Of all the films vying for Oscars next month, Ava DuVernay's Selma remains the most important, and not simply because its subject matter reflects many of the incendiary debates about race still raging today. Formally, the film accomplishes something remarkable within the biopic genre: It respects moviegoers enough to drop them right into the action of a historical event unfolding without context.
Martin Luther King's (David Oyelowo) pursuit of voter reform for black citizens escalates in Selma, Alabama, as a calculated effort, one with complicated repercussions on both sides of the racial divide. Interactions involving familiar figures of American history hold the exact same weight as those involving regular citizens. Compromise dominates each discussion, allowing the towering real-life events to take on a more human and complex demeanor.
Much of DuVernay's smart film consists of characters talking strategy, considering the consequences that their actions will have on both the country and the citizens of Selma. Then, the film reenacts images of unrest and brutality that carry staggering implications for our own current dialogue about the definition of community. Recent events in Ferguson and New York City suggest that fear and intimidation of this kind are systemic to a society that denies the racial fault lines of its own making.
While grappling with these big-picture issues, Selma also provides Oyelowo the proper platform for his amazing talents as an actor. His steady, resolved demeanor hides an ocean of responsibility and stress, which stems from an understanding that his public persona will dictate the direction of the civil-rights movement.
Aside from a misguided end credit sequence that feels constructed entirely by Oprah Winfrey, Selma , which opens Friday, Jan. 9, is a smartly crafted political procedural with a beating heart that also happens to be incredibly socially relevant today, tomorrow and probably for a long time to come.
Inherent Vice : Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon's detective yarn about a real-estate tycoon who disappears, inciting a number of pot-fueled stories in early-1970s Southern California.
Selma : Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) attempts to create voter reform in Selma, Alabama, a hotbed of racism and disenfranchisement.
Taken 3 : Liam Neeson reprises his role as the badass who keeps losing family members to kidnappings. Maybe third time's a charm?
The Search for General Tso : Using America's most popular takeout meal—General Tso's Chicken—as a starting point, this documentary traces the origins of Chinese American cuisine. Screens through Jan. 15 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
One time only
The Interview : The Seth Rogan movie that became an international incident has a couple more screenings this week: 2, 4:30 and 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, and 3, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Sunset Boulevard : Billy Wilder's classic satire of Hollywood and stardom contains an insane performance by Gloria Swanson as a fading starlet hell-bent on retaining her legitimacy in show business. Screens at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, at the Ken Cinema.
Records Collecting Dust : San Diego musician and filmmaker Jason Blackmore interviewed more than 30 musicians about their vinyl collections. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, and 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut : A gruff 21st-century detective hunts down cyborgs in a dystopic near-future. Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir will be screened in the definitive 2007 final cut. Screens at 2, 4:30, 7, 9:30 and 11:59 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Ken Cinema.
Once Upon a Time in the West : In Sergio Leone's sprawling western masterpiece, a harmonica-playing drifter (Charles Bronson) seeks revenge for the death of his family. Screens at 12:30, 4 and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Ken Cinema.
Capital : Costa Gravas' latest political thriller takes on Western capitalism in a tale of power struggles, greed, deception and erotic distractions. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Point Loma / Hervey Branch Library.
It Happened One Night : Frank Capra's delightful screwball comedy stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as a team of mismatched lovers on the road. Screens at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:15 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, at the Ken Cinema.
Pride : Set in England in the 1980s, a gay-rights group develops a relationship with a mining community on strike in protest against the Thatcher government. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, at the San Diego Central Library in East Village.
Yojimbo : The samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) arrives in a small town, where two evil clans war for supremacy, and turns the tables in his favor. Screens at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the Ken Cinema.
Calvary : An Irish priest is mysteriously threatened with death by one of his parishioners and spends the next week trying to find out the person's identity. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the Point Loma / Hervey Branch Library.
The Gang's All Here : Alice Faye stars in this massively popular Busby Berkley musical about a nightclub singer who falls in love with a soldier. Screens at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14, at the Ken Cinema.
The Hangover : Four friends have a night to misremember in Las Vegas, waking up the next morning in a world of hurt and trouble. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Born to be Wild : Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this documentary examines the amazing bond between humans and animals, including elephants and orangutans. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
El Verano de los Peces Voladores : When Manena goes on vacation with her father, she quickly realizes he's obsessed with killing all the carp in his artificial lagoon. Ends Jan. 8 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Remote Area Medical : This riveting documentary follows a nonprofit organization that establishes three-day clinics around the United States in areas of the country desperately in need of healthcare. Ends Jan. 7 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Viva La Liberta : Toni Servillo stars as identical twin brothers who decide to switch identities in this funny look at modern-day Italian politics. Screens at the Ken Cinema.
Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death : Dark spirits are awakened in the Eel Marsh House when children evacuated from World War II London arrive looking for shelter.
Big Eyes : Tim Burton's film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a 1960s housewife who allows her conman of a husband to take credit for her exceptionally popular paintings.
Into the Woods : Beware the Wolf, Sondheim. Beware the Wolf.
The Imitation Game : Benedict Cumberbatch stars as real-life code breaker Alan Turing, who led a squad of British mathematicians in breaking the Enigma code during World War II.
Unbroken : Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort examines the life of Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who overcame extreme odds to survive a Japanese internment camp.
Annie : Hollywood's latest reboot of the famous musical about an orphan adopted by a wealthy tycoon features Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz and Quvenzhané Wallis as the titular melodist.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb : Sadly, Robin Williams' last performance exists within this silly universe of an inexpressive Ben Stiller, an expressive monkey and artifacts brought to life.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies : The final chapter in Peter Jackson's bloated three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous novel ends in a massive battle between elves, dwarves, men and the nefarious orcs.
Top Five : Set to marry a reality star and have their wedding taped for public consumption, a popular comedian (Chris Rock) returns home to his old neighborhood, hoping to gain some clarity.
Exodus: Gods and Kings : The story of Moses, Rhamses and the Ten Commandments gets super-sized.
Wild : Based on the best-selling novel, this drama tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, who trekked more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail to reassess her troubled life.
Horrible Bosses 2 : Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day get another chance to turn the tables on their self-serving bosses and exact revenge.
Penguins of Madagascar : A trio of goofy penguins must join forces with a secret underground organization to defeat a villain trying to destroy the world.
Foxcatcher : Bennett Miller's dark sports film tells the tragic true story of the Schultz brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum), wrestlers who became forever entwined with the wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune (Steve Carell).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 : Having just destroyed the Hunger Games infrastructure, Katnis returns home to lead the rebellion against the corrupt forces of the capital.
The Theory of Everything : Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is diagnosed with motor-neuron disease just as he's graduating with a doctorate degree in physics from Cambridge and starting a new life with his wife (Felicity Jones).
Big Hero 6 : An inflatable robot develops a bond with a prodigy named Hiro, and the two become high-tech heroes.
Interstellar : Christopher Nolan's new science-fiction epic follows a group of explorers who make use of a newly discovered wormhole to find a new home for humanity.
Nightcrawler : This scathing and unsettling portrait of modern news television stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a vulture scouring the Los Angeles streets for gory events.
Birdman : A burnt-out superhero actor (Michael Keaton) tries to mount a play on Broadway in order to prove his worth. It co-stars Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough.
St. Vincent : A misanthropic senior citizen (Bill Murray) befriends a young boy going through familial trouble, inevitably leading to redemption for all involved.
Fury : A surly tank commander (Brad Pitt) and his small crew fend off Nazis during the waning days of World War II.
Whiplash : A sadistic music teacher tortures a young drummer at a posh New York City conservatory.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day : A boy lives through a calamitous day, and the bad luck spreads to his other family members.
Gone Girl : David Fincher adapts Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel with Ben Affleck in the lead as the suspicious husband whose beautiful wife (Rosamund Pike) suddenly goes missing.
Hidden Universe : Blast off into the stratosphere with this documentary that uses real images captured from telescopes to examine the vast reaches of space. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Journey to the South Pacific : Let the glorious scale of IMAX take you to the tropical islands of West Papua, where life under the sea is just as lush and vibrant as it is on shore. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.