"Far From the Madding Crowd"
Fans of Carey Mulligan's work will be able to catch up with her starring turn in Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette," which is also set to play at the festival, but they should be sure to make time to check out her other great 2015 performance in Thomas Vinterberg's lush adaptation of the classic Tom Hardy novel. Remarkably well-cast as Bathsheba Everdene, Mulligan contends with all sorts of seemingly unsolvable problems — like bringing back her impoverished farm from the edge, establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the sexist farming community and dealing with scads of suitors — in a deeply feminist (and very satisfying) story. Gorgeously lensed and filled with some of the most stunning costumes of the year, "Far From the Madding Crowd" got lost in the Oscar crush (a May release date and little play on the festival circuit probably didn't help matters), but there's still time to catch up with a film that's one of the best of last year.
Odds are you've already caught up with Pixar's latest masterpiece, but why not revisit the Pete Docter film with the benefit of hindsight? The clever conceit that sets "Inside Out" apart from other animated brethren — it takes place totally inside the head of a snappy young girl named Riley as her life is going through tremendous personal upheaval — isn't just a trick, it's a nifty way to approach what could be an otherwise standard coming-of-age story. Subsequent rewatches only further inspire admiration for the film's craftsmanship, from its overall look (the ingenuity of Riley's brain layout alone!) and the way it tells its story in ways that appeal to all ages (no easy feat).
France's current Oscar nominee for best foreign language film has frequently been touted as "'The Virgin Suicides,' but in Europe" — and stop right there; what else could you possibly want out of a film? — but the story of five sisters caught up in the confines of a world they are desperate to break out of stands very much on its own merits. The cast is filled with fresh, new talents in the form of the five (surprisingly, not related in real life) sisters, who find themselves grievously punished for just acting their age. Shut up by rigid relatives, they find solace in each other and their steadfast beliefs that they can change the world (or, well, their own world) by sticking together.
"Testament of Youth"
Oscar nominee Alicia Vikander had a very busy year at the movies, between her work in lauded films like "The Danish Girl" and "Ex Machina" and lesser-seen blockbusters like "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "Seventh Son," but few people checked out her finely tuned performance in this historical biopic. Set in the UK during the early days of World War I, the film follows Vikander as budding scholar and writer Vera Brittain, who must balance her academic and professional dreams with a personal experience that grows more painful by the day. It's an understated and powerful performance that deserved more attention in Vikander's mightily crowded 2015.
"A Ballerina's Tale"
Nelson George's well-made documentary about Misty Copeland, a barrier-busting African-American ballerina, enjoyed a healthy run on the festival circuit, but never really caught on theatrically. The film is an engrossing look inside the often cloistered world of ballet dancing, told through the unique experience of Copeland, who made history when she became the first African-American ballerina to ascend to principal dancer status at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. An understanding of ballet and a familiarity with Copeland are not essential to enjoying the film, which is so succinctly told and neatly crafted that it has the power to make ballet fans (and Copeland devotees) out of any audience.
"He Named Me Malala"
Another frequent fest entry, Davis Guggenheim's latest documentary is an intimate look inside the life of teen activist Malala Yousafzai. Guggenheim spent a lot of time with his young subject in order to best understand her path from school girl to crusader — and all the horrifying detours in between — and the result is a crowd-pleasing feature with a strong story to tell.
A recent Sundance premiere, Dawn Porter's documentary bravely takes on the issue of so-called "TRAP" laws that restrict abortions in a multitude of ways. Porter's film goes deep, and her subjects range from clinic workers to lawyers, all of whom are fighting the battle to keep abortion safe and legal — and out of the hands of biased lawmakers. It's a forward-thinking, essential new look at a maddening issue that continues to divide the country.
The 6th Annual Athena Film Festival runs from February 18 – 21 at New York City's own Barnard College.