Well, kids, we’re closing in on the halfway mark of 2015, and you know what that means: lists! I kid, and not just because nobody needs a calendar as an excuse to make a list; you see, here on the movie beat, studios and distributors are so bent on unleashing their prestige movies in that October-December sweet spot (for the sake of not only year-end lists, but the omnipresent AWARDS SEASON) that it’s very easy to forget about the good stuff that unspooled in the first nine months. So consider this less a definitive ranking than a reminder list — to myself, of the movies to keep in mind at year’s end; and to you, of things you might want to seek out.
10. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Cobain docs come and go, but the rapturous praise that has greeted Brett Morgen’s definitive portrait since its Sundance premiere is a testament to the breadth and depth of his achievement. This is not a film that rattles off dates, coughs up talking heads, and plays the greatest hits. Thanks in no small part to his unprecedented access to the artist’s private journals and recordings, Morgen manages to craft a rare bio-doc that leaves the viewer with a sense of knowing the person, rather than merely knowing their achievements.
9. Man from Reno
Dave Boyle’s dazzling mystery thriller manages to invoke the spirit of film noir without any of the obvious quotations. It hits familiar story beats (a back-roads murder, a small-town sheriff, a mystery man, a peculiar romance), but in its own style and at its own pace, and with an abundance of unexpected and satisfying intersections. It’s a movie that rarely raises its voice, yet is sneakily unshakable and enchantingly eccentric.
Few films in recent memory match the scrappy, giddy pleasure of Rick Famuyiwa’s energetic action/comedy, which fuses the “hood movies” of the early ‘90s with the adrenaline-fueled storytelling of early Tarantino. But it’s less an imitation than those descriptions might suggest; exploring the mostly unfilmed worlds of “black geeks” and throwback kids, Famuyiwa uses his influences as a jumping-off point into something startlingly original and fiercely entertaining.
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
The culmination of Hollywood’s recent bout of self-obsession, Olivier Assayas’ muted character study is a thoughtful yet engaging deep dive into complex permutations of celebrity, acting, attachment, and power. Assayas’ deceptively simple screenplay takes infectious pleasure in blurring the boundaries between his actors, their characters, his script, the script they’re working, and their own dynamics; it sounds like a navel-gaze, but this is a surprisingly charged and emotionally dizzying exploration of how these people do what they do, and why.
6. The Hunting Ground
Director Kirby Dick doesn’t play politely — he’s a bomb-thrower, and good for him, because they’re sorely lacking in these timid times. His examination of the campus rape epidemic is sobering, difficult, powerful viewing, giving voice to survivors and calling out the institutions that protect their attackers. His style is relentless, and it results in a harrowing and infuriating piece of work. But (to its credit) The Hunting Ground is a film that’s not without hope, spotlighting solutions, naming names, and praising the activists who are fighting the good fight.
Director Johanna Hamilton uses tense reenactments, vivid archival footage, and candid interviews to dramatize the strangely forgotten story of an activist group’s raid on an FBI field office in 1971, and how the files they swiped there exposed the shocking, decades-long harassment campaigns and other illegal activities of the organization. It’s a History Channel story told with you-are-there immediacy, and one whose echoes continue to reverberate troublingly throughout our intelligence landscape.
If we were making a “best scenes of the year” list, you’d find your shoo-in here: the smashing, evocative sequence wherein four teenage friends lip-sync and dance along with Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” In that scene, writer/director Céline Sciamma captures something indelible about being a teenager: the way a song can mean everything to you and your friends, how it can encompass your entire being, and how it can create a “perfect moment” that’s bound to end. Sciamma’s remarkable movie does something rare in coming-of-age tales: it creates those moments and lives in them while, almost simultaneously, mourning for their passing.
3. Ex Machina
Screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland’s smashing story of a tech millionaire who becomes Dr. Frankenstein to a presumptive dream woman is the kind of great science fiction film they don’t really make anymore, except when they do. A film of people and ideas rather than action and gunfights, Garland’s fiercely intelligent work challenges our notions of protagonists, identity, and identification — and it’s a crackling entertainment to boot.
2. Slow West
John Maclean’s intoxicating, elegiac Western is a sublime rumination on the mythology of the frontier, viewed through a rambunctiously cockeyed lens. Maclean unpacks and reorganizes conventional notions of heroism and destiny, all the while crafting a sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, and frequently gorgeous riff on genre tropes. It’s both a great Western and a great demystification of the Western, and it’s rare to see a movie these days do either of those things well, to say nothing of doing both simultaneously.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The panting enthusiasm with which film fans bonded over, discussed, revisited, and raved over George Miller’s long-time-coming return to the franchise that made him speaks to the unfed hunger of movie lovers in the summer — it’s not that we don’t want popcorn movies, it’s that we just don’t want bad ones. And Miller created, above all, a great popcorn movie, relentless in its action, inventive in its visuals, breathless in its pacing, and surprisingly, delightfully progressive in its politics. It does what the best movies do: it reminds us that, with the resources and personnel of a major production at their disposal, a genuine artist can create something unique, and intelligent, and thrilling.