"Love & Mercy"
From "Brokeback Mountain" to "The Tree of Life" and "12 Years a Slave," Bill Pohlad has produced some of the most critically acclaimed films of the past two decades. Stepping behind the director's chair for the first time since his 1990 debut "Old Explorers," Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman reinvigorated the biopic genre with a unique approach to chronicling Beach Boys leader and co-founder Brian Wilson. The film is presented in a parallel narrative covering two important time periods in Wilson's life: The 1960s and the 1980s. Bringing the singer to life over these two separate decades is a pair of performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack that show the peak of their dramatic powers. Dano, in particular, is a force of unrelenting genius, registering Wilson's brilliance as inspiring and tragic all in a single look.
What is there to say about "Tangerine" that hasn't been said already? Magnolia effortlessly mounted the first Oscar campaign for a transgender actress, and in many ways we wish Mya Taylor would be at the Dolby Theater in February. In this madcap tale of two Los Angeles prostitutes wandering around Hollywood in search of a cheating pimp, the two stars — Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez — break out in ways both comically brilliant and dramatically profound. Director Sean Baker, shooting the streets of Hollywood with a magnetic intensity, crafts a screwball comedy that never stops surprising. His characters' plight make their tale universally relatable, and the film speaks boldly to every viewers' battle to survive another hectic day.
"The End of the Tour"
James Ponsoldt has emerged as one of the best independent directors thanks to acclaimed favorites "Smashed" (2012) and "The Spectacular Now" (2013), and this biographical drama about a magazine reporter and his conversations with author David Foster Wallace during a promotional book tour is another emotional winner. Following in the footsteps of Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow stalwart Jason Segel makes a successful jump to drama with his portrayal of Wallace, the influential "Infinite Jest" author who committed suicide at age 46 after years of battling depression and substance addiction. It's ultimately these dark facets of Wallace's life that make Ponsoldt the best choice to bring the author to the big screen. Ponsoldt embraces his subjects and their addictions with a rare sensitivity that builds character organically without ever judging it. The results have been movies of stirring authenticity, and "The End of the Tour" movingly continues the trend.
Christian Petzold's post-Holocaust drama is based around an incredulous premise: A German woman (Nina Hoss) emerges from the concentration camps with horrific facial scars, receives plastic surgery and rediscovers her husband in Berlin, where he fails to recognize her. Rather than reveal her identity, she allows him to believe she's dead, only to wind up part of his scheme to have her pretend to be herself so he can claim her inheritance. But if "Phoenix" requires a certain suspension of disbelief to make its contained scenario work, the rewards of such a gamble speak for themselves. Petzold's followup to the 2012 Hoss vehicle "Barbara" is a fascinating study of Holocaust trauma rendered in intimate terms. As Hoss' performance and the final shot make clear, history may fade from view but the scars it leaves behind will never go away.
After blowing away audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Josh Mond's breakout feature "James White" turned into one of the fall's must-see indie releases. Revelatory is a word used too loosely in this business, but it whole-heartedly applies to the work done by Christopher Abbott in the title role. James is the kind of lost soul that could be insufferable in the hands of a lesser actor, but Abbott makes his emotional journey in the wake of his mother's cancer diagnosis a powerful and crippling arc that proves unforgettable. The film is a singular experience and one that announces the arrival of both Abbott and Mond as indie voices to pay serious attention to moving forward.
In "Mississippi Grind," Ben Mendelsohn stars as a gambling addict who doesn't know when to cash his chips in and call it a day, and Ryan Reynolds is a flighty traveler who likes to gamble for fun and doesn't care about winning or losing. Through a chance encounter, they develop a great friendship and head on a gambling road trip to win money to pay off the former's loan shark. Take a page from Robert Altman's "California Split" playbook, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Half Nelson") craft a road trip that explores the back roads of America and ventures into the dark rooms where high stakes gambling takes place. The duo don't just succeed in getting triumphant performances out of their two leads, they simply get the very best from them. Mendelsohn is an absolute delight, imbuing his character with depth as he advances his character's morally questionable behavior. Reynolds, more charismatic than ever, delivers a career highlight. Whenever the dynamite chemistry between these two is front and center, "Mississippi Grind" soars.
"Beasts of No Nation"
Although Cary Fukunaga broke into the mainstream with his acclaimed, Emmy-winning direction of "True Detective" Season 1, cinephiles have been fans of his for quite some time thanks to his striking features "Sin Nombe" and "Jane Eyre." Fortunately, the success of HBO's crime drama gave Fukunaga his biggest canvas yet as the writer-director-cinematographer of Netflix's harrowing "Beasts of No Nation." Based on the novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, "Beasts" is set in an unspecified African country and stars Idris Elba as a ruthless war lord who takes in a young boy, Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), and trains him to become a child solider. Viscerally told from the young boy's perspective, the movie is a hypnotic and horrorifying journey, one that paid off a risky gamble by Netflix and proved Elba's towering performance skills. We're still shocked this movie ended up shut out of the Oscars.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
First-time director Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's acclaimed graphic novel is a startlingly fresh take on teen sexuality. Independent Spirit Award nominee Bel Powley, who won the Gotham Award for Best Actress, gives the breakthrough performance of the year as titular diarist Minnie, a charming, naive and rebellious young woman who falls in love with an older man (Alexander Skarsgard) who's dating her mother (Kristen Wiig). However risqué the plot may sound, the ultimate strength of "Diary" is just how genuine and powerful Minnie's coming-of-age emotions resonate with the viewer. Heller combines elaborate animated sequences with frank sex scenes and dramatic showdowns, all neatly contextualized by Minnie's need to process every detail. Her developing individuality is infectious, and by the end, we're right there with her.
After dismantling the American Dream in 2012's Zac Efron-starring "At Any Price," Ramin Bahrani returned to familiar territory with "99 Homes," which used similar material to far better and more bracing effect. Andrew Garfield gave one of the great overlooked performances of the year as a put-upon single dad struggling to make ends meet for both his young son and his own mother (played by Laura Dern). It's a hard-knock life that only gets worse when the family loses their house. Desperate for a job, Garfield's Dennis takes a job from the very man who snatched his home away from him, unscrupulous real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). As Dennis plunges deeper into Rick's world, partaking in unexpected windfalls, he also begins to lose his moral compass and, still worse, his own family. Bahrani keeps his tension tight, and his actors respond with two of their finest performances yet.
"Clouds of Sils Maria"
Stewart's role as personal assistant Valentine in Olivier Assayas' delicate meditation on fame and aging brought her the most illustrious reviews of her career. She's even picked up a handful of Best Supporting Actress prizes from critics groups across the country, yet none of them were enough to land the actress her first Oscar nomination. It's all a shame, too, since Stewart uses her trademark vulnerability in ways that push her acting skills into new exciting territories. Buried in glasses and tattoos, the actress fully inhabits her role as a credible young woman riddled with self-doubt. Her slowly-revealed insecurities powerfully complement the fears of aging that plague her employer (a knockout Juliette Binoche), and Stewart has never been better.
With a politically-charged message, energized aesthetics and suave direct narration courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson, "Chi-Raq" recharged all the staples of a Spike Lee joint and turned them into the most vital piece of filmmaking the director has delivered in over a decade. Co-written with Kevin Willmont, the satire is a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata." The stunning Teyonah Parris stars as the eponymous character, who reacts to the murder of a child by a stray bullet by organizing a group of women against the ongoing violence in Chicago’s Southside. Her efforts create a movement that challenges the ideas of race, sex and violence in America and around the world. Operating in the same blood-boiling current events that first gained him international recognition in "Do The Right Thing," "Chi-Raq" returns Spike Lee to his former glory. Between him and Parris, this joint blazes the screen down.