Best films of 2012 so far: an annotated checklist

Best films of 2012 so far: an annotated checklist

Two times a year—at the halfway point and during list-making season in November—I send out a list of “significant” movies to the film staff so they can try to see as many as possible before our Year In Film feature. It’s just a simple checklist, presented in the order each film was released theatrically in New York City. The idea is to give our writers time to catch up and give relative obscurities like The Arbor (last year’s No. 13 on our conjoined Best Of The Year list) the same collective consideration as more widely heralded efforts like The Tree Of Life. In the interest of transparency—and recommending a bunch of movies we love—I’m making the halftime list public this year so our readers can play along at home. A few caveats:

  1. My staff inevitably comes back to me with omissions, and I suspect there will be many in the comments below. We’ll add the big ones to our year-end checklist.
  2. Normally, the list goes out without categories. The ones below, particularly “The Essentials,” are a reflection of my taste and priorities. Mileage will definitely vary.
  3. Within the categories, titles are still listed in order of release in NYC through the weekend of July 13th, not in order of preference. 
  4. Overall, the momentum from last year’s embarrassment of cinematic riches has continued into 2012, so now’s the time to get those queues in order.

The Essentials

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

The gist: Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan follows up Climates and Distant with this mesmerizing take on the police procedural, much of it shot at night in the winding hills and roads of the Anatolian steppe, as men search for a body in a landscape illuminated mostly by headlights. 
Metacritic score: 82 
What The A.V. Club said: “Exceptionally beautiful…  The epic-length drawing-out of such a basic component of the police procedural might sound agonizing, but it gives the search and its aftermath tremendous dramatic weight for the men on the hunt.” 
Availability: DVD/BD 

Haywire

The gist: The first of two Steven Soderbergh movies in the first half of 2012 fashions a new kind of female action star out of Gina Carano, a former MMA star and American Gladiator. Working with The Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh experiments with a stylish, stripped-down spy thriller that allows Carano the opportunity to beat the hell out of several A-list actors. 
Metacritic score: 67 
What The A.V. Club said: “A delivery system for ass-kickings… It’s [Dobbs’] and Soderbergh’s idea of lizard-brain entertainment, and its pleasures are remarkably distilled.” 
Availability: DVD/BD

Miss Bala

The gist: No movie this year has been handled as carelessly as this breakneck Mexican thriller, a festival favorite that could have crossed over to the multiplex, but instead was rolled out with all the fanfare of Zyzzyx Road. Capturing the action through extraordinarily dynamic long takes, director Gerardo Naranjo uses the kidnapping of a young beauty-contest aspirant to demonstrate the power drug cartels have over innocent citizens. 
Metacritic score: 80 
What The A.V. Club said: Miss Bala toes a delicate line between exploitation movie and movie about exploitation, but that’s part of what gives the film its charge—this isn’t some flaccid docudrama about how the cartels are poisoning the country, it’s a lively, white-knuckle thriller where any such proselytizing is reduced to implication.”
Availability: DVD

The Turin Horse

The gist: Hungarian master Béla Tarr, best known for his 450-minute epic Sátántángo—which in turn inspired Gus Van Sant’s “death trilogy,” chiefly Gerry—has declared The Turin Horse his last film, and it’s a fittingly bleak statement on life and death. Tarr opens with the shot of the year, and continues with a brutally austere treatment of an aging farmer and his daughter as they wait out a punishing windstorm. 
Metacritic score: 80
What The A.V. Club said: “As a swan song, it feels as out of step with the irony-choked times as Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, offering a vision of absolute austerity that may only appeal to a self-selected few, but remains astonishingly powerful on its own uncompromising terms.”
Availability: DVD/BD on July 17

This Is Not A Film

The gist: Made under house arrest, as the director was appealing a six-year prison sentence (and 20-year ban on making movies, giving interviews, or leaving the country) for his alleged intention to propagandize against the Islamic Republic, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film is such an act of subversion that it had to be smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive tucked into a cake. But the restless soul of an artist is on full display as Panahi talks about his situation, blocks an unproduced screenplay, and stokes the embers of the Green Revolution. 
Metacritic score: 90
What The A.V. Club said: “The animating force that brings films to life largely isn’t present—can’t be present, since he can’t make them—so Panahi can only tell stories that have to take root in viewers’ imaginations. His frustration and heartbreak over this fact is ours, too, and we’re mostly left to marvel over his persistent impulse to keep on shooting no matter the consequences.” 
Availability: Out of theaters. No DVD date announced yet. 

The Kid With A Bike

The gist: The remarkable consistency of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’Enfant, Rosetta, The Son) has become a running joke in critical circles—e.g. “Yawn… another great Dardenne brothers movie”—but The Kid With A Bike is, yawn, a predictably excellent rendering of life on the fringes, following an orphan who desperately tries to connect to the father who rejected him. 
Metacritic score: 87
What The A.V. Club said: The Kid With A Bike feels like a companion piece to Rosetta, though it’s far less severe and more open-hearted, even borderline sentimental… [Shows how] abandonment can be just as firmly hard-wired and resistant to all but the most steady, dedicated shows of trust and affection.” 
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD due toward the end of the year.  

The Deep Blue Sea

The gist: Based on Terence Rattigan’s play, Terence Davies’ heartbreaking wartime love story brings his signature wit and bittersweet nostalgia to the tale of a self-destructive romantic (Rachel Weisz) who leaves her stolid husband (Simon Russell Beale) for an erratic World War II fighter pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Neither man—or perhaps any man—can give her the love she needs. 
Metacritic score: 82
What The A.V. Club said: “Crushing…  [It] earns a place alongside Letter From An Unknown Woman and The Heiress, those beautiful romantic tragedies about women whose love curdles and rots when they get nothing in return.”
Availability: DVD/BD on July 24

The Cabin In The Woods

The gist: The Year Of The Whedon kicked off with an instant cult classic from Joss Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard. It’s a relentlessly clever send-up of horror-movie tropes that opens with a big conceptual twist and mines it for everything it’s worth. A sterling example of film doubling as film criticism. 
Metacritic score: 72
What The A.V. Club said: “The script brings to the fore Whedon’s love of subverting clichés while embracing them and teasing out their deeper meaning.”
Availability: DVD/BD on September 18

Goodbye First Love

The gist: Mia Hansen-Løve’s follow-up to The Father Of My Children deals perceptively with a couple that falls in love as adolescents, breaks up for eight years, and tries to start again as young adults. 
Metacritic score: 80
What The A.V. Club said: “Hansen-Løve romanticizes the fervor of adolescent relationships, focusing particularly on the way young lovers feel prematurely like grown-ups, as they loll about in bed together and run little errands for each other. Then Goodbye First Love illustrates how these young people are fooling themselves, and why their relationship is untenable. The result is a movie that’s poignant, bittersweet, and true.”
Availability: DVD/BD on September 25

Bernie

The gist: Based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of an assistant funeral director who murdered an 81-year-old millionaire widow, Richard Linklater’s spirited black comedy exploits the full range of Jack Black’s talents by casting him as a figure so big-hearted and beloved by a Texas community that few believed he could be a killer. Linklater’s most innovative touch is to make a Greek chorus out of mock interviews of the townspeople. 
Metacritic score: 75
What The A.V. Club said: “[Linklater] sinks his teeth into a hell of a yarn, a true-crime story where the real mystery isn’t what happened, but the bizarre context for the murder and the collective madness of a town that couldn’t accept it at face value.”
Availability: DVD/BD on August 21

The Avengers

The gist: Superheroes. Lots of them. Writer-director Joss Whedon handles the years-long development of this Marvel assemblage with typical élan, making the light, breezily entertaining comic-book movie that The Dark Knight Rises surely won’t be. 
Metacritic score: 69 
What The A.V. Club said: “Big but graceful… Tasked with meeting the many requirements necessary for any Avengers movie to work, Whedon checks off all the boxes, then sets about creating new expectations for what a big superhero movie ought to be.” 
Availability: In theaters.

Elena

The gist:
Hugely talented Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return) infuses an elegant melodrama with a thriller’s tension in following the subservient second wife of a wealthy man and her attempts to claim his inheritance after he dies. Standing in the way: Her husband’s estranged daughter, who has plans of her own. 
Metacritic score: 89 
What The A.V. Club said: “Though it unfolds patiently and methodically, Elena pulses with tremendous tension as the stakes increase—a terrific Philip Glass score helps in that department—and a couple of sharp, surprising turns in the final minutes catapult the film in an unexpected direction. It’s an austere Russian drama with shades of Hitchcock.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Moonrise Kingdom

The gist:
Wes Anderson’s Wes Anderson-iest film to date—and, to his affirmation, the sleeper indie hit of the summer—visits a remote Northeastern coastal community in the mid-‘60s, where two kids have run off with each other. Though quirky and decorous in typical Anderson style, Moonrise Kingdom also deals sweetly with two melancholy children who discover something like love together. 
Metacritic score: 84
What The A.V. Club said: “Anderson expresses himself concisely: At 94 minutes, Moonrise Kingdom is dense in minute visual detail, hilarious deadpan jokes, and small moments that are rich in complexity… [It] goes deep into the storybook world of Anderson’s imagination, but not so far as to prevent complicated human emotions from intruding.”
Availability: In theaters.

Oslo, August 31st

The gist: Norwegian director Joachim Trier follows up his electric debut feature, Reprise, with a subtle, perceptive, ultimately devastating portrait of a recovering drug addict (a superb Anders Danielsen Lie) who’s trying to find a place and a purpose after rehab. Over a one-day release, he catches up with friends and family, and goes on a job interview that he hopes will satisfy his ambitions as a writer. 
Metacritic score: 82
What The A.V. Club said: “Trier doesn’t allow the bleakness of the material to swamp the film in a miserablist tone, but he doesn’t hold back, either, in revealing every hairline crack in Lie’s fragile psyche. He writes his hero into a tight corner, but finds a simultaneously graceful and uncompromising way back into the light.”
Availability: DVD on September 18th

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

The gist:
The most celebrated (and divisive) film out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Benh Zeitlin’s precocious debut feature recalls Terrence Malick in its poetic look at “The Bathtub,” a community of outsiders living in waterlogged isolation outside New Orleans. Is it a visionary masterpiece, or an act of “Don’t Tread On Me” conservatism from a privileged Wesleyan grad? There’s apparently no third choice with this movie. 
Metacritic score: 84
What The A.V. Club said: “Remarkable, lyrical… moves with a dreamlike pulse, and is never better than when it doesn’t feel the need to move much at all.”
Availability: In theaters.


Hollywood: The System Works! 

The Grey

The gist: The A.V. Club had unkind things to say about Joe Carnahan’s hyper-masculine thriller about a group of oil riggers stranded among the wolves in the Alaskan wilderness, but others were much more enthusiastic. Here’s A.O. Scott of The New York Times: “It’s a fine, tough little movie, technically assured and brutally efficient, with a simple story that ventures into some profound existential territory without making a big fuss about it.”
Metacritic score: 64
What The A.V. Club said: “The interaction between the men amounts to little more than a few tortured backstories and some high-toned discussions about the existence of God, all punctuated by the occasional CGI wolf attaching itself to someone’s neck.”
Availability: DVD/BD

Chronicle

The gist: The world didn’t need another science-fiction/horror film shot in found-footage style, but director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis offered one anyway with their clever mashing-up of movies like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. Rendering the big effects of teenagers blessed/cursed with special powers through handheld video proves surprisingly effective. 
Metacritic score: 69
What The A.V. Club said: Chronicle gets considerable mileage out of teenagers clowning around on tape, and when the fun starts to curdle, the horror of its characters abusing their powers is handled with the same deadpan matter-of-factness.”
Availability: DVD/BD

John Carter

The gist: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic science-fiction/adventure series, Disney’s $250 million spectacle was declared a fiasco before it even arrived in theaters, but the backlash-to-the-backlash noted that there’s much to admire in Andrew Stanton’s splashy vision of a Civil War veteran transported to the Red Planet of Barsoom.  
Metacritic score: 51
What The A.V. Club said: “With the exposition out of the way, Stanton turns the film into a ripping adventure with gladiatorial combat against towering, many-armed albino apes and first-rate effects… At its best, it recalls Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the way it joins of-the-moment technology with the sturdy rhythms and easy thrills of an old B-movie.”
Availability: DVD/BD

21 Jump Street

The gist: Adapting a mostly forgotten 25-year-old Fox TV series for a generation of moviegoers who were not even born when it debuted seems like a terrible idea, but 21 Jump Street turns the project into an elaborate meta-joke that appeals to more than Gen-X nostalgists. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make a daffy pair as undercover agents sniffing out a high-school drug ring. 
Metacritic score: 69
What The A.V. Club said: 21 Jump Street combines the half-forgotten conventions of the mismatched buddy-cop movies of the ’80s with Clinton-era gags about political correctness… More consistently amusing and inspired than an adaptation of an ’80s TV show has any right to be.” 
Availability: DVD/BD

The Dictator

The gist: Sacha Baron Cohen leaves the confrontational, semi-documentary style of Borat and Brüno behind, but invents another high-concept character in Hafez Alladeen, the murderous leader of a made-up North African dictatorship with more than a little in common with Muammar Gaddafi. Alladeen’s trip to New York amounts to a funny, shtick-filled fusion of the cross-cultural comedy of Coming To America and the political anarchy of Duck Soup
Metacritic score: 58
What The A.V. Club said: “Baron Cohen and [director Larry] Charles [have] the freedom to goof hilariously on the decadence and villainy of Axis Of Evil sorts while sidewinding into Borscht Belt gags or the visual spoofery of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy. In other words, anything goes, which is as sturdy a comic modus operandi as any, especially if most of the jokes hit.” 
Availability: DVD/BD on August 21

Prometheus

The gist: Is Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction a mind-blowing unofficial Alien prequel with a thematic agenda worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or a portentous, nonsensical bore that ruins the series in a way Alien: Resurrection lacked the will to accomplish on its own? The Internet is awaiting your reply. 
Metacritic score: 65
What The A.V. Club said: “So many of the characters, plot beats, and design elements are familiar from Alien, it’s actively distracting. But where Alien was grimy and claustrophobic, Prometheus is polished, expansive, and at times breathtakingly beautiful.”
Availability: In theaters.

Brave

The gist: Brave may be “lesser Pixar,” but that’s only because of the absurdly high standards Pixar has set for itself. After absorbing decades of criticism for its absence of female protagonists, the company has responded with a robust adventure about a Scottish princess who refuses to abide her royal obligations. The animation is typically stunning, but behind that, the film gets much of its strength from a complex mother-daughter relationship. 
Metacritic score: 69
What The A.V. Club said: “At its best, Brave accesses all the complicated feelings involved between a parent and a rebellious adolescent: the mutual frustration, the lack of communication, the way conflicting desires can mask love without weakening it. But Brave goes to that deep emotional well too rarely; it spends more time splashing in the shallows.”
Availability: In theaters.


Auteur Obligations

Crazy Horse

The gist:
Frederick Wiseman, the 82-year-old master of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about social institutions, turns his camera to the famed Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris, where burlesque dancers have performed since 1951. Wiseman goes behind the scenes of its latest production, and honors the choreography with beautiful compositions. 
Metacritic score: 72 
What The A.V. Club said: “These routines are beautiful, and captured by Wiseman’s cameras in close-up, from multiple angles, and with lighting that captures every wrinkle and sheen in the dancers’ costumes, such as they are. Like Wiseman’s recent documentary Boxing GymCrazy Horse is dynamic and expressive as it shows human bodies in motion.”
Availability: Out of theaters. No DVD date announced yet. 

4:44 Last Day On Earth

The gist: The end of the world, according to Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant). Working on a miniscule budget, Ferrara views the coming environmental apocalypse from a New York City loft where a bohemian couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) makes love, order Chinese delivery, bicker like crazy, and wait for The End. In other words, they do things a little differently than Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. 
Metacritic score: 54
What The A.V. Club said: “That 4:44 is long on verbal confrontation and short on rioting in the streets is doubtless a function of the film’s limited budget, but the cloistered focus on the couple’s living space also lends their final hours an intimate intensity.”
Availability: DVD on July 17

Damsels In Distress

The gist:
Whit Stillman’s return to filmmaking after a 13-year absence divided critics into a two camps: those who found its whimsical, pastel-slathered campus comedy (with a late musical flourish) pleasingly artificial, and those who found it distractingly artificial. As with other Stillman comedies like Metropolitan and The Last Days Of Disco, reaction hinges largely on how charming people find his daffy ensemble of elites. 
Metacritic score: 67
What The A.V. Club said: “Some may find Stillman’s absurdly elevated language and deep concern with triviality to be too much to take, especially since it’s not always clear what he’s going for from minute to minute. But the method matches the meaning, as Stillman creates a thick-lined, screwball universe, then searches for its raison d’être.”
Availability: DVD/BD on September 25

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Keyhole

The gist: After his brilliant “Me Trilogy” (Cowards Bend The Knee, Brand Upon The Brain!, and My Winnipeg), early silent/sound movie fetishist Guy Maddin returns to genre deconstruction with his typically outrageous twist on the gangster film, starring Jason Patric as a mob boss holed up in a very strange house.
Metacritic score: 62
What The A.V. Club said: Keyhole feels like some Poverty Row production that lapsed into the public domain decades ago, and ever since has been running at 2 a.m. every morning on a small state college’s dedicated cable-access channel. It’s still a pastiche of forgotten cinema, in other words, but the references are a little more modern and mainstream, at least by Maddin standards.”
Availability: DVD

God Bless America

The gist: As a writer-director, Bobcat Goldthwait excels at constructing layered comedies around big high-concept hooks, and with God Bless America, he’s got a doozy. Joel Murray plays a divorced, recently unemployed middle-aged man who goes on a pop-culture killing spree, starting with the bratty subject of a My Super Sweet 16-style reality show. The audience’s ability to sympathize with Murray’s grievances makes the bloodbath all the more disturbing. 
Metacritic score: 56
What The A.V. Club said: “Goldthwait isn’t doing the satirical equivalent of shooting ducks in a barrel here, though his recreations of televised stupidity do offer a funny twinge of recognition. What interests him more is how we live in that culture, particularly those who are alienated by it.”
Availability: DVD/BD

Dark Horse

The gist: Todd Solondz’s interest in outcasts and their humiliating struggle with normalcy continues with the story of a deeply pathetic thirtysomething toy collector (Jordan Gelber) who still lives with his parents and tries to court a sour woman (Selma Blair) with problems of her own. It’s a romance swamped in depression and self-delusion, and one of Solondz’s most admired efforts since Happiness
Metacritic score: 67
What The A.V. Club said: “The scenes between Gelber and Blair are the strongest in Dark Horse, because they form a bond not out of shared interests or passion, but a weary kind of compromise.”
Availability: Out of theaters. No DVD date announced yet. 

To Rome With Love

The gist: After scoring his biggest hit in decades last year with Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen continues his ongoing tour of great European capitals with a quartet of stories set in the sun-dappled Italian city. Nobody seemed to care much for it one way or the other, but so long as Allen continues his annual habit of making films, we can make a habit of seeing them.
Metacritic score: 55
What The A.V. Club said: “The amusing, bittersweet charm of [the] final storyline [with Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg] is intense enough that it would almost be better off as a stand-alone short; intercut as it is between three other less successful narratives, it’s forced to do some heavy lifting for the film as a whole.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Magic Mike

The gist: The second Steven Soderbergh movie so far in 2012 has turned out to be an unexpected box-office sensation, but beyond the wildly entertaining onstage and offstage antics at a Tampa male strip club, Soderbergh tells a more sober story about selling flesh in a down economy. In other words, he got Warner Brothers to pony up for a companion piece to The Girlfriend Experience
Metacritic score: 72 
What The A.V. Club said: “[Captures] the appeal of an existence buoyed by screams and floating currency. [And] it shows that those living that life are subject to the same laws of economic gravity as anyone else who has to work for a living.”
Availability: In theaters.

Alps

The gist: Two years after Dogtooth—No. 1 on my top 10 list in 2010 and No. 12 on The A.V. Club’s collective list—Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos returns with another bizarre, darkly funny allegory about the fictions we create. Here, the members of a secret organization offer themselves to the recently bereaved to act as their lost loved one temporarily, in order to ease the transition. 
Metacritic score: 73
What The A.V. Club said: Depends on who gets asked. I was somewhat disappointed: “Though Dogtooth features an entirely made-up world, full of false word definitions and nonexistent threats, it’s carried across by a rigorous internal logic that’s conspicuously absent from Alps.” Toronto local editor John Semley, however, is a fan: “Lanthimos carefully draws Alps down his meticulously absurdist rabbit hole, tugging at the multifarious threads of imitation, formulation, and make-believe that comprise (and compromise) the continuous construction of human identity.” Fight! Fight! Fight!
Availability: In theaters. 


Notable Documentaries

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

The gist: It isn’t too gross a generalization to assert that there may be heavy crossover between arthouse moviegoers and sushi enthusiasts, and the ongoing success of this charming documentary bears that out. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi profiles Jiro Ono, the eightysomething proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat Tokyo eatery that’s considered one of the best sushi restaurants in the world. 
Metacritic score: 77
What The A.V. Club said: “[Director David] Gelb creates a peaceful, contemplative mood with his long shots of men delicately molding fish onto rice, such that when Ono walks past a blaring shopping-mall video-screen at one point, the intrusion of the modern world seems out of place.”
Availability: DVD/BD on July 24

Whores’ Glory

The gist: The third in Michael Glawogger’s trilogy of documentaries about globalization—Megacities and Workingman’s Death are the others—Whores’ Glory applies his uniquely stylized brand of political filmmaking to prostitution centers in Bangkok, Bangladesh, and Reynosa, Mexico. Each site is bleaker than the last. 
Metacritic score: 73
What The A.V. Club said: “Documentary purists will find plenty to grouse about here: The gorgeously stylized photography, which captures each setting with color-saturated vividness; the eclectic soundtrack, with songs by P.J. Harvey, Antony And The Johnsons, and others; and a detached style that’s free of predigested conclusions. But the film’s break from the usual earnest, stat-filled exposé is a large part of its appeal, and Glawogger’s attention to color and composition don’t diminish the quality of the testimony or dip into raw exploitation.”
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD availability not yet announced. 

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

The gist: Marina Abramovic’s three-month exhibition at MOMA in 2010 drew extraordinary attention and controversy for a living sculpture/self-portrait conceit that invited visitors, one at a time, to sit at a table with her as she sat silent and motionless. With that as the narrative spine, Matthew Akers’ profile looks back at her long, nervy career and examines the questions her art inspires. 
Metacritic score: 75
What The A.V. Club said: “Akers’ footage of ‘The Artist Is Present’ is often tense, as some participants weep openly, while others try to stir Abramovic by taking off their clothes, or attaching a mirror-mask to their heads. But just as fascinating are all the scenes of Abramovic and her team preparing for the exhibit: by hiring some fearless souls to recreate other well-known Abramovic pieces at MOMA (such as the one where two nude people stand in a doorway, forcing people to squeeze past them), and by developing a chair that can double as a toilet, just in case.”
Availability: DVD on October 16

The Imposter

The gist: A 14-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Texas disappears. More than three years later, a dark-haired, brown-eyed 23-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin claimed to be the missing kid. The twist? The boy’s family took him in as their own. Presented as a re-enactment-filled cinematic mystery in The Thin Blue Line mode, Bart Layton’s tense documentary springs one surprise after another. 
Metacritic score: 78
What The A.V. Club said: “Because Layton controls the information so tightly, he’s able to spring a few surprises, including one doozy toward the end. Ultimately, The Imposter doesn’t function so much as a true crime story, or a piece of investigative journalism. Layton has designed this film partly as a tall tale—with amusing fish-out-of-water anecdotes about Bourdin’s experiences posing as a Texas high-schooler—and partly as an intellectual exercise.”
Availability: In theaters.


Indie Curiosities

Return

The gist: The boys of Freaks And Geeks—those in front of the camera (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco) and behind it (Paul Feig, Judd Apatow)—have gone on to successful movie careers, but the true lead of the show, Linda Cardellini, hasn’t gotten the same level of attention. Cardellini’s powerful work in Return went some way toward remedying that, giving her a substantial role as a National Guard reservist who comes home after a tour of duty overseas. 
Metacritic score: 63
What The A.V. Club said:Return is unusually attuned to its protagonist’s alienation, which is especially painful because its source isn’t some horrendous event she witnessed, but the hundreds of annoying aspects of everyday life.”
Availability: DVD

Boy

The gist: The gap between an 11-year-old boy’s hopes for his father and the reality of his absence and neglect provides a melancholy edge to this coming-of-age comedy, set in 1984 New Zealand. Writer-director Taika Waititi (Flight Of The Conchords) plays the father as a selfish screw-up who nonetheless relates to his son by discussing the merits of E.T. and Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Metacritic score: 70
What The A.V. Club said: “One of the unexpected triumphs of Boy lies in its ability to recapture the vulnerability and optimism of childhood without becoming twee or maudlin in the process.” 
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD release date not yet announced. 

Beyond The Black Rainbow

The gist: The feature debut of Panos Cosmatos—son of Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos—Beyond The Black Rainbow is a low-budget, nearly incomprehensible Canadian science-fiction film that thrives entirely on dream logic and acid-trip imagery. Eva Allan stars as a mute girl with psychic powers who’s being kept in a futuristic mental institution. 
Metacritic score: 49
What The A.V. Club said: “Like fragments of Stanley Kubrick, THX 1138, John Carpenter, Scanners, and a dozen other sci-fi and horror films melded by imperfect memory into an unstable whole… Beyond The Black Rainbow is more surface than substance, but those surfaces are gleamingly polished enough to make for a hypnotic experiment that goes beyond genre pastiche or art-school wankery to seem formally daring.”
Availability: DVD on September 11

Your Sister’s Sister
The gist: Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to the terrific Humpday again co-stars Mark Duplass and again applies her improvisational technique to hugely uncomfortable and funny ends. Emily Blunt stars as a concerned friend who invites Duplass to her family’s remote cabin for a getaway after Duplass’ brother dies. His drunken encounter with Blunt’s sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) throws their friendship—and many other things—up in the air. 
Metacritic score: 72
What The A.V. Club said: “It’s potent and funny, aimless, but with a lot to say about how people define themselves. But once the film does settle on a trajectory, it loses its way, paying off its investment in its characters with a whopper of a contrivance, a montage sequence long enough to train Rocky twice, and a conclusion that tidies up all that carefully cultivated chaos much too neatly.” 
Availability: In theaters. DVD/BD on November 6

Neil Young Journeys

The gist: The third collaboration between Neil Young and director Jonathan Demme follows the singer as he drives his 1956 Crown Victoria from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario to a gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall. From there, Demme gets intimate, spittle-laden footage of Young performing songs from Le Noise alongside a few classics. 
Metacritic score: 75
What The A.V. Club said: Journeys is the least polished of Demme’s Young documentaries, but also the most revelatory, precisely because it feels less like a message in a time capsule than like lightning in a bottle.”
Availability: In theaters. 

The Pact

The gist: A year short on quality horror movies finally offers one in the familiar form of a haunted-house thriller, but the director’s use of modern technology gives it a unique kick. Caily Lotz stars as a young woman trying to get over his mother’s death, but shaken by mysterious disturbances in her childhood home. 
Metacritic score: 54 
What The A.V. Club said: “The horror in The Pact mixes the supernatural and the “real,” as do the movie’s effects, which combine slick-looking, computer-generated fright sequences with old-fashioned makeup and blood-bags. Even more effective is the way [director Nicholas] McCarthy holds on black screens between some scenes, extending the audience’s anxiety for what he’ll reveal when he cuts to the next shot.”
Availability: In theaters, IFC Midnight On Demand. 


Imported Goods

Declaration Of War

The gist: The French submission for last year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, this uniquely personal drama was written by and stars the ex-husband/wife duo of Valérie Donzelli (who also directs) and Jérémie Elkaïm as a young couple dealing with their 2-year-old’s cancer diagnosis. But the film isn’t a wallow, it’s an often dazzingly stylized celebration of human resilience. 
Metacritic score: 73. 
What The A.V. Club said: “The film is about their struggle through the treatment process, an unsparing look at dealing with the serious illness of a child, as filtered through a breathtakingly vital New Wave lens. Declaration Of War doesn’t make light of tragedy, but it celebrates the strength and perseverance that those suffering through it find within themselves, and slashes its story through with musical numbers, giddy montages, and three narrators offering insight on the proceedings.”
Availability: DVD

Kill List

The gist: Cultists find much to appreciate in Ben Wheatley’s unsettling British horror film, which draws on many sources, including a climactic sequence straight out of The Wicker Man. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley play two former soldiers who return from a disastrous mission in Kiev to perform a series of contract killings with ever-more-disturbing connections. 
Metacritic score: 67
What The A.V. Club said: “Wheatley works in a realm that could be described as kitchen-sink scares, alternating segments of increasingly troubling violence with mundane disputes over finances and dinner-party fights spurred on by too much wine. The discordance and darkness grow as the film goes along, bleeding into the domestic scenes until the two meet in a hectic, surreal climax.”
Availability: DVD/BD on August 14

Chico & Rita

The gist: Of the two “I’ve never heard of that” nominees for last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar—the other being the hand-drawn trifle A Cat In Paris—Spain’s Chico & Rita is the more substantive, a brightly colored, romantic trip through late-’40s/early-’50s Havana, New York, Hollywood, and Las Vegas, set to the Latin jazz of the period. 
Metacritic score: 76
What The A.V. Club said: “Like last year’s dark-horse Best Animated Feature nominee The Illusionist, Chico & Rita accomplishes more with splendid design and a compelling tone than with its thin story. But like The Illusionist, it’s a heady wonder for fans of the music, the era, or visual creative art in general.” 
Availability: DVD/BD

The Secret World Of Arrietty

The gist: Though not on a level with the best of Hayao Miyazaki—who wrote the script here, with Hiromasa Yonebayashi—The Secret World Of Arrietty has the gentle tone and pleasing abstractions of a typical Studio Ghibli production and a sweetness that appeals to all ages. As stories about the adventures of a tiny girl go, it certainly beats the hell out of Don Bluth’s Thumbelina
Metacritic score: 80
What The A.V. Club said:Arrietty is nuanced enough to acknowledge how good intentions can be as damaging as bad ones, yet simple enough to take bittersweet pleasure in every aspect of life, whether happy or sad, just because it exists. [Studio Ghibli’s] films are about journeys—some of them on a large scale, some tiny and internal. Arrietty cleverly manages both at once.”
Availability: DVD/BD

Bullhead

The gist: This surprise Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Belgium deals with the unsavory world of “hormone mafias” that control the beef trade. But as fascinating as this bovine-related gangsterism is, the real standout in Bullhead is Matthias Schoenaerts’ extraordinary performance as a thug who sustained a life-altering injury as a youth. 
Metacritic score: 68
What The A.V. Club said: “Following an excruciating flashback to the moment the young Schoenaerts learned how cruel people can be, the movie becomes less about the machinations of the gangs and the cops and more about Schoenaerts’ feelings of inadequacy, and how they lead him to punish the world. Bullhead is well-plotted, with a powerful ending, but its most brutal scene comes early, explaining why for Schoenaerts, life has been one long wince.”
Availability: DVD/BD

The Raid: Redemption

The gist: A SWAT team enters into an all-out war against a mob army inside a tenement house. That’s it. From there. Gareth Evans’ midnight favorite celebrates Pencak Silat, the Indonesian art of kicking the ever-loving crap out of people. 
Metacritic score: 73
What The A.V. Club said:  “‘Story’ isn’t what most people will be looking for from The Raid: Redemption, which is first and foremost an orgy of violence. Bullets, fists, and blades all fly, captured by Evans via a constantly moving, frequently gravity-defying camera. The emphasis here is speed: The fight choreography is blisteringly quick, designed to make viewers gasp, and then cheer.”
Availability: DVD/BD on August 14

Goon

The gist: Seann William Scott has made a career out of playing affable lunkheads, and he’s found his Hamlet in this raunchy Canadian hockey comedy, which casts him as a bouncer whose brawling skills get him recruited as an enforcer for a minor-league hockey team. Both salty and sweet, what follows is a crowd-pleaser in the Slap Shot vein. 
Metacritic score: 64 
What The A.V. Club said: Goon is a flurrying riposte to Canada’s toothless tradition of hockey films with titles like Breakaway and Score: A Hockey Musical. It’s the rare hockey movie to approach violence head-on, without hectoring or hand-wringing, as an essential element of the sport, not some inhumane sideshow.”
Availability: DVD/BD

Monsieur Lazhar

The gist: Another stellar nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this French-Canadian drama follows an Algerian immigrant (Mohamed Fellag) who takes over after an elementary-school teacher kills herself. Between the suicide and the new teacher’s tragic past and tenuous present, Philippe Falardeau’s film is a powerful statement on both education and the immigrant experience. 
Metacritic score: 83
What The A.V. Club said: “This isn’t some To Sir With Love or Dead Poets Society, a paean to the nobility of the teacher as underpaid hero. Rather, Falardeau has Fellag meet the children on their own level, and recognize them as miniature equals, not merely lazy young minds meant for molding.”
Availability: DVD/BD

I Wish 

The gist: The great Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Still Walking) returns with a typically delicate, whimsical gem about two young brothers who live in separate cities and hope for a reunion—not just for themselves, but for their divorced parents, too. It’s a movie full of little subplots and detours, but made with great assurance and heart. 
Metacritic score: 80
What The A.V. Club said: I Wish is shallower and cuter than [Kore-eda’s previous] three; it’s a movie about kids that at times feels like it’s more for kids, with its peppy, twangy score and scenes of schoolchildren goofing off adorably. But I Wish is still amply Kore-eda-esque, full of life, heart, and funny little details about daily existence, as it meanders its way toward moments of real profundity.”
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD release not yet announced. 

Polisse

The gist:
Co-writer/director/actor Maïwenn goes so deep into the world of the Child Protection Unit in northern Paris that, in its best moments, Polisse feels uncannily like a documentary. The film occasionally falters when it gets away from the grim business of abusive parents and neglected children and into the personal lives of the professionals who try to intervene. But its docu-realist style allows for many emotional detonations. 
Metacritic score: 74
What The A.V. Club said: “On balance, the merits of [Maïwenn’s] approach far outweigh its flaws, giving the unit a collective vitality… the job attracts (and creates) the stressballs and headcases who have the nerve to do it.”
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD release not yet announced.