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Year in review – the best films of 2015

ByDan Troman

Dec 31, 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, we look back on what is sure to be a vintage year for cinema around the world. As film editors, we have had the pleasure of reading and editing a multitude of wonderful articles by writers who have successfully captured the spirit of the cinema; from the joy of viewing a soon-to-be classic for the first time, to the anger and vitriol of a beautifully scathing one-star review. In a year where cinema found a new lease of life, summer blockbusters found staunch competition from their independent rivals, often being outshone in their endeavours. We saw the rejuvenation of old cinematic favourites; real special effects, exquisite animation and powerful original acting performances.  In short 2015 was a year for the cinephile, and we can only hope that the New Year lives up to its predecessor.

It was our initial intention of writing an editorial year in review, to discuss the year’s cinema and our hopes for the New Year. Instead a better idea saw fruition, we opened up our Year in Review; 2015 to our amazing writers who have helped make a humble film section in a student newspaper something of which to be proud. So here you have it; The Student Film’s favourite movies of 2015, as chosen by its writers. Here’s looking at you, 2016.

Hannah Oliver – Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that deals with the very limits of human experience. Set in a dystopian wasteland of the near future, where water is scarce and women reduced, by geopolitical hardships, to pure breeding stock with few expected to live past a so-called (nuclear) half-life. The characters are continually forced into the crises of what it is to be human – the compulsions and the accidents of insanity and suicide, sex and misogyny, mentality and physicality. Most importantly, I have named Mad Max my favourite film of 2015 because it realises, quite literally, ‘edge of the seat’ cinema; the very limit of cinematic experience. George Miller creates a world that hovers somewhere between the edifying fantasy and the feasible future of climate change gone-wrong and nuclear warfare. His use of central framing and veritable bounties of SFX evoke, through these desperate and violent personalities, one of the most visceral sensations I’ve ever seen on screen. Charlize Theron’s action sequences as Furiosa deserve special mention; ravishing, with her red-rimmed, oil-slicked eyes and her razor-shaved head. In one particularly riveting frame, a lorry-wagon speeds through a tornado. Whilst the wagon moves forwards, it also anchors the perspective of the viewer against a world seemingly comprised of air, dust and smoke, that twists and whirls in frenzy.

Both a blockbuster and a franchise, produced and filmed entirely outside of the Hollywood bubble, Mad Max: Fury Road managed to negotiate the tricky industry of mass distribution effortlessly, contributed a provocative representation of popular issues including global warming, disability and feminism, and all the while offering its viewer a thrilling and theatrical piece of cinema – no mean feat. I saw it twice in the theatres, and intend to see it many times again.

Eloise Hendy – Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

At a time when national borders are becoming increasingly contestable sites of struggle, Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent thriller is ominously close to home. The border may be between Mexico and the United States, and the war may be on drugs rather than terror, but the shifty methods of Western justice are familiar. The mission is to “deliberately overreact”, in order to provoke drug moguls into high-tailing it back to Mexico, thus revealing who is concealed at the centre. There is no regard for anything as old-fashioned as a formal declaration of war, this is a mission enacted by a combination of men in suits, who lack official titles, and men with guns.

Sicario is shady; protagonist Kate (Emily Blunt) and the audience are both kept in the dark as to exactly what is going on between the lines. The only thing abundantly clear is that duplicity thickly coats all dealings. It is a masterpiece of moody suggestion: extended attack scenes are filmed in night-vision; the viewer is refused entry to a torture scene, only to conjure it more vividly in the mind. Blunt is marvellous, mixing toughness with vulnerability with single twitches of her brow. It deserves acclaim for the opening alone – a scene so disturbingly rendered it chills the blood.

Andrew Black – Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)

My favourite film of 2015 would have to be Pixar’s innovative Inside out.  It was a tough call between this and Marvel’s Ant-Man; both demonstrating intelligent humour that is applicable to audiences of all ages and both are cast near perfectly. However Inside out stands out more so than a summer Pixar film usually does. The fact Pixar took such an experimental idea that doesn’t sound entirely compatible in a children’s film yet produced something that is not only bright, colourful and very child friendly but is also thought-provoking, dramatically powerful and a sheer delight to watch is testament to its quality. The events that happen to young Riley are highly relatable to many children and the film also shows great educational promise for showing children how their emotions work. If the film has any major problems it is that Inside Out may be too intelligent for its own good which may alienate part of it target audience. This film is on par with Toy Story and Wall-E which demonstrates that Pixar is showing no signs of crashing and burning any time soon.

Joe Armstrong – The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)

The Look of Silence is the sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer’s revolutionary documentary The Act of Killing. It deals with the US-backed genocide of perceived ‘communists’ in Indonesia in 1965. Specifically it explores the tense relationship that Indonesia has with its brutal past. Oppenheimer continues a righteous mission to unearth the truth about a country which has glorified its atrocities and buried its guilt for five decades.

It follows a young optometrist who interviews family members of the victims as well as the perpetrators who maintain political power to this day. Specifically he is trying to learn about his brother, who was violently hacked to death in a process that is described on screen by his killers.

This is not just the best film I saw in 2015, but one of the best I’ve seen ever, as well as the most devastating and the most important. If I could show it to everyone in the world I would. I’d do so both out of moral duty, and because it isn’t just an investigation of the Indonesian genocide, it’s a poetic study in what it is to be human, and to live in a world full of unfathomable evil.

Matt Rooney – Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A film which takes multiple viewings for one to understand that there is no way that you will ever understand the facts of a film could seem an unusual choice for film of the year; however, it is exactly this which marks Inherent Vice as the highlight of an altogether stellar year of films.

It was an utterly frustrating film, filled to the brim with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them plot points. This was where many found fault, but contained somewhere within the discordant pile of competing factors lies the film’s unmistakable charm. Thematically, it represents Paul Thomas Anderson at his best: he effortlessly creates a starkly genuine atmosphere which oozes from the screen in all its trippy, nostalgic abandon.

Moreover it was a breath of fresh air in what has become a stale cinematic landscape, admirably defying genre and refusing to be pigeon-holed in an industry which is dependent on pigeon-holing. The film’s unapologetic originality alone is justification enough for it being the best of 2015 but along with this it is a legitimately fantastic piece of cinema. It is something endearing and confusing in equal measures and which, if there is any justice in the world, is destined to be a cult classic.

Megan Wallace – The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)

Tackling the taboo subjects of S&M and lesbianism in the same feature, it’s clear that The Duke of Burgundy was not made to pander to mainstream conceptions of cinematic ‘propriety’. While you might be tempted to think of it as ‘a lesbian version of Fifty Shades of Grey’, this really could not be further from the truth.

Rather, Sam Taylor-Wood’s film serves as a fitting counterpoint. With its sensationalistic treatment of sexual themes, it is a production very much geared towards commercial rather than artistic effect. Commercial cinema tends to either avoid themes of sexuality completely or exploits them for shock factor; The Duke of Burgundy on the other hand does not seem to be merely a vehicle for these themes but actually engages with them.

Peter Strickland seems fascinated by the comparative fluidity of same-sex relationships stemming from the lack of pre-established power structures deriving from gender roles and this finds its reflection in the film’s plot. Our assumptions about the relationship are repeatedly undermined, with this sense of instability being mirrored in the stunning, dream like visuals where an ordinary scene can erupt into a cloud of butterflies.

For me, it is the stand-out film of 2015 due its aesthetic brilliance and touching character development, I can only hope that 2016 can offer filmmaking of the calibre reached in The Duke of Burgundy.

Dougie Gerrard – The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

A tiny, glowing girl is discovered in a bamboo shoot. Raised by a woodcutter and his wife, she grows at an accelerated rate, until her adoptive father sends her to the city to become a princess. Based on a tenth-century folk tale, this exquisite picture is the swan song of Isao Takahata, one of the grand old men of Studio Ghibli. As ever with Ghibli, the animation is gorgeous and lovingly rendered, but here more than ever it is genuinely breath-taking. Each frame is a painting; the palette pastel and watercolour, the charcoal etchings making each scene seem somehow both restive and languid. It is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The film’s priorities are typically Ghibli; faced with a string of suitors, our heroine is instead seduced by the pastoral haven she grew up in. And who wouldn’t be? It is – and I know this sounds trite – a magical place. The elegant simplicity of it all makes it an extraordinary achievement, a fitting coda to a magnificent career, and perhaps Ghibli’s last act also as the studio lights are rumoured to be dimming.

Helena Palsson – Last Door South (Sacha Feiner)

For me, Mind Travels stands out because it is a reminder of what animation can do that traditional filming cannot. The viewer is, literally, taken through the psychic landscapes of the protagonists and by doing so make discoveries about their own psyches. Of this collection, Last Door South, an account of the shattering of illusion that comes with growing up, had the biggest impact. When the protagonist, a two-headed boy (Toto) discovers daylight, he makes some shocking realisations.

The film successfully takes us back to that time we all remember: when the world, our parents and even ourselves turn out to be different from how we thought they were (Santa’s not real, is he?). Toto discovers: the existence of a world outside his house; that his mother’s second head is fake (and thus two heads are not the norm); and that his is a Godless world. The style of the filming- which made everything but the boy look enormous- allows the viewer to effortlessly adopt the child’s perspective; this stunning portrayal of the painful transition from innocence to understanding packed a powerful emotional punch. The puppets and set, handcrafted by director Sacha Feiner and his family, created a palpable realness when watching. Arguably it is this factor that makes the experience of Last Door South such a mesmerizing terror and delight.

Doug Garry – Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)

My favourite film of 2015 is hard to pick. Mad Max: Fury Road, Slow West, Sicario and The Lobster were all very close to being my choice, but in my mind one film stayed with me longer. That film was Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. Mad Max is a film that never stops; not really, you are bombarded with the glorious madness of action and movement. Macbeth is a film which also doesn’t allow you to rest, but in a far more psychological and threatening way. Everything from the dark cinematography, the encroaching and weighty music, to the barren and cold locations and the growing tension of the characters, serves to put the audience on edge and feel the reality of Shakespeare’s writing. Kurzel took the high minded ideas people have of Shakespeare, burned the pedestal it was placed on and made it roll around in the mud of a battlefield. The choices to not only keep the Shakespearean language but also to set it in a medieval setting only increased the visceral nature of the film. When people die, their killers, and the audience, are right there with them. It was impossible to look away and impossible to forget.

Ross Pollard – The Martian (Ridley Scott)

Earlier this year, Matt Damon starred in the sci-fi castaway film – The Martian: a gripping story of an abandoned astronaut’s battle for survival on the hostile surface of Mars. Based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, the screen adaption is arguably one of the best films of 2015 for several key reasons. Firstly, for a sci-fi film the background to the story is not that far-fetched, thus giving it an extra level of relatability, unlike some alien war epics.

This is true in the sense that in 15-20 years there might well be astronauts on Mars, but more importantly:  the deep feeling of struggle that the film portrays is so deeply rooted in our inescapable human consciousness. Not to mention that human isolation and the fragility of life in the film directly pierce into modern world problems: such as the fragility of the environment and the rise of modern human loneliness. All of which is cleverly captured with absolute crystal precision by director Ridley Scott.

One overlooked point is that turning a story that revolves mostly around one isolated character into interesting viewing is a difficult achievement. Finally, the beauty of the film’s visually realistic surface of Mars is alone, worth watching it.

Nico Marrone – It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

Horror is a hard genre to get right. So many films fail miserably when trying to convey a true sense of dread on the big screen, with directors often relying on outdated tropes that are both boring and unoriginal. Thankfully, David Robert Mitchell threw every such trope out of the window and set fire to them for good measure with his film, It Follows.

There are no cheap scares here, the audience does not hold their breath wondering if the horror is going to jump around the next corner to offer a cheap scare, but rather they wonder when. They are forced to watch as it comes straight towards them at a slow but steady pace: unrelenting, unstoppable and utterly terrifying.

Moreover, Mitchell took the theme of female sexuality, one that is usually portrayed negatively in horror films and inverted the core concept crafting a narrative that deals with issues of healthy sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases in a way that is both thought-provoking and completely free from propaganda.

It Follows was a breath of fresh air from what is often considered to be a stale and lifeless genre and it is that fact which made it both my favourite film of 2015 and one of the best horror films of recent years.


Image: Ako Emih; Wikimedia Commons

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