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Categories: Features

Cameron Johnson picks his favorite films of 2015, from a cyber-thriller to a music documentary and a two-hour drama filmed in one continuous take.

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Another year, another top 10 list. 2015 was an interesting year for film, one that didn’t bring as many consistent pieces of pure cinema as 2012, as many viscerally stunning films as 2013, nor as many auteur-driven masterpieces as 2014. Nonetheless, 2015 was a solid year, one in which I watched more movies than ever before, and there are more than enough excellent works to talk about as we move onto 2016 and, therefore, the next awards season.

It must be said that I’ve yet to see most of the films that will actually be competing for those awards, so you’ll get no The Big Short, Carol, Creed, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Room or Spotlight on this one, amongst a few dozen more critical hits I simply haven’t had the opportunity to watch yet. This list, as always with these things, will be my subjective slice of the annum, a rundown of the movies that most affected and stuck with me as I formulated opinions on the rest of the films that came out through the year. For a full list of all the films I watched this year, check out my Letterboxd list – which is still subject to change throughout awards season.

10. “Blackhat” (Michael Mann)

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Blackhat only moderately entertained me when I first watched it way back in March, but it’s since gone up considerably in my estimations, and I now believe it to be one of the smartest and aesthetically immersive films of 2015. Directed by Collateral helmer Michael Mann, Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth as an elite hacker released from prison to track an enigmatic cyber criminal from Chicago to Hong Kong. Though it might sound a bit out of the ballpark – can Thor really impress rapidly typing code into keyboards? – Blackhat emerges out of its 133-minute runtime as an effecting and intimate drama featuring some of the most poignant cinematography of 2015, captured carefully by Stuart Dryburgh. Culminating in a thoughtful chase sequence that uses pull focus to gorgeous effect, Blackhat is perhaps the most absorbing cyber-thriller to date.

9. “The End of the Tour” (James Ponsoldt)

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Best known for Jason Segel’s impeccable performance of the late author David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour follows Wallace as he’s joined by envious journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) on a 1996 book-signing tour for his bestselling novel Infinite Jest. Segel all but becomes Wallace, absorbing himself into the author’s iconic bandana until we totally forget we’re watching one of the best performances of the year. Quietly dialogue-driven, James Ponsoldt’s film focuses on the philosophical discussions Lipsky and Wallace engage in, observing the former’s development from jealous admirer to dear friend, and serves as a warm tribute to one of the most influential modern American writers.

8. “Amy” (Asif Kapadia)

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You had to watch this one in the cinema. Sure, Amy is a touching, punishing and beautiful insight into the life of the late Amy Winehouse, but it’s in the atmosphere – the immersion into the paparazzi-driven tornado surrounding Amy’s tumultuous life – that Asif Kapadia’s potent portrait grips us. Camera flashes overwhelm the screen in a strobe-light hurricane, and we’re moved to pure awe at the earth-shattering screams of adoring fans and awards show guests. Removed from the viscera, Amy is a miraculously-crafted collection of home videos, photographs and live clips, one that only allows its subjects to talk in voiceover. As always, Amy is the center of attention; absolutely deserving, but also sorely representative of her tragic demise.

7. “Ex Machina” (Alex Garland)

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Impressively, Ex Machina is only my second favorite film of the 2015 to include both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Regardless, it’s a masterful musing on the possibilities of artificial intelligence, and though it quite often takes the routes we might expect from this sort of thing, it ascends to greatness through masterful performances, certainly from both of the men but notably from Alicia Vikander, who is now quickly catapulting straight into stardom. Fair enough, too, as this is one of the year’s deepest embodiments, with Vikander flawlessly nailing the “emotionless robot learning to love” shtick. Most notable for me, however, is Rob Hardy’s sharp camerawork, the most fitting use of digital cinematography to date. And it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without Mark Day’s precise editing, which probably won’t, but certainly should, get him an Oscar nod.

6. “Victoria” (Sebastian Schipper)

victoriaLow-budget German crime drama done in one 138-minute take? I’m in. On paper, Victoria might sound like a bit of a gimmick – and it is – but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most human portraits of burgeoning love our generation has thus-far produced. Sebastian Schipper’s gut-wrenchingly tense thriller, centered on a (hopefully) star-making performance from Laia Costa, is certainly a spectacle and an impressive feat (third time was the charm with the long take, so it really only took six hours to film). But it’s in the realistic-feeling improvised performances from Costa and her co-stars Frederick Lau and Franz Rogowski where the film makes it mark, and before long you’ve forgotten the camera hasn’t stopped running. For that matter, you’ve forgotten you’re even watching something fake at all. A must-see for any cinephile, and hey, it’s in English, so you can’t use the “it’s foreign-language” excuse!

5. “It Follows” (David Robert Mitchell)

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I might be a little biased with this one, as it was filmed near where I live in Michigan (note that I haven’t been there for over a year), and I’ve even been to a few of the places where it’s set. Nonetheless, It Follows was certainly the best horror flick we got from 2015 – What We Do in the Shadows comes close – and features my absolute favorite single shot of the year (yes, including Victoria): a 1080° rotation that shows a creepy old women get slightly closer to our heroes with every 360° turn. Coldly shot in crisp digital and accompanied by the year’s best score – composer Disasterpiece almost reaches the new standard set by Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin – It Follows is the most deftly-produced scare-fest of recent memory, the arthouse accompaniment to the also-great Unfriended which gives the digital age a horror of its own generation (which, as with most millennial movies, means it’s straight from the 80s). Read my original review

4. “The Martian” (Ridley Scott)

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I was late on the game watching this one, so I didn’t get to see it until I could watch it on the small screen, but luckily The Martian is entertaining and character-driven enough that the way you watch it isn’t important, you’ve just gotta watch it. Driven by an energetic performance from the ever-reliable Matt Damon as a man stranded on Mars, The Martian is pretty much Ridley Scott’s more popcorny answer to Interstellar – which also featured Damon and co-star Jessica Chastain – and that’s perfectly fine with moi. Funny enough to put it in the Golden Globes category for comedy (I wouldn’t go that far), and as marvelously-designed as we can expect from Scott, The Martian is an incredibly fun science epic, providing us with more than enough optimistic wonder to make the 2 hours, 24 minutes runtime well worthwhile.

3. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (J.J. Abrams)

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Though the film is certainly flawed – more like A New Hope Reawakens – I couldn’t honestly say I didn’t have a blast with The Force Awakens, enjoying it twice: once in 2D and once in 3D (the latter is better). What The Force Awakens does so well is translate a classic, familiar story into a perspective our generation can relate to – certainly a perspective our generation needs. With a much more diverse cast led by the marvelous Daisy Ridley and the joyful John Boyega, The Force Awakens returns us to that galaxy far, far away with unmatchable levels of visual spectacle and the expectedly impressive sense of scale. Phenomenally shot, soothingly scored and given an energetic sense of urgency and grandiosity, this is Star Wars as we wanted it. Now we’ve got it and the stage has been set, let’s hope the next guy behind the wheel, Looper‘s Rian Johnson, takes us on an original journey we’ll never forgot. Oh, and Kylo Ren is the best movie villain in years, period. Read my original review

2. “Brooklyn” (John Crowley)

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John Crowley’s gently-directed adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel had special meaning for me in 2015. It’s about a girl from Ireland, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who moves to the States, leaving her family behind, and is then torn between staying abroad or returning home when she meets charming men from both sides of the pond. Now, not all of that relates to me directly, but considering I moved from America to Europe, and have lived with family in Ireland for the past few months, a lot of this endearing film – which explores the struggles between connection to one’s motherland and the American Dream – hit really close to home. It’s sweet, enchanting and romantic without being sickly, with Ronan and costars Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson (him again!?) and Julie Walters giving career-high performances. The finest transatlantic immigration romance since, let’s say, Titanic, Brooklyn is the year’s warmest slice of tearjerking sentiment.

1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (George Miller)

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You’ve no doubt already heard pretty much everything there is to say about George Miller’s post-apocalyptic joyride from its countless inclusion in this spot on everyone else’s top 10 lists, but I’ll say it anyway: Mad Max: Fury Road is far and away the greatest film to come out of 2015, and the best sequel since The Dark Knight. An exhilarating explosion of enthralling energy, Fury Road is the ultimate melting pot of pitch-perfect production design, stuntwork, sound mixing, editing and cinematography. On the impression of its color palette alone, it has stuck in my memory since the day I watched it, like the burnt image of a paused video embossed into a television screen. George Miller re-announces himself as one of the world’s finest auteurs, setting the standard for action films for a Marvel-fed generation in sore need of some revitalization. The rare movie that not only entertained and awed me, but also had me actively optimistic that more was possible for cinema – that we should not settle for dull, grey superhero fanfare when we have such a broad spectrum of imagination available to us. If you’re a kid growing up with this, don’t squander the inspiration.

Odds & Ends

Best Short Film – “World of Tomorrow”

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I’ve talked extensively about Don Hertzfeldt’s film on here already, but let it be known that this is the most exciting short film in years. Like Fury Road, World of Tomorrow is a painterly eruption of creative color combinations, but it deals with themes as deep as that film’s stunts are awesome. A moving study of the way immortality might mess with our capacity to feel, World of Tomorrow is a must-see short that will hopefully finally win Hertzfeldt his Oscar; unfortunately, Pixar’s in the way.

Honorable Mentions

Speaking of Pixar, Inside Out was pretty great, wasn’t it? I didn’t like it as much as everyone else seemed to – it was a bit predictable to me – but yeah, it had all the right feels; well worth a watch. I also loved (in order of proximity to my top 10): Magic Mike XXL, Unfriended, Love & Mercy, What We Do in the Shadows, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Circle, Trainwreck, and Furious 7. I recommend you check them all out.

And the worst film of 2015?

Fantastic Four. No contest.

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Jan 4, 2016

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