This is probably my favourite piece to write each year. To me these totally subjective lists are far more interesting and genuine than the farce of awards season. There was a lot of good stuff this year with much of it coming from an increase in diversity (though it goes without saying that a monumental amount of work still to be done there). Looking over this list, it is striking how few of the films feature a conventional white male lead. That was not conscious on my part, but it is positive to see and hopefully the diversity behind the camera will continue to increase as well.
As I was coming up with this list, I noticed some real trends of films I loved. That’s where the ‘ish’ of this list comes from as I’ve chosen to put together some of the great films to discuss them that way. With the happy added bonus that I can include more than the usual 10 films. You know the drill with the rest of this stuff. Any film that had its first commercial release in Aus in 2015 was eligible as were festival films that don’t have a commercial release on the horizon. And these are my favourite films of the year, not the ‘best’. Anything with a full length review is hyperlinked as well.
Honourable mentions: It was a really great year for genre film I thought, with a decent amount featuring in the top 10. In addition to those, there was some great sci-fi including Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, Ex Machina and the Wachowski’s criminally underrated Jupiter Ascending. It was perhaps an even better year for horror with Turbo Kid, Digging up the Marrow and Final Girls all sticking great concepts. Housebound was a hilarious and frightening horror-comedy, whilst it was also a better than average year for straight comedy with the female fronted Trainwreck and Spy leading the way. The best James Bond film of the year was definitely Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. We were also treated to an excellent debut thriller from Joel Edgerton with The Gift and a crackling quiet gangster film with J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. In a year where their major film was distinctly average, Ant-Man showed Marvel can still do stand-alone storytelling and it was their best film for a while. In terms of more arthouse fare, I saw some great films at festivals this year including Guy Maddin’s Forbidden Room, Hsaio-hsien Hou’s The Assassin and the more mainstream Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was rather maligned. Why Don’t You Play in Hell was released widely this year, whilst we were treated to the latest Terrence Malick Knight of Cups, which whilst I loved at the time it has perhaps not stayed with me as much as his other films. Three last honourable mentions (wow, a lot of great films this year): the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour and the dramas Ricki and the Flash & Love is Strange.
10. In Order of Disappearance
This year’s John Wick (2014). Only no one is talking about. Instead of Keanu Reeves, we have a Stellan Skarsgard everyman utterly slaying dudes left right and centre to establish what happened to his son. Fantastic structure of Skarsgard moving his way up the chain, from minion to minion. Stark, stripped back and violent action filmmaking.
9. High concept scares
You could probably fit three or four of my honourable mentions under this trend as well. These films are both small horror films, but that stick totally to their high concept. The result were the two scariest, and best, horror films of the year. In terms of horror this year, it was really the indie/smaller style stuff that impressed rather than any bigger studio efforts.
I had zero expectation for Unfriended. The marketing made it look like any other teen horror film. But the concept of the film is that it all takes place on a group skype call. The filmmakers totally stick to the conceit too, making the visual of the computer screen work and innovatively using it to set the pacing of the film. The approach feels fresh and it’s helped by performances that are much better than we’ve been taught to expect. There’s (refreshingly) no real commentary attempted regarding the use of social media. It is just adopted as a fresh way to tell a horror story.
There are not too many horror documentaries out there I could name, so that in itself makes The Nightmare unique. This focuses on sleep-paralysis and much of the terror comes from the inescapable thought in your head that there are really people out there dealing with this affliction. Oh and the monumentally pants-wetting imagery Room 237 (2012) director Rodney Ascher delivers through the re-enactments. Re-enactments are so often awful, but these are stylised without ever betraying the truth of what the film is talking about, or the experiences of the sufferers. Chilling. The scariest film of the year.
Sitting down to write this list, I was struck by how much Wild has stayed with me. It takes that rather tired notion of the ‘journey’ and actually makes it feel meaningful. Stunningly shot and so well acted. Not just Reese Witherspoon in the lead, but also many others including an excellent Laura Dern. The last five minutes are perhaps still the most transcendent and encompassing of the beautiful potential of cinema that I saw in 2015.
It is weird to see a film as original as this get utterly mauled critically by folks who spend the rest of their time lamenting cookie-cutter blockbusters. Jupiter Ascending was another film that fell victim to that this year, just not quite as good a film. I suspect a lot of people have issues with the casting of Die Antwoord, but I found them so genuine and was not distracted at all by their performances. The plot allows some really good humour and action sequences, whilst there is heaps to dig into on thematic and symbolic levels.
6. Centre for interesting, challenging Aussie films who can’t trailer good but do everything else good.
Last Cab to Darwin
The trailers for both these films were so bad that were it not for the guidance of Chris Elena on twitter (a must follow if you don’t already), then I wouldn’t have bothered. What do I know I guess, because by appealing to the demographic the trailers did (little old ladies basically), these films have raked in a really good amount of Australian box office money.
Of the two, Last Cab to Darwin maintains a level of the convention suggested by the trailer. But from this structure that has been many times before, director Jeremy Sims hangs a lot of interesting ideas. In particular the relationships (both romantic and platonic) and the interaction of the film with indigenous issues are much bolder, than would have been expected. Australian identity is very, very problematic and the film addresses that in an interesting way, whilst the sorta-romantic pairing of the central couple is wrenching and uplifting at the same time. Helped along by four excellent central performances and a great Ed Kuepper score.
The Dressmaker though is perhaps the most unconventional film on this list. It starts with Kate Winslet being introduced like Clint Eastwood in a western and continues getting stranger. This feels like an eccentric summation and extension of all Australian film history that has come before. A dramedy evolving into a tragicomedy. The performances throughout are artful and passionate, both from those you would expect such as Winslet and Hugo Weaving, and those you would not such as Liam Hemsworth who has never been better. Cerebral, bold and crushing storyelling.
A film about masculinity populated almost entirely by dudes sounds nightmarish to me. But this is a really artistic and challenging effort, focused on examining, analysing and undermining traditional notions of poisonous masculinity and privilege. In the hands of a worse director than Bennet Miller, this could have gone wrong in a number of different ways. But he makes the film just visually interesting enough and guides the flow of the storytelling. The performances are all excellent, it being very difficult to choose who is better out of Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo or Channing Tatum.
4. Hello old friend
Mad Max Fury Road
2015 was unfortunately the year the term ‘legacyquel’ was coined. As much as I despise it, there is no denying the phrase, and the films, are here to say. These two films show that’s not always a bad thing though and provide a roadmap for studios in how to make these kinds of films artistically satisfying.
Mad Max Fury Road has received universal praise from rapturous critics (though my parents didn’t like it… contrarians). This was perhaps an easy series to return to, because the earlier films are loosely connected in any case. The film itself is a pure jolt of cinematic energy, combining age-old storytelling and chase mechanics with new technologies and a generous serving of George Miller’s visionary genius. A film that is essentially an out and back chase is a tough sell, but it is impossible not to buy into the off-kilter genius that is bombarding you from every direction, including the excellent soundtrack. Not to mention its delightful feminist leanings.
The last time Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan teamed up, the result was Fruitvale Station (2013), my favourite film of that year. As far as I know, Creed is essentially Coogler’s baby. He came up with the idea, pitched it to Stallone, who was humble enough to let him run with it. This film references the earlier Rocky films and clearly inhabits the same world, but is also something totally, authentically, different. Stallone gives the best performance of the year managing to keep up with Jordan, as well as Tessa Thompson. Works wonderfully as both an emotionally resonant drama and a sports film.
3. Brave new blockbuster worlds
The Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II
2015 was a year where the big studios pegged a lot of their hopes on the laziest blockbusters imaginable, cowering in the form’s formulaic embrace. Jurassic World, Star Wars the Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron were all films I liked, but were also films that played it totally safe particularly in terms of storytelling. To balance that though were a raft of big movies that took mainstream audiences in bold new directions. These two films are not just here because of their female leads (though there is no denying that is a trend that will hopefully continue to boom), but because of the storytelling approach and the ideas within.
It’s only when you stop and think about the target audience of The Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II that the true importance of the franchise is revealed. This franchise will be formative for a generation I think and it has exposed those people to really incendiary ideas about war and authority. War is brutal and it is terror, and this film depicts that truthfully and unflinchingly. You can quibble with parts of this film, but the third act is stellar and taken with the third film of the series makes for a war film as good as any in a long time. There is also a bunch of thrilling action sequences and storytelling twists that feel well earned.
As for Inside Out, I’m not really sure how the target audience would have taken to the film. But I took to it a lot. It is such an overwhelmingly creative ride and one of Pixar’s top few films ever. It is such a storytelling feat to balance the aspects of the story taking place inside Riley’s head with those occurring externally, but it is totally seamless. The way in which complex psychological concepts are presented are so exceptionally beautiful. And the lessons that are seeping from the screen into the impressionable audience, such as the relationship between sadness and joy, are really important ones. I can’t wait to watch this over and over again, to pick up on details that passed me by and just enjoy being in this world.
The biopic is such a tired genre, which makes Ave DuVernay’s film all the more impressive. It’s an exploration of wide-ranging ideas around the nature and techniques of oppression and how to combat it, told through a tight timeframe. It’s a great script, especially considering much of Luther King’s words are copyrighted (which seems absurd to me) delivered by an excellent cast including David Oyelowo who inhabits King Jr perfectly. It never feels like we are watching a performance or mimicry. The film repurposes the tools of action and horror cinema to deliver an incendiary, prescient reflection on the civil rights struggle.
Nobody is making films right now as revelatory as Joshua Oppenheimer, both in terms of style and especially subject matter. He is dealing with issues heavier than we can imagine and still making them watchable. But only just, this is a brutal film that will challenge you to finish. The film functions as a quite incredible companion to The Act of Killing (2012). It takes on the same events, from the opposite viewpoint and with a different stylistic approach. In my initial review, I referred to the film as “muscular”, and it feels like that in a way no other film does. A film that is experienced on an almost physical level. It’s worth it though, because the within the specific horror that is being discussed, are all manner of universal lessons to consider both in day to day life, and on a societal scale. In terms of storytelling chops, no contemporary documentarian can touch Joshua Oppenheimer.