There has been much talk and hand-wringing in the media that films no longer occupy the same space in the public conversation as they once did, having been usurped by the onsalught of great TV shows. Yet anyone who has had to endure their friends gloat about the number of times they’ve already seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theatre now knows that argument is moot. While the accessibility of TV shows will likely mean that they continue to be the first topic of conversation at any get-together, movies still have a strong cultural pull, especially at this time of the year when all of the Oscar-bait films start hitting theatres (and torrent sites).
Below are our favourite films of the year, arranged alphabetically. Every film on the list is available on DVD or streaming sites now, with the exception of Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which shouldn’t be too hard to catch). What were your favourite films of 2015? Let us know on our Facebook page.
The tragic story of Amy Winehouse is a music business cliché in nearly every way: a young star becomes successful, the pressures of newfound fame force them into seclusion and drugs, and they die at 27. From Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain (who coincidentally, were both subjects of their own great documentaries this year), the process is nothing new. Yet Asif Kapadia has created a truly remarkable documentary that changes the way we look at Amy Winehouse entirely. Using loads of privately held audio and video, much of it shot by Winehouse and her group of friends, Kapadia is able to lead us through Winehouse’s life in an intimate way few documentaries ever can. As her life becomes a media circus, with paparazzi hounding her and the world laughing at her drunken antics, Amy does a great job of humanizing the person behind the facade, resulting in a sad look at a woman out of control.
This Oscar season somehow features two love stories set in New York during 1952 – Todd Haynes’ Carol, and John Crowley’s Brooklyn. While Carol felt emotionally remote and cold, Brooklyn is all heart. What could have been a schmaltzy tale of a young Irish girl finding love in America is actually a witty and heartwarming look at love, family and home, executed perfectly from Nick Hornby’s smart screenplay. If you don’t have a lump in your throat by the opening credits, you better check your pulse.
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is the modern equivalent of the great high school caper movies of the 80’s – it’s essentially License to Drive set in the hood. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is an outsider: a black teen in a punk band with his friends, he’s more concerned with his GPA than sports or high-school status. When he accidentally ends up with $100,000 worth of ecstasy, like any good Millennial, he turns to the internet to sell it off, with predictably outrageous consequences. While Dope hits many familiar beats, and becomes a tad too heavy handed towards the finale, the snappy dialogue, social satire, and chemistry between the cast elevate the film far above the herd of recent teen flicks.
True science fiction depicts a future just ahead of our own, and Alex Garland’s directorial debut definitively falls into that camp. With Kubrickian style, the story of the morality behind the pursuit of artificial intelligence is both incredibly prescient and thrilling, and features a standout performance by Oscar Isaac as an unhinged billionaire CEO. Worth a watch for Isaac’s bizarre dance scene alone.
David Robert Mitchell has created a truly beautiful horror film with It Follows. While one can make a case for many of the film’s logic gaps (as Quentin Tarantino recently did), that would be missing the point. The plot machinations of the film – involving a deadly supernatural power spread via sexual relations that “follows” its victim until they pass it on – is not nearly as important as the pervading sense of dread that lingers over the entire film. The thumping electro score, and Mitchell’s use of wide shots, owe more than a passing debt to John Carpenter’s Halloween, and in many ways It Follows feels like a spiritual sequel to that film, focusing on an evil force infiltrating a group of suburban teenagers. A new horror classic.
Mad Max: Fury Road
For sheer spectacle, nothing came close to Mad Max: Fury Road this year. After all the accolades the film has received, it bears mentioning that this is a film no one was exactly clamouring for. A remake of a beloved franchise is usually a failure (see: nearly every horror remake in the past decade), but the sheer audacity of this film was unrivaled this year. George Miller returned to the character he first brought to the screen 35 years prior and delivered a sweeping action epic featuring stunning cinematography, some of the most striking action scenes in years (using actual stunt work), and a female protagonist so strong that MRM groups collectively lost their minds. All of this from a director who had by all appearances given up on sci-fi and action – his last film prior to this was the decidedly calmer Happy Feet 2.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) knows a thing or two about crafting a tight thriller, but nothing prepared audiences for the white-knuckle ride of Sicario. A stark look at the war on drugs and American foreign policy, Sicario shows how the murky underbelly of law enforcement attempt to stop the flood of drugs from across the border, with all of the seedy alliances and outright brutality that entails. This has been a great year for strong female protagonists, and Emily Blunt’s role as the conflicted FBI agent Kate Macer is the movie’s highlight, which is saying a lot for a film that also features Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin. The scene at the Mexican border will likely go down as one of the most suspenseful set pieces ever captured on film. For more on Sicario, check out our interview with Denis Villeneuve here.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
You have to feel for J.J. Abrams. After George Lucas’ universally-loathed prequel trilogy, Star Wars had lost much of it’s original lustre in the pop-culture landscape. To build goodwill, Abrams essentially went back to what made us all love Star Wars in the first place: great characters that people actually want to spend time with. While the movie itself is perhaps a bit too concerned with fan service, it does a perfect job of setting up the next film in the series. If The Force Awakens was essentially a remake of the original Star Wars film, then hopefully Episode VIII will be the next Empire Strikes Back.
Few films this year had as much immediacy and sheer life as Sean Baker’s romp about transexual sex workers in L.A. Shot on a tricked-out iPhone 5s, Tangerine is very much a buddy movie, focusing on the friendship between its two great leads, played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The film’s shooting style is almost documentary-like, and showcases a side of L.A. rarely seen in films, which is a feat in itself. For more on Tangerine, read our interview with Sean Baker here.
What We Do in the Shadows
There are really only a handful of great “mockumentaries,” likely because they have to work on so many levels. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows succeeds because it is played completely straight. The film follows a group of vampires sharing a flat in London, and much of the comedy is right there in the premise – the best jokes in the film involve the group arguing about petty roommate problems like doing the dishes – issues which would only be exasperated if you were immortal. It’s a shame the film is so short, as the characters feel incredibly lived in, and the chemistry between the leads (and even the supporting cast, including Rhys Darby as the rival leader of a werewolf gang), is hilarious. Hopefully the success of the film means we’ll see more of these immortal New Zealand flatmates soon.