The best (and worst) films of 2015

Exactly 15 films stood out for me in 2015– nine for being great and six for being far from great. Adding one on top or four at the bottom felt disingenuous.

Eligible for the list were simply films I was able to see at the cinema in 2015 – either in Iceland, the UK or the Czech Republic, and in film festivals like Karlovy Vary, Stockfish or Skjaldborg (sadly, those were the only ones I was able to attend) – but apart from some hard-to-see festival movies and some of the Oscar candidates that us Europeans won‘t see until this year I guess I managed to see most of the potentially good films – although perhaps not all the potentially bad ones, I don‘t seek out crap on purpose.

The best films of the year took place in Berlin and Oslo, Sweden and the Balkans, yet like most years Hollywood dominated the cinema screens of Europe. Still, it was the outsiders view of America that caught my eye this year; one of the directors is of Persian origin and born in England, another is Mexican, the third from French-speaking Canada and the fourth is a Brit. The only American-born director in the group is Latino filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, born in Texas, just by the Mexican border. All of which is perhaps fitting in this year of massive immigration. 

The Top 9:

Blind – Eskil Vogt

It‘s a small miracle that the most cinematic film of the year was about a blind author – but therein lies the film‘s magic, it‘s about imagination, how it can both heal and destroy. The film is both about the need for companionship and the need for solitude – and about how the images on screen originate in our heads just as much as in the world around us. Adding to that the film feels like a series of little punches to the stomach, so I came out dazed and confused, telling everybody I met about it, I guess I should continue that here.

Sicario – Denis Villeneuve

Small confession: I felt Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s multi-awarded score for The Theory of Everything wasn’t that great, a bit corny in fact. But the score of Sicario deserves all the awards in the world, and the way it slowly but surely builds up an almost unbearable tension is something that should be taught in any class about film music.

Director Villeneuve shows us the border towns of Mexico and the US as hell on Earth and Emily Blunt is great in the lead – yet Benicio Del Toro steals the film and has rarely been better. There are certainly echoes of the Coen brothers film No Country for Old Man – only Sicario happens to be considerably more realistic and convincing, yet nevertheless more like a nightmare.

Victoria – Sebastian Schipper

Victoria

I was excited about Victoria for the same reason as most; a whole movie shot in one take by  Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. Yet while Grøvlen‘s feat is certainly impressive, you soon forget about it, which is a feat in itself.  What the single-take really means though is that you go deeper into the story, since editing is often a way to give the audience a break, let them breath, remember this is not real.

The star of the film is Victoria herself, played brilliantly by Spanish actress Laia Costa, who like the rest of the cast had to act the film in a single take. She‘s in almost every scene, it‘s all from her point of view, so much that we don‘t even see one of the main events, since she‘s waiting in the car while it takes place. This film is about how her experiences – and by that, about partying and loneliness – and the link between the two. We meet Victoria out partying, by herself, she‘s funny and lively – yet terribly lonely, like is revealed later on – and that‘s what leads her to follow her new-found friends in an intoxicating loneliness-partying-desperation into the heart of the night, all the way to the downer of a morning.

Birdman or (the Unexptected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu

Let’s go on discussing cinematographers. Perhaps today‘s most important filmmaker isn’t a director but rather cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – who shot both Children of Men and Gravity prior to Birdman, a predecessor to Victoria in the one-take stakes, although here that is only an illusion, thanks to a few almost invisible cuts.

And the films are very different; Birdman is not heavy like Victoria, but rather an exuberant ode to the joys of film-making, the sheer ecstasy of it. It‘s about former Batman actor Michael Keaton with the past, thematically it‘s like a love child of JCVD and Being John Malkovich, it‘s about what strange creatures actors can be – but first and foremost it‘s about the joy of cinema – the joy of being able to jump from a roof and live to tell the tale.

The High Sun (Zvizdan) – Dalibor Matanic

Here we see three Serbian-Croatian lovers in different decades, in 1991, 2001 and 2011. But it‘s really all the same lovers, always the same age, always played by the same actors. None of them takes place during the Balkan wars themselves, which took place between 1991 and 1999, and the war is barely mentioned – yet the air is thick with memories of war. It means the three love stories are completely different – even if you feel the actors are always playing the same people, only people who were born into different eras.

We see how they seem pretty solid and together before the war – you imagine them having no serious traumas in their childhoods – but then you see her broken and dysfunctional in 2001 and he‘s broken and dysfunctional in 2011. Because adversity comes in many forms and it takes different forces to break different people. The she of 2001 seems to have been crushed by the adversity of war while he seems relatively intact, meanwhile the he of 2011 seems to have allowed the aftermath of love and his parents lingering hate to crush his spirit.

Blowfly Park – Jens Östberg

BlowflyParkKille, a former ice-hockey star, starts behaving unpredictably after his best friend disappears. Yet what makes the film linger with you for days afterwards is not the disappearance or the plot around it, or the actions of the Kille, who becomes ever more erratic. No, what stays with you is the unsaid. We never really learn what happened in the past that can explain his actions – but we‘re stuck with all sorts of theories, which you mull over long after the lights go on.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour

No film this year was as captivatingly beautiful and madly cool. Director Amirpour makes up a black & white neverland of America where everybody speaks Persians and a lonely vampire roams the streets, a neverland that only drifters like the Iranian-American Amirpour, with two cultures in their blood, can invent – but they can give us a visa to visit for a couple of hours. It also has some great music, if Sicario had the best instrumental score of any film last year this one has the best mixed-tape soundtrack.

Steve Jobs – Danny Boyle

JobsMichael Fassbender attempted Shakespearean anti-heroes twice this year – and he nailed it the second time. The build-up – those half-hours before three launches – take away any pretensions about this being truly autobiographical, here we are working with archetypes, like those Shakespeare made his kings and princes into. Jobs other blood-line is from Pinocchio, because while both have human form they dream of really becoming human. Only difference is that is not enough for Jobs, he wants to be Gepetto too; the machine that makes machines that understands humans.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Me&Earl&TheDyingGirlSundance 2015 was the film festival of adolescence. The major hits were this one and Dope – yet neither really matured into a mainstream hit away from Utah. Which is unfair, as I found out when I saw the pair of them during one night in Brixton. Dope is a lot of fun most of the time, even if a few unnecessarily silly scenes keep it off this list – but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is great throughout.

The plot sounds perhaps a bit too much like The Fault in Our Stars, which was an OK teen flick that still too often became the saccharine soup it was trying to criticize. But the difference is both that this one never lays it on too thick – and is a lot funnier, since Greg (the „Me“ of the title) and Earl have a line in remakes of old classics, with special emphasis on Werner Herzog, that is both brilliant and hilarious to watch.

Tenth place:

If forced, those could all claim the tenth spot on a good day:

Virgin Mountain, Rams, The Gift, Room, What We Do in the Shadows, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Inside Out, The Martian, Winter Sleep, Leviathan, The Coach, While We’re Young, Kitchen Sink Revolution, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sacred Virgin, The Brand New Testament, Tale of Tales, Dope and The Walk.

The Bottom Six:

Macbeth – Justin Kurzel

I never checked my watch as often this year as during the almost two hours this ordeal took. I’ve never seen a Shakespeare adaptation so devoid of ideas, so devoid of life. The world Kurzel makes is an unconvincing greyness and you had the feeling he instructed the actors to speak like robots – which certainly doesn’t work with the theatrical text Shakespeare writes. Thankfully Marion Cotillard doesn’t oblige and therefore feels like the only person on screen with a pulse.

Amy – Asif Kapadia

A textbook case of how not to make a biopic about a rock star. First of all it‘s a fan-movie – even if I enjoy Amy as a singer I felt a bit lost amid the adoration. What‘s even worse is how the tone often resembles the nasty tabloid sensationalism it pretends to criticize.

The Last Witch Hunter – Breck Eisner

The opening scene of the film is in a certain sense brilliant – that is, in the sense that everything after it is not quite as bad, so you walk out of the cinema thinking; „this was not as bad as I feared at the beginning.“ But by Jove, is bad enough.

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard

Sometimes having the right name can be enough. If it‘s Godard it seems to be enough to swirl the camera around without any purpose and show it in cinemas to get a host of critics to swoon. But there is nothing interesting going on here and perhaps time to simply say Goodbye Godard.

Sleeping With Other People – Leslye Hedland

A raunchier version of When Harry Met Sally … At least that was the intention. The reality is

When Harry Met Sally … without the humor but with added unpleasantness. An indie movie that at heart believes in all the worst Hollywood clichés.

Ricki and the Flash – Jonathan Demme

To be fair, this film really shouldn’t be here. It‘s well written by Diablo Cody and has many nice quirks – but one big problem, Meryl Streep simply can‘t be bothered anymore and offers up the laziest performance of the year.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

The Icelandic version of this article appeared on Klapptré.

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