30th December 2015
In a year that gave us more coverage on Donald Trump’s hair, water is found on Mars and Sepp Blatter toys with the idea of taking a nice long retirement cruise, we take a look at the blinding year of cinema highlights.

There were a few that almost made it into the final ten including Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. This true-life drama of tensions between the USA and Russia during the cold war was masterfully told and had one of the best performances of the year from Mark Rylance (A strong contender for an ‘eyebrows of the year award’). Though the acting was strong, the story itself may simply not be gripping or personal enough to many in the audience but it’s certainly worth your time if you catch in on the small screen.

Ant-Man was also a great deal of fun and for those people getting slightly jaded by the slew of super-hero movies, this was a charming, smaller scale affair with a great big dollop of heart. Apparently size really doesn’t matter.

Other almost-made-its included the beautifully shot Slow West. A character led western starring Michael Fassbender as a bounty hunter sworn to protect a nerdy loved-up teenager as he attempts to track down the object of his infatuation. Fassbender was also splendid as the titular Steve Jobs. An excellent script by Aaron Sorkin made what could have been a very average biopic into a dramatic, thrilling and occasionally comic journey through the man’s life.

But with no further delay, let’s get into the ten films that really stood out from the herd this year…

Whiplash: It seems a very long time ago since this gem of a film made its way to the screens. A simple two-hander about the bully, his victim and the effect they have upon one another. Set in the world of a prodigious class for gifted musicians, we follow Andrew (Miles Teller) as he embarks on a journey to become the greatest drummer in jazz history. Pushing Andrew to his limits is the overbearing, vindictive teacher, Fletcher (J K Simmons), who sees Andrew’s talent but pushes him to breaking point until, inevitably, one of them goes too far.

The central performances of Miles Teller and J K Simmons are mesmerising. Simmons walked away with the best supporting Oscar earlier this year and he richly deserved it. If the thought of listening to jazz is putting you off seeing this, don’t worry; this is a film built around the two leading men and the music is almost inconsequential.

Ex Machina: A young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to visit the highly secretive, remote workplace of technology genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, Nathan asks his guest to participate in a test to see if his latest creation – a beautiful female android – has true artificial intelligence. The tests become increasingly emotional for Caleb and he soon begins to wonder just who is the true subject of the experiment.

As with Whiplash, this is really a film about strong performances. The isolated location and the lack of any outside distractions intensifies this bond between the actors who are all at the top of their game. Isaacs is fantastic as the slightly creepy science genius and Gleeson, with his performances in last year’s Frank and Unbroken show an actor really going from strength to strength.

Like many enduring science fiction classics, there’s more going on below the surface of the central plot. This is less a film about the evolution of robots and much more to do with humanity and obsession.

Spectre: Bond is back and he’s as confident and cool as ever. Sam Mendes who directed the previous instalment returns to give the audience more of what they loved in Skyfall. Craig looks like a man who is truly comfortable in the role of the world’s most iconic secret agent and with this, his forth outing as 007, his detractors appear to have fallen silent.

While it’s true that this adventure is less gritty than some of the more recent Bond movies, it still retains the key elements that make these films hugely enjoyable. The cars, the glamourous ladies and exotic locations, the gadgets, breathtaking stunts and effortless cool of our leading man are all here in abundance. This is big, silly fun that pretty much anyone can enjoy.

Amy: The first of two documentaries to make the list this year, Amy follows the life of Amy Winehouse. Using archive footage, much of which has not been seen before we see her from a very early age singing at school, being interviewed by friends and taking her first steps towards greatness as she begins her musical odyssey in small pubs and clubs before eventually becoming a signed artist.

As her fame increases, we see the good and bad sides of this new life. Old friends are pushed aside and new friends may not have Amy’s interests at heart. The men in her life often bring with them problems which add to her own and, as she begins to tailspin under the pressure of celebrity we watch as the press magnify her every misstep. We know how this tragic story ends but this documentary is fairly even handed in its approach to the subject and leaves the viewer to decide where, if any, blame should be assigned. This is both moving and fascinating even if you’ve never picked up a Winehouse CD.

Mad Max: Fury Road: After a thirty year break from cinema screens, Max returns and from the looks of things it seems that Max has spent the last three decades swigging Red Bull and eating a lot of red meat. This is a full-bloodied return to the crazy post-apocalyptic world of director George Miller and it doesn’t appear that age is slowing him or our titular hero down.

While it lacks depth in the plot department, it more than makes up for it with sheer spectacle and stunt work. This is, in essence a two hour road chase across the desert full to the brim with crazy oddballs and over-the-top performances. It’s bonkers and it knows it but it’s one of the most fun thrill rides of the year.

Birdman: Michael Keaton delivers an Oscar winning performance as an actor once famous for playing a superhero who now finds himself out of sorts and desperate for another big break. His current show on Broadway isn’t going as expected and he slowly feels himself losing his grip on reality.

With great performances all round and a splash of visual flair keeping things feeling unique, this modern Walter Mitty is both charming and intelligent. Keaton hasn’t had a role this big in years but after watching this, you’ll question why he isn’t working more often.

The Martian: Castaway in space! It’s a fairly accurate description of the plot as our hero Mark Watney (Matt Damon), astronaut and botanist, is left stranded alone on Mars after a sandstorm forces the rest of the crew to leave. There’s no quick way to turn around and retrieve him and with provisions and battery life running low, Watney must make some harsh decisions if he is to survive.

The original book was full of minute details of how Watney problem-solves even the most rudimentary issues in order to keep himself alive. It’s a testament to the great screenwriting that the film didn’t become bogged down in an avalanche of technical information. With confident direction from Ridley Scott and a solid performance from the extremely likeable Damon, this is a fun, thrilling race against time that keeps you interested all the way to the end.

Kingsman – The Secret Service: If someone had told you that one of the coolest action heroes of the year would be Colin Firth, you would’ve probably spilt your popcorn. Firth, star of all those Richard Curtis films? The stuttering king? Yes, it’s true – here in Kingsman he’s got more charisma and a higher body count than Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films.

Kingsman is set in a world that is a cross between the chic sixties Bond films and the ultra-violent Kick Ass comics. Firth’s superspy Harry Hart is given the task of recruitment for an elite intelligence agency. As his class of youngsters go through their gruelling training programme, a threat to the entire world appears in the shape of the sinister tech genius named Valentine. Forced to end their training programme abruptly, Hart and his junior team of spies must infiltrate Valentine’s base and save the day.

This is non-stop silly fun from beginning to end but with director Matthew Vaughan’s visual style and with a cast of charismatic, talented actors, this is elevated from being just-another-Bond-rip-off to a film confident enough to stand on its own merits.

Call Me Lucky: The second documentary of the year to make the list, this is the story of American stand-up comic Barry Crimmins. Though not a big name on this side of the pond, Crimmins is known in the states as ‘a comic’s comic’. He’s the mentor and guru of angry political stand-up to many aspiring comedians and the documentary is full of famous faces warmly discussing the impact his words had on their careers.

The greatness of this documentary, however, is that although it begins in a by-the-numbers biography, it changes to something darker, more personal and poignant halfway through. Crimmins childhood is marred by a terrible event that has affected him throughout his life and the second half of this touching film shows him confronting his past. To go into detail may lessen the impact this documentary has but it’s fair to say that this is one of the more powerful real-life stories of the year.

Star Wars – The Force Awakens: For many, Christmas has arrived early as director JJ Abrams delivered the perfect present for wannabe Jedis of all ages. After three disappointing prequel films, Star Wars is now firmly back on track.

The story is set thirty years on from the end of Return of the Jedi and the galaxy is once again under the shadow of an evil army - this time known as The First Order. A scavenger named Rey (played by newcomer Daisy Ridley) and a Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn (played by John Boyega) get tangled up in an adventure that finds them in the company of returning hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford). With the lives of billions hanging in the balance, our heroes must race against time to stop the villain’s sinister plan.

This is a return to form for both the Star Wars franchise and specifically for Ford who not only steals the show with his comic timing and natural charisma but who also looks like a man thoroughly enjoying himself in the role he made iconic over thirty years ago. Though some may suggest that the film is perhaps a little too similar to the original 1977 classic, there’s a feeling that this is completely intentional. This is a huge, warm embrace from an old friend. It’s familiar but you’re far too comfortable to want it to end. A film full of fan-service for the long-term devotees and a wonderful gateway for those new to the ways of The Force.

Written by Smylexx