The year is halfway done, and it’s a fantastic time to highlight the best movies of the last six months. If 2015 has been about anything, it’s a resurgence in horror. It’s been such a desert for the genre in recent years that I’m normally happy if one film is good enough to make a top 10. I’m ecstatic this year because there are four. Each of them is a fresh take on the genre. Here are the 10 best movies so far, plus one great big asterisk.
This is really Jurassic Remix, taking its action only semi-seriously while smirking and crafting jokes from a mix of the franchise’s smartest and stupidest moments. Much of its success is due to Chris Pratt, your go-to if you need a self-deprecating actor for your self-effacing movie. Making the plot hinge on the loyalties of the first film’s villains – velociraptors – is either brave or insane. Either way, they got it to work on an emotional level. (Read the review here.)
This brilliant comedy is an 86-minute sketch following a reality TV crew filming a group of vampire roommates. It juxtaposes goth cliches and lots of blood against the awkwardness of apartment living and figuring out the chore wheel. Throw in more than a few swipes at Twilight, make the vampires lame and self-conscious, and you’ve got a fresh, comedic take on the found-footage horror movie. The timing is superb and we haven’t heard a lot of these jokes before.
A “locked room play” is a type of story that traps characters in a closed space. They’re forced to solve a mystery and face uncomfortable realities about each other without the ability to escape. Unfriended poses social media as a metaphorical locked room, and then sets the internet ghost of a bullied girl loose on its characters. A movie that takes place entirely on one computer screen would seem gimmicky if it all didn’t work so well – it’s the first film I’ve seen that takes commonplace moments in online life and creates effective suspense from them. Be warned: It’s easily the most love-it or hate-it movie on this list. (Read the review here.)
In most metrics, audiences rated Chappie much higher than critics did. Those films are always intriguing. The story of a robot learning to be human in a gang-ridden South Africa, it’s a violent spiritual successor to films like Short Circuit. Despite its cute story, it doesn’t coddle the viewer and it treats violence traumatically. It pulls off robot gunfights while also capturing tremendous emotion, and it even touches on some very risky science-fiction ideas. (Read the review here.)
Sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies” was long considered impossible to adapt to film. One of the first time travel paradox stories, it twists in on itself in the most intimate and surprising ways. Containing incredible performances by Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke (his best since Gattaca), the film deserves consideration as a new sci-fi classic. It’s a smaller movie, but it’s impactful – it was nominated for nine Australian Academy Awards and won four. (Read a mini-review here.)
There’s a sequence where half-wolf alien Channing Tatum hops onto a frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and raids an intergalactic thunder palace on his anti-gravity speed skates…and he never even bothers to put on a shirt. It’s all done to rescue a space princess who was a maid scrubbing toilets on Earth just one hour before. He kills dozens of guards only to find out she doesn’t need rescuing. Whoops. The science-fiction conceit at the movie’s center is smart and its politics are discussion-worthy, but everything else is a strange blend of stilted, irreverent, and cartoonish. Jupiter Ascending is most concerned with trolling the science-fiction and fantasy genres for two hours. I can’t tell you it’s a good film because it’s not interested in being good. It’s more performance art than movie, and it packs as much meta commentary as it does eye rolling. For that, it deserves an asterisk on this list. (Read the review here.)
Take Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, strip the ego away, and throw in a lot more journalism, and you’ve got Chai Jing’s Under the Dome. The documentary confronts China’s pollution issue and how it contributes to both the country’s ill health and climate change. Jing has a background as an investigative journalist – the film’s strength rests on her ability to show how money, bureaucracy, and sheer laziness create pollution laws that are never enforced. The free film’s popularity exploded upon release. The resulting scramble in China to block it only increased its fame and importance. (Read the review here.) You can watch a subtitled version for free on YouTube, right here:
Pixar’s latest animation is a movie that heals like few others. While it’s adventurous and filled with slapstick humor, movies rarely portray a helpless character so privately and humanely as 11 year-old Riley. Her emotions run amuck in her head as real characters, struggling to cope with change and maturity. No other film on this list understands so well what it’s like to feel powerless, or how panic and anxiety build up in ways that make it difficult to ask for help from others. (Read the review here.)
If an action movie has a great chase scene, it might last five minutes and be half as good as the two-hour chase that is Mad Max: Fury Road. This year’s definition of spectacle keeps CGI to the background and focuses on real stunts in beautifully realized post-apocalyptic terrain. Even as Charlize Theron’s Furiosa drags Tom Hardy’s Max and a host of refugee women in tow, she stands out as one of this year’s most intense heroes. (Read the review here.)
Choosing between these top two films is incredibly difficult. Ex Machina is a stunning example of sci-fi horror that plants itself in the back of your mind. The experience of watching it is top-notch suspense, but I found myself obsessing over the film and its messages for weeks. Essentially, Ex Machina is about two men deciding the fate of a female android – created by one, and tested for humanity by the second. The film is incredibly layered, boasting one of the best screenplays in years. Without really leaving the perspective of one character, it demands viewers to think about its events from the perspectives of all three. It gets inside our own senses of desire and morality, and toys around with the machinery before asking some very difficult questions. (Read the review here.)
I called this the most important American horror film in decades and I stand by that. The best horror is built from rules, and It Follows strictly adheres to the rules of a supernatural villain passed from one victim to the next like an STD. What really makes It Follows sing is its style. It feels like it takes place in the 50s and the 80s and today all at once. There’s a nearly impossible-to-replicate, dreamlike quality in It Follows that haunts you. Few films feature a dread this inescapable, and few films pack this much story and meaning into their framework. The finale shoved my heart into my throat like no movie has in a long time. What more can someone ask of a horror movie? (Read the review here.)
What is the best movie you’ve seen this year? How would you order your list?