Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012). Much as I can understand how this film turned into a stealth hit–it has the musical liveliness of early Glee combined with the knowing spunk of Bring It On–it’s a fairly clumsy endeavor, with strained jokes and haphazard structure that would almost count as daring anti-narrative if it were done intentionally. It’s also one of those films that has absolutely no idea how college works, not just taking liberties for the sake of the storytelling but completely ignoring any attempt to depict its setting in a way that’s at all plausible. It does have Anna Kendrick, though, and that’s very nearly enough. She’s charming and grounded in the lead role, flashing an effortless star presence that doesn’t compromise her attention to the truth of her characterization.

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011). A lumpy, desperately old-fashioned biopic from Clint Eastwood, who doesn’t even prosper with the pulpier elements of the story. That’s usually the part in his wheelhouse, showing off the enduring influence of his old collaborator Don Siegel. Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote the film according to standard issue progressions and leaden conflicts. Given Black’s involvement, many probably expected FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged homosexuality would be a more pressing concern, but it’s simply not that sort of film, less due to skittishness than a general disinterest to dig for anything but the most facile facts. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine in the title role, but neither is he doing anything all that special. Other actors are either stranded with practically nothing to do (Naomi Watts) or obviously out of their depth (Armie Hammer).

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Steven Soderbergh’s string of utterly implausible entertainments continues (and I guess concludes, given the director’s insistence that this will be his last feature-length project) with a beautifully oddball dramatization of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), the hunky animal trainer who was the entertainer’s conquest, possession and ultimately adversary when the cast-aside lover sued for palimony. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extract deadpan humor out of Liberace’s sunny decadence and the sense of bratty entitlement that came with his celebrity. Douglas is a wonder as Liberace, looking more at ease that he ever has on screen, even if he doesn’t exactly disappear into the role. I never lost sight of the fact that this was Douglas playing Liberace, but I sometimes forgot that none of the mannerisms he flashes actually belong to the actor naturally. There’s also a fantastically funny supporting performance by Rob Lowe as a doped-up plastic surgeon who’s clearly given himself over to the scientific advances of his trade, his face reformed into a rictus of glamor.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011). Stephen Daldry received Best Director Oscar nomination for each of his first three films, a streak that stopped with this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, although the expanded Best Picture category made for it, meaning he can still boast of starting his career with nothing but highly honored films. I liked Foer’s novel quite a bit, but Daldry’s film transfers the details while completely missing the spirit of it, becoming a sanctimonious slog. To be fair, nine-year-old Oskar Schell is a probably a character better suited for the page, where his quirks and sideways thinking are more likely to come across as endearing. Realizing the same qualities onscreen is more likely to be aggravating, especially when portrayed by a neophyte actor (Jeopardy! winner Thomas Horn) three significant years too old for the role. Foer grappled with unthinkable tragedy by heightening the confusion in the search for answers. Daldry takes the same story and lathers it with sanctimony.

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947). This bizarrely chipper film noir casts Lucille Ball as Sandra, an American working as a taxi dancer in London who’s recruited by Scotland Yard to be an undercover operative in their efforts to catch a serial killer using the classified to find his victims. While Ball was defined by her pratfall daffiness in her hugely success television career, before that she had a way with a sharp wisecrack in her film efforts. That’s certainly the case here, as she brings noteworthy sharpness to her performance. Douglas Sirk provides lively directing, but the plot is ultimately not all that engaging or interesting, even with the involvement of George Sanders, droll as ever as a famous producer smitten with Ball’s ball of fire. The best bits are the digressions, including one very, very strange sequence with Boris Karloff as a deeply unbalanced man who briefly lures Sandra character to his flat overstuffed with creepy belongings.

Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012). Chronicle is good enough to almost–almost–redeem the increasingly tired found footage subgenre. This is in part due to the especially clever use of the footage, drawing it from a variety of sources rather than relying on one dedicated amateur documentarian who keeps the camera running no matter what level of craziness is happening (although the film inevitably must rely on that conceit more than is ideal). Security cameras, police car dashboard cams and other fully believable devices provide all the material that’s stitched together into a narrative. If physics-defying mayhem were happening outside of a upper story window, of course there would be a battalion of observers with tablets and smartphones held up to capture the action, so why not use it? The plot is simple and satisfying, tracing the repercussions when a group of teenagers get superpowers after exploring a mysterious cave out in the woods. First-time director Josh Trank keeps the film moving briskly without sacrificing character development, especially thanks to lead actor Dane DeHaan, who’s already established a noteworthy specialist in young men damaged to the point of anguished fragility.

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965). Otto Preminger has his devoted disciples, and I’d like to think this is one of their cherished films, if only because its outsized brave oddity makes it a truly unique feature for the times. Based on a 1957 novel by Merriam Modell (using the pen name Evelyn Piper), it has a touch of The Lady Vanishes to it, with protagonist Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) trying to convince the authorities in the English town she’s just moved to that her daughter has gone missing, even though she can’t seem to find anyone able to verify the girl’s existence. Preminger absolutely revels in the film’s richly twisty psychology, joyously indulging in the gamesmanship of his warped narrative. The director favors long tracking shots which makes his momentary flourishes–especially some striking editing in a scene involving swings–all the more striking. Lynley is fine in a role centered on ever-intensifying reactions. Keir Dullea is not very good at all as her brother, but the flatness of his performance winds up working to the film’s advantage. Easily the best performance in the film belongs to Martita Hunt, drolly funny as a somewhat spooky retired teacher who lives on the upper level of the school where the girl was last seen.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1928). This comedy about the educated son of a steamboat captain coming back into his pop’s life is one of the Great Stone Face’s most adored films. The quiet deftness of his direction is evident throughout, and the physicality he brings to the various set pieces is truly extraordinary. The sequence involving a windstorm is a masterpiece all on its own, culminating in a stunt involving a falling house facade that is justifiably Buster Keaton’s most famous single shot. There’s not a lot of subtlety and nuance to the storytelling, as is typical of the era, but Keaton’s command of the emerging vernacular of cinema is thrilling.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012). Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of older Tim Burton fare that still holds the sharp snap of originality, and that’s followed by a newly depressed sensation in response to the director’s ceaseless descent into garishly inept reappropriation of well-worn stories. Besides giving Johnny Depp a chance to indulge in the cartoonish overacting that’s become his miserable trademark, Burton’s adaptation of the cult classic horror-flavored soap opera from the nineteen-sixties and early-seventies is such a massive lint ball of half-realized characters and notions that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever thought this thing was coming together in a satisfactory fashion. The convoluted plot was perhaps intended to mirror the hula-hooping lunacy of a soap opera, but it’s instead a complete muddle acted out by overqualified actors struggling to find an iota of personality within their roles. Dark Shadows is about as bland as any film with this much detail packed into it ever could be.

Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952). Jennifer Jones is the title character in this overheated melodrama from King Vidor, a director who definitely knew his way around this sort of material. Ruby is a North Carolina girl from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Despite her humble beginnings–or perhaps motivated by them–Ruby strives for something more, eventually marrying a wealthy man (Karl Malden), earning her the ire of the high society mavens certain she’s just after his money, especially when the man dies in a boating accident. That’s when the plot of social and economic vengeance revs its engine. Games as Jones is in the lead role, the end result is florid without the necessary hint of panache to make it really work.

Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, 2012). A longtime Clint Eastwood collaborator–multiple credits as a producer and assistant director–makes his feature directorial debut, and it predictably looks like one of his pal’s stodgier efforts, right down to the venerable actor doing a variation of his Gran Torino gravel-voiced grump complaining about the kids these days. In Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood plays a old baseball scout who’s disparaged by the moneyball adherents in the deluxe offices, even though there’s some things you just can’t tell about a prospect from looking at a computer screen. The film is painfully simplistic, setting up obvious straw-slugger arguments for Eastwood’s character to win as he gradually mends the strained relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams, doing the very best she can with flimsy material). It culminates in a scene involving dueling prospects that’s so detached from reality that anyone who’s seen Sportscenter playing silently in a bar can probably spot its insulting phoniness. The film also includes Justin Timberlake in a central role, which is as bad of an idea as ever.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938). The second-to-last film Alfred Hitchcock made in his native U.K. before departing for Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is a prime example of the great director’s mordant playfulness. On a European train trip, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) reports the disappearance of an old woman, but she has trouble finding anyone else aboard willing to even corroborate the purported victim’s existence. The screenplay, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins, is ingenious in giving the various characters unique, believable motivations for refusing to back up Iris’s assertions, and the wheel does indeed spin effectively. This is another version of the normal person trapped in confusing, extraordinary circumstances, a basic plotline with which Hitchcock prospered. There’s also a very nice performance by Michael Redgrave as the raffish fellow who antagonizes Iris before becoming her sole ally.

The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940). The sequel to 1939′s Jesse James finds Henry Fonda returning to his role as the notorious outlaw’s brother, trying to live a sedate farmer’s life until he finds out what the coward Robert Ford did to his kin. Jackie Cooper has one of his first adult(-ish) roles as a farmhand itching to join in the revenge mission, and it’s also the debut film of Gene Tierney, all flutter and petulance as a fledgling lady reporter. Overall, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff, standard mid-century western fare. The key difference is the presence of Fritz Lang behind the camera (Henry King directed the 1939 film). He can only inject so much personality into it, but it is fascinating to see hints of his unique eye and preference for abstract, moody lighting creep into the film. It’s not a vital work, but it’s indicative of how challenging it was for him to fit into the Hollywood machine.

Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011). When Pariah debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, I remember a few writers lamenting that its superficial similarities–let’s reinforce that by noting they’re extremely superficial–to 2009′s fest sensation Precious would cause this far superior effort to be unfairly overlooked. Turn out they couldn’t have been more right. The debut feature from writer-director Dee Rees (expanded from a short film from four years earlier) is wise, insightful, empathetic, honest and emotional sound. So it’s basically everything that Precious wasn’t. The film features a deeply appealing performance by Adepero Oduye as Alike, a young African-American woman coming to terms with her own identity, a process further challenged by the pressures of her demanding family, particular her mother (Kim Wayans), who seethes with dissatisfaction over an upscale life that’s simply not controlled and refined enough. In particular, Alike is coming to terms with her own sexuality–specifically, an attraction to other women–and the process is depicted in a tender, thoughtful way. The movie is tough-minded, but not unkind or manipulative. It’s commitment to telling Alike’s story with the dignity of truth is resolute.

A Rage in Harlem (Bill Duke, 1991). Based on a 1957 novel by Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem begins with a bloody bayou shootout and progresses to the New York neighborhood of the title, as a flurry of characters try to get their hands on the spoils of that trading of bullets, a hefty cache of gold. The necessary femme fatale is played by Robin Givens, then very famous due to her intensely troubled marriage to miscreant boxer Mike Tyson. Givens may have been handy for the movie poster, but her acting was always middling at best, and she goes a long way toward blunting the film’s impact. And it really needs a strong, enticing central performance to help smooth out the tangles of the plot (or at least make the muddle easier to forgive). There’s a nice character turn by Forest Whitaker as a nebbish who falls under the sway of Givens’s fleeing moll, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s prevailing clumsiness, including the somewhat confused tone of Bill Duke’s directing.

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936). My instinct is to refer to this as an early Alfred Hitchcock film, but he was a decade and almost two dozen films into his career by this point. What’s more, this was released the year after The 39 Steps, so while Hitchcock may not have been The Master yet, he was a seasoned, skilled and respected filmmaker already. This was toward the end of the run of his British-made films, and there’s a certain added restraint–even somewhat pedestrian quality–to the narrative about a terrorist group staging bombings around London. It notably adheres to all of Hitchcock’s rules of suspense, including letting the audience know exactly where a bomb is placed to heighten anticipation of the inevitable explosion. There are a few conveniences built into the plot and simplified, streamlined relationships of the sort typical of the era. Overall, though, the film does exhibit a fine craftsman’s touch, even if there are only the barest hints of the genius to come.

Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012). It may not be good enough to forgive the wholly inane 2002 sequel, but at least the third installment manages to be a moderate diversion. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but the tortured production process (starting without a finished script, shutting down for several months in the middle to get the material into shape to finish up) suggested a far worse finished product. The film involves a time travel plot that just barely avoids tying itself in ugly knots and provides the pleasure of seeing Josh Brolin’s improbably entertaining Tommy Lee Jones impression, playing a younger version of the grouchy actor’s Agent K. There’s also an terrifically fun supporting turn by Michael Stuhlbarg, as an alien who can see all the various possibilities of any given situation, a conceit that is handled with commendable cleverness. The film is little more than a cash-grab attempt to revive a broken franchise, but it manages to do so with a bit of dignity.

Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013). The timing probably couldn’t be better for a spoofy mix of zombies and supernatural teen romance, and director Jonathan Levine delivers a passably entertaining take on the concept, adapted from a 2010 novel by Isaac Marion. Nicholas Hoult plays one of many shambling victims of a zombie apocalypse whose mindless quest for human flesh is interrupted when old, supposedly dormant feelings are stirred up by a lovely young survivor, played by Teresa Palmer. There are all sorts of allegories that can be drawn about understanding and accepting difference, but the films works best viewed as little more than a loose, daffy, suitably dark trifle.

Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). I’ve been trying to figure out the last time I watched a filmmaker veer so dramatically from something phenomenally forceful to utter junk from one film to the next. Derek Cianfrance follows up the near-genius of Blue Valentine with a grim drama that is overloaded with shaky motivations, groaning implausibilities and self-important fabricated tension. The director reunites with Valentine actor Ryan Gosling, who should really snag another offbeat character role like Lars Lindstrom soon, before his career gets mired in an endless series of self-consciously cool characters. The film is basically three different interlocking stories, strung together like boxcars, each one more pretentious than the last. Somewhere in there, Eva Mendes is doing some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from her, at least until she essentially has to play the same basic moment over and over again.

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Widely considered one of the greatest westerns ever crafted in the Hollywood studio system, High Noon looks a little safe and even staid now (Roger Ebert once stirred some mild controversy by noting he’d rewatched it in consideration for his Great Movies series and decided it’s “frankly, just not a very good film”). It is interesting to consider how many tropes of the tried-and-true genre the film is casually, firmly upending, including the notion that the upstanding marshal irritated several residents of his town, not just the law-breakers. The famed conceit of the movie operating in roughly real time is actually almost entirely inconsequential and barely worth noting, except for the occasionally pushy presence of clocks in many of the scenes. Gary Cooper is excellent as the beset lawman, unable to find anyone to stand by his side as he prepares to face down returning scoundrels with vengeance on their minds. What begins as a typical clipped, almost stilted Cooper performance gets buffed down into something worn and weary as the weight of his dilemma sets in. Fred Zinnemann directs with a sharp eye, favoring long shots that accentuate just how alone Cooper’s lawman is as he walks through the dusty town.

The Three Stooges (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2012). Strangely, this attempt to update the Three Stooges for a modern audience is the most disciplined Farrelly brothers film in years. That doesn’t mean it’s good per se, but the screenplay does have a tightness and care that’s been largely missing from the siblings’ work for at least ten years or so. There’s some genuinely inspired staging to the hyper-violent comic set pieces featuring the trio of orphaned doofuses clumsily beating the hell out of each other which carries over the broader narrative. Not much of it is especially funny or even all that interesting, but it holds together. Similar faint praise can be spread around to the three actors playing the Stooges, especially Chris Diamantopoulos who manages to evoke Moe without just offering an impression.

Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011). An unlikely family-friendly hit that’s neither as ludicrous or shameless as a movie about giant boxing robots should be, Real Steel has a shocking dearth of energy. Part of that is attributable to the entirely by-the-numbers screenplay (based on a Richard Matheson short story, but don’t hold that against his legacy), but Shawn Levy’s lackluster direction merits yawns as well. Hugh Jackman gives his best star power glower as the washed up fighter who bonds with his estranged young son while simultaneously managing some unlikely machinery to championship levels. No matter how game he is, though, the film is ultimately too empty. He can only do so much emoting in a void.

Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012). Director David Wain’s follow up to the surprisingly amusing and enjoyable Role Models is another high concept comedy that depends in part of mocking an insular subculture. In this case, a stressed out married couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) wind up trying out life in an off-the-grid commune after they bomb out in the big city. There’s some standard fish out of water shenanigans along with satiric mockery of the freewheeling hippie ethic, but the whole thing is finally too shaggy, full of iffy character development and digressions for the sake of chasing comedy that completely undo the whole endeavor. The best idea in the whole film is the casting of Alan Alda as the aging founder of the commune who struggles with a blazed out memory, but, like everyone else, he’s essentially given a single joke to play. Even his genial presence gets old.

The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, 2012). Jason Segel’s collaboration with writer-director Nicholas Stoller that began with Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes a turn towards greater depth. Even if it doesn’t wholly work, it’s intriguing to watch them try to stretch their capabilities. Segel plays a man whose plans to marry his girlfriend (Emily Blunt, who really did have a nice 2012) are thwarted by the the false starts of a twentysomething life. There’s a clear interest in exploring the complexities of holding together a relationship while two people are on slightly different tracks, especially as necessary compromises start to wear them down, but too much of the script relies on the laziest conventions of modern romantic comedy storytelling.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955). East of Eden was released just about eight months after On the Waterfront. Though it traffics in some of the same method acting muscularity, in many ways it couldn’t be a more different movie: expansive where Waterfront is tightly contained, florid where its predecessor is lean. Adapted liberally from John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, the film casts James Dean, in his first major screen role, as a conflicted young man whose fruitless efforts to win the favor of his father (a very fine Raymond Massey) leads to impulsive, often self-destructive actions. Of course Dean has charisma to burn, but he hadn’t really figured out how to properly harness it into an artful performance yet. Kazan sometimes seems to be trying too hard to use the wide Cinemascope screen, favoring canted camera angles that eventually lose their impact, except for one especially disconcerting scene where the camera rocks in conflict with the pendulum path of a swing. Despite those reservations, there’s clear heat in the film, probably a result of a wide array of deeply passionate and committed creators coming together, however imperfectly.

Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz, 2011). There’s sure an abundance of promising elements to this comedy, but it illustrates the vast divide between lining up the right pieces and assembling them properly. Paul Rudd plays a layabout organic farmer who gets busted for selling pot to a police officer and then cycles through staying with his various siblings, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer. It’s boilerplate comic uplift with everyone evolving to understand the kind-hearted qualities behind the protagonist’s aggravatingly detached manner. There’s barely a laugh to be had in the film, though, and most of the performers just seem lost. Peretz flounders around with his direction, never grasping the need to properly develop the characters and hone the pacing of the film.

Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011). Lead actress Brit Marling was the toast of Sundance a couple of years ago when this premiered alongside {Sound of My Voice}, both films bearing a screenwriting credit from her in what was touted as an example of a performer admirably taking it upon themselves to develop material. That’s true enough, though a fair amount of the commentary seemed disproportionately amazed that it was a pretty actress who could pull this off, especially since Sundance is rife with actors who are intimately connected to the creative process of their passion project films. The sheer amount of buzz around Marling also obscured discussion about the actual quality of her releases. As for Another Earth, the film is an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come to fruition as satisfying drama. It is gravely understated sci-fi, the discovery of a mirror version of Earth coinciding with a ill turn in the life of a damaged woman named Rhoda, played by Marling. The movie has such an unwavering somber tone that it eventually becomes numbing, which is especially problematic since the wispy plotting makes it more of a mood piece. Given the mood is little more the stasis of stalled emotions, it makes for tough going.

The Reivers (Mark Rydell, 1969). Adapted from the last novel published by William Faulkner, The Reivers is set in the first decade of the 20th century and tells the story of a charming troublemaker (Steve McQueen) who absconds with a wealthy man’s new Winton Flyer automobile. Rydell directs with a sunshine-dappled nostalgia, somehow managing to make a simple story seem even simpler. McQueen’s scamp has taken a young boy (Mitch Vogel) along for the ride and discovers a few miles into the journey that the black fellow he occasionally scraps with (Rupert Crosse) has stowed away too. There’s not much to the journey (although there’s a surprise or two in where they head), and the early John Williams score emphasize the banjo romp of it all. It’s got a bounding certainty to its construction, but it’s ultimately forgettable.

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2012). The Dardenne brothers certainly have a way with restrained sorrow. Their latest concerns a boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who is stuck in a bad situation, abandoned by his father and clicking through dire foster care scenarios until he connects with a kind woman (Cécile de France) who takes him in and tries to give him a home. The Dardennes are unflinching in portraying exactly how difficult this situation is, giving the boy no easy path to redemption. Instead, a child who’s gone through his tribulations is sure to take any uphill climb with a lot of helpless backsliding. Both Doret and de France are very nice is their respective roles, but its the Dardennes’ perfectly realized naturalistic tone free of emotional manipulation or histrionics that makes the film engrossing.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2012). Realistically, we’d all be better off if Jack Black adjusted his work schedule and committed to only working for director Richard Linklater. He’s had other nice moments onscreen, but there have been few better converges of his firmly established persona and material than the surprisingly good 2003 comedy School of Rock. Nearly ten years later, Black delivered the best work of his career–one of the few times he could be said to be acting rather than just performing–in the dark comedy Bernie. Based on true events, the film stars Black as the title character, an odd duck mortician and community theater stalwart in a small Texas town. He becomes the constant companion of a grouchy widow (Shirley MacLaine, embracing her long-established typecasting), which leads to local true crime sensation. Black is quite remarkable, playing the character’s distinctive, almost stereotypical mannerisms without ever resorting to mockery. Instead, he makes Bernie deeply sympathetic, even endearing. Linklater’s approach melds fictionalized storytelling with documentary-style testimony from actual residents of the town, sometimes without making much effort to distinguish between the two. It’s a risky approach that pays off handsomely, giving the whole film a strong sense of place and purpose.

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012). This adaptation of the ludicrous nineteen-eighties television series about cops undercover in high school (one of the first hits for the Fox network) was met with surprising appreciation by the critical community when it was released last spring. I can certainly understand why its metafictional comedy may have been a welcome surprise, but it’s still more ragged and predictable than it is shrewd and effective. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have nice interplay as the requisite mismatched cops working together, and there’s something refreshing about the inversion of stereotypes, with the nerdier of the pair becoming popular and the hunk struggling to find a comfortable social space. Still, it’s haphazardly hammered together with only the slightest discernment between the gags that works and those that get by on nothing but noisiness.

Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965). This loopy masterpiece of the French New Wave is a perfect example of Jean-Luc Godard’s capability to simultaneously master the mechanics of filmmaking and satirically shred all of its storied conventions. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a man who springs himself from his unhappy life to go on the lam with an ex-girlfriend, playing by Anna Karina, absolutely resplendent with an almost shocking beauty. Godard swirls the film with approaches that are deviously deconstructionist and borderline genius, such as a dinner party lit with primary hues where all the attendees speak in nothing but advertising slogans. It’s a somewhat standard fugitive romance, enlivened by the sort of unpredictability that only an inspired madman like Godard can conjure up.

Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979). John Huston sure directed some oddball stuff in the nineteen-seventies, so maybe it’s only fitting that he capped off the decade with this twisted, slightly skeevy adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel. The film stars Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, a veteran who returns to his southern hometown after serving in World War II. He has various travails, which come to a head when he revolts against the huckster religious elements he sees around him by preaching from street corners representing the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. Given the subject matter, the satire in unavoidably scathing and the film’s sensibility is remarkably dark, but Huston’s directing is shockingly, atypically distracted. The film came out about a year after he was diagnosed with emphysema, so it’s certainly understandably if he were a little preoccupied. Even so, the clumsiness of the construction eventually overcomes the boldness of the material.

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). Thirteen years after his last full-length feature, 1999′s Pola X, director Leos Carax uncorks a true tour de force, a lunatic nighttime ride through city streets with a character dubbed Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, adopting multiple guises to act out different scenarios, sometimes comedic, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes delightfully inscrutable. Carax has noted that some of the odd little stories were culled from abandoned projects, and the film’s episodic structure naturally makes some portions better than others, but the discrepancy is mild and not especially damaging. Overall, the experience is raucously entertaining, and no matter how wild it gets, Carax can always find a way to sprinkle in another wholly unexpected and audacious moment, right up to the fearlessly goofy closing shot. Besides the high points are purely ecstatic, none better than Lavant blazing away on an accordion at the head of a ragtag marching band.

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2012). Rachel Weisz surprised many by sneaking her way into the Oscar race with her deeply, tightly controlled performance in Terence Davies’s adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. As a woman in nineteen-fifties England helplessly embroiled in a passionate, doomed-from-the start affair with a World War II veteran, played by Tom Hiddleston, she is indeed quite good. The film around her, however, is a sluggish bore. Davies is a highly respected filmmaker, but I’ve never managed to warm to any of his films, almost entirely because they seem to be entirely devoid of warmth, or even the slightest pulse of life. That’s definitely the case here, as the veneer of refined storytelling snuffs out any sense of energy, which would seem to be an important component to a tale of addictive, illicit lust and love.

Remarkably, it’s taken Kathryn Bigelow all of two films to transform from an also-ran action director to the most revered and dependable cinematic chronicler of American’s early 21st century of global militaristic angst. Unless there are people out there who actually discerned some sort of Cold War profundities in the doze-inducing K-19: The Widowmaker (or, more ludicrously, any depth whatsoever in the idiotic and strangely celebrated Point Break), Bigelow hadn’t exhibited especially insightful command of the dire doings of geopolitics before connecting with screenwriter Mark Boal, who, like her, won a deserved Academy Award for strong work on The Hurt Locker. Following that film’s narrative extrapolation of the circular misery of the Iraq war, Bigelow and Boal turn their attention to the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden following the attacks of 9/11, bringing the story all the way up to Seal Team Six’s successful raid on the terrorist leader’s compound in the Pakistan city of Abbottabad. If journalism is the first draft of history, Bigelow delivers the second draft with Zero Dark Thirty.

In the film, Jessica Chastain plays a young CIA officer named Maya. She was drafted by the agency right out of high school, presumably because of some particular brilliance. She’s certainly driven, alert and intense. Maya is reportedly based on a real CIA agent, seemingly the same one that gives the rocket fuel inspiration to the brilliantly jittery performance of Claire Danes in Showtime’s Homeland (there’s already plenty of speculation along those very lines). Chastain is quietly sensational in the role, just as she has been in just about every film appearance she’s made since practically coming out of nowhere just two years ago. The character seems a little wispy in conception, but Chastain expertly tracks her journey from someone initially uncertain about her place on foreign soil, observing the torture of detainees with visible queasiness, to a person with decisive enough command of counter-terrorism efforts that she instinctively, angrily pushes back at the authority figures that aren’t moving fast enough to suit her.

It gets a little spottier when surveying the rest of the cast, which is filled with recognizable faces, often in fairly small roles. As with Maya, many of the parts feel underdrawn, so the film is especially reliant on actors who can add depth to their characters with ingenuity and insight. Someone like Jennifer Ehle thrives in such a situation, while most other performers provide the rough equivalent of keeping a seat warm. There aren’t any major missteps (well, except for Mark Strong, who never met a moment he couldn’t pointlessly overact), but few of the actors make their parts distinctive either, seeming so beholden to serving the procedural narrative of the film that they lose sight of the value of invested personality.

To be fair, that procedural narrative is pretty gripping, largely thanks to the focus and drive of Bigelow, who assembles Zero Dark Thirty with a thrilling equal commitment to accuracy and whatever dramatic devices will deliver the greatest intellectual and emotional punch. This is never more clear than in the depiction of the actual mission which ended in the death of bin Laden. Bigelow skews away from the basic cinematic convention of condensing action and heightening drama, choosing instead to let it play out in what feels roughly like real time, emphasizing that this sort of covert military action is agonizingly slow and methodical, punctuated by violence so sudden that the results of it can’t be sorted out until the aftermath. More than anywhere else in the film, this sequence is clearly where Bigelow feels most at home.

Bigelow and the film have received a great deal of scrutiny and criticism, including from entities that, frankly, should be concentrating their limited time on far more important matters. One of the primary areas of concern is the film’s depiction of CIA operatives using torture on detainees, specifically the implication that useful intelligence was extracted from those methods. I think the fact that torture was used by Americans as matter of policy ratified and celebrated at the highest levels of government is unquestionably reprehensible, but were I writing this before the controversies flared up around film it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have even thought to mention the scenes in question, except maybe to note that Bigelow makes the practice looks as brutally awful as I would expect. And though I could never view the deplorable methods as justified, I’m also not so naive as to think that they never yielded useful information (information we surely could have acquired through other means, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful), no matter what the current official word is from government representatives. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that figures in the same powerful posts were assuring us that this program, under the ugly euphemism “enhance interrogation techniques,” was producing a bounty of invaluable intelligence.

In fact, I might argue that the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty demonstrate that Bigelow is doing exactly what a director shepherding such material to the screen is supposed to do. They are free of authorial moralizing, directing the audience to believe one way or another, instead allowing individuals to project their own beliefs onto the action, seeing it as necessary and heroic or immoral and tragic. The film has its issues, but retroactive justification of the darkening of the national soul in the years when George Bush and Dick Cheney were calling the shots isn’t one of them.

In a recent Director Roundtable discussion organized by The Hollywood Reporter, David O. Russell discussion how he came to work on the the 2010 film The Fighter. Russell acknowledged that it was exactly the sort of conventional projected he would have dismissed years earlier, deciding it didn’t have the requisite offbeat components to stir his interest. He was admittedly at a career low point, which may have been what eventually motivated him to ask himself, as he put it, “Why don’t you try to do this really good?” I, for one, think that’s exactly what he accomplished, investing a familiar storyline with just the right amount of edge, veracity and nothing-to-lose creativity to elevate it.

In a way, he seems to be trying for the same thing with his latest effort, Silver Linings Playbook. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, the film seems built around the question of whether or not a familiar romantic comedy can be spun into something unique. Can Russell “do this really good?” To that end, what if the standard issue rom-com Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and how Nathan Rabin must wish he’d affixed a “TM” next to that four word term when he coined it) is actually dealing with genuine issues that the film tries to take seriously? In fact, what if damn well everyone onscreen is dealing with some sort of embedded psychological problem that helps explain the sort of questionable decision-making required to make a romantic comedy plot purr like an well-lubed engine?

Bradley Cooper stars in Silver Linings Playbook as Pat Solitano, a young man recently released from a mental hospital, where he was sent after a violent altercation upon finding his wife cheating with another man. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat operates with a fervent intensity–whether angry or effusively positive–as he tries to get resettled in his old Philadelphia neighborhood, living with his parents as he gets his life back in order. He’s also certain he can win back his wife, which drives the film’s conflicts as his family and friends try to gently intervene in that process, and a young widow named Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, exploits Pat’s desire to make contact with his ex to recruit him into being her partner in a local dance competition in which she’s long wanted to take part.

Present this material with well-scrubbed, sunshiny earnestness and it could be the sort of claptrap that Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson yawned their way through a few years back. Russell tries out a mordant, deadpan approach instead, deliberately flattening out the tone in an apparent attempt to make the story’s obvious machinations seem more realistic and honest. There’s no way to disguise, however, that everything in Silver Linings Playbook is hopelessly phony, from large matters such as the uninspired ways that characters come together to the smallest details, exemplified by the local police officer who’s been assigned the Pat Solitano beat, working shifts at all different times of day and night, just so he can be there when our protagonist wavers from the straight line he’s supposed to walk.

Cooper is actually quite good in the film, the first time I’ve ever seen him in a performance that didn’t smack of smug laziness. He realizes that Pat needs to feel dangerous not because of his actions, but strictly because of his unpredictability. It’s not that he could throw a punch, it’s that no one can anticipate when his high emotions will take an ill turn. Lawrence is even better. In her still nascent career, she’s already established a near total inability to be sedate in her craft; she wears the sharp emotions of her characters like a cloak. They deserve better than the muddled mess Russell strands them in. They’re as adrift as their characters. Unfortunately for the performers, the key difference is that there’s no rescue in right.

In Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a woman who works at an aquatics-based theme park, collaborating with other handlers to guide killer whales through a routine while Katy Perry blares over loudspeakers. After a freak accident, Stéphanie wakes up in the hospital to discover that both her legs needed to be amputated at the knee. For someone whose professional life inexorably depends on physical capability, Stéphanie is understandably thrown into a deep depression. Simultaneously, the film tracks the story of Ali, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. Ali is an apparently directionless young man who arrives at his sister’s with a young son in tow, carried with resigned irritation rather than affection. He engages in a series of fleeting jobs that largely rely on his willingness to be brutish, including stints as a nightclub bouncer and a security guard. Eventually, he comes around to a method of making money that calls for nothing more than toughness and endurance, collecting cash as a combatant in an underground bare-knuckles boxing ring.

Director Jacques Audiard developed the film by combining two different offerings from Craig Davidson’s short story collection Rust and Bone. The storylines of the film start off fairly separate and when they converge, as it always clear they must, its awkward enough that it’s as if the axles of work have just gone over an enormous speed bump. Audiard and credited co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (who also collaborated with Audiard on the excellent A Prophet) are more interested in bringing the stories together than making sure they precisely line up. It’s clear Stéphanie is attracted to Ali because he represents a connection to the total physical self that has been robbed from her, but that’s a sound thematic motivation far more than it is a reasonably established part of the narrative. (Presumably, Ali is attracted to Stéphanie because she looks like Marion Cottilard, although a theory could be floated that he finds some appeal in having someone he knows how to take care of.) They come together because Audiard wants them to come together and he can barely be bothered to conceive of a way for that to happen which makes sense.

If the raggedy, frayed ends of the narrative don’t mean much to Audiard, he at least provides a reasonably compelling argument that focusing on the emotion of the piece is just as important as getting the storytelling mechanics to turn cleanly. Despite some clunky portions and several moments that strain credibility, Ruse and Bone has a deep-set, wounding power. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the strong, modest performances of the two leads. Schoenaerts steadfastly plays his character as little more than a collection of flaws, with any glimmers of redemptive qualities little more than an illusion or, maybe more accurately, the projection of an audience hoping for him to slip into the hero groove. Cottilard is even better, deserving all of the buzz her performance has generated since the film debuted at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In particular, she demonstrates how freeing oneself from the worst of the past is an agonizing but also energizing process. Her small triumphs have an uncommon potency, moving past the common manipulation of cinema to feel piercingly real.

Rust and Bone often comes across as a work that hasn’t been fully hammered into place, lacking the sort of intellectual focus that was probably required in bringing together two unrelated stories. Conversely, it could have used some of the anti-structure fearlessness employed by Robert Altman when he haphazardly stitched together a batch of Raymond Carver stories into Short Cuts. Audiard is probably too devoted to the seductive pleasures of melodrama to have gone the latter route, though. Where he winds up is a fitfully satisfying middle ground, where Rust and Bone is defined as much by where it falters as it is by the acuity and intensity of its roiling feelings.

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