2015 In Retrospect

2015 was, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, the largest ever year of 100 Films — or 200 Films in a Year, as it’s currently known. For 2015 only, I think, because I have no intention of trying to replicate that feat next year (see here for more on that topic).

How better to finally wrap up a year than with a look at the best and worst, right? As always, my picks are not culled from films freshly released in 2015, but from this list of my personal viewing. (For what it’s worth, that list includes 22 releases from 2015, as well as 37 from 2014, some of which others would count as 2015 titles… and some of them have indeed made my best-of list.)

You can also vote for your favourites from my pick, and find out which 50 most noteworthy new films I didn’t see. There might be a few surprise along the way, too.

So without further ado…



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

In alphabetical order…

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher
Marvel may dominate the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC has the edge in animation — and work like this is going to do nothing to change that. An uninteresting story that’s blandly told in every regard, this is a total waste of time.

Blitz
There are a lot of very, very good actors in this Jason Statham vehicle, but it’s a terrible film that’s even below standard for the star, let alone his supporting cast. So bad it feels like a spoof, there is no good reason for anyone to watch this movie.

Jack the Giant Slayer
X-Men’s Bryan Singer is the latest filmmaker to take a fairytale and give it the Lord of the Rings treatment. That formula doesn’t work here, unfortunately. The result is a flat, cheap-looking, overlong bore. Another waste of good talent.

Parabellum
Alfred Hitchcock once said that “movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.” I guess this isn’t a movie, then, because it’s not real life and it’s boring as can be. My least enjoyable viewing experience this year.

Runner Runner
Again, talented stars (Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton) slum it in a poorly-constructed thriller with no thrills. That it’s from the director of The Lincoln Lawyer, an excellent thriller that made my top ten a couple of years ago, only makes matters worse.



The Ten 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015

Given the extraordinary personal achievement in my viewing this year — doubling my titular goal — I’ve decided to also double my year-end top ten. It seemed appropriate.

Obviously I haven’t done such a percentage-related increase (or reduction) of my list before now, but then no previous year has seen quite so remarkable a change in my viewing total. In other (smaller) years, these additional films may well have made the cut, so this is a way of giving them their due. (Besides which, my list is numbered, so you can ignore #20 to #11 if you want.)

Final point: although this list isn’t limited to 2015 releases, there are six included, so I’ve noted their ‘2015 rank’ too.

2015 #6 After all the behind-the-scenes kerfuffle, Ant-Man probably had the lowest audience expectations for any Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man. Perhaps that’s what allowed it to become the mostly purely entertaining Marvel movie since Iron Man, too.

The Mission series here reconfigures itself as the modern equivalent to classic Bond, washing down espionage thrills with gadgets and humour. The result is fantastically enjoyable, and only so low on this list because of a certain other film a bit higher up…

John Cusack and Minnie Driver have never been more likeable as a guy and the prom date he jilted, brought back together by their high school reunion. Oh, and he’s now a hitman, in town on a job. Consitently funny, this is first-rate action-comedy entertainment.

An idiosyncratic crime drama from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog stands alongside the otherwise-peerless Léon as a hitman movie that may not deliver enough action thrills for some, but is seeped in distinctive qualities of its own.

Martin Scorsese’s best-regarded works may hew towards the mainstream-intellectual, but here he sets his sights on genre material — specifically, a psychological mystery thriller — and produces a corker. Heavily Gothic in tone, it’s the first of several such films on this list.

A British-made India-set ‘Western’, this beautifully shot Boy’s Own adventure is rollicking old-fashioned entertainment from start to finish. It’s buoyed further by a cast of top-drawer British character actors, topped off with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. Magnificent.

One of the most acclaimed films of all time — if we’re talking “the history of cinema”, it’s certainly more important than anything else on this list. Almost 90 years old, it remains surprisingly accessible to modern eyes. An exceptionally affecting experience.

2015 #5 In a year overloaded with spy thrillers, this Bond pastiche stood out by, a) getting in early (it was released last January in the UK), and b) being a helluva lot of fun. Thematically questionable it may be, but the filmmaking verve is a joy to behold.

2015 #4 2015’s highest grossing film, this sequel/reboot of the beloved franchise has proved somewhat divisive. It certainly has flaws in characters and plot, but director Colin Trevorrow has bottled genuine Spielbergian awe and wonder, and that counts for a lot.

If this were only a top ten, I’d’ve slipped this in higher up, as much to recommend it as anything. In many respects it’s a familiar mismatched-people-fall-in-love rom-com (hence why its position dropped), but the uncommon melancholic tone makes it feel unique.

I’d wager it’s impossible to describe a Wes Anderson film without recourse to words like “quirky” and “unique”, both wholly apt epithets for The Grand Budapest Hotel, naturally. Others include hilarious, clever, inventive, controlled, and delightful. The last may be the most appropriate of all: this is a film full of delights, from the performances, to the dialogue, to the locations, to the design, to the camerawork. Anderson is the kind of filmmaker who has a cult following, which can sometimes be a bad omen. Based on this evidence, his fandom might just have the right idea.

2015 #3 There has been an awakening — have you felt it? Well, of course you have. Everyone outside of China has. Half of them twice. The J.J. Abrams-led return to a galaxy far, far away may have received a mixed reception, due to it essentially being the cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits cover album, dealing in nostalgia more than it does originality… but it’s clearly been made by fans with an eye to crafting something that’s both enjoyable and recognisably Star Wars-y — two balls the prequel trilogy less dropped, more hurled to the ground. It’s a thrilling adventure with likeable new characters and, in my opinion, interesting new villains. There’s scope for the makers of Episodes VIII and IX to produce something even better off the back of this, and that’s exciting.

Terry Gilliam’s 1984 for 1985 is set in a dystopian Britain almost as bad as our current one, where mindless, faceless bureaucracy rules the day. It’s the kind of film where a typo can lead to a man’s death; where Jonathan Pryce fantasises about being a sword-wielding angel fighting a giant silver samurai; and where Robert De Niro turns up as a terrorist plumber. You know, if Wes Anderson is “quirky” and “unique”, I don’t think we’ve yet invented words to describe Terry Gilliam…

I promised you more Gothic and here it is. Director Chan-wook Park places 7th on my top ten for the second year in a row with this dark psychological thriller about a reclusive teenage girl who meets her uncle for the first time when he comes to stay following her father’s death. He’s charming, but mysterious — what are the secrets that everyone seems to know but her? Dripping with style and atmosphere, Stoker is a feast for the eyes and ears; a beguiling, sensuous, classically Gothic thriller.

2015 #2 Director George Miller returns to the Mad Max series after a 30-year hiatus for the stand-out action movie of… well, “the year” seems to undersell it. Once upon a time he was bold enough to make a chase the entire third act of a film; now, the chase is the entire movie. This is action filmmaking elevated to a genuine art form — literally, if the award season buzz is anything to go by. While the done-for-real stunts are busy boggling your mind, there slips by a story that’s surprisingly rich in theme and character. It gives added weight to a type of storytelling that could only be achieved on film — there’s a reason Miller started with a storyboard and only bothered to write a screenplay when the studio insisted.

A third dose of Gothic now, this time with a heavier dose of the “horror” element that’s so often attached to the term. Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are mother-and-daughter vampires on the run, hiding out in a seedy seaside town, where Ronan tries to lead some kind of normal life as a perma-teen while her mother’s busy doing what she’s always done: whoring. These vampires aren’t glamorous or sparkly, but damaged and discarded. Byzantium is not a very popular film, but its tarnished charms and fatalistic stylings, powered by two strong central performances and atmospheric direction, made me love it.

Selecting these 20 films was tough, then putting them in order was just as hard, but one thing was a lock from the start: these are my top four films I saw in 2015. The only question was the order they went in, which on another day may have been completely different — any one of them could’ve been #1. This little-seen documentary (Channel 4 premiered it in the middle of the night a few months ago, although it’s available on YouTube) takes us to a small, poor town in India where the locals make their own movies, and they’re a roaring success. It’s an inspirational film about living your dreams even when the world won’t let you, though undercurrents of reality stop it from becoming too tweely self-congratulatory. I’m not overstating it when I say I believe this is an absolute must-see for any lover of film, and probably a good many people besides.

I feel like I’m being in some way Awkward with many of this year’s choices, because there’s a notable strand of films that aren’t particularly well regarded by viewers en masse (see: #11, #7, #5, now #3). Well, I’m not being awkward, dear reader: I loved all of them, and I loved this one most of all. Like several of those others, it crafts a unique mood with lashings of style, in this case inspired by ’80s movies and music. Dan Stevens is a mysterious ex-soldier who enters a family’s life and brings a load of trouble in his wake, but is he (anti-)hero or villain? Even by the end, you might not be sure. Witty, exciting, stylish, idiosyncratic, this is one guest I want to stay forever. (Sorry — it seems I can’t end any piece about this film without a terrible pun.)

34 years before Fury Road, there was The Road Warrior. A post-apocalyptic Australian Western, it sees Mel Gibson’s titular drifter drafted into defending an oil-rich community from a violent gang of fetish-attired marauders. While the film has much to offer throughout, the real joy is the third act: a balls-to-the-wall multi-vehicle chase, as Max and co attempt to escape in a heavily-armoured oil tanker and the gang give chase in a fleet of vehicles. Maybe it’s not as slick or extravagant as Fury Road, but it was done without a lick of CGI (for all Fury Road’s “done for real” claims, there’s an awful lot of computer work across that movie) and that added tangibility gives it the edge for me. Not to mention that it did it first — without Mad Max 2, we wouldn’t even have Fury Road.

2015 #1 Not as life-affirming as Supermen of Malegaon. Not as stylish as The Guest. Not as groundbreaking as Mad Max 2. Certainly not as ‘significant’ as a host of films further down this list. But from the moment the familiar beats of the famous theme tune begin to pulse over the company idents at the top of the movie, Rogue Nation engages you in a perfectly-crafted entertainment. It delivers sequence after sequence of finely-tuned action-thriller excitement, both from Tom Cruise’s crazy stuntwork and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Hitchcockian control of espionage scenes. The plot may only be solid rather than any great shakes, but it’s supported by likeable heroes, a menacing villain, and well-pitched humour. It’s all topped off with Rebecca Ferguson, who could hold her own in a stand-off with Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron for 2015’s most kick-ass heroine. Mission perfected.


As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. Multiple selections are allowed, so feel free to pick several favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, I welcome your scathing criticisms in the comments.


Despite doubling the size of my selection, this was still a really, really tough year for picking favourites. Competition was harder than ever, not just because I watched 200 films (47% more than even my next biggest year) but because I made a conscious effort to watch fewer time-killers and more things I’d really been intending to see. As a result, films that I enjoyed immensely or admired intensely fell by the wayside, leaving several big guns to duke it out for the limited slots.

As if doubling my top ten wasn’t enough, the tightly-fought race got stuck for a while at 30 titles. The closest to making it in was my 1,000th film, Mark Cousin’s epic 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (so epic that my review draft is still in the form of 4,300 words of notes). It hurt to leave it out, but something had to go. The remainder of those 30 (which I guess would be #22 to #30, then) were, in alphabetical order, The Babadook, Gone Girl, High Noon, Looper, Paddington, Scanners, Spectre, Stranger by the Lake, and Wings. In most other years, any of those could’ve found themselves comfortably in my top ten.

I can’t end this without mentioning the 38 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. 17 of them made it into the top 20 — I won’t list those again, so you can go find the three four-star imposters for yourself (clue: they’re right at the end… or start, in the order I’ve written it). The remaining 21 five-starers were Argo, The Babadook, Boyhood, Boyz n the Hood, Dreams of a Life, Filmed in Supermarionation, Fury, The General, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, High Noon, Interstellar, Looper, The Philadelphia Story, sex, lies, and videotape, Shallow Grave, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Stranger by the Lake, Whiplash, Wings, and The Wrestler. Reading through those again, there are several I feel should’ve been in my top 30… or 20… but what would I take out in their place? This year’s been too good, clearly.

Finally, on the same topic, there was one five-starer from each of my additional kinds of reviews (I love it when that happens — so neat). They were: non-list review 2001: A Space Odyssey, extended cut X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, and short Feast.


Naturally, there were a considerable number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see. In my annual tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films — chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety — that were released in 2015 and that I’ve not seen.

As is so often the case, it’s a funny old mix, because there were some films that seemed too ‘significant’ to leave out. This is why, despite recording my progress with these in my statistics every year, I’ll never, ever see 100% of them. For a current example, Minions is the 5th highest grossing film of 2015, so on the list it goes; but I didn’t really like Despicable Me and haven’t watched Despicable Me 2, so what are the chances I’ll ever decide to spend some of my time on Minions? Pretty darn slim, I reckon.

Anyway, the 50 I’ve chosen to highlight — some of which I do very much want to see — are…

Amy
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Black Mass
Blackhat
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Chappie
Cinderella
Creed
Crimson Peak
The Danish Girl
Everest
Ex Machina
Fantastic Four
Fifty Shades of Grey
Furious 7
The Good Dinosaur
The Hateful Eight
Home
Hotel Transylvania 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
In the Heart of the Sea
It Follows
Joy
Legend
Macbeth
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Martian
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Minions
Pan
Pixels
The Revenant
Room
San Andreas
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Sicario
Snoopy and Charlie Brown…
Spotlight
Spy
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton
Suffragette
Taken 3
Ted 2
Testament of Youth
The Visit
The Walk


And so, after all that verbosity, the largest ever year of 100 Films comes to an end.

Apart from the 21 reviews I still have to post, of course. (In that respect, 2014 isn’t even finished yet.) But no matter, it will be done.

For now, all that remains is for me to thank you for reading, to wish you all the best with your own film-watching endeavours (having spent several days shut away in my own world of statistics and lists, I’ve a few people’s posts to catch up on!), and to say “see you soon” for 2016 — the 10th year of 100 Films! I have some stuff planned…

Byzantium (2012)

2015 #21
Neil Jordan | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English | 15 / R

This review alludes to some spoilers.

Byzantium18 years after he adapted Anne Rice’s seminal vampire novel Interview with the Vampire into a seminal vampire film, director Neil Jordan helmed another tale of two inextricably-linked immortal bloodsuckers. However, while the older film was a lavish, luscious, romantic fantasy, Byzantium is an altogether seedier, baser view of eternal life.

The narrative unfurls in two timelines: the present day, where vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) find themselves in a washed-up seaside resort while on the run from who-knows-what (well, Clara knows; Eleanor doesn’t); and 200 years ago, when a young Clara found herself entangled with a pair of military officers (Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley) that led to… well, you can guess what. Between them the two strands hint at a rich mythology; one we seem to be witnessing a side story of, rather than the usual epic world-altering confrontation of most fantasy cinema. Screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting from her own play, A Vampire Story) retains enough familiar vampiric tropes to be recognisable to aficionados, but also offers unique twists and tweaks to keep us engaged.

Although the past storyline has its pros, and merges with the present day in time for the climax, the less mythologically-minded viewer will see the meat of the film as being Eleanor’s story. The forever-16-year-old is becoming disillusioned with her secretive existence, longing to share her truth with someone. When she twice bumps into genuine-16-year-old leukaemia survivor Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), it’s easy to see where the broad strokes of their encounter will lead. A back-cover pull-quote describes Byzantium as “the best vampire film since Let the Right One In” — their relative qualities are a separate point, but this adolescent ‘love(?)’ story is an obvious point of comparison nonetheless.

WhorehouseThe most effective part of the movie isn’t so much its plot or its mythology, though, but its atmosphere. Vampire movies take place in castles or drawing rooms, or high schools in more modern iterations. They are grand and sensuous. Any glamour in Byzantium is discarded and decrepit, like the titular hotel that Clara reshapes as a whorehouse; faded and left to ruin. The seafront is characterised by graffitied concrete, the glaring lights of arcade machines, heroin-chic Eastern European prozzies. The pier appears to have burnt down at some unspecified previous time and just been left. The only people left behind are the ones without a means of escape, stuck with their miserable lot. Clara and Eleanor fit in almost seamlessly.

Some have picked up on an apparent lack of change or development in the lead characters’ personalities over 200 years, calling it out as a plot hole. Is it? Or is it part of the point? These two haven’t become wiser and more experienced over their long lives, but instead have become stuck in a rut, repeating the same lies and performing the only roles they know. That’s why Clara still works as a whore; why Eleanor still struggles with the guilt from her religious upbringing; why they stick together as protective mother and innocent daughter. It’s just as true of the other immortals we ultimately meet, an organisation stuck in outmoded patriarchal beliefs, who have held a grudge for two centuries. Here, the immortality of vampirism seems to mean not only staying physically the same, but mentally so as well.

Bloody tastyOther alleged faults include the film not giving enough time or heft to facets individual viewers want it to cover. For one example, someone criticised it for not fully exploring the issue of voluntary euthanasia. I’d argue it doesn’t explore it at all, because it’s not trying to. That Eleanor chooses to only kill people she perceives as wanting to die is not her making a moral statement on a contentious issue, but finding a way to marry her conscience and upbringing with the necessities of her vampiric life; and it’s probably practical, too. That’s not to say a vampire movie can’t be used to explore a topic like voluntary euthanasia, but if you want that I’m afraid you might have to write your own.

I don’t wish to imply that Byzantium is faultless in its execution of every point it raises, however, as some do fall by the wayside. Not least of these is Frank’s leukaemia, which has its useful points (bloooood), and I suppose it’s a good thing we’re spared the “wants to become a vampire to survive fatal illness” trope (because his cancer is in remission), but it also feels like it’s there for that trope, and by dodging it the film has nowhere else to go with his illness. A similar fate befalls the character of Frank’s mother, probably by association. What does she think of her sickly son disappearing off with some girl he just met, possibly forever? We’ll never know…

Soulless beautyTechnically, DoP Sean Bobbitt grants us some gorgeous cinematography. There’s a cruel, aptly soulless beauty to the faded town, while some countryside vistas, both past and present, offer more traditional scenic pleasure. A remote rocky, misty isle — central to the mythology and so repeatedly visited — is particularly notable. Captured entirely on digital cameras, it seems sometimes that Bobbitt tried to push his equipment too hard: some shots during the climax look flat-out weird, as if someone has applied a Photoshop “comic book” filter or something. Also of note is the score by Javier Navarrete, which makes particularly good repeated use of The Coventry Carol.

Byzantium is a particular kind of experience. It’s the kind of film that hints at an epic mythology but doesn’t explore it, which some will be glad of and others regret; personally, I feel both at once — there’s a grander story left here, but I’m not sure I want it told. The narrative the film does contain is grounded in a melancholic reality; one that finds a kind of splendour in forgotten things and places; that almost elevates the shabbiness of a half-abandoned community to desirability, while acknowledging that it’s nothing of the sort. It takes vampirism and its associated immortality as something tempting but terrible and fantastical but tangible, and finds reflections of that in real-life experiences and locations. Darkly lovedFor all its dual-period storytelling and its grubby settings, it’s a resolutely modern kind of take on vampire mythology.

There’s little doubt that the film’s brand of melancholic beauty is not to all tastes — an array of poor and middling reviews are easy to find — but it has qualities that must be recommended, and the potential to be darkly loved.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Byzantium is on Film4 at 9pm tonight.

It placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.