Ella Taylor

Among his other abundant talents, Stanley Tucci gives great smirk.

British filmmaker Sally Potter, a bold adventurer with form and genre, has racked up a formidable resume of hits and some misses, among them the gorgeous historical gender-bender Orlando (1992); the sexy dance movie The Tango Lesson (1996); The Man Who Cried (2001), a tone-deaf Holocaust misfire; and the terrific Ginger and Rosa (2012), which explored the tricky friction between ideology and private behavior on the lefty margins of 1960's London, where Potter came of age.

As is often the case, this year's crop of Academy Award-nominated live action shorts — several of them made as newbie filmmakers' calling cards — make up in earnest humanity for what they lack in technical sophistication. One way or another, all of this year's nominees turn on themes of terror — that's if you count the lone comedy, which speaks to the fear, fantasy, or wishful thought that psychiatrists may be crazier than their patients. Here they are, ranked from best ... to best-intentioned.

My Nephew Emmett

In 2012 Ben Lewin made The Sessions, an irreverent and perceptive fact-based dramedy with John Hawkes as a horny, lovelorn polio survivor in an iron lung, and Helen Hunt as his sex surrogate. Lewin, too, had polio as a child, which may account for his nuanced ability to picture the disabled as, you know, people who happen to be carrying an extra load.

Based on a YA novel by Heidi McLaughlin, the endearingly old-fangled Forever My Girl is basically a stretched-out country music song with eye-catching Southern visuals and a familiar loop of lovelorn sorrow topped with uplift you can see coming from scene one.

In Between, a bold, brassy and beautiful first feature about living while Arab and female in Israel, was made by a young Palestinian woman with Israeli funding. But that is not what earned writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud a fatwa from her own people.

Underrated in her '50s heyday and forgotten by many outside the noir aficionados who restored her to posthumous cinephile glory, the Hollywood movie star Gloria Grahame both endured and brought on herself a difficult life.

In case you're wondering whether the last-minute dropping of Kevin Spacey ruined Ridley Scott's movie about the 1973 kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty's grandson, I can testify that there's barely a technical seam showing in All the Money in the World. Scott is a master craftsman who re-shot Spacey's scenes in nine days without turning a hair.

What is known for sure about American military scientist Frank Olson is that on November 28, 1953, the bacteriologist and father of three plunged to his death from the 13th floor of the Statler hotel in New York City, not long after he was secretly drugged with LSD on the orders of his CIA superior. Whether Olson was pushed, or jumped, or was nudged into committing suicide remains unclear.

In the family drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes, in theaters this week, the warmly maternal actress Jennifer Garner plays a mother from hell. Not that her Sandy Mason is one of those ubiquitous gorgons who have eaten friends and family for dinner since movie time began, from Bette Davis's coldly bullying mater in 1942's Now, Voyager through the ice- queens in two incarnations of The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004), all the way to (coming December 8th!) a wickedly funny and scary Allison Janney as Tonya Harding's monster mom in I, Tonya.

A guy walks into an Alaska bar at night. The bar is called Chums, and his two pals are deep in heated discussion about an upcoming election and the fabulous age of business dominance to come in its wake. The dialogue is not played for winks at the audience, and Sweet Virginia is not, now or later, one of those jokey neo-noirs that keeps poking the genre in the ribs. Next thing you know, a stranger — young, good-looking, intense — comes in demanding the Early Bird Special.

"Can we please stop with the remakes of Murder on the Orient Express?" I ask upon exiting Kenneth Branagh's fatally tepid new reading of the Agatha Christie classic.

Having cut an audacious path through any number of film genres, from Dazed and Confused to the animated Waking Life, the wonderfully gabby Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trio all the way to his acclaimed Boyhood, Richard Linklater lands another smart one with Last Flag Flying.

When God's Own Country, a superb feature debut from British writer-director Francis Lee about a love affair between two male farmhands, drew wide acclaim at film festivals, it spawned comparisons with Brokeback Mountain. They're understandable but misleading, and not only because the time and place are different. God's Own Country is set in the West Yorkshire wilds where Lee grew up and still lives, and where sex is organic to the everyday flow of lives surrounded by animal activity.

In a scene of startling beauty in Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, a group of refugees huddles together, with light bouncing off golden insulation blankets handed out by workers to warm them up as they arrive off a boat in Europe. Ai's work is often meant to provoke, but the shot isn't meant to plunder suffering for art's sake. It's a moment of noticing, in a gorgeous-looking documentary that never spares us the ugly, unspeakable miseries of forced migration.

Una, an intelligently talky, properly claustrophobic chamber piece directed by Benedict Andrews and adapted by Scottish playwright David Harrower from his 2005 stage play Blackbird, revisits a middle-aged man's past sexual abuse of a precocious adolescent when the victim confronts him many years later. In form and subject, if not in tone, the film recalls David Mamet's 1994 Oleanna, a stridently partisan polemic adapted from Mamet's play about a college professor's alleged sexual assault of a female graduate student.

Victoria & Abdul is not the first movie to show the Queen of England cavorting with the help. And you don't have to be a cynic to read Stephen Frears' new film as a brazen attempt to piggyback on the runaway success of 1997's Mrs. Brown.

It's an oft-told tale, in Hollywood: A good man wracked by his envy of others he deems more successful than he at scoring the usual American-Dream jackpots of money, status, and fame. He eats himself alive over this at self-defeating length that's both funny and sad. At the climax other, mostly female, not-rich salts of the earth swoop in to persuade him that, OMG, it's a wonderful life just as it is.

Home Again, a shambles of a first feature written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, purports to tell the story of a woman reinventing her life in Los Angeles as she confronts middle age. On more levels than one, though, the film is about the enduring potency of Hollywood connections.

At my all-girls high school in London in the 1960s, colonial history was taught roughly as follows: "In 1947 India was granted independence from Great Britain. Civil strife continued between Hindus and Muslims in the new nations of India and Pakistan. And now, gehls, back to the Gardens of Tudor England."

For a short while, the French-made film Polina toes the line of traditional ballet narrative: a heroine's journey from exceptional promise through bundled hurdles, all the way to the triumph of the tutu. Then the movie takes a sharp left turn into a whole other fairy tale, a vibrantly watchable modern dance musical with bits of histrionic life thrown in and the chance to see Juliette Binoche strut some smooth moves of her own. The almighty tutu gets no more than a cameo as a soft bed for two young principal dancers whose hormones run wild.

The production notes for Patti Cake$ describe the movie's heroine as "plain and plus-sized." Plus-sized she may be, but neither Patti Dombrowski, an aspiring rapper in her 20s, nor Danielle Macdonald, the gifted non-rapper who plays her, is plain in any sense unless your definition of beauty begins and ends with Angelina Jolie.

Doffing a hasty prefatory cap to the crime stats and overflowing garbage of 1970s New York, Marc Webb's The Only Living Boy in New York soon withdraws to more glam pastures within. By which Webb and screenwriter Allan Loeb mean the amber-lit, opulent interiors where Manhattan's writers and artists gather to kvetch and preen. Not much writing or arting goes on here, but it is clear that these are creative types because they are extremely attractive and throw dinner parties where they gesture prettily with slender-stemmed wine glasses while drily quipping.

In 4 Days in France, a mesmerizing road movie by first-time director Jerome Reybaud, a young gay Parisian named Pierre (Pascal Cervo) packs his bags at dawn and leaves his sleeping lover, Paul (Arthur Igual). Departing the capital for a radically unstructured odyssey around a rural France enchantingly free of glam movie-Frenchiness, Pierre is guided by his Grindr app, with Paul in irritable pursuit behind him.

The British playwright Alan Bennett once remarked that people are more interesting when they are trying to be good than when they are being bad. That's certainly true of Menashe, a recently widowed Orthodox Jew struggling to raise his young son alone in a Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Though he can be a religious dogmatist when it comes to others, Menashe errs abundantly himself and complains routinely in Rodney Dangerfield mode, which sounds funnier in Yiddish.

In a canny revision of one of literature's top nasty women, William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth brings us a Gothic tale of a shackled young wife turned angry bird, wreaking havoc on all who cross her and plenty who don't. Set in rural Victorian England, the movie, which filters Shakespeare's toxic bride through a 19th-century novella by Nikolai Leskov, minces neither word nor image laying out the forces that conspire to warp young Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh).

Lara Stolman's Swim Team is long enough to break and warm your heart in equal measure — which is about what you'd expect from a documentary about teenagers with autism who are training to compete in the Special Olympics. To its enormous credit, Swim Team is a very specific film that doesn't engage with the often acrimonious and ill-informed debates about what causes autism. Nor does Stolman line up experts to enlighten us on the subject of a condition about which so little is known for certain.

Among the photographs featured in the voluminous archive of photographer Elsa Dorfman, there's a joyful selfie — taken in 1988 before either the word or the practice became a thing — of Dorfman and her frequent subject, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Arms linked and holding hands, the two friends stand side by side, grinning broadly in unself-conscious camaraderie. Ginsberg is less known for his chipper outlook than for his sonorous meditations on lost America, and that goes double for filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line).

While Clint Eastwood was busy playing a wounded Union soldier held at the pleasure of a bevy of Southern belles in Don Siegel's 1971 Civil War drama The Beguiled, the actor also found time to direct his first film, Play Misty for Me, in which he also starred as a disc jockey stalked by an unhinged female fan. Both films were visceral articulations of male paranoia about the sinister potential of repressed or oversexed women.

Every so often, brightly lit Hollywood comedies set in West Coast mansions will slip in five minutes of light-relief banter between a Latina housekeeper and her wealthy white liberal boss. Mild joshing ensues about the cluelessness or prejudice of the employer, perhaps with a good-natured roll of the maid's eyes thrown in. That done, everyone slips back into their assigned slots in the social pecking order. Point taken, but not really.