Best films of 2012 so far: an annotated checklist (Part 2)

Best films of 2012 so far: an annotated checklist (Part 2)

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 features, which are coming next week. It’s just a simple checklist, presented in the order each film was released theatrically in New York City. Back in mid-July, I made the halftime checklist public by presenting the list in annotated form, ending the weekend of July 13. Now I’ll take you through the end of the year, with the following caveats: 

1. The list goes out to my writers without categories. The ones below, particularly “The Essentials,” are a reflection of my taste and priorities. In other words, I don’t care that The Comedy got a 46 on Metacritic. It’s essential. 

2. Within the categories, everything is listed in the order of release in NYC theaters, not in order of preference. 

3. To our shame, we missed reviewing Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day when it was released in early October, so I’ve opted not to include it on the checklist for that reason. However, redemption may be coming for it on the site soon. Please note other inexcusable omissions in the comments below. 

The Essentials

The Dark Knight Rises

The gist: The conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is obviously a right-wing allegory for the corruption and chaos promised by an Occupy revolution, and also clearly a left-wing tract about the unrest fomented by income inequality. In other words, it’s a superhero movie as Rorschach test for however people cared to interpret it—and, incidentally, a satisfying piece of commercial entertainment. 
Metacritic score: 78. 
What The A.V. Club said: “…[Nolan] expands on a comprehensive nightmare of the early 21st century, again playing The Scarecrow to the many millions whose anxieties complete the illusion. He’s made a horror trilogy in the guise of summertime action-adventure, a mind-blowing pulp allegory for America’s worst-case scenario: Terrorist networks, the surveillance state, loose nukes, kangaroo courts, all-out class warfare, the grim threat of fascism on one end and anarchy on the other.” 
Availability: DVD/BD 

The Queen Of Versailles

The gist: Director Lauren Greenfield initially set out to make a documentary about the construction of the biggest single-family home in the United States, a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity modeled partly after the palace in Versailles. But when the housing market collapsed in 2008, Orlando timeshare billionaire David Siegel and his irrepressible wife Jackie faced setbacks that changed the film in fascinating ways. 
Metacritic score: 80. 
What The A.V. Club said: “… a wondrous spectacle, filled with seductive images of luxury and startling images of decay… The Siegels’ woes may seem like the kind that 99 percent of Americans would gladly take on, but The Queen Of Versailles makes an effort to understand where these modern aristocrats are coming from, and to extend them some modicum of sympathy, by emphasizing their ordinariness.”
Availability: DVD/BD

Killer Joe

The gist: Director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts follow up Bug with a gleefully nasty redneck noir about a young man’s half-baked scheme to knock off his mother for the insurance money. Matthew McConaughey plays a wickedly charismatic police detective who moonlights as a hitman. KFC gets some prime product placement. 
Metacritic score: 62. 
What The A.V. Club said: “This is not some nostalgia-soaked throwback to the noir of old, but a rude, shit-kicking thriller that co-opts—and merrily defiles—a classic like Double Indemnity.”
Availability: Scheduled for DVD/BD release December 21. In the meantime, it’s burned onto my retinas, if anybody wants to watch it that way. 

Searching For Sugar Man

The gist: Though hugely popular and influential in South Africa, the gifted early-’70s musician Sixto Díaz Rodríguez (or, more simply, Rodríguez) never caught on in the U.S., dropped off the radar, and was rumored to have committed suicide. This inspirational documentary follows the efforts of two Cape Town fans to track their hero down. 
Metacritic score: 79. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Though unabashedly manipulative in its storytelling and structure, Searching For Sugar Man ultimately earns its happy ending and buzzy, crowd-pleasing populist appeal by alchemizing trembling inner-city pain into transcendent international beauty.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 22. 

The Master

The gist: Paul Thomas Anderson follows up There Will Be Blood with another prickly, eccentric, beguiling period piece about a darkly charismatic leader and the lost souls under his sway. Though it parallels the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, the heart of the film is the push-and-pull between a spiritual visionary (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the haunted war veteran who looks to him for direction and comfort (Joaquin Phoenix). 
Metacritic score: 86. 
What The A.V. Club said: “It’s ambiguous and jagged in shape, and perversely resistant to insta-reaction. Anderson has never made a more difficult film, but he hasn’t made a more mysterious one, either, or one so suffused with meaning.” 
Availability: Out of theaters. Not available yet on DVD/BD. 

Looper

The gist: Rian Johnson’s mind-blowing sci-fi-action thriller takes place in a future where time-travel exists but remains illegal, controlled only by mobsters who send assassins called “loopers” back in time to kill people and dispose of the bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one such looper, who attempts to change his fate when he fails to kill an older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis. 
Metacritic score: 84. 
What The A.V. Club said: “This is a ‘you know what would be cool?’ movie that considers the real-world ramifications of its science-fiction whiz-bang, and a film of ideas that doesn’t skimp on the action.”
Availability: DVD/BD on December 31. 

Wuthering Heights

The gist: This ain’t your grandma’s Wuthering Heights. Drifting off as far as possible from Masterpiece Theatre stodginess, Andrea Arnold’s impressionistic adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel reduces the love between Heathcliff and Catherine to its raw essence. As punishing and beautiful as its Yorkshire setting, it’s a brutal, muddy, atmospheric exercise in minimalism. 
Metacritic score: 70. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Andrea Arnold’s new adaptation eschews any niceties, opting for handheld camerawork, unfettered emotions, casual brutality, and flashes of piercing beauty. Shot in the Yorkshire moors that gave the book its setting, it’s an intense, uncompromising take that restores some of the shock that made Wuthering Heights so notable when it first appeared.”
Availability: Still trickling slowly around the country. Not available yet on DVD/BD. 

Argo

The gist: Based on a stranger-than-fiction true story, Ben Affleck’s thriller details an attempt to smuggle a handful of American embassy employees out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. The scheme: Go location-scouting in Iran for a plausible science-fiction film and claim them as members of a Canadian film crew. 
Metacritic score: 86. 
What The A.V. Club said: The film glides skillfully from the perilous front lines of international espionage to the lower reaches of show business and back again, quietly drawing parallels between worlds in which appearances are everything.
Availability: In theaters. 

Holy Motors

The gist: Director Leos Carax, the mad visionary behind The Lovers On The Bridge and Mauvais Sang, hasn’t made a feature in 13 years. With Denis Levant’s shape-shifting hero as a guide, Carax unloads a delirious inventory of all the crazy ideas he’s been tucking away all this time. It’s a film easier experienced than explained. 
Metacritic score: 84. 
What The A.V. Club said: “On its surface, this absurdist ode to analog’s death at digital’s hands seems to echo a number of recent essays eager to perform the last rites on cinema, or at least on its status as our dominant dream factory. Yet Holy Motors is such a bravura, go-for-broke exploration of what movies can do—is so thrillingly, defiantly alive—that it contradicts its own mournful thesis at every turn.” 
Availability: In limited release. 

The Loneliest Planet

The gist: A pair of engaged young adventurers, played by Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, goes on a hiking trip across the Caucasus Mountain range in Georgia. Then something happens—something that only takes a few seconds, but changes everything between them. 
Metacritic score: 76. 
What The A.V. Club said: “In extending a short story to feature length without embellishing it—at least in the plotting—[writer-director Julia] Loktev suffuses the film with the kind of intimate, microscopic detail and observation that’s more common to literature than cinema.”
Availability: In very limited release. Available through IFC On Demand. 

Flight

The gist: In a stunning advance in motion-capture technology, Robert Zemeckis’ new drama stars the remarkably lifelike Denzel Washington as a hard-drinking pilot who saves lives by skillfully crash-landing a commercial airliner, but faces serious consequences afterwards. Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and John Goodman play the enablers who try to cover up his misdeeds. 
Metacritic score: 76. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Washington builds the character through his actions, and sometimes just his expressions: a confident gaze here, a melting of that confidence elsewhere, and an ever-persistent hunger resting just below the surface. He plays the sort of morally conflicted protagonist sadly seen more often on cable dramas than in mainstream films.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Lincoln

The gist: Working from a Tony Kushner screenplay, Steven Spielberg’s biopic focuses on Lincoln’s effort to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery, before the end of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and a who’s-who of American character actors (Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, and many more) play allies, adversaries, and some crafty politicians in between. 
Metacritic score: 86. 
What The A.V. Club said: Lincoln is built around a magnetic Day-Lewis turn, and the film is a memorable, sometimes stirring look at how even the most righteous bill must struggle, and even cheat, to become a law. It demands a bigger stage than the one it’s given here.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Skyfall

The gist: Director Sam Mendes, the filmmaker responsible for such thrill-rides as Away We Go and Revolutionary Road, tries his hand at the James Bond series and proves exceptionally capable. Daniel Craig returns as Bond, who squares off against a former MI6 agent (Javier Bardem) threatening to expose the names of agents working undercover around the world. 
Metacritic score: 81. 
What The A.V. Club said: “The Bond films have always struggled to balance the expectations of a genre they created, and the need to innovate to suit new political and cinematic climates. Skyfall more than rises to the challenge, setting a new standard for modern Bond films while keeping an eye on the past—and considering the damage 50 years of restlessness, gunplay, and double lives must take on the soul.”
Availability: In theaters. 

The Comedy

The gist: Like a cross between the generational ennui of The Graduate and the masculine viciousness of Carnal Knowledge—though way the hell darker than both—Rick Alverson’s character study stars Tim Heidecker as an entitled, directionless Williamsburg resident dealing with his father’s imminent death. In the meantime, he provokes people—and the film does likewise. 
Metacritic score: 46. 
What The A.V. Club said: The Comedy harshly assesses a particular breed of drifting, decadent, trust-funded Brooklyn layabout, but not from a safe distance—it implicates itself, and feels more like an act of raw self-loathing than cool portraiture. Heidecker’s performance is absolutely pitiless, inviting no sympathy, yet suggesting some faint embers of humanity under the surface, some private agony that cannot be salved by his relationship to other human beings.”
Availability: In very limited release. On Demand via Tribeca Film. 

Life Of Pi

The gist: Adapted from Yann Martel’s bestseller, Ang Lee’s visually rich, spiritually ambitious fantasy follows a zookeeper’s son who ends up stranded on a lifeboat with an assortment of animals, including a Bengal tiger. The film focuses nominally on whether animals have souls, but it’s more interested in larger matters of faith. 
Metacritic score: 78. 
What The A.V. Club said: “For much of the film, the metaphors at work are largely submerged in the immediacy of [the title character’s] breathless, intense fight for survival, spaced out by moments of overwhelming visual richness provided by the changing environment around him. But the larger messages about spirituality often seem forced, and it’s more compelling to focus on Lee’s visceral cinematic experience than on the larger, fuzzier messages Martel’s story conveys about humanity’s connection with God.”
Availability: In theaters. And essential to see in 3-D. 

Amour

The gist: Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or-winning drama concerns a retiree (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has to take care of his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) when a stroke paralyzes half her body and her condition slowly declines. It’s a tale common to many married couples at the end of their lives together, but rarely so astutely observed. 
Metacritic score: 91. 
What The A.V. Club said: “It’s [Haneke’s] most straightforward film since his debut feature, The Seventh Continent, and his trademark pitilessness serves the material exceptionally well… A bracingly unsentimental film, but it isn’t heartless.”
Availability: In limited release December 19. 

Zero Dark Thirty

The gist: Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the team behind the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, bring the same journalistic rigor to the story behind the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Spoiler alert: They got him!
Metacritic score: 99. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Though Bigelow’s film largely unfolds far from America, it’s hard to imagine another movie capturing the fear, exhaustion, ethical compromise, and personal sacrifice that defined that decade quite as well.”
Availability: In theaters December 19. 

Django Unchained

The gist: Part spaghetti Western, part comedy, Quentin Tarantino’s latest ahistorical pastiche stars Jamie Foxx as a slave who joins forces with a former dentist (Christoph Waltz) turned bounty hunter. All roads lead to a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s holding his wife hostage.
Metacritic score: N/A
What The A.V. Club said: At deadline, the film had yet to be screened. But if it’s as good as Tarantino’s worst film, it’ll be essential. 
Availability: In theaters December 25. 


Hollywood: The System Works!

Hope Springs

The gist: After 31 years of marriage, all romance is gone for a pair of empty-nesters, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. He’s content with their routine life and separate bedrooms; she wants something more from him. The couple heads to intensive counseling sessions with a therapist (Steve Carell) in Maine in a bid to save their marriage. 
Metacritic score: 65. 
What The A.V. Club said: “The sessions with Carell are the strongest scenes in Hope Springs, unfolding over pages and pages of script that drop all pretense to romantic comedy and deal with the hard, humbling work of fixing a relationship more fraught than either party seems to realize… [The film] handles marriage and advanced-age sexuality with a refreshing, down-to-earth candor. In today’s Hollywood, that counts as radical.
Availability: DVD/BD.

Premium Rush

The gist: In David Koepp’s live-action Roadrunner cartoon, brake-free New York City bike messenger Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to deliver an important package across the city to Chinatown. A corrupt police detective (Michael Shannon) stands in his way. The chase is on. 
Metacritic score: 66. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Shannon doesn’t attempt anything like the austere derangement of a Hans Gruber type, even though he specializes in playing terrifying nutjobs. Instead, he’s a buffoon of the first order, and his hapless tomfoolery sets the tone for a light, fast, frequently hilarious 90 minutes.”
Availability: DVD/BD on December 21. 

End Of Watch

The gist: Since writing the screenplay for Training Day, David Ayer has returned again and again to corruption within the LAPD, scripting Dark Blue, serving as writer-director on Harsh Times, and directing Street Kings from a story by L.A. crime maestro James Ellroy. End Of Watch again centers on cops who play by their own rules, but they’re the heroes this time, running from a cartel after seizing some of its assets. 
Metacritic score: 68. 
What The A.V. Club said: “By the time it lumbers to a close, the disappointingly TV-sized film feels less like the resolution of a de facto trilogy than like a rerun limply recycling characters and situations that have been more compellingly dramatized in countless other films and television shows, including Ayer’s own obsessive, monomaniacal oeuvre.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 22. 

Seven Psychopaths

The gist: Acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh follows up In Bruges with another lively tale of male bonding and criminality, this one a meta-comedy about a Hollywood screenwriter (Colin Farrell) struggling with a new screenplay for a movie called Seven Psychopaths. He gets sidetracked when his buddy (a brilliant Sam Rockwell) and his partner (Christopher Walken) have their dognapping scam exposed by a gangster. 
Metacritic score: 66. 
What The A.V. Club said: “McDonagh gleefully [blows] up the movie even while he’s making it. He doesn’t leave much behind beyond a trail of blood, wit, and confusion, but it’s something to see while it lasts.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 29. 

Wreck-It Ralph

The gist: The latest Disney production under the Pixar regime—the other, Tangled, benefitted greatly from new management—Wreck-It Ralph concerns an arcade-game bad guy (voiced by John C. Reilly) who seeks to change his image. References to arcade classics abound. 
Metacritic score: 73. 
What The A.V. Club said: It’s a wildly exciting ride, the fastest-moving, most enthusiastically kinetic kids’ action film since The Incredibles. But it’s also a surprisingly ambitious, crafty gimcrack that piles subplot upon subplot, building a teetering tower of ideas that seems more suited to a full season of television than a single feature film. 
Availability: In theaters. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The gist: It’s déjà vu all over again as The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson kicks off a second J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy about a small creature on a big adventure. This time, Bilbo Baggins journeys across the land to help a group of dwarves reclaim a stolen treasure. 
Metacritic score: 62. (So far.) 
What The A.V. Club said: “At its best, it recaptures the Rings movies’ breadth, detail, and staggering sense of beauty. Jackson retains the sense of an entire world created on a vast scope for a film. But by comparison with the other Rings movies—the extremely high bar Jackson has already set for himself—Unexpected Journey falls short and feels muddled.”
Availability: In theaters. Though there’s some dispute over whether it’s better to see Jackson’s vision in 48fps or stab your eyeballs with a fork. 

The Impossible

The gist: Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) dramatizes the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami from the perspective of a vacationing family. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play a couple that brings their three children to Thailand for vacation, but get separated by the tragic event. 
Metacritic score: N/A.
What The A.V. Club said: The Impossible confirms that Bayona is a major talent, with a skill for shooting and constructing sequences that build tension masterfully. The tsunami sequence is likely to get most of the attention—and rightfully so, since it’s 10 of the most harrowing minutes most moviegoers are likely to see this year—but the movie is actually filled with smaller but no less gripping scenes of these family members scrambling to find each other amid a landscape of wreckage and strangers.”
Availability: In theaters December 21. 

This Is 40

The gist: The onset of middle age leads a married couple (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) to assess the state of their family, their careers, and their volatile marriage in Judd Apatow’s deeply personal comedy. For fortysomething mothers and fathers, it may feel more like the year’s most disturbing documentary. 
Metacritic score: N/A. 
What The A.V. Club said: Nothing officially, but a little birdie tells us that Apatow’s shambling, unruly portrait of family life is like a John Cassavetes movie with dick jokes, and that its seeming lack of discipline goes hand-in-hand with an abundance of raw truth that’s rare in Hollywood film. 
Availability: In theaters December 21. 

Les Misérables

The gist: Based on the Broadway juggernaut—which itself is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel—Tom Hooper’s star-packed musical extravaganza details the sliver of French revolutionary triumph that follows unbearable adversity, sadness, and death. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a man who suffers 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread, only to be tormented by Javert (Russell Crowe), a police inspector who makes Valjean’s suffering his personal business. Anne Hathaway sings “I Dreamed A Dream.” Things don’t end well for her, either. 
Metacritic score: N/A.
What The A.V. Club said: Nothing yet, but we have a feeling that the big emotions drummed up by the musical are enough to overcome Hooper’s irritating stylistic tics (160 minutes of wide-angle close-ups!) and the variable quality of the voices. Rule of thumb: The less recognizable the actor, the better the singer. Exception: Hathaway. 
Availability: In theaters December 25. 


Auteur Obligations

Hara-kiri: Death Of A Samurai

The gist: Takeshi Miike (Audition) throws another curveball with this austere, heartfelt—yet characteristically bloody—remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s revered 1962 classic. A samurai movie for a down economy, the film stars Ebizo Ichikawa as an unemployed swordsman who offers to commit seppuku at the House Of Ii, under the expectation that he’ll be declined and offered work. Instead, his bluff is called. 
Metacritic score: 76. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Arriving on the heels of 13 Assassins, Miike’s gloriously irreverent take on the samurai action genre, Hara-Kiri seems conventional by his standards, especially in a long middle section that occasionally dips into sentimentality. But the two films complement each other nicely, with Miike making the case, in emphatic terms, that the “honor” on which these samurai houses are built is a cover for corruption, injustice, and pitiless cruelty.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 22. 

Red Hook Summer

The gist: Thwarted in his efforts to make movies within the studio system, Spike Lee returns to his independent roots with this micro-budgeted labor of love about a 13-year-old spending a memorable summer in Brooklyn. Jules Brown plays the kid, a middle-class boy from Atlanta who’s sent to live with his old-fashioned bishop grandfather, played by The Wire’s Clarke Peters.   
Metacritic score: 48. 
What The A.V. Club said: “[The film] illustrates why even Lee’s fans are right to view his intensely personal projects with skepticism. Its 121-minute running time is similarly cause for concern. Lee can be tight and focused as a gun-for-hire, but he’s always viewed personal projects as irresistible invitations to self-indulgence and overreaching. Red Hook Summer is no exception.”
Availability: DVD/BD on December 21. 

Cosmopolis

The gist: Furthering his habit of adaptable “unadaptable” novels like J.G. Ballard’s Crash and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, director David Cronenberg turns Don DeLillo’s short book about a fateful limo ride into a commentary on the “haves” and “have-nots” in the Occupy age. Twilight’s Robert Pattinson breaks hard against his teen-friendly image by playing a 28-year-old billionaire who takes a limo across heavy traffic to get a haircut while his fortune dwindles away. 
Metacritic score: 58. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Though some of the exchanges sound a bit page-bound, more often, the pairing of Cronenberg and DeLillo plays like a meeting of simpatico minds. Cosmopolis is rich in dry, dark comedy that never defuses a mounting sense of dread, a mix of elements familiar to both the writer and director.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 1. 

The Bay

The gist: Returning to horror for the first time since his dismal Sphere—“we have nothing to fear but Sphere itself”—director Barry Levinson hops on the found-footage bandwagon with a harrowing account of a seaside town decimated by an environmental plague. The film follows an amateur journalist who pieces together her footage and experience with that of multiple sources. 
Metacritic score: 66. 
What The A.V. Club said: “[Levinson] and screenwriter Michael Wallach have constructed an impressive full-scale narrative out of images caught on the fly. The Bay is made to look as though it’s been cobbled together from cell phones and surveillance cameras, much like Brian De Palma’s Redacted (only far less amateurish) or one of the Paranormal Activity movies (only with a broader perspective). The result is surprisingly satisfying, like Jaws for the YouTube/Skype era.”
Availability: Instant video sources like Amazon currently have it for a $4 rental. 

In Another Country

The gist: The third Hong Sang-soo film released in the U.S. in 2012, following The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie, In Another Country is notable mainly for the casting of French actress Isabelle Huppert in multiple roles. Huppert plays a “charming French visitor” in three different scripts drawn up by a young film student (Jung Yu-mi) hiding from debtors in South Korea’s North Jeolla province. 
Metacritic score: 68. 
What The A.V. Club said: “The language barrier does provide Hong with a new, rewarding source of goofy humor (every scene involving the lifeguard’s excitable efforts to seduce Huppert is pure gold), and his gift for exposing the various ways in which people kid themselves romantically remains intact. But reverberations among the three stories are mostly inconsequential, which creates a sense of diminishing returns.”
Availability: Unknown. Will be released eventually on Kino Video. 

Killing Them Softly

The gist: Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford reteams him with Brad Pitt, who plays an assassin called in to clean up the mess created by the successful robbery of a mobbed-up poker game. The action unfolds against the backdrop of the 2008 economic collapse and presidential election, an opportunity for political commentary that Dominik doesn’t pass up. 
Metacritic score: 64 
What The A.V. Club said: “It often seems like Dominik is playing against his own strengths: The robbery sequence is an instant classic, an agonizingly patient white-knuckler in which armed halfwits go swimming with sharks, but Killing Them Softly settles into a portentous conversation piece that makes too much of a show of its own significance. Dominik will be damned if he’s going to make some run-of-the-mill shoot-’em-up, and the film certainly isn’t that, for better or worse.”
Availability: In theaters (but out of most by now). 


Notable Documentaries

Planet Of Snail

The gist: This unusual and strikingly beautiful Korean documentary observes the interplay between the blind and deaf Young-chan and his wife Soon-ho, a woman with a spinal disability that has her standing at half her husband’s height. Together, they face day-to-day challenges, like changing a light bulb that he can’t see and she’s not tall enough to reach. 
Metacritic score: 73. 
What The A.V. Club said: “With little story to speak of, Planet Of Snail is more of an experiential piece, closing in on the pleasure and wonder with which Young-chan takes in details like rain falling outside the window and the bark of a tree. What’s at stake, in the end, is the only the future possibility of living apart.”
Availability: DVD/BD on February 12. 

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The Ambassador

The gist: Last seen leading a sketch-comedy troupe through North Korea (The Red Chapel), Danish provocateur Mads Brügger attempts another high-concept political stunt by posing as a European ambassador in search of blood diamonds in the Central African Republic. In the process, he exposes—and takes part in—a political culture of bribing and theft. 
Metacritic score: 67. 
What The A.V. Club said: “As an exploration of how widespread corruption is on the continent, it’s less damning than despairing. The CAR is so mired in individual interests, the way constantly needing to be smoothed by ‘envelopes of happiness,’ as Brügger nicknames his bribes, that the idea of any kind of national improvement seems exhaustingly out of reach. It’s not just that people can purchase diplomatic immunity—even that turns out to be a convoluted process of graft and misinformation—so much as that people can buy anything, so long as they’re prepared to be ripped off whenever possible.”
Availability: DVD/BD. 

How To Survive A Plague

The gist: Founded in Brooklyn in 1987, the protest group ACT UP used various strategies, from disruptive protests to scientific committees, to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis and get a seat at the table. David France’s documentary looks back at the group’s passion and innovation, as well as the divisions on strategy. 
Metacritic score: 87. 
What The A.V. Club said:How To Survive A Plague feels like an occasion for reconciliation, an acknowledgment that agitators like [Larry] Kramer and [Bob] Rafsky smashed down doors and put [Treatment Action Group] in a position to effect change. It’s a lesson in how a great activist group can get the job done with passion and politics.”
Availability: DVD on February 26.

The House I Live In

The gist: Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance winner takes a comprehensive look at the tragic failures of the drug war, with testimony from government and police officials, dealers and users, and others, including former journalist and The Wire/Treme creator David Simon. Jarecki argues that resources and lives have been squandered in a battle that has shown no progress. 
Metacritic score: 77. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Jarecki connects his surfeit of anecdotal observations to hard data, making a compelling case that the drug war has never been about drugs, but about controlling the underclass. And even viewers of a less-conspiratorial bent should be horrified by how Jarecki shows that the drug war has become a self-sustaining business, where the government seizes money from dealers and uses it to buy more prison beds, necessitating more arrests.”
Availability: Still trickling through theaters. DVD date unannounced. 

Photographic Memory

The gist: The brilliant first-person documentary essayist Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) explores his contentious relationship with his adult son by looking back on his own life at that age, when he was a 24-year-old assistant to a wedding photographer. McElwee’s love for his son is central to the film, but as usual, his digressive style leads him to other places. 
Metacritic score: 79. 
What The A.V. Club said: Photographic Memory is less wry and more melancholy than McElwee’s earlier documentaries; it’s a lot like his superb 2003 film Bright Leaves, which was also concerned with family history and the shifting meaning of images. The documentary proceeds cautiously through its dual storylines, never pushing any point too hard, but still arriving at a meaningful conclusion.”
Availability: DVD on February 12.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God

The gist: Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) tackles the loaded subject of pedophilia in the Catholic Church, from the specific abuses of a now-deceased priest in Wisconsin to a broader indictment of Pope Benedict XVI and his associates. Gibney builds his case through testimony and dramatic (though non-explicit) reenactments. 
Metacritic score: 73.  
What The A.V. Club said: “Gibney’s choice to use the occasional stylized reenactment of memories from the confessional or the boys’ dorm at night works less smoothly, the dramatic effect coming across needlessly showy and sometimes more America’s Most Wanted than The Thin Blue Line. But the anger at the heart of the St. John’s case, and the way its perpetrator was protected by the church and the community, easily carries the film through its larger examination of the Vatican’s denials and shifting of blame about similar reports, of which it clearly had prior knowledge.”
Availability: Out of theaters, DVD release date unannounced. 

The Central Park Five

The gist: In 1989, a group of five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of beating and raping a white jogger in Central Park. After spending years in prison, they were finally released when a serial rapist confessed to the crime. Directors Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon look back with anger over the ugly racial and political forces that led to this injustice.  
Metacritic score: 79. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Missing from the film—because they declined to participate—are the rape victim, her actual attacker, or anyone from the police or the prosecution. And though there’s explanatory on-screen text throughout, the movie has no narrator. So unlike the comprehensive, authoritative voice of most of Burns’ documentaries, The Central Park Five is more subjective, bordering on claustrophobic as it walks viewers step by step through how five kids became the most reviled people in New York City, even though the contradictions in their statements and the lack of DNA evidence should’ve provoked more skepticism.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Beware Of Mr. Baker

The gist: Bringing a distinctive creative stamp to bands like Cream and Blind Faith, drummer Ginger Baker was known as much for his volatility as his virtuosity. Beware Of Mr. Baker catches up with him for a contentious profile that finds him living inside a South African compound. 
Metacritic score: 79. 
What The A.V. Club said: “[Director] Jay Bulger and editor Abhay Sofsky work wonders with the archival footage, giving Beware Of Mr. Baker its own jazzy rhythm, but they can’t do as much with the interviews, for which the arthritis-stricken Baker mostly sits immobile in his recliner… Bulger has the wizened, reflective likes of [Eric] Clapton and Jack Bruce to play analyst. Baker is all about moving forward, enjoying the flow, and demanding that others keep up.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Tchoupitoulas

The gist: Bill and Turner Ross’ unique “documentary” earns its scare quotes by challenging the form to produce something more spontaneous and expressive. Though filmed over the better part of the year, it follows three young African-American brothers who take the ferry into New Orleans and wind up stranded all night in its eccentricities and enchantments. 
Metacritic score: 80. 
What The A.V. Club said: “A hypnotic 80-minute drift through nocturnal New Orleans that seeks more to pick up on bits of culture and atmosphere than to tell any stories. [The Rosses] blow up the conventions of documentary realism to capture the city’s soul, a much more abstract, elusive undertaking… It’s less a documentary than a feature-length vibe.” 
Availability: In theaters. 

Only The Young

The gist: Released the same week—and by the same distributor, Oscilloscope—as Tchoupitoulas, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ mesmerizing Only The Lonely junks the rules of traditional documentaries to fashion a more poetic vision of youth. At its center are two teenage Christian skate punks who comfortably inhabit those contradictory worlds and a girl who comes between them. 
Metacritic score: 72. 
What The A.V. Club said: “[Tippet and Mims] shoot these kids as if they were characters in an especially arty high-school melodrama, evoking the scuzzy-lyrical aesthetic of filmmakers from Larry Clark to Gus Van Sant. Brisk, impressionistic editing further heightens the sense that viewers are watching something that’s been carefully crafted rather than just dutifully recorded. Only the fact that everyone’s talking directly to the camera indicates that it’s unscripted.”
Availability: In theaters. 

West Of Memphis

The gist: After spending 18 years in prison for the murder of three 8-year-old boys, “The West Memphis Three” (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were finally exonerated last year. Though their case has been followed closely in the three Paradise Lost films, Amy Berg’s documentary gives it another look, focusing on the stepfather of one of the victims. 
Metacritic score: N/A
What The A.V. Club said: “A well-assembled, well-argued doc that shows how our advocacy model of trial law can lead to the state spinning stories they know are probably untrue, and then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions of people believe it.”
Availability: In limited release on December 25. 


Indie Curiosities

Ruby Sparks

The gist: In Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype gets reexamined when a lonely, struggling young novelist (Paul Dano) invents a character (Zoe Kazan, who also scripted) he can love. When she materializes in the real world, however, his fantasies are complicated considerably. 
Metacritic score: 67.
What The A.V. Club said: “For all its scattershot nature and fairy-tale lightness, it’s still a daring movie, both for its pointed but humorous repudiation of familiar cinematic tropes, and for the way it leavens a fantasy romance with a subtly burgeoning, uneasy sympathy for an entire ill-used stereotype.”
Availability: DVD/BD. 

Compliance

The gist: Based on a seemingly impossible true story, Craig Zobel’s disturbing drama begins with a restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) taking a call from a man posing as a police officer, accusing one of her employees of stealing from a customer. The stranger gradually advises the woman to take more and more invasive measures in dealing with the suspect (Dreama Walker) until the police can arrive. 
Metacritic score: 68. 
What The A.V. Club said:Compliance’s cast is so terrific that they turn a slight story that takes place almost entirely in one dingy room into rich theater, with each character and place so well-defined that they linger even after the closing credits. And Zobel wields the same feel for everyday interactions and power relationships that he showed in his Great World Of Sound, capturing the petty bureaucracy and bored flirtation that dominates a shift at a minimum-wage food-service job.”
Availability: DVD on January 8. 

Arbitrage

The gist: A combination of morality tale and financial exposé, Nicholas Jarecki’s complicated drama stars Richard Gere as a billionaire hedge-fund manager who’s been cooking the books in order to cover his losses. But an accident that claims his mistress’ life has him scrambling to cover up the truth about his cheating in both love and finance, and leaves his daughter (Brit Marling) exposed. 
Metacritic score: 73. 
What The A.V. Club said: “[The] plot would lend itself well to ‘last act of Goodfellas’ mode, with all the hero’s spinning plates beginning to wobble simultaneously. Instead, Jarecki is thoroughly square, building the film on mano-a-mano confrontations and conversations that advance the story and themes, but do little to shade in his world or jangle the viewers’ nerves. 
Availability: DVD/BD. 

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

The gist: Stephen Chbosky adapts his own epistolary YA novel about a 15-year-old freshman (Logan Lerman) who’s dealing with multiple stresses, including his first love (Emma Watson), his best friend’s suicide, and his own battles with mental illness. Chbosky’s wistful coming-of-age film recalls the ’80s standard of John Hughes. 
Metacritic score: 67. 
What The A.V. Club said:The Perks Of Being A Wallflower touches on many of the expected pop-cultural milestones of an alternateen experience—The Smiths, Catcher In The Rye, and midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—while managing to capture the sense of awe in finding these things for the first time.”
Availability: DVD/BD on February 12. 

Middle Of Nowhere

The gist: Ava DuVernay won Best Director at Sundance for her character-driven piece about a black doctor-in-training (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who drops out of medical school to be closer to the prison where her husband (Omari Hardwick) is serving an eight-year sentence. 
Metacritic score: 75. 
What The A.V. Club said: The power of Middle Of Nowhere is cumulative, conveyed in sustained tone and deepening character rather than bravura sequences or explosive confrontations. But its lack of pyrotechnics doesn’t translate to a paucity of feeling. If anything, it’s more affecting for the leisurely way it rolls out its story, allowing each step to resonate before moving on to the next.
Availability: Mostly out of theaters. DVD/BD date unannounced.

Smashed

The gist: Cult darling Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Grindhouse, Scott Pilgrim) gives a breakout performance as an alcoholic schoolteacher who hits bottom and tries to recover while her husband and main drinking buddy (Aaron Paul) keeps the party going. She also fakes a pregnancy to keep the principal (Megan Mullally) off the scent. 
Metacritic score: 71. 
What The A.V. Club said: “In spite of the out-of-place pregnancy subplot, Smashed is a film of pummeling intensity and bruised emotions. It’s a refreshingly complex look at how people’s emotional development can play havoc with their partners’ security and sense of self, especially if that security and sense of self are shaky to begin with.”
Availability: Out of theaters. DVD/BD release date unannounced. 

The Sessions

The gist: Based on a magazine article by the late Mark O’Brien, this Sundance favorite stars John Hawkes as O’Brien, a 36-year-old polio sufferer who can’t function outside an iron lung for more than four or five hours at a time. Determined to lose his virginity, he hires a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to deflower him, but their relationship slowly goes beyond professional. 
Metacritic score: 80. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Hawkes does an excellent job of playing a paralyzed, emaciated polio sufferer, and if anything, the way he can’t fully disappear into the role makes it more amazing to watch him. But while his role feels like an import from an Oscar-bait prestige picture, the film around him has different aims. It’s funny and overtly sexual, rather than serious and stuffy, and it’s supremely uninterested in Oscar-esque gravitas.”
Availability: In theaters. 

This Must Be The Place

The gist: Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) comes to America, Paris, Texas-style, for an eccentric road comedy/drama about the reclusive frontman (Sean Penn) of a once-popular band who still meanders about in Robert Smith pancake makeup. After his estranged father dies, Penn embarks on a strange odyssey to track down the Nazi war criminal who tormented him during World War II. 
Metacritic score: 61. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Past the initial impulse to jeer, This Must Be The Place might win some viewers over—especially those who value the journey more than the destination. This is the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Family Friend), and like many American movies directed by foreigners, it regards the country’s diverse landscapes and inhabitants with a fresh set of eyes.”
Availability: In theaters. (Though its distributor, The Weinstein Company, has done all but throw it into a quarry pit.) 

Starlet

The gist: One of the year’s most striking indies, Sean Baker’s Harold And Maude-type relationship drama chronicles the unlikely friendship between an adult-film star in her early 20s and a cranky old woman (Besedka Johnson) about 60 years her senior. Mariel Hemingway’s daughter Dree plays the young woman with her mother’s uncanny mix of intelligence and spacey beauty. 
Metacritic score: 74. 
What The A.V. Club said: Starlet is refreshingly unsentimental in its depiction of both youth and age. Johnson isn’t a sweet old woman full of life lessons, or a carpe diem-embracing quirky grandma type; she’s angry, distrustful, and set in her ways, an ornery survivor more interested in living out her remaining years in relative peace than in making a new friend whose world and sensibility are completely foreign to her. Yet Hemingway’s underlying sweetness and resilience ultimately get under Johnson’s skin.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Anna Karenina

The gist: After taking on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, director Joe Wright tries another sumptuous adaptation of a literary classic, attempting to tame Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel through the power of Keira Knightley and elaborate tracking shots. Knightley plays the eponymous character, an aristocrat who risks her marriage and exalted social stature on an affair with a Count. 
Metacritic score: 63. 
What The A.V. Club said: “As an accomplishment, and watched on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s one of the most stunning movies of recent years… If only the emotions of the performances, the themes of the story, and Wright’s cinematic virtuosity synced up more often. A lopsided abridgement that speeds through the plot doesn’t help.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Save The Date

The gist: In Michael Mohan’s romantic comedy, Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie play sisters with wildly diverging perspectives on love: Brie happily prepares herself to marry her boyfriend (Martin Starr) and start a family, while Caplan reluctantly moves in with her boyfriend (Geoffrey Arend) after two years and balks at a deeper commitment. 
Metacritic score: 58. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Smart, funny, sexy, sad, and refreshingly devoid of clichés, Save The Date occupies a higher evolutionary plane than most other wedding-themed romantic comedies.”
Availability: In theaters and On Demand via IFC. 

Not Fade Away

The gist: The Sopranos creator David Chase tries his hand at feature filmmaking with his period piece about a group of friends in ’60s suburban New Jersey who start a rock band. Several Sopranos players collaborate with Chase again, including James Gandolfini and music supervisor Steven Van Zandt. 
Metacritic score: N/A.
What The A.V. Club said: Nothing yet. 
Availability: In theaters December 21. 

Promised Land

The gist: Director Gus Van Sant teams up with co-writer/stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski for an issue-oriented drama about a natural-gas salesman (Damon) who descends on a small rural town with a pitch for the locals to turn over their land for drilling. Everything goes smoothly until Krasinski, an environmental activist, shows up to inform the potential leasees about the dangers of fracking. 
Metacritic score: N/A. 
What The A.V. Club said: Nothing yet. 
Availability: In theaters December 28. 


Imported Goods

Neighboring Sounds

The gist: This exciting debut feature by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho takes place largely around one crumbling city block in the coastal city of Recife. Once a thriving middle-class community, the block is now fraught with anxiety and conflict, with fault lines opening up between people of varying racial and generational identities. 
Metacritic score: 74. 
What The A.V. Club said: “A slice of life that comes about its sweeping ideas with surprising delicacy… Native Brazilians will no doubt pick up more allusions than outsiders, but Neighboring Sounds is a beautiful, scarily assured debut, a collection of small moments that add up to a pointillist wonder.” 
Availability: DVD/BD on March 19. 

Sister

The gist: The gifted French-Swiss director Ursula Meier follows up her extraordinary debut feature Home with another story about a destabilized family surviving on the fringes. Kacey Mottet Klein stars as a crafty kid who lives with his screw-up older sister (Léa Seydoux) in an apartment near a ski resort and helps sustain their meager lifestyle by stealing skis from tourists and selling them on the black market. 
Metacritic score: 81. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Meier documents Klein’s day-to-day thievery like the Dardennes did with the eponymous character in Rosetta, depicting him as a creature of need who doesn’t consider the moral consequences—or even the strategic value—of doing whatever it takes to get by. But as more is revealed about the true nature of Klein and Seydoux’s relationship, Sister shifts into something more intimate and affecting, revealing a bond that’s simultaneously powerful and tenuous.”
Availability: Still trickling to arthouses around the country. No DVD date announced. 

Sleep Tight

The gist: [REC] director Jaume Balagueró trades found-footage for a more traditional style of horror filmmaking in this unnerving thriller about a janitor (Luís Tosar) who subtly torments the tenants of an apartment building. Balagueró challenges the viewers’ sympathies by showing the action mostly from the janitor’s point of view. 
Metacritic score: 70. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Balagueró has a fine control of pacing and tone, and is able to keep Sleep Tight gripping throughout, right up to its shocking final act… This is a crime story with little to no interest in the who or the why, but only the what and the how. It’s a reverse-procedural, tracking not the solution of a crime, but all of its awful particulars.”
Availability: DVD/BD on January 8. 

Rust And Bone

The gist: Jacques Audiard follows up his widely acclaimed prison drama A Prophet with an offbeat, silly-sounding romance about the relationship between a “MarineWorld” trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs to an whale and a security guard/kickboxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who befriends her. Songs by Katy Perry and Bon Iver add to the mix. 
Metacritic score: 72. 
What The A.V. Club said: “Based on Craig Davidson’s short-story collection, Rust And Bone is a deft, sidewinding drama about two people overcoming disabilities in body and soul. There’s something deeply romantic about the ways each of them try, consciously or not, to rehabilitate the other, and great complexity, too, in the schism that develops when one comes closer to being whole than the other.”
Availability: In theaters. 

Barbara

The gist: German director Christian Petzold broke through in festival circles with 2008’s Jerichow, a fiendishly clever rendition of The Postman Always Rings Twice. His latest is a subtly chilling drama about a doctor (Nina Hoss) in ’80s East Germany who’s exiled to a small country hospital and kept under suspicion for subversive views. 
Metacritic score: N/A. 
What The A.V. Club said: “The hostility directed toward Hoss is made subtly apparent: A few not-so-friendly visits to her assigned apartment, a flat tire on her bicycle after she returns from a tryst in the woods. But Petzold is careful to make those threats just a part of life in East Germany, more insinuating than explicit. And he has the perfect actress in Hoss, a Verhoeven blonde who walls herself under an icy, withering stare but lets down her guard enough to where we recognize how carefully practiced (and necessary) her act is for survival.” 
Availability: In theaters December 21.

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