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The Top-Rated Movies of 2015 So Far: Defying Conventions

The Top-Rated Movies of 2015 So Far: Defying Conventions

Our various lists of the top films of 2015 are peopled by a number of Sundance titles. It’s a festival that elicits favorable reviews for the best of the independent world, but also gives some of its films a well-established storytelling reputation. Many of the films that rise to the top of our festival polls or prospective distribution wishlists provide a solid vehicle for a strong performer to stand out against a familiar backdrop.

Such seems to be the case with “Grandma,” the latest from director Paul Weitz and star Lily Tomlin. Critics across the spectrum seem split on the support of the writing behind it, but nearly all have argued that this is primarily a vehicle for Tomlin’s talent. Taking a literal day-in-the-life approach to Tomlin’s character allows for her to be in every scene, making it an ideal performance showcase. (While he doesn’t occupy the same amount of screen time as Tomlin, “Grandma” is also the second summer film on the list to feature a supporting performance from Sam Elliott, following “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”)

The story of “Welcome to New York” seems incomplete without a discussion of the distribution turmoil that plagued the weeks surrounding its theatrical release back in March (which Indiewire documented here and here). But whether or not director Abel Ferrara is displeased with the film’s ultimate outcome, critics have agreed that there’s still value in what ended up available for public consumption. A thinly-veiled biopic of disgraced former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the film is being described as both a rowdy look at financial/sexual excess and a sobering look at the sequence of events that made the central character’s inspiration a fixture of international headlines. Kevin Jagernauth’s review at The Playlist begins with the “how much of this is real?” primer given to critics in their press notes. From there, it’s an indicative overview of what makes the film both problematic and noteworthy.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Hubert Sauper’s “We Come as Friends” chronicles the aftermath of the independence of South Sudan, a region ravaged by a bloody civil war still resonating in the lives of its people. A decade after he did the same for the award-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare” (which Peter Howell discusses in a Criticwire Survey from last month), Sauper foregoes a traditional documentary approach in favor of something more abstract. The result is a film that doesn’t offer an overarching solution for the problems facing the fledgling nation, instead presenting the personal, filtered view of an outsider.

Our primary collection of the best-reviewed films now stands at a robust 70 titles. We’ll be updating all three lists (best documentaries, best foreign-language films and best overall) every week, so be sure to check back every Friday until the end of the year.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Doubling Up and Doubling Down

Some weeks, the fountain of new theatrical releases brings plenty of new additions to our triple lists of the year’s best films. But this week, with a bevy of two dozen new titles to sift through, not much has risen to the top. That is, except for “Mistress America,” a recent NEXTFEST entry and a film that brings the overall number of films on the list to 67.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Baumbach also becomes the first filmmaker of 2015 to have a pair of films make the list; his “While We’re Young” has been hovering around the top of the “B+” range since its theatrical debut at the end of March. (Patrick Brice, director of “The Overnight,” may equal that feat if “Creep” joins the list by year’s end.) A majority of reviews point out its strong “screwball comedy” roots, making it unlike so much of what Baumbach (or many other working filmmakers) has been making. Writing from Sundance, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn argued that the film “suggests [Baumbach’s] entering Woody Allen territory — not always hitting his stride, but usually somewhere in the vicinity of it. The new movie shows what he can do with minimal effort and the ideal collaborators.”

A film that had been in the collection of best foreign-language titles, but has now passed the review threshold for the main list, is Aleksei German’s beguiling “Hard to Be a God.” If anything, the film is a testament to the idea that critics won’t necessary condemn a film for indulging in a certain aesthetic ugliness. “Fetid-looking,” “grotesque,” “debuached,” “overwhelming“: how’s that for a parade of pull-quote adjectives? Yet these descriptions aren’t being leveled at the film or German. Instead, they’re being invoked as a testament to the sensory immersion the film manages to achieve, despite a non-existent color palette and a lofty premise that’s a blend of the sci-fi and the medieval. It’s a complicated epic, but one that many are arguing is worth the ride.

Other notable releases this week include “People Places Things,” the story of a divorced graphic novelist reconnecting with his family, “We Come as Friends,” Hubert Sauper’s account of recent strife in the Sudan region and “The Great Man,” a film about a member of the French Foreign Legion. And as we don’t include blockbuster studio releases in our overall list, it’s worth noting here that “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” has reached the “B+” average amidst some adulatory initial reviews. As the year progresses, it has quite a way to go to reach the “Inside Out“/”Mad Max: Fury Road” upper echelon, but there’s something there.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Women in a Handful of Genres

Back in June, when the results of our mid-year Criticwire poll were tabulated, a distinct pattern emerged among the upper tier. Many of 2015’s best films feature female central characters. That trend of strong women characters among the films championed by critics continues this week with the release of Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Through the frank depiction of the sexual evolution of the teenage girl mentioned in the title, Heller tracks all the conflicting emotions that come with a fulfillment of desires. To quote The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez, from his Sundance review, Heller “takes objectionable, potentially repulsive subject matter and imbues it with honesty, fairness, and compassion without prejudice. Heller’s film can also be heartbreakingly authentic in its depiction of teenage wonder, infatuation, confusion, and insecurity.”

With its visual and thematic similarities, a number of reviews for Stéphane Lafleur’s “Tu dors Nicole” have referenced 2013’s “Frances Ha,” a film that also had a place among the year’s best-reviewed. Both are shot in black-and-white, charting the maturity-based revelations of a girl in her early twenties. But those writers applauding Lafleur’s film argue that what separates the two may be what makes “Tu dors Nicole” worth exploring. Sara Mishara’s black-and-white cinematography and the ethereal, almost vignette-based structure gives it an international feel and have earned it enough positive reviews to crack the top overall list.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” seems to be following the trajectory of Lapid’s last film, “Policeman.” The Israeli director waited three years between the summer festival premiere of “Policeman” in 2011 and its eventual theatrical release last June. While the time elapsed is much shorter for “The Kindergarten Teacher” (Cannes 2014 to New York theaters last week), the reviews seem to be following a similar trend: a handful of dissenters decrying Lapid’s deliberate pacing and largely unmoving camera, but a majority of reviews praising each film for illuminating an unseen side of modern Israeli society.  

On our list of the year’s best documentaries, the new addition this week is Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Call Me Lucky.” A profile of comedian Barry Crimmins, the film traces the performer’s legacy through the testimony of those that he influenced. Some might be split on how the film structures the unspooling of the details of Crimmins’ personal life, but the way “Call Me Lucky” ties the comedian into the culture of the 1980s shows how he helped lead the way for the politically inclined stand-ups of today. With the additional of Goldthwait’s film, there are now a dozen documentaries so far in 2015 with an “A-” average or better. 

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Foreign Films and Portraits of the Artists

From “Love and Mercy” to “Heaven Knows What” (and, to some extent, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter“), dramatizations of the lives of notable public figures occasionally pepper the upper tier of critical favorites. To that group of unconventional biopics, add “The End of the Tour,” the latest from director James Ponsoldt, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. Although the film is not an outright dramatization of the life of David Foster Wallace, it captures the noted author (You can read two alternate perspectives on the film on the blog: Sam Adams, from his Sundance coverage and from Wallace’s former editor Glenn Kenny.) Ponsoldt’s previous film, “The Spectacular Now,” was also a critical favorite, boasting a similar “A-” grade average among the members of the Criticwire Network.

Listen to Me Marlon” was the runner-up to “The Wolfpack” in the Best Documentary category in our Sundance 2015 poll. The profile of screen icon Marlon Brando is told almost exclusively through interviews with the man himself. Presented by Showtime Films, “Listen to Me Marlon” joins the trio of HBO-backed docs already on the list (“Going Clear,” “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper“). Another Sundance 2015 alum, “Best of Enemies” remembers the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. Like Ponsoldt, co-director Morgan Neville is following up an impressive 2013 entry, after his award-winning “20 Feet from Stardom.”

Elsewhere on the list, early-year favorite (and Oscar nominee) “Wild Tales” now finds itself in the top five after bumping up from a “B+” to an “A-.” Damián Szifrón’s collection of vignettes also headlines our latest specialized list of the year’s best reviewed films. Similar to our collection of top docs, we now have a gathering of the best of 2015 outside the English language. “Wild Tales” and “Timbuktu” share the top spot, followed by Myroslav Slaboshpytsky’s sensation “The Tribe” and Roy Andersson’s trilogy-closing “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Foreign-Language Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Notable additions to that aforementioned collection of best documentary titles include a film largely completed over four decades ago. Les Blank’s “A Poem is a Naked Person” tracks various scenes from three years in the life of singer/songwriter Leon Russell. The film was largely completed in 1974, but is enjoying its first public theatrical release this year. The film won’t be the final posthumous release for the legendary Blank, whose “How to Smell a Rose” is due to arrive in theaters next month.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Two Acclaimed International Entries

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss are becoming a formidable performer/director combo on the international scene. Today sees the release of their latest collaboration, “Phoenix” featuring Hoss as a Holocaust survivor seeking to track down her husband in the aftermath of World War II. Now knocking on the door of the top ten overall for the year on our Criticwire best-of list, the film was a previous favorite at TIFF 2014, where the film earned top honors for Best Narrative Feature and Best Lead Performance in our critics poll.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Documentaries of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money” seems to defy characterization a bit more than some of the other entries on this list. The genre-blending, time-manipulating tale of Portugal’s recent history was well-received at Locarno, Toronto and New York last year. Playing out in various segments, themes of political, financial and social unrest are told through individuals portraying fictionalized versions of their own experiences. The film has flirted with the elusive “A” average since its first screening, the first non-studio film of the year to do so. Look for it to rise steadily through the ranks as the rest of the year progresses.

While they haven’t yet made it to the overall list yet, early returns for Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Keith Miller’s “Five Star” are both positive, based on their respective festival runs. The Playlist’s Katie Walsh acknowledged the film’s potential leanness, but summarized the overall experience as “sweet and lovely.” Out of Tribeca, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn applauded the cast of “Five Star” for bringing a stark realism to an intense gang story.

And on the documentary list, “The Look of Silence,” the follow-up to “The Act of Killing,” still stands above the rest of the pack. (For information on where you can see film, a list of theatrical opening dates can be found here.)

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

All the Best Docs

If you’re in the mood to watch a documentary, anyone with a Netflix account knows that there are plenty of options. But with the sheer number of them premiering at festivals, popping up on VOD sites and (in select cases) enjoying extended theatrical runs, we thought that it was the time of year to give docs their own best-of list.

As we’ve done in past years, we’ve compiled a dedicated collection of the best documentaries of 2015, with one significant change. In order to present a more accurate critical response to these films, we usually limit the overall list to films that been reviewed or graded by at least 15 members of the Criticwire Network. For this new offshoot list, we’ve lowered that threshhold in order to highlight a few additional films. 

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Documentaries of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Three notable additions will appear on both lists for the first time this week, all from filmmakers making their return to the cinematic forefront after impressive previous efforts. “Amy,” the follow-up from “Senna” director Asif Kapadia, about the life and career of Amy Winehouse has been one of the top docs since its Cannes premiere. Its ability to make the film’s trajectory as much about public response to celebrity as it is about the late singer/songwriter has been a central point of emphasis among the more glowing reviews. “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik’s first documentary, “Stray Dog,” follows the day-to-day life of a Vietnam vet, showing him as far more than what some might infer from first impressions. And one of 2013’s standout films in any genre, “The Act of Killing” now has its companion piece. “The Look of Silence,” also directed by Joshua Oppenheimer opens at the top of the doc list. (For a full overview of reviews from around the critical world, we have a roundup here.)

Brett Haley’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” were both well-regarded in their own ways at Sundance, but have taken off upon their theatrical releases. Many critics have pointed out that “I’ll See You in My Dreams” does have a light, recognizable indie sensibility, but the way it genuinely appreciates the interplay between leads Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, rather than positioning them as caricatures of an elderly romance. And while much has been made about the production details behind “Tangerine,” reviews have praised Baker for presenting a vision of Los Angeles that stands out from the already-diverse collection of LA-based tales on this list and beyond.

From the international offerings of the past few weeks, Dietrich Brüggemann’s “Stations of the Cross” has made its way onto the list as well. Telling the story of a young girl coming to terms with the consequences of her family’s fundamental religious practices, Brüggemann’s visual style (stationary, observant camerawork) has drawn notice for its form-matching-content approach.

Our overall list is now 56 titles strong, with yearlong standouts “It Follows” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” still leading the way. “Ex Machina” continues its grades seesaw, dropping back down to the “B+” range, but still at the top of that second tier, alongside “Mommy,” “Wild Tales” and “While We’re Young.”

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

LA and ’90s Tales (and a New #1)

Just in time for the holiday weekend, five new films make their way onto our best-reviewed films list this week. Whether you’d like stories from America or abroad for 4th of July, there’s plenty of new acclaimed fare to whet your post-BBQ film appetite.

First off: another twin bill of Park City highlights enjoying a summer theatrical release. As the festival’s headlines were dominated by stories about teens dealing with mortality and colonial townsfolk dealing with the unknown, Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope” and Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight” also had their share of supporters by Sundance’s end.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Now approaching its third week in theaters, “Dope” takes a look at life in an Inglewood neighborhood. While some reviews have pointed out that the film tries to tackle a number of thematic and stylistic threads over its runtime, it does so with an unmistakable energy. As its characters get caught up in a world beyond their control, the central trio amidst the chaos seems to be the film’s most endearing feature.

“The Overnight” offers up a slightly different side of LA (and slightly more of its main characters). Positive reviews have pointed that, while the “sex comedy” designation is more than apt, the escalating zaniness does so in service of illuminating the anxieties of the families and individuals involved. (Anyone curious about what the film has to offer can watch the first seven minutes here.)

Three years ago, “Goodbye First Love” made a solid impression, with Lola Creton’s lead performance leading to an overall B+ average. Now, director Mia Hansen-Løve has one-upped herself with “Eden,” her latest. Since its Toronto premiere last fall, the story set against the rise of French electronica has yet to receive a grade lower than a “B-“. Critics have singled out the way that Hansen-Løve compresses the evolution of a musical genre and matches it to the arc of those at the heart of the story (played by, among others, Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet).

Early fans of “The Tribe” included critics and filmmakers alike. Post-Cannes and in the first few weeks of its theatrical run, it’s proven to be a challenging film, both in form and content. It currently sits as the sixth-highest film on the list, the highest debut of any new film this week.

For those who’d prefer not to venture too far from their living room, the Liz Garbus’ new doc “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is now available on Netflix. The profile of the legendary soul singer is now the fourth direct-to-living-room documentary to make the list, following the “Going Clear“/”Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck“/”Tales of the Grim Sleeper” trio of HBO offerings.

Elsewhere on the list, there’s a new overall #1. “Clouds of Sils Maria” has owned the top slot ever since its debut, but after the newest wave of best-of grades, David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” now stands above the rest.

While these films haven’t made it past the 15-review threshold yet, four docs from this week merit some additional attention based on their early returns: “Amy,” “Senna” director Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, “Mala Mala,” Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ look at Puerto Rico’s transgender community, “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman’s profile of those fighting in the drug wars south of the Mexican border, and Les Blank’s “A Poem is a Naked Person,” a theatrical release decades in the making.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

A Pair of Sundance Favorites

In a curious bit of festival synergy, both of Sundance 2015’s Grand Jury Prize winners are making their way to theaters on the same day. As a result, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and Crystal Moselle’s “The Wolfpack” also both open as clear entries in our list of top-reviewed films of 2015. (In case you’re wondering about last year’s jury winners, a full ten weeks elapsed last year between the summer release of “Rich Hill” and the fall push for “Whiplash.”) 

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

But it wasn’t just the Sundance jury members that were drawn to this pair of films. Both claimed the top prizes in their respective categories in our Sundance Critics Poll. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” took Best Narrative Feature, comfortably outdistancing every other festival film that wasn’t a colonial-set psychological thriller (we can’t wait to see “The Witch,” either), while “The Wolfpack” solidly sat in first as the festival’s Best Documentary.  

While “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” may have its detractors, the film currently has an “A-” average among the members of our Criticwire Network, good enough to slide in sixth overall on our list. Like “The Wolfpack,” the film’s remakes of classic titles lend the story a cinephile-friendly icing. Gomez-Rejon also drew praise for his work behind the camera. Some have argued that, by foregoing the traditional visual language of other straightforward tearjerkers, his visual flair matches the vibrancy of the characters.

The intrigue and critical discussion of “The Wolfpack” seems to center on how the film is presented. Containing the extra self-reflexive salute to cinema seen in its jury-winning counterpart, the questions of how we get there or what accompanies the footage seem to be a sticking point for some. However, as Indiewire’s Eric Kohn explains in his review, that might be part of the point. “Moselle’s alternative strategy makes for a fascinating experience in which the full story lurks just outside the frame…’The Wolfpack’ feels more in line with a form of ethnographic storytelling than anything else, because the story is told exclusively in terms of their relationship to it,” he writes.

Critics are currently voting for their favorite films of the year so far, so expect some more changes to come through next week. One such shift saw Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” back among the ranks of the “A-” films, joining fellow HBO docs “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” and “Going Clear.” One final noteworthy film being released this week is a film that may join the overall list soon enough: “The Yes Men are Revolting,” Laura Nix’s look at a pair of activists using subversive pranks to disrupt standard business, governmental and media practices across the globe.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Unconventional Biopics and Dark Foreign Comedies

One thing that last year’s best-reviewed batch of films proved was that there’s no right way to make a biopic. Sometimes these films let the central performance elevate above the rest (“Mr. Turner“) and others let an impressive ensemble buttress the inner turmoil of the historical figure at its heart (“The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher“). Some films focus on a single period of personal triumph (“Wild” and “Tracks“) while the world of animation offers its own special storytelling opportunities (“The Wind Rises“).

Although last week’s marquee addition, “Heaven Knows What,” was based on the star’s memoirs, Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” is the first 2015 film to make the list that’s more of a recognizable biopic. But as the film chronicles parallel narratives from the life of The Beach Boys’ musical mastermind Brian Wilson, it’s what the film does differently from other music industry profiles that’s drawing praise from critics. Beyond the dual casting of Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson, some have argued that the film’s best scenes come from watching the creative process. Rather than hear ancillary characters inform us why the main character is worthy of his own film, the audience gets to see some of Wilson’s iconic creations organically evolve on screen.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Those saluting another fresh offering in theaters this weekend, Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” are singling out the film’s twin torrents of laughter and tragedy. The film was one of the standouts at TIFF 2014, with Andersson nabbing the Best Director prize and the film finishing in the Best Film top five in our critics poll. It’s a film based around a series of vignettes, but the overall film has earned an “A-” average, with not a single sub-“B-” review yet recorded.

Joining “La Sapienza” as the Italian flavor on our best-reviewed list is Paolo Virzi’s “Human Capital.” Released in the early weeks of the year, the film finally crossed the 15-grade threshhold to bring the overall number to 42 titles. It’s another tale told in distinct segments, but Valeria Galino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s performances are the hooks that positive reviews have pointed to as the film’s strengths. 

Our list focuses on releases from the independent world, but ever since its SXSW premiere, Paul Feig’s “Spy” has been a cut above its fellow mainstream fare. The spoof, starring frequent Feig collaborator Melissa McCarthy, is the second film from the director-actress duo to score a “B+” average with critics, following 2011’s “Bridesmaids.”

Other notables this week: Amy Berg’s second directorial outing of the year (following last month’s “Every Secret Thing“) sees her back in strong doc territory with “An Open Secret” and after making a splash at Fantasia Film Fest 2013, Eddie Mullins’ “Doomsdays” is out now in theaters and on VOD. 

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Addiction Tales and Another Flurry of Docs

Last week’s new additions to our running list of the best-reviewed films of the year focused on writers and literary classics. This week, half of the fresh films on the list look to past and future fashion icons. The highest collectively rated title from members of the Criticwire Network among the new four is Albert Maysles’ “Iris.” Playing out partly as a conversation between two individuals who have excelled in their respective fields, Maysles and Iris Apfel (whose style innovations have persisted for over a half-century) both bring their lived-in knowledge of New York City to the final film.  

Across the pond, Frederic Tcheng’s “Dior and I” looks forward, peering into the title house’s process of assembling and finalizing a full collection for various European showcases. Gary Kramer’s Indiewire review posits that the experience of objectively observing the creative journey of sketch to runway elevates what could have been an ordinary film about fashion. Fans around the globe interested in seeing Dior creative director Raf Simons and his staff bring the magic to life via Tcheng’s quiet, un-flashy style can see the film in theaters across the globe, including a slew of additional US markets.

Both docs stand at an A- average, while “Iris” hops into the top ten. (Maysles’ last film as a credited director may also make the top-rated list when it’s eventually released: “In Transit” was a standout at Tribeca.) 

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Carl Boenish’s impact on clothing trends may be negligible in comparison, but Marah Strauch’s “Sunshine Superman” shows how the inventor of BASE jumping was a pioneer in his own right. Centering primarily on the achievements of Boenish and his wife Jean, Strauch blends archival footage with some skydiving camera acrobatics. Critics have been drawn in by the film’s aerial photography, making it prime theatrical documentary experience. 

The most notable of this week’s theatrical releases is Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What.” No strangers to the doc world (“Lenny Cooke,” their look at the tragic downfall of a promising basketball prospect, was a Tribeca 2013 alum), their latest narrative effort has been drawing top notices at various stops in Toronto and New York. Based on the experiences of New Yorker Arielle Holmes, the film’s supporters have pointed out that the film doesn’t necessarily follow the same trajectory as other stories about addiction. The intertwined obsessions of love and heroin, backed by an Isao Tomita score, result in a story now firmly on the list.

One of this best-reviewed list’s interesting quirks every week is seeing which films end up tied with each other. In “B+” Land, films have a tendency to cluster, leaving some fascinating pairings. Each with 21 reviews, there’s a four-way tie this week between tales from the life of a heavy-metal slacker (“Buzzard“), a vital investigative documentary (“The Hunting Ground“), a profile of a tragic rock legend (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck“) and a period drama sequel decades in the making (“Queen and Country“). There’s not one specific kind of film that’s guaranteed to be a critical success. With nearly 40 films from throughout 2015, we’d like to think this list is the best kind of proof. 

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

Literary Stories and New Genre Favorites

There’s a certain gravitas that usually comes with films that have a literary pedigree. In some cases, previous adaptations in other media or the reputation of the original work creates insurmountable expectations for the final filmed product. Perhaps that’s why Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” is the first literary adaptation to make our list of the best-reviewed films of 2015. Other films on the list (“Queen and Country” and “Gett: the Trail of Viviane Ansalem“) are sequels of sorts, based on preexisting characters from other films. But Vinterberg’s version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 book is the first 2015 film to successfully make the novel-to-film trajectory at a “B+” average of higher. 

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Although the film takes its cues from an original screenplay, the plot of Dave Boyle’s “Man from Reno” is centered around the story of a novelist. The twisty neo-noir, starring Ayako Fujitani and Pepe Serna is another new film on the list this week. Following its premiere at the 2014 LA Film Festival, “Man from Reno” made the results of Best Undistributed Film in the Indiewire Critics Poll (alongside fellow best-reviewed titles “Amour fou” and “Timbuktu“) and began playing theatrically in March. (The film is still playing in a handful of cities before the end of the month.)

The highest entry on the list this week is John Maclean’s “Slow West,” a Sundance 2015 entry. Critics are singling out the way this film veers from its Western genre predecessors, particularly its striking visuals. Praise for the performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee came in after its festival premiere (some of it coming from our friends over at The Playlist, who call the film “worth treasuring“). Like the other two films this week, “Slow West” currently stands at a “B+” grade average.

As a reminder, we usually don’t include big-budget studio films on the overall list, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention another Tom Hardy and point out that perhaps the highest rated film of the week is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” We gathered some of the best of the first batch of positive reviews here.

For details on previous updates to the Best-Reviewed Films of 2015 list, see the next page.

The Top-Rated Movies of 2015 So Far

So many of the indie films that make best-of lists like ours follow a tried-and-true theatrical format: festival premiere, limited release, expanded rollout over multiple markets. The four films we highlight this week all experienced less-than-typical variations on that plan, but they all join our collection of the top-reviewed films of the year.

SEE THE FULL LIST: The Best-Reviewed Films of 2015, According to the Criticwire Network

Documentaries with similar title structure, directorial pedigree, premiere venue, broadcast home and enigmatic entities, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” make natural complementary additions. The former, Alex Gibney’s investigative dive into the leadership of the Church of Scientology, made waves at Sundance before finding a captive audience on HBO. “Montage of Heck” was another Park City entrant in 2015, and Brett Morgen’s look at the late Nirvana frontman made its way to HBO as well. Both films, through their public screenings and telecasts, now hold “A-” averages.

Another veteran documentarian, Nick Broomfield, brought his “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” to Telluride last fall, where our Eric Kohn described it as “a powerful, gripping endeavor,” arguing that Broomfield’s uncharacteristic removal from the subject matter allowed for a more harrowing overview of a long-running Los Angeles serial killer case. In its journey from Colorado, through Toronto and New York (for TIFF and NYFF), the film has received just two sub-“B” reviews. 

But perhaps the most atypical route to release for the new films in this update belongs to Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly.” In the five years since the film made the festival rounds (Indiewire conducted an email interview with him when the film played Tribeca in 2009), Farhadi has won a number of cinema’s top prizes and become a prominent figure on the international cinema stage. But Cinema Guild has made its theatrical run worth the wait – the film will play in a number of markets across the country well into the summer. As of now, it stands as the third-highest foreign language film on this list, behind only “Timbuktu” and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem.” 

For more selections of critics’ response to “About Elly,” see our Sleeper of the Week feature from earlier in April. 

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