Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2013 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's "The Oscars and the Year in Review," "Noteworthy Films" and "The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)."

12 Years a Slave: A powerful, moving piece, 12 Years a Slave is a relatively faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir and one of the more searing depictions of slavery on film. British director Steve McQueen, who's shown a knack for shepherding strong, intimate performances, does a fine job here with a stellar cast. Anchoring it all is British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man and fine violinist living in upstate New York with his wife and children. One day two men approach him, offering to pay him well for his musical skills on a two-week tour by their circus. All seems to be going well, but while in Washington, D.C., Solomon grows ill, is put to bed, and wakes up in chains. He's accused of being a runaway slave and having a different name, and his protestations just get him beaten. Soon, he's transferred to a ship sailing to New Orleans, and his desperation grows as his situation looks increasingly bleak. The film is fairly episodic as Solomon is transferred from owner to owner, and while Solomon dares to hope at points, peril is ever present and can strike quickly and savagely.

One of the triumphs of the film is how it captures how precarious the slave's position is; servitude is one thing, chattel slavery quite another. Despite the injustice of his position, Solomon is hard-working and smart, but that can actually imperil him, depending on the whims of those in power above him. He might have a relatively kind owner (albeit in a terrible context), but that can only help him so far if a white foreman gets jealous of Solomon's intelligence and seeks to whip him or even kill him. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) may be minding her own business as best she can, but that won't save her from her master's lecherous hand (Michael Fassbender) or his wife's jealous retributions (Sarah Paulson). In one striking scene, Solomon is abandoned precariously mid-punishment, and work just goes on around him as if nothing is out of the ordinary – the other slaves are justifiably scared to come to his aid, and can only help him briefly and surreptitiously. In one of the film's centerpieces, a brutal whipping scene, McQueen covers it all in a single, unbroken shot, a choice that makes the spectacle all the more excruciating. For the most part, McQueen chooses to handle the harrowing subject matter with directorial understatement, letting the content and performances speak for themselves, a wise, effective approach. (One of the rare exceptions that didn't work for me is his use of a crashing score during a slave ship scene.)

Ejiofor has always been superb, but this may be his best work to date. He puts his expressive face – especially his eyes – to potent use here, conveying anger under restraint, fear, momentary relief, and the deepest pits of despair. Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey is likewise heart-breaking, not only when she's being abused but due to her hopelessness when she begs Solomon for a terrible favor and in her final scene. Paul Dano is memorable as Tibeats, a petty overseer, and Michael Fassbender (who's been in all of McQueen's films) is a standout as Edwin Epps, an alcoholic, lecherous, self-delusional, cruel and capricious owner. (The dynamics of displaced anger between him and his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, are interesting and electric – she can't necessarily take revenge directly on him, but can do so on Patsey.) The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Michael K. Williams, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kelsey Scott and Garret Dillahunt. It's a little distracting to see Brad Pitt in a small, crucial role, but it's not his fault he's a movie star; he does a good job and apparently helped secure funding for the film. (Disclosure: a cast member is a friend of mine.)

Some historical or "important" films can have an eat-your-broccoli taint to them, but 12 Years a Slave (like Lincoln last year) avoids this by keeping the focus firmly on Solomon Northup and the human stories on the screen. Viewers well-versed in slave narratives may find 12 Years a Slave less startling than those without such background, but the film doesn't depend on the shock value of a first-time viewing. Having read the autobiography, I wasn't surprised by the events depicted, but still found the film powerful and several scenes quite moving.

(Here's director Steve McQueen on The Treatment and The Business. NPR also spoke with screenwriter John Ridley, editor Joe Walker (and McQueen) and actress Alfre Woodard. The New York Times has a good piece on the accuracy of Northup's autobiography and slave narratives as a genre (it answered some questions I had reading the book). Civil War historian David Blight did a good session on Fresh Air. Meanwhile, Chauncey DeVega wrote six posts on the film: one, two, three, four, five and six [three and four deal with potential teaching materials].)

American Hustle: An opening title card states that "Some of this actually happened." It's a funny, great choice, given the core inaccuracies that have undermined (or doomed) other recent "true story" films. Meanwhile, the opening scene is probably the best introduction of 2013. We see an intent Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), body tense and eyes anxious, staring into the mirror as he painstakingly assembles an elaborate comb-over. At first glance, it's actually fairly convincing, but as we'll soon see, it won't hold up to sustained scrutiny. The scene's the perfect metaphor for all four main characters (and some minor ones as well). All of them are putting on fronts, with varying degrees of success. But they're not trying only to deceive other people – self-deception plays a heavy role as well. In fact, the ambiguity about whether a given character in a specific scene is playing a role, telling the truth, deceiving others, deceiving him or herself, or all of above – makes the film fascinating, suspenseful viewing. Multiple layers exist for all the key characters, and American Hustle is both a four-part character study and con movie. The stakes grow increasingly dangerous for all of them, and the art of the con can either be doomed by buying too much of your own hype or absolutely depend on believing what you're saying.

The plot is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 70s, and the polyester and hair products fly freely here. (Costume designer Michael Wilkinson and the rest of the team don't go solely for laughs, though; all the hair and wardrobe choices are well-considered for the characters.) Irving Rosenfeld runs some legitimate businesses, but also some small-time scams. He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party and, as Sydney explains in voiceover, although he wasn't her usual type (his gut hangs out), she likes his confidence. They hit it off, Irving eventually reveals his shadier dealings, she storms out – but returns, with a few ideas. (Adams is usually meticulous, and Sydney's suspect British accent is all Sydney, not Adams.) Irving and Sydney can't get married, though, because Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) refuses to grant a divorce, and he'd lose his young son, to whom he's devoted. On top of this, he can't fully shake his attraction to Rosalyn, who he describes as "the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate." Naturally, this all seriously strains his relationship with Sydney. A cocky FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) entraps them, and avoiding jail time depends on them cooperating in his elaborate scam to catch corrupted politicians. Sydney vows to Irving that she'll use her considerable charms on Richie, either to save them, as revenge for Irving wounding her, or both. He won't know for sure, and neither do we as an audience (Sydney is the arguably the most complex and mysterious character).

Amy Adams is phenomenal and multilayered here, showing raw vulnerability in one scene and smooth control in another (sex appeal is a big part of Sydney's game, and she works it expertly). My only criticism (since the accent has an explanation) is that Sydney seems too vulnerable too often, in scenes where she'd likely have her game face on. She is a survivor, after all. That said, I'll see how it all plays on a second viewing, and it's yet another impressive performance on Adams' resume. Jennifer Lawrence is likewise fantastic as Rosalyn. (Her character actually reminded by a bit of the title character in Wycherley's play The Country Wife, who's naïve but also rather shrewd in her own way.) Rosalyn can act a bit dumb at times, but she is a master manipulator by instinct, and can turn around almost any situation where she's under fire on to someone else. In one late scene before the final act, Irving is left staring at her, stunned at both her self-deception and what she's managed to pull off, and we share his amazement. (Picasso, indeed.) Bale always loves character roles, and he's very convincing and even occasionally moving as Irving, who's about as far from his last role as Batman as one could get. Bale gets all the surface details of accent, mannerisms, paunch and patchy hair right, but thankfully never lets it descend into shtick. He doesn't condescend to the character, and makes Irving (an unconventional protagonist) someone we can root for at least a little. Finally, Bradley Cooper is a better actor than some would give him credit for. (He's become a successful, pretty-boy leading man, but after years of supporting roles, and gives thoughtful and humble interviews.) Richie starts out smooth, collected, and in control, but sometimes grows manic, and we gradually see the desperation straining at the seams. None of the key four are entirely admirable, but they all manage to be at least somewhat likable.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Jeremy Renner is memorable as Carmine Polito, an extremely sociable and slightly corrupt mayor with a heart of gold when it comes to his community (apparently, the real mayor wasn't as blameless). Louis C.K. is funny as earnest, occasionally flustered FBI manager Stoddard Thorsen, struggling to handle the freelancing Richie. (Louis C.K. also tells most of a long story in pieces throughout the film; you can search online to hear the whole thing.) Michael Peña makes an impression in his few scenes as Paco Hernandez, the FBI agent deemed swarthy enough to play Sheikh Abdullah in the sting (the lack of diversity in the FBI is much discussed in the scene). There's also a great uncredited role I won't give away.

Of the best films of 2013, American Hustle is probably the lightest, but it's also extremely well-crafted and immensely entertaining. Its episodic form may seem a bit disjointed at first glance, but it's more that screenwriter Eric Warren Singer and cowriter-director David O. Russell want to create a sense of delirium (consider the various dance and bathroom scenes), and to keep things moving at a brisk pace. As noted in the Oscar post, Russell has been a roll lately and routinely elicits great performances from his actors. Here's hoping that streak continues.

(Here's David O. Russell on The Treatment, Fresh Air and All Things Considered.)

Her: This sci-fi love story is far above average because it addresses the obvious questions with thoughtful (and occasionally unconventional) choices. It's the near future, and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shy man still in recovery about the end of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), who in his memories of her is alternately sweet and biting. He can be emotionally expressive in his job, ghost-writing personal letters, but struggles more when it comes to dealing directly with human beings. He buys a new operating system (OS) that's an artificial intelligence (AI) able to learn and adapt. He can assign it a gender and picks female; the AI names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore justifiably accuses Samantha of being a bit nosey (she goes through his e-mails, organizing them and deleting some), but gradually warms up to her. She's deeply interested in him, not judgmental, and supportive (he remarks that he feels he can tell her anything). She even prods him to go on a blind date long suggested by his friends. He and the woman, Amelia (Olivia Wilde), hit it off well throughout the night, but near the end, there's a mutual fumble of insecurities (with an edge). Then one night, the topic of bodies and physical touch comes up, and Samantha and Theodore's relationship takes a… sexual turn.

None of the plot to this point is unpredictable, but Phoenix' sincerity helps sell it all, and the script thankfully moves beyond obvious clichés. One of Theodore's closest friends is Amy (Amy Adams), who's experiencing marital problems and has become close with a female OS her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) left behind. When Theodore confesses he's dating his OS, she's a bit taken aback, but rather than being wholly critical, she's empathetic. The same goes for a couple at work who invite Theodore to "double date" with them; when he blurts out that he's dating an OS, they're only momentarily fazed, and wind up genuinely enjoying Samantha's company, just as Theodore does. (His soon to be ex-wife, Catherine, shows some kindness when they meet, but becomes scathing about his relationship with Samantha, accusing him of being unable to connect with a real human being.) The core of the film is Theodore and Samantha's relationship, though, and its essential sweetness carries the story. It's deeply refreshing that Samantha isn't merely some subservient entity; she actually gets upset and rebels, not without cause. It's nice to see that even a virtual lover can be a pain occasionally, and Theodore isn't spared relationship woes. (The biggest obstacle in their relationship is Samantha's lack of a physical body, and she attempts a solution that doesn't turn out so well.) Later on, the film pushes into some of the sci-fi territory on AIs explored by the late, great Iain Banks and other writers. True, Samantha has no body. But she's also potentially immortal, and can think thousands of times faster than Theodore. How will this affect their relationship? Will she get bored? What are the ethical considerations about true artificial intelligences, a new form of life with physical limitations but vast powers in other areas? Her never gets overly bogged down in open speculation about such issues, but I'd consider it true science fiction in that it does actually consider, at least in passing, the potential consequences of its premises. It also winds up being a good character study of Theodore (and to lesser degree, Samantha).

As for the performances, I doubt Her would work nearly as well without Phoenix or someone of similar gifts. His vulnerability and shy sweetness makes him sympathetic versus creepy. (Considering his positively feral performance in The Master, the movie also reveals his remarkable versatility.) Scarlet Johansson has always been a decent actress, but I was genuinely impressed by her vocal performance here, because that's all she has to work with and the film would sink unless she pulled it off. Yes, she's got a husky, sexy voice and can banter well, which works nicely in the early going, but she's also required to demonstrate considerable emotional range from warmth and playfulness to nervous hope to frantic anxiety to absolute despair. Amy Adams is good as always, as is the rest of the supporting cast (Brian Cox and Kristen Wiig provide some voice work). Her is rated R mainly for its depictions of phone sex/virtual sex; I'd say such scenes are tastefully done (and one's intentionally funny), but be warned if you were considering it for family movie night.

(Here's writer-director Spike Jonze on All Things Considered.)

All Is Lost: A man alone on a small sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean experiences an accident and struggles to survive. It's a simple setup, and the only dialogue consists of an opening farewell letter by Our Man (as he's called in the credits, and played by Robert Redford) and some muttering and cursing by him in later sequences. (Most of the film occurs in flashback from the opening.) It's a radical change of style for writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose previous, first feature was almost nothing but talk, Margin Call (it's excellent, and the the first film reviewed here). Our Man wakes up one morning to discover a breach in his hull from a floating shipping container. The breach is high enough that water only splashes in with the higher waves (although bad weather would be a problem), but his electronics have been destroyed, including his radio. Our Man calmly assesses the situation and gets to work trying to unmoor his boat from the container, patch up the damage and head for a safe port. But stormy weather threatens, as well as other complications.

Several elements are refreshing about the storytelling here. One, Redford's character is smart and proactive. He rarely if ever makes a stupid move, and his misfortunes are primarily due to bad luck and forces of nature versus glaring personal failings (besides perhaps sailing alone in the first place). Two, Chandor is comfortable with the audience not getting everything instantly, and doesn't invent a running monologue or voiceover to explain things. We just watch Our Man doing something, and there are times it's not clear what it is, but eventually we figure it out in almost every case. This requires some patience on the part of the audience – suspended curiosity – but makes for a more interesting and satisfying viewing experience. Frequently, we have an "aha" moment when we deduce what Our Man is doing, often accompanied by appreciation for his cleverness.

Redford has to carry the whole film by himself, and he's more than up for the task. It's an admirably honest, understated, natural performance, and a reminder that, although the 77-year-old Redford is an iconic star, he's also an awfully fine actor. At times, it can feel as if we're watching a documentary (to the credit of all involved). The basic plot – survival in the face of the face of adversity – is similar to the much more visually flashy and bigger budget film Gravity. Nothing against that film, which I enjoyed thoroughly (it's reviewed in another section), but I found myself more emotionally invested in All Is Lost in part because I was more uncertain of the outcome. The final sequence is visually and emotionally powerful. I'm not sure how much rewatch value it will have, but it makes for a compelling first viewing.

(Here's Robert Redford on Fresh Air.)

The Place Beyond the Pines: This film from director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance proves intriguing because it's adult fare with good performances in an unconventional structure. It's set up in three distinct acts, and the key character(s) shift between them. Meanwhile, it's not a straightforward good guy-bad guy tale; this is a world of corruption and grey morality where we can doubt the outcome. Pulling off this kind of act shift can be tricky, but the transition from Act I to Act II works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, the second shift isn't as successful, and Act III is the weakest; while it by no means sinks the movie, it's a noticeable drop. The Place Beyond the Pines is also a very "male" movie, which isn't a drawback per se but might make it less interesting for some viewers. Female characters do exist and occasionally play important roles, but they're usually secondary parts. The film is in part an exploration (or interrogation) of notions of masculinity, of being tough, skilled, and a provider and protector of one's family, of what should be (and what actually is) passed down from fathers to sons.

The film opens on Luke (Ryan Gosling), an accomplished stunt driver for a traveling carnival. He discovers that Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he was briefly involved with, got pregnant and gave birth to his son. She's got a new man in her life and doesn't want Luke involved, but because he had a fractured life growing up, Luke rashly quits his job and is determined to support Romina and the boy. This leads him into conflicts with Romina and her boyfriend Kofi... and also into considering robberies for bigger paydays. It's hard to discuss much more without giving away crucial plot points. However, the unconventional narrative structure and not knowing what's going to happen next is a chief reason The Place Beyond the Pines is never boring. More below in the...

(Here's Derek Cianfrance on Weekend Edition.)

The Act of Killing: Imagine if the Nazis had won. Imagine if, years later, SS General Heydrich met up with his old pals and they reminisced and laughed about the good ol' days when they were killing thousands of Jews. Imagine them being publically praised for this – not just for being war heroes, but specifically and explicitly for killing Jews, who obviously were (and are) enemies of the people. Imagine further that Heydrich and his pals decided to make a film recreating the torture and murder they committed, inspired by American gangster films and musicals (and that they recruited their fattest friend to dress up in drag and play many of the female roles).

The Act of Killing, a documentary eight years in the making about mass killings (more than 500,000 people) of supposed communists in Indonesia in the mid-60s, is something like that. (Washington Post Ann Hornaday brilliantly called it "Brechtian nonfiction.") The results are surreal, thought-provoking, and truly stunning. (Some colleagues of director Joshua Oppenheimer and co-director Christine Cynn remain undisclosed for their safety; "anonymous" appears frequently in the credits.)

The film primarily follows Anwar Congo, one of the gangsters leading the death squads in the 60s. He's an outgoing guy, and hailed as a hero and founding father of the nation. In a early scene, he revisits one of the locations where he killed people, and with the help of friend, demonstrates his technique (he mainly used a long wire garrote). Then he brags about what a good dancer he was (they'd often go dancing after killings) and shows off some dance moves. The disconnect is striking, and one of The Act of Killing's great strengths is its exploration of the lies we tell ourselves individually and collectively. Anwar and some of his friends show flashes of insight and reflection, but these tend to be momentary and only push so far. For instance, one former colleague sagely observes that the winners write history, and had things turned out differently, they could have been prosecuted rather than being hailed as heroes. But he's not willing to condemn what they did. Anwar is likewise more forthright than most about what happened and his personal role, but initially resists certain conclusions. He and many of the other death squad members (and their supporters) are fond of saying that the roots of the word "gangster" in their language means "free man." They view themselves as freedom fighters, as part of some noble movement. In one of many surreal moments, they appear as talk show guests, and when their killing of communists is mentioned, the young female host and her audience applaud.

The Act of Killing lags a bit at points and may be hard to follow at times for viewers unfamiliar with the culture and history. It's not the most sleek or polished work, but that's a reflection of its tremendous ambition not only to reexamine mass killings largely ignored and forgotten in the West, but to ask the killers themselves to perform this reexamination. It's well worth the effort.

The Act of Killing shows art and memory as agitprop, propaganda and self-delusion, and the brief moments of conscience these killers experience tend to be maddeningly fleeting. But the film also does show art as a means of provoking compassion and spurring reflection. While watching The Act of Killing, I found myself thinking at times, "Holy crap, we are doomed as a species." But by the end, I felt some hope, at least in art's power to awaken humanity. Roméo Dallaire, author of Shake Hands with the Devil, a book about his haunting experiences during the Rwandan genocide, has described evil as occasionally being a palpable force you can feel in the air. Perhaps it can be a toxicity physicalized and lingering in the body, too. In this vein, the final three or so scenes in The Act of Killing are absolutely extraordinary, the sort of thing any documentary filmmaker would die for to get on film. One of the final images is something you will never forget.

(Here's discussion on the film on The Business, All Things Considered one and two, Weekend Edition, and Democracy Now.)

2013 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's "The Oscars and the Year in Review," "The Top Six" and "The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)."

Gravity: The best spectacle-popcorn movie of the year boasts innovative, dizzyingly kinetic camerawork for a story of survival anchored by good performances. (If you were going to see one 3-D flick in theaters in 2013, this was it.) Basically, two long-time collaborators, director Alfonso Cuarón and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki, were given the all the latest toys to play with that come from major studio backing. The result is a roller coaster of a movie a tight 91 minutes long, as astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must somehow survive a disaster in space, the most hostile environment imaginable. Ryan is a reluctant, inexperienced astronaut, while Matt is a seasoned, wise-cracking veteran, making them a good pairing. Ryan can dissolve into utter panic (completely plausible in several vertiginous sequences), and Bullock's raw, vulnerable performance makes such scenes quite effective. Meanwhile, Clooney plays the soothing voice well (even when his character Matt is trying to convince himself along with Ryan). Naturally, Matt can't do everything alone, and Ryan must overcome her fear as well as multiple, daunting, external challenges in the course of the story.

The craftsmanship is impressive, and Gravity's techniques are sure to be studied for some time to come. (The disc extras should be very interesting, especially the blending of camera, special rigging and visual effects. The sound design and score were also very effective.) The only reasons I didn't rank this with the best of the year is for some plot plausibility issues and other items that pulled me out that I'll discuss in the spoilers section. Your mileage may vary; I know viewers who liked it but thought it was too shallow to rank with the year's best, and others who thought it was the best film of the year. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it, but as an excellent spectacle movie.

(Here's director and cowriter Alfonso Cuarón on The Treatment and The Business, and producer David Heyman on The Business. Here's Sandra Bullock on All Things Considered and NPR's Science Friday segment on the accuracy of the film.)

Nebraska: Director Alexander Payne delivers another excellent character-based film, although this time the writing duties are performed commendably by Bob Nelson (Payne normally cowrites his films). Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the father of David (Will Forte), is elderly and in some stage of dementia. He's received one of those misleading ads that says something like, 'if you enter our contest by subscribing and win, we'll say you're the grand prize winner!' Woody, a stubborn old coot, has gotten it fixed in his head that he's won a big prize and that he'll walk to collect it, all the way from Montana to Nebraska (he's no longer allowed to drive). David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a newscaster and thus local celebrity, points out that Woody was never that great of a dad to them anyway. David often grows frustrated dealing with Woody, and his mother Kate (June Squibb), not the most patient of souls to begin with, is at her wit's end with her husband. David's job is steady but not exciting, his girlfriend just moved out and broke up with him, and he's sick of having to collect Woody from the side of the highway or the police station. Consequently, he decides to make a trip of it and drive Woody down to the prize center in the hopes that Woody's obsession will finally be satiated. Along the way, they take in some sights and stay with their extended family in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. The family is one odd collection of characters, as are many of the townsfolk who still remember Woody. Everything becomes more complex when, despite David's warnings, Woody brags that he's won a million-dollar prize, no one will believe David that it's not true, and folks crawl out of the woodwork to demand their piece. Complications ensue.

Dern is superb here, conveying a great deal economically. Woody is taciturn, cranky, and often mentally elsewhere, but Dern manages to convey everything from shame to pride with small shifts of expression and stance. At times Woody seems lost, but on other occasions seems shockingly (and slyly) lucid. Will Forte's primarily known as a comedian on SNL, but he's quite good here. Exasperation may be his chief mood, but the film wisely has him playing the differences, sincerely trying to connect with his father when the opportunities arise. Bob Odenkirk's probably best known as the slick, often comedic lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad, but like Forte, he's convincing in this more serious role. June Squibb, who like Dern earned an Oscar nomination, is fantastic as Kate. Initially she's defined by her anger at Woody, but during the visit to their hometown, she starts telling ribald old tales that embarrass her sons. And although she may have her issues with Woody, she's fiercely, admirably protective of him when others try to take advantage. Stacey Keach is memorably sleazy as Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody's, and Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray are both comic and slightly creepy as David and Ross' cousins, prone to winding up on the wrong side of the law.

"Adults dealing with their difficult, aging parents" is a familiar plotline, and can be awfully depressing, so it's to Nebraska's credit that it's neither rosy and overly sentimentalized nor unremittingly bleak. It's often funny, but with an organic, character-based style versus a self-conscious, "look-at-us-aren't-we-clever" one. It's not always predictable, either. One sequence of small rebellion starts out seeming as if it will ape a similar one in Payne's movie Sideways, then takes a sharply different turn. Nebraska also delivers a satisfying climax, inventive but simple, plausible and rooted in character.

(Here's Alexander Payne on Fresh Air and Weekend Edition and Bruce Dern on The Treatment.)

Frances Ha:
"What do you do?"
"Uh, it's kinda hard to explain."
"Because what you do is complicated?"
"Uh, because I don't really do it."

Director Noah Baumbach cowrote this low-key black-and-white film with its lead actress, Greta Gerwig. Twenty-something Frances (Gerwig) is ridiculously close with her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), so much so it's not clear at first whether they're lovers. But Sophie's boyfriend has asked her to move in, leaving Frances unmoored on several levels. Frances means well, but she's deeply impractical and just not together. Her desired career as a dancer isn't taking off, and she's reluctant to take more steady work. She winds up drifting from job to job (when she has one at all) and from apartment to apartment in the New York area. (She gets along well with new roommates Lev and Benji, but making the rent is another matter.) She's friendly, but can be awkward and tends to dig herself in deeper when she stumbles into a social gaffe or financial woes. Her neediness threatens her relationship with Sophie, but Frances is the type to flagellate herself over her screw-ups later. We stick with her because she's pretty likable, open and sincere, despite any other foibles and flaws. This is mostly a character study without much of a plot, and runs a mere 87 minutes long. Watch the trailer; if you dislike it and Gerwig, this isn't for you, but I enjoyed this one taken on its own terms. (The title will make sense at the end.)

(Here's Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig on Fresh Air and Baumbach on The Business.)

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen's latest film has been compared to A Streetcar Named Desire, and there's more than a little Blanche DuBois to the grand manner of the self-styled "Jasmine," (Cate Blanchett) a New York socialite with expensive tastes. Her successful husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has been arrested for financial misdeeds, so she schleps across the country to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The sisters were both adopted and are quite different – Ginger's more down-to-earth and not ashamed of being working class, and she's also much more loyal to Jasmine than vice versa (although Jasmine occasionally makes an effort). Still, Jasmine feels she's slumming it and often can't keep her snobbery in check. She didn't like Ginger's former husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), and doesn't care for Ginger's current boyfriend, Chili, either (Bobby Cannavale). But Jasmine never finished her college degree, and the gap between the jobs she wants and her qualifications is considerable. Things look up for both sisters when they meet new men – slightly dorky but sweet Al (Louis C.K.) for Ginger and blue blood diplomat and aspiring congressman Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) for Jasmine. Meanwhile, flashbacks to Jasmine's life with Hal gradually reveal more about their relationship and the strains between Jasmine and Ginger.

Blanchett is excellent as Jasmine, a woman who loves to wax grand and can get so enamored with her own invention of herself she forgets to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. Blanchett's vocal work of tonal shifts and varying rhythms remains impeccable as always (listen to her voiceover work introducing The Lord of the Rings again if you've forgotten). Her eyes, meanwhile, convey everything from nostalgia to haughty contempt to seduction to horror to impotent desperation. Sally Hawkins, so good in Happy-Go-Lucky and everything else, is very likable and believable as Ginger. Alec Baldwin can play wealthy scoundrels in his sleep. Allen probably overdoes the reg'lar working-class-stiff shtick with Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay, but they play the roles well, with Cannavale convincingly alternating between loutish and sincere and charming.

At times, Blue Jasmine is essentially a dual character study of Jasmine and Ginger, even if the main focus remains on Jasmine. (It's interesting that Allen cast two British Commonwealth actresses for his leads.) It's also an exploration of virtue, the lack thereof, and just and unjust rewards – a concern in some of Allen's best films, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. What's intriguing is how Allen flirts with different storylines and outcomes, sets the narrative moving in one direction, and will then throw in complications and reversals. (He makes it look easy.) Will life turn out well for both sisters? Will Jasmine, who's more selfish, prosper while the more virtuous Ginger suffers? Will Ginger triumph and Jasmine topple? Will both do poorly? Will either (especially Jasmine) learn anything, and if so, what? Allen's skilled enough that this juggling and shifting is never blatant, but these dynamics, together with the artful weaving of the flashbacks – and their carefully timed, gradual reveals – demonstrate great craftsmanship and give the film a natural build and a memorable and slightly surprising climax (albeit one that was hinted at previously).

(Here's Cate Blanchett on All Things Considered.)

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers sure like to kick a guy when he's down. Their latest film focuses on Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a talented but luckless folk singer trying to make it in Greenwich Village in 1961. Isaac, who's often played slimeballs before, makes for a good sullen antihero and turns out to be a very respectable folk performer with a fine voice. The film often lets a full song play out, meaning there's nothing but Isaac or the other performers to carry matters, and they do. Llewyn has a tendency to wear out his welcome, which means couch surfing through his friends and acquaintances, most notably folk duo Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). Jean's insistent that Llewyn's an asshole, but we're less convinced – he's got his rough edges, but the guy seems to try to do right by people, down to carrying around his friends' cat everywhere when he accidentally lets it out of their apartment. His manager is clueless about how to sell him, and it doesn't help that his former musical partner, Mike, killed himself. There's a rough plot of sorts, but as is often the case with the Coens, it's episodic and rambling; they're more interested in capturing a mood and milieu. We get a strong sense of Llewyn's personal style, but what drives him – what's truly "inside Llewyn Davis" – only comes through in small, tantalizing glimpses. (A late scene between Llewyn and Jean stands out in this regard.)

If you like the Coens' other films, you'll likely enjoy this one. It's got the best soundtrack of 2013 (unless you absolutely hate folk music). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is one of the loveliest soft lighting jobs in recent memory – it's just a pleasure to look at, and the muted winter colors evoke the era and requisite mood. Some viewers enjoy playing "spot the model," since many of characters are loosely based on real people in the folk scene in the 60s. (The genesis of the film was the Coens hearing that folk singer Dave Van Ronk was beat up outside a club in the 60s, wondering who the hell would bother to beat up a folk singer, and setting out to answer the question – but that's only a launching point, not the point of the movie, to the degree that there is one.) I noted some of the parallels, but mostly preferred to just experience the film on its own terms. Always the kidders aiming to amuse themselves, Joel Coen remarked, "The film doesn't really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that's why we threw the cat in." His response brings to mind the seemingly rife-with-significance hat in one of their best films, Miller's Crossing. In Tom's dream in that film, his hat didn't transform into something magical; "it stayed a hat." Sometimes a hat is just a hat, a cat is just a cat, and the moral of the cat and the hat is that sometimes there's rhyme but little reason to the Coens' delightful (and occasionally dour) nonsense.

(Here's the Coens on Fresh Air and NPR pieces one and two on Dave Van Ronk. I'd also recommend Roy Edroso's review.)

Enough Said: This is a genuinely charming and occasionally moving middle-aged romance sold by good chemistry and extremely natural performances from its stars, Julia Louise-Dreyfus as Eva and James Gandolfini as Albert. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener's premise is wisely simple – we're here to see how intimacy, humor, trust and doubt play out in a relationship between two middle-aged people who aren't rookies at this game. In this case, it translates into both less bullshit initially but also heavier baggage. Eva meets Albert at a party, and although he isn't really her type, she agrees to a date with him, and finds him surprisingly charming. He's warm and funny, and comfortable with himself (perhaps a little too much when it comes to his boxers). They bond especially over their anxiety about their kids soon going away to college. Things in the relationship progress and start to go quite well, but then (slight spoilers, but fairly soon in) Eva realizes that one of her new (and best) clients, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is Albert's ex-wife. She admires Marianne and starts feeling self-conscious, and begins to prod Marianne for more information about Albert – particularly the things that drove her nuts and soured their marriage. Some curiosity is understandable, but Eva keeps the truth quiet from both Marianne and Albert, and starts scrutinizing Albert more and second-guessing everything.

The film's only 93 minutes, but it covers a fair amount of emotional ground in that time, and convincingly so. A late confrontation scene between Eva and Albert is genuinely affecting. Julia Louise-Dreyfus has become a legitimately fine actress – I knew she could do comedy, and she handles it well throughout, but she also sells several crucial dramatic moments. (I also enjoyed that her character was the lead and arguably more flawed, a nice change of pace from manchild-reformed romantic comedies.) Meanwhile, it's a treat to see James Gandolfini in action, playing a character much closer to himself than Tony Soprano, and it's a shame to remember that he's gone. (The film credits give him special recognition.) Toni Collette and Will Falcone are good as Eva's friends, an occasionally bickering married couple. Unless you hate the genre, this is well worth a look.

Rush: Director Ron Howard's style has typically been conventional Hollywood, although he's delivered some good films within those parameters. Rush, his most independently financed since his early days directing, is also his most stylistically daring and may be his best. The movie's based on the real-life rivalry between two Formula One racers in the 70s, the British James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Hunt is a wild man, a charismatic womanizer and carouser, and a risk-taker on the track. He also can be quite the asshole, sometimes from focused intent but more often out of reflexive dismissal for the lesser beings who surround him.
Lauda is similarly intense, but he's all business when it comes to racing, obsessing about every physical detail and possible improvement to be made on his cars. Unlike Hunt, he's hardly an extrovert, but has his own brand of arrogance; he's not shy about stating what he sees as the facts – his own superiority as a racer. It's refreshing to see a major film with rivals who are both so flawed and occasionally unlikable rather than the usual dynamics of a good guy, who must learn something, sure, but is facing off against a clear villain. The two leads are seldom boring, either, and the plot wisely keeps things simple and focused on them and their rivalry. (Peter Morgan, writer for The Queen and Frost/Nixon, delivers another tight script.) Brühl does a strong job conveying Lauda's unflagging drive, while Hemsworth captures Hunt's volatility and excesses. Hunt can be on top of the world one month, and then everything can go into the crapper; he can be blissful with his glamorous model wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) but later jealous and abusive. He's the type of person, and driver, who can win it all or completely flame out. The many racing scenes are exhilaratingly shot and edited, the movie's pace rarely lags, and it all builds up to a satisfying view. The danger of racing is emphasized as well, most chillingly in a horrific wreck that has significant consequences. Supposedly the film is fairly true to life, but the Hunt-Lauda rivalry is definitely exaggerated somewhat; the two were actually roommates in their early careers.

(Here's Ron Howard on The Business.)

Pacific Rim: Fanboy artiste extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro gives us his version of a Japanese movie, giant mecha fighting kaiju (giant monsters). Of the many comic-book-style movies of 2013, this gets my vote for being the best. (Del Toro makes both art house and pop culture movies, and consciously aims for uncomplicated but entertaining fare here.) The plot is simple: giant monsters are coming through dimensional rifts on Earth, leaving devastation in their wake. Earth's chief defense consists of the Jaegers, giant robots piloted by human beings who enter a special mental state to do so. The kicker: the Jaegers are so complex that one human can't do it alone for long without frying his or her brain; two people must pilot the Jaeger together, and that also means they must mind-meld to do so, making them privy to each other's inner thoughts and darkest secrets. Only a small portion of the population can accomplish this, typically blood relatives. Early in the film, we see Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) fighting the good fight against a big baddie, but they're overly cocky and something goes terribly wrong. Raleigh ceases to be a Jaeger pilot and works grungy jobs, but is eventually recruited once more by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the head of the Jaeger program. (The remaining Jaegers are being gathered in Hong Kong, the site of the biggest rift.) The question isn't just whether Raleigh can get himself back in shape and his head together – the question is whether he can meld successfully with a new partner, the agile and smart but reticent Maki Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, there's alpha-male posturing to be done against Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), whose copilot is his father, Herc (Max Martini). Rounding the facility out, the resident mad scientists, Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), have pet theories about kaiju brains and a bigger threat coming soon. This leads Geiszler to deal with sinister black marketeer Hannibal Chau (frequent del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman).

I found the young male leads, Hunnam and Kazinsky, rather forgettable and the weakest aspect of the movie (I've been assured they're pretty, though). Elba is great as usual, this time in the tough-but-kindly paternal role. Kikuchi conveys her character's vulnerability and highly observant nature well. Day and Gorman make a good comic pairing, with Day more prone to verbal explosions and Gorman more likely to huff contemptuously and sulk. Perlman is amusingly sinister as Chau. Meanwhile, del Toro knows how to stage a fight and give it beats but a smooth flow, delivering some great spectacle. Only a few criticisms on that front: If anything, some segments of the Jaeger-kaiju fights tend to end too quickly, which may be due more to budgetary constraints than desired pacing. In one of the showcase fights, featuring multiple Jaegers versus multiple Kaijus, we barely get to see one of the Jaegers in action (which is frustrating, because it's a badass one). Two of the key Jaegers have similar paint jobs and look awfully similar, especially underwater, which is an unforced error. Lastly, I was disappointed by a story choice near the very end (it felt like a cop-out). I'm curious to see how this holds up to a second viewing, but it was an entertaining summer movie.

(Guillermo del Toro gives fun interviews. Here he is on The Treatment and The Business.)

Elysium: Although Elysium certainly has its flaws, it's never boring, and its earns points by being both ambitious and memorable. South African writer-director Neil Blomkamp (District 9, the ninth film reviewed here) presents us with a 22nd century where utopia is segregated from dystopia. The lucky reside on the space station Elysium orbiting Earth, where the livin' is easy, even cancer can be easily cured and the prudent can be near immortal. Meanwhile, down on earth, most people live in squalor, as is the case for Max (Matt Damon), a semi-reformed petty thief trying to make an honest if grueling living in a local factory (Armadyne Corp., which manufactures robots and armaments). He lips off to a security robot and gets his arm broken, leading him to the hospital and a reunion with his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), who's become a doctor. (She also has a daughter, Matilda, with leukemia.) Max is forced to work in highly unsafe conditions at work or lose his job, gets lethally irradiated, and is told he only has five days to live. The head of the company, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), is completely unsympathetic – he won't help Max get cured in Elysium, and doesn't even like to talk to the proles, let alone have physical contact with them. Meanwhile, Elysium's Defense Secretary, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), has been dismissed from service for dealing with immigrant space shuttles harshly, especially due to her use of a ruthless mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley, who was quite likable in District 9 but is menacing and creepy here). Delacourt plots with Carlyle to pull off an electronic coup (all for the benefit of Elysium, of course, and coincidentally herself). Max's only chance of survival is getting to an Elysium med bay, so he makes a deal with the local black market boss, Spider, to steal intelligence in exchange for a risky ride into space. Since he's steadily growing physically weaker, Spider also has Max undergo cringe-inducing surgery to graft a strong but somewhat clunky exoskeleton to his body. Pretty soon, both the best laid and most desperate plans go awry and collide.

Damon makes a likable lead, and it's hard not to root for him as he fights against the odds. The action scenes are pretty good, especially as Max struggles to figure out how to use his new strong but clumsy limbs. Copley makes a memorable villain and Fichtner can play sleazeballs in his sleep. Jodie Foster's performances are normally impeccable, but while she gives her character an appropriate crispness, she also adopts an odd, unsuccessful and very distracting accent (it sounds as if she's attempting Afrikaner.)

As for the film's "message," good social commentary is welcome, yet while Elysium's targets are worthy, its critique of the privileged often feels too on the nose. The med bays even take less than a minute to cure someone of fatal diseases, which feels too quick for both plausibility and cinematic suspense, and also makes the Elysian resistance to sharing their medical wealth with the world less comprehensible. We don't hear much of the Elysians' excuses or rationalizations, either – cost, resources, theories of innate superiority, what-have-you. Take any of that too far, and the film could wind up much more preachy than it is – as it stands, it's partially an action movie – but a few artful asides and exchanges might have done the trick. In the end, it's an interesting movie to watch, mixing original touches with the more derivative, but its tendency to hammer us over the head at times detracts from the overall effect. Credit for ambition and its non-cookie-cutter elements, though.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Writer-director Gary Ross made some inspired adaptation choices with the first film in the series based on Suzanne Collins' popular young adult books (it's the fifth film reviewed here), but some unfortunate directorial decisions. The second film proves better than the first, with a script by the talented Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt and directed by Francis Lawrence. (I'll assume readers have seen the first film or read the book.) Having won the Hunger Games, young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) must now contend with the formidable and quietly ominous President Snow (the perfectly cast Donald Sutherland). He's not convinced she really acted for love so that both Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and she could survive the Hunger Games, and he's certainly not assured she's not a threat to the Capitol's totalitarian rule over the 12 Districts. He's got quite the evil master plan, aided by his new Gamesmaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (a ridiculous name but for an interesting character, played the late and much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman). As if Katniss' own safety and that of her family weren't enough to keep her busy, her good friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is as in love with her as Peeta and none too happy about their romance for the cameras. (It's refreshing that Katniss is never a passive heroine, and in the story's love triangle, is neither swooning nor playing games; she likes both young men but isn't sure her feelings are romantic.)

As with the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games can woo a strong supporting cast. In addition to Sutherland and Hoffman (whose scenes together are a treat), Jena Malone is even better than usual as the fiery Johanna Mason (she introduces herself in style) and Sam Claflin is excellent as Finnick Odair, selling the character's celebrity charisma but also his surprisingly thoughtful side. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are distinctive as Beetee and Wiress, respectively. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci reprise their roles and create some memorable scenes – the new latest ordeals inflicted on Katniss and the rest can stir even the shallow, drunken and jaded. Lawrence is a talented young actress, selling both the toughness and the carefully-guarded vulnerability of the character, but also seems to be growing into the role more. The books aren't masterpieces, but are page-turners with moments of depth, and above average for the genre. The second film is in turn well-paced and a nice mix of suspense, action and character moments. I wish the final book in the trilogy weren't being split into two films (and wonder how young fans will react to the series' increasingly dark direction), but here's hoping the filmmaking team delivers a strong finale. (The Katniss-Snow scenes should be fun to watch.)

(Here's Lenny Kravitz on The Treatment.)

Dallas Buyers Club: Strong performances anchor this film based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy who contracts AIDS in the 80s from unprotected sex with a needle-using prostitute. In the course of searching for a cure, Woodruff goes far outside legal and approved treatments (which don't seem adequate), and starts an unlikely partnership (and eventual friendship) with transwoman Rayon (Jared Leto). The "buyers club" of the title is a clever way to get around the law, although Woodruff and Rayon still tangle with the cops frequently. Even as Woodruff grows sicker, some things don't change; he continues to hit on Eve, a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner). Other things change radically – Woodruff is rejected by most of his old friends, who assume he's gay and threaten him. Meanwhile, Woodruff gradually becomes closer with Rayon and other members of the gay and trans communities. It's a convincing transformation (and McConaughey apparently read the real Woodruff's journals in preparation). This is the best McConaughey's been, and in addition to the physical transformation he undertakes on screen, losing a great deal of weight, he sells the wide range of Woodruff's emotions. Ron Woodruff is cocky and a strutter, a natural charmer and bullshitter, but sometimes this is to cover his mounting desperation as he becomes more starkly aware of his slimming chances and faces his mortality. He's a bit of an ass and people-user to begin with, but his predicament and raw moments of human vulnerability make him gradually more sympathetic. (So does his instinct to protect his friends, after his conception of friendship has expanded and matured.) Jared Leto, always a fine actor, returns from a hiatus of several years to deliver an affecting performance as the streetwise, gutsy but wounded and occasionally self-destructive Rayon. (Perhaps Rayon and Woodruff ultimately hit it off so well because they both put up such formidable fronts. Relatedly, one of the funnier scenes has Woodruff posing as a priest, and one of the more memorable sequences involves Rayon donning male garb again for a specific purpose.) Director Jean-Marc Vallée shows an assured, light touch, eliciting natural performances and then letting them breathe. The visual style is handheld docudrama (you're not going to see polished, gorgeously-lit scenes), and it's a good approach for the material. Occasionally, when Woodfuff suffers an attack, Vallée lets real sound fall out, replaced by a high-pitched tone. It's a simple but effective choice. The screenwriters, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, structure the film by periodically flashing the days since Woodruff's diagnosis. It's likewise simple but potent, accomplishing the basic task of conveying the passage of time, but also increasing tension as Woodruff approaches the date he's been predicted to die. The entire aesthetic is one of understatement, and it's a well-crafted piece of work. The film has its moments of humor, and is by no means unrelentingly bleak. That said, it is a true tale of AIDS in the 80s. This isn't really a feel-good movie, but like all good tragedies, it will make you feel something.

(Here's Jared Leto on Fresh Air and the writers on Morning Edition; the first draft was done in 1996. That's impressive perseverance.)

The Past: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar for his superb film, A Separation (the second film reviewed here), delivers a strong follow-up. The opening sequence is intriguing – Marie (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) goes to pick up Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) from the airport; one fights to catch the other's attention through the security glass, their eyes meet and their faces light up; they move close and mouth words, but they can't really speak through the glass. In the next scene, as Marie tries to drive Ahmad despite an injured wrist, it's surprising to discover that Ahmad has arrived in France to finalize their divorce, given their seeming affection minutes earlier. The film admirably sustains this general dynamic throughout – we may think we have a handle on a character or a relationship, but then we gain new information that makes us reevaluate. None of this feels gimmicky, either; Farhadi elicits very natural performances throughout (from the child actors as well as the adults). The Past shares this approach to character and plot with A Separation, and although that's a stronger film in the end, The Past is still quite good. Marie now lives with Samir (Tahar Rahim), his young son Fouad, and her two daughters from a previous marriage, young Léa and teenaged Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Further complicating matters, Fouad occasionally acts out because he's had to move into a new house and misses his mother (she's in a coma) and Lucie often clashes with her own mother, mostly but not exclusively about Marie's relationship with Samir. Ahmad thus enters a delicate, awkward situation, and attempts to help where he can while simultaneously trying to show Marie and Samir respectful deference. (The girls are happy to see Ahmad, though.) Samir visits his comatose wife when he can, and new details gradually emerge about the exact circumstances leading to her condition. Lucie confides in Ahmad about a troubling secret, and her conflicts with Marie also escalate. The Past presents several volatile situations mixed together, and one of its great virtues is that no one's a straight villain – these are flawed human beings trying to do right in challenging circumstances but often in over their heads.

(Here's Asghar Farhadi on The Business and Weekend Edition.)

The Attack: A Palestinian doctor living in Tel Aviv, Israel, Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), is receiving a prestigious award, and is slightly irritated that his wife Siham (Reymonde Amsellem) says she can't attend. He receives a call from her during the ceremony but can only have a brief, hushed exchange with her due to his location. (He gives a grateful speech and notes that he's the first Arab to receive the award in 41 years.) His wife is not there when he arrives home later that night. The next day, a suicide bombing occurs, and Amin's hospital treats the victims. One of the fatalities is his wife. Moreover, her wounds suggest she was the bomber. The police start grilling Amin, most notably the aggressive Captain Moshe (Uri Gavriel). Amin can't believe his wife was involved, and while Amin's colleagues try to support him, they reluctantly can't agree on that front. Amin sets out to discover the truth of what happened, an occasionally dangerous quest that gradually reveals things about his wife he hadn't known and pushes him to reevaluate specific past events and his own life in general.

Any film dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is bound to be controversial. I appreciated that no ethnic group was ever presented as uniform in their views; instead, they're presented as human beings who often disagree, whether politely of vociferously. Likewise, a pat, single "answer" is not presented, only the complexity of the situation. The shifts in Amin's views are gradual and convincingly spurred by his experiences on his journey. The film is based on a novel and helmed by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, who adapted it with his wife, Joëlle Touma. (Apparently, the nations of the Arab League boycotted the film because Doueiri filmed scenes in Israel, thus violating the League's general economic boycott.)

(Here's Ziad Doueiri on Morning Edition.)

A Hijacking: (Released in Denmark in 2012.) A Danish corporation's ship is hijacked by pirates who demand an extremely high ransom for the ship and the crew. Early on, we see that the corporate CEO, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling, who Americans might know from Borgen), is a superb business negotiator. Hostage negotiation is another matter, though, and the experts advise Peter against doing it himself because he'll be more emotionally involved. Nevertheless, he forges ahead, feeling both responsible for his men and confident in his abilities. (He does have Connor Julian, a hostage expert advising him, but Peter does the talking.) On the ship, we stay with several of the crewmembers, but the key one is amiable cook Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), whose wife had been eager to see him after an already long voyage. Mikkel, the rest of the crew and Peter deal mostly with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the translator-negotiator hired by the pirates. Omar gets angry whenever anyone refers to him as one of the pirates (although his claim grows increasingly implausible, except as a matter of self-denial). The pirates initially ask for 15 million and Connor suggests a $500,000 counteroffer. The problem is, Connor explains, if Peter agrees to the 15 million, the pirates will only ask for more. And so a very slow and agonizing game begins. The tension racks up slowly and claustrophobically for over a month, then another. The families of the hostages start pressuring the company more and more to settle. Peter, normally coolly controlled, starts looking frayed around the edges. He's questioned by the board of directors (he's letting other matters slide) and by his wife. (You might find yourself yelling at Peter, too – at times the whole affair feels like a massive, high-stakes game of ego poker.) Meanwhile, on the boat, Mikkel is going stir crazy. Normally a sociable, happy fellow, he's gradually becoming a neurotic mess. It doesn't help that the main stores of food are running out and that some of the pirates think it's funny to threaten their hostages with their guns periodically. Pilou Asbæk is riveting as Mikkel here, a very sympathetic guy completely unsuited for this unnatural, brutal situation. Malling is very effective overall as Peter, but I didn't buy one scene of him losing it (it was too out of proportion). Credit writer-director Tobias Lindholm and the whole team for crafting a taut, suspenseful film.

The Great Beauty:
To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer: "Pussy." Whereas I answered "The smell of old people's houses." The question was "What do you really like the most in life?" I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.

These lines open director Paolo Sorrentino's movie, and they reveal something important about their speaker Jep, played with an easy, buoyant charm, sharp wit and quiet melancholy by Toni Servillo. (Hands upraised in greeting, a small smile and sad eyes form his iconic expression for me.) Jep is indeed something of a hedonist, living the high life in Rome with his aging friends (who show impressive stamina along with perhaps a little self-delusion), but he is first and foremost an aesthete. He made his reputation as a young man with a celebrated short novel, but never wrote another; instead, he's worked as a cultural critic and remains a fixture of a certain social scene of artists, journalists and aspirants.

It's impossible not to think of Fellini's La Dolce Vita when watching The Great Beauty, a love letter to the eternal city of Rome and exploration of life, love, art and religion via a late-life crisis. Jep, now 65, learns that his first love has died, and this drives him into a pensive mood. He generally likes to keep the mood light with his friends and acquaintances, but he possesses hidden depths in addition to his agile mind and sharp tongue. He can't restrain himself from drilling a famous priest with tough questions, out of a sincere desire for metaphysical answers but also because he's a smartass. In another, quiet scene of old friends gathered, one of Jep's female friends accuses everyone else of shallowness and hypocrisy. Jep readily concedes the point, but questions whether she's any different and why she insists on sitting in judgment over them rather than relaxing with them. Could she stand up to the same level of scrutiny? She insists she could and has nothing to hide. Jep proceeds to casually chronicle her faults, most of all her self-deception, and calmly eviscerates her. It's as cutting as a Bob Dylan accusation song, but without the anger; although Jep meets her social transgression with one of his own, it doesn't feel driven by malice. He has a writer's eye for life, he was pressed for his honest opinion, so with a shrug, he gave it. (And although he's not always the nicest guy, he does have a resilient compassionate streak.)

The film is episodic and discursive, but never boring, with many a memorable scene. (Cinematography fans will enjoy it for its sumptuous lighting and sinuous camera work.) Some other standouts: Joyful, frenetic dances at bachanalian parties. A vanishing giraffe. A performance art, live painting session starring a yelling child. Jep abandoning a woman desperate for a connection (he says he doesn't want to waste time at his age, but I found it needlessly cruel, that he led her on emotionally more than physically). A midnight, private tour of shadowy, ancient statues and paintings, and massive rooms with elderly guests hunched around small tables, playing games by flickering candlelight. An elderly nun hailed as a living saint, physically infirm but still with moments of mental lucidity, surrounded by attendants who jealousy guard access. And finally, a nighttime scene by a lighthouse with sweeping beams of light and lapping waves.

One of the great traditions in Italian cinema is its embrace of the experiential and the intuitive; you're invited to immerse yourself in a mood, a feeling, a moment in time. The Great Beauty is a gorgeous film in terms of craft, and may appear to be mostly gloss at first glance, but it possesses a deeper soulfulness.