12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt | R |

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DRAMA

Twelve Years a Slave forces Americans to have the brutal conversation we've been ducking for 150 years. It is the first film to capture the truth of the physical, sexual and psychological torture of human chattel by those who would think themselves good people. A bruising viewing experience, 12 Years would be impossible to sit through but for its virtuosic performances, poetic script and masterful direction by Steve McQueen (Shame). It is, quite simply, a film for the ages.

The story, for all its dramatic flair, is based on a real-life memoir. Born a free man in New York, violinist Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Stripped of his given name, Solomon is passed between masters, starting with the mild-mannered Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ending with Epps (Fassbender), a psychotic white supremacist who quotes Scripture to his pernicious purpose. All of the actors deserve Oscar attention, from Cumberbatch as a man so morally compromised he refuses to see the plain truth of Solomon's past, to Fassbender, who fills an empty soul with enormous complexity. As for the women, Alfre Woodard and Lupita Nyong'o play roles that reveal the twisted intimacy of slavery, one raised up to surprising heights, the other the coveted plaything of a monster. But this is Ejiofor's triumph. He brings tremendous dignity and strength to Solomon, his wide eyes reflecting unconscionable horror, forever shocked by his altered circumstances.

The genius of McQueen's vision, though, is that he refuses to make Solomon special. The moment you think that as a free man he never should have suffered like this, there's a moral hip check, the truth dawning anew: no one should have. As Americans, we all stand on the backs of slaves. It's about time we acknowledged it.

The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl | R |

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DRAMA

More a bio of WikiLeaks than of its founder, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch), Estate never gets a handle on the man behind the secrets. Though Cumberbatch is solid, neither his cloak-and-dagger crusader nor Assange's idealistic partner, Daniel Berg (Rush's Brühl), are compelling enough to surmount the drudgery of watching two guys on computers for two hours. Surely there's a ripping story to be told about the infamous whistle-blower website. This isn't it.

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Lupita Nyong'o

A documentarian born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Nyong'o, 30, is about to be known as an actress of rare talent. As Patsey, the obsession of slave master Epps (Fassbender, right), she delivers a powerful turn as a powerless woman. If Ejiofor is the film's hero, she is its beating heart.

THE HEAT

Somehow there's an even raunchier version of this buddy-cop comedy than the one we saw in theaters. The DVD release of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy's hilarious summer hit features an unrated cut and tons of extras, from gag reels to deleted scenes and a making-of documentary. Plus, there are five audio commentaries, including one with McCarthy. My advice: Watch it twice to catch the jokes you laughed through the first time.

HOW SCHINDLER'S LIST CHANGED MY LIFE

20th ANNIVERSARY

Your film about heroism during the Holocaust won the Oscar for Best Picture—and was one of your proudest moments.

I can't believe it's been 20 years. Making Schindler's List was the best and most profound experience that I've had as a filmmaker. It's a story that's still close to my heart. It's different than any other film that I've made because it had an afterlife.

How did it affect you?

It's the movie that made me decide to do something with my life beyond making movies. During the production, I talked to Holocaust survivors and I realized many stories needed to be told. That's how the USC Shoah Foundation began. Today we've preserved 52,000 survivor testimonies. It's the most important public service work I've done.

Have your kids seen it?

My youngest daughters [Destry, 16, and Mikaela, 17] haven't, but they're close to being ready. I still have trouble watching it myself because it's an emotional juggernaut.