19. “Beyond the Lights”
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One of the few black romantic dramas of the past 20 years stars Gugu Mbatha-raw as troubled up-and-coming singer Noni. The movie explores the cost of fame — losing your voice, losing your identity, and losing out on real connections because of how others perceive you. After a suicide attempt, Noni is able to find all of those things again with the help of the cop (Nate Parker) who saved her from her nearly fatal fall.
“Beyond the Lights” was a return to form for Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed 2000’s “Love and Basketball.” Ahead of the film’s 2014 release, she told IndieWire that the film’s key crew was also very purposefully women — from the cinematographer to the production and costume designers — a move that sounds familiar in the age of shows like “Queen Sugar” committing to all women directorial teams. The movie takes audiences from loud, sexy, music videos to the quietness of two people falling in love over a box of old song lyrics, all without missing a beat. —Constance Gibbs
18. “Girls Trip”
Michele K. Short/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Last year, it took more than seven months for a live-action comedy to score $100 million at the domestic box office. The triumphant film was neither a remake nor sequel, but an original script about a quartet of 30-and-40-something ladies, who visit The Big Easy in bedazzled jackets. Three members of the “Flossy Posse” were onscreen regulars — Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Regina Hall — while the fourth, Tiffany Haddish, was unknown to most but instantly beloved by all.
Her combined physicality, relatability, and fearless drew comparisons to Melissa McCarthy in fellow R-rated hit “Bridesmaids” (2011). Yet Haddish seems even more fun when she’s not acting, remarkable because she was living out of her car not too long ago. She got away with both a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” anecdote that made Will Smith sound horribly out-of-touch with his ticket-buyers, and an 18-minute speech at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. In addition to recent appearances in Jay-Z and Drake music videos, this year she’ll star in a TV show and four more films, not to mention host this month’s MTV Movie & TV Awards (a sequel to her breakout is now in development).
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee and co-written by “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, “Girls Trip” is an utter delight, even with archetypal characters facing familiar life junctures. But the bond between the four women — and occasional lack thereof — demands repeat viewing much more than the sporadic shocks of gross-out (and grapefruit) humor. —JM
17. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
The brilliant, original four-hankie dystopian family drama from New Orleans newcomer Benh Zeitlin far surpassed any expectations for a scruffy $1.5 million effort from an unknown film collective, cast and crew, even after it took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. The actors were mostly non-pros who workshopped their roles. Nine-year-old discovery Quvenzhane Wallis’s winning personality carries the film as Hushpuppy and earned an Oscar nomination; Dwight Henry was working as a baker before playing her father. No one could have predicted that a movie about the end of the world, shot in a chaotic run-and-gun cinema verite style with handheld digital cameras on a constantly flooding abandoned delta island below the New Orleans levees — complete with homemade non-CGI special effects like the film’s titular Aurochs — would score four Oscar nods, including director (knocking out Ben Affleck), adapted screenplay and picture. Yet again, a rooted homegrown story conjured up emotions that were universal. —AT
16. “Django Unchained”
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While it’s not exploitative like its predecessor “Mandingo,” Tarantino designed this revisionist western to blow people’s gaskets. Packed with physical comedy, bloody action and hell-bent revenge, it looks like a classic widescreen Sergio Leone western, even if the setting is New Orleans and Mississippi two years before the Civil War. When a sophisticated German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) approaches a chain gang and attempts to buy one of the slaves, he’s forced to shoot the guards, and releases Django (Jamie Foxx) from his chains; he then trains him to ride and shoot so that he help him to identify some nasty slave drivers he’s chasing. Tarantino takes the revenge western to a new level as the two bounty hunters shoot their way through the unsuspecting South. Watching Django stalk across a plantation to shoot one of the men who once abused him is chilling. He whips another to death. He’s looking for his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by plantation owner Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s about fighting injustice, except that this time it’s not Brad Pitt against the Nazis in World War II–it’s an angry black man getting his own back from racist ante-bellum white southerners. —AT
With Will Smith playing the iconic and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, the stakes were high for him to deliver a career-defining performance, and boy did he ever. With Michael Mann’s direction, Smith showcased a different range of acting from the action-packed films we had previously seen him in. Embodying Cassius Clay meant charting his deepening religious beliefs, plus mixing politics and sports with some marital woes. Smith packed on the pounds, unleashed some great boxing moves, and displayed a level of emotional pull that compelled audiences to see him as The Greatest.
The drama was also aided by the performances of Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright, and Smith’s wife, Jada Pinnkett Smith, in their only film together. Smith received his first Oscar nod for Best Actor, and rightly so. While films such as “The Fighter,” “Rocky,” “The Champ,” and more recently “Creed” have their fair share of fans, “Ali” ranks alongside “Raging Bull” as one of the few satisfying boxing biopics. —WM
14. “Fruitvale Station”
Forest Whitaker's Significant Prods./Og Project/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
This Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner opens security footage of the real Oscar Grant – shot in the back and killed by a police officer in an Oakland, Calif. train station in 2009 – and closes with a clip of his now-fatherless daughter. For his first full-length film, writer-director Ryan Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan as the slain 22-year-old. The role was complicated, not just because there were surviving relatives to think of, and mounting statistics about how black men fare worse in the criminal justice system than their white counterparts, if they even make it to a court room. In the film, Grant is full of flaws. He’s been to jail, he’s cheated on his girlfriend, he’s been fired from the grocery store where he works. But he’s young, dynamic, and – aware of his family responsibilities – trying to make good choices. That’s how he wound up riding the BART on the last night of his life: it was New Year’s Eve, and he didn’t want to drink and drive. “Fruitvale Station” offers no social remedies, but by recreating Grant’s final hours, it actualizes him as a man, not just a rally cry.—JM