"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.
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.
A slight and largely charming portrait of post-college woes, Noah Baumbach's deceptively simple "Frances Ha" is breezier than any of his previous ventures and indeed features considerably less ambition than his earlier work. However, that's hardly an indictment for a movie so eager to please and thoroughly in tune with the themes percolating throughout Baumbach's career. Shot in black-and-white video that lends this New York odyssey a scrappy feel, "Frances Ha" foregrounds a characteristically endearing Greta Gerwig performance defined by her usual onscreen combination of high energy wit and awkward self-effacement. Read more here.
"Interior. Leather Bar"
William Friedkin's 1980 East Village crime drama "Cruising," in which Al Pacino memorably goes undercover as a gay leather enthusiast to apprehend a killer, remains as divisive and controversial as it was upon its initial release. "Interior. Leather Bar," a 60-minute collaboration between queer filmmaker Travis Mathews ("I Want Your Love") and James Franco, aims to reenact the 40 minutes Friedkin cut from the film in order to secure an R rating, footage that was subsequently lost. In doing so, it also attempts to provoke strong reactions from the audience, but with far greater intellectual finesse. Instead of merely presenting imagery bound to titillate and create unease in equal measures, "Interior. Leather Bar" takes the form of a behind-the-scenes peek at the production to question the societal forces that engender the material's contentious nature. As a fleeting essay on sexual biases, it encourages a thoughtful debate, but leaves too many questions dangling to solidify into much beyond a dashed experiment. Read more here.
I never "Dreamed a Dream" or pleaded for "One Day More." But fans of "Les Misérables" -- the original stage musical adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, that is -- know those references well. Tom Hooper's big-screen adaptation works hard to pander to them. The moment Claude-Michel Schonberg's score kicks in, with the solemn baritone chorus of "Work Song," as hordes of imprisoned Frenchmen jointly lament their downtrodden lives, those smitten with this sprawling, mournful tale of the French Revolution might get goosebumps. That's mostly conjecture, of course, since when I saw this scene and countless others in Hooper's "Les Misérables" I felt no excitement over familiar tunes or the return of a beloved tale. 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.