Told through a series of anecdotal moments dotting the college days of the 44th President of the United States, Barry is more of a coming-of-age story than Southside With You, writer-director Richard Tanne’s nostalgic journey through a day in the life of young Barack and Michelle Obama. Australian actor Devon Terrell plays the titular Barry with a surprising amount of depth and persuasion, rolling with the punches as he searches for an identity between the Columbia classroom and the Harlem projects. As he does, he juggles the privileges and the responsibilities that come with dating a white woman. Because of this, the film makes for a skillful examination of bi-racial America and cultural identity as a whole — the fact that the film is a nonfiction piece about a future president just makes it even more striking and relatable.
The Big Short
Based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short explores the systemic failures that led to the 2008 financial crisis through the lens of several men who saw the crisis coming and made millions by betting that the housing bubble would burst. The film is broken into several stories, all tied together by narrator Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling), a trader whose path intersects with several of the characters. Director Adam McKay (of Anchorman fame) brings his usual flair for the kinetic and comedic, but here the satire is vicious rather than pleasant.
Between the meticulous planning of the protagonists and the frantic direction, The Big Short resembles a heist film, though the score is not a bank vault or rare painting, but the economy itself. The film is also educational, interspersed with strange, humorous segments meant to explain aspects of the housing market, such as Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler using a blackjack game to explain synthetic CDOs.
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch gives a masterful performance as British codebreaker Alan Turing, whose ability to decipher the German Enigma machine proved vital to the Allied victory in World War II. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and a winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, director Morten Tyldum’s stirring film was lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for its portrayal of Turing’s legacy as a gay man. Keira Knightley and Charles Dance also shine in supporting roles.
James Cameron’s take on the 1912 disaster has it all. The iconic film won Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director, and subsequently spent 12 years at the top of the list of highest-grossing films of all time. It tells the story of Rose (Kate Winslet), now nearly 100 years old, who recalls her experience as a 17-year-old passenger aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic, which hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sunk, killing more than 1,500 passengers. A strapping Leonardo DiCaprio plays Winslet’s beloved counterpart, who saves her from jumping overboard before the two helplessly — albeit, briefly — fall in love.
A surprisingly tame film from nightmare sculptor Tim Burton, Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a painter whose husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her works, hoarding the fame and profits for himself. The movie largely traces the course of their relationship, from a meet-cute at an art show, to their divorce and subsequent court battle, while examining how their relationship grows strained and abusive along the way. Although it plays out like a traditional small-scale drama, Big Eyes has enough of Burton’s signature weirdness to keep the audience off-kilter.
No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers are known for sprinkling even their bleakest films with moments of levity. Such isn’t the case with No Country for Old Men, however, a Western that stays true to the grim, fatalistic source material. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name and set in Texas in the 1980s, the plot centers on Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal gone wrong and a bag of money. Moss takes the money, not realizing that the bag contains a tracking device, and is quickly pursued by a Mexican cartel and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an unstoppable hit man less concerned with the money than with teaching everyone he comes across a lesson.
The Coens are at the top of their game here; despite the savagery of its subject matter, this is one of the best-looking Westerns of all time. The Coens wisely leave much to the writing to McCarthy, only changing elements here and there, and actors like Bardem wring a great deal out of the sparse but heavy dialogue.
Playing the “long con” has never been so profitable. In this critically acclaimed 1973 crime drama, Robert Redford and Paul Newman join forces to pull off one of the greatest cinematic capers of all time. Redford plays grifter Johnny Hooker, whose thieving ways land him in hot water with crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Hooker flees to Chicago to find ex-con Henry Gondorff (Newman), and the two pair up to out-con Lonnegan in a film that won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
So much has been said about the lengthy process behind Richard Linklater’s Boyhood — the film’s 12-year production cycle has been praised both as an undertaking and mocked as a gimmick — that the results are often overlooked. The film, which follows a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to his first day of college, is staggering in its portrayal of time. The film is made up of various vignettes from Mason’s life: a baseball game he attends with his father (Ethan Hawke), a high-school party, the small events that comprise a life even though they may not stand out.
By the time a teenage Mason creeps through the front door after a “little bit” of drinking and smoking, the weight of the years really hits. Like Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette), whose attempts to balance work and motherhood form their own narrative, the viewer may be shocked how quickly everything went by.
Mystic River is proof that Clint Eastwood is as masterful a director and composer as he is an actor. It’s a haunting and beautiful story, centered on three childhood friends who reunite later in life as the result of an investigation into the murder of one of their teenage daughters. It’s based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, and though the rampant profanity and unsettling outcome will likely upset you, the resounding performances by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are enough to leave you floored when the last scenes of Boston fade out.
Saving Private Ryan
Director Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan defined the look and tone of almost all World War II-related media for decades to come. During the carnage of D-Day, three of four brothers enlisted in the U.S. military are killed in action. In order to keep the sole remaining brother alive, Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) of the 2nd Ranger Battalion gathers a squad of Army Rangers and embarks on a mission to save Pfc. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper from the 101st Airborne division who has gone MIA in Normandy.
Miller’s squad treks deep into war-torn France to search for the displaced soldier. From the opening moments at Omaha Beach to the final moments of the film, Captain Miller and his squad face the harrowing reality of combat in World War II, and build unshakable bonds that are formed between soldier during wartime. The all-star cast also includes Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Deisel, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, Jeremy Davies, Paul Giamatti, and Dennis Farina. Saving Private Ryan won five Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Director, and was nominated for six others, including Best Picture.
Beasts of No Nation
The Netflix-distributed film from director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the streaming service’s first original feature offering, traces the harrowing life of a child soldier (Abraham Attah) in a West African country who falls in line with a group of mercenaries and their larger-than-life commandant (Idris Elba). Elba is a powerhouse, both terrifying and charismatic. The film tackles the brutal atrocities of war with just the right amount of impact and implication. It’s certainly not an easy watch given the film’s more bold and bloody moments, yet is well worth watching.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been heralded as a masterpiece ever since it first graced the silver screen in 1962. The heartfelt film is based upon Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, which follows lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and the maelstrom of hate and prejudice that swirls around him as he works to defend an innocent black man (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white woman. In many ways, the film is a strong portrayal of how justice functioned in small-town Alabama, one that also examines the innocence of the Finch children and the special bond between a father and child. Peck’s incredible performance is also one for the books, so much so that his role has essentially become synonymous with the book character.
There are plenty of films about journalism, most of which are highly romanticized, but Spotlight is one of the few that gets it right. Based on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the film follows the principle members of the Globe’s Spotlight team as they delve into allegations against various priests in Boston. The team in question is a group of distinct personalities played by an all-star cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams. There is no flashy direction nor pyrotechnics here; director Tom McCarthy keeps things simple, focusing on the grim work of the investigators as they move forward inch by inch, connecting the various tiny pieces they need to craft their story.