The best films and performances of 2015 (so far)

I know it seems like the height of foolishness to put out a “best of” list when there is still a week to go in the first half of 2015. But I am going out on a limb and assuming that Ted 2 will not crack my Best Picture list even after I get around to seeing it.

With that bold disclaimer out of the way, here are the best things from the world of movies during the first half of 2015:

BEST FEATURE

Loyal readers will know that my favourite movie thus far has been Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly. But since that Iranian film was actually made six years ago (but only released in the States this year), I will opt for something a little more current…

Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s slow-burn battle of wits is the most assured sci-fi debut since Shane Carruth’s Primer eleven years ago. And in this era of faster and faster pacing (see Mad Max Fury Road), it is very refreshing to see a story-teller generate excellent tension and suspense in a modestly-paced thriller.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Best of Enemies, a funny and informative look back at the televised 1968 debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, would be a worthy choice, if not for…

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

This HBO release had a simultaneously simple and daunting task. Scientology is a popular punch line and easy to criticise, yet the church and its leader David Miscavige wield such great power that anyone who dares attack it will come under assault. Director Alex Gibney, working from the book by Lawrence Wright, turns shooting piranhas in a barrel into must-see material.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

A no-contest thus far, especially since I have yet to see Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was Here. So, with that small disclaimer…

Inside Out

Writer/Director Pete Docter has been instrumental in creating some of Pixar’s greatest movies. Here, working with Ronaldo Del Carmen, he develops an outstanding premise imaginatively and brilliantly. The ideas that growing up is painful and that sadness is a valuable emotion are not often found in animated films. Full of hilarious small passages and many poignant moments (the scene in which Bing Bong vanishes is extraordinary), this will be a tough movie to beat come year end.

BEST LOW BUDGET FEATURE

I’m not being all that precise when it comes to budgetary standards here. It’s like the old saying, you know low budget when you see it. Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior is a close runner-up, but I have to go with…

What We Do in the Shadows

This insane little comedy from New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi takes a premise for a ten minute skit – treating the undead as a bunch of fun-loving twenty-somethings sharing a flat in the suburbs – and miraculously turns it into a constantly-inventive, riotous hour and a half.

BEST ACTOR

The contenders are:

  • Shogi Silver (In the Company of Women)
  • Paul Eenhoorn (In the Company of Women)
  • Sam Rockwell (Poltergeist)
  • Shameik Moore (Dope)

And the winner is:

Paul Dano (Love & Mercy)

These five performances are all excellent, but truth be told, this has not been a good year for lead actors thus far. You could make the case that Dano is not even the lead in this Brian Wilson biopic, sharing screen time as he does with John Cusack. I did not especially like the movie as a whole, but Dano, who is among the best quirky young actors we have today, is so good as the younger Wilson that it makes the movie watchable.

BEST ACTRESS

The contenders are:

  • Melissa McCarthy (Spy)
  • Blythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams)
  • Carey Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd)
  • Mae Whitman (The DUFF)

And the winner is:

Kristen Wiig (Welcome to Me)

Another problematic movie with an absolute standout performance from Wiig. Her damaged Alice Klieg goes many steps beyond her damaged Maggie Dean in 2014’s Skeleton Twins. Let’s hope she’s not getting typecast.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

The contenders are:

  • Ed Harris (Run All Night)
  • Blake Anderson (Dope)
  • Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)
  • Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World)

And the winner is:

Martin Starr (I’ll See You in My Dreams)

From the uber-geeky teen in Freaks and Geeks, Starr has grown into a geeky/mature young man. Playing opposite Blythe Danner, his Lloyd is a heartbreaking jumble of nerdy and handsome, smart and pathetic. Among the most real young men we’ve seen on screen in a long time.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The contenders are:

  • Rose Byrne (Spy)
  • Cynthia Nixon (5 Flights Up)
  • Manuela Velasco ([REC] 4: Apocalypse)
  • Jessica Barden (Far From the Madding Crowd)

And the winner is:

Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)

All right, before you notice that I apparently have a thing for actresses named Kristen, let me just say that Stewart, when not stuck playing Bella Swan, has been Joan Jett (in The Runaways), an Oscar winner’s daughter (in Still Alice), and now a formidable collection of strength and longing as Juliette Binoche’s assistant. Her disappearance is another of the high points of 2015 film thus far.

BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE

With increasing emphasis on animation and special effects movies, vocal performances are becoming more and more important. Three different performances, from three very different movies, have really stood out. They are Peter Coyote as the ominous corporate killer Langley in Good Kill, Phyllis Smith as the put-upon emotion Sadness in Inside Out, and, my choice…

James Spader (Avengers: Age of Ultron)

Spader’s weary bemusement as the newly evolved, would-be superhero Ultron is one of the things that keeps the latest Avengers from slipping off the rails.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

John Seale deserves a lot of credit for the extraordinary look of Mad Max Fury Road, and Yorick La Faux’s beautiful work in Clouds of Sils Maria should not be overlooked. But …

Rob Hardy (Ex Machina and Testament of Youth)

Hardy would have won for the magnificent realisation of Ex Machina on its own. Throw in Testament and it becomes a no-brainer.

BEST SCORE

I wasn’t going to include this category, because I have to admit I haven’t been keeping track of scores very closely, but in honour of the recently-deceased composer James Horner, I decided to recognize…

Rich Vreeland/Disasterpeace (It Follows)

Vreeland’s moody and urgent compositions help make It Follows the best horror film of 2015 thus far.

BEST CAMEO

OK, so they all came from the otherwise drab Entourage. And the first among equals has to be…

T.I. (Entourage)

“Call somebody to kick me in the nuts. I need a vasectomy.” Need I say more?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

This all depends on what you expected going in. Neil Blomkamp’s incredibly sloppy Chappie should have been much better. Brad Bird’s preachy and screechy Tomorrowland had some good elements but was ultimately way too soft to register. I didn’t have any real hopes for David Koepp’s Mortdecai, the worst movie of the year (though I have not seen the much lambasted FIFA propaganda United Passions yet). To me, the real swing and miss was…

Blackhat

Michael Mann used to do good thrillers. This was both leaden and implausible, a rare double. And I know it is tough for Chris Hemsworth to play a real person since real people do not look like Chris Hemsworth. But the strategy here appears to be to offset his wildly unlikely computer genius/action hero (who happens to look better than anyone in the world) by having him be the most boring, monotone hunk imaginable. None of it works.

BEST MOMENT

I already mentioned several disappearances (Inside Out, Clouds of Sils Maria) above, and there have been many other strong moments thus far. I really liked the bird attack in Jurassic World. But I think the moment that carried the most meaning so far was …

Rose Byrne’s smirk back at Melissa McCarthy at the end of Spy

Let’s not overlook the significance of Spy. It seems to me to be a far more important feminist statement than the rather superficial Mad Max Fury Road, which clearly has feminist leanings. Though on some level a rather simple and silly comedy, Spy has shown that a talented actress like Melissa McCarthy does not have to be thin and magazine beautiful to carry a movie. Just as important, it has shown that women can play the more nuanced, interesting roles which cover a wide range of attitudes. Women are the major players in the story of Spy, and McCarthy and her support (Byrne, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney) are smart, powerful, loony, uncoordinated, sexy, frumpy, kind and bitchy, and so much more. It is the men who are one-dimensional window dressing, be it Jude Law’s eye candy or Jason Statham’s hilarious moronic alpha male. This attitude is clear throughout, but is most potent at the end, when the captured villainess Rayna (Byrne) is being led away and turns to throw a knowing smirk back at McCarthy’s Susan. This is the kind of grudging respect between rivals that is commonplace among male antagonists (check out the final exchange between Statham and Dwayne Johnson at the end of Furious Seven) but something that women are rarely permitted. Chalk up another milestone for Paul Feig.

I’m not choosing a Foreign Language film yet because I haven’t seen enough to make a worthy selection. And I’m not choosing a Director because they get too much credit already. (Though it would probably be Alex Garland.)

So that’s where we stand. Weigh in with your own favourites thus far. And if TED 2 turns out to be a gem, I’ll be back next week with an apology.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

9 thoughts on “The best films and performances of 2015 (so far)

  1. Thanks Steve and Bill. For some reason, I saw both your comments but then lost them when I went to respond. So, Steve — I blew my chance to see the Nina Simone doc when it played at SilverDocs near me, but I hope to see it soon. The story about Nina Simone was my favorite part of the Nick Cave movie last year, Bill — I’d have to do some research, but I think Blue Ruin and Snowpiercer both got general releases in the US in the first half of 2014, and both were pretty high on my year-end list, though maybe not top ten. Release dates can be odd. To the best of my knowledge, Sils Maria was released in many countries in 2014, but I don’t believe it had general release in the US until this year. Same for Testament, which I know played in the UK in 2014. As for budgets, I used to think under a million was low budget. Now I classify that as micro-budget. Somewhere around 5 mill in my new cutoff for low budget.

  2. None of the films on my mid-year top ten of 2014 made it onto my end of the year top ten. the first half of any year is traditionally pretty weak. So far,Ive seen three notable pictures: Aloft, The Stranger, and Miss Julie. Of your winners, i found Ex-machina. an enjoyable picture, with good cinematograhy, well-acted, but trivial and predictable. Going Clear. Read the book. Lots of information on the history of Scientology. havent seen the movie, but Dibney is a good documentarian, and I imagine he did a good job with the material. What We Do In the shadows: from the team that brought us the hilarious flight of the Conchords, a genuinely funny vampire comedy, which is a rarity in any time. but is 1.6 million a low budget? 2010’s spectacular “Monsters cost 1/3 that. both Clouds of Sils Maria and Testament of Youth were 2014 releases.

  3. I’ll have to check out “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”. I’m currently quite impressed with “What happened, Miss Simone”. It certainly left me feeling different than I when I started, which I think is a requisite for any documentary looking to be considered “good”. Nice (early!) write up for 2015.

  4. Thanks Pete. It has been a bit of a strange year. I did like Jurassic World. I thought it was better than the original, which I have always thought was just ok. The only big problem I have with it is that it is SO derivative of the other movies in the series that you wonder “why bother?” which I know is a reaction a lot of have to all the sequels and remakes that are pouring out of Hollywood.

  5. A genuine mixed bag here Jon, and I have to confess, that so far, I haven’t seen any of them. (Standing in the corner, ashamed…)
    I was surprised to see ‘Jurassic World’ get a couple of mentions, as I wouldn’t even watch that for free, on TV. (Is it good then?) And ‘Entourage’, which I detested on TV, strung out to be a full-length feature. I am glad you said it was ‘drab’.
    I fancy ‘Ex-Machina’ a lot, and look forward to seeing Ms Binoche in ‘Clouds…’ I must also catch up with ‘It Follows’, which everyone says is good. ‘Testament Of Youth’ was done as a landmark series on BBC TV ( 1979), so the film will have to go some, to beat it.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078699/
    Thanks for your roundup. Much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.

      • The wordpress links no longer work with Curnblog. I always have to look on the site, via a fresh tab from Google chrome. Otherwise, I don’t see my comments, or any replies to them.
        Thanks anyway Jon, I still cannot see the point of ‘Jurassic World’, as I am one of those ‘pointless sequel’ people.
        Best wishes, Pete.

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