Here's our list of the best films of 2015 so far:
15. Slow West
Though Western films have long become stale, a fresh spin on its familiar tropes comes out every few years to show the genre still has some life left in it. In this period piece, a young Scottish man sets across the American West to find his lost love. Though its themes of lost innocence and the harshness of the wild are certainly not new to the genre, its distinctive visuals and stylish framing prevent it from feeling stale.
14. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Embracing the inherent ridiculousness of the James Bond mythos, Kingsman merrily tears down the conventions of the spy genre as quickly as it builds them up. Equal parts loving homage and biting satire, it follows a British street kid as he enters the secret world of international espionage, full of gadgets and cartoonish villains. Though it is first and foremost a well-shot action film, it manages to throw in some sly commentary about class roles and expectations.
After playing a series of increasingly caustic characters, Melissa McCarthy is finally given a vehicle to show how great she is at giving an inherently sympathetic and human performance. Playing an inexperienced CIA agent thrust into a dangerous international conspiracy, the film subverts nearly every hyper-masculine spy cliche with zippy pacing and surprising pathos. Though Director Paul Feig has no idea how to dynamically shoot an action sequence, the hilarious performances by McCarthy, Rose Byrne, and Jason Statham make it hard to care too much.
12. Ex Machina
The latest in an ever-expanding list of films about the disappearing line between humanity and technology (see also: Transcendence, Chappie, The Machine), Ex Machina explores the emotional implications of artificial intelligence in this three-person character study. In it, a naive programmer is tasked with testing out his genius employer's latest project: A staggeringly lifelike robot. What follows is a tragic and engaging look at how much agency both humans and robots will have in a future where technology matures more quickly than people.
Fresh off his highly-praised portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, David Oyelowo gives another spellbinding performance as the only on-screen actor in Nightingale. Portraying a mentally-ill veteran of the Iraq war who slowly unravels after killing his mother, Oyelowo elevates the serviceable plot and filmmaking, bringing a level of realism that could have been drastically overplayed in the hands of a lesser actor.
10. Clouds of Sils Maria
A terrific, naturalistic performance from Kristen Stewart is the surprising highlight of a film about the fear of being replaced. The plot follows a middle-aged actress who returns to her roots to take a role in the play that made her famous 20 years ago. The film uses her preparation for the role as a meditation on the intersection of artifice and beauty, filtered through two fascinatingly fractured perspectives.
Despite a tonally uneven first third, this film eventually finds its footing in the story of Marty—a small-time scammer who flees a desk job at a bank after getting implicated in one of his cons. After eschewing its tethering, the film unfolds in all its unhinged glory by exploring what happens when an intense anger towards ‘the system’ lacks a healthy outlet.
8. Wild Tales
Linked together by nothing more than a twisted sense of old-testament retribution, Wild Tales tells six stories of how people react in the face of injustice. Bending genres from satire to morality play to domestic drama, the film possesses a streak of cheery nihilism and surrealism as its characters become increasingly fed up with the hand that fate has dealt them. The movie’s lack of willingness to let its characters off the hook for any infraction, no matter how small, results in a cathartic and hilarious experience.
7. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The Church of Scientology poses numerous difficulties for would-be cinematographers. Famously litigious and image-obsessed, the Church sent a team of lawyers to try to prevent the release of this film. It didn’t work, but it’s easy to see why they tried–the film is a horrifying saga that gives a succinct and objective indictment of the pseudo-religion through simply revealing its history in a straightforward manner.
6. The Duke of Burgundy
Lacking any conventional plot, this film explores the romantic relationship between two entomologists and how the arbitrary boundaries they set for each other feed into a larger narrative of sexual politics. The film focuses on the coexistence of love and power and examines the relationship from different angles, be it intellectual, physical, emotional, or financial. All this unfolds within a beautifully dense cinematography and some of the most hypnotizing camerawork in recent memory.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
In a world where movie-goers have started to tire from action sequels, the first sequel to the Mad Max franchise in 30 years, offers the perfect antidote. Putting forward a gleefully bizarre vision of an oil-deprived future that is always in motion, Director George Miller films what is essentially a two-hour car chase that never lets up it's deliriously kinetic spirit. Beneath the sheen of glossy chrome are some surprisingly cognizant object lessons on feminism and religious fervor.
4. Cobain: Montage of Heck
All too often, music documentaries fall into the trap of blatant hero-worship, or trying to affix a straightforward narrative to the lives of their subjects. Brett Morgan’s documentary on late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain avoids this, both by revealing the deep humanity and pain at the center of Cobain’s psyche through extensive archival footage, and by using formal techniques seldom used in documentaries (animation, abstract montage) to get inside his head. The result is a level of even-handed insight that is sadly uncommon to the genre.
3. World of Tomorrow
How can a film that’s funny, terrifying, awe-inspiring, depressing, uplifting, wistful, smart, and poignant also be less than 20 minutes in length? Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow answers that question with his abstractly animated vision of the future as seen through the eyes of a young girl. To give anything else away would spoil the fun.
2. Inside Out
After a few years of (relative) creative decline, Pixar Animation Studios is back with Inside Out, which follows anthropomorphic emotions through the mind of a young girl as she moves to a new town. What could have been a straightforward and enjoyable romp instead turns out to be a thoughtful meditation on the value of sadness as a means of connecting with others. It also boasts a structurally taut script and some of the most ambitious animation the studio has produced to date.
1. It Follows
In horror movies, sex and death have always been linked, but it has never been more explicit than It Follows. The film concerns a malicious supernatural entity passed from person to person through sex, centering around its latest potential victim—a young woman in the vein of classic slasher movie heroines. Delving much deeper than its surface-level STD metaphor suggests, It Follows examines what one sacrifices by becoming intimate with another person and the consequences that sex has on the psyche without ever feeling didactic or obvious.
Haunting and lyrical, it gives some of the year’s best location shooting, straddling the border between the decay of urban Detroit and its winding suburbs. The remarkably confident filmmaking is evident with its use of eerily slow 360 degree pans and an unsettling score, proving once again that some of the best cinema comes from genre films.
(Photos courtesy of redbrick.me, slashfilm.com, grantland.com, vashivisuals.com, tumblr.com)