You can always tell it's been a strong year at the pictures when it's a bloody nightmare trying to pull your end of year favourites together. While 2015 hasn't had as many awards bankers as in recent years, it's compensated with incredible strength in depth, as football pundits are want to say. What's perhaps most refreshing is the number of leading, rounded roles afforded to female actors. Is the industry starting to realise that cinema-goers aren't all 13-year-old boys?
There are plenty I haven't caught up with, and a few films that just missed the cut (Phoenix, Amy, Steve Jobs, Macbeth, The Song of the Sea, The Lobster), but without any further ado, here are my ten personal favourites from the last 12 months (in no particular order).
Mad Max: Fury Road
Taking the poster cliche 'non-stop thrill ride' and crushing it under 10-tonnes of howling machinery, George Miller's return to the antipodean badlands was as unexpected, as it was fucking brilliant. Ignited by Charlize Theron's bristling Furiosa and bone rattling in-camera effects, Fury Road is a genre movie of bold invention and assured identity that has rewritten the rules of blockbuster action flicks.
Todd Hayne's sculpts the perfect piece of cinema, that is in turns cooly detached style, and devastatingly observed human drama. Without a flicker of melodrama flawless performances from Mara and Blanchett sit amongst effortlessly executed technical brilliance in editing, costume, score and cinematography. It may look like a perfume advert, but this only makes the powerful resonance of the two women's love all the more unexpected and overwhelming.
Less twisty, weird or broody than Denis Villeneuve's previous impressive efforts, Sicario is clearly his most complete, accomplished film yet. Tension, pace and a beyond menacing Benicio Del Toro stack up to make it the year's standout thriller (by a considerable distance). Emily Blunt is exceptional as the FBI agent in the dark with an underplayed performance of idealism and nerves. And surely this time Roger Deakins will snatch the Oscar for his expansive cinematography.
A harsh lesson in never judging films on their marketing alone. What is pitched as a mum-saturday-night-curzon-tear-jerker unveils itself as a poignantly observed, and superbly acted emotional drama. Saoirse Ronan continues her faultless run of decision making and delivers a masterclass in nuanced natural performance as the young woman caught between her past and future.
This is how you do a period biopic. Ava DuVernay finds a way of structuring a narrative compulsion and honesty into Selma that most 'true events' movies sorely lack (stand up The Imitation Game). David Oyelowo is utterly convincing as Dr. King, not in caricature, but with the heart and soul of the man himself. We don't need to hear 'I have a dream' when we know the feeling and struggle behind it to be true.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I'm by no stretch a fanboy, but was as excited as everyone with a pulse to see what J.J. Abrams could cook up with the Star Wars universe. And as his recent track record (Super 8, Star Trek) would suggest it's a sublimely paced riot of action with a palpable golden heart under the whizzing surface. You could highlight Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac, but that would do a disservice to the uniformly excellent cast. Real cinema magic.
A deserving acting award-winner in Berlin Andrew Haigh's 45 Years runs with an undercurrent of mystery that draws us into the utterly believable relationship at its heart. In the simplest way possible it paints the dichotomy between what is, and what might have been. Tom Courtenay's opaque past bubbles away while his age old stability with Charlotte Rampling begins to rock. A film crystallised by the most devastating cut to black in recent memory.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer's return to the disgraceful, 1965 slaughter of Indonesian citizens after The Act of Killing was always going to be a harrowing affair; but the focus this time on the life of one man who confronts those responsible for the death of his family makes it cut all the more deeply. A documentary every bit as vital, and shell shocking as its predecessor.
Just when Pixar's well of original storytelling seemed to be running dry, they produce their most wildly inventive and (arguably) moving film to date. Addressing questions of identity, gender and depression with sincerity in a glowing bubble of knockabout fun.
Alex Garland's transition from writing to direction has been a seamless one with this elegant queasy chamber piece. The three principal cast are mesmerising, but it's Garland's uncompromising vision of aesthetics and icy tone that are the standout. A film without an ounce of fat, precisely engineered to mimic its subject, and the expanding moral maze she is placed in.