The Best Films of 2015

Top 10 of the Year

1. The RevenantAlejandro Iñárritu
2. Mad Max: Fury RoadGeorge Miller
3. Son of SaulLászló Nemes
4. VictoriaSebastian Schipper
5. The AssassinHou Hsiao-hsien
6. CarolTodd Haynes
7. The LobsterYorgos Lanthimos
8. Tale of TalesMatteo Garrone
9. Sunset SongTerence Davies
10. The Big ShortAdam McKay

Best Film

The Revenant. Steadily over the years, this has been creeping closer and closer to Mad Max: Fury Road as the greatest film of 2015, and only recently has it finally overtaken George Miller’s high-octane action blockbuster. As a result, this also marks the second year in a row that Alejandro Iñárritu has cracked the #1 spot – a remarkable feat that marks the peak of his career and the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement in general. This survival tale set in the 19th century snowy Dakotan wilderness is easily one of the most beautiful films of the decade in its natural lighting, long takes, and meticulously staged battle sequences, but then there are the surreal interludes on top of that which bring an otherworldly mysticism to the central spiritual journey.

A spiritual and visceral journey through the Dakotan wilderness in The Revenant, meditating on mortality and the transition from one life to another.

Most Underrated

The Revenant. The most recent update on TSPDT saw this land at #20 of the decade. This has been worst in the past – the previous year saw it at #26, and the tide has been gradually shifting over time to compensate for how badly critics missed on this when it came out. At the time it got a bit too caught up in Oscars politics with the whole narrative about Leonardo DiCaprio sleeping in a bear and going full method for the part. With some distance from that, fortunately people are starting to take it on its own merits as an astounding, awe-inspiring film.

These surreal dream scenes are staggering, and integral to our main character’s psychological journey. This is not a film to underrate so lightly

Most Overrated

Inside Out. This stands among Pixar’s best films, and it is certainly a smart, touching, endlessly imaginative screenplay. But I can’t reason its #4 spot on TSPDT above superior cinematic achievements like Son of Saul, Victoria, and Carol.

Pixar is a powerhouse of animation through the 2000s and into the 2010s, and Inside Out is worth admiring as part of that great run, even if it lacks the formal ambition of something like WALLE.

Best Directorial Debut

Son of Saul. It actually hurts a little bit not being about to mention The Witch here, but László Nemes’ Holocaust drama possesses an unparalleled formal rigour and dedicated aesthetic that Robert Eggers’ folk horror can’t match. Point-of-view is everything, trapping us in long takes that hang on the shoulder and face of one Jewish-Hungarian concentration camp prisoner, and confining us in extreme shallow focus to a wilfully incomplete picture of history. The horrors of the setting are kept just out of view, as if blocked out in his own head, but we still see just enough for this to become one of the most traumatic depictions of war committed to film.

It is hard to believe Son of Saul is the work of a first time director. Its style of shallow focus, dim lighting, and close-ups doesn’t immediately leap out, but it grinds away at you over the course of the film – a sure sign of excellent form.

Gem to Spotlight

Cemetery of Splendour. For Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this is actually a bit of a disappointment, and yet a weak film by his standards is still incredibly fascinating. In a former elementary school somewhere in Thailand, a temporary clinic has been set up to manage the overflow of comatose soldiers from a nearby hospital. A mysterious “sleeping sickness” has been taking over military units, and the only way nurses have been able to treat them is by soothing their dreams through light machines, each one standing tall above the beds like over-sized, neon canes. As the machines rotate through psychedelic colours in this otherwise pitch-black space, Weerasethakul invokes a hallucination of hypnotic effervescence. There is political subtext here as well, but Cemetery of Splendour thrives in those scenes where we disappear into his tropical fever dreams.

A standout sequence from Cemetery of Splendour, cycling through the neon colours in this temporary clinic as if tracing the dreams of its sleeping soldiers.

Best Male Performance

Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2015 for his part in The Revenant, but it’s hard not to feel that the Academy simply wanted to recognise his prolific career rather than the actual triumph of acting on display. Still, you can’t complain too much when they get it right, even for the wrong reasons. Rarely has such a character been rendered onscreen with such visceral pain and spiritual awe, seeing DiCaprio rely less on his verbal skills and more on his primal, physical presence. He undergoes a transformation throughout the film, turning into a ghost who haunts the wilderness and soon becomes one with it. In Alejandro Iñárritu’s wide-angle lens close-ups, his dirtied face and pale blue eyes convey transcendent expressions of terror, wonder, and longing.

Tom Hardy is also having a great year starring in its two best films – the villain in The Revenant, and the hero of Mad Max: Fury Road. The former is far more talkative than the latter, and may actually be the greater achievement in the end, but both are worthy of praise.

DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant is more than just a display of visceral pain and suffering – it is the canvas upon which Iñárritu maps a spiritual journey into nature, following the traditions of Native American cultures. There are few faces in film history so suited to close-ups as his.

Meanwhile, Géza Röhrig makes a brilliant onscreen debut in Son of Saul, offering us the narrow perspective through which this harrowing Holocaust story is filtered. Almost the entire film is shot in intimate close-ups hanging on his shoulder, the back of his head, and his face, leaving a lot hanging on his performance.

After this top 3, it is worth singling out Benicio del Toro in Sicario and Christian Bale in The Big Short – these are films with big casts, and yet both actors break through as particularly notable. Colin Farrell’s deadpan turn in The Lobster is a perfect absurdist fit for Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre black comedy, while Nicholas Hoult brings just enough to Mad Max: Fury Road as a war boy with shifting allegiances to earn a spot in this category.        

Son of Saul was Géza Röhrig’s film debut, and he is our vehicle into this concentration camp. It is exciting that he is also now using the clout he earned from it to work with Terrence Malick.

Best Female Performance

Charlize Theron’s Furiosa will go down as one of the great female action heroes of cinema, right next to Ripley from the Alien franchise and the Bride from the Kill Bill duology. She has more lines in Mad Max: Fury Road than her co-star Tom Hardy, but it is her swaggering physicality, pale blue eyes, and stoic face which open us up to her emotional journey as she resolves to find the utopian ‘Green Place’. The heartbreak of discovering its destruction and her subsequent determination to topple Immortan Joe’s tyrannical reign centre her as one of the decade’s greatest characters, come to life in Theron’s confident performance with strength and grit.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara come next in Carol, Todd Haynes’ warm, romantic melodrama about the transgressive relationship formed between the glamourous, middle-aged title character and Mara’s younger, fresh-faced shop assistant in 1950s New York. Laia Costa also deserves a mention for her part in the one-take film Victoria, carrying an incredible intensity across all 138 minutes of its uncut runtime, while Qi Shu maintains an elegant yet dynamic presence in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s wuxia film The Assassin.

One of the great female action heroes of film, and Charlize Theron deserves all the praise she gets for it, driving the narrative forward right next to Tom Hardy’s Mad Max.

Best Cinematography: The Revenant

1. The RevenantEmmanuel Lubezki
2. Mad Max: Fury RoadJohn Seale
3. VictoriaSturla Brandth Grovlen
4. The AssassinMark Lee Ping-bing
5. CarolEdward Lachman
6. Tale of TalesPeter Suschitzky
7. Son of SaulMatyas Erdely
8. Sunset SongMichael McDonough
9. SicarioRoger Deakins
A ruined church discovered in the middle of the wilderness. So much symbolism packed into this, paired with remarkable photography in the symmetry, low angle, natural light, washed out colours – it earns the Tarkovsky comparisons.

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

1. Mad Max: Fury RoadMargaret Sixel
2. The Big ShortHank Corwin
3. Gone GirlKirk Baxter
4. The RevenantStephen Mirrione
5. The AssassinHuang Chih-Chia
6. The LobsterYorgos Mavropsaridis
Mad Max: Fury Road is more than just great action editing with an incredibly short average shot length, though it is certainly that as well. Margaret Sixel cut out single frames in the middle of shots to create the impression of speeding up footage, and the results are magnificent.

Best Screenplay: Sicario

1. The LobsterEfthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
2. SicarioTaylor Sheridan
3. CarolPhyllis Nagy
4. The Big ShortCharles Randolph, Adam McKay
5. The WitchRobert Eggers
6. Sunset SongTerence Davies
The Lobster is an invention of Kafkaesque absurdism, building a world on inane rules which are right at home in a Yorgos Lanthimos film.

Best Original Music Score: Mad Max: Fury Road

1. Mad Max: Fury RoadJunkie XL
2. The RevenantRyuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto
3. CarolCarter Burwell
4. SicarioJohan Johannsson
5. The WitchMark Korven
6. VictoriaNils Frahm
7. The AssassinLim Giong
8. Sunset SongGast Waltzing
9. Tale of TalesAlexandre Desplat
Junkie XL brings the sound of thunder to its score of pounding drums, distorted basses, and aggressive strings. Much of it is diegetic as well, played by Immortan Joe’s own war boys as they race across dusty landscapes.

Year Breakdown

2015 has two decade-defining masterpieces sitting right at the top – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. The first is George Miller’s widely beloved comeback that virtually revived his entire career, and the second is Iñárritu at his absolute peak, landing at the top of the list two years in a row. Birdman and The Revenant would be his only two films this decade, but he would leave a huge mark on it nonetheless. With Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak also coming out this year, it is clear that Nuevo Cine Mexico remains alive and well long after it kicked off in the early 2000s, and is still far from over.

Besides these major Hollywood movies, 2015 is also a significant year for world cinema. Just in my top 10 alone, there are only two American directors – other countries represented include Hungary, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Taiwan, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom. While their films don’t land in my top 10, it is notable that Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke are both present and working this year too, further diversifying the pool of talent. Given the Academy’s taste for a very specific kind of film, it isn’t surprising that many of these weren’t recognised among their nominations. By giving Spotlight the award for Best Picture, they also missed out on the two very easy blockbuster choices I already mentioned sitting at #1 and #2 of the year.

Jurassic World and The Force Awakens sit atop the 2015 box office. Along with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, these indicate the growing popularity of legacy sequels reviving nostalgic movie franchises from decades ago. Between Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and Jurassic World here, Chris Pratt proves to be a very bankable star, and would continue to lead both franchises into the 2020s. This year is also a highpoint for Pixar with Inside Out raking in big numbers and proving to be one of their most imaginative films, while The Martian leaves its mark as one of Ridley Scott’s most financially successful films.

Hou Hsiao-hsien crafts indelible imagery in his Chinese wuxia film The Assassin, patiently building the fable of Yinniang’s quest to kill military governor Tian Ji’an.

Film Archives

AnomalisaCharlie KaufmanR/HR
Bridge of SpiesSteven SpielbergR
BrooklynJohn CrowleyR
CarolTodd HaynesMS
Cemetery of SplendourApichatpong WeerasethakulR
Crimson PeakGuillermo del ToroHR
Inside OutPeter DocterR
Knight of CupsTerrence MalickR
Mad Max: Fury RoadGeorge MillerMP
Mountains May DepartJia ZhangkeR
RoomLenny AbrahamsonR
SicarioDenis VilleneuveHR
Son of SaulLászló NemesMS
SpotlightTom McCarthyR
Star Wars: The Force AwakensJ.J. AbramsR
Steve JobsDanny BoyleR/HR
Sunset SongTerence DaviesHR
TangerineSean BakerHR
The AssassinHou Hsiao-hsienMS
The Big ShortAdam McKayHR
The Danish GirlTom HooperR
The Hateful EightQuentin TarantinoR
The LobsterYorgos LanthimosHR/MS
The MartianRidley ScottR
The RevenantAlejandro IñárrituMP
The WitchRobert EggersHR
VictoriaSebastian SchipperMS
Terence Davies adapts the 1932 novel Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibson here, bringing its powerful literary prose to film by way of enchanting voiceovers and spectacular exterior photography.

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