Con Me if You Can

Frank Masi/Warner Brothers Pictures

Focus (2015)

After the critical drubbing given to the flawed but earnest “After Earth,” Will Smith returns with “Focus,” playing a character that seems like natural territory for one of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men. Mr. Smith is Nicky, a quick-witted veteran con artist who recruits inexperienced crook Jess (Margot Robbie) to join his team of professional thieves, with things quickly getting personal between the two of them when romance blossoms.

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Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a Blue Blood Flies

Warner Brothers Pictures

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

After debuting with “Bound” in 1996, followed by the worldwide phenomenon of “The Matrix” in 1999, the Wachowski siblings have consistently followed their own path instead of resting on their laurels, writing and directing films that have pushed the boundaries of what is expected of the Hollywood blockbuster — both in terms of storytelling and in technical prowess. “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” were elaborate deconstructions of the traditional hero’s journey seen in the first film; “Speed Racer” was a candy-colored computer generated wonderland in which the traditional family values faced rapacious corporate interests; while the ambitious epic “Cloud Atlas” — co-directed with Tom Tykwer — featured a multitude of characters and actors whose stories spanned centuries.

Now there is “Jupiter Ascending,” which at first glance may seem like an attempt by the Wachowskis to create a more conventional science-fiction saga. Despite appearances, though, this new film is not just the first, unresolved part of a franchise blockbuster or action filmmaking sound and fury signifying nothing. Instead, the film takes topics relevant today, such as genetic engineering, unregulated capitalism and consumption, and a privileged few exploiting an impoverished mass, and mixes them into a tale of intergalactic rivalry and intrigue, topping it off with striking images and sequences that delight the senses. This is unmistakably a film by the Wachowskis, splicing together elements from movies, television, comics, philosophy, politics and gaming, as well as mixing styles and tones, to create a singular cinematic universe.

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Modern Life Is Rubbish

Universal Pictures

Trash (2015)

Depictions of child poverty in well-meaning screen entertainments are bound to end up fudging the heart of the matter, since catching even five percent of the true grinding horror would bring an audience to its knees. "Trash" can't really do anything about that, substituting instead a YA tone of earnest adolescent adventuring in a landscape of adult corruption and violence — ultimately the easier option.

Although Andy Mulligan's source novel described a slum of imprecise location, Stephen Daldry's film plants its flag in Rio de Janeiro, giving the greedy politicians and murderous cops an imminent Olympic bonanza as extra rationale for lining their own pockets and ignoring the kids rummaging through their garbage mountains. Three of those — Raphael (Rickson Tevez), Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) — find evidence of high-level corruption in a discarded wallet somewhere in there, and the chase is on.

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None Is Full of Love

Universal Pictures

Ex Machina (2015)

When young computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to visit the secluded home of solitary tech entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac), head of the search engine company Bluebook, it seems like a dream come true for the star-struck employee. Caleb arrives at Nathan’s hideaway home and discovers the reason for the competition, a chance to meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android created by Nathan.

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Teacher's Pet

David Dare Parker/A24

Son of a Gun (2015)

This Australian crime caper doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. It has Ewan McGregor, perfectly cast as a man who remains a fundamentally decent human being even while murdering villains left and right. It has Alicia Vikander — about five minutes before she becomes a global superstar — as an appealingly vulnerable combination of curdling sexuality and stifled intelligence. It has one of the most inventive settings for a robbery in cinema history. And somehow — somehow — the movie blows it.

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Lead a Dog's Life

Magnolia Pictures

White God (2015)

Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God” is a curious creature. Ostensibly, this is the tale of the fierce bond that binds the teenage Lili (played with impressive maturity by the elfin Zsófia Psotta) and her mongrel mutt Hagen (Luke and Body) together. However, Mr. Mundruczó envelops this story in a somewhat suffocating layer of allegorical social commentary that belies a considered intelligence, but ultimately results in a tonally uneven picture. That said, “White God” picked up the prized Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, rightly rewarding Mr. Mundruczó for his innovative and ambitious vision, which — while flawed — is at least a fiercely original piece of work.

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Something Was Missing

Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures

Annie (2014)

The 1982 “Annie” was my first experience in the cinema. I thought the whole experience was wonderful. Basically I was Annie: I was a little girl, mistreated by the adults in her life, who deserved to be plucked from nothing and set up in the big time. I wanted red hair; I wanted the red dress; I wanted a smelly old dog. And at the big finale — when Annie is chased up the crane and has to be rescued by the Sikh bodyguard — I was so frightened that I had to be removed from the theater in screaming and crying disgrace. We then got the movie on Betamax and I watched it approximately a billion times before I turned 10 years old, without any further disgracing, as I believe. Although I have not seen the original for some time, “Annie,” as was, remains one of the cleverest movies aimed at little girls, who are natural hams perfectly happy to believe that their parents/guardians are big meanies and a better life is waiting for them, if only someone would see how special they are. As a child, the original political satire of the comic strip on which all is based was utterly lost on me. But I never did understand why, when it was obvious Daddy Warbucks had the ability to take all of them on, only Annie was adopted.

The new “Annie,” directed by Will Gluck, time-shifts the story to right now while keeping many of the original elements almost the same. Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) now lives in the overcrowded apartment of her alcoholic foster mother Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) in Harlem. Safely in midtown, cell-phone billionaire William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is running for mayor on a platform of “never drop a citizen” (as if citizens were calls) while definitively not being a man of the people. One day he saves Annie from a traffic accident; the resulting viral video and bump in the poll numbers causes his chief-of-staff Guy (Bobby Cannavale, who has finally made the big time and visibly enjoys every second) propose that he foster Annie to ensure he wins the election. Stacks’ lonely assistant Grace (Rose Byrne, who is quietly carving herself one of the most interesting career paths in modern Hollywood) is of course roped in to do the practical stuff, as she is a woman. And of course spoilers follow: Kids, go play outside or something!

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Suffer Little Children

Film Movement

Stations of the Cross (2014)

Dietrich Brüggemann's deftly moving film about the dire consequences of religious devotion teeters between black satire and blacker comedy, but settles in the end on simple tragedy. "Stations of the Cross" adapts the stages of the Via Dolorosa into 14 extended scenes of staged formal rigor, an ongoing domestic calamity regarded almost entirely from a stationary camera at roughly eye level.

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Giant Steppes

Mongrel Media

Winter Sleep (2014)

"Winter Sleep" crosses the tape at 196 minutes; long enough to watch all of "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" and then revisit the first quarter of it all over again. Whether Nuri Bilge Ceylan's recent running times are an indulgence, a tactic or a mistake — he himself says that he pays the matter no mind at all — it again allows him to divide a film into formidably gorgeous tectonic plates of narrative, grinding against each other at geological pace while the men and women traveling on them completely fail to understand each other.

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Northern Exposure

Anna Matveeva/Sony Pictures Classics

Leviathan (2014)

"Leviathan" suggests an entire nation marooned in state of despair. Andrey Zvyagintsev's new inquiry into the wrong turns taken by modern Russia reaches much the same conclusions as his previous ones, but tells a more explicitly political tale in the process — which makes the fate of the little people caught in the wash seem even more pitiable and inescapable than ever.

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