LiC Recommended DVDs

A list of LiC favorites (going back to 2009) currently available on DVD

Newest releases are at the top followed by an alphabetical list of older titles. All ratings are out of 5 stars. Netflix availability dates vary so the “Rent” links may be premature in the case of some of the most recent releases.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (****). Revolving around a gravely ill farmer whose impending death seems to allow him to see the people and things from his previous lives, Uncle Boonmee is a glacially paced, often surreal rumination on the continuum of life and death. While it didn’t approach the transcendent magic for me that Thai director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul achieved with Syndromes and a Century, it’s still something to see. That’s not to say that everyone will warm up to Weerasethakul’s willfully inscrutable work, in fact most probably won’t, but those with the patience will be rewarded by something unique.
(Opened: 3/4/11) Trailer / Review
Rent
Of Gods and Men (****). Based on the true 1996 story of a group of French monks kidnapped in Algeria, Of Gods and Men is, among other things, an examination of faith and duty. It excels because it doesn’t boil down to Christianity vs. Islam. It’s very slowly paced – lots of time is spent quietly watching the monks carrying about their daily business from their regular chants to administering to the sick from the nearby village to selling their wares in town – but at the same time there’s a slow motion suspense as danger begins to seep into the peaceful abbey from all sides. Winner of the Cannes Grand Prix in 2010 and nominated for the foreign language Oscar, Of Gods and Men is one of the better movies of 2011.
(Opened: 2/25/11) Trailer
Rent
13 Assassins (**** 1/2). Takashi Miike’s brutally violent and fantastically entertaining remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name tells the story of a group of samurai taking on an evil warlord with connections to the emperor in feudal Japan. It’s one of those “noble few against the evil many” action pictures along the lines of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samuari, but it also toys with the more corrosive effects of high minded samurai ideals like honor and duty. The best part is that Miike makes his point without denying the audience the action thrills a title like 13 Assassins promises. The climax is a violent, biblical ass-kicking complete with the fires of hell. Good stuff! Note that this version of the DVD is the US version of the film which has been trimmed by 15 minutes. If you’re a purist and have a region free DVD player, you might want to track down the full version of the film. I haven’t seen both, but I thought the US version was fantastic.
(Opened: 4/29/11) Trailer
Rent
Barney’s Version (****). This adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel is a bit of a sprawling mess and neither critics nor audiences were very kind to it, but it works. Veering between tones and genres as it charts 30-years in the life of smart, witty and romantic but deeply flawed Barney Panofsky (a terrific Paul Giamatti), Barney’s Version is a little bit like life itself: it’s funny, sad, doesn’t fit easily into a single narrative box and it isn’t always flawless, but it’s a life worth living and a movie worth watching. Barney is an acerbic, self-loathing fellow who is a saint to his friends and his father, but a bit of an asshole to women. After a couple of romantic false starts, he finally hits the jackpot with Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the perfect woman he meets on the day of his 2nd wedding. The story moves backward and forward in time from Barney’s heady days in Rome as a young man with his whole future ahead of him to his days as an older man picking up the pieces of the carnage of his life. Along the way it sketches a portrait of a complex and conflicted human being who is simultaneously lovable and loathable. Dustin Hoffman gives a nice performance as Barney’s father and the relationship between the two men is the surprising emotional center of the film.
(Opened: 1/14/11) Trailer
Rent
Cedar Rapids (****). The latest from Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt) is not a Hangover style laugh riot, and thank god for that. Relying more on winning characters and an unexpectedly sweet nature, its modest pleasures sneak up on you rather than punch you in the face. Refreshing! Ed Helms gives a funny, straight-faced performance as a naive man-child who makes his first trip to the big city to attend an insurance convention. There his straight arrow nature is challenged by slob John C. Reilly and party girl Anne Heche. Think of it as a coming-of-age story about a man who doesn’t come of age until well into his 30s. Ed Helms is great and it’s nice to see Anne Heche take full advantage of an excellent role again.
(Opened: 2/11/11) Trailer / Review
Rent
True Grit (**** 1/2). Joel and Ethan Coen have perfectly adapted Charles Portis’ original western novel True Grit while also making a movie with their own unique cadences and style. Young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as Mattie Ross, a little girl who has traveled to Fort Smith, Arkansas to tend to the affairs of her murdered father and to bring justice to his killer. Jeff Bridges entertainingly chews the scenery as Rooster Cogburn, a grizzled, drunken, trigger-happy Deputy US Marshall that Mattie hires to help her. Full of adventure and bubbling with humor, True Grit is still tinged with a dark, sorrowful edge. It’s a powerful and entertaining combination that proves the Coens can make a great movie while still coloring within the lines. It was also one of my very favorite movies of 2010.
(Opened: 12/22/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Another Year (****). Mike Leigh’s Another Year is simply that: a year in the lives of a group of people revolving around a seemingly happily married couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. This isn’t a movie filled with big dramatic moments, but like life itself it’s about the passage of time and the quiet ups and downs we all go through ever day. Playing in a melancholy key as it transitions from spring to winter, Another Year slowly builds to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Life is hard and often cruel but if you’re not alone, there is always hope. Once again Leigh mines terrific performances from his entire cast. Broadbent and Sheen are terrific, but the showiest role goes to the wonderful Lesley Manville as a kind of nervous, ditzy, boozy, past-her-prime but not ready to admit it co-worker of Sheen’s. Another Year is a lovely and moving treat.
(Opened: 12/29/10) Trailer
Rent
Blue Valentine (**** 1/2). Filmed in an intimate, documentary style, Derek Cianfrance’s quietly devastating account of a marriage derives remarkable power from a couple of honest, penetrating performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Cianfrance’s simple conceit of showing a marriage’s rise and the fall simultaneously subtly heightens the emotional impact of both and perfectly illustrates how the little things can tear us apart even before we realize something is wrong. This is a challenging film mixing joy with sadness, but it’s also invigorating in its unblinking focus on the good, the bad and the ugly sides of love.
(Opened: 12/29/10) Trailer
Rent
I Saw the Devil (****). A special agent tracks down the serial killer who murdered his beautiful young wife in Kim Jee-woon’s brutal and bloody serial killer/revenge thriller hybrid that delivers on the promise of genre entertainment while also adding a surprising thoughtfulness and philosophical depth. While I Saw the Devil does not necessarily chart new territory, it blazes a thrilling and memorable (if often gruesome) path across familiar terrain.
(Opened: 3/4/11) Trailer / Review
Rent
The Way Back (****). A great cast including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell liven up this surprisingly low-key treatment of a grueling overland escape from a Russian gulag during World War II. It’s the stuff of high drama but Peter Weir’s treatment of it is so laid back that many critics found it uninvolving. Ultimately I think Weir was right to dial it back into kind of an anti-epic as The Way Back quietly builds to a moving and emotionally satisfying conclusion. The story is based on the novel The Long Walk which the author claimed as a true memoir of his own experience, but these facts are now in dispute. It appears to be a story based on real events, but they may or may not have happened to the novel’s author.
(Opened: 1/21/11) Trailer
Rent
Rabbit Hole (**** 1/2). The story of two parents coping with the death of their 4-year-old son could potentially be crushing melodrama but John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole is handled with a truth and sensitivity that will be familiar to anyone who has suffered a great loss. On top of that, Mitchell wisely emphasizes a certain irreverence to the handling of grief, almost a gallows humor at times, that humanizes the characters and eases the pall of despair that would otherwise threaten to suffocate the entire film. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart are terrific as the flawed couple who are nevertheless relatable and sympathetic. Dianne Wiest as always is wonderful as Kidman’s mother. Full of small, real, human moments, Rabbit Hole is a drama that satisfies without exploiting the trauma at its core.
(Opened: 12/17/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Somewhere (****). One of the most misunderstood and underappreciated films to be released in 2010, this story of a professionally successful but personally floundering movie star holed up in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel sees Sofia Coppola tackling familiar themes of emptiness and existential ennui but in a bracingly stripped down, minimalist style. Somewhere’s glacial pace, lack of action and paper-thin plot (party boy confronts fatherhood when his daughter shows up for a visit) will be off-putting to many, but rewarding to those with the patience to engage. Stephen Dorff is quietly terrific as the actor Johnny Marco and Elle Fanning shines as the daughter who turns up and breathes new life into his routine. Beautiful cinematography by Harris Savides.
(Opened: 12/22/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Farewell (****). A quietly gripping true story of espionage starring two men as well known for directing as acting. Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies) plays a Russian KGB man who passes secrets about the Soviet espionage network to a French businessman working in Moscow played by Guillaume Canet (Tell No One). The story eschews Bourne-style thrills in favor of a bit of character study, but it builds to a simple but satisfyingly suspenseful conclusion. These two men who risked their lives and the lives of their families were instrumental in the eventual downfall of the Sovet Union though their story is not widely known. One unfortunate aspect of the film are a few scenes with Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan. It’s probably impossible to play Reagan without recalling all the comic impressions of the man in the ’80s, but it’s distracting. The story could just as easily have been told without him. Still, this is a minor quibble, and Farewell is worth seeking out.
(Opened: 7/23/10) Trailer
Rent
Marwencol (**** 1/2). Marwencol is a difficult documentary to adequately summarize in a small blurb. Its layers are numerous and subtle and the full picture of what it’s all about doesn’t become clear until the very end. To detail it all would be to rob it of some of it’s power yet to not say enough will leave you wondering why it’s something you might want to see. It tells the story of Mark Hogancamp who was the victim of a severe beating that put him into a coma and left him with serious brain damage. Unable to remember details of his past, he’s channeled all of his mental energy into his fully intact imagination which manifests itself in an elaborately detailed military-themed diorama (he names Marwencol) built from hobby model kits and populated by dolls, many of whom are made up to represent people in his real life. He poses the figures in situations driven by wish fulfillment and simple fantasy and he photographs them with a beat up camera. It’s an at times disturbingly unguarded glimpse into a human psyche, but it’s never exploitative. It’s also an odd mix of sad and hopeful. Naturally the “legitimate” art world eventually gets wind of his photographs, but his efforts transcend acceptance by the mainstream. Marwencol is not really another examination of the nature of art because, for Hogancamp, the line between art and reality has seemingly been obliterated. The two exist simultaneously and without distinction.
(Opened: 10/8/10) Trailer
Rent
Fair Game (**** 1/2). Doug Liman’s telling of the Valerie Plame story starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn has all the markings of another Green Zone type disaster: a movie rooted in some of the most important events in the recent history of the United States that cheapens them by reducing them to little more than fodder for a weak action thriller. However, if Green Zone is one of the worst movies to touch on events surrounding the Iraq war, Fair Game is one of the best. It works as both an entertaining political thriller/domestic drama hybrid and as an infuriating reminder of the lies and misinformation we were fed leading up to the war, how those responsible got away with it and the collateral damage we’re still suffering today. Watts is terrific as the CIA agent who was outed in an attempt to discredit her husband Joe Wilson, a man openly critical of the government’s justification for war in Iraq. Penn is as good as he’s been in a long time as Wilson and the two have a great chemistry together. Liman meanwhile rarely lets the politics bog down his compelling story (there are a couple of Penn moments that push things into speech making territory, especially near the end), but at the same time they’re given room to breathe and they’re never diluted by the demands of entertainment. Also, though the film is decidedly left-leaning in its sympathies and selective in the facts it presents, Liman is careful to remind us of the fear and uncertainty we all felt in the months and years following 9/11. He doesn’t excuse those who took advantage of that fear, but he’s not so quick to let us all off the hook either.
(Opened: 11/5/10) Trailer
Rent
Made in Dagenham (****). This undisguised crowd pleaser of a softball stars the terrific Sally Hawkins as a blue collar mother working in a UK Ford plant in 1968. As a woman, she’s tagged an unskilled worker and earns a fraction of the wages of her male counterparts for similarly skilled labor. Against the odds and against the wishes of her government, her union and her family, she becomes the driving force behind the equal pay for women movement. Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Jaime Winstone, Andrea Riseborough and Miranda Richardson co-star.
(Opened: 11/19/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Black Swan (****). Part drama, part thriller and part horror story wrapped in the kind of coming-of-age folk tale fantasy that inspired the ballet at its core, Darren Aronofsky’s sensuous and darkly beautiful psycho-sexual fairytale revolves around a dedicated but naive ballerina whose drive toward perfection threatens to break her. Natalie Portman (who won the Oscar for her troubled) reaches a new career high as Nina Sayers, the girl whose lifelong dream is realized when she wins the dual good/evil lead in a new production of Swan Lake, but can Nina nail the part without losing herself? Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder do excellent work in support.
(Opened: 12/3/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
No One Knows About Persian Cats (****). I love movies that show you real worlds you didn’t know existed. When I think of Iran, I don’t think of a vibrant underground music scene, but here it is. Western music has largely been against the law in Iran for the last 30 years, but the scene continues to thrive among the young who grab rehearsal and performance space where they can, always at the risk of prison or worse. This film from Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly) tells the loosely knit, documentary-like story of a young singer/songwriter and her musician boyfriend as they comb Tehran looking for a backing band while hoping to earn enough cash to buy visas which will allow them to perform in Europe. Bursting with music ranging in style from rap, to indie rock to heavy metal, No One Knows About Persian Cats is an entertaining and moving rallying cry for freedom of expression.
(Opened: 4/16/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Hereafter (****). Clint Eastwood’s 3-way tale of life and death and the supernatural starring Matt Damon as a psychic who can communicate with the recently deceased got pretty well clobbered in early reviews out of Toronto in September. Subsequent reviews were a little more positive, but this is shaped up to be one of the most misunderstood movies of 2010. It’s not perfect, but it’s always interesting and Eastwood’s steady style is perfect for material that could easily get too flighty in the wrong hands. I’d have liked a little stronger emotional kick, but then that just wouldn’t be Eastwood. Matt Damon is terrific.
(Opened: 10/15/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Carlos (****). In telling the story of the notorious terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, Olivier Assayas paints on a large canvas that covers more than 20 years. Carlos himself is always the focus, but you get a strong sense of the geopolitics of the 1970s and 1980s and how terrorists led by men like Carlos could thrive in the crevices between global powers. Wanted by everyone more for the fear he inspired (with the help of a fear-mongering Western media) than for any success he achieved operationally, he’s a much different kind of terrorist than the kind that have evolved since the end of the Cold War. Edgar Ramirez turns in a fantastic performance in the lead. (Currently only available for purchase on import DVD, but is streaming on Netflix)
(Opened: 10/15/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Waste Land (**** 1/2). This IDA Award-winning documentary follows artist Vik Muniz as he travels from Brooklyn back to his home in Brazil to photograph the garbage pickers of the Jarbim Gramacho landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world. These are a loosely connected, unofficial group of people from the surrounding favelas who sift through the tons of trash for recyclables they can then sell to make a living. Muniz, who was himself from a poor family, eventually gets to know his subjects and he decides to incorporate them into a much larger project where they recreate massive images of themselves from the refuse they collect. It’s a fascinating, uplifting story of people on the bottom rungs of society given a glimpse of a better life and being transformed in the process. Stories about the uplift of the downtrodden always risk a certain middle class egoism and they’re too often a salve for the guiltily comfortable, but Waste Land addresses hard questions about whether Muniz is really ennobling his subjects or if he’s merely teasing them with a life they can ultimately never really have. It’s the rare documentary that inspires without completely letting its audience off the hook.
(Opened: 10/29/10) Trailer
Rent
Inside Job (**** 1/2). At its best, Charles Ferguson’s illuminating and infuriating Inside Job puts an entire economic system on trial, a system that has been gamed by the powerful for maximum profit and minimum risk to themselves. While it’s satisfying to see some of the folks responsible for the current economic mess we find ourselves in raked over the coals, the real issue is how we let this happen and why we’re not doing anything to make sure it never happens again. Ferguson doesn’t offer much information that we don’t already know, but he does he puts it all together and connects all the dots in a compelling way that clearly makes the case against untrammeled free markets. It might not be the best documentary of 2010, but it’s the most important.
(Opened: 10/8/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Four Lions (****). Maybe the only rational response to religious wingnuts who would blow themselves up to get what they want is to laugh at them. With his slapsticky farce about a group of bumbling UK Muslim terrorists, Chris Morris does just that. It’s among the funniest movies of the year, but it also takes a sobering turn at the end that leaves you thinking. It’s true that any idiot can be a terrorist – it takes no special talent or skill, simply the will and the stupidity – but one man strapped with explosives in a crowded city can still do plenty of damage whether he’s a genius, a fool, right or wrong.
(Opened: 11/5/10) Trailer
Rent
127 Hours (****). Danny Boyle is in his wheelhouse with this kinetic, intense and ultimately uplifting true story about the human will to survive. James Franco is fantastic as real-life climber Aron Ralston who spent 127 hours in 2003 with his arm pinned under a boulder after a freak accident while hiking alone in the canyons of Utah. Unable to dislodge the boulder, running desperately low on food and water and with help unlikely, Ralston knew his only hope to survive was to cut off his own arm – a tough prospect under any circumstance, but even worse when you’re in the middle of nowhere and all you have is a cheap multi-tool. Viscerally, 127 Hours is as intense as a horror movie, its 90 minutes at times becoming nearly unbearable. Thematically it’s a little slight – we’ve heard stories of the indomitable human spirit pushed to the extreme dozens of times – but this also makes it refreshingly direct and uncluttered. Boyle confronts the horror of Ralston’s dire situation head on and he graphically pushes it right up to the line where you want to turn away, but this just makes the ultimate resolution all the more cathartic and satisfying. You may find you don’t want to endure 127 Hours twice, but you should definitely see it once.
(Opened: 11/5/10) Trailer
Rent
Fish Tank (**** 1/2). A gritty slice of social realism in the tradition of Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold’s coming of age tale features a powerful lead performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia, a young working class girl at a crossroads. Filled with anger, she’s a hard character to warm up to, but she eventually wins over your sympathies. Up and coming Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Hunger) provides solid support as the new boyfriend of Mia’s mother. He’s a kind of father figure and the only adult that seems to understand where Mia is coming from. The 2009 festival circuit spawned several movies about teen girls trying to make their way into adulthood against varying odds, but Fish Tank is the best of the bunch.
(Opened: 1/15/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Get Low (**** 1/2). Playing a hermit who wants to have his funeral while he’s still alive, Robert Duvall gives one of his most engaging performances in years and Bill Murray is his perfect compliment. Get Low is an entertaining mix of drama, comedy and mystery that threatens corniness from time to time but remains grounded by the cynical Murray. Sissy Spacek is also excellent in a supporting role.
(Opened: 7/30/10) Trailer / Review
Rent

An alphabetical list of LiC’s favorite DVDs currently going back to 2009

35 Shots of Rum (****). I caught Claire Denis’ lovely and restrained character study during a busy LA Film Festival and it’s really a movie that deserves to breathe on its own. The plot is feather light as it follows the days and nights of a single father and his grown daughter, but this is one of those terrific films that is more about tone and character than it is about action. It’s the kind of movie that sneaks up on you as you find yourself thinking about it days later. Highly recommended.
(Opened: 9/18/09) Trailer
Rent
Ajami (****). Co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, Ajami takes place in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa where Jews, Muslims and Christians live side by side. Touched off by a botched revenge killing, the story is one of those multi-threaded narratives with multiple characters (played here mostly by non-actors) weaving in and out of a series of non-chronological chapters. More than just a gimmick, the narrative structure leaves you feeling how the tremors of a single act of violence can ripple across cultures, classes and generations. My only small complaint is that the threads are all wrapped up a little too neatly. The rest of the film is so organic, immediate and real feeling that the clean finish is disappointingly artificial.
(Opened: 2/3/10) Trailer
Rent
The American (****). George Clooney is an assassin holed up in Italy after a job goes bad. He wants out, but a man like him can’t just retire and collect a pension. Coaxed into performing one last seemingly simple job, he realizes someone is out to get him and that danger lurks around every corner. The American goes down easier if you accept from the outset that it isn’t a typical action thriller. It’s a moody, stylish, European-flavored slow burn that quietly builds to an unexpectedly moving conclusion. My vote for one of the most underrated movies of 2010.
(Opened: 9/3/10) Trailer
Rent
Animal Kingdom (****). Every year it seems there are a couple of films from the festival circuit the fanboy set latches on to. Sometimes they get it wrong (Bronson) and sometimes they actually have a point, as is the case with this chilling crime-thriller from Australia. When young J’s mother dies, he goes to live in Melbourne with his grandmother and her three criminal sons. At first he feels like a big shot in the criminal life, but soon he’s in over his head. When the police begin cracking down on the family, tensions rise and J finds himself something of an outsider and therefore not to be trusted. Unlike most of the recent glut of indie/foreign crime films, Animal Kingdom doesn’t force you to identify with the criminal element so much as it drops you in the middle of it. J makes his share of bad decisions, but he’s largely an innocent who’d probably be a normal kid in an ordinary environment. The best part of the film is Jacki Weaver’s performance as J’s seemingly doting but ice cold grandmother. In this animal kingdom, she’s a lioness protecting her cubs and not to be messed with. Guy Pearce co-stars as a decent policeman who simultaneously wants to rescue J and also use him to bring the monstrous family down.
(Opened: 8/13/10) Trailer
Rent
Antichrist (****). I wish now that I knew less about Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist before seeing it. The crybabies at Cannes were quick to shout about every horrific detail of the film and I think ultimately this neutered it of some of the power it could’ve had. I’d love to go back and have the experience of letting this film sneak up on me. Anyway, as you’d expect, the shrillest commentary coming out of Cannes (it’s a “major career embarrassment” and it’s an “art-film fart“) was widely off the mark. It’s a disturbing and questionable film to be sure, but it’s also challenging, beautiful and never less than interesting. Seen in light of Von Trier’s claim that he made the film to draw himself out of a deep depression, it takes on a seriousness that contradicts the squirmy-giggly responses from many critics. Even the infamous “chaos reigns” moment of the film doesn’t seem all that silly in context…until it actually begins raining a few beats later. Maybe Von Trier is pulling our legs and maybe he isn’t. Either way, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are terrific as a husband and wife who retreat to a cabin in the woods to cope with their grief over the loss of their child. Dafoe is a therapist and he breaks the cardinal rule of treating family members with tragic consequences. Dense with symbolism and obsessed with conflicted ideas about man vs. woman and Man vs. Nature, it’s difficult to pinpoint where Von Trier stands in this. Many cry “misogyny,” but I think that’s overly simplistic. Antichrist is more a working through of issues than it is a clearly expressed conclusion. It goes places few artists working in the mainstream medium of film are willing to go. It’s not a pleasant journey and I’m not sure I want to take it again anytime soon, but it’s tempting. Recommended with strong reservations.
(Opened: 10/23/09) Trailer
Rent
The Art of the Steal (****). Don Argott’s documentary looks at the battle between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the estate of Dr. Albert C. Barnes over the peerless collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art Barnes collected in the first half of the 20th century. Like all good documentaries, The Art of the Steal is about much more than its central subject. It raises big questions about who owns culture, whether it should be public or private and whether or not it should be a for profit enterprise. It raises questions about an individual’s rights and how far his or her wishes can be carried after their death. It’s also about the power and politics of large philanthropic organizations that put a smiling civic face on some genuinely Shakespearean dealings.
(Opened: 2/26/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Bright Star (****). Jane Campion’s tale of doomed love between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne should appeal to anyone with a romantic bone in their bodies. It’s the kind of period drama that could easily devolve into stiff, boring Masterpiece Theater territory, but the combination of Campion’s impossibly delicate touch, the beautiful cinematography and a lovely, grounded performance from Abbie Cornish bring this one to beautiful life. A couple of years ago this might’ve had somebody like Keira Knightley in the role of Brawne and it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Ben Whishaw is great as the sensitive, struggling Keats, but Brawne is the more compelling character. Keats comes to life more in his words and fortunately they’re abundantly used here. The always reliable Paul Schneider is also terrific as Keats’ friend Charles Brown. He brings a note of realism that keeps the film from becoming too light and airy for its own good.
(Opened: 9/18/09) Trailer
Rent
Broken Embraces (****). Pedro Almodovar’s beautiful and delightfully noirish melodrama tells the story of a blinded screenwriter/director whose past comes back to haunt him when the death of an old nemesis makes the news. At issue is the mystery behind the accident that took his sight, an unfinished film, a revenge-bent son and a beautiful woman (Penelope Cruz). Everything ties together… somehow. Broken Embraces is a pleasure to watch and no one brings Cruz so vibrantly to the screen like Pedro Almodovar.
(Opened: 11/20/09) Trailer
Rent
Catfish (****). Catfish shaped up to be one of the more misunderstood documentaries of 2010. It follows a young New York photographer named Nev Schulman as he falls in love over the internet with an aspiring singer/dancer from Michigan named Megan. The deeper Nev gets into this online relationship, the more it seems like Megan is not telling him her full story. And so it is he decides to head out to Michigan for a surprise visit. To explain any more than that risks spoiling the story, but it’s otherwise impossible to talk about why Catfish is terrific. Be aware though that there has been much disagreement over whether the film is even real or not. Theories range from the whole thing being made up, to the more insidious idea that Schulman and the filmmakers (Henry Joost and Schulman’s brother Ariel) knew exactly what was waiting for them in Michigan and that their mission was a lot less innocent and much more manipulative. Even people who take the story at face value feel like Catfish exlpoited its subjects. I totally disagree and I think this is a must-see documentary for anyone who as ever connected with another human being online.
(Opened: 9/17/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Chloe (****). The latest from Atom Egoyan straddles a line between sensitive marital drama and sensational erotic thriller and it’s probably going to alienate large swaths of its potential audience in the process. That’s too bad because it actually works if you give it a chance. Julianne Moore gives one of her best performances as a wife who hires a prostitute to test her husband’s fidelity. Things go farther than she anticipated and she risks losing her whole family. Amanda Seyfried is also excellent as the prostitute Chloe. Liam Neeson stars as the husband.
(Opened: 3/26/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
The City of Your Final Destination (****). There was a time when a new Merchant/Ivory picture was an event, but this first film since the death of Ismail has quietly flown in under the radar. It’s just as well because Destination is a lovely, unassuming (some would say “slight” but I don’t like the negative connotation), character-and-mood-based film that is probably best enjoyed without the weight of hype and expectation. Based on Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel, it tells the story of a young American academic who travels to Uruguay with the hope of convincing the family of a recently deceased author to allow an authorized biography. Anthony Hopkins plays the author’s brother, Laura Linney the wife and Charlotte Gainsbourg the mistress. All have competing agendas and differing reasons for wanting to allow or block the book from being written. The three stars are good, but Linney in icily sarcastic mode is the standout.
(Opened: 4/16/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (****). You might remember Eliot Spitzer as the former New York Attorney General turned Governor who stepped down after it was revealed he had something of a hooker problem. Surely the name Ashley Dupre rings a bell since you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing her name for a month. Well, whatever you think you know isn’t the whole story. Alex Gibney’s documentary paints a complex portrait of a man who rose quickly by sticking it to the powers on Wall Street and fell even more dramatically when he was found to be breaking the same laws he was sworn to uphold. It’s not just a simple case of another flawed politician whose ego and libido drive him off a cliff, however. It turns out Spitzer made more than a few enemies during his time in government and those enemies had a lot to gain by seeing him brought down. Gibney never justifies Spitzer’s admitted behavior (nor indeed does Spitzer himself), but you have to wonder why a public person’s private behavior is allowed to matter.
(Opened: 11/5/10) Trailer
Rent
Cloud 9 (****). Few people under the age of 60 probably give much thought to the emotional and sex lives of people in their 70s and fewer still are going to be easily convinced to witness such a thing unfolding explicitly before them on the big screen. That’s too bad because they’ll be missing out on one of the more interesting movies to come along in a while. From Germany, Cloud 9 is a moving and at times tender portrayal of a married woman in her late 60s who embarks on a sudden and unexpected love affair with a man in his 70s. There aren’t any revelations here about the workings of the human heart, but it’s a bracing reminder that the heart doesn’t die when you hit 70. The movie faltered a bit for me when the woman ultimately lost my sympathy – not because of her infidelity but because of how she handled it – yet perhaps there’s a lesson in that too. Even with a wealth of life experience behind us, we’re never perfect.
(Opened: 8/14/09) Trailer
Rent
Coraline (****). Using stop-motion animation filmed in 3-D, Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) adapts Neil Gaiman’s best-selling children’s book about a bored young girl who discovers a doorway that leads to an alternate and seemingly better version of her life – complete with parents who actually seem to care about her. However, what seems tempting at first turns creepy and dangerous and Coraline finds herself in a fight to escape back to her normal boring world. Exceedingly clever, creative and fun to look at. Voice work by Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman and Ian McShane.
(Opened: 2/6/09) Trailer
Rent
Cyrus (****). Festival favorites Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) find a little studio backing (Fox Searchlight) for their latest film starring John C. Reilly as a socially inept divorcee facing the fact that his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is about to remarry. Seemingly against the odds, he meets the perfect woman in Marisa Tomei. The only problem is the uncomfortably close relationship she has with her 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill). A surprisingly warm-hearted romance that should hit home with anyone who has ever felt like they were dating out of their league.
(Opened: 6/18/10) Trailer
Rent
The Damned United (****). Going in, I didn’t have a great deal of interest in the ’60s-’70s UK football milieu of The Damned United, but in the end it’s really more of a character study about two partners and lifelong friends played by Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall. Sheen is Brian Clough, the controversial young manager who inherits the job coaching Leeds United when their legendary coach Don Revie (Colin Montgomery) moves on to guide the English national team. Spall is Peter Taylor, Clough’s right hand man and the real brains behind the operation. Of course the impetuous Clough clashes with the culture established by Revie and his ego doesn’t let him see how important Taylor is to him. It’s a recipe for disaster, but will he manage to find success? You can probably figure he will, but you’ll have to see it for yourself to find out. I recommend you do.
(Opened: 10/9/09) Trailer
Rent
District 9 (****). At a time when massive budgets are thrown at sequels, remakes, adaptations and rip-offs, District 9 is an invigorating and entertaining reminder of what a little imagination can do. What is sci-fi/fantasy after all without imagination or invention? When a disabled alien spacecraft the size of a small city appears over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa, hundreds of thousands of weakened and malnourished aliens are rounded up and segregated in an enormous walled off camp known as District 9. While the private company in charge of the internment works to try and make the alien weapons and ships work – they’re somehow DNA encoded so only the aliens can use them – years pass and District 9 becomes a violent slum. A bumbling bureaucrat (terrific newcomer Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of a mission to relocate the aliens farther from the city. When he stumbles upon an alien escape plan, he’s infected by some kind of mysterious alien liquid that begins turning his own DNA into alien DNA. As a possible bridge between alien and human and a gateway to understanding and using the alien technology, suddenly he is a very wanted man. Seemingly against the odds, District 9 was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
(Opened: 8/14/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Drag Me to Hell (****). After the misguided Spider-Man 3, it was nice to see Sam Raimi returning to his horror/comedy roots in 2009 and, with Drag Me To Hell, he did so with a vengeance. Alison Lohman plays a woman whose life is made a literal and spiritual living hell when she falls under a gypsy curse. The increasingly desperate moves she makes to get out of it are played to tension winding and comic effect. My only real complaint is that there was no cameo from Bruce Campbell. Originally I was bothered by a plot twist that you could see coming from a mile away, but upon reflection I don’t think it was meant to be a surprise and in the end it doesn’t really matter. Drag Me to Hell is a lot of fun.
(Opened: 5/29/09) Trailer
Rent
Earth Days (****). When filmmaker Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost) was in 7th grade, he made a Super-8 film about pollution for a class project coinciding with the very first Earth Day in 1970. Some 40 years later, he returns to the subject of the environment armed with considerably more filmmaking skill. The result is Earth Days, an engaging look at the people and events behind the rise of the environmental movement and a clear-eyed survey of that movement’s successes and failures. It offers a roadmap of environmentalism’s past and it puts up a few signposts pointing to possible futures. More than anything, it’s a reminder of the power of ordinary people to effect great change when they’re motivated and united. Through archival footage and extensive interviews with some of the movement’s key figures including Kennedy/Johnson Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, original Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, futurist and Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand, and California pro-environment Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, Earth Days avoids a polemic on the need for environmental activism and instead takes that need for granted.
(Opened: 8/14/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Everlasting Moments (****). Based on the true story of his wife’s great-aunt, famed Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell (The Emigrants) weaves a tale set in the early 1900s where the working-class wife of an abusive husband finds a way out of her miserable existence with a camera she won in a lottery. This charming, sepia-toned film eschews a typical Hollywood structure to follow its own natural rhythms. It took me a while to get in step with it, but I found I liked it even more a second time through and it wound up on my Top 10 of 2009. The whole cast is excellent, but Mikael Persbrandt gave one of the best performances of the year as the abusive husband, Sigge. He finds the man inside the monster and makes his behavior understandable even as it remains unforgivable.
(Opened: 3/6/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Exit Through the Gift Shop (****). Meet Thierry Guetta, a somewhat crazed Frenchman living in Los Angeles who sets out to document the street artist/prankster known as Banksy before ultimately tossing considerations of his wife and child aside so he can become an artist himself through his connections among the guerilla art scene. In the end, Guetta himself becomes the subject of the film and not Banksy at all. Or does he? Is Guetta a real person or is he a character invented by Banksy? Even without the potential layer of subversion, Exit rather brilliantly and entertainingly questions the nature of art, who gets to decide what art is, and the whole collision of art and commerce. If it is a real documentary, it’s among the best of 2010. If it’s a put on, then it’s just unclassifiably terrific.
(Opened: 4/16/10) Trailer
Rent
The Exploding Girl (****). Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road, Me & Orson Welles) finally gets a starring role as Ivy, a 20-year-old at home on spring break from college. As she gets the cold shoulder from her boyfriend back at school, Ivy draws closer to her high school best buddy Al and the ensuing emotional turmoil risks touching off her epilepsy. It sounds too precious and indie for its own good, but I like Kazan and I’m glad to see her at the center of a film.
(Opened: 3/12/10) Trailer
Rent
Fantastic Mr. Fox (**** 1/2). Boggis and Bunce and Bean. One fat, one short, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean. And so begins Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s adaption of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story about a fox bringing the farmers’ wrath down upon his friends and family all because a fox can’t help being a fox. It’s a clever, funny and surprisingly sweet little number that might play better to Anderson fans and the art house crowd than to the families and children it’s being marketed toward, but that’s what makes it a cut above the usual family movie slog. The lo-fi, Rankin-Bass style stop-motion animation takes a minute to warm up to compared to the sterile, too-perfect CGI you find everywhere else you look, but in the end it adds to the film’s abundant charm. It’s also a perfect outlet for the director’s typically detailed production design. As you’d expect from Anderson, Fox has a terrific soundtrack mixing Anderson’s flair for choosing pop tunes with Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score and even a song or two by ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker. Finally, bringing the whole thing to life, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wallace Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe lend their abundant voice talents.
(Opened: 11/13/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Five Minutes of Heaven (****). Based on the true stories of two men caught up on opposite sides of the Irish “troubles” in the 1970s, this film from Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) imagines what would happen today if the two enemies were to confront each other on a televised interview program long after peace in Ireland has been secured. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little who, as a 17-year-old member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, murdered Catholic Jim Griffin. James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday, Match Point) plays Joe Griffin who was 11 years old when he witnessed his brother Jim’s murder. From that night onward, the two men’s lives followed completely different trajectories. Alistair ultimately served 12 years in prison for his crime, repented, paid his debt to society and emerged to forge a successful life for himself. Joe meanwhile never quite recovered. His family was destroyed by the loss and he remained haunted by the guilt he was unable to prevent the murder of his brother. Great performances from Neeson and Nesbitt. Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) co-stars.
(Opened: 8/21/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Flame & Citron (**** 1/2). Denmark’s World War II thriller about the anti-Nazi resistance in Copenhagen was an LiC Top 10 favorite of 2009. Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelson both deliver terrific performances as two real life freedom fighters codenamed Flame and Citron. The deeper they get into the gray area between the good guys and the bad guys, the harder it is to tell which is which. Suspenseful and at times dryly funny, this moodily photographed little number is highly recommended. The Flame & Citron Blu-ray has been available overseas for some time, but now it’s available in the US in a standard version.
(Opened: 7/31/09) Trailer
Rent
Food, Inc. (****). They say you are what you eat, but do we really know what it is we are eating? You might be surprised by this disturbing look at the way food is grown and delivered to market in the United States. Nominated for an Academy Award, Food, Inc. might not offer a ton of new information, but it does an excellent job of putting it all together and connecting the dots. Basically the whole system is set up for maximum efficiency and profit with no regard for health or nutrition. From how the animals are treated to the unhealthy ways they’re processed, it’s almost enough to make you want to become a vegetarian and to eat only food that comes out of your own garden. Unlike the usual feel-bad documentary though, Food, Inc. at least leaves you feeling like you can do something about it.
(Opened: 6/12/09) Trailer
Rent
The Ghost Writer (****). Roman Polanski adapts Robert Harris’s thriller about a writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to finish the memoir of a former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) when the project’s original ghost writer turns up dead. Accusations that the PM was involved in war crimes lead McGregor to suspect his predecessor may have uncovered something that led to his murder. With sharp dialogue, well-timed humor and a great cast, The Ghost Writer strikes every note and hits every beat for a nearly flawless entertainment. If the underlying mystery isn’t quite as satisfying as its suspenseful unraveling, Ghost nevertheless delivers what it promises. Also with Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton and Eli Wallach.
(Opened: 2/19/10) Trailer
Rent
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (****). Based on Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel, this Swedish mystery thriller juggles the old-fashioned and the modern to deliver a uniquely satisfying entertainment. A journalist gets involved in a 40-year-old missing girl case when one of the members of a wealthy, secretive family hires him to figure out which among them is responsible for her murder. Coming to the journalist’s aid is the girl with the dragon tattoo, a dark, withdrawn young computer hacker with a series of secrets all her own. The closer the unlikely pair comes to solving the mystery, the wider the conspiracy grows and the greater danger they find themselves in.
(Opened: 3/19/10) Trailer
Rent
The Girlfriend Experience (**** 1/2). Steven Soderbergh presents five days in the life of a $2000-an-hour call girl during the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election. Photographed by Soderbergh himself (once again credited as Peter Andrews), Girlfriend is one of the most beautiful looking films of 2009 and another one of my Top 10. Unfolding in a fractured, back and forth narrative, the micro-budgeted film sketches a portrait of loneliness in the 21st Century. Though our guide is one woman, the film is really about the modern world where anything can be bought and sold, even ‘The Girlfriend Experience.’ One of Soderbergh’s most resonant films since The Limey.
(Opened: 5/22/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (****). The first genuinely fun action movie of the year. Korean director Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) puts his eastern spin on Sergio Leone by way of Quentin Tarantino. Yes, on paper it sounds like just another knock-off, but it’s buoyed by a charismatic cast (including LiC favorite Song Kang-ho from Thirst, The Host, Secret Sunshine, Lady Vengeance etc.) and a gleeful lack of self-consciousness and pretension. The plot? Three men and one map lead to one fun action scene after another. Punctuated by bursts of humor, GBW is a trifle, but an entertaining one.
(Opened: 4/23/10) Trailer
Rent
Goodbye Solo (****). In his third film, indie favorite Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) leaves New York and returns to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. There he spins a simple tale of an energetic Senegalese taxi driver named Solo who takes an interest in William, an ornery old man who turns up in his taxi one day. In two weeks’ time, William wants to take a one-way trip and Solo fears what the depressed and withdrawn old man will do when he gets there. It’s a wisp of a story (Bahrani as usual is more interested in observing his characters carry on about their daily business than he is in an overarching plot) and it’s carried along almost completely by the engaging performance of first time Senegalese actor Soul?ymane Sy Savan? as Solo. He easily transcends the stereotype of the big-hearted foreigner and his otherness serves to shine a light on things we take for granted about America. Character actor Red West (Road House) also does terrific work as William.
(Opened: 3/27/09) Trailer
Rent
Greenberg (****). Ben Stiller is a 40-something misanthrope at a crossroads who returns home to Los Angeles to house sit for his brother and to reconnect with his old friends. At a loss for what to do with himself and sinking fast, he’s offered a lifeline in the form of sweet and na?ve Florence (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg is a leap forward for Noah Baumbach, a career high for Stiller and proof that Gerwig is ready for the big time.
(Opened: 3/19/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
How to Train Your Dragon (**** 1/2). Based on Cressida Cowell’s popular children’s book about an outcast Viking teenager who is sent to dragon fighting school to prove his manhood only to befriend a dragon instead, How to Train Your Dragon is a funny, moving and gently uplifting family film. It’s a kids’ movie that is actually made for kids without pandering to them or tossing around a lot of smirky pop cultural references to keep parents entertained. One of the most purely enjoyable films of 2010.
(Opened: 3/26/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Hunger (****). English artist Steve McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, is an uncompromising, grim and intense piece of work that probes the 66 day hunger strike led by Bobby Sands to restore the political status of members of the IRA being held at The Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. Largely eschewing the highly charged politics behind the story, McQueen dances obliquely around his subject, first following a prison officer and then a freshly admitted prisoner before finally zeroing in on the story of Sands himself half way into the film. With long passages devoid of dialogue and musical cues used only sparingly, the result is a Bressonian sketch, both unsettlingly detailed and hypnotizingly abstract, showing the consequences of the conflict on both sides. Rising star Michael Fassbender gives a fully committed performance as Sands. The best scene is a long, single-shot conversation between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham as a priest. It doesn’t sound like fireworks, but it really is.
(Opened: 3/26/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
The Hurt Locker (****). 6-time Oscar winner including Best Picture and Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker tells the story of an elite bomb disposal squad working to keep the streets of Baghdad safe for Iraqis and Americans alike. It’s not strictly apolitical – I think it’s an anti-war picture in that it shows the excoriating effects of war on the men and women we ask to fight for us – but it’s not literally an anti-Iraq war picture either. It’s bigger than that and frankly better than any of a number of Iraq-themed films that have come out in the last few years. This isn’t a stuffy, feel-bad message movie. It’s a movie with the intensity of an action film and the hint of arthouse credibility gained from having played the festival circuit. It’s gripping and exhaustingly suspenseful at times. It has enough bravado and thrills to satisfy any action junkie, but it also has interesting characters and the confidence to slow down and pause and drink in the horror of what’s happening to them. Besides terrific performances from Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, there are also a couple of great cameos from Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce.
(Opened: 6/26/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
I’m Still Here (**** 1/2). I’m Still Here purports to tell the story of a year in the life of Joaquin Phoenix on a downward spiral as he leaves acting behind to pursue a career as a rap artist. We know now of course that the whole thing was a big put on, but that’s exactly what makes it brilliant. Not only does it work superbly as a straightforward mockumentary comedy – it’s easily among the funnier movies of the last couple of years – it has more than a little to say about the celebrity-obsessed culture that dominates the media. It’s a little like Borat with bite – instead of making sport of unwilling victims in the film, it shines an uncomfortable spotlight on those of us in the audience who build celebrities up until they’re superhuman and then get off on tearing them back down. At the film’s core is a fantastic performance by Phoenix as a bloated, unhinged, pathetic version of his celebrity self. It’s a fearless turn, especially when you consider he spent a year as a tabloid mockery before most people were let in on the joke. Many journalists were burned by the gag and they never seemed to be able to forgive Phoenix, his director Casey Affleck or the film itself. Still others insist they were smart enough to see through the ruse all along, but both sides completely miss the point. The film isn’t really about Phoenix or the stunt. It’s about our reactions to it and the culture it exposes.
(Opened: 9/10/10) Trailer
Rent
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (****). To say this is the best film Terry Gilliam has done in a decade won’t mean much to anyone who was burned by The Brothers Grimm and/or Tideland, but there it is. This is Gilliam at his most imaginatively exuberant. The story kind of stumbles and threatens to fall apart at every turn, but it just manages to hold together as a satisfying whole if you stick with it. Along the way it’s a celebration of imagination and the power of storytelling bursting with the kind of visual inventiveness Gilliam has made a career out of since his days with Monty Python. Christopher Plummer plays the head of a traveling band of ragged performers. He may hold the power of fantasy and dreams, he may be a charlatan or he might be both. Either way, he’s got an ongoing bet with The Devil (Tom Waits) and the soul of his beautiful daughter (Lily Cole) is at stake. Heath Ledger (in his last role), Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law are… well it’s difficult to describe. You’ll have to see it for yourself and if you’re a fan of Gilliam or the cast, I recommend you do.
(Opened: 12/25/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
In the Loop (****). Based on The Thick of It, the BBC TV comedy about the inner workings of British government, In The Loop revolves around a low level British cabinet minister who plunges both sides of the Atlantic into Hawk vs. Dove controversy when he makes a public statement about a war (thinly disguised as the Iraq war) his office has no business commenting on. It’s the kind of dialogue-based comedy where you miss jokes because you’re still laughing at the one that came before it. The talented ensemble cast includes Tom Hollander, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini, David Rasche and Steve Coogan, but the real standout is Peter Capaldi (Local Hero) as a foul-mouthed communications director. Looking as though he’s just swallowed a cup of piss, Capaldi’s astringently hilarious, verbally aggressive rage is leveled at one character after another in a constant stream of exfoliating sewage that issues from his mouth indiscriminately.
(Opened: 7/24/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Inception (****). The rare adult summer blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is an intricate psychic roller coaster ride that aims for big, bright ideas and tries hard to be different from anything you’ve seen before – so much so that I’m happy to forgive the fact it takes itself way too seriously, isn’t quite as smart as it thinks it is and relies way too much on long stretches of talky exposition just to keep audiences in line with what’s happening in front of them. Nitpicks aside, another strong performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, a series of grin-inducing visual set pieces and a simple emotional core make Inception absolutely worth seeing at least once. The story? Well, imagine you could enter someone’s dreams to steal their thoughts for personal gain and take it from there…
(Opened: 7/16/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Inglourious Basterds (**** 1/2). Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, Inglourious Basterds is a rambunctious, revenge-fueled, “what if” rewrite of history that could only have been made by a cinematic savant like Quentin Tarantino. He’s a man who views the world through a camera lens and he’s winning World War II with the power of sound and images. It’s a story drunk on the art of movies and infused with the vibrant spirit of exploitation cinema. In a clever bit of irony, the ultimate weapon turns out to be the very stuff of which movies used to be made. Take that, Herr Goebbels! Brad Pitt stars as the leader of a group of American soldiers working behind enemy lines to murder Nazis and instill fear in the enemy. Melanie Laurent is a young woman bent on avenging the murder of her family. Christoph Waltz steals the show as Col. Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter.” Michael Fassbender and Diane Kruger also make the most of smaller roles.
(Opened: 8/21/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
It Might Get Loud (****). Davis Guggenheim’s guitar appreciation lesson starring Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of The White Stripes isn’t especially deep, but it’s sure to appeal to fans of rock and roll young and old. The three musicians express themselves best when they’re speaking through their guitars and so it goes with It Might Get Loud. The interview sequences are a little bit flat, but when the boys get together to talk shop and jam, the thing comes to electric life. What’s interesting is that the men represent not only three different generations of music, but also three different approaches to the electric guitar. In terms of sheer talent and influence, Jack White seems to be the odd man out, but he brings his own unique style to the instrument and he’s earned his place next to the other two. The names on the marquee are big, but the real star here is the electric guitar itself. Capable of blunt force, fine subtlety and just about every sound in between, there are as many electric guitar personalities as there are players. The three represented in this documentary seem to contain the musical universe between them and it’s a pleasure to watch them do their thing.
(Opened: 8/14/09) Trailer
Rent
Jack Goes Boating (****). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan star in this simple but moving look at romance through the eyes of a couple of ordinary people looking to each other for love and of a married couple on a downward slide for whom romance has long disappeared. Hoffman and Ryan are both a bit emotionally immature, shy, and insecure, but they’re also refreshingly honest and you can’t help but root for them to get over the hurdles of courtship. At the same time, the married couple is flawed yet you get a real feeling for what makes them tick and it’s sad to see them headed in the other direction. Jack Goes Boating is a little programmatic, it risks patronizing it’s regular characters at times – I think it mostly avoids this, but it steps awfully close to the line – and it relies on a narrative/emotional crescendo before the final act that I’d hoped it would avoid, but ultimately it handled it well and justified playing into your natural expectations. If nothing else, the performances were terrific. All in all, I found Jack sweet, sad and altogether refreshing all at the same time.
(Opened: 9/17/10) Trailer
Rent
Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work (****). Forget about what you know or think you know about Joan Rivers. This documentary tracing Rivers’ 76th year is more than what you might think. Yes, it’s about the comedienne’s struggle after 50 odd years in show business to stay relevant, but it touches on broader themes. For one: what drives performers and what do they do if no one wants to see them anymore? A Piece of Work is often excoriatingly funny, but it’s also illuminates the difficulties and personal cost of achieving and maintaining success in the industry. Regardless of how you feel about Rivers as an entertainer, it’s impossible not to admire her drive while also being a little horrified by her desperation.
(Opened: 6/11/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Julia (****). Few people saw Julia in 2009 (it was supposedly jeered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival), but those who did were unrestrained in their praise of Tilda Swinton’s performance as a downwardly spiraling alcoholic who sees a way out of the hole she’s in when her unbalanced neighbor offers a large sum of money for help kidnapping her son from her grandfather-in-law. Swinton is raw, twitchy, and completely free of vanity. Her character is basically a horrible person yet you almost can’t help rooting for her as the situation inevitably turns sour. I was expecting a dirge-like character drama about an alcoholic, but the character’s unreliability mostly provides a foundation for an entertainingly noirish crime thriller. It’s also blackly funny. The underused Saul Rubinek (Unforgiven) is also great as a guy trying to get Julia into a 12-step program.
(Opened: 5/8/09) Trailer
Rent
The Kids Are All Right (**** 1/2). A teenager (Josh Hutcherson) and his sister (Mia Wasikowska) set out to find the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) to their two lesbian parents (Julianne Moore, Annette Bening). Though the family at the center of its story is non-traditional, the emotions, drama and abundant humor Lisa Cholodenko’s film evokes are universal and refreshingly genuine. Wrapped around the idea that it takes more than genetic material to make a family, the natural and easy story never feels like it’s straining to hit the next narrative beat. Instead it just motors along in the wake of some terrific acting all around, especially on the part of Bening who delivers her second great performance of the year following the underseen Mother and Child. The marketing for The Kids Are All Right unfortunately makes it look like another tepid Sundance softball, but it’s much sharper. There’s a precious artificiality to the characters’ L.A. lifestyle, but you quickly forget that and the whole thing just works. One of the most likably entertaining movies of 2010.
(Opened: 7/9/10) Trailer
Rent
Kisses (****). Buoyed by a pair of strong performance from the two child leads, this unassuming, low key Irish charmer about a couple of runaways spending a day and night in the big city is the perfect antidote to the usual overheated yet undercooked summer nonsense. It perfectly captures that fuzzy area between magic and menace that seems to be the unique perspective of the young. In a word: lovely.
(Opened: 7/16/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Land of the Lost (****). The Hangover was the most popular comedy of 2009, but Land of the Lost was the funniest. There. I said it. Unlike the other film (review) which continually pulls its punches and never gets as crazy or offensive as it could have, should have or would like you to believe it does, Land of the Lost delivers exactly what it promises in the trailer: a 90-minute excuse for Will Ferrell to be a giant dumbass. Non-fans of the comedian will find the experience unbearable, but the rest of us are treated to his most sustained and satisfying comic performance since Anchorman. Forget about comparisons to the original Sid and Marty Krofft kids’ show. This is merely a springboard for a lot of foolishness on the part of Ferrell and co-star Danny McBride. It’s also a great deal of silly fun. A major box office bomb in the summer of 2009, it’s an easy target for mockery, but it deserves better. Call it a Rhapsody on a Theme of Stupidity that delivers more laughs in its first 5 minutes than Hangover can muster in its entire running time.
(Opened: 6/5/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
The Limits of Control (****). Those who like their movies with a strong dose of plot are sure to be irritated by the latest film from Jim Jarmusch. Carefully structured but willfully lacking anything beyond the slimmest of narratives, The Limits of Control is more concerned with setting a mood and ruminating on ideas than it is in traveling from story point to story point. Though its episodic tale of a hitman carrying out a job in Spain is elusive, elliptical and dangerously arty, it offers just enough of a thread to carry those in tune with Jarmusch’s patented laconic groove through to the end. This is pure Jarmusch – a kind of cross between Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with a hint of John Boorman’s Point Blank mixed in. Isaach de Bankol? (Ghost Dog) stars with appearances by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Hiam Abass, Paz de la Huerta and Bill Murray. Beautiful cinematography from Christopher Doyle
(Opened: 5/1/09) Trailer / Review
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Looking for Eric (****). “Crowd pleaser” isn’t a tag you’d expect to be applied to a film by Ken Loach, a director best known for his grim social realism, but here we are with the comedy drama Looking for Eric. Eric Bishop is a past-his-prime postal worker whose life seems headed for a frazzled, weary end before it’s turned upside down by a series of events outside of his control. Forced to confront his past yet uncertain about his future, Eric’s only hope for getting out of the mess his life has become is the help of his mates and the advice provided by pot-fueled hallucinations of his idol, real-life Manchester United football hero Eric Cantona. In just about anyone else’s hands, the ragged story would devolve into silly feel-goodery, but Looking for Eric is firmly grounded by Loach’s empathy for and understanding of ordinary working class people. Yes, it’s a lightweight goof, but it’s a heartfelt, charming and wholly entertaining one.
(Opened: 5/14/10) Trailer
Rent
Lorna’s Silence (****). The latest from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne follows their template of squeezing suspense from ordinary human drama along the lower rungs of society, but this one has almost a noirish punch to it as an Albanian woman living in Beligium gets involved in a multi-threaded citizenship scam that threatens to implode. With their trademark long takes, still camera and lack of musical score (until the last scene), the Dardenne’s require patience from their audience, but the rewards are worth it. Though it wasn’t as rapturously received by Cannes critics as Rosetta or L’Enfant, Lorna’s Silence manages to be a bit more audience friendly than those other films and it’s a great place to start if you’ve never seen a Dardenne film or if you’ve found their other work difficult to warm up to. It’s arty, but it’s also a lot more entertaining than you’d expect
(Opened: 7/31/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Mademoiselle Chambon (****). A leisurely paced French infidelity drama about a blue-collar father who becomes attracted to his son’s grade school teacher. Offering more of a slow burn than dramatic fireworks, Mademoiselle Chambon is notable for a strong performance from Vincent Lindon (La Moustache) who looks a little like a softer, kinder, Gallic Mel Gibson. That’s probably not a comparison any actor would want to have these days, but there it is.
(Opened: 5/28/10) Trailer
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The Maid (****). This surprising little number won the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic at Sundance earlier this year and also netted the Special Jury Prize Acting for star Catalina Saavedra. It was also recently nominated for a couple of Gotham awards. I call it surprising because it deftly managed to defeat all my expectations. At first I thought it was going to be another glum, class-obsessed film about a depressed character bottoming out in a cruel world (Oh, arthouse joy!), but I stuck with it and it revealed itself to be something much more. Catalina Saavedra is Raquel, the maid of 23 years for a comfortably middle class Chilean family. She’s a part of the family to a point – she’s treated as such and she herself is possessive of the children – but at the end of the day, someone has to do the dishes and it’s her. Showing signs of wearing down at 41, the emotionally reserved and passive-aggressive Raquel melts down when the family hires a new girl to help her out. Actively sabotaging the friendly and eager young assistant, Raquel at this point is actually pretty hard to like. Her stunts are played to blackly comic effect, but she leaves a bad taste in your mouth and the film threatens to become unbearable. Gradually though, we come to understand her extreme behavior and as the layers of her personality are revealed…well, this is a subtle film and its pleasures are best discovered fresh so I won’t say anything more. Suffice it to say, things didn’t turn out at all like I expected and this is for the better. Dryly and darkly funny, more than a little bit sad and ultimately completely satisfying, The Maid gets an official LiC recommendation.
(Opened: 10/16/09) Trailer
Rent
Me and Orson Welles (****). Trained on the stage but unknown to cinema audiences, Christian McKay almost single-handedly wills Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles to life. It’s 1937, the Depression is still in full swing and Welles is trying to mount his Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Our guide played by Zac Efron is an eager high school performer who lucks into a bit part in the play. Can he ride Hurricane Welles to fame and fortune or will his brush with success also be his doom? McKay more than plays Welles, he embodies him – the ego, the temper, the charm and the theatricality. Great supporting work from Eddie Marsan as John Houseman, Claire Danes as the ambitious and cynical object of Efron’s desire, James Tupper as Joseph Cotton, Ben Chaplin as a pompous English actor who takes issue with the brash Welles’ American sensibilities and Zoe Kazan as a fellow dreamer who helps provide a bookend to the story.
(Opened: 11/25/09) Trailer
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Medicine for Melancholy (****). It’s not a perfect film, but it cost about a dollar and it looks more like it cost a few million. Micah (Wyatt Cenac, TV’s The Daily Show) and Joanne (Tracy N. Heggins) wake up in bed together one morning after a party. It’s quickly apparent they’re complete strangers who only have the fact they’re African American in common. In a city (San Francisco) where only 7% of the people look like you, is that enough? As the one night stand turns into a whole day together and another night, Micah and Joanne explore this question with interesting results. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins seems a little too eager to make a point at times, but the natural performances by Cenac and Heggins and the surprisingly beautiful desaturated cinematography (with only occasional patches of pink or yellow) make this a winning character study that takes an interesting look at the meaning of race in the big city.
(Opened: 1/30/09) Trailer / Review
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Mother (**** 1/2). Bong Joon-ho leaves behind the monster thrills he served up with The Host and returns to simple murder (a la Memories of Murder). Of course nothing with Bong is ever really simple. In fact, as with The Host, he’s more fascinated by twisted family dynamics than he is the routine workings of genre. Famed Korean actress Kim Hye-Ja plays against type as an unhinged mother who will go to any length to prove her only son, a mentally challenged 27-year-old, is innocent of the murder a lazy police force seems all too eager to pin on him. Kim gives a searing performance that walks an uneasy line between sad, humorous and a little bit scary.
(Opened: 3/12/10) Trailer / Review
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No Impact Man (**** 1/2). No Impact Man was my favorite documentary of 2009, but it had no impact with critics or at the box office, man. In order to research a new book, Colin Beavan sets out to live a life with zero environmental impact for one year and he drags his upper-middle class Manhattan wife and child along with him. Bit by bit Beavan strips away the material things we take for granted until eventually the family is only eating food grown locally and they’re not even using electricity. It’s a crazy plan but Colin’s wife Michelle keeps the story grounded. She’s a reluctant environmentalist and in this way she acts as the audience surrogate. Through her eyes we can see how hard it is to significantly change a lifestyle, but also how rewarding it can be. What raises No Impact Man above the usual message movie is that it’s also something of a family drama. Colin’s quest puts the family under enormous stress and it’s questionable whether he’ll succeed in his ultimate mission, but at the same time it’s an adventure that draws them closer together. No Impact Man works as entertainment, but it also makes you ask yourself how far you’d be willing to go to save the planet.
(Opened: 9/11/09) Trailer
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The Oath (****). Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) examines the US “war on terror” through the eyes of two brothers-in-law: Osama Bin Laden’s former bodyguard Abu Jandal and his driver Salim Hamdan. Both men were arrested in the days and weeks after 9/11. Jandal was questioned by the FBI using ordinary interrogation techniques and he revealed a bounty of inside information about Bin Laden. Hamdan meanwhile was whisked off to Guantanamo where he was kept for 7 years even though it turned out he knew nothing. Less overtly concerned about the legality and morality of the US reaction to 9/11 than it is the efficacy, The Oath is far from being an anti-US scold. While illustrating how our actions may merely inflame those who would do us harm, the film also peels back the curtain on our enemies and offers a disturbing look at their mindset.
(Opened: 5/7/10) Trailer
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Paranormal Activity (**** 1/2). This low budget faux documentary about a couple spending the night in a haunted house earned a lot of great buzz on the festival circuit where it drew comparisons to The Blair Witch Project before becoming the horror sensation of 2009. Using a slowly building less-is-more approach to scares, it’s the first horror movie in a long time to actually deliver. Those who like their shocks with plenty of action and gore should look elesewhere, but fans of the subtle and intense should look no further.
(Opened: 9/25/09) Trailer
Rent
Police, Adjective (****). One of those foreign films where not a lot happens and it will frustrate those who like strong doses of plot and action to accompany their social commentary. The whole point here is that the dedicated and conscientious (if not very bright) Romanian cop at the center of the story is trying to keep much of anything from happening. Charged by his superiors to bust a young kid for possession of hashish in the hope he’ll lead them to his supplier, Cristi knows the kid is unlikely to talk and that a bust will just ruin his life. Instead he stalls in the hope he can tease out the kid’s supplier on his own. Eventually he’ll bump up against the literal letter of the law and the responsibility he knows he has to uphold it. The latest from Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), is a slow but fascinating and dryly humorous look at life in the remnants of a totalitarian society where the attitudes and bureaucracies of the old system haven’t completely lost hold.
(Opened: 12/25/09) Trailer
Rent
Ponyo (****). Hayao Miyazaki’s riff on the Little Mermaid myth is a beautiful, gentle and lovely film that manages to be childlike without being childish. It doesn’t pander to its young audience with a lot of burp and fart jokes or winky pop cultural references. It’s an almost transcendent work of pure imagination marred only by some poor voice acting choices and a tacked on Disney song at the end that made me want to soak in gasoline and set myself on fire. It went on to $15 million at the US box office which is actually pretty good for a Miyazaki film but it has been completely snubbed by the major awards bodies.
(Opened: 8/14/09) Trailer
Rent
A Prophet (****). It took me two viewings and some time thinking about it afterward to warm up to this foreign language Oscar nominee from Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) about a young French Arab’s rise to power as a criminal kingpin during his 6 years in prison. Taken episodically, Malik’s experiences provide a harrowing account of life in France’s prison system. One sequence involving the lead up and resolution to a murder he’s strong-armed into committing by a Corsican bigwig has the white-knuckle intensity of any good suspense film and the scar it leaves makes the monstrosity of some of his later actions (almost forgivable). Taken on another level, Malik’s journey leaves one wondering what good the prison system does besides make better criminals. This is grim territory, and Malik is not an easy character to warm up to, but when you take Tahar Rahim’s performance – uneducated but intelligent, his eyes always darting and searching – and the fact that the men around him are even worse than he is, you might find yourself rooting for him against your better judgment. A Prophet was the best of the 2010 nominees for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but it lost to The Secret in Their Eyes.
(Opened: 2/26/10) Trailer
Rent
Red Cliff (****). John Woo returns to China where he reunites with Hard Boiled star Tony Leung for this, the most expensive Asian financed movie ever made. The result is an altogether entertaining historical epic with a fiery 25-minute final battle that is worth the price of admission all by itself. The sheer scale of the film (set in the 3rd century AD and based on historical conflicts between North and South) is such that it tends to temper some of Woo’s more operatic flourishes – the kind that never quite found their place in his Hollywood films. You can decide for yourself whether that’s good or not. I think it is. Computer effects are judiciously used to ramp up the film’s scope, but they’re never a distraction. Red Cliff is a bit corny and simplistic at times with too much Sun Tzu type philosophizing, but it delivers the kind of epic period action goods that Ridley Scott only wishes he were capable of. You can keep Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, I’ll take Red Cliff. Also, yes there are doves. Takeshi Kaneshiro (Chungking Express, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) co-stars. (Available in 2-part international version and edited 1-part domestic version)
(Opened: 11/20/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Red Riding Trilogy: 1974 (****). Originally produced for UK television, The Red Riding Trilogy is based on three of four novels written by David Pearce that use the real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders of the mid-70s to early 80s as a backdrop for an unremittingly bleak plunge into the depths of the human soul, or lack thereof. Building one after another as the case moves from 1974 to 1983, the story weaves characters in and out while the bodies pile up and hope recedes. It’s grim business and time and again it upends the comforting notion of a lone good guy riding into town to clean up the mess armed only with his determination and a clear sense of righteousness. The killings themselves are mostly just to stir the pot of corruption and despair that define the time and place. I watched all three films 1974, 1980 and 1983 in one night. You can do the same for one week only at IFC Center in New York, but I think they might be best appreciated if they’re given a little breathing room. For those living outside of New York, the film is also available on IFC VOD. The careful cinematography takes advantage of a large screen and I generally always recommend the theatrical experience over television, but The Red Riding Trilogy might be best digested in chunks in the comfort of our own home.
(Opened: 2/5/10) Trailer
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Red Riding Trilogy: 1980 (****). (see above)
(Opened: 2/5/10) Trailer
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Red Riding Trilogy: 1983 (****). (see above)
(Opened: 2/5/10) Trailer
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Restrepo (****). Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger spent a year documenting life in and around a remote US outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the most dangerous area of fighting in the country. Named for a fallen comrade, Outpost Restrepo represents both a measure of defiance and of desperation. It’s also a microcosm of the challenges faced by soldiers all over Afghanistan. Surprisingly – and to the film’s benefit – the filmmakers skirt the sticky politics of whether we should or shouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the first place and they focus instead on the young men who’ve already signed away the luxury of making such distinctions. This is an intense, ground level immersion in a real war and it makes The Hurt Locker seem safe by comparison. What’s striking is how young these guys are and how quickly they’re transformed from brash, fearless boys into grim, battle hardened veterans. Rounding out the footage captured during the platoon’s rotation are interviews with the men looking back at what they went through. Restrepo would have been more powerful had we been given more of these glimpses at the lingering aftereffects of the conflict on the soldiers, but the film should be seen by everyone anyway whether they’re for the war or against it.
(Opened: 6/25/10) Trailer
Rent
Revanche (****). This 2009 Foreign Language Oscar nominee from Austria follows the inexorably intersecting lives of a small time criminal, a Ukrainian prostitute, a rural policeman and his lonely wife. The first hour of Revanche is a lusty, simmering crime drama that sets up the revenge of the title while the second hour is an altogether more contemplative affair as the revenge itself is played out. In between is a shifting of gears abrupt enough that the two halves feel like different films. Less concerned with the ins and outs of plot, this is a kind of character study at heart that uses the collision of these disparate characters to look at the differences between generations, classes and environments and to probe the nature of guilt, loss and finally of course revenge.
(Opened: 5/1/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
The Road (****). John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a bleak and despairing trek across a burned out post-apocalyptic landscape where a father and his son cling to each other and to a ragged shred of hope for salvation lying somewhere beyond the horizon. It’s a difficult journey for both the characters and the audience, but not one without its rewards. In some ways a horror story and in some ways a classically suspenseful chase story, The Road strips you down before building to an emotional climax that is among the most moving and heartfelt of the year. Viggo Mortensen does terrific work as “The Man” in a haunting, spare performance.
(Opened: 11/25/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (**** 1/2). Based on Brian Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels, this is the story of bass guitar-playing 20-something (Michael Cera) who meets the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) only to find that, to win her, he must defeat her 7 evil exes. Edgar Wright’s imaginative adaptation mixes music, videogames and manga, into an exuberantly entertaining cocktail, bursting with invention and formal playfulness. For all the bells and whistles, at it’s heart is simply the story of a boy maturing into a man. Widely ignored by audiences, I predict Pilgrim will have a Lebowski-like following within 5 years.
(Opened: 8/13/10) Trailer
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The Secret in Their Eyes (****). Argentinean director Juan Jose Campanella’s film wasn’t my personal first choice for the foreign language Oscar, but it’s easily the most digestible of all the nominees and a more than worthy pick. Ricardo Darin plays a former criminal court investigator writing a novel inspired by an old unsolved murder case. Old wounds, both professional and romantic, are reopened when he turns to old colleagues for help. It’s an entertaining, genre-spanning curiosity that mixes romance with elements of crime thriller and healthy doses of natural humor. Though it’s entertaining on a surface level, its depth shouldn’t be underestimated.
(Opened: 4/16/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Seraphine (****). The story of primitive artist Seraphine de Senlis who made a splash in the art world in the early part of the 20th century before her career was cut short by two world wars, a worldwide economic depression and mental illness. Less a biography than an examination of the mysteries of creativity, Seraphine is elevated by a terrific performance from Yolande Moreau and it avoids most of the pitfalls you’d find in a Hollywood production with a similar subject.
(Opened: 6/5/09) Trailer / Review
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A Serious Man (**** 1/2). Joel and Ethan Coen return to their roots (a Jewish family living in a Minnesota suburb in the 1960s) for this jet black comedy about a professor and family man plunged into a theological crisis when his ordinary world inexplicably begins to crumble around him. The dialogue is as sharp, deliberate and as clearly rendered as any Coen film, though it’s more naturalistic and less exaggerated. As put-upon professor Larry Gopnik, Michael Stuhlbarg takes the Coen verbal stylization and makes it feel real. With line readings that are unforced, natural and full of pathos, he might be one of the most unambiguously sympathetic Coen characters to come along outside of Carla Jean Moss. And then there’s that unsettling ending… well you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
(Opened: 10/2/09) Trailer / Review
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A Single Man (****). Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut is from his own screenplay based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood about a college professor in 1960s Los Angeles (Colin Firth) coping with the loss of his long-time lover. Firth is fantastic as a man going through a quiet, dignified, slow-motion meltdown and Julianne Moore is his equal as the best friend. If Firth is internal and subtle, Moore is more openly vulnerable. They play off each other in a kind of yin and yang of devastation that works really well. Drenched in a post-war LA style, it’s easy to dismiss the film as style over substance, but there’s a lot more going on here than that. The elegant, orderly set designs and wardrobe reflect Firth’s attempt to organize his increasingly unruly emotions.
(Opened: 12/11/09) Trailer
Rent
The Social Network (****). The story behind the creation of the internet phenomenon Facebook. Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, funny writing and a bunch of terrific performances led by Jesse Eisenberg make The Social Network one of the better movies of 2010 (certainly one of the better reviewed) even if it’s ultimately a little hollow inside. Aaron Garfield and Justin Timberlake co-star.
(Opened: 10/1/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
Solitary Man (****). Probably best known for writing John Dahl’s 1998 cult favorie Rounders, Brian Koppelman and David Levien taking up the directing reigns on this indie comedy drama starring Michael Douglas as a down and out car dealer who agrees to take his girlfriend’s daughter on a tour of his alma mater. Back in his old stomping grounds can he get his mojo back? Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Danny Devito co star. I assumed Solitary Man would be another road trip comedy/drama where Douglas learns to be a better man all the while imparting sage advice and teaching the young ones how to live their lives. At almost every step of the way when I thought I knew where it was headed, Solitary Man surprised me and took a different path. Sharply written (but not too sharp so as to seem too writerly), the screenplay deftly shifts gears between the funny and the dramatic. Michael Douglas gives one of his better performances in a while and he’s joined by some excellent supporting acting by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon and others.
(Opened: 5/21/10) Trailer
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The Song of Sparrows (****). A rural Iranian’s pastoral life is turned upside down when he’s forced into the city to earn money to repair his daughter’s hearing aid. There, his once simple needs are twisted by greed and commercialism. Shifting quietly from the amusing to the dramatic, this gently neorealistic parable from Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven) has a simple message, but the real beauty lies in the little moments and details between the big story beats. Sparrow‘s tropes will be instantly recognizable to anyone who makes a habit of watching foreign films and the familiarity is almost off-putting at first, but the film sticks with you days after you see it. It is so unassuming that its subtle pleasures might not be apparent right away, but they’re there and they have a nice way of lingering.
(Opened: 4/3/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Soul Kitchen (****). German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven) shifts gears into slapstick territory with his latest, a chaos-moving-to-order comedy about a Greek restaurateur trying to keep his restaurant afloat as he juggles his recently paroled brother, his rich girlfriend Nadine who wants him to come with her to China and a former friend turned real estate agent with eyes on the restaurant’s property. Like the restaurant it’s named for, Soul Kitchen the movie is a loose, shambling, but comfortable affair. The thin story is predictable, but it’s funny and everyone is having a great time. Mining a remarkable energy from its matter-of-fact multicultural/globalism, Soul Kitchen feels like a group of friends hanging out and having fun and they welcome you to the party with open arms. Also, Udo Kier is in it. Need I say more?
(Opened: 8/20/10) Trailer
Rent
Summer Hours (*****). In short, Olivier Assayas’ lovely and melancholy rumination on the passing of generations was my favorite movie of 2009. It is a sad film but it’s balanced with a measure of hope as a family copes with the demise of their past and the uncertainty of their future as a unit following the death of their mother. Beautiful and bittersweet, it’s a very nearly perfect film. Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and J?r?mie Renier star.
(Opened: 5/15/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Tetro (****). Vincent Gallo and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich play two estranged brothers in a creative family of Italians torn apart by tragedy and by a domineering father (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Tetro the elder brother has retreated to Argentina where he carries on a Bohemian lifestyle but seems to be squandering his talent as a writer. When his younger brother Bennie shows up to reconnect, old family tensions are brought to the surface and family secrets are brought to light. Though spun from the stuff of melodrama, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro is a deeper, more personal affair. Set in a timeless, almost dreamlike cinema landscape, this is the work of a man still in love with making movies who has the confidence to take creative risks and to challenge himself. The result might not be flawless, but it’s a joy to watch.
(Opened: 6/12/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Thirst (****). Park Chan-wook, the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance returns with this story of a priest-by-day and vampire-by-night. I’m still not exactly sure what to make of Thirst but I do know that I loved it. Swooning drunkenly between twisted and funny, gross and sexy, and creepy and sad without making a single misstep, Thirst grabs the vampire genre by the throat and pretty much remakes it in Park’s own operatic style. This is no Twilight. One of the more entertaining movies of Summer 2009.
(Opened: 7/31/09) Trailer
Rent
The Tillman Story (**** 1/2). You remember Pat Tillman. He was the NFL pro who enlisted into the Army Rangers in the wake of 9/11 and ended up getting killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. The US government initially hid the circumstances of his death and, with the full complicity of a willing media looking for headlines, used his heroic story as patriotic pro-war propaganda. Those are the infuriating broad strokes, but there is also a complex man at the center of it all and this is his powerful story. Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev does a terrific job of connecting the dots and skewering the highest levels of government with proof that they knew what happened to Tillman and allowed – if not encouraged or ordered – the story to be covered up and spun. What really makes this documentary work, however, is the revelation of the man underneath the symbolism. The Tillman Story movingly reclaims the man, flaws and all, from the legend he never wanted to be in the first place and it gives him back to his family.
(Opened: 8/20/10) Trailer
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Tokyo Sonata (****). Best known in the US for his oddly twisted genre pictures like Cure and Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa turns to the domestic drama with this story of an ordinary Japanese family that begins to crumble when the father loses his job. Being Kurosawa, you can expect that the story will take a turn for the strange and it does. At a certain point, Tokyo Sonata makes an unexpected detour and it seems for a while that it’s going to turn into a cinematic train wreck. However, just when you’re about to give up on it, everything clicks into place and the film builds to a haunting, moving and beautiful climax. In the end, Tokyo Sonata ended up as one of my favorite movies of 2009.
(Opened: 3/13/09) Trailer / Review
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Toy Story 3 (****). A whole generation of kids who were raised on Toy Story (1995) have now gone off to college themselves and has Disney got a sequel just for them. Off to college himself, our boy Andy no longer needs Woody, Buzz or the rest of his beloved toys so they’re donated to a daycare and a new adventure begins. Any cynicism I may have expressed here or elsewhere about the Pixar folks’ ability to color within the lines of Sequelized Disney Branded Entertainment™ and still deliver an engaging piece full of originality, humor and heart was unfounded. Despite the fact that this is the third go round for a familiar group of characters, the film pretty much delivers everything you could hope for. I found the middle “adventure” stretch a little dull, but this has sort of been the Pixar pattern over the last few films – great openings and closings propping up center thirds that seem more ordinary. Still, the final sentimental punch of Toy Story 3 made me forget I was getting restless there for a while. The best part for me was the clever opening short that literally personified Day and Night driven purely by simple visuals and sound effects. I always enjoy Pixar’s shorts, but this one was a cut above the rest in terms of pure creativity.
(Opened: 6/18/10) Trailer
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Two Lovers (****). The set-up sounds a little programmatic with Joaquin Phoenix as an emotionally damaged young man choosing between stable-but-boring Vinessa Shaw and exciting-but-dangerous Gwyneth Paltrow, but Two Lovers is a terrific and entertaining character study. Director James Gray focuses more on the truth behind those characters than he does the machinations of his story and it works. These feel like real people. They’re not always likeable, but they’re believable. As such, Two Lovers has a decidedly European flavor to it. It’s also surprisingly amusing for such potentially heavy material. The cast (including Isabella Rosellini as Phoenix’s permissive but over-protective mother) is excellent and they go a long way toward bringing the characters to life.
(Opened: 2/13/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Unmistaken Child (****). This remarkable documentary about a Buddhist disciple charged with finding his reincarnated master is as moving as it is fascinating. It’s a rare, real life look at beliefs and rituals previously portrayed in movies like Kundun and Little Buddha. It’s a kind of spiritual mystery that in the end transcends its earthly subject and becomes a deeply felt rumination on the very nature of faith.
(Opened: 6/5/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Up in the Air (****). Jason Reitman (Juno) directs George Clooney as a smooth layoff expert hired by employers too cowardly to do their own firings. His zero baggage, no strings lifestyle is turned upside down when he falls for a kindred spirit (Vera Farmiga) and his own job security is threatened when a young and ambitious newcomer (Anna Kendrick) arrives at the company with some fancy ideas about how to streamline the job. Funny but a little too slick and sure of itself for most of its running time, Up in the Air finally delivers with a bittersweet ending that’s just right.
(Opened: 12/4/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Waking Sleeping Beauty (****). Disney producer Don Hahn offers up this rare, honest and warts-and-all look behind the scenes of the Disney feature animation department during the animation resurgence at the studio in the 1980s.
(Opened: 3/26/10) Trailer
Rent
The Way We Get By (****). The Way We Get By is the story of a group of senior citizens who turn up every day at an airport in Bangor, Maine to greet soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a moving study of people clinging to a sense of meaning and usefulness in a society that too often devalues them.
(Opened: 7/17/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Where the Wild Things Are (****). Spike Jonze’s poignant and deeply felt adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s storybook is a film that remembers what it’s like to be a boy of a certain age. It’s steeped in the simple, playful joys of fort building, snowball fights and pig piles, while also capturing the unhinged fear, rage and melancholy of a little boy in transition. Delicately fleshing out Sendak’s sparsely powerful story, Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have expanded the narrative to big screen proportions while sparing us the pointless back-stories and antic busy work that corrupt similar adaptations. It’s sure to delight imaginative children as well as adults who still remember their own tumultuous childhoods. The tactile creature effects are superb and James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara turn in terrific voice work.
(Opened: 10/16/09) Trailer / Review
Rent
Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (****). Odds are, you’ve heard a Harry Nilsson song or two (Three Dog Night’s version of One is probably the biggest along with Everybody’s Talkin’ used to memorable effect in Midnight Cowboy), but if you’re like me you don’t know very much about one of the most interesting American songwriters there is. This ultimately sad (Nilsson died younger than he should have) but also inspiring documentary goes a long way toward correcting that knowledge gap.
(Opened: 9/10/10) Trailer
Rent
Winter’s Bone (**** 1/2). Sundance darling Winter’s Bone looks for all the world like another stark, regional American indie drama set among the rural poor, but it turns out to be much more of a movie-movie than you might expect. Jennifer Lawrence (The Burning Plain) is Ree Dolly, a determined Ozark Mountain teen hunting for her missing father. The meth-cooking bum put the family home up as bail before disappearing and Ree will lose everything unless she can find him and deliver him to the sheriff. Unfortunately, some of Ree’s backwoods neighbors (many of whom are blood relations) appear determined to see that Mr. Dolly isn’t found. Winter’s Bone has all the makings of another feel-bad indie, but the story turns on hope rather than despair. It also works as a page-turning mystery story and features a wonderful performance from Lawrence.
(Opened: 6/11/10) Trailer / Review
Rent
You, the Living (**** 1/2). Perhaps because it begins with a man relaying a dream he’s just had about bombers, You, the Living (Du Levande) put me in the mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. More likely though, I think it was the apocalyptic pall hanging over the surreal, dreamlike landscape that bears witness to the fractured vignettes of a group of drab, unconnected citizens of a nameless urban hell. If it’s not hell, it’s a purgatory where the pallid characters seem to be awaiting their doom. Did I mention that it’s a comedy? It’s a hard film to quantify, but it’s one of my recent favorites.
(Opened: 7/31/09) Trailer / Review
Rent

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