I previously posted the introduction to my Top Films of 2015 list that discussed the pattern of my film watching and favorites this year. Now here are the films that made it into my Top 20! As usual, horror, complex and magical animation, and stories about girls and women pervade.
20. The Lobster, various, Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English language debut with a deeply absurdist black comedy. Featuring an ensemble cast with the likes of Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman and Ben Whishaw, this extremely talented cast deliverstheir most deadpan performances with hilarious results. This is a story that takes a swing at the absurdity of society's expectations towards romantic relationships, couples AND singles culture.
19. Girlhood, France, Céline Sciamma
Director Sciamma has built up a steady filmography of female oriented coming of age films. Girlhood is probably her boldest and brightest in this tale of what it means to be a young woman of color in the Paris banlieue. Girlhood follows Marieme, a 16 year old who lacks educational prospects and is horrified at the thought of going into 'vocational training'. Instead, to combat her aimlessness, she joins a gang of girls led by the loud, confident Lady. There is an absolutely wonderful scene where the girls lip synch and dance to Rihanna's 'Diamond' and for a moment they are allowed to run away from the stark natures of their reality. It's not all 'girl power' in this exploration of female friendship as Sciamma is not afraid to explore the darker more complex side of these girls' lives in relation to sexuality, race, gender and class.
18. It Follows, USA, David Robert Mitchell
I don't believe that horror need to shock and traumatize. What a good horror film needs is to haunt, unnerve and get under your skin, to tap into an inner fear. It Follows does that. The haunting presence that dogs protagonist Jay and her friends is persistent, malignant and not at once recognizable. For a horror film, the ghost-like, abandoned nature of Detroit has never been better used as a setting and the final showdown where Jay and her friends take on the presence Home Alone style in a deserted pool is insanely fun and terrifying all at once.
17. When Marnie Was There, Japan, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
The supposed final film from Studio Ghibli as they go into hiatus, When Marnie Was There is a fitting, quiet but luminous addition to the studio's legendary oeuvre. When Marnie Was There is a story about female friendship, self discovery. It follows the story of Anna, a shy and tomboyish girl with no friends. She suffers from asthma and also happens to be adopted, which contributes to her lack of self-esteem. Sent to the countryside with a distant relative for her health, she comes across a grand old mansion and a mysterious blonde girl Marnie, who she befriends and confides in. Studio Ghibli is always at its best when telling the stories of its young female heroines, and this particular one is a timely tale of female friendship that has been so lacking in the cinematic landscape.
16. Song of the Sea, Ireland, Tomm Moore
Song of the Sea is the follow up to Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells. Again, Moore roots his story in Irish folklore, with enchanting results. Song of the Sea follows Ben and Saoirse, siblings who get caught up in the magical realm of selkies, faeries and giants. The wondrous quality of the story calls to mind Studio Ghibli's best in films like Ponyo and Spirited Away, but the animation style and its Irish roots are very distinctly Tomm Moore and his artistic director Adrien Merigeau's. With this film, Moore secures his spot as a force to be reckoned with in the animation world, on par with the greats like Laika Studios and Studio Ghibli.
15. Cinderella, UK, Kenneth Branagh
People who know me know I adore fairy tales, but I have never been particularly interested in Cinderella. So how is it that the live action big studio film from Disney of Cinderella so captured my heart? It would be the luminous, star-making portrayal of the heroine Ella by Lily James, and the writing of script that breathes new life into somewhat archaic tropes. Cinderella's passivity in many of her incarnations is what has so frustrated me about the story. But Disney's live action retelling instead shows us WHY Ella chooses to put up with her mistreatment and abuse, with the brief but strong backstory of Ella's deep and loving relationship with her parents'. Lily James imbues Ella with so much spirit that she never feels passive. What is made clear in this story is that Ella is an abuse survivor. Kenneth Branagh, as a director, lends his eye for old-fashioned opulence and theatrics to bring about the most eye popping ballroom sequence. Special mention must also be given to Cate Blanchett's scenery-chewing performance as Ella's cruel stepmother. But really, the star of the film is the humanity found in Lily James's Ella, and the film never lets you forget that. P.S. John Waters agrees Cinderella is fucking great.
14. Spy, USA, Paul Feig
I never really got on board with Bridesmaids and was only somewhat entertained by The Heat. But Spy knocked it out of the park for me, with its amazing ensemble cast and lead performance from its star Melissa McCarthy. Jude Law plays a spoof of a James Bond type spy for the CIA with a terrible American accent that could either be a brilliant coincidence or a directorial choice. The highly underrated Rose Byrne plays an Eastern European crime heiress with a towering hairdo that would make Marie Antoinette proud (Rose Byrne also happened to be in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette). Jason Statham plays a paranoid and overly intense spy straight, with amazing results. Everyone is fantastic, but it is really McCarthy's electric chemistry with all of her supporting players that makes this film delight.
13. 45 Years, UK, Andrew Haigh
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give the performances of their careers with this subtle and unsettling relationship drama. Andrew Haigh, writer and director of the quiet but deeply felt Weekend, once again proves his keen eye for the details and frissions in a relationship, even one as long as Kate and Geoff's of 45 Years. Doubt is the main theme of this piece, and Haigh shows how when the Pandora's Box of secrets is open, the hunt for possible secrets and doubts consumes Kate's thoughts after an event from 50 years ago comes to haunt the couple.
12. Macbeth, UK/France/USA, Justin Kurzel
Justin Kurzel's interpretation of Macbeth is not for the Shakespeare purists. The most immortal and crucial pieces of dialogue are kept, but many others excised. There has never been an interpretation as brutal or bleak or so blood soaked as this one. Kurzel sees Macbeth's story as one of PTSD, and also of the Macbeths shared grief and trauma of loss and the inability to reconcile and face that dark chasm that drives the bloody deeds of the couple. Fassbender and Cotillard are knockouts in their roles as the doomed couple. Cotillard is particularly riveting in her opening monologue. DOP Adam Arkapaw, the brilliant rising talent from Australia who also lensed Top of the Lake, does some breath-taking work in this, capturing the beautiful but unforgiving landscape of the Scottish highlands.
11. Far From the Madding Crowd, UK, Thomas Vinterberg
Perhaps not as gritty and raw as what we're used to with Thomas Vinterberg's work, he nevertheless lends a clean and sure hand in this fresh update of the Thomas Hardy novel. Carey Mulligan is at her most charming as the headstrong and modern heroine Bathsheba Everdene, who is allowed to be her own woman, stand as an equal amongst men and make her own mistakes. Matthias Schonaerts as the stoic and ever reliable Gabriel Oak is also fantastic casting and he and Mulligan have a wonderful, easy chemistry. This is period film adapted for modern audiences and sensibilities set against the breathtaking English countryside, with characters that we can root for.