One thing in particular stuck out within the most praised films 2015: women. From ghost stories (Crimson Peak), coming of age films (Girlhood and Diary of a Teenage Girl), psychological thrillers (Sicario), animated blockbusters (Inside Out), action packed road movies (Mad Max: Fury Road), stories about ageing (45 Years, Still Alice and Grandma), about revolutions (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two) and about the feminist movement itself (Suffragette), women and girls were finally and rightfully the main focus of film in 2015. Here, I discuss the year in film, count down my Top 20 and look ahead to the year to come. To qualify, films must have had either theatrical or DVD release in Australia within between January 1st and December 31st 2015.
The raucous Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy gave me the feminist secret agent caper of my dreams.
Mr. Holmes showed us a new side to the famous detective with an extraordinary lead performance from Sir Ian McKellan.
Sir Ridley Scott tried his hand at a more realistic sci-fi than the Alien/Prometheus films with the Matt Damon led drama-dy The Martian.
Pixar finally went full meta and asked the question: What if emotions had emotions? with the beautiful Inside Out.
Ben Mendelsohn yet again proved to be one of the greatest actors of his generation playing against type in the heartfelt buddy road movie Mississippi Grind with Ryan Reynolds.
Ryan Gosling divided critics and showed us that he is just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it with his Lynchian inspired directorial debut, Lost River.
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart contemplated love, life and fame amongst the beauty of the Swiss Alps in The Clouds of Sils Maria.
Documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle highlighted the extraordinary story of a group of brothers locked away from the world with only movies to keep them company in The Wolfpack.
Daniel Craig returned for the fourth and maybe final time as 007, in the latest Bond thriller, Spectre.
And Aussie filmmaker George Miller’s life-long dream of making a fourth Mad Max movie came true with Mad Max: Fury Road becoming one of the most praised films of the year.
Films I Missed
Of course it’s impossible to watch EVERY SINGLE FILM released in a year. Some of the main ones I’m shattered that I didn’t get around to seeing (yet) are:
Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan.
Roy Andersson’s final film in his “living trilogy”, the bizarre A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
Céline Sciama’s coming-of-age drama, Girlhood.
Marielle Heller’s coming-of-age comedy, The Diary of A Teenage Girl.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up doco to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence.
Asif Kapdia’s look at the rise, fall and tragic legacy of Amy Winehouse in the doco, Amy.
And finally (although it has been receiving mixed reviews) I really want to see David O. Russell’s new J-Law vehicle, Joy. Just because, ya know?
My Top 20 Films of 2015
Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader and Brie Larson
Who would have thought that a Judd Apatow movie would be one of my favourite comedies of the year? Not me, that’s for sure. But with Apatow teaming up with comedian-of-the-moment, the irresistibly cheeky and brutally honest, Amy Schumer, Trainwreck is a rom-com that never feels too cliched, outlandish or crude. It also gives us a female protagonist who is so overwhelming sex-positive that her love interest (a loveable Bill Hader) was the one with serious relationship naïvety syndrome, usually given to the female persuasion in such films.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Sean Harris
Putting all other adaptations of the Bard’s most gruesome and gruelling work to shame, Justin Kurzel’s magnificent vision of medieval Scotland was one of the most visually beautiful films of the year. Brutal and bloody, it didn’t hold back showing some the play’s more violent and horrific moments (including a burning at the stake I would rather forget). But with standout performances from Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, and especially Sean Harris as the vengeful yet sympathetic Macduff, and amazing imagery that stays with you long after the final shot, it may not be the cinematic masterpiece we wanted it to be, but it is truely a unique piece of cinema.
(Read my full review of Macbeth here)
18. The Dressmaker
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth
Harking back to the Australian black comedy hits of the 90s (think Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Strictly Ballroom), Jocelyn Moorhouse’s first film since 1997, The Dressmaker, was just about as Australian as films got this year, even with a Brit in the lead role. Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, a fashion designer who returns from Europe to her small hometown, Dungatar, to right the wrongs of her past. It’s a crazy ride from start to finish with Winslet excelling as a woman haunted by her past, but it’s Judy Davis as Tilly’s mother “Mad Molly” who gives one of the year’s best performances.
17. The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux
One of the most unique and daring films of the year was Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film, The Lobster. Set in a dystopian future where people are forced to find a soulmate within a set period of time or else they will turn into the animal of their choice, it’s a bizarre concept made even more strange by its deliberately wooden performances and stoic directing. Colin Farrell is at his deadpan best as David, a man who’s animal of choice is a lobster and who finally finds his soul mate (Rachel Weisz) when it’s already almost too late.
16. 99 Homes
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern
It’s a time in recent history that many Americans would rather forget. The 2008 GFC has already been documented in a variety of different films – including next year’s The Big Short – but none have explored the harrowing and dehumanising factor of the housing crisis that followed it quite like 99 Homes. It’s Florida 2009, single father Dennis Nash (a passionate Andrew Garfield), his mum (Laura Dern) and his young son are evicted from their home by businessman Rick Carver (a chilling Michael Shannon). After struggling to find ways to repay his debts to the bank, Dennis decides to seek out Rick and help him evict other families for decent cash. Both Garfield and Shannon are excellent in their contrasting roles, particularly Shannon who is getting Oscar Buzz for his pure villianry. Sure, 99 Homes is ultimately a film about real estate, but it’s the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking one you’ll ever see.
15. Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac
Will robots ever take over the world? Well, that’s not quite the premise of Alex Garland’s magnificent sci-fi Ex Machina, but it does beg the question whether A.I.s will ever be intelligent enough to have independent thought. Yes, it’s the second film on my list that heavily features the Turing test (stay tuned for more on that further on!), but Ex Machina doesn’t get bogged down with its scientific facts and rather focuses on the psychological elements of A.I. development. It’s almost impossible to talk about the film without spoiling it, so all you need to know is that Alicia Vikander makes for a very convincing robot and it’s one of the most inventive sci-fis of recent time.
14. Still Alice
Director: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin
Julianne Moore finally and deservedly won her long-awaited Oscar this year for Still Alice. Alice (Moore) is a University linguistics professor with a loving husband (Alec Baldwin) and three adult children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) who begins to forget small things like names and places. Then comes the revelation that in her mid-50s she has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Through Moore’s incredible performance we see the frustration and embarrassment Alice faces everyday as she attempts to cope and understand what is happening to her mind. Still Alice is a tribute to everyone suffering with a debilitating disease and their loved ones who have to watch them suffer, and with the film’s heartbreaking final scene, it definitely achieves what it set out to do.
(Read my full review of Still Alice here)
13. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth
After four years and four blockbuster films, The Hunger Games finally comes to its brutal conclusion with Mockingjay Part Two. It’s been long established that the series is the smartest and most important YA franchise since the Harry Potter films which is proven again and again in MJPT. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) teams up with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the tortured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to bring down the Capitol and President Snow from within. Of course the film is aimed at fans of the series and it would be pointless seeing MJPT without seeing any of the previous films, yet there is still something universal about it. Katniss’ final struggles to destroy the evils of the Capitol is of course very relevant with the real-life threats of terrorism the world faces everyday. But ultimately The Hunger Games series was a wild ride throughout; entertaining, heart-racing and incredibly sophisticated, it’s no secret that I’m really going to miss them.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern
After the death of her mother, years of reckless behaviour and getting divorced from her husband, Cheryl Strayed was lost in her life. So she comes to the conclusion that she needs to change things within herself. To do this, she decides hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. Haunted by her troubled past, Cheryl indeed finds something within herself through her incredibly journey. But Wild is more than just a biopic about a woman trying to find herself in the wilderness, it’s a movie ultimately about redemption and is an incredibly inspiring and moving film that will affect anyone who has made bad choices in their past. With a standout performance from Reese Witherspoon and stunning scenery, it’s perhaps the most inspiring biopic of its kind since Into the Wild.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode
I may have given The Imitation Game a harder time on its initial release than I perhaps should have. On reflection, it’s an incredibly moving and important biopic about one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. That is the mind of Alan Turing, a socially awkward yet brilliant mathematical genius who was reluctantly hired by the British Government to help break the infamous Nazi Enigma code at the Bletchley Park Radio headquarters. Benedict Cumberbatch, giving the performance of his career, brings Turing to life on screen with incredible passion and bravery. Turing finds an allied outsider in Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, lovely as always), a young woman who proves to be just as capable of cracking the enigma with her mathematical prowess as any of the men. As both outsiders in a world of order, discipline and hyper-masculinity, Joan as a woman and Alan as a homosexual man, form a close platonic bond that becomes the heart and soul of the film. The Imitation Game is a beautiful film in both visual and narrative aspects. With a brave performance from Cumberbatch at its centre, it is an entertaining interpretation of a very important story that truly needed to be told right.
(Read my full review of The Imitation Game here)
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff
Along with Selma, Suffragette may be one of the most important films of the year. Set in London in 1912, we follow the suffragette movement from it’s early stages through the eyes of the women involved. A 24-year-old woman, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), toils away in a laundry everyday facing discrimination and harassment from her vile boss. With a small son to look after, Maud’s future depends on her ability to keep making an income whilst also maintaining her status as mother and wife. When Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) starts to work in the laundry, she introduces Maud to the suffragette movement and persuades her it is possible for men and women to be equal. Along with other local women including pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud and Violet perform acts of defiance, many of which result in their arrest. A police officer (Brendan Gleeson) starts to become concerned for the wellbeing of Maud and urges her to return her former life before it’s too late. Beautifully directed by Sarah Gavron and with a terrific performance from Mulligan, Suffragette isn’t about the entire suffragette movement but is rather a story about one woman’s struggle to accept that her voice is important and needs to be heard.
(Read my full review of Suffragette here)
9. Slow West
Director: John Maclean
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn
If Wes Anderson was to ever team up with the Coen Brothers and Tarantino to make a Western, it would look and feel exactly like Slow West. As one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, the film subverts the heroic, grand stereotypes seen in Westerns of old and presents us with 85 minutes of pure, aesthetic beauty. Naïve Scottish teen Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels to the wilds of Colorado to find his long-lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Hopelessly out of his depths by himself, he offers charismatic bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) every penny to his name if he helps find Rose. The unlikely duo do just that, running into a mixed bag of unusual characters along the way, including Ben Mendelsohn (wearing what has to be the best costume of the year in the form of a gigantic fur coat) as a comically drunken, violent fellow bounty hunter. Like its title suggests, the film is in no hurry, yet it doesn’t feel dull at any point either. Shot primarily in New Zealand, Slow West is a visually stunning film with a quirky off-kilter edginess to make up for its small and intimate storytelling.
8. Big Eyes
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz and Krysten Ritter
I detest the term “return to form”, but reflecting on my favourite director Tim Burton’s recent repertoire this is exactly what Big Eyes is. Sharing a lot of genetic makeup with Burton’s greatest masterpiece Ed Wood, Big Eyes is a biopic also about some very big characters and some truly bad art. Aspiring artist Margaret (a beautifully meek Amy Adams) escapes a violent marriage with her young daughter Jane, and settles in the bohemia of San Francisco of the late 1950s. Struggling to find a way to sell her art – paintings of creepy, big-eyed children – she finds solace in fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, charming and conniving as ever). They soon marry and Walter suggests that they both attempt to sell their art to the San Fran-elite. To their surprise, it’s Margaret’s big-eyed paintings that become a hit, and Walter soon convinces her to tell people he is the artist not her, all because “lady art doesn’t sell”. It’s an absurd idea, but convinced by her charming husband she accepts and Margaret starts living her life as one gigantic lie. For all its absurdities, Big Eyes has a lot of heart and soul, mainly due to Adams’ performance and the importance of the story as a feminist statement. For me Big Eyes was the biggest relief of the year as it showed audiences that Tim Burton was still capable of making a quirky, big-hearted crowd pleaser, and Dark Shadows is now all but a distant nightmare.
(Read my full review of Big Eyes here)
7. Love & Mercy
Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks
As the best music biopic since Anton Corbijn’s 2007 vision of Ian Curtis, Control, Love & Mercy is a perfect example of how a film can be both heartbreaking and uplifting at once. Brian Wilson is often regarded as one of the most respected and talented musicians of all time, yet his life has been plagued by almost constant tragedy. The film jumps between narratives as we see the rise of Wilson’s band The Beach Boys in the 60s, to the 80s where his mental illness has truly taken its toll. Paul Dano gives what is perhaps the best performance of the year by any actor as the young Wilson, a puppy-dog eyed, naïve idealist who is tormented by his inner demons. Cusack is subtly heartbreaking as the middle-aged Wilson who is failing to get a grip on his reality whist being under the controlling eye of his manager, Dr Eugene Landy (a vile Paul Giamatti). However, like a reverse-gendered Cinderella, Wilson is saved by the love of strong and smart car dealer, Melinda Ledbetter (a beautifully determined Elizabeth Banks). With a nostalgic vision of the freewheeling 60s and a more sterile view of the hedonistic 80s, Love & Mercy is a noble, bittersweet and loving tribute to one of the greatest musical talents of all time.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Amy Ryan
Steven Spielberg films are so incredibly comforting. As a seasoned professional who knows exactly how to make a film all-together entertaining, interesting and heart-warming, Spielberg makes films with enough universality to become both crowd pleasing blockbusters and favourites of the critics. His latest film Bridge of Spies is classic Spielberg; an espionage drama set against the gloomy Cold War with touches of inoffensive comedy – thanks to the Coens input on the script – and an uplifting sense of spirit. Tom Hanks is perhaps the most likable man in America and his performance as real-life everyman lawyer James B. Donavan takes full advantage of this persona. It’s a persona akin to a Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington meets Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird all-American hero with an incorruptible set of morals. When Donavan is asked to defend suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in an incredibly moving and understated performance) he is initially hesitant but then jumps at the opportunity to prove that anyone should be given the right to a fair trial. Yes, at times it becomes a little cliché with its moody set pieces and danger around every corner, but Bridge of Spies is an exquisite and near-perfect piece of filmmaking from a true artist of the craft.
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia
Is Holding the Man the Australian Brokeback Mountain? Perhaps. It’s easy to make comparisons between Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece and Armfield’s equally as groundbreaking tale about the life-long love between two men. Adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s beloved memoir, it tells the epic love story between Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Stott) who meet in high school in the late 70’s. Told through a mixture of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we witness the strains placed upon their relationship over the years in a brutally realistic portrayal of a life long love. Both the evils of homophobia and the false assumptions placed upon AIDS victims are explored in the film and handled with sympathetic care by Armfield. It’s more than just a movie about being gay in the 80s, it’s also a familiar narrative of forbidden love and fighting for what is right. It explores an incredibly important time in the LBQTI movement and a moment in Australian history where we moved beyond our ingrained, larrikin homophobia and helped those who were in desperate need of understanding and support.
(Read my full review of Holding the Man here)
4. Crimson Peak
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddelston
Nine years after the groundbreaking Pan’s Labyrinth made him a household name in creature effects and gothic production design, in 2015 Guillermo del Toro undertook his most personal and stunning film to date, Crimson Peak. Set around the turn of the century, the film follows a young, headstrong woman, Edith Crushing (Mia Wasikowska, daring and valiant as always), who aspires to become an author. She is swept off her feet by a charming young Englishman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddelston), who convinces her to marry him and live with him and his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in an old gothic castle in England. There, old family secrets are revealed and Edith is unsure whether the man she married really is as charming as he seems. A feminist ghost story with all the usual Hammer horror trappings, Crimson Peak is moody, seductive and pitch perfect in tone, presenting a twisted house of horrors for our gutsy heroine to face and for the viewer to shield their eyes from.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carman Ejogo and Tim Roth
It was a long time coming, but Ava DuVernay was finally the one to give us a biopic about the life of human right’s activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In Selma, David Oyelowo plays King with such passion and force it’s easy to forget that he isn’t the real deal. It follows one of King’s final acts of defiance as he tackles racism in rural Alabama by staging a march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery. The film is far from preachy and tepid, with DuVernay constantly reminding us that the events that unfold on screen didn’t happen that long ago. Selma is one of the most important and inspiring films of not only the year but also of the decade so far. It also showed us a side of the great man that the public isn’t accustomed to seeing, painting King not as a god-like figure, but rather as a father, husband and regular man with a dream.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin
Tackling the most complex issue facing Mexico and US relations in the 21st century head-on is no easy feat. Denis Villeneuve’s sleek and smart psychological thriller takes the vast issue of drug cartels and presents us with a story that criticises and sympathises with both sides of the border. Gutsy FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is convinced to join a secret task force to take down the cartels from within. Soon she is tangled up in the issue without knowing anything about the situation, and knowing less about whom she can trust. Sicario is far more complicated than the average thriller presenting characters with no certain moral compass and skewed motivations. Benicio del Toro has a ball playing morally corrupted “good-guy/bad-guy” Alejandro, and Blunt gives her best performance to date as a woman who is soon made to make choices that may skew her own moral compass. Roger Deakin’s cinematography is as always incredible and hauntingly expressive, breathing life into the setting and making it a character in its own right. Featuring some of the most heart racing moments put on film this year – including one nightmare of a traffic jam that is perhaps my favourite scene of the year – Sicario is a film that you need to tell everyone you know about; it’s gripping, complex and beautifully miserable until the very end.
(Read my full review of Sicario here)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone
Is Birdman the greatest film of the decade so far? Perhaps. But still, we’re only halfway there. In one of the greatest and most deserved comebacks of all time, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thompson, a has-been movie star who is best known for playing the superhero “Birdman” in a blockbuster film franchise. In order to regain the respect of his daughter, ex-wife and fans, he attempts to direct and star in a Raymond Carver play. What follows is nothing short of a constant line of disasters, all unfolding in what seems to be a single, continuous take. A tale of redemption, vanity and dreams set amongst the backstage antics of an off-Broadway theatre, Birdman is more than just a one-trick-pony. It succeeds in doing the impossible by being both extremely hilarious and incredibly heartbreaking at the same time. By taking huge risks, Iñárritu has created an extraordinary film that is truly like no other. And it seems like I’m not the only one who fell head over heels in love with Birdman. After getting huge praise for its originality and creativity, the film went on to win four Academy Awards at this year’s ceremony, including Best Picture. Not bad for a movie about a dude who thinks he can fly.
(Read my full review of Birdman here)
Looking ahead to 2016
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Alejandro González Iñárritu team up in the Canadian wilderness for The Revenant. Telling the story legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) who is left for dead by his hunting team after a bear attack, Glass must utilise his survival skills to find a way back home to his beloved family and track down the man who betrayed him, John Fitzgerald (Hardy). The film looks incredibly beautiful and with Iñárritu at the helm it’s sure to be a brutal and unyielding ride. It’s also getting huge traction for being the film that may finally give Leo his Oscar.
Quentin Tarantino returns with his eighth feature, The Hateful Eight, bringing with him a despicable group of characters amongst the grand beauty of post-Civil War Wyoming. Harking back to his minimal action/maximum dialogue debut, the classic, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight centres on a group of eight individuals holed up in a haberdashery during a blizzard. The film is being praised for its gutsy brutality and performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurt Russell. The epic three hour running time and 70mm projection makes The Hateful Eight look like a classic Tarantino homage to the cinema of old.
I have already had the pleasure of seeing Todd Haynes’ Carol at a preview screening before its release in Australia in mid-January and I can assure you that it’s just as exquisite and stunning as it looks in the trailer. Led by two incredible performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as two women who fall in love in the stuffy 1950s. The film pay homage to the melodramas of the era with perfect set design, perfect costumes and a perfect sense of mood and ambience. So, in other words, it’s perfect in every single way. In fact on reflection, I cannot fault it in any way.
Following on with the “trend” in 2015 of diverse, complex roles for women, Brooklyn stars the always exceptional Saoirse Ronan as young Irishwoman Eilis who travels to America to start a new life. She initially struggles to adapt to her new home before falling in love with a local Italian boy (Emory Cohen). However, when she is forced to return to Ireland she struggles to choose between the two lives she has made for herself whilst feeling like she doesn’t belong to either place. Just watching the trailer for Brooklyn had me in flood tears; it looks like an incredible film about a young woman trying to find herself in the world making it a story that is just as relatable now as it would have been 60 years ago.
Other films I’m looking forward to in 2016 are:
Brie Larson has been called the favourite to win Best Actress for her performance in Room, a film about a mother and son held captive for years in an enclosed space and the aftermath of their escape into the real world.
Whilst Spotlight, a film about the triumphs and importance of journalism, is the favourite to win Best Picture. It stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as real-life Boston Globe journalists who uncover corruption and sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church.
The Coen Brothers return in 2016 with their new black comedy Hail, Caesar! A noir-spoof set in the backlots of a Hollywood studio in the 1950s with a huge cast including George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton.
Everyone’s favourite quirky screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, tries his hand at directing with Anomalisa, a stunning stop-motion feature about both the mundanity and beauty of life.