By Jeffrey Overstreet
John Patrick Shanley's play is written to be an even match between a priest who befriends a troubled boy, and imperious nun who ruthlessly investigates his suspicious behavior. Unfortunately, the lead actors upset the balance: Meryl Streep has one foot firmly planted in comedy, making the nun a wicked witch, while Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his most nuanced performances as a man with painful memories and passionate conviction. Amy Adams plays the young nun caught between them, struggling with the thought of calling a man “guilty until proven innocent.” In spite of its flaws, it's a riveting film that will inspire meaningful discussions.
#13—Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman's latest mind-bender is so full of questions and conundrums that it's hard to know where to start. When a playwright wins a “genius grant,” he embarks on the production of a lifetime—an extravagantly complicated stage play about his life, his broken marriage, his affairs, and his existential crisis. The more he experiences, the more he revises the play. The more he writes, the more his characters influence his life. Soon, he's falling for the actresses he's cast to play his lovers, and he's showing his actors in how to imitate his errors. Kafka would have loved it. But while Kaufman's internal excavation is often horrifying, and he seeks hope only in human kindness, he inadvertently makes the case that without the grace of a Greater Author, we're doomed, stuck in our own fractured understanding.
#12—Ostrov (The Island)
This two-year-old Russian import, now available on DVD through Film Movement, takes us to a monastery on the edge of the White Sea. There, the monks are troubled by the antics of one of their own—a prankster who speaks in riddles and tends to a fiery furnace. Anatoly was once a Russian naval officer whose behavior during a Nazi attack left him scarred for life. Now, penitent to a fault, he's become either a madman or a puckish agent of revelation. Pavel Lounguine finds striking imagery in the stark landscape, and his lead actor, former Russian rock star Pyotr Mamonov, has an extraordinary face. Nora Fitzgerald notes in The Washington Post, “After it opened in Moscow, priests and bishops began to bless the film, often standing in prayer outside theaters.”
#11—The Dark Knight
It's remarkable how Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's screenplay transcends all comic book conventions to frame timely questions about the problem of evil and the ethics of fighting it. In the character of Harvey Dent, they show us that we need a hero who can remain good, uncompromising, and idealistic in the midst of harrowing evil, and yet they also acknowledge that we need agents like Batman who will get their hands dirty, compromise, and willingly shoulder the burden of condemnation. The Joker, meanwhile, is as diabolical as any villain I've ever seen—orchestrating horrors in hopes of proving that fear will turn us all into monsters. The film is wearying in its relentless violence, but it is remarkably efficient in its storytelling.
#10—Up the Yangtze
We've lamented the destruction of New Orleans, and our government's failure to intervene appropriately. But what if the government had caused the destruction? Available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films, Yung Chang's documentary Up the Yangtze chronicles the devastation of the Yangtze river valleys, and its age-old fishing communities, brought on by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. He follows a family of subsistence farmers, the ruination of their land, the cruelty of the government's forced evacuations, and the struggles of a 16-year-old girl as she seeks to become part of this new China by working for Victoria Cruises on a ship bearing arrogant, ignorant Western tourists.
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor who returns to New York after a long absence only to find two illegal immigrants living in his apartment. Their relationships bloom into something beautiful as Vale—a stiff and lonely man—opens up to the joys and the pain of meaningful engagement. The immigrants seem too clean, too virtuous to be believed, and Tom McCarthy's film is weakened by too many obvious announcements of its own political relevance. But the actors here make this intimate drama something memorable and special.
#8—A Christmas Tale
Arnaud Desplechin's elaborate drama about a family reunion fraught with grudges, hatred, and bad behavior, should be intolerably depressing. But Desplechin treats his characters with such patience that you're likely to end up caring about them. Catherine Deneuve is the hard-hearted matriarch who is seeking bone marrow from one of her children in order to fight liver cancer. Matthieu Alamaric plays Henry, the son who has been cast out for troublemaking, and lo...he's a match. But so is Paul, the young nephew who has severe emotional struggles of his own. Is there any hope for a family in such dire straits? Perhaps, if anybody's paying attending to the children and their longing for Jesus' return.