It wouldn’t be late-December without an exhaustive number of end-of-year lists appearing online, looking back on the year’s great and terrible. It would be rude the break with this tradition, so the writers of Frame Rated have each chosen one thing they most enjoyed watching in 2015. As a bonus, each writer’s also listed nine ‘honourable mentions’ below their number one pick. It’s quite an eclectic mix of films and television shows. There are some obvious choices, unusual picks, and perhaps even a few you’ll find controversial.
We’d love to read your thoughts on this feature in the comments below, together with your own pick for the Best Thing You Saw This Year, too. Frame Rated will be closed for New Year’s Day, by the way…
BETTER CALL SAUL – Season One
Paul Whitelaw • When it was announced that Saul Goodman, the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, was to star in his own spin-off, it was assumed that a knockabout series of comic misadventures would ensue. After all, Saul, so capably played by comedian Bob Odenkirk, was primarily used as comic relief in Breaking Bad. With his emetic wardrobe, heinous comb-over, shady moral code, and huckster gift for gaudy self-promotion, he made Lionel Hutz look like a bulwark of legal integrity. An entertaining foil, but not someone who could feasibly carry their own series.
Reader, you know where this is going. Better Call Saul was a triumph. Executed with as much care, wit, visual style, and sophisticated story-telling nous as its parent show, even after one season it can be counted among the greatest TV spin-offs ever made.
I’m number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer – Jimmy McGill
Key to its success was the decision to delve into Saul’s past, six years before the events of Breaking Bad, to find out how he became who he is. Behind the sleazy self-made carapace of Saul Goodman, we meet the sympathetic figure of Jimmy McGill; a struggling small-time lawyer who sincerely wishes to prove himself as a decent professional in the eyes of a hostile, unjust world. The show succeeds in transforming a fairly two-dimensional archetype into a fully-rounded character, steeped in pathos and tragedy. That struggle is grounded, to painful effect, in Jimmy’s desperate-to-please relationship with his successful lawyer brother (played with deft ambiguity by This Is Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean). It’s a Greek tragedy on the borders of Mexico. The poignancy of watching Jimmy striving to succeed as a kosher lawyer is compounded by our knowledge of what he becomes and where he winds up.
Head writer Vince Gilligan and his team skilfully exploit that tension throughout: we desperately want Jimmy to prove he’s not a loser, willing him to bounce back after every humiliating setback, yet we know he’ll never succeed. Knowing how his story ends works in the show’s favour. Handling such a complex emotional arc would be a challenge for even a seasoned dramatic actor, so it’s to Odenkirk’s immense credit that he nails it completely.
Not that humour is abandoned: Saul/Jimmy without his sly, sad-sack, rattlesnake wit is unimaginable. Breaking Bad was always funnier than its ‘Greatest TV Drama Ever’ reputation might suggest, and Better Call Saul continues that tradition of providing more laughs than most supposed comedy shows. The tragicomic saga of poor Jimmy McGill is that rarest of beasts: a spin-off that matches the quality of the parent show it emerged from.
Paul’s Honourable Mentions: Daredevil (Season 1) • Orion: The Man Who Would Be King • The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst • Doctor Who (Series 9) • Peter Kay’s Car Share (Series 1) • Detectorists (Series 2) • Cradle To Grave (Series 1) • Inside No. 9 (Series 2) • Mad Men (Season 7)
MAD MAX – FURY ROAD
Andrew Bemis • I saw Mad Max: Fury Road when I was in the middle of editing my own movie. As much as I loved it, the experience made me feel down on myself. Going back to the challenging work of cutting scenes of two people sitting opposite each other and talking, with George Miller’s remarkable achievement—which moves at a breakneck pace, juggling multiple planes of action without sacrificing spatial coherence—still fresh on my mind, I felt acutely aware of the fact I’m incapable of doing what Miller did. I felt a lot better a few days later, when Steven Soderbergh mentioned on Twitter that the movie made him feel pretty much the same way.
I am the one that runs from both the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive. – Max Rockatansky
Miller’s return to the iconic series he created in 1979 just that remarkable. Fury Road is the work of a 70-year-old filmmaker using every state-of-the-art filmmaking tool at his disposal, while still taking the same fundamental approach to constructing an action sequence that he used in the original trilogy. It’s a movie that moves at a relentless pace while still carrying a surprising amount of thematic weight (anyone who dismisses it as “one long chase sequence” is either being deliberately reductive or wasn’t paying attention). And, most remarkably, it’s a reboot of an ultra-macho franchise that kicks serious ass not despite but because, at its heart, it’s a passionate and persuasive argument for demolishing the patriarchy. Even with all the ecstatic praise Fury Road has received this year, I feel like we’re kind of underrating it.
Andrew’s Honourable Mentions: Crimson Peak • Creed • Magic Mike XXL • Mistress America • Hannibal (Season 3) • The Americans (Season 3) • The Knick (Season 2) • Mad Men (Season 7) • Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
THE LEFTOVERS – Season Two
Dan Owen • I loved Hannibal’s beautiful and experimental third season, and Fargo winding the clock back to 1979 for a riveting sophomore year, but The Leftovers had a spectacular return because it was so… evolutionary. The creators listened to criticism about the first season’s weighty and depressing tone, to adjust magnificently without losing those unavoidable qualities. They lightened things by adding wonderment to everything, with most of the characters moving to a small Texan town that had zero ‘departures’ in the inexplicable event that saw 2% of the world’s population vanish.
Let’s face it, Kevin. There are people who try to commit suicide for attention and then there are people who really wanna fuckin’ die. Like me and you. – Patti Levine
Suddenly, The Leftovers didn’t feel like a high-concept show denying us Answers and making us wallow in the misery of those left behind, it could focus on the smaller-scale concerns of its mysterious new setting—revolving the story around the disappearance (supernatural or otherwise) of a teenage girl. Bizarre communities have been a staple of fiction for generations, but Jarden ranks very highly—with its goat sacrifices, history of earthquakes, and superstitious townsfolk. Perhaps most impressively for a show that digs into the gloomier side of human nature, it made the story’s moments of triumph, joy, and miracles all the more heartwarming. After a second season that barely put a foot wrong, The Leftovers moved from a slightly portentous human drama to a cathartic, quasi-religious experience.
Dan’s Honourable Mentions: Hannibal (Season 3) • Fargo (Season 2) • Mad Max – Fury Road • It Follows • Better Call Saul (Season 1) • Daredevil (Season 1) • Game of Thrones (Season 5) • Outlander (Season 1) • Inside Out
LOVE & MERCY
Francesco Cerniglia • Its theatrical release back in July may have been crunched by the overbearing summer blockbuster juggernauts, yet Love & Mercy deserves a spot in everyone’s end-of-the-year list, if anything because of the mesmerising performances crafted by its formidable cast. The poster’s tagline reads ‘The life, love and genius of Brian Wilson’ and frankly it’d be reductive to label this brilliant piece of filmmaking as merely a biopic.
Whilst indeed telling the heartbreaking true story of a musical legend, Love & Mercy avoids all the usual pitfalls of the genre by not even trying to handle the material with the tiresome didactic approach of a Wikipedia page. The filmmakers in fact choose to focus on two periods in the life of the Beach Boys leader: the 1960s when Wilson begins to struggle with his emerging psychosis as he tries to take the successful band to the next level and the 1980s when he’s succumbed to his condition and the suffocating control of his therapist, the disturbing Dr. Eugene Landy (an exceptional Paul Giamatti).
I want you to leave, but I don’t want you to leave me. – Brian Future
The film intercuts between the two periods in Wilson’s life with two different actors portraying the icon. The underrated Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) plays the younger version whilst John Cusack (Being John Malkovich) is the older and broken incarnation of Wilson. This narrative choice poignantly highlights two pivotal moments in the man’s life and how they are connected but also creates a powerful drama about mental illness and its (still current) stigma and about love being the only possible cure.
Director Bill Pohland who has made an illustrious career producing Oscar-winning films like 12 Years a Slave and Brokeback Mountain, offers an inspired portrait of a man’s genius and his mental condition, successfully getting us inside Wilson’s head. But what strikes here is how the film would totally work even as just a work of fiction rather than the true story of an iconic musician. The merit needs to be equally shared by the cast: Dano, on one hand, infectiously captures Wilson’s artistic vis and progressive descent into the rabbit hole of mental illness whilst Cusack, on the other hand, impresses for the helplessness and vulnerability he abandons himself to, winning over our sympathy from his first appearance and lastly, special mention goes to Elizabeth Banks in a career best role. Now here’s hoping awards ceremonies took note!
MAD MEN – Season Seven
Simon Cocks • Picking the best of what 2015 had to offer is more challenging than expected, but it’s worth remembering that this year Mad Men brought what has consistently been one of the most fascinating stories on TV to its conclusion in an effortlessly resonant fashion.
The series, more so than almost any other out there, has always focused on character so singularly that many could be left wondering if there was much of a plot at all. But prioritising the development of characters ahead of all else served the drama incredibly well as it brought its tale to a close, allowing it to find fitting endings for the figures who have fuelled thinkpieces and captivated audiences for years.
To the end, the vivid portrait of this specific place and time was impeccably delivered, bolstered by gorgeous production design and superb performances from the entire cast. While it may have taken him until the final season to get his Emmy, Jon Hamm ultimately got the award he’s long deserved. His portrayal of Don Draper is one for the ages, and Elisabeth Moss’s work as Peggy Olsen conveys her character’s growth magnificently. There are so many others from the cast deserving of recognition too, in particular John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser and January Jones.
Without the masterful scripting of the series these characters wouldn’t be truly brought to life, though, and it’s Matthew Weiner’s vision that has contributed so much to the position Mad Men holds within the landscape of drama on television. It’s an emotionally honest work, with characters so richly drawn that they’re made to feel real and complex. The final season captures all of what has been great about the show and more, subtly looking to both the past and future while giving us an ending that is somehow both happy and bittersweet. In the end, what Weiner has accomplished is the very best kind of final season, as it’s one that finds a meaningful place to end the story while also not being so tidy as to limit us from imagining what’s next for all of the characters.
Simon’s Honourable Mentions: Mad Max: Fury Road • Hannibal (Season 3) • Whiplash • Selma • Justified (Season 6) • Better Call Saul (Season 1) • The Martian • BoJack Horseman (Season 2) • Master of None (Season 1)
Sarah Hughes • It might seem odd to pick a person rather than a film or TV series for this feature, but when I was thinking about what to include I realised that Oscar Isaac starred in four of my initial picks and that he was fantastic in entirely different ways in all of them. Cynics will note that the 36-year-old Guatemalan-born actor is extremely easy on the eye, but this pick has nothing to do with that (or at least not much). Instead, I’ve chosen him because he is a rarity in today’s Hollywood, possessing both the charisma of the stars of the 1940s and the emotional range of the great actors of the 1970s.
He’s a character actor in a blockbuster society, yet to his credit he slid effortlessly into the big budget, special-effects laden world of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, giving Poe Dameron an easy charm that ensured that the part registered despite being underwritten. While his turn as Dameron is fun (and his chemistry with co-star John Boyega so great that the internet is already awash with fan-fiction on the subject), it’s his three other performances this year that truly resonate. As Nathan, the reclusive tech magnate carrying out his own Turing Test on employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) in Alex Garland’s haunting sci-fi drama Ex Machina, he wields charm like a weapon, keeping both Caleb and the audience constantly on edge, most memorably when he dances with assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) to “Get Down Saturday Night”, an entertaining, unsettling moment that makes the film.
In A Most Violent Year, J.C Chandor’s moody throwback to the great movies of the 1970s, Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman in 1980s New York who has spent his whole life working towards attaining the American dream only to see it about to slip through his eagerly grasping hands. It’s a performance of few words yet great emotional depth in which Isaac gives us a man who is neither hero nor villain. Not a charismatic anti-hero like Nathan or a charming alpha bro like Poe, but instead a quietly furious striver, working overtime each day to present a nice guy’s face to the world. A Most Violent Year serves almost as a primer for the actor’s leading role in David Simon’s mini-series Show Me A Hero. As Mayor Nick Wasicsko, a man who seems to have everything yet is unable to survive without the validation of public office, Isaac is outwardly charming and inwardly falling apart. It’s a subtle, honest and emotionally pulverising portrayal of how a confident, popular, likeable man can come to lose everything and the best thing I’ve seen all year.
Sarah’s Honourable Mentions: Mr Robot (Season 1) • Mad Men (Season 7) • Amy • 45 Years • Detectorists (Series 2) • Clouds of Sils Maria • You, Me & The Apocalypse (Series 1) • Catastrophe (Series 2) • Fargo (Season 2)
Ryan Gumbley • With Leonardo DiCaprio and Alejandro G. Iñàrritu teaming up for The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino returning with The Hateful Eight, right now is a great time for that oldest of genres: the Western. And the fact the best film released this year is a western is even more reason to celebrate. Slow West is the directorial debut of John Maclean—former member of The Beta Band. Pushing west, Scottish immigrant Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) braves the brutality of the frontier to find a woman he loves. Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) left their homeland before him, and Jay is determined to track her down. Along the way, Jay’s both rescued and sort of taken hostage by Michael Fassbender’s wonderfully sly mercenary, Silas Selleck.
There is at times a whimsical musicality to Slow West, and the way it handles its black comedy is admirable. But that’s not to say that there aren’t flashes of shock and violence that penetrate the story, too—it wouldn’t be much of a western otherwise. The moment when an Indian arrow nearly pierces Jay’s skull (instead, entering the palm of his hand) is one of the most exhilaratingly shot sequences this year. Like all good westerns, it ends with a shootout. But unlike a conventional or lesser western, there’s a damning twist as the film bows out by punching the audience in the stomach. There’s too much to love about Slow West to sum up here. If you haven’t seen it yet, as many haven’t, track it down now—it’d make a fantastic double-bill alongside Tarantino’s latest.
The film proves that there’s no better genre for prodding at ideas and notions than the western. Whether it’s class, race, honour, violence, duty, tradition, historical progress or—as with Slow West—true romance, a western’s the ideal genre for handling weighty issues. Maclean also proves that there’s no reason why westerns can’t be intelligent and beautiful on their own terms. I, for one, could not be happier that America’s greatest gift to cinema is undergoing a renaissance. Long may it last.
Ryan’s Honourable Mentions: Irrational Man • It Follows • Blackhat • Ex Machina • While We’re Young • Mistress America • Amy • The Duke of Burgundy • Pasolini
WOLF HALL – Series One
Frank Collins • Although greeted by claims it was historically inaccurate and complaints from viewers they couldn’t see what was going on in the candlelit interiors, Wolf Hall eschewed the pacing of most contemporary British drama and applied something of the ‘slow television’ tradition established by Norwegian documentarians. In fact, Wolf Hall’s pace echoed its BBC drama predecessors, returning us to the stately proceedings of those 1970s multi-camera costume dramas, Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. A return perhaps to TV’s roots in theatre, certainly in pace and performance, Wolf Hall swapped BBC TV Centre for authentic locations such as Montacute House, Chastleton House, and Great Chalfield Manor to ensure the series fulfilled its ‘national heritage’ export potential.
Peter Kosminsky’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s highly successful Booker Prize-winning historical novels, set at the court of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis achieving the appropriate mix of fearful braggadocio and violent zealotry), might seem something of a departure for a director more attached to the cut and thrust of modern politics with renowned dramas like The Project and The Government Inspector. Wolf Hall was no doubt sumptuously costumed and designed, shot authentically by tallow candlelight, and had Debbie Wiseman’s contemporary score happily sharing its 15th/16th-century origins with a selection of period accurate music sourced and arranged by Claire van Kampen, but Kosminsky’s real interest was the court politics.
The Machiavellian entanglements between religious dogma, potential leader of the Church of England Henry VIII, his wife Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) and the slow progression of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) from unassuming peasant to treasonous extension of the King, dominates the six episodes of the series. Cromwell fills the shoes of his banished mentor Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), after the Cardinal’s failure to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and gradually becomes the King’s confidante. It’s Cromwell’s duel with Anne Boleyn and her bid to bear the king’s heir that plunges the court into paranoia and treason. This reaches an astonishing climax in the final episode when Cromwell uses Anne’s treason to exact revenge on those that belittled his mentor.
At the centre of this ravishingly shot series is an extraordinary performance from Mark Rylance as Cromwell. It is delicate and subtle, the interior thoughts of the man exposed through the slightest gesture, brief and intense eye contact or the wry movement of the mouth. It suggests the tiniest cracks in the stone-hearted demeanour of grief at the loss of a wife and daughters to the plague. He’s a mesmerising jewel in a particularly good company of actors.
Frank’s Honourable Mentions: The Bridge (Season 3) • Transparent (Season 2) • Better Call Saul (Season 1) • The Legacy (Series 2) • Ripper Street (Series 2) • London Spy • The Man in the High Castle (Season 1) • Humans (Series 1) • 1864
~ CRITICAL CONSENSUS ~
Taking each of our writer’s choices as a single vote, as a collective we heartily recommend the following in loose descending order…
- Better Call Saul (AMC, season 1) – 4 votes
- Mad Men (AMC, season 7) – 4 votes
- Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) – 4 votes
- Hannibal (NBC, season 3) – 3 votes
- Daredevil (Netflix, season 1) – 2 votes
- Detectorists (BBC4, series 2) – 2 votes
- It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell) – 2 votes
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J Abrams) – 2 votes
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland) – 2 votes
- Fargo (FX, season 2) – 2 votes
- Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter) – 2 votes