Blue Jasmine – I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan, but his writing and Cate Blanchett's performance made this story of an uppity socialite's fall into a surprisingly effective tragicomedy. Despite her unsympathetic behavior, I pitied the increasingly unhinged Jasmine while enjoying her darkly comical struggle to adjust to lower-class life.
Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass made his depiction of the well-known 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking a tense thriller by focusing on the humanity of the victims and attackers. CP shows that the key to effective tension isn't spectacle (not that I don't appreciate a well-done blockbuster); more important are character development and depth that make you invested in the situation and its outcome.
Short Term 12 – This story about a teen group home and its workers is full of great characters and moments. It feels like a real glimpse into the troubled lives of these youths, one that doesn't sugarcoat their lives but also doesn't try to make them seem overly depressing. Brie Larson is great as the caring lead worker struggling to help them while dealing with her own issues.
The Hunt – Stories of wrongful accusations are often told as mysteries, but The Hunt instead focuses on a clearly innocent man's fight for his reputation. It hurt to watch an upstanding member of a community be seen as a monster due to the disturbing words spoken by a seemingly innocent child.
The Place Beyond the Pines – I expected a crime film but got an ambitious triptych about troubled fathers and the effects they have upon their sons. It was a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed watching the story's three distinct sections play out, the woodsy upstate New York setting and the performances of everyone involved.
Before Midnight – Before Sunrise and Sunset were sweet glimpses of brief, ill-timed romantic connections. BM brings the romance trilogy's fleeting lovers down to earth by examining the challenges and shifting relationship dynamics that arise during long-term commitments.
Don Jon – I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt's mocking homage to romantic comedies and his ability to make the somewhat asinine lead character into a likable womanizer.
The Way, Way Back – Some of the family drama feels familiar, but it's very fun to watch the awkward main character interact with his wacky water park coworkers and possible love interest. His development and interactions feel real and hilarious, largely thanks to Sam Rockwell as his man-child boss.