Top 20 Films of 2015 3 247

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So it’s that time again where everyone takes a look back at the year that was and comes up with their favourites. Although it had its fair share of crap, as ever, for the most part this was a pretty damn good year for film in my eyes, from small films that broke out to become big hits to massive blockbusters that surprised with depth and wit.

Now before I get to the cream of the crop, I just wanna go over some of the films that didn’t quite make the list but I loved/liked a lot nonetheless:

There was Todd Haynes’ Carol, a sumptuous and achingly romantic film about forbidden love in the 1950s; Snowtown and Assassin’s Creed director Justin Kurzel put his definitive, haunting mark on Macbeth; and Charlotte Rampling devastated with her stunning performance in the understated yet powerful 45 Years.

The comedy genre was bolstered this year by a triple whammy of films. There was Spy, the hilarious and surprisingly action-packed hit in which The Stath supremely stole the show in self-mocking fashion; Trainwreck saw Amy Schumer prove she can do comedy just as well on the big-screen as on stage and on TV; and finally The Lady in the Van, the thoroughly British story of an essentially homeless woman who stayed in Alan Bennett’s driveway for a decade and half – Dame Maggie Smith has rarely been better.

One of the more underrated films of the past 12 months for me was A Most Violent Year. It was dismissed by some as too serious and like so many other New York-set crime movies but there was a lot of very interesting things going on in that film about the corruption of power and where that leaves someone trying to do good while also providing a couple of the year’s tensest sequences. Keeping the underrated and crime line going, I thought The Voices was a wickedly dark and very funny little movie with Ryan Reynolds on top form, proving he’s much better in this sort of role rather than being tied to the glossy A-list stuff his good looks suggest.

Going down the more oddball route there was A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a bizarre segmented film that featured sequences about travelling joke prop salesman and a monkey being scientifically tested in shackles, among others – a surreal Monty Python-esque treat. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night took the vampire horror subgenre and turned it on its head with something that was deeply unnerving and visually striking in its other-worldliness. And Tangerine proved that it doesn’t matter if you have a multi-million dollar camera or an iPhone, as long as you’ve got talented actors and a sharp sense of wit you can make something special.

There were others that impressed me this year including Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous A Tale of Princess Kaguya, Kenneth Branagh’s pleasingly theatrical Cinderella and the sweetly acerbic Grandma, with an irrestistable performance by the great Lily Tomlin. The list could go on for days but I think that’ll do for the runners up…

So without much further ado, here’s my top 20 films of 2015.

Note: As always the list adheres to the UK release schedule so films that may have been 2014 for many were early 2015 for us. Also, that means films like Spotlight, The Danish Girl, Joy, Creed, and Room aren’t included at all because they’re not out until early 2016 here.

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20. Sicario

We’ve seen this sort of Mexican drug cartel thriller before but director Denis Villeneuve took that familiar set-up and turned into one of the tensest, most dread-filled and most unpredictable films of the year with Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro on top form.

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19. Amy

I’m not exactly a great fan of Amy Winehouse’s music, nor do I know anything about her life beyond the obvious tabloid stuff, but I found this to be an insightful, complex and empathetic portrait of her. FULL REVIEW HERE

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18. Straight Outta Compton

Rap music is really not my thing so colour me surprised how much I enjoyed this biopic. A bold film with a ferocious sensibility and absolutely brimming with energy. It contains some of the best music performance scenes in recent memory.

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17. Beasts of No Nation

Cary Fukunaga takes a brave, no holds barred approach to telling a powerful story, admirably never skimping on the brutal details of what really happens. Idris Elba is great but newcomer Abraham Attah is a revelation.

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16. The Martian

Matt Damon is great in an intelligent, thrilling and surprisingly funny film that’s more “sci-fa” than sci-fi and one that has all the hallmarks of a modern classic. Ridley Scott’s best film in years, no question.

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15. While We’re Young

I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach anyway but this might be his finest effort for me. It’s breezily enjoyable, filled with wonderfully drawn characters, but has some very meaningful things to say about getting older and acting your age. FULL REVIEW HERE

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14. Love & Mercy

Paul Dano and John Cusack wonderfully play two sides of the same coin that is Brian Wilson in a multi-layered film full of heart, tenderness and a genuine reverence for The Beach Boys music that it presents. FULL REVIEW HERE

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13. Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan gives perhaps the finest performance of any actress this year in an affectionate, poignant, endearing, effortlessly enjoyable film that so brilliantly hits on the nerve of nostalgic longing people have for their homeland.

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12. Slow West

Westerns are to be treasured these days and boy was this a cracker. It’s a visually gorgeous, surprisingly swift (despite the title) and pleasingly off-kilter story of one young man’s journey to reunite with his lost love.

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11. It Follows

David Robert Mitchell’s masterful horror brings together a whole load of influences – from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Thing – to create a new, deeply unnerving story of an evil presence that just won’t stop.

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10. Ex Machina

Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) turns director in sublime fashion with this slick, complex, thought-provoking piece of modern sci-fi that’s chalk full of ideas and a palpable sense of dread. Alicia Vikander, in one of approximately 9765 roles this year, was astonishing as the lifelike A.I. used to test just exactly what it means to be human. FULL REVIEW HERE

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9. The Look of Silence

As if The Act of Killing wasn’t devastating enough, Joshua Oppenheimer followed it up with this arguably even more powerful continued exploration of the brutal 1965/66 Indonesian “death squad” killings. Not exactly an easy watch but an important gut-punch of one nonetheless.

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8. Steve Jobs

It may have disappointed some looking for a more straightforward birth-to-death biopic but I loved this unashamedly wordy, supremely economical film. It’s a nigh on perfect marriage of Aaron Sorkin’s verbally complex written approach and Danny Boyle’s playful directorial style, making epic action sequences out of what is essentially people arguing in back rooms.

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7. Selma

Just another biopic, you say? Wrong. Ave DuVernay does a magnificent job of exploring a very specific and important point in Martin Luther King’s life in a way that felt both historic and utterly relevant to today’s world, all of which is anchored by David Oyelowo’s stunning central performance.

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6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I didn’t grow up loving Star Wars so no one was more surprised how much I loved this. Terrific action, depth of character and a fantastic mix of respecting the old while introducing the new; it all just worked so brilliantly. It was also that rarest of things: a massively anticipated and built-up blockbuster that actually lived up to the hype. Consider me a convert to the franchise. FULL REVIEW HERE

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5. Fast & Furious 7

Call me crazy but for me this was one of the most purely enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year. Sure, subtlety isn’t exactly atop the list of priorities but it did what it set out to do and then some, with at least half a dozen spectacularly entertaining set-pieces. It also managed to be a surprisingly emotional and fitting send-off for the late Paul Walker. There was something in my eye at the end, I swear…

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4. Birdman

My annoyance over it beating Boyhood to Best Picture aside, I loved Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bold and confident exploration of the business of acting and what it means to try to be taken seriously. Michael Keaton gave an all-or-nothing kind of performance at the centre of a film that may have been gimmicky in its  “one continual shot” conceit but, man, what a gimmick it was.

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3. Inside Out

It turns out Pixar movies are like anything else in life: you wait for ages then two come along at once. The Good Dinosaur was a bit of a let-down but the same can’t be said for this beautiful tale of a little girl in unfamiliar surroundings: told from the perspective of the emotions inside her head. Gorgeously animated and full of all the heart, wit and emotional beats that made Pixar such a beloved brand. An instant classic. FULL REVIEW HERE

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Nope, it’s not number 1!…

No one was expecting this to be as good as it was, but the sequel/reboot to the franchise was quite simply one of the best action movies this millennium. Led by a brooding Tom Hardy and a heroine for the ages in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, this was a relentless two hour long set-piece that was as brilliantly exhilarating as it was technically astonishing. FULL REVIEW HERE

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1. Whiplash

You have to go right back to January to find what is, in my mind, the best film of the year. This blistering second film from writer-director Damien Chazelle is filmmaking at its absolute best, telling the story of a drumming protégé and his tough-as-nails teacher (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance) in refreshingly bold, startling fashion with some of the best sound design in recent memory and a finale that grabs you by the throat and make sure you won’t forget the film in a hurry. As good as the rest of the year may have been, nothing reached this level in my eyes.

Note: Some of this content was previously published on Scotcampus. Head over there for more in-depth thoughts on some of the films.

Well that’s it for my list, what’s yours? Be sure to leave it in the comments below!

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 417

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 448

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10