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The 20 Best Film Festival Debuts Of 2015 So Far

The 20 Best Film Festival Debuts Of 2015 So Far

We’re coming up to the halfway mark of 2015, and last week we collated a list of the 20 best films we’ve seen that have  been released within the first six months of the year. But that’s only part of the story for us, as the great privilege of working as film bloggers means we get to attend all the major film festivals throughout the calendar year, and hence get to see much-anticipated new films long before their release dates, and often before those dates have even been set or distributors been found.

READ MORE:  The 20 Best Films Of 2015 So Far

To represent the first six months of The Playlist’s year more accurately, here are our 20 favorite festival debuts of 2015 so far, encompassing titles from the Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes Film Festivals, many of which will be vying for your attention in the latter half of the year.

45 Years” [Our Berlin review]
With an August release scheduled in the U.K., hopefully a U.S. date will be announced soon for Andrew Haigh‘s double Berlin winner (Best Actor & Actress for Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) — it’s a matter of some urgency as “45 Years” is simply one of those films that you cannot wait to share. Not that it is anything but quiet and truthful and simple: essentially a two-hander, it’s an examination of a relationship pierced to its core at such a late stage of marriage that you’d imagine routine and complacent compatibility would have worn down the possibility for anything as dramatic as heartbreak. With a perfect absence of judgement and an absolute commitment to the reality of his characters equalled only by that of his actors, Haigh’s film disassembles this shared life, as the news that a long-ago-girlfriend’s body has been found preserved in Alpine ice detonates slowly under its foundations. It left us trembling.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Sundance Selects snapped up North American rights in Berlin, but no date set yet.

Arabian Nights” [Our Cannes review]
Miguel Gomes’ followup to his woozily romantic post-colonial drama “Tabu” is one of the biggest and most ambitious films of the year, and not just because it’s told in three parts across more than six hours. As the title might suggest, the writer-director borrows the structure of the collection of Arabic folklore also known as “1001 Nights,” but it’s a collection of entirely original tales, hopping between docudrama, magic realism and a combination of the two. The stories focus on everything from an aged murderer on the run to a birdsong competition, together forming a tapestry that indicates the state of the nation of Portugal, a country hit harder than most by economic troubles of the past decade. Formally dazzling, consistently surprising, disarmingly funny and often extremely moving, the film might take the best part of a day to watch, but it’s a day that you’ll cherish long after the credits roll.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? No U.S. distributor yet, but it’s sure to appear at the New York Film Festival.

The Assassin” [Our Cannes review]
In various stages of production for the best part of a decade and in the planning for 25 years, “The Assassin” marks the return of Taiwanese arthouse legend Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and what a return it is. To some degree, it’s new territory for Hou, marking a delve into the wuxia martial arts story in the form of a 9th-century China-set story about a trained killer (Shu Qi) told to kill the man she was once betrothed to, but those expecting rapid-fire action filmmaking from Hou will be disappointed. As will those expecting a strong narrative throughline, as the storytelling’s a little muddy, but the director more than makes up for it with the sheer beauty of the film: every Academy ratio frame is entirely and completely gorgeous from first to last, with one shot involving mountain mist as stunning as anything you’ll see this year, next year or in the next ten years (however long it takes for Hou to make another movie).
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Well Go USA will release the film later this year.

Brooklyn” [Our Sundance review]
Come November, John Crowley‘s time in the relative wilderness following his breakout “Boy A” (subsequent features “Is Anybody There?” and “Closed Circuit” both failed to connect) will come to an end in a beautiful blaze of homesickness and heartbreak. When “Brooklyn” opens, not only will it put its director on the radar (along with DP Yves Belanger), but it’s almost certain to push Saoirse Ronan in to the awards race, not to mention any of several of the supporting cast (particularly Emory Cohen and Julie Walters). A profoundly moving tale of the immigrant experience, the film follows a young girl without prospects in Ireland who makes the vast trip, culturally as well as geographically, to New York in the 1950s. There is love and loss, but this is no tweeny Nicholas Sparks romance: instead it’s a considered and insightful exploration of the very idea of being at home —be it in a foreign city or in your own skin.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Fox Searchlight have netted it in an awards-friendly November 6th slot.

Carol” [Our Cannes review]
Todd Haynes‘ “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Cannes Best Actress Rooney Mara, is a beautiful ache of a film, slow and careful like a forbidden love affair. In fact, its undeniably exquisite surface (credit to the actresses’ faces, Sandy Powell‘s costuming and Judy Becker‘s production design) has led its few detractors to accuse it of shallowness. But it is a film that’s about reading beneath appearances, and the astonishing Edward Lachman cinematography constantly invites us to do just that, presenting layered, refracted, reflected images, dicing up the screen into frames-within-frames, pulling us through the cracks of doors left slightly ajar. Like a small-talk conversation between two well-dressed women in a department store, you can see “Carol” as simply a polished surface, or you can lean in closer and hear the quickened pulses, see the stolen glances and understand that beneath a perfect veneer that is as much self-preservation as vanity, oceans are roiling.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? TWC will release it December 18th.

Cemetery Of Splendour” [Our Cannes review]
Any fears that a downgrade at Cannes to the Un Certain Regard section meant a step down in quality for Apichatpong Weerasethakul from the Palme D’Or winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” proved to be unnecessary: the Thai master’s latest, “Cemetery Of Splendour” is just as much of a marvel as his last picture. A dreamlike, atmospheric film about a middle-aged woman tending to soldiers suffering from sleeping sickness that may be caused by the spirits of long-dead kings beneath them, it is, as our review put it, “even quieter and more subtly strange” than its predecessor, with a woozy, nebulous mood that’s undercut by surprising moments of comedy and of true magic. Our reviewer “felt mildly posssessed, as though Weersaethakul was making my eyes look out exactly through his own” —it’s as astonishing a cinematic experience as any IMAX 3D blockbuster, and much richer. Splendour indeed.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Strand Releasing will put it out on an undetermined date.

The Club” [Our Berlin review]
With sexual abuse within the Catholic Church emerging as one of the great unacknowledged institutional crimes of our time, only very recently have documentaries (“Deliver Us From Evil,” “Mea Maxima Culpa“) and narrative films like John Michael McDonagh‘s “Calvary” really confronted the issue. In such a relatively silent landscape, Pablo Larrain‘s excoriating “The Club” resounds like a clarion call: abrasive and uncompromising, the film does not aim to cleanse, but to scour. It works as both a wickedly clever straight-on story, set in a house of disgraced priests kept by the diocese like a dirty secret, and also as an allegory for Purgatory and for the rotting edifice of the Church in general. Marked by performances so authentic as to feel docu-realist and by murky cinematography giving the impression of mutedness and shades of gray, this is not a measured film: it is furious, venting a singleminded rage that is underscored by its rich vein of blackest irony.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Music Box Films will distribute it in the U.S., but no date set yet.

The End of the Tour” [Our Sundance review]
Even winning over our Sundance reviewer, who was something of a James Ponsoldt apostate after the widely lauded “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now,” this film based on the encounters between a Rolling Stone journalist (a strong Jesse Eisenberg) and David Foster Wallace (a revelatory Jason Segal) is a terrific two-hander. Talky by necessity but smart and insightful about everything from the price of fame to the loneliness of artistic endeavor to the fundamental weirdness of the interview process, especially with a subject as self-aware and quicksilver bright as DFW, it proves Ponsoldt has the rare talent of being able to coax tremendous performances from talented actors and then to get the hell out of the way. Aided by a smart script from Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies, it’s a powerful and moving glimpse at a famously tortured intelligence, and a personal memoir at the same time of “the best conversation I ever had.”
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Limited release via A24 on July 31st.

Entertainment” [Our Sundance review]
Let’s state up front that we were fans of Rick Alverson and comedian Tim Heidecker‘s last collaboration, the mordant anti-comedy “The Comedy,” but we can’t imagine that film’s legions of haters will find anything to love about “Entertainment,” undoubtedly the entry on this list that will call down the loudest clamors of dismay. Designed to be offputting in every way, from look to characterization to its ultra-nihilist absurdism and darkest irony, the film is a challenge but a dementedly hilarious one (in a really sick way that you probably shouldn’t admit to in public). Following a tragically unsuccessful comedian (Gregg Turkington) on his pathetic odyssey through the dead-end dives of the Californian desert and the characters he encounters (including Tye Sheridan, John C Reilly, Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz), we’re a little worried about what our connection to this film says about us, as it’s a film ultimately about the total futility of connection.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? No date yet from brave distributors Magnolia.

Green Room” [Our Cannes review]
Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” was one of the most striking genre pictures of the last few years: it is beautifully made, darkly funny and deeply suspenseful, but the fast-rising filmmaker has upped his game further with “Green Room,” a breathless, ingeniously constructed siege picture that had Cannes audiences jumping in their seats. Pitting a struggling punk band against a group of neo-Nazi skinheads led by Patrick Stewart out to cover up a murder, it’s got a deep bench of a cast —Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Mark Webber among the standouts— a nicely textured and authentic look at the punk scene, the same kind of seat-of-the-pants suspense as “Blue Ruin” and lashings of gore (including some of the more gruesome moments we’ve seen in a long while). The picture somehow pulls off the trick of building a full world and characters without there being a misplaced scene, line or shot, and the result is one of the best films of its kind in a long while.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Broad Green Pictures will release at some point in the future.

Krisha” [Our SXSW review]
This woman has a devil inside. We know it from the very first shot of Trey Edward Shults‘ remarkable feature debut and SXSW winner “Krisha,” when the eponymous character, indivisibly embodied by actress Krisha Fairchild, stares out at us unsettlingly, and it feels like there’s some indefinable Bob-from-“Twin Peaks” overlay. The film, woozily shot by Drew Daniels and scored to perfect discordance by Brian McOmber, puts us inside this fearful, fracturing subjectivity as Krisha falls apart over Thanksgiving —cue a lot of glib remarks about how tough the holidays are. But this is not a #firstworldproblems film. Instead, it’s a portrait of mental instability drawn with profound psychological insight, as well as a mild critique of the aspirational yet conformist upper-middle, white, suburban lifestyle that Krisha can no longer access. An absorbing, chilling portrait of self-defeat, self-deceit and self-pity, “Krisha” is an excavation of the devil inside an unforgettable character.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? A24 have it, as well as Shults’ next film, but no date yet.

The Lobster” [Our Cannes review]
Plenty of foreign-language filmmakers moved into English with the help of big names at Cannes this year, but none did it as well as Yorgos Lanthimos, the mad Greek genius behind “Dogtooth” and “Alps.” His latest, set in a world where single people are sent to a hotel for 45 days, at the end of which they’re turned into an animal if they fail to pair up, is a brilliant satire of dating rituals, oppressive couplehood and fundamentalism (Colin Farrell’s lead escapes to a group of woods-dwelling singletons, only to discover their rules are just as restrictive), equal parts Luis Bunuel and Charlie Kaufman. Thanks in part to a stellar cast including everyone from Rachel Weisz and Ben Whishaw to Lanthimos veterans Ariane Labed and Aggeliki Papoulia, it’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but also proves to be a suprisingly moving love story by its end. It might be the best and wisest relationship movie since “Eternal Sunshine,” and confirms Lanthimos as a titanic talent. 
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Alchemy has picked the film up, though no date’s set yet.

Macbeth” [Our Cannes review]
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. And that something wicked is Justin Kurzel’s bold, brilliant new take on “Macbeth,” probably the best big-screen Shakespeare adaptation since Baz Luhrmann reinvented “Romeo + Juliet.” With a semi-expressionist approach that’s as much fever dream as “Game Of Thrones,” Kurzel smartly reinvents the play in startling but always satisfying ways (read more about those here), and creates an atmosphere that stalks you like a murderous Scottish thane. His biggest gift might be with the cast: Paddy Considine, Sean Harris et al are as strong as you’d expect, but this is all about the Macbeths, and both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard deliver performances that are among their strongest. The former is precise and increasingly unhinged, while the latter finds a vulnerability and nuance that many Lady Macbeths overlook, without losing her deviousness. Kurzel will reunite with his leads soon on “Assassin’s Creed,” which means it’s finally time to get excited about a video game movie.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? The Weinstein Company will release in the fall.

Man Up” [Our Tribeca review]
When did the last great mainstream romantic comedy come out? We’ve had some strong indie contenders (“Obvious Child” springs to mind), but we have to cast our minds back almost a decade and a half to the first “Bridget Jones’ Diary” to find a truly strong one. Fortunately, fans of the genre have something to look forward to, thanks to “Man Up.” The film, directed by Ben Palmer and written by Tess Morris (read our interview with the latter) sees Lake Bell as a woman mistaken for the blind date of a charming stranger (Simon Pegg) and who decides to go along for the ride in a night that involves much drinking, dancing and home truths. Aided, per our review, by “a rich understanding of the rom-com form,” it’s an “unexpectedly refreshing and exceedingly charming” film with a “fizzy and immediate chemistry” between its two leads, who both get their best showcases in some time with the film.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? It’s out in the UK now, but Saban Films will release in the U.S. later in the year.

Mistress America” [Our Sundance review]
Noah Baumbach’s been on a hell of a run the last few years: the gloriously featherlight palate cleanser of “Frances Ha” was followed by “While We’re Young,” the director’s most accessible and popular film to date. That run continues with “Mistress America,” which like ‘Frances,’ was shot on the DL and is co-written by and stars his muse and other half Greta Gerwig, but is somewhat different. Breakout Lola Kirke (sister of “Girls” star Jemima) plays a young college freshman just starting at Columbia who befriends her new step-sister Brooke (Gerwig), leading to a Bogdanovich-ish comedy that plays, according to our review, like a “millennial riff on ‘His Girl Friday,’ with a rapid-fire delivery minus the traditional romance.” A “super rich, funny and layered” picture anchored by another great turn by Gerwig and a “luminous” one by Kirke, this is likely to be one of the breakout indie comedies of the year.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Fox Searchlight release the film on August 14th.

Queen of Earth” [Our Berlin review]
A highly-strung, hormonal, claustrophobic film featuring two knockout central performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston (and a great supporting turn from Patrick Fugit), Alex Ross Perry‘s follow-up to “Listen Up Philip” retains DP Sean Price Williams‘ grainy aesthetic and the general air of misanthropy, but changes up just about everything else. A see-sawing power play between frenemies, “Queen of Earth” unfolds in in often merciless closeups as Catherine (Moss) retreats to her friend Virginia’s lake house following a bad breakup. Old rivalries, new jealousies and bitter resentments surface between the two young women, yet there’s an oddly touching acceptance of each others’ horribleness underneath. As an expose of entitlement and self-absorption among privileged white girls floundering in the adult world, it’s certainly not for everyone, but this sort of unapologetic histrionics hasn’t been in vogue since Fassbinder, and Perry might just be the one to resurrect the subgenre of the female meltdown melodrama.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? The Match Factory picked it up in Berlin, no date set yet.

The Stanford Prison Experiment” [Our Sundance review]
The 1971 experiment by Dr. Philip Zimbardo that divided students in roles of prisoners and guards in an attempt to examine the psychological effect of incarceration has inspired a number of movies already, from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Das Experiment” to a ropey DTV Adrien Brody vehicle, but none have been as true to life or as gripping as Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Led by Billy Crudup and featuring a terrific cast of rising stars including Michael Angarano, James Frecheville, Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan, it’s a “clinical but deeply engrossing” film, according to our Sundance review, with a “super economical” script by Tim Talbott, Alvarez “staging the hell out of the movie” and an “insanely stacked cast.” Likely to attract theater foyer arguments as long as it plays, it led to our reviewer experiencing “one of the most striking, spine-tingling shared cinema experiences I’ve had in my life,” and if that isn’t a recommendation, we don’t know what is.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? IFC release the film on July 17th.

Tangerine” [Our Sundance review]
A vibrant, funny film that blew us away with its energy at Sundance, director Sean Baker‘s (“Starlet“) street-level look at friendship amid the various subcultures of Los Angeles transcends its potentially gimmicky format (it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S) to become a wholly original treat. Following two BFFs (forces of nature Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) on the day one is released from prison and vows to track down her cheating boyfriend, the film neither avoids nor exploits the pair’s cultural outsider status: they are both prostitutes and they are both transgender. So while we get a sense of the issues and prejudices they face every day, Baker is more interested in presenting them as people and as friends, rather than archetypes. So it’s a journey of discovery as much for the audience as for the protagonists and indeed the filmmaker, as he makes an experimental format work to his advantage.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? July 10th through Magnolia.

Trainwreck [Our SXSW review]
We firmly believe that Amy Schumer‘s comic personality meshes superbly well with Judd Apatow‘s sensibilities, but you won’t have to take our word for long —”Trainwreck” opens in a little over a month and you can judge for yourselves. It feels like a bit of a cheat to include this movie here  —it’s hardly an arthouse indie, though reportedly the released version will be slightly different from the SXSW screener (in a few music cues and some color correction, mostly). Still, we feel strongly enough about the tightly-scripted, warmhearted, witty film, peppered with strong, funny performances from Bill Hader and Tilda Swinton as well as John Cena and LeBron James, to include it here, especially as it promises to be a focal point for the “year of the female-fronted studio comedy” that is off to a promising start with the box office successes of “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Spy.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? Goes wide July 17th.

The Witch” [Our Sundance review]
We’re in something of a horror movie renaissance at present, and one of the most artful of this recent wave is “The Witch,” which scared the living shit out of Sundance audiences back in January. The directorial debut of production designer Robert Eggers, the film’s set in New England in the 1630s and involves a Christian family whose youngest child is taken by… something in the forest. That something may be reasonably clear from the title, but this is no creature feature: per our review, the “Immaculately constructed” picture “taps the iciness of Ingmar Bergman, the hypnotic qualities of Andrei Tarkovsky, the distress of David Lynch and the omniscient otherworldliness of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ and even ‘Barry Lyndon.’” So not your average chiller, then. Led by standout newcomer Anya Taylor Joy, it’s a film that “will dazzle and shake you right to your core,” and looks to put Eggers very much on the map.
When Can The Rest Of Us See It? A24 have the rights, but haven’t yet set a date.

Leaving aside the standout documentaries, which will be getting their own list very soon, there were several further titles we should mention, several of which we only excluded because they were also Cannes titles, and we’d called them out recently enough in our Cannes coverage. So Arnaud Desplechin‘s affecting “My Golden Days,” Ciro Guerra‘s sublimeEmbrace of the Serpent,” Takashi Miike’s daffy Yakuza Apocalypse,” and Corneliu Porumboiu‘s triumphant “The Treasureare all big favorites of ours, with eventual Palme winner “Dheepan” from Jacques Audiard and Joachim Trier’s “Louder than Bombs” not lagging too far behind.

The best of the rest from Sundance include “Digging For Fire,” “People Places & Things,” and more “Best Of” picks we chose earlier in the year; from Berlin there’s “Aferim!and Golden Bear WinnerTaxi” from Jafar Panahi; from SXSW “Sweaty Betty“; and from Tribeca “Bridgend,” “Men Go To BattleandTumbledown.” Hopefully we’ve whetted your appetite for some of the above —any festival title you’ve seen that we’ve missed? Let us know below.

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