With a week to go until 2015 crosses the halfway mark, now’s the time to take a look back at its first six months and round up our favorite films thus far. While the end of this year will bring personal favorites from all of our writers, think of the below 30 entries as a comprehensive rundown of what should be seen before heading into a promising fall line-up.
As a note, this feature is based solely on U.S. theatrical releases from 2015, with many currently, widely available on home video, streaming platforms, or theatrically. Check them out below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions and films to keep on your radar for the remaining summer months. For those on Letterboxd, one can find the list here.
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
A few years before A Separation left its considerable mark on the world-cinema landscape, Asghar Farhadi had another masterpiece under his belt. Why it’s been unavailable in the United States for some six years is a total mystery, but that (courtesy of Cinema Guild) has finally been taken care of — and now, at long last, here is About Elly. For fitting the mold of mystery, hangout movie, social critique, and gender-dynamics drama with equal aplomb, this film is the clearest example of Farhadi’s considerable powers. Its 2009 tag be damned, About Elly is one of the best “new” releases we’ve been given this year. – Nick N.
Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)
An ecstatically original work of film-history-philosophy with a digital-cinema palette of acutely crafted compositions. Amour Fou seamlessly blends together the paintings of Vermeer, the acting of Bresson, and the psychological undercurrents of a Dostoevsky novel. It is an intensely thrilling and often slyly comic work that manages to combine a passionately dispassionate love story of the highest order with a larger socio-historical examination of a new era of freedom, and the tragedy beset by those trapped in its enclosed world. – Peter L.
Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan)
Iranian-American filmmaker and actress Desiree Akhavan channeled Woody Allen for her feature debut, a romantic comedy about Shirin (Akhavan), an aimless 20-something struggling to get over her ex-girlfriend. But while the film recalls the storytelling and New York intellectual vibe of Annie Hall, it stands apart with a distinctive deadpan humor and bisexual female perspective. More importantly, however, it’s a damn funny movie and a welcome introduction to a talented new voice. – Amanda W.
Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)
The spectacle of ballet is inherently cinematic, married as it is between the visual and aural arts. The art of creation, however, is much less so, married as it is to silence, pondering, and repetition to the point of perfection. Ballet 422 uses composition, editing, and unfettered observation to create a compelling portrait of a novice choreographer’s first full-length ballet, and the result is as engrossing as they come. – Brian R.
Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf)
If German cinema has been dominated by reservation, here is kissing, screaming, fucking, pushing, breaking, and running. Most of all, Beloved Sisters embraces feeling, turning even the written word into a series of direct addresses that passionately reach toward its receiver instead of only an admiration for the transference of materials. Graf’s camera flies through these mansions and small alcoves with every cinematic technique known to man — push-ins, zooms, wipes, dissolves, quick pans, jumping titles! — but, most of all, he relies on the work of his editor to conflate time and space into pure emotion. – Peter L.
Blackhat (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann is one of the few directors still making thoughtfully composed and visceral action films for an audience that refuses to turn its brain off. That Mann also chooses to tackle concerns of the modern world while still maintaining his old-school action aesthetic is icing on the cake. Blackhat took some heat for its portrayal of a buff, rough and tumble hacker, but with a genuine understanding of computers and the implementation of classic Mann action scenes, this movie still stands as one of the best of the year so far. – Brian R.
Buzzard (Joel Potrykus)
A film obsessed with the post-recession, post-NSA era, Buzzard is littered with money (or the lack of it) that recalls neo-realist greats, but not by making a film about the toils of the human spirit. Instead, it takes the form of the a bro genre movie (pair this with Entourage for real whiplash), and peppers each one of its moments with stunning accuracy and an extreme paranoia. It’s a film that understands the new American dream is a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs instead of two microwaved Hot Pockets. – Peter L.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Movies about making movies often get a bad rap; there’s just a presumed pretentiousness that goes along with watching filmmakers and actors defending their craft. So when it turns out that Clouds of Sils Maria is actually a beautifully directed and acted defense of the timelessness and universal value of storytelling in all forms, what could have been a European Birdman actually becomes something so much more. – Brian R.
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is an immersive experience that demands to be pondered, discussed, and watched again. This visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and certain to become a cult classic. While Strickland deserves much of the credit, as does the credited creator of its perfumes (the credit reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizelle”), the performances of co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are especially worthy of praise, note-perfect as lovers immersed in a relationship of role-playing and elaborate (controlled) deception. Infused with the spirit of ’70s sexploitation and influenced by everyone from Fassbinder to Brakhage, Burgundy is an achievement like no other in recent memory. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say you’ve never seen anything quite like it. – Christopher S.
Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve)
At this point, it should be obvious enough that we’re really quite fond of Mia Hansen-Løve‘s Eden, so I’ll save us some time by linking to my review — which, though several months old, in no way reflects a once-higher evaluation — and interviews with the director and co-writer / central inspiration. This is a film whose reputation will only grow in the years to come. Don’t sleep on it while a big-screen experience is still available. – Nick N.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Artificial intelligence is the anointed “next big thing” of our time, and so it makes sense that film would seek to address it. But whereas something like Avengers: Age of Ultron treats artificial intelligence as a way to create an “inhuman” force for evil, Ex Machina decides to use the creation of consciousness as a means of reflecting our own base humanity back at us. Smart, sleek, and spare, Ex Machina functions as a dagger elegantly carving out our own heart to show it back to us. – Brian R.
Faults (Riley Stearns)
With an influx of cult-related dramas on the independent circuit as of late, some of the most notable ones can get lost in the shuffle. One such example is Faults, the deeply engaging debut from Riley Stearns. The drama is a tightly focused story of a down-and-out mind control expert Ansel (Leland Orser, in a gloriously unlikable lead performance) who gets hired to bring Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s character to reality after her time in a cult. By the film’s end, one might feel like they’ve gone through a certain mind-altering procedure. – Jordan R.
Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap)
Director Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is a five-hour, two-part, wildly blood-drenched saga. A densely plotted multigenerational gangster epic, Gangs is a stunning achievement, whether taken collectively or individually. Over the course of these five hours, we experience prison escapes, drug-addled sibling rivalries, revenge killings, tense life-or-death meetings, a Sonny-at-the-tollbooth-style esque massacre, lying politicians, “money and debauchery,” and a dash of Bollywood, with a unique use of music and lyrics to comment on the action (“This barter of bloody blows will make you cry”). Director Kashyap has succeeded in creating a gangster drama that feels fresh and realistic – no easy feat. Yes, it is unwieldy, and Part 2 lacks the visceral impact of Part 1, but there’s no doubt that Gangs of Wasseypur is an exhilarating creation and not-to-be-missed cinematic event. – Christopher S.
Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
With Girlhood, writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Water Lilies) deepens her preoccupation with coming-of-age stories focusing on strong, young female leads. Her characters are always outsiders looking to fit in, and each have intense love interests. In her latest, she explores a poor, minority community in France through a drama that could easily prove maudlin and over-the-top. Instead, she used non-actors to perform a script and complement direction that are always restrained and thoughtful. Girlhood is accomplished as an understated and compelling study of becoming a woman in an impoverished setting. – Will M.
Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German)
Yes, while perhaps a form of punishment cinema (trust me, search “Hard to Be a God… more like Hard to Sit Through” on Twitter), what separates this film is a certain openness, the ability to drift in and out of its hellish landscape of various synonyms for muck — shit, grime, etc. While the occasionally awkward fades to black are likely a result of the director’s death before completion, it only makes the experience feel more tangential, which, in this case, is very much a good thing. – Ethan V.
Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie)
It’s hard not to fall in love with Arielle Holmes. Even when holding a close-up of a heroin daze (as seen on the poster) one gets the sense of the Safdie Brothers not prodding her and her real-life story for the sake of their own aesthetic interests, but rather a very complicated emotional need — one which the audience will understand within seconds. – Ethan V.
Inside Out (Pete Docter)
Those lamenting, myself included, that Pixar had hit a rut in the last few years had their fears relieved with Inside Out. Through exploring the emotions that make us human, they’ve crafted not only a thrilling adventure, but opened the door for a profound conversation regarding how our life’s events and memories have irrevocable effects. Despite the few reservations I have pertaining to some underdeveloped characters, Inside Out’s touching wisdom of shedding the stigma of sadness is a vital lesson for any age. – Jordan R.
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
Horror is a genre that gets passed over a lot in these kinds of lists. You can probably blame the cheap jump scare and loud noises productions that have dominated the field lately. So horror buffs and film fans of all stripes should be thrilled to see It Follows. Lovingly crafted with an emphasis on spatial relationships and slow burn tension, this is a film to remind the masses why horror is one of the most purely cinematic genres. – Brian R.
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
With a multitude of long takes set across rapturous vistas as Viggo Mortensen journeys through 19th-century Patagonia, Lisandro Alonso‘s Jauja is a wholly beautiful, occasionally perplexing tale — as if Andrei Tarkovsky tried his hand at a western. When Mortensen’s character treads deeper into the wilderness, time itself becomes distorted, concluding with something that will surely lead to extensive conversations. Jauja is simply one of this year’s must-see films. – Jordan R.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner)
One of the better directed films one is bound to see this year, David Zellner‘s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a tightly controlled, beautifully-shot oddity with a deeply felt performance from The Brothers Bloom and Pacific Rim star Rinko Kikuchi. Using the true story of one person’s obsession with a fabricated story, Kumiko may be peculiar, but it’s an ultimately powerful and tragic fable of passion. #TeamBunzo, indeed. – Jordan R.
Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont)
L’il Quinquin: The Theatrical Experience: Come for the ‘scope compositions, stay for the audience slowly start to feel bad for laughing so much. But really, while it’s certainly hard to imagine the ever-so-serious, ever-so-austere Bruno Dumont even cracking a smile, should we really just reward him for resorting to his usual tricks just through the prism of goofy comedy? To be perfectly honest, when it’s this funny, and its characters and setting are allowed the kind of breathing room to live beyond being allegorical / philosophical / socio-politcal / you-name-it symbols through mini-series length? Sure. – Ethan V.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Three decades of production woes and artistic detours for director George Miller delayed a return to the apocalyptic wastelands of the Mad Max franchise. This year, Mad Mad: Fury Road revived the series with radical changes. Mel Gibson was out as the titular character in favor of Tom Hardy, Namibia replaced the Australian outback as the backdrop, and the world expanded to tell the stories of characters with names like Imperator Furiosa and Immortan Joe. While Fury Road succeeds in re-imagining these core elements, the film’s madcap taciturn creations and kinetic pacing prove to be essential elements that separate the film from its previous installments and recent action films. Filmgoers invigorated by the audacity and practical stunts of the chase scenes, galvanized by Charlize Theron’s performance — and the ideas of femininity core to its story — and receptive to the imagery that most other studios wouldn’t dare attempt, have been vocal supporters of the film. Ultimately, Fury Road unifies these different audiences (from the casual moviegoer to the cinephile) and interests by offering a relentless and visceral experience. We expect Fury Road to be as fresh and compelling at the year’s end as it stands right now. – Zade C.
A Pigeon Say On A Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
The third installment in Roy Andersson’s trilogy looks and operates quite a bit like the two that precede it, thus making A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence an easy sell to the already-converted. But rather than preach to his choir, the Swedish helmer makes enough approaches to constitute an evolution, most notably in its remarkably grim, shockingly disturbing final stretch, as bleak a send-off to a series as any I can think to name. But with an eye for set construction and physical choreography that’s at its peak, the only shame is that he’s stopping now. – Nick N.
Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello)
Definitive proof that the common bias against biopics is bullshit. Most indicative of this, sadly, is its mild reception, for if Bertrand Bonello’s latest picture had approached a fictional figure with the exact same film, shot-for-shot and perfect-cue-for-perfect-cue, much of the “critical wisdom” that surrounded it — e.g. claims that he’s been forced to adhere to genre conventions and serve a specific, pre-set trajectory — would melt away. But the fact that it’s chronicling a real-life figure with whom we’re all at least a bit familiar (or so the director very much seems to assume) is the crux of this drama, one of the year’s most elegantly mounted for its manipulation of reflective services, time jumps, title cards, and, in what is perhaps its master stroke, a Proustian third act that jumbles distinctions between time, memory, the real, and the imagined. Bonello is bold enough to make “I Put a Spell on You” Saint Laurent’s declaration to audiences at the outset, and the film stakes its claim through nearly every one of its 150 intoxicating minutes. – Nick N.
Slow West (John Maclean)
The western has a setting and tropes and characters so indelible to the American consciousness that the genre could easily be seen as an outgrowth of fairy tales. Slow West takes this idea and runs with it, creating a playful and elegiac story of love and loss and redemption. Directed with affection and care, acted with suitable whimsy and wit, Slow West is the film that finally elevates the western to its appointed destiny. – Brian R.
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
One of the first films released this year remains one of the best. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated, César-sweeping drama is a formally breaktaking accomplishment. Following the people in a town overtaken by Jihadists, we see the restrictions imposed and the resulting suffering, all painfully and elegantly told through Sissako’s unfliching lens. While it’s rare for a film to have at least one unforgettable scene, Timbuktu has more than a few. – Jordan R.
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
There tends be a lot of hyperbole tossed around about certain types of movies as being a groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind experience, but that statement actually rings true for Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s debut feature film The Tribe. Devoid of any spoken words, music, voiceover, or even subtitles, the film is communicated through sign language and all the characters are deaf. This provides a unique challenge for any audience member not versed with how to sign, as the filmmaker provides no direct explanation of what characters are actually saying. While this may initially seem daunting, patience and keen observation are rewarded by a haunting cinematic voyage that truly is unlike anything else one is bound to witness in a theater this year. – Raffi A.
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)
A bold, sometimes absurdly funny, and often-horrifying look into the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, wherein the former French president of the IMF lost his position after a scandal involving a New York hotel maid he sexually assaulted. Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s impulses perfectly groove with this material, centering on only Gerard Depardieu’s pig of a man — a man with total power and, scariest of all, the will to exploit it. A pulsating reflection of capitalism gone amok that prefers solemnity to ludicrous and indulgent depictions. – Peter L.
When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Secret World of Arrietty director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is, in every way, exquisite — exquisitely sad, exquisitely haunting, exquisitely lovely. The latest, and, supposedly, final release from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio might not be a Ghibli classic, but it is a fine creation in every way. It’s a hand-drawn film of great ambition and stunning beauty, and it tackles heavy themes — abandonment, familial loss, adolescent panic — with offbeat charm. The involving story of smart, sad-eyed Anna and a mysterious, blonde-haired girl named Marnie is believably emo, and its attention to the ebb-and-flow emotions of youth is noteworthy. Here is a film about adolescence, friendship, and memory centered on a young adult, but told without the cheap humor that sinks so many animated efforts. “I’m sorry, it’s a sad story,” says a character in When Marnie Was There, and she ain’t kidding. – Christopher S.
World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)
It will probably confuse a lot of people, come December, when they see that a fifteen-minute-long animated film that hardly anyone has heard of is making top ten lists. To anyone who has seen it, though, World of Tomorrow‘s inclusion will seem a foregone conclusion. Between Hertzfeldt‘s singular visual style, the fine-tuned balance between humor and sadness, and the marvelous vocal performances, this short does more in a quarter of an hour than most films even attempt in eight times that length. – Brian R.
While that wraps up our list of 30 favorites of the year thus far, there’s more we’d recommend from it and for the rest of this summer. Check them out below, along with links to reviews.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Far From the Madding Crowd
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Love & Mercy
Man From Reno
Maps to the Stars
The Princess of France
The Salt of the Earth
Seymour: An Introduction
Tu dors Nicole
What We Do in the Shadows
While We’re Young
The Best Films Arriving in July and August
Alleluia (July 17th)
Amy (July 10th)
Boulevard (July 10th)
Cartel Land (July 3rd)
Creep (July 14th)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (August 7th)
Digging For Fire (August 21st)
The End of the Tour (July 31st)
Horse Money (July 24th)
Listen to Me Marlon (July 29th)
The Look of Silence (July 17th)
Mistress America (August 14th)
Phoenix (July 24th)
Queen of Earth (August 26th)
Tangerine (July 10th)
Tom at the Farm (August 14th)
Trainwreck (July 17th)
Unexpected (July 24th)
Z For Zachariah (August 21st)
What are your favorite films of the year thus far?