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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
If you’ve ever strolled down a bustling metropolitan city sidewalk, you’ve probably caught glimpses of homelessness in the corner of your eye. Maybe you’ve noticed sleeping bags nestled in doorways and highway underpasses; heard panhandlers beseeching passersby for change; walked swiftly past long queues outside of overcrowded shelters. Rather than discretely observe these folks while pretending not to, Josh and Benny Safdie want us to stare them in the face. In Heaven Knows What, they treat the sheltered masses as part of their backdrop for a tale of lives lived moment to moment. And what they accomplish strikes with startling clarity. (Read the full review here.) —A.C.
Despite its limitations, the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an honorable attempt to restore the gunk, anger and volume to Nirvana’s legacy—and to Cobain’s as well. Dead at 27—the same age when Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison died—the songwriter-guitarist is remembered as a talented, troubled stalwart, but The Kid Stays in the Picture director Brett Morgen wants us to look closer at Cobain, and what Montage of Heck reveals isn’t all that pretty. A junkie, a pain in the ass, an inveterate malcontent: This is the Cobain we see in Morgen’s documentary. Yet, by emphasizing the messy, ugly humanness of his subject, Morgen manages to make him heroic and tragic, too. Though Montage of Heck is undoubtedly geared to fans, it gives fans reason to be grateful for this guy and this band all over again. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.
Spy marks Melissa McCarthy’s third effort with director Paul Feig, following Bridesmaids and The Heat, and the two keep their streak a winning one: Spy manages to be funny, thrilling and empowering all at once. The film is a violent action-comedy that never once takes itself too seriously, and yet has a lot of serious commentary throughout all of its whimsy about just how powerful any woman can be when given the same resources and consideration as any other male. (Read the full review here.) —Andy Herren
It’d be easy to forgive Timbuktu if it milked its subject matter for as much grandiose emotion as possible. After all, there’s plenty to get worked up about when examining the atrocities that Islamic jihadists committed while occupying North African villages. But director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness) takes a more deadpan approach, dismantling the extremist ideology with sharp observations and clever juxtapositions. By exposing the human element behind it, Sissako creates a deeper sense of the ordinary people behind the horrific events. No matter how terrifying the moment of history, someone behind it probably just wanted to sneak away for a cigarette, whether smoking was forbidden or not. (Read the full review here.) —Jeremy Mathews
There is a curious, oft times transcendent harmony to the dissonance at the heart of Love & Mercy. In taking a page from his subject’s life and music, director Bill Pohlad (best known for producing credits like 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild) largely rejects sentimentality in chronicling a reluctant pop star who wants to craft something more than shiny, happy hooks. (In one scene, Wilson argues the Beach Boys’ true “surfer” cred with his bandmates, knowing better.) Sure, that’s kind of the story—at least on the surface—but his approach unearths the layers of Wilson’s genius and torment. Seemingly straightforward classics like “In My Room” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” take on new meaning as the extent of his struggles come into devastating focus. (Read the full review here.) —Amanda Schurr
Try naming a modern blockbuster that has as much chutzpah as Mad Max: Fury Road. You can’t, because there isn’t one. This is what happens when you lay out all your crazy on the screen at once: glorious, crackling entertainment. What’s more, Mad Max: Fury Road is an inclusive effort that invites us to join its heroes in breaking down gender dichotomies. George Miller has made a phenomenal action film with a righteous cause, a movie that layers smart commentary atop jaw-dropping set pieces. May he ride eternal, shiny and chrome. (Read the full review here.) —A.C.
When Pixar is at its best, the studio’s films aren’t just massively entertaining and wonderfully funny—they’re almost piercingly emotional, touching on universal sentiments with such clarity, such honesty you feel they’re speaking directly to you, and you alone. (This may be why people’s favorite Pixar films are so fiercely defended: We take these movies personally.) Inside Out may be the best Pixar has released in a while, especially after a string of disappointing and underwhelming efforts, but what’s most cheering about the film—and most like Pixar’s celebrated classics—is that it’s so emotionally astute. You cry because it makes you happy, and you cry because it makes you sad, and you cry because it’s all true. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: that if given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always.
Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to Her—Ex Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast. (Read the full review here.) —Jonah Flicker
Mia Hansen-Love’s dance music-fueled drama Eden is an intimate film. A fictionalized depiction of the early days and evolution of the “French touch” sound of electronic music in the mid-1990s, the story is inspired by her younger brother, Sven, who dreamed of becoming a DJ and also co-wrote the script. In the way Eden follows Paul, it aims to be true to life; a big career triumph, or what feels like a horrific defeat at the moment, is rarely the end of the story. (Read the full review here.) —Brent McKnight
One of the year’s most unheralded acting performances belongs to Ronit Elkabetz, the co-director and star of Gett. In this endlessly fascinating courtroom procedural, she plays Viviane Amsalem, an Israeli woman slowly driven insane as she’s desperate to be divorced from her apathetic, unloving husband (Simon Abkarian). There’s a snag, though: In her country, a divorce must be granted by a rabbi and the spouse. A satire of cultural mores that doubles as an angry invective against gender inequality, Ronit and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz’s film develops into a slowly suffocating and very human thriller. Which makes it all the more surprising how darkly funny the damn thing is, as well. —T.G.
Somewhere between a silent film and a staging of the Stations of the Cross as if masterminded by Jacques Tati, The Tribe feels like the primordial beginnings of something spectacular. This isn’t to say that it comes off as unfinished, or the work of an amateur finding his footing—instead, Ukrainian writer and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has crafted a debut that breathes with preternatural beauty. Operating on a nearly subconscious level, with a mind for something unspeakably visceral, The Tribe is, in other words, an indelible film. Full of sadness and stubbornness and a kind of cosmic anger, it seeks abandon through destruction, starting with humanity’s first and best crutch: language. (Read the full review here.) —D.S.
In the first five minutes of White God, viewers are greeted by two striking images. In the first, a teenage girl pedals vigorously through the middle of an empty city street, a fleet of dogs furiously chasing after her. In the other, a cow carcass is dispassionately stripped and gutted in preparation to be examined by a meat inspector. More indelible moments await in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s social parable, but these early scenes hint at everything that’s to come. White God isn’t the first film to suggest that humanity’s cruel treatment of others will one day come back to haunt us—but it certainly makes its point with potent force. (Read the full review here.) —T.G.