1. American Sniper
One of the greatest war films since Saving Private Ryan, director Clint Eastwood’s visceral retelling of the life of sniper Chris Kyle was a huge hit in the United States, pulling in $350 million at the box office. Unashamedly patriotic, with a superb performance by Bradley Cooper, American Sniper is a powerful tribute to America’s Special Forces, and all who serve in the US military, striking a chord with the heart of Middle America. It was also refreshingly unflinching in its depiction of the brutal and barbaric Islamist enemy that US forces faced in Iraq, years before the rise of ISIS.
2. The Martian
In a strong year for science fiction films, British director Ridley Scott turned in his finest work since 1982’s Blade Runner with his gripping adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel. With its brilliantly smart script and pitch perfect cast, The Martian was a global success with a relentlessly optimistic message at a time of mounting fear and turmoil across the world. It was also a striking projection of American exceptionalism when the world’s superpower is being increasingly challenged on several fronts. Expect a slew of Oscar nominations in January, and a serious challenge in the Best Picture and Best Director categories.
3. The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards for his portrayal of Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything is a quintessentially British film but with a distinctly universal message. Director James Marsh succeeded in taking audiences inside the beautiful mind but conflicted life of one of the most gifted men of our time. Felicity Jones absolutely shines as Jane Hawking, in this moving adaptation of Mrs. Hawking’s memoir ‘Travelling to Infinity.’ The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations and 10 BAFTA nominations. The Theory of Everything’s wonderful cinematography is complemented by a sublime score by Johann Johannsson.
Featuring some of the most moving and inspiring scenes of the year, Selma is an important film that deserves to be seen not only by today’s generation of moviegoers but by future generations too. Set during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Selma is powerful cinema, with a superb performance by David Oyelowo as the charismatic and courageous civil rights leader. The film is all the more extraordinary for its largely British leading cast, including Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
Visionary director George Miller did not disappoint with his sequel (or prequel) to 1981’s groundbreaking The Road Warrior. Filmed largely in the Namibian desert – standing in for a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback – Mad Max: Fury Road largely eschewed state of the art CGI effects in favour of old fashioned stunt work. The end result was an exhilarating, two–hour chase movie which moves at a breakneck pace. As the film’s hero Max Rockatansky, Tom Hardy ably took over the role made famous by Mel Gibson in the first three films of the series, making it his own, and his enigmatic performance was perfectly matched by Charlize Theron as the Imperator Furiosa. The Road Warrior was a classic of its generation, and one of the most influential action films of the late 20th Century. Mad Max: Fury Road is a truly worthy successor.
6. The Walk
The Walk barely registered when it was released at the end of September, and it was scandalously overlooked in the just-announced Golden Globe nominations. But Robert Zemeckis’s account of how daring French high-wire artist Philippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) managed to traverse the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the summer of 1974 is gripping entertainment. Seen on the big screen in IMAX format, The Walk is a stunning piece of cinema, delivered by one of the true masters of the industry. While displaying the best possible use of high tech 3D, The Walk is at heart a human drama, telling the story of one incredibly brave individual determined to defeat the odds, and pull off a feat which is simply breathtaking to behold. It is also a loving tribute to the Twin Towers themselves, majestic skyscrapers soaring over the Big Apple as a symbol of American entrepreneurialism and greatness, succeeded today by One World Trade Center (the Freedom Tower).
7. Bridge of Spies
Much like his recent film Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies pays immaculate attention to historical detail, from the bustling streets of 1950’s New York to the menacing darkness of 1960s East Berlin. Beautifully photographed by the masterful Janusz Kaminski, who worked with Spielberg on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies immerses viewers in a time when the United States and the Soviet Empire wrestled for dominance on the world stage. Standout performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, and a pin-sharp script by Joel and Ethan Coen, helped make this a must see movie from a director who continues to captivate audiences year after year.
Creed came out of leftfield over Thanksgiving to become one of the biggest surprise smashes of 2015. With an electrifying performance by Michael B. Jordan, and a poignant, heartfelt supporting turn from Sylvester Stallone, Creed takes the Rocky saga back to the gritty feel of the 1976 original and the streets of Philadelphia, resurrecting a franchise that seemingly ended back in 2006 with Rocky Balboa. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the seventh film in the Rocky series stands on its own two feet as a compelling underdog tale that encapsulates both the spirit of redemption and the yearning to achieve the American dream.
With good reason, Spectre powered its way to becoming the biggest ever seven-day opening at the British box office (prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It had all the ingredients of a classic Bond movie, with magnificently executed set pieces, a chilling lead villain, and some thrilling chase sequences. Director Sam Mendes may not have reached the giddy heights of Skyfall, but Spectre demonstrated that the Bond franchise has real staying power and global appeal.
10. Ex Machina
Truly innovative sci-fi is hard to come by today (Gravity and The Martian were rare exceptions), but Alex Garland’s dark and at times frightening vision of the near future offered a fine example of it. Featuring a breakout performance from Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava, and a memorable role for Oscar Isaac as her hubristic creator, Ex Machina is a genuinely unsettling and thought provoking film that raises important ethical questions about artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, and the boundaries of scientific exploration.
N.B. This list is compiled from films released in the UK in 2015. Some of the films included here opened in the United States on limited release in late 2014.