A year that started with Michael Keaton taking his pants down in Birdman and ends with Kylo Ren and co. trying to pull a similar stunt on Star Wars: The Force Awakens's Resistance threw up plenty of other surprises. Jurassic World was the biggest film of the year (so far), Ex Machina proved that thinky sci-fi has a place alongside the bigger popcorn thrills of Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man, and Inherent Vice and Terminator Genisys just made noodle soup of our minds. Team Empire has posted its ballot papers, the votes have been tallied and our pick of the year's 21 best films is here.
Please note: Now that we've seen it, this list comes with added Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
21. Jurassic World
The greatest trick Jurassic World pulled was giving audiences exactly what they expected while throwing something new into the recipe. We know the dinosaurs will get loose and cause havoc, but what’s different this time are the stakes: the park is now open to the public, allowing for disaster movie levels of tension as crowds of people now share the danger of our plucky central scientists. Oh, and there’s also A Bigger Dinosaur in the form of the Indominous, and that cheer-worthy moment when franchise favourite the T-Rex gets to save the day.
20. Song Of The Sea
Pixar and Ghibli may grab all the attention, but Ireland’s own Cartoon Saloon is carving out an impressive space all of its own, first with The Secret Of The Kells, and now this gem. A spellbinding Celtic fantasy, Song Of The Sea tells the story of a lighthouse keeper, his ‘Selkie’ wife (half human, half seal), and their two young children – plus witches, giants and faeries. The storytelling is sometimes witty, sometimes emotional; the voice work (including Brendan Gleeson) is perfectly cast; and the sumptuous 2D animation plays like a lushly illustrated picture book, come to life. Ticks boxes, and tugs heartstrings, for every age.
19. Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is, like its source text, both maddeningly complex and delightfully silly. Its labyrinthine plot takes in three separate but just-about interconnected mysteries, with Joaquin Phoenix’s shambolic private eye Doc Sportello pulling on all the threads from somewhere on the outskirts of the tangled web. The ‘70s setting, the detective story and the wrecked protagonist all deliberately call to mind Robert Altman’s great The Long Goodbye. Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone and Benicio Del Toro and the stand-out Katherine Waterston are all on hand to confuse matters further, but it’s Phoenix’s show.
If The Quiet Man was one leg of a romantic exchange trip between Ireland and the US, Brooklyn is the return visit. Here, Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, a young Irish girl, moves to New York in the 1950s in search of opportunity. There are big questions about homesickness and how one fits in to a new world – the answer to both seems to be ‘through the kindness of strangers’ – but also a romance that’s as sweeping as it is small-scale. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby show a light touch in adapting Colm Tóibín’s novel, and the film shines with empathy for those brave enough to up sticks and attempt a fresh start on a foreign shore – which makes this old-fashioned tale surprisingly timely.
Much filmed previously (by Polanski, Kurosawa and Welles, among many others), Shakespeare’s infamously bloody Scottish Play has rarely been allowed to elicit the sympathy for its central characters as Justin Kurzel achieves here. He's helped, of course, by having Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as his leads, never losing sight of their characters’ humanity even as they spiral ever down towards the monstrous. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography – smoky battlefields, burning skies, fire-lit interiors – is amazing too.
16. Avengers: Age Of Ultron
The question was, could Joss Whedon do it again? Not quite, was the answer, but Age Of Ultron was still a worthy sequel to Avengers Assemble, juggling almost too many characters as before, while still adding new ones. Yes, it's darker, and yes, it has a lot to do in telling its own story and setting up the subsequent Civil War and beyond. And yet somehow, none of its many subplots feels shortchanged; James Spader’s Ultron is a truly creepy, unpredictable foe; and it’s still a pleasure to see the gang united.
15. White God
White God is the only film this year – and possibly ever – to unleash hundreds of dogs loose on the streets of Budapest. It results in one of 2015’s most spectacular sequences thanks to director Kornél Mundruczó, who, without the use of CGI (but with the help of copious canines), tells the story of 13-year-old Lili as she tries to rescue her pooch from the streets where her dad dumped him. What ensues flicks between heartfelt moments of human and canine bonding, brutal scenes of underground dog-fighting and hilarious yet terrifying horror pastiches. Missed it? Confine yourself to the nearest doghouse.
14. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Stick Tom Cruise in a mech suit, pair him with Cameron Diaz or and shove him onto a barren, post-apocalyptic Earth (Oblivion, anyone?) and the box office remains resolutely unfussed. Clad him in the garb of IMF stalwart Ethan Hunt, though, and it's another story. Audiences flocked to the fifth Mission: Impossible and were treated to a slick and stylish franchise extension. Cruise is occasionally overshadowed by Rebecca Ferguson, whose breakout star, Ilsa Faust, has him eating dirt (literally at one point) and Sean Harris whispers menacingly like a late-night DJ turned bad. Roll on number six.
13. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
A movie in love with the movies, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's affecting sophomore effort tiptoes the fine line between tragedy and comedy with the deftness of the seasoned directors it homages. Me (AKA Greg, Thomas Mann) And Earl (RJ Cyler) channel movie heroes like Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Powell and Hal Ashby with bonkers short-film riffs (Pooping Tom and The 400 Bros are guilty pleasures) in an attempt to bring some light to the life of the terrific Olivia Cooke's ailing 'girl'. Yes, they learn important things about themselves in the process. No, it isn't remotely corny. Finally, someone has found the exact midway point between Terms Of Endearment and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Recently punishing a new cast on his violent Western The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñarritu here puts his players through a different ordeal, and gets a showcase performance out of every one of them. Unfolding across two hours of backstage theatre drama that play as a single take, it’s an almost impossibly complex technical achievement. But it remains rooted in its characters, particularly Michael Keaton’s Riggan, who once played a superhero but is now aiming for something higher. Meta much?
11. A Most Violent Year
Having made a name for himself picking his way through gripping stories of men in crisis, J.C. Chandor's follow-up to Margin Call and All Is Lost shows he can write a pretty punchy female lead too. A year in which the actual Lady Macbeth made it to the big screen is perhaps not the best time to make such obvious parallels, but there's something undeniably Shakespearean in Jessica Chastain's Anna Morales. A potent, unscrupulous force behind Oscar Isaac's over-stretched entrepreneur, she constantly pushes and cajoles him to the edge of legality and beyond. There's good work from David Oyelowo, too, in slipping seamlessly into a D.A.'s suit and tie, in a satisfyingly nuanced and grainy period thriller.
There's something about Patricia Highsmith's novels that seems tailor made for high-calibre movie adaptations. Maybe it's the subtlety of the storytelling; perhaps the richness of the characters. Either way, Strangers On A Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Plein Soleil are now joined on a gilded roll of honour by Phyllis Nagy's take on The Price Of Salt, a New York romance set against a backdrop of repression, witchhunts and Don Draper-types sipping martinis. Not only is it a likely awards-reaper for its magnificent leads Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, and Todd Haynes' best film since 2002's Far From Heaven, it passes the Bechdel test in its first five minutes.
9. It Follows
One of those sleeper horror hits that comes along every once in a while, It Follows picked up unprecedented word-of-mouth thanks to its smart premise. And it's scary too. The film sees its protagonist doggedly pursued by a mysterious entity that manifests itself as a variety of shuffling injured strangers, or sometimes as people known to its victims. And in a fascinating twist on the "promiscuous teens get killed" trope, its rules are that the curse is sexually transmitted, and if you find yourself affected, you can just shag someone else and get rid of it, like a chain letter. That leads to some understated but very dark places.
8. The Martian
While he’s undoubtedly one of the great directors, there’s nevertheless something a bit dour about most Ridley Scott films. Which is what makes The Martian such a wonderful surprise. Perhaps the feelgood film of the year, its premise of an astronaut stranded alone on a hostile planet wouldn’t seem to lend itself easily to jollity. And yet while you wouldn’t call it a comedy, the laughs come often, thanks to Matt Damon's (and the rest of the cast) light touch and Drew Goddard’s smart writing. And to Scott, who uncharacteristically lets those moments roll amid all the hard science.
7. Steve Jobs
The best thing to come out of the Sony hack - and there wasn't a heck of a lot of competition - Danny Boyle's slick, mesmerising fly-on-the-wall drama shifted studios before it saw the light of day. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's look behind the scenes at three key product launches mines the tech firebrand's extraordinary career for human drama. Theatrical in form without ever feeling stagey, Sorkin's unique three-act structure is driven home by another pitch-perfect Michael Fassbender performance. Sometimes commanding, sometimes shrill, always mesmerising, Fassbender may not look much like his character, but he certainly acts like him. Steve Jobs flopped at the box office but deserves to find a much bigger audience on TV, MacBooks and iPads everywhere.
Fifteen years on from Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and Hollywood's war on the War on Drugs yielded another bruising indictment on the battle with the cartels. Denis Villeneuve's terrific narc thriller has Emily Blunt as a wide-eyed DEA agent and conduit into shadowy goings-on on the US/Mexican border, Traffic veteran Benicio del Toro is back on familiar ground as a mysterious figure so sinister, even his naps are scary, while Josh Brolin makes flip-flops the year's black-ops accessory of choice. Thanks to Roger Deakins' typically virtuoso photography, the arid border landscape, a geographical and moral chasm into which all of them plunge, becomes something monstrous and unearthly, a Golgotha in widescreen.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
In with a blaster shot at number 5, The Force Awakens is a late addition to our list but more than earns its place amongst 2015’s best and brightest. Episode VII is a triumphant return to form for cinema’s biggest franchise (prequels? What prequels?), managing to both honour the franchise’s heritage and reimagine the galaxy far, far away for an entirely new generation of fans. We have a lovable new droid in BB-8, two kick-ass heroes in Rey and Finn and the saga’s most complicated villain yet in the magnificent Kylo Ren. Whether it’s the spectacle (exploding planets! Falcon vs TIE Fighters! Sabers in the woods!) or the beautiful character moments (BB-8’s thumbs-up, Kylo’s tantrums, that scene on the bridge) The Force Awakens is everything you could ask from a Star Wars movie. Roll on Episode VIII.
4. Ex Machina
Proving that sci-fi needn’t all be about spectacle, Alex Garland’s directorial debut is largely confined to a single house and concerns itself more with dialogue than action. Centred on a relationship triangle between reclusive inventor genius Oscar Isaac, android Alicia Vikander, and unsuspecting rookie programmer Domhnall Gleeson, it’s a fiercely intelligent psychological guessing game that wouldn’t have shamed Philip K. Dick. Those who thought they’d predicted a twist from the trailer soon found they had no idea where it was going after all…
3. Inside Out
Just when Pixar seemed to be running out of steam in the wake of so-so sequels and mark-missing original ideas, along came Inside Out, a movie as bold and smart as any release this year, and back the studio went to the top of the animation's Mount Olympus. Here was a family film bold enough to land its young heroine with clinical depression and explore a child's psychological hinterland in a way Freud would have approved, and combine all that with a race-against-time adventure and an elephant-cat called Bing Bong. For director Pete Docter it was a semi-autobiographical labour of love; for the rest of us, it was an alloyed joy. We laughed, we cried, then we went home and told our imaginary friend all about it.
Damien Chazelle’s unbearably tense drama arrived in the UK in January (later than for many of our international readers). Miles Teller is outstanding as the driven trainee-jazz drummer protagonist, but his show’s nevertheless almost stolen by J.K. Simmons’ incendiary turn as his bullying mentor Fletcher, making “not quite my tempo” one of the most terrifying lines of the year. That he ends up a (kinda) sympathetic character is a stunning achievement both of the writing and the performance. Watch this in a double-bill with Beware Of Mr. Baker and then try to tell us drumming isn’t an exhilarating subject.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
More than 30 years after leaving Max in the wasteland, George Miller returns to his signature series with results that can conservatively be called extraordinary. On paper it doesn’t sound like much – Max (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escape from somewhere and then go back again. But it’s the insane assemblage of post-apocalypse desert freakery and mechanical carnage that elevates Fury Road to an incredible, visceral, purely cinematic experience.
What’s almost unbelievable is that this is a studio movie: Warner Bros. trusting a significant budget (estimated at $150m) to Miller’s undiluted, berserk vision. That vision includes vehicles fuelled with blood, ‘Doof Warriors’ playing flaming guitars as they hurtle into battle, CG used in respectful subservience to jaw-dropping practical stunts, and Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe presiding over a religious cult seemingly inspired by a Duran Duran song that was inspired by the original Mad Max films (“Wild Boys always shine”, remember). Fury Road takes notes from John Ford’s Stagecoach and Sergio Leone’s Dollars films while forging its own route, and sits alongside the previous Max films while paying no attention to continuity whatsoever. This is filmmaking as myth, legend, campfire tale. Sequels have been mooted but it’s hard to imagine ever experiencing anything like Fury Road.