The good movies are supposed to come out in the second half of the year. January through June? That’s the dumping ground; the crap that was so toxic it had to get buried in the winter, followed by the empty-headed excitement of summer blockbuster season.

Not this year.

The first half of 2015 has been stacked with enough amazing films for two or three ten-best lists. It was hard enough winnowing this batch of contenders down to just these favorites; narrowing these picks down even further with the rest of 2015’s highlights come December is going to be downright impossible. But that’s a very good problem to have.

In years past, I tried to ascribe overarching meaning to these sorts of lists. If there were a lot of movies about fathers and sons on my list, well, that must have meant something was going on in popular culture to cause it. Now I recognize most of that stuff is blind luck and random chance. Coincidence or not, though, it’s interesting to note, in the midst of an important and ongoing conversation about gender and representation in Hollywood, just how many of my favorite 2015 movies focus primarily on women. By my count, seven of the ten best movies of the year so far were female-driven (eight out of ten if you count Mad Max: Fury Road), and most dealt explicitly with women fighting to find or maintain their place in society. Again, that could be nothing more than serendipitous timing. Or it could be a hopeful sign of things to come.

Either way, this is a great time to have my job; I’ve already seen a ton of great movies in 2015, and this is supposedly the “bad” part of the year. I can’t wait to see what the fall brings. Until then, these are the best movies of 2015 so far:


10. Cinderella
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

As the husband of a devout Cinderella fan, I’ve endured a lot of glass slippers, talking mice, and transforming pumpkins over the last fifteen years. If only the other versions of this story were as moving and sensitive as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It doesn’t modernize Disney’s classic princess, and nothing about this rendition is hip or cool. But it’s particularly attuned to the emotional journeys of idealistic Ella (Lily James) and her cynical stepmother (a terrific Cate Blanchett), and Branagh does an good job of finding new nuances to explore between the classic beats. (Kudos also to screenwriter Chris Weitz, who found a clever way to turn his heroine’s silence into an act of quiet but powerful defiance.) James also has impressively intense chemistry with her Prince Charming (Richard Madden), another character who’s greatly improved in this version; all in all, it’s a surprisingly sexy PG-rated Disney fairy tale. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)


HBO

9. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Directed by Brett Morgen

There are so many movies about Kurt Cobain that it sometimes feels like a new one comes out every single week (That’s true right now; the latest Cobain doc, Soaked in Bleach, actually did come out last week). Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck , from brilliant archival documentarian Brett Morgen, is different from all the others. It doesn’t attempt to explain or critique Cobain from the outside; it lets Cobain tell his own story through archival footage, interviews, and recordings. It brings you inside his doomed, tortured genius and finds new insights in his art and life.


Radius-TWC

8. Heaven Knows What
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

The first word that comes to mind to describe Heaven Knows What is “unflinching” — but unflinching doesn’t seem a strong enough descriptor for this harrowing tour through New York City’s drug scene. Based on the life of heroin junkie Arielle Holmes, who plays a loosely fictionalized version of herself, the film presents the unvarnished truth about the fleeting highs and increasingly low lows of Holmes’ Harley as she fights with her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) and hunts for her next fix. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie never hit an inauthentic note.


Sundance Selects

7. Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas

A world-famous actress grapples with mortality in the gorgeous Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest meditation on art and artists from director Olivier Assayas. Juliette Binoche delivers yet another remarkable performance as the actress; Kirsten Stewart gives perhaps her best performance to date as her weary assistant (no wonder she already won a César Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar). Binoche’s Maria Ender (a woman who refuses to acknowledge she’s slowly approaching her own end) agrees to star in a new production of the play that made her a star 20 years earlier. Back then she played a young seductress; now she assumes the role of the seduced and the destroyed. As Maria reluctantly rehearses her lines with Stewart’s character, the line between play and real life blur, leading to one of the year’s most enigmatic and haunting endings.


Lionsgate

6. Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad

True, John Cusack and Paul Dano look and sound nothing alike, which is kind of an issue for Love & Mercy since they’re supposed to be playing the same person, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, at different points in his turbulent life. But director Bill Pohldad’s soulful musical biopic turns Cusack and Dano’s differences into the cinematic equivalent of a Brian Wilson song, where two distinctly dissimilar melodies intertwine to create one beautiful harmony. As the young Wilson, who reaches his creative peak just as his personal life hits rock bottom, Paul Dano delivers one of the best performances of 2015. Oscar voters, don’t forget him this December. (Additional thoughts on Love & Mercy.)


Universal

5. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland

Robots are all the rage in Hollywood these days, but Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was far and away the year’s best film about artificial intelligence. Making his directorial debut, Garland wisely chose not to bite off more than he could chew, building a movie that’s small in scope (three main characters, one location) but epic in its stakes. Every angle of its complex love triangle is fascinating, and every moment in this mental chess game between a pair of tech nerds (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) and a sheltered robo-prototype (Alicia Vikander) vibrates with tension. Who is playing who? Who in this scenario is ultimately more human? By the end of this movie, the answers to those questions have changed the future of mankind — possibly (and provocatively) for the better. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)


RADiUS-TWC

4. It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell

You can’t escape trauma. No matter how far or how fast you run, it is always there, waiting to strike when you least expect it. That’s the ingenious subtext of David Robert Mitchell’s nightmarish film It Follows, in which a young woman contracts a supernatural STD, a ghost that slowly chases her everywhere. Teeming with unsettling imagery and genuinely disturbing set-pieces, It Follows turns teenagers’ obsession with (and simultaneous fear of) sex into one of the scariest and smartest horror movies of the decade, and it suggests that when people demonize something, they sometimes create an actual demon. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)


3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller

His name is Max. His world is fire and blood — and controversy. But all the misplaced outrage around this incredible chase film and its feminist themes only served to add even more meaning to its images of wild, feral men attempting to destroy this band of independent women. At the age of 70, George Miller returned to his signature franchise and put a lie to the notion that action films are a young man’s game — and to the one that blockbusters have to be dumb collections of chaotic violence. Mad Max: Fury Road is precisely what blockbusters should be: Bold, fresh, exciting, and thoroughly engaged with the issues of their time. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)


Rook Films

2. The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by Peter Strickland

The Duke of Burgundy is about exotic stuff: bondage, fetishes, lepidopterology, and even human toilets. (They’re more expensive than you’d think.) But all of that is mostly a flashy gloss on extremely mundane and surprisingly universal subject matter. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) live an outwardly exciting life of fantasy, role-playing, and non-stop sex. But one of the women might be getting more out of their erotic escapades than the other, and it threatens to tear the couple apart. The lives of a pair of butterfly-loving BDSM enthusiasts sounds like the stuff of a pretentious and inaccessible art film (or possibly a trashy softcore porn), but director Peter Strickland uses this unconventional material to tell a deeply relatable — and often hilariously funny — story about love and compromise. That’s something we all understand, regardless of what kind of toilet we prefer. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)


Pixar

1. Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter

A case could be made for Finding Nemo. Maybe Up too. After that, it’s no contest: Inside Out is Pixar’s greatest film. In a world where most Hollywood movies are content to deliver mindless thrills, Inside Out challenges audiences to feel more — and to demand more from their entertainment. It’s the funniest movie of 2015, and the saddest movie of 2015, and the most beautiful movie of 2015, and the most cathartic movie of 2015. I’m not crazy about how much Fear (Bill Hader) looks like a Muppet version of me, but other than that, it’s just about perfect. (Read ScreenCrush’s full review.)

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order): Appropriate Behavior, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Blackhat, Black Sea, Focus, Furious 7, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kung Fu Elliott, Slow West, Spring.

The Staff of ScreenCrush Discuss the Best Movies of 2015 So Far: