2. “Lincoln” Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s historical drama about the 16th president leaves behind fusty, great-man portraiture, instead engaging in a lively game of political cat and mouse that bears uncanny contemporary echoes and leaves viewers feeling as if they’ve just spent two hours with the shrewd, funny, melancholy — and yes, great — man himself.
3. “The Waiting Room” Peter Nicks’s magnificent documentary spends a day in the life of an over-crowded and under-resourced hospital emergency room in Oakland, Calif., where a staff of compassionate professionals provide care to a startlingly diverse population of patients. This subtle, compassionate tableau lifts the veil on a world often described in terms of squalor and despair, finding the inherent dignity and perseverance therein.
4. “Monsieur Lazhar” Philippe Falardeau’s affecting drama about an Algerian immigrant teaching in a Montreal elementary school could have gone wrong in so many sappy, sentimental or maudlin ways. Thanks to Falardeau’s clear-eyed direction and a quietly galvanizing performance by Mohamed Fellag in the title role, it goes straight and simply for the heart, and its aim is unerringly true. Pint-sized co-stars Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron joined Pierce Gagnon (“Looper”), Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (“Moonrise Kingdom”), and “The Impossible’s” Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Johnson as young actors delivering performances of astonishing maturity.
5. “Middle of Nowhere” Ava DuVernay’s finely calibrated drama about a woman navigating life while her husband is in prison featured a breakout performance by lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi; its unforced, restrained tone was enhanced by the expressive cinematography of Howard University alumnus Bradford Young, who also shot two 2012 10-best runners-up, “Restless City” and “Pariah.”
6. “This Is Not a Film” Jafar Panahi’s essay film about living under house arrest in Iran uses Brechtian staging, blurred lines between documentary and drama, and an iPhone to explore the notion of physical and political boundaries, the aesthetic and technological contours of cinema, and the enduring power of self-expression.