Director Anton Corbijn captures the chill of John Le Carré’s spy thriller as well as the dreary life of the international espionage trade.
1. Selma (Paramount Pictures)
Ava DuVernay’s film should be required viewing in schools, not only to introduce students to the Civil Rights struggles of the not-so-distant past, but also to underline for them the importance of strategy and how politics advance through negotiation and tradeoffs. Voter disenfranchisement and police violence toward minority citizens are, unfortunately, two themes which remain relevant today. Thanks to DuVernay’s direction and strong performances by cast David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and many more, Selma is a film that can be enjoyed for its artistry as well as for what it teaches us about history.
2. Ida (Soloban)
The austerity and sense of stillness achieved in Pawel Pawlikowski’s black-and-white film, set in early 1960s Poland, contrast sharply with the monumental nature of its plot revelations. The title character, an orphan about to become a nun, learns in rapid succession that she has a living relative, that she was born Jewish, and that her parents were murdered. More will be revealed over the course of the film as Ida (known as “Anna” within the convent) and her aunt, now a hard-living magistrate within the Communist government, visit the village where her parents were hidden and then betrayed.
3. The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company)
Benedict Cumberbatch completely inhabits the role of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who not only led the effort to break the German Enigma code during World War II, but is credited by many as the father of the modern computer. Who knows what else he might have accomplished had he not been hounded to death by the British government for the crime of being born gay? Morten Tyldum’s film captures both the intensity of Turing’s intellect and the prejudice he had to endure, with Keira Knightley also supplying a strong performance as his best friend and fellow programmer who so admired him that she was willing to throw over her own chance at a family to provide him with cover.
4. A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate)
Director Anton Corbijn captures the chill of John Le Carré’s spy thriller as well as the dreary life of the international espionage trade (no casinos or girls in bikinis on hand in grimy Hamburg) as effectively as did Tomas Alfredson in the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A Most Wanted Man also features the final performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose turn as the German agent Bachmann receives outstanding support from an ensemble cast including Nina Hoss, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright.
5. Get On Up (Universal Pictures)
A towering performance by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown dominates Tate Taylor’s biopic. Besides carrying the film, his characterization performs an important historical function: letting anyone not already familiar with Brown’s music a good sense of what all the fuss is about. Strong supporting performances by Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer also help this film overcome a somewhat meandering script.
6. We Are the Best! (Svensk Filmindustri)
The aspirations and contradictions of teenage girlhood have seldom been captured as well on film as in Lukas Moodysson’s film, a comedy with a heart whose story centers on three friends (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne) in 1980s Stockholm. In the finest punk tradition, they form a rock band despite knowing next to nothing about music, showing an indomitable spirit (or just normal teenage rebelliousness) in the face of everyone who tries to tell them that punk is just so over already.
7. The Overnighters (Drafthouse Films)
Not simply an issues documentary, Jesse Moss’s film captures the feel of both the wide-open spaces of North Dakota and the claustrophobic tensions within the small town of Williston, home to a large number of itinerant men hoping for work in the oil fields. It’s also a portrait of Pastor Jay Reinke, who offers many of the men housing in his church, and contains a reveal near the end that sheds new light on everything you have seen to that point.
8. Finding Vivian Maier (IFC Films)
Vivian Maier was one of the most distinctive photographers of the mid-20th century, yet never published or exhibited her work. We’ll never really know why—every human life is ultimately a mystery—but John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s documentary provides a lot of useful information about her life (much of which was spent working as a nanny), as well as displays many of her striking photographs, which demonstrate that she was totally the equal of canonized photographers such as Eugène Atget or Robert Frank.
9. Into the Woods (Walt Disney Studios)
Stephen Sondheim’s musical survives everything Rob Marshall throws at it, including notably rapid cuts and a moving camera apparently meant to remind the audience that they are seeing a film and not a filmed stage performance. Despite all that, strong performances by Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and James Corden shine through, as does outstanding production design by Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock.
10. Virunga (Netflix)
A beautiful and insightful documentary that ties the current struggle to maintain a wildlife preserve in Congo to the lengthy and abusive history of colonialism in the country. The highlight for me is a stealth recording captured by journalist Mélanie Gouby that reveals that exploitative attitudes and behavior toward this country may not have changed all that much since the bad old days of Leopold II. | Sarah Boslaugh