Long before its title credit comes up, writer-director David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" establishes a gorgeously elegiac tone. From the opening shot, in which outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) engages in a scuffle with fellow robber and wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) before learning that she's pregnant, Lowery conveys a hauntingly antiquated world that transcends its routine plot. As beautifully shot as it is performed by its two leads, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" channels genre expectations into sheer poetry. Read more here.
"Everything has a risk to it," says the late Dr. George Tiller in the opening moments of "After Tiller." It's a prophetic statement that defines the movie's stance. In 2009, Tiller, one of only five licensed physicians performing third-trimester abortions, was shot to death by an extremist while the doctor was attending church. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson follow the experiences of the remaining four doctors in the wake of his death, emphasizing the nobility of their practice even as they face mounting pressure from the far right. The documentary compellingly illustrates how the regular perils of their profession make them martyrs for a tragic need. 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.
Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's searing take on the theme park's mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in "Blackfish," Cowperthwaite's case against SeaWorld would change little even with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. "Blackfish" is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system. Read more here.
From the outset, "Blue Caprice" reaches for authenticity. An opening compilation draws from news reports of the infamous Beltway sniper attacks in which a pair of men picked off random victims for several weeks before authorities finally caught up to them. In spite of this foundation, however, French director Alexandre Moors makes no grand claims to veracity, and includes neither the typical "based on a true story" title card that so often implies authority nor an end credit summing up the fates of everyone involved. Instead, Moors isolates a well-known drama with the fleeting nonfiction prologue and explores it from the inside out: It's not an attempted reenactment, but it does aim to get at certain truths. Read more here.
Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari's terrific coming-of-age drama "Attenberg" was largely about a young woman coming to terms with her body. While playfully irreverent and sometimes borderline surreal, "Attenberg" nevertheless rooted its exploration in a conventional storyline made fresh. Tsangari's 35-minute avant-garde follow-up "The Capsule," one piece of an installation work commissioned by the DesteFashionCollection, advances similar ideas in lively, shocking abstractions. It is truly a capsule of the filmmaker's vision boiled down to radical expressivity. 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.
The comedic stylings of Chilean director Sebastián Silva and Michael Cera couldn't have less in common. Silva, whose talent for dark humor became evident with 2009's Sundance award winner "The Maid" and further solidified with 2010's "Old Cats," probes the shadowy regions of domestic life and elevates them to absurd heights. For Cera, whose understated delivery has been ingrained in American pop culture since the advent of "Arrested Development," every aside comes across like a punchline. Silva unearths humor where appearances would suggest none exist; Cera always seems on the brink of delivering a neurotic joke. Read more here.
"Cutie and the Boxer"
"Art is a demon that drags you along," says 80-year-old visionary painter Ushio Shinohara in first-time director Zachary Heinzerling's delicate portrait "Cutie and the Boxer," but neither Shinohara nor his supportive wife and fellow artist Noriko are looking for a cure. Heinzerling's beautifully shot, painfully intimate look at the aging couple's struggle to survive amid personal and financial strain is both heartbreaking and intricately profound. This is a story about creative desire so strong it hurts. Read more here.
Touted as the first feature-length adaptation of comic writer David Sedaris' work, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "C.O.G" arrived at the Sundance Film Festival with plenty of hype generated by fans of the original. A short story from the author's anthology "Naked," it's the kind of low-key, reflective story that opens up well to the written word: The plot, fairly thin and random, comes secondary to the internal journey of the main character. But movies rely on images, sounds and real experience that don't necessarily imitate the written word. Some reviews of "C.O.G" have singled out the way that Alvarez (with his sophomore effort, following the sleeper hit "Easier With Practice") has nailed Sedaris' tone. But does make it a good movie? 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 "Sound of My Voice." But here, that psychology is in the service of a fast-paced espionage potboiler. As Sarah, Brit Marling plays a former FBI agent turned private security consultant who is paid to infiltrate a radical environmental group called The East. She more than confirms buzz that she will be one of film's next major leading women, and she's working with a strong set-up for a thriller in a community that couldn't be more relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street, and which has led to very mixed results on American screens (See: "Battle in Seattle"). There's plenty to admire, but ultimately this thriller is as overheated as a radical's rhetoric. Read more here.