2015 in Review: The Best Films of the Year so Far

Sunshine Superman
The noise for 2015 is loudest for the loudest movies, but this year is all about the indies. Mad Max: Fury Road shakes the multiplex with more bass and fury than all the other releases of the year combined, and there’s no doubt that it’s a landmark Hollywood blockbuster with its badass heroin Furiosa and the madcap direction by George Miller. It’s the most entertaining film of the year, but it’s not quite the best.

The standouts among the 2015 releases are mostly holdovers from last year’s fall festival circuit. Great films that few moviegoers got to see until now make 2015 a pretty good year at the movies if one knows where to look. For me, 2015 has five standouts so far: one doc, one sumptuous adaptation, one Canadian film, and one German mystery. I.e.: Sunshine Superman, Far from the Madding Crowd, In Her Place, and Phoenix are clear favourites. Any of the films below, though, deserve to be considered as one of the best films of the year so far. The top picks for the best 2015 releases to date are, in alphabetical order:

The Best Films of 2015 so far:

This dark and magical coming of age story marks a strong feature debut for Christian Sparkes. Cast No Shadow, a surprise Best Picture nominee at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, is one of the better under-the-radar films of the year, Canadian or otherwise. Young actor Percy Hynes-White gives a remarkable lead performance as a child who escapes abuse by retreating into the dark corners of the mind. The film conjures both the power and horror of the imagination by blurring fantasy and realism into a seamless dream.

Clouds, a highlight from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is one of the most surprising films of the festival circuit and this year’s releases. Writer/director Olivier Assayas and star Juliette Binoche surpass expectations with this deft character study of an aging actress struggling to revisit the early stages of her career, but the real force of this film is Kristen Stewart. The Twilight star gives the best work of her career as Binoche’s young assistant and makes a bold one-two dramatic punch following her underrated performance in last year’s Still Alice.
(Clouds of Sils Maria is now playing in limited release.)

Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd is an exceptional adaptation that honours the novel while making a film that feels updated and relevant to audiences today. Central to the sweep and power of this take on the Thomas Hardy classic is Carey Mulligan’s showstopper of a performance as Bathsheba Everdeen. It’s hard to imagine anyone upstaging Julie Christie’s memorable turn in the role, but Mulligan does it. Aided by strong co-stars like Michael Sheen and Matthias Schoenaerts, plus lovely work from the arts and crafts team, this Madding could rightly stand as the definitive adaptation of Hardy’s novel.
(Far from the Madding Crowd is now playing in limited release.)

In Her Place is far and away the standout Canadian film of 2015 so far. This powerful triptych from writer/director Albert Shin is a searing character study. Grounded by three note-perfect performances by Da-kyung Yoon, Ji-hye Ahn, and Hae-yeon Ki, In Her Place creates an effective triangle as a woman, a daughter, and a mother negotiate competing loyalties and emotions to raise a child through a well-intentioned, if brutally cold transaction. The performances are subtle and devastating, and Shin handles the power and shifting sympathies with masterful care. If any Canadian film release so far this year deserves a push for our Oscar slot, In Her Place is it.
(In Her Place is now on VOD.)

Runko Kikuchi gives a master class performance of silent, unhinged insanity in this darkly hilarious (and devastating) interpretation of the myth that a mentally ill Japanese woman while trudging through the snow in a motel blanket while searching for the briefcase full of money left by Steve Buscemi in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. This black comedy offers a great counterpoint to the blurring of art and life in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as Kikuchi’s insomniac analyzies an old VHS of Fargo with fastidious obsession. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is the most delightfully bizarre film of this year or any other.
(Kumiko hits iTunes on July 7.)

Montage of Heck is one of those rock docs that goes to eleven. This phenomenal study of the troubled psyche of Kurt Cobain brilliantly covers all the dark sides of his persona as director Brett Morgan undertakes a stunning range of archival footage and fills in the visual gaps with haunting animation. Interviews with key figures like Courtney Love are also revealing, but the most effective glimpses at Cobain’s life are the troubling home movies that show a life consumed and destroyed by drugs and untreated mental illness. It’s a bold and daring film that spares no punches.
(Montage of Heck is now playing in limited release and on HBO.)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl looks like just another twee and annoying Sundance movie, yet it’s anything but. This film is wise and young at heart as it moves the viewer interchangeably through tears and laughter with a sweetly cinematic coming of age story. Director Alejandro Gomez-Rejon peppers the film with bang-on film parodies that speak to the heart of any Critierion obsessive, but at the heart of the film is a beautiful message about the time spent in person-to-person moments in this impersonal age, whether we’re watching movies together or not.
(Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing in theatres.)

I think I use the world ‘enigmatic’ every other time I describe Nina Hoss, and I still can’t think of a better word to encapsulate her screen presence. The German actress gives a nuanced performance-within-a-performance as a Holocaust survivor who rises from the rubble to convincingly play, yes, herself. Hoss shows that understated acting speaks a range of sensations and emotions thanks to what goes unsaid in an ever-expressive actress’s eyes and face. Central to the performance is how much Hoss’s Nelly must underplay her emotions to get by as she negotiates post-war Berlin with the same chameleon-like skills that kept her alive in the camps. Hoss keeps the viewer guessing until Phoenix’s rivetingly low-key finale.
(Phoenix is now playing in limited release.)

A top pick in a very good year for documentaries so far, Sunshine Superman soars. I’m in awe of Marah Strauch for making a debut feature as thrilling and complex as Sunshine Superman. On one level, Sunshine Superman offers thrilling cinematic escapism as the exhilarating 16mm footage of BASE jumper Carl Boenish re-creates the freeing high he experienced while tempting fate in these dangerous falls. No film quite makes the case for the power of big screen entertainment these days when iPhone movies and VOD are the norm. More impressive, though, is how provocatively Strauch turns the adrenaline rush into a greater philosophical question: just what rights do humans have to test fate while pushing themselves beyond the limits? It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring film on many levels.
(Sunshine Superman is now playing in limited release.)

Another top doc of 2015 is this year’s Hot Docs standout, What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) outdoes herself with this intimate study of the work and mind of the iconic and incomparable Nina Simone. Garbus smartly intertwines Simone’s rise with the Civil Rights Movement, and shows how Nina’s struggle with fame and celebrity is intimately connected to her identity as a black woman in America, especially when she takes activism too far into the spotlight for mainstream comfort. Like Montage of Heck, Miss Simone uses much of the artist’s own diary entries and words to let the subject speak in her own voice. Additional interviews give some context to Simone’s writing and archival interviews and show a mind that was more complicated and brave than one might expect. Plus, the soundtrack is simply outstanding.
(What Happened, Miss Simone? Is now streaming on Netlfix.)

I don’t particularly want kids, but being childless isn’t a burden, curse, or point for stigma, as writer/director Noah Baumbach shows in this spot-on comedy starring Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller. Being happily attached and loving one’s career is a success in itself, as the film reveals through the middle-age crises of this husband and wife. While We’re Young celebrates the different lifestyles that adults can enjoy and use to define success on their own terms, and While We’re Young should instil a grain of confidence in any moviegoer—with or without child—as it brings a chuckle and asks audiences to reflect on what they want from life.
(While We’re Young is now available on iTunes.)

Honourable mentions:

A Woman Like Me

Best unreleased films so far:

Best of Enemies (out in July)

Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd

Best Performance in a Leading Role:

Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Kevin Costner, McFarland
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Percy Hynes-White, Cast No Shadow
Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Yoon Da Kyung, In Her Place
Carey Mulligan, Far from the Madding Crowd
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Naomi Watts, While We’re Young

Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria
Best Performance in a Supporting Role:
Cate Blanchett, Cinderella
Stephen Bogaert, The Valley Below
Lynda Boyd, We Were Wolves
Lovely Kermode Fifi, Murder in Pacot
Molly Shannon, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Michael Sheen, Far from the Madding Crowd
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Alicia Vikander, ExMachina
Kil-Hae Yoon, In Her Place

And some other kudos!

Best Cinematography:
Far from the Madding Crowd - Charlotte Bruus Christensen

Best Score:
Far from the Madding Crowd – Craig Arnold
Honourable mentions: McFarland, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Costumes:
Far from the Madding Crowd – Janet Patterson
Honourable mention: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - The motel blanket poncho

Best Film Editing:
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen
Honourable mention: Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Far from the Madding Crowd – David Nicholls
Honourable mention: Phoenix – Christian Petzold

Best Original Screenplay:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Honourable mention: While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach

Best Performance by a Domestic Animal:
Bunzo the rabbit in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Best Overall Batshit Craziness:
Mad Max: Fury Road (unanimous)

Best Swag:
Francesca the pillow – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Best Music Moment:
“Speak Low” – Phoenix (Watch [Major spoiler… it’s the end.])   
Honourable mention: “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” – Far from the Madding Crowd

Best Geriatric Bollywood Dance Number:
The wedding dance – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The "Film That’s Far Worse than Aloha and Mortdecai Combined" Award:
Honourable mention: The Beautiful Risk

Biggest Letdown:
It Follows
Honourable mention: Jurassic World

Hidden Gem:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Runner-up: Cast No Shadow

What are your favourite films of the year so far?