It’s always a strange thing, the half-year list. First of all (and most obviously), you’re only dealing with a few months of the year. Moreover, they’re not the few months where studios traditionally place what they perceive to be their top-flight movies (preferring to save most of those until the end of the year, for maximum award potency). And perhaps strangest of all, you’re reacting to a body of work that is very brief and still very young; perceptions change over time. This year’s list, though, might be the strangest ever. Only one documentary made the top ten (and only barely). Our #7 film is a straightforward action-adventure. Our #4 film is about a pair of DJs that specialize in a music that is way, way out of fashion these days. Our #2 film has no words at all. And our #1 film won an acting award at Cannes—for its lead performer, who happens to be a dog. From the weird to the wonderful, here are our Top 25 Movies of 2015 so far.
25. I Believe in Unicorns
The list of filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff’s influences is as long as it is impressive: She has the unbridled fantasticism of Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick’s elliptical fascination with nature, and Catherine Hardwicke’s humanist eye for misguided teenage malaise. Wearing your favorite filmmakers on your sleeve usually leaves an open invitation for trouble, but Meyerhoff’s magical, heartbreaking debut, I Believe in Unicorns, isn’t a mere fan film. It’s her film, made her way, and with the kind of passionate D.I.Y. moxy that’s hard not to admire in a first-time feature. I Believe in Unicorns wanders through familiar grounds, treading through the life and times of Davina (Natalia Dyer) as she hits the road with her older, unstable boyfriend Sterling (Peter Vack), in search of anything better than her life at home in a dead-end burg. But no matter how well-beaten the path may seem, Meyerhoff’s fusion of styles and bursting earnestness make I Believe in Unicorns feel like an original. —Andy Crump
David Gordon Green’s film stars Al Pacino as the titular locksmith with nothing but time on his hands. Manglehorn lives a solitary life—his ailing kitty his only friend—but Green and first-time screenwriter Paul Logan hint at the world he once occupied. Periodically, the film will downshift so that a side character can tell a story about the Manglehorn they used to know: the father, the baseball coach, the loving grandfather. That we see little of the warmth or humanity these characters describe is Manglehorn’s great mystery: Where did that man go?Manglehorn finds Pacino delivering an agreeably modest, empathetic performance. Too many years of hoo-ah overkill have stifled his light touch and effortless charm, replaced with hammy intensity and Scarface parody. But the Pacino on display here mostly puts aside the actor-ly embellishments. (Read the full review here.) —Tim Grierson
23. Far From the Madding Crowd
Try not to judge Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd as a product of Dogme, the Dutch-born filmmaking movement that Vinterberg co-founded with career bad-boy Lars von Trier in 1995. A Victorian-age romance yarn about female independence that honors the law of Chekhov’s gun seems a poor fit for a philosophy created in the pursuit of cinematic purity. But Far From the Madding Crowd isn’t a Dogme film. It’s a latter-day Thomas Vinterberg film, and a damn good one at that. Vinterberg is best-loved for his excellent 2012 film The Hunt, a story of communal insularity and the fracturing effect a lie can have on the body politic. With Far From the Madding Crowd, he again studies the effects of rumors and murmurs on a person’s reputation, but that element is less prominent in Hardy’s novel than his profound examination of feminine will. (Read the full review here.) —A.C.
22. Song One
In her first major role since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Les Misérables, Anne Hathaway gets back in touch with her indie side for Song One, a modest but affecting drama that finds her delivering a gentle performance that contains none of the melodramatic fireworks of Fantine. Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s feature debut about a woman reconnecting with her brother through his songwriting idol has a delicate, melancholy tone that’s fragile but strong enough to sustain this minor-key tale. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.
21. Infinitely Polar Bear
Filled with feeling but also a little too lighthearted for its own good, Infinitely Polar Bear does much to make you like it, but maybe a harsher perspective would have helped. Playing a manic-depressive father who has to care for his two young girls, Mark Ruffalo mostly cuts through standard disease-of-the-week platitudes. But writer-director Maya Forbes’s gentle drama frustratingly stays on the surface of the issues that engage it. Still, Forbes’s affection for these characters rubs off on the viewer. The film doesn’t bear the sting of poverty that fills every frame of a Sunlight Jr., but it’s wise about the rather remarkable age this family was living through. Unknowingly, the Stuarts are gender-role trailblazers, boasting a mother who will be the main breadwinner and a father who stays at home with the kids. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.
20. I’ll See You in My Dreams
Picture this: You’ve been on your own for decades following the death of your spouse, your friends are all mostly enshrined in retirement community living and you’ve just been told that you have to put your pooch to sleep. In a less thoughtful movie, you’d be expected to fall into a traditional romance with a perfect stranger and validate your existence anew through wholesome late-stage monogamy. But Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams has insight and empathy to spare, which combine with its casts considerable charms—especially those of Haley’s star, Blythe Danner—to make his film altogether different from other fare of its sort. Danner’s happily independent widow falls into a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr) and into courtship with the never-more-dashing Sam Elliot, but I’ll See You in My Dreams doesn’t condescend to its characters (or its viewers). Instead, it offers an organic, non-judgmental portrait of one woman choosing to reconnect with life. —A.C.
19. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson’s film avoids easy categorization. Through a series of vignettes—some connected, some not—we see snippets of life. Andersson fixes his camera in one spot and the action plays out in front of us: a group of older siblings tries to convince their dying sister not to take her handbag with her to Heaven, a bar of anonymous drinkers suddenly becomes a chorus, a woman in a dance troupe longs for her disinterested male cohort. And there are two stories that have subsequent episodes, including one featuring a couple of salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) who specialize in novelty joke items like fake vampire teeth.
The specifics of what happens in these vignettes is less important than precisely how they’re constructed. Because of Andersson’s locked-down camera, each scene is comically static, like little skits of human behavior in which all the actors (most of them non-professionals) barely show any expression at all. (Adding to the theatricality and surreal oddness of the characters, Andersson puts white makeup on his performers, making them look like they’ve been drained of their vital fluids.) With no cuts and often incorporating exceptionally understated choreography within the frame, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a wonder to behold on formal terms: Andersson creates deceptively low-key movies that are actually quite visually and thematically sophisticated. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.
18. It Follows
The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film, but it’s there, and it feels like Metro Detroit. It Follows is a film that thrives in the borders, not so much about the horror that leaps out in front of you, but the deeper anxiety that waits at the verge of consciousness—until, one day soon, it’s there, reminding you that your time is limited, and that you will never be safe. Forget the risks of teenage sex, It Follows is a penetrating metaphor for growing up. (Read the full review here.) —Dom Sinacola
17. Seymour: An Introduction
You could be excused for assuming that the documentary Seymour: An Introduction was just a vanity project for director Ethan Hawke, who has the means and the name to engage in such thing. But if you assumed that, you’d be missing quite a powerful film. Hawke first met composer, pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein at a dinner party, and was immediately taken with him, as viewers will be, as well. As he began spending more time with the octogenarian, he became more and more taken not only with his life story, but also with his views of art and of life well lived. Seymour: An Introduction turns out to be part biopic, part artistic musing and part late-night “meaning of life” discussion, and Hawke shows a deft touch in balancing the three. He takes a remarkable individual who’s influenced his life and thinking, and shares him with the rest of us. It’s a generous—and a moving—piece of filmmaking. —Michael Dunaway
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest feature opens with onscreen definitions of its title, Dope, referencing 1. drugs; 2. a stupid person; or 3. cool and very good, respectively. A critical and audience favorite from this year’s Sundance Film Fest, Famuyiwa’s frenetic mashup of twisted cautionary tale-meets-comedy caper touches upon all three definitions. Despite jarring shifts in tone, the film deftly raises important issues about socioeconomics and race in America without sermonizing its audience. This isn’t a straight-up, feel-good comedy—drugs and gangs aren’t easy comic fodder—but Dope satirizes preconceived notions of race and culture, and Famuyiwa keeps things entertaining while still posing hard-hitting questions to the characters and audience. (Read the full review here.) —Christine N. Ziemba
It’s tempting to view Iris as a vanity project. Iris and director Albert Maysles were chums, and the outside sense one gets when either watching or merely reading about the film is that the latter decided to make a movie about the former for fun. If we accept this perspective then it’s very, very hard to earnestly hold Maysles’ indulgence against him; you would make a movie about Iris Apfel if you were buddy-buddy with her, too. She’s one of a kind. But Iris is about a lot more than one person making a flattering commemoration to another. It’s about observing a life lived (and still being lived) fully, and even that nifty summation doesn’t quite manage to dig out the alternatingly droll and piquant wisdom Iris has to offer every single person with whom she interacts. In one scene, an interviewer praises Iris for stepping outside of the box with her eclectic style. Iris’s reply feels like the lede of her personal manifesto: “If you’re just going to sit there and do the same damn thing all the time, you might as well jump into the box yourself.” (Read the full review here.) —A.C.
In his latest feature, the breathtaking Jauja, Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso demonstrates that he is the rare filmmaker who trusts his audience enough to winnow his films down to the bone. As he’s admitted, even he doesn’t know what’s really going on in this film. Here is a new stretch of undiscovered country, he asserts—let’s explore it together. And so, as he has done in the past, especially with his “Lonely Man Trilogy” (La libertad, Los muertos and Liverpool), Alonso patiently watches as a man, physically and psychologically alone, traverses a vaguely apocalyptic landscape, heading further and further into the middle of nowhere. His journey is as absurd as it is directionless, and before long, Alonso’s abandoned all pretense of this guy ever finding what he’s looking for, let alone a relief to the ever-building psychosis that must be accompanying him as he digs in his heels and ventures further into the unknown. (Read the full review here.) —D.S.
13. The Duke of Burgundy
Even the kinkiest couples have to work to keep the spark alive. That’s the message at the heart of the hypnotic, erotic The Duke of Burgundy, which weaves quite a spell out of repetition and mystery. A midnight movie for the smart set, the latest from up-and-coming filmmaker Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is a beautiful puzzle. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.