Belle (Amma Asante, 2014). Based ever so lightly on real history — the only real source is a 1779 painting — this period drama tells the story of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman who is the offspring of a British naval officer (Matthew Goode) and an African-born slave. She’s raised among the British gentry by her grandparents (Tom Wilkinson and Sarah Gadon), treated as a beloved member of the family but also relegated to diminished status in her own home because of the conventions of the day. If the unconventional story elevates the film a bit past its restrained Masterpiece Theatre trappings, the real pleasure is in watching the performances by Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson, both of them investing their roles with affecting authenticity, even as they operate in slightly different registers (Wilkinson concentrates on intellect while Mbatha-Raw revels in tempered emotion). For those who prefer a little overacting sprinkled into their 18th century moral pondering, there’s Miranda Richardson, playing a version of the imperiously judgmental Maggie Smith role that one might be more likely to find in a production staged on Mars. Asante guides the film with an able but relatively indistinct direction.
The Judge (David Dobkin, 2014). So artless and pat in its storytelling that it can make a viewer long for the potboiler exuberance of the Grisham Age of Hollywood Legal Dramas. Robert Downey, Jr. roots around in his satchel of charming asshole tricks once again to play Hank Palmer, a wealthy, sleazy big-city defense attorney who returns to his humble Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral and winds up staying for a spell when his father, a curmudgeonly local judge (Robert Duvall, giving a performance that’s a dwindling echo of what’s he’s done before), is accused of killing a man he once sent to prison. There’s barely an original thought in the film, and the worst elements — such as one of Hank’s brothers, played in a thankless performance by Jeremy Long, is mentally challenged and alternates unpleasantly between comic relief and easy pathos — transcend cliche only in their level of direness. The film crescendos with a courtroom scene so ludicrous and bereft of verisimilitude that it may as well come equipped with comic sound effects.
Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). It’s a shame that “TV movie” as a derogatory term has largely fallen out of the vernacular, because that’s the ideal shorthand to point out the many ways in which Still Alice is lacking. Tagging it thus is meant to call up the bygone entries in what was accurately referred to as “disease of the week” features, with some attractive, charming middle-aged woman suddenly and sadly beset with some debilitating ailment, easy drama wrenched from the downfall and facts about the medical condition didactically dispensed. Julianne Moore won her overdue Oscar for playing the title character, a linguistics professor humbled by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a worthy performance if not a particularly memorable or inventive one. It’s the rest of the film that is deeply lacking, from the eager but middling supporting cast (led by a staid Alec Baldwin and less-distracted-than-usual Kristen Stewart) to the pedestrian construction of the visuals. Glatzer and Westmoreland do obviously try to get at uncomfortable truths, but the film is too tepid to land the needed emotional blows.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014). On principle alone, I’m inclined to celebrate a black-and-white, Iranian vampire movie written and directed by a woman. The film is so improbable in so many ways that is as uncanny as the creatures of the night it depicts. There is no better description for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that the one offered by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve. Citing Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive, Robinson asserted now “cinephiles can also find out what a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie would have looked like back in 1985, somewhere between Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law.” That’s the exact vibe of the film, and, like those indie lodestars, Amirpour’s runs low on scruffy, downbeat charm before the closing moments arrive. It’s atmospheric and finely grim, showing tremendous promise and a distinctly cinematic point of view. If it’s a little too drowsy, it also seems clear that Amirpour is imbued with a talent that will only grow.
The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, 2014). Working from a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (based on one of his short stories and then worked by the author into an adapted novel), Roskam wades right into the seediness of ugly small time crime, with Chechen mobsters skimming from Brooklyn dive bars, including the one formerly owned and still operated by Marv (James Gandolfini). Tom Hardy plays a bartender named Bob, who clearly tries to stay an unbothered innocent on the fringes of all these shady dealings, even though there’s a strong sense of a more dangerous history. The film is solid as a brass knuckle punch, clicking through its harsh crime story with methodical certainty, even if it finds only the barest depth in the proceedings. Hardy excels at these sort of brutish souls with unexpected touches of gentleness, and there’s a nice supporting turn by Noomi Rapace, as the woman who gets drawn towards Bob, beginning with the sad but hopefully discovery of an abandoned pooch.