*Note that only films which had a 2015 general or limited release in UK cinemas or on VOD are eligible. This therefore excludes some festival films which have yet to be released.
10: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Director: Alex Gibney):
Alex Gibney’s typically thorough documentary, adapted from the book by Lawrence Wright, unearthed plenty of dark secrets that lie the heart of one the world’s strangest – and most lucrative- religions. It is really the testimonies that make this documentary so compelling, with some big-name defectors from the Church (including director Paul Haggis) coming forward to spill the beans. Read the full review here.
9: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Director: Marielle Heller):
This frank, funny and refreshing female-oriented coming-of-age tale, adapted from the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, takes a non-judgemental look at sex, drugs and growing up in a wild San Francisco household in the 70s. It features a knockout performance from young actress Bel Powley, though some parents might find themselves watching her character’s antics (which includes an affair with a man in his thirties while she is still underage) through their fingers. Read the full review here.
8: The Look of Silence (Director: Joshua Oppenheimer):
Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his acclaimed investigation into the Indonesian mass killings of decades past – his 2012 film The Act of Killing– with this quietly devastating companion piece that gives the victims, and those trying to speak for them, more of the spotlight. Read the full review here.
7: It Follows (Director: David Robert Mitchell):
David Robert Mitchell’s horror film looks somewhat like a dreamy teen summer drama, but uses a John Carpenter-esque synth score and striking cinematography to exploit it’s concept to the full: a group of kids in Detroit are menaced by a ghost that chases them relentlessly at walking pace. Read the full review here.
6: Mad Max: Fury Road (Director: George Miller):
It took director George Miller decades to get his next instalment in the hugely influential Mad Max franchise off the ground, but the wait was worth it. A beautifully-crafted orchestra of destruction; the last 40 minutes of Fury Road are almost entirely devoted to one relentless chase sequence, with jaw-dropping stunts, incredibly elaborate costumes and vehicles, and one of the year’s most notable female characters in the form of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Studios simply do not finance and distribute leftfield, CGI-lite action films like this anymore, making this movies’ mere existence an achievement of note. Read the full review here.
5: Mommy (Director: Xavier Dolan):
Wunderkid Xavier Dolan’s super-stylised drama is like a shot of sugar to the eyes and veins; loud, rude, energising, funny, heartbreaking, and with a killer soundtrack to boot. Read the full review here.
4: 45 Years (Director: Andrew Haigh)
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay deliver an acting masterclass in this unsettling and moving drama about how one revelation can inexorably and ruthlessly unravel an entire partnership that has lasted decades. Read the review here.
3: Carol (Director: Todd Haynes)
Director Haynes returns to the 1950s once more for another elegant, quietly powerful, and superbly acted emotional drama about unspoken desires, ignited passions, and punishing social mores. Stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are on top form and the film is simply gorgeous to look at and listen to. Read the full review here.
2: Inside Out (Director: Pete Docter):
This is Pixar firing on all cylinders; brilliant visual inventiveness, engaging voice talent (Amy Poehler is absolutely perfect here) and genuinely moving emotional dynamics throughout the story. And all this is perfectly pitched at all age groups. This deserves to stand alongside WALL: E, Toy Story and Up in the Pixar canon. Read the review here.
1: Tangerine (Director: Sean Baker):
Director Sean Baker takes you to a whole other side of L.A in his outstanding Tangerine, and your guides are transgender sex workers Alexendra and Sin-Dee Rella . The non-professional leads, themselves transgender, are immensely charismatic, and supply endless amounts of profanity-laced humour and pathos. The film cracks along at a blinding pace, and the cinematography really pops (the film was shot entirely on Iphones) as it showcases a part of Los Angeles with its own rhythms, codes of behaviour and slang. These are not the kinds of lives seen on screen often, let alone as leads in an American movie, and that aspect undeniably adds an air of importance to the film, though that is far from being the sole reason to watch it.
Room by Lenny Abrahamson was one of the highest-regarded film reviewed on the Smoke Screen in 2015 after it played at London Film Festival 2015, yet it has so far not been released in the UK and thus does not appear in the top ten, though you can read the review here. Likewise one of the most impressive debut films seen this year was The Witch from director Robert Eggers; it played at London Film Festival 2015 but won’t be on general release until March 2016, you can check the review here though. Deserving a mention also is the grim black comedy Force Majeure by director Ruben Östlund; it was released in early 2015 and very nearly squeaked into this list, check the review here. The 1950s-set drama Brooklyn featured a superb performance from Irish actress Saiorse Ronan, and was another 2015 release that only just missed out on inclusion in the top ten also; check the review here. Also nearly making it and deserving of a nod are; Whiplash, A Syrian Love Story, Inherent Vice, Mistress America, Amy, and many more besides.
Quite a few acclaimed films currently playing in the US and frequently appearing on critics top ten lists have yet to hit UK shores, including Anomalisa, Creed, The Hateful Eight and Spotlight. Watch this space for reviews of those movies in early 2016. Lastly, at the time of writing this, the ‘event film’ of the year – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – is chewing up the global box office, having hit a world tally of $1bn in record time. It didn’t make it into the top ten, but it still won a healthy 4 stars, as you can see here in the review.