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Tuesday 25 October 2016

The final cut: the best and worst films of 2015

Paul Whitington

Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30

Matt Damon in The Martian
Matt Damon in The Martian
Keanu Reeves was the hitman in John Wick.
Michael Keaton delivered a tour-de-force in Birdman.
Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander in Ex-Machina.
Tangerine, shot on iPhone, broke new cinematic ground.
Amy traced the life Amy Winehouse.

On the face of it, 2015 was a year like any other cinematically speaking, with our multiplexes dominated by such intellectually moribund fare as Avengers Assemble, Spectre and the recently unleashed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As Avengers Assemble grossed $1.4bn, the plague of superhero movies seems set to continue, but there were a few clever blockbusters this year to counteract all the stupid ones.

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I was not beside myself with excitement when I heard that George Miller was returning to the dystopian franchise that had made his name, but Mad Max: Fury Road turned out to an extraordinary and oddly beautiful action adventure set in a post-apocalyptic future when water is a precious commodity fought over fiercely by the remnants of mankind.

Equally memorable on the visual front was Ridley Scott's The Martian, a deep space version of Robinson Crusoe in which a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on the red planet is driven to ingenious extremes to survive. It was nice to see a film with half a brain do well at the box office.

There was a strange purity to John Wick, a beautifully choreographed action film starring Keanu Reeves as a hit-man who emerges from retirement in a terrible mood to pursue a gangster who killed his puppy dog.

It was a most productive year for Killarney's own Michael Fassbender, who cemented his status as one of the best screen actors of his time. In John Maclean's haunting western Slow West, he played a tight-lipped bounty killer who agrees to help a Scottish immigrant find his sweetheart.

There was a wild-eyed madness to his portrayal of Macbeth in Justin Kurzel's powerful adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, but Fassbender's best performance in 2015 was in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs. Fassbender brilliantly caught Jobs' quicksilver evasiveness and divine talent for rubbing people up the wrong way, and seems likely to get an Oscar nomination.

At the start of 2015 we got to see all the big films that were fancied to do well at this year's Academy Awards, but not all of them did.

I loved J.C. Chandor's arch and brooding crime drama A Most Violent Year, which was set in New York in 1981 and starred Oscar Issac as a businessman trying to build his empire honestly in a city riven by crime.

It was terrific, but didn't even get a scenery nomination: meanwhile, Clint Eastwood's competent but bone-headed war film American Sniper received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture!

That award was won by Birdman, the brilliant and slightly unhinged drama directed by Spanish film-maker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring a resurgent Michael Keaton as a fading Hollywood actor who has hinged his hopes on a forthcoming Broadway play. Keaton should have won Best Actor for his performance, but Eddie Radmayne pipped him with his skilful portrayal of Stephen Hawking in James Marsh's fine biopic, The Theory of Everything.

I liked Foxcatcher a lot. Bennett Miller's dark drama based on the bizarre true story of billionaire wrestling enthusiast John Eluthere Du Pont moved along at a daringly slow pace, and featured a brilliant performance from Steve Carell.

He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but character veteran J.K. Simmons won it for his work in Whiplash, a wonderful film about the tortured relationship between an up-and-coming jazz drummer and his sadistic teacher.

But there were disappointments early in the year as well. At his best, in films like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson can do no wrong, but his 2015 release Inherent Vice was for me a huge let-down.

A kind of stoner pulp thriller based on a book by Thomas Pyhchon, it felt like The Big Sleep as horribly re-imagined by Cheech and Chong.

Inherent Vice was set in the 1970s, and so was Diary of a Teenage Girl, a daring and provocative drama from first-time director Marielle Heller and based on Phoebe Glockner's graphic novel. In a household upended by the counter-culture, a 15-year-old girl begins a romance with her mother's boyfriend, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

Ex-Machina was an unexpected pleasure, a brainy and beautifully designed sci-fi thriller starring Domhnall Gleeson as an ambitious programmer who falls in love with a female robot while visiting his reclusive and - as it turns out - demented boss.

Good horror films are few and far between, but I loved It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's nightmarish thriller about a mysterious, sexually transmitted curse. And Carol Morley's The Falling, a British chiller about a fainting epidemic at a girl's school, was charged with supernatural dread.

Peter Strickland is one of Britain's most interesting younger directors, and The Duke of Burgundy was a strange, stylish and very interesting piece of work.

Ostensibly the story of a sadomasochistic lesbian love affair, it was ultimately a perceptive and evocative drama about how all human relationships, no matter how exotic, are fundamentally the same.

Due to a release delay, we were given two Noah Baumbach films this year, and both turned out to be something of a treat. In While We're Young, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts played a prissy Manhattan couple whose attempts to keep up with a pair of hipsters half their age renders them ridiculous. And in Mistress America, Mr Baumbach and his current muse Greta Gerwig channelled the anarchic spirit of Preston Sturges into their contemporary screwball comedy.

M Night Shyamalan hasn't made a decent film in at least a decade, but bounced back in style with The Visit, a refreshingly bizarre and off-kilter horror yarn. And in Top Five, comedian Chris Rock emerged as a film-maker of substance in a witty satire that pondered the vexed issues of celebrity, race and authenticity.

On the foreign front, Céline Sciamma's Girlhood offered a compelling insight into the high-rise slums that surround France's larger cities and have been the focus of such unease of late. Made in 2013 but only released here this year, Anna Odell's Swedish drama The Reunion brilliantly explored the long-lasting damage that school-yard rivalries can cause.

Even better was The Tribe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's blindingly original drama charting the chaos caused by a feral gang at a boarding school for the deaf.

Yorgos Lanthimos' witty but nihilistic drama The Lobster was excellent in parts and starred Colin Farrell as a lonely divorcee trying to survive in a dystopian future where single people are mercilessly dealt with.

And I absolutely loved the spirit and wit of Taxi Teheran, Jafar Panahi's playful low-budget drama in which the banned director plays a version of himself reduced to driving a cab around Iran's vibrant capital.

It was another great year for documentaries. Amy and Montage of Heck conducted harrowing investigations into the tortured lives of singers Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, while the deadly rivalry between American commentators Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley were hilariously recalled in Best of Enemies.

The great Brando spoke to us from beyond the grave in Stevan Riley's fascinating film Listen to Me Marlon, the legendary 1970s Soviet ice hockey team were celebrated in Gabe Polsky's Red Army, and Crystal Moselle's Wolfpack told the story of six brothers raised entirely within the confines of a cramped Manhattan apartment.

While there were no great Irish feature films in 2015, three home-grown documentaries stood out.

Gary Lennon's A Doctor's Sword was based on the wartime experiences of Cork-born medic Aidan MacCarthy; Older Than Ireland gave us the wit and wisdom of a group of Irish centenarians; and The Queen of Ireland explored the 2015 marriage referendum through the glorious prism of Panti Bliss.

Todd Haynes' drama Carol seems certain to feature strongly in what film industry fools like to call 'the awards corridor'. It stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, and tells the story of a 1950s lesbian love affair.

But the most interesting film of 2015 for me was Tangerine, Sean S. Baker's staggeringly accomplished low-budget comic drama telling the stories of two black transsexual sex workers.

It had the wit, compassion and unstoppable momentum of early Truffaut, and Mr Baker shot it on an iPhone.

My pick of  the worst…

I expected 50 Shades of Grey to be bad, but not boring. Sam Taylor-Johnson's film based on E.L. James' hit novel was about as erotic as a trip to the dentist: it was as if someone had set a Mills & Boon romance in a sex shop. It was terrible, and so was Pan, Joe Wright's shrill and overblown fantasy inspired by J. M. Barrie's stories. Despite its promising start, Disney's Tomorrowland was a real dud, a sci-fi adventure full of portentous warnings about our future but short on plot, and charm.

Winner of the 'so bad it's almost good' category this year was The Boy Next Door, starring Jennifer Lopez as a recently separated woman who falls for her handsome neighbour, who turns out to be a lunatic. It was hilarious, and so at times was Gemma Bovery, a ghastly drama very loosely based on Flaubert's classic novel and starring Gemma Arterton as a nubile Englishwoman who causes chaos in a small French town. Woody Allen's Irrational Man was rotten, full of clunking exposition and pseudo-intellectualism, and the sheer vacuousness of Magic Mike XXL was breathtaking. But my worst film of 2015 has to be Kill Your Friends, a cheap and nasty British film about a 1990s music scout. Reader, I hated it.

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