Announcement: A Break for Spring, A Boom for Summer

When I announced The Balcony’s reopening late last summer, I expected that I would continue to cover the world of film and other media at a good clip while working on my Master’s at Concordia University. Alas, I published fewer columns and reviews than expected, mostly due to the unforeseen weight of my coursework and the intensity of preparing a thesis proposal. Unfortunately, while studying film should have given me the spark to post here more occasionally, the steadily compiling work for my classes (as well as my freelance jobs) ensured I could not contribute to The Balcony as often as I would have liked.

However, with the semester wrapping up in under two weeks, and the arrival of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto shortly after, I plan to continue writing for The Balcony at a more sustained rate throughout the late spring and summer. I will be back in early May and have more than half a dozen columns in mind (not including the occasional new release review). I hope you all stay tuned.

A few hints for some of the subjects of features I hope to write during the break from classes (and beyond this summer period) are in the images below.

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Jordan

Review: Zootopia

The concept for Disney’s newest animation is so aggressively suited to the Mouse House’s anthropomorphic proclivities, it is perplexing that it took the idea so long to reach the screen. The story takes place in a realm entirely populated by animals. Humans do not exist. Harmony is ensured, as we learn early on in the comedy adventure, since this universe has no food chain: the barriers between predator and prey have collapsed, and somehow, all the animals just munch on the same junk food that humans do. All of the creatures also go to school, look forward to the working world and wear clothes. Many of them also raise a family, although there is a noticeable lack of inter-species mingling.

As animated stories without people tend to go, the animals eventually turn into extended metaphors for our regular human behaviour. That is a big comedy boon, as well as a dramatic impediment, to Disney’s Zootopia (Rating: B-). Kids and their parents will find no shortage of delightful sequences for their amusement, while the animation is dazzling without ever being showy. For instance, nobody ever points out that the insignia on the back of Judy’s sleek cell phone is a carrot.

Unlike certain animated titles from DreamWorks that pack in the references to popular culture, many of the puns glide by in the background. (Well, except for the few nods to Frozen that this critic counted.) Zootopia probably has more value on home video than as a theatrical experience. However, the various metaphors in play become muddled during the film’s second half; sometimes, one message of tolerance for your fellow man (or mammal) is more effective than three.

Before it descends into speechifying, Zootopia is a brisk detective story. The film’s tiny heroine, Judy Hopps (voiced with beaming pride by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the only one of her 270 siblings to dream of life beyond her country farm. She, ahem, hops onto the train to the titular metropolis once she lands a job on the city’s police force – the first for a bunny, and not a surprise when one considers her diminutive size. (Idris Elba is the voice of her captain, a brutish water buffalo.)

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Despite the adversity needed to graduate from the top of her class, Judy is delegated to traffic duty, where she roughs up against a confidence man, a “sly fox” named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, smart-alecky as usual). Eventually, the new arrival in town needs a bit of help from the street-smart fox to solve a crime about some missing Zootopians.

The interplay between Nick and Judy is dynamic, with each character getting moments to wrest power over the other – this struggle involves a running gag with a carrot that doubles as an audio recorder – and stand on their own two legs. (In Zootopia, none of the characters move like they do in the animal kingdom.) The central mystery’s scope eventually encompasses the city’s boroughs of many different climates, from rainforest to tundra.

For a film with such conceptual ambitions, though, there isn’t a lot of world-building. The two screenwriters and seven (yes, seven) story contributors do not bother to explain why animals need to live in an appropriate habitat temperature but can function just fine in the main city centre. Also, why is the music on the radio from undisguised human artists? It might have taken too much time to go into the intricate details of Zootopia’s urban planning, although we are left with much to wonder.

Still, a few of the locales around town are inspired. The film’s funniest scene takes place at an animal nudist society, a self-reflexive poke at the laws of this alternative universe where predators and prey are often fully clothed. A quick scan through a museum toward the end gives us hints at how the species have evolved, but one may need to hit a pause button to excavate further treasures.

There’s a lot to admire about this zippy, smartly structured, occasionally hilarious animated adventure, co-directed by Tangled’s Byron Howard and Wreck-it Ralph’s Rich Moore. But it’s hard to not acknowledge the, ahem, elephant in the room. The film tries to pack in messages about acceptance and prejudice, but its metaphor doesn’t quite work. Without spoiling too much, the film relies on mistrust between the predators and the prey – an ancient ideology that still resonates years later.

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There is an issue, though, with conceptualizing that predators have no reason to rely on their most primitive instincts. This metaphor becomes even more off-kilter, and potentially racially insensitive, when one considers what the predators would align with in contemporary American society. (And, let’s be clear: the values the film espouses are Western, such as Judy’s dream to rise from nothing and stake her claim in whatever field she desires.)

Beyond the iffy metaphor, the messaging is fuzzy. Judy tries to be virtuous and prove that one can transcend their social trappings, but too much of Zootopia’s joke count relies on stereotyping the animals to abide by a certain human quality. In one scene, the desk workers at the local DMV are sloths, a giddy joke that lands but also relies on one trait routinely repeating itself. In another scene, a corrupt body in town turns out to be exceptionally close to filmic depictions of mobster Italians. The list goes on.

One of the more refreshing characters in the film is Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), a leopard who works as a secretary at the police headquarters. Although he has the stature of a large, husky predator, Clawhauser has a poor diet and dreams of being onstage with Gazelle, a pop sensation voiced by Shakira. One would hope, though, that a film so insistent on smoothing the barriers between animal and human would have had more ambitions with fluid animal identities.

Column: Why Does Everyone Feel Leo is Overdue for an Oscar?

The biggest story of this awards season, aside from the absence of black nominees from major categories at the Academy Awards, has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s front-runner status. To many who will be watching the Oscars on Sunday evening, the only category they will truly care about is best actor. It is the 41-year-old actor’s sixth nomination, and fifth for acting. He has never won, and given the various prizes he has earned this awards season, it is doubtful DiCaprio will lose the biggest trophy this weekend.

Regardless, the cultural consensus is clear: DiCaprio is long overdue for an Academy Award. Many consider DiCaprio a natural frontrunner because of his recurring status in the loser’s circle. The hoopla over the Academy’s “reluctance” to hand DiCaprio a statue has even resulted in a videogame, Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage, where the star races for that trophy, dodging paparazzi and chasing down his fellow nominees.

Based on the furor over his perceived snubbing, one would think the Academy was as vicious and unruly to DiCaprio as that grizzly bear in The Revenant. However, the widespread reaction to DiCaprio’s relationship with the Oscars is hyperbolic. There is a feeling that of all the actors working in show business right now, he has been slighted the most. That is not true: Glenn Close (six nods) and Amy Adams (five) have never won either. Where are their videogames? Meanwhile, five is not an unforgivable number of times to be nominated without a win. Two of the actor’s frequent collaborators, Martin Scorsese and Kate Winslet, only won Oscars on their sixth try.

If DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for any performance, it is for a film for which he didn’t even receive a nomination. In Catch Me if You Can, based on a true story, the actor gives a tour de force performances as Frank Abagnale, Jr., a con artist who – before the age of 18 – scammed his way into working as a doctor, a lawyer and a pilot, while also forging checks and becoming the subject of a multi-year FBI manhunt. In Steven Spielberg’s film, the actor possesses both an exquisite range and a natural charm. It is difficult to watch Catch Me if You Can and see anyone else occupying DiCaprio’s role.

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There, his performance is one that relies on actual performance, as Abagnale must think on his feet to get out of tight situations. When the character is tempted to flee from a criminal past and into a normal life, we are fascinated to see what DiCaprio will do next. Meanwhile, the moments with the conman’s father (played by Christopher Walken, who was nominated that year for supporting actor) are poignant without ever turning falsely sentimental. DiCaprio has never seemed as comfortable under a character’s skin, and he doesn’t rely on histrionics to impress: the performance is strong since Abagnale never comes off too strong.

Compare Abagnale to another real-life fraudster that DiCaprio played more than a decade later, The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, and the former’s triumphs are even more noticeable. DiCaprio gave a full-bodied performance in Wolf, a film that seemed to be tailor-made around big moments for the actor to sell with gusto. But Wolf is full of extremities: DiCaprio makes an impression because he reaches for the back row in virtually every scene. While the performance is the fuel the film needs to rocket to the three-hour mark, there is barely a moment of nuance within the portrayal, and little to get the audience to relate to the character. We’re rooting for Abagnale to escape unscathed, but it’s hard to muster any sympathy for Belfort.

Of the four past performances that bequeathed him a nomination, the most impressive was DiCaprio’s turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. The Hughes from John Logan’s script (directed admirably by Martin Scorsese) is a man trying at every turn to resist categorization and who is also obsessed with his own celebrity. Remind you of anyone? Still, there is something appealing about a flashy movie star from the tabloids reaching beyond what is expected onscreen. DiCaprio played the title character of J. Edgar, a bruised mobster in The Departed and a venomous slave owner in Django Unchained. He didn’t receive nominations for any of those performances, although their distance from the actor’s natural charm and newfound (i.e., heroic) position as a climate activist creates an allure that gets your attention.

Regardless, as columnist Scott Mendelsohn writes on Forbes.com, “the kinds of movies that DiCaprio has been making for the last decade in an alleged attempt to win the fabled award are so important and so unique in this movie-going landscape.” The actor has shied away from making anything light, comic or even remotely indie since Don’s Plum in 2001, a film that I didn’t even know existed until I discovered it on his IMDb page. Every film he has made since has been with an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. With the exception of Django Unchained, DiCaprio has been the lead in every film he has starred in between 2002 and 2015.

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It seems that the narrative of his repeated snubbing has been perpetuated by the star himself: if nearly every movie you’re in for the past 15 years can be considered awards season material, then you’re asking to be taken far more seriously than other Hollywood personalities. It may have helped DiCaprio to diversify his portfolio into more independent and supporting work. The gravitas he frequently aims toward is starting to become a parody of itself.

It’s unsurprising that he will likely win for what is less of a performance than a piece of sadomasochistic performance art. DiCaprio does his best to give Hugh Glass a sense of dimension within the banalities of The Revenant’s screenplay. (The film is far more interesting for its aesthetics than its character psychology.) It is a sometimes moving, sometimes muscular feat that, ultimately, tells us too little about the man underneath the growling, bearded façade. DiCaprio used to be an actor who could say much with just a sly grin or furrowed brow. Now, he needs massive physical altercations to get Academy attention.

However, it is a shame that an actor of DiCaprio’s achievements will probably win for a role that seems overly typical of any person who wins an Oscar. He plays a real-life figure (check) that goes through enormous, life-or-death obstacles to reach his goal (check). Plus, the fanfare surrounding the arduous shoot of The Revenant – one that required the actor to shoot in freezing temperatures, eat bison meat and sleep in an animal carcass – promotes the idea that DiCaprio deserves to win because he suffered for his art. If only the character onscreen was as fascinating as the film’s beleaguered production.

But, if it’s not worthwhile to bemoan DiCaprio’s lack of Academy recognition, to whom should we turn our attention? Here’s a name for you: Roger Deakins. The 66-year-old cinematographer is nominated for an Academy Award this year for Sicario. He has received 13 career nominations, beginning with 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. In the past eight years, Deakins has been nominated nine times for cinematography, for films as eclectic as No Country for Old Men, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall. He has never won. He probably won’t on Sunday. That honour will, in all likelihood, go to Emmanuel Lubezki for shooting – you guessed it – Leonardo DiCaprio crawling through the snow in The Revenant.

The Academy is Starting to Do the Right Thing

“And I want to commend the [Academy] president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, because she is trying to do something that needs to be done,” director Spike Lee said, in a terrific speech, while accepting a much-deserved honourary Oscar last November. “I don’t know if you know this, but the United States Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. And all the people out there who are in positions of hiring, you better get smart, because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.”

When the Academy Award nominations were announced Jan. 14, the reaction was, predictably, outrage. For the second year in a row, not one of the 20 performers voted by the 1,138-person actors’ branch was black. Some were quick to blame an overwhelmingly Caucasian caucus of voters. Others, more correctly, slammed the institutional biases of the film industry. The vanilla slate of nominees was barely a surprise, though, if one just took a quick look at the studio slate of prestigious fall releases.

The only major actor of colour widely expected to get a nomination was Idris Elba for his role in Beasts of No Nation. One can imagine that Netflix, which distributed the film and has minimal experience doing Oscar campaigning, may not have pushed enough for the nomination. Other packets of “flavour,” as Lee would say, such as Will Smith (Concussion), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), were long shots. The anger surrounding the lack of black nominees may have also become more inflamed due to the remarkable success of black women at the Emmys last fall, where Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba and Regina King all walked off with gold.

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Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation.

So, amidst the furor of #OscarSoWhite, the Academy responded, quickly and unanimously. The board of governors presented new rules eight days after the nominations came out, which attempt to double the representation of women (to 48 per cent) and minorities (to 14 per cent) in the Academy by 2020. Those who have been nominated for an Oscar receive a lifetime status, while those who have worked in motion pictures “during three ten-year periods” can remain in the Academy.

As the Academy states: “We want the Oscars to be voted on by people who are currently working in motion pictures, or who have been active for a long time. There are a number of Academy members, however, who had brief careers and left the business. We want to strengthen, uphold and maintain the credibility of the Oscars with these new criteria. Voting for the Oscars is a privilege of membership, not a right.”

While these changes are heartening, the only way the list of nominees is guaranteed to become more inclusive of the cultural community is due to changes in the industry. More stories about women and minority groups – even those that aren’t small minorities anymore – are routinely short-changed, due to the difficulty of these non-franchise films selling in markets outside of the United States. Meanwhile, when quality films are made, it is the studio’s job to push these titles for awards consideration. One worthwhile criticism related to #OscarSoWhite is how minuscule the campaigning was for titles like Compton, Creed and Selma. With a widening group of voters, it is a near certainty that studios will become more confident to broaden their perception of what films can be categorized as “awards bait.”

At the same time, one could see the last couple of years as an outlier. It is not like there has been a long-running drought of African-American nominees on “Hollywood’s biggest night.” Black actors have comprised more than 10 per cent of all acting nominees since 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won acting awards (for Training Day and Monster’s Ball, respectively). In the last six years, Geoffrey Fletcher and John Ridley became the first two African-American screenwriters to win Oscars, while Steve McQueen (for 12 Years a Slave) was the first black producer to earn a Best Picture prize. In 2012, T.J. Martin made history when he won for Best Documentary for Undefeated.

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Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay… and that’s all.

However, while these gains are significant, it is still an issue that the majority of Oscar-winning films featuring black actors are ones that focus on the subservience of African-Americans. Too frequently, they are asked to play slaves (12 Years a Slave), servants (The Help) or people struggling in dire poverty (Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild). The collection of powerful stories involving black characters this year were tales of artistic and athletic entrepreneurship. A more positive, less essentialized depiction of black America on the screen is important, and changes like the ones recently enforced by the Academy make a step toward quashing predictable stereotypes.

Meanwhile, as for the representation of female talent on the screen, this year’s Academy Awards are a noticeable improvement from the prior ceremony. Three of the eight Best Picture nominees in this current slate have a female protagonist, compared to zero last year. Four of the 10 nominees for screenplay had a woman writing (or co-writing), up from, again, zero last year. A bit less heartwarming: Carol, a critically acclaimed romance that just happens to be about two women having affections for each other, couldn’t muster a Best Picture or Director berth, despite six other nominations.

The Academy has a role as one of the world’s most prominent arts organizations to insist on more cultural inclusivity, and recognize that these changes are necessary. Even so, a new controversy has taken shape among Academy members who feel that they may not earn the necessary status to vote for future ceremonies. Various letters from infuriated Academy members have been printed in The Hollywood Reporter in recent weeks. In them, members complain that their voter status is now jeopardized; to combat racism, they argue, the Academy has created an age-ist double standard. However worthwhile their criticisms, these instances should be seen as the exception to the norm.

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Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed.

Close to a year ago, Vin Diesel said in an interview that he thought Furious 7 would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, “unless Oscars don’t want to be relevant, ever.” Was that prediction all that ridiculous? Well, if one looks at the entertainment industry as a business of commerce, Furious 7 would be a serious Best Picture contender. No franchise in movies today has managed to expand its audience with such speed – the seventh film more than quadrupled in worldwide box office what the fourth film made. More importantly, the audience for this series is more reflective of the type of America that is far too underrepresented on screen.

So, when Diesel was proclaiming Oscar gold for a high-octane sixth sequel, the relevance he was insisting upon may have had little to do with the Academy awarding a box office success. (Only four of the past 10 Best Picture winners surpassed the $100 million mark at the U.S. box office.) He was likely shining a light on the widening gap between what the Academy typically honours – films that appeal to an older, establishment crowd – and what the real face of America looks like. By taking a stand and giving more women and non-white people in the industry a say, the Academy should move closer to the cultural relevance, as well as representation, it merely thinks it has.

Love is Pure Gold and Time a Thief: My Top 15 Films of 2015

2015 was an excellent year for the cinema, although most of the best films of the year were, unsurprisingly, found in more esoteric spots: the local art house, the festival circuit, On Demand services. However, there were enough intriguing options available to make this critic and columnist head to the cinema more than 120 times in the past year.

Still, the highest-grossing title of the 15 listed below only crossed the $50 million mark at the North American box office this weekend. That is not due to the dwindling status of blockbusters, even though for each blistering ride down Fury Road, there was a bloated Age of Ultron. Instead, it had to do with the sheer number of compelling art-house choices that were available.

Nevertheless, I hope I can help introduce you to some noteworthy titles you may have missed over the past 365 days. This list is full of numerous international titles – a whopping nine countries from five continents are here – and filled with as many stories about women as men. I will count down in descending order, with honourable mentions at the bottom.

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  1. Listen to Me Marlon

Marlon Brando was an actor of such versatility, saying his name likely yields a different reaction from many. Some initially think of his brutishness from A Streetcar Named Desire, others of his patriarchal fortitude in The Godfather. Regardless of your entering point to the beloved actor, Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s enormously insightful documentary, is an essential watch. Filmmakers raided the archives of various late artists this year – Kurt Cobain, for one – but this project, making adept use of the actor’s personal audio recordings, captures the soul of one of Hollywood’s most scintillating yet troubled stars. It is vital and deeply poignant, and any offer to see it shouldn’t be refused.

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  1. Carol

The word “lesbian” is never uttered in the new, lush melodrama from director Todd Haynes. Almost every sentence is suggested, rather than said, giving each interaction a smoldering intensity. That was the norm for quiet, closeted shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls in love with a wealthy older woman, the title character played by Cate Blanchett, circa 1953. The layered performances from both actors are deeply affecting, aided by the pregnant pauses and insinuations of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay (based off a Patricia Highsmith book). Strangely, the title has the emphasis on the wrong character: Mara gives the most accomplished turn of her career, as a woman trembling with excitement and tormented by period mores.

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  1. Amy

When Amy Winehouse was starting out in the music industry, she shrugged off thoughts of fame, saying in interviews how she worried about the emotional distress it would put on her life. Those somber thoughts are featured early on in Asif Kapadia’s documentary, almost entirely made of archive footage, and hang above the rest of the film like a spectre. Regardless, Amy is an absorbing tribute to a pop star gone too soon that captures her raw talent with verve and insight. Never veering into hagiography, the doc chronicles her creative process and collapse to substance abuse with equal fascination. Winehouse’s death may have turned her into a tragic showbiz cliché; thankfully, Kapadia’s film is just the rehabilitation the figure needed.

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  1. Timbuktu

Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about the everyday travails of an impoverished West African town could have felt like a satire in any other year. In 2015, however, a story of Islamic jihadi groups enforcing strict rules over a bedraggled community stings with the urgency of breaking news. Sissako balances amusing comic moments with a devastating emotional toll, telling a variety of unforgettable stories. In one, an altercation between a poor cow-herder and a fisherman turns unfathomably bloody. The filmmaker captures the pain of living under religious persecution alongside the deep pride of those who resist the rule. Fans of humanist world cinema would be wise to see this film, a deserving Oscar nominee for Mauritania last year.

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  1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Almost every scene in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a gem from Israel, is confined to a tiny, drab rabbinical court. There, a woman – the title character played by co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz – demands to be granted a divorce. Her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), cannot relent. The result is a remarkably protracted legal journey, packed with comic highs and dramatic twists. Incredibly, the film’s momentum never lags. The tightness of the space and soaring volume often pushes toward an explosion of feeling. Elkabetz and her co-director, husband Shlomi, shoot like the best lawyers, ensuring the long takes press into the characters and reveal more than testimony ever could.

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  1. Sicario

One of the year’s more unconventional films to manage a wide release was the new white-knuckle thriller from our current master of despair, Denis Villeneuve. Sicario navigates the circuits of the drug war between Mexico and the United States with both a nimble pace and a feel of existential dread. Blunt gives a great turn as a steely FBI agent called upon to help destabilize a Mexican cartel. While Lionsgate promoted the film as one where a determined heroine stares down a dark epicentre of crime, a la Clarice Starling, that’s all a ruse: we are left in her shoes, having to tiptoe around red herrings and ambiguous courses of action. It’s deceptive while also riveting, bolstered by a fierce turn from Benicio del Toro and masterful cinematography, courtesy of the man most overdue for an Academy Award, the great Roger Deakins.

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  1. The Big Short

What’s more unlikely? That the best film from a major studio this year came from the director of the awful Anchorman 2? Or that one of the year’s most exhilarating trips to the cinema would be a film about the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis? Well, they’re both true. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s business best-seller is enormously ambitious, jumping between many characters who realize, a few years before the housing crisis began, that the bubble was going to burst. Thanks to slyly packaged lessons about high finance (aided by cheeky celebrity cameos), McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph revisit recent headline news in a way that is refreshing and richly funny. Steve Carell gives a career-best turn as a cranky Wall Street suit, and the film manages to equal the actor’s high-wire energy. Yet, despite bouncing from tragedy to comedy and back again, The Big Short never feels uneven or overwhelming.

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  1. Ex Machina

Science fiction is a genre that is hard to get right: you need to balance intriguing concepts with compelling characters– or more accurately, combine convincing elements of science and fiction. Alex Garland nails it with Ex Machina, an arresting film that feels more probable by the day. It takes place in a closed-off research lab, owned by tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He has called on a milquetoast coder (Domhnall Gleeson) to test out an AI prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and see if she’s good enough to reveal to the world. The result is a (mostly) three-person drama filled with intrigue and many ideas worth pondering – not just around science, but power, sex and what it means to feel human. The sophisticated science banter is engaging rather than alienating. One is left wondering what the film’s best visual effect is: the hypnotic Vikander as Ava figures out her human capabilities, or Isaac’s disco dancing.

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  1. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino has always been a more exciting, interesting screenwriter than director: his elaborate scene constructions and twists with genre conventions are far more fascinating than his nods in homage. And while he remains in debt to the forerunners of genre, he has never been as confident or commanding behind the camera as with his newest venture. Much of The Hateful Eight takes place within one setting, a snowed-in cabin where eight ruthless Old West types are trapped for the night. The gang includes a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a captured outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a ruthless colonel (Samuel L. Jackson). The dark, daring comedy caters to the director’s strengths, full of punchy dialogue and steadily rising action. The characters spar with words and glances in the first half before getting trigger happy in part two. It’s an absolute blast: if you can handle some bloody blows to the head, it’s worth seeking out in an exclusive 70mm format.

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  1. Girlhood

Céline Sciamma’s perceptive coming-of-age drama is one of the finest films in recent memory to explore that mysterious space between being a girl and a woman. The film follows a teenager from the Paris projects named Marieme (Karidja Touré) over the span of a few years, as she blossoms from a shy schoolgirl into one of the cool kids, and even the leader of a popular girl gang. Yet alongside the film’s throbbing soundtrack (and an unforgettable, purple-hued dance scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), Girlhood brims with humanity and the brilliance of female camaraderie. Sciamma captures moments of joy and spontaneity among the teen ensemble that feel unscripted. However, the star is Touré, who gives a staggeringly good debut performance. She exudes a wide range – vulnerability, aggression, sexual liberty – without losing track of the woman growing underneath.

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  1. Wild Tales

What do a doomed airliner, a case of road rage and a Jewish wedding have in common? All three are among the subjects for Damián Szifron’s omnibus comedy, a collection of six savage stories about retribution and justice. Packed to the brim with acerbic humor and searing class commentary, the various tales all build to a climactic punch. Each story, ranging from five minutes to a half-hour, provides a fine directorial showcase for the Argentina native to show off his genre filmmaking chops. There isn’t a weak segment in the bunch. The best is the grand finale, where a bride-to-be (Erica Rivas) finds out her groom has not been entirely faithful. Despite the brutal humour on display, each of Szifron’s stories is grounded in recognizable drama. We root for the characters, even as the situation spirals to unpredictable, bloody, sometimes literally explosive places.

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  1. The Look of Silence

One of the motion picture Academy’s greatest failings in recent memory is their failure to reward director Joshua Oppenheimer for his mesmerizing, masterful The Act of Killing in 2014. They have the chance to redeem those mistakes, as the filmmaker is nominated for his latest documentary, a devastating companion piece to Killing. The Look of Silence returns to Indonesia, as the director confronts the perpetrators of that country’s 1965 genocide and re-open the wounds of history. This time, Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist confronting the notorious gangsters who killed his brother. (How powerful do the war criminals remain? A large number of crewmembers on the film are credited as “Anonymous.”) The subject matter is undeniably harrowing, but that shouldn’t matter: the film is essential viewing, especially for those who cannot stomach Killing’s grisly violence.

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  1. Spotlight

An instant classic of journalistic drama, Tom McCarthy’s new film focuses on an investigative team of Boston Globe reporters. Their story is about pedophilia within the local Archdiocese, and these scandalous revelations ultimately rocked the city (and the paper’s Catholic subscribers) to the core. McCarthy, who co-wrote the film with Josh Singer, is fascinated with the protocols of journalism. Many have mistaken the film’s drab aesthetic as ripe for criticism; instead, the blandness is a stylistic asset, making the world feel lived-in and authentic. Also helpful: the rich work of the year’s best ensemble, from Stanley Tucci (as a hectored lawyer) to the empathetic Rachel McAdams, a worthy Oscar nominee. The attention to occupational detail, alongside the taut, smoothly paced, emotionally rigorous screenplay, makes Spotlight that rare film about telling a story that works as great storytelling.

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  1. Phoenix

No actor anywhere gave a more moving performance onscreen this year than Nina Hoss, who portrayed Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz in Christian Petzold’s complex new drama. Nelly’s face is badly disfigured in the war; returning to civilian life, she barely recognizes the new visage from reconstructive surgery. She also cannot comprehend that her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) looks at her and sees a total stranger – although one he hopes can pretend to be his wife, in order for him to collect Nelly’s inheritance. This slow burn noir gives us the time needed to observe Hoss as she explores the space of a woman aching to feel human again. Her face, ghostly pale and searching, says more than dialogue ever could. Phoenix is a psychologically rich and unsettling film about identity, memory and performance, although these themes slowly build into a tense character study. The drama’s devastating final scene is the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop, and will be talked about for decades.

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  1. When Marnie Was There

I don’t cry often enough at the cinema. I’m lucky if a single film makes me tear up each year. When Marnie Was There, meanwhile, made me audibly sob for the last 10 minutes, through the credits and as I turned into the theatre lobby. That was no fluke: a second viewing of the film released the same emotional response.

The film barely made a dent at the North American box office (earning less than $600,000) and received little critical fanfare. But it is as poignant and powerful as any film from (the now-defunct) Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, the creators of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. The drama, based off Joan G. Robinson’s novel, is about Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), a social outcast who moves to an idyllic seaside town after an asthma attack. She sparks a friendship with Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), who lives in a mysterious house by the sea and is also searching for a friend.

As per any Studio Ghibli effort, the animation is glorious, as is Takatsugu Muramatsu’s original score. When Marnie Was There is also one of the finest films ever made about the bonds of friendship. Anna is one of the most complicated, compelling young protagonists to come along in some time, swelling with rage and sadness. She is also wary of social interaction, but craves to find a rewarding friendship. It is refreshing to see a film aimed at young women that respects its audience, understanding that youth is full of bliss and bruises. Simply put, no film this year was more wondrous or emotionally resonant.

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And… 15 Honourable Mentions: Approaching the Elephant; The Diary of a Teenage Girl; The End of the Tour; Fort Tilden; Heaven Knows What; Inside Out; Jafar Panahi’s Taxi; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; The Martian; 99 Homes; Queen of Earth; Shaun the Sheep Movie; The Stanford Prison Experiment; What We Do in the Shadows