There are two ghosts in The Ghost Writer. The first is never seen onscreen but is a presence that's felt throughout the story and who, in some ways, guides it (I don't believe that any film has ever used a GPS device more usefully or effectively). The second is the ghost writer hired to re-draft the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, taking over from the previous ghost writer who has died under mysterious circumstances. Arriving in Martha's Vineyard to begin work, the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) finds himself drawn not only into a mystery, but into an international conspiracy. A sharply written work of expert mood setting, in which a feeling of menace underscores virtually everything (particularly those things involving Olivia Williams, chilling in her performance as the Prime Minister's wife), The Ghost Writer is a creepy and enthralling thriller that boasts one of the single most perfect endings seen in film in the last ten years.
Never doubt the lengths a mother will go for her child. Mother is about a woman who will move heaven and earth to protect her son, a young man of marginal intelligence and vulnerable to the manipulations of others. When he's arrested for the murder of a local girl, she is unwavering in her belief that he's been used as a fall guy for the crime and that the police are taking the easy way, not investigating the case so much as just arresting the first person they can and calling it closed, and so she becomes determined to solve the case herself and prove her son's innocence. She is relentless and resourceful, but what makes the character (and, subsequently, the film) so interesting is that she's also a moral blank, so driven by her own desires and self-deception that she will go to literally any length to preserve the image she has of herself and her boy. Built around the fantastic performance of Kim Hye-ja, Mother is an endlessly re-watchable mystery thriller.
If the only thing The Dark Knight had going for it was the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, it would still be well ahead of the curve relative to other superhero movies. But it has so much more going for it than that, including first-class world building (or, given that this is the middle film of a trilogy, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say continuation of world building) and meticulous craftsmanship from director Christopher Nolan, and an ability to use an iconic character to explore the moral quandaries that we grapple with in real life as agents of chaos the world over seek to destabilize society and we're forced to debate the balance between safety and civil liberty. The Dark Knight is a film that transcends genre limitations and does what all great films should do: challenge viewers and expand their understanding of what can be accomplished within the medium.
You have to wonder what this documentary would have looked like if Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had hung around a bit longer. A behind the scenes account of the 2013 New York Mayoral bid of Anthony Weiner - a man for whom the phrase "this fucking guy" seems to have been invented - Weiner paints a portrait of massive hubris, of a man so dedicated to his narcissism that he seems to literally have no concept of how he is perceived by others, and offers insight (if not, necessarily, clarity) into a marriage complicated by scandal and public humiliation and some of the compromises that have been made to keep it afloat. Conceived as a "comeback story" that dissolves midway through to become a story about a man who just can't seem to stop himself from throwing everything away, Weiner is a somewhat difficult watch now in light of everything that has happened since it's release, but it is still a fascinating (and darkly entertaining) film.
The title character of the Coen brothers' cinematic foray into the '60s folk music scene is a man caught in a loop of fuck ups and disappointments. His professional career has stalled just on the cusp of success so that he's watching people he believes to be less talented than himself make it while he keeps waiting for his big break, and his personal life is a disaster of loss, relationships broken and rebuilt and broken again, and mistakes made over and over again, with him acting as the architect of his own misfortune. Did I mention that this is a comedy? Anchored by a marvelous and prickly performance from Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis follows him as he continuously finds ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, ending up right back where he started (quite literally) in the process. The Coens have created no shortage of great characters in the course of their career and Llewyn Davis is one of their best.
Most mob movies get their mileage out of portraying the glamour of the high life, of bad men who do bad things but attain the symbols of an aspirational lifestyle in the process. In Matteo Garrone's Gomorroa there's none of that. This is very much a film about the "nobodies," men who occupy the bottom rungs of criminal empires, doing the grunt work without any of the glory. Told through several story threads that follow men and boys with varying levels of involvement in the Camorra crime syndicate, Gomorra makes no effort to romanticize the life of a gangster or to set its characters up as men whose lives are something to be admired. These aren't suave and sophisticated men, but average, ordinary guys who are likely to die wasteful deaths as a result of petty squabbling, half-baked power grabs, and sheer idiocy and the unblinking way that the film lays this out, in addition to how it examines the way that organized crime has snaked its way through every aspect of society, is chilling.
A story is as much about how it's told as it is about what is being told. This is particularly the case with true stories, which are constructed according to what they omit in addition to what they include, and which are dependent on the way the storyteller decides to frame and present them. Stories We Tell, in which Sarah Polley explores the void left in her family by the death of her mother and tries to get to the bottom of rumors about her own paternity, is a documentary that is fundamentally about how stories are told. From the discrepancies in the versions of events as told by various people, to the way that Polley foregrounds the act of making a documentary, the film is constantly reminding you that stories are things that are built. In doing so she has created a film that is often funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and incredibly moving.
If you were to make a list of the most unfairly overlooked movie performances of the last ten years, you would have to include Sam Rockwell's dual performance in Moon, where he plays a man working at a lonely outpost on the Moon who discovers that he isn't alone when he finds... himself trapped and dying in a rover. Having discovered that he is not who he thought he was, but one of many clones of the original man who came to the moon, he must grapple with what it means that he's not a "person" but something created to be as disposable and replaceable as an appliance - and he has to do so twice. Not only does Rockwell manage to create two distinct characters from the two clones, he also spends the lion's share of the film playing off of himself, which is no easy feat (acting is reacting, after all) no matter how effortless he makes it look. Skillfully crafted by Duncan Jones, Moon is a greatly entertaining homage to classic science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris and a marvelous showcase for Rockwell.
For the past couple of weeks, I've found myself thinking a lot about an exchange from Spotlight in which Michael Keaton's character, seeking confirmation of the stories of abuse about to be published by The Boston Globe, tells a friend, "This is our town... everybody knew something was going on and no one did a thing." That's how these things go; people convince themselves that because they haven't seen something with their own eyes, that means that they don't "know" about it and that, in turn, they can safely go about their business, untroubled by the ways that they're benefiting by helping to preserve power in the hands of a monster (or monsters). Spotlight does an excellent job at examining how massive campaigns of abuse are never really "secret" but rely on the silence of the people around it to stay under the radar, and at giving a sense of how inescapable (the Church is everywhere here, even when it's just looming in the background) and insurmountable the institution which protects predators can seem.
Deniz Gamze Erguven's film is a survival story about five sisters growing up in circumstances designed to limit their social power and any sense of agency that they might have over themselves and their lives. Some endure more than the others. Not all of them will live to tell the tale. It is an emotionally rich film that is often bleak and anger inducing - after they bring "disgrace" upon the family by being spotted at the beach with some boys, the eldest three are subjected to "virginity tests" so they can be married off one by one, and they are basically imprisoned in their home until they are married - but also offers some relief from its darkest narrative threads with minor moments of humor as well as moments of triumph. The girls are subjected to terrible things, but Erguven's focus on how they pull together, how they find little ways to strike back against the oppression they're facing, and how those who remain find a way to carry on keep this from being unrelentingly depressing. Mustang is a great story about how patriarchy works, the hypocrisy and corruption that exists at its core, and how it can be rebelled against.