Favorite Films of 2015 So Far...

It has been something of a strange year so far as much of what has garnered the most attention has been fine enough in my humble opinion, but more often than not just that and little more. Much of what I'm referring to here are the massively successful critical hits that are Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out. I enjoyed both of the aforementioned films and both would make my current top ten were this the actual end of the year, but considering we are just closing out the sixth month there is much more to see. The thing is, I've only seen Max and Inside Out once and have a sneaking suspicion that I will enjoy them more and more with each repeated viewing that will certainly happen before the end of the year and so there is plenty of time for things to change as well. I have also missed a few of the smaller films that have garnered critical praise that either didn't open in my comparatively smaller market or were only available to catch for a limited time that I wasn't able to make time for. I have yet to see Sundance winner Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, but hope to catch it this week when it opens in my area as well as catching up on the likes of Clouds of Sils Maria, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Faults, The Duke of Burgundy and What We Do In the Shadows each of which have all been recently released on home video or are coming out soon. It is uncertain if any of these will leave an impression as big as some of their reviews would suggest, but I'm hopeful. Some of my choices are rather obvious as they will no doubt appear on 90% of year end top ten lists, but others I hope might not be and I've added a few close calls so as to round out a top ten for this point in the year. With so many highly anticipated releases coming this fall and winter none of these films are safe, but I'll be surprised if at least two or three of these films don't also end up on my year-end top ten, especially considering I'll have seen many of them more than once at that point.

Unfortunately, it seems in the shuffle of Mad Max, Jurassic World and Inside Out Joss Whedon's sequel to 2012's The Avengers that puts a cap on MCU's phase two will not be the king of summer as many had predicted it to be. The unfortunate part is not that it won't be the biggest money-maker, but that it will be labeled as something of a misstep. Just because it won't be the biggest film of the summer financially and just because it didn't receive as many kind reviews as its predecessor (mainly because the freshness of the spectacle had worn out) doesn't mean its legacy should be tarnished. Ultron still holds a solid 74% tomatometer rating and for me, it was a great way to kick off the summer movie season and as a fan of the connected universe I enjoyed seeing everything I wanted movies to be as a kid finally up on the big screen in a way where I felt fully immersed, something the first Avengers lacked with repeat viewings. While Whedon has publicly acknowledged the hell it was to put this film together the final product is a huge, bombastic piece of mainstream pop entertainment that plays into everything any jaded cinephile will tell you is wrong with the movie industry today while, for me, being wholly satisfying on an interconnected level that no other film can match even if they tried. Full review.  

It must be understood that director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows could have come off really dumb had he not executed it as precisely and with as much style as he was able to. I typically view horror films as something of a lesser art form than any other genre of movies simply for the fact they are made for a simple if not substantial purpose. When directed with such artistic instincts though, a film rooted in this genre can break free of its barriers and deliver something excitedly unique that manages to pull together all the right elements, tone being at the top of that list, and balancing them in a way that produces a final product that works effortlessly together. It Follows is a prime example of all the pieces falling in line perfectly to create something fresh out of old tropes. The horror elements aren't so much in the forefront as they are caveats to help convey the creepiness of the plot. It Follows feels like a film that might live or die on this list based on repeat viewings given I had a few issues with its third act and having only seen it once I really can't wait to watch it again and share it with friends, but here's to hoping it only improves with time. Full review.

As I anxiously await director Noah Baumbach's second film of the year, Mistress America, it is his first release of 2015 (that actually premiered at last years Toronto International Film Festival) that sits in the middle of my top five right now. Starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-aged couple who begin to get lost in the shuffle of their generation and are blindsided by a disarming young couple that puts a fresh spin on how they look at their lives. As the young couple, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried are Baumbach's pawns to prove a point about the intentions each of us carry and how much we let those show through in the everyday facades we keep up. What really stands out and makes this an exceptional film though is the magnificent writing. While the dialogue is quick and forms full characters who have specific and individual mindsets I can't imagine the hours poured over the page by Baumbach in order to create this natural ease with which each of his characters speak. In a word, the characters and the dialogue are more than archetypes or composites of several other people, but they are authentic and authenticity is essentially what While We're Young is all about. Full review.

Ex Machina is undoubtedly the film that will end up on the majority of critics year-end top ten lists as it not only received almost universal critical acclaim, but made a tidy little profit for A24 and boosted the visibility of stars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in the science fiction genre just as both prepare to be in Star Wars later this year. I can already see the opening lines of many year-end recaps regardless of how good The Force Awakens turns out to be, "If you thought Isaac was great as Poe Dameron you should check out his turn as Nathan in a much smaller sci-fi film from earlier this year." However good the latest Star Wars film turns out to be, the sentiment of this sentence will remain intact though because Alex Garland's feature directorial debut is both stunning in it's visuals and more in it's ability to present a set of complex ideas in a rather simple way. Ex Machina is a film of ideas and, as we've somewhat failed to fully learn, it is the human mind and the countless contemplations we can come up with when given an interesting topic that fuel how fascinating such a simple set-up can be. There is no need for explosions, action or even a convoluted plot when instead all of the adrenaline those things strive to rouse in an audience are done through the power of conversation. Full review.

I can't help myself. Whether it be due to the fact this was the last film I saw in theaters or because I truly am a sucker for music biopics, Love & Mercy is easily the most affecting film of the year for me and therefore my favorite as of this writing. Besides the fact director Bill Pohland and screenwriter Oren Moverman tell the co-founder of The Beach Boys story as a parallel narrative from two different points in his life, one in his twenties where he is descending into a kind of madness and the other in his late-forties as he is pulling himself out of it, and that it features two solid performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older versions of Brian Wilson Love & Mercy is exciting because it bends to no rules and rather explores the more interesting aspects of why these kinds of stories exist. Like Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, James Brown and many others before him Wilson was pushed to his talents limit because of a parental struggle or need to please that would never let up and so we have this human mind seeking an unattainable approval that drives them mad. It is this environment that produces their acclaimed genius though and so the question becomes one of what is more valuable? Is the abusive childhood worth the prosperous adult career or would one trade it all for a life of normalcy? It is fascinating territory and to top it all off Elizabeth Banks gives an absolutely charming performance that solidifies this is her summer to own. Full review.

Close Calls:

"For the full two-hour runtime of the film Fury Road barely has time to slow down and catch its breath and even less does it rely on dialogue to move the story along. Director George Miller firmly believes that actions speak louder than words and he puts that mantra on full display here as Mad Max: Fury Road is completely bonkers in every way; every good, entertaining way it can be."

"Inside Out comes along at a critical point in my own life, one where it means more to me than it might have had I seen it prior to having my own child. At the time of its theatrical release my own daughter is a young seven and a half months old and so to see this representation of time passing, the necessary appreciation of moments present and the inescapable fact we can't control time or make any more of it for ourselves is both greatly depressing yet ultimately eye-opening. This is heavy stuff, no doubt, but it's what Pixar is accustomed to working with and here, in making the overall goal of the film to ensure the happiness of one child, both parents and children alike can understand and really feel the precious nature of the situation."

"When Han (Sung Kang) showed up in Fast & Furious to hint that these events, five years after the original film, came even before the events of the third film (which technically, would actually be the sixth film) there has been a building towards a certain point and by the end of Fast & Furious 6 that point had been reached. What happens next? Furious 7 is the answer to that and while this latest film is certainly more poignant for reasons beyond its control it never forgets its main mission and continues to thrive on its self-awareness of just how outlandish the series has become."

"There isn't anything necessarily original or unique about what director Matthew Vaughn and frequent collaborator/screenwriter Jane Goldman have produced with Kingsman: The Secret Service, but more than anything it is refreshing in its perspective and creative in its execution. These count for a lot in our current cinematic landscape and Vaughn knows precisely how to tap into making something old feel like something new and exciting. He did the same with Stardust, taking a typical-seeming fantasy film and churning out a completely fulfilling adventure. The same can be said for this though, on many levels, it is even more fun in a raucous sense given one has a similar mentality to that of the characters and the guy who's brought them to the screen."

"McFarland, USA never dips into the politics of the sport at hand and no unnecessary drama is elicited from it, but instead the film keeps a very clear throughline of the values this community lives by in yearning to make their children proud and teaching the lead character the difference in where you think you want to be and where you know you should be."

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