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 winning for Best Adapted Screenplay, director Morten Tyldum delivers a stirring film that 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.
No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers are known for cutting even their bleakest films with moments of levity. Such isn’t the case with No Country for Old Men, however, a Western which stays true to the grim, fatalistic source material. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name and set in Texas in the ‘80s, the plot concerns hunter 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 hitman 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.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?! The winner of five Oscars at the 72nd Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe), Gladiator follows the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, a legendary Roman general whose loyalty to emperor Marcus Aurelius turns out to be his downfall after Aurelius is murdered and succeeded by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus is forced into gladiatorial tournaments, where he fights to survive and exact revenge upon Commodus for his betrayal. Needles to say, Crowe’s steely performance and the movie’s gritty, intense battle scenes earned it ample upon release.
Mystic River is proof that Clint Eastwood is as acclaimed 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 the life as the result of murder investigation regarding 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, having chronicled the early months of America’s entry into the war. 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 save Private First Class 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, searching 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 war. 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 inevitable release of Beasts of No Nation was a long time coming. The Netflix-distributed film, the streaming service’s first, simultaneously premiered on the service and in limited releases throughout the globe to widespread critical acclaim in October. Lauded director Cary Joji Fukunaga penned and shot the entire feature, which traces the harrowing life of a child soldier (Abraham Attah) who falls in line with a group of mercenaries and their larger-than-life commandant (Idris Elba). The latter actor is a powerhouse, both terrifying and charismatic, while the rest of 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, why should it be given the nature of its content?
To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been heralded as a masterpiece ever since it graced the silver screen in ’62. 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 historical film is a strong portrayal of how justice functioned in small-town Alabama, one which also examines the innocence of the children and the special bond between a father and child. Peck’s incredible performance is also one for the books, so much so his role has essentially become synonymous with the 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 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.
Having talent can be a trying experience; not having it can be worse. That is one of the theses of the 1984 film Amadeus, which chronicles (taking some huge artistic liberties) the complicated relationship between composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri, devoted to both God and music, hears in Mozart’s work the voice of the Almighty, yet when he meets the composer in question and finds him to be a petulant, boorish young man, he questions both his faith and the sense that the world is just. The film takes many artistic liberties, particularly with Mozart himself; while most of the cast, composed and drab, would seem at home in a conventional period drama, Mozart himself, with his garish colors and flamboyant antics, seems like a ’70s rockstar transposed to Vienna. Amadeus is a tragedy, but is never dour; it is bursting with life, much like its ill-fated subject.