The best films of 2015 (so far)

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By Variety:

With the year half over, our three critics have each selected their five favorite U.S. releases of 2015 so far.

SCOTT FOUNDAS

"Ex Machina"
Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland's brainy, precisely calibrated chamber drama was that rare piece of contemporary sci-fi filmmaking worthy of mention in the same breath as "Blade Runner" and "The Terminator." Whatever this modestly scaled film lacked in budgetary heft, it more than made up for in sleekly expressive production design, provocative ideas about the fine line between man and machine, and knockout performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (as the Pinocchio-like android yearning to be a real, live girl).

"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"
A young Japanese woman obsessed with the Coen brothers' "Fargo" travels to the wilds of Minnesota in search of buried treasure in this comic gem from another sibling director team, David and Nathan Zellner. With deadpan elan, the Zellners spin an urban legend into a wry contemplation of the power movies have to enlarge and (sometimes) overwhelm our sense of reality, with a luminous lead performance by Rinko Kikuchi that fully deserves to be called Chaplinesque.

"La Sapienza"
The American-born, Paris-based director Eugene Green's enchanting fifth feature stimulated the mind and touched the heart as it spun its playful tale of a melancholy architect and his wife who rediscover themselves (and their love for each other) through their encounter with two idealistic teenage siblings, and the ghost of the 17th-century Swiss-Italian architect Francesco Borromini.

"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Nearly 40 years after launching his iconic post-apocalyptic road-movie franchise, George Miller set out to surpass his own daunting high bar for kinetic action cinema. The result — a breathless (and almost wordless), deliriously inventive, female-centric chase picture — made the 70-year-old Miller seem like the coolest kid on the block, and left most other summer movies looking positively prehistoric.

"Seymour: An Introduction"
A film as deceptively modest as its subject, Ethan Hawke's candid portrait of octogenarian classical pianist Seymour Bernstein was as heady a plunge into the nature of creativity and the transcendent power of art as "My Dinner With Andre" had been three decades earlier. At the center of it all was the monastic Bernstein, a figure of becalmed grace dispensing life and music lessons in equal measure, and reducing to rubble the notion that teaching is the last refuge of professional failures.


JUSTIN CHANG

"Inside Out"
Childhood's end has long been one of Pixar's grand recurring themes, and it could scarcely have found a more poignant or ingenious expression than in the studio's long-overdue return to form. Beautifully orchestrated by co-directors Pete Docter ("Up," "Monsters, Inc.") and Ronnie del Carmen, this wild romp through the labyrinth of an 11-year-old girl's subconscious is a playful and rigorous deconstruction of human emotion that somehow evolves into one of the most emotionally overwhelming movies that Pixar, or Disney, has ever made.

"Mad Max: Fury Road"
A tough 30-year wait came to a triumphant end with this supercharged entertainment from George Miller, sustaining two hours of ferocious, unfettered B-movie bliss that amounted to nothing short of a master class in action filmmaking. Along with Alex Garland's "Ex Machina" (another of this year's early standouts), "Fury Road" also did its part to spur a vital conversation on B-movie gender politics, with Tom Hardy rightly ceding the steering wheel to his equally magnetic co-star, Charlize Theron, and a cast of female fighters whose function here is far more than strictly decorative.

"Seymour: An Introduction"
It made me nostalgic for the bygone days of my own musical education, but Ethan Hawke's sublime tribute to the great classical pianist Seymour Bernstein is a work of overflowing riches even for those who have never tickled the ivories. So far, 2015 has offered us no shortage of standout documentaries ("Amy," "Going Clear," "Iris," "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck," "The Wolfpack"), but no fiction or nonfiction film I've seen this year has illuminated the purpose and the challenge of the creative impulse with such revivifying clarity.

"The Tribe"
The debut film of the year so far is an astonishing coup de cinema from the Ukrainian writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy, who demonstrates a command of form and staging to leave one fittingly speechless. For all its deprivations (dialogue, subtitles, humanity), this cold, pitiless immersion in the life and crimes of a Kiev boarding school for deaf teenagers is simply staggering in its narrative momentum and emotional expressiveness. Close attention must be paid, and it will be amply rewarded.

"White God"
The title may reference Sam Fuller's 1982 drama "White Dog," but this thrillingly dark parable played more like "Lassie" by way of George Romero as it turned a canine uprising into the ultimate return-of-the-repressed metaphor. After making a few little-seen, little-appreciated art films (including "Delta" and "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project"), Hungarian auteur Kornel Mundruczo delivered a work of hard-hitting provocation and startling violence that suggested we may have a new (ahem) Peckinpaw on our hands.


PETER DEBRUGE

"The Duke of Burgundy"
A mesmerizing deconstruction of a sado-masochistic lesbian relationship that challenges the conventional wisdom about both parties' roles, Peter Strickland's ultra-sensuous third feature reveals how so-called submissives can actually be the most demanding party in the relationship, determining precisely how they like to be dominated. As visually rich as it is psychologically complex, the unfortunately titled film (named for a rare species of butterfly) voluptuously evokes a certain strand of 1970s-era Italian sexploitation pictures, with their isolated locations, golden light and half-spoken secrets.

"The Harvest"
"Wild Things" director John McNaughton's first feature in a dozen years proved a tricky property to sell in today's horror-movie market, where distributors are understandably cautious about a rurally set, teen-targeted chiller whose double-meaning title references a scary organ-harvesting plot. That said, I love that McNaughton wasn't shy about freaking out young audiences, delivering an unsettling "Stand by Me"-like coming-of-age movie with an incredibly deranged performance from Samantha Morton.

"Inside Out"
Over the past few weeks, I've caught myself thinking about how my mind works in totally different terms. Naysayers claim the film isn't as revolutionary as all that, implying that versions of its anthropomorphized-emotions concept have been kicking around Hollywood for decades (the weirdest "been there, done that" comparison being to Walt Disney World's defunct "Cranium Command" attraction). True or not, the detractors miss the point that Pixar took the high-concept idea and delivered a game-changing movie.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"
Launched at Sundance, where it won the grand jury prize, the latest entry in the weepie terminal-teen genre also happens to be the funniest, offering laugh-a-minute delight without sacrificing sincerity along the way. The comic approach works thanks to great casting, a terrific script from Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel) and a series of off-kilter directorial decisions from Alejandro Gomez-Rejon, whose playful approach never loses sight of the film's core emotional truth.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence"
In a summer once again bloated with sequels, none thrilled me more than the long-in-the-making final installment in Swedish director Roy Andersson's dark-comedy trilogy, following "Songs From the Second Floor" and "You, the Living." Haven't heard of those movies? Don't worry: It's not essential that you see them before feasting on "Pigeon's" wonderfully droll sensibility. But be warned, instead of bigger/louder/more, this arthouse follow-up offers meticulously constructed, detail-oriented dioramas of ghostly characters responding to outlandish situations.

Nota bene: For the sake of freshness, Peter Debruge's list omits titles that appeared on his 2014 top 10 list — including "While We're Young" and "L'il Quinquin."

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