I’ve always personally enjoyed putting together a top 10 film list at the halfway point in the year mainly because of one reason and one reason only. Because as the year churns on, especially towards Oscar season in the late fall into the end of December, I notice that a lot of people’s; especially critics’, end of the year lists mostly reflect movies that are released later in the year. It’s not their fault, it’s what we do as a society at large, we tend to focus on what’s “current” or what’s “new”, or putting it into a broader context, what’s recently been etched into our minds. I don’t mean this to be a knock on critics, moviegoers, or the industry at large. But it’s always been my view that the movies that we really admire, even if it’s been several months at the end of the year when everyone’s scrambling to showcase their end of the year lists, should be comprehensive of the year as a whole. So without further adieu, as we enter the midway point, here are the top 10 best films I’ve seen so far this year. 1) “Ex Machina”. Easily without a doubt in my mind the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s the type of film that someone like myself lives for. It straddles the line expertly between a commercial and art house film which are the exact types of films that I’ve found myself gravitating towards. Even when I put aside my partial bias being a big fan of Science Fiction films. What I like even more than any specific kind of genre is a movie that fits 3 criteria – that makes you think, feel, and lingers with you long after you’ve seen it. And “Ex Machina” is a perfect example of a film that fits all three. Featuring a stunning directorial debut by Danny Boyle scribe Alex Garland and phenomenal performances by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and the soon to be internationally recognized Alicia Vikander, this is one of the most intelligent, brainier, cerebral, psychological, and utterly original Science Fiction films I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). And come year’s end, I can say confidently it should easily land a spot in my top 2-4 films of the year. [A-] 2) “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”. In what wound up being the most highly inventive and groundbreaking spin on the vampire genre since Tomas Alfredson’s “Let The Right One In” (2008). This was an incredible film that acted as a reminder of why I love independent cinema so much. Shot in brilliant black+white cinematography by Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. It breathes new life into a regurgitated genre with a compelling story, an interesting spin on a tired out genre, along with nods to both early Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino in terms of both look and style that looks like the finished product of a collaboration of those two if they decided to do a take on the genre together. This film gave me a new-found sense and appreciation of a genre I had almost given up on, and it’s utterly remarkable for a film shot on what appeared to be a somewhat shoe-strong budget. [A-] 3) + 4) Tie: (Documentary) – “Heaven Adores You” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”. “Heaven Adores You” wound up being the ultimate tribute/swan song from one of my favorite musicians of the 1990’s, Elliott Smith, and a look into his work and career as one of the most influential musicians of his time, right alongside Kurt Cobain (I’ve always considered Smith somewhat of a more overlooked, just as talented, lesser known Cobain, who had just as much influence within the music industry). I was lucky enough to have caught this film as part of a 4-night limited engagement in one of Portland’s local area theaters (a city that at one point and still considers Smith to be one of, if not the greatest musicians to come out of it of all time). Originally from Texas, but whose career really took off when he moved to Portland, evidenced by his total record sales coming in at 75% from the city of Portland alone. This was a rather fascinating, yet authentic feeling look into the life and career of the late Smith, who struggled with heroin addiction and died at the tender young age of 34. For all of those in attendance at the limited engagement showing I saw, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the credits rolled. Truly a wonderful testament to one of the greatest musical artists of all time. [A-] What can I say about HBO Documentaries “The Jinx” other than I was hooked from the start of its first of six series episodes about one of the most wealthiest and notorious murderers that was the prime suspect in 3 major homicides, one of which he was actually proven guilty of committing, but because of being a part of one of the most richest real estate family businesses in all of New York, wound up being acquitted of all charges simply for one reason – he had money. If there was ever a documentary that showcases how a disturbed, aging man, could get away with murder, in a Capitalist society, than this was it. Equal parts fascinating, troubling, but always riveting, “The Jinx” truly highlights the fallacies within the United States justice system. And should go on to act as an artifact when people pick this up in the future and try to formulate an understanding of how United States citizens can get away with murder, only if they have the right amount of money to allow themselves to do so. [A-] 5) “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl”. In what was and is probably the greatest example of the teen coming-of-age story that I’ve seen in as far back as I can remember (the only film that even comes close to measuring up was 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and even that film seemed to pale in comparison to this one). Featuring a stand out cast of mostly unfamiliar and unknown faces and a razor-sharp (and boy do I mean razor-sharp) script with a considerable amount of nods and homages to cinema history. This wound up falling someplace within the best of the teenage, rite-of-passage films that encompasses the whimsy of say a Wes Anderson picture but with the heart and emotional resonance of something much greater. In fact, I was so emotionally invested and moved by the story and its characters, that half the time while I was watching it I was thinking about just that – what an expertly done job the filmmakers did to achieve this component. Undoubtably this year’s sleeper hit, already proving that it hit a mark with both jury members and audiences alike at this year’s Sundance film festival, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. This is a film, that once word-of-mouth spreads, people won’t be asking “have you seen” METDG but rather “why haven’t you seen” it? [B+/A-] 6) “It Follows”. This year’s best example of modern-day horror when done well. As stated in my review, this was probably the most inventive, original, and thought provoking mind fuck that I’ve seen come out of the genre since the Joss Whedon penned/Drew Goddard directed “Cabin in the Woods” (2012). It takes a wink and pays homage to the classic horror films of the late seventies and early eighties, with first time writer/director David Robert Mitchell, paying homage to something out of the John Carpenter cannon but separating it from and making something both highly unique in style and tone on its own. With an outstanding original soundtrack by Disasterpiece and a cast of relative unknowns this is the stand out horror film of 2015. And you know what they say about “It Follows” – the first rule of “It Follows” is that you do not talk about “It Follows”.[strong B+] 7) “Mad Max: Fury Road”. What a milestone achievement this film wound up being that to sum it up in a mere paragraph or or two doesn’t possibly allow myself to do it justice. From the original director of the first “Mad Max” (1979), George Miller, it’s rather refreshing new to take on a film that took its original template, attached the same writer/director as the original, tripled the budget, and upped the ante by about 100 decibels. Impressive, especially visually speaking, on so many levels, with a 2 hour run time that zips by in what felt like 20 minutes. It’s an action packed thrill ride from start to finish. Featuring Tom Hardy’s silent John Wayne type performance and Charlize Theron’s new poster girl for pro-feminist female action stars everywhere (the best imo since Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” Quadrilogy). Added into the fact that it’s a high-octane action-adventure that never allows you to breathe literally from start to finish. “Mad Max: Fury Road” might not only be the best Action film of the year, but right up there with Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” (2011) as the best Action film post-2000. [strong B+] 8) “Clouds of Sils Maria”. French writer/director Olivier Assayes’ newest film seemed to confound audiences at this past year’s Cannes Film Festival which was the jury selection as the opening night feature. This may have been the movie that surprised me the most of all of the aforementioned films listed above. It revolves around an aging actress (played by the Meryl Streep of French film Juliette Binoche) and her attempt to play the elder role in a play that launched her career several years earlier. Along with her assistant, a spellbinding performance by “Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart, who won Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Cesar awards (the French Oscars) and what’s sure to land her the same spot at next year’s Academy, plus a satirical Lindsay Lohan character played remarkably well by Chloe Grace Moretz (who lands the role that the Binoche character played as a young and up-and-coming actress several years earlier). This was a beautiful film by a legendary filmmaker that deserves a viewing for anybody interested in a gorgeously shot, well told, and impeccably acted film about aging and celebrity that felt strikingly similar to Alejandro Gonzalez’s Innaritu’s “Birdman” but with a much different approach, tone, and style. Evoking more of a somber and solitude feel to that film with some of the more breathtaking cinematography that I’ve seen so far in any film this year. [B+] 9) “Girlhood”. The second of three French films to make my top 10, from the writer/director Celine Sciamma, who quickly caught my attention with the Dardenne-esque coming-of-age tale “Tomboy” (2011) about a transgender boy. That film also happened to make my top 10 list of that year. So it really wound up being no surprise that I should be anticipating the new film by this young, 34-year old female director’s (we really need more of them). This was a stunning sophomore effort from Sciamma, who once again reinvents the rite-of-passage tale of a young black teenager on the fringes of society on the outskirts of Paris, France. A character study of sorts about a young woman showing no sign of any kind of upward mobility because of her socioeconomic status who’s raised by a domineering, incapable of parenting brother. She finds solace in a group of other young girls her age (the title in French implies “gang”, but not one in the conventional sense). It is here where she experiences as a young teenager, an almost re-awakening; a sense of worth, meaning, and purpose in her life. And it winds up being an amazing portrait and sociological story about not only youth culture in general, but particularly ones who are limited by their race and/or class. Immensely gratifying and engaging from start to finish, and much like Dee Rees’ “Pariah” (2011), it’s one of the more interesting films I’ve seen so far year this year that compelled, moved, and had me thinking days and weeks after having seen it. [B+] 10) “71”. One of the more impressive debuts and third French film of this list by filmmaker Yann Damage (I could have sworn this was a pseudonym for Jean Claude Van-Damme when I first read the name). This wound up being the strongest historical action film I’ve seen so far this year. Featuring a star making performance by who I predict to be the next big thing in Jack O’Connell, an Irish actor who was magnificent in “Starred Up” (2013) as well as Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” (2014). This was a harrowing, real life, true story, and rather brutal account of the cultural war in 1971 Belfast, Ireland during the religious riots between the Protestants and Catholics. O’Connell shines here as a British soldier sent in to mediate the riots between the two sides, only to be left behind by his own unit and in a mightily impressively shot and riveting sequence portrayed on screen which acts as a catalyst of a story that turns into a cat and mouse game as each side trails him from that point forward in the film. Drawing similarities to both Daniel Day Lewis’ “In The Name of the Father” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. This is highly compelling cinema. In a film that was one of the more underseen, overlooked, and under-appreciated and well acted historical dramas I’ve seen so far this year. One that showcases its young star Jack O’Connell as one of the youngest, most talented, and versatile actors currently working in the film industry today. [B+]
Honorable Mentions: Andrew Bujalski’s smart and quirky rom-com “Results” with Guy Pearce, “Spring”, writer/director Justin Benson’s horror follow up to the brain-twisting and inventive mind bender “Resolution” (2012), writer/director David Zellner’s “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” starring Oscar award nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi in a story that picks up where the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” left off, also the grossly and misunderstood “Chappie” (Neil Blomkamp’s follow up to both “District 9” and “Elysium”). A film that was trashed by both users and critics alike because in the humble opinion of this writer, they looked too deep into what was otherwise a surface level, not too be taken too seriously, entertaining, popcorn filled, Sci Fi film ride with its fair share of faults. As was Italian director’s “Hungry Hearts” starring Adam Driver, a film that emulated the psychological horror pictures of the sixties and seventies, particularly that Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion”. Which I personally felt like was an interesting enough and compelling story that did a great job encapsulating the paranoia, psychological films of the era in which it paid homage to.