Justin Gerber (JG): Bill Watterson said it best: “It’s a cruel season that makes you get ready for bed while it’s light out.” On a clear summer day in Chicago, it can stay light out until nine in the evening. All we want to do is stay up and head out for as long as the weather will permit, finding the occasional break in an air-conditioned theater where we can enjoy the best Hollywood has to offer. Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t had a lot to offer us in 2015, and it’s half over.
That doesn’t mean big studio pictures haven’t delivered at all. In this list, you’ll find a few big-budget tentpole films that lived up to or even surpassed our expectations. However, most movies that made the early cut have not yet received a wide release. Fear not. In the next few months, most of these will make their way to a theater near you or, at the very least, an OnDemand channel in your own house. It won’t matter whether the sun sets at five or nine. You’ll want to get indoors to check out this solid selection of the best 2015 has had to offer from January through June.
We’re going to begin with a roundtable discussing the past six months in film, movies each of us personally enjoyed but didn’t make the cut, and will then cap it off with what we think are the 10 best films of 2015 so far. I’d like to lead off with this: We’re used to the early months of the year acting as a dumping ground for movies that studios are trying to get rid of. Unfortunately, the summer movie season has also been lacking in quality for the most part, box office numbers be damned. With that in mind, what is your take on the year so far?
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DS): The thing I noticed when putting a list together was that there have been a handful of substantially excellent, noteworthy films this year. They’ve just been surrounded by a preponderance of shit of varied viscosities. The post-Oscar season is always unkind to the arthouse circuit, and “dump month” was especially dumpy this year. When we as an editorial staff had to have a very serious discussion about whether Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 was among the biggest April releases, that’s a rough movie year. The most interesting thing that happened, film-wise, over the first two months of this year was Fifty Shades of Grey, a film that shattered records and inspired a million thinkpieces and, four months later, seems to have been collectively forgotten until the next installment.
I actually think that’s pretty telling about what the “problem,” such as it might be, is with 2015’s film crop so far. We’re now knee-deep in film’s “universe” generation, when virtually any mainstream studio property that costs any notable amount of money is being made with the immediate goal of sequels and spin-offs in mind. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Furious 7, but let’s not be naive about the fact that it’s also a movie designed to keep the wheels turning (heh) at Universal; combine that with Jurassic World, and that studio’s having a pretty great year for billion-dollar properties. A lot of the films that made our list don’t really fit into that mold; shockingly, a gaggle of film critics liked a fair number of small releases more than their oversized counterparts.
But what’s been interesting is how a lot of the most hotly debated properties this year so far have been, well, unremarkable. This isn’t necessarily a judgment of quality, as much as it can avoid being one anyway, but a marker of how homogenous big-ticket production is becoming. It’s not as though Jurassic World was an egregious failure on the level of, say, Catwoman, but a majority of the staff left with the impression of a totally average movie. Same goes for a lot of what’s come out this summer thus far, hit or flop: Age of Ultron, Tomorrowland, San Andreas.
The closest thing to a truly outsized bomb was Jupiter Ascending, and even that’s a movie that’s more baffling than it’s a truly memorable failure. (Your mileage may vary, but I’m a staunch Wachowskis apologist, for my sins.) We’re in a new blockbuster age now, where the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. And if this time last year we were talking about which movies might be the likeliest to bring down a studio, well, so far the doomsayers have been proven wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the tides won’t turn soon; I’m still convinced they will.
Blake Goble (BG): You hear that Disney’s going to have to take something like a $150 million write-off on Tomorrowland? Warner pretty much cut the cord between themselves and the Wachowskis after Jupiter Ascending, and they’ve retreated to Netflix with that new age spiritual sci-fi stuff. But Dom, I’m glad somebody (you) got joy from space lizard people and Eddie Redmayne in a vampire cape. Okay, that was mean, but I make this dig all the time: properties and big budgets only make for more headaches; studios could stand to simplify their sci-fi. Their anything, really.
Hello, Ex Machina! Mind you, this film is simple in the sense that it’s a small-scale production with nominal effects. There are no kabooms, battles, or set pieces — nope, just a house; internal, ethical, logical battles; and a few well-placed narrative shocks. It had grand ideas about modern technological innovations, with a high focus on the singularity and Turing tests, but it was able to use its words so vivaciously and viscerally.
The small stuff is just easier to succeed with, and more rewarding. Some of the best films so far this year, on our list at least, were decidedly minute (although don’t let Inside Out’s $175 million budget fool you; Pixar’s just good at its job). By having more concise concepts and themes, movies like Francois Ozon’s The New Girlfriend could show us the universe of emotions between two people understanding gender. Albert Maysles’ final documentary, Iris, was able to flourish by focusing on an eccentric genius. Same could be said of Bill Pohlad’s moving biopic, Love & Mercy.
By zeroing in on the inner workings and monologues of individual people and their feelings, the best stuff came to screen. Even Spy prospered greatly because we were able to follow and care about Melissa McCarthy’s evolution and action revolution in that movie. Come to think of it, the best movies so far this year had a strong focal point, usually with real character development. What in the hell was any Avenger at any time feeling in that movie? What was Paul Blart’s motivation besides trying to kill me? Yes, I mean that literally.
Michael Roffman (MR): Watching the box office receipts and the positive reviews for Jurassic World pour in crushed my soul. It’s further proof that filmgoers really do want to check their brain at the door and that brainless blockbusters might be the only way to get major audiences into theaters anymore. But really, and this will sound crass on my behalf, I was more disappointed with critics than anyone else. So many heroes of mine were crumpling up their expulsion notices and giving hall passes to Colin Trevorrow’s mess of a sequel under the guise that it’s just dumb fun. Is that really an excuse anymore?
Writer Matt Singer put it best last week in his editorial for Screen Crush titled “Stop Telling Me to Turn My Brain Off at Movies”. “The only argument I automatically reject on principle is ‘turn off your brain.’ If the only way to enjoy something is to turn your brain off, then it probably isn’t very good,” he writes, extolling on the asinine writing and plotting of Jurassic World. He concludes, “We should demand more from films. Instead of asking viewers to turn their brains off, how about we ask the people who make these things to turn their brains on?” Perhaps that’s easier said than done.
Granted, summer blockbusters have been “dumb fun” for decades, but the ones we typically remember best had some ingenuity or signature craft to them at the very least. To borrow a word from Blake, the blockbusters today capitalize too much on the “kaboom,” which is why so many likely left that Avengers sequel scrambling for Valium or Midol. Or, simply avoided it altogether. What’s worse, the “kaboom” is typically linked to several other “kaboom”s, as Justin Gerber lamented in his recent op-ed, “Franchise Storytelling Must Be Stopped”, which brushes on the nagging corporatization of filmmaking.
That’s why Mad Max: Fury Road was such a relief. It was smart, but also free from the shackles of any franchise despite being, yes, a sequel some 20-something years in the making. Not once does that film feel the need to berate its audiences with exhaustive exposition or campaign action figures or Hallmark drama. It’s a rugged action-adventure that knows what it is and attempts first and foremost to be a great film. (It also looked real, which apparently has become something of a demand these days.) In some respects, it was a marketing nightmare: a post-apocalyptic hell where ruthless men are taken down by the very women they’re attempting to ravage and imprison. You could almost hear the suits shivering.
Outside of Max, the real hope, I’ve discovered, lies in film festivals. Similar to the music industry, it would appear that the film festival has become this de facto savior for legitimate, cutthroat filmmaking. For one, they can anchor the festivals with Big Movies and surround them with what producers might consider “experiments.” Looking at my own top 10, the majority of them all come from either Sundance or South by Southwest or the Chicago Critics Film Festival. And thank god it appears that many of them are going to have a life beyond those exclusive screenings.
Okay, I think I’ve ranted enough for now…
Rebecca Bulnes (RB): The thing that really frustrates me about the escapist mentality of “turning your brain off” at the movies is that it almost assumes it’s hard work to enjoy a non-Jurassic World-type summer film. As if the general public won’t survive as moviegoers without the comfort of a carefully quilted franchise blanket to hold on to. It’s like great, subversive festival flicks are some dark and ominous forest, and summer blockbusters are the breadcrumbs to lead an audience back to what is known and what is deemed “fun.” It seems to imply that what is “different” and what is “smart” is for a select audience, like the mainstream doesn’t need or want that deep down.
But different doesn’t always mean alienating. It’s not like festival films are exclusively for ex-film students or obsessive journalists like us. They’re not shrouded in overly artistic statements, don’t reach for some unattainable goal that a mainstream audience just wouldn’t be able to grasp. And who’s to say that they can’t be fun! Just look at The Overnight! I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun in a theater as when I got to see that film. I left the Chicago Critics Festival beaming, telling everyone I know to see that damn movie when it comes out or so help me god.
It quickly became tied with Mad Max: Fury Road as my favorite movie thus far. And what do these two entirely different films have in common? It’s their complete accessibility and their ability to cause on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement without selling out. Sure, Mad Max had the budget to create a thrilling, fast-paced world, but it also had the brains to make a statement that wasn’t cloaked in so much subtlety that it was lost in the process. The Overnight, on the other hand, had a low-budget sensibility but a comedic cast and a script to keep anyone engaged and excited (not just some elitist film critic).
I think the mainstream audience is ready for films like The Overnight to be a hit; they just don’t know it yet. It’s already happening with original online streaming TV shows via Netflix, Yahoo Screen, etc. We love those shows because they have the freedom to be who they are without the bonds of a cable network. This year proves that the same mentality needs to be shifted to big studios on the big screen — our movie watching lives will be better for it. We don’t need to be coddled by franchises anymore, and there’s a reason so many indie filmmakers are moving to TV. We need to treat the movie theater like our Netflix queue, and we need money-gobbling studios to step aside or open up. They’ve had their time, and things are changing for the better if you look in the right places.
Randall Colburn (RC): I’ve had a lot of fun at the movies this year: Mad Max: Fury Road, It Follows, and especially Furious 7 got me lost in all the ways movies are supposed to. Furious 7 was a particular delight, as it found new, insane ways to propel the series past its douchey drag race roots; I can’t stress this enough: if you’re not watching the Furious series because the early ones suck, get over it and watch Fast Five. This series is the best, not to mention most culturally diverse, thing currently coming out of Hollywood. Sorry ’bout it.
Honestly, though, some of the best movies I’ve seen this year have been under-the-radar documentaries. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief both offered penetrating glimpses into larger-than-life subjects, while The Wolfpack cast a light on the type of family unit that’s never explored – honestly, at least – with depth and compassion. Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted documentary had a lingering impact on me, even if its portrayal of the amateur porn industry is aggressively one-sided.
Then there’s the Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which, by virtue of its insane plot twists and candid interviews with Stanley himself, turned out to be one of the most fun viewing experiences I had all year. Lost Soul was clearly made on a shoestring, but when you’ve got a story like this, some solid interviews and a bit of archival footage is all you need.
Finally, and I’m disagreeing with this very site’s scathing review, but I absolutely loved Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare. A documentary about people who suffer from sleep paralysis, The Nightmare aims to convey the fear and helplessness of its subjects by recreating their stories with horror movie trappings: tense builds, jump scares, and terrifying squeals of sound. Both here and in Room 237, his documentary about The Shining conspiracy theories, Ascher abandons psychology, science, and judgment to allow his subjects to speak entirely for themselves. His movies aren’t about phenomenons so much as they are the way people choose to process them. In his own way, he’s one of the most humane documentarians working today.
And I’ve yet to see Call Me Lucky, one of our top films of the year. It’s a banner year for real stories.
Don R. Lewis (DL): I think the thing that’s jumped out at me in terms of the mediocrity of 2015’s films so far has kind of been alluded to above, but not really teased out. What’s frustrating is that since we’re in summer, it’s “brainless blockbuster season.” After that, it’s all the “good” films for Awards Season. Why does there have to be a regulated “season” for movies? It makes no sense, and I feel it’s an antiquated idea.
Last year, Wes Anderson dropped The Grand Budapest Hotel in March, and it did great. Probably because for some reason February-April is “Shitty Movie Dumped in Theaters Season,” and, believe it or not, some people would rather go and see a good movie during that time frame than choose a lesser of two evils just to go to the movies. Not only did Budapest do well at the box office, but it also snagged a few Oscar noms almost a year later. Basically, Budapest puts the kibosh on this idiotic, studio-created “season” for movies. But did it change anything for this year? Nope.
Obviously, I’m a little frustrated by all this as an avid moviegoer who likes to actually go to the movies. I’m by no means against VOD, but I also don’t see why some higher-end VOD stuff can’t take a shot at being in theaters during the doldrums of spring. As Blake pointed out above, one of the strengths of Ex Machina was that audiences were willing to take a chance on it because the other choices were Paul Blart and stuff like The Duff.
I would argue the same for Mad Max: Fury Road. There was zero competition. Grown-ups wanted to go to the movies, and they took a chance, and everyone was rewarded. Here’s hoping more studios take chances and turn “Shitty Movie Dumped in Theaters Season” into “Here’s a Great Movie We Are Scared Will Flop So We’ll Let You Decide Season.”
JG: I’d like to piggyback off of Randall’s comment about this year’s documentaries. While we can understandably mourn the death of the blockbuster (have I gone too far here?), this year continues a resurgence in documentary filmmaking. Most people I know watch Netflix not only for their TV shows, but also for their documentaries. People are becoming more engaged with the past not for nostalgic purposes, but out of curiosity for things they forgot or don’t yet know. That our upcoming list (right around the corner, I assure you) features two such movies speaks volumes.
Two other strong docs that just missed the cut are the Scientology expose Going Clear and National Lampoon retrospect Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, two outstanding pieces of work about faith and comedy, respectively. In his dual review with Blake, Dom wrote of Going Clear: “If nothing else, the film accomplishes its seeming main goal: to get people talking. I’ve heard more discussion from people now terrified of Scientology and enraged by its apparent billions of dollars in slush fund holdings than ever before, more than even when that Cruise video leaked or he jumped on Oprah’s couch.” In his review of Drunk Stoned, Mike wrote that while the doc is full of humor, “it’s also a poignant documentary for a time when nostalgia runs rampant, satire’s under fire, and comedy’s experiencing its own renaissance.”
One movie certain to polarize audiences this year is Rick Alverson’s Entertainment, a pummeling look at The Comedian (Gregg Turkington’s Neil Hamburger) and his soulless trek through a comedy circuit in western America. Much like Alverson’s previous film The Comedy was labelled as anti-comedy, his new film can be seen as anti-entertainment. You may not enjoy the action that takes place in one man’s purgatory/Hell, but you may be fascinated by it. I’m definitely in the latter camp. Brutal.
MR: Oh, that was definitely a hard watch towards the end there at Sundance. I recall stepping out of Joe Swanberg’s fantastically optimistic Digging for Fire feeling rejuvenated and alive, only to be crushed by Alverson’s existential dread shortly after. It’s a remarkable work of art in the sense that one does feel the proverbial nail slide slowly into their cranium as they watch The Comedian drive his jalopy from one depressing gig after another. Turkington’s performance is something uncanny and just knowing that both he and Heidecker can deliver these kinds of performances, especially outside of their trademark Adult Swim personalities, is pretty powerful stuff. Whether they continue down that path in the future is anyone’s guess.
A few other films we haven’t acknowledged yet that really caught my mind (and still do) were Eskil Vogt’s surrealist drama Blind, Rick Famuyiwa’s hood comedy Dope, and James C. Strouse’s charming indie comedy People Places Things. What I loved about Blind was how Vogt broached a terrifying disability without ever feeling compelled to tug at the heartstrings; instead, the Norwegian filmmaker simply allowed the protagonist’s own fears and insecurities to bubble up and naturally frame the inherent struggles within. It’s a really gorgeous film that had me dwell on my own relationships and fears in ways I’ve never thought before. As for Dope and People, the two comedies offer fresh spins on dated genres, and they’re most satisfactory.
Now, if I could only just get through this barren wasteland called summer.
Brian Welk: We talked about how there’s a firm Awards Season where all the Oscar bait and prestige titles get crowded in the back quarter of the year, but what’s clear to me from all the movies people have praised and bemoaned so far this year is that the crop of sequels and blockbusters destined to become franchises is no longer exclusive to the summer. For six months already, we’ve been wading through movies designed for people to turn their brains off in search of the more cerebral studio fare and the indie and festival darlings. Every year, we manage to find more than enough movies that convince us the year has been a strong one for film, and looking at this crop of 10, I feel we’re headed in that direction, but it keeps getting harder.
What gives me hope is that many of the best movies of the year have succeeded outside of the Hollywood hype machine and become hits based on that old term we used to call “word of mouth.” Mad Max was billed as one of those summer spectacles, but it had a meager original haul and opened behind Pitch Perfect 2 and only over time became one of the year’s box office juggernauts. Love & Mercy has looked very strong commercially over the last few weeks, despite only being in a few hundred theaters, and it might not be out of the question to consider an Oscar nod for Paul Dano or John Cusack.
It Follows didn’t exactly make the money of other lesser horror films this year like Poltergeist or The Lazarus Effect, but damn if that movie isn’t one people are talking about. And Ex Machina still has a meager box office take compared to Jurassic World, but that little indie has made a star out of Alicia Vikander and been a good way for sci-fi fans to voice their approval of the genre. If only the same could’ve been said for the underrated Tomorrowland.
I’m still betting that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will be a sleeper, monster hit, but I’m also confident this halfway point list will look very different come the end of the year.
BG: Brian, I’m still tinkering with my top 10 from last year, if only because I finally saw Godard’s wonder experiment Goodbye to Language 3D last January. The lists are good, the lists are life, but goodness are they constantly evolving (like my opinions … more on that in six months?).
I’m gonna be real here, though, and admit that I think the last three months of every year are always the most wonderful of times. There have been stunners so far in 2015, as this list certainly proves, but a lot of attractive fare starts rolling around October and November.
Like, that new Ridley Scott film, The Martian, which will hopefully (doubtfully, but hopefully) put Scott back in his element. Or more mass appeal mainstays a la Robert Zemeckis (The Walk), Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), and Ron Howard (In the Heart of the Sea), who are all rolling out the goods this Fall. Or mush? Who knows.
And hey, David O. Russell’s American Hustle was my favorite flick of 2013, and even he’s back trying to accost, erm, direct Jennifer Lawrence once more in December’s Joy. Not to mention, with festival season kicking up once again in September, we’re bound to see some cool stuff come out of Toronto, New York, and Chicago relatively soon.
Regardless, I like these lists because it helps us pause and reflect on both good things to come and great things that have already come out. Perpetual euphoria I suppose.
MR: Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.
Click ahead to see our list of the 10 best films of 2015 so far…