10. Ex Machina
Of the dazzling Alicia Vikander, as the artificial-intelligence being Ava in Alex Garland’s brainy, agile sci-fi nightmare/reverie Ex Machina, my friend and colleague Richard Corliss wrote, “Trained as a dancer, Vikander lends Ava a grace and precision of movement that could be human or mechanical, earthly or ethereal.” And then, in his quietly spectacular way, Richard nailed the essence of her character in a single pirouette of a phrase: “a spectral eminence yearning to be a woman.” That is how you capture the everyday beauty of movies, a pleasure both ephemeral and everlasting.
9. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie’s riff on the Cold War-era TV show is an old-school pleasure, the kind of light spy caper that’s as rare these days as a pristine vintage Courrèges mini-dress. In this three-way flirt-fest, a trio of extraordinary-looking spy types—played by Alicia Vikander, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer—revel in one another’s style and charisma, and that goes for the men, too. Once we’ve lost our taste for beautiful people, the movies really are finished.
Ryan Coogler’s second feature mines the Rocky legend for what seems like the umpteenth time—yet it’s both so fresh and so satisfying that it throws down a challenge to every filmmaker who dares to take on a reboot or sequel. Michael B. Jordan stars as fledgling prizefighter Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s most sensational opponent, Apollo Creed. Sylvester Stallone returns in the role he made famous, only now he’s older, doughier, more battered—and even more touching. Creed is unapologetically melodramatic and all the better for it, wearing its heart right on its satin robe.
Sean Baker shot this exuberant little film on a couple of iPhone 5s, but it packs a Vistavision punch. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor give twin knockout performances as best friends, transgender women, and prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who look for work and love on the seedier streets of Los Angeles. This is a comedy, laced with rambunctious, exuberantly raggedy dialogue. But it’s also one of those movies that takes you to a place beyond comedy—you’ll still be laughing but your breath catches a little on the way out.
In Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s feature debut, five sisters living in a nowhere town by the Black Sea negotiate the rocky territory between sexual desire and the expectations—religious, social, familial—imposed on them. Gorgeously filmed, Mustang weighs a dream vision of girlhood against the much harsher reality of what it means to be a woman in a restrictive culture—but the real key to the movie’s power is that Ergüven can also make us laugh.
One of the final films completed by exalted documentarian Albert Maysles before he died in March, this portrait of the extraordinarily stylish nonagenarian businesswoman Iris Apfel is also a celebration of the revivifying power of creativity, and a reflection on the workaday joys and annoyances of long-term partnerships. (Iris’s husband of nearly 70 years, Carl, died not long after the film was completed, at age 100.) Apfel states that she likes being “in the world and of the world.” This movie lays down the challenge to go forth, boldly, wearing lots of necklaces.
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
The clouds in the title of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ quietly ravishing film refer to a meteorological phenomenon that unfolds, when conditions are just right, along the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps. But the movie’s really spectacular weather emerges in the half-prickly, half-affectionate interplay between Juliette Binoche, as an anxious, aging actress, and her flaky-smart millennial assistant, Kristen Stewart. Tension between the two hangs in the air with a silent crackle, but the bond between them is definitive and majestic, like thunder.
3. I’ll See You in My Dreams
How do you know when there are no surprises left in life? The surprise is that…you don’t. In Brett Haley’s gentle but potent comedy, veteran actress Blythe Danner plays a seventy-ish retired schoolteacher, long widowed, whose staid life takes a sharp left when two men appear on the scene almost simultaneously: Pool cleaner Martin Starr is the kind of platonic friend you meet only once in a lifetime; silver fox Sam Elliott is the love interest you never could have planned for.
German actress Nina Hoss plays a concentration-camp survivor whose disfigured face is rebuilt by a plastic surgeon: if only reclaiming her old life could be as simple. The husband she still loves, played by Ronald Zehrfeld, chilling in his seemingly benign allure, has presumed her dead and now doesn’t recognize her, though he’s not above using her as a pawn in a deceitful inheritance scheme. Director Christian Petzold has given us a noir romance of vast, bruised beauty, stylish on the surface but capable of cutting deep.
In Tom McCarthy’s urgent, rolled-up-shirtsleeve of a movie, detailing how the Boston Globe uncovered a hydra-headed sex-abuse scandal within the city’s Catholic Archdiocese, reporters don’t just work the phones and trawl the web: They actually leave their desks. Though it’s set in the early 2000s, this isn’t a picture about how journalism used to matter, but a reaffirmation that it must always matter, whether the story emerges in ink or pixels.