Way Too Indie’s 20 Best Films of 2015 So Far

Way Too Indie’s 20 Best Films of 2015 So Far

Well that was fast. Seems like just yesterday we were recalling our favorite movie moments from 2014. It’s hard to believe but we’re already halfway into 2015! So it’s time for us to reflect back on all the releases since January. Sure, the year has given us a fair amount of flops, like Tomorrowland, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Hot Pursuit, The Cobbler, Aloha, and Entourage to name a few, but luckily in the deluge of releases we’ve come to expect these days, 2015 has delivered a few films worth flocking to theaters for.

There’s something for everyone on our list of the Best Films of 2015 So Far. Eclectic even for us, our diverse inventory includes some of last year’s Cannes Film Festival standouts, a must-see horror film, a Wes Anderson-esque western, several low-budget indies, and to round things out, a big studio action film who’s inclusion among our favorites is one of the more intriguing and pleasant surprises 2015 has thrown at us.

There’s plenty to look forward to later on in the year—we’re looking at you Knight of Cups—but in the meantime rest assured you already have some watching to keep you busy as Summer begins.

Way Too Indie’s Best Films of 2015 So Far

#20. Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria

There are few better words than “layered” to describe the labyrinth that is Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which made Kristen Stewart the first ever American to win Best Supporting Actress at France’s prestigious César awards. Normally this external detail might prove irrelevant to the work itself, but for a film that focuses so strongly on the generation gap and the notion of aging in the entertainment industry, the fact that Stewart’s subtle performance has overshadowed Juliette Binoche’s more sensational lead performance on the awards circuit is interesting in a self-referential sort of way. Indeed, the concept of parallels seems to go hand in hand with the predicament that Binoche’s character, Maria, finds herself in when she agrees to take part in a revival of the play that once upon a time sparked her career. However, issues of identity and the psychology of the performer are explored when Maria’s original role of Sigrid is given up to a young Hollywood celebrity, and she is forced to play the girl’s opposite as the older and more fragile Helena. Clouds will likely be remembered for its terrific performances, but Assayas’ writing and direction are what allow it to take some strangely enigmatic turns, especially in the second and third acts. It’s these puzzling moments that raise thought-provoking but potentially unanswerable questions in the mind of the viewer, and transform the experience, as a whole, into a difficult one to shake. [Eli]

#19. Faults

Faults indie movie

This feature debut from Riley Stearns contains just the right combination of absurdity and hilarity to make it one of the most entertaining movies of the year. Much of the success of Faults comes from the brilliant lead performance of Leland Orser, who plays an eccentric cult deprogrammer on the decline of his career. In order to pay back his agent from his recent book tour failure, he takes on a job to deprogram a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) currently under a cult spell. From there, the film evolves into a thrilling chamber piece with unpredictable outcomes. Stearns crafts a wildly hypnotic film from a bare bones setup, establishing himself as an upcoming director worth keeping an eye on. With Orser and Winstead at the top of their game, Faults stands out as one of the best indie debuts of the year. [Dustin]

#18. Seymour: An Introduction

Seymour An Introduction

The old saying “those who can’t do teach” doesn’t apply to Seymour Bernstien, a legendary concert pianist who, at the peak of his career, gave it all up to become a music instructor and composer. Ethan Hawke, one of Seymour’s most famous pupils, made Seymour: An Introduction as both a documentary tribute to his mentor and a megaphone through which the 85-year-old’s wisdom and philosophies can touch those around the world, beyond his cozy NYC apartment. It’s a strikingly cinematic documentary about a man who’s developed an ultimate understanding of the link between music and life itself. A sampling: “You can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment,” Seymour says on-camera. The man’s a master on the keys, but has a way of making words sing, too. [Bernard]

#17. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, the arthouse response to The Fault in Our Stars, isn’t quite the genre-redefining coming-of-age film some made it out to be when it premiered and won at Sundance last January. But it’s still a charming and likable enough film that supplies a nice alternative to the constant assault of summer blockbusters like Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys. Thomas Mann, in the lead role of Greg (the ‘Me’ of the film’s title), turns in a good performance that shows some promise for a career that initially started with duds like Project X, but it’s Olivia Cooke who really shines as his classmate who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. And Jon Bernthal continues his streak of great supporting turns; someone give this guy a much deserved leading role already! [Ryan]

#16. Jauja

Jauja film

Transfixing. That’s the first word that comes to my mind when I think about Lisandro Alonso’s fiercely strange Jauja. Filmed in a vintage 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio, the film boxes in its characters in a squircle with seemingly magical capabilities and, by way of a cinematography that’s got a wondrous use for depth-of-field and a mise-en-scene that engages empty spaces like no other film this decade, it creates a magnetic bridge between audience and screen. To put it another way, watching Jauja is to cinephiles what going to church on Sundays is to devout theists; an altogether spiritual experience. It’s set during the time of conquistadors, and first half is easy enough to follow; Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) brings along his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) on a joint expedition with an allied Spanish infantry. There’s tell of a mysterious army general who has vanished into the desert, never to be seen again, and when Inge disappears one night, Dinesen must gaze into the abyss of this desert in order to find her. That’s when the second half of the film takes over; surreal, compelling, and intimate, the film takes on transportational qualities as we follow the more and more perplexed Denisen. The allure of Jauja is almost as hard to explain as Dinesen’s conversation with the woman in the cave, and it’s got “acquired taste” written all over it, but for fans of meticulous shot composition, and a vibe that’s neither wholly David Lynch or wholly Andrei Tarkovsky, but some transmutated hybrid of the two, it’s a film that dives into the beyond and comes up for air with a plethora of treasures. Alonso is an arthouse storyteller known for stretching out thin plots and narratives in lieu of a viscerally visual journey, and Jauja is his most unforgettable one yet. [Nik]

#15. Heaven Knows What

Heaven Knows What movie

Based on lead actress Arielle Holmes’ unpublished autobiographical novel, “Mad Love in New York City,” the Safdie Brothers’ newest output reaches uniquely authentic heights, primarily through Holmes’ distinct performance as Harley: a fictionalized depiction of her homeless and heroin-addicted former self. This imitation of life may be the closest to pure documentary that the world of fiction filmmaking has been in some time. To see Holmes maneuver her way through a simulated version of her troubled past is already haunting, but juxtaposed with Sean Price Williams’ floating camera and Isao Tomita’s heavy electronic synthesizer score, the film’s hyper-realism frequently borders on dreamlike surrealism and hits some unforgettable notes. Much of the film consists of Harley’s endless attempts to satisfy her insatiable appetite for a fix, as well as her interactions with other drug addicted and alcoholic members of the New York City homeless population. The repetitive and consistently uncomfortable nature of the film may repel some viewers, but for those fascinated by cinema that replicates reality on a deeper level than the norm, Heaven Knows What may end up being one of the year’s biggest surprises. [Eli]

#14. Appropriate Behavior

Appropriate Behavior film

I find it quite fitting that Desiree Akhavan’s film début (writing, directing and starring) was the first that I watched and reviewed in 2015, and here it now finds its place among the best we’ve seen so far. Not a bad way to start the year, I’d say. This hipster Iranian-American bisexual rom-com feels as fresh as HBO’s Girls did back in 2012, but with an added diversity that show has always been sorely lacking in. Her jokes have the audacity of Broad City but with the wit of Woody Allen. As the film’s star, Akhavan portrays Shirin, a woman dealing with a break-up from the woman she sincerely loved while hashing through her naïve cultural confusion and general millennial narcissism. The film is at its most hilarious when exposing the ridiculousness of the young urban elite and their kombucha drinking, co-op volunteering, entirely self-conscious faux heroism. But while poking fun at her own generation, Akhavan adds a sense of romanticism even while being a woman behaving badly. On a list sorely lacking in comedy, you can be sure Appropriate Behavior has earned its spot here by being tear-inducingly funny and unapologetically sincere. [Ananda]

#13. Li’l Quinquin

Li'l Quinquin film

Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin is, by a wide margin, the funniest film of 2015 so far, and that’s saying something considering how downright grisly it can be. Starting off as a sort of French rural riff on the recent surge of murder mystery miniseries, Quinquin follows the residents of a small countryside village when someone starts chopping up townspeople and stuffing their body parts into cows. As the 200 minute film—originally a 4-part miniseries in France—gets closer to finding a possible suspect, it becomes apparent that Dumont has little interest in solving the case. What begins as a quirky whodunit gradually transforms itself into an exploration of humanity, mainly our capacity to do good and/or evil. But even that reading is a bit of a reductive take on Dumont’s complex, philosophical and frequently uproarious work. People unaware of Dumont’s films will find Li’l Quinquin to be a great starting point, and those already familiar with his output should be shocked to find that he’s been hiding such an incredible sense of humor for this long. [C.J.]

#12. Girlhood

Girlhood film

Every 16-year-old girl ought to have the world at her feet. Not all do. Marieme (Karidja Touré), the central character in Girlhood (Bande de Filles), does not. When she realizes she must do something to untether herself from a dead-end home life that includes a disinterested mother and an abusive older brother, her hopes of a higher education as a means of escape are dashed. It’s the film’s most devastating scene. When she says to her offscreen guidance counselor, “I want to be like others. Normal,” she is met with, “It’s a bit too late for that.” At 16 years old, she’s told it’s too late to make a positive change in her life. She remains undaunted, and instead looks for something else. This sets in motion a series of decisions and events that, in the hands of writer/director Céline Sciamma, resonate like those in other great coming-of-age films, yet remain completely devoid of the melodrama so prevalent in those films. It’s a remarkably genuine approach that not only grounds the film in terrific realism, it keeps the viewer highly engaged because all expectations of cliché are shattered. This refreshing take on the struggles of a lower-class teen is enhanced greatly by the talent and beauty of first-timer Touré. She is undaunted by the hopelessness of her situation, yet she never comes across as the type who dots her eyes with hearts, instead conveying sweet innocence in a hardscrabble shell that is simultaneously sympathetic and inspirational. It’s a performance worthy of praise in a film worthy of this list. [Michael]

#11. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

In Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Ronit Elkabetz stars as Viviane Amsalem, a woman seeking a divorce from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). This is the basic concept, but nothing else about the film is basic. It’s set in Israel, where there is no such thing as a civil marriage; each marriage is performed as part of a religious ceremony, and must be dissolved that way, too. Based on religious tenets, a husband must give his full consent for a marriage to be dissolved, and if he doesn’t want the divorce, the divorce doesn’t happen. Suddenly, this woman who has been trapped in an unhappy marriage finds herself trapped again—a prisoner of a system that stacks the deck against the same women it all but ignores in the first place. This makes the rules as much the antagonist of the film as the husband, if not more so, and it’s the film’s stroke of genius. Co-written/co-directed by star Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi, the film is a courtroom drama like I’ve never seen before, morphing from a tale of a wife trapped in a bad marriage to a commentary on a culture that treats women as afterthoughts. Not only is Elkabetz’s co-direction sensational, her performance is unforgettable as well. As the woman who will not be denied no matter how many men get in her way (husband, judges, witnesses), Elkabetz shows the weariness and frustration borne of years of roadblocks (the film spans five years!), with a steely layer of resolve beneath. With terrific storytelling fundamentals, compelling emotional depth, and crackling dialogue, the Elkabetz siblings could be Israeli filmmaking’s answer to the Coen Brothers. [Michael]

#10. White God

White God indie movie

White God, which premiered and emerged victorious in the Un Certain Regard section of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a harrowing, brutal melodrama about animal cruelty that equally serves as a metaphorical story of class/race issues that have always troubled society. While the film sometimes falls short of fully realizing its potential due to shifting tones and a couple other missteps, it’s original and far too interesting to pass over. The film also features some of the most wonderfully cinematic images and some of the best editing of any film to be released so far this year. So if you missed White God during its limited theatrical run in the U.S. this past March then keep your eye out for it when it’s released on blu-ray and DVD July 28th. [Ryan]

#9. Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God movie

Conceived in the 1960s, shot in the 2000s, and finally finished in 2013, Aleksei German’s magnum opus Hard to Be a God could easily claim the title of filthiest movie ever made without anyone batting an eye. German’s sci-fi adaptation takes place in the future, but the setting is like entering a time machine into the past; a recently discovered planet that’s just like Earth, except the planet’s civilization is currently living out its pre-Renaissance phase. The camera, always moving and in deep focus, captures it all with a realism and sense of immersion that few films have achieved before, making Hard to Be a God a simultaneously grueling and exhilarating experience. Not many people will be up for German’s challenge here, but those willing to roll around in the mud will find themselves awestruck at the staggering, groundbreaking vision on display. Some films are hard to shake off, but Hard to Be a God is in a class of its own; this is a movie you have to scrub off. [C.J.]

#8. Slow West

Slow West movie

Before a frame was even shot, Slow West was flooded with promise. The feature-length directorial debut of John Maclean (DJ of the disbanded The Beta Band) stars Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn in two of the central roles. Surely the film would be interesting, but what resulted was something more. Following Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across the American West as he searches for the love of his young life, Slow West could have simply been a solid western. Instead, Maclean and company aimed higher: an absurdist send up of the genre, a coming of age cautionary tale, and a moralist adventure all in a simmering 83 minutes. Slow West is a rollickingly fun western, in equal measures tense and hilarious, absurd and painful. But what’s more is the astounding promise it shows of first-timer Maclean. Whatever he’s got cooking up next (hopefully another vehicle for his buddy Fassy) we’ll be there. [Gary]

#7. The Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy film

Peter Strickland’s sumptuous tale of a rocky lesbian relationship inside a surreal BDSM bubble came out at the very beginning of the year, and still beats the competition in terms of pure cinematic sensuality. The narrative follows butterfly expert Cynthia (Danish vet Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover, Evelyn (Italian debutante Chiara D’Anna), as they cope with ebbs and flows of a deep relationship that’s starting to lose steam, noticed mostly through the oft-hilarious cracks in their masochistic role-playing scenarios. The Duke of Burgundy has a perfect balance of fearless indulgence, and is incredible on multiple levels thanks to Strickland’s methods of cinematic persuasion; his use of a hauntingly romantic score by Cat’s Eye, visually stunning montages that are edited in staccato-like fashion and pledge allegiance to Stan Brakhage’s chaos of celluloid, and setting his story in what looks like an enchanted château from Renaissance Era folklore. The Duke of Burgundy is above all else a tight embrace of everything that sets cinema apart from all other arts. Add to that the re-definition of “toilet humor,” the evocative lead performances that beautifully compliment each other in the way they contrast, and the unadulterated imagination at work—from the costumes to the butterflies, and the all-female world with no sense of time or place,—and you have a film that breaks conventional cinematic barriers in order to express something infinitely universal; love. In all its kinky, silky, paranoid, powerful, glory. [Nik]

#6. Buzzard

Buzzard indie film

Buzzard isn’t a complicated film, but I find it difficult to describe in any intelligent way. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be completely confounded and charmed by its off-kilter sensibilities. As you are more than likely to not have seen Buzzard, here’s a little on the plot: Marty is a temp office worker, video game and horror film aficionado, overall slacker in the suburbs of Detroit. As he makes increasingly outrageously dumb decisions, he becomes more and more paranoid that the authorities (or something even more sinister) are out to get him. The film is a punk splashed throwback with its roots calling back to Alex Cox. Buzzard recent ties are to the comedy of Quentin Dupieux and Tim & Eric, and it more than holds its own against these more established and polished figures. There really isn’t much more I can say about the film than it is delightfully weird, awkward, and very, very cool. Joel Potrykus’s sophomore feature will hopefully be his indie breakout, though I surely hope he never loses his edge. [Aaron]

#5. It Follows

It Follows indie film

It Follows carves fresh terrain for horror movies, turning the sound of approaching footsteps into a signal of terror. David Robert Mitchell’s stylistic second feature film is a creepy, fun experience wholly unique in its approach. When a new boyfriend passes a sexually transmitted demon onto Jay (Maika Monroe), she and her friends work together to dispose of the monster and rid Jay of her curse. With striking cinematography and nods to John Carpenter classics (notably its ominous, synth-heavy score), the unsettlingly tense terror created in this film is surely among the greatest scary movies in recent memory.

Rather than make the true source of his scares the It Follows monster itself, the director Mitchell utilizes long takes that often place the demon off in the background slowly encroaching on Jay and her friends. The longer that a shot lingers, the more your dread will build. It Follows is a masterwork in the manipulation of anxieties. Its terrifying encounters with an unforgettable villain and the haunting imagery in It Follows leaves a chilling impact that will make you wonder what’s behind you. [Zachary]

#4. Wild Tales

Wild Tales indie movie

With Wild Tales, Damian Szifron reminds us that, deep down, we’re all a bunch of filthy animals. The characters in this blissfully chaotic anthology movie do things we wish we had the balls to do, breaking free of their societal restraints to indulge in the sweet nectar of violence, revenge, greed and infidelity. Each of the film’s six short stories are insanely entertaining in their own way, and though terrible, terrible things happen across the board, the biggest surprise is how much fun it is to watch these people’s lives fall apart. Maybe it’s cathartic, maybe there’s a bit of wish-fulfillment going on, or maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned, pulpy entertainment. Wherever the film’s true appeal lies, what’s abundantly clear is that Szifron is a badass storyteller with a unique vision. In the film’s final story, a man stands over his lover. He hurt her badly, and she’s hurt him right back. They’ve raged and cried and thrashed at each other, and now they’re drained, stripped of everything. He opens his arms and doesn’t say a word, but she hears him loud and clear. “This is us, baby. We’re filthy animals, but at least we’ve got each other.” We’ve all got a wild side, and Wild Tales reminds us to embrace it because it’s what makes us human. [Bernard]

#3. Mommy

Mommy indie movie

Love as the bond between mother and son is the subject for Xavier Dolan’s latest and perhaps best release so far Mommy. Following a widowed single mother struggling to make ends meet, Diane (Anne Dorval) raises her violent, ADHD son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), with the help of Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a mysterious neighbor who has a curious verbal tick. Together, the three lost souls function as a patchwork family unit, accomplishing more together than they would be capable of apart. Although the movie concerns itself with characters managing in difficult circumstances, the energy with which Dolan allows the story to unfold gives the film surges of stylistic adrenaline.

Shot in a 1:1 frame with warm, yellow hues that somewhat resemble an Instagram video, Dolan’s camera moves frenetically, whipping from one side of a conversation to the other in order to accommodate Mommy’s tight aspect ratio. The square frame helps draw the viewer’s eye inward toward the middle of the picture, providing an intimate view of these characters as they have deeply personal experiences. Through adversity Mommy remains an exuberant celebration of minor daily achievements, emphasizing that attitude often dictates outcomes. This is a deeply empathetic movie with several heart-wrenching sequences. All of this comes accompanied by an assortment of iconic late ’90s needle drops (“Colorblind” by Counting Crows, “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, “Wonderwall” by Oasis) and the best use of a Lana Del Ray song in cinema yet. [Zachary]

#2. Ex Machina

Ex Machina indie movie

It’s no surprise that début film director Alex Garland made his chops for years as a screenwriter—his script for Ex Machina is one of the best sci-fi scripts in years. There is always a particular balance that has to be struck with good, smart science fiction, wherein the intellectual scientific and philosophical concepts need to be accessible while not watered down for mass consumption. The film is primarily a film made up of conversations between two people at a time (either programmer whiz Caleb and towering genius Nathan, or Caleb and femmebot Ava), and the dialogue is sparkling, full of lofty ideas and technical jargon without much of a reference key. I’ll admit there were times that I felt a little left behind in the conversation, and I frankly should be when two very smart people are talking about very smart ideas. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t follow what was going on or felt the film was intellectually impenetrable, because its simplified location and high-concept premise, along with its eventual genre trappings, kept it all accessible. This all helps Ex Machina to be a unique science fiction film while tackling familiar science fiction themes. The three primary leads all give very different but equally brilliant performances, but Alicia Vikander rightly has gotten the most attention for her breakout role as A.I. seductress Ava. Simply put, if the actress in the Ava role doesn’t deliver, the film doesn’t work. Because a majority of the film’s premise has Caleb literally testing Ava to see if she has the capacity to be human, the audience is focused in on every word she says and motion she makes. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Caleb is fooled in ways, and so was I. [Aaron]

#1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road

His name is Max. His world is fire and blood. And this movie is barely even about him. How did a not-so-indie summer blockbuster action flick make it to the coveted #1 spot on this list? By doing what indie films do best—bring innovation to the big screen. In this way Mad Max: Fury Road is the most indie-spirited film out this year. Director George Miller, who made the original Mad Max for less than half a million dollars, and who has maintained that indie spark, is a patient man, who waited until the time was ripe and technology could accommodate his vision. Never has such patience paid off quite so well. Literally—as this film is doing nicely at the box office—but also in providing one of the most provocative action films to come out of the genre. Forget that its visuals are beyond stunning and its pace remains breakneck with hardly a second to catch one’s breath, it has sparked some of the most lively conversation of the year around feminism, female film leads (like I said, this film isn’t really all that focused on Max, it’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who should have top billing), and the surprising social commentary a post-apocalyptic action film can stir up on such lofty subjects as injustice, slavery, objectification, and male-dominance. Those who don’t want to think can enjoy the visuals, fast cars, and flame-throwing, but those who find an added pensiveness to their action film to be an invigorating bonus, will find Fury Road to be a whole new kind of avant-garde. [Ananda]

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