Based on historical events, Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist looking to make a profit during World War II. Schindler, having bribed Nazi officials, sets up a factory in Poland, hiring mostly Jewish workers. When he sees Nazi soldiers massacre a Jewish ghetto, Schindler decides he must do what he can to save as many Jews as possible, draining his fortune and trying to curry favor with a sadistic SS officer, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes). Although he is not normally counted among the great auteur directors, Steven Spielberg shows the depth of his talent throughout Schindler’s List, shooting the film in stark black and white, and employing some beautiful, subtle tracking shots.
Midnight in Paris
Many people find Paris to be a magical city — metaphorically, of course. For screenwriter Gil Pence (Owen Wilson), however, the magic might just be real. On vacation with his wife (Rachel McAdams), who prefers California to rainy Paris, Gil slips off at night to wander the city, and somehow stumbles back in time to the 1920s. He soon meets idols like Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and after spending time with them and an enigmatic woman named Adriana, Gil starts to feel more at home in the past than the present. Directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is full of witty dialogue and wry reflections on the nature of nostalgia. Wilson slides perfectly into the role of Allen’s avatar, channeling the comedian’s self-deprecation and vulnerability, as well as a hint of arrogance.
Every actor or actress deserves credit when credit is due, and in the case of Milk, that would be Sean Penn. His portrayal as late politician Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay activist to be elected to public office in California, is nothing short of mesmerizing, owing largly in part to Penn’s ability to convey Milk’s kindness and draw the pragmatism from Dustin Black’s engaging screenplay and research. What this all amounts to is a film that, for better or worse, functions as a multi-layered history lesson regarding Milk’s rise to prominence and subsequent assassination at the hands of city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Director Gus Van Sandt adds his own touch to the fractured narrative as well, further interspersing it with long-tracking shots and experimental techniques designed to add emotional gravity to a story that already teams with it.
Released in 2012, Magic Mike follows Adam “The Kid,” played by Alex Pettyfer, as he learns the ropes of male stripping under the tutelage of Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) a seasoned veteran of the business. While Adam is lured in by glitz of the industry, Mike on the other hand has his own entrepreneurial dreams he hopes to pursue after stripping. That being said, Magic Mike is not as much a “Tale of Two Strippers” as it is a 21st century retelling of a diluted American Dream (albeit slathered in body glitter and baby oil.) It’s part love story, part Sunshine State of Mind with just the right amount of Pony by Ginuwine. A ragtag cast anchored by none other than a leather chap festooned Matthew McConaughey keeps the narrative flowing without overselling the script. The film was a ‘uge success, grossing $167,221,571 worldwide from a modest seven million dollar budget.
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.
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.
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.
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.