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Best (and Worst) of 2015: Film | reviews, news & interviews

Best (and Worst) of 2015: Film

Best (and Worst) of 2015: Film

Spectre-less and franchise-free, what The Arts Desk film critics loved and loathed

Spectre, 2015: Daniel Craig walks away from The Arts Desk 'Best of Film' empty-handed

The autumn cinema schedules of 2015 were assailed by the double whammy of Spectre and The Force Awakens– at times making it hard to find a screen showing anything else. 

Yet you’ll see that neither that latest instalment in the Bond franchise – though it’s been acclaimed as among the very best – nor the much-anticipated return of Star Wars appears on our list. Does that place us at the higher-brow end of the spectrum? Or sticking to a more determinedly eclectic ground, with Asif Kapadia's remarkable documentary Amy, Bill Condon’s unexpected addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice featuring? For you to judge. It’s an unashamedly personal choice from what we've seen wherever we've been, illustrated by the fact that Lenny Abrahamson’s Room will only reach the UK next year. Interestingly, all the Best Films are English-language, which has definitely not been the case in previous years.

Meanwhile, Worst Film is a new accolade for theartsdesk and may create no less controversy, though we hope of a lighter kind. Is a film-lover’s individual taste proved as much by what they loathe as what they love? At the end of the festive season, we offer you more turkey, to be chewed over with a generous helping of humour...


45 Years

Writing this in East Anglia brings home the sheer achievement of texture that was Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. It’s there in the region’s flat wintry landscapes, in the everyday details of a life shared in retirement, and in the faces of the couple marking the wedding anniversary of the film’s title: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff, the assumed invulnerability of whose relationship will be challenged, blasted even, by news from Geoff’s distant past.

Haigh creates a sense of abyss beneath the casual accumulation of familiar lives. It comes through in the haggard moments of silence that mark each discovery, culminating in the gutting revelation that sears itself into Kate’s consciousness as she watches an old black and white home movie in the attic. Not a traditional skeleton, but a blow to the solar plexus that puts the whole past in a new light. The final scene catches the broodingly intense Rampling at sea, all the links that have anchored her to a past cut away. A brilliant performance. Tom Birchenough


Following his groundbreaking work on Senna, Asif Kapadia's second documentary is a brilliantly constructed, astutely judged and heartbreaking account of the life and tragic early death of Amy Winehouse, a blessedly gifted young woman undone by fame, celebrity culture and, most cruelly, by love.

The film charts her entry into the music business as a teenager, followed by speedy success, through her deeply destructive marriage to Blake Fielder and descent with him into drug addition, and on to her death aged 27. As with Senna, Kapadia doesn’t allow talking heads to obscure the view, instead orchestrating his narrative through archive material – in this case home videos, studio and concert footage, TV clips and stills; though audio interviews play out over the images, the most telling commentary comes from Winehouse herself, through her lyrics, which appear onscreen as she sings.

The result is part homage, part lament, part social critique, and a film that exercises a range of emotions – making us feel angry, sad, outraged, complicit and, despite everything, uplifted by the memory of God-given talent. Demetrios Matheou

Bridge of Spies

There have been grumbles in some quarters that Bridge of Spies is a sop to Snowdenites, that Spielberg’s latest entertainment wags a reproving finger at America’s unprincipled use of surveillance. It just didn’t feel that way in the cinema. Bridge of Spies is a nostalgic film about a face-off in which geopolitical enemies held on to enough of their humanity to talk to each other through a secret side door. Tom Hanks, the big screen’s most gifted conversationalist, was the ideal guide to this binary world. He played insurance lawyer James T Donovan – tasked with negotiating the release of a captive US pilot – as folksy, wily and steely, whichever seemed right for the scene. If that weren’t bounty enough, in his first proper visit to a major Hollywood movie, Mark Rylance as an essentially decent Soviet spy brought all his ticks and tricks to the table. This was cinema as jaw-jaw not war-war. Jasper Rees


The Salt of Life is the most optimistic of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, but when Phyllis Nagy was entrusted with the screen adaptation, she still had to bleed it of the fairytale predatoriness that characterises suburban socialite Carol Aird’s pursuit of the orphaned Therese Belivet, a toy-counter salesgirl when they meet. At some point during Carol’s 15-year gestation, Nagy also made Therese an aspiring photographer instead of a would-be set designer. This was a gift for director Todd Haynes, who was able to empower Therese (Rooney Mara) as the author of the gaze and to build her self-reliance as her ecstatic romance with Carol (Cate Blanchett) flourishes and falters over Christmas and New Year 1952-53. Haynes’s exquisite orchestration of a film about love forced into outlaw country by a repressive patriarchy was blessed by the low-key performances, Ed Lachman’s cinematography (its delicately heightened realism enhanced by reflections, obscurings, and impressions), and Carter Burwell’s plaintive score. Graham Fuller

Mr Holmes

Conan Doyle's eternal detective has recently been reinvented as Robert Downey's superhero and Benedict Cumberbatch's hyper-tuned autistic genius. Here though, director Bill Condon threw out the special effects and slowed the pace to create a mood of Zen-like meditativeness. This was a sad, ageing Holmes, plagued by his failing memory and dogged by the shadow of his tragic and still unsolved final case. 

The story is set in a melancholy post-World War Two England, as the 93-year-old Holmes potters around his rambling clifftop cottage in Sussex, making faltering stabs at his memoirs and tending to his bees. Flashbacks to the younger Holmes are a reminder of how far he has fallen from the self-assured (and slighty self-satisfied) sleuth in his prime, and Ian McKellen's performance as both older and younger Holmes is a sustained marvel of subtle observation and delicate emotional colours. Another of Condon's themes is the gulf between the solitary inner Holmes and the world-famous fictional character, and the denouement offers an artful convergence of the twain. Adam Sweeting

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice sounded too good to be true. PT Anderson adapting Thomas Pynchon’s most consistently funny and approachable novel promised to be the best time you could have with your brain on. It was certainly less heavy-duty than Anderson’s previous mind-bender The Master, but his suggestion that he’d made a stoner comedy in the mode of Cheech and Chong was disingenuous. We found ourselves in a beachfront neighbourhood in hippie LA circa 1970, where dope-addled private eye “Doc” Sportillo (Joaquin Phoenix) haplessly grappled with shady miscreants played by Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson. The stoner non sequiturs were funnier the way Pynchon told ‘em, Anderson and Phoenix lacking the requisite deep deadpan timing. But the real subject was a soft lament for a hopeful hippie dream of America which was deliberately poisoned in the course of the film. This was all substantially improved by watching Inherent Vice, if you could, in Anderson’s preferred analogue film format, which deepened and enriched the glow of images emitting a hazy, narcotic ache for clung-to, sinking ideals. Its US failure perhaps proved its thesis. An America which by year’s end looked to Donald Trump for hope couldn’t countenance heroes with so little financial ambition, adrift in such undiluted sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Nick Hasted


A woman and her five-year-old son escape confinement from the cell-like conditions that constitute the only surroundings the boy, Jack, has ever known in director Lenny Abrahamson’s breathtaking adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. Premiered at the London Film Festival, Room doesn’t get a commercial UK release until 2016 so its inclusion here may be seen by some as jumping the gun.

But its wide exposure in the States over the past few months has positioned Room as a leading Oscar contender across multiple categories, not least Brie Larson for best actress for her ferally moving turn as Jack’s canny, protective Ma. Larson is altogether remarkable, charting the way in which Ma’s escape back into the world of light and air brings with it suffocations of a different sort, and Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay, now aged nine, gives easily the most impressive screen performance by a child actor since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sheltered by his adoring mother so to as preserve a degree of innocence in a world that has left Ma brutalised by experience, the two constitute a double-act for the ages. And the film is mighty fine, as well. Matt Wolf



Absolutely Anything

You might think that with former Python Terry Jones at the helm and gifted comedian Simon Pegg in the lead, this sci-fi comedy would be a “must see”. In fact, Absolutely Anything is anything but. Pegg is a school teacher chosen by aliens as the unknowing guinea pig in a test to see if anyone on Earth can use “absolute power for good”. If not, they’ll destroy the planet. Our hero uses said gift to talk to his dog and watch a turd dance around the toilet. Lamentable. Demetrios Matheou

Fifty Shades of Grey

Of course it could have been worse. EL James competes with Dan Brown as the most cloth-eared mangler of the English language currently renting out extra bank vaults to house their ill-gotten millions, and her prose was nowhere to be heard. But there was no escaping her softcore exploration of the shallows of female sub-dom fantasy, vacuum-packed for film in shiny chrome wrapping. Christian Grey was a screen hero put together from cardboard and spray tan and was given human form if not depth by Jamie Dornan. As submissive heroine Anastasia Steele, Dakota Johnson bit her lower lip and took the hit. Gluttons for punishment know there is more of this drivel to come, but director Sam Taylor-Johnson coyly declined to crack the whip a second time. Jasper Rees

Good People

The Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz aimed to outdo Sam Peckinpah and merely ended up with the dud of the year in Good People, in which James Franco and Kate Hudson play a nice American couple resident in London who are beset by internecine drug-trading, violence, and skeletons in the cupboard (make that the basement) that are best left unexplored.

Hinging on a drama-worthy ethical quandary – what do you do with a sudden landfall of cash that isn’t yours – the plot is the sort with which Hitchcock, among others, would have gone to town, but this film’s main interest is in leading us right towards the human slaughterhouse. Oh, and displaying what I suppose is commendable even-handedness in handing both comely leads a shower scene of their own: could Genz be angling to remake Psycho next? Matt Wolf

He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala may not have been the worst film of the year – but what a case of Hollywood souping up a documentary and thereby reducing the power of its story. There’s no denying the inspirational quality of of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage campaigner for the right of girls to education in frontier Pakistan who was very nearly killed by the Taliban. Davis Guggenheim’s film followed her after hospital recovery in Birmingham, dropping in on her home life, as she coped with the increasing public attention that culminated in her winning the Nobel Peace Prize. That Malala managed to remain an inspiring presence was testimony to her shyly humourous magnetism enduring in spite of the production dynamics. It even closed with the standard positive theme song, but things could have been worse: the producers had originally intended to tell Malala’s story in a feature film. Tom Birchenough

Ted 2

Chief among last summer's disgraces wasTed 2, which saw Mark Wahlberg’s uncouth teddy bear sidekick fight for his civil rights to father a child on his human (that is, idiot Barbie Doll) wife. Granted, Seth MacFarlane created the gratingly obnoxious Ted to satirise American-Irish boorishness while swiping at political correctness, but that doesn’t make 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the torture of enslaved Africans, and Robin Williams’s suicide fit subjects for his (or anyone else’s) glib humour. Notwithstanding that the franchise is lucrative, MacFarlane would do us all a favour if he were to tie the rancid furball to a brick and drop it in Boston Harbour. Graham Fuller

Christmas with the Coopers

If you need another reason to hate Christmas, here it is. Director Jessie Nelson had lined up a cast to die for, but they found themselves trapped in Mission: Unspeakable, sabotaged before launch by Steven Rogers's twee and smug screenplay. Diane Keaton and John Goodman couldn't have made a less convincing married couple if they'd been played by a cat and a fiddle (or Rags the family dog, easily the pick of the cast), while the crises of their extended family were remarkable only for their laborious mirthlessness. Adam Sweeting

Suite Française

Director Saul Dibb gutted Irene Nemirovsky’s great, posthumously published novel of the French Occupation, leaving little but a period romance between local villager Lucille (Michelle Williams) and German officer Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts). Reading Suite Française is inseparable from knowing that Nemirovsky, a successful Russian Jewish refugee novelist, was arrested by French police and murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, leaving her last work unfinished and forgotten till its sensational 2007 publication. Written when the war’s end was unknowable, it’s astonishingly generous to the Nazi invaders, and repulsed by French behaviour in the face of defeat. Dibb replaces such minutely observed ambiguity with clumsy hindsight and risible action scenes, making all the main French characters heroic Resisters to the jackbooted Hun. The distortion is comically crude. Nick Hasted

Interestingly, all the Best Films are English-language, which has definitely not been the case in previous years

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