The Best Films of 2015

Caren Pistorius in Slow West

There’s a tendency among people who watch a lot of films to boost ones that stand out rather than ones that are good. This can lead to some perverse choices in the “best of” lists that proliferate at this time of year. So that probably explains the rogue nature of the list below – ha ha. If you’re expecting to find Spectre (not at all bad) or the latest Marvel movie or Jurassic World, look elsewhere. These are just the films, of the maybe 350 films or so that I’ve watched in the past 12 months, that jumped out and grabbed me. Some of them are 2014 releases.

Ten Best

Paddington (dir: Paul King)

Operating in Mary Poppins territory, this adaptation of Michael Bond’s books is charming, funny and clever, has jokes for kids and some more thoughtful though never intrusive observations for adults, integrates the animated bear from darkest Peru with the live action brilliantly and there’s even an action-star gag by support-playing baddie Nicole Kidman that’s aimed at ex-husband Tom Cruise.

Wild (dir: Jean-Marc Vallée)

The redemptive drama is a hard sell, but this one about a broken woman’s long trek to self-realisation works in every way. Reese Witherspoon is believably frail as the wee girl dwarfed by her huge rucksack (metaphor), director Jean-Marc Vallée uses music perfectly and does something many directors have forgotten all about – he structures his film visually, using the editing suite to full advantage. His compositional work is remarkable.

Ex Machina (dir: Alex Garland)

Just as we are realising that technology’s grip is icy, and Google might not be our friend, along comes Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a dystopian slab of hard sci-fi in which geeky Domhnall Gleeson falls for robot Alicia Vikander while hipster tech uberlord Oscar Isaac looks on. A three-hander – give or take – getting perfect performances from all concerned, and it glistens like a tiny, beautifully cut gem.

Kajaki (dir: Paul Katis)

A gaggle of British squaddies with names like Tug, Spud and Smudge wander into a minefield and suddenly their casually homophobic banter is replaced by focused professionalism and a sharp interest in staying alive. Gruesomely tense, horrific in its depiction of the damage inflicted by IEDs, is this the best British war film since Ice Cold in Alex? It’s a great war film by any standards.

It Follows (dir: David Robert Mitchell)

Sexual intercourse as an engine of death isn’t new in horror films, but It Follows finds a simple and brilliant new way of telling the story all over again – zombies who are “slow but not dumb” and might appear any time, any place, anywhere, dressed in nightwear or perhaps not very much at all. A lurchingly subjective camera, expressionistic framing and Disasterpeace’s Wendy Carlos-alike score help rack up the intensity even further.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir: Ana Lily Amirpour)

The Muslim jilbab as a kind of vampire’s cape – what a brilliantly observed idea that is in one of the strangest horror films of recent times, which combines something of the mass-observation aesthetic of photographer Sebastião Salgado with the disjointed cool of early Jim Jarmusch. Shot entirely in California, yet clearly a film about and for Iran, it’s a fascinating, Middle Eastern take on the Let the Right One In “innocent vampire” genre.

Slow West (dir: John Maclean)

Michael Fassbender’s astonishing run continues with this out-of-nowhere debut by John Maclean, an exquisitely wrought western making clear its debt to old pulp novels and their love of hard-tack glamour and salty danger. Tense as hell, in fact the whole film is one long, slow build towards a great finale. And it looks the business too.

Aferim! (dir: Radu Jude)

There hasn’t been a great Romanian film for about ten minutes, but here’s a slightly different sort than what we’re used to – a historical picaresque following an 1830s cop and his son as they seek to capture a Gypsy and return him to his owner, a rich boyar whose wife has been too free with her favours. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon inspires some of the look and pace of it, and Don Quixote is clearly also a reference, though Cervantes didn’t finish on as gruesomely gripping a high as this does.

Theeb (dir: Naji Abu Nowar)

It takes a while for it to sink in, but what we have in Theeb – as we follow the exploits of the youngest son of a Bedouin tribe in the Laurence of Arabia-era desert – is a story straight out of Rider Haggard territory. It’s the sort of ripping adventure that once upon a time emboldened Spielberg and Lucas to make Indiana Jones but is done without a cocked eyebrow here, with genuine danger, tough decisions, cruel fate and a bit of socio-economic background (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire) all adding spice.

Mommy (dir: Xavier Dolan)

With Tom at the Farm it became clear that Xavier Dolan was something of a genius. Mommy is further proof, a tough drama about the stumbling relationship of a flaky mother (Anne Dorval), her aggressive, firecracker ADHD teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and their nervous neighbour (Suzanne Clément). It wears its emotions out there on a selfie stick – “fuck off” in this film often means “I love you” – and there are at least two scenes so powerful you might have to remind yourself to breathe.

Honourable Mentions

Victoria Almeida in What's Left of Us
Victoria Almeida drives the boys crazy in What’s Left of Us


Appropriate Behaviour (dir: Desiree Akhavan)

The life and times of a second generation Iranian, or of a confused bisexual, or of a girl in the big city, or of a struggling 20something – Desiree Akhavan gets it all just right in this through-the-fingers New York comedy.

Maps to the Stars (dir: David Cronenberg)

Still Alice won her the acting accolades, but Julianne Moore is actually better in this return to nightmarishness for David Cronenberg, as a fading star and member of a family for whom the term fucked really doesn’t cover it. The Player meets Sunset Boulevard.

Life After Beth (dir: Jeff Baena)

Aubrey Plaza gives it her absolute all as a newly dead zombie trying to have a relationship with old boyfriend Dane DeHaan – who finds her a whole lot more into him than she used to be – in a genuinely inventive comedy made all the better by the presence of John C Reilly and Molly Shannon as Plaza’s concerned parents. Dead funny.

The Tribe (dir: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Shot entirely in Lithuanian sign language, acted by first-timers and set in a school for the deaf where a new boy finds that the descriptor “sex and violence” barely covers what’s going on, this film sounds like a stunt – and it obviously is to some extent – but it’s a stunt that works. And the lack of dialogue is no bar to understanding when emotion this direct and action this unambiguous is concerned.

 The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)

There’s a touch of The Innocents in this highly atmospheric Aussie horror about a mother driven to desperation by her needy child. Or is it the child we need to feel worried for? Sure, it goes slack in the middle, and becomes over-focused on telling us that writer/director Jennifer Kent has seen a whole load of old horror movies, but wait for the finale – barking, scary and brilliant.

The Book of Life (dir: Jorge R Gutierrez)

A Mexican flavoured animation with a Day of the Dead theme and a plot with a distinct Orpheus and Eurydice flavour – she’s dead and he goes after her into the underworld (ish). The visuals are spaghetti western meets Ren and Stimpy, the songs are jaunty and mariachi-flavoured and the voicework (Ice Cube in particular) is exemplary.

Pictures of the Old World (dir: Dusan Hanák)

“The best Slovak film ever made”, the reputation of Dusan Hanák’s disarmingly simple documentary from the early 1970s – about the dirt poor lives of ancient peasants up in the back of beyond – is entirely deserved. “I’m going to die this year, I can feel it,” says one old timer. And that’s what it’s about – quite starkly. Death.

Two Night Stand (dir: Max Nichols)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, It Happened One Night and The Dick Van Dyke Show are all in the mix in this subversive comedy about a girl (Analeigh Tipton) who has hook-up sex with a stranger (Miles Teller) and then gets stuck in his apartment. Old-school screwball romance follows, charmingly, smartly and at speed.

Predestination (dir: Michael and Peter Spierig)

Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi story All You Zombies provides the backbone for the Spierig brothers’ follow-up to the similarly idea-crammed Daybreakers, a “guy walks into a bar” tale of a hermaphrodite (Sarah Snook) who walks into Ethan Hawke’s bar and tells him a story about time travel and the paradoxes that erupt from it. Refreshingly hard sci-fi.

Frequencies aka OXV: The Manual (dir: Darren Paul Fisher)

Strip away the romance and what is human courtship about? Status, clearly, according to this lo-fi, highly fascinating film about “what happens when a high frequency meets a low frequency” – hot, smart girl meets average guy, in other words. It’s patchily acted and a bit speechy towards the end, but there are enough ideas in this bizarre film for about 12 Hollywood blockbusters.

 Turned towards the Sun (dir: Greg Olliver)

A simple and revelatory documentary about 90-something poet and Second World War hero Micky Burn, a long-form visual version of a Daily Telegraph obituary whose power lies in the richness of Burn’s Zelig-like life. He was – just one for-instance – the guy in the secret radio room at Colditz.

What’s Left of Us aka El Desierto (dir: Christoph Behl)

A simple but powerful Argentinian zombie movie about a girl, a boy and another boy all locked up together in a house while the world goes to hell in a handcart outside. And inside, it turns out, once sexual dynamics and the fallout of a fetid love triangle start to exert themselves. Victoria Almeida is a powerful and provocative lead, the sexy counterweight to the hothouse atmosphere of death.

Tusk (dir: Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith reminds us how good he can be with a film about a guy (Justin Long) being turned into a walrus by a demented surgeon (Michael Parks) while his much-cheated-on girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) searches for him. A simple film, it somehow manages to be funny and appallingly gruesome at the same time.

Face of an Angel (dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Michael Winterbottom’s drama takes the bones of the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case and constructs a brilliant meditation on the modus operandi of the media, as well as a modern-day Dante and Beatrice tale in which film-maker Daniel Brühl is smitten by virginal Cara Delevingne, as anyone watching probably will be too.

While We’re Young (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Not-as-young-as-they-once-were couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts try to keep up with hipsters Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried in a very Jewish New York comedy – smart, dry, a touch bitter – about the importance of being not just true to yourself, but of doing this absolutely and totally properly.

 White God aka Fehér Isten (dir: Kornél Mudruczó)

Kicking off with a quote by Rilke, this unique Hungarian film is like a Disney animal flick about the adventures of a mongrel, except done as existential sci-fi – what exactly would happen if dogs had the same degree of consciousness that humans have?

The Salvation (dir: Kristian Levring)

Director Kristian Levring used to be a Dogme man, but shouts “I’m so over all that now” with this remarkable western that’s like a fusion of Sergio Leone, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich, with a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen as a Clint Eastwood-alike quester after vengeance. If looks could kill…

Run All Night (dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)

Another of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners, though this time he’s back with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a deliberately retro dash for the finish in which strong, silent Neeson takes on the good guys, the bad guys and eventually the whole of New York. Hugely overwrought, entirely satisfying, it’s genre done properly.

Still the Water aka Tutatsume no mado (dir: Naomi Kawase)

If Douglas Sirk had been Japanese he might have come up with this overheated love story about teenage lovers hedging towards full penetrative sex as the waves crash, storms rage and their families conspire against them. Leisurely, beautiful, lusty and lovely, an unusual mix of the entirely natural and the gigantically metaphorical.

Phoenix (dir: Christian Petzold)

The latest of a string of dark, intelligent films that director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss have made together is a revenge drama set in the aftermath of the Second World War where Hoss, just released from a death camp, is recruited by her own husband to play his dead wife – he doesn’t recognise her, obviously – and she plays along. Oh deary deary me.

 Marshland aka La Isla Mínima (dir: Alberto Rodriguez)

Stunningly good-looking policier about an ageing Franco-supporting cop and his younger more democratic sidekick investigating a murder out in the photogenic Guadalquivir marshes in 1980. Brilliantly acted and shot, with locations and music to match, it even does a car chase in an entirely new way. Did I mention how good it looks?

Little Accidents (dir: Sara Colangelo)

Old school 1970s-style humane ensemble drama with a standout Boyd Holbrook as a survivor of a terrible mining disaster whose testimony about the event at an upcoming hearing is going to decide the futures of a whole lot of people in town. An ambling drawl of a movie, with Elizabeth Banks and Jacob Lofland almost as good as Holbrook, surely a star of 2016.

 Turbo Kid (dir: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell)

Utterly on-the-nail pastiche of 1980s straight-to-VHS movie-making, a post-apocalyptic Total Recall meets Mad Max story of a BMX-riding kid, called Kid, gaining special powers, falling for a special girl (a special Laurence Leboeuf) and saving the world. Funny and gory, with in-jokes for nerds, and a fabulous John Carpenter-like soundtrack by Le Matos.

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir: George Miller)

Pedal-to-the-metal furious punk-funk madness, with a barely speaking Tom Hardy as Max, the road warrior on the road with badass Charlize Theron (the film’s real star) while director George Miller obsessively choreographs the relentless chase/action mayhem around them.

Tomorrowland (dir: Brad Bird)

Whatever happened to the futurism of jet packs and flying cars? Brad Bird answers the question with jaw-dropping visuals in a modern-day Wizard of Oz quest-adventure coolly received by critics with ass/elbow disassociation disorder.

Cop Car (dir: Jon Watts)

Another of those great Kevin Bacon movies he comes up with every few years, with our guy as a really bad cop on the trail of a couple of kids who have nicked his car, unaware there’s something in the boot they really don’t want to be discovering. A high-concept B movie of real distinction, lean, simple and with smart, believable dialogue, especially for the kids.

Palio (dir: Cosima Spender)

A remarkable documentary about the Palio, a horse race run in Siena, Italy, twice a year, which takes such pains to introduce us to its characters – chiefly, the young buck hoping to steal the grizzled champion’s crown – that when the race kicks off, you’re really in the medieval square with the riders.

 Minions (dir: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin)

After the boring Despicable Me 2, who’d have thought that a spin-off – the backstory of Gru’s little yellow helpers – would have worked this well. Brilliantly animated and written, it’s a breathless, idea-packed, funny, inventive animated comedy.

I Believe in Miracles (dir: Jonny Owen)

Even if you have no interest in the 1970s, or British football, or managerial legend Brian Clough, this documentary about his astonishing success and idiosyncratic style will have you hooked. “The most charismatic man I ever met,” says one former player, part of the team of underdogs he willed to European Cup success, twice.

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2015

23 February 2015-02-23

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Serena

Out in the UK This Week

Serena (StudioCanal, cert 15)

After Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper clearly have decided they can do no wrong, and so overreach themselves with a Depression-era Gone with the Wind-level epic about a wilful woman and a powerful man thrust together against a backdrop of urgent social blah.

Susanne Bier directs, and it’s clear that the further this highly talented Dane gets away from the boilerhouse domestic dramas she’s so good at (Brothers and After the Wedding), the bigger her films, the less powerful they become.

There is a lot to like here – the mist rolling over the Smoky Mountains locations where the story plays out of the mad and ultimately dangerous passion between logging mogul Cooper and flinty feisty Lawrence (in the title role), the beautiful panoramic lensing by Morten Søborg, a great cast including an overacting Robert Newton-esque Rhys Ifans as the local man of the mountains who becomes Serena’s lapdog killer, Toby Jones as the proto-ecologist sheriff, and so on.

But look again at the story, where so many plotlines are started but never go anywhere (all the talk about Brazil, for example), characters (Ifans, Jones and Ana Ularu as the girl Cooper fathers a natural child with) who are picked up and dropped as and when.

And it’s not just Ifans who’s overdoing it – Lawrence has taken the bait and gone for a full-blown mad woman role, munching scenery in finest Barbara Stanwyck style, while Cooper is trying, I suspect, though failing, to be Clark Gable.

Hey ho, Cooper and Lawrence have another film in the works, Joy, with David O Russell (director of American Hustle and Silver Linings) so let’s see how that goes.

Serena – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Jack Strong (Metrodome, cert 15)

Jack Strong is unusual because it tells a classic Cold War spy story in classic Cold War style. No Bourne handheld here, or rhythmic speech to match the rhythms of the soundtrack music. This is old-school dolly shots and key grip movie-making.

And very good it is too, as the story of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, Poland’s most famous spy, is told against a backdrop of the decades when the Solidarity trade union started exposing a weakness in the socialism of the Eastern Bloc. That weakness being nationalism. Because Kuklinski’s story – the decent guy/family man/hardworking army colonel – is presented as one about a patriot who realises that the fortunes of his country and those of the Soviet Union are not necessarily aligned. And so, guilty at his role in the suppression of the Prague Spring and increasingly nervous about the nuclear build-up between West and East, Kuklinski starts to work for the Americans.

Though Patrick Wilson turns up as Kuklinski’s CIA control, this is a Polish film largely for Polish people – its portrayal of national leader General Jaruzelski as a more sympathetic character than is usual (his dark glasses always gave him a Strangelove aspect) surprised me. And I found this political aspect of the film – whether it is revisionist or just honest I really wouldn’t know – every bit as fascinating as the old cat and mouse/dead letter drops stuff that is the meat and drink of the old school spy thriller.

Well worth a couple of hours of your time, I’d say.

Jack Strong – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Life Itself (Dogwoof, cert 15)

With movie theatres teetering on the edge of oblivion – finally smudging the distinction between cinema and home entertainment/TV irrevocably – it looks like Roger Ebert might go down in history not just as the most famous film critic in the world to date, but ever.

Ebert was an enthusiast, a champion, and among the many little joys of Steve James’s film is meeting some of the film-makers (Martin Scorsese among them) who owe Ebert their careers (as did James – his remarkable documentary Hoop Dreams was taken up by Ebert, who blew at the ember until it glowed).

It is in most other ways a standard doc – archive footage, a chronological timeline of Ebert’s progress from bumptious college newshound to accidental film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer, his TV shows with Jean Siskel, with whom he had an initially fraught relationship (hilarious outtakes of them winding each other up) and his ascent to the position as “the definitive mainstream critic in American letters,” as the New York Times‘s AO Scott describes him.

Along the way there’s the stories of the drinking and the girls, the late blooming love with his wife, Chaz, and the cancer that first took his jaw and later his life. If you were reading Ebert’s reviews up to the point where he suddenly, seemingly, just ceased, the sight of him hooked up to tubes, the remains of his jaw just flapping in the breeze, his voice a Hawking croak, will make you marvel again at the supreme facility of a man who could still turn out such beautifully polished work with one and a half feet in the grave.

Life Itself, the clue is in the title, isn’t just a documentary about the life of a critic, it’s a film about dying, but going down elegantly, with all cannons still firing.

Life Itself – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

Nightcrawler (E One, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal takes on another thin-lipped whackjob role, donning eyeliner and looking gaunt as Louis Bloom, the sociopath who discovers that he’s good for pretty much nothing in this world except… getting ambulance-chasing TV coverage. Having no real interest in people gives Bloom a real edge. Trampling over victims’ dignity and personal grief, playing hardball with other, rival LA cameramen as he shoots “if it bleeds, it leads” nighttime footage for whichever TV station is prepared to pay for it. Though, for the sake of dramatic economy that tends to be Rene Russo, a TV producer with bad ratings and so as desperate for ghoulish footage as “the Nightcrawler”.

As the title suggests, in style this is a 1950s “ripped from the headlines” crime drama, and somewhere in the mix the great news photographer Weegee must be an inspiration. Robert Elswit keeps the cinematography stygian, handy for Russo who must be decades older than any actual 21st-century TV producer.

However, it’s Elswit who mostly delivers the class, in a drama which fancies itself as profound and revelatory – hold the front page: news organisations can be a little flaky. Or is it a study of a twisted moral midget?

Gyllenhaal’s good, and god how he works the hyperactive tic shtick, but he’s dramatically negated by writer/director Dan Gilroy’s decision to shoot this all in Hollywood Valiant mode – lens choices, edits, focus and blocking are pointing towards this man being a hero. Or is that irony and I need a 101 on satire?

Nightcrawler – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Pictures of the Old World (Second Run, cert E)

It’s since been voted “the best Slovak film of all time”, but when this remarkable 1972 documentary was made it was shot in the country then known as Czechoslovakia and the life it showed didn’t please the Communist authorities, fervent in their denial of there being any poverty at all in the people’s republic. It’s one of the simplest films in construction, being a series of interviews with old people, intercut with vox pops about the most important things in life (health, as if you didn’t know).

To be old in 1972 meant you’d been born in the 19th century and lived through two world wars, massive social change and technological revolution. And here they are, these old peasants in the Tatra mountains, still smashing the ice on a trough of water to have a morning wash. Hard work. There’s the guys who crawls everywhere since a farm wagon fell on his legs 25 years before – “No man ever touched the ground so much,” he says with resignation. Or the shepherd milking ewes by hand. “I can barely walk now,” says another old-timer, clutching his cat grimly for companionship. “I’m going to die this year. I can feel it. I was a strong guy. But now I’m done for.”

What faces they have, what lives they lead. And yet, in a small tender scene in which old guys in a shack drink local distilled spirit and talk about the loves of their youth, it’s immensely touching too. Full of pity, a lovely film.

Pictures of the Old World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Tommy (Arrow, cert 15)

What a strikingly beautiful woman Moa Gammel is. Here the blonde Swedish actress plays a gangster’s moll back in town, a stark contrast as she bustles about in a world of middle-aged and often ethnic men, gangsters at one level or another, and tries to sort out some unfinished heist-related business on behalf of her husband, Tommy, mere mention of whose name makes the toughest nut blench.

Tommy is, we suspect from the start – something in Gammel’s nervousness – dead, and the delight in this bit of Nordic noir is waiting for the brutes to find out, and for the protective aura of Tommy’s malice to suddenly pffft.

This is an immensely sleek and cool thriller. So cool, in fact that it often forgets that it’s meant to be a thriller at all. But it’s intriguing to see a man’s world from this woman’s point of view, where only her marital status and her sheer damn sexiness are keeping her alive. Medieval, almost.

Tommy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Effie Gray (Metrodome, cert 12)

Effie Gray tells the story of Euphemia Gray, the middle class Victorian girl who married the art critic John Ruskin but later got involved in a scandalous affair with John Everett Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters championed by Ruskin.

As the film relates, the marriage to Ruskin was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, and the apocryphal story goes that when Ruskin saw his wife’s pubic hair on their honeymoon night, he was so disgusted that he could never go near her again – the statues of antiquity came with no such undergrowth. However, Emma Thompson’s script shies away from such lurid tittle-tattle, preferring instead to cast Ruskin as a super-aesthete and/or possible closeted homosexual.

Poor Greg Wise (Thompson’s real-life partner) should get some reward as the prissy Ruskin, so meanly drawn, so waspishly played that sympathy is entirely with Gray, as surely is the purpose of a film that bears her name.

Dakota Fanning, as the redoubtable Gray, again (as in Now Is Good) puts so much mental energy into getting her English accent right that there’s nothing left for actual acting, again leaving a bit of a hole at the centre of the film.

It’s interesting that the film is concerned, at least tangentially, with the Pre-Raphaelites, since British period movies so often share the Pre-Raphaelites’ concerns and methods – Effie Gray is well lit; its subject matter is high tone; it’s full of well boned women of elevated social class; and it’s edifying, tasteful and liberal in the noblesse oblige sense. As is too often the case, in other words it’s hack work masquerading as art, and a dull old slog.

Effie Gray – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2015