As of last week, we are halfway through 2015. As usual, most of the year’s “prestige” movies aren’t out yet, but that doesn’t mean that the past six months didn’t have some terrific films. To make sure they aren’t forgotten come year-end-list time, Grierson & Leitch today present our favorite movies of the first half of 2015. Here’s our Top 12, with six from each of us.
Eden: Filmmaker Olivier Assayas received strong reviews this year for the deft Clouds of Sils Maria, starring Juliette Binoche and a sneakily terrific Kristen Stewart. All the same, I prefer his wife’s film. Director Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love) drew from her brother’s memories of being a DJ during France’s 1990s dance-music scene to make a meditative drama about an aspiring DJ (Félix de Givry) navigating the highs and lows of the music biz. A bittersweet spiritual cousin to Inside Llewyn Davis, Eden asks hard questions about the risks inherent in reaching for your artistic dreams, lamenting all the could-have-beens forgotten by history. Like the techno on the soundtrack, Eden is both euphoric and deeply melancholy.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: The best courtroom drama in forever, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is powered by a maddening legal quirk: In Israel, married couples can only get divorced if an Orthodox rabbi allows it and the husband consents. Filmmakers Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz chronicle one case in which the husband refuses, following as Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) stands trial over a series of years trying to convince her rabbi judges to separate her from her stubborn, vindictive husband (Simon Abkarian). Ranging from pitch-perfect Kafkaesque absurdist comedy to devastating social drama, Gett has the crisp pacing and close quarters of a crackling play, but the filmmakers’ subtle camera angles and brilliant dramatization of the passage of time give the material a cinematic power. Gett’s claustrophobic tension works on you like a vice.
Inside Out: For the first time since 2008’s Wall-E, Pixar has released a movie that rivals anything else at the summer multiplex. For all the talk about how Inside Out makes audiences cry, there hasn’t been enough conversation about why this movie hits us so hard. In part, it’s because director Pete Docter’s journey inside the head of a precocious, deeply sweet young girl taps into those ineffable, still-potent childhood memories that we’ve all got bubbling up inside us, just waiting to be strummed by a random bit of stimulus. For as funny as Inside Out is, it’s also very sad and very wise about the ways that we all try to legislate our emotions, blocking out the negative ones in the hopes that we can somehow crush them forever. It doesn’t work for Joy (voiced beautifully by Amy Poehler), so what chance do the rest of us have?
Timbuktu: A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Timbuktu is set in and around the titular West African city, which has been taken over by Jihadists who have clamped down on individual freedoms and spread terror throughout the region. Inspired by 2012 events in the area, director Abderrahmane Sissako’s drama isn’t some pious call for social change nor is it a rousing revenge movie where the good guys drive the baddies out of town. Instead, it’s a quiet, clear-eyed look at how thugs can oppress communities, these brutes’ idiocy and hypocrisy both humorous and enraging.
The Tribe: Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s feature debut would have piqued cinephiles’ interest on novelty alone: a dark drama about a school for the deaf that includes no subtitles. But the really remarkable thing about The Tribe is how engrossing its central conceit is, Slaboshpitsky and his young deaf cast immersing us in a world that’s even crueler than The Lord of the Flies and bleaker than the misanthropic nightmares dreamed up by Michael Haneke. The Tribe incorporates skillful long takes and unsavory human behavior to examine the danger of herd mentality, reminding us that bullies can come from anywhere and be provoked to act in horrific, unimaginable ways.
White God: Putting aside the other accomplishments of Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s drama, White God is an astounding, subtle technical achievement. A story of a young girl separated from her beloved dog, the film eventually morphs into a Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style thriller in which a collection of canines rise up against their human masters with terrifying results. But what’s astounding is how Mundruczó, working with veteran animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller, elicits such incredible performances from the two dogs that play the girl’s loyal pooch. In an era of wall-to-wall CG, White God’s real-life dogs have been one of 2015’s best special effects, giving this cautionary tale extra levels of empathy and savagery.
Ex Machina: Inventive and challenging without ever forgetting to entertain, Ex Machina is smart artificial-intelligence science fiction at its absolute best. Writer-director Alex Garland is able to approach a familiar topic in an entirely new way, turning what could have been a theoretical exercise into something approaching a twisted, terrifying love triangle ... that turns out to be the exact opposite of that. It also helps that it’s anchored by a fantastic, fascinating lead performance from Oscar Isaac, who has almost instantly become the most compelling young actor working. Plus, you know, he can dance a little:
It Follows: One of the more enjoyable aspects of the recent surge of low-budget horror films is the license it has given young, ambitious filmmakers to experiment. The premise of It Follows sounds awful: Some sort of evil spirit is passed on through sex, and the only way to get rid of it is to give it to somebody else. But in the hands of David Robert Mitchell, who made the actually sort-of similar teen drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, it becomes an artful-but-still-terrifying metaphor for the alien world of adulthood, that sense you have as a teen that the world is out to get you, from all directions, and no one is going to help you. Mitchell never falls prey to obvious horror-film cliches yet still makes sure to scare the piss out of you.
Mad Max: Fury Road: We’ve been over this already, but when you do get around to seeing this again, you’ll be surprised by how much is going on between the margins, things you missed in all the nonstop lunacy the first time around. More than just a feminist parable, at certain moments, it can feel like a mournful ode to loss, the pain always bubbling just below the surface. But you can ignore all that if you want and lose your goddamned shit. That is also perfectly acceptable.
The Nightmare: This documentary from director Rodney Ascher is similar to his first film, Room 237, which let various obsessives describe what they believe Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is really about, in that it also stares unblinkingly at a phenomenon without much tipping its hand. But this one is far more sympathetic to its subjects, all of whom (like Ascher) suffer from “sleep paralysis,” a condition that causes horrific visions on the sufferer when they are in a strange state of half-awake, half-asleep and cannot move. And it’s unerring in how it puts us in their position, making us feel their terror in palpable, convulsive ways. Do not watch this before bed.
Timbuktu: A quietly furious look at what happens to a devout Muslim community in Mali when a ISIS-affiliated fundamentalist group takes over and imposes Sharia law. The movie makes sure to never forget that these are all people, stupid, flawed people; the banality of evil is so prevalent here that you’ll occasionally laugh just to keep from cry. But you will cry, because the film never looks away from the venality at its core. The film sees all of these people as human beings, which makes what happens to them, and what they do for themselves while justifying it as Allah’s way, absolutely devastating.
Wild Tales: Six short films, one after another, all revolving around men (and one woman) reacting to perceived injustice with volcanic, deranged, glorious rage. As with any anthology film, some segments are stronger than others. My favorites: A stunner of an opener with an unnamed protagonist taking care of all those who have offended him in one fell swoop; a bride discovering on her wedding day the extent of her husband’s deception and reacting in a shocking, brutally hilarious way; and, mostly, a road rage incident where the stakes keep getting raised, for reasons neither one of the participants can entirely grasp or understand. Deliriously unhinged and uproarious, it’ll make you feel wretched about the world around you ... but you’ll be having too much fun to care.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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