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December 19, 2011


There is a moment in Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World where Herzog explains that, when he was seeking financing for the film, he warned people that it would not be a "fluffy" production like March of the Penguins, and indeed I thought there could hardly be a more heartbreaking scene than that of a bewildered young penguin who suddenly turns the wrong direction and runs with determination, not toward the sea, but toward a mountain of ice and certain death. That is until I saw Dereck Joubert's The Last Lions. If you have ever doubted that animals have emotions, I defy you to watch  the scene of a mother's grief in this stunning documentary. It will haunt you forever and brings me to tears even as I write. Filmed in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, just north of South Africa, this beautiful film, though it never says so, is a plea to us -- while our population continues to encroach upon others' habitats, while we lurch headlong in our pursuit of fossil fuels (with zany ideas like the Keystone XL pipeline for crude tar, hydraulic fracturing and deep sea drilling) -- to step back and come to the realization of the irreparable devastation we are wantonly wreaking.

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Morgan Spurlock's latest assault on contemporary capitalism. I once read a review of a Michael Moore film in which the critic belittled it as a polemic. But polemic is what Moore does, and Spurlock, too, though a bit more self-effacingly. The documentary is meant to be a product about products, and explores the reasoning and justifications that go into product placement decisions.

The inspiration for Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer is Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl's debut film Buck. Brannaman grew up performing, with  his brother, trick rope routines from the age of three, in an act promoted by their brute of a father. Finding himself without direction in his early 20s, Buck encountered Ray Hunt and his teacher, Tom Dorrance, the pioneers of natural horsemanship, a method of training horses, as opposed to breaking them, that focuses on creating a bond of trust rather than a breaking into submission. The philosophy struck a chord with the young man who himself had suffered relentless abuse. There are moments when Meehl's inexperience as a filmmaker shows, but watching Buck and his horse move as one is a dance you will not soon forget.

Page One: Inside The New York Times (2010) is not simply about The New York Times but about the future of print news media as a whole. Michael Kinsley, who is not one of the Times' regular movie critics, reviewed Andrew Rossi's film and found it a "mess," "[flitting] from topic to topic, character to character, explaining almost nothing." I don't agree. The film's primary voice is Times reporter David Carr, for whom Kinsley has unveiled contempt. I liked Carr's prickly personality, and his unbridled enthusiasm for the paper he serves. I was especially glad to see the point made that without what used to be called a paper of record, most internet news outlets would have no source for their stories.

In his feature directorial debut the actor Michael Rapaport documents the hip-hop group Quest through interviews with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and others. Beats, Rhymes & Life: A Tribe Called Quest examines the group's inception, arc, and decline and its pioneering use of sampling. Quest, along with Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, was instrumental in Native Tongues, a movement noted for Afrocentric lyrics and its eschewal of the negative language and themes favored by most hip-hop artists of the time.

Project Nim is not the tour de force that Robert Marsh's 2008 Man on Wire was. That film documented the life of Philippe Petit and found its culminating moment on the morning of August 7, 1974, when the tightrope walker stepped out of the as yet unfinished World Trade Center Towers and held spectators captive as he danced back and forth on a metal cable strung between them. Nim explores the strange life of  the chimpanzee who became part of Columbia professor Herbert Terrace's experiment to attempt to teach the primate human language. Moreso, it is a film about humans whose arrogance seems to imbue them with an almost limitless ability to torment even fellow creatures whom they love.

Charlie Minn's 8 Murders a Day is an indictment of Mexican President Felipe Calderón's decision in 2006 to enact a military campaign against two warring drug cartels in Juarez that resulted in more than 3,000 dead in 2010 alone, which Minn sees as "the extermination of the poor." The central point of the film can be summed up by one of the many people Minn interviews. Charles Bowden bluntly remarks, "This is a fake war -- unless you’re a corpse.”

Crime After Crime tells the shameful story of Deborah Peagler and how the Califormia Criminal "Justice" system maneuvered the law to keep her in prison. It is also producer, director and editor Yoav Potash's moving account of the two lawyers who launch an eight year pro bono defense to free her. The lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, met Deborah at the point at which she had already served 20 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for involvement in the 1982 murder of a pathologically abusive boyfriend. When they  finally triumph and win her release, she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. One of Deborah's daughters was present at the screening I attended -- with only two other people. She is travelling with the film to champion the cause for the thousands and thousands of others unjustly held in U.S. prisons. At least the three of us who saw the film in San Antonio are more enlightened than we were before seeing the story of this stoic and dignified woman.

Using archival footage of Formula One races and family movies, Asif Kapadia’s Senna is a loving portrait of arguably the greatest racecar driver ever to have lived. Ayrton Senna was virtually unknown when he came from behind to finish second in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. In 1988 in Japan, he won the first of three Formula One world championships, moving from 16th to first. In an uncanny feat of will he won his home Grand Prix of Brazil. With the car stuck in sixth gear, Senna had to strain every muscle of his body to manage the car and push it on. He died in a crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the last driver to die in Formula One. The film also chronicles the bitter rivalry between Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost, who had been the reigning champion.

December 16, 2011


In the order in which I saw them...

Set in the 1990s in an Algeria in the midst of civil war and Islamist insurgency, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men tells the true story of eight French Cistercian Trappist monks who refuse to abandon the village their order has served since the mid-19th century. I have rarely experienced a film of such quiet. (Excepting Philip Groening's 2007 documentary Into Great Silence, which is simply an invitation to live for almost three hours among  the monks who take a vow of silence and live in an isolated stone charterhouse [monastery] in the French Alps.) The routine of the monks' daily lives provides the soundtrack for Of Gods and Men. They sell honey in the village marketplace and perfom their daily offices and devotions. The aging Brother Luc metes out his meagre supply of medicines to the sick. Though they exist as a devoted religious community, as their survival becomes more perilous, it is as men that each must make his own decision to stay or go. The soul searching of each man forms the center of the film, and each makes the decision to stay and face certain death at the hands of the insurgents.

A remake of Kim Ki-young's 1960 film (which I have not seen), Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid (2010) has been described as "less kinky" than the original, but it's still pretty kinky. A young innocent has been hired as an au pair/maid into an ennui-ridden Korean couple's home, he a nouveau riche businessman full of amoral swagger, she a bored, sadistic housewife. A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times summarizes the film well when he concludes that it "...generates intrigue partly by making you guess which movie it is going to become: the cruel psychological thriller, the comedy of upper-crust manners, the feminist fable, the erotic romp. That it manages to be each of these in turn testifies to Mr. Im’s skill but also turns out to be a limitation, since the film is, in the end, an exercise in thwarted and confused desire."

If you are a filmgoer who likes Last Year at Marienbad, and I am one (which again speaks to my insistence that I am not against ambiguity on principle; I am against it only when it is used in defence of lazy story-telling), you will like the Abbas Kiarostami's clever, talk-filled Certified Copy, Kiarostami's first feature outside his native Iran. A French woman meets a British author at a lecture he is giving in Paris on artistic authenticity. The question: Why does a reproduction have less value than the original? They end up tooling around the French countryside. The strangers stop in a cafe, drive to the little town of Lucignano, visit an old hotel and all the while the nature of their interactions mutates until they seem to be a married couple of 15 years. The film plays with the question Marcel Duchamp posed with his ready-mades, most notably in 1917 when he hung The Fountain, a urinal signed "R. Mutt," on a gallery wall. Does putting it in a gallery or under a vitrine make it art?

Mexican director Mariana Chenillo's first feature film Nora's Will is a delightful take on passive aggression beyond the grave -- well, that would be if her ex-husband and her son could only just get her into a grave. Even as Nora's secrets emerge, it becomes clear that her will be done.

Another feature debut, The Double Hour directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, plays with the dream/reality conundrum. In a fast-paced, Hitchcockian thriller, things are not what they seem. Sonia works as a maid in a high-end hotel, and as she becomes more romantically involved with Guido, complications ensue that lead to their capture in an art heist at the estate where Guido works as the high-tech gate guard. Trying to protect Sonia, Guido is killed and a bullet puts her in a coma. The double hour of the title is the time when the hour and minutes match, 12:12 say, and they signal the moments when what we think we know will be subverted by another point of view. The narrative is a clever cat and mouse that demands we constantly re-evaluate what we think we know.

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is nothing less than astonishing. Cavers in southern France inadvertently discovered a barricaded limestone cave containing paintings dating back 32,000 years. The ancient artists utilized the undulating walls of the cave to give a palpable sense of motion to the figures, and drew the animals with multiple legs so that the flickering of their torches would give an illusion of movement, of the actual experience of their intimate relationship with their fellow creatures. I encouraged everyone I knew, even minor acquainances, to see this magnificent film. One did not understand the present day postscript. I explained that the point is that our energy-addicted culture requires technology as deadly and destructive as nuclear power plants, one of which is situated only 20 miles from the Chauvet cave. The holding tank/lagoon is only a couple of miles or so away. The alligators, both prehistoric in their lineage and futuristic in their mutant albino incarnations, are the perfect Herzog-ian metaphor. This cave holds a mystery, a masterpiece, a window onto what it means to be human, such that we have never known before. And yet we play Russian roulette not only with this wondrous discovery, not only with human life, but with the very earth itself. I don't know if the postscript was added after the Japanese earthquake and the meltdown of the reactors there, or if Herzog had the prescience to include it beforehand. Either way, should the French reactors fail, this holy place will be lost to time. [Herzog's 2007 Encounters at the End of the World about melting Antarctica should likewise be required viewing for every human being on the face of the earth.]

A Better Life, Chris Weitz's Mexican illegal immigrant tale of a father's struggle to make a home for his son in LA can be a little heavy handed but in some moments transcends itself. It is the classic everything-that-can-go-wrong-does plot, redeemed by convincing performances, but it pulls a little too self-consciously at the heart strings.

In Michael Winterbottom's comedy The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The Trip began life as a six-part BBC2 television series. The premise is that The Observer of London has hired Coogan to review six restaurants in northern England. When his girlfriend declines to accompany him, he invites his buddy to go along, despite their strained relationship. Amidst the philosophizing, orating, impressions, eating of overly haute cuisine and ridiculously micro cuisine, wafting through the film is the question of where performance ends and the individual begins. We also feel the desperation of lonliness that all the bluster and wise-cracking just barely conceal.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by Lisa See ("best-selling" should tell you something right off the bat), Wayne Wang's Snowflower and the Secret Fan is really a chick-flick masquerading as serious period drama. The film moves back and forth between two friends in contemporary China and a foot-binding, 19th century China where Snowflower of the title and Lily are made laotongs, or best friends, as children. As the historical story unfolds, it enlightens the friendship of the contemporary women -- even if it utterly fails to enlighten us.

The love story is, of course, a staple of Hollywood, where the subject is presented in a cute or saccharine or otherwise superficial treatment. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is not cute or saccharine or superficial. It deals with the complexity of love, its messiness, its often bewildering lack of logic, its clumsiness and its intimacy. It is also a film about identity, which lovers confront as two distinct individuals and as the thing between them, which becomes a third entity. The movie is gorgeously shot. By that I do not mean that it's full of lush colors or epic pans. I mean that every shot is perfect. One or the other of the two characters -- or both -- is in almost every shot, and the shots could be hung on the walls of a portrait gallery to great effect. The story ends sadly as many love stories do in real life, but the film still stands as an unflinching testament to love. Oh, and the couple is gay -- which matters not a whit.

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In cleverly packages the trope of the mad scientist into a plastic surgeon, cooly executed by Antonio Banderas, who has lost his wife to suicide after she was burned to the point of grotesque disfigurement. His daughter is psychologically scarred having witnessed her mother's leap from a bedroom window upon seeing her reflection for the first time. Now years later, the doctor lives in a secluded villa with a housekeeper and a beautiful woman he keeps under lock and key in a room he surveils from his bedroom, the frame of the TV screen that monitors her room turning her figure into nothing more than one of the many voluptuous nudes that grace the walls of the house. Manohla Dargis writing in the NYT observes that "There are several genres nimbly folded into The Skin I Live In, which might also be described as an existential mystery, a melodramatic thriller, a medical horror film or just a polymorphous extravaganza." The story circles in on itself, layers accrue. Yet Almodóvar keeps the plates spinning in a gyroscopic tour de force that has you on the edge until the very end, all the while posing compelling questions about the skin we each live in.


It's March when the year actually begins. One of the hallmarks of the year (aside from the Ryan Gosling requisite) is the plethora of films with the overarching theme that life as we find it circa 2011 is unsatisfactory and either in need of or at the mercy of some outside control -- from software to drugs to disease to weather to cults.

In George Nolfi's Adjustment Bureau, based on Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team," high-tech engineers just below or parallel to our reality constantly re-adjust the trajectory of human lives any time those lives begin to veer from the pre-conceived manual that dictates each life. With love in the balance, questions of free-will vs. predestination loom.

Likewise Duncan Jones's (of 2008's wonderful, low-budget, non-CGI Moon) Source Code (dripping in CGI) hinges on the free will or no question with a man who, unwittingly incarnated as someone else in order to prevent a disaster, relives the same train bombing (ala Groundhog Day) -- through special software -- until he can discover the bomber. Love is again in the balance.

In Neil Burger's Limitless a secret super-drug allows a man suffering writer's block to become a super-mind not only as a novelist but as a financial wiz, pianist, multi-lingual wunderkind, until, in mad scientist fashion, it begins to become clear that the drug destroys the body it inhabits. Or maybe not. One of the year's first annoyingly ambiguous endings.

In Hanna, Joe Wright's title character has been endowed with her super-human abilities through CIA genetic engineering. She has been sheltered in Scandinavian hiding by her father until she comes of age, with no knowledge of her exceptionalism. Now the moment has come for her to to be unleashed upon the world, and the CIA makes every action-movie attempt to destroy what it hath wrought.

Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, Sarah's Key chronicles a conspiracy of silence about events in Vichy France. In 1942 French police, under pressure from the Vichy government, rounded up 13,000 Parisian Jews. The prisoners were taken to the Vel d'Hiv bicycle racetrack, and after being held there under harrowing conditions that make the Louisiana Superdome pale, were carted to Auschwitz. Ten year old Sarah does not realize that by trying to save her brother by locking him in a secret closet she is sealing him in a coffin. The story is harrowing, but it is undercut by the narrative, which has a modern day journalist who is researching the events come to her personal epiphany about her own domestic life. The contemporary story is just too slight to run parallel to the historic one.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns was writing the script for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion while New York City was in the midst of the H1N1 flu scare, and its authenticity and plausability make it a standout among pandemic movie thrillers. A virus has jumped species and, AIDS-like, has hopped a ride on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago to start its exponential binge across the North American continent. Burns consulted with Dr. Ian Lipkin, head of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, to create the fictional disease and the narrative arc of its devastation based on actual examples in public health databases.

No one should ever remake a Sam Peckinpah film but Rod Lurie did. In Straw Dogs, Harvard educated David arrives with his wife in her hometown of Blackwater, Mississipi. There is a palpable sense of us and them, red state/blue state. The local yahoos don't so much conspire to torment the couple for their high-falutin' ways, as they are inexorably compelled by some genetic magnet to do so. The struggle to survive the onslaught becomes the struggle for David to prove himself a man. Whereas Lurie weighs the story down with American cultural stereotypes, Peckinpah took it out of those particulars by setting it in a small English village. And though Lurie stays true to the narrative, he is no match for Peckinpah's lyrical ballet of violence. Malcolm Jones, writing in The Daily Beast observes that, "ultimately, [Peckinpah] makes you feel the catharsis in violence, the adrenaline rush, and the shame in that. Peckinpah’s true genius lay in his ability to make art out of the contradictions in his own heart." Lurie is not up to that end of the challenge.

Robert Redford's historical drama The Conspirator tells the true story of the widowed Mary Surratt whose son was among the Lincoln conspirators. Mary owned a boarding house and arranged for them to meet there. In the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, John Wilkes Booth is killed in a shootout; then his fellow plotters, including Mary, are rounded up, arrested and tried, not by a jury of their peers but by a committee of officers. Mary, who maintains her innocence, is defended by the at first skeptical, then sympathetic, Reverdy Johnson. Redford draws deliberate parallels between the conspirators of 1865 and present-day Guantánamo detainees, and the film sometimes feels heavy-handed. That said, Redford shot the film using only natural light from windows or oil lamps in order to evoke the aura of a time before electrification, making the overall look beautifully hushed and almost monochromatic.

Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter was hailed by critics. It is a beautiful looking film, and a reflection of the troubled and uncertain times facing ordinary people who thought they had worked hard to scrape together their little part of the American Dream. Is this blue collar, hardworking husband with a deaf daughter protecting his family from impending disaster from the elements or from the possible onset of schizophrenia, for which he is genetically predisposed? Beautifully acted by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (the actress du jour) as his wife, we are drawn into their vortex until we hit the conclusion of one of those cop-out ambiguous endings.

Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene also deals with the terror that accompanies a loss of identity, in this case having befallen a young woman as a result of coming under the spell of a cult leader who lives as a charismatic bigamist, ritualistically bedding all of the women in the commune. In order to hold onto a degree of sanity she has numbed herself to herself. Escaping to the refuge of her sister and brother-in-law, she struggles to find herself again, but having lived so long with so little in the rural household, she has difficulty surrounded by the upper middle class excess of their domestic milieu. Again, beautifully filmed, artfully acted -- and yet another cop-out ambiguous ending. [I have nothing against ambiguity on principle. I DO have something against lazy story telling. "Gee. How are we going to end this story. Oh, let's just leave it ambiguously up in the air, and we won't have to bother."]

I'll finish up "Conspiracy" with Lars von Trier's Melancholia, in which the conspiracy is against earth and the conspirator is the planet Melancholia specifically or indifferent nature generally. There are often times when von Trier's attempts to infuse his movies with Important Ideas make a mash of everything. Such it is here with a story about very rich people, especially a lugubrious new bride who remains wed all of about 24 hours, with nothing better to do with themselves than be mean to each other while gradually coming to the realization that The End Is Near. Ultimately we don't give a fig about anyone in the whole loopy clan, and hope that the planet will just hurry up and get there.

Post Script: And alas, then there was -- this requires me to divulge that I actually paid to see this utterly worthless piece of conspiratorial junk -- dare I say it -- Atlas Shrugged: Part I, directed by Paul Johansson. Here the conspiracy is anything remotely humane against the One True Faith: Capitalism. I read Ayn Rand's turgid paean to capitalism and greed when I was 11 or so, and like an 11 year old, could be in thrall to such things. Then promptly got over it. How an adult Tea Partier of any stripe could find this pseudo-literary pomposity maquerading as philosophy interesting, much less bow to it as gospel, is beyond me. Yet there I was, amidst an audience drooling in rapt obeisance, and I was cautious lest they be packing heat. Aside from its fan base, others did not subject themselves to this hulking joke, and consequently, rumor has it, there will be no Part II. Thanks be to the gods.

2011 - 2010 FILMS IN 2011

It is a testament to Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis that it can hold up to Giorgio Moroder's 1984 version, which is Metropolis itself, but with color tinting, 1970s pop soundtrack, and jarringly inserted special effects sequences that evoke the unsettling experience of strobe lights on a disco floor. Wikipedia tells me that the "film's release came at the same time that Queen released their video 'Radio Ga Ga,' which featured footage of the film. Though the Moroder version was nominated at the 1985 Razzie Awards for Worst Original Score and Worst Original Song (with Freddie Mercury), it brought the film back to the public eye." Well, yeah, I guess, though I didn't think it had faded from the public eye. Why my theater showed this, and why I did not better research what I was getting into, are, to me, equally baffling questions. Here is a link to the NYT story about the REAL restored version of Fritz Lang's classic:

Before I get to 2010, I have to mention a 2009 film that didn't make it into theaters here until this year. Applause is a harrowing close up of an alcoholic actress who is, appropriately, playing Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Paprika Steen powerfully portrays a thoroughly unlikable, often down-right mean individual, and manages to invest her with humanity, but Martin Pieter Zandvliet's overall direction, which betrays his inexperience in this feature debut, does not allow the film to to live up to its actress.

January began, as usual, with a few of the previous year's films finally getting picked up in San Antonio because they had received recognition at festivals or had made it into Oscar buzz. Derek Cianfrance's 2010 Blue Valentine set the stage for 2011 in which Ryan Gosling was to be the star du jour. Moving around in time, the film dissects a couple whose youthful romance cannot stand up to marriage and the responsibilities of real life.

Set in a seedy neighborhood of Barcelona, Biutiful, unlike González Iñárritu's previous trilogy (2000's Amores Perros, 2003's 21 Grams, 2006's Babel), where several individual stories are interwoven, is a single narrative. Javier Bardem is a good father and stoical ex-husband to a woman who can fairly be described as a shrew. He is being ravaged by a cancer he cannot afford to treat. The story is simply a raw slice of life, interwoven with others, as it nears its lonely end.

Both Blue Valentine and Biutiful are acted with raw emotion in a cinéma vérité style.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is a fast paced biopic, not so much about Allen Ginsberg as about the poem. As A. O. Scott points out in the NYT, "Every word spoken in the film is part of the historical record." James Franco IS Ginsberg. In every fiber of his being. For some reason, however, the directors chose to punctuate the film with stylized, somewhat psychodelic, animations that distract from the inexhorable power of the poet and his poem. Franco was nominated for Best Actor for 127 Hours. He should have been nominated for Howl instead.

Mike Leigh's Another Year is a penetrating examination of the human comedy, where long happily married London suburbanites Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in deeply felt performances) try to provide support to their friend Mary (Lesley Manville in a painfully, emotionally naked performance), an erratic character aging in desperation.

Sylvain Chomet (whose 2003 The Triplets of Belleville lost to Finding Nemo for that year's Best Animated Feature) blessed us again with The Illusionist, a magical evocation of Jacques Tati incarnated from a sketch of a script by Tati himself. A bittersweet story told visually almost free of dialog, it is love letter to a bygone era (as was Triplets) when people would delight to the illusionist's tricks. Now the aging artist finds himself taking a young girl under his wing, but as they each revel in the company of the other, the story begins to take on an almost Blue Angel darkness as the girl comes to realize that she can manipulate this kind old man's natural generosity.

Lena Dunham wrote, directed and stars in Tiny Furniture and her real mother and sister play her screen mother and sister. Aura has moved back home and sinks deeper into a post-graduate depression. The film is a self-referential examination of the portrayal of women that engages in a compelling narrative of family dynamics.

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere asks that we suspend expectations. It asks us to watch and listen closely to a quiet story about a father’s loneliness and a daughter’s devotion. Where a lumbering narrative like Melancholia produces nothing approaching empathy in us, Coppola draws it out of us, scene by scene.

Claire Denis's White Material (2009 and it's not in a San Antonio theater until February 2011!) chronicles the horror of the upheaval besetting an African country as it throws out the last vestiges of colonialism, with all the confusion and brutality that upheaval involves. It is a subject Denis knows intimately, having grown up the daughter of a French official in Francophone African countries. Isabelle Huppert brings a fierce dignity and strength of will to the central role of a woman losing the only land she has ever known to terrorizing, marauding rebels. Though on its surface the film is about privileged white Europeans and their patrimony, towards the land and its people, it is moreso about the tragic, moral consequences the rebellion wreaks upon the children of war.

Justin Chadwick's The First Grader is the true story of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge of the Kenyan Kikuyu tribe. Kenya offered universal free education in 2003, so Maruge enrolled. The government had not imagined that an adult, certainly not an 84 year old man, would take them up on their offer, but he has profound reasons for wanting to learn to read, and his struggle becomes one of deeper political resonance. The film is not always successful, and sometimes downright clumsy, but it is ultimately a worthy story that deserves to be told.

To say Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is about family secrets is an understatement. The secrets are so intertwined and at times almost entirely implausible, but the skill with which the story unravels is such that we willingly suspend disbelief. Twin brother and sister in Quebec are tying up the estate of their mother. When the lawyer hands each of them an envelope with separate instructions from their mother, their journey of self-knowledge is set in motion. They go off on what seems could be something of a snipe hunt were it not so serious. What they find in their mother's native Lebanon will unearth the tragic secrets of her life and ultimately reveal their own identities. It is a profoundly moving story of the triumph of love over unspeakable brutality. 

The Guard is an Irish buddy movie brimming with energy from John Michael McDonagh, his first feature film. Sgt. Gerry Boyle (played to the max by Brendan Gleeson) is a law defying, expletive spouting garda in a little County Galway village where, when not carousing, he cares for his dying mother. American Wendell Everett (a dapper Don Cheadle) is a straight arrow FBI agent who has been sent to intercept a large drug shipment. Boyle antagonizes Everett with racial stereotypes that are not so much racist as clueless. They develop an I Spy friendship as they team up to make the bust. The film soars above its formulaic foundation. It's a rollicking romp and well worth the price of admission. One of my favorites of the movies I saw this year.

Mike Cahill's Another Earth introduces us to a young woman who, on the eve of embarking on a scholarship to MIT, had too much to drink at a graduation party and caused a fatal automobile accident. Released from prison, she has moved back into her childhood room. In parallel, a story emerges about the discovery of a planet identical to earth. A love story ensues between the young woman and the surviving husband and father of the victims of the accident that concludes in echoes of O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi." With a superb soundtrack.