With the well received resurgence of two powerhouse franchises in modern film history, and a bunch of smaller scale independent films gaining traction, it has been a successful year. The Millimetre’s picks for the 25 best movies of 2015 are based on films that received a cinematic release in the UK during the year (for the most part). Better late than never?!
Films that made numbers 25 – 15, in descending order, are Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, Alan White’s Reclaim, Todd Haynes’s Carol, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, Rupert Goold’s True Story, Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea, and the 1st of January release date for Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy lets it sneak into the list. Here are the top 15.
15. Holding The Man
Director: Neil Armfield
Starring: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Sarah Snook, Guy Pearce
Australian theatre veteran Neil Armfield makes his film follow-up to Australian classic Candy starring Heath Ledger with Holding The Man based on the autobiographical novel by Timothy Conigrave documenting his tragic relationship with his high-school sweetheart, John. Cora’s truthful performance, unprecedented so far in his career, carries the achingly beautiful film with power. Guy Pearce and Craig Stott’s performances are also worthwhile. The 15 year span of the story – which can often cause a disconnect between the audience and the characters – is carried out seamlessly and in the process features an array of Australian actors, in particular a cameo by longtime Armfield collaborator Geoffrey Rush. A beautiful film to join Candy in the list of Australian gems.
14. Kingsman: Secret Service
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong
Matthew Vaughn’s graphic novel adaptation earns it’s spot on this list for being the most outrageous piece of blockbuster entertainment produced this year. A cross between Austin Powers and James Bond, Kingsman follows young ‘thug’ Eggsie as he is plucked from reality by ‘someone’ (Firth) who informs him of the true story of his lineage and his destiny to become a top secret spy. Egerton, fresh out of prestigious drama school RADA – absolutely smashes his break-through role and already has a lot of leading roles in the pipeline. The sequel is on it’s way, starring Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum.
13. A Most Violent Year
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
A crime drama set in New York City during one of the most violent years in the city’s history, centred around a modern day Macbeth and Lady Macbeth type couple whose ruthless acts in determination to expand their business come back to haunt them and threaten to destroy all they have built. Chastain and Isaac studied together at Gulliard and their chemistry rubs off on their onscreen relationship as husband and wife. Chandor’s film, based on a screenplay he wrote himself, is exquisitely put together, adding another notch to his sophisticated body of work.
12. The Forger
Director: Philip Martin
Starring: John Travolta, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Plummer
Philip Martin’s story is a rare art theft film in that although it revolves around men who mingle in dark circles pulling off the heist of a highly valuable Monet painting, it is essentially a heartfelt drama. Travolta plays the world’s best art forger, who makes a deal with a crime syndicate in order to get an early release from prison to spend time with his son before things become irreparable, but in return he must steal the original Monet from a museum and replace it with his own. He enlists the help of his father (Plummer) and son (Sheridan). Travolta’s performance of a father going to great lengths to seek redemption in his son’s eyes is nothing short of heart breaking and by far, far, far his best work to date.
11. By The Sea
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent
Unrightfully dissed by critics, Angelina Jolie’s third dramatic directorial effort is a sensual portrait of an ostentatious couple – a former dancer (Jolie) who spends her days lounging around on anxiety medication, and a novelist (Pitt) who has taken to alcoholism to numb the frustration of his writers block – on a lingering holiday in a quaint seaside town in France. The couple’s crumbling is recouped when they find a common bond – spying on the younger couple on their honeymoon in the suite next door. The film is a slow burner, with a Patricia Highsmith-esque atmosphere, the story delicately unfolding one piece at a time, and it is executed – in my opinion – masterfully.
10. Crimson Peak
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
Guillermo del Toro’s 19th century gothic romance, set in a dark, decaying mansion – which del Toro and his team completely built down to the finest pointy detail – is nothing short of spectacular. In Buffalo, New York, 1887, Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), an aspiring writer and the young daughter of wealthy American businessman, is visited by her mother’s ghost who warns her, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” She becomes enamoured with a mysterious visitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and before long they become engaged and she moves into his family’s decaying mansion with his sister (Chastain), far away from everything Edith knows. Ghosts begin to creep out of the walls to deliver the same warning as her mother, and Edith begins to uncover the sinister reasons she has been lured to the mansion. An absolutely brilliant and magical piece of modern cinema and Chastain’s performance especially is a mammoth to behold.
9. The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan
When NASA botanist specialist Mark Watney (Damon) is left for dead on a mission to Mars, he must use his skills – accompanied with sheer will power and whatever has been left behind – to figure out how to survive on Mars for an indeterminate amount of time before Earth – if ever – send a mission to retrieve him. Ridley Scott’s recent masterpiece is a high scale exploration of the specifics of the human condition when all variables are taken away completely. Damon’s performance is heart rendering and carries the film through to the end.
8. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton
A hapless actor whose fame peaked with his role as a superhero in a series of blockbusters tries to restore his career to its former glory by putting on a Broadway play. Plagued by the voice of his iconic character in his head and struggling to cope with the other actors and negative press, his rationality unravels with the unbearable pressure and he begins to believe he is the superhero he once played. Winner of Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intimate portrait of a disheveling mind is made brilliant by his use of long takes and score by a single drum set. The film is made all the more striking with the casting of Keaton, whose life paralleled with his character – as this was the performance that brought him back into the limelight and awarding him his first Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
7. Testament of Youth
Director: James Kent
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton
Romantic tales of war are a dime a dozen and often become a boring retelling of events, but Jame Kent’s epic drama set during World War I is a cut above the rest. Based on the autobiography of Vera Brittain, a young woman grown up in a privileged life who falls in love with a man who is drafted to fight in the war while she stays behind to study literature at Oxford. The brilliant performances by the entire cast make this film emotionally powerful and one that deserves more attention than it received. It is less a retelling of events and more a portrait of a woman swamped in overwhelming hardships standing in the way of everything she desires. Formidable craftsmanship with an exceptional screenplay and exquisite cinematography. Should be up there with the likes of epic heartbreakers the likes of Titanic in years to come.
6. Z for Zachariah
Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Zobel’s quietly achieving drama / thriller is one of the most moving films of the year. In the wake of a nuclear disaster that dishevels most of the population and leaves much land inhabitable, Z for Zachariah follows a small town country girl working her family’s farm back up from the ground on her own when two men come into her life. The story is told with subtlety and the disaster is a meer backdrop for an exploration of the human condition – trust, love, kindness and betrayal. Ejiofor is brilliant as ever and Robbie achieves a vulnerability and authenticity not yet seen in her more mainstream roles. If you are after zombies, you will be disappointed.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Damien Chazelle’s three films, including the latest La La Land all centre around music. Though Whiplash revolves around the relationship between a music student and his teacher, the film is much more about perseverance and sheer dedication than it is about music. The film follows Andrew (Teller), a promising young drummer in his first year at the best music school in the country who catches the attention of Fletcher (Simmons), a head teacher at the school who pushes Andrew to his limits to aid him in achieving his ambitions of becoming the best drummer of his generation. The film manages to suck the audience in to Andrew’s claustrophobic existence – where drumming is the only thing in his life of any importance. Nothing he achieves is ever good enough for Fletcher and as their love/hate relationship escalates, his borderline abusive teaching methods manage to raise questions of his motives and ethics with the characters as well as the audience. His blood, sweat and tears reaching a crescendo that is powerful, inspiring and hair-raising.
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Clouds of Sils Maria centres around Valentine (Kristen Stewart), personal assistant to the all consuming Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a charming yet egotistical actress struggling to accept her declining fame. Maria is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago about an alluring young girl who manipulates her older boss, driving her to suicide. She departs with her assistant to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. Being asked to switch roles from the young girl to the older woman illuminates her mortality and sets Maria off to an uncomfortable mindset mirroring the events of the play. Jo-Ann Ellis, a young Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moritz) is cast in the younger role, sparking jealousy in Maria of her fame and youth.
Kristen Stewart’s performance garnered her the appraisal of the French as she became the first American to win the César Award for Best Supporting Actress. It was well deserved, her performance was subtle and truthful. The whole world Olivier Assayas created on set makes for natural performances throughout the film. Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of a woman holding on to the remains of her former glory is heart rendering and brilliant.
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Bennett Miller, whose body of work is a testament to quality not quantity, knows exactly what a movie should be and has crafted a perfect film. The two and a half hour runtime allows for the tension to build to unbearable heights and the viewer to be completely engrossed in the true story. Entrepreneur from old money John du Pont (Steve Carell) invites US Olympic Wrestling Champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) to live on his compound and pushes them to train for the 1988 games in Seoul. His unpredictable personality and obsessive training tactics threaten the brothers’ livelihoods. Carell’s serious roles are few and far between making him mostly known as a comedic actor, which is a shame because when he does take on a serious role he delivers among the best. His transformative performance here takes the cake as his best to date and one of the best performances of the century. Likewise, Channing Tatum, who has happily typecast himself as the pretty boy with little else to offer really stood up to the enormity of this role and delivered a performance this project deserves the likes of which we have never seen from him before.
Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
The French-Canadian director’s portrait of a struggling family is by far the most emotionally captivating film of the year and his best work to date. Anne Dorval plays Diane, a sassy and bitey woman who, following the death of her husband, has been faced with the harsh reality of making ends meet as a single mother. Struggling to let go of her former opulence and settling into her new working class life is made all the more testing while undertaking the enormous task of raising her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) whose ADHD and violent outbursts mean that he can’t be left alone without causing trouble. When a mysterious lady across the street (Suzanne Clément) offers to homeschool Steve, the relationship becomes stronger than professional.
Mommy is a genuine and life-affirming portrait of this untraditional family made up of Dolan’s customary eccentric, and three dimensional characters. Dolan has achieved the perfect balance of substance and style – his typical artful style which in the past has gotten in the way, with Mommy effortlessly enhances the story. The sometimes heartbreaking story is told with refreshing humour. The 1:1 aspect ratio is admittedly very hard to adjust to in a time where films are getting thinner and wider but serves to encapsulate the entrapment the characters feel and in the scenes where the ratio opens up to widescreen Dolan has effectively reimagined the ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment for the 21st century allowing an extremely effective breath of fresh air and allowing the audience to join in on the freedom the characters are experiencing.
1. Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a straight-laced programmer wins a competition to spend a week in the remote mountain residence belonging to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of the largest internet company in the world. Upon arriving, he is told he will be playing a fundamental role in the turing test for the first true artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robotic girl named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Tensions build as the illustrious CEO’s eccentricities and alcoholism increase and Caleb begins to develop feelings for the robot, and not everything is as it seems.
Based on an incredible screenplay written by director Alex Garland himself, the slow burning film is a lesson in brilliant storytelling. Beautifully shot, designed and with an expertly delivered performance by Vikander of an artificial being. Set in a confined location, Ex Machina examines the human notions of trust and survival to the extreme. With a directorial debut this strong, Garland has left himself very little room for improvement going forth.
And now for the honourable mentions. Transgender actress May Taylor’s natural and heartwarming performance in Sean Baker’s independent comedy / drama infamously shot on an iPhone earns Tangerine a spot just shy of the top 25. Likewise, Kristen Wiig’s incredible performance as a troubled woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder earns Shira Piven’s Welcome To Me a mention – though the screenplay and film as a whole didn’t quite help it make the cut. We can;t end this article without mentioning George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster.