The summer movie season is often considered the time of year when brainless fun takes priority over “great” cinema, but that’s a hefty load of bollocks. Every calendar month sees its fair share of gems and garbage, big and small – the summer months just see more high profile releases under the impression they have to trade intelligence for blockbuster status. 2015’s is the ninth summer in a row to gross over $4 billion domestically, and while some of the best films of the season contributed to that boffo box-office others opened in incredibly limited release or simply failed to find an audience.
I’ve seen 94 movies released between the beginning of May and the end of August (plus 60+ as-yet domestically unreleased titles I managed to catch at film festivals that aren’t eligible for this list), but that’s still not close to being everything that opened this summer in theaters, VOD or home video. Some notable titles I’ve missed this summer include Inside Out, The End of the Tour, Trainwreck and Dude Bro Party Massacre 3, but with that said here are my picks for the Best Films of Summer 2015.
Dark Sky Films
10. We Are Still Here
Summer isn’t typically thought of as the best time of year for horror – sunshine doesn’t often mesh well with terror – but while the studios trotted out some incredibly lackluster efforts (Poltergeist) the little guys were brewing up some real nightmares. Writer/director Ted Geoghegan old-school chiller delivers a tight, fresh story alongside a creepy basement’s worth of atmosphere and a third act that paints every available wall blood red. Add in some sticky practical effects, legit scares and some friendly genre faces, and you have one of the year’s best horror films.
Well Go USA
Korea’s occupation by Japanese forces in the early 20th century gave rise to all manner of atrocities, but the subject is mined for something more than outrage here. It’s a serious action/thriller about a team of Korean resistance fighters tasked with killing a Japanese general, and just as he did with The Thieves, Tazza, and Woochi, director Choi Dong-hoon crafts a terrifically entertaining film centered on charismatic players, exciting set-pieces and weighty dramatic beats. There are double and triple crosses littered throughout as the film hurtles towards the beautiful chaos of a frenetic wedding shootout, and Gianna Jun (My Sassy Girl) anchors both the action and the heart along the way.
8. A Hard Day
It’s common knowledge that South Korean filmmakers know how to create exciting, suspenseful thrillers (see above), but there’s something of a misconception that they’re all dark, grisly affairs. The truth is that a lot of them have a wickedly funny sense of humor too, and this relentlessly-paced, blackly comic gem is a fantastic example of that. Murder, twists and consequences are the name of the game, and the constantly evolving tale is complemented by some exhilarating fights and suspenseful set-pieces. It’s an immense amount of fun that’ll have you rooting for this poor guy’s day to get worse before it gets better.
Walt Disney Pictures
Yeah. That’s right. The rest of you can hate Brad Bird’s latest all you want while I sit here secure in the knowledge that it’s an immensely entertaining and ridiculously optimistic adventure for the eyes, mind and heart. The lead character is a smart, independent, science-loving teenage girl, and while it initially appears to be another tale about “the one” who can save us all it subverts that idea with the radical notion that we can actually save ourselves. Far from just a message movie though it’s also an energetic ride featuring some beautifully orchestrated action sequences big and small and some equally well-crafted laughs. Give it a chance. You might just be surprised.
Broad Green Pictures
6. 10,000 KM
There are only two actors here – Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer – playing longtime lovers separated by an ocean when one gets a job in the U.S., but they fill the screen with the emotional weight of dozens more. It’s entirely possible that this Spanish film took hold of me so fiercely because it hits so close to home, but even if your loved one isn’t pursuing a dream that takes her or him far away for long periods of time the raw intimacy here is more than enough to relate to. Their interactions, exchanges and moments of solitude are sexy, painful, familiar, heartbreaking, hopeful and utterly mesmerizing.
5. The Look of Silence
Movies have been made about victims confronting their attackers looking for either understanding or an apology, but in addition to usually being fictional affairs the villains are usually met behind bars. Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing sees a man confront those who killed his brother while they’re still roaming free and celebrated as heroes to be feared and respected. Worse, these murderous oppressors continue to live in the very same neighborhoods as the families of the people they tortured and killed decades prior. Watching this man come face to face with evil is a tense lesson in restraint and self-control, and while every nation has its own shame and regret Indonesia is a terrifyingly unique case.
20th Century Fox
Both Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig have done good, humorous work before, but their collaboration here is the best thing they’ve done yet. It’s an extremely funny take on the spy genre that manages to delight at every turn with a sharp script, fantastically choreographed fights and action sequences, and some brilliant supporting turns by Rose Byrne and Jason Statham. The humor runs the gamut from smart to crass, and it delivers a steady stream of laughs without ever feeling compelled to go for easy weight jokes. That’s not to say there aren’t some scathing back and forths – McCarthy and Statham share some very funny and deliciously mean-spirited banter – but it’s allowed to stay witty from beginning to end.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Sure it’s another story about a narcissistic teen, his friend from the wrong side of the tracks, and a girl with cancer, but while the elements may seem familiar they’re presented with a fresh vision that will leave you laughing, crying and feeling in equal measure. Fans of 500 Days of Summer will find a lot to love here as a similar energy and creative spirit are used to fuel a tale of honest self-discovery and personal relationships. Is it manipulative? Of course, but it’s also funny, heartbreaking and sincere in its efforts to tell one young man’s story.
2. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Everyone’s Mission: Impossible rankings vary, but the correct one sees this fifth entry in the long running franchise take a firm hold of second place thanks to sharp writing, great characters and thrilling action. Tom Cruise re-teams with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (after the smaller-scale but still immensely entertaining Jack Reacher) to deliver another globe-hopping, gadget-filled adventure, and in addition to the spectacular action sequences they’ve added an unexpected highlight in Rebecca Ferguson. It’ll make Jeremy Renner sad, but it’s her character who’s deserving of her own spin-off as she continues the summer’s unofficial theme of kick-ass and capable women.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
What is there left to be said about George Miller’s long-awaited return to the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max? It has a lock on being the year’s best action film – it’s essentially one long chase scene punctuated with the intense spectacle of monstrous machines growling across the desert while the human passengers move violently between them. Tom Hardy satisfies as Max while Charlize Theron embodies a new action hero we always knew we wanted, and in addition to being a pro-woman action masterpiece it also manages to be utterly beautiful – pause on any random moment and odds are it’s worthy of being framed on your wall.
Other great titles released this summer: Digging for Fire, The Gift, The Overnight, People Places Things, Der Samurai, Slow West, Turbo Kid, A Wolf at the Door
Related Topics: Summer Movies