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The Best Films of 2015 So Far

The Best Films of 2015 So Far

For the halftime mark, we decided to widen the berth to include festival titles opening later in the year. There were just too many great titles kicking around in our heads since Sundance, Berlin, SXSW and Cannes to leave off. Look forward to these in the Fall and Winter as awards season beckons. 

Across the board, most of us love “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Love and Mercy,” “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Inside Out,” which will all be in the conversation and on other critics’ lists at year’s end.

Below, read top tens from Anne Thompson, Ryan Lattanzio, Matt Brennan, Demetrios Matheou and Susan Wloszczyna.

Anne Thompson:

1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (dir. George Miller, Warner Bros.) 
This one-of-a-kind cinematic spectacular takes your breath away, setting the action bar at a new level. In the fourth of a series, Max (Tom Hardy) more than meets his match in magnificent woman warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). See it on the big screen in 2D with Dolby Atmos.  

2. “Inside Out” (dir. Peter Docter, Pixar/Disney)
The best Pixar movie since Docter’s “Up,” “Inside Out” is a bold yet personal exploration of a world that has not been portrayed on film before: the mind. It was worth the wait–and could escape the Academy Awards animation ghetto.

3. “Son of Saul” (dir. László Nemes, Sony Pictures Classics)
This hard-hitting first movie takes a rigorous point-of-view on the Holocaust, showing us the horrors through the blinkered lens of a concentration camp inmate (Géza Röhrig) who is forced to help with the mass slaughter of Jews. The movie is deeply moving and boasts amazing sound design (for which it won a Cannes award, on top of the grand jury prize). As the official Oscar submission from Hungary, see the film play Telluride, Toronto, New York and more. It will be a strong contender for the foreign film Oscar.

4. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (dir. Marielle Heller, Sony Pictures Classics)
Female sexuality is one of those things that few people get right in movies. Which is one reason why film debut “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is such an exhilarating ride. Bel Powley breaks out, with strong support from Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard.

READ MORE: Breakthrough Director Marielle Heller on the Road to ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

5. “Clouds of Sils Maria” (dir. Olivier Assayas, IFC)
An intimate English language “All About Eve” variation set in Europe and directed by French auteur Olivier Assayas, this two-hander stars Juliette Binoche as a neurotic older actress attended by her manipulative assistant (Cesar-winning Kristen Stewart). 

6. “Paddington” (dir. Paul King, The Weinstein Company)
This delicious adaptation of the Brit children’s classic is a stylish live-action animated action-comedy with witty turns from Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman (as Cruella De Vil, basically) as well as its charming CG bear, voiced by Ben Whishaw. 

7. “Gueros” (dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios, Kino Lorber)
Shot in stunning black-and-white, breakout debut “Gueros” is a riveting, unpredictable and emotional joy ride through sprawling Mexico City. It’s a valentine to Ruizpalacios’ home town as much as Jean-Luc Godard’s Paris in “Breathless,” and cleaned up at Mexico’s film awards.

8. “Trainwreck” (dir. Judd Apatow, Universal)
Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re missing until it hits you in the face. Amy Schumer wrote and stars in Apatow’s latest upturning of the romantic comedy, which hit big at SXSW. A smart scribe for a stupid magazine (Schumer) adores drunk sex without intimacy but despite herself falls for a sports doctor (Bill Hader) who prefers sweet-kissing traditional romance. The movie rings true, from start to finish, with tears as well as intense sustained laughter en route. 

9. “Mistress America” (dir. Noah Baumbach, Fox Searchlight)
Co-created by writer-director Baumbach and his partner-star Greta Gerwig, “Mistress America” creates the most memorably entertaining screwball comedy heroine since Holly Golightly. 

10. “Love & Mercy” (dir. Bill Pohlad, Roadside Attractions)
A kaleidoscopic and idiosyncratic portrait of Wilson, from mop top Beach Boy (Paul Dano) to dazed schizophrenic (John Cusack) eager to hook up with open-hearted Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Writer Oren Moverman was right to convince producer Pohlad to direct. 

Best of the Rest: “Ex Machina,” “Listen to Me Marlon,” “Youth,” “Carol,” “End of the Tour,” “Amy,” “Spy.”

Ryan Lattanzio:

Most of my favorite films of the year have yet to open in the US.

1. “Phoenix” (dir. Christian Petzold, IFC, July 24)
An intimate Holocaust story by way of “Vertigo” or “Eyes without a Face,” with one of the grandest, most jaw-droppingly devastating movie endings ever. The film reunites the great Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld (“Barbara”). 

2. “Amy” (dir. Asif Kapadia, A24)
Kapadia shows how we all participated in romanticizing and mythologizing Amy Winehouse as a trainwreck. I left this movie shaken and pissed off at the world. What a waste. What a shame. What a talent.

READ MORE: How ‘Amy’ Shows Winehouse as You’ve Never Seen Before

3. “Victoria” (dir. Sebastian Schipper, Adopt Films, October 9)
The toast of the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, “Victoria” is shot in a single, continuous 130-minute take that begins as a talky Eurodrama and ends as a heist thriller, stretching, seamlessly, into dawn. 

4. “Listen to Me Marlon” (dir. Stevan Riley, Showtime, July 29)
Stevan Riley sets Marlon Brando’s intimate and hypnotic audio diaries against a gorgeous collection of archival material and unseen moments from the actor’s troubled life.

5. “Queen of Earth” (dir. Alex Ross Perry, IFC, August 26)
Elisabeth Moss goes deep as a woman on the edge in a thriller reminiscent of Polanski’s “Repulsion,” Altman’s “Images” starring Susannah York, with shades of Bergman and, yes, Woody Allen’s own strained Bergman homage “Interiors.”

6. “The Tribe” (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Drafthouse Films)
A masterpiece of cinematic purity whose power derives from one of the medium’s most essential elements: silence.

READ MORE: The Dirty Business Behind ‘The Tribe,’ From an Oscar Scandal to Deaf Teen Hollywood Divas

7. “Eden” (dir. Mia Hansen-Love, Broad Green Pictures)
This long and beautiful and episodically structured epic recreates the glory days of the EDM music scene through the eyes of a tormented artist.

8. “Appropriate Behavior” (dir. Desiree Akhavan, Gravitas Ventures)
To call Akhavan the next Lena Dunham is too simple. This talky urban indie about a Persian bisexual struggling with a breakup has an exuberant free spirit that recalls the independent films of the ’70s and ’80s.

9. “James White” (dir. Josh Mond, The Film Arcade, Fall 2015)
Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon could be awards contenders as a damaged man and his cancer-afflicted mother in this devastating drama that hits like a brick through a windshield. It opens in the Fall.

10. “Heaven Knows What” (dirs. Josh and Ben Safdie, Radius-TWC)
Josh and Ben Safdie burrow into “Panic in Needle Park” territory with their raw-nerved heroin addiction docudrama that brings us uncomfortably close to the life of a junkie, and it’s brilliant. 

READ MORE: How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama ‘Heaven Knows What’ with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie

Best of the Rest: “Love and Mercy,” “Hungry Hearts” (dir. Saverio Costanzo, IFC), “Macbeth” (dir. Justin Kurzel, TWC), “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “While We’re Young” (Noah Baumbach, A24). 

Matthew Brennan:

To this point 2015 has been the year of the woman-centered film: my first five selections feature female protagonists of such bristling intelligence—martial, zoological, artificial, intuitive, performative—that men almost begin to seem, well, unnecessary. From Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the heroine of George Miller’s face-melting feminist blockbuster “Mad Max: Fury Road,” to Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), the resilient heart of a romantic maelstrom in Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the through-line in many of the films here is an ardent belief in the power of women’s stories, past (“Effie Gray”), present (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), and future (“Ex Machina”).

However, to Hollywood’s discredit, of the ten films below, only the poetic, New Orleans-set indie “Below Dreams” was directed by a woman—though Emma Thompson penned the script for “Effie Gray.” Disappointingly, nearly all failed to generate much business. (Shout out to Michael Mann’s misunderstood flop, “Blackhat,” which matches its garbled narrative with such stylistic verve it emerges as a kind of hyperrealist science fiction.) Times change, of course. If you’ve seen the demented, delightful “Li’l Quinquin,” it was most likely by streaming it on Fandor, and the disturbing insights of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” aired on HBO.

Whatever the format, however, the best film of the year so far, Peter Strickland’s exquisite “The Duke of Burgundy,” registers, like all of the films below, as a singular vision that defies, or works through, the current economic model’s artistic constraints. With reference to psychological horror, European erotica, and even black comedy, this pas de deux between two kinky lesbian lepidopterists is as fecund and fetishistic as its central relationship; like the rare butterfly of the title, the mere sight of it left my heart racing, and that’s about all I can ask.

READ MORE: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Auteur George Miller Does It His Way, No Matter How Long It Takes

1. “The Duke of Burgundy” (Peter Strickland)

2. “Clouds of Sils Maria” (Olivier Assayas)

3. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (George Miller)

4. “Ex Machina” (Alex Garland)

5. “Effie Gray” (Richard Laxton)

6. “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Brett Morgen)

7. “Li’l Quinquin” (Bruno Dumont)

8. “Blackhat” (Michael Mann)

9. “Far from the Madding Crowd” (Thomas Vinterberg)

10. “Below Dreams” (Garrett Bradley)

Susan Wloszczyna:

Yes, yes, yes. This documentary about late singer Amy Winehouse’s meteoric rise and tragic fall could have be the very definition of clichéd train-wreck showbiz cinema. Yet director Asif Kapadia more than earns the right to bring to life this British bad-girl chanteuse who famously didn’t want to go to rehab with an achingly intimate portrait packed with revealing footage, electric live performances and incisive commentary by those who knew her best.

“Clouds of Sils Maria”
This “All About Eve” for art-house intellectuals offers a chance to observe Kristen Stewart act her butt off as a shrewd bespectacled assistant to a fading European actress (Juliette Binoche, still defining fabulous at 50-something) while shaking off the residual effects of those crazy vampire flicks. Toss in Chloe Grace Moritz as a Lindsay Lohan-esque starlet keen to upgrade her image by acting opposite Binoche on stage as well as gorgeous Alpine scenery and you got yourself some high-altitude good times.

READ MORE: Kristen Stewart Explains How She Held Her Own with Juliette Binoche in ‘Sils Maria’–and Won a Cesar

“Far From the Madding Crowd”
Even those who fell for Julie Christie and Terence Stamp in the 1967 big-screen version of Thomas Hardy’s literary romance set in rural Victorian England found something to admire in this pleasingly condensed and picturesque remake. Carey Mulligan adds some welcome backbone to fiery proto-feminist landowner Bathsheba Everdene and rough-hewn Matthias Schoenaerts smolders nicely as Gabriel, the shepherd who worships her from afar. But it’s Michael Sheen as wealthy bachelor Boldwood who is the MVP heartbreaker here, learning the hard way that money can’t buy him love.

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”
The radiant Blythe Danner might be best known as Mama Focker in those “Meet the Parents” comedies and Gwyneth Paltrow’s real-life mother. But she proves more than worthy of taking the lead for once as a self-sufficient widow whose world suddenly is rocked by her shy pool boy (Martin Starr) and a bon vivant bachelor her own age (Sam Elliott). This insightful yet amusing dramedy manages hit emotional high notes without going overboard – and that includes Danner’s knockout karaoke rendition of “Cry Me a River.”

“Infinitely Polar Bear”
Family movies come in all shapes and sizes. Just like families themselves. Screenwriter and first-time director Maya Forbes decided to turn her own late-‘70s childhood, when she and her younger sister were raised by her eccentric manic-depressive father while her African-American breadwinner mother pursued a business degree, into a vibrantly authentic and humorous look at life with all its inherent messiness, emotional and otherwise, intact. Mark Ruffalo towers over the proceedings as her chain-smoking patrician dad, who is just as likely to run off in the wee hours to visit a bar as he is to stay up all night sewing a flamenco dress for her sister’s school talent show. So good that it is the rare film I wished were longer.

“Inside Out”
Pixar’s insanely imaginative journey to the center of an 11-year-old girl’s mind is certain to ignite a wide range of emotions in both parents, who want to hang onto their kids as long as possible, and youngsters, who yearn to grow up and be in control of their own lives. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Bing Bong, the imaginary friend — part dolphin, kitten, elephant and fluffy pink cotton candy — who unselfishly comes back to life to help his old pal who has long forgotten him, is the character that will most deplete your supply of tissues.

“Love & Mercy”
Much like its subject, this impressionistic biopic about Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the ‘60s surf-music pioneers The Beach Boys, is not afraid to take chances – the biggest one being that Paul Dano plays the troubled younger Brian and John Cusack tackles the post-breakdown elder Brian. Cusack does well enough. But Dano is the revelation here who keeps you riveted with a performance as sensitive as an overripe peach on a precarious perch. Add to that the fascinating recording-studio re-creations of Wilson’s masterpieces such as “Good Vibrations” and you got a winner.

READ MORE: The ‘Love & Mercy’ Family Reveal Brian Wilson, Myth and Man

“Mad Max: Fury Road”
How often does a 70-year-old director revisit a groundbreaking franchise after 30 years and then upends expectations by having his titular hero take a backseat to the first female action hero to equal Ripley in the original Alien? How about never – until now.

This unexpected charmer manages to be both old-fashioned and new-fangled in the most delightful ways, not unlike “Mary Poppins.” It does right by its homeless marmalade-addict storybook bear from “darkest Peru” as well as his adopted British human family with first-class 21st-century technology, inventive wit and plenty of pip-pip-cheerio heart. As much as the title character steals the show with his Rube Goldberg-esque calamities when faced with modern home appliances, it is Hugh Bonneville – blessedly released from “Downton Abbey” patriarchal bondage — whose evolution from overly cautious father to save-the-day hero is thrillingly touching to observe.

Finally, a Melissa McCarthy comedy that almost wholly satisfies by being both clever and crude while taking the male-chauvinist piss out of the most misogynistic film genre ever invented – the James Bond spy adventure – and repurposing it a symbol of sisterhood and girl power. That it works both as a spoof and a real espionage thriller just doubles the pleasure of watching its star spare with the likes of Jude Law, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne – all apparently having as jolly a time as the audience.

Demetrios Matheou:

A fresh, fabulous French film, charting the experience of young black women struggling towards self-determination in a high-rise estate outside Paris. Beautifully shot and scored, it evokes a specific milieu that I’m not sure has been covered in film, ever, and as such makes for rare, essential viewing.

Following his ground-breaking work on “Senna,” Asif Kapadia’s second documentary is a brilliantly-constructed, astutely judged and heartbreaking account of the life and tragic early death of Amy Winehouse, a blessedly gifted young woman undone by fame, celebrity culture and, most cruelly, by love.

It’s not often that you get invited down an existential rabbit hole with a Hollywood star and an Argentine auteur. The partnership of Viggo Mortensen with director Lisandro Alonso is inspired, the pair positing an historical drama with Conradian bells on, before diving into something altogether different and head-scratchingly brilliant. Thank God Mortensen, acting in Spanish and Danish, wasn’t distracted by The Hobbit.

The latest from Christian Petzold and his magnificent muse Nina Hoss, set in post-war Berlin, combines Holocaust horror with “Vertigo”’s psychological perversity. This dense, difficult film offered up my most interesting “suspension of disbelief” discussions in years. There’s no ignoring the supercharged ending and Hoss’s performance.

READ MORE: ‘Duke of Burgundy’ Director Peter Strickland Wants You to Stop Comparing Him to David Lynch

“Clouds of Sils Maria” 
A typically intelligent film from Frenchman Olivier Assayas, who ambitiously attempts to reflect on the creative process and the celebrity circus – the profound and the ridiculous – in the same breath. No-one does naval-gazing quite like the French.

“Slow West” 
I was constantly tickled and intrigued by a western that carries echoes of two of the genre’s great, atypical films, “McCabe & Mrs Miller” and “Dead Man,” and like them combines lyricism, strangeness and a persuasive feel for frontier life. Directing his first feature, John Maclean is helped hugely by a fleet-footed Michael Fassbender as his cheroot-smoking anti-hero.

“Ex Machina” 
A fascinating, creepy and very apposite sci-fi thriller, whose femme fatale is a robot. What’s not to like? We’ve had a lot of big budget sci-fi this year, but Alex Garland’s impressive directorial debut reminds us that less is usually more.

“The Duke of Burgundy” 
Forget “Fifty Shades.” For a film this year that dealt intelligently with the complex emotions and power games within a sado-masochistic relationship, one needed to turn to Peter Strickland’s eccentric, piquant, frequently hilarious romance between S&M lesbians who can’t agree on who’s boss.

“Wild Tales” 
Portmanteau films are not that common, or usually successful, but Damián Szifron fashioned a collection of payback stories with visual flair and a wicked sense of humour. Wild Tales is a film that speaks to everyone, by touching on that secret desire to hit out, once in your life, at someone who’s driving you nuts.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” 
George Miller is as synonymous with “Mad Max” as another George is with “Star Wars”; unlike Lucas, he’s uninterested in fleshing out his original concept. It’s a rather endearing trait and, as “Fury Road” proves, a smart one. This is business as usual, frenetic as ever, with a commitment to action that is almost revolutionary. I loved the pursuit car that comes with its own heavy metal guitarist strapped to the hood, reminding us that there’s a little Spinal Tap to Miller’s madness.

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