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!

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

10 August 2015-08-10

Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) carries his dead son (Toke Lars Bjarke) in The Salvation

The Salvation (Warner, cert 15)

Having made his name with austere Dogma films, Kristian Levring makes clear he’s more than a one trick pony with a film that pulls every “big movie” trick available – lighting, cameras, costumes, location and sound are all used to the max in a lavish western that sees Mads Mikkelsen striking Clint Eastwood poses as he tries to gain revenge for the death of his wife and child.

One of the best modern westerns thematically, technically, artistically and in terms of pure entertainment, it references the medical violence of Peckinpah, the masculine codes of Aldrich, the operatics of Leone and the spartan ruggedness of John Ford, and ties them all together with a Morricone-esque soundtrack.

Is it a bit too self-consciously referential? On reflection, perhaps. Especially in its casting down the page – Jeffrey Dean Morgan is such a classic villain, Eva Green such a bad-girl female (her tongue has been ripped out in a bit of backstory dramatics, to reinforce her chattel status), and Jonathan Pryce exactly the sort of smalltime weasel we’ve all seen a thousand times that the whole thing does teeter on the edge of parody. As a genre exercise, though, it can’t be faulted. A meta meta western, perhaps. I’ve reviewed this at greater length here.

The Salvation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Timbuktu (Curzon, cert 12)

What’s life like under the jihadists? Abderrahmane Sissako’s film dramatises the time when the fundamentalist Islamist group Ansar Dine occupied the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012, banned music and football, forced women to cover up, destroyed beautiful carvings, imposed sharia law. It really happened, and Sissako is angry about it. So angry that he occasionally lets his heart rule his head and the film wanders towards propaganda.

A fish wife argues with the jihadists that it’s simply not possible to clean and sell fish wearing gloves. We see the guys who have just banned football chatting about the importance of Zidane to the French national team. The jihadists enter the local mosque with guns to make sure their stipulations are being followed, never mind what the mullah might say. We get it – the Ansar Dine strictures are unworkable in the real world, and in any case what’s going on here is a power play, not religious renewal. They are a violent rabble of colonialists who don’t speak the local language, only Arabic, and won’t speak any of the lingua francas (French, English) because these are the oppressors’ languages. The irony.

As the film moves from the general towards the more particular story of a lovely local family whose small cattle-rearing concern is threatened from two sides – by a violent incident involving the cowherd, and by the amorous interest of a local jihadi in the family’s matriarch – things do liven up. And here again, Sissako is shouting “foul” – where in the Koran does it prescribe the stealing of other men’s wives?

If you’re up for a film shot in this legendary and beautiful adobe city, which confirms the awfulness of Isis-like hardliners, this is for you. But don’t expect insight into the workings of the jihadi mind.

Timbuktu – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Les Combattants (Curzon, cert 15)

Also known as Love at First Fight, or Fighters, this deadpan almost-comedy about a pair of weird kids – he builds sheds, she’s a toughie hoping to join the army – is an offbeat romance that works because of the longing we can see in the face of Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) every time he looks at Madeleine (Adèle Haenel).

These two meet-cute at the beach at some organised fighting competition – kids stuff, not cage fighting – where he, realising he’s losing to a girl, bites her. From that moment on, if you’re like me, you’ll be plugged into the desperate “kiss her, kiss her” tension which writer/director Thomas Cailley works up, as he exaggerates the banked up passion with nonchalant performances, a hyper-real blandness of milieu, affectless dialogue, dislocating unusualness (the moment where they feed frozen dead chicks to a pet snake, for example).

I thought I could detect touches of the immersive deadpan of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and the cock-eyed optimism of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s The Kings of Summer – the feeling you have when you’re young that this world is all there is, it’s all that matters.

And fighting that tendency to introspection is the electro-pop soundtrack by Philip Oëffard, Pierre Guyard and Christophe Rossignon, another strong element in a wistful lovely film whose simplicity is all skin deep.

Les Combattants – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Duff (E One, cert 12)

A high school comedy romance that adds the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to the usual list of stoners, goths, nerds and mean girls.

Mean Girls, is in fact, the apex of this sort of thing right now, and this gets about chest high to it, thanks largely to likeable, smart Mae Whitman as the kinda nice, kinda smart, kinda OK-looking girl who discovers that she’s been rated a DUFF. Cue much soul-searching, the development of an “I will survive” resolve, and an ugly-duckling transformation. Hang on, I didn’t mention the crush on someone unattainable while someone who is entirely gettable is hiding in plain sight.

As a working through of genre tropes this is limber enough and has its well observed moments. But its attempt to make it current by constant references to social media suggest a film that knows it’s not really in tune with modern teenagers’ tempers, and that this is really a light wipe-over of one of those Freddie Prinze Jr and Julia Stiles films that were knocking around 15 years ago. Nothing wrong with those.

And the outro section, where two teachers (Chris Wyle and Ken Jeong) make all sorts of very funny, entirely inappropriate remarks from the sidelines at the Prom suggest there’s a bolder, raunchier film in here trying to get out. 7/10 on the Mean Girls scale.

The Duff – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Run All Night (Warner, cert 15)

Run All Night is another Liam Neeson movie in which he’s looking after his family. This time he’s a gangster’s fixer who is trying to stop his son (Joel Kinnaman, overacting) going the same way as himself. So there’s a layer of psychological complexity that the Taken films never had. Not that an action movie really needs a layer of psychological complexity.

At its simplest this is the story of one man (Neeson) falling foul of one other guy (Ed Harris), then spending a night during which other bad guys get involved, until our man is running from the whole of New York, including the cops, plus an extra contracted hitman of the relentless automaton variety (Common, intensely effective), just in case the legion of heavies and boys in blue can’t stop our elemental force.

It’s all fairly basic, and in many ways it’s a 1980s movie, if not a 1950s fugitive movie. But Run All Night’s strength is that it’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, back with Neeson for the third time after Unknown and Non-Stop. And Collet-Serra is very good at chases. He’s a master of film geography – in any high speed encounter, whether it’s in a car or on a crowded street, we always know where our man is in comparison with the bad guys, which way he’s heading, how fast he’s going, so we know precisely how risky all this stuff is. Risk equals excitement.

Neeson brings Shakespearean levels of conflicted personality to the role, and the film is all the better for it. Plus Collet-Serra drops in little homages to the Michael Mann school of film-making, with super-luxe shots of the city at night.

Run All Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Dark Horse (Koch, cert 15)

The Dark Horse seems for a good stretch to be two films fighting in a sack. One is the underdog story of Genesis Potini, a bipolar Maori guy who winds up teaching an afterschool club of ne’er-do-wells how to excel at chess and stay out of trouble. The other is about a young kid called Mana, Genesis’s nephew, a bright and attractive boy with his life ahead of him, who’s being encouraged by his tough-looking but essentially weak father to join a biker gang – the ghetto or the big world, the lawless or straight and narrow, his dad or his uncle, these are his choices.

It turns out at the end, as befits a film in which strategic games are played, that the chess story and the gangster strand are closer thematically than at first seems to be the case. The big message is about the power of simple ju-ju in everyday life – we can choose, to a certain extent, which piece on the board of life we want to be.

Cliff Curtis keeps it underplayed as the troubled chess master. James Rollesten, with a Hollywood face that’s simultaneously handsome and pretty, is the kid in danger. And the support players – the mean biker guys, the sparky kids at the club – are all so believable that they really help what could easily have been a squeeze of the genre sponge burst into dirty, satisfying life. A true story, too.

The Dark Horse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Good Lie (E One, cert 12)

The star billing goes to Reese Witherspoon, but this film isn’t about her at all. And it’s to her credit and of all involved that things aren’t bent out of shape to accommodate her. Instead it’s the admirably straight story of a bunch of Sudanese refugee children, part of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, whose lives were disrupted (ruined, we’d say if this happened to us in the first world) after the outbreak of civil war.

Fleeing the bullets, and en route to comparative safety, they suffer real privation. Extreme thirst forces them to drink their own urine. One of their number dies. Another is abducted by soldiers. The survivors make it to a refugee camp in Kenya. Years later, having become adults in the refugee camp but still a fierce group, they make it to America, where a semi-comedy of fish out of water sort plays out (“Are there any dangerous animals of which we should be warned?” asks group leader Mamere. “Such as?” replies the company boss he’s interviewing with. “Lions,” says Mamere), and Witherspoon eventually turns up in one of her perky, flawed blue-collar roles as a local job fixer.

The events don’t stop here – America has its effect on the three who have made it, the tension springing from the suggestion their essential human toughness and sweetness will be corrupted by the easy, throwaway life. There’s a lot of ground covered, too much in fact to keep the drama keen, but it’s a handsomely made film, with acting that’s as sweet and direct as the Lost Boys. You might not be surprised to find that most of the actors are in fact Sudanese refugees.

The Good Lie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2015