Now that July is upon us, it means that in addition to the unbearably sticky heat of Boston and the increased electrical bills that come with the air conditioners installed to fight it, the calendar year of 2015 has reached its halfway point. It is also the center of summer movie season, another well-trod respite for the heat. With San Diego Comic Con in full swing, Jurassic World breaking just about every record that can be broken for a non-James Cameron vehicle and the next installment of Marvel’s Cinematic Juggernaut, Ant-Man, due in a week, it is safe to say that movies are on the brain of much of pop culture. I can’t imagine a better time to look back at what has dazzled me most in six months at the cinema (and on the couch, thanks to the robust expansion of Video On Demand services). There will be time enough for dinosaurs and Ant-Men and Mockingjays and a whole slate of prestige, Oscar-hunting cinema to come. But for now, there are these five films, some of the best 2015 has to offer.
I only recently caught up with Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic, about a month into its theatrical run, and it is safe to say I am glad I did. I’ve never been the biggest Beach Boys fan, and biopics have always been a minefield of mediocrity, so you can understand why I didn’t rush out the first weekend on this one. But some venerable critics (Michael Phillips chiefly among them) sung its praises loudly enough that it seemed worth a matinee, and what I found was a tender, sophisticated and emotionally rich look at the man who made one of the greatest records in the history of rock music and faded into obscurity due to a combination of mental illness and overzealous care from his physician. Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks are at the top of their craft, and John Cusack has not been this good in years and years. Couple that with great camerawork and strong sound design, and this is a contender to still be in the conversation at year’s end.
4. '71 (available now on DVD [but not Blu Ray (which is a crime)])
Another in a line of Jack O’Connell war/survival tales (following Starred Up and Unbroken), ‘71 is a tense, pressure cooker of the film that finds O’Connell’s English soldier inadvertently abandoned behind enemy lines in Belfast at the height of Catholic/Protestant violence that has turned the city into an urban war zone. Unable to determine friend from foe with enemies from all sides closing in, O’Connell must wait out the night before his unit has the opportunity to rescue him. Yann Demange directs the film with verve and vigor, and its nervy climax in a hostile apartment complex is the perfect capstone.
I was not entirely on board with Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s ode to giallo horror from 2012, but I am entirely on board with The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland’s ode to giallo eroticism. The story of a pair of lesbian lepidopterists whose sex life is heavily predicated on role playing is a thorny and enticing look at personal identity and what people are willing to do or capable of in the name of love. Gorgeously and sensually shot, and featuring what has to be the best credit sequence of this young year, the film features knockout performances from its two leads (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna). Similar in many ways to another of 2015’s standouts that just missed making this list, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Duke of Burgundy is the sort of film with implications that will stick with you for a long time.
Low budget, independent horror films have slowly been gaining steam thanks to releases like You’re Next, The House of the Devil, The Babadook or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night but the best of the bunch has to be David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the tale of a malevolent spirit who slowly and deliberately stalks its prey until it either catches and kills them, or is passed along to a new target via sexual intercourse. This is a film that expertly, agonizingly takes its time eliciting an inescapable, mounting dread. The camera is immaculate, always catching something in the background that may or may not be certain doom calmly walking toward the frame, and Maika Monroe (herself a veteran of another wonderful indie pseudo-horror film, The Guest) is a strong lead. Add in the Carpenter-soaked, inhuman score from composer/chiptune artist Disasterpeace, and you’ve got the making of one of the best horror films of recent memory.
Also of note, the (slightly not safe for work) French teaser trailer, one of the all-time greats in the vein of Alien:
Oh, Mad Max. It was always going to be Mad Max, ever since the final credits rolled. It is rare that films come along so overflowing with ideas and spirit that they just wash over you, unable to be denied. Such is the case with George Miller’s return to the desert, 30 years after Thunderdome, for this lean, mean two hour chase sequence that takes nary a breath before the engines rev again and the tires hit the road and all hell once again breaks loose. This is all well and good; certainly a movie with the vim of Fury Road, with its skeleton-bleached War Boys and its flamethrower-guitar Doof Warrior would be entertaining in its own right, but Miller transcends it all by turning Max into little more than a bystander and training the camera lens directly on Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. In an action world so dominated by superheroes and testosterone, a film about a woman saving a harem of sex slaves from those very forces, driving for their lives across an arid desert, could not feel more timely.
So there we have it. We have so far to travel before the year’s end, with so many more movies to see and discuss. Maybe, just maybe something will come along to take the crown from Mad Max: Fury Road. It will be a tough mountain to climb, though. That’s for sure.
And yes, I am aware that not including Inside Out in this list will lead to some branding me a monster. So be it.