My top films of 2015

I did try to do what everyone else does – list top 10 films of the year. Honest. But every time I tried to narrow it down to 10, I felt guilty for leaving others out. Then I realised it’s my list, and I can do what I want. So I’m listing my top 15. Below that, it gets a bit arbitrary, but I wanted to make sure that these at least got a mention.

Click on the film title to see a longer opinion, and if you’re interested in all my 2015 films ranked in order, you’ll find the list here. The top 15 and bottom 5 are in order, but the stuff in between is more of a general reflection than anything precise.

Number 15 – The Martian

An intelligent space film that isn’t full of navel gazing introspection, fun without being silly, and helped by Matt Damon’s natural charm as a screen presence.

Number 14 – Foxcatcher

There’s something really eerie and unsettling about the tone of this film, from start to finish. It’s clear from the outset that the relationships are not right, without being able to pin things down, which leaves an edgy feeling throughout.

Number 13 – Force Majeure

A film which challenges our own view of ourselves. We probably have an idea of how we think we would react in extreme circumstances, but until we are actually put in that position, most of us will probably never know.

Number 12 – Magic Mike XXL

Warm, funny, and totally non-judgemental. I left the cinema feeling a whole lot better about myself!

Number 11 – Love and Mercy

Paul Dano’s awkward brilliance is perfect as the younger Brian Wilson. The soundtrack is sublime, and the additional score by Atticus Ross is mesmerising.

Number 10 – Phoenix

Nina Hoss is so vulnerable and delicate you can almost imagine she would snap in two if you touched her. And a literal mic drop of a finale.

Number 9 – Ex Machina

Stylish-looking film which asks some really interesting and deep questions about artificial intelligence.

Number 8 – The Look of Silence

While not quite as punch-you-in-the-face as The Act of Killing, the room left for lengthy silences together with the courage of the protagonist Adi are quite remarkable.

Number 7 – Whiplash

It’s quite a while since I was left speechless at the end of a film.

Number 6 – Taxi Tehran

Very clever, and at times very funny film made by a man who is banned from making films in the country in which he lives.

Number 5 – Clouds of Sils Maria

A powerful representation of how (some) women see themselves and how they perceive others see them at different points in their careers and lives, admirably portrayed by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

Number 4 – 45 Years

Slow-paced, beautifully moving, heartbreakingly sad. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are outstanding.

Number 3 – The Lobster

I adored this. And I also felt incredibly sad having watched it. I felt emotionally empty and also ridiculous in myself. Colin Farrell is a revelation.

Number 2 – Mommy

I originally wrote “I certainly think this is a powerful piece of filmmaking, but I’m not sure I ever want to watch this movie again.” But this film has been in my mind on and off since I saw it in March, and I am convinced that Xavier Dolan is a genius.

Number 1 – Enemy

This was the second film I saw in a cinema in 2015, and it has remained at the top of my list since 4th January.

I love a film that has me wondering what the hell is happening from the very start, and this just does that. Jake Gyllenhaal creates two identical-looking but very different characters, and we’re never in any doubt as to which ‘Jake’ we’re with at any one time: even when one is impersonating the other.

For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I actually went and read the book which inspired the film.

Agree or disagree? Let me know – would love to know your top films of the year! You can find the whole list of 2015 films I saw this year ranked here on Letterboxd.

My least favourite films of 2015

These are the ones that annoyed, angered or disappointed me most this year. As usual, I’m in the minority for one or two (or actually all five, on reflection). Click on the film name for a bit more information.

Number 5 Birdman

Perhaps this was in most people’s lists for last year, but it only appeared in the UK in 2015. And I wish it hadn’t.  A film for irritating luvvies, which is why it won stuff.

Number 4 – Jauja

Hugely anticipated because of Viggo Mortensen, but left me wondering if he thought he was in a different film altogether.

Number 3 –  Hard to Be a God

Can someone explain to me how I can both totally understand the awe and wonder that people feel for this film, and yet at the same time struggle to appreciate it myself?

Number 2 – The Duke of Burgundy

Yes, yes, being in a relationship isn’t always easy. We all play roles. If you have a bad back you’re not always fun to be around. And pyjamas aren’t sexy. (really?)

Number 1 – American Sniper

Another which only appeared in the UK in 2015. Clint pontificates (again) about What It Means To Be A Man. If this man is genuinely an American hero, then I despair.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

In 1977, I queued along the sea front at the Regent Cinema in Redcar to watch a film called Star Wars. I loved it. Not as much as Star Trek, but I know I went back more than once. I loved Princess Leia – a girl kicking ass! – and was just the right age to have a crush on Mark Hamill (Harrison Ford seemed a little too old at the time). What I remember most is the bit where Luke ‘uses the force’ to destroy the Death Star as I hadn’t seen anything like that before. It was breathtaking.

And so now, 38 years later, it’s back. The main thing I wanted from this new iteration was that it wasn’t awful. That it was entertaining, and captured the spirit and atmosphere of the original (which, by the way, is called Star Wars. No new hope, no episode number. It’s just Star Wars. I was there at the beginning, and I know.)

Fortunately, this was a highly satisfactory experience. It’s not perfect, and JJ would have been hard pushed to produce an absolutely perfect film under such pressurised circumstances and history. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens lived up to expectations.

I’m not totally convinced about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren – I haven’t yet decided whether it was the character or the performance that didn’t ring true for me, and I think that will play out in a repeat viewing or in the next ‘episode’ of the franchise. Likewise, I felt that Domhnall Gleeson was a bit of a weak link and I’ve reached the conclusion that this is the one occasion where casting went awry – I just don’t think he is old enough for this role and comes across as too weak. Time may prove me wrong.

And actually this ‘time’ is one of the strengths of the movie – it may be a little safe in some of its concepts and plotting (to the point of mirroring in some places), but it has introduced new characters and set things up perfectly for the next film in the franchise. (No pressure, Rian Johnson 🙂 )

It was great seeing the legacy characters again, and I hope Oscar Isaac gets more to do next time out, but the real wins here are Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. She is able to hold her own against any of them, and is a fantastic character about whom we still have lots to learn. He is just all round great, and I look forward to spending time with him in the stories to come.

Jessica Jones

I know this isn’t a film, but I spent a lot of time in this world last week, and feel like I need to express an opinion.

And my opinion is this: Marvel clearly decided to try going beyond their usual boundaries in this series, which in principle is fine. But the theme of Jessica Jones is a really difficult one to address, and I don’t believe Marvel, or at least the writers of this series, showed enough sensitivity or finesse to do it justice.

I can’t discuss this without SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned!!

It’s refreshing to enter the Marvel Universe and realise that for once, the majority of the main characters are female. And yet it doesn’t take long to realise that they are all victims of abuse in one way or another. Is that how it has to be?

The Jessica Jones of this series is a traumatised teenage emo kid in the body of a knock-kneed hard-drinking woman. We discover the reason for her teenage trauma, for which she blames herself and which is the original root of her (acknowledged) self-loathing.

This makes her highly vulnerable, and a prime candidate for a control freak looking for a victim.

So essentially this is a story of domestic abuse and in the ‘present day’ story (ie not flashbacks), Jessica actually becomes complicit in her own abuse because she chooses to be with her original captor. He hasn’t used his ‘powers ‘ to compel her, he blackmails her emotionally by threatening others. It’s abuse, even though it’s her choice – not much of a choice, is it?

Jessica explains to her tormentor exactly how she felt under his control. She’s not like him, she says; even though they both had traumatic childhoods, she doesn’t go around raping people. Yet she quite happily subjects him to torture – it doesn’t make sense and I was very uncomfortable watching it.

Let’s take a look at some of the other relationships in the series.

The bad guy is also a victim of abuse – his parents inflicting excruciatingly painful scientific experiments on him. And whether you accept the parents’ or the son’s version of the story, we’re shown the pain. The reason for the abuse doesn’t matter – it happened.

Jessica’s friend was subjected to abuse by her mother as a teenager, forcing her into strict dietary controls to maintain her child star image. As an adult, the mother then tries to bribe her daughter by offering her information in return for rekindling their relationship.

The friend also ends up for part of the series being in an intimate relationship with a man who, 48 hours earlier, had seriously beaten and strangled her. Why would she let such a person into her life? Why would she ever trust him, a total stranger, after such a short time?  She refers to him by his surname for most of the series – very distancing.

Few of the relationships in the series are healthy. The brother and sister who live upstairs are in some kind of constant, horrible argumentative situation. She says it’s because he’s special and can’t manage on his own. But she treats him appallingly and bullies him verbally – it’s abusive.

Jessica’s lawyer-contact treats her ex dreadfully, then is a victim herself as her new paramour (her secretary whose boobs are constantly on display in dresses that barely wrap-over) uses her sexuality to exercise her power and manipulate her.

The only character who seems anyway decent and whom I enjoyed watching was Luke – absent from much of the storyline, but a real note of compassion and empathy when present. And he was the only one who, as I recall, didn’t take advantage of anyone, apart from when under the influence of the Big Bad. In fact, he could be viewed as a victim himself to a lesser extent as the woman he was seeing at the start neglected to tell him that she was married. He wasn’t happy to have been lied to.

So with the majority of the characters being abuse victims in one form or another, the series should have been treading carefully in how it portrays the abused. But It didn’t. The fact that everyone was vulnerable because of previous events was a convenient plot point rather than a character detail.

Only Luke had any redeeming features. Many of Jessica’s plans came across as idiotic and ill-thought through by a sulky protagonist – when actually her actions were the result of PTSD and a skin-full of whiskey.

The more time I spent with these people, the more I got annoyed by the lack of empathy regarding their backstories. Don’t ask me how they should have done it – I have no idea, but I know that the tone just wasn’t right for me.

I’ve read several articles which really praise this series for the empowering stance it takes, and good if that’s how it came across to you. But for all the reasons above, I’m glad it’s over.

Carol

Excited to have been present to see this film as the closing event of Leeds International Film Festival a week ahead of its official UK opening.

Less excited to walk out of the screening at the end, realising that I wasn’t as in love with this film as I had hoped or expected, given the almost universal swooning going on.

Two outstanding performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara should have electrified this story. The exquisite costumes and perfect makeup should have transported me back in time. Instead, I found myself thinking “ooh, that’s a bit Brief Encounter“, ” I have a pair of gloves in that shade”, “Jane Wyman had boots like that in All That Heaven Allows“, “I like what he’s doing with the window frames in those shots” all the way through the film. I wasn’t drowning in the sumptuous beauty of the story, setting and characters.

It was only discussing it on the way home afterwards that I realised the real problem – I didn’t like Carol herself. The character (not the actress, not the performance) stopped me from feeling like I could just dive into the story as everyone around me had. She kept me at arm’s length so that I was full of admiration for everything, but lukewarm emotionally.

Of course, it will win everything come awards season. And I may lose some friends over my reaction. But there you have it.

Spectre

Strange. Skyfall was a step in another direction for Daniel Craig’s Bond, yet this felt like it had leapt back in time to another Bond entirely.While I appreciate the visual mirroring and dialogue echoes from some of the other films in the 50 year old franchise, parts of this seemed badly misjudged, and yes, I am referring to Bond’s interaction(s) with Monica Bellucci’s character. She even looked like she knew she’d been conned into the role.

I’m also beginning to think that Christoph Waltz is getting too easily typecast, and I’d love to see him do something entirely different. And what a waste of Dave Bautista. He’s great in the part, but after casting announcements, I was hoping he would have a more interesting role. And more dialogue.

Don’t let me mislead you – I enjoyed most of this while I was watching it in the cinema, but I don’t feel it has left any lasting positive impression. I loved Andrew Scott’s ‘C’, and learning what that stands for; Léa Seydoux was admirable in her role, although the relationship development was rushed, and an upside down flying helicopter is always going to be a good thing. Ben Whishaw plays a blinder, and the concept of the team behind Bond was more prevalent than in the past.

It was OK, but this is my third favourite Craig Bond, and maybe it’s time to let Idris have a go now.

 

 

Taxi Tehran

Very clever, and at times very funny film made by a man who is banned from making films in the country in which he lives.

Panahi’s creativity is what wins here, making the interior of a taxi his set, and taking on the role of driver himself. His ‘customers’ offer all kinds of snapshots of Iranian society, but it is perhaps his ‘niece’ who steals the show. Having a young child parrot, and then question, the rules of film making according to her teacher certainly adds a new perspective to Panahi’s situation, even if, to be honest, it might just be a little pointed. But the girl is so engaging, it’s easy to forgive.

Sicario 

What drew me to this film? Two things – Emily Blunt and director Denis Villeneuve.

For two-thirds of the film, Blunt is great. Then she more or less disappears in a strange point-of-view shift, presumably at the request of the director. And while I’m used to Villeneuve introducing twists (see Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy) this effective sidelining of the – to that point – main character had me feeling quite deflated that yet another female role had been downgraded. It left me with the feeling that Blunt’s talent was being criminally underused and summarily dispensed with once her usefulness was complete.

And yet, reflecting on this just an hour or so later, I realise that this is exactly what happened to her character in the story. The film isn’t named for Blunt’s character Macer; its translation is ‘hitman’ so the clue is there all along. Now I’m wondering if Villeneuve didn’t go far enough and should have just dropped her altogether for the third act (controversial?).

But while I’m sitting here now pondering how far I can forgive this manipulation for being a reflection of the storyline, I certainly can’t forgive the manipulative storyline of the Mexican cop. I can’t really comment further without entering spoiler territory.

But yay for Benicio del Toro. I often find him simply too much, too mad dog, too unpredictable. But he was just perfect here. Yay too for the score, which was also perfect for the visuals. And there are some great images – perhaps the overhead vistas were overused on occasion, but the night-view shots were something else.

This film has moved up a star for me in the last 24 hours precisely because it doesn’t tie up the ends. The ends will never be tied. More Villeneuve, please.

Macbeth

I love Shakespeare, but I’m not a purist who insists that everything should be done as ‘written’ by Will himself. So it didn’t bother me that things had been ‘cut’ for the screenplay here – in fact, often it’s totally necessary to help a play make the successful move from stage to screen.

And with top class actors of the like of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris to work with, this should have been a walk in the park.

Yet I found this oddly lacking in emotion to the point where I was bored. The decision to bookend with battlefield scenes certainly allowed some stunning photography, I will give it that. But the crux of the story isn’t about the battlefield – it’s about power, and ambition, and the toll that can take on the mind. I didn’t feel anything more than a little unrest from Macbeth, and a chasm where the passion between Fassbender and Cotillard should have been.

Banquo’s young son Fleance had a puzzled expression on his face the entire time he was on screen. I was with him – I, too, had no idea why soliloquies were being delivered to boys, with the result that I was pulled out of the narrative.

People sometimes say they don’t like Shakespeare because they don’t understand the language. My feeling is that if the actors are delivering the lines properly, then you don’t even realise it’s odd. And though I know the story of Macbeth, I struggled to keep up with what was going on in this version because it seemed like the actors themselves didn’t have a handle on the language – in particular Fassbender and Cotillard, surprisingly. I don’t for one moment think that Fassbender can’t do Shakespeare – but I do think that whatever he thought he was doing, or had been asked to do, did not translate to the screen.

Dare I say it, the great man’s Scottish accent even slipped once or twice, and Marion Cotillard just seemed lost.

Don’t even get me started on the weird sisters …