We’re already over halfway through the year, and we don’t have a serious Oscar contender yet. By serious Oscar contender, of course, we mean boring, stock-biographical film we see every few months, replete with the most egregious use of cookie-cutter editing. More often than not, late-in-the-year Best Picture contenders will make a splash within the mainstream (with cinephiles bemoaning their mediocrity) before vanishing into the ether of the cultural zeitgeist, never to be heard from again (remember that time the The Artist won best picture in 2011?). But a surplus of traditional, quote-unquote “serious Oscar contenders” don’t define the quality of a year at the movies. You know what does? Original films. Movies that answer questions you never thought to ask. Sequels that raise the bar for their respective genres. Personal, independent films created solely as an extension of the artist’s soul. Maybe it’s a one in a million shot the films that we consider great will end up on the Oscar ballots at the end of the year, but that won’t stop us from loving them.

Here at AE, we’ve compiled a list of the best movies we’ve seen so far this year.

*Note: Some of these are wide releases, while others have only seen limited release with little availability outside of a few major cities and/or festivals, so our list is comprised of movies that we had access to for the first time between January 1st and the end of June.*

25. The Duff

The Duff

CBS Films

“Director Ari Sandal and writer Josh A. Kagan (adapting the novel by Kody Keplinger) never subject Bianca to that Ally Sheedy/Rachel Leigh Cook moment wherein a hair shake and the right lipstick reveal that our ‘plain girl’ hero has had a stunning, magazine-worthy beauty hiding underneath all along. Such gestures only reinforce the beauty standards which create the insecurity in the first place, so instead Bianca is allowed to succeed on her own terms, by being who she was in the beginning.  The DUFF isn’t trying to say that everyone can be beautiful, but rather that everyone is just everyone, and that’s beautiful.” – Read David Shreve’s full review.

24. Faults

Screen Media Films

Screen Media Films

“Advertised as a film from the producers of The Guest, Faults has a similar multi-genre feel, though I think the transitions between genres in this film are smoother, ultimately allowing the twists to feel more unexpected. [Director Riley Stearns] eases viewers into this world with truly funny moments of dark comedy that feel completely natural, which is no small feat considering how challenging the sub-genre has proven to be. There’s a level of trust that’s invited between the film and its audience, so even as the black comedy slips away, there’s never any doubt that Stearns is in complete control of the narrative. Yes, the rug will be pulled out from under you, but by the time it is, you will be so invested in the film that you’ll welcome the manipulation.” – Read Richard Newby’s full review.

23. ’71

71

StudioCanal

“The action scenes include a Jason Bourne-esque chase sequence, with [lead actor Jack O’Connell] fleeing the aftermath of an explosion, a tense game of cat and mouse, and a shootout. This is all typical action movie stuff, but [director Yann Demange’s] brilliant (and risky) use of shaky-cam engages the audience in the literal disorientation of running for your life like almost no film before it. Never before has the use of shaky-cam been so vital to the success of a movie. In this case, it’s not just a gimmick. The aforementioned explosion sequence is possibly one of the most well-shot set-piece moments of any film in years, as O’Connell’s character stumbles through the streets and alleyways of Belfast as fast as he can after sustaining a major injury. There’s a palpable confusion and terror in that scene, owing to both the deft camera work and O’Connell’s impressive performance.” – Read Ryan MacLean’s full review.

22. Spring

Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Films

“Spring is exactly what contemporary horror needs. When writer/co-director Justin Benson and co-director Aaron Moorhead combine a stunning, sun-dulled European travel narrative, a sincerely felt, ticking clock romance (with inspiration from Linklater’s Before Trilogy so apparent that the comparison is unavoidable), and the type of monster movie that would delight traditional John Carpenter fans, their near-perfect script and naturally deft filmmaking style ensure that the horror elements are only ever elevated, and never smothered by having been sewn together as a patchwork of their borrowed film fabrics.” – Read David Shreve’s full review.

21. These Final Hours

Roadshow Films

Roadshow Films

“I know that people are getting tired of the apocalyptic sub-genre, and I get it. Okay, I don’t completely get it. I love apocalyptic films. If a movie’s about the world ending, I’m in. Even bad apocalyptic films are fun for me. But I do understand being tired of seeing recycled premises, even if they’re originally interesting ones. Hell, I’m so tired of superhero movies that I roll my eyes every time a new one is announced. But being tired of a genre doesn’t mean that it still isn’t churning out great films, and These Final Hours is a really, really great film.” – Read Schyler Martin’s full review

20. Who Am I

Sony Pictures Releasing

Sony Pictures Releasing

“Who Am I is an engaging, fast-paced thriller about cybercrime in modern-day Germany. It’s a twisting, tautly told story (non-linear, highly-stylized, and therefore totally enthralling), and it was a huge commercial success in Germany. The film is artistic and innovative without being strictly Art House. Not that Art House is a negative classification by any means, but I think what I loved most about this film is the way it fed into my personal fascination for foreign, mainstream films; we don’t often get to see foreign films that are purely silly comedies, or high-octane action movies, which is why I loved this film so much.” – Read Sara Grasberg’s full review.

19. I Am Big Bird

Tribeca Film

Tribeca Film

“In characters like Big Bird, artists such as [Carol Spinney, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz] were able to give voice to an alternative view of the world, one rooted in the innocence of a child-like perspective, tempered by an adult nostalgia for the former. At the dawn of the 1970s, Sesame Street maintained the aesthetic gestalt and wonder of the 1960s into perpetuity, but matured with the times in terms of its intellectual grasp of human tragedy and loss, which has served Spinney in his performance as Big Bird, a character that has loomed lovingly over our collective, creative subconscious ever since, Spinney the singular artist that gave birth to one of our modern media culture’s greatest children.” – Read Sean K. Cureton’s full review.

18. Paddington

StudioCanal

StudioCanal

“One of Paddington’s greatest charms is the delightfully British way that the film handles its subject: a talking bear who walks on two feet at all times, tips his hat politely to those he passes on the street, and grins and chuckles. And no one is surprised. This deadpan suspension of disbelief fuels a movie that never takes itself too seriously, and carefully avoids what could be a chaotic and meta-mess. Paddington is different and out of place not because he’s a bear (at least not necessarily), but because he’s an immigrant and an outsider. Though there’s no outright social commentary, it’s impossible not to draw a few implied conclusions from the film’s message of acceptance and love for all people, regardless of their native origins.” – Read Schyler Martin’s full review.

17. The Duke of Burgundy

Artificial Eye

Artificial Eye

“There is a consistent problem in many movies that attempt to depict honest relationships today. Often, filmmakers want to make a movie about an honest relationship, yet the films that they make are often bland and predictable because they are about nothing more than the relationship. Enter The Duke of Burgundy, which at its core is  trying to show an honest and loving relationship between two women. [Director Peter Strickland] shows his two heroines battling their fears of getting older, worrying over their day-to-day affairs, and so on, which are all regular problems not out of place in a movie about a relationship. What makes this film so unique, however, is in how Strickland sets his subject against a hermetic backdrop of both fetish and nature. He’s made an honest approach to a movie about a relationship, but simultaneously told a story about desire, and the lengths one will go for love. All of this is directed with wonderful stylistic flourish, making it an indispensable piece of independent filmmaking.” Read Whit Denton’s full review.

16. What We Do in the Shadows

Madman Entertainment

Madman Entertainment

“The writing and directing pair of Jemaine Clements and Taika Waititi earn an unequivocal comparison to such Christopher Guest classics as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman through their even, fair treatment of their chosen subject matter.  What We Do in the Shadows is never snide in its observation of archaic folklore, as it makes no attempt to satirize the currently played-out supernatural film genre (honestly, we need more “Twilight sucks” jokes less than we need more Twilight rip-offs).  The cultural familiarity with the supernatural topic is never twisted in order to allow the film to pass critical judgment, but rather is structured to support goodhearted, benevolent gags.  This sort of unassuming, non-dismissive approach is all too rare in comedies of the current decade.” – Read David Shreve’s full review.

15. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

“In a complete rejection of the notions that the high school drama, film genre usually brings with it, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl abstains from any phony quirk or cheesy romance, and does not bother with any over-sentimentality. The emotions conveyed all feel real, laced with an ineffable authenticity, allowing the viewer to connect with the characters on a more personal level than would be allowed if we were just mere spectators to its depicted romance. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon makes us fall for his characters immensely, without making them fall intimately in love with one another, and that is a very difficult and commendable thing to do in a society that so craves the stereotypical rom-com.” – Read Jason Ooi’s full review.

14. Spy

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

“About 45 minutes into Spy, [actress Melissa McCarthy] blows the lid off the place, coming out guns a-blazing as a totally badass, spy chick with enough wit, confidence, and charisma to take down anyone who stands in her way. She completely owns this film, making all the groundwork instantly transform into a satisfactory build up to one of the best second halves in any film this year, and without a doubt the best comedy released in recent memory. Every joke lands exactly where it’s supposed to, every laugh is earned, and every scene is used to its maximum comedic value, causing me to belly-laugh so hard I was gleefully stomping my foot on the ground and slapping my knee.” – Read Beth Reynolds’ full review.

13. Saving Mes Aynak

Saving Mes Aynak

Kartemquin Films

Saving Mes Aynak gives us a clear view of how frustrating the situation is for the workers involved [in the film’s narrative]. The short, sporadic time-frame given to them in which to compete their immense task leaves them with a very small interval in which to ensure that not everything is demolished when the mine is finally built. [In the film], we get to view many of the numerous obstacles that these archaeologists are forced to work through and against. The most immediate is the threat to their lives that comes from the Taliban occupying the area, who are angered by their work, and as a result have made many attempts on the lives of the workers. We also see the lack of financial support that the workers receive, many of them going months without being paid for their efforts, and receiving little of the support that they were initially promised from various members of the international community.” – Read Ryan MacLean’s full review.

12. Inside Out

Pixar

Pixar

Rarely have I connected with a film on such a deep, emotional level in quiet the same way that I have connected with Inside Out. I don’t know quite how Disney and Pixar do it, but [co- directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen] have nailed the way it feels to grow up. More than that, they  have captured exactly what life feels like. Inside Out doesn’t try to mask life’s hard truths. Instead, it embraces the dark times. It looks hardship right in the face, and dares to find beauty in sadness. Our memories are rarely good or bad, joyous or sad. Usually, they’re tinged with a bit of everything, because that’s the way life itself is. Inside Out is stunning, and wonderful, and frustrating, and enlightening, and terrifying, and so many more things all at once. Inside Out understands all of that, and projects it back to the viewer on the big screen.” – Read Schyler Martin’s full review.

11. Cinderella

Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

“[Director Kenneth Branagh] and screenwriter Chris Weitz have taken a shy, but sweet Disney Princess, and infused her with independence, drive, and wisdom. She’s the best female role model I’ve seen on screen in a long time. [Actress] Lily James brings this familiar, yet feminist version of Cinderella to life with a spunk and genuine charm that’s utterly irresistible. Toward the end of the film, the Fairy Godmother explains in her narrative that sometimes the biggest risk one can take in life is to let people see exactly who you are, and Cinderella accordingly never shows people, regardless of status or how they treat her, any side of her but the real one. And really, if that isn’t an important message to send to viewers of all ages and genders, I don’t know what is.” – Read Beth Reynolds’ full review.