By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Nobody Knows: This quietly harrowing Japanese film is all the more unnerving for having been based on actual events. It stars five children, excellent actors all, whose mother abandons them in their small apartment with only a little money. For a long time, the two oldest manage well, cooking and cleaning and entertaining the toddlers. Then, as the money drains, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The pace is slow, with director Hirokazu Koreeda taking time to notice and document incremental changes, such as fraying clothes and smudged faces. What the children learn, and how they cope, is mind-blowing and heartbreaking all at once. --Melissa Levine
Occupation: Dreamland: Jarheadwas a nifty, sharp film about the boredom suffered by soldiers waiting for their chance to kill or be killed, but it presented a stylized fiction only loosely based on one man's sorta-kinda fact. This movie is the real deal, an unsettling, occasionally profound and ultimately devastating chronicle of six weeks spent with the groggy, pissed-off and homesick men of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Fallujah in early 2004, just before the insurgents claimed that bloody town as their own by hanging and burning alive several U.S. contractors. When they're not on patrols, rousting people they don't blame for being pissed, the soldiers are getting shot at, arguing political motivations and waiting. . .for something, for anything. Thanks to the fine filmmaking of Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, you are there, in cramped confines in the middle of nowhere, and will come to wish that you, like these soldiers, could be anywhere else in the world. --R.W.
Sequins: Seventeen-year-old Claire (Lola Naymark) works at a supermarket in her hometown in rural France, where she is pregnant and deeply unhappy. Through a friend, she meets Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), an older woman who has lost her son in a motorcycle accident. Claire has a talent for embroidery; Madame Melikian embroiders for Parisian designers, including Lacroix. So begins the women's strained working relationship, which slowly grows into something more. It's a slender plot but a very rich movie, with deeply felt silences, gorgeous camerawork and a tender understanding of many kinds of grief. --M.L.
Stay: Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) has a tendency toward the pretentious, especially when it comes to filters, split-screens and editing trickery. And in this weird mystery/thriller, he found a story that perfectly suits his style. Ewan McGregor stars as a psychiatrist who starts to lose his grip on reality after meeting a suicidal young artist (Ryan Gosling). The final twist isn't hard to guess, but it's almost beside the point--Forster absolutely nails a certain kind of dream logic, the type in which the dreamer occupies more than one body within the narrative. Twentieth Century Fox didn't have the confidence to screen the film for critics, but it's well worth screening at home once it shows up on DVD. --L.Y.T.
Thumbsucker: Mike Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is a dreamily gorgeous portrayal of a family from the perspective of its searching teenage son. In psychological terms, Justin (Lou Pucci) is the "identified patient"--the family member seen as broken and in need of fixing. (The title refers to Justin's oral fixation.) What Mills' film understands is that Justin is expressing the conflicts that other family members can't or won't. His coping mechanism is stigmatized, but it's no different from any other (drinking, smoking, drugs, sex)--except, perhaps, that his mechanism isn't hurting anyone. In Thumbsucker's world, everyone has issues. Same goes for our world too. --M.L.
The Upside of Anger: The ending is silly, and the film occasionally leans toward cliché, but Upside remains a satisfying and spirited comedy. Joan Allen gives a crackling performance as an oblivious mother whose every attempt to connect with her children results in insult. Her daughters--played by Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen and Alicia Witt--are independent-minded and alive, acting out in sad, hilarious and believable ways. Even Kevin Costner, playing a washed-up baseball player (for a change), manages to come across as authentic. --M.L.
The War Within: This thoughtful drama, which follows an Islamic militant on a terrorist mission to New York City, garnered far less attention than the similarly themed Paradise Now (which concerned two Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel). Yet The War Within goes places Paradise Now didn't dare go, with none of that film's ambiguity in its conclusion. The screenplay loads up on believable tension and suspense while eschewing melodrama, and director/co-writer Joseph Castelo is more than willing to follow through on the grim setup. --J.O.
The Year of the Yao: In this delightful, warmhearted documentary about Chinese basketball sensation Yao Ming, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo follow their subject through his 2002-'03 season with the Houston Rockets, his first in the NBA. The film begins as Yao prepares to leave China and ends as he returns for the offseason. In between, we watch as the world-famous recruit is thrust into a maelstrom of culture shock, media attention and intense professional pressure. In fact, Yao is really the story of two rookies, Ming and his translator, Colin Pine, a charmingly green twentysomething equally stunned by the blinding headlights of obsessive media attention. --M.L.
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