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Top 12 best films of 2015

2015 could well prove to be a classic year at the movies, what with the calibre of its blockbusters (from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to Star Wars: The Force Awakens) through to its indie successes (Mississippi Grind) and its Oscar contenders (Whiplash, American Sniper).

However, while the ensuing films we have picked out remain our favourites from 2015, they are in no particular order. And it’s also worth noting we didn’t manage to make it to everything, with this year’s awards contenders such as Carol and The Martian still on our need-to-see list.

So, which films did make our list of the best of the year?

John Wick

12) John Wick

What’s the story? Ex-hitman John Wick (Reeves) is forced out of retirement following the death of his wife when a group of gangsters take everything from him (including his beloved car and the pet puppy left to him as a final gift from his wife). The ensuing revenge mission pits him against his former boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), whose son (Alfie Allen) instigated the attack on Wick’s home. But it also finds him facing every hitman in town, as Viggo attempts desperately to prevent Wick claiming the life of his son.

Why so good?: Keanu Reeves has already starred in three genre-defining action movies – Point Break, Speed and the original Matrix – and John Wick could just be his fourth. Co-directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who have previously worked with Reeves on The Matrix trilogy’s stunts, this is a revenge thriller that’s as cool as hell yet refreshingly hard-hitting.

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Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

11) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

What’s the story? IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes up against a shadowy organisation known as The Syndicate, which is rapidly emerging as a threat to world peace by virtue of its clandestine but brutally efficient terrorist operations. However, the IMF has been disbanded and he has been turned into a fugitive by a bullish CIA chief (Alec Baldwin), which means that Hunt and his team (the returning Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames) have to work hard to stay one step ahead of their own government.

Why so good?: Anyone familiar with Christopher McQuarrie’s CV should realise that appointing him as writer-director of the latest Mission: Impossible was a smart gamble that pays off handsomely in this fifth instalment of the action franchise. Rogue Nation is a blockbuster that expertly combines exhilarating visual thrills with the kind of intricate storyline that requires viewers to pay attention. It also treads a nice line between the drama and the humour.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

10) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What’s the story? A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a disillusioned Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), and a Resistance X-Wing fighter pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac), team up to search for Luke Skywalker, along with his former allies Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Standing in their way, however, is The First Order, an organisation born from the remnants of The Empire, who represent the dark side of the Force, and whose enigmatic leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is a warrior who has made it his life’s work to honour Darth Vader’s unfinished legacy.

Why so good?: JJ Abrams has pulled off what many deemed impossible by delivering a Star Wars movie that recaptures the excitement of George Lucas’ original trilogy. The Force Awakens is a thrilling cinematic experience that exhilarates on so many levels. It’s beautiful to look at, brilliantly acted, breathlessly exciting, frequently amusing, yet capable of delivering some emotional gut-punches that take it into the dark territory inhabited by The Empire Strikes Back.

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The Gift

9) The Gift

What’s the story? When happy couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back to California, the former soon runs into former classmate Gordo (Joel Edgerton) in a shopping mall. At first glance, Gordo is socially awkward and quietly spoken. But he seems genuine in his affection for Simon, even going so far as to leave a welcome gift at his home. But Simon is reluctant to get too close to Gordo and, when pressed by Robyn, reveals that Gordo was considered a weirdo at school. He advises caution and distance. But Gordo is nothing if not persistent. And when Robyn starts to investigate more about both men’s histories, she uncovers some troubling revelations.

Why so good? Joel Edgerton’s first film as writer-director is a gift that’s definitely worth unwrapping. A psychological thriller that harks back to the style of films like Pacific Heights and Cape Fear, this both embraces genre tradition while giving viewers something to think about too. It’s by no means as simple as first glances suggest… The Gift is a genuinely smart thriller that thrives on its ability to challenge perception and provoke debate afterwards.

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Mississippi Grind

8) Mississippi Grind

What’s the story? Down on his luck gambler Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is about to be swallowed up by his habit, but whose luck begins to change after he meets the young, charismatic Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). When Gerry convinces his new lucky charm to hit the road with him, towards a legendary high stakes poker game in New Orleans, an intriguing bond develops between the two men that could change their fortunes forever.

Why so good? Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have dealt another character based gem with gambling drama Mississippi Grind. Boasting two excellent performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, the film functions as both a richly absorbing road movie and a gripping addiction drama that places its biggest emphasis on character… Once we bid farewell to these two richly drawn players, it’s the characters – more than the games – you’ll remember. And they will be remembered with a great deal of affection… much like this superb film as a whole.

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7) Ex_Machina

What’s the story? An IT expert named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a workplace lottery to spend a week at the island hideaway of his reclusive genius of a boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he is immediately invited to take part in a potentially world-changing experiment. The task in question finds Caleb being asked to assess a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine the level of her artificial intelligence: or, more relevantly, whether she could pass as human.

Why so good?: Alex Garland, as a screenwriter, has long been fascinated by the human condition and what it means to exist, as evidenced by his scripts for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, The Beach and Never Let Me Go. But his latest, which also marks his directorial debut, could just be his most challenging and satisfying work yet… Far from being heavy-handed or manipulative, Garland’s film toys with viewers in an effortlessly entertaining way and even feels a fun ride to be a part of, while also a worthwhile workout for the brain.

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American Sniper

6) American Sniper

What’s the story? The true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history.

Why so good?: The moral and ethical complexity of fighting the war on terror is the primary target of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a powerhouse piece of filmmaking that offers no easy answers… Eastwood, as a filmmaker, has ventured into war territory before both as actor (Kelly’s Heroes, Heartbreak Ridge) and director (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima) but owing to the proximity of the events being depicted here American Sniper could be his most authoritative examination of its frontline consequences yet. Needless to say, it’s a must-see.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

5) Mad Max: Fury Road

What’s the story? Former cop Max (played by Tom Hardy) is captured by the terrifying Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and taken to his hellish Citadel (where men are enslaved as potential sacrificial lambs and pregnant women are literally milked), only to become swept up with a group fleeing across the Wasteland in a War Rig driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a former abductee looking for revenge and redemption.

Why so good?: If George Miller’s first two Mad Max films helped to redefine the landscape of what could be achieved in action cinema, then his belated return to the franchise with Fury Road raises the bar still higher. A fast, furious and utterly insane thrill-ride from start to finish, this provides eye-popping spectacle of the old-school variety while employing a surprisingly revisionist element to its characterisation. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of Fury Road is the way in which it continually defies certain expectations.

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A Most Violent Year

4) A Most Violent Year

What’s the story? Immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), try to expand their business with a make or break deal involving oil. However, no sooner have they placed themselves on a deadline to raise the required funds or lose everything, they find themselves caught up amid the rampant violence, decay and corruption of the day and facing a criminal investigation as well as the sustained threat of violence from the Mobsters surrounding them.

Why so good?: Slow-burning crime drama A Most Violent Year is a take notice film for two very big reasons. It marks a tour-de-force acting performance from man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac and another mightily impressive screenwriting and directing credit from JC Chandor. A complex, richly layered examination of one man’s attempts to maintain his personal and business integrity amid one of the most violent and corrupt periods in New York’s history, this entertains on an intellectual level that places it on a par with the classic ’70s films of [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Sidney] Lumet as well as on an emotional level.

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3) Whiplash

What’s the story? Ambitious young jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) bids to become “one of the greats” by first impressing his hardline teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) into giving him a shot. Far from being a conventional motivator, however, Fletcher is a borderline sadistic tutor who believes in pushing his students to breaking point and beyond in his own insatiable quest to unearth the new Charlie Parker. Both Fletcher and Neyman will subsequently test each other’s limits.

Why so good? Whiplash may take its early cues from several well established movie genres but by subverting them in such thrilling fashion it dances to a different beat entirely. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle and partly inspired by his own experiences as a jazz drummer in high school, the film offers up a breathless battle of wills that inspire a whirlwind of emotions before leaving you on an exhilarated high… From its brilliantly realised opening scene to its sensational climax, Whiplash is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order that is well worth beating your own drum about afterwards.

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Inside Out

2) Inside Out

What’s the story? Riley, an 11-year-old girl, finds her life turned upside down when her parents decide to move from rural Minnesota to San Francisco for her father’s new job. Guided – as we all are – by her emotions, the move tests the character of Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), who has made it her life’s work to keep her happy. But it also places a bigger emphasis on the roles of Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and especially Sadness (Phyliss Smith). When things go badly wrong in their control room, Riley’s future is left in the hands of Joy and Sadness to find a suitable way forward.

Why so good? Directed by Pete Docter, Inside Out pulls off the remarkable accomplishment of being both emotionally complex, in the way that it tackles the psychological complexity of growing up, with the crowd-pleasing elements of the best family films. Hence, while younger viewers will revel in the colourful design, the larger than life characters and the buoyant sense of humour (some of which veers into slapstick), older viewers will also engage with the film on a knowingly appreciative psychological level… It marks another Pixar tour-de-force; a movie about emotions that will fill you with joy… and the odd bit of sadness. It is, without doubt, one of the films of the year.

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1) Sicario

What’s the story? Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who finds herself being recruited by an elite government unit that is engaged in a covert war against the Mexican drug cartels responsible for committing atrocities on the US side of the border. The deeper she becomes involved, however, the more she begins to realise the dubious morality of what her job entails, while also becoming a possible target for both sides.

Why so good?: Tense, uncompromising and morally and ethically challenging, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a formidable piece of filmmaking that undoubtedly rates among the year’s best. An intelligent dissection of America’s war on drugs stretched to a credible what if scenario, this grips from opening set piece to bittersweet climax and then continues to linger for some time afterwards… Quite simply, Sicario is the type of film that leaves you spoilt for superlatives.

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