2015 review

This is the time of the year where I make up for all the reviews I didn’t write all year long! Here’s my top 15 of the best films for 2015 (last year’s post is this one):

1. Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
2. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller
3. Mommy, directed by Xavier Dolan
4. Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg
5. Star Wars: the Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams
6. Paddington, directed by Paul King
7. Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall
8. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller
9. Suffragette, directed by Sarah Garvon
10. Dheepan, directed by Jacques Audiard
11. Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve
12. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
13. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay
14. Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird / The Good Dinosaur, directed by Peter Sohn
15. Pitch Perfect 2, directed by Elizabeth Banks

Other great films: Love & Mercy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Kajaki

There we are, a rather predictable #1 I guess, but to me Inside Out was the best film of the year. So much has been said already about Pixar, and their uncanny ability to tell stories straight from the heart… Well, all I know is that there will never be a film like Inside Out again. Animated or not. Inside Out absolutely transcends the genre of animation – as a story, as a film, it is very close to perfection, period. It’s not even the sheer genius of the concept, or the astounding originality of it, but again that ability to speak directly to the viewers’ hearts and minds. Visually it is stunning -every detail feels like it received a tremendous amount of attention, but again it’s not just the form but also the content that makes this film a timeless experience. Watching both Riley and Joy grow up… what an amazing character journey. And the scene of Joy skating alongisde Riley’s childhood memory is pure poetry. For that scene alone, Inside Out takes the #1 spot this year.

Right behind it is Mad Max: Fury Road. Who would have thought? It’s one of those unforgettable cinematic experience, a true piece of art where chaos and disorder produce unexpected beauty and and grace. There’s no other way to sum up Fury Road: for all its wacky and rough aesthetics, it’s actually a beautiful story, like a diamond in a rough. Most of all, Fury Road never underestimates its viewers: with an economy in dialogue, and a not-too-overtly political plot, this is a blockbuster with brains, headed by a filmmaker with an unshakeable faith in the story he’s telling. Add in strong characters, each with their own sense of destiny, impeccable cinematography and production design, and the jaw-dropping backdrop of the desert, and here you have it: one of the best films of the year, and the ultimate proof that sequels can be films that stand out on their own, and should always aim to do so.

In third place is a rather peculiar and unexpected entry, which I’ve picked nonetheless: Mommy, by Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. The Cannes hype, the critics, surely this film can’t be that good… Well, the good news is, that it is. Mommy is the embodiement of how character storytelling should be, an indulgent film about just the one relationship between a mother and his son. What could be so extraordinary about that? That’s where Dolan steps in, and turns it into a mesmerizing character study. Needless to say, without Anne Dorval’s bravura performance, the film wouldn’t be such a stand-out piece, but as such, it is a heart-wrenching, emotionally charged story. It feels bigger than life and yet incredibly realistic; most of all it sticks with you, long after you’ve seen it.

Bridge of Spies is a brainy, talkative thriller in which the twist is perhaps the most brilliant of all: the game is up during the opening scene. We know who is a spy, and who isn’t. Does it really matter? The setting of the Cold War automatically implies an atmosphere full of of secrecy and paranoia, sure, but ultimately there’s something higher at stake here, the definition of what a righteous man is, and what isn’t. Human morality as an overarching theme? Spielberg is more than willing to take that one on. And what a way to do that. With his usual knack for placing a rather ordinary man (Tom Hanks, absolutely brilliant) in rather extraordinary circumstances (watch this mild lawyer become entangled in an international incident), Spielberg is more than ever a director in full control of his subject matter. The film isn’t entirely flawless – it is a tad too conventional in its portrayal of a family man, and a bit too-on-the-nose about Berlin; but overall it’s a riveting piece of story-telling driven by two incredible performances. Top-notch cinematography and a score by Thomas Newman: I was sold from the start.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens: it’s almost trite to be writing about it at this point. How can a film live up to expectations this high? Well the good news is, it absolutely does. Force Awakens works as a wonderful tribute to the original saga: it is a two-hour long love letter to that universe and that’s all you would want to see as a fan. The characterisation of the new heroes, Rey & Finn, is very strong, and very well-done indeed; and that was by far the hardest part of the job. The fact that I didn’t walk away disppointed from the screen is nothing short of a miracle, and it’s all to JJ Abrams’ credit (still haven’t forgotten the horrible mess of Star Trek Into Darkness though). But, and there is always a ‘but’, the film is essentially flawed in that it doesn’t stand up on its own. Each of the individual original films –and say what you want, but it also applies to Return of the Jedi, felt like such tight-knit stories, each with their own rhythm and quirks. Here essentially it feels like a medley of everything we love about Star Wars without any real thought put into the context or the characters’ motives. Just look at the First Order and every baddie in the film: they’re all poorly explained or constructed. But it largely compensates those flaws in its willingness to make us care about Rey & Finn, Han & Leia and all the beloved characters we’ve missed so much. Force Awakens was never going to recapture the magic of the first films, but instead it carries its legacy proudly and absolutely works as an old-fashioned piece of entertainment: everything you would want from a Star Wars film then, and that’s more than enough.

Up next is Paddington. I genuinely have so much love for this film. It’s full of warmth and funny in a way only the English can be; yes it’s about a lost bear in London, but it’s mostly about yearning for a place we can call home, what family is, how can one fit into new surroundings… The screenplay is much cleverer than what you would expect from a family film, and it’s also entertaining without being too melodramatic. Paddington is the embodiement of wonderful storytelling, with great characters and yes, silly humour. You might be surprised to see it so high up on the list, but it is a proper film which, like Inside Out, showcases that animation can be so much more than just a medium.

Into the Woods. I know, I know… How can it rank higher than all these very serious films?! Well, the truth is Into the Woods stuck with me all year long. The wit of the lyrics, the reinvention of the characters, the cinematic nature of the story… all these elements were to be expected, but ultimately it’s a combination of really great directing, charismatic performances, nuanced storytelling, beautiful production design and cinematography which won me over. Yes the second half of the film drags on, but by then all the characters are engaging enough to hold our attention. It takes a wild and dark turn which is very much in sync with what the lyrics are trying to say: be careful what you wish for, fairy tales can end up in disappointment, children will listen… Beyond the amazing puns and Meryl Streep’s fantastic raping skills (!), it’s a story about parenting, grief and managing expectations. All rather dark themes for a Disney film, wouldn’t you think? Also, James Corden and Emily Blunt are both excellent as the Baker and his wife.

I was reluctant to go and see Foxcatcher -it really looked like another dull, Oscar-bait film. Which in essence it was, but clearly I underestimated its incredible asset: Bennett Miller at the helm. In his hands, Foxcatcher turns into a mesmerizing tale, the chilling and captivating depiction of the relationship between an out-of-this world Channing Tatum (so very greatly overlooked for this role) and an even more outstanding Steve Carrell. With amazing skill, Bennett Miller draws us into John Dupont’s world and into an emotionally exhausting story. The beauty of the film is that it is also very slow and with this deliberate pacing, it gradually but surely takes complete hold of the viewer, until the intensity of it is almost suffocating. Also highly recommended for its superb cinematography and an intelligent screenplay with subtle allusions to the death of the American Dream.

Speaking of Oscar bait… Suffragette was typically the kind of film tailor-made for the Academy, and like Foxcatcher I was ready to dismiss it as conventional. And in some respect, Suffragette is a conventional film. It’s a straightforward story. It’s also rather essential viewing, t-shirt controversy and historical accuracy be damned. I know the film only represents the one aspect of feminism, and it’s probably very heavily dramatised, but nonetheless it has the merit of making you think about, and genuinely feel for, these characters. Suffragette isn’t a thorough analysis of the feminist movement at all and it might not be as brainy as one would expect; in fact there are hints that it might not be so much about gender than about class, but that’s about as elaborate as it gets. As a piece of historical fiction though, as a dramatic story, it is incredibly efficient. That’s because it is laser-focused on this one amazing character, which in turn allows Carey Mulligan to give what is probably the performance of her life. I am usually not really impressed by actors –to be honest I always see acting as one element amongst others, i.e. part of a technical whole that makes up a film. But in this particular film, Mulligan is just incandescent. There’s an authenticity to her performance that’s just unrivalled. And she really is the film’s strongest asset, even if the rest of the cast is really good as well (except for the disappointing, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it appearance of Meryl Streep). Now, was the marketing campaign completely wrong? Yes. Does that make it a bad film, to be remembered as a privileged, one-sided depiction of feminism? I personally don’t think so.

Dheepan: should it rank higher than all these Hollywood films? Probably. It has tremendous artistic merit, and the Cannes Palme d’Or was definitely deserved, but it is also so incredibly difficult to watch. It’s such a dark film, much darker than you would think, and you don’t walk out of it unscathed –its raw violence was a surprise, for me at least. As always with Audiard, there are moments of stunning poetry but mostly Dheepan is a highly disturbing reflection on our society and even human nature. Its nuanced characters, bleak setting and economy of dialogue will certainly please the most demanding of film fans. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it, but I do recognise how well-directed and well-constructed it is. The actors are all outstanding in their respective parts, too.

Speaking of bleak, let’s go into an even bleaker film: Sicario. Oh boy is this film bleak. Denis Villeneuve’s aesthetic –a rather odd combination of discoloured realism and wide travelling shots, is disturbing to say the least. It’s even oppressive. If there’s one word to describe the film, that would be it: oppressive. Only really great directors, with a clear vision and a very strong cinematic sense, can make you feel that, and so more than anything Sicario is a real showcase of Villeneuve’s talent. There’s only one director out there that feels as distinctive as him, and that person is Christopher Nolan (wow, that’s it, I’ve said it). Okay so apart from its fantastic directing, Sicario is also a well-written thriller, with rather intriguing characters and a whole lot of horrific events. If you like really moody thrillers, then this one is definitely for you. And the cinematography is utterly beautiful.

The Lobster is the kind of film that gives nothing away: it’s up to the viewer to make up their own mind as to what the context of the story is. Nonetheless it has a wicked concept at the centre of it: a society where single people are being punished and if they fail to find a partner, they are hunted or transformed into animals. The tone is completely deadpan and the events are depicted with a sense of heightened realism rather than treating the plot as science-fiction. The film is both weird and delightful, with a really sparse narrative, yet the black humour and the clever use of characters make it a really compelling story. Top-notch casting and rather delirious music make this film a successful satire.

Now for a different kind of comedy: The Big Short is at the same time wonderfully complex and brazenly entertaining. The screenplay veers towards the heist/thriller route yet there are surprisingly funny elements to it. The directing, on the other hand, is all over the place. The frenetic rhythm of it is a bit disarming at first, but gradually the film finds its pace and despite the convulsed narrative (there are at least three or four different characters each with their own story arc), it manages to come out as very solid, informative piece of entertainment. It’s a bit odd because I can’t think of any other film before that is similar to the Big Short: treating a rather serious subject with a strong comedic tone, yet not sacrificing any of the complexity or technicality of it, and with of course the underlying criticism of how these events were handled. Every actor is well-cast and the screenplay is very versatile despite the use of technical terms that may not be familiar to your everyday audience. All in all, a very convincing offering from Adam McKay.

Next I’ve put two Disney films on the same ranking: Tomorrowland and the Good Dinosaur. A Pixar film, so low in my rankings? Gasp! The truth is, the Good Dinosaur is outstanding, absolutely gorgeous and ground-breaking animation, but only in terms of the actual visual animation itself. The story as such is quite conventional and therefore a bit less successful than previous Pixar outings. Nonetheless it’s an absolute must-see in terms of the beauty of the animation: the photorealistic landscapes are absolutely stunning. As for Tomorrowland, despite falling short of its enormous ambitions, it still is a rare kind of blockbuster, one that appeals to both your heart and imagination. The film was all over the place (predictably enough), it never really knew what it wanted to be, but I still liked what it was trying to say (keep exploring, be inquisitive) without being too patronising.

And last but not least, Pitch Perfect 2 rounds up my yearly ranking. Why? Because it’s awesome, because it’s about girls supporting and liking each other and because it appeals to the (deeply hidden) teenager inside all of us.

That’s it! That was my year in films. A lot of experts were predicting 2015 to be the biggest year in film ever, and in many respect it was; it also saddens me to see the ever-increasing gap between massive blockbusters and mid-range films. We need more of those, because they will always be more original stories, or at least able to treat a subject with a less generic approach. This year was the first year where I actually struggled to find 15 films or so to include in my ‘review of the year’ post; when I think about films that released barely 10 years ago, it wasn’t so much about superheroes and action films, but more about films that, today still, shape the way I see the world –films like Brokeback Mountain, the Constant Gardener etc. Here’s to hoping for a new decade filled with talented filmmakers and original stories.

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