31 December 2015

The Mad Prophet's Top 25 Films Of 2015

I don't use this blog much any more, but if you can find more of my entertainment-related writings on Den of Geek and Vodzilla, or follow me on Letterboxd.

So, now that we've got the bad stuff out of the way, we can get right into the best of the year. This is a list of my top 25 favourite films that I saw this year, based on UK release dates...

In the interests of full disclosure, it's worth noting that I haven't been as assiduous in catching up with indie films and whatnot that I missed during the year. I definitely want to see the likes of Girlhood, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter and A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, but I'm not going to squeeze them in at the end of December and then try to slot them into my list based on first viewing. I've had time to think about this lot and these are the ones that have either stuck with me or I've otherwise enjoyed the most this year. I might see a film in a week that upsets the whole balance I've got going here, but y'know, so be it!

Even with 25, there are still some films that could have made the list on another day- the likes of Mr. Holmes, Man Up, The Gift and Avengers- Age Of Ultron are all bubbling under, but here goes with the list proper!

25. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, USA)
I know, I'm surprised too- some pillock gave it four stars on Den of Geek. The sequel to Magic Mike was one of the unexpected treats of the summer. In a year that's heaving with erotic pablum, this is the most sex-positive and gender balanced film of 2015, throwing out the slice-of-life plot structure of the previous film to its own huge advantage. It's more preposterous than ever before, but as shallow as it sounds on paper, the pelvic sorcery is all in aid of putting a smile on people's faces, and there can be no nobler goal for a movie about "male entertainers".

24. Bill (Richard Bracewell, UK)
The Horrible Histories crew embrace their destiny and create a Monty Python-for-kids comedy adventure about the secret history of Shakespeare. Featuring astounding work in multiple roles from the whole ensemble, this is an irresistibly silly old tizzy of wordplay, sight gags and character comedy. If we could have one of these every couple of years, that would be marvellous.

23. White God (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany/Sweden)
The logline "Rise Of The Planet Of The Dogs" might do it some favours with those who might not otherwise have seen it, but happily, there's more to it. Boasting what may be the greatest canine acting in any film in history, the film mixes heart-wrenching sentiment with cringe-making brutality to create an incredibly empathetic revenge flick, bookended by two of the year's most beautiful scenes.

22. Slow West (John Maclean, UK/New Zealand)
A deliberately paced but perfectly distilled shot of the Western genre, elevating an uncomplicated story into a mythic tragedy with dreamy and folkloric tendencies. It's grounded by a four-square turn from Michael Fassbender, (one of many he's turned in this year) a career-best performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee and a reliably eccentric Ben Mendelsohn.

21. Star Wars- The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, USA)
Just as Magic Mike knows and services its audience perfectly, this is the most completely satisfactory (not to be mistaken with completely satisfying) film of the year. On top of that, it's deliriously entertaining and the funniest, best acted episode yet. The old favourites are given a new lease of life and the newcomers feel like they've been here all along in this reverent legacy-quel. It's time to admit it- Star Wars is back in a big bad way.

20. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain)
A concept film that violently exaggerates topical concerns such as air travel security, road rage and the class divide over the course of six vengeful vignettes. It leans on foreshadowing a little, but at its best, it's wildly unpredictable and massively entertaining, starting strong and finally peaking in the outrageous climactic wedding reception tale.

19. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA)
A bleak and uncompromising thriller about the United States' antics in the increasingly futile "war on drugs", bolstered by Emily Blunt's sheer mettle and Benicio del Toro's seemingly limitless reserve of quiet power. Roger Deakins' incredible cinematography contributes to some of the year's finest setpieces and the overall effect leaves you winded and hanging onto your armrests for dear life.

18. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA)
This year's Best Picture winner remains a very entertaining and absorbing watch, which becomes slightly unstuck on repeat viewings by the last five minutes. Still, a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. For what it's worth, I'd also say it's brilliantly acted, written and shot and I might come back around on it in time. In the meantime, the real hero is steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff, who shot the film in one (apparently) continuous take.

17. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/UK)
The least conventional love story of the year takes a loopy premise that feels cold and stark to the touch and then warms it through with fits of surreal comedy. Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly are the standouts amongst a cast who are the opposite of natural in their Reeves & Mortimer-esque deliveries, complementing the wicked weirdness of it all.

16. The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, USA)
You'll be sorrier you missed this one on a big screen than any other film released this year. Heck, I have to admit that I was a bit cynical about this from seeing the trailers, but the film itself is a dazzling visual feast. Cheekily lobbing audacious gags at the audience from its perch atop the fourth wall, this is utterly breathtaking stuff- it's unquestionably the best use of 3D in any movie this year- and sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the literal peak of his powers.

15. Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, USA/Canada)
Comfortably the director's finest English language film to date, this is a sumptuously realised Gothic romance that boldly encapsulates and homages the entire legacy of its genre in one go. The actors are incredibly game too- Mia Wasikowska makes a great heroine, Tom Hiddleston does a great line in dark and brooding and Jessica Chastain threatens to steal the whole damn show. It's outwardly less scary than some of Guillermo's other films, but it fits neatly with his previous horror films.

14. Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, USA)
Cruise and McQuarrie's creative partnership yields more fruit with a superb spy actioner that's even more redonkulous than Ghost Protocol. It boasts about five of the ten best action sequences of the year (see my #1 for the other five) and makes an instant star of Rebecca Ferguson. SPECTRE was a bit of a letdown, but this one stepped into the breach rather magnificently. Ethan Hunt Will Return.

13. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, UK/USA)
An astonishing indie sci-fi horror that appears to take place in a single location, but actually spans something much larger and existentially terrifying. Without giving it all away, the impossible situation in which our characters find themselves has shades of both Rick & Morty and The Thing, but this succeeds because Byrkit manages to ground the abstract plot with complex and interesting characters, providing a particularly good performance from Buffy alum Nicholas Brendon.

12. Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, UK/France)
The bittersweet part of enjoying any Aardman feature film this much is the realisation that we have to wait three years for the next one. The lovingly hand-crafted feel of their films is always worth the wait though and that's especially true of this faithful spin-off from the Shaun TV series. The lack of a language barrier in its silent comedy has given them licence to more un-self-consciously British than even their most British previous films, and it helps that it's universally bloody hilarious too.

11. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA)
This is the most John Carpenter film that John Carpenter never made, but more importantly, it mines endless horror from the simplest and most original of threats. Unusually for an American horror film, the venereal demon only gets more terrifying, the more it is explained and developed. The oppressive score by Disasterpeace could have been a hat on a hat, because Mitchell builds the atmosphere so well, but it only enhances the terrific and terrifying effect.

10. SuperBob
Jon Drever // 15 // 82 mins // UK
"Meteor Strike And Flying Man Link? Has Postie Gained Superpowers?"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Robert Kenner, a Peckham-born postman who gets hit by a meteor and elevated to Superman's power level. Britain's first superhero movie is cheap and cheerful and, thankfully, really very good. Dabbling in both mockumentary and romantic comedy tropes, the low-budget movie follows the superb Brett Goldstein's nice-but-dim everyman around as he tries to get a date on his UN-sanctioned day off.

This functions perfectly as a palate cleanser for superhero movies in general- quiet and witty where the Marvel movies are loud and quippy, and sweet and romantic where the DC movies are grim and sexless. The latter of those could stand to take a look at this and remember that you can deconstruct a genre and still keep things light and breezy. Altogether, this is a lovingly made gem that deserves a watch.

High point- A romantic scene at an anniversary party for an elderly couple is the closest that the film gets to really showing off Bob's superpowers and it's a wise choice- the result is easily the most romantic scene in a superhero movie since the kiss in the rain from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.

9. Ex Machina
Alex Garland // 15 // 108 mins // UK
"Isn't it strange, to create something that hates you?"

Oscar Isaac has had a hell of a year, from his charismatic and scene-stealing turn as a Tony Stark type here to his star-making role in The Force Awakens. Along with Domhnall Gleeson's naive programmer and Alicia Vikander's uncannily real robot, he's just one part of this virtually flawless three-hander. It revolves around a version of the singularity, a subject so often explored by cinema in recent years but seldom quite so thoughtfully.

Alex Garland deserves more credit for the solidly worked-through sci-fi scripts he's turned in over the last decade (Sunshine, Dredd and Never Let Me Go are all terrific) and his lateral move into the director's chair fulfils the promise of his previous works. Much like the robotic Ava, it has a slick, clinical surface that masks its deeper philosophical conundrum and it arrests you until the very end.

High point- As pictured, Isaac's arrogant genius turns the lights down low and boogies his ass off to Oliver Cheatham's Come Down Saturday Night. It's not the most philosophically stirring bit, but it's one of my favourite scenes of 2015.

8. Whiplash
Damien Chazelle // 15 // 107 mins // USA
"Not my tempo."

Like Birdman, this was a big part of last year's awards season discussion and while I think this would actually have been a worthier Best Picture, (second only to The Grand Budapest Hotel) the two films have numerous similarities- both are about creative types flagellating themselves for their art and both have relentless, pulse-pounding jazz drums.

It's the most tolerable I have ever found Miles Teller, (shame about Fantastic Four) but of course the real headline here is JK Simmons' terrifying conductor, given to psychological warfare and out-and-out violence in order to bring his players up to his impossible standards. Objectively, it's a film about two deeply selfish people destroying anything they have to in pursuit of greatness, but what sets it apart from say, Burnt, is the tremendous craft from top to bottom, especially where the editing is concerned.

High point- The breathtaking final sequence of the film has stuck with me all year long, even though it's irresistible to imagine how the hell the other characters in that scene reacted afterwards.

7. Tangerine
Sean Baker // 15 // 88 mins // USA
"Merry Christmas Eve, bitch."

December rarely offers many great new Christmas films- nothing has come close to the old standards since 2011's Arthur Christmas. There was a whole bunch of them this year though, the best of which was this festive farce that has Sin-Dee, a newly paroled trans-sex worker, stomping around sun-scorched LA on Christmas Eve, hunting the pimp who broke her heart. With the determination of Schwarzenegger's Terminator and a hell of a lot more sass, she leaves carnage in her wake.

It's certainly the best looking movie ever to be shot on an iPhone, with prototype lenses lending the film a cinematic quality that's missing in other indie movies of this kind. The largely unknown cast are terrific, running with a propulsive script that crackles for the duration. Aside from being uproariously funny at various points, the film qualifies for its Christmassy label with a generous helping of surreal tenderness, with the manic pace allowing the quieter moments to stand out even more.

High point- Sin-Dee has a way of bringing pandemonium anywhere she goes, never moreso than when she barges into a tiny motel room full of sex workers and clients and turns it into something like a clown car, full of recriminations and numerous bodies trying to get out of her way.

6. Force Majeure
Ruben Östlund, Sweden/France/Denmark/Norway
"I'm a bloody victim of my own instincts!"

The worst family holiday in history unfolds in this dark and supremely uncomfortable comedy. It starts when Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) has a bad reaction to his own fight or flight response and abandons his family in the path of an oncoming avalanche. The way the film unfolds from there, you feel it could only have been less awkward if they hadn't survived to give him shit about it.

That just because it's impossible to imagine how this could possibly have been more awkward. But it's understated and completely captivating with it, building to a killer punchline after sustaining a state of emotional claustrophobia for an impossibly long time. It couldn't be more different from that other "Force" film, but it's truly a sight to behold.

High point- Aside from the perfectly pitched awkwardness that follows the opening scenes, there's a brilliant moment in which Tomas and his friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) are given brief respite from their respective embarrassments while lounging in deckchairs, only to be hilariously let down.

5. The Martian
Ridley Scott // 12A // 144 mins // UK/USA
"Every time something goes wrong, the world forgets why we fly."

With the grandest ensemble cast and the wittiest script (cheers, Drew Goddard) that he's had to work with in a long time, this is comfortably the best movie that Ridley Scott has made this century. Adapted from Andy Weir's novel, Matt Damon gives an Oscar-worthy leading performance as Mark Watney, the sole inhabitant of Mars and the film expertly navigates between his trials and the best efforts of the boffins trying to get him home.

There's no obvious antagonist except for nature, (or the lack thereof) but Scott makes a hugely entertaining show of smart people sciencing the shit out of their predicament. It's optimistic and progressive and we really don't see enough of that in mainstream movies. Moreover, it's intense and funny and geeky and accessible and, arguably, just the kind of film we need right now.

High point- They took a leaf from the Guardians Of The Galaxy playbook on the soundtrack, as Mark endures his commander's disco obsession for the duration of his stay. This gives us a montage to David Bowie's Starman (arguably only the third most obvious Bowie needle-drop) that's better than almost any other scene I saw this year.

4. Brooklyn
John Crowley // 12A // 111 mins // Ireland/UK/Canada)
"Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will pass."

This was another big surprise for me- a seemingly ordinary love story that is elevated to an intimate epic by its unassuming but extraordinary quality. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish girl who finds her heartstrings being tugged from opposite sides of the Atlantic when she leaves her hometown behind for the Big Apple. Over the course of the film, Eilis evolves before our very eyes from pale, shivering waif to a more confident young woman. 

Ronan, who has never knowingly underperformed, gives a staggering performance and she's well matched by Emory Cohen as the "kind and decent" plumbing apprentice who has lived just as little as she has, albeit in a very different neighbourhood. The trailers overplayed certain scurrilous elements of the plot, but the film speaks for itself, as a charming, gorgeous coming-of-age tale.

High point- Unemployed Irish immigrants sing songs from their homeland in a Brooklyn soup kitchen, which perfectly encapsulates the film's constant, palpable sense of place- home, it seems, is wherever you make it.

3. Bridge Of Spies
Steven Spielberg // 12A // 141 mins // USA/Germany/India
"Aren't you worried?" "Would it help?"

The story that inspired this film was almost adapted back in the 1960s starring Gregory Peck and Alec Guinness, but then shelved due to the then-ongoing political situation. As intriguing as that sounds, it was right to wait for Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, as the unimpeachable American moral authority and the calm and understated spymaster respectively.

Spielberg's mastery is never more apparent than in his "B-side" movies- although this Cold War throwback won't appear in everyone's top 10 films by the director, it kicks the shit out of almost every other movie this year, even one that was particularly big on spy movies. The balance between the light and accessible side and the much darker historical detail is impeccable, with just a dash of the Coen brothers (who co-wrote Matt Charman's script) to make this a film buff's delight and an accessible audience-pleasing drama all in one.

High point- The pivotal scenes in the movie all take place on trains and you can chart the arc of lawyer James B. Donovan across these scenes. The last of them is quietly devastating, but it definitively caps the film's bittersweet tone.

2. Inside Out
Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen // U // 95 mins // USA
"Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems."

Pixar delivers their best film since Toy Story 3 with this emotional disaster movie set inside the head of Riley, an 11 year old girl going through a massive upheaval. The psychological pyrotechnics work perfectly well as a metaphor for the more grounded outer story, but Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger all feel like more than that. They're amongst the best characters that Pixar has ever created and they're also impeccably voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black.

The story structure might be a bit familiar, (particularly if you remember the plot mechanics of Docter's first Pixar outing, Monsters Inc.) as is the basic idea, (Numbskulls!) but this is still a colourful and thoughtful emotional thriller that doesn't talk down to kids or pander to older viewers either. That it packs this much existential and expressionistic stuff into a U-certificate movie is just testament to the genius of the filmmakers, as is the inability to explain why you're crying over a part-elephant, part-candy floss imaginary friend to anyone who hasn't seen it.

High point- The trailers didn't hide this one, but the dinner table scene, in which we catch a glimpse of what's going on in the heads of Riley's parents, is definitely the peak of the film's inventive comedic expressionism.

1. Mad Max- Fury Road
George Miller // 15 // 120 mins // Australia/USA
"Who killed the world?"

It's hard to know where to begin with this one, but it's the film I have rewatched more than any other in the last 12 months. I knew from the moment the credits rolled on my first viewing that it would be the film of the year and impossibly, it keeps getting better.

As far as the story goes, six women set out from the citadel of a mad tyrant into the wasteland of post-apocalyptic Australia and a chase ensues. If you're having trouble imagining it, it's a bit like having a nightmare about Wacky Races at times. In short, George Miller has created a flabbergasting symphony of chaos that's as pure a cinematic expression as you have ever seen.

Visually speaking, it's so well plotted, well designed and well executed that you could turn the sound off and still follow what's going on perfectly. Giving it great, quotable dialogue and sound design/editing as well is just gravy. The film was in development back when Mel Gibson was still up for reprising the role of Max and while it's amusing to imagine Miller working on Babe and Happy Feet and thinking of War Boys and the Doof Warrior, the gestation period has only made it more rounded. The film hardly refers back to the previous Mad Max films and yet the world feels lived in.

In the centre of it all, Charlize Theron is extraordinary as Imperator Furiosa, the lead who Tom Hardy's Max works alongside rather than above. As befits a visual film such as this, there's so much pain and angst implied in her performance, perfectly tough and vulnerable all at once.

It's easy to underrate Hardy's reserved performance here, but he also strikes an impossible balance between above-the-title leading man and supporting role to the main story- intentionally or not, his line "You and me- fifth wheel" to Nicholas Hoult's Nux is a brilliantly subtle acknowledgement of where they stand. Finally, we have a movie that skewers and overthrows patriarchy which also has a roving death metal band fronted by a flame-throwing guitarist.

I could go on forever and I've already gone on quite a bit, but simply put, it's the greatest action movie of the decade. Witness it.

I'm Mark the mad prophet and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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