The Best Films of 2015 (So Far)

mad max fury road
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

With the year half over, our three critics have each selected their five favorite U.S. releases of 2015 so far.

SCOTT FOUNDAS

“Ex Machina”
Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s brainy, precisely calibrated chamber drama was that rare piece of contemporary sci-fi filmmaking worthy of mention in the same breath as “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator.” Whatever this modestly scaled film lacked in budgetary heft, it more than made up for in sleekly expressive production design, provocative ideas about the fine line between man and machine, and knockout performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (as the Pinocchio-like android yearning to be a real, live girl). 

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”
A young Japanese woman obsessed with the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” travels to the wilds of Minnesota in search of buried treasure in this comic gem from another sibling director team, ‎David and Nathan Zellner. With deadpan elan, the Zellners spin an urban legend into a wry contemplation of the power movies have to enlarge and (sometimes) overwhelm our sense of reality, with a luminous lead performance by Rinko Kikuchi that fully deserves to be called Chaplinesque.

“La Sapienza”
The American-born, Paris-based director Eugene Green’s enchanting fifth feature stimulated the mind and touched the heart as it spun its playful tale of a melancholy architect and his wife who rediscover themselves (and their love for each other) through their encounter with two idealistic teenage siblings, and the ghost of the 17th-century Swiss-Italian architect Francesco Borromini.

“Mad Max: Fury Road”
Nearly 40 years after launching his iconic post-apocalyptic road-movie franchise, George Miller set out to surpass his own daunting high bar for kinetic action cinema. The result — a breathless (and almost wordless), deliriously inventive, female-centric chase picture — made the 70-year-old Miller seem like the coolest kid on the block, and left most other summer movies looking positively prehistoric.

“Seymour: An Introduction”
A film as deceptively modest as its subject, Ethan Hawke’s candid portrait of octogenarian classical pianist Seymour Bernstein was as heady a plunge into the nature of creativity and the transcendent power of art as “My Dinner With Andre” had been three decades earlier. At the center of it all was the monastic Bernstein, a figure of becalmed grace dispensing life and music lessons in equal measure, and reducing to rubble the notion that teaching is the last refuge of professional failures.


JUSTIN CHANG

“Inside Out”
Childhood’s end has long been one of Pixar’s grand recurring themes, and it could scarcely have found a more poignant or ingenious expression than in the studio’s long-overdue return to form. Beautifully orchestrated by co-directors Pete Docter (“Up,” “Monsters, Inc.”) and Ronnie del Carmen, this wild romp through the labyrinth of an 11-year-old girl’s subconscious is a playful and rigorous deconstruction of human emotion that somehow evolves into one of the most emotionally overwhelming movies that Pixar, or Disney, has ever made. 

“Mad Max: Fury Road”
A tough 30-year wait came to a triumphant end with this supercharged entertainment from George Miller, sustaining two hours of ferocious, unfettered B-movie bliss that amounted to nothing short of a master class in action filmmaking. Along with Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (another of this year’s early standouts), “Fury Road” also did its part to spur a vital conversation on B-movie gender politics, with Tom Hardy rightly ceding the steering wheel to his equally magnetic co-star, Charlize Theron, and a cast of female fighters whose function here is far more than strictly decorative. 

“Seymour: An Introduction”
It made me nostalgic for the bygone days of my own musical education, but Ethan Hawke’s sublime tribute to the great classical pianist Seymour Bernstein is a work of overflowing riches even for those who have never tickled the ivories. So far, 2015 has offered us no shortage of standout documentaries (“Amy,” “Going Clear,” “Iris,” “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “The Wolfpack”), but no fiction or nonfiction film I’ve seen this year has illuminated the purpose and the challenge of the creative impulse with such revivifying clarity.

“The Tribe”
The debut film of the year so far is an astonishing coup de cinema from the Ukrainian writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy, who demonstrates a command of form and staging to leave one fittingly speechless. For all its deprivations (dialogue, subtitles, humanity), this cold, pitiless immersion in the life and crimes of a Kiev boarding school for deaf teenagers is simply staggering in its narrative momentum and emotional expressiveness. Close attention must be paid, and it will be amply rewarded.

“White God”
The title may reference Sam Fuller’s 1982 drama “White Dog,” but this thrillingly dark parable played more like “Lassie” by way of George Romero as it turned a canine uprising into the ultimate return-of-the-repressed metaphor. After making a few little-seen, little-appreciated art films (including “Delta” and “Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project”), Hungarian auteur Kornel Mundruczo delivered a work of hard-hitting provocation and startling violence that suggested we may have a new (ahem) Peckinpaw on our hands.


PETER DEBRUGE

“The Duke of Burgundy”
A mesmerizing deconstruction of a sado-masochistic lesbian relationship that challenges the conventional wisdom about both parties’ roles, Peter Strickland’s ultra-sensuous third feature reveals how so-called submissives can actually be the most demanding party in the relationship, determining precisely how they like to be dominated. As visually rich as it is psychologically complex, the unfortunately titled film (named for a rare species of butterfly) voluptuously evokes a certain strand of 1970s-era Italian sexploitation pictures, with their isolated locations, golden light and half-spoken secrets.

“The Harvest”
“Wild Things” director John McNaughton’s first feature in a dozen years proved a tricky property to sell in today’s horror-movie market, where distributors are understandably cautious about a rurally set, teen-targeted chiller whose double-meaning title references a scary organ-harvesting plot. That said, I love that McNaughton wasn’t shy about freaking out young audiences, delivering an unsettling “Stand by Me”-like coming-of-age movie with an incredibly deranged performance from Samantha Morton.

“Inside Out”
Pixar’s mind game has completely transformed the way I think about what happens inside people’s heads. Naysayers claim the film isn’t as revolutionary as all that, implying that versions of its anthropomorphized-emotions concept have been kicking around Hollywood for decades (the weirdest “been there, done that” comparison being to Walt Disney World’s defunct “Cranium Command” attraction). True or not, the detractors miss the point that Pixar took the high-concept idea and delivered a highest-quality classic.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
Launched at Sundance, where it won the grand jury prize, the latest entry in the weepie terminal-teen genre also happens to be the funniest, offering laugh-a-minute delight without sacrificing sincerity along the way. The comic approach works thanks to great casting, a terrific script from Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel) and a series of off-kilter directorial decisions from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose playful approach never loses sight of the film’s core emotional truth.

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
In a summer once again bloated with sequels, none thrilled me more than the long-in-the-making final installment in Swedish director Roy Andersson’s dark-comedy trilogy, following “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living.” Haven’t heard of those movies? Don’t worry: It’s not essential that you see them before feasting on “Pigeon’s” wonderfully droll sensibility. But be warned, instead of bigger/louder/more, this arthouse follow-up offers meticulously constructed, detail-oriented dioramas of ghostly characters responding to outlandish situations.

Nota bene: For the sake of freshness, Peter Debruge’s list omits titles that appeared on his 2014 top 10 list — including “While We’re Young” and “L’il Quinquin.”

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  1. Marius says:

    My top 5 for now would be:
    1) Ex-machina
    2) McFarland USA
    3) San Andreas
    4) Terminator: Genisys
    5) Chappie

  2. Reblogged this on Matthew Killorin and commented:
    Looking for a great movie to watch?

  3. DontMindMeNow says:

    From someone who, for the greater part of the year, lives in a town with one movie theater (a.k.a no movies that didn’t go nationwide), and typically has to wait for netflix to see indies:

    1. Mad Max: Fury Road
    2. Inside Out
    3. EX_MACHINA
    4. It Follows
    5. Kingsman: The Secret Service
    6. Big Game (not apologizing for this one)
    7. Paddington (I live in the U.S.)
    8. Appropriate Behavior
    9. Spy (not apologizing for this either)
    10. Piku

    Unfortunately, it looks like I won’t be able to see “Dope”, “Love and Mercy”, “Me and Earl” and most of the films from the article until they get a digital release. Planning to watch “Slow West” and “The Voices” in the next few weeks.

  4. Cavarrone says:

    absolutely agreed about “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”!

  5. J.E. Vizzusi says:

    Mad Max, Fury Road is mentioned twice. I suppose it most certainly deserves a wildly exciting praise!

  6. Cinemaphilist says:

    I agree about The Harvest. It’s a great movie that deserves a wider release. Ex Machina is also a solid flick that deserves to be on the list. Scratching my head about Max Max, though. I guess it’s little smarter than your average popcorn action movie, but still…

  7. Steph S says:

    Was psyched seeing “The Harvest” on the list. I caught it on the screen in NYC in April and loved it. Think it is one of the year’s best — fresh, well executed, thought-provoking and beautifully filmed. Yes, on real film. Here’s to hoping this list helps The Harvest get a wider release; it certainly deserves it. Welcome back, John McNaughton.

  8. Iván el Terrible says:

    I’d like Mad Max to be nominated for Best Picture in the same way I wanted Guardians of the Galaxy to achieve the same feat. I know I’m asking for too much because they will nominate the usual crap the critics masturbate to (WWII, Holocaust, LGTB, disabilities, race, etc).

  9. Bill B. says:

    I’m not big on big stupid repetitive summer “blockbusters”, but Mad Max is among the better ones. Guardians of the Galaxy was the only good one last summer due to it being well made and above all, original, but they will run with that one until it too becomes repetitive and monotonous like all the other Marvel movies.

  10. Tonya says:

    Good God, what are these people smoking?

  11. Blogrope says:

    Nice list, but Some Movies are missing like siracio, paper town

  12. Jim Harlow says:

    I am totally bewildered by the positive reviews for Mad Max. It is a vile, incredibly violent piece of crap. If you like seeing bodies exploding in the air, this is your movie.

    • Cath says:

      I was surprised by the critical Mad Max love also. It was okay. I had seen all the previous ones, the first one on TV and the last two in a theater, and thought that this incarnation was just more of the same. It didn’t seem extra special.

    • man1985 says:

      Lol. What the heck? Are u even being serious?

  13. filmsharks says:

    My list will include ‘Love and Mercy,’ ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ and ‘It Follows.’

  14. Nathan says:

    Mad Max best action film so far this year. Real stunts, old school. Best sound. Should get the statue. Superb no nonsense writing, cut to the bone allowing excellent interpretation by a stella cast. Feminist, with subtexts that go on for ages. Leaves Marvel digital creations, way behind, bloated, lying in the pixelated dirt.

  15. Paul Coyne says:

    All worthy picks. I was also extremely, and positively, surprised by two family film entries – Cinderella and Paddington. And while Love & Mercy was divisive, I fell on the side that found it engrossing, intimate and superbly acted by all of the main actors.

  16. anonymous says:

    No Rooney Mara in Carol? Does anyone agree it should be in there?????????

  17. IT 2 IT says:

    RERUNs and theme park thrill rides from franchise slum Hollywood.

    BLLLLUH

    And WITNESS, franchise slum Hollywood, coming off its WORST year in its history,
    couldn’t find the time or a dime to remember the awesomely relevant
    ————————————65th Anniversary—————————————
    —————————————————–of the 21st century DEFINING
    —————————————————————-yet unfolding
    —————————————————————————–KOREAN WAR.

  18. CL says:

    Very glad to see Mad Max: Fury Road staying in people’s minds as one of the best of the year. It hit on every level, from the ingenious cinematography to the fabulous editing that put most action-film makers to shame. You can find layers and layers of symbolism in the details, or just sit back and have your mind blown by a war rig destroying spiky cars. Hell, I even think the score might be one of the best of the year. In all seriousness – I hope this film is remembered at Oscar time.

  19. Jake says:

    Mad max, furious 7, spy, me, earl and the dying girl, ex machina and inside out

  20. Chizz McTooth says:

    At least half of these movies debuted in 2014 and were reviewed eons ago. Try keeping things current.

    • timgray2013 says:

      As it says in the introduction, these are films that had their U.S. release in 2015. Try retaining what you read.

  21. thanks for mentioning ‘The Duke of Burgundy’. that film was breathtaking. it’s nice to see some journalists acknowledge more than just hollywood films

  22. CelluloidFan35mm says:

    My faves of 2015 so far :
    What We Do In The Shadows
    Red Army
    Jurassic World
    The Spongebob Movie:Sponge Out Of Water

    Ex-Machina and Mad Mad:Fury Road were highly overpraised.
    At least, Ex-Machina has some great cinematography and art direction with the potential to be a lot better than what was on the screen where Fury Road was just boring and uninteresting failing to live up to or close to The Road Warrior with all the hype it generated. Left the theater disappointed.

    • man1985 says:

      So says the dude that includes Jurassic World and Sponge Outta Water on his “best of” list. Forgive us if we take your opinion with a big grain of salt

      • CelluloidFan35mm says:

        1. I said my favorites of 2015 so far not best of 2015 so far.
        2. At least those two movies have more entertainment value than Fury Road and on top of that, those two movies did not try to shove politics in people’s faces.

  23. Catz says:

    you missed the boat on SOUTHPAW

  24. Jose says:

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
    Dope
    Everly
    Ex Machina

  25. Moonshine101 says:

    Erm “The Harvest” was released in 2013. Is Peter just behind on his screeners?

    • Justin Chang says:

      We made our choices from the 2015 U.S. release schedule, and “The Harvest” didn’t open theatrically here until this past April.

  26. Al Swearengen says:

    Ex Machina and Fury Road have certainly been the standouts.

  27. JFA says:

    Mr. Foundas hit the mail on the head: Ex Machina!

  28. TomNewYorker says:

    my top 10 favorite movies of 2015 so far are

    1-Avengers: Age Of Ultron
    2-Jurassic World
    3-Ted 2
    4-Me & Earl & The Dying Girl
    5-Kingsman
    6-The Voices
    7-The Duff
    8-Cinderella
    9-Project Almanac
    10-Chappie

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