Touted years before as being the twelve months of the blockbuster, 2015 certainly delivered in terms of spectacle. The first proper Star Wars film in three decades wowed cinemagoers, Jurassic World became a surprise box office behemoth and the Marvel juggernaut continued to roll on unabated.
Elsewhere, a series of tremendous prestige pictures have fired the starting pistol on one of the closest Oscar races in living memory. From Sicario to Carol to animated hit Inside Out, there are at least half a dozen really strong contenders to win Best Picture.
With blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls on equal footing, here are the 20 best films of 2015.
20. Mad Max: Fury Road
Few films have had as difficult a development as Mad Max: Fury Road. Released 30 years after franchise threequel Beyond Thunderdome, pre-production on the film actually started way back in 1997. Production delays and the chaos surrounding star Mel Gibson repeatedly pushed the project back, until it was finally shot in 2012.
The resulting film was a brutal, adrenaline-fuelled shot in the arm not just for the franchise, but for action cinema in general. Fury Road benefited not just from its innovative CGI-augmented practical effects, but from its tremendous simplicity. There was no complex plotting and very little in the way of side stories. This was Charlize Theron in an unforgettable role, Tom Hardy on silently ferocious form and a bucketload of vehicular carnage.
19. The Gift
Trailers teased a standard stalker movie. The Jason Blum seal of approval promised horror jumps and jolts. Nothing, however, prepared viewers for what The Gift actually turned out to be – an efficiently nasty thriller with a trio of great, morally murky central performances. Joel Edgerton excelled both in front of the camera as the creepy Gordo and also behind it in his directorial debut, making great use of the tightly wound plot.
The true star of The Gift, though was Jason Bateman. The actor portrayed a layered character, who became gradually darker as the movie progressed, inverting and twisting the traditional hero-villain dynamic. Its genuinely unsettling finale proved incredibly divisive, but this was definitely one of the surprise packages of 2015.
Since wowing just about everyone with District 9, Neill Blomkamp is a filmmaker who has divided critical opinion. The intriguing Elysium met with mixed reviews, but robot-themed sci-fi Chappie received a downright kicking from a number of film writers. In one of the year’s biggest injustices, the film sits at only 31% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Chappie was anchored by a stellar mo-cap performance from Sharlto Copley, who completely inhabited the role of the android imbued with human emotions. He turned Chappie into an empathetic character, particularly as he was corrupted by the band of criminals portrayed by quirky hip hop outfit Die Antwoord. It built to an all-action finale and a brave final twist that ensured the film would not be forgotten in a hurry.
17. Straight Outta Compton
Controversial hip hop group NWA occupy a major place in musical history, so it was only a matter of time until they got the biopic treatment. The result, Straight Outta Compton, was one of the better music-themed movies of the last few years. Boasting a solid cast of young performers, including the son of Ice Cube, Compton really got under the skin of the men behind the music.
The film was criticised for taking a scalpel to some of the more troubling issues surrounding NWA and it’s certainly true that the film was a sanitised version of events. However, as a partial history of one of rap’s most charismatic groups, it was an impressive, well-acted piece of work.
16. Steve Jobs
Cinema is fascinated with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. It was Michael Fassbender’s turn to portray the tech celeb this year in Danny Boyle’s drama Steve Jobs. Via an innovative, theatre-style three act structure, the film was able to examine the relationships of Jobs’ life and the personality that made him such a difficult man to work with behind the scenes.
Fassbender completely inhabited Jobs and was helped by a scene-stealing Kate Winslet performance as his closest adviser. The unusual structure proved to be the perfect way of deploying Aaron Sorkin’s trademark rapid fire dialogue, with the stagey setup allowing the words to really fly. In the company of a terrific Sorkin script and a cast on top form, two hours just flew by.
15. Bridge of Spies
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg can be relied upon as two of the most consistent figures in modern cinema. Their past collaborations, such as Saving Private Ryan, have produced acclaimed work. With the addition of the Coen Brothers on script-polishing duties, Bridge of Spies was another A-grade work from the Hanks-Spielberg partnership.
Hanks excelled as the likeable American everyman tasked with exchanging a Russian spy for an American pilot at the height of the Cold War. Veteran Brit thesp Mark Rylance provided stellar support as Soviet agent Rudolf Abel in a role of very few words. Bridge of Spies isn’t the most thrilling movie in the conventional sense, but it makes men talking in smoke-fuelled rooms feel glamorous, exciting and utterly compelling.
14. It Follows
Director David Robert Mitchell’s dreamlike horror It Follows wasn’t on many people’s radars until it opened to rave reviews at the beginning of 2015. Now, however, it stands up as one of the best horror movies of the last year. The film boasted an original concept – that of a simple force that can take the form of any person and follows the victim permanently at a slow, deliberate pace.
Maika Monroe, seen previously in The Guest, gave a truly mesmerising central performance as a young woman caught in a desperate situation. The film’s message regarding sex is muddled, perhaps deliberately, but there are many layers to the film’s allegory. Of all of the films on this list, It Follows will perhaps reward rewatches the most.
13. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Well done JJ Abrams. Having already given Star Trek a makeover, the director was given the keys to Star Wars – one of the most beloved franchises in movie history. No one need have worried, because The Force Awakens was the perfect mixture of modernity and nostalgia. Abrams allowed fans to bask in the successes of the past, whilst also introducing a whole new wave of reasons to fall in love with the galaxy far, far away.
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega proved to be excellent and identifiable new lead characters. Adam Driver, too, made a definite impact as the petulant young villain Kylo Ren. There was plenty of looking back in The Force Awakens, but it was a film that gave fans tonnes of reasons to look forward as well.
12. John Wick
Keanu Reeves underwent something of a career rejuvenation this year courtesy of his lead role in surprise package action movie hit John Wick. Reeves found the perfect vehicle for his lack of charisma as a former assassin lured back into the dark world of his murderous past when his dog was killed in the midst of a robbery. What followed was a kinetic orgy of Hong Kong inspired violence.
John Wick boasted some of the most impressive sequences of gunplay ever committed to cinema, under the directorial eye of stunt performers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. The film created an intriguing underworld of crooks with honour and anchored it all with a joyous and welcome sense of action cinema as pure adrenaline.
11. The Voices
Few of the films on this list flew under the radar as completely as Marjane Satrapi’s psychedelic horror-comedy The Voices. The film, which focused on a serial killer spurred on by the voices of his pet dog and cat, was yet another step on Ryan Reynolds’ pre-Deadpool career renaissance. It was met with little interest by critics, but had a delightfully offbeat tone that balanced jet black comedy with total surrealism and macabre horror.
Reynolds was a revelation in the central role, also lending his vocal talents to the voices of his pets. Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick were equally adept at navigating the film’s tonal minefield created by Michael R Perry’s near-perfect script. The Voices was the kind of film that screamed potential cult classic, so its esteem may grow in years to come.
There are films on this list that are considerably better than Suffragette, but few that feel as essential. Written by Shame scribe Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, it was a rare example of a women-centric film almost entirely created by women. It felt less like a document of history and more like a polemical call to arms, urging women not to give up the fight for equality.
Carey Mulligan’s working class heroine allowed Suffragette to focus on the everyday footsoldiers of the movement, rather than its middle class public faces. Solid supporting turns from the likes of Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff provided more fuel to a film which had fire at its core. There was shocking brutality throughout, but also a palpable sense of still unquenched rage that made Suffragette a genuine must-see.
9. The Martian
It’s fair to say that Ridley Scott’s directorial work had been in something of a slump prior to 2015. However, the man behind Gladiator once again found the perfect marriage of script and performance in The Martian. Drew Goddard, co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, adapted Andy Weir’s cult novel into a playful, spectacular and occasionally devastating sci-fi treat.
Matt Damon was excellent as the lone astronaut left on the surface of Mars. The ensemble on Earth were equally impressive, anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. The Martian will, however, primarily be remembered for how surprisingly funny it was, packing one of the sharpest, wittiest scripts of 2015 and a real sense of fun.
Asif Kapadia marked himself out as a major director to watch with his F1 doc Senna. Five years later, tragic musician Amy Winehouse was his subject in the devastating Amy. The film, using interviews from just about every major figure in Winehouse’s life, traced the star’s childhood before documenting her rise to fame and fall from grace under the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs.
Amy was a shocking portrayal of the destructive power of fame. The press were shown to be a cacophonous source of relentless pressure and influences within her own family were spotlighted for their shortcomings. Mitch, Winehouse’s father, has expressed his disapproval at the film, but its true genius was in its refusal to blame anyone. Kapadia’s eye was neutral, but never ambivalent.
7. Crimson Peak
There has always been a clear divide in the work of Guillermo Del Toro. On the one side is his mature, dark Spanish language work and, on the other, are his big American blockbusters. Crimson Peak straddled the line between those twin styles, marrying the supernatural sophistication of Euro Del Toro with the A-list casting and English language of his blockbuster side. The film was a financial plot, but an absolute filmmaking triumph.
Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska proved to be an excellent romantic double act, boasting real chemistry. The third point of the horror triangle was Jessica Chastain, in a role that she seemed to be enjoying immensely. Crimson Peak, with its cavernous practical sets and vibrant colours, was also a bold visual treat that rewarded Del Toro’s unique gothic vision. It got a little lost on its Halloween release, but it’s a film that will be reappraised in years to come.
Back at the Oscars, Birdman surprised just about everyone when it bested Boyhood to win the double-whammy of Best Picture and Best Director for Alejandro González Iñárritu. Almost a year later, the film still stands up as one of the most intriguing and intelligent releases of 2015. Michael Keaton’s meta turn as an ageing actor plagued by one famous superhero role was a casting masterstroke alongside the innovative notion of a film presented as one continuous take.
The supporting work, from the likes of Edward Norton and Emma Stone, was uniformly impressive and the rhythmic nature of the script was a technical marvel. It seemed a little emotionally empty on a first watch, but the artifice and surrealism melted away on second viewing to reveal a surprisingly potent beating heart lurking underneath.
When the awards for the best films of 2015 are doled out in the first few months of 2016, it’s likely that Brooklyn will be something of a minor presence. John Crowley’s romantic drama was a subtle, gently powerful film about Saoirse Ronan’s young woman displaced in the world, feeling as if she no longer knew where home was.
Ronan’s performance was expressive and nuanced. She perfectly sold the turmoil of choosing between her exciting new life in America and the cosy comforts of Ireland. It was a film that really resonated deeply and told its story in a deeply old-fashioned, but entirely welcome, way. In a year dominated by blockbuster cinema, this was a much-needed slice of quiet.
Denis Villeneuve is increasingly marking himself out as one of the best thriller directors working in cinema today. His 2015 effort, Sicario, was a complex and often terrifyingly brutal examination of the war on drugs, focused on the Mexican border. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent was thrown into a situation of murky morals by shady CIA operative Josh Brolin and his even shadier associate, played by Benicio Del Toro.
The film repeatedly amped up the tension and fed the audience information slowly, teasing out the true importance of the operation, in which no one involved is entirely a good guy. As the awards nominations have begun to be handed out, Sicario has been sadly and unjustly overlooked in the major categories. Alongside Soderbergh’s Oscar winner Traffic, Villeneuve’s Sicario is one of the best films to focus on the war on drugs.
A wave of critical adoration surrounded Carol when it made its UK cinema bow following a garlanded run on the festival circuit, including a Best Actress win for Rooney Mara at Cannes. Todd Haynes’ romantic drama was a china doll of a film – delicate and fragile, but utterly perfect. Mara and Cate Blanchett made for a pairing with immense chemistry, capable of saying an awful lot without using a single word.
Carol is already dominating the awards season, leading the nominations for the Golden Globes. The film was a subtle tale of attraction that crackled and sparked with the potency of a love that ran into constant blockades and problems. It still felt brave, even in the more liberal world of 2015, and definitely served up a slice of 1950s America.
I first saw Whiplash well over a year ago at the London Film Festival, where it blew me away with its sharp writing, lean storytelling and cacophonous musical finale. In the face of strong competition, it still managed to emerge as one of the best UK film releases of 2015. The tale of Miles Teller’s drumming prodigy and his verbally brutal mentor JK Simmons thrilled with its simplicity and sense of the sacrifice necessary to get to the top.
Young director Damien Chazelle gave the film a sense of rapid fire urgency, which meshed neatly with Simmons’ ferocious putdowns. It all culminated in a bravura final scene that is as close to pure cinema as anything in 2015 – the perfect marriage of sound and picture. For that alone, Whiplash more than deserves its spot on this list.
1. Inside Out
There aren’t many film studios in the world that can even come close to Pixar when they’re firing on all cylinders. Inside Out, which delves deeply into the complicated psychology of children, might be their best work since the Toy Story trilogy. It was shocking in its commitment to constructing a sophisticated narrative wearing the clothing of a knockabout kid-friendly adventure.
Director Pete Docter gave the audience a fleeting, but detailed glimpse of the world inside the head of humans, guided by their emotions. He gave the audience just enough time to grasp those workings, before shaking them up by displacing Amy Poehler’s Joy and Phyllis Smith’s Sadness in the midst of their child’s memory. There, they encountered Richard Kind’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, who quickly became the most memorable and, indeed, devastating character of 2015.
Inside Out proved that it’s completely unnecessary to talk down to children when making films that cater to a family audience. Kids are more than capable of grasping complex emotional stories, particularly when they contain the level of wit and invention that has always been the trademark of Pixar. With that ethos, Inside Out is definitely the best film of 2015.
Do you agree with my list of the best films of 2015? Which films are missing and which of them really don’t deserve to be there? Let me know in the comments section.