15 Favorite Films of 2015

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Marlon Brando (who makes an appearance on my list) and his cat

With the Oscar nominations making news around the world today I thought I’d join my fellow Morlocks, Susan Doll and R. Emmet Sweeney, by sharing a list of some of the best new films I saw in 2015. As usual, I tend to have eclectic taste and a penchant for darker fare and foreign films so my list contains plenty of horror movies and only a few U.S. releases.

Surprisingly, my list features many low-budget films by first-time directors and that really excites me. Despite an onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters and star vehicles that tend to dominate movie screens (and saturate the media) and an abundance of naysayers who insist on proclaiming that “cinema is dead,” these budding directors prove that movies are alive and well, thank you very much. They also showcase what you can do when you have a unique vision and an enthusiastic cast despite any budget restrictions.

It’s also worth mentioning that many of the best performances I saw last year were given by actors who were 65-years old or older suggesting younger generations of performers could still learn a lot from actors like Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Ian McKellen, Richard Jenkins and Kurt Russell (who will be turning 65 in March!). I hope it also encourages future filmmakers to create roles that allow these veteran actors to strut their stuff.

What follows is a list of 15 Favorite Films (had planned to make a Top 20 list but that didn’t happen) listed without preference in alphabetical order.

45years

45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh; 2015)
Andrew Haigh’s film involves a British couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The festivities are marred by the arrival of a letter that sends the husband into a mental tailspin while his wife must confront the fact that she may not really know the man she married 45-years ago. What could have easily become a stodgy stage-like drama is elevated by the film’s two stars who bring a lifetime of experience and wisdom to their roles deeply enriching their characters predicaments. Rampling, still ridiculously beautiful and effervescent at age 69, is especially moving as a woman struggling to hold her relationship together while she wrestles with ghosts and the complexities of love.

71

’71 (Dir. Yann Demange; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
In the tradition of Odd Man Out (1947) as well as other films featuring singular desperate men on the run trying to survive in increasingly difficult situations (The 39 Steps; 1935, The Naked Prey; 1965, etc.), ’71 ratchets up the tension by placing the action in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles. Our protagonist is a young, inexperienced and politically naive British soldier (played effectively and sensitively by Jack O’Connell) deployed to Belfast to support the British RUC (Royal Police). When a riot erupts the solider is accidentally separated from his unit and must survive the night alone while avoiding capture as the violence on the streets continues to escalate. ’71 is director Yann Demange’s first feature film and it’s an impressive debut that manages the highwire act of being a gripping thriller wrapped in a history lesson while artfully illustrating the fine line separating our enemies from our allies during wartime.

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Alléluia (Dir. Fabrice Du Welz; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
Belgian born Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire; 2004, Vinyan; 2008, etc.) is one of my favorite working directors so I was somewhat disappointed when I heard he had decided to resurrect the infamous “Lonely Hearts Killers” in his latest thriller. The true-crime couple has been the subject of a number of films including Lonely Heart Bandits (1950), Deep Crimson (1996) and most famously, The Honeymoon Killers (1969), so I wondered what else could be said about two lonely people who hook up and go on a murder spree? I needn’t have worried because Du Welz brought his typical stylish flourishes and dark sense of humor to Alléluia (aka “Hallelujah”) transforming a well-trodden topic into a brutal indictment of modern love. The film’s two would-be lovebirds meet online; one is a miserable single mother working in a morgue and the other is a serial womanizer who victimizes his wealthy patrons. Neither are likable characters and their troubled romance, built on desperation, sexual obsession and an unspoken fascination with the occult, quickly spirals out of control and into deeply disturbing territory. Spanish actress Lola Dueñas stars as Gloria, along with Du Welz regular, Laurent Lucas as Michel. Both actors are in top form here delivering two of the most powerful, unhinged and unforgettable performances of the year with Dueñas occasionally upstaging Lucas with her scene chewing brutality.

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Bone Tomahawk (Dir. S. Craig Zahler; 2015)
In a small and secluded western town, a mysterious clan of cave dwelling troglodytes kidnap a female doctor, young deputy and his prisoner. The women’s husband, along with a local sharpshooter, the town sheriff and his elderly back-up deputy, form a posse and head out into the barren wilderness to rescue them. The odds are stacked against them and in typical western fashion, not everyone will survive the journey, but Bone Tomahawk still provides some surprising twists and turns along the way. The main cast, consisting of Kurt Russell in fine form as the Sheriff, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins as the meandering back-up deputy Chicory, is uniformly good but Jenkins’s performance is particularly memorable and reminiscent of classic western stars such as Jack Elem and Gabby Hayes. Working with a limited budget, first time director and writer S. Craig Zahler was able to create a surprisingly thoughtful and evocative “weird western” with horror elements that recalls Joe R. Lansdale’s fiction along with touches of H.G. Wells & Lovecraft. I was especially impressed with Zahler’s script, which allows the actors to become fully realized characters with a lot of depth and dimension. Looking forward to whatever the director/writer does next.

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Crimson Peak (Dir. Guillermo del Toro; 2015)
Guillermo del Toro’s stab at classic Gothic horror (or as he insists on calling it, “Gothic romance”) had plenty of problems including an overbearing score. It also has trouble maintaining any tension or a sense of unease and impending doom that it’s clearly shooting for. Frankly, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (which made my list last year and remains one of the best things on TV) does it all much better but I loved the sumptuous style of del Toro’s production and the gorgeous costume designs. I also thought Jessica Chastain was terrific as the sinister Lucille and found her barely recognizable under all the black wigs and bone corsets while Tom Hiddleston made an effective Byronic anti-hero. As a fan of Corman’s Poe films, Hammer horror, Gothic literature and Hitchcock, Crimson Peak managed to hit many of my buttons. Despite my reservations, I admire the director’s horror output and think he does his best work within the genre so I hope he’ll continue to explore similar territory in the future.

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Cub (Dir. Jonas Govaerts; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
The low-budget Belgian horror film Cub aka Welp was originally released in 2014 but for some inexplicable reason (Lack of distribution? Lackluster reviews?) it was never released in the US outside of a few film festivals and finally found its way to Amazon in 2015 where it’s currently streaming online. Cub is the first full-length feature from director and writer Jonas Govaerts, who demonstrates a deft understanding and deep appreciation of the horror genre. Like many recent thrillers, the film is a throwback to late 1970s and early 1980s horror fare but it offers a unique spin on the classic “camping” genre that produced many popular films including the Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp series. In Cub we follow a pack of cub scouts who take a wrong turn during a camping trip and end up unleashing monsters both outside and within their group. Govaerts’s manages to ratchet-up the suspense by employing some Most Dangerous Game (1932) inspired mayhem, creative camera work and imaginative sound design while creating an atmosphere of unspoken dread that is too often missing from modern horror films. He also got an amazing performance from his young star (Maurice Luijten).

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The Falling (Dir. Carol Morley; 2015)
Set in a picturesque British girls’ school at the end of the sixties, The Falling chronicles a strange outbreak of fainting spells and fits that begin to occur after the sudden death of a student who was beloved and admired by her peers. Underlying all the swooning and spectacle is the budding sexuality of the young women who find it increasingly difficult to express their mutual affection for one another in a world that’s not prepared to sympathize with their unconventional desires. Director Carol Morley has constructed a beautiful and layered enigmatic mystery in the tradition of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) that makes great use of its period setting. Ripe with symbolism and bursting with youthful longing, The Falling successfully explores a time when the shared love between two women was often reduced to soft whispers and stolen glances.

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Goodnight Mommy (Dir. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
Goodnight Mommy uses the nebulous trappings of psychological horror to examine the aftereffects of a mother’s superfluous plastic surgery on her two young children. After having her face reconstructed, her twin boys become increasingly suspicious of their mother’s identity and behavior while their own personalities begin to disintegrate and merge leading to a rather grim and gory ending. It’s stimulating stuff that borrows from other films involving twins with identity issues such as Dead Ringers (1988), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and takes some of its most striking images from Eyes Without a Face (1960), while offering a smart critique of our current culture that’s increasingly fixated on a very narrow and stilted definition of beauty. The film’s leisurely pace, bleak atmosphere, infinite mirages and stark setting transform the Austrian countryside, so lively, lush and child friendly in The Sound of Music (1965), into an eerily cold, unwelcoming and laboratory-like locale where monsters, both imagined and real, hide in plain sight.

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Listen to Me Marlon (Dir. Stevan Riley; 2015)
Stevan Riley’s exceptional documentary unfurls like a cinematic tone poem mixing previously unheard audio tapes of Marlon Brando along with home movies, film clips and news footage to create a haunting and intimate portrait of the actor at his most vulnerable. Part biography, part confessional and part art instillation, Listen to Me Marlon is one of the most arresting and thought-provoking portraits of a performer that I’ve ever seen. When it ended I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just been visited by Brando’s mournful ghost.

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Mr. Holmes (Dir. Bill Condon; 2015)
I know what you’re thinking. Another Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation? Does the world really need one more Sherlock Holmes’ movie? Similar thoughts ran through my head before I watched Mr. Holmes but I was pleasantly surprised by its unique take on a familiar and much-loved character. It isn’t without its flaws and occasionally suffers from being too sweet and sentimental for its own good, but it contains one of the best and most nuanced performances of the year by Ian McKellen who is reunited here with Bill Condon, director of Gods and Monsters (1998). 76-year-old Mckellen plays Holmes in his twilight years as he struggles to maintain his fading memory and powers of detection while suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I appreciated the way the film used distorted and merging timelines along with muddled recollections of the past to deconstruct Sherlock as his identity undergoes a slow, sad and painful dismantling. This is one of the few “all-ages” films on my list that can be enjoyed by the whole family, especially families who may be dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s themselves. Besides a stellar performance from Ian Mckellen, Mr. Holmes also contains some solid work by young costar Milo Parker as well as actress Laura Linney.

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Naciye (Dir. Lutfu Emre Cicek; 2015)
Lutfu Emre Cicek’s engrossing Turkish horror film centers around a middle-aged woman named Naciye (skillfully played by celebrated Istanbul born actress Derya Alabora), who refuses to leave her family home even though she can no longer afford to maintain it. She coldly and crudely disposes of any new occupants who attempt to move in and as the body count begins to mount, we learn more about her curious upbringing in erratic and nightmarish flashback sequences that constantly threaten to disrupt the narrative. Lutfu Emre Cicek’s first feature film is a surprisingly grim and gory debut embracing a weird romanticism that I found oddly enchanting. In simple terms, it’s a reverse home invasion thriller that exploits the genuine horror of displaced people in a unique and utterly gruesome way. And at just 81 minutes it never wears out its welcome.

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Shaun the Sheep Movie (Dir. Richard Starzak & Mark Burton; 2015)
This refreshingly warm, funny and charming ode to silent cinema produced by Aardman Animations is far and away the best animated film I saw last year. What sets Shaun the Sheep Movie apart is its universal appeal and ingenious use of stop-motion techniques that will impress and delight viewers of all ages. The film tells the simple story of a group of farm animals who, due to a number of amusing and unfortunate events, lose their human caretaker and must overcome many obstacles to retrieve him and save their farm. Along the way, they all learn some timeless lessons about the failings and frailty of memory, the importance of not taking anything we have, no matter how routine, for granted. Especially our pets! Like many of the best animated films, you could play Shaun the Sheep Movie in any country with an audience of children (and adults) who speak any language, and I’m certain that most would be able to appreciate the film and what it has to say about our collective experience.

shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (Dir. Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
This hilarious and strangely touching comedy about a group of New Zealand vampires was the funniest film I saw in 2015. It was written and directed by two of the film’s stars, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who seem to be having a blast on set in this clever mockumentary that satirizes the horror genre’s current glut of “found footage” films. Longtime horror enthusiasts well-versed in vampire mythology and pop culture references should appreciate the film’s range of jokes and well-timed barbs.

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White God (Dir. Kornél Mundruczó; 2014 – U.S. release 2015)
Earlier this year I wrote a bit about my affection for White God, an imaginative Hungarian film that masks a potent social and political narrative within a modern fable about a young girl and the dog she’s forced to abandon. The performance of twin canine’s Luke and Body as “Hagen” remains one of my favorites of 2015. You can find my previous piece about the film here.

YakuzaApocalypse

Yakuza Apocalypse (Dir. Takeshi Miike; 2015)
Takeshi Miike is another one of my favorite filmmakers but I’ve lost of track of his work in recent years. This is partially my own fault because I can’t keep up with his enormous output but he’s also strayed a bit from the dark underpinnings and kinetic energy that I fund so admirable in his early films. Miike’s zany yakuza vampire extravaganza is not a complete return to form but it did remind me why he’s one of our most interesting and dynamic directors. Yakuza Apocalypse impressed me with its brash style, wacky sense of humor and crazy plot. This low-budget Japanese film takes wild chances and doesn’t hit every mark it shoots for but it has an abundance of ideas that I appreciated, particularly at a time when Hollywood insists on churning out remakes and sequels, and I applaud its sheer bravado.

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A few more interesting films I saw last year that I didn’t have time to write up: Xavier Dolan’s mournful and moody thriller, Tom at the Farm; Alex Garland’s slick science fiction parable, Ex Machina; Alexander Arnby’s coming-of-age werewolf fable, When Animals Dream; Kimberly Levin’s environmentally aware farming drama Runoff; John Maclean’s western adventure Slow West; Peter Strickland’s dark erotic dirge, The Duke Of Burgundy and Aleksei German’s medieval science fiction epic, Hard to Be a God.

6 Responses 15 Favorite Films of 2015
Posted By Susan Doll : January 15, 2016 4:12 am

This is my favorite list of any list I have read so far. Such interesting films–some I knew nothing about. I, too, am a Miike fan, but I did not know about Yakuza Apocalypse.

So sad that only Mr. Holmes, Crimson Peak, and Ex Machina were the only films to show on the bit screen in my neck of the woods. Slow West and White God did screen at the Sarasota Fest, but the fest here in general does not make good choices.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2016 1:21 pm

Great list, some I’ve seen, and some I can’t wait to see (45 Years is supposed to be opening here soon). I had an easier time coming up with my own Top 10 for 2015 than I have in the last few years, I think it was a good year overall, and had a good feeling about it last winter when I first saw Ex Machina. But I still have a lot of catching up to do, especially with the new westerns. Between the ones you mention, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, who knew there’d be a neo-oater renaissance in 2015?

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2016 1:23 pm

We’re also getting the front-runner in the foreign language Academy Award category, Son of Saul, in a couple of weeks, it looks intense and gripping based on the trailer I just watched. Curiously, shot (or at least, transferred) in the old near-square ratio of 1.37:1, I’m guessing to heighten a sense of claustrophobia and dread. We’ll see how it works.

Posted By Gene : January 16, 2016 3:54 pm

Great list Kimberly! Sadly I have only been able to see 4 of the films mentioned (71, Mr Holmes, What We Do…,Ex-Machina) but what standouts in the wasteland of popular entertainment. I thought Mr Holmes was such a great take on the character and as usual McKellen and Linney were flawless.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : January 17, 2016 4:07 am

I liked Ex Machina and I loved What We Do in the Shadows.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 17, 2016 7:48 pm

Thanks for all the comments! I hope this list, along with Susan’s and R. Emmet’s, will encourage people to seek out films that are off the beaten path and tend to get overlooked during awards season. Will add that I’m thrilled by Rampling’s Oscar nomination and hope she wins. She’s always great but she delivered some exceptional performances last year in 45 Years as well as the terrific British TV series Broadchurch. Both were award worthy.

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