Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2015

As 2015 comes to a close and we head into 2016, it's time to take a look back at the top 20 films of the year.

As 2015 comes to a close and we head into 2016, it’s time to take a look back at the very best the year in cinema had to offer with the top 20 films of the year. As ever, this list is limited to films that were released in UK cinemas in 2015, but spans every style and genre, from the biggest of blockbusters to little-seen indies, fascinating documentaries and the best of world cinema.

So take a look at the list and if you agree or disagree with any films that were included, or not, feel free to sound off in the comments section below.

20. Love & Mercy

Eschewing birth-death standards usually found in musical biopics, Bill Pohlad’s quietly moving Love & Mercy charts two crucial periods in the life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, brought to life via two excellent performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack in this sad but ultimately hopeful film.

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19. Girlhood

French writer-director Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood charts the story of 16-year-old Merieme (Karidja Toure) as she comes of age in the Parisian housing projects, finding a sense of belonging with a gang of girls of similar circumstance. The hotel room scene, set to Rihanna’s Diamonds, is one of the most powerful of the year.

18. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is an eerie, beautiful and ultimately fascinating portrait of a BDSM relationship between Chiara Diana and Sidse Babett Knudsen, who are both fantastic in the lead roles as Strickland gradually strips away the artifice of their relationship to reveal the complexities, sacrifices and constantly shifting power dynamics beneath.

17. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Based on Phoebe Glockner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a funny, bold and refreshing coming-of-age story that focuses on the sexual awakening of titular teen Minnie, played in a revelatory performance by Bel Powley. Frank, honest, edgy, funny and visually inventive.

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16. Mississippi Grind

Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly cast as a rumpled, desperate gambler in this road movie from Half Nelson directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. He forms a wonderful odd couple pairing with Ryan Reynolds’ similarly damaged gambler, and the film follows their funny and melancholic journey down the Mississippi. It’s loose and a little baggy but it’s a pleasure to spend time with these two flawed but amiable characters.

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15. Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s claustrophobic sci-fi chamber piece Ex Machina is a startling directorial debut that bristles with tension for the entirety of its tight run time. Essentially a three hander between Oscar Isaac’s bullish computer genius, Domhnall Gleeson’s meek programmer and a sophisticated AI, played with precision, intelligence and vulnerability by the excellent Alicia Vikander, who keeps her character’s true intentions largely concealed.

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14. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

JJ Abrams somehow achieved the impossible in delivering a new Star Wars film that mostly lived up to the unprecedented hype around it. In plucking themes and plot elements from the original series, Abrams’ film feels very familiar but the mix of beloved old characters and appealing new ones, particularly Daisy Ridley’s steely heroine Rey, perfectly sets the series on course for the future.

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13. Magic Mike XXL

The follow up to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 male-stripper drama, Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL manages to top its predecessor. Shedding the angsty tone and recession woes, the sequel is a raucous summer comedy packed with physically impressive dance routines, plenty of bro bonding between Channing Tatum and his muscle-bound besties, and a refreshing focus on female pleasure that puts a welcome spin on a tired formula. Quite possibly the most purely fun film of the year.

12. Fast & Furious 7

Another contender for the most fun film of the year, albeit in a very different way. Furious 7 manages to be even bigger and better than the last instalment, moving at a clip from one impressive set piece to another, delivering the insane action and soapy family drama that’s become the cornerstone of the series. It also manages a pitch-perfect send off to Paul Walker – lost to a tragic accident midway through shooting – that gives the actor a surprisingly tasteful and moving send off.

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11. The Martian

Sharp, witty and wonderfully hopeful, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the veteran director’s best work in a long time, thanks largely to Drew Goddard’s zippy script. Matt Damon anchors the film with a warm, charismatic turn as stranded astronaut Mark Watney. It’s unashamedly a big, glossy crowdpleaser that, rather than weighty, existential themes, chooses instead to focus on teamwork and problem solving in a positive and accessible way, and is all the more joyous for it.

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10. Straight Outta Compton

With Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray manages to capture the searing energy and furious anger of the NWA, one of music’s most thrilling acts. In Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson Jr, Gray found his perfect Dr Dre, Eazy E and ice Cube respectively, with the central trio all giving strong performances at the center of a massively entertaining film that matches that feel of danger and unpredictability that surrounded the group in their heyday. Exhilarating, enthralling and absolutely vital viewing.

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9. Carol

Todd Haynes’s love story between high society housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and young shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) in 1950’s New York is an achingly sad film about forbidden desire, the societal pressures of the time and the bewildering effect of love. Blanchett and Mara both deliver exquisite performances, with both women conveying so much emotion, desire and heartbreak in the smallest of gestures. The world they inhabit is a gorgeous and lovingly realized recreation of the 50’s; you can practically smell the cigarette smoke and expensive perfume wafting through the screen.

8. Selma

The controversy surrounding Selma’s lack of Oscar nominations was a testament to just how good Ava DuVernay’s film is. Rather than charting Martin Luther King’s life from beginning to end, the film zeroes in on King (David Oyelowo) as he organizes the iconic Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. DuVernay opts for a quietly grounded approach rather than grandeur and overwrought melodrama, avoiding biopic clichés to find the human side of an icon. Oyelowo’s performance is quietly powerful as he wears the weight of his responsibility, while also struggling with guilt in his personal life. A powerful mix of personal drama and historical events that are still, sadly, so relevant.

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7. Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Best Picture-winning showbiz satire Birdman takes a biting look at the current state of the movie industry as struggling actor Riggin Thompson (Michael Keaton) tries to escape the shadow of his famous superhero role by staging a beloved play on Broadway. Keaton’s excellent performance hits at the insecurity of the movie star while Edward Norton is the best he’s been in years as a self-styled serious actor, both men desperate to remain relevant. Shot to look like it was all one take as the camera weaves through the corridors, out onto the stage and back again, all scored to an unusual (and occasionally jarring) jazz score, Birdman is a unique experience.

6. Steve Jobs

Playing out over three acts, each one shot in distinctive ways by director Danny Boyle, this unusual and very stagey biopic of Apple guru Steve Jobs is writer Aaron Sorkin at his very best. Michael Fassbender stars as the titular tech icon at three key points in his professional life and Sorkin’s script contrives to make them three crucial stages of his personal life too, as friends, enemies, colleagues and rivals all come to hash out their problems in a series of conversations, most of which are extremely tense and all of them crackle with Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue.

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5. Victoria

Unlike Birdman, which went to great pains to look like it was all done in one shot, astonishing German thriller Victoria actually pulls it off. For almost two-and-a-half hours, director Sebastian Schipper follows his characters through the streets of Berlin as young Spanish girl Victoria (Laia Costa), looking for friends in a new city, falls in with a boisterous group of young German guys and her night takes a turn for the thrilling. Costa is an absolute revelation, carrying the whole film on her shoulders and shifting and adapting as the film nimbly moves between different genres, starting out as a Before Sunset-style romance before transforming into something entirely different. An exhilarating piece of cinema.

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4. Brooklyn

Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, John Crowley’s film is a gentle but very moving story of an Irish immigrant trying to make her way in 1950’s New York. Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal in the lead role, playing a young girl who struggles to build a new life in America, eventually finding love with an Italian American plumber (Emeroy Cohen, completely charming), before matters back home start to pull her back.

The excellent screenplay by Nick Hornby gives Ronan a plausible dilemma as she is torn between two different lifestyles, between her family at home and her possible future in New York and Ronan’s performance is quietly powerful, never descending into overblown histrionics. The material could’ve been soapy and overwrought but great work from all involved ensure this is a warm, funny and achingly sad film that paints a vivid picture of the immigrant experience.

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3. Amy

Everybody knows – or at least thinks they know – Amy Winehouse, thanks to the intense media coverage she received after ascending to the top of the music industry and eventually falling spectacularly into a spiral of drink, drugs and mental health problems. Asif Kapadia’s exceptional, emotional documentary tells Winhouse’s story through archive footage, from videos she made with her friends as a teenager, to news clips and old talking heads, piecing together a powerful story of a life torn apart by fame.

Kapadia doesn’t shy away from shaming the newspapers, comedians and talk show hosts who got cheap shots at Winhouse’s expense, and those close to her who could’ve helped but ultimately just exploited her fame and money. The use of so much of Winehouse’s music helps to highlight the talent she had and ultimately helps hammer home how tragic and heartbreaking her story is.

2. Whiplash

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is an incredible exercise in tension as young jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) strives for perfection in the face of intense pressure from his vicious teacher Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons). Through his energetic direction and some masterful editing, Chazelle craft some of the most gripping, tense scenes of the year as Fletcher pushes Andrew to his absolute limit. The poisonous relationship between the master and pupil here is riveting and the film lets you make up your own mind on whether Fletcher’s sadistic, abusive methods of motivation are ultimately worth it.

The two central performances are incredible, particularly Simmons’ career best, Oscar-winning turn which makes Fletcher more drill sergeant than music teacher and makes the character, and many of the film’s scenes, instantly iconic.

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1. Inside Out

After a lot of crowing about their reliance on sequels and their seemingly waning artistic powers, Pixar came back with a bang in 2015 with Inside Out, possibly their best film and certainly the best film of the year. The film mixes the studio’s penchant for hidden worlds and their inexplicable knack for hitting you right in the feels by delving into the brain of an 11-year-old girl and anthropomorphising her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.

The struggle for control inside young Riley’s head – with Joy (Amy Poehler) losing her grip on the control panel – coincides with a big move to a new city and a new school and everything that happens over the course of this wonderfully original, often hilarious and sometimes unbearably poignant film will be instantly recognizable (and painful) to anyone who has ever been a child.

To come up with an idea this good is one thing but to execute it so perfectly and so powerfully is an astounding fete but Pixar – and director Pete Docter in particular – have pulled it off. Universally relatable and heartbreakingly human.

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Honourable Mentions

Creating a best of list this year was particularly hard as, beyond the top five or so, there was a huge pool of movies that could’ve filled the other spots. Many films narrowly missed the cut: Denis Villeneuve’s sweaty drug cartel thriller Sicario; Paul Feig’s hilarious espionage comedy/Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy; Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything; Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s raunchy comedy Trainwreck; Andrew Haigh’s devastating drama 45 Years, with a stunning performance from Charlotte Rampling; hip-hop coming of age story Dope, featuring a breakout turn from Shameikh Moore; and gripping documentary Precinct Seven Five, telling the story of the most corrupt police officer in the NYPD’s history.

It was a particularly strong year for blockbusters, not just the latest instalments in the Fast & Furious franchise and the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There was also: George Miller’s insane and thrilling Mad Max: Fury Road, which put Charlize Theron front and center as the instantly iconic Furiosa; Rebecca Ferguson stole the show from under Tom Cruise’s nose in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which is probably the best in the series; Marvel went smaller with Ant-Man, which was a smart blast of fun even without Edgar Wright; and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World ably revived that beloved franchise with a flawed but immensely enjoyable dino-flick.

Other highlights include a charming turn from Al Pacino as an aging rocker in Danny Collins, Paul Thomas Anderson’s twisty LA noir Inherent Vice, Joel Edgerton’s unsettling thriller The Gift, Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama Bridge of Spies, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart double act Clouds of Sils Maria, vibrant LA transgender comedy Tangerine, Clint Eastwood’s controversial war movie American Sniper, Anne Hathaway/Robert De Niro vehicle The Intern, Chris Rock’s directorial debut Top Five, Bennett Miller’s tense drama Foxcatcher, JC Chandor’s anti-gangster flick A Most Violent Year, Noah Baumbach’s one-two punch of Mistress America and While We’re Young, emotionally charged German thriller Phoenix, Jorgos Lanthimos’ deadpan comedy The Lobster, John McLean’s debut Western Slow West, Jonathan Demme’s heartwarming Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash, Justin Simian’s searing racial comedy Dear White People and, last but not least, David Robert Mitchell’s inventive teen horror It Follows.