Another year is coming to an end, and as tends to be the case with these types of columns I’m using the time to look backwards. Not just on the year that was, but the years that have been. And because numbers can be fun, we’re using the end of 2015 to look back on the previous 15 years. I’ve looked over those years, 2001 to 2015, and selected a movie from each year that I would consider to be the ‘must’ see film.
I want to stress something here, the following list is not a ‘Best of’ situation. I fully understand that there are movies that you could easily argue as being better that were missed out for a separate movie. I’ve also not seen every movie of every year, including some very popular and acclaimed films. But each of these movies offer something to the audience that makes them, in my eyes, a must watch. Now obviously stylistically some of these may not appeal. If you don’t like violence for example, there are obviously movies here that just wouldn’t be up your alley.
But I’m always on the lookout for a gap in someone’s viewing that I know they’d like, because even though none of these movies are what I’d call ‘obscure’, it’s still easy to miss a gem with so much film to wade through. Entertainment is there to be shared, and its subjectivity makes it part of the fun. I know my top 15 will be different from just about everyone elses, but that’s perfectly fine (and feel free to give yours!). Who knows though, maybe you’ll stumble upon your new favourite film…
2001 – Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli has a habit of pumping out some powerhouse anime that crosses language barriers, creating compelling and heartfelt tales told among some fantastic ideas and imagery. Spirited Away has everything you could ask for in droves. It broke records in both the East and the West as it won over the hearts and minds of people the world over when it was released in 2001.
It’s rare to find an animated film that crafts such a complex world filled to the brim with interesting and engaging characters, but that is what Miyazaki has achieved here. As Chihiro delves deeper into the fantasy world she’s stumbled upon, you can see and feel the love that has been poured into not only the story but the animation as well. It’s a great looking movie even fifteen years on, retaining the charm of an older method of animation that we’re starting to lose. So often people catagorise anime as childish or just plain ridiculous, but Spirited Away serves as an example for what the top of its genre can look like, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
2002 – Infernal Affairs
If you haven’t heard of this Hong Kong crime thriller before, you might know it by its American remake: The Departed, starring…just, so many people, and the types you don’t need their full name – DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Sheen, Baldwin…Jack. But while some people might not like reading subtitles if they can help it, Infernal Affairs shouldn’t be overlooked just because you can watch the Americanised version.
Both movies follow a similar plot, but there are aspects from this movie I think are executed far better. For starters, there isn’t swearing in every single sentence, and it’s also a more streamlined movie that still manages to juggle some nuanced subplots that tie together really well. It’s a stylish approach to a crime story that intertwines both sides of the law, with well crafted moments of tension and genuine character. It has likable leads on both sides and captivates on multiple watch-throughs.
2003 – Kill Bill Vol.1
Tarrantino isn’t for everyone, but what he does best is craft a loving tribute to the history of film while plastering it with blood. He is his own director, and Kill Bill Vol. 1 is just one of the many great examples of this. Perhaps the ultimate revenge film, Kill Bill makes the most of a payback story by mixing it with video game style boss fights and eastern inspired fight scenes. The action is fast paced, well choreographed and stylish, and Uma Thurman carries the weight of this film as The Bride, whose distinctive yellow outfit is as iconic as a martial arts attire can get. It’s a high intensity movie with a simple plot that lets the sequel worry about anything too in depth, choosing to tell the first part of Kill Bill through movement rather than words. This is a fantastic ride for anyone who can handle a bit of the red milk.
2004 – The Incredibles
The sequel is finally coming! Pixar’s 2004 effort is not only one of the best animated movies out there, it’s also one of the best superhero movies available. Taking what is now the dominant genre in Hollywood and playing with many of the tropes, The Incredibles manages the mix all of the elements of a great Pixar movie: Heart, fun, action, comedy and style. Seeing how the world handles superheroes in their daily life is fun, but while deconstructing the genre it also manages to tell a strong story of family and inner strength. It has been compared to the Fantastic Four, but that franchise has yet to put together a movie half as good as this one.
2005 – House of Flying Daggers
I’m not sure if this is technically cheating or not. Not every movie releases at the same time around the world. As is the case with this Chinese martial arts film, which was technically released in 2004 but didn’t make its way to Australian shores until 2005. Therefore, because it’s my column and my rules, I’m counting it.
There are some who prefer director Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’, but while both are simply stunning movies to behold, I think there are aspects of HOFD that works better than Hero, both from a story and atmospheric perspective. First off the film is absolutely gorgeous to behold. The colours in the costuming and scenery are stunning, and it is only enhanced by the cinematography and a soundtrack that is worth listening to on its own. And while wire work might not be everybody’s cup of tea for fight scenes, they add to the surreal nature crafted by the way this film is shot. It all comes together to make the world crafted by Yimou feel otherworldly. It is a simple plot with enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, but the strength of HOFD comes from its atmosphere which oozes out of the film at every possibility. Some movies are designed for a top of the line entertainment system, and this is definitely one of them. Sit back and take it in, plus it’s available as a sub or dub, so no matter your taste you can enjoy.
2006 – Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy piece Pan’s Labyrinth is a truly unsettling story both in its design and execution, so while this movie won’t be for everyone those who brave this haunting story will be rewarded with an amazing piece of cinema. A dark fairy tale set in 1940’s Fascist Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth weaves together the real and the fantastical, mirroring the representation of darkness of both realms. The small touches in this movie show Del Toro’s talent, and its vision show his imagination. Pacific Rim might be more fun to watch, but this is Del Toro’s best work to date. Easily the creepiest movie on this list, this isn’t a movie to be enjoyed but experienced, and it’ll sit on your mind for weeks after you see it.
2007 – Hot Fuzz
Edgar Wright’s style is instantly recognisable. You know when you’re watching one of his films, and while many consider Shaun of the Dead to be the pinnacle of the Cornetto Trilogy, I’ve always seen Hot Fuzz as the best of the bunch. It is a wonderful spoof of the idyllic English village seen in many of the old British television series, matched against the high-octane buddy cop film. The deconstruction (and then reconstruction) of classic tropes is executed brilliantly, and every off the cuff comment is seemingly called back to throughout the film. The jokes fly fast and so does the mayhem, with some fun over the top set pieces and plenty of notable quotable moments. The stellar casting lineup is naturally headed by Pegg and Frost, and their chemistry is as unmatched as always. Hot Fuzz is easily the funniest movie on this list, and that’s for the greater good.
2008 – Twilight
2008 – The Dark Knight
There have been some fantastic superhero movies over the last decade and a half, but in my books none of them compare to Nolan’s sequel to the 2005 Batman Begins. Featuring an Academy Award winning performance from Heath Ledger as Joker, and Eckhart’s Two Face that is underrated purely because he was next to Ledger, no comic book movie has done more with its source material. Christopher Nolan took some risks and it paid off, and while this is the best superhero film to be released it also manages to transcend the genre. This is just as good a crime thriller as it is a superhero romp, and perhaps even more so. Top notch performances across the board, with a typically great soundtrack from Hanz Zimmer and the evolution of the greatest villain in the graphic print business, the Dark Knight is an modern classic.
2009 – Moon
This is such an underrated movie. Featuring basically one actor – Sam Rockwell, who somehow manages to effortlessly engage the viewer as he talks with himself while serving a three-year stint on a moon colony – Moon serves as a captivating slow burn tale about loneliness and humanity. Director Duncan Jones makes an astonishing debut here, creating a movie rich in atmosphere and tension that manages to keep you guessing. Created on a shoestring budget, movies like this is why science fiction is my favourite genre. I can’t commend Rockwell and Jones enough in this art that they created. It’s an absolute must watch for any fan of science fiction, or just good movies. I might be a huge and unapologetic Scott Pilgrim fanboy, but even I can’t pick it over this masterpiece for 2009.
2010 – Inception
One of my favourite directors (Nolan) combining with one of my favourite actors (DiCaprio) in what is one of the most captivating sci-fi movies out there. Everybody can relate to the concept of dreaming, and what Nolan executes so brilliantly is how he intertwines common experiences and notions about sleep and dreams into a story that will constantly make you marvel at the thought that went behind it. It’s a complex and deep story with a fantastic cast and solid action to boot. It is my personal top movie of all time, so I may be biased, but my only complaint about this movie is that BWONG sound effect has now become painfully overused in every movie and its trailer since. But that’s not the fault of this movie. Inception is brilliant at every turn and every layer.
2011 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This and it’s sequel ‘Dawn’ are worth watching purely for the incredible CGI and motion capture work. Caesar is so fully realised as a character you’d be forgiven for thinking he was real. It is a technical achievement that no other movie on this list can match, and it could be a movie people look back on as the forefather of future film-making that can create believable, immersive and expressive CGI main characters. Imagine a Mass Effect movie with Turians and Asari realised with this kind of technology against a live action Shepard? ‘Rise’ might be the beginning of that realisation.
But it’s not just a movie worth watching because of those achievements. It’s a great film that takes a Planet of the Apes concept that didn’t interest me personally, and won me over straight away. It’s heartwarming and fascinating to watch James Franco connect with this ape, only to see it all fall apart. Caesar is an easy hero to root for, and Serkis should be commended for his role in bringing the ape to life, but beyond that the movie takes a cheesy franchise and reinvents it for the current climate, showing why reboots can be more than just an exercise in money grabbing.
2012 – The Thieves
I appreciate that some will feel I need to hand in my ‘comic book fan’ card here for not choosing The Avengers, but as fun a spectacle as it is I don’t feel it holds up once you’re past the awe of seeing all these great heroes together. It’s still a fun movie and revolutionary in its own right, but its not essential viewing. The 2012 Korean film ‘The Thieves’ offers up an Eastern variation of the Ocean’s Eleven formula, and currently one of the best performing movies to come from South Korea. This movie has everything you’d expect from a heist film. Tense stealth scenes, plenty of action, planning montages, double crosses and some great personalities to clash and intertwine against. What is really impressive however is how this film is able to transition from fun to serious as it crosses over into the final act. There is a lot of focus on the characters here, so even when the heist isn’t front and centre there is plenty to sink your teeth into. When The Thieves wants to be funny it’s funny, when it wants you on the edge of your seat it brings your forward, and it is all topped off with some solid acting and entertaining set pieces.
2013 – The Conjuring
It’s not that 2013 was a year of bad films – there are some fun or good movies like Wolf of Wall Street, Frozen, Man of Steel (I like it dammit), Fast and Furious 6, Pacific Rim and Now you See Me – but there’s not really anything that I have seen from this year I would label as ‘must see’. And while Sharknado is absolutely worth a watch, it’s not for the reasons you’d find it here…
But one movie that did stand out as an exemplar of its genre was The Conjuring. I don’t mind horror movies but very few would I consider genuinely scary. The award for scariest goes to the 2007 Spanish film [Rec], but while it didn’t outright scare me, what the Conjuring managed to achieve was a finely crafted movie that keeps you watching and waiting. It quickly drew in hype upon release by scaring the movie going audience, but it retained its hype by being a well crafted movie. It’s as you would expect from a haunted house/ghost kind of film, but not only did it carry a captivating horror story but it did so without relying on just jump scares to get its audience. It slowly builds up tension. You’re not jumping just because of the momentary shock, but because you’re already on the edge of your seat. And this is aided by some fantastic acting from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the somewhat skeptical paranormal investigators.
2014 -The Raid 2
Either Raid movie could have claimed a spot on this list, and while the first is also a must watch and a great example of how to choreograph amazing fight scenes, The Raid 2 takes what worked so well in the first and builds on it. The biggest complaint for the first is the simple story (it’s basically the plot of Dredd but with kicking rather than gunfire), but the sequel ups the ante with a widespread undercover gangland narrative. No longer confined to the hallways of the original, we get even more fantastic action sequences with some strong antagonists you’ll remember long after the movie’s over. Not only are the fight scenes incredible to watch, earning multiple watches for that alone (and several rewinds), we also get a seriously underrated car chase sequence to boot. Iko Uwais is also one of the best martial arts action stars to come along in some time, not just because of his fighting prowess but also because he can hold up to the acting side of things. It’s violent and admittedly a little hard to follow at times, but the Raid duology (set to become a trilogy) are some of the best action films out there.
2015 – Ex Machina
Anyone who’s dared to talk movies with me over the past year is probably getting sick of hearing about this movie. I hyped this one up from the moment I first saw the trailer, and then haven’t stopped talking about it since I saw it. I even offered someone a money back guarantee when he bought it off of my hype, that’s how sure I am of this movie (for the right audience). So naturally it was going to fill this year’s spot. I’ll try not to harp on about it too much, but there’s so much to this movie that is worth talking about. The concept, while not all that unique, is executed so well that it feels fresh. The small cast works wonderfully, and everything from the cinematography, the soundtrack, and the uneasy acting from the entire cast serves to build the tension and suffocating atmosphere. It’s intellectually stimulating and a fascinating story to watch unfold, and I best stop myself now before I get out of hand with the praise.
So now that I’ve shut up, what’s your top 15 of the past 15?