The setup: In 1912 London, a young mother and laundry washer named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) unintentionally becomes involved in the suffragette movement that demands voting rights for women. Led by the ever elusive Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) who must remain one step ahead of the police, the movement must escalate their cause, even through some bombings, in order to have their voices heard. As the once meek Maud gets swept up in this rising rebellion, she clashes with her conformist husband, her abusive boss, and the government itself as she seeks change.
The breakdown: In a year when Americans’ votes will matter more than ever, the Oscar-nominated Suffragette is a well-timed reminder of the people who gave up everything in order for the right to vote; in this case, the focus is on the women’s’ vote that was denied for so long in Western democracies. Writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron do not pull any punches here. The force feeding sequence of a hunger strike prisoner is particularly hard to watch. But this well-made historical drama drives home the purpose and cost of sacrifice when fighting governmental forces and societal programming that repress the masses for the sake of power.
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)
The set up: After six years in rural exile from her once promising career, shrewd and brilliant campaign strategist Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is lured back into the fold by an American team working to help a ruthless, unlikeable Bolivian presidential candidate named Castillo revive his moribund cause in his homeland torn apart by political strife. Upping the stakes is the fact that the frontrunner in the election is being advised by her sleazy nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), and the two begin a game of one-upmanship as the race for office heats up.
The breakdown: It’s easy to be cynical about politics, and this look into how campaigns are manipulated not only for the sake of winning but to satisfy other people’s egos could easily be criticized for that. But beyond the long-standing rivalry between Bodine and Candy, the film gets its beating heart from Bodine’s doubts and flaws and the youthful idealism of a campaign volunteer who feels blessed because as a child he was carried aloft by Castillo for a photo op. There are wide-ranging consequences to calculated campaigns like this, and Bodine will learn just how far she will go simply to win. Of course, there is the elephant in the room: two South American candidates being cleverly manipulated by American consultants.
The setup: When a smart, savvy editor from Florida (Liev Schreiber) takes over at the Boston Globe, he asks the investigative Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James) to look into allegations against sexually abusive Catholic priests in the city. What they uncover leads to a deeper web of deceit and betrayal that, if true and exposed, could send massive shockwaves through the city and its devout Catholic community.
The breakdown: Although dealing with a highly controversial topic, director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer avoid sensationalizing the scandal itself. Investigative journalism can be mundane and exhausting even from an inside perspective, but the stimulating quest for truth and fairness in a story such as this can propel people forward, and the Oscar-nominated Spotlight captures both sides of the job. The Globe reporters are driven to uncover this scandal, but it all wears at them and threatens to unravel their camaraderie. Beyond the wonderful writing, performances, and directing here, the film hammers home a point that is hard to avoid: It took a team of four writers several months to build their case of abuse and negligence against Cardinal Bernard Law and the Catholic Church. How many other stories never see the light of day because the resources and manpower are not enough? It’s a heavy question to ponder at a time when media is being dismantled piece by piece, and it makes a strong case for why such journalistic teams remain essential.
THE MARTIAN (2015)
The set up: After a massive, abrupt storm forces a scientific astronaut team off of Mars, a botanist (Matt Damon) who was thought to be dead ends up surviving and living alone on the Angry Red Planet while NASA, once learning of his fate, tries to figure out how to assist and whether they should let his homebound crewmates (including Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig) know what has happened to him before they return to Earth. It’s a good thing he knows how to “science the shit” out of things, but will he be able to stay alive for long with his limited supplies?
The breakdown: While overly praised for the lukewarm Prometheus, director Ridley Scott is back in fine form with this Oscar-nominated survivalist sci-fi drama, which was adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel of the same name. What invigorates this tale of optimism in the face of isolation and despair is Watney’s resilience and sense of humor. Imagine being stuck on Mars with a collection of truly awful disco music—you might want to snuff it fast. The Martian clicks because it marries scientific chic with political drama as Watney tries to last long enough in the hope that someone will rescue him. It may also have many people rethinking the idea of a one-way trip to colonize Mars.
The set up: A father, mother, and their young daughter Zoe are sequestered underground, hiding from beings known as “the breathers” in an area that has been quarantined by the government. Trying to hold onto their sanity and cope with dwindling food resources, not to mention Zoe’s anxiety and desire for a normal life, the parents must face harsh reality when they need more food and when they fear that their secret space might be discovered.
The breakdown: While it takes a little while to warm up, the writing-directing team of The Duffer Brothers generates a tense atmosphere with only three main actors and minimal set pieces. Through select flashbacks we begin to get details of why this family has been trapped underground and where their fate may ultimately lie. And the ending twists into something refreshingly different than and delivers unexpected social commentary. A key element that mars the production, however, is young Emily Alyn Land, who qualifies as having the second most annoying child performance in an apocalyptic film after Dakota Fanning in Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. Land is a good actor for sure, but her character’s precociousness (as often is the case with Hollywood child portrayals) is often irritating. Why can’t filmmakers let kids be kids and not act like little adults?