There are many ways of breaking down the results of Indiewire’s midyear poll of the best movies of 2015, as determined by 88 members of the Criticwire network. As Steve Greene notes, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the rare studio movie to take the top spot, and it’s a decisive favorite, indicating the broad-based appeal of the rare action movie as smart as it is viscerally thrilling. (Sorry, “Furious Seven.”) With 56 votes to second-place “Ex Machina’s” 32, “Fury Road” got 75 percent more votes than its closest finisher, and, more than four times as many first-place mentions: 18 to 4. Third-place finisher “Clouds of Sils Maria” had both more mentions overall, at 33, and more first-place votes, seven, than “Ex Machina,” but support dropped off after that, keeping it out of the silver-medal slot.
After the top five, which is filled out by “It Follows” and “The Duke of Burgundy,” the point totals start to drop off sharply, as does the breadth of the films’ theatrical release: From “Duke” through the rest of the Top Ten — “Timbuktu,” “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” “Jauja,” “The Tribe,” and “Heaven Knows What” — no movie has played in more than a handful of cities, although the latter two are just beginning to be released. It will be interesting to see how wider availability, for these as well as Pixar’s “Inside Out,” which finished a respectable 14th despite not opening in theaters until this Friday, affects these movies’ standing in the year-end poll. (My own ballot is here.)
More than availability, though what unites the poll’s top 5 — “Fury Road,” “Ex Machina,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “It Follows” and “The Duke of Burgundy” — is that they’re all movies with female protagonists, or at least with a female central character, since you can argue about who the hero of “Ex Machina” really is. Tom Hardy’s Mad Max may get title billing, but no one who’s seen “Fury Road” can fail to come away thinking of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the movie’s most dynamic and engrossing character, an act of feminist subversion that did no go unnoticed by critics or men with fragile egos. “Ex Machina” is a cautionary parable about tech-bro sexism in which Alicia Vikander’s smokin’-hot A.I. turns out to have more going on beneath her flawless surface than Domhnall Gleeson or Oscar Isaac can bring themselves to notice, and “It Follows” similarly both engages and undermines sexist genre tropes, with Maika Monroe’s scream queen fleeing a sexually transmitted boogeyman. “Clouds of Sils Maria” riffs on Bergman’s “Persona,” with Juliette Binoche’s actress engaged in a psychic tug-of-war with assistant Kristen Stewart, and “The Duke of Burgundy” takes place in a gauzy fantasy world, modeled on the Italian softcore movies of Jesus Franco, in which men do not seem to exist, and women are as changing as butterflies. It would be a stretch to yoke together these five movies, made in different countries at different times, into any kind of unified movement. But at the very least, it would seem to be a good time to be a artist exploring issues of gender, and the way they function both inside of genre and without it. (That could further spell good news for “Inside Out,” whose setting is the literal emotional landscape of a 12-year-old girl.)
It’s not, unfortunately, such a good time to be a woman, at least behind the camera. Only five female-directed fiction features made it into the top 50: Celine Sciama’s “Girlhood” (20th); Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden” (32d); Jessica Hausner’s “Amout Fou” (37th); Ronit Elkabetz’s “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” (38th), co-directed with her husband, Shlomi; and Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior” (47th). Including documentaries, which tend to be more open to female directors, gets us Crystal Moselle’s “The Wolfpack” (45th), Amanda Rose Wilder’s “Approaching the Elephant” (49th); and Marah Strouch’s “Sunshine Superman” (50th), for a grand total of 7. That’s 16 percent, even lower than the movie industry average of 24 percent female directors, according to the most recent study.
Some of these movies, especially “Eden” and “The Wolfpack,” which are still making their way into theaters, may fare better at year’s end, although both have already had ample exposure at Toronto and Sundance. Others, like “Approaching the Elephant” and “Appropriate Behavior,” were barely released at all. (“Elephant,” at least, is on Netflix, and well worth your time.) Then again, “Jauja” and “The Tribe” have been no easier to see, and enough critics saw and loved them to push them into the Top 10. The second half of 2015 will bring movies like “Trainwreck,” written by and starring Amy Schumer; “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” adapted by Marielle Heller from the graphic novel memoir by Phoebe Gloeckner; Leslye Headland’s “Sleeping With Other People”; and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Meru,” to name only a few. Here’s hoping they get the attention they deserve.