As June strikes up its merry chorus, it’s hard to believe that we’re nearly halfway through a year we’re still not wholly used to writing in date form —seriously, 2015? it feels like something out of a sci-fi movie, and come October 21st it will be. Yet it must be said that when we look back on the films released since the beginning of January, there have been enough excellent movies to cover several months more. In fact, when compiling this list of Best Films of the Year so far (which extends to the end of June, as we’ve already seen all the major releases for the rest of the month and can include them in consideration), we’ve taken the unprecedented step of increasing the total list to 20 titles, concentrating exclusively on narrative features (docs will get their own list soon) and dropping any festival-only titles from consideration (festival favorites will also get their own separate feature).
So here are the 20 honest-to-God theatrically released narrative films from January-June 2015 that we feel make the best all-round case for this being a pretty terrific year at the movies so far.
“‘71” (Original Review)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” might be the best action movie of 2015 so far (and probably of the previous ten years), but not far behind is a far more modest endeavor, the low-budget British thriller “’71,” a pulse-pounding picture with something to say. The feature debut from TV hotshot Yann Demange strands squaddie Jack O’Connell (immediately throwing off any memory of the turgid “Unbroken”) in the midst of enemy territory at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, a target for both Irish Republicans and nefarious higher-ups on his own side. Lean, frantic and unbearably tense, it’s likely to have immediately put Demange near the top of wish-lists for many new projects: few modern filmmakers have captured chaos with such clarity or sustained suspense for so long. But it’s not just a stripped-down genre exercise —Gregory Burke’s fine script finds enough time to break for a breather to give a nuanced take on the politics of the time (war being “posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is one of the quotes of the year), or to locate the humanity in the men and women around them. Both realistic and strangely hallucinatory, it’s easily one of the most striking debuts in some time.
“The Duke Of Burgundy” (Original Review)
British director Peter Strickland had us at his second film “Berberian Sound Studio,” which showed his love of moviedom’s Giallo corners with an intoxicating, heady take on the craft of filmmaking itself. ‘Burgundy’ is less meta in that regard, but it’s no less concerned with mood and atmosphere, establishing a cloying, rotten-fruit eroticism between his two central characters (“Borgen“‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna), who are engaged in a game of sexual domination and submission fifty shades knottier, kinkier and more complex than anything that happens between Ana and Christian. The gradual revelation of who truly calls the shots in the relationship is the story’s central trick, but the film is unhurried, instead opening up like a pollen-heavy flower that somehow immediately spoils. In dealing so thoroughly with the nature of fetishization, the film becomes an exercise in fetish itself, from the sensuous shucking of seamed silk stockings, to the polishing of leather boots, even to including a credit for a fictional perfume “Je Suis Gizella,” as though Strickland wants us to imagine a runner spritzing the air with a baroque atomizer between takes. It’s self-conscious in the extreme, arch and artificial, but also quite unique.
“Eden” (Original Review)
Hollywood’s about to get its first major EDM movie with the Zac Efron-starring “We Are Your Friends,” but any further studio films as such may be late to the party: French helmer Mia Hansen-Løve has already delivered what may be the definitive DJ Bildungsroman, a sort of Gallic “Boyhood,” if you swapped in Daft Punk for that awful scene with the waiter. Building on the nuance and humanism of the devastating one-two punch of her previous films “The Father Of My Children” and “Goodbye First Love,” “Eden” is a decades-spanning story of Paul (Félix de Givry), who comes up alongside Daft Punk in the dawning years of French house and reaches a modicum of fame, but keeps the party going long after many of his friends have embraced adulthood. Hansen-Løve is concerned as much with the comedown lows as with the pupil-dilating highs, thus eschewing the tropes of the music movie for an easy, low-key naturalism that feels steeped in authenticity (her brother Sven, who co-wrote the film, is a well-known DJ), but it’s about more than just BPM: the film serves as a sort of defining statement about the generation that refused to grow up.
“Ex Machina” (Original Review)
Science fiction at its best can be a laboratory in which weighty philosophical and allegorical concepts are explored within genre entertainment. Alex Garland, the writer of such sci-fi films past as Danny Boyle‘s “Sunshine,” “28 Days Later” and the adaptation of “Never Let Me Go” seems to innately grasp that balance in his quietly dazzling directorial debut. Set in a highly controlled, stylized environment, a kind of Petri dish in which we can observe the interactions of its three principals minutely, he orchestrates “Ex Machina”‘s investigation of identity, misogyny and power relationships with the precision of a safecracker, aided by a trio of tremendously assured, committed performances. Most centrally, Alicia Vikander continues her imperial phase as the otherworldly robot Ava, Oscar Isaac is unknowably charismatic as the reclusive genius with literal skeletons in his closets, and Domhnall Gleeson confirms his value as an actor who can negotiate a seeming everyman role but invest the character with personality and a kind of deep ambivalence —he may be our proxy, but that doesn’t mean we have to like him. It’s a chilling, taut, precisely calibrated movie, so well-engineered that it feels almost like the product of artificial intelligence itself. (Already seen? Check out our spoilery podcast on “Ex Machina“)
“Girlhood” (Original Review)
From the sparkling, authentic performances from an immensely talented unknown cast, to the lyrical but gritty photography to the sublime soundtrack that uses, among other pop cuts, the Rihanna song from which the quote is taken, everything in Céline Sciamma‘s “Girlhood” “shines bright like a diamond.” Coming-of-age stories are now as played-out a genre as any, yet Sciamma’s take on the travails of a young black girl (a luminous Karidja Touré) growing up in the tough suburbs of Paris, negotiating gang politics, criminality and her own burgeoning sexuality, is shot through with a vibrant sense of life, and feels anything but tired. According her young, exclusively black, almost exclusively female cast a degree of honest agency and respect that this segment is very rarely accorded on film, Sciamma’s movie is much more than an exercise in political correctness, delivering a thrilling and often poetic meditation of the quest for self-identity in a modern urban setting that transcends all its specifics (language, geography, class, skin color, sex) to become something truly universal and achingly relatable. It’s a film about early adulthood that makes deep, chiming sense to anyone who ever made that transition themselves –that is, to everyone.
“Heaven Knows What” (Original Review)
New York filmmaking brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have the kind of backstory behind their newest, award-winning feature film that could easily threaten to overwhelm a less inventive project: they were inspired to make it after spotting their future star, Arielle Holmes, on a train platform and learning of her story of heroin addiction, criminality, homelessness and destructive love. But what is remarkable about what could otherwise be a familiar addiction narrative is what they do with it, and where they bring it, aided by an almost hurtfully authentic central performance from Holmes, as well as brilliantly evocative street-level New York City photography by Sean Price Williams and a bold use of music and soundtrack. Also starring Caleb Landry Jones as Holmes’ self-destructive, volatile junkie paramour Ilya, the film is a remarkable blend of woozily impressionistic and grittily real, and does not talk down to its marginalized protagonists any more than it glamorizes the delusions of the life they lead. Most of the time, the City’s homeless are cinematically invisible, and on the rare occasions when they are featured they become figures of mockery or pity. But “Heaven Knows What” locates itself within that point of view to deliver a poignant, tempestuous and truthful walk on the wild side.
“Inside Out” (Original Review)
No, it’s not technically hit theaters yet, but trust us when we say that in a couple of weeks, you’re going to want to be buying tickets for Pixar’s latest: after the disappointing sequels “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” which suggested that the company were going the way of DreamWorks Animation, they’re back to their dizzyingly original, emotionally devastating best. The return of “Up” director Pete Docter, it’s set within the head of 11-year-old Riley, struggling to cope with a new home and new school while her emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) try to find their way back through her memories, while Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) keep in control. It’s both a simple and complex set-up, functioning both as a thrilling, funny, visually spectacular adventure movie, and a surprisingly nuanced look at the tumultuous process of growing up. Both huge and tiny in its scope, it’s arguably the studio’s most mature effort to date, but more importantly, by showing both children and adults that they shouldn’t be afraid to embrace their whole emotional spectrum, it could be their most valuable.
“It Follows” (Review)
The most notable, and best, horror sleeper of the last few years, “It Follows” proved a genuine crossover hit on its release in March, and rightly so: David Robert Mitchell took an irresistibly creepy conceit and ran with it, creating a deeply unnerving, yet entirely entertaining film that’s put the filmmaker even further on the map. Melding the authentically dreamy teen movie mores of his debut “The Myth Of The American Sleepover” with J-Horror-ish genre, it sees Jay (Maika Monroe, quickly becoming the definitive scream queen of the 2010s between this and “The Guest”) sleeping with her beau, only to discover he’s transferred something terrible: a creature, or spirit, or something, that can take the form of any person, and that will walk towards her slowly and unrelentingly until it catches and kills her. The only way to get rid of it? Pass it on by having sex with someone else. Mitchell draws out all the metaphoric potential of the set-up, making it an unusually rich take on teen sexuality, but doesn’t forget the thrills and scares along the way, aided by a very fine cast and Rich Vreeland’s instant classic score.
“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” (Review)
Almost like two films for the price of one, the Zellner Brothers’ “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” (technically directed by Dave, and written by both him and Nathan) is an drolly comic, oddly moving little fantasia. It’s also just a little meta as it riffs off a true story of life imitating art and turns in into its own dark fairy tale odyssey. An emotionally stifled and stunted Japanese woman (a terrific, mostly silent Rinko Kikuchi) leading a crushingly uninspired office life takes a trip to the United States after she finds a copy of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” on VHS and mistakes the hidden-in-the-snow stolen cash narrative from the movie as a real-life document. Plunged into a wintry landscape of North Dakota—the polar opposite of her dingy and depressing Tokyo shoebox of a home—there she makes random connections with various puzzled American strangers. Ultimately, ‘Kumiko’ is kind of a tragedy, about the dangers of escapism into dream worlds, peppered with poignant metaphors involving an abandoned pet bunny. But the movie is gorgeously shot and its deadpan humor mixed with a sense of existential longing and loneliness makes for a moody and melancholic treasure of unique tone and texture. #TeamBunzo all the way.
“Li’l Quinquin” (Review)
Bruno Dumont’s absurdist, French seaside-set metaphysical murder mystery “Li’l Quinquin” was originally a four-part TV series (and it was presented as such in France), but the former enfant terrible filmmaker designed it so it could be presented theatrically too, where it got a run earlier this year. More importantly, as a wickedly hilarious, deadpan comedy, the picture is a huge gear shift for Dumont, but one that he doesn’t compromise aesthetically. Featuring no stars, it focuses on an idyllic coastal French town, where a bumbling detective tries to solve a series of grisly murders while a young rascal makes trouble for all. “Li’l Quinquin” could broadly be described as “True Detective” meets Inspector Clouseau mixed with the oddness of “Twin Peaks,” and stars twitchy non-actor lead Bernard Pruvost, an amusing mess of facial tics like a French Charlie Chaplin with tourettes, but Dumont balances formal austerity and his trademark Bresson-ian dispassion, with super dry humor. In fact, bizarre juxtaposition is key to the strange beauty of ‘Quinquin’ as Dumont’s trademark religious themes—he somberly explores the mysterious nature of evil— contrast with the coming-of-age tale of a young foul-mouthed shit-stirrer. Wonderfully baffling and totally inspired.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (Review)
Bursting onto screens in a flash of fire and feminism and freakishness, the rollicking, jolting brilliance of George Miller‘s reinvigoration of the action genre may have slightly died at the box office, but we absolutely believe it will reach the Valhalla of home video release and experience a long, long, long afterlife — “I live. I die. I live again!” Its filmmaking is fearless and its agenda surprisingly progressive (aside from anything else, rebooting a franchise whereby the title character plays a supporting role, let alone to a woman, is an unusual move). And it’s also a love letter to a kind of action cinema that we’d all but forgotten in these days of cartoonishness, weightless shiny robots and CG gigantism: Miller uses the wide open spaces and simplistic chase storyline to stage action sequences that are grounded in their geography and sightlines, but crazy over the top in effect. With Charlize Theron on iconic, Ripley-esque form and Tom Hardy generously stepping back, then definitively stepping forward when needed, the film is still, more than anything, a truly visionary piece of action filmmaking from Miller, who, at 70, has lit a fire under the genre in which he made his name decades ago.
On paper, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” sounds like Sundance gone wrong: a more meta and self-reflexive version of “The Fault In Our Stars.” It’s about a high school girl dying of cancer, the aimless teenage boy who befriends her and the taciturn black-kid best friend of the boy in question who also happens to be obsessed with making short-film recreations of classic cinephile films by Fellini, Godard, Kubrick and more. It sounds like a cloying, out-of-control quirk fest, and it could easily have tended in that direction, but in execution, thanks largely to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, it’s a lovely, funny little jewel. Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke with supporting help from more name actors Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal, ‘Earl And The Dying Girl’ is certainly a crowd-pleaser, arguably the perfect kind of summer indie movie, but it earns its laughs, along with its adolescent insights and yes, tears. Oh, and it features an awesome score of pre-existing and new Brian Eno tracks that make an already delightful and charming movie feel like it soars in all the right places.
“A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” (Review)
Fifteen years on from his modern classic “Songs From The Second Floor,” Swedish director Roy Andersson returned to complete his trilogy of dark, absurdist comedies about “being a human being,” and we were happy to hear he was doing fine. More than fine, in fact: the Golden Lion-winning “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” is as major an achievement as the previous two (in fact, we significantly prefer it to the second installment, “You, The Living”). The film sticks to Andersson’s signature style — locked-off, immaculately composed tableaux, mostly stand-alone (but here, loosely interwoven with the journey of two miserable novelties salesmen), united mostly by bone-dry humor and a drained color scheme that even David Fincher would feel could use some primaries. Themes run and recur, mostly about the puzzlement that we exist at all, and the frames are perhaps even more splendid-looking than ever before — we’d be happy to stick any of them on the wall. But it’s far from one-note, with Andersson introducing new texures of awe (the scene where a cafe is invaded by the army of King Charles XII is staggering) and horror (the late sequence, prodding at Swedish mining company Boliden) into his palette. A total treat.
“Slow West” (Review)
Perhaps it’s no huge surprise that one of the founding members of offbeat rock group The Beta Band made a quirky movie as his debut, and a Western at that, but that’s exactly what musician turned filmmaker John Maclean did. An old pal of Michael Fassbender (he directed him in the terrific short “Pitch Black Heist” a few years back) McClean’s “Slow West,” is a whimsical fairy tale-esque American West fable that puts a wry spin on a dark story of love, revenge and fate. About a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travels from Scotland to America to follow his long-lost love (newcomer Caren Pistorius), he crosses paths with a mysterious gunman (Michael Fassbender) who will to grant him safe passage through the perilous Wild West in exchange for money. But he’s saddled with his own moral dilemmas when his former bounty hunting mercenary friends (led by Ben Mendelsohn) come to collect on past debts, spiritual and otherwise. Perhaps a mix of Quentin Tarantino meets the Coen Brothers, “Slow West,” is a moody and yet quick-witted study of the Western that adds humor, humanity and soul to the genre.
A scintillating, enraging and ultimately desperately moving, inside-out account of living under the impossible strictures of an Islamic fundamentalist authority, Abderrahmane Sissako‘s powerful “Timbuktu” has burned steadily in our memory in the months since its Cannes 2014 debut, with world events conspiring to keep the threat posed by Muslim fundamentalist groups top of mind. But with the Western mass media complicit in attempting to reduce that narrative to a series of us/them, Christian/Muslim binaries, “Timbuktu” if anything has increased in relevance and importance, allowing those of us far removed from the realities of that situation to understand that the most immediate victims of these regimes are ordinary Muslim Africans, their villages invaded and their lives, livelihoods and family structures subjugated to the brutal faux-piety of the invaders. But the film is not just political, it’s personal and even beautiful at times in the unblinking way it portrays life’s efforts to struggle through the heaviest of sanctions: the football scene in which two teams of men play a whole game without a ball (it, like all other sporting or cultural activities, has been banned) is, like the whole film, sad and lovely and angry all at the very same time.
“The Tribe” (Review)
Undoubtedly not for the faint of heart in terms of its heavy, difficult themes and its borderline arthouse-parodic logline, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s unsubtitled Ukrainian sign-language drama is still one of the most singularly unsettling films we’ve seen in years. Unfolding with oftentimes cruel remove from the deaf teenagers who are its protagonists, it’s a film whose political and social subtexts are writ large, as though to make up for the absence of spoken dialogue. The breathtaking formalist daring of the execution is one thing, but the actual story Slaboshpytskiy tells is another level again, in its unsentimental evisceration of institutionalization and its despairing outlook on human nature in the absence of codified rules of conduct. Both timelessly strange in a “Lord of the Flies” sort of way, but also shot through with a deep sense of the period and place of its making (you can read the deaf school featured as analogous to the Ukraine in the early 2010s — abandoned to its own inner corruption, and allowed to tear itself apart by a pointedly uninterested West) “The Tribe” is a surreal, social-realist, arthouse horror: truly frightening and deeply, to-the-bone uncanny.
“Tu Dors Nicole” (Review)
Almost certainly the least-seen movie on this list so far, including the ones that haven’t yet opened (it only just got a very slim New York release courtesy of Kino Lorber, a year after its Cannes premiere, though will hopefully makes its way elsewhere soon), this is definitely one to file under ‘hidden gem’ status. On paper, the Quebec setting aside, it could seem like a cooker-cutter Sundance reject: the story of the titular Nicole (the outstanding Julianne Côte), who spends a long, languid, sleepless summer in her parents house, sharing with her brother (Marc-André Grondin) and his band. In execution, though, it feels entirely fresh, coming across as the midpoint of “Ghost World” and “Frances Ha,” but with a surreal, dreamlike tone that’s entirely of its own. Director Stéphane Lafleur has a rare facility for finding visual poetry in comedy, and comedy in visual poetry, and there’s an undertone of melancholy that boils over towards the end in a genuinely moving manner. Some might dismiss it as minor, but this is a film where the almost Lubitschian lightness of touch only elevates it further. Seek it out, boys and girls.
“While We’re Young” (Review)
“I’m losing my edge,” the LCD Soundsystem song of the same name says in a wry early scene “to the kid with borrowed nostalgia, for the unremembered ‘80s.” Aging out and cultural obsolescence are some of the primary concerns of Noah Baumbach’s “I’m Losing My Edge”-influenced comedy “While We’re Young.” A send-up and also a celebration of millennial youth culture, creative naiveté , plus a similarly mocking and yet affectionate look at anxious fortysomethings fearing the onset of terminal uncooolness, Baumbach’s film stars an older couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts), a younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and weaves between them an amusing and breezily accessible story about co-dependence, opportunism, the complexities of ambition, and the ever-evolving nature of artistic authenticity. In this regard, ‘Young,’ which also features terrific supporting turns by Charles Grodin, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and Dree Hemingway is both a funny comedy and an insightful little picture with much on its mind –certainly enough to keep us occupied till Baumbach’s quasi-companion piece, “Mistress America” which is another keeper, arrives later in the year.
“White God” (Review)
Winner of the Un Certain Regard sidebar of Cannes in 2014, Kornél Mundruczó’s tale of canine rebellion and revenge (must…not…use…”shaggy dog”…pun) is remarkable for co-opting, essentially, a slavery exploitation narrative like “Django Unchained” and telling it all from a dog’s-eye point of view. It is uneven, in that it begins as an arthouse experiment, with allegorical and metaphorical heft, and devolves (or evolves, if, like us, you enjoyed the trajectory) into a genre horror. But it is never less than focussed and brilliant at putting us in the shoes (paws) of its protagonist, the betrayed, beaten, broken-down Hagen, who discovers resources within himself to lead his canine brothers to freedom, to exact vicious, bloody retribution on the men who mistreated him and to turn the tables on mankind in general. Featuring some truly surreal shotmaking, and a brisk pace that only lags when the film diverts to pay attention to the far less interesting people involved, it’s a singular directorial achievement for the Hungarian Mundruczó and for his main star, played alternately by brothers Luke and Body — Labrador, Shepherd and Shar Pei mixes — whose performances were the equal of any human’s at Cannes that year.
“Wild Tales” (Review)
Perhaps the most purely enjoyable Foreign Language Oscar nominee since “Amélie,” Argentina’s “Wild Tales” starts with what’s surely going to be the most arresting and darkly funny opening sequence of the year, one with two strangers striking up a conversation on a plane that we couldn’t possibly spoil, a scene that most filmmakers would find it hard to top. But across the five subsequent segments of writer/director Damián Szifron’s thrilling breakthrough, he keeps things consistently strong, from the stellar road rage sequence, to the pitch-black “The Proposal” and the worst wedding in recent cinematic memory. It’s consistently funny, and Szifron helms with real style and flair that suggests Hollywood will be calling (indeed, he’s already writing “The Six Billion Dollar Man” for Mark Wahlberg) but it’s not just bells and whistles: the helmer builds up a picture of inequality and class divide in modern Argentina that shows he has something to say, not just a brilliant way of saying it. It’s not perfect — the Ricardo Darín-featuring segment about the demolitions expert drags and proves a little less inspired than the rest — but when it’s on a high, little in 2015 has been able to compete with it.
If we figured raising the number of titles and narrowing the field to U.S. theatrical releases only would give us an easier ride, we were wrong: this was a contentious list to draw up with all of us finding some of our favorites missing from the final lineup. Most heartrendingly, they include “Paddington” which we all adore more or less unreservedly; Michael Mann’s divisive “Blackhat“ which we feel may well be reappraised down the line following its critical drubbing on release; “Hungry Hearts“ which overcomes believability issues through sheer force of its terrific performances; “Love & Mercy” the terrific Brian Wilson biopic; Desiree Akhavan’s hugely promising debut “Appropriate Behavior“; Algerian Western with Viggo Mortensen “Far from Men“; another stellar turn from Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “Faults“; and the fresh, spiky Sundance hit “Dope“; while we excluded Xavier Dolan‘s tremendous “Mommy” on the grounds that we had included it in last year’s roundup, where it even earned a slot on our 20 Best Films of 2014.
Further out there was also some cheerleading for “What We Do In The Shadows”; “Maps To The Stars”; “Wild Canaries”; “Cinderella”; “Amour Fou”; “Spring”;“Testament Of Youth”; “Welcome To New York”; “About Elly”; “Adult Beginners”; “Hyena”; “Overnight”; “Clouds of Sils Maria” and sadly none of us have yet caught up to the final (?) Studio Ghibli film “When Marnie Was There” but we hear very good things.
So that’s our verdict on 2015 so far — what do you think? Are we in for a classic year or are you ho-hum so far? –Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez