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2015 Half-Time: Our Favorite Films Heading Into Awards Season

By Valerie Kalfrin · September 29, 2015

It’s officially fall, which means marquees of heavy-hitters with award potential (The Martian, The Walk, Freeheld) and films whose openings are a pop-culture milestone (The Force Awakens, anyone?). But the year so far has been no slouch, packed with powerful storytelling, exhilarating performances and cinematic surprises. Here, our picks for the best we’ve seen in anticipation of better yet to come (in alphabetical order).

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

So, it's been a good year. Indeed, a couple of our honorable mentions would top a list like this in a lesser year. However, after much debate amongst our editorial team, these are the films didn't quite make the cut, despite their relative excellence:

EX MACHINA – Our most hotly contested omission, this cerebral sci-fi drama from writer-director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) tells the story of an artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander), her creator (Oscar Isaac) and the man (Domhall Gleeson) asked to evaluate how human she is. Ex Machina has a lot of fans at TSL, but there were also those that found its secrets a touch too predictable.

GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF – Provocative documentary about the church’s origins, its Hollywood popularity, and what some followers do in the name of religion. Directed by Alex Gibney and based on the book by Lawrence Wright.

IT FOLLOWS – A teen (Maika Monroe) turns promiscuous to pass on a curse in this smart horror film that upends the usual tropes.  Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – Director Matthew Vaughn co-wrote this adaptation of the comic book about a streetwise kid (Taron Egerton) recruited into a spy organization. The Detroit News called it “a punch to the face washed down with a spot of tea,” with Colin Firth as the lad’s boss.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL – An awkwardly charming coming-of-age story about a high-school senior who reconnects with a kindergarten classmate now diagnosed with cancer. Winner of the 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with a screenplay by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR – An ambitious immigrant (Oscar Isaac) jockeys for the American Dream in crime-ridden New York City in 1981. Co-starring Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor.

SPY – Writer-director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy reunite yet again (Bridesmaids, The Heat) for this broad yet progressive comedy about a deskbound CIA analyst who goes undercover.

 

TIE: AMY/ KURT COBAIN MONTAGE OF HECK

These two documentaries about music icons gone too soon in their twenties are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking without resorting to hero worship. Director Asif Kapadia drew upon archival footage and home movies to show the early days and meteoric rise of Amy Winehouse, the soulful British singer whom Tony Bennett likened to Billie Holiday. The film finds its tragedy in Winehouse’s chaotic personal life, her substance-abuse problems and the celebrity fame machine. For the latter, director Brett Morgen had unfettered access to the home movies, journals, artwork and photography of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of Nirvana. The result is an intimate, honest portrait that doesn’t leap to tidy answers but haunts through unanswered questions. Daughter Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer.

 

THE GIFT

Australian actor Joel Edgerton (Black Mass) pulls off a rare hat trick as writer, director and co-star of this subversive thriller that toys with audience expectations even as it zags in different directions. Married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, both excellent) seem to have befriended the Guy Who Won’t Go Away in Gordo (Edgerton), Simon’s high-school classmate. But as Robyn unwraps the puzzle box of what Gordo wants and why, the film explores – and is a testament to – the disturbing power of ideas.

INSIDE OUT

The inner life of an 11-year-old girl is not only colorful and inventive but poignantly subtle in this Pixar animated comedy-adventure. Young Riley struggles to adjust in the wake of her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco as her feelings Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) do their best to help her. A kaleidoscope of visual puns and sharp wit, the film resonates in its illustration of how feelings ebb and flow, and that each has value, even a good cry. As RogerEbert.com put it, we feel for Riley, and with her. “She contains multitudes.” Directed by Pete Docter and written by Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley from a story by Ronnie del Carmen and Docter.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

At age 70, director and co-writer George Miller reinvigorates the post-apocalyptic franchise he began with 1979’s Mad Max with intense action and unexpected depth. Charlize Theron plays Furiosa, a woman rebelling against a patriarchal warlord (Hugh Keays-Byrne) by releasing his “breeders,” as the most-striking futuristic badass since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens. Stumbling into their flight, drifter Max (Tom Hardy) becomes their ally along for the ride – and what a wild one it is. A flame-throwing guitarist, chrome-crazy warboys and motorcycling valkyries round out the odyssey across the Namibian desert, which cinematographer John Seale paints with rich golds and blues. Not bad for a film that’s existed as storyboards since 1999. There’s not a weak link in the cast, which includes Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keough and Zoe Kravitz. Theron and Hardy especially convey loads of pain and mad respect through their eyes alone.

 

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION

The fifth outing in this special-agent franchise soars on the charisma and determination of Tom Cruise, who serves “almost literally,” The Atlantic says, “as the engine driving the movie.” With his Impossible Mission Force disbanded, Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt and his team (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) track down terrorist operatives with a disavowed British agent (Rebecca Ferguson) who might be playing both sides. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie with a script by Drew Pearce, McQuarrie and Bruce Geller as a MacGuffin story wound tight with stunts and intrigue.

 

PHOENIX

Shot in the face and left for dead, a concentration-camp survivor undergoes reconstructive surgery and tracks down her husband, who thinks this “new” woman is the ideal way to go after his wife’s inheritance. Director Christian Petzold co-adapted the novel by Hubert Monteilhet for this atmospheric drama of deception, identity and guilt in postwar Berlin. Newsday likened this “enigmatic movie that's a tour de force of acting, direction and intellectual provocation” to a Hitchcock thriller, starring Nina Hoss as the woman reborn.

 

SHAUN OF THE SHEEP

A precocious sheep itches for a day off that snowballs into the animals rescuing their dim but beloved farmer in this seemingly simple animated tale. Aardman Animations works its stop-motion magic through slapstick, elaborate sight gags, crack timing and nary a spoken word, reaping bales of laughs and compassion. A delight. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak.

 

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

The rise, breakup and legacy of 1980s rap group N.W.A. explodes in this biopic from the streets of Compton, Calif., to the pop-culture stage as an outraged voice against abusive authority, particularly the police. Featuring magnetic performances from Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Jason Mitchell as Easy-E and O’shea Jackson Jr. as his own father, Ice Cube, the film engrosses over two and a half hours, thanks in large part to director F. Gary Gray. It goes beyond the surface of fame and the musicians’ personal lives to show the “core of the story is business, the object is power, and the quirks of desire and twists of the unconscious are given no place in the struggle,” the New Yorker said. 

 

TIMBUKTU

This 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film found wider release this year and earned comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Cattle herder Kidane lives a pastoral life with his wife, Satima; daughter; and a young shepherd outside the ancient city of Timbuktu, where religious fundamentalists rule. When Kidane is arrested for murder, the local hardline officer sees a chance to separate him from the lovely Satima in a tale that’s both poetic and sobering.  Written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a Muslim from neighboring Mauritania. Subtitled.