A Halfway There Checklist: The Best of the Year So Far

Don’t let my limited output over the course of the first half of the year fool you: it’s been a great year at the cinema. It’s been one of those years where Hollywood blockbusters, festival darlings, and foreign holdovers have (for the most part) held true to their promise and delivered something unique. Look no further than the four selected “essential” films on this list; the quartet represents dynamic revisions on form and technique that has made 2015 an incredibly progressive year. A similar dynamic of massive and micro budget films coming down the pike look to follow suit, with films like Todd Haynes’ Carol, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight demonstrating the density of this years offerings – we’re half-way through the year but there’s ample more to look forward to.

Caveat #1: So many films, so little time. Here are some films that I regrettably was not able to screen prior to producing this list: Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, Benny and Josh Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Maddening Crowd, and several others.

Caveat #2: Certain films from 2014 that were featured on this site may, on other publications, be considered a 2015 release. Release date stratagem is a quirky enterprise, but note that some films – most especially Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and Joel Protykus’ Buzzard – are favorites but not featured on this list because they figured prominently in last year’s festival discussion. All three deserve your time, though.

Notable

The Duke of Burgundy
(Peter Strickland)

In the wake of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s easy to forget the primal thrills found in James Wan’s Furious 7. Yet parachuting cars from airships and a car careening through not one but two skyscrapers are still some of the more intriguing and intricately orchestrated action set pieces of the year. It’s chock-full of the problems that are found in its predecessors (blatant misogyny and homophobia, along with a penchant for just being a little too bloated) but it takes what it does best - cars going really, really fast – and sets a new standard of high-octane excellence.  

Available for streaming on Google Play. Blu-ray/DVD scheduled for September 15, 2015.

Horse Money
(Pedro Costa)

Christina Petzold’s Phoenix is so preposterous that it forces me to recalibrate what to expect out of narrative cinema,  especially the variety that purloins so extensively from Hitchcock. But this Vertigo remake of sorts is so regal and ornate that it could be argued that Petzold mechanizes the whole enterprise. Of course, you couldn’t say that because you have Nina Hoss front and center, who submits what’s probably going to be this year’s best performance. The whole venture strikes me as more than a little dubious, but I’ll be damned if Nina Hoss doesn’t legitimize the whole project, carrying you through an ending that may as well be cinema’s greatest mic drop.

Scheduled for limited theatrical release on July 31st, 2015.

Results
(Andrew Bujalski)

Those looking for something as esoteric as Andrew Bujalski’s previous film, Computer Chess, may find themselves disappointed by the traditionally rooted Results. But for me this functions as Bujalski’s most mature and intriguing work. Rooted in the romantic comedy tradition of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Ernst Lubitsch, Results is finely tuned and structurally tight film on the movement and architecture of love. A lot of it comes to casting – the triptych of Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce, and Cobie Smulders (the film’s MVP) – where the tender and at times awkward pleasantries of courtship are rooted in equal parts loneliness and selfishness. The film never quite knows how to resolve itself, though the picture’s many loose ends feels like an extension of the characters themselves.

Currently streaming on iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

Recommended

Girlhood
(Céline Sciamma)

Fifty Shades of Gray made money. The Duke of Burgundy pulled in the arthouse crowd. But it’s Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl that explores the concept of dominant-submissive relationships with morbid and luminous delight. The film’s premise finds a father blackmailing a stranger into buying a dress for his daughter. Parallel narratives unite, unfurl, and realign as Vermut explores a richly dense terrain of gender and social politics, all revealing a stirring truth: the submissive is the one in control. 

Currently without any listed American distributor. 

Slow West
(John Maclean)

As Michael Fassbender’s Silas Selleck removes an animal’s carcass from obstructing his path, we gather the sense that he’s moving the gates of Hell. This journey that composes Slow West, like so many films that explore the travails of the Old West, is one entrenched within the context of descent – descent into a violent and depraved world. At least that’s the sense you get out of John Maclean’s twistedly funny western that sees Fassbender as a Virgil and Kodi Smith-McPhee as Dante. The rigid symmetry and beige production design may hint at a comic elegance akin to Wes Anderson, but this is much like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man: to observe violence and lechery as part of America’s cultural fabric.

Currently streaming on iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

Unfriended
(Levan Gabriadze)

Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended manifests its concerns on technology by producing a unique mise-en-scene that’s bored by technological advancements. A user scrolls through tabs and windows with fatigued nonchalance. It’s only when viewing these actions reproduced on-screen does the technical wonder of seeing someone interact in a Skype conversation while on Facebook Messenger (while listening to a jam on Spotify) settle in as something close to a spectacle. And the fact that Gabriadze is capable of extracting tension out of these devices is significant – he’s utilizing the space of a frame in genuinely progressive ways.

On Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download (the optimal viewing choice to be screened on a laptop) on August 11, 2015.

Highly Recommended

Amour Fou
(Jessica Hausner)

It’s a spectacle. Those who have likened it to an opera or symphony do so because of the depths and density of its moving parts. George Miller’s masterpiece utilizes the fundamental mythopoeia of his original trilogy and springboards it into new and nonpareil heights. From its vivid deconstruction of colonial rebellion to its pronounced and vital feminist commentary, Mad Max: Fury Road is above all a film of such explosive élan. Three films may have preceded its making, yet there’s no film quite like it. Doubtlessly, few films will be able to reach its heights this year, and for that matter, the years that follow.

Currently in theaters nationwide.

Mommy
(Xavier Dolan)