“Amour” (written/directed by Michael Haneke)
If life came with an instruction manual, “Amour” could serve as the final chapter — call it “What to Expect when You’re Expiring.” Unflinchingly frank in its discussion of mortality, dignity and love, this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner should be required viewing for the human race. Austrian writer/ director Michael Haneke crafted a bleak, brutal look at what happens to the human body and mind at the end of life, and infused it with so much painful honesty you’ll walk out of the theater feeling raw — as if you’ve skinned your soul.
“Burn” (produced/directed by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez)
If it weren’t a true story, it would seem like a cliché: The dead city handling its own cremation. But according to “Burn,” a documentary about Detroit’s enduring firefighters, not everyone has given up on the decaying metropolis just yet. It’s an inflammatory look at what happens when a vital population segment moves to the suburbs, leaving block after empty block to the thieves, murderers and arsons. Built to enrage, “Burn” is the very best kind of documentary filmmaking and a must-see for anyone who gives a damn about Detroit.
“Gravity” (written/directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
Cuarón’s sci fi spectacle is a poetic masterpiece to human achievement and, quite possibly, the immortal human soul. “Gravity” is cleverly constructed and achingly gorgeous, brilliantly blurring the line between theology and cosmology — and giving even the most hardened atheist pause for thought on What Comes After. “Gravity” explores some powerful subjects; chiefly, the pain that comes from being a sentient being hardwired with empathy and the capacity for love.
“The Kings of Summer” (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
In this magically surreal romp, 15-year-old Joe Toy and a couple of his buddies build a functional two-story house out of found materials in the woods and run away from home to live in it. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of every frustrated teenager, a definitive stroke of defiance marking the dawn of a new era of independence. This Sundance hit is equal parts social satire and coarse teen comedy, tempered with a dramatic core and sprinkled with bits of slapstick.
“Kon-Tiki” (directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg)
This cerebral thrill ride comes equipped with a swashbuckling spirit and a hell of a charming lead. And how much awesomer is it that it’s based on a true story? “Kon-Tiki” is the dramatization the voyage of real-life adventurer Thor Heyerdahl who set sail from South America to Polynesia on a rudimentary balsa-wood raft to prove his theory about island colonization in the South Pacific. “Fast and Furious”? Bah. “Kon-Tiki” proves you can be just as gripping by being slow and steady.
The white water wine barrel escape sequence in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was the best action scene since Indiana Jones commandeered that truck full of Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If you can catch the high-frame rate version of “Smaug” (unavailable in Lansing), even better.