bog standard “Single White Female” variant of the last twenty years, the film seemed to be due more the bargain bin of a petrol station than a wide cinematic release. Yet, the film quietly delivered in spades. Not only did it give Rebecca Hall, Edgerton and Jason Bateman the opportunity to showcase exactly how good performers they can be – in particular Bateman who crafts an excellently played slimeball – but also offered the same kind of nihilistic darkness and thrills that David Fincher has spent much of his career wrangling with. Disturbing in many places and riveting throughout The Gift is one of the year’s real surprises.

19. Cartel Land

Much like how Jaws isn’t about a shark, Cartel Land is not about the war on drugs. While the film does use the “conflict” as a framing device, it amounts to little more than window dressing. It is more of a study about the birth of fascism, the dangers of mythologising vigilantes and destruction of civil liberties in the name of safety. While the film does offer a portrait of Mexico which is unable to keep its head above the bloody waters that the Cartel’s keep throwing corpses in, it is more interesting in watching a local hero become a totalitarian while the status quo remains untouched. A sobering and powerful viewing.

18. The Overnight

There are many great things about The Overnight. Its four players, Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche; are all on top form. It has a great deal to say about the reignition of passion and rediscovering how to love your partner, while also showcasing the bitter sadness of realizing you’re no longer wanted by the one your love. But most importantly, it’s very funny. There are deep belly laughs aplenty throughout the runtime and there are few other stories that use a micropenis as effectively. A real winner.


17. The Martian

Ridley Scott has got a lot of explaining to do. It was easy to put his work from the last decade in a box labelled “Over The Hill”, yet out of the blue, after a string of duds which includes Prometheus and The Counsellor, he’s able to whip out one of the wittiest, most enjoyable science fiction pictures of the year. The swine! Matt Damon excels as Mark Watney, who in lesser hands could have ended up as Fedora the Explorer, and is backed up by a massive international cast too multitudinous and impressive to list here. On display as well is is a deep love of the scientific method and solutions that, while at times are too neat, are always genuinely clever and perfectly fit the scenario. A great example of this is the use of hexadecimal as the most effective form of communication. Yet not only does the film provide all of these, its soundtrack is chock full of classics from Donna Summer, Abba and Bowie’s Starman and there few things as wonderful as listening to Starman with the full heft of Ridley Scott’s vision.

16. Spy

Spy is an anomaly this year: an espionage pastiche that managed to be a better spy film that its straight faced counterparts (looking at you Spectre). It had beautiful people, stunning locations, clever gadgets and action aplenty. But wrapped up in it was some of the sharpest, most caustic wit since Groucho Marx. Between the verbal smackdowns between Rose Byrne and highlight Melissa McCarthy and the pitch perfect self referential Jason Statham performance, Spy is a spiky comic treat.

15. Best of Enemies

Television fundamentally altered the way in which the world understands and experiences political discourse. While a text like Frost/Nixon posit that it was in the early presidential debates that television’s effect was felt, Best of Enemies convincingly argues that it wasn’t how we viewed the candidates that mattered, it was who spoke for them when the debate concluded. Enter two diametrically opposed figures both arguing for their respective candidate: the conservative William Buckley Jr. and the liberal Gore Vidal. The two are titans in their political realms and listening to them duke it out in a mixture of insightful commentary and unashamed bitchiness is as insightful as it is exhilarating. These dialogs alone would make a good documentary, but where Best of Enemies shines is in its extrapolation on how these televisual debates fundamentally altered the political process and act as a rosetta stone for the political schisms that are currently tearing the United States apart. Loaded with loquaciousness, bile and a smooth soundtrack, the film is a real gem.

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14. 45 Years

45 Years is a great example of “show, don’t tell”. Narratively, the film is minimal to the point of aimless, yet within its simple story of a couple preparing for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary, Andrew Haigh’s tale manages to capture the fluidity and fragility of love, even in relationships closing in on their semi centennial, in a devastating fashion. This is due in no small part to the central performances of Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. While Courtenay spends the majority of the tale being emotionally distant, punctuating his actions with these moments of warmth that speak volumes, it is Charolette Rampling who carries the weight here. She masters the delivery of Haigh’s rich, metaphor laden dialog and uses her expressive face as an emotional Weapon of Mass Destruction; an eyebrow drop could shatter the Colossus of Rhodes. It is a story made up of quiet devastation, regret and the insidious nature of “what if”s culminating in one of the most emotional raw climaxes in an age.

13. Timbuktu

2015 was the year that ISIS really came of the forefront of our collective consciousness. With the two Paris attacks, the influx of Syrian refugees and the propaganda myth machine the group have mastered, ISIS are hard to ignore. While it is easy to see the bodies in the streets and see the group’s flashy videos, it is so much harder to imagine what it means to live within the world ISIS seeks to create from a non-fundamentalist perspective. Timbuktu, a beautiful excellently formed picture, excels at showing the real cost of living in that world. Characters looking to eek out a living or sustain the live they had before are faced with violence, sexual assault and death at the hands of politically and religiously minded thugs.

The film posits that these men are not monsters, these men are cowards, thugs and failures who deliberately misread the teaching to forward their own aims. They are not to be deified or monstorified, they are to be viewed as the forgettable human stains that they are. Yet what really comes to the forefront with the picture is the overbearing sense of being trapped.

12. Sicario

Denis Villeneuve is fast becoming one of the most polemic directors working today. His Prisoners was both an examination of the brutal violence that runs deep in the hearts of ordinary America and a caustic indictment of America’s policy on torture. Given the heft of his previous picture, it makes sense that for the next step for him would be tackling America’s ugly unwinnable war: the war on drugs. While on the surface Sicario is about the drug war, the barbarous bloodshed that defines it and how it renders those who mean to do well helpless, simmering beneath the surface is a searing critique of realpolitik and nihilistic acceptance that the mess we’re in really has no solution other than abandoning all pretence of honor and righteousness and descending into the darkness with our foes. Haunting, chilling and pulse pounding, Sicario delivers on multiple levels and is grounded by thrilling action sequences and a career best from Emily Blunt.

11. Crimson Peak

Guillermo Del Toro spoke about this film as a return to the tone and mood of his Spanish pictures – The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth – and it’s very easy to see what he means. Where his English films have typically been defined by scale and action, his Spanish work deals more with the interaction of man and supernatural and the hidden evils that man harbours. So it makes sense that for his first English film to attempt this trick, he would choose a Gothic castle as a setting. With the brooding, oozing red walls of the Crimson Peak, the creepy siblings and the chilling creature design, it’s easy to see the film as a ghost story. But the film owes more to Wuthering Heights than The Haunting of Hill House. It’s about the physical manifestation of long repressed emotions and the memories of sorrow and how these lingering, flickering side which we attempt to ignore will always destroy us in the end. All of this comes wrapped up in a genuinely beautiful package with a colour palette made up of rich greens, reds and golds that brings to mind some of the visual splendor of Dario Argento and Mario Bava.


10. Inside Out

In many ways, Inside Out and Song of the Sea are a two sides of the same coin. Both are explorations of emotionality and the acceptance of sorrow aimed towards a younger audience. Yet both tackle their central concept in radically different ways. While Song buries itself in Irish folklore, artistry and metaphor, Inside Out burrows its way into the mind of its tween protagonist and presents us with a vision of youth and childlike understanding seldom captured in film. The view it presents is of rich pastels, bright sounds and the initial introduction of grey into the emotional and moral spectrum. Given that this is director Pete Docter’s follow up to 2009’s Up, the maturity and sensitivity with which he tackles the material should be unsurprising. It never panders and is never afraid to put its audience through the emotional ringer. Combine this with the incredibly funny screenplay and the charming performances from Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith and you’ve got a film that can carry the Pixar legacy into a new future.

9. Slow West

Beta Band bassist John Maclean rightfully got many people to sit upright with his debut feature film. An acid Western with Coen Brothers overtones, a lyrical use of music and stellar turns by Ben Mendelsohn, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender, the film is genuinely funny and appropriately vicious. Over its welcomely tight runtime, the film manages to be both playful and hateful, but it is in the final montage that it becomes a truly transcendent and profound piece of filmmaking; genuinely a perfect conclusion to a picture.


8. Song Of The Sea

Song of the Sea could be accused of cashing in on the international perception of Ireland as a landing Shamrocks, fairies and funny accents. But even a passing glance reveals how wrong such an interpretation is. Not only is the film carefully and lovingly drawn to perfect encapsulate the celtic art form in all its majesty, it is also a surprisingly bittersweet examination on the pain of loss and the importance of dealing with your emotional wellbeing rather than bottling things up and allowing them leave you bitter, stoney and alone. Furthermore, the film features wonderful performances by its child star David Rawle as well as Brendan Gleeson and Lisa Hannigan who provides a truly magical musical theme to the proceedings. Another clear victory for Irish animation group, Cartoon Saloon, we should all be looking forward to what they do next.

7. The Look of Silence

In 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer delivered his terribly beautiful The Act of Killing into the world. The film, which sought to explore the national mentality behind the Indonesian genocide which claimed several million lives in the 1960s as well as the birth of mortality, still is one of the chilling documents of barbarity ever recorded. This year Oppenheimer gave us a companion piece, The Look of Silence, which while retaining much of the original’s brutality and power, chose to focus on the ordinary civilian and what it means to live in a society where millions of people disappeared overnight. The film interviews the amoral aggressors and the families of the victims and showcases the emotional toll that living within this society has upon the populace. Driven by the courageous journalism of Adi Rukun and compounded by Oppenheimer’s direction, the film is a chilling look at the banality of evil but also at the cost these acts place on a society as a whole.


6. It Follows

It Follows was always going to be one of key players on this list. While it might not have the emotional heft of last year’s The Babadook, it does have is an ethical quandary at its core that is as fascinating as it is unsettling; can you sentence someone to violent death to save yourself? By using sex as the cause for the death sentence, the film opens itself up to a number of varied and intriguing interpretations. Additionally the antagonist, the titular IT, is a truly special creation. While its rules are a tad inconsistent, it’s central concept is the kind that icons are made of: It is following you, if it catches you, you will die. While It can only walk, It will follow you no matter where you are or where you go. These conceit lends the film lends the film this constant sense of paranoia which is augmented by Disasterpeace’s John Carpenter inspired score, the use of a decaying Detroit and it’s fluid camera work. Maika Monroe’s central performance drives the film and if there is any justice this will be a calling card for much bigger things., A rich and chilling film that lends itself to multiple viewings and interpretations. You’ll never be so scared of a walking extra in your life.


The elevator pitch for Phoenix is surprisingly easy: Douglas Sirk melodrama meets Alfred Hitchcock in post-war Germany. Nina Hoss portrays a severely scarred holocaust survivor who, left unrecognizable after facial reconstructive surgery, searchers for her husband in a bombed out Berlin who may or may not have betrayed her. It’s a film about identity, betrayal and deception that works entirely on the microscopic motions of its two leads Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. There are no showboating breakdowns or tearful monologues, instead there are quiet realizations and moments of unspoken guilt and pain. When the film finally comes to its climax, all we need is a simple glance and a moment of silence to realise the world has fallen down around us. A real masterpiece.

4. Carol

The spectre of Douglas Sirk looms large in Carol. His colour scheme, his focus on femininity and womanhood and his devotion to melodrama have, in recent years, been correctly reassessed and appreciated. So it fits that Todd Haynes, a disciple of Sirk if Far From Heaven is to be believed, would be able to create the best film that Kirk never made. Carol is a truly special thing. From the moment it begins, Edward Lachman’s 16 mm cinematography, the wonderful set design and Carter Burwell’s score work together in perfect harmony; we’re immediately transported back to a specific moment in the 1950s. What follows over its faultless runtime is not only another excellent addition to Cate Blanchett’s rich tapestry of a career, but a gentle, nuanced and tender exploration of female sexuality and its repercussions in a post-war America. Charming, sweet and emotionally raw, it is a film that is genuinely difficult to identify flaws or blemishes within and very easy to sit back and let the experience wash over you.

3.Shaun The Sheep

Aardman have, for a long time, been considered the gold standard in the animated world; Pixar comparisons are often drawn. Looking at a film like Shaun the Sheep, it’s easy to see why the group has such a powerful reputation. It’s not that Shaun is an immensely charming homage to the bustling, halcyon days of early silent cinema that makes it such a wondrous film. Nor is it the fact that it consistently and frequently provides some of the richest belly laughs of the year. No, what makes Shaun such a remarkable film is the warmth at its core. Every frame is stuffed to the gill with hand crafted, fingerprinted models made with the deepest love. It’s devoid of any winking to the adults in the audience as a bid to acknowledge how silly this story is. It’s a filmabout home, love and family that never slides into mawkish, Hallmark sentimentality; but rather provides honest and unashamed moments of real kindness.It is a sincere and unabashed jaunt through the joyous realms of childhood glee that can bring tears of joy to the eye.

2. Ex Machina

For much of the last decade Alex Garland proved himself time and time again to be one of the most interesting screenwriters in contemporary Hollywood. His screenplays typically operate at the intersection between cheap, flashy thrills and the cerebral as seen in the likes of Dredd and 28 Days Later. However his career as a filmmaker is defined by clever ideas that struggled in their final acts – “Sunshine’s” slasher final act derails an otherwise magnificent picture. Yet with Ex Machina, he has not only managed to overcome his own limitations but managed to craft one of the greatest films about AI. The film deals with the conflict between humanity and technology and is driven by three truly stellar performances. A Turning test wrapped up in a digital nior, Ex Machina is a true classic.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

This was a surprise. Who would have thought the follow up to Tina Turner’s hair would have been this good? A film that starts at 60MPH and doesn’t drop for two straight hours. It’s an onslaught of chaos, cars and catharsis. The barrage of action always manages to one up itself and somehow never becomes tired or laboured. It’s a fully realised world with minute details adding depth to every frame from the bedpans being used to collect water to the worn war drums to the men who disguise themselves themselves as birds. While on the surface it is a big dumb action film with a fully realised world, there is so much more under the surface. It offer a welcome counterpoint to the gratuitous misogyny that riddles films of this ilk by offering multiple strong, feminine female characters and directly stating that women are no one’s property. In spite of all of this, it never feels preachy or tubthumping, but rather sincere and pissed off at the fact that this is way things tend to be. Crucially if you strip all of this depth, thematic richness as emotional resonance away there is a guy in a red morphsuit playing a flame throwing guitar while wearing his dead mother’s face. If that doesn’t scream “Film of the Year”, I don’t know what does.