Elle

(Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Elle  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)</h3>

A gray cat watches impassively as sickening sounds of assault are heard off-screen. An intruder flees, and it's clear Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) has been raped in her home. Michèle's immediate reaction is as affectless as her cat's gaze: she stands, momentarily collects herself and calmly sweeps up the shards of a broken vase. The police are not called.

The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia, 2015)

The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia, 2015)

In the late 1970's, the Russian Woodpecker plagued the world's radio waves. The Russian Woodpecker was a shortwave radio signal that sounded like a series of sharp taps – ten per second – and disrupted public broadcasts as well as communications of boats, airplanes and utilities worldwide. In the chill of the Cold War, people wondered if the Russian Woodpecker might be some insidious attempt at mind control, but the source of the signal was actually a huge Soviet radar array known as the Duga.

Hacksaw Ridge

(Mel Gibson, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Hacksaw Ridge  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Mel Gibson, 2016)</h3>

Mel Gibson's first film as director in 10 years opens with a brutal, slow-motion battlefield tableau. Soldiers become fountains of blood. Limbs are separated by grenades. Human shapes engulfed in flames tumble through the air. Hacksaw Ridge, by the way, is about a soldier who refuses to harm another person. Mel Gibson is back, for better or worse.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American conscientious objector during World War II. As a Seventh-day Adventist, Doss refused to handle a firearm, even during basic training, but overcame the resulting court martial to serve as a combat medic in Okinawa. He then single-handedly saved 75 soldiers during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge.

Shin Godzilla

(Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Shin Godzilla  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi, 2016)</h3>

Godzilla – or Gojira, as it's more commonly called in Toho's new reboot – may be the thing knocking down high-rise apartment buildings. But Japanese bureacracy is the real villain of Shin Godzilla. That, and (of course) mankind's dubious control over nuclear technology.

There's a geyser-like eruption in Tokyo Bay, and the Aqua-Line, an undersea highway, begins to flood. Japanese bureaucrats are scrambling to identify the problem when a tail begins thrashing around in the plume. Soon enough, an enormous creature emerges from the sea to force its way down canals and city streets, pushing a gathering wall of boats and cars.

Under the Shadow

(Babak Anvari, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Under the Shadow  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Babak Anvari, 2016)</h3>

Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait gazes over an Iranian bureaucrat and a woman who sits opposite him, slouched in deference. It's Tehran in 1988, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young married mother, wants to resume her medical training. Shideh began medical school at the encouragement of her recently-deceased mother, but was suspended for being “politically active.”

This violation marks her forever, the bureaucrat explains. She can never go back. Though it's daytime and the office is well-lit, her black hijab might as well be made of shadow.

The Birth of a Nation

(Nate Parker, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>The Birth of a Nation  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Nate Parker, 2016)</h3>

The Birth of a Nation arrives as a tangle of controversy and hype, a movie glowing faintly from within.

Nate Parker's telling of Nat Turner's slave rebellion debuted to an ecstatic reception (and Oscar buzz) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In the months since, Parker has been haunted by sexual assault allegations from his past. Rape culture, police brutality, Black Lives Matter – all these issues seem to intersect with the film and its creator in a jumble that's difficult to parse. But if any aspect of The Birth of a Nation survives the controversy in a lasting way, it may be the impact of its title.

Demon

(Marcin Wrona, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Demon  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Marcin Wrona, 2016)</h3>

“He who will not partake in society is either a god or a beast...”

Attempting a toast at a Polish wedding, an old Jewish professor is booed when he intones Aristotle. When another speaker performs Chopin, a young guest – eager for vodka and dancing – shouts “Play something Polish!” With horror and barbed humor, Marcin Wrona's Demon takes aim at a population uninterested in remembering its own haunted history.