2015 is already halfway over, believe it or not, and this year I’ve already seen a whole host of movies, both blockbuster and independent. Every Monday I review a film I’ve seen on my show Cinema Forte, and this is my list of the top 5 movies to check out this year if you haven’t already. By the end of the year the order of these will most likely change, but at this moment in time these are the rankings I have chosen. If you are upset at the order in which I have placed these films or at the ones I have omitted (which I’m sure you will) rest assured that I’m just some guy on the internet and my opinions have absolutely no bearing on anything whatsoever. Okay? Cool.
Honorable Mention: Maps to the Stars
This twisted new film from renowned filmmaker David Cronenberg follows a young woman with a mysterious past who becomes the assistant to an aging actress trying to hold on to her relevance in Hollywood as well as her own sanity and a teenage movie star reentering the business after a stint in rehab. Part psychological thriller, part satirical send-up, Maps to the Stars depicts the Hollywood life in a uniquely strange and disturbing way.
5. It Follows
Based on recurring nightmares writer/director David Robert Mitchell experienced as a young child, the premise of It Follows is the heart and soul of the film. A young woman is inflicted with a sexually transmitted curse that causes an unnamed monster to endlessly follow her until she passes it on to another by means of intercourse. It can appear as anyone: a stranger in a crowd or a loved one. It doesn’t speak, It doesn’t show any signs of emotion, It just follows. Simple, coherent, and most importantly: effectively terrifying. It Follows doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares in order to frighten you, instead the premise creates an almost constant air of tension. The shots are wisely set up to where the background behind the characters is always in focus. This causes you to continuously scan the background for signs of It, looking for the one person in a crowd of people walking against the grain. Its an extremely effective horror convention that is used to maximum effect. It Follows brings horror films back to their roots, complete with an excellent John Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack. Many will be turned off by the muddled narrative but I guarantee you if you go into It Follows wanting to watch the depiction of true, unadulterated, nightmare you will not be disappointed.
4. What We Do in the Shadows
It’s been a while since a good vampire film has been released and in my mind this is the best one since Let the Right One In. Despite being a comedic mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows pays homage to much of the classical vampire lore as well as the various archetypes in which vampires are depicted. The film follows four roommates, who all happen to be unholy creatures of the night, living together in a flat in New Zealand. There’s the 2000 year old Nosferatu-esque vampire Petyr, the medieval warlord vampire Vladislav, the colonial fop vampire Viago, and the turn-of-the-century, industrial-era vampire Deacon. Co-written and directed by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Concords, this is one of the funniest movies to come out in a long time. It effectively balances witty dialogue, hilarious set-pieces, and clever gags with enough character development and a surprising amount of interesting takes on the vampire genre. This is a true hidden gem comedy.
3. Kumiko: the Treasure Hunter
It’s rare when a film comes along and makes me reflect on all the movies I’ve ever watched and see them in a new light. Rinko Kikuchi plays the titular Kumiko, a young woman working as an “office lady” in Tokyo. Kumiko appears to have no friends and to generally dislike human interaction. She lives in a small apartment with her sole companion, a pet rabbit named Bunzo. She appears to be obsessed with a VHS tape of the classic Coen Brothers film Fargo, particularly the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of money in the snow by a barbed wire fence along some highway in Fargo North Dakota. The rest of the movie is an odyssey of sorts as Kumiko makes it her sole mission to travel to Fargo and recover this fictional briefcase. The film wisely never condescends to Kumiko’s mission but instead treats hers like any other hero’s journey. By all reason we should believe that Kumiko will fail in her impossible mission, but is she any less likely to succeed than a young farm boy on a journey to defeat an entire evil empire like in Star Wars? Is she any less likely to succeed than any of the other protagonists we go to the movies to watch overcome insurmountable odds? That sense of hope, I believe, is at the heart of what makes Kumiko: the Treasure Hunter a great film.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
After many decades George Miller has finally given us the fourth installment in his seminal Mad Max series and was it ever worth the wait. Fury Road is a flat out masterpiece, one of the greatest movie-going experiences in a long while. If you haven’t seen the first three Mad Max’s worry not as Fury Road has very little exposition. The film wastes no time and gets all of that out of the way in about three minutes. It opens with an inner monologue from our protagonist Max (the only time we ever hear his thoughts) explaining that the world he lives in is a wasteland, he used to be a cop but is no more, and he is haunted by those he could not save. He has one motivation, and that is survival. Max soon finds himself tangled in a conflict to rescue the enslaved wives of an evil emperor. The simplicity of the story is not a hindrance to the film whatsoever. Fury Road knows what it is, and that is a no holds barred relentless action film with massive set pieces, dazzling visuals, memorable characters, and an even more memorable living, breathing world that the characters inhabit. The world that George Miller has created for these movies has become so fantastically bizarre that it feels almost tangible. On top of that Miller manages to escape almost every last pitfall and cliche of the modern action movie (finally, a mainstream action film that DOESN’T sexualize its female lead). Mad Max: Fury Road will have you at the edge of your seat from beginning to end and will likely be the gold standard for adult action films for years to come.
1. Inside Out
Inside Out is the newest film to come from Pixar animation studios and Pete Docter, writer and director of Monsters Inc. and Up. This marks Docter’s third film for Pixar as a director, though he has done work on many others. Inside Out follows the personified emotions of a young girl named Riley as she and her parents move from Minnesota to San Fransisco. There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyliss Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Each actor is perfectly cast in their respective role and bring so much to the performances, particularly Amy Poeler as the wonderfully endearing but oftentimes naive Joy and Phyliss Smith as Sadness. There is so much I enjoy about this movie. The story by Pete Docter is so masterfully crafted, managing to balance pacing, humor, clever cause-and-effect action, and relentlessly heart tugging moments (you will cry during this movie, just accept it). On top of that the production and animation by Pixar is top notch as always. The world inside Riley’s mind is so wonderfully whimsical and full of color which is sharply contrasted with the the drab depiction of San Francisco seen through the eyes of a homesick child. Rarely is there ever a film as relatable, funny, thoughtful, poignant, and uniquely captivating as Inside Out. Truly this is a film that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, as a simple comedy or a profound take on growing up and the effect this has on the progression of our emotions as well as their ultimate effect on who we are. I have yet to have a more delightful experience at the theater this year.
Well there you have it. That’s my top five of the year thus far. If you enjoyed this I invite you to tune in to my show Cinema Forte on Coog Radio every Monday 5-7. I play film score as well as discuss and review the films that I’ve seen. This Monday I’ll be reviewing the independent feature Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl which is currently playing at the Sundance Cinema downtown. Hope you’ll tune in!
By Owen Fassett