With "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate night together in "Before Sunrise," then abruptly parted ways, only to tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with "Before Sunset." That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility: Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline? "Before Midnight" answers that question while asking many more as it consolidates the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful treatise on the evolution of romance. Read more here.
There is an immediate sense of change afoot in "Computer Chess," Andrew Bujalski's fourth feature as writer-director, visible to anyone familiar with his previous work. While Bujalski's influential "Funny Ha Ha" -- along with follow-ups "Mutual Appreciation" and "Beeswax" -- were almost defiantly shot on 16mm film and focused on the interpersonal relationships of chic young adults, "Computer Chess" is a period piece set 30 years in the past and shot on low-grade analog video. Experientially, however, "Computer Chess" falls in line with its precedents while achieving much funnier, offbeat results. Read more here.
Shane Carruth's 2004 time travel drama "Primer" provoked endless scrutiny for its heavy reliance on tech speak that the director refused to dumb down. His long-awaited followup, "Upstream Color," also maintains a seriously cryptic progression that's nearly impossible to comprehend in precise terms, but its confounding ingredients take on more abstract dimensions. An advanced cinematic collage of ideas involving the slipperiness of human experience, Carruth's polished, highly expressionistic work bears little comparison to his previous feature aside from the constant mental stimulation it provides for its audience. This stunningly labyrinthine assortment of murky events amount to a riddle with no firm solution. Read more here.
"The Act of Killing"
In Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," a pair of gangsters -- responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government -- get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer's camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers, Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, "The Act of Killing" is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes. Read more here.
"First Cousin Once Removed"
Documentarian Alan Berliner is frequently the star of his movies, but his focus extends beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show, he's a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence that could result from putting himself in front of the camera. That tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring "First Cousin Once Removed," which deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships ("Nobody's Business") and insomnia ("Wide Awake") by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest the movie's central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic relevant to everyone. Read more here.
"The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard"
A funny thing happened in the moments leading up to the Berlin International Film Festival world premiere of "The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard," a documentary about the prosecution of the titular Swedish file sharing site's founders. Minutes before the screening, director Simon Klose called a friend up in front of the audience and asked him to unlock a version of the movie uploaded to YouTube, appropriately setting the stage for a tale focused on internet freedoms. The lights went down; the screen lit up. But before "TPB AFK" started, the same warning sign preceding all movies at the festival appeared. "Film piracy is illegal," it read, an inadvertent irony not lost on the majority of the room. Chuckles circulated. In a way, the story had begun before a single frame. At the root of "TPB AFK" is a fundamental tension between conventional views on copyright law and the emerging standards of digitally savvy users. Klose's entertaining, passionate documentary wholeheartedly endorses the latter group, and its sympathetic stance is infectious -- but only if you're already amendable to the general cause. Read more here.
Last year's anthology horror production "V/H/S" was a revelation mainly because it took the overly familiar found-footage genre and exploited it to the fullest extent. The sequel achieves a similar goal with more frightening extremes. Containing only four spectacularly gory shorts directed by emerging genre filmmakers, along with an equally unsettling wraparound tale, "V/H/S/2" lacks some of the original's subtleties but delivers a nearly unbroken series of visceral shocks. The last movie was a wild ride with several stops along the way; "V/H/S/2," once again produced by the Bloody Disgusting production team known as The Collective, pushes full throttle ahead the whole way through. Read more here.
"Much Ado About Nothing"
There's a certain irony to Joss Whedon's adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing": While the script culls a beloved literary achievement more than 400 years old, it has relatively uncomplicated aims. Made in the immediate aftermath of Whedon's massive production of "The Avengers" and shot over the course of a two-week period at the cult director's Santa Monica home, "Much Ado About Nothing" has the scrappy feel of a high school play populated by professionals looking to take the pressure off. Call it a Shakespearean catharsis or just call it a lark -- either way, the movie represents Whedon's least essential work, regardless of the material's inherent comedic inspiration. Read more here.
"You're Next" doesn't break new ground in the horror genre, but it sticks to rules that work. Director Adam Wingard ("A Horrible Way to Die") and screenwriter Simon Barrett ("Dead Birds") demonstrate a firm grasp on their material, delivering a tightly-wound survival story replete with disarming humor that holds the whole bloody mess together. Read more here.
Nick Cassavetes has yet to hit on a filmmaking style to rival his father's legacy, but with "Yellow," the director of "The Notebook" presents an unhinged portrait of emotional turmoil with bold stabs at expressionistic representation at every turn. It's not only Cassavetes' best movie, but also a fascinating alternative to conventional melodrama that burrows inside its troubled protagonist's head and unleashes her emotions in vivid terms. No matter how messy it gets, "Yellow" renders a troubled subjectivity with striking creativity. Read more here.
"Spring Breakers" wouldn’t be a Harmony Korine movie if it wasn’t polarizing in some way. Sure enough, the latest by the director of "Gummo" and "Trash Humpers" seems calculated to outrage, titillate and/or exhaust viewers with its gleefully nihilistic portrayal of spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida, seen here as a slickly stylized, slo-mo bacchanal of keg stands, bong hits and topless coeds. Read more here.
To date, Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. While his new feature "Museum Hours" is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story, its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work. With a keen eye for the capacity of fine art to address a complex range of attitudes and experiences, "Museum Hours" effectively applies Cohen's existing strengths to a familiar scenario and rejuvenates it by delivering a powerfully contemplative look at the transformative ability of all art. Read more here.
"Lords of Salem"
Metal rocker Rob Zombie's second career as a filmmaker proved he was just as capable of unsettling showmanship behind the camera as he was onstage. His frightening "House of a 1,000 Corpses" hinted at the spectacular portrait of depravity that came next in 2005's "The Devil's Rejects," which got so intimate with serial killers even some dedicated genre fans felt it crossed a line. Zombie's two "Halloween" remakes, however, found less favor, which means it's time for a comeback. With the effectively creepy "The Lords of Salem," Zombie reaffirms his capacity to tap into the genre's strongest qualities. Read more here.
Suspenseful, ludicrous, fascinating, and utterly unsubtle, Zal Batmanglij's "The East" plays like an unholy mash-up of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Alias." The film builds on the themes of cult and identity that Batmanglij and his star Brit Marling explored artfully in their breakout debut "The Sound of My Voice." But here, that psychology is in service of a fast-paced espionage potboiler. Read more here.
In the grand tradition of "The Conversation" and "Blow Out" -- but produced with far more modest means -- "euphonia" uses sound to heighten the sense of its characters and audience alike. Danny Madden's microbudget tale of a curious teenager (Will Madden) who grows obsessed with a recording device runs a trim 53 minutes, barely contains any dialogue, and hardly qualifies as a feature-length movie. But the filmmaker's commitment to his cryptic technique makes "euphonia" into an enthralling experience so impressively realized that it may deserve its own category of cinema. Read more here.