The 50 Best New Movies on Demand (2016)

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The 50 Best New Movies on Demand (2016)

Even the most ardent movie fanatics weren’t able to catch all the best movies of 2015. Fortunately, most of the films on our year-end list are already available through your cable provider or on-demand streaming service. Pay-per-view still has a big jump on streaming subscriptions like Netflix. There’s even an early favorites from 2016 here. But all of these films came out in the paste 18 months.

We looked through the offerings of cable providers like Xfinity, DIRECTV, Time-Warner, Charter and Cox—and subscribers to the latter two should be complaining about their on-demand selection. We also included Apple’s iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft and YouTube, all of whom have a diverse offering of rentable streaming movies. We limited it to movies available to rent (not buy) to keep the cost mostly under $10.

The selections are up to date as of Feb. 28, 2016, but cable providers change their offerings regularly. Here are the 50 Best Movies on Demand:

ant-man.jpg50. Ant-Man
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Charter, Cox, Dish, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Compared to the two Marvel films that immediately preceded it, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man provides a welcome respite from extinction-level threats and superhuman bombast. Instead, and in what can only be considered power-set-appropriate, everything feels smaller and more human. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a smart guy whose act of Robin Hood-flavored corporate thievery lands him in prison. Upon his release, he just wants to earn an honest living and be a good dad to his young daughter, but darn if that isn’t difficult to do on the outside. Perhaps one last score? By now, the plotting and expectations of such a setup are practically embedded in a moviegoer’s DNA. But much as the ’70s spy thriller got a boost when injected with some Super Soldier Formula in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so too does the heist genre benefit from prolonged exposure to Pym Particles. In much the same way Guardians of the Galaxy was powered by the charisma and affability of Chris Pratt, Ant-Man is buoyed by the charm of Rudd. The combination of a charismatic lead, a solid supporting cast, and the debut and dramatization of a new (to moviegoers) superpower (or two) has proved a winning formula for Marvel Studios for the last, oh, 10 or so films now, and it’s no different here.—Michael Burgin

spy.jpg49. Spy
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Google Play, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Paul Feig
Rose Byrne’s comedic talent has always been criminally under-appreciated, as evidenced by Melissa McCarthy’s much broader Bridesmaids performance garnering an Oscar nomination while Byrne’s complex, nuanced, hilarious turn as Helen. This woman can do no wrong, which is proven even more thoroughly by her performance in Paul Feig’s Spy. As Rayna Boyanov, an international fugitive with a mouth like a sailor and a penchant for feeding men poison until their throats dissolve, Byrne’s villainess is the perfect counterpoint for Melissa McCarthy’s titular hero. Spy marks Melissa McCarthy’s third effort with director Paul Feig, following Bridesmaids and The Heat, and the two keep their streak a winning one: Spy manages to be funny, thrilling and empowering all at once. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a skilled CIA analyst who finds herself spending her days behind a desk rather than out on missions. It’s a violent action-comedy that never once is able to take itself too seriously, and yet has a lot of serious commentary to lace throughout all of its whimsy about just how powerful any woman can be when given the same resources and consideration as any other male. Spy’s surprise may not be that Susan turns out to be an unassuming hero, but that she is matter of factly a deserved one, the only thing standing between her and unmitigated success being yet another upstanding performance by Byrne.—Andy Herren

24-best-so-far-2015-Manglehorn.jpg48. Manglehorn
Available On: Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green’s film stars Al Pacino as the titular locksmith with nothing but time on his hands. Manglehorn lives a solitary life—his ailing kitty his only friend—but Green and first-time screenwriter Paul Logan hint at the world he once occupied. Periodically, the film will downshift so that a side character can tell a story about the Manglehorn they used to know: the father, the baseball coach, the loving grandfather. That we see little of the warmth or humanity these characters describe is Manglehorn’s great mystery: Where did that man go?Manglehorn finds Pacino delivering an agreeably modest, empathetic performance. Too many years of hoo-ah overkill have stifled his light touch and effortless charm, replaced with hammy intensity and Scarface parody. But the Pacino on display here mostly puts aside the actor-ly embellishments.—Tim Grierson

martian.jpg47. The Martian
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Cox, Dish, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is largely a cold, deliberate film, but there’s still something undeniably stirring about it. Instead of showering us with treacle, the film pays tribute to simple human attributes such as smarts, teamwork, sacrifice and determination, going about its business much like its resourceful characters do. And yet, the film’s underlying message is nonetheless inspiring: We can do great things if only we put our minds to it. Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian is set in a not-too-distant future in which U.S. astronauts are conducting manned missions to the Red Planet. The latest expedition finds a crew that includes Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) getting ready to return home to Earth when a deadly storm suddenly bears down on them. In the rush to return to their ship, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead, Lewis reluctantly taking the rest of her crew into space. Except, of course, Watney hasn’t really died. As you might imagine, much depends on the film’s outcome, and Scott finds a way, even in the story’s final moments, to undercut the obviously emotional stakes with a calm precision that makes it all the more thrilling and harrowing. Consequently, The Martian is subtly heroic, peeling away the potential histrionics of the stranded-on-Mars plot to look at the very human men or women who ensure that the spaceships can fly in the first place.—Tim Grierson

lamb.jpg46. Lamb
Available On: Amazon, DIRECTV, Time-Warner, Xfinity
Year: 2016
Director: Ross Partridge
Lamb toys with its audience, playing mind games until the very last frame. Even after the credits roll, questions linger about motive, intention, and right and wrong. The only certainty is that Ross Partridge, who wrote the screenplay, directed and stars, has crafted a gem of a film. Based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb opens on David Lamb (Partridge) as his life is imploding. His marriage has just failed and his invalid father, whom we briefly see in a neglected Chicago home-turned-hovel, soon passes away. Instead of earning sympathy, David immediately proves to be an untrustworthy and unreliable protagonist. Despondent about his father’s death and the tumult in his life, David turns his attention to an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence), a latchkey kid from a broken home. They meet in a strip mall parking lot, with Tommie’s ill-fitting tube top-and-heels ensemble reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver. Because of the subject matter, it’s easy to compare Lamb to Nabokov’s Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert seduces the underage titular character. But Partridge’s film is darker and more uncomfortable, devoid of the comic undertones found in Nabokov’s novel. The mind games that David plays with himself, with Tommie, with Linny and with the audience are disturbing. David’s view of morality is seriously flawed, but to him, the end—saving Tommie from a miserable home life—justifies the means. It’s a beautiful, confounding and unsettling ride.—Christine N. Ziemba

pigeon.jpg19. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2014
Director: Roy Andersson
Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson’s film avoids easy categorization. Through a series of vignettes—some connected, some not—we see snippets of life. Andersson fixes his camera in one spot and the action plays out in front of us: a group of older siblings tries to convince their dying sister not to take her handbag with her to Heaven, a bar of anonymous drinkers suddenly becomes a chorus, a woman in a dance troupe longs for her disinterested male cohort. And there are two stories that have subsequent episodes, including one featuring a couple of salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) who specialize in novelty joke items like fake vampire teeth. The specifics of what happens in these vignettes is less important than precisely how they’re constructed. Because of Andersson’s locked-down camera, each scene is comically static, like little skits of human behavior in which all the actors (most of them non-professionals) barely show any expression at all. (Adding to the theatricality and surreal oddness of the characters, Andersson puts white makeup on his performers, making them look like they’ve been drained of their vital fluids.) With no cuts and often incorporating exceptionally understated choreography within the frame, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a wonder to behold on formal terms: Andersson creates deceptively low-key movies that are actually quite visually and thematically sophisticated.—Tim Grierson

clouds-of-sils-maria.jpg44. Clouds of Sils Maria
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Microsoft, Xfinity, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Olivier Assayas
In just about anyone else’s hands, Clouds of Sils Maria could try one’s patience. A character study of actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) revisiting one of her earliest theatrical triumphs—except this time, she’s playing the older, more tragic character, not the young, confident beauty—the latest from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas risks being such an insular, rarified project that it never escapes its navel-gazing concerns about creativity and celebrity. But Assayas largely transforms such potentially precious material into something far more rewarding and, ultimately, ambivalent. It’s not new for an artist to create a work about the nature of making art, but Clouds of Sils Maria soon becomes a larger portrait about how we interpret (and reinterpret) that art based on our own experiences and biases. A movie of internal puzzles, it consistently hints at something more sinister or provocative just around the corner. It’s a movie so psychologically rich that its outer trappings soon give way to universal anxieties about what exactly defines us. With a film this attuned to the complexity (and unraveling) of identity, it’s barely a surprise when one of the characters literally disappears from the story.—Tim Grierson

last-days-vietnam.jpg43. Last Days in Vietnam
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2014
Director: Rory Kennedy
Rory Kennedy’s pointed documentary Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t deal with much of that political turmoil that steamrolled the country, or the notion of right and wrong or Red versus Red, White and Blue; instead, it chronicles a very narrow slice of the war—the time after the Paris Peace Accords when the United States had officially exited the war and the ensuing dilemma that faced U.S. forces remaining in Vietnam, particularly what to do about the allied South Vietnamese who faced certain peril at the hands of the oncoming North. What she has rendered is so subtly poignant it sneakily stays with you—the true test of an effective documentary. Her effort sheds new light and understanding on a dark chapter in American history. It also serves notice about a promising filmmaker whose name stems from the American legacy itself.—Tom Meek

bridge-of-spies.jpg42. Bridge of Spies
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Charter, Cox, Dish, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Steven Spielberg
Once again Steven Spielberg tells a story set in the past but about the present: In 1957, American lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is called upon to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who is on trial for his life. Although taking the case makes him one of the most despised and misunderstood men in the country (not to mention his own home), Donovan throws himself into it with gusto. As he sees it, giving his client a proper defense vindicates and celebrates American values rather than undermining them. This is clearly Spielberg’s view, and there’s a superficially inspiring quality to the film—we’re invited to take pride in Donovan’s righteous stance and share his belief in the principles upon which the country was built. Yet that very sense of patriotism is undermined by the fact that the country in which Donovan and Spielberg believe is shown to be a place populated by morons who aren’t worth defending or saving. Thus the film takes on a strange, contradictory tone reminiscent of the best of Frank Capra’s work. It’s a movie intent on defending American values in an America where those values have been so corroded as to be practically nonexistent. Bridge of Spies is right up there with his most provocative work, yet it has a straightforward, deceptive simplicity—it doesn’t force its contradictions or complexities down the audience’s throat, and that makes them all the more fascinating.—Jim Hemphill

creed.jpg41. Creed
Available On: Charter, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Ryan Coogler
There’s an alternate timeline in which Creed is a superfluous waste of nostalgia. In that universe, Warner Bros. gave the reins to a filmmaker other than Ryan Coogler, the young Oakland-born director who stunned viewers in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, a bio-drama about the death of Oscar Grant. Maybe Coogler is the last person anyone might expect to take up Sylvester Stallone’s mantle and breathe new life into the long-abiding, conditionally beloved Rocky franchise. There’s a chance that Creed might have turned out just fine without Coogler at the helm. But that version of Creed would lack the chief detail that makes Coogler’s film so good: perspective. Structurally, Creed is nearly a beat-for-beat remake of Rocky, which is fine if not particularly exciting on paper. It’s different, though, because it isn’t about Rocky Balboa at all. It’s about Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky’s rival-turned-best friend, Apollo Creed, whom we first meet in juvie pummeling an older, larger boy while their fellow delinquents cheer and jeer them on. And then, of course, there’s Rocky himself. There’s an air of masculine chagrin to his arc. We’re not used to seeing guys like Rocky laid this low and left this vulnerable. Donnie is his chance at winning glory in the ring again, but the kid also gives him the strength to fight anew when he’s down and out. It’s every bit as schmaltzy as it sounds, but schmaltz is Rocky’s bread and butter. Coogler makes it his, too. He understands that schmaltz is pure delight when it’s served properly: with earnest emotion and through rousing spectacle. Creed defies our expectations of its genre even as it fulfills them.—Andy Crump

me-earl.jpg40. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Available On: Apple, Cox, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Greg (Thomas Mann) describes himself as a groundhog-faced, insufferably awkward social chameleon. He can blend in with any of the cliques that populate his school, but he chooses to belong to none (he’s trying to save himself from that aforementioned awkwardness and escape high school without suffering too many embarrassments). His only real friend is Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler), though Greg would never acknowledge him as such. Greg and Earl are filmmakers—and merely “co-workers,” according to Greg—who spend most of their free time making parodies of classic films like Apocalypse Now, The Third Man and Citizen Kane. (The titles and brief clips of Greg and Earl’s hilarious parodies are a highlight.) Greg is content to have the most limited of high school experiences and just make his movies until he has to face the looming threat of college. But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with Rachel, he has to abandon his casual-interactions-only policy and actually spend meaningful time with someone other than a “colleague.” So begins what Greg dubs his “doomed friendship” with Rachel. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl follows Greg and Rachel as they help each other cope. Greg helps Rachel deal with all the pity, anger and exhaustion that come with having cancer, and Rachel helps Greg deal with his fear of connection. No one really knows how to handle cancer—no one knows the correct thing to say. We’re all just stumbling about, hoping to be even a little bit helpful. The film gets this exactly right, and it’s refreshing when compared to recent teen-with-a-terminal-illness romances.—Regan Reid

the-walk.jpg39. The Walk
Available On: Amazon, Cox, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Channeling the spirit of its subject, The Walk assumes a clownish attitude until, during its finale, it switches gears to become a solemn, striking tribute to human ingenuity, ambition and daring. Though the story of Philippe Petit has already been told in James Marsh’s sterling 2008 documentary Man on Wire, Robert Zemeckis’s fictionalized account of the Frenchman’s August 6, 1974 early-morning walk across a wire strung between Manhattan’s World Trade Center towers affords what that non-fiction gem could not: a depiction of Petit actually performing his feat, which was not recorded on film at the time. Having long since become a director more interested in computerized wizardry than flesh-and-blood people, Zemeckis seems most comfortable during this show-stopping centerpiece, with his precise, graceful 3D compositions boasting a death-defying depth that generates suspense as well as awestruck astonishment at Petit’s audacious balancing act. Even without much in the way of third-act surprise, The Walk employs its dexterous aesthetics to evocatively celebrate Petit’s accomplishment as a triumph of individual nerve and skill.—Nick Schager

bessie.jpg38. Bessie
Available On: Charter, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Dee Rees
It may have taken 20 years to make it, but when Bessie finally arrived, she came, she saw and she conquered. The HBO film has garnered 12 well-deserved Emmy nominations, with Queen Latifah, co-stars Michael Kenneth Williams and Mo’Nique, and director Dee Rees all getting the nod. One scene in particular—with the reverse paper bag test—is one of Bessie’s finest moments, as it encompasses all that makes the HBO film so wonderful. There’s Queen Latifah in all her glory, finally setting up her own tour and making sure everyone knows who’s boss. There’s the hilarity when she lets down one of the hopefuls auditioning—“You must be darker than the bag to be in my show!” After all, Bessie is an incredibly funny movie at times. And there’s the whole inversion of the brown paper bag test. Where Bessie Smith grew up in a world that demanded black women performing back-up be lighter than a brown paper bag, Bessie makes up a new rule that gives her back some agency and sets a different tone (literally and figuratively) for her showcase. Bessie was, in no way, your average blues performer and for that reason Lili Fini Zanuck and her husband Richard D. Zanuck knew they couldn’t just deliver your average black-performer-who-grew-up-poor-and-made-it-big biopic. The familiar story of a talented woman done in by a man (or many men), or childhood tragedies, or her own celebrity was not Bessie’s story—she wasn’t lighter than a brown paper bag, and, thankfully, wasn’t presented as such.—Shannon M. Houston

tangerine.jpg37. Tangerine
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Sean Baker
Tangerine is an uncontrollable, outsized experience, contradictorily a brisk, compact 88 minutes totally absent of waste. Sean Baker, directing through iPhones outfitted with anamorphic lens adapters, has a mission, much like his protagonists, two transgendered prostitutes working Santa Monica Boulevard. Baker invites us to feel what Sin-Dee and Alexandra feel, which frankly isn’t that far off from what most of us feel in our day to day. And that happens to be the film’s greatest stunt: We think ourselves apart from these women, utterly different, but the truth is that we’re far more alike than we realize at a glance. And Tangerine gazes far deeper than that.—Andy Crump

dope.jpg36. Dope
Available On: Apple, Google Play, Microsoft, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest feature opens with onscreen definitions of its title, Dope, referencing 1. drugs; 2. a stupid person; or 3. cool and very good, respectively. A critical and audience favorite from this year’s Sundance Film Fest, Famuyiwa’s frenetic mashup of twisted cautionary tale-meets-comedy caper touches upon all three definitions. Despite jarring shifts in tone, the film deftly raises important issues about socioeconomics and race in America without sermonizing its audience. This isn’t a straight-up, feel-good comedy—drugs and gangs aren’t easy comic fodder—but Dope satirizes preconceived notions of race and culture, and Famuyiwa keeps things entertaining while still posing hard-hitting questions to the characters and audience.—Christine N. Ziemba

results-poster.jpg35. Results
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Results is a significant departure for Andrew Bujalski. While relatively low-budget, this is the director’s biggest film to date—there’s no shaky camerawork or poor sound quality here, and working, notable actors are seemingly getting working day rates. Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, in 2002, was one of the first to be coined “mumblecore,” and the awkward but natural performances from its nonprofessional actors became a defining characteristic of the movement. There’s certainly more polish from Cobie Smulders, Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan, but their performances—refined and, admittedly, “professional”—only enhance the lived-in nature of the characters Bujalski’s created. These characters all happen to be rather pathetic, emotionally stunted and odd human beings—but you can’t help but become invested in their lives, each with their own endearing quirks, each amusing in their own way to discover and observe. The film is a series of tiny, revealing moments. —Regan Reid

new-girlfriend.jpg34. The New Girlfriend
Available On: Amazon, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: François Ozon
The intimacy of female friendships and the unpredictable ways that people grieve are at the core of The New Girlfriend, but its surface is focused on sexier, kinkier matters. A superb psychological drama, the latest from French filmmaker François Ozon threatens to go campy at any moment but instead is dark, erotic and thoughtful. This may not be what most people would expect from a movie about a cross-dresser, but the surprises don’t end there. Anaïs Demoustier plays Claire, a woman whose best friend Laura just died. At Laura’s funeral, Claire spends part of her eulogy promising to stand by Laura’s despondent husband, David (Romain Duris), and their baby daughter as they cope without her. In truth, Claire and David have never been particularly close—there was no animosity, merely distance—but when she starts checking in on him, she makes a shocking discovery, finding him at home caring for the baby while dressed in his dead wife’s clothes. It’s then that David confesses something that only Laura knew: He loves cross-dressing. The New Girlfriend teases us mercilessly as Claire and David go further down the rabbit hole of their gender confusion and misplaced longings. The film keeps twisting and twisting, digging into its characters’ unspoken cravings.—Tim Grierson

sicario.jpg33. Sicario
Available On: Apple, Cox, Dish, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve’s considerable strengths and severe limitations are both present in Sicario, a Traffic-by-way-of-Zero Dark Thirty look at American drug policy along the Mexican border. This propulsive action thriller boasts a series of strong performances and is punctuated by some ace suspense sequences. As a piece of sleek, grown-up entertainment, it most assuredly succeeds. But it’s all the trappings around Sicario where matters get far more complicated. Even if the film doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about America’s drug wars, it tells it with abundant skill.—Tim Grierson

trainwreck.jpg32. Trainwreck
Available On: Cox, DIRECTV, Google Play, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Think of Trainwreck as Amy Schumer’s comedy fed through Judd Apatow’s directorial dehydrator: It’s 124 minutes of everything we love about Schumer deprived of just enough bite and flavor to keep us tantalized, and not enough to make the experience special. To the credit of both Apatow and Schumer, who wrote the whole damn thing, they’ve made a funny film—and in fairness, “funny” is all that Trainwreck needs to be. When the picture clicks, you’ll be too busy bearing down and expelling laughter to catch any air or worry about politics. Schumer and her colossal supporting cast easily prove that all anyone needs to cut together a solid comedy is good old-fashioned chemistry, sharp delivery, and a surfeit of killer punchlines. —Andy Crump

still-alice.jpg31. Still Alice
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Charter, Cox, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Xfinity, Time-Warner, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
When an actor is called upon to inhabit a completely different mental state in a movie, such as Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Alice Howland, a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s, it’s easy to praise a believable performance. But the panic and frustration she shows during Alice’s less lucid moments is only half the accomplishment. Imbuing the linguistic professor with strength and courage makes her transformation all that more heartbreaking; she’s losing what’s most precious to her—her intellect and ability to communicate. Also impressive is Kristen Stewart as Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia. Mother and daughter have different plans for Lydia’s life, but everyone’s plans are affected when Alzheimer’s takes over. As with Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, watching the cruelty of Alzheimer’s strip away a person’s essence on film can make one think deeply about things like family relationships, identity, language, loyalty and grief.—Josh Jackson

71.jpg30. ’71
Available On: Charter, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Yann Demange
’71 is a claustrophobic experience, as gray and imposing as the film’s muted color palette. Set largely in Belfast during the midst of one of the most violent periods of the Northern Ireland Conflict, the feature directorial debut of Yann Demange doesn’t floor us with fresh insights about war or man’s inhumanity to man. No, ’71 is far too intimately focused on its besieged protagonist for anything so sweeping. How can one worry about poetry when not getting killed is the higher priority? In such a crucible, soldiers are, as one person says in ’71, merely meat, but there’s no teary-eyed revelation in the fact—like everything here, it’s presented as blunt truth.—Tim Grierson

timbuktu.jpg29. Timbuktu
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft
Year: 2015
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
It’d be easy to forgive Timbuktu if it milked its subject matter for as much grandiose emotion as possible. After all, there’s plenty to get worked up about when examining the atrocities that Islamic jihadists committed while occupying North African villages. But director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness) takes a more deadpan approach, dismantling the extremist ideology with sharp observations and clever juxtapositions. By exposing the human element behind it, Sissako creates a deeper sense of the ordinary people behind the horrific events. No matter how terrifying the moment of history, someone behind it probably just wanted to sneak away for a cigarette, whether smoking was forbidden or not.——Jeremy Mathews

rogue-nation.jpg28. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Cox, Dish, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Thrilling and suspenseful, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation balances a glitzy, glamorous aesthetic with brash action, a frenetic pace and sheer excitement. The latest in the Tom Cruise-starring franchise sets its hooks quickly and hurtles you forward. The continually escalating mayhem propels the film past any of the otherwise glaring plot holes, and the action is chaotic enough to gloss over how ludicrous the plot actually is once you stop and think about what’s happening—which is of relatively little consequence. Almost ten years into the M:I franchise, this new installment is a welcome addition to the expert action-filmmaking canon.—Brent McKnight

while-were-young.jpg27. While We’re Young
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DirecTV, Microsoft, Google Play, Time-Warner, U-verse, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Noah Baumbach
While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia, a 40-something married couple living in New York City. Cornelia produces her revered father’s documentaries—the father is played by the stellar Charles Grodin—while Josh is a once-promising documentarian who has spent a decade on his latest project, which might finally get done in about a decade from now. Childless but relatively content—a couple miscarriages have convinced them that parenthood wasn’t in their future—Josh and Cornelia find their staid domestic lives interrupted by meeting Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who are almost the perfect representation of 20-something hipsters. A free-spirited married couple who love kitschy cultural detritus like Rocky III with utter sincerity, Jamie and Darby have an enthusiasm for new restaurants, trends and enlightenment movements that shakes Josh and Cornelia from their doldrums. Though focused on Josh, who’s consumed with disappointment that he’s not a bigger success, the film views its two generations of characters with equal amusement. If Josh and Cornelia are struggling with the choices they’ve made, Jamie and Darby are grappling with the moment when they have to stop imagining a future and start reaching for it. From Josh’s perspective, Jamie is so lucky, his life stretching out in front of him. As they become friends, Josh tries to be a mentor, but really he just wants to go back to being young, when he had potential and promise rather than just being a middle-aged disappointment. Stiller has a knack for such twitchy, failed individuals, and he wrings Josh’s hang-ups for plentiful laughs. As for Driver, he successfully transforms Jamie into a comically nightmarish vision of that supremely confident, serenely unflappable younger guy we all know, a thorn in the side of our faltering self-esteem. If the performance weren’t so painfully true, it wouldn’t be so damn funny.—Tim Grierson

18-best-so-far-2015-It-Follows.jpg26. It Follows
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Dish, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: David Robert Mitchell
The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film, but it’s there, and it feels like Metro Detroit. It Follows is a film that thrives in the borders, not so much about the horror that leaps out in front of you, but the deeper anxiety that waits at the verge of consciousness—until, one day soon, it’s there, reminding you that your time is limited, and that you will never be safe. Forget the risks of teenage sex, It Follows is a penetrating metaphor for growing up.—Dom Sinacola

brand.jpg25. Brand: A Second Coming
Available On: Amazon, Time-Warner, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Ondi Timoner
Russell Brand is a powerhouse of 21st century media—beginning as a groundbreaking stand-up comedian, he moved into film acting (achieving breakout status in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and then, unpredictably, into status as a substantive social and political commentator. He also managed to work in a brief and headline-rich marriage to singer Katy Perry. His outrageous antics are given an additional edge by his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse. When you think about it, perhaps the only documentarian that would be up to the challenge of capturing Brand’s worlds of personality on film would be Ondi Timoner, perhaps the documentary world’s premier chronicler of brilliant insanity (or is it insane brilliance?). Perhaps most impressively of all, Timoner doggedly pursues—and arguably captures—the sincere and tender soul behind the bluster. —Michael Dunaway

mend.jpg24. The Mend
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
The Mend is a refreshingly genuine film, fueled by infectious energy and the coarsest of humor. The loosely strung plot dips into familiar narrative wells: Two white guys with a prickly personal relationship, historical daddy issues, tenuous love lives and general existential angst wind up on a collision course with Catharsis™. Saying anything more about writer-director John Magary’s debut feature might give too much away, though frankly, describing the film’s incongruous, off-tempo, improvisational groove poses a daunting but welcome challenge even after two viewings.—Andy Crump

what-we-do-shadows.jpg23. What We Do in the Shadows
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Microsoft, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2014
Directors: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Who knew that the undead fight over dirty dishes or primp before going out? It’s these types of little moments, paired with almost throwaway bits of dialogue, that turn the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows into a sublime comedy. As written, directed and starring Jemaine Clement, half of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi, writer and director of Boy, New Zealand’s highest-grossing film, the film not only tweaks the vampire genre by adding a number of mumblecore elements, but also pays a tongue-in-cheek homage to its history. The film opens with a series of title cards that credit the New Zealand Documentary Board and also explain the film’s premise: A documentary crew was given full access to follow a secret society based in Wellington, New Zealand during the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade Ball, the social event of the year. The intertitles also note that the crew was assured protection from their subjects, and issued crucifixes, just in case. What We Do In the Shadows played the festival circuit after its Sundance debut, and picked up a number of audience awards in its wake. We can see the appeal: While there’s really not that much action or bloodletting in the fake documentary, the laughs are definitely authentic.——Christine N. Ziemba

room.jpg22. Room
Available On: Amazon, Cox, DIRECTV, Dish, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
A potentially sensational premise is handled with grace and incisiveness in Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel. Scripted by the author herself, and hewing closely to her book’s adolescent point-of-view, the film opens in what is initially known only as “Room,” a small, crowded space filled with a bed, a wardrobe, a few kitchen appliances, a table and drawings that decorate its walls. In this environment, which boasts a skylight but no windows, live Joy (Brie Larson) and her long-haired son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the latter of whom has apparently never stepped outside Room’s sole door. That entryway is locked via a keypad, and only opened and closed by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a bearded figure who appears in the night while Jack sleeps (or pretends to) in order to deliver supplies and have his way with Joy. Abrahamson’s film immediately sets itself alongside Jack, assuming his perspective as he narrates his thoughts, anxieties and skewed comprehension of reality. In the traumatic events that follow, what emerges is a stirring portrait of maternal altruism, as Joy sacrifices their safety, as well as her one true connection to the real world, in order to potentially offer her offspring a future that expands past the constricting walls of his makeshift prison home.—Nick Schager

20-best-so-far-2015-Ill-See-You-in-my-Dreams2.jpg21. I’ll See You in My Dreams
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Brett Haley
Picture this: You’ve been on your own for decades following the death of your spouse, your friends are all mostly enshrined in retirement community living and you’ve just been told that you have to put your pooch to sleep. In a less thoughtful movie, you’d be expected to fall into a traditional romance with a perfect stranger and validate your existence anew through wholesome late-stage monogamy. But Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams has insight and empathy to spare, which combine with its casts considerable charms—especially those of Haley’s star, Blythe Danner—to make his film altogether different from other fare of its sort. Danner’s happily independent widow falls into a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr) and into courtship with the never-more-dashing Sam Elliot, but I’ll See You in My Dreams doesn’t condescend to its characters (or its viewers). Instead, it offers an organic, non-judgmental portrait of one woman choosing to reconnect with life.—Andy Crump

amy-poster.jpg 20. Amy
Available On: Amazon, Cox, DIRECTV, Google Play, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg

5-best-so-far-2015-Ex-Machina.jpg19. Ex Machina
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, U-verse, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: that if given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast.—Jonah Flicker

spotlight.jpg18. Spotlight
Available On: Amazon, Cox, Dish, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Time-Warner, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Always a director who’s drawn great performances from his ensembles—we’ll set aside the disastrous The Cobbler for a moment—actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy has made his best drama since his first, 2003’s The Station Agent, with this stripped-down depiction of the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual misconduct. Starring the likes of Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery, Spotlight is about nothing more than watching smart, passionate reporters do their job, digging into a story and using their savvy and moxie to bring it to the world. The cast lets its characters’ jobs fill in the backstory of their lives, and in the process Spotlight does what Zodiac, The Insider and All the President’s Men did before it: let us appreciate the difficulty and rigor required for good journalism. Special kudos to best-in-show Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, a ruthless bloodhound of an investigative reporter who may inspire a lot of impressionable high school juniors in the audience to take up the profession.—Tim Grierson

seymour.jpg17. Seymour: An Introduction
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
You could be excused for assuming that the documentary Seymour: An Introduction was just a vanity project for director Ethan Hawke, who has the means and the name to engage in such thing. But if you assumed that, you’d be missing quite a powerful film. Hawke first met composer, pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein at a dinner party, and was immediately taken with him, as viewers will be, as well. As he began spending more time with the octogenarian, he became more and more taken not only with his life story, but also with his views of art and of life well lived. Seymour: An Introduction turns out to be part biopic, part artistic musing and part late-night “meaning of life” discussion, and Hawke shows a deft touch in balancing the three. He takes a remarkable individual who’s influenced his life and thinking, and shares him with the rest of us. It’s a generous—and a moving—piece of filmmaking. —Michael Dunaway

mississippi-grind.jpg16. Mississippi Grind
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DirecTV, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
At once an offbeat buddy flick and an homage to road movies of the 1970s, Mississippi Grind manages to wring an enormous amount of pathos from its good-time vibe and playful plotting. Ryan Reynolds is snugly cast as Curtis, a young, fast-talking, even-faster-smiling gambler who is seemingly bothered by absolutely nothing, ready with an anecdote for every situation. For his part, Ben Mendelsohn is just plain perfect as Gerry, the long-time, down-on-his-luck gambler whom Curtis befriends suspiciously quickly. When Gerry comes up with a harebrained scheme for the two to gamble their way down the Mississippi River toward a high-stakes game in New Orleans, you think you know where it’s all headed. But there are a good many surprises for both the characters and us along the way. And even if the story doesn’t grab you (which is unlikely), it’s worth the price of admission to see every emotion flicker across Mendelsohn’s magnificent hangdog face. His is the standout performance from the entire fest.—Michael Dunaway

assassin.jpg15. The Assassin
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Google Play, YouTube
Year: 2015
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a gorgeous creation, a martial arts movie that willfully withholds and subverts the primary pleasures of the genre to get at something more beautiful, mysterious and timeless. The Taiwanese director’s first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, The Assassin takes us back to ninth-century China as the Tang dynasty is beginning to unravel. Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, whom (we learn in an opening crawl) was abducted by a nun when she was only 10 and trained in martial arts. Years later, Nie has been ordered to return to her homeland to assassinate Tian (Chang Chen), a warlord to whom she had been promised in marriage as a child. The story is somewhat simplistic but, as depicted by Hou, also incredibly complicated. One doesn’t watch The Assassin so much as fall under its sway.—Tim Grierson

janis.jpg14. Janis: Little Girl Blue
Available On: Amazon, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Amy Berg
Capturing the life, career, persona and phenomenon that was Janis Joplin in the space of a less-than-two-hours-long documentary is a daunting task. Amy Berg makes a crucially important decision in Janis: Little Girl Blue, opting to let the performances speak for themselves. There’s not a lot of talking head analysis of Janis’ music; Berg instead gives us a few well-chosen, extended clips of that otherworldly voice in action (as well as a good many selections backgrounded in the mix). Berg also focuses on Janis’ inner life, and boy, does that pay off. With the full cooperation of the estate and interviews with many of Janis’ intimates, including her two siblings, the marvelous Dick Cavett, and the one man with whom, in another universe, she surely found lifelong happiness, Berg is able to dig deep into who Janis actually was behind the raucous stage persona. Most effective of all is Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), reading from Janis’ diaries and letters with the simple delivery of a born performer. It’s as if Janis is narrating her own life story, and it’s pure magic. —Michael Dunaway

love-mercy.jpg13. Love & Mercy
Available On: Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Bill Pohlad
There is a curious, oft times transcendent harmony to the dissonance at the heart of Love & Mercy. In taking a page from his subject’s life and music, director Bill Pohlad (best known for producing credits like 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild) largely rejects sentimentality in chronicling a reluctant pop star who wants to craft something more than shiny, happy hooks. (In one scene, Wilson argues the Beach Boys’ true “surfer” cred with his bandmates, knowing better.) Sure, that’s kind of the story—at least on the surface—but his approach unearths the layers of Wilson’s genius and torment. Seemingly straightforward classics like “In My Room” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” take on new meaning as the extent of his struggles come into devastating focus.—Amanda Schurr

iris.jpg12. Iris
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Albert Maysles
It’s tempting to view Iris as a vanity project. Iris and director Albert Maysles were chums, and the outside sense one gets when either watching or merely reading about the film is that the latter decided to make a movie about the former for fun. If we accept this perspective then it’s very, very hard to earnestly hold Maysles’ indulgence against him; you would make a movie about Iris Apfel if you were buddy-buddy with her, too. She’s one of a kind. But Iris is about a lot more than one person making a flattering commemoration to another. It’s about observing a life lived (and still being lived) fully, and even that nifty summation doesn’t quite manage to dig out the alternatingly droll and piquant wisdom Iris has to offer every single person with whom she interacts. In one scene, an interviewer praises Iris for stepping outside of the box with her eclectic style. Iris’s reply feels like the lede of her personal manifesto: “If you’re just going to sit there and do the same damn thing all the time, you might as well jump into the box yourself.”—Andy Crump

phoenix.jpg11. Phoenix
Available On: Amazon, DIRECTV, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Christian Petzold
Nobody knows anyone. The insoluble mystery of “other people” is the subject of plenty of films, but rarely in recent memory has it been so potent a driving force as it is in Phoenix. Here’s a drama that starts off with a seemingly simple conceit but eventually grows more and more troubling—and fascinating—into a critique of collective moral blindness and an up-close examination of marriage. The latest from German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Phoenix works best for all the answers it doesn’t provide, honoring the mysteries of everyday life rather than explaining them away.—Tim Girerson

eden.jpg10. Eden
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Mia Hansen-Love’s dance music-fueled drama Eden is an intimate film. A fictionalized depiction of the early days and evolution of the “French touch” sound of electronic music in the mid-1990s, the story is inspired by her younger brother, Sven, who dreamed of becoming a DJ and also co-wrote the script. In the way Eden follows Paul, it aims to be true to life; a big career triumph, or what feels like a horrific defeat at the moment, is rarely the end of the story.—Brent McKnight

experimenter.jpg9. Experimenter
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Michael Almereyda
Watching Experimenter is to realize how little life is in most biopics. Which is odd: Despite being based on a real life, the standard biopic feels freeze-dried, narrative conventions calcifying the subject matter and strangling any spontaneity out of the material. Most such movies carry the stench of rigor mortis, but Experimenter is alive and alert from its first moment. Where other biopics seem to have made up their minds about their famous figures before the opening credits roll, this remarkable study of social psychologist Stanley Milgram remains curious, exploring and questioning his life, career and findings. The man’s work may be more than 50 years old, but a film about his work couldn’t be timelier—partly because of that work’s still-resonant lessons, and partly because writer-director Michael Almereyda has crafted a bracing, daring drama that extrapolates it into every crevice of modernity. Many biopics simplify great lives; Experimenter enriches and enlarges one.—Tim Grierson

mistress-america.jpg8. Mistress America
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Mistress America is so far Noah Baumbach’s most vivacious output, fiercer in its convictions and sense of self than anything to come before. He treats it with equal affection for his past films, but is less protective—it’s gassed with a smiling fuck-you attitude, revved up by an ’80s Euro synth-pop score from husband-wife duo Dean Wareheim and Britta Phillips, who provided the music for Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale in 2005, arguably his magnum opus. As exhausting as his characters can be, both agonizing in their belligerence and endearing in their complete oblivion, the adoration with which he writes them and the ferocious wit for which he’s revered make Baumbach one of contemporary cinema’s greatest character sketchers—and Mistress America falls right in line.—Melissa Weller

mad-max-fury-road.jpg7. Mad Max: Fury Road
Available On: Amazon, Apple, Charter, Google Play, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: George Miller
Three decades since we last visited George Miller’s arid, dystopian world, the latest installment stars Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky with Charlize Theron as his co-lead—a casting coup. But the long wait had Miller swinging for the fences. Try naming a modern blockbuster that has as much chutzpah as Mad Max: Fury Road. You can’t, because there isn’t one. This is what happens when you lay out all your crazy on the screen at once: glorious, crackling entertainment. Every single dollar of its reported $150 million budget is in the frame at all times, but Miller is so unpretentious that you won’t catch the price tag. Real people cruise in real vehicles across real expanses of desert. When the film does lean on computers, it’s to fill in the margins or summon the occasional dust storm. Miller defines his aesthetic through physical texture, tells story through action, and shows no interest in the routine of contemporary Hollywood spectacle. What’s more, Mad Max: Fury Road is an inclusive effort that invites us to join its heroes in breaking down gender dichotomies. George Miller has made a phenomenal action film with a righteous cause, a movie that layers smart commentary atop jaw-dropping set pieces. May he ride eternal, shiny and chrome.—Andy Crump

time-out-of-mind.jpg6. Time Out of Mind
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Time-Warner, bq. Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Oren Moverman
Like 2013’s Robert Redford stranded-at-sea drama All is Lost, Time Out of Mind features a near-silent performance from a classic movie star in a stripped-down, atmospheric indie about survival. In this case, the headliner is Richard Gere, sporting a scraggly gray beard, matching closely cropped hair, and an overcoat and scarf that seem to be perpetually pulled tight against his neck—save for when his character George sells those items for a few bucks at a local pawn shop. George is homeless, and writer-director Oren Moverman’s film charts his day-to-day with quiet, precise attentiveness. For the better part of its first half, Time Out of Mind wholly ignores any semblance of a conventional plot, instead taking its cue from the more experimental works of Gus Van Sant. Moverman is after something like a transportive sort of cinema, one that allows complete immersion in another person’s shoes. And for long stretches, Time Out of Mind proves so attuned to its protagonist’s haziness and his loud, busy, and yet lonely milieu that it proves a gripping example of experiential cinema.—Nick Schager

end-of-tour.jpg5. The End of the Tour
Available On: Amazon, Google Play, Xfinity
Year: 2015
The latest from director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) is about journalist/author David Lipsky as much as it is the late author David Foster Wallace. Adapted from Lipsky’s book about his sometimes-confrontational interview with Wallace just after the publication of Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour raises some of life’s most difficult questions about identity, the perception of others and intellectual honesty. But Jason Segel’s performance as the earnest Midwesterner Wallace is the grounding heart of the film. Wallace’s eventual suicide is a specter haunting the entire affair, but it’s never maudlin or manipulative. Instead, these few days in the passenger seat are welcome, listening to an original man’s original perspective on life and loneliness. —Josh Jackson

gett.jpg4. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Available On: Amazon, Apple, YouTube
Year: 2015
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz Shlomi Elkabetz
One of the year’s most unheralded acting performances belongs to Ronit Elkabetz, the co-director and star of Gett. In this endlessly fascinating courtroom procedural, she plays Viviane Amsalem, an Israeli woman slowly driven insane as she’s desperate to be divorced from her apathetic, unloving husband (Simon Abkarian). There’s a snag, though: In her country, a divorce must be granted by a rabbi and the spouse. A satire of cultural mores that doubles as an angry invective against gender inequality, Ronit and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz’s film develops into a slowly suffocating and very human thriller. Which makes it all the more surprising how darkly funny the damn thing is, as well. —Tim Grierson

white-god-movie.jpg3. White God
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DirecTV, Google Play, Time-Warner, Xfinity, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
In the first five minutes of White God, viewers are greeted by two striking images. In the first, a teenage girl pedals vigorously through the middle of an empty city street, a fleet of dogs furiously chasing after her. In the other, a cow carcass is dispassionately stripped and gutted in preparation to be examined by a meat inspector. More indelible moments await in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s social parable, but these early scenes hint at everything that’s to come. White God isn’t the first film to suggest that humanity’s cruel treatment of others will one day come back to haunt us—but it certainly makes its point with potent force.—Tim Grierson

cartel-land-poster.jpg2. Cartel Land
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Microsoft, YouTube
Year: 2015
Director: Matthew Heineman
Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. In Michoacán, in response to his neighbors being gunned down and beheaded—an atrocity he photographed with his camera as proof of his enemies’ barbarism—Dr. José Mireles sought to fight back against his community’s oppressors by creating the Autodefensas, a vigilante group that took up arms against the cartels. Liberating one occupied town after another another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Soon, a state-wide movement was afoot, with fed-up everyday citizens donning the Autodefensas’ uniform—a white t-shirt—and picking up machine guns to oppose an enemy that, as one woman horrifyingly recounts, has committed torture, murder, dismemberment and rape with narcotics-fueled glee. Cartel Land’s urgency and outrage reach a crescendo during climactic scenes of the new Autodefensas command revealing their true colors. Infuriating and alarming in equal measure, the film adeptly conveys the scope of the cartel crisis, as well as the terrible perils and costs associated with attempting to combat it, bringing together its many threads into a final image that’s as dismaying as it is, sadly, predictable.—Nick Schager

1ab.jpg1. Chi-Raq
Available On: Amazon, Apple, DIRECTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Xfinity
Year: 2015
Director: Spike Lee
In 1989, Do the Right Thing felt like a revolution in filmmaking—and maybe even in society at large. In 2015, Lee has done it again. Chi-Raq is the most vital, the most urgent, the most—let’s just say it—important film of 2015. It’s more than just a modern retelling of Aristophanes’ classic Lysistrata (in which a group of women stop a war by going on a sex strike) in the modern day hood. It’s more than just a tour de force of rhymed couplets that shouldn’t work, but do. It’s more than just a heartbreaking tale of real people trying to make a sense out of the madness surrounding them. It’s more than just a blistering series of broadsides aimed straight at many of the political sacred cows in our culture. It’s a moment when, along with all the other criticisms offered, one of our most gifted filmmakers stands up in the middle of his own people and shouts (as his characters often do), “WAKE UP.” It’s a moment of staggering importance. Spike Lee has defiantly called Chi-Raq “a righteous movie.” It’s as good a description as any.—Michael Dunaway

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