2015 is half over, and already we’re looking at a banner year for movies of all shapes and sizes, from expensive studio films to idiosyncratic indies to three-hour Russian science-fiction epics. There will be plenty of time come December to make the hard choices between these wildly different works, ranking and organizing them per annual tradition. For now, let’s just express our enthusiasm for these early-bird triumphs through the democratic art of the superlative. Every film singled out below opened in U.S. theaters between January 1 and today, and each had at least one champion among our writers, though we disagree on a few of them. Those looking for a more comprehensive catch-up list can scroll to the bottom.

Best silent comic performance: Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road

Advertisement

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has been rightly praised for its vehicular stunts, its feminist narrative, and its production and costume design. Yet lost amid this acclaim has been its sturdy lead performance. Taking over for Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy brings not only a fierce physical presence but also a sly Looney Tunes quality to his role as Max Rockatansky, the wasteland warrior who finds himself helping a group of rebel women flee their misogynistic oppressors. Whether grunting commands while wearing a metallic face-mask like some sort of muzzled dog, or flipping his compatriots a wry thumbs-up amid chaotic car combat, Hardy brings silent-movie comedic energy to the outrageous proceedings. His eyes alive with insanity-tinged fury and hopelessness, Hardy’s Max is both a ferocious animal and a wounded clown, and—as when he climbs across the trailer of a rampaging truck—something akin to a dystopian version of Buster Keaton. [Nick Schager]

Most applicable dialogue: While We’re Young

Advertisement

Any fan or even casual observer of Noah Baumbach should expect that his comedy would contain the requisite quotable lines and witty dialogue. But in chronicling an intergenerational alliance that turns into an intergenerational turf war between Gen-Xers and millennials, While We’re Young offers a gift to anyone who feels prematurely old, clumsily young, or both at the same time in the form of note-perfect lines that can be applied to any number of real-life situations. Josh (Ben Stiller), for example, offers a perfect assessment of Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” with “I remember when this song was just considered bad,” and Stiller gives the line just the right amount of snark, which is to say almost zero; he’s observing a genuine phenomenon. On the millennial side, the way that Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and Jamie (Adam Driver) implore their new, older friends not to Google a piece of trivia is both hippie-dippie and weirdly enticing: “Let’s just not know!” Even when the knives come out, the cuts are precise: Josh describes Jamie as someone who “once saw a sincere person and [has] been imitating him ever since.” I envy anyone who hasn’t met someone who perfectly fits that description. Baumbach’s strong direction is often overlooked in favor of his writing—but with dialogue this good, that’s almost understandable. [Jesse Hassenger]

Best music video: Girlhood

Advertisement

There isn’t an actual music video in Céline Sciamma’s third feature, which tells the story of a timid young French woman named Marieme (Karidja Touré) who finds solace and self-esteem in the protective embrace of a girl gang. Early in the film, however, Marieme and her three friends create an impromptu version of their own in a fancy hotel room they’ve rented, dancing and lip-syncing together to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Sciamma lets the scene play out for over two minutes—a small eternity on-screen; the song itself runs less than four—and the feeling of joy and liberation gradually becomes overpowering. The girls even improvise some professional-looking choreography at one point, though it’s really just a confluence of the lighting, some perfectly ordinary moves, and where the camera happens to be placed. (That is, it wouldn’t be remarkable to someone actually in the room). Girlhood is a tough-minded movie, but for a couple of glorious minutes, at least, Marieme and company genuinely do shine bright. [Mike D’Angelo]

Most self-contained sequel: Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem

Advertisement

The Oscar-nominated Israeli drama Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem is technically the closing installment of a trilogy: The main characters, Viviane (co-writer/co-director Ronit Elkabetz) and her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), who she’s desperately attempting to divorce, appeared in two previous movies by the same filmmaking team. Yet it’s not at all necessary to see those earlier works to appreciate Gett, which is so self-contained that one could actually watch it and not realize it’s a sequel. In fact, the film arguably works better in isolation: There’s a dramatic purity to its decision to never leave the confines of the courtroom, and part of the film’s fascination derives from attempting to piece together the history of the characters—a game only those who haven’t seen the prior installments will be able to play. Compare it to something like Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which only really works if you’ve seen the whole string of films that preceded it, and Gett’s ability to exist out of context of its “series” looks even more virtuous. [A.A. Dowd]

Best running gag: Martin’s voice, Tu Dors Nicole

Advertisement

There’s a vaguely dreamlike quality to Stéphane Lafleur’s dryly funny portrait of a young woman’s lazy, restless summer, but Tu Dors Nicole mostly remains grounded in the real world. Its one genuinely absurdist touch is a 10-year-old boy named Martin, who’s played by actual preadolescent Godefroy Reding but speaks with the deep, resonant voice of an adult male. (The role is dubbed by Alexis Lefebvre, who sounds like a French-Canadian late-night DJ introducing a quiet storm track.) Martin is smitten with Nicole, the film’s 22-year-old protagonist, and keeps valiantly trying to hit on her, insisting that she should focus on how worldly he sounds rather on how childish he looks. Nicole never succumbs—and actually ends up babysitting him toward the end of the film, for added hilarity—but hearing gravely philosophical pick-up lines (“Don’t you think the atmosphere feels unusual tonight? Seems as if everything is in slow motion.”) emerge in a man’s voice from this scrawny little towheaded kid never stops being funny. [Mike D’Angelo]

Sam Rockwell award for special achievement in dancing: Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina

There are several reasons that Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina works as well as it does: its intimate and eventually claustrophobic setting, Garland’s steady hand behind the camera, and the movie’s thought-provoking ideas about (male) scientists attempting to create (female) simulations of human intelligence. But one of the most prominent is Oscar Isaac’s work as Nathan, the tech visionary who creates Ava (Alicia Vikander) and ensnares star programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test her humanity. Isaac upends mad-scientist clichés by making Nathan deceptively chilled out, nursing beers and calling Caleb “dude.” At one point, he deflects Caleb’s questions about his treatment of Ava by prompting Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), one of his less sentient creations, to start dancing, and then joins in himself. Isaac’s limber, straight-faced silliness in this scene could be described as Rockwellian, and it’s exactly the kind of unexpected (and weirdly human) moment that makes Ex Machina more than just another cautionary tale. [Jesse Hassenger]

Advertisement

Most credible pro: Viola Davis, Blackhat

Though Michael Mann has written his share of great and complicated roles for women, his M.O. has largely consisted of making movies about super-professional men—typically career criminals or the people who profile and catch them—facing worlds in which they will be rendered obsolete. Times change, however, and so does the rate of obsolescence. In Mann’s underappreciated infosec thriller Blackhat, thirtysomething bank hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is furloughed from prison to help catch a cyber-criminal who already seems a generation ahead. Nick’s no-nonsense FBI handler is Barrett, played by Viola Davis, whose world-weary, authoritative screen presence is a perfect fit for Mann’s jargon-heavy dialogue. Mann’s films are full of memorable minor characters who seem to suggest entire lives (see: Dennis Haysbert in Heat), and Barrett is up there in the pantheon. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

Best instant humiliation of an Oscar winner: Jupiter Ascending

Yes, smack in between an Oscar nominations and his eventual win for Best Actor, Eddie Redmayne appeared on thousands of movie screens hamming it up as the effete, quiet-loud villain of the Andy Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, giving a performance that had many wondering if Jupiter would qualify as his Norbit. But Redmayne commits to the silliness of his character—and, as it happens, Jupiter Ascending is a much better movie than The Theory Of Everything (and superior to plenty of sci-fi popcorn, too). No one fills a sci-fi/fantasy frame with more wacked-out glee than the Wachowskis, and though Jupiter does essentially replay The Matrix on a cosmic scale, it still explodes with visual invention, idiosyncrasies, and even warmth for its leads, played by Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. More embarrassments should be this wildly entertaining. [Jesse Hassenger]

Advertisement

Best 2009 movie of 2015: About Elly

A Separation, the searing Iranian drama that The A.V. Club recently named the second best film of the decade so far, was many American viewers’ first exposure to the knotty, morally complex work of Asghar Farhadi. That’s mainly because the film he made directly before it, About Elly, got trapped in release-date limbo when its original U.S. distributor went bankrupt. Six years passed between the making of this terrifically acted seaside mystery and its arrival in U.S. theaters, during which time Farhadi won an Oscar for A Separation and made another movie, The Past, which opened to raves in the States. But the long delay has done little to mute About Elly’s power; from the vantage point of earlier this year, the movie looked not like some primitive relic of Farhadi’s pre-breakout years, but another ingenious portrait of the way deception can send destructive ripples through the social fabric. It’s one of the best films of 2015 and 2009. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

Best use of a treadmill: Buzzard

Ostensibly, Buzzard is a character study of a borderline sociopath, Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), who spends his days engineering petty scams and finding other creative ways to avoid being a productive member of society. Many of the film’s best moments, however, involve his “friendship” (very loosely defined) with co-worker Derek (Joel Potrykus, Buzzard’s writer/director), in whose basement Marty temporarily camps out when his latest scam threatens to get him arrested. In Derek’s basement is a treadmill, and the film’s comic highlight sees Derek attempt to break his previous record for the number of Bugles he can eat as they’re carried toward his waiting mouth by the treadmill’s belt, with Marty placing them at the far end. The shot is visually surreal to begin with—it’d be hard to even know what’s going on had the treadmill not previously been established—and the bit truly takes off when Marty, who’s out of frame, starts dropping way more Bugles in Derek’s path than he can possibly chew and swallow before the next batch arrives. Would that Adam Sandler’s or Kevin James’ idiotic man-children were this inspired. [Mike D’Angelo]

Advertisement

Best horror movie in a horror movie: Hellraiser in Heaven Knows What

Easily one of the best American movies of the year, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What has been analyzed from any number of angles: as a formally radical, street-level melodrama; as a documentary-style portrait of addiction; and as an exploitation of its star, Arielle Holmes, whose real-life experiences were the basis for the screenplay. But more than anything, Heaven Knows What feels like a horror film—it’s all strange angles and synth-filled soundtrack stings, and while it’s reductive to call Holmes’ self-harming heroine Harley a damsel in distress, she exists in a kind of vampiric thrall to her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). This link is cinched in the remarkable scene where Harley gently nods out while watching one of the Hellraiser sequels on television. It’s a clever juxtaposition of different kinds of “scary” that nods to the Safdies’ ’80s-baby backgrounds while also anticipating their own film’s startling, fire-and-brimstone climax—a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Clive Barker’s grotesque universes. [Adam Nayman]

Advertisement

Filthiest: Hard To Be A God

Mud, muck, spit, shit, snot, dried blood, fetid water, smoke, and rain—if the late Aleksei German’s decades-in-the-making medieval sci-fi flick isn’t the filthiest-looking movie ever made, it’s certainly up there. Set on an Earth-like planet whose inhabitants seem locked in a cycle of perpetual violence and ignorance, Hard To Be A God creates an entire raucous world of rough, slimy, and sticky textures, rendered all the more tactile by the sharp contrasts of black-and-white. It’s the year’s most transportive film-going experience—a grotesque vision that suggests Hieronymus Bosch crossed with Andrei Rublev—though you’ll probably want to wash your hands after it’s over. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

Best reminder not to judge a movie by its trailer: Unfriended

The trailer for this spring’s webcam horror sleeper Unfriended isn’t misleading, exactly; it neatly lays out the central gimmick, which is that the entire film unfolds within the borders of a laptop screen, using YouTube videos, group chat sessions, and Facebook posts to tell the story of teenage cyberbullies terrorized by someone who knows what they did last semester. What the trailer doesn’t convey is how effectively the filmmakers exploit their gimmick, not just committing to the limitations of the format—there are no cutaways, for example, just a single faux long take of the computer screen—but also finding diabolically ingenious uses for the basics of everyday laptop-ing, from Google to Spotify to the dreaded pinwheel of death. What looked like a dumb stunt turned out to be a smart one, as only those who basically ignored the trailer found out. The poster, on the other hand, is as fiendishly clever as the movie. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

Best opening and closing credits: The Duke Of Burgundy

The opening-credit sequence for Peter Strickland’s BDSM lesbian romance provides an appropriately seductive welcome, mimicking the look of the European softcore ’70s films that inspired the movie. It’s the credits themselves, though, that first signal that you’re in for something unusual. “Dress and Lingerie,” reads one job description, as opposed to the usual “Costume Design”; seconds later, another card announces “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella,” an imaginary company providing something that the viewer can’t possibly experience without a scratch-and-sniff card. Likewise, Duke Of Burgundy’s closing credits list all of the butterfly species that appear in the film, as well as hilariously specific acknowledgement of some insect audio recordings that are heard. (“Recorded by D.R. Ragge & W.J. Reynolds on 21st May 1974 at 14:00 hours on a Nagra 4D tape recorder and Sennheiser MKH 405 microphone in very dim light at 25 degrees Centigrade.”) This surfeit of creativity at the start and finish is matched by the 96 minutes in between. [Mike D’Angelo]

Advertisement

Best Jason Statham impersonation: Jason Statham, Spy

Paul Feig’s Spy has been described as an espionage-movie spoof, but part of what’s so enjoyable about it is that it does its best to look and feel like the real thing. Case in point: the brilliantly torqued supporting performance of Jason Statham, playing a British operative whose lethal skill set and narcissistic self-regard are maybe 10 percent more ridiculous than the character he played earlier this summer in Furious 7. There, he was a villain; here, he’s merely a foil—the gold standard against which Melissa McCarthy’s fledgling distaff 007 must measure herself. Even in a film filled with skillful comic acting (start that Oscar campaign for Rose Byrne now, please) the pleasure of watching perhaps the definitive B-movie action star of the 2000s kid his own glowering, over-Cranked persona—whether by cursing up a storm or blithely describing past heroic exploits too physically impossible for even a Looney Tunes critter—stands out. [Adam Nayman]

Advertisement

Most terrifying dramatic recreations: The Nightmare

For his follow-up to Room 237, Rodney Ascher returns to horrifying terrain with this year’s superb non-fiction The Nightmare. Ascher’s latest focuses on eight unrelated people who all suffer from sleep paralysis, a condition that (per its name) involves waking up in a semi-conscious state and being unable to move. Worse still, many report that, while in this state, they’re visited by vague figures referred to as “shadow men” who enter their rooms and hover over their bodies. To dramatize these inexplicable specters, Ascher stages a series of re-enactments, the most unforgettable of which involves a trio of such shadow men—led by a top-hatted chief of some sort—crowding through a bedroom doorway to stand poised, menacingly, over a paralyzed sleeper. The Nightmare never attempts to posit an explanation for these shadow men, but Ascher’s recreated images of them remain some of the most portentous, and unforgettable, sights of 2015’s first half. [Nick Schager]

Advertisement

Funniest impression: Kurt Cobain doing Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck

Kurt Cobain is shaving, and he’s removed the beard but left behind a pencil-thin mustache. If you squint hard enough, he looks a little bit like another famous frontman of the grunge era, Chris Cornell. And so Kurt, who recognizes the resemblance, turns to the camera Courtney Love is running and belts out part of the chorus of Soundgarden’s then-current hit “Outshined.” It’s a small moment, so brief you could blink and miss it. Still, there’s something delightful about seeing Cobain mimic (maybe mock is the right word) the vocal stylings of a contemporary—especially one who he got lumped in with often, mostly for music-press convenience. And like a lot of the material excerpted in Brett Morgen’s unconventional, fiercely intimate rock doc, it also shows us a side of Cobain we didn’t often get to see—in this case, just a normal dude who listens to the radio, goofing around with his wife. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

Best soundtrack: Eden

Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama about the French house-music scene boasts what’s bound to be the heftiest soundtrack of the year—a whopping 42 tracks, spanning the history of French house from the early ’90s up through the 2010s. But besides serving as an eclectic, personalized primer on the genre, Eden’s soundtrack is also an immersive piece of characterization, introducing the audience to the tastes and headspace of DJ Paul (Félix De Givry). The result is that he never has to explain himself. Hansen-Løve’s movie is about creative obsession, memory, and time, and her evocative use of music—rarely better than in scene-setting “Sueño Latino (Illusion First Mix),” which plays over the opening credits—makes Paul’s love for house, and close personal connection to it, seem real, even as his character often appears aloof and emotionally unresponsive. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Advertisement

Best sexual aid: The ergonomic exercise ball, Results

Cozy and stoned after a home-workout session that quickly dissipated into an extended heart-to-heart, flabby millionaire Kevin Corrigan and obsessively toned personal trainer Cobie Smulders sit side by side watching TV—he in a chair, she balanced on one of those big plastic blue balls that gym rats use for planking, sit-ups, and god knows what else. The contrast in their postures is telling—he slumps while she sits comfortably erect—and director Andrew Bujalski doesn’t have to do much else to sum up how seemingly mismatched this pairing is. Then Smulders starts scooching over, a few rubberized wobbles at a time, to initiate the make-out session that catalyzes Results plot (such as it is). It’s a nicely staged scene, and it opens up all kinds of possibilities for unlocking the erotic potentials of exercise equipment; somewhere, an aspiring indie filmmaker is going on Craigslist looking for a cheap, used pommel horse. [Adam Nayman]

Advertisement

Most heartwarming/heartbreaking character: Bing Bong, Inside Out

Inside Out may hinge on Pixar’s clever conception of the human mind, but the film’s emotional core remains the endearing character Bing Bong. The imaginary friend of 11-year-old Riley, Bing Bong has the body of an elephant (made out of cotton candy), the tail of a cat, and the intelligence of a dolphin—not to mention a rocket cart fueled by singing. Joy and Sadness’ encounter with Bing Bong provides an added element of boisterous, anything-goes humor to Pete Docter’s film, as the imaginary friend takes them through Abstract Thought and Imagination Land. Still, while Bing Bong is something of a cheerleader, his cheery disposition is laced with a touch of sadness wrought from the fact that Riley has, as an older kid, lost interest in continuing to play with him. That underlying sorrow makes Bing Bong more than just a good-natured goofball, and in his final, heroic scene, his actions reveal him to be the embodiment of Inside Out’s central idea that pain is a fundamental part of growing up. [Nick Schager]

Advertisement

Best use of an exotic fetish for comedic effect: R100

R100, a comically absurdist BDSM movie from Big Man Japan director Hitoshi Matsumoto, features a supporting cast of wacky dominatrices, each representing a different, bizarre specialty. But even among such characters as The Gobble Queen, who literally swallows men whole, Saliva Queen stands out. Played by Naomi Watanabe—a Japanese comedian with a persona somewhat reminiscent of Rebel Wilson—the Saliva Queen shows up unannounced at the protagonist’s home, clad in a skintight black leotard and pigtails. She lays down a tarp, has her timid salaryman client kneel on it, and proceeds to pirouette around the man while drenching him in loogies flavored by the different foodstuffs she jams into her mouth during the course of the scene. It’s the most purely comedic sequence in the movie, memorable not only for its sheer strangeness but also for the hilariously eager, straight-faced manner in which Watanabe, clearly a gifted physical comedian, leaps and spins as she provides her service. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

Best case against becoming the subject of a documentary: Approaching The Elephant

The founders and instructors of the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey already had their work cut out for them. Here they were, trying to run a school where classwork is voluntary, curriculum is flexible, and the rules are at least partially decided upon by a bunch of 5- to 12-year-olds. What could make their first academic year more stressful than a camera crew filming everything? Shot in the rigorously observational style of Frederick Wiseman, Approaching The Elephant captures every bump, scrape, and setback experienced by the conductors of this bold educational experiment. Maybe the Teddy McArdle team hoped that the film would serve as a promotional tool for their program. If so, that plan backfired horribly, as Approaching The Elephant—which many have aptly described as a non-fiction, classroom-set Lord Of The Flies—calls the practicality of the whole free-school model into question. Their blunder is to our benefit. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

Scariest everyday people: It Follows

It Follows operates from a simple, allegorically potent premise: After having sex, Jay (Maika Monroe) learns that she’s now infected with some sort of unholy curse that causes undead specters to perpetually stalk her, and it can only be undone by passing the curse along to another person through intercourse. It’s a setup of unnerving disease-related creepiness, and one that director David Robert Mitchell turns infinitely more horrifying by casting his story’s ghouls not as zombies, monsters, or ethereal demons, but as regular-looking people. Thus, Jay is pursued by old women, by bearded men, by gaunt children, and by other largely non-descript folk. By imagining his nominal villains as average Joes, Mitchell speaks to his story’s underlying ideas about the lurking pervasiveness of STDs, and about the related notion that what modern teens should most fear are their everyday contemporaries. [Nick Schager]

Advertisement

And here’s every film The A.V. Club has given a B+ or higher to this year.

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
‘71
About Elly
Amour Fou
Approaching The Elephant
Ballet 422
Beloved Sisters
Black Sea
Blackhat
Blind
Buzzard
Charlie’s Country
Cymbeline
Dior And I
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll
The Duke Of Burgundy
Eden
Far From Men
Furious 7
Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
Girlhood
Hard To Be A God
Heaven Knows What
The Hunting Ground
In Country
In The Name Of My Daughter
Inside Out
It Follows
Jauja
Journey To The West
Kung Fu Killer
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck
La Sapienza
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Princess Of France
Results
R100
She’s Lost Control
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water
Timbuktu
Tu Dors Nicole
Unfriended
Welcome To New York
While We’re Young
Wild Canaries