Ella Taylor

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.

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.

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