I’ll admit that I have a bit of a “best of the year” list fatigue. Ranking things and top 10 lists have just been done so many times that, depending on your tolerance to start with, it gets old at some point. However, one type of list that I still do appreciate is the “halfway of the year” lists when it comes to movies. This is simply because, frankly, most of the movies that make these lists get forgotten by the time the end of the year rolls around. Most of the big “serious” movies and the awards season contenders get saved for a fall release, and those tend to dominate critics’ lists. So why not celebrate the high quality films that had the misfortune (?) of getting an early-year release.
There’s tons of stuff that I just haven’t caught up with yet, and I also excluded anything I’ve seen at festivals that hasn’t gotten a U.S. theatrical release yet. That said, here’s my list of the top 10 movies I’ve seen that have been released in 2015.
10. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Way more fun than it has any right to be, Kingsman pays homage to the British spy films of yore while still maintaining the whip-smart, breakneck action movie pace that studios seem to think young audiences require. (But would you really expect anything less from the director who brought us Kick-Ass?) A little bit goofy and a little bit serious, Kingsman has style for days. It also earns major points from me for offering up Colin Firth as an unlikely but extremely dapper action star; his scene in the church set to “Free Bird” is easily the best scene of the year so far. Kingsman doesn’t really say anything new, nor does it seem to offer any kind of self-reflexive critique of its own gleeful violence. But then again, when the movie is this slick and entertaining, it doesn’t really need to.
9. Inside Out
I didn’t have the same transcendently emotional experience with Inside Out that some people did, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Funny, sad, and poignantly real, it feels like it’s made more for the adults in the audience than the kids. Growing up is sad in ways we can’t always quite pinpoint, and Inside Out takes a both fanciful and subtle look at what’s behind those seemingly unavoidable shifts in the way we view the world around us.
8. Son of a Gun
This is another pure popcorn pick. Because while Son of a Gun does offer some refreshingly gritty (and unmistakably Australian) bleak style that could almost get it mistaken for something a little bit arty, at its heart, it’s just a big ol’ heist movie. But the key here is that first-time director Julius Avery happens to do the heist genre really, really well. He finds a nice balance of over-the-top thrills and more intimate moments of human interactions, somehow making the movie seem both action-packed and thoughtful at the same time. Throw in some gorgeously bleak cinematography and you’ve got another fine (albeit Hollywood-ized) entry in the Australian crime movie genre.
7. Black Sea
Submarine movies are fun, right? Well, if you’re watching Black Sea, you better think so. Kevin MacDonald’s solid undersea caper is kind of exactly what you’d expect; it’s a bunch of dudes in a sub. And things don’t always go well. However, MacDonald has such a clear, unwavering vision that it still feels fresh. Black Sea is somehow both elegant and campy, a combination which is only heightened by the talented Jude Law chewing on a little scenery and sporting a Scottish brogue. Plus any movie where Ben Mendelsohn’s character is described as a psychopath by way of introduction is legally obligated to be good.
6. What We Do in the Shadows
Think vampires are played out? Think again. This mockumentary from the Flight of the Concords team follows a group of flatmates who also happen to be vampires, and hilarity ensues. As well, the filmmakers seem to understand the limits of the movie’s premise and keep things concise and fast-paced to avoid redundancy. Full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gags and a whole heap of deliciously deadpan humour, What We Do in the Shadows is one of the wall-to-wall funniest movies I’ve seen in a while.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
I saw Mad Max: Fury Road just two weeks after it came out, and already it felt like I was late to the party. With all the insane praise that had been heaped onto it in that short time, I figured there was no way it could live up to the hype. But, much to my surprise, it was pretty much as fantastic and madcap as everybody said. At this point, there’s not much to add to the conversation but to say that if you’re skeptical because it doesn’t seem like your “type” of movie, give it a try anyways. Flamethrower guitar forever.
4. Little Accidents
Here’s one that sailed by right under the radar. While Sara Colangelo’s debut feature got criticizes by some for being too Sundance by-the-numbers, I thought her meditation on the far-reaching effects of a small-town mining tragedy was a compelling and beautifully shot human interest drama. It also features a superb performance by Boyd Holbrook as a stoic man who gets thrown into the middle of the drama simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Little Accidents will feel familiar to those well-versed in recent indies, but it’s also an extremely well-told entry into the canon.
3. Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 novel has been adapted for the screen several times before. I can’t tell you how Tomas Vinterberg’s (The Hunt) new re-telling stacks up by comparison, though, as this is the only version of the story I’m familiar with. However, I’d have to imagine it’d be difficult to beat Vinterberg’s sweeping, moody take on this story of an independent women and her three potential suitors. With breathtaking cinematography and costume design as well as an engaging and relatively fast-paced (no really!) narrative this is a very, very good costume drama. Even if you don’t think you like period piece-y romances, this one is well worth a watch.
Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, on the other hand, is a completely different type of period piece. This one takes place in the 1990s examining the French house music scene. Co-written by Hansen-Love and her brother, Sven (who was himself a DJ in the ‘90s), Eden is a sprawling take on what happens when you overstay your welcome at the party. It’s woozy and beguiling in the best way, taking a slow-burn approach to its quasi-coming-of-age narrative. Eden is at once a lovely tribute to a music scene and a harrowing tale of one man’s journey through it.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria
Well, I didn’t mean for it to end up like this, but we’ve got a husband/wife duo in our top two spots. Mia Hansen-Love’s husband, Olivier Assayas, has been bewitching arthouse film fans with his movies for a long time now, offering up excellent character studies with films like Summer Hours, Clean, and Irma Vep. Now, the already great filmmaker has perhaps topped himself with this oblique portrait of two fascinating women. Juliette Binoche is great as always, while Kristen Stewart (who has already proven to be quite good in films like Camp X-Ray and Still Alice) once and for all announces herself as one of the best young actresses working with her spiky, nuanced turn here. Clouds of Sils Maria may seem simple on the surface in terms of story, but there are a lot of layers at play. This is the type of movie that begs for re-watches, and I can’t wait to return to Assayas’ impeccable new gem.