“They don’t make films like they used to…”
You constantly hear this line being thrown around. A lot. Or people talk about cinema being “dead”. What a load of rubbish. Cinema is more alive than ever. If it wasn’t, this top ten list wouldn’t be so difficult every single year.
People often have this bizarre way of looking at film history. They look at classics like The Godfather and Taxi Driver and instantly say all movies were better in the 70s. You know they made bad movies back then too, right?
If one only focuses on the golden films, everything from that time suddenly looks better. You wouldn’t watch Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction or Fargo and decide to declare the 90s the best decade in cinema, would you?
That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the current film climate. Yes, Hollywood is far too focused on sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. Yes, the number of superhero movies being released each year is getting excessive. Yes, mindless drivel is winning the box-office more often than not. Yes, it’s getting harder and harder to get people to pay to see an original piece of cinema. But so the fuck what?
If those are the only films you’re seeing, of course it looks like they don’t make films like they used to. But look closer, and the plethora of truly stunning cinema is there to be found.
And you don’t even need to look to independent cinema to find it. At least three or four of my best films of the year would be considered mainstream “blockbusters”. Films you’ve likely seen too.
On a side note, I’m often asked “should I see this film because it’s in your top 10?”. My response is always the same – you should see every film. But don’t see them just because I loved them. These are my subjective opinions. These are my personal reactions.
You should see all of them (and anything else released this year) to have your own experience, whether you think you’ll like them or not. You never know how you will respond to a film until you’re actually watching it.
There is nothing better than seeing a piece of cinema you weren’t particularly keen on and being completely taken by surprise. I genuinely had no interest in seeing four of the films in this top ten list. Honestly. And yet, here they are amongst my favourites of the year. That says it all really.
So without further ado, I present The Jam Report’s ten best films of 2015.
10. Holding The Man
A lot has been made about the demise and collapse of the Australian film industry in recent years. Thankfully we saw a glorious return to form in 2015, typified by Neil Armfield’s beautifully devastating Holding The Man. Perfectly capturing a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was destroying a whole generation of young men, the film features a star-making performance by Ryan Corr (even if the AACTA Awards didn’t seem to think so) in a role that will both warm and break your heart. Holding The Man is above all things a beautiful love story that could not be more timely. Love is love, no matter the gender, and the film stands as a poignant reminder of this simple notion. The film is as beautiful as it is tragic, made even more powerful by its true-story origins that will no doubt have you sobbing on the floor by the closing credits. A masterful Australian film, and not just one of the best of recent years, but one of the best there has ever been.
“Nostalgia cinema” dominated in 2015. Hollywood has modified its obsession with cheesy remakes and cash-grabbing sequels and replaced it with reboots that deliver familiar warm and fuzzy feelings. It didn’t always work this year (hello, Terminator Genisys) but when it did, it was pure magic. Case in point – Creed. For all intents and purposes, the Rocky franchise died a long time ago. Remember 2006’s Rocky Balboa? Yeah, neither do I. Then along comes writer/director Ryan Coogler to breathe fresh life into the old girl with a truly captivating and original story that genuinely stands firm as its own powerful film. Choosing to focus on Adonis Creed (the criminally underrated Michael B. Jordan), a.k.a. the illegitimate son of boxing champ Apollo Creed, and move Rocky Balboa (a surprisingly Oscar-worthy Sylvester Stallone) to a supporting mentor role, ultimately ends up being a true masterstroke of genius. While the film naturally features many expected moments (the training montage, the obstacles Creed must overcome, the immature angst he bears, the build-up to the big fight), its true triumph is its screenplay which is fresh and full of life. Then there’s the cinematography. The fight scenes are filmed with such precision and perfection, it’s impossible not to applaud, particularly that legendary one-shot boxing match that will truly take your breath away. I’ll avoid the temptation to use a boxing-related pun…okay, I can’t. Creed is an absolute knock-out.
As someone who was hugely impressed by the shamefully underrated Prisoners (#5 on my 2013 list), there were high expectations for Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Sicario. He didn’t let me down. With Sicario, Villeneuve yet again proves why he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Filled with heart-stopping tense set pieces (the night-vision sequence will have you holding your breath), Sicario is a gripping and taut thriller examining America’s relentless (and potentially pointless) war on drugs, notably the extreme lengths some foolishly go to in the hopes of winning the battle. Highlighted by the powerhouse performances of Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro (both in career-best form but both likely to be overlooked by the Academy), the film is dark, gritty and deeply unsettling – elements that will stay with you long after the end credits roll.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Remember when the Star Wars franchise died? Remember those god-awful prequels that failed at every turn to recapture the glory of the originals? Remember thinking we’d never experience the joy of seeing a truly great Star Wars film again? Those days are well and truly over. The force has indeed awakened. Star Wars is back, baby. We never should have doubted the genius that is J.J. Abrams. Just look what he did for the equally-dead Star Trek franchise. But given expectations for this film were so astronomical, it was wise to be cautious. And yet, Star Wars: The Force Awakens meets every possible expectation (and then some) by delivering a stunning cinematic experience overflowing with thrills, laughs, tears, surprises, shocks, and ultimately just damn fine entertainment. Does it rehash plot points and elements of the originals? Sure. But I’d hardly call that a bad thing. It’s merely giving fans exactly what we want – great heroes (both new and old), menacing villains, an epic and adventurous storyline, and enough mystery and teasers to setup the next chapter. Nothing will ever match the magic of the original film, and of course The Empire Strikes Back, but by god this comes achingly close. J.J. just gets it, and delivers a wonderfully entertaining film that’s better than anyone could have ever imagined. Bring on Episode VIII.
6. Ex Machina
The sci-fi genre gave us some of the best films of the year, but none was more original than the mind-blowing Ex Machina. In only his first feature film, writer/director Alex Garland breathes fresh life into the well-worn robot/artificial intelligence genre with his ingenious tale that questions the very essence of what makes us human. Featuring three phenomenal performances from Oscar Isaacs, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (a true revelation worthy of Oscar consideration), the film is as gripping as it is enthralling. Vikander’s Ava is utterly captivating to watch and her transformation over the course of the film is true artistry. With an intelligent screenplay, impressive direction, gorgeous cinematography and beautiful production design, Ex Machina is a true work of brilliance on every level. The plot leaves you guessing right until the last moments and delivers a final punch that will knock your damn socks off. Do not miss this film.
5. The Martian
It’s been devastating to watch Ridley Scott’s career dive into free-fall the last few years. With genuine disasters (The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, anyone?), it was starting to appear that one of the greatest directors of our time had lost his mojo. Thankfully he found it again with The Martian, one of the most genuinely entertaining films of the year. While the film somewhat follows the well-worn ‘human stuck in space’ path, it manages to deviate itself with a screenplay highlighting the humour of the situation, as opposed to the terrifying anguish, à la Gravity. Matt Damon and the entire brilliant supporting cast (lead superbly by the always-impressive Jessica Chastain) all manage to deliver genuinely amusing moments in a film filled with such drama and tension. With enough true science to appease the astronomically-minded crowd, but not too much to baffle the every-day cinemagoer, the film miraculously manages to bridge the gap between big blockbuster filmmaking and Oscar-worthy human drama, accessible for fans of both genres of cinema. The stellar box-office results and awards season nominations prove it manages to succeed at both – a genuine rarity these days. A testament to the human spirit and a shining example of what can occur when great minds band together, The Martian is the kind of film you just want to watch again and again. Add in that perfectly-placed disco soundtrack (who didn’t chuckle when “I Will Survive” played over the end credits?), and some truly phenomenal visual effects and production design, and you have one of the best films of Scott’s and Damon’s career and one of the best of 2015.
After an eight-year absence from feature films, Todd Haynes returns with yet another quietly understated masterpiece, and a perfect companion to his criminally underrated Far From Heaven. Echoing similar heartbreaking themes of the life and struggles of repressed women, Carol is as near-perfect as films get. The film delves deep into the quiet romanticism of a blossoming (albeit forbidden) relationship, filled with its stolen glances, subtle touches, and the anxiety we all experience when falling for someone. Much like Far From Heaven, the production design is utterly immaculate. Haynes’ attention to detail is truly remarkable, with the set and costume design shining like its own star in the film. But the film has its stars in Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and they shine brighter than anything else. The two co-leads (I refuse to classify Mara as supporting) are perfectly cast in their vastly different roles. Blanchett as the mature initiator (ignore anyone that uses that word “predatory”) with everything to lose. Mara as the naïve and shy girl with nothing to lose but her heart. Both are as intriguing to watch as they are fascinating to study, and their love story is a true gem. In the hands of lesser actors, these two restrained and sensitive performances would be nowhere near as affective, and frankly both should be walking away with Oscars come February, as should the film and Haynes. Aided by a remarkable screenplay that avoids the temptation for caution or political statements, and some of the most gorgeous cinematography seen this year, Carol is an unassuming masterpiece of acting, directing and filmmaking at its finest, cementing Haynes as one of the best in the business.
3. Inside Out
To declare Inside Out as Pixar’s best film is really saying something, considering their history of bonafide masterpieces. And yet, it’s absolutely true. After the last few years of disappointing sequels, Pixar returned to what they do best – delivering truly brilliant original films. This may just be their most original idea ever, and genuinely unlike anything we’ve ever seen in animation before. The intelligent screenplay soars with lashings of genuine humour, enormous heart, tear-inducing moments (has anyone managed to recover from that sacrifice made by one particular character?), and one incredibly powerful message – sadness isn’t just inescapable, it’s also entirely needed. The film is a true triumph, not only of animated cinema but cinema in general. Accessible for both children and grown-ups alike, Inside Out is superbly voiced (notably by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith as Joy and Sadness), overwhelmingly touching, and a true masterclass that all future animated features will be measured against. Pixar sets the bar impossibly high, but once again, they’ve raised it even further.
It genuinely pains me to not award Inside Out with #1 like I have previous Pixar gems. Let’s be honest – it deserves the title. As a bonafide animation geek, it’s generally foreseen that an animated film will impress me more than anything over the course of the year. After the end credits rolled, Inside Out held firm as the best film of the year, and any other year, it likely would have remained there.
Alas, there were indeed two films that somehow managed to outclass it…
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
The blockbuster to end all blockbusters. The greatest action film of recent times. One of the most visually impressive feats ever captured on celluloid (or whatever they film on these days). An instant classic. And all from a long-dead franchise and a director more recently known for kids flicks. Mad Max: Fury Road was, without a doubt, the most stunning (and surprising) cinematic achievement of 2015. From the frenetic opening sequence to the final epic climax, the film will have you in its grips and barely ever let you go. What makes Mad Max: Fury Road so remarkable and impressive is the physicality of its production. We are so used to seeing the marvels of green-screen technology and the wondrous things a computer can create. And not to take anything away from the wizards who create visuals on a computer, but it is always lacking that realistic touch, not matter how photo-realistic the end result may be. Enter George Miller and the unbelievable way he has crafted this film. The cars are real. The people are real. The explosions are real. The stunts are real. This is happening in real life, not inside a computer. When these elements combine, we are gifted with some of the most eye-popping visual set-pieces there has ever been in cinema. But Miller doesn’t rest on his laurels of just creating a visually beautiful film. The characters who inhabit this storyline are just as masterful. While the title of the film may be Mad Max (a necessarily gruff and relatively mute Tom Hardy), the star is really Charlize Theron and her instant action heroine Furiosa. It takes a gutsy director to stick a female at the helm of such a male-driven piece of cinema, but it ends up being a stroke of true genius. She steals every single scene, and holds her own as one of the toughest females every committed to film. With sublime cinematography and stunning set and costume design, this is a film for the ages, and one that demands all future summer blockbusters attempt to match. It is little wonder it is stealing the show at this year’s critics awards and is a damn solid contender for the Oscars. Who would have thought? But you cannot deny the power of this film and what a glorious triumph it ultimately is.
As always, it has been an arduous task to decide my top film of the year. Every film listed above could have taken the top spot. Ultimately it has to boil down to what film left the greatest impact on me. There was one piece of cinema that affected me more than anything else this year, and for that reason alone, it was the obvious choice. That film is Brooklyn. Not just the most beautiful film of the year, but one of the most stunningly gorgeous films of all time. When I love a film, and I mean really love a film, I genuinely find it difficult to summon the words to encapsulate just why I loved it. And such is the case with Brooklyn. This is the kind of cinema I hope to find each year but very rarely do. It is the kind of film that reminds me why I love cinema in the first place, and a glorious reminder of why sometimes the simplest tales are often the most affective. To call Brooklyn a simple tale is by no means an insult. Its beauty and power lie in its simplicity. At the heart of this tale is Eilis (a captivating Saoirse Ronan), and her physical and emotional journey as she immigrates from Ireland to the United States, with a love-triangle pulling her back and forth between both destinations. This love triangle works so superbly due to the perfect casting of Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson (the third film of his to appear in my list), as the two men battling for Eilis’ heart. You genuinely won’t know who to root for, and that is precisely how a cinematic love triangle should affect you. Her anguish becomes your anguish, and will move you like no other love story this year. When she makes her final choice, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema. The real triumph here is Ronan, who is a genuine revelation worthy of Oscar glory. Ronan performs the wide range of emotions Eilis experiences with the talent and artistry of an actress many years her senior, much like her work in 2007’s Atonement. If nothing else, Brooklyn proves Ronan is one of the most compelling screen presences working today and delivers quite possibly the best performance you will see this year. Adding to that, the film shines even brighter with masterful cinematography, stunning production design (you won’t believe this movie was actually filmed in Montreal), gorgeous costuming (that yellow dress), and a truly beautiful Gaelic score. You add all this together and you get a true masterpiece of cinema. A masterpiece that had me in tears numerous times throughout, both from devastating sadness and sheer joy. Brooklyn is a film I cannot wait to watch again and again for many years to come, and a film I am thrilled to award my title of the best film of 2015.
It would be remiss of me not to give out some honourable mentions to the films that made the short list but didn’t crack the top 10:
Amy – a heartbreaking insight into the loss of a true talent
Beasts of No Nation – incredibly difficult to watch but therein lies its power
Birdman – a masterpiece of absurdity featuring Michael Keaton at his best
Bridge of Spies – quietly stoic and Spielberg’s best film in years
Foxcatcher – gripping and tense with masterful performances
The Imitation Game – a brilliant portrayal from Benedict Cumberbatch, highlighting a mostly-unknown genius
It Follows – the most unsettling and original horror film in decades
Love & Mercy – powerful biopic that should be in awards contention, particularly Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks
Son of Saul – deeply unnerving and genuinely devastating depiction of the Holocaust (would be my #11)
Spy – hilarious performances from a truly stellar ensemble cast
Trainwreck – honest, brave, bold, surprisingly touching and genuinely hilarious
Unfriended – say what you will but this was a genuinely clever horror/thriller