The film calendar is so awards-driven, so targeted specifically towards the fall festivals and (heavy sigh) Oscar season, that it’s easy to presume little of note hits theaters in the first half of the year; it’s for Liam Neeson action movies and flicks that got bumped from their holiday slots because they weren’t good enough (hey there, Jack Ryan reboot). But rounding up the best titles from the year’s first six months actually yields a more eclectic and unpredictable selection, with genre titles, documentaries, indies, and oddities making up a rich and varied half-year at the movies.
The great Errol Morris turns his first-person camera on former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld in this spiritual sequel to his 2003 Oscar winner, The Fog of War. But Morris isn’t merely repeating himself here; in sharp contrast to Robert McNamara, who seemed at least vaguely aware of the mistakes he had made and the cost of them, Unknown Known shows us a political figure who has learned nothing, who remembers things as he wishes they’d happened rather than as they were, and who will not be convinced otherwise. In doing so, Morris captures as trenchant and haunting a portrait of self-delusion as I’ve ever seen.
9. Cheap Thrills
E.L. Katz’s darkly funny drama is a morality play in exploitation movie’s clothes, matching a rich, kinky couple with a pair of desperate buddies, and finding out exactly how far they’ll go for a few extra bucks. There’s a wild, anything-goes spirit to the narrative, but it never spins out of Katz’s control — it careens from funny to disturbing to horrifying with skill and wit, its events somehow both improvisational and inevitable. In spots, tough to watch; after, tough to shake.
Wes Anderson’s latest is his most explicit love letter to the art of storytelling (specifically, the storytelling of Stefan Zweig), spinning — through several layers of chroniclers — the delightfully screwball tale of M. Gustave, the elegant concierge of the titular establishment. Though not without its share of melancholy (this is, after all, a film set in Eastern Europe in the 1930s), this seems the most sheer fun Anderson’s had in years, winding up his globe-trotting chase and watching it zip away.
7. The Retrieval
The film on this list you’re least likely to have heard of, Chris Eska’s Civil War-era drama opened quietly in April and closed just as faintly a few weeks later, its total domestic gross under $50,000. Those numbers are some kind of a cinematic crime; this is a muted, modest, yet powerful tale of two black bounty hunters fetching a runaway slave. Eska’s script tackles themes of race, self, and family without even a hint of preachiness, while his bravura performers give the tale a sharply beating heart.
6. Obvious Child
One of the summer’s nicest surprises is how audiences have warmed to Gillian Robespierre’s wonderfully off-the-cuff comedy, which views love, sex, and, yes, abortion through a refreshingly casual lens; none of this stuff, even the smush-smortion, is the end of the world, and writer/director Robespierre and engaging star Jenny Slate avoid the usual, tiresome rom-com pitfalls to create a wise, witty, lived-in charmer.
5. Finding Vivian Maier
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s documentary is about one-third art appreciation, one-third mystery, one-third biography, and 100 percent riveting. Maloof stumbled upon street photographer Maier’s work by accident, a treasure trove of thousands of remarkable images, and set about trying to find out who she was — a question that proves harder to answer the more he discovers. It’s a smart and impassioned documentary, endlessly fascinating, and one that knows a thing or two about the prickly difficulty of artists.
4. The Double
Some have wondered whether we’ve yet heard what director Richard Ayoade’s voice sounds like — his first film, the wonderful Submarine, had a pronounced Wes Anderson vibe, and it’s impossible to watch this adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella without feeling the influence of Terry Gilliam. But his work transcends its obvious echoes, and The Double is far more that Brazil Lite; he creates a shadowy nightmare world, while boxing out plenty of room for oddball humor and human comedy. (Plus, it’s the most interesting work Jesse Eisenberg’s done in years.)
3. Mistaken for Strangers
A documentary on gloomy-gus rock band The National is about the last place you’d look for the kind of painfully candid, confessional humor that usually pops up on podcasts like WTF and Harmontown, and that sharp tonal incongruity is part of what makes Mistaken for Strangers such a delight. Director/subject Tom Berninger, tagging along with brother/National lead singer Matt on tour, tries to create a typical on-the-road documentary, but his relationship with his brother — and, consequently, his own resentments and self-doubt — become the real subject of this sweet, funny, and surprisingly moving film.
2. Venus in Fur
There’s so much subtext to root through in the latest from Roman Polanski — his own troubling sexual history, the avatars he presents in the form of wife Emmanuelle Seigner and Polanski lookalike Mathieu Amalric, the commentary on interpretation of theatrical works, the power plays between director and actor, intellectual and ruffian, man and woman — that it’s easy to lose sight of what is, on the most basic level, a wickedly entertaining, often riveting, and frequently funny picture. Its intelligence is rare (and welcome, frankly), but it’s not the kind of cold, unapproachable, “broccoli movie” the pedigree and subtitles might suggest; it’s witty, sexy, smart, and bold filmmaking for grown-ups, by grown-ups.
1. Cold in July
You can predict, beat by beat, the narrative progression of most movies within their first ten minutes. In Jim Mickle’s crackling adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, you can’t predict what’s going to happen from one ten-minute stretch to the next. Cold mutates from neo-noir to revenge tale to character comedy to action thriller, but never jars or alienates the viewer; it’s a wild ride, but not content with empty thrills, its closing passages tinged with sadness, loss, and regret. You sort of can’t believe it’s doing this many things at once, and doing them so well; no film this year thus far left me as exhilarated by the sheer possibilities of moviemaking.