(WOMENSENEWS)—It’s tough to whittle down so many great movies released during this extraordinary year of filmmaking to just 10. But somehow I managed.
My list is equal opportunity, meaning it chooses from all the films I saw this year and—fair warning—does not heed my ongoing femme-centric and femme-helmed criteria. That said, most of these movies just so happen to also boast strong and proactive female characters. And there are some common denominators. They are all socially relevant, free from gratuitous violence and – in my opinion – examples of filmmaking at its best.
In alphabetical order, here goes:
1. "Beasts of No Nation" is the harrowing tale of Abu, a West African boy whose life is torn apart when he’s caught in the chaotic crossfire of warring factions in his unnamed homeland. Reflecting actual situations that we know of via the news, Abu witnesses the murder of his parents, is taken captive and forced to become a child soldier. He joins a legion of gun-toting youngsters who were similarly snatched from happy childhoods and indoctrinated to kill and plunder on command. Abu, played in a heartbreaking, first performance by non-professional actor Abraham Attah, is a fast and capable learner and rises through the ranks to become the favorite of his brutal, manipulative commander (Idris Elba). Attah and Elba are both receiving Oscars buzz for their profoundly truthful and deeply disturbing performances. Cary Joji Fukunaga did an exemplary job of directing and shooting the script he adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel. It’s not easy to watch, but "Beasts of No Nation" is a must-see.
2. "Bridge of Spies" makes you feel like you’re getting an unusual peep at behind-the-scenes political machinations that shape our world. Set in 1957, at the height of Cold War brinksmanship, is this truth-based political thriller about the complex behind-the-scenes, high-level U.S.-Soviet-East German negotiations to exchange detained Soviet spy Rudolph Abel for downed and captured American U2 pilot Gary Powers. Both men had secret information; both governments were anxious to reclaim their agents before they spilled. Steven Spielberg’s masterful direction and the clever character-driven script by the brothers Coen (Joel and Ethan) and Matt Charman keep you on the edge of your seat. Tom Hanks is terrific in the lead role, one which recalls his engaging turn in "Charlie Wilson’s War." But the film’s real kingpin performance is that of Mark Rylance. In portraying Abel, Rylance does so much by doing so little. An entirely engaging and entertaining history lesson that’s not to be missed.
3. "Far From the Madding Crowd" is bound to become a cinema classic. In it Danish director Thomas Vinterberg delivers epic entertainment with his cinematic rendition of the Thomas Hardy novel by the same name. The camera sweeps you through gorgeous landscapes and, alternatively, reveals character nuances in perfectly framed closeups. The lavish period costumes and décor are dazzling. Even more dazzling are the performances that bring Hardy’s beloved characters to life. Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, the fiercely independent woman who struggles to negotiate her way through the stringent Victorian social environment, making some poor choices along the way, but ultimately triumphing. Mulligan is an inspiration. Michael Sheen’s performance as William Boldwood, the rejected suitor who trades in his future happiness for hers, is heartbreaking. Matthias Schoenearts is heart-winning as Gabriel Oak, the steadfastly loyal farmer who ultimately claims her heart.
4. "Grandma" is hilarious and poignant and provides a provocative and joyful look at mother-daughter relationships while defying any trace of sexism or ageism. It stars the incomparable Lily Tomlin as wise-cracking, cantankerous, fiercely independent and semi-antisocial Elle Reid. She’s an aging author who is forced to reconsider her lifestyle and past decisions when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), knocks on her door to ask for $500 for an emergency abortion. Tomlin’s character doesn’t have the money, so she and her granddaughter set out on an unusual buddies’ road trip, which involves reconciliations and encounters with friends and former lovers from the distant and recent past, including Elle’s daughter/Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who is ultra-uptight and semi-estranged. Writer-director Paul Weitz birthed and nurtured three extraordinary female characters, and they’re brought to life by a triumvirate of superb and powerful actresses. Brava to the bravado.
5. "The Hunting Ground" is documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick’s explosive expose of the scandalously underreported incidence of rape and sexual harassment on U.S. college campuses, including top-ranked Ivy League and state universities. Co-eds who’ve been brutalized speak out about the way in which college administrators and campus police squelched their complaints to protect their institution’s reputation. In frequent cases where the perpetrators were/are college athletes, some destined for sports stardom, the incidents were/are kept secret to preserve the revenue flow produced by successful and well-marketed college sports programs, including profits from ticket sales and broadcast rights, as well as millions donated by alumni team boosters. The compelling film is well researched, well-crafted and appropriately shocking. The victims are organizing to demand changes in policy, and let’s hope they succeed.
6. "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter" is a haunting tale that illustrates the impact of media on ordinary people. Kumiko is a naïve and unhappy Japanese everywoman who’s trapped in a boring and borderline exploitive office job and saddled with a domineering mother who demands that she find a husband to get ahead in life. Under mysterious circumstances, Kumiko finds a VHS of "Fargo," the Coen Brothers’ movie, and believes it to be her secret key to salvation, a map to a hidden treasure that will lift her out of her deadening circumstances. Kumiko is as demented as she is desperate and the movie follows her through a series of gripping mishaps that astonish, entertain, horrify and amuse all at once. Director David Zellner (who also co-scripted with his brother Nathan) depicts a tragic continental divide between two cultures and sets of social expectations. Sean Porter’s camerawork is simply stunning, especially in the scenes where Kumiko enters the frozen world of her fantasy and becomes the very image of a demented Kabuki character. Unforgettable brilliance.
7. "The Martian" is sci-fi at its very best. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut botanist who is left alone on Mars by crew teammates – under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) —who believe he’s dead when they execute an emergency exit from their space station and lift off for Earth. The story is all about what brave-and-clever Mark does to survive and how he contacts NASA and, ultimately, his crew to let them know of his situation and try to engineer an escape. The set up may be simple fantasy, but the science is fascinating. Damon is on screen most of the time, and he carries the story along brilliantly. Cinematography, special effects and editing are stunning, as is Ridley Scott’s direction. The Martian is a first rate educating entertainment.
8. "The Second Mother" is galvanizing drama infused with important social commentary. Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, it is the story of Brazilian housemaid Val (Regina Case), servant to a wealthy Rio de Janeiro family who rely on her to run their lives – preparing food, doing laundry and other chores, and raising their otherwise neglected son. Val accepts her second class status so she can earn money to provide for the family – including her daughter – whom she’s left in her rural hometown. Her world turns topsy-turvy when her daughter comes to Rio to attend university, moves in to Val’s cramped maid’s room and engages with the family – as an equal. The story is engrossing and affecting, and it presents an insightful perspective on relationship conflicts and social tensions that are rife when there is such a wide divide between society’s haves and have-nots. Masterful moviemaking and compelling performances by Regina Case and the rest of the cast.
9. "Suffragette" trumpets its salient subject in its title. Director Sarah Gavron and scripter Abi Morgan researched the subject matter for years before beginning their work on this wonderful film about British women who risked their employment, marriages and physical safely in their fight for the right to vote. The plot is driven by four activist women – whose characters were developed from the lives of actual suffragettes — played by Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Meryl Streep. With its outstanding ensemble, superb sets, costumes and cinematography, the film has a convincing air of authenticity.
10. "Woman in Gold" presents the true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) who sued the Austrian government to regain possession of the famous eponymous Gustav Klimpt painting that was stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, Woman in Gold, a portrait of Maria Altmann’s beloved Aunt Adele, was kept by the Austrian government and prominently displayed in a Vienna museum. The story has lots of twists and turns that would deter a lesser crusader than the rightfully indignant Maria, but she – and Helen Mirren’s fabulous and forthright portrayal of her – are both heroic. I love movies in which justice prevails. So, it is on this note of righteousness that I conclude my top 10 list.
Stay tuned for January openers and Oscars updates.