My Top 30 list for 2015 concludes with my 15 favourites from the year's English language releases in UK cinemas. Expect more pretty pictures and no shortage of hyperbole.
15. Slow West (UK/New Zealand, dir. John Maclean)
Scottish writer-director, John Maclean (formerly of The Beta Band and The Aliens) strikes a chord with his feature debut, a haunting beautiful Western of dreamlike imagery that is evocative of painters like Edward Hopper, Graham Sutherland and Vincent Van Gogh. Kodi-Smit McPhee is an upper-class Scotsman come to the American frontier in search of the woman he loves. Hopelessly out of his depth in a strange and violent land, the young lad is forced to buy the protection of Michael Fassbender as the Eastwood-like outlaw, Silas. Maclean’s film is one of the few Westerns to make the multiculturalism of the American frontier such a significant part of the story, and it does so by embracing the glaringly obvious floral and geological differences between its setting and its actual locations. By using the foreign tongues of his characters and the distinct, peculiar landscape of New Zealand in place of the Rocky Mountains, Maclean is able to make the American West alien and unknown again.
14. Shaun the Sheep Movie (UK/France, dir. Richard Starzak & Mark Burton)
There's nothing quite like an Aardman film firing on all cylinders to sculpt a broad, toothy grin out of anyone’s lips. Aardman’s most popular creation world-wide, the TV show Shaun the Sheep became an international sensation because of its universal humour, undeniable cuteness and emphasis on physical humour and non-vocal characterisation - elements preserved in Shaun's big-screen outing. When one of Shaun’s japes backfires and causes the hapless farmer to lose his memory, the flock and the long-suffering sheep dog must negotiate life in the big city to track down their master and return to the comforts of the countryside. The film's joyful energy, creative verve and drum-tight comic timing give it the same timeless appeal as the wild antics of the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and exemplify the principles of charm and innovation that British animation was built upon.
13. Mistress America (USA, dir. Noah Baumbach)
Deeply affectionate and adorable throughout, Noah Baumbach's portrait of a flighty thirty-year-old in New York, and the goofy ingenue she takes under her wing. Played as a farce in the vein of Woody Allen's New York comedies, Mistress America speaks with the peculiar, somnambulant voice of characters who are simultaneously self-absorbed and oddly insightful of those around them. Lola Kirk plays a suburban girl isolated from her fellow students during her first year at Barnard, seeking some level of inclusion through acceptance to her college's exclusive literary society. She finds an inspiring subject for a short story in her almost-step-sister, played by Greta Gerwig, an enterprising, generally creative young woman, who lives above her means in Manhattan. Baumbach's comedy of youthful, driven people is distinctly resonant of our current era and the freewheeling aspirations of a generation weened on the expectation that they could do anything that they put their mind to, but simply can't find the time to decide what that should be.
12. Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)
One of the unexpected pleasures of 2015 came in the form of this bifurcated biopic of Beach Boys prodigy Brian Wilson. Love & Mercy is a finely tuned mainstream biopic that eschews the genre's typical formula to create a sensitive, insightful exploration of mental illness across two intercut timelines. The first charts the momentous creative shift in the Beach Boys’ output, when the young Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) recorded 'Pet Sounds' and 'Smile', whilst fighting the onset of schizophrenia. In the second a truly radiant Elizabeth Banks plays Wilson's future wife Melinda Ledbetter, who plays an instrumental role in rescuing the middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack) from the clutches of arch-leech, Dr Eugene Landy, played here with extra grease by Paul Giamatti. Like Ava DuVernay’s excellent Selma (see my Awards Season Hangovers list), Pohlad and his screenwriters steer Love & Mercy to success by using an examination of a single great struggle in Wilson's life to gently inform the viewer’s notion of the man as a whole.
11. Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Germany/Switzerland, dir. Olivier Assayas)
The latest from Olivier Assayas enters Bergman-esque territory during its finest moments and feels like an acerbic but warm-hearted by-product of a life spent in show business. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, an ageing movie star who is returning to the stage play that launched her career twenty years before, only this time in the role of the play's older woman, who was seduced by a reckless, young femme fatale. As she mourns the loss of the writer behind the play, the actress revisits the peculiar landscape of Sils in Switzerland and begins to obsess, disdainfully at first, over the public persona of the rising starlet that will play the role that made Maria a star. By her side throughout all of this is Kristen Stewart as Maria's PA, delivering the most nuanced performance of her career and quietly commanding every frame she occupies.
10. It Follows (USA, dir. David Robert Mitchell)
As the film's wonderful series of posters points out, the It in question doesn't think, doesn't feel, doesn't give up - it follows until its victims have run to the ends of the Earth and their sanity has all but abandoned them. One enterprising young man realises that he must get rid of it by having sex with someone, thus setting the nameless force (visible only to those who are “infected”) on Maika Monroe (best known for 2014's The Guest). Dreamlike, languid in its pace and incredibly tense, It Follows is essentially a modern (but timeless) re-interpretation of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Shot in the purgatorial suburbs of Detroit, Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis' wide-angle, Gregory Crewdson-esque compositions demand the largest screen possible, inviting viewers to scrutinise every inch of the frame for tell-tale signs of approaching doom. It Follows eschews a twisty plot in favour of atmosphere and pant-wetting tension and, as a result, becomes a standard-bearer for the horror renaissance currently taking place in international cinema. Afterwards, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself in a hurry to get back inside when nipping out for a cigarette in the garden or running down to the corner shop after dark.
9. Sicario (USA, dir. Denis Villeneuve)
The broad, barren wasteland of the desert that stretches from Baja to the Gulf of Mexico is the setting for Denis Villeneuve’s relentlessly bleak mood-piece on the futile violence that plagues the US/Mexican drug war. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent specialising in hostage situations, who is conscripted into the shady world of the CIA’s secret incursions over the border, where the rulebook has not only been ignored, but completely forgotten. Occupying similar territory to Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala (one of the best films of 2011) Sicario bluntly states the helplessness of the witnesses to the bloodshed in America's war on drugs. Where Miss Bala wrought pulse pounding intensity from the eyes of civilians in Baja, Sicario is even more pessimistic in its assertion that even the testimony of a law enforcement officer is rendered silent by the pervasive threat of violence from their own allies and the cartels they are fighting. Like a formal companion to It Follows, Sicario is precisely composed and relentlessly tense - a darkly atmospheric portrait of the nightmare that grips the US/Mexican border and the focussed human weapons that play the phantoms and demons therein.
8. ex_machina (UK, dir. Alex Garland)
Alex Garland has finally found his groove on-screen and done so in considerable style. Lured to the secret underground lair of Oscar Isaac’s future super-villain, Domhnall Gleeson is given the task of conducting a Touring Test on the AI that his brilliant employer has invented. But the AI’s strikingly beautiful humanoid body (Alicia Vikander’s to be precise) is the first indication that there is more to this Turing Test than merely a Q&A between man and machine. Provocative, acutely contemporary (an immaculate time capsule of this decade’s dominant design aesthetics) and buoyed by three world-class performers on the cusp of stardom, Garland’s first film as director is far more finely crafted and profound than any sci-fi potboiler starring a hot lady robot has the right to be. You can read my in-depth analysis of the film's narrative origins and themes on Letterboxd.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA, dir. George Miller)
Could there be a more satisfying follow-up to one of the most beloved action series of all time? George Miller and his crew of mechanics and designers entered the Namibian desert, wandered many days and nights, and returned with the action movie of 2015. Taking up the mantle that made Mel Gibson’s career, Tom Hardy plays a near-mute Max Rockatansky, who is unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Wild Boys, who serve the grotesque warlord Immortan Joe – commander of every grain of sweet-fuck-all from here to the horizon. Max’s only salvation lies in assisting Charlize Theron’s veteran warrior, Furiosa, in her attempt to liberate Immortan Joe’s harem of broodmares (each a kick-ass heroine in her own right) and outrun the greatest war party this radioactive future has ever seen. A rousing ode to Girl Power, a rollicking thrill-ride, a motor-head's wet dream, an excessive burst of creative punk energy - pick your expectation, pump it up to 11 and guzzle down the greasy popcorn! Fury Road doesn't just kick your ass, it flays your ass and pours sand in the wound, before leaving you whimpering for more. FUCK. YEAH.
6. Tangerine (USA, dir. Sean Baker)
When transgender LA prostitute Sin-Dee is released from 28 days in jail, her first mission is one of revenge: to get her own back on her cheating pimp boyfriend and the woman he’s been sleeping with. The only voice of reason to mitigate Sin-Dee's furious odyssey through North Hollywood is Alexandra, whose attempts to curb Sin-Dee’s propensity for DRAMA often fall on deaf ears. Blasting off into the sunset as a shining light of contemporary comedy and true indie innovation, Tangerine's larger-than-life transgender characters are so captivating and authentic that it's by clinging to them through Tangerine's more extreme moments that the audience survives and, in so doing, comes to love these characters even more. The colours of the LA sunset pop through the plastic lenses of the iPhones used to shoot the film. The endlessly inventive on-the-fly shots captured by Sean Baker and Radium Cheung recall the exhilaration and energy of the European New Wave (only with more hot pants). Add to that the sublime car wash scene and you've got the most distinctive American indie of the whole year.
5. Inside Out (USA, dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)
There is no denying the sheer delight of Pixar’s return to form, Inside Out. 12-year-old Riley is in the midst of the real-world drama of moving to a new city, leaving behind all her old friends and her childhood. Inside her head, the fantastical drama of her five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger) plays out as they, too, attempt to cope with change and an interior world that literally crumbles as the outside world incurs on Riley’s sense of self. For its viewers cinema exists as a way to understand the world from a new viewpoint. When a film yields a new perspective on oneself, the experience is richer, even transformational. For kids Inside Out might be just another bright, enjoyable romp. For adults it is a poignant examination of the meaning of growing up and the difference between the monochromatic mindset of children and the complexity of being a functioning grown-up, who must resist the impulse to make everybody feel fine-and-dandy all the time.
4. Carol (UK/USA, dir. Todd Haynes)
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are the lynchpins of one of the most deeply romantic films of the decade so far. As the titular Carol, Cate Blanchett oozes a seductive warmth through her carefully composed movements and an elegance to rival the likes of Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo. Once again returning to the 1950s, Todd Haynes adapts Patricia Highsmith's novel about a department store shopgirl who begins an affair with a wealthy New York housewife during a painful divorce process. Shooting a creamy colour palette through panes of rain-flecked glass and maximising the grain of 16mm film, Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman's imagery captures the period and the milieu of Manhattan with more raw authenticity (to the city and the emotional landscape of the characters) than the chocolate box aesthetic that dominates most pre-60s period pieces. Carol is a story hung on the sensation of passion and the magnetic pull of a charismatic fellow outsider. The way that Blanchette's redder-than-red lips and rich couture dresses cut through the gloom epitomises those moments when the object of one's desire commands the room. No other film in recent memory has captured the drama of a person's First Love with such affection or exquisite style.
3. 45 Years (UK, dir. Andrew Haigh)
Charting one week in the life of childless couple Kate and Geoff as they prepare for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary party, Andrew Haigh's insidiously brutal third feature hangs on an simple, provocative premise: what if you discovered that your partner would never have given you so much as a second look if the love of their life had not died before they met you? Haigh and cinematographer Lol Crawley compose their story with casual-looking but deliberate all-in-one master shots that lay out and examine each setting and the interactions therein, like dioramas of truths withheld and unspoken promises turned poisonous with rot. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay deliver performances of the highest order and the emotional turmoil is stoked with soured memories and simmering resentment right up to the devastating final shot. Read my full review here.
2. The Duke of Burgundy (UK, dir. Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland's two previous features, Katalin Varga (2009) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012), stood out as darkly enchanting depictions of outsiders externalising inner turmoil. The Duke of Burgundy marks a delicate shift in subject matter and cements Strickland as a bona fide auteur. Sidse Babbett Knudsen delivers one of the most outstanding performances of the year as a reluctant participant in the sexual role-play scenarios of her younger partner, played with wide-eyed intensity by Chiara D'Anna. Both women live in a peculiar utopia of hand-crafted bricolage, elegant country manors and no men whatsoever. As Chiara D'Anna's younger partner seeks to elaborate on her sexual fantasies and her love of butterflies, her older, wiser partner feels increasingly smothered by the fallacy inherent in their master-servant fantasy. The ethereal score, meticulous art direction and luscious, retro cinematography create a seductive world out of time, populated by highly educated women with a passion for lepidoptery and no compunctions about discussing their kinky sexual hangups. The great poignancy of Strickland's idiosyncratic world is not in the impossibility of such a utopia existing but in the way that even the most loving relationship will inevitably undermine the foundations of paradise.
1. The Lobster (Greece/France/Ireland/UK, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film in English manages an incredible high-wire balancing act, both as a high-concept drama and a down-to-earth, frequently brutal comedy of manners. A relevant, contemporary surrealist fable, at times Kafka-esque, The Lobster proves more rewarding and enjoyable than most of the out-and-out comedies in recent memory. Colin Farrell's recently divorced protagonist is sent to The Hotel, where he must find a partner within forty days or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice and released into The Woods. In the chillingly mundane dystopia of The City, loneliness is something suffered by society because it is not permitted for individuals. Lanthimos’ obvious respect for the sophistication of his audience is inherent in the deadpan dialog, deliberate cinematography and high ratio of laughs-per-minute. All of this works in spite of the pitch-black that pervades this satire of our society's one-size-fits-all perspective on happiness. A world-class cast of British, Irish, French and Greek acting talent sells the bizarre set-up and even more bizarre interactions between the singletons in search of love. Ultimately, it is the watchability and subtle expressiveness of the cast that prevents the film from totally confounding the viewer. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz inhabit tremendously empathetic archetypes with personality and soulfulness to spare in a bitter-sweet fable for the ages. Read my full review here.