I shall start, as I always do, with the statistics. Thanks in part to my New Year’s Resolution, I saw far more films in 2015. In total 358 films (I’m counting some compilations of short films as a single feature-length programme), 203 of which were in the cinema (including a number of repeat viewings), so a big increase on 2014. As ever, there are caveats to my list, and what’s on it is very much dependent on what was released in the UK, or what festival films I made it along to (and I do hope some of these make people’s lists next year!). So these are my favourite new films I saw for the first time in 2015. I have an account on Letterboxd, where I’ve ranked all 2015’s films (as well as 2014‘s and 2013‘s, as some films from those years were also new to me in 2015) from favourite to least favourite so you can see all of what I’ve watched.
I was reading someone moaning online (as people are wont to do) about how there were fewer good films in 2015, the aggrieved tone of which annoyed me instinctively, and yet I must concede looking over my previous years’ lists, there may be some truth to that. There were certainly some good films released to cinemas this year, but when you look at just what was made in 2015, my current top 10 is dominated by films I saw at the film festival or in limited one-off screenings, and I don’t think there’s quite the length of quality as in 2014, not so many films which really captured my imagination. Still, there are more than enough films for a list (there always are).
The Top Ten
10. Beyond the Lights (2014)
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, for all its high-budget sheen and excellent roster of actors (including an incandescent Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead role), not to mention a London-based backstory, didn’t get an official UK cinema release, instead going straight to video this year. However, the fine people at Bechdel Test Fest arranged a couple of one-off screenings, and just as well they did, because it’s rare enough to see a serious-minded romance on the big screen. [one-off screening only]
9. No Home Movie
It turned out to be Chantal Akerman’s final film, and it’s no less ornery and difficult than anything she’s put out, but thanks to the efforts to another film collective (and increasingly, small co-operatives of film lovers arranging screenings is where distribution seems to be heading for many of the most interesting films), A Nos Amours, this was the final piece in a two-year-long complete retrospective. So its within that context that No Home Movie seems like such a fulfilling evocation of a life, that of Akerman herself and her relationship to her mother Natalia. [one-off screening only]
There’s always a place for well-crafted, solidly-acted period dramas, and if it didn’t break any particular moulds, this film did feature a really well-honed sense of place (in rural Ireland and the New York of the 1950s) and told a sweeping story, with Saoirse Ronan dependable as ever in the central role.
7. Timbuktu (2014)
In many ways this could easily have been the year’s most depressing film, but Abderrahmane Sissako manages to find a rich seam of generous understanding in this story of Islamist militants taking over the city of the title. There’s plenty to despair about, but the film is finely balanced and beautifully filmed.
Ten years after her last film (the uncanny Innocence), Lucile Hadzhihalilovic has another one, equally uncanny and strange, about life on a small island community which weaves in all kinds of strange matriarchal goings-on in a way that is difficult to explain, but has a certain dream-like logic. [festival screening only]
5. Appropriate Behavior (2014)
The film’s best straight-up comedy is anything but straight in its relationships, as director Desiree Akhavan also stars in this hilarious amble through New York’s hip, alternative scene.
4. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
In bringing comics artist Phoebe Gloeckner’s corruscating graphic novel about growing up in San Francisco to the screen, Marielle Heller hits gold with her British star Bel Powley as the titular protagonist. Powley has a fetching wide-eyed innocence as Minnie Goetz, and Kristen Wiig is excellent in a (non-comedic) supporting role as her wayward bohemian mother.
Despite being directed by and written by a woman, this doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test, as it’s set on an all-male yachting trip. However, it becomes a careful dissection of the fragile construction that is masculinity, and, also, it’s hilarious. [festival screening only]
2. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
It’s the kind of studied European arthouse film with all kinds of levels of self-reflexive commentary (the crossover between the actors and their characters, for a start) that I found myself wanting to dismiss, but which has stayed with me for most of the year. It’s anchored by a keen English-language performance by Juliette Binoche as an ego-riven grand theatrical actor, though Kristen Stewart impresses even more as her harassed PA.
Friends of mine, not to mention readers of this blog, will not be at all surprised at the film which takes my number 1 spot this year, given I’ve already been to see it four times in the cinema since it was released a month ago. It’s beautifully shot, perfectly scored, and acted to perfection by Cate Blanchett as the 50s housewife of the title, who yearns for something more and takes Rooney Mara’s shopgirl along with her. At once a gorgeous, sympathetic romance, as well as a seance with a lost era, it’s what cinema was created for.
Inherent Vice (2014) turns out to be that rare thing: a Paul Thomas Anderson film I can love, with its discursive novelistic style and beautiful cinematography.
Butter on the Latch (2013) tracks a friendship which takes a turn, and is stylishly edited from a young filmmaker who only got this one into any cinemas at all thanks to another small feminist film collective. [one-off screening only]
Petting Zoo is set in the same part of the world as last year’s Boyhood, though it presents a more naturalistic view and a more feminine-focused one. [festival screening only]
Mommy (2014) is hard-hitting family drama from Quebecois wunderkind director Xavier Dolan.
Son of Saul is another tough watch, given it’s about the dehumanising work behind the scenes at a Nazi concentration camp. There’s no happy end possible. [one-off screening only]
Inside Out was seen by most people, as the year’s highest-profile animated film. It has heart.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a lovely little film set on a Native American reservation that does the rarest of things in earning its Malick comparison. [festival screening only]
The Last Five Years (2014) is my favourite musical of the year, with the glorious Anna Kendrick and some shmo. New York relationship drama that feels similar to Listen Up Philip but with songs.
London Road is also a musical of sorts, in a rather more depressed location, but finding human drama amid miserable events.
Palio is the most surprising documentary of the year, because I had no idea I could find a horse race so fascinating.
Places 21-30 31
The Forbidden Room finds Guy Maddin on his finest anarchic, glorious, beautiful, mind-boggling form, blowing up narrative and repurposing the resulting fragments into a dreamy collage.
It Follows (2014) is that rare thing (there’s one every year or so): a horror film that actually captures my attention. It’s pretty scary, as it needs to be, but it has style and a strong allegorical undertow.
Dreamcatcher is a compassionate piece of work by Kim Longinotto, tracking sex workers in Chicago.
The Lobster I only caught up on a few days ago, and while on screen it is an odd, sometimes aggravating film in its deadpan bleakly comic way, but it has a cumulative power and it’s one I’ll probably think on more in future.
Ex Machina was the first film out in 2015 starring Alicia Vikander and still the best, another dissection of masculinity and control. Oscar Isaac is also on top form, and it incidentally involved in the year’s best dance sequence.
Viaje is a beautiful black-and-white Costa Rican romance/road movie. [festival screening only]
LATE ADDITION: Grandma I only saw on 31 December, so too late for me to update this list, but it’s powerfully uncompromising with regards to the right to have an abortion, and has a strong central performance from Lily Tomlin.
Flocking surprised me during the Film Festival as a Swedish film about school bullying that managed to implicate everyone in ways that aren’t always comfortable. [festival screening only]
Estate, a Reverie is about an area close to where I live in London, but it’s also about housing policy and people’s lives, and that makes it of wider interest. [one-off screening only]
Amour Fou (2014) may be the film in my list I’ve most underrated, as it has a sort of steely focus within a series of period tableaux of characters sitting stiffly in baroquely-decorated rooms, not to mention a mordant strain of comedy.
Cemetery of Splendour is another one that will only surely grow with subsequent viewings, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s last film to be made in his native Thailand. [festival screening only]