In this second part, we continue our trek up to the top of the list of the best films from the first half of this year. And we are aptly at the halfway point, having previously covered earlier selections.
5. DOPE: Every minute of this film is alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.
4. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD:A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent authenticity, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead (played luminously by Carey Mulligan), says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory adaptation or a feminist injunction, this big-screen adaptation goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words.
3. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: What a fun little spy thriller this is. When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy. Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being silly and preposterous is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute by minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee. Why haven't you seen this film yet?
2. EX-MACHINA.This is the other true find of this year. A canny examination of what it means to be human, the film is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to machines, the closer the machines will get to refusing to take orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnifcently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.You are told to avoid the superlative when writing about film, but the heck with that. If you have lost the ability to completely, obsessively, unapologetically fall in love with a movie, then maybe you shouldn't write about films at all. George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD is stark raving mad, but then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into the history books. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of bearing children. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice as a chase across the desert makes up the majority of the film. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then may be this film is not for you. But watch this film to understand how to make every frame matter. Watch it as a masterclass on three-dimensional story-boarding, on the project management of physics in an action sequence. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future.
And so, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD takes the undeniable, unshakeable number one position amongst films that made their way to the big screen in the first half of the year. Odds are that it may retain its perch at the top when the end of 2015 rolls in.
But it has also left behind the afterglow of noteworthy films. Films that transcended form or genre. Or those that did a stellar job while fully ensconced within their genre. I have never strained to come up with films to put on best-of lists, and do not frankly understand those who complain that such and such was a bad year for cinema. If you are not finding anything worthwhile to watch, perhaps you have not been looking in the right places.
Here are films released between January and June that represent for me the best of the year so far. We start from the back and make our way to the top.
10. PADDINGTON: Any film that stands up for the true definition of family is fine by me. A film with this plot ought to get weighted by treacle. But not this adaptation that somehow manages to invest rationality to a talking teddy bear who gets adopted by a human family. I am frankly surprised that more hasn’t been made about the look of this film. The film needs to be watched for its visual flair alone which at times easily crosses over into the magical. Nicole Kidman has a great time vamping up a storm and it is no secret that Sally Hawkins makes every movie better. But it is the title character, wistfully voiced by Ben Whishaw who makes this film stick in your mind as a credible piece of whimsy.
9 WILD TALES: One reviewer called this film a tinder-box of delights, and I can do no better than that. There is something almost primordial about this Argentinian film. Six unrelated tales round up an anthology of stories all dealing with that point when a person snaps, unable to finally stay grounded in rationality, unable to take it anymore. And what brilliant flameouts these are. You the viewer will watch the film with jaw dropped, sometimes raising your fist in solidarity with the oppressed and sometimes in horror at things going too far. Witty, unpredictable, over the top, and gleefully violent, this is one great time at the movies. WILD TALES was rightfully nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar; it was released commercially in the US in 2015.
8. SPY: Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her skills, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; these filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. And the secondary characters, in justifiably career-best performances from Rose Byrne to Jason Stratham to Bobby Canavale all gamely work together at equal pitch. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard teenage films playing in multiplexes and the Kardashians dominate television. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films.
7. McFARLAND, USA: When a good sports film works, it really works. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in the school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film has a good sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.
6. INSIDE OUT: It may seem a phenomenally glib concept: to have the emotions in a person's mind take actual talking forms of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and so forth. But believe the hype. I did not, thinking this film would be yet another Hollywood effort to dumb down the complexity of human intellect. But I was wrong. It turns out that by breaking down human behavior into simpler motifs, it is possible to give agency to so much of what we normally shrug off as the unexplainable. I understood myself a little better after seeing this film. And how often can you say that about a movie. A teenage girl's difficulty with adjusting to a new life in Northern California after being uprooted from her Minnesota upbringing is given beautiful and shockingly authentic life as the emotions in her head go on a grand, Homeresque journey. After a troubling period of subpar quality fare, Pixar returns to exalted form with this film
We will climb our way to the top of the list in Part Two.
"I think a script is great when it starts with the structure and works with the structure without falling into the typical three-act system in which the audience is ahead of the movie. I hate that; but that is like 99% of what I (get)."
- Luca Guadignino, director of I AM LOVE and the upcoming A BIGGER SPLASH
(only my most anticipated film of the year) in interview with Nick Vivarelli at Variety.com.