10. Life Itself
Ironically enough, we kick off this list with the critically acclaimed documentary about the critically crucial critic, Roger Ebert. Roger is probably best known to the masses for his discussion-based television show, At the Movies, in which he and fellow film critic Gene Siskel (later it was Richard Roeper) passionately debated (and that's putting it tenderly) their thoughts on the new releases that week. Among his many other accomplishments for the medium, Roger Ebert helped make film criticism sexy and helped stir the dialogue between filmmakers and film-goers.
With this profound documentary, Director Steve James focuses on the man behind the myth. We see Roger at his most vulnerable, all the while still perusing his passion as a writer and film enthusiast. It's an emotional and inspiring piece about one of cinema's most overlooked champions.
9. The Muppets Most Wanted
Movin' right along, this Disney sequel picks up, quite literally, right where the delightful 2011 hit left off. Now that Walter's officially been dubbed an honorary Muppet, Kermit and the gang decide to take their show on the road and embark on a world tour. What follows is a more than satisfying entry for the long-running, long-beloved felt franchise.
Although this follow-up seems to lack the child-like wonder that Jason Segel seemed to bring to the original reboot, almost everything else that made it so special remains intact: from the abundance of cheery cameos to yet another seductively catchy soundtrack from the Academy Award-winning Bret McKenzie ('I'll Get You What You Want' was snubbed!). Muppets Most Wanted also benefits from the addition of the cold-blooded, charismatic Constantine.
8. Begin Again
From one charming soundtrack to another, Director John Carney strikes all the right chords with this infectious musical drama. Mark Ruffalo's empathetic performance as a down-on-his-luck music producer plays perfectly off Keira Knightley's heart-aching portrayal of a heart-broken, small town girl looking to form some sort of identity for herself in the otherwise unforgiving landscape of the music industry.
These two leads have undeniably compelling chemistry and they're reason enough to see this film. But what takes Begin Again above and beyond other cookie cutter copycats, other than the brilliant playlist of course, are the solid performances from the colorful supporting cast, largely made up of real-life professionals from the industry, as well as its refusal to give into banality and its insistence on making an identity for its own self.
7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Another sequel to a 2011 entry of a long-running franchise swings onto my list with this follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A decade after the simian flu supposedly obliterated the human race, the world has gone ape as Cesar and his brethren are living in peace as the new heirs to the Earth. However, that peace is threatened after the discovery that humans still linger on in refugee colonies just across the San Francisco Bay.
The 'Apes' franchise finds new life with this surprisingly human tale of loyalty, co-operation, and the devastating effects of war on all parties. Andy Serkis, who is famous for his terrific motion-capture work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, gives arguably his best performance to date as the seemingly incorruptible ape leader who refuses to believe that humans are all bad. All supporting performances are great as well, but what makes this sequel stand out is the polarizing development of Cesar as he continues to evaluate what's important to him and his flourishing planet of apes.
6. Beyond the Lights
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) examines the musical drama genre through the lens of an endearing romance, featuring the powerful acting chops of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who also gave another outstanding performance this year in Belle. Noni is a young talent who has, for years, been scrupulously sculpted into an up-and-coming pop star by her demanding mother. One night, this suffocating lifestyle leads Noni to a lonely hotel balcony in a last-ditch cry for help. As fate would have it, she is, at the last minute, snatched from the cold, concrete jaws of death by her studly soul-mate and pulled to safety.
The slow-burning romance between Noni and Kaz (she had a hard time believing that was his real name, too), is such a delight to watch unfold. From the awkward first meetings; to the more intimate exchanges; to the guy defending the woman's honor by physically assaulting her rapper ex-boyfriend on stage; to a tender moment that had me in tears, involving Noni removing her weave; all the mushy, familiar touchstones of a budding life-long partnership are expounded and thanks to the kinetic chemistry and heartwarming performances from its two leads, Beyond the Lights is a wonderful examination of the effect of celebrity on personal identity.