Although 2015 was all about the blockbusters, there were some excellent films that flew under the radar.
Documentaries such as Red Army and The Best of Enemies were both brilliantly made and fascinating to watch, but sadly were gone from cinema screens all too soon. So, with that in mind, we've gone through the ten hidden gems of 2015.
A film based on an urban myth about a Coen Brothers film sounds completely inaccessible to the average cinemagoer. Yet, strangely, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter has a lot of common ground with some of the best dramas released this year. Featuring a fantastic central performance by Rinko Kikuchi, the film takes the urban legend - an Asian woman reportedly died near where Fargo was filmed as she was trying to find Steve Buscemi's buried cash - and transforms it into an engaging story about how life is never as simple as films make it out to be.
Joel Edgerton, on his first attempt at directing, struck gold with The Gift. As well as writing the screenplay, Edgerton stars as the troubled Gordon Mosley, who meets an old "friend" from school played by Jason Bateman. What begins with somewhat overbearing presence soon degenerates into classic thriller territory, calling back to the likes of Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction and Curtis Hanson's The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Let's hope Edgerton gets back in the directing chair soon as this is too good of a debut not o.
A companion piece to 2012's devastating The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees director Joshua Oppenheimer returning to Indonesia. The documentary follows Adi, an optician whose brother died during the Indonesian killings of 1965. Filled with the same kind of tension you'd find the best horrors, The Look of Silence may not have the same visual flair as The Act of Killing, but it carries the same resonance and texture of its predecessor.
David Sington's documentary about a Death row inmate, Nick Yarris, attempting to clear his name might seem like its been covered before, but you really haven't seen it done like this. Using dramatic readings by the inmate himself and dramatisations of the story itself, The Fear of 13 has all the weight and texture of the best true crime stories. The amount of twists, turns and roundabouts in the film is incredible and will honestly have you on the edge of your seat for its one-hour-thirty runtime.
It's hard to explain A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence easily. The closest thing we can compare it to is something like Monty Python's The Meaning of Life as directed by Lars Von Trier. For some people, that might sound like the best thing ever. Others, not so much. And, in a way, that's what makes it so interesting. It's probably the most polarising film you're likely to see in the previous ten years. Some people will absolutely love it for its irreverence, its surreal settings and vignettes, others just won't. They're both right, in a way. It's an incredibly difficult film to access, but if you can get on board with it, it's a hugely rewarding watch.
Back when we originally reviewed Ex Machina, we gave it three and a half stars. While it was a frustrating watch on first viewing, subsequent viewings have allowed it to sink in and given us time to reflect on it. Alex Garland, in his first effort as director, really has crafted something utterly unique in sci-fi. Essentially, Ex Machina is a chamber drama with a few bits of robotics thrown in to stir things up a bit. Oscar Isaac gives a particularly interesting performance as the wild-eyed inventor whilst Vikander is stunning as the muted android. Disturbing and gorgeous in equal measure, Ex Machina crawls under your skin and refuses to leave.
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay's subtle, remote drama was an intriguing watch. An ageing couple, planning their wedding anniversary, begin to question their years together when an ex-lover of Courtenay's turns up years after she was thought dead. She's still dead, mind, but in an intriguing twist, her body has been completely preserved in ice. Courtenay then admits to Rampling that, had his ex-lover not died, he would have married her instead. There are no moments of 'acting' or angry crying or thrown plates, it's all very underlying tension and quiet desperation that begins to pull the marriage apart.
Best of Enemies examines the series of debates that took place between commentators William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 US Presidential elections. Instead of coming at it as a straightforward examination of the debates itself, the documentary widens the lens to take in the state of US television at that time, the political climate outside of the debates and, in a sense, where America is today. Calling to mind Frost / Nixon, Best of Enemies is a hugely engaging story about the power of television and its ability to shape a nation's fate.
A film shot entirely on iPhones has no real business being as good as this. Yet, director Sean Baker manages to cut and slice his way through the grainy footage and comes back with a beautifully-told story about friendship and adversity. While its characters and method of filming might be extremely modern, Tangerine is an old-school dramedy underneath all the pop-culture references and razor-sharp editing. Visually, it's unlike any film you've ever seen before.
2015 really has been a year for documentaries, however Red Army stands out as one for the ages. Exploring the Soviet Union's ice hockey team, Red Army zips along at the pace of a Tom Clancy political thriller. The team's exploits - from KGB infiltration to defections and international incidents - acts as a microcosm of the collapse of communism across Europe. The film's central character, Slava Fetisov, is every bit the stereotypical Russian hard man. He calmly explains the brutal training regime he and his teammates were subjected with a sort of flippancy that's both terrifying and, at times, blackly funny. On par with Senna and When We Were Kings and Hoop Dreams, Red Army is easily one of the best sports documentaries ever made.