The Coen brothers’ masterpiece one-ups Dashiell Hammett (whose novel The Glass Key was the film’s uncredited template) with a liberal dose of rum-runner-era Midwest ambiance, all overcoats and pine forests and gray skies. The story, so thick with its own web-like narrative hijinks and pearly mock patois, ropes around the conflict of nerves between two crime bosses in an unnamed midwestern city and the one man (Gabriel Byrne) trying, for his own reasons, to play both ends against the middle. Don’t ask us why, but films set in Depression-era Middle America always seem to take place in either summertime (when jobless poverty is of relatively little consequence) or autumn (when, as winter approaches, it begins to matter a good deal more). Of course, the Coens aren’t as concerned with actual socioeconomic conditions as much as with the movie-movie ether left lingering in the cultural forebrain, but all the same, Miller’s Crossing lends its autumn a uniquely resonant identity. In this cockeyed world of tweed, bourbon, and northern zephyrs, being left out in the approaching cold is the sorriest fate there is. with Albert Finney, John Turturro, and Marsha Gay Harden.
The Jean Vigo mini-masterpiece Zéro de Conduite is a vivid snapshot of grade school rebelliousness—you may’ve forgotten what it was like to spitball a teacher in fifth grade, or what it felt like to want to, but this visionary little gem jacks you into that universal spirit in no time flat, and at the same time it acts out your craziest pre-adolescent wishes of ridiculous chaos.
Perhaps the closest a Hollywood movie has ever gotten—and probably will ever get—to the free-associative shotgun spray of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, this first film by the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is an ingenious, incredibly entertaining, Rorschach blot of a metacomedy. The primary metaphoric vehicle of Being John Malkovich is a mysterious, slimy tunnel that leads directly from a small door in an obsolete office building into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes spent in Malkovich’s head, however, tunnel travelers are interdimensionally chucked out onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, but the orgasmic thrill of living inside Malkovich’s skull spurs the characters (including office clerk and formerly unemployed puppeteer John Cusack, his frumpy—yes, frumpy—wife, Cameron Diaz, and sultry business chick Catherine Keener) to repeat the experience and steer Malkovich’s actions into fulfilling their sexual fantasies. Charlie Sheen shows up, as himself, blabbering about “hot lesbian witches!”
This strange and irresistible film more or less begins with a Bunuelian idea: a smalltown man (Ryan Gosling), grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a full-size sex doll and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy – we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’ blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, and every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful farce. But then Lars and the Real Girl becomes something else: the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’ doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself. It turns out to be one of the most convincing and generous portraits of smalltown American life movies have seen in years, and still a portrait of adult lostness that hurts to think about. With Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider.
An impeccable and eccentric indie for anyone who’s fled small-town life. Going home is often fraught with land mines; here, Alessandro Nivola goes home to his North Carolinan white-trash family, with his new, British art-dealer wife (Embeth Davidtz) in tow. The point of view is hers, however, and the cheap notion that small-town folks are simple doesn’t play here: relationships are complicated and much is left unsaid. Dry and charming, Junebug is lit at its center by Amy Adams, as the huge-hearted pregnant sister-in-law, whose performance netted her an Oscar nomination.
Englishman Mike Leigh’s films, though often comedies, are never optimistic about the amount of emotional damage families can and will inflict on themselves, and this Oscar-nominated mini-epic might be his definitive statement on the matter. A portrait of a decimated British working-class family on its way down the crapper, Secrets & Lies revolves around a well-off portrait photographer (Timothy Spall), and his middle-aged sister Cynthia (the incendiary Brenda Blethyn), the family’s crucible and an aging, dim-witted slut with a grown daughter no one’s sure who fathered (Claire Rushbrook). The dung starts hitting the proverbial fan when a modest, intelligent young black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) discovers through an adoption agency that Cynthia is her birth mother, and contacts her. The characters are genu151 | m ly eun on III ine, and so sharply realized they cut like knives. People in Leigh’s films simply don’t behave like other movie characters—they are, only and completely, themselves, not types or ideas created to serve the story. (Leigh notoriously begins his moviemaking process with the actors and characters, and then develops a script.) You can’t not find them convincing, and you’ll have to admit that your family is at least in better shape than this crew.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s indie hit (pulling in nearly a 1,000 percent return on investment in a year in which Mission: Impossible III couldn’t even break even) has a familiar outline: a contentious, eccentric extended family hits the
road in a puttering VW bus—in this case, to participate in that most revolting of American rituals, the preadolescent beauty pageant—but it’s executed with consummate wit and Swiss timing. The charm of Little Miss Sunshine might boil down to the cast: give pros like Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear some open road, and they will race like the devil.
A fabulously textured comedy that centers on how sensitive guy Frank (Craig Sheffer) deals with buddy Joe’s (Eric Stoltz) marriage to Frank’s secret true love, Sarah (Meg Tilly). Director Rory Kelly divvied up the screenplay of Sleep With Me into six chunks, to six different screenwriters (including himself), and as a result it’s the social whorl of characters around the tense triangle that sings: Dean Cameron’s testy paraplegic, Todd Field’s laconic screenwriter, and Thomas Gibson’s amused Brit are particularly memorable, plus there are fiery bits performances by Quentin Tarantino, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, June Lockhart, Susan Traylor, and Adrienne Shelly. Criminally overlooked.
Fed up with looking for love but feeling pressure from her mother to land a husband, the sassy, ditzy heroine of the title (Jennifer Westfeldt) finds instead the bisexual Helen (Heather Juergensen), who’s already convinced that girls can scratch the itch that men can’t seem to reach. Trouble is, how does a nice, straight Jewish girl bring home a woman—especially one who’s not a doctor? Written by the two actresses, the script is fierce, smart, and funny as hell.
Nicole Holofcener’s chick flick depends absolutely and generously on the verve and candor of Catherine Keener and Anne Heche, as lifelong buddies negotiating their own mutating friendship as one faces marriage and the other faces loneliness. The film has the easy rhythm of a three-hour girl talk phone call, and all the actors run like linebackers with their unpredictable and witty (but not too witty) characters, including Liev Schreiber. Keener is particularly radiant and raw in a way that justifies the whole movie—a dozen emotions can register on her face all at once. Watching her come up with something to say in an embarrassing situation is like watching a Japanese table-tennis pro play himself.