ZekeFilm Writers Share Their Midyear Film Picks
The 2015 movie year roared in promising the biggest of things (New JURASSIC PARK! New AVENGERS!! New STAR WARS!!!!), and heaps more of genuinely promising films (Brad Bird directing TOMORROWLAND! Pixar’s return to original content with INSIDE OUT! New JAMES BOND!). As we take a moment midyear to size up the best of what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say that 2015 is, if nothing else to this point, a year rife with occasional soaring highs and agreeably dismal lows.
Of the five regular ZekeFilm critics featured as part of this roundup, it’s worth noting 1.) the prevalence of certain Big Films Of Quality, and 2.) the indie/art house entries swooping in to fill in the gaps. Also, we haven’t all seen every movie, although we’ve seen a lot! Come December, when we’re doing our big fat year-end lists, it’s anyone’s guess how much of what you see here will remain part of the conversation. But wouldn’t it be nice if at least a few of them are still on our minds?
Erik Yates (Featured Critic)
I’ve ignored films up for the Academy Awards since they were technically counted for last year. This would include films such as Still Alice, or The Song of the Sea. With that in mind, here are my top 5 films for the first half of 2015.
I never put an animated film in my top spot, yet so far, this is the film that has resonated the most with me. Pixar, after a few years of declining product and storytelling, has rebounded with a tale that is “classic” Pixar. One that evokes childlike wonder, humor, and the complex realities of growing up and losing one’s innocence.
The tale of Brian Wilson and his struggle with mental illness, while creating some of the most celebrated and complex musical compositions of our culture, is a beautiful story of redemption with two great performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack portraying the afflicted Beach Boy.
A powerful film that deconstructs the danger of our relationship with technology, artificial intelligence, search engines, and the corruptible heart of man. Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are riveting, but Alicia Vikander steals the show.
4. Seymour: An Introduction
Director Ethan Hawke presents a resonating look at Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist who all but disappeared from the public arena at the height of his popularity. A fascinating look at Seymour’s journey, philosophy, and the wonderful beauty of music wrapped up in the human experience of us all. A fun, and inspiring documentary.
5. (tie) Mad Max: Fury Road and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
While Mad Max brings action movies into the art-house world, complete with beautiful Cirque du Soleil choreographed stunts and a fantastic performance from Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem brings the opposite. It is a small, engaging look at the divorce laws in Israel and the lack of rights for women in a cultural that is still largely subservient to its orthodox beliefs, despite its advanced modernity in the face of its neighbors. Strong performances bolster both films.
Jim Tudor (ZekeFilm Co-Founder)
Pixar’s colorful and fun film is wholly entertaining, brilliantly imaginative, universally resonant, and left this reviewer wanting to be a better parent. Inside Out is the best film of the year so far; its title an apt description of its positive emotional effect.
George Miller’s fourth Mad Max film is bombastic, colorful, imaculate, ferocious, and amazing. This is a fully formed crazy world, and we’re just passing through. We just happened to happen by during the mother of all desert car chases. And in the cinematic summer of 2015, it’s all the pedal-to-the-metal vision that anyone needs.
3. 20,000 Days on Earth
This most interesting chronicle of musician Nick Cave is not quite a documentary, as it’s full of actors and sets and manufactured situations, but it IS documenting Cave (as a personality) as he is now in a real and even relatable way. Sporting a Nicolas Roeg vibe, 20,000 Days is at once humorous, dark, broken, and fully formed. Like Paul Hibbard says in his review, you don’t need to be a Cave fan to enjoy this. But if you are, you will love it.
A cooly effective sci-fi/horror/noir/tech-talk cat and mouse character drama that takes so many turns that to pin it down to any one genre would be something of a spoiler. Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson are among the only actors in the film, and they carry it far.
This fittingly risky yet harmonic biopic of troubled Beach Boys musical genius Brian Wilson features not one but two great if dissimilar actors as the lead character (Paul Dano as the 1960s version, and John Cusack as the 1980s version). It dares to ping-pong chronologically between the two throughout – and it works. Summer fun, fun, fun was never so wounded and resonant.
Runners-Up: What We Do in the Shadows, Paddington.
Sharon Autenrieth (Contributor)
The two best movies I’ve seen this year are atmospheric, terrifying, and point to how terribly damaging and distorted human sexuality can be. They are adult movies in the best sense of the word. In a sea of lightweight entertainment, these movies grab you by the shoulders, dig in their fingernails and say something.
It Follows is a horror movie deliberately evoking classic 70s and early 80s horror films; with its pulsing, synth-organ score, suburban teen protagonists, and the slow, steady encroachment of evil. That this particular monster is attached to sex might make the message of the movie far too simple (Have sex and you’ll die!), if not for the fact that the only way to escape this fate is to pass it on to someone else, through sexual contact (If you don’t have sex, you’ll die!). It Follows is not that easy, not a straightforward morality tale, and yet all of the ideas it evokes – of betrayal, and abuse, and shame, and disease – centered around a group of loyal and loving children (the childlikeness of these teens is emphasized repeatedly) only drive deeper how much is broken about the world in which they are growing up. Our world. It Follows is completely effective as horror, but it’s also profoundly sad.
Ex Machina follows in such a grand film tradition; movies examining questions about humanity through sentient machines – Metropolis, Blade Runner, A.I., Her. Ex Machina offers fantastic visual design, particularly in the “person” of the robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). She is a beautifully expressive human face atop mesh limbs and a transparent torso, showing her gleaming inner workings. Her precise, balletic movements contrast with the heavy, muscular frame of her creator (an internet billionaire played by Oscar Isaac) and the slack, lanky, defenselessness of Domhnall Gleeson, at his best as an everyman coder brought in to test Ava’s A.I.. There’s a game going on between these three, but who is in control and what is at stake will unfold only with time. Ex Machina pays particular attention to voyeurism, objectification and sexual power. It’s perhaps the natural end of our consumptive culture that ethical questions around artificial intelligence are answered in the film simply with, “Because I can, and because I want.”
Randall Yelverton (Contributor)
Peerless action filmmaking. The amazing stunt work recalls the glories of the silent era.
2. It Follows
A unique horror vision that many have misread as an Afterschool Special-style warning about promiscuity. The film is much more thematically rich and also, most importantly, scary.
3. The Clouds of Sils Maria
A performer’s showcase from accomplished director Olivier Assayas. A knotty, quiet film that offers the perfect tonic to the explodey multiplex visions typical of summer.
Plot will be familiar to Bradbury and Twilight Zone enthusiasts, but the film offers a rich sci-fi experience filled with excellent performances. Aesthetically, this movie is a knock-out.
Tense thriller about the ramping up of tensions between the IRA and British forces. When a green British soldier is separated from his unit, he becomes a pawn used by the many different factions in the battle for Ireland’s future.
Runners-up (in no order): The Land of Many Palaces, What We Do in the Shadows, White God, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Going Clear, McFarland USA, Chappie, Spy
Krystal Lyon (Contributor)
Please stop what you are doing and quickly make your way to a theater to see Mad Max: Fury Road! The big screen and surround sound were made for visual marvels like this! And lets hope that there are more roles like Furiosa for women in Hollywood! (Charlize Theron, you are my hero!) Bravo to director George Miller! You’re a true artist and visionary and dude, I dig your style! And yes, I realize that I’m using a lot of exclamation marks! Fury Roadearned them all!
2. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
What?! I literally shouted that out loud multiple times while watching Going Clear. This documentary brings to light the very private beliefs and practices of the Church of Scientology. Through testimonials of former scientologist and archival footage of L. Ron Hubbard a somber story is told of deception and fear! Going Clearwas the talk of Sundance this year, mainly because of the connection to Hollywood, and I believe it will be in the discussion come award season too!
Can we please stop making robots! Ex Machina is the newest interpretation of where artificial intelligence could lead. Unlike Terminator, The Matrix and I, Robot, Ex Machina is a quiet film with a twisty plot and terrifying results. While the technology in Ex Machina is far fetched the ideas behind it are not and in many ways I can see connections to Spike Jonze’s Her. But in this scenario the artificial intelligence is more about ruling man than dating him!
I am the only one that will list Chappie in my top 5 of 2015, but I’m sticking to my guns. I love director, Neill Blomkamp’s style and the questions he asks in Chappie are complex and good. I love Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser in this film. They are beautiful and raw-awful perfection for the roles! And lastly, I like Hugh Jackman as a bad guy and I like his mullet. Chappie is worth a watch; don’t let all those bad reviews scare you away.
5. The Connection, “La French”
A beautifully made French film about the sacrifice of one police magistrate to take down a notorious gang in the 1970’s. Director Cedric Jimenez totally captured the brassiness of the 70’s Marseille, France with glitzy clubs and beige suits. The cinematography, colors and scenery make this a feast for the eyes! It took a while but finally there is a French companion for The French Connection!
Honorable Mentions: What We Do in the Shadows and Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Paul Hibbard (Contributor)
Wild Tales can best be described as Quentin Tarantino directing episodes of The Twilight Zone in Argentina. Besides having Pedro Almodovar’s name as a presenter, this movie is completely under the radar and unfortunately so. It’s made up of a set of vignettes that would completely hold up on their own and make a great episode of an anthology show like Black Mirror. However, the connections made by the director make it a true film.
2. It Follows
The perfect horror movie. It is scary. Scratch that…terrifying. The way the director taps into a weird phenomenon of having characters walking directly at you and the eeriness that instills. We are immune to that in films to a degree. Besides the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, the monsters come after the characters on screen. In It Follows, they are walking right at you. Also how terrifying is it to have someone walking directly at you. Staring right at you. Not slumping their shoulders. Not dropping their heads, like we tend to do when approaching someone. But walking in a determined and terrifying way. This movie does things few other horror movies can. It scares you in new ways.
It’s also a movie about something. What that something is will hopefully be debated for years. Sexual diseases? Sexual abuse? Poverty and economic disparity? (That conversation at the height of the film about Detroit’s suburbs vs inner-city wasn’t an accident). I say yes to all.
If you are still somehow on the fence, just watch the opening scene. Wait for the score to kick in. After that, the movie owns you.
3. Maps To The Stars
Cronenberg at his most unhinged but also his most on-point film, at least in terms with what he’s saying. This is clearly a satire of Hollywood. Very few of his other films are clearly an anything on anything. If you are looking for a take-down of Hollywood phonies, watch this movie. If you are looking for assault, murder and incest wrapped up in a film John Waters says is one of his favorite movies ever – “I love this movie more than I love my own mustache” (true quote) – then see this movie.
To try to put words and logic to this movie is almost impossible. It is absolutely insane. And made even more insane when you think it was produced by a major studio and directed by a 70 year-old. All of the pieces are great: the acting, the design, etc. But the movie is bigger than that. It is a spectacle. What’s amazing is the way it has one foot planted in the past and one in the future. It’s breaking ground to how action movies should feel. But its other foot is planted in film history. With heavy influences from silent films like Trip to the Moon. At one time films were called the motion pictures for a reason. Not the “sit around and explain the plot” pictures. This film takes that advice, and injects it with steroids, adds a flame-throwing guitar player and gives you two hours of your life that will destroy you. In the best way possible.