Must-See Films of 2015 in Review

The upcoming film year looks very promising, brimming with hefty summer blockbusters and latest efforts from legendary filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, and Martin Scorsese. But before we step into the near future of cinema, let us look back at some of the artistic highlights that multiplexes have been screening during the past year. Bear in mind that my list only includes the films that I have personally seen in 2015 – for a more exhaustive list, I suggest for example checking out the exemplary top lists compiled by The Guardian. And now, without further ado, here are some of my cinematic recommendations of the year!

I feel I have yet to witness many great performances due to many awards contenders having very late release dates in Finland; I’m particularly looking forward to the volatile interplay between Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s romance in Carol, or the much-hyped ensemble acting in The Hateful Eight. However, I am happy to note that many genre films, science fiction ones in particular, have featured some exceptional human-to-non-human acting. Although Chappie was tonally and narratively all over the shop, Sharlto Copley’s moving role as the titular cop-turned-gangster is a worthy addition to the filmic roster of memorable robot characters. Another A.I. milestone was Alicia Vikander’s revelatory turn as the physically striking and intellectually intriguing Ava in Ex Machina. The film also features the always-terrific Oscar Isaac, who brings manic fervor to the role of the slightly unhinged tech wiz Nathan Bateman. Matt Damon is equally charming as the wise-cracking astronaut survivor in The Martian, rekindling the sense of joy and playfulness that many space adventures of late have lacked.

The single greatest performance of the year has to be Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the high-octane heroine of Mad Max: Fury Road. Her gritty and seismic presence crystallizes the central premise of director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic nightmare, in which women desperately attempt to instill sense and order into a world that has been devoured by the insanity of men. Film critic Mark Kermode says it best when describing Theron as “channeling the spirit of [Mel] Gibson’s deranged Apocalypto, an oil-smear across her forehead signaling both petrol-head and tribal-warrior, her mechanical hand adding just a touch of The Terminator.” Physicality is key here: you only need to pay attention to Theron’s eyes during the jaw-dropping fist fight with Tom Hardy to appreciate why she is the Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver of today.

It was also great to see that many of the year’s strangest performances were handled primarily by female performers. The conceptually infectious British drama The Falling boasts a spectacular ensemble of young actresses, led by Game of Thrones superstar Maisie Williams, whose graceful displays of mass hysteria and blooming sexuality have to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, Sheila Vand secured the year’s finest vampire performance with her creepy lead in the indie hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And to those who may have been psychologically scarred by the recent adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna’s funny and affectionate performances in the BDSM drama The Duke of Burgundy may work as a much-needed antidote.

My fondness of good-lookin' cinema is perhaps obvious from the fact that most of my favorite scenes rely heavily on action choreographies and visual suspense. As mentioned above, the fist fight in Mad Max: Fury Road highlights the film’s ridiculous compression of tightly knit chase sequences, bullet exchanges and the occasional radiation storm. Pixar’s Inside Out contains more visual gags than most filmmakers could dream up in a lifetime, and in its most inspirational scene, our animated heroes stumble into the abstract thoughts of a 12-year-old girl, with terrifying and fascinating consequences. The flawless Irish animation Song of the Sea has the most emotionally engaging ending to any film I’ve seen in many a year, while Guillermo del Toro’s flawed Gothic romance Crimson Peak has the bloodiest finale to any film I’ve seen in many a year. The very best scene of the year, however, can be found in Denis Villeneuve’s nihilistic narco-thriller Sicario, in which FBI agent Kater Marcer (the superb Emily Blunt) is dragged into the blood-soaked badlands of Mexican cartel crime. Its most intense sequence begins with a thrilling police escort through hostile urban territory (beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins), and which climaxes in the best movie depiction of a traffic jam since Falling Down and Office Space.

2014 was a tough act to follow in terms of animation, but the past year did ultimately rise to the challenge by providing us with a handful of instant classics. Leading the pack in this category is the captivating Song of the Sea, which utilizes a combination of modern and traditional artwork to tell a sad yet joyous family tale steeped in Irish folklore – it’s rare gems like this that remind us of why we bother watching movies in the first place. The impeccable Aardman Studios also delivers the goods with Shaun the Sheep Movie, which brilliantly demonstrates how the magic of stop-motion animation often lies in its non-verbal modes of expression (something that the makers of the unbelievably talky Fantastic Mr. Fox clearly failed to grasp). And let us not forget the immensely popular Inside Out; while it is not quite up there with Pixar’s very best work (Wall-E, Up and the Toy Story trilogy), the way it has clicked with the popcorn masses has been an encouraging sign of popular movie-going trends. However, the film was nevertheless outperformed by the abysmal Jurassic World in the box office, which means that we still have our work cut out in ridding the world of bad taste in movies.

Finally, we arrive at what I strongly feel was the very best 2015 had to offer. Unlike the imaginative animations above, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary The Look of Silence does not need to invent or exaggerate any of its earth-shattering content. The tragic narrative traces the modern-day repercussions of the 1960s Indonesian killings, which continues to haunt and torment families of the victims – as well as Indonesian society as a whole. Oppenheimer himself describes the movie as a diptych pairing to his previous masterpiece The Act of Killing, which shocked audiences by depicting the living perpetrators (many of them wielding considerable political power) as unremorseful and appallingly proud of the massacres they had participated in. In The Look of Silence, the focus is rather on the victims and their voice(lessness) in the midst of inhumanity, and the film is none the worse for this. We follow the life of middle-aged optician Adi Rukun, and his attempts to confront the men responsible for the brutal murder of his older brother Ramli. As always in life, there are no neat and easy resolutions to be found here, yet the sheer force and urgency of Adi's encounters are enough to devastate any viewer with a shred of human decency. I am also inclined to agree with producer Werner Herzog that it will be a very long while before another documentarian can surpass the investigative and artistic profundity of Oppenheimer’s monumental work. If you plan to watch either this or The Act of Killing (I would recommend starting with the latter), remember to reserve some time afterward for collecting your thoughts and digesting what you've just seen. Harrowing and unmissable.