Truth be told, this may only be in my top ten due to affection and nostalgia. I'm still waiting for J.J. Abrams to direct a film that is truly brilliant in its own right rather than efficiently riffing on his adoration for the movie adventures of his, and my, childhood. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfectly decent caper but one which feels so much more because of the weight of cultural significance that we have invested into this world... and the sense of sheer relief that it's NOT another Phantom Menace. I've always maintained a sneaking admiration for what George was trying to achieve with those prequels: Something operatic, politically rich and mythically grandiose, an ambition mostly undone by his tin ear for dialog, leadenly delivered by poorly directed actors at a loss to find their feet in his CGI imaginarium. This new Star Wars has, so far, less of that epic sweep and scope, and many of its delights are recycled from the originals. But crucially what is does have, in spades, is FUN. Sprightly, seemingly effortless wit and action, delivered by real people, often in real locations, actually interacting with a real environment around them. It's hard to overstate just what a welcome feeling that is. A tribute act compared to the original it may be, but those are still some fine tunes.
A phenomenally tense thriller centring around a shady US drug enforcement task force attempting to take out a Mexican cartel, Sicario tackles familiar and often clichéd narrative territory with fresh verve and complex amorality. Featuring a clutch of superb, understated performances (with the marvellous Emily Blunt front and centre) from a principle cast essaying assorted FBI, CIA, special forces and other individuals with even murkier pasts. Many with shifting, hard-to-read agendas. Features possibly the finest stationary car chase in cinema.
8: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya.
With the future of Studio Ghibli in doubt, it's been a particularly painful two year wait for this, possibly their last masterpiece, to make it to these shores. But if it is to be the end, what an end. The very definition of a true fairy tale, this is a slight and gentle story, animated with the most delicate of brush strokes. Pastel watercolour beauty bleeding to white at the edges of the screen as if lifted straight from some museum preserved manuscript of a forgotten time and place. The running time and gentle pace may try the patience of some. But tune out the world and you can lose yourself in its beauty and wish never to return.
7: Bridge Of Spies.
Spielberg, Hanks, The Coen Brothers, a true story (mostly). You know you are in safe hands. Bridge Of Spies is no great revelation, rather it's exactly as expertly crafted as you would expect. It is however, rather wittier than you might imagine. And the brilliantly authored inertness of Mark Rylance's potential agent playing against Hanks' fast-talking, yet noble lawyer (remember those?) is an absolute joy to behold.
6: The Martian.
Ridley Scott's best film in some years. Exciting, funny, and shot through with old-fashioned heroic stoicism as Matt Damon's astronaut is marooned alone on Mars and has to survive on his smarts and his wisecracking soliloquisms. Shot through with a rare uncynical "Yay For Science!" motif. It's as if Castaway had been directed by Carl Sagan. Which is a good thing.
5: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl.
This bravura coming of age tale follows the travails a fifteen year old girl in 1970s San Francisco as she embarks on a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend and a heap of other complex, broken family and growing up issues. Bold and honest filmmaking that is nothing like as harsh to watch as you might imagine because it is also empowering, delightful and laugh-out-loud funny, and is visually as full of brio and invention as its creatively imaginative lead character. A refreshing delight.
4: Song Of The Sea.
Tomm Moore's second animated feature (following The Secret Of The Kells) is a beautiful, sweet and heartbreaking piece of Irish folklore fantasy that manages to dig deep into rich and whimsical mythology, while absolutely grounding its emotions in the story of a young girl dealing with real and tragic family drama (rather like Pan's Labyrinth... but with less torture). On top of this, the animation is a gobsmacking mixed-media masterpiece, as if Michel Ocelot, Hayao Miyazaki and Sylvain Chomet had all collaborated on the one movie.
3: Mad Max: Fury Road.
The most full-on, knock you flat, non-stop, crunching, brutal, old-school action movie of the year. Mad Max's first outing in three decades retains all the strange, colourful, insane elements that made the originals so iconic, and (unlike Star Wars) it doesn't feel like it's trying to simply live up to past glories. This one kicks the previous movies (not to mention the whole Fast and Furious franchise) in the face and drags them kicking and screaming though the post-apocalyptic waste in its dust storm wake. Director and creator George Miller is now 70. No, really. No-one else can quite believe it either.
2: Ex Machina.
Alex Garland, long-time writer / collaborator on many of Danny Boyle's movies, graduates magnificently with his directorial debut. A chilling, twisting sci-fi chamber piece set in clinical Kubrickian isolation. Four actors. One house. Humans and machines testing and deceiving each other. Morally murky, powerfully intense and superbly performed.
It may be no more an accurate depiction of life in a prestigious music college than Black Swan was an honest tale of studying in an elite dance academy. What Whiplash is, is a fun, triumphant, indie-spirited maniacal howl of a movie. A study of artistic obsession, abuse of power and the drive to succeed against all odds. It boasts a riotously funny script, genuine heart, freewheeling performances (actorly and musical), and in J. K. Simmons' band leader, a thermonuclear full-leather-jacket onslaught of verbal abuse that is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure(s). Quite my tempo.