While 2015 may be remembered as a year of blockbusters, with Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World and Stars Wars: The Force Awakens drawing millions of movie goers back through the turnstiles, many writer-directors showed that screen magic can be conjured with a far more modest budget.
This may also be remembered as the year Guatemalan American actor Oscar Isaac truly broke through into the mainstream consciousness as a bankable leading actor, and it’s far from a coincidence that he appears in three of the year’s most memorable flicks (A Most Violent Year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ex Machina).
Here’s a list of 2015’s 20 best movies.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Release date: March 12, 2015
Chappie suffers from the same narrative and dialogue shortcomings of its predecessor, Blomkamp’s Elysium, but what it lacks in thematic subtlety it makes up for with seamless special effects and an adorable title character.
There’s a lot to like about Blomkamp’s third feature-length effort and science fiction fans should continue to hold out hope that the director will surpass the promise of incredible debut District 9.
Setting stories in his South African homeland gives the writer-director’s movies a gritty, post-Apocalyptic milieu – and his penchant for high-concept ideas is commendable. But, even despite its flaws, Chappie is a cut above the American action movies released in 2015.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Release date: June 11, 2015
After the horrific third installment, Jurassic Park franchise fans could be forgiven for thinking Jurassic World might equally disappoint. But the largest grossing film of 2015 does not disappoint, with its four writers ticking all the boxes: dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs. And they don’t mess with the formula: greedy humans messing with mother nature equals disaster. It’s not hard to understand and rings true 22 years after the original movie. Trevorrow locates the most magical elements of Jurassic Park and delivers a climax that will have kids and their parents cheering alike.
18. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Director: Noah Baumbach
Release date: April 16, 2015
For those of us in the midst of the existential, murky mist of self-loathing that comes with the inevitable transference of youth into adulthood, Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young will appear wrought of home-truths. The script’s immense poignancy is channelled through Ben Stiller’s protagonist Josh Schrebnick who, with wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is easily seduced by a charming hipster couple played by Amanda Seyfried and a superb Adam Driver. Devastatingly relatable, While We’re Young perfectly captures that moment in our lives when we realise we will always be defined by our age.
Director: Judd Apatow
Release: July 30, 2015
Trainwreck is a showcase for the talents of its lead actress and screenwriter Amy Schumer, drawing heavily on the comedian’s own life to fuse low-brow wit with moment of truth and poignancy. It really is a star-making turn for Schumer, who demonstrates a dramatic range wider than most of her peers. The extended, conversational stretches of dialogue make Trainwreck feel innately Apatow-esque, but Schumer’s wry, ribald remarks ultimately make this his funniest cinematic release.
For the most part, about the first ninety per cent of the running time, the movie avoids cliche and sentimentality and succeeds in finding a balance when romance blossoms. The casting of Bill Hader as the movie’s romantic lead is a stroke of genius, as is the scene-stealing inclusion of a very impressive NBA superstar LeBron James.
16. THE GIFT
Director: Joel Edgerton
Release date: August 27, 2015
Joel Edgerton announced himself as an auteur this year, writing, directing, producing and starring in the delightfully Hitchcockian thriller, The Gift.
Despite the film’s trailer giving away one of the film’s key plot twists, Edgerton does an impressive job of subverting his audience’s expectations. The script never quite goes where you expect it to, mirroring the craftiness of Edgerton’s mysterious character, Gordo.
The casting of Jason Bateman in the leading role, who is at his best when playing against the dry straight-guy charm of his Arrested Development hero Michael Bluth, is spot on. Bateman gives one of his best performances, as does Rebecca Hall as his ever-trusting wife. The latter provides the movie’s emotional core.
Edgerton has impressed as a screenwriter with previous efforts The Square and The Rover, but has an exciting future as a director.
15. IT FOLLOWS
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Release date: April 16, 2015
Critical acclaim has circled the lo-fi indie creeper It Follows since its release and the praise is deserved. The dream-like, Halcyon camera work and soft colours employed by writer-director David Robert Mitchell serve to exaggerate the ever-approaching doom that lurks throughout each frame, permeating every slow pan and jarring note of the trippy ’80s-inspired synth soundtrack.
Mitchell subverts many horror tropes and expertly avoids giving logical motivation to the demonic presence that slowly stalks our beautiful doe-eyed heroine. This enhances the fear. But what elevates It Follows above most of the year’s horror efforts is that it captures the sensation of being trapped in a nightmare, complete with blurred dream logic. Yes, on some occasions the logic might seem contradictory, but the dreamscape reality becomes a suitable playground for Mitchell to bend and break his own rules.
While much has been made of the metaphorical aspects of It Follow‘s central idea, with pundits suggesting everything from venereal disease to the realities of mortality, it’s a film best absorbed rather than deciphered.
14. KNOCK KNOCK
Director: Eli Roth
Release date: October 9, 2015
The most widely misread film of 2015 was Eli Roth’s delicious black comedy Knock Knock.
Keanu Reeves plays Evan Webber, an architect and family man, whose two kids and wife leave him alone for a weekend. A storm brews outside his large modern Los Angeles home while he sits inside, smokes a little pot and works on a building project. His doorbell heralds the arrival of two young, big-eyed beauties, who are wringing wet and lost on their way to a party.
With all the chivalry he can muster, Webber invites them in, offers them a robe and calls them an uber. A dialogue-driven dance begins in which the two girls use every trick in the book to seduce their host.
It’s likely male and female viewers will each have separate responses to Knock Knock. To heterosexual males it’s a conundrum (“Would I have given in? Would I have fallen for the trap?”). Women might want to believe their partners would have survived with their fidelity intact (“Do you really believe that?”). Other viewers may have a problem with the depiction of the two malevolent female antagonists (“Are they meant to represent all young millennial females?”).
Stepping away from the “torture porn” that Roth is largely credited for kickstarting with his Hostel franchise, the director is at his most precocious in Knock Knock. You can practically hear him cackling behind the camera. But, keep in mind, these two women are fictional creations, each an exaggerated device designed to personify the consequences of infidelity. Furthermore, they represent the public trials of the internet era, where judgements are handed down through the court of social media.
As the destruction of Webber’s world unfolds, and the constructed veneer that society has placed on him is broken down, Roth’s wicked message presents itself: in the digital age, the nuances of a crime bear no relevance.
13. THE OVERNIGHT
Director: Patrick Brice
Release date: August 1, 2015 (Melbourne International Film Festival)
The year’s sexiest comedy is also one of the funniest. Conservative couple Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) have just moved to Los Angeles. At a local park their son befriends a boy. Soon Alex and Emily meet the boy’s father, outgoing yuppie Kurt (Jason Schwartzman). The overly friendly Kurt invites them to have dinner at his home. Keen to meet new people and break out of their mundane cycle, Alex and Emily accept. At dinner they meet Kurt’s French partner Charlotte (Judith Godrèche). When the children get sleepy, Kurt suggests they are put to bed upstairs so the parents can continue the evening’s festivities.
From here The Overnight unwinds into an unpredictable and laugh-out-loud funny exploration of adult relationships and sexuality. The two couples smoke pot and drink booze, and slowly Alex and Emily’s inhibitions erode. The dialogue is sharp and playful, and Schwartzman is completely in his element. He’s never been better.
Oh, and the climax is unforgettable.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Release date: December 26, 2015
“Two old blokes lounge around a decadent Swiss hotel, lament their prostates, reflect on their younger years and stare at some tits…” doesn’t sound like much of an elevator pitch. But when the two old blokes are Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, the proposition suddenly becomes far more appealing.
There’s no narrative thrust to the ironically titled Youth. Paolo Sorrentino’s second English language film after This Must Be the Place, ambles along at an octogenarian’s pace as retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Caine) and film director Mick Boyle (Keitel) vacation at a stunning hotel in the Swiss Alps. Ballinger is retired and vehemently refusing to step back on stage for a performance for the Queen of England. Boyle is determined to finish one final movie, a project that will be his “testament”. The pair stroll through the country side and recall memories, ruminating on the past and accepting their brief future.
There’s a sumptuous and cinematic quality to Youth, the filmic equivalent of caviar and Veuve Clicquot. The hotel provides a constantly arresting back drop, as other characters are immersed in the idyllic locale: Rachel Weisz as Ballinger’s daughter and personal assistant, and Paul Dano as a weary young movie star (that’s possibly meant to be based on Shia LeBeouf). There’s even an appearance by an overweight version of Diego Maradona.
What makes Youth rise above its basic premise is the humour – Caine and Keitel are both very funny. And the Fellini-esque beauty of the whole affair gives it a sensuous sheen that proves a delightful indulgence.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Release date: January 1, 2015
The triumph and tragedy that marked the life of British cryptanalyst Alan Turing is explored in The Imitation Game, the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie’s double-edged title refers not only to Turing’s top-secret work for the British government in deciphering German intelligence codes in WWII, but also the need to hide his homosexuality during a period in which it was illegal.
With a stunning central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and strong support from Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game takes small liberties with the truth, but otherwise sheds light on a man ultimately destroyed by a system he dutifully served. Turing’s work during WWII is believed to have shortened the war by as much as two years.
10. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Director: J.C. Chandor
Release date: February 26, 2015
You could be forgiven for thinking A Most Violent Year is a crime drama full of bloodshed, but writer-director J.C. Chandor’s impressive third feature relies more on intricate characterisation and thematic subtlety than it does shoot-outs.
The constant threat of violence pervades this tense thriller set in the tumultuous New York City of 1981, a decaying society in which honest self-made businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is attempting to grow his heating oil company.
But being a man of morals in a corrupt world proves decidedly difficult for Morales, as he finds himself confronted on a series of fronts, most notably the District Attorney’s office and gun-toting oil thieves.
J.C. Chandor has crafted a memorable and atmospheric tale that inverts the bloody rise of Tony Montana in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, presenting a tenacious immigrant protagonist that wants to reach the top as a law-abiding citizen.
09. EX MACHINA
Director: Alex Garland
Release date: May 7, 2015
From the moment lowly computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives at the remote and sterile mansion of his company’s prodigal CEO Nathan, there is a sense of simmering unease in Ex Machina.
The source of the tension is difficult for the viewer to put their finger on and this is one of first-time director Alex Garland’s major achievements with this impressive piece of science fiction. Caleb is asked by Nathan to apply the Turing test (yes, the same Turing from The Imitation Game) to AI android Ava, a method of determining whether her behaviour can be objectively differentiated from a human. Ava is physically beautiful, custom-built by Nathan to be beguiling.
Ex Machina has been crafted with a deft hand by The Beach novelist Garland. He has a track record for intelligent science fiction, having written the screenplays for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Here he proves himself worthy of the director’s chair, using tense pacing and a magician’s sleight of hand to keep the audience guessing until the chilling finale.
Married in a double feature with Spike Jonze’s Her, Ex Machina proves a dark counter weight as an exploration of the perils of our inevitable future with artificial intelligence.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Release date: September 24, 2015
“This is a land of wolves now… and you’re not a wolf,” warns Benicio del Toro’s menacing anti-hero to Emily Blunt’s heroine. He’s not joking. There are wolves aplenty in the morally murky and violent world of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Mexican drug cartel thriller Sicario. This often intense and bloody film poses the question “does the end justify the means?” as a naive FBI agent puts her soul on the line to join a group of mysterious government-sanctioned renegades who aim to bring down a Kingpin – by any means necessary.
Villeneuve has announced himself as a must-watch director in Hollywood since crossing into English language movies with 2013’s impressive Prisoners and the atmospheric and abstract Enemy. Sicario further demonstrates his ability to build palpable tension and extract riveting performances from his cast.
Villeneuve’s actors are the focus and his presence as director is subtle, allowing tension in the script to build on its own terms. Vital though are the stark, post-Apocalyptic aerial shots of the US-Mexican border – a barren reminder of the bleak terrain on which the blood of the drug wars is shed.
Director: Alex Gibney
Release date: June 18, 2015
Alex Gibney’s revealing documentary about the cult of scientology draws largely on the book Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, and through anecdotal accounts confirms what most of us already might have already assumed: that Scientologists are bat-shit crazy.
While the accounts of former high-ranking Scientologists are revealing, particularly fascinating is the doco’s account of the religion’s history. L. Ron Hubbard, an extremely prolific science fiction author, was mentally unbalanced but managed to start a successful cult through his invention of Dianetics.
Full of mystery and intrigue, Going Clear makes for fascinating, if not very unsettling, viewing.
06. INHERENT VICE
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release date: March 12, 2015
No directors ever dared adapt one of Thomas Pynchon’s typically complex novels, but Paul Thomas Anderson is no ordinary filmmaker.
Taking on one of the writer’s comparatively lighthearted works, and reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix, the star of his extraordinary The Master, Anderson weaves together a wildly enjoyable and pulpy romp.
Phoenix delivers one of his finest comic performances as stoner private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, who stumbles with bleary-eyes through a very complex web of drug smuggling and police corruption.
The details of the plot, set in 1970s Los Angeles, might take more than one viewing to completely string together, but the joy of the ride is what makes Inherent Vice one of the year’s best movies.
Martin Short and Owen Wilson steal the show despite their relatively short screen time.
Director: Bennett Miller
Release date: January 29, 2015
Knowing the grim outcome of the true story behind Foxcatcher casts Bennett Miller’s tense and chilling drama in an atmosphere of dread. This tragic story of obsession is hard to watch but impossible to turn off.
Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have a lot of juicy material to work with in this unsettling retelling of the chain of events that led to the slaying of Olympic gold-medal winning American wrestler Dave Schultz.
A multimillionaire forever in his mother’s shadow. An ambitious wrestler forever in his brother’s. Rich in subtext and subtlety, Miller locates the most fascinating aspects of this Shakespearian real-life melodrama. And its three central actors give their finest performances.
04. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Director: J.J. Abrams
Release date: December 18, 2015
It feels like a long time since a major motion picture event was able to live-up to the weight of crippling expectation. After George Lucas’ much maligned prequel trilogy of films released over a decade ago, the millions of Star Wars fans around the globe could be forgiven for venturing to see The Force Awakens with trepidation, like returning to the arms of an old flame that broke their heart.
While the heroes of the Star Wars movies battled to bring balance to the Force, it was director J.J. Abrams that managed to triumphantly return balance to the franchise, crafting a dark and dramatic new movie that pays homage to previous instalments while evoking a magic that gave fans hope of a bright future.
With stunning set pieces, charismatic new protagonists and a set of unhinged villains, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a return to classic film-making and is a quality movie that stands alone as a modern science fiction classic.
03. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Director: George Miller
Release date: May 14, 2015
After what seemed like eternal damnation in the fiery depths of “development hell”, it looked like a fourth Mad Max movie would remain nothing more than a pipe dream for visionary auteur George Miller. But such was the production team’s determination, which had to see the shoot successfully relocate from Broken Hill to Namibia due to heavy rains, they were to overcome endless hurdles to deliver one of the most visually spectacular pieces of escapism in recent memory.
While you can argue Fury Road is light on plot, even compared to the original trilogy, its dazzling artistry lies in different areas. Miller revels in jaw-dropping carnage as post-Apocalyptic wrecking machines and their inhabitants somersault across an arid landscape. Within the destruction Miller locates a visceral beauty and, when mixed with the white-knuckled intensity of the stunning set pieces, creates a marvellous piece of escapism. The strong cast supplies the required pathos, forming a group of characters we care about, and Tom Hardy demonstrates that he can be a brooding, powerful lead while barely uttering a word.
02. BONE TOMAHAWK
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Release date: No Australian cinematic release
One of the best American films of the decade, Bone Tomahawk will sadly not receive the accolades it deserves. But this beautiful and traumatic film is a harrowing experience unlike any other in recent memory. Such is the depth of its characters and the poetic nature of its dialogue, it’s no surprise that its script and direction is the work of a novelist, S. Craig Zahler. It’s the year’s best directorial debut.
When members of the small 1890s community of Bright Hope are kidnapped in the night by a band of savage cannibal tribesman, four men – Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), venture into the unforgiving frontier to rescue them. They do this knowing they face almost certain death.
From the moment the four men’s journey begins, death stalks every frame. Dread builds as each day brings them closer to the valley where the cannibals reside. Their quest is punctuated by countless memorable and humanistic moments, acts of violence and philosophical discussion. They are men of varying morals, each navigating in their own way a mission into the depths of darkness and depravity.
Bone Tomahawk seems destined for cult status, but ultimately deserves so much more. For cinephiles brave enough to watch it, the rewards are numerous. Though be warned: the film’s terrifying final act features one of the most graphic and troubling death scenes in cinematic history.
01. BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Release date: January 15, 2015
The deserving winner of this year’s Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography, Birdman is wondrous on many fronts. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s masterpiece depicts a movie star in search of creative validation, trying to escape the spectre of the superhero with which he has become synonymous by staging an artsy adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. There is an obvious in-joke in the casting of Michael Keaton in the lead role, himself famous as Tim Burton’s version of Batman, and the viewer is swiftly reminded of his impeccable comedic timing.
Around Birdman‘s emotional core are layers and devices that combine to make this a perfect piece of cinema. Iñárritu weaves pure movie magic to give the film its own abstract inner logic, a hyper reality that never confuses but mesmerises and uplifts the audience. Long, flowing takes are seamlessly strung together, the camera floating and bending time with masterful flair. The percussive soundtrack and sharp screenplay increase the film’s hypnotic and kinetic energy.