The Top Five Films of 2015 (so far)
A musical genius, a stray dog, a female robot, a one-armed warrior and five emotions fighting in the mind of an 11-year-old girl. Of the 2015 films I’ve seen so far, those are the characters that have stood out. The staff at Keeping It Reel may not have seen all of the over 300 films released between January and June, but we have gleaned some great films from what we’ve seen. None of them are the expected franchise hits with built-in audiences that expectedly rule the box office. In fact, some of these you’ve never heard of or overlooked altogether. That’s why we’re here.
We make an annual assessment at the half-year mark and determine the Top Five of the year (so far), even though there are a handful of films we haven’t caught up with yet. The goal is to get all caught up by year’s end, but with the insane number of films released throughout the year, that’s often an unrealistic goal.
Unlike last year, which found some great films released in the first quarter, like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Under the Skin” (to name a few), most of the best films this year have come out within the last two months. This quarter we were given tired sequels like “Taken 3” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”, that were basically efforts to rake in cash earned from the previous entry, which is basically what happened unfortunately. Brendan Hodges has this to say about the releases so far, “The first half of the year let me down. My list for the Top Five of 2015 wasn’t a wrought-for position. Making the list was obvious and easy, and the lack of conflict between the choices had me letting out a deep sigh.”
Don’t be dismayed though, there are always original and unique films released each year and we’re here to shed light on them. Some you just have to really search for, while others it’s quite obvious. There’s a little of both this year and the selections from myself, Brendan Hodges and Steven Attanasie have been carefully considered. My own five picks surprised, challenged, moved and entertained me. Take heed film enthusiasts….
Brendan Hodges – CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
I saw “Clouds” last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival, and I left the theater with only one thought in mind: Kristen Stewart went toe-to-toe with Juliette Binoche and killed it. The film itself, a stumbling self-reflexive study in the lines drawn between art and the artist, homages Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” as readily as Bergman’s “Persona” in its haunting story of two isolated, beautiful women. Binoche plays an aging actress asked to play the role opposite of the one that made her famous, and most of the film is a candid look at the life of a famous actress. As her assistant, Stewart gives a marvelous supporting performance worthy of oscar attention, and the sure-handed direction accounts for the ethereal atmosphere and whispered tone. Although how much you meaning extract from its tangents on the substance of art is up to you.
Steven Attanasie – TOMORROWLAND
I’m not entirely sure why this film failed to connect with audiences, beyond the fact that as a society, we’ve grown so cynical that we can’t enjoy a truly optimistic film about the future and our ability to make it a better place. The film has problems and like so many of Damon Lindelof’s other screenplays, it falters big time in the third act, but I would rather watch an ambitious film that tries to do something new and falls short over a film with no ambition that succeeds wildly. I wonder if this film will ever find the audience it deserves, but I’m glad that Brad Bird brought his vision to the screen in an uncompromising way. This is a film for dreamers, and I know that in time, they will find it and connect with it.
David J. Fowlie – LOVE & MERCY
There are certain expectations in a biopic, especially one which covers a famous musician. There’s inevitably a backstory touching on some type of tragedy or abuse (often from a parent) and before it’s established that this musician is considered a genius, he or she will deal with some form of addiction or career challenge. All of that is expected, which is why entries in this genre really exceed expectations. But director Bill Pohlad takes a non-traditional approach to those familiar genre conventions and immerses viewers in a captivating story that offers a unique approach. “Love & Mercy” focuses on the musical genius (no really, he was) of Brian Wilson , the creative force of The Beach Boys – and if you think all they sang about was girls and surfing, well, this movie is for you. Throughout the story, Pohlad takes us back and forth from 1960’s Brian Wilson (wonderfully played by Paul Dano) to 1980’s Brian Wilson (John Cusack, delivering his best work in years), focusing on idiosyncratic recording methods, his unstable mental condition and eventual overly medicated state thanks to one Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Between the unique narrative approach and a cast which is at the top of their game – including strong supporting work from Elizabeth Banks (who winds up playing the heart of the film) – “Love & Mercy” is a sweet and tender surprise. Now playing in select theaters.
Brendan Hodges – ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
After becoming a Sundance favorite and winning both the jury prize and audience award just like last year’s blistering “Whiplash”, there’s been a misguided backlash on this gem. It’s a “Fault of Our Stars” told from the point of view of an external observer, a typical teen brooder named Greg who struggles to connect with anyone. His primary way of communication is through superficial acquaintances, that is until his mother pushes him to befriend Rachel, a lovely and idiosyncratic girl recently diagnosed with cancer. Some have accused “Me and Earl” as a celebration of teen narcissism, but the opposite is true. This is a story about telling stories, and how they help us understand the world as much as ourselves. It’s not quite the home-run I wish it was, but it resonates on many levels—it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s hopeful, and it’s illuminating. Now playing in select theaters.
Steven Attanasie – SLOW WEST
One of the great things about the Western becoming a niche genre in the last few decades has been watching directors play with it in ways that just weren’t possible when it was a dominant genre. First-time feature director John Maclean’s elegant, brutal, and shockingly funny film is the latest film to add to the very short list of great post-modern Westerns. Anchored by an outstanding performance from Michael Fassbender and featuring another knock-out villainous turn by the brilliant Ben Mendelsohn, this economic and suspenseful film will satisfy genre fans and even win some converts to its cause.
David J. Fowlie – WHITE GOD
This Hungarian film from director Kornél Mundruczó can be described as a ‘coming-of-age thriller’ which seems like an odd mashup. It is and it’s also a story about a 13-year-old girl and her dog as well as a mass revolt of discarded dogs. Sold yet? Well, keep in mind, this is a tough one to watch, specifically for dog lovers. At a recent theatrical screening I hosted, there were at least ten walkouts, but if you stick with it, you’ll find a film that is both sublime, outrageous and quite stirring. It’s also beautifully shot and masterfully edited with an exceptional score that matches the tone and mood perfectly. If you were to tell me six months ago that one of the best performances of the year would come from a dog (technically, twin dogs playing one character), I’d call you mad. Nevertheless, “White God” captures one of the most natural and soulful acting I’ve seen on-screen so far this year. There are relatable metaphors to be found in this absorbing violent film, one of which is how humans (specifically, the ‘white man’ – hence, the title) treat animals and, really, anyone different from them, but you will mostly come away somewhat speechless (or frustrated), wondering “How did they do that?” Still in select theatres and coming to DVD/Blu-ray on July 28th.
Brendan Hodges – INSIDE OUT
I’m on the hype train for “Inside Out”, just not in one of the first cars. Director Pete Doctor recognized a major flaw with the film early on: having a main character be a single shade of a complete person, Joy, might be too abstract and aloof for audiences. His solution, mostly, was to cast the warm and hilarious Amy Poehler in the role to compensate – it worked for most, but not really for me. Still, Pixar’s return to form is a triumphant one, a high-concept romp exploding at the seams with clever gags, stunning animation, and an eclectic mix of laughs and tears. That “Inside Out”, a movie that (mostly) takes place inside the metaphysical mind-scape of a young girl’s head, works at all is a testament to the enormous talent on all sides. The expected Pixar poignance is back too, with more than a few moments left me misty-eyed reflective of my own childhood.
Steve Attanasie – EX MACHINA
Working in brilliant counterpoint with “Tomorrowland,” Alex Garland’s feature directorial debut is a fascinating meditation of the perils of artificial intelligence, but even more so on man’s insistence on playing god. Man has sat atop the food chain for so long, we think we’re invincible, and watching this theme play out in this pot-boiler of a film is one of the most satisfying viewing experiences you’re likely to have in this – or any – year. Oscar Isaac continues to knock it out of the park every time he shows up in a film, and Alicia Vikander announces to the world that she’s a major talent that we should all have on our radars. This is a bleak film, but it’s also one of the smartest I’ve seen in quite some time.
David J. Fowlie – EX MACHINA
Science Fiction has always had a fascination with the question of what it means to be human. In fact, currently some of the best sci-fi television programs deal with aspects of that quandary. In his directorial debut, writer Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”) has crafted an intimate look at not only what it means to be human, but also the responsibilities that come with creating and maintaining life. To say more about this heady and surprisingly funny original work of art would do you a disservice. It’s best to know very little about “Ex Machina” other than it is much more than ‘Two Guys and a Girl Robot’ – as if that alone wouldn’t sell you – but it is thankfully a refreshing character piece, free of cliches and spectacle associated with the genre. It also boasts three memorable performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac (both of whom will show up in the new “Star Wars” movie later this year) and Alicia Vikander (a wonderful discovery for me) and a killer dance sequence. Available to rent now and also still in select theaters.
Brendan Hodges – EX MACHINA
What I love about “Ex Machina” is its simplicity. We have a direct, minimalist plot, a clear visual palette, and a strict cast of four. This is a sophisticated and unusually smart take on artificial intelligence, using A.I. not only as a springboard for the classic kind of pot-induced predictions of the future and man, but also as a measured commentary on image, gender, and free will. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a skilled programmer selected by lottery to conduct a Turing Test—whether or not a machine can pass as a human being. Nathan (a bearded and predictably amazing, Oscar Isaac) has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), possibly the first real A.I.. She’s sexy and striking, with a design I predict will become iconic. The best ensemble of the year uplifts “Machina” from becoming overly cerebral, and watching the leads play off each other is as riveting as their mind-expanding conversations—this is great cinema by any standard.
Steven Attanasie – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
This is how you do action in the 21st Century. There was a time when men like George Lucas would decry the use of special effects as anything other than a tool used to further a story, and filmmakers that buy into that line of thinking are a dying breed. Thankfully it fell to another George – George Miller – to show modern audiences that a big budget effects film can work if, and only if, the story is worth telling. Years from now, this film will be viewed as a turning point in the visual effects revolution, and rightly so. It demands that the audience not turn their brains off to enjoy it, and even more than that, rewards them handsomely for paying attention. If this truly is the future of action films, sign me up for more. Still in theaters, but unfortunately leaving soon.
David J. Fowlie – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
The best action film of the year is the one too many people have apparently not caught up with yet. At least that’s what I’ve found in my recent conversations with moviegoers. That needs to change ASAP. Some feel the needed to have seen the three previous films (not the case), while others just don’t know what to think. But the majority of those I’ve encountered who have seen it, were absolutely floored by auteur director George Miller’s return to his vast post-apocalyptic wasteland. While the confident action in “Fury Road” is indeed nonstop “pedal-to-the-metal” that’ll blow you away, it is inhabited with fascinating characters like the one-armed Furiosa (an amazing Charlize Theron), strong themes and incredible world-building. The fact that the titular Max (Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson) is essentially our guide throughout this story, making room for other characters both outstanding and outlandish – and yet it still works is a testament to the storytellers here. It may not have been #1 at the box office, but it has received critical praise and repeated viewings from many. In a time when so many blockbusters are weighed down with incomprehensible CGI action, this film which relies heavily on practical stunts and effects is hands down one of the best of the year and will come up again at the year’s end.
Brendan Hodges – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Churning, roaring, clashing, and exploding, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) hit the apocalyptic landscape with the same hellmouth fury that “Fury Road” hit theaters. More than a just a masterpiece, the fourth Mad Max movie is a drug. After seeing it, I immediately need another hit. After four viewings, the highs are still high and I can’t wait for the 5th. Visionary in the truest and most sincere sense of the word, “Fury Road” turns to sublime visual purity of silent cinema as its frame to revitalize modern action aesthetics, using the crazed cut-cut-cut editing of “Battleship Potemkin”as the spinning wheels, and visceral physical stunts (almost always done for real) as the seething engine. A non-verbal narrative emerges through the dust and debris, a stunning story of liberation and triumph. This is the best movie of the year, the one to beat, and even if “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” exceeds my delusions of its anticipated grandeur, “Fury Road” is historic. So shiny. So chrome.
Steven Attanasie – INSIDE OUT
As of writing this, I’ve only seen this film once, but Pete Docter’s third film as a director is not only his best, but possibly the best film that Pixar has done to date. Docter adheres to Brad Bird’s philosophy that animation is merely the medium in which he chose to tell great stories that can’t be told in live action, and he has crafted a film which works brilliantly for both children and adults. This is the best animated film of this decade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if on subsequent viewings, I feel that it might usurp “Wall-e” as the best film Pixar has ever made, one which will stand alongside the great works of art that transcend their medium to become a part of the human narrative. Still in theaters.
David J. Fowlie – INSIDE OUT
Pixar’s return to form, thanks to brilliant director Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.” & “Up”), is the movie I can’t get out of my head. That’s fine with me and quite appropriate seeing as how the movie is about the five personified emotions inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl undergoing some huge changes in her life. It’s a layered and complex examination of emotion that strikes a chord with any age and some of the most imaginative and creative filmmaking I’ve seen in a while. You can’t watch this humorous and heartfelt story and then call it a ‘cartoon’ or think it’s solely for kids (as many still hold on to such an incorrect perspective on animation) – if you do, you may need to reaccess what emotion is at your internal controls. This is a movie that is universal and touches on an empathetic need to connect and understand our own feelings, but also the ones closest to us. Go see this one, especially if you’re on the fence or rarely see animated films in theaters.