4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (4 LUNI, 3 SAPTAMÂANI SI 2 ZILE) (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Without a doubt this devastating portrait of a woman looking to get an illegal abortion in Romania during the 1980s is difficult to watch. Anamaria Marinca's searing performance anchors writer-director Cristian Mungiu's unblinking film, which confronts those on both sides of the issue with tough questions about personal freedom and legislated morality.
BE KIND REWIND (Michel Gondry, 2008)
Writer-director Michel Gondry sprinkles his affection for childlike imagination and handcrafted art throughout BE KIND REWIND, a fun and funny goof on backyard moviemaking. Gondry's intent is not to mock crude, no-budget creations but rather to pay tribute to the artistic spirit freed from commercial aspirations and demands. It's filmmaking as joyful activity and expression instead of a box office competition.
BLINDNESS (Fernando Meirelles, 2008)
Short of putting nothing but white on the screen, the desaturated visual conceit, which emphasizes white and gives the disorienting sensation of limited sight, is as close as the audience can get to experiencing what the characters in BLINDNESS live. Director Fernando Meirelles presents a grim vision of societal breakdown and a survival situation in which most people are susceptible to their worst impulses, but the dynamic style makes the unpleasant content more palatable.
ELEGY (Isabel Coixet, 2008)
Ben Kingsley's commitment-phobic college professor falls harder than he thought possible for Penelope Cruz as his younger student in this moving study of love and aging. Kingsley brings out the complexity in a man whose intellectual curiosity is matched only by his disinterest in deeply knowing the women he beds, but it's Cruz's performance, which transcends the object of desire role, that brings meaning to ELEGY.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Werner Herzog, 2007)
The title of Werner Herzog's documentary refers to his experiences while visiting Antarctica and ruminations on the planet's demise. In ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD Herzog alternates between astonishment and curiosity at the weird and wonderful people, creatures, and landscapes he sees and resignation about the potential for mankind to ruin it all. On the whole the nature footage is impressive, but the strange, beautiful world revealed in the underwater photography is so stunning that it produces feelings of rapture.
IRON MAN (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Director Jon Favreau populates IRON MAN with actors more accustomed to prestige pictures than summer blockbusters, but the choices pay off with richer performances across the board. Quick with a quip and projecting a reckless air, Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as an intelligent and wealthy ladies' man with self-destructive impulses. His low-key line readings bring a lot of humor to his interactions with his human and robot counterparts. As Stark's loyal assistant Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow lends quiet grace and value to what might otherwise have been an unremarkable Girl Friday part. Favreau forges a strong film through the combination of character development and comedy with the explosions and impressive special effects expected during the the big movie season.
MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
Biographical films can feel like museum pieces, but Gus Van Sant's blending of archival footage and meticulous period recreation in MILK brings to life a vibrant community ready to boil over from the pressure put upon them. As a case study of political mobilization, MILK provides an intriguing look inside one man's conquering of the system. While the director puts his distinctive stamp on the material, MILK is an actor's picture. Penn's riveting performance captures Milk's complexity. Milk never apologizes for who he is, and it's Penn's looseness in the role that rounds out his acting and allows him to inhabit the character rather than impersonate the man.
THE ORDER OF MYTHS (Margaret Brown, 2008)
For all of the grand statements about what the election of Barack Obama means about current racial attitudes in America, THE ORDER OF MYTHS provides an example of one practice that shows how much work remains. This documentary about Mobile, Alabama's still-segregated Mardi Gras celebrations examines how people hold onto traditions. Director Margaret Brown resists playing gotcha as she challenges those who prefer to cling to mindsets that value the past while destroying the present and future.
PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
Merging his experimental impulses with a more accessible story (or at least something with the semblance of a plot), Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle paint the inner life of a teenage skateboarder in the grays and blues of confusion, guilt, and alienation. Where MILK found the director focusing on a man attempting to be larger than himself, PARANOID PARK stares at a kid who finds himself wishing he could be so small as to be invisible.
PRICELESS (HORS DE PRIX) (Pierre Salvadori, 2006)
Audrey Tautou sparkles as a gold digger teaching Gad Elmaleh the ways of seduction for profit in PRICELESS. Although more risque than classic Hollywood romantic comedies, this French charmer is a throwback to glamour, graceful physical comedy, and sexually-charged battle of wits.
REDBELT (David Mamet, 2008)
Mixed martial arts and David Mamet may not seem made for each other, but both concentrate on hitting hard, whether with hands and feet or words. Physical and verbal combat come into play in the twisty tale of an honorable jiujitsu instructor played by Chiwitel Ejiofor. The venue may seem an unlikely one for Mamet, but it's an apt setting for the corrupting influene of commercialism upon art and principle.
SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, 2007)
Although the interweaving stories of burgeoning and disintegrating love in SNOW ANGELS display trappings of suburban hell films, writer-director David Gordon Green embraces the characters in his rurally located movie rather than keeping them at arm's length with snarkiness and irony. Viewing these often unlikeable people with empathy, and sometimes humor, instead of judgment and condescension makes all the difference in what could have otherwise been a miserabilist tour of a rocky relationship landscape. In retracing the steps that led to tragedy, Green and lead actor Sam Rockwell provide the context rarely found in news reports or fictional films about common misfortunes. SNOW ANGELS can painfully burrow into one's heart, but such is the cost of empathy, or any human connection for that matter.
TELL NO ONE (NE LE DIS À PERSONNE) (Guillame Canet, 2006)
Films in the Hitchcock mold one of my favorite things, and this French suspense movie does not disappoint. Well-acted by François Cluzet as the prototypical "wrong man", a doctor suspected of murdering his wife and possibly others, and smoothly directed by Guillaume Canet, TELL NO ONE artfully delivers pulpy thrills.
THE WRESTLER (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
While director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel's tour of the small-time wrestling circuit is enlightening, THE WRESTLER'S greater value comes as a portrait of aging via Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei's powerhouse performances. Rourke wears the physical and emotional scars of a man beaten for a living who continues to revel in what he does. Rourke's portrayal of the titular wrestler peels back the qualities people like about the character beyond his signature move. Tomei's naked performance, in every sense of the word, demonstrates how her fortysomething stripper is in charge of what she does yet ultimately draws her worth from the eyes of strangers. Both characters are sacrifices who give themselves up for the pleasure of others. Randy isn't nicknamed The Ram for nothing. Through the moving and observant performances, THE WRESTLER pins down the human cost of these professions.